Stranded in Poland
This is the story of how my brother Mark and I became stranded in the middle of Poland.
At around 6am we arrived in Warsaw after an all-night bus ride from Lithuania. In an attempt to sleep on the crowded and bumpy bus, we had each taken two Ambien, and this is why much of the early part of the day is pretty foggy to me. If one Ambien will knock you out nicely for an 8-hour plane flight, two Ambien will punch a hole in your soul. I'm not sure why we thought it would be a good idea to take two each, but I guess it seemed like a better idea at the time than sitting awake annoyed on the bus all night, listening to the Polish guy next to us snore his face off.
I vaguely recall being extremely dizzy as we rented a tiny red Nissan Micro from the Polish branch of Budget Rent-a-Car. Remarkably, we had the presence of mind to pick Budget because it was slightly cheaper than Hertz and the other mysteriously-name Polish rental car company. Now that I look back, however, we definitely should have paid the extra zloty and gone with Hertz.
We did our best to load our getting-heavier-all-the-time bags into the car. I was having trouble walking, but Mark had just thrown up, so we decided that I should drive. In hindsight, we most certainly should not have been behind the wheel of a car in our drugged conditions, but we really wanted to get down to southern Poland and see Auschwitz. Wow, now there's a sentence I never thought I'd write.
We quickly figured out which direction to go and what side of the road I should be driving on, but I became obsessed with a clicking I was sure was a nail in one of the tires, and made Mark get out and stand alongside the car on the Polish highway as I drove by, picking pebbles out of the treads with a ballpoint pen. Somehow, this all seemed perfect natural at the time.
Eventually we sobered up enough to realize it was going to take a lot longer than expected to drive from Warsaw down to Krakow. Poland, it seems, does not share America's love for interstates; even the biggest highways in Poland are two lanes at most, and are interrupted every mile or so by stoplights and/or speed cameras, to keep you under the 70 km/hr speed limit. This is highly annoying when you're driving across half the country in a big hurry to go see a Death Camp. We revenged ourselves by making fun of the name of nearly every town name we came across, resorting to our Swedish game of over-pronouncing every strange-sounding retarded baby accents. It occurred to us that our amusement with foreign dialect had been a pretty consistent feature for all of our trip, and that pronouncing every city name we encountered like Jabba the Hut really just didn't seem to be getting old. Warsaw Riga Helsinki, Han Solo. It also occurred to us that yes, we really are stupid Americans.
We finally made it down to Auschwitz (more on this moving experience later), spent several hours there, and started a long journey back. At this point, it was already getting late and we were just hoping to make it back to Warsaw in time to see the city a little before figuring out how we were going to get to Ukraine in the morning. Our minds were on the final leg of our journey, and on most quickly navigating the frustratingly slow Polish road system. Having our rental car break down in the middle of nowhere in Eastern Europe was not something we saw coming.
In our age of cell phone, AAA and instant communication, calling a two truck has become a relatively simple talk. But things are a little different when you're smack in the middle of rural Poland where you cell phone doesn't work, your AAA doesn't apply, and your instant communication is limited to game of charades with Polish farmers who happen along the highway.
As I waited by the car, Mark walked to a nearby farm house, where the man inside seemed perplexed by his gestures of driving, cutting his throat, then making jumper cable shocking motions followed by a shrug. After a few tries, the man indicated that Mark follow him to another nearby farmhouse where the guy inside got into his car, beckoned that Mark follow him, and drove up to me, rolling down his window. "Get in car," said the man, in barely distinguishable English. What could I do? I got in - if he was going to drive us somewhere and kill us, at least it would make a more interesting story than sitting by the side of the Polish highway.
The Polish driver drove us half a mile back up the road we had come down, dropped us off at a gas station, and without another word, drove off. At this point we were at least nearer to civilization, but we still had no idea how we were going to get to Warsaw, mover 100 km away. Our flight from Ukraine as a day and a half away, and suddenly that period seemed distressingly short.
The two workers at the gas station spoke exactly no English, thought they did have a pair of jumper cables, which we, after some gesticulating, managed to procure. But their still remained the question of convincing a Polish person (without actually being able to talk to them) to let us get into their car, drive us back to our dead Nissan, and let us hook jumper cables up to their car. There was also the question of whether this would even work, since Mark and I were far from car experts. We approached the only other people at the gas station, a group of three men who were eating and drinking beers outside the gas station, which apparently doubled as a restaurant and a bar.
These three chain-smoking gentlemen proved to be an interesting trio. One of them, a Swedish trucker, we learned, spoke a tiny bit of English, and also a tiny bit of Polish, which we used to communicate our dilemma to his friend, who I guess was a more local trucker he was travelling with. The third guy, a Norwegian trucker, spoke neither English nor Polish, and would just shake his head and laugh at everything everyone said.
"Our car," I said slowly, in that kind of slow English you think makes it easier for foreigners to understand you, but mostly just makes you sound like you're talking to a retarded child, "has died."
"We need help," Mark added, not sure how to explain in monosyllables how we either needed someone to come help us jump our car, or else call a tow truck to drive us 2 hours to Warsaw.
The Swedish trucker spoke to the Polish trucker, who pulled out his cell phone and opened his other hand to us.
"Papers," said the Swedish trucker. "He needs papers."
"Pappors!" bellowed the Norwegian trucker, hoisting his beer into the air. The Swedish trucker shushed him.
After some guessing, Mark and I figured he wanted our rental papers for a number to call, and I fished these out and handed them to him. He began to dial. "Budget, Rent-a-Car," I said, pointing to the logo.
"Boodjet!" yelled the Norwegian trucker, spilling some of his beer into the bushes. Apparently, they had been having beers for quite some time.
Someone answered the Polish trucker's call, and he spoke rapidly in Polish into the phone for some time, occasionally reading things off our rental agreement. The Norwegian trucker started to laugh and make fisting gestures into the air, and held up his glass to us. "Skoal!" he bellowed, as if expecting a cheers back from our glassless hands. Mark picked up a water glass from the table, and held it up.
"Skal," Mark said. "Cheers."
"Chears!" yelled the Norwegian trucker, laughing and taking down the rest of his beer. He turned to the Swedish trucker. "Nasdrovie!
The Polish trucker hung up his phone and looked up at us. "They call back," he said.
"Oh, OK," we said. "How long?"
"One hour," the Polish trucker replied. And with that, he got up and went to go tease the driver of a rival trucking company who had just pulled into the gas station.
Mark and I looked at each other. "Well?" said Mark. "What do we do?"
"I guess we do the only thing we can do," I replied. "Fuck it. Let's have a beer."
We spent the next hour drinking with Scandanavian truckers outside a gas station in the middle of nowhere, Poland. I was still unconvinced we might not be able to start the car up if we could just get someone to take us their to try our new Polish jumper cables, but this seemed impossibly to communicate to our three jovial trucker friends, who had now been joined by the new rival Polish trucker, who quickly caught up to and surpassed his comrades in terms of drunkness and loudness. The new drunk Polish guy quickly adapted the Norwegian's fisting gestures, and the two would make huge motions and farting noises every time somebody said something, and then they would cheers each other and the Polish trucker would get up and drunkenly kiss the Norwegian's forehead. Mark and I just sat there, perplexed at what had become of our day of renting cars on Ambien and touring Auschwitz.
At last, a tow truck driver did not call but instead pulled up to the gas station, and the Swedish trucker and his Polish interpreter came with me to deal with him. The tow truck driver didn't speak a word of English, but had brought along a 16-year-old boy who did, and what followed was probably the strangest and least discernable discussion between four men talking and arguing for at least ten minutes without my being able to understand a single word to it. The two truck driver, it seemed, was very unhappy with the prospect of driving two Americans two hours to Warsaw at this time of night, and the 16-year-old boy and the Polish trucker did their best to convince him to do it anyway. The Swedish trucker, by this point, was quite drunk, and just kept laughing and saying "Skoal!" at every pause in the conversation. At last, the tow truck driver gave in, angrily pointed for me to get into his car, and I yelled for Mark before he changed his mind. The 16-year-old boy turned to me. "He will take you to Warsaw. There is no problem."
Mark came up with our bags and we turned to the Polish trucker. I reached out my hand and he smiled and shook it. "Thank you very much," I said. "Skoal."
"NASDROVIE!!!" came the boisterous voices of all our trucker friends, hoisting their beers in the air as we got into the tow truck and drove off. Apparently, Mark had paid for their beers.
The Polish two truck driver made quick work of hoisting our car onto the back of his flatbed and heading north for Warsaw, and Mark and I spent the next two hours talking quietly and trying not to do anything that would piss him off and make him dump us and our car back into the middle of Poland. After some more charades and negotiating with two Polish security guards at the airport, we got them to raise the parking garage gate where we pushed our dead Nissan Micro into a spot on the first floor, dropped the keys into the Budget box with a note that read "Car broken," and found the nearest hotel.
I suppose we had it coming, for making fun of Poland's roads and town names all day. We hoped we could reset our bad luck as we turned our eyes toward Ukraine with one last gesture before we went to bed: leaving the jumper cables in the back of the Micro.