My last newsletter Strange Passage, Part One was the first of a series, intended to describe some of the less plausible things to befall me on my various trips and adventures. This series will not, and can never be, comprehensive. I’m busy elsewhere, writing novels. I simply don’t have the time to sit and write twenty thousand pages of nonfiction, even if it’s describing, in precis, the various stupid things that have happened to me aboard a train. Such a book (I imagine it would be titled ‘Off the Rails’, or something silly) would be awful to write. First, because it would all be complete nonsense. And second, it because it would all be true.
That said, I’m determined to tell you some of it. As you may recall, I was once arrested by Polish border guards for opening my mouth and saying something wildly innocent. I will cautiously admit that it also, quite possibly, sounded a bit illegal.
Now, this took place on the border of Germany, near the town of Szczecin. I was dramatically dragged from a train and locked in a cell. It had those floor-to-ceiling bars, like you’ll see in an old Western. Anyway, the guards rummaged through my luggage and, through no fault of my own, came to the erroneous conclusion that I enjoy wearing women’s undergarments.
The question, then, is what happened next?
Well, you see, I was traveling with two Americans – my then girlfriend, Zoya, and the eternally diffident Byron. This pair had witnessed my arrest. I vividly remember their faces, as they watched on helplessly from the train window.
My thought processes, in that dire moment, were as follows.
Well, this seems to be happening. Listen you two – when you reach Gdansk, will you please contact the Australian embassy and let them know what’s happened? Can you hear me? Am I manifesting sufficient telepathic powers? Why are you both looking at me blankly? Surely, this request should be self-evident, anyway. Gosh, these Polish guards are a bit rough, aren’t they? Ow, my arm –
After that, I was alone in my cell. I’d like to mention that the entire guard house reeked of stale smoke and boiled cabbage. And, evidently, the guards spoke no English, only Polish and some German. As for me, I knew approximately seven German words and just enough Polish to get myself in trouble. Literally not figuratively, of course, considering I’ve just been arrested by some Poles.
So German it is, I thought, rubbing my hands together. What I needed to say was this: Can you please fetch my friends from the train, because they should be able to translate for me, and clear up any misunderstandings? Then I will be free. Also, they might have snacks…
This, sadly, is what I said:
“Achtung! Meine Freunde! Auf Gleisse! Apfelstrudel und Anschluss!”
The Poles were not impressed. One pointed at the window and said, rather smugly I thought, a bunch of words that included these “Keine” and “freunde!”, which I took to understand meant, “You have no friends! Your friends are gone!”
I could hear it then, the sound of the train accelerating away from the station.
In short, I was alone.
After about an hour, one guard went outside. I saw him exit and promptly return, shutting the door quickly behind him. I watched him (the way prisoners watch guards in those old Western movies) cross the room to confer quietly with the others. A bit of a debate ensued. Then they all followed him outside. Three minutes later, they reentered the guard house with Zoya and Byron.
The pair of them had been sitting on the back step all this time, trying to decide what to do next. Neither had the courage to come into the guardhouse and make inquires. In everybody’s defense, we were all in our early twenties, in a relatively isolated area. I’m given to understand that this scenario is its own genre of horror movie.
Anyway, the guards had a bit of a talk among themselves and, evidently to prevent my friends from roaming about the building, locked them in with me. Frankly, they were all rather impressed by my girlfriend. Noticing she was carrying cigarettes, two of the guards made a grab for the same ashtray. Both carried it across the room to her, pulling it back and forth, each fighting for the honor of presenting it to her.
They also brought her blankets and asked her if she wanted tea. She shyly declined. Meanwhile, I was delighted by these developments. And besides – both my friends spoke German!
“See here,” I told Zoya. “I need you to explain to these gentlemen that I was not trying to bribe anybody. And also, please inform them I don’t wear lady’s panties. It’s a long story. I’ll explain later.”
But Zoya, feeling no doubt overwhelmed by the kindness and attention she was receiving from the Polish border guards, was giddy with shyness; instead of explaining anything to anybody, she buried her face into my chest and whispered, “Noooooo…”
I stared at Byron. I might have well stared at a brick wall. He, too, evidently was feeling shy. I was beside myself. Both of them were exchange students at the University of Bremen. Both of these individuals had read Goethe in the original. And both had become mysteriously monolingual from the moment I was dragged from the train.
I looked at Byron balefully.
“You’re not going to be of much help in this scenario, are you?”
He stared distractedly into an upper corner of the prison cell. Obviously, it was not his finest moment. I am still friends with him, you know. Somehow. I seem to suffer from an overly forgiving temperament. And although Byron was, in that moment, quite useless at extricating me from a Polish jail (!), I did eventually forgive him fourteen years later when he helped me evict the world’s largest rat from my basement.
And Zoya, by the way, lives in a farmhouse in Maine, and my children consider her A Most Treasured Aunt. Zoya calls about twice a month, not to speak to me but to them. We all stayed with her last year, actually. It was in her woods that my daughters used to go ‘hunting for mooses’. You know, with a fishing rod, as you’d expect. Now … back to the story.
And so, we spent a night in a cell. And then the border guards kicked me out of Poland shortly after dawn. I suppose it occurred to them that no international smuggler would travel with anybody so hapless as my friend Byron.
I also somehow suspect that they were only pretending not to speak English. I remember how their ears perked up when Zoya said to me – incredibly sweetly, by the way – “Do you think they’d let you go if I slept with them?”
I shook my head crossly. “Why should they have a nice evening? Thank you, Zoya, but I’d rather just stay in here and rot.”
The other thing I remember is that there was one tiny bed in that cell, and Byron, of course, promptly lay down on it and slept through the entire night. Whose cell was it, Byron? Who got arrested in the first place, Byron?! See? I suffer from an overly forgiving temperament.
But as I said, I was unceremoniously thrown out of Poland the next morning. Zoya waved and smiled at the guards from the train window, and enthused about how nice they all were. I merely glared.
The train took us back to Berlin. It was early Sunday morning, and because it’s Germany, nothing was open. So, we boarded another train and traveled to Brandenburg for precisely no reason whatsoever and arrived, much to my surprise, without incident. We were hungry, though, and the only place open on a Sunday turned out to be the local McDonalds. I spent an upsetting amount of money buying a Happy Meal, and it did not make me happy. It’s Germany though, so the meal came with a beer. And because I lack any capacity to enjoy beer, I asked if I could exchange it for whiskey, and they looked at me as if I was mad.
We spent hours walking around Brandenburg. I sent a postcard to my mother featuring a picture of the town’s statue of Roland – because it looked a bit lewd, frankly – and then we walked around some more, gradually succumbing to the realization that there is no genuinely good reason to visit Brandenburg.
In the evening, we sat at an outdoor bistro quite near the lewd statue of Roland, listening to Byron speak movingly of man’s inhumanity to man, in that way he sometimes does. As he spoke, he frowned handsomely and gazed into the middle distance.
“Nice work,” I told him. “Women love this sort of thing. You embody your namesake quite well. My friend Byron, the Byronic Hero. Whom Macaulay, incidentally, described as ‘proud, moody, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart’. I can’t remember the rest, but it was good. Women went mad for Lord Byron. One time –”
“I’m being serious!” he declared hotly.
“Yes. Say it like that. Perfect.”
“You’re in a mood. I’m going back to the hostel.”
“Gute. When you get there, remember – you don’t speak German!”
I turned to Zoya.
“Wooo,” she said, nearly falling off her chair. “Did I drink all the wine?”
She had, the poor lamb. I hoisted her over my shoulder and carried her back to the hostel. I should add that the gardens around the hostel were rather pleasant. The moon was out, and I wasn’t tired, so I carried Zoya to a bench under a tree, propped her up, and sat down beside her.
And that, everybody, was when the ghost appeared.
Obviously, this part of the story gets a bit involved; it might be better if I stop here and continue the story in the next episode.
Before I go, I’ll mention that a few days ago I finished writing that science fiction novel I’ve been yapping about. I worked on it obsessively over a long period, and finishing it has put me in a strange state of mind. Perhaps now I can write my newsletter more frequently. I hope so. I always have a good time doing this. By the way, you can always reply and tell me how you’re doing. I enjoy hearing from you.
Yours with chaste affection,
Kris St Gabriel