Now this was back in the days before the fall of the wall, but it is a first-class turkey nonetheless, and a tale well worth telling.
It was easier than I expected to convince my wife that we should bicycle through Poland: I simply promised her that the final leg of the trip, to Prague, would be by sleeper train. She immediately envisioned the Orient Express. As it turned out, Graham Greene, with a rewrite by Franz Kafka, could have narrated the tale of our train ride.
Our bicycle tour ended in Krakow. We arrived at the state tourist office first thing Friday to buy a ticket for Sunday.
Although early, we still had hours of waiting. When our turn finally came, I told the clerk, in stumbling Polish, that we wanted two first-class, sleeping-car tickets to Prague and that we were traveling with bicycles. She answered in garbled English that the train was full but she could sell us open tickets and we could get sleeping accommodations from the conductor on board. As for the bicycles, we could check them in Katowice, an hour's ride west of Krakow, where we would connect with the express from Warsaw to Prague.
The first leg of the trip went fine. After we pulled into Katowice at 10 p.m., I gamely lined up in the station to make sleeping-car reservations. An hour later, when I reached the front of the line, I was told again that berths could be reserved only on the train. We could check the bicycles in the baggage room downstairs.
But the baggage room was closed. One way or another, we would have to lug two 10-speeds with us onto the train.
The train to Prague arrived at 12:42 a.m., and we climbed aboard one of the sleeping cars, bikes and all, waving our first-class tickets. The porter promptly put us off again. We madly checked the bikes into a baggage car and jumped aboard a second-class coach, just a few seconds before the train departed.
Walking the length of the train, we petitioned the sleeping-class porters for a sleeping compartment. A bed? There were none to be had. A seat? They were all taken too. We ended up standing in the corridor of a second-class coach.
It didn't matter at all to the Polish conductor that we lacked a reservation. As we weren't in a seat, what did it matter? But I was apprehensive. We were approaching the Czechoslovak border, notorious for difficult crossings, and our Polish visas had expired at midnight. It was now 2 a.m.
But everything went smoothly. The Czech border guard even consented to write on my visa that we were traveling with two bicycles. With newly stamped passport in hand, I ran alongside the train to the baggage car, which was empty save for our bicycles and several Czechoslovak customs officials. It suddenly dawned on me that they were about to remove the bikes from the train. Nothing I said made any impression, until I remembered my visa bearing the word "bicycle."
Victory! The bikes could stay on the train to Prague.
Now all we needed were seats.
After an hour of trying to sleep standing up, we were awakened by the conductor, a woman in a drab uniform and a scowl to match. Upon seeing our tickets, she flew into a rage. The only word I understood was "no," but her tone made it clear we had a serious problem.
I tried the universal assuager, but she wasn't interested in American dollars. She wanted 20 Czechoslovak crowns.
My only recourse was to change money, illegally, with someone on the train, but what in heaven's name was the dollar worth against the crown?
I strode through the train, finally coming upon a group of women sympathetic to my plight. I said I needed 20 crowns and offered $5; when they didn't respond, I offered $8. We had a deal. In fact, they were clearly enthralled at the exchange rate and began pulling wads of money from their purses. Did I need more?
I thought not, but then I tried to give the conductor the 20 crowns. She shook her head and said we had to give her 80 crowns.
Back I headed toward the women, then back to find the conductor.
I could feel the train slowing, and I began to fret. If the 80 crowns didn't satisfy the conductor, she might summon the police at the station. Sure enough, she again scoffed at my offer, took our tickets and disappeared.
Early in the morning, the train stopped in Ceska Trebova, about four hours east of Prague. The conductor left the train and returned with several policemen ... but they didn't approach us. Before long, the train pulled out of the station.
As it happened, a newcomer on the train, a Czechoslovak, spoke English. With his assistance, we conversed again with the conductor -- and learned that our offense was not having seat reservations. Normally they cost 20 crowns (about $2), the conductor explained, but on board we had to pay 40 crowns each (about $3.50). It was a simple matter, she said, to get reservations on the train.
I handed her 80 crowns and asked for our tickets. Unfortunately, she said, they had been given to the police in Ceska Trebova. But not to worry. We would have "no problem" from here to Prague.
Finally I asked the conductor where we would be sitting. We looked forward to having at least two hours' sleep before we got to Prague.
"Seats?" the conductor replied. "There are none on this train." Matthew Stevenson is a freelance writer in New York City whose work appears in American Spectator.