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The writer enjoys the fresh air and the view from an older Polish train. (Aneta Leska/Courtesy of Alexander Wooley)
The writer enjoys the fresh air and the view from an older Polish train. (Aneta Leska/Courtesy of Alexander Wooley)

Riding the nostalgia train in Poland Add to ...

Dispatch is a series of first-person stories from the road. Readers can share their experiences, from the sublime to the strange.

Last year, Poland started running its first-ever high-speed trains. Hermetic, air-conditioned barracudas named Pendolinos.

For some the new trains are a sign of modernity, further integration into the EU and all that that implies (rightful place, further separation from Russia, grants and subsidies). I’m not a rail obsessive, but I will miss a certain kind of experience, hanging my head out of the open window of a dated carriage on a sunny day as the PKP railway car snakes its way at an unhurried pace through villages and between undulating fields.

I may not be alone. In Poland recently, I saw wistful nostalgia for some of the clunky and unhurried aspects of life before Italian-made locomotives arrived.

Inside the entrance to the contemporary art museum in Krakow, MOCAK, is a life-size replica of the dingy reception to a typical pre-1989 Polish factory. It is a trompe l’oeil, visitors are initially meant to think it is the museum’s reception. Older visitors point out things from a disappeared time: a bakelite phone, a glass teacup, cigarettes, a dead plant, bifocals left on the desk, the last a nod perhaps to Wojciech Jaruzelski, last leader of communist Poland, known for his thick black specs.

Physical relics of “Commie chic” linger. An old dairy in industrial Debica is now a CrossFit gym, but with bits of original machinery and milking cans strategically placed. In Krakow there are renovated bakeries-turned-fusion restaurants, the massive ovens serving as mere props. Luckily for hipster renovators, in Poland exposed brick has always been exposed.

The best food in Poland is still prepared by powerfully built women paddle-boarding cauldrons of pierogies. Decades ago the central government designated a frozen food plant to be one of Debica’s two main employers – it survived, including its thriving, if bare-bones, cafeteria, where they sculpt the best pierogies I’ve ever had.

And the trains.

I took my first Polish train journey one winter in the mid-1990s. It was essentially a troop transport that left Krakow with a battalion of glassy-eyed soldiers drunk – despite it being 7 a.m. – on Zywiec beer, zubrowka vodka or some other beverage beginning with “z.” Soldiers staggered down the train before it had even lurched out of the station – perhaps on a final bender before joining sober, upright NATO. A soldier in greatcoat fell asleep drooling on my suitcase, which I’d stupidly left out in the passageway.

Five years ago I took a late-summer trip north from Warsaw to Gdansk. You can’t help but be aware that you’re crossing at right angles to historic landscapes: One can imagine armies of Germans and Russians and Austro-Hungarians marching, retreating, heading east, west and back again.

I loved standing at the open window: On a train you breathe in the season, the sunshine, the pollen and chaff, communing with others doing likewise. The land rolls by, crops planted, harvested, villages and towns hold their secrets. Poland has always been about the land, the soil and territory. There’s probably not a square mile that hasn’t hosted someone’s war or invasion: Mongols in the south, campaigns against Prussians, Lithuanians, Czechs, Ukrainians, the war to repulse the Soviets in 1920, with Warsaw saved by the skin of its teeth, (but in the ying-yang of history, a defeated functionary named Stalin nursed a grudge that grew for the next 20 years). Heck, the Poles even fought a series of wars against the Swedes.

Last summer I took a slow electric train from Bialystock, in the north east of the country, to Warsaw. We had rushed to catch the morning departure, so fancied breakfast. In the dining car, a spotty young man took my order. Then in the galley behind there was movement, and a kindly looking older woman – anyone’s babcia – took down a cast-iron skillet and fired up a gas range. In a second-class carriage on a run-of-the mill intercity train – this was not the Orient Express, or the 8:12 from Downton Abbey – actual cooking was taking place. Not an Amtrak/Via microwaved Pop-Tart. Scrambled eggs, whole-wheat toast, Irish butter – (the EU’s best) – all being cooked fresh! Fellow passengers took my squeals to be a sign that perhaps I, too, had been drinking vodka that morning. After breakfast I spent an hour with much of my upper torso out the passageway window, hair whipping in the breeze. Warsaw came too fast.

The climate-controlled Pendolinos will be extending their tentacles in the next few years, reaching out to all four corners of Poland. Will anyone look up from their tablet or their Pop-Tart, to feel the passing landscape?

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