Tuesday 7 August 2012

Poland in a Nutshell

14th June 2012: Gdansk, Ireland 0 -4 Spain

15th June 2012: the journey home

As the train chugged determinedly onwards, I fell back into my seat with a lumpen thud – like the proverbial sack of spuds. We were in one of those individual private compartments that you see in 1930’s espionage films. Eight seats. Only really big enough to fit six people. The two window seats were occupied by an elderly Polish couple who didn’t look all that pleased to see a group of hungover football fans invade the peace and privacy of their little carriage… well, sorry Boris; tough shit, Magda, I paid for this seat!

My fingers fumbled feebly with the zip on my jacket. It was stuck. A couple of minutes later it was still stuck and I was growing increasingly frustrated. The Ireland flag that I proudly wore at the previous night’s match had become irreversibly entangled in the zip and was now limply strewn over my thighs as I sat there fidgeting like a helpless toddler; lost in my own little world, oblivious to on-lookers.

Only when the elderly Polish lady offered to help me did I snap out of my little trance – the zip was a bit too close to my crotch for my liking, so I thought that I’d do well to avoid a diplomatic incident and decided to stand up and step out of the dashing jacket and flag combo as if it were a skirt. However, in doing so, a boiled egg that I had drunkenly secreted away at breakfast time hit the floor of the train carriage with a crack and a ripple of laughter from my three friends and the septuagenarian Poles…and what else could I do but join in? Not for too long though. All that laughing was making me thirsty and I was eager to leave before I embarrassed myself further in front of real humans.

As I stomped and clomped my way through the train carriages, I got knowing looks from other Irish people, amused smiles from upstanding elderly citizens and nods of approval from tough-looking Poles who seemed very envious of the fact that I was still completely pissed from the night before and about to top up again.

I finally reached the dining carriage and waddled unsteadily up to the bar – my hands digging feverishly in my pockets in search of some shiny pennies. A mound of till receipts, tickets stubs and chewing gums wrappers were fished out and flung away before I finally found the fistful of dollars (well, złoty) that I needed.

I sat alone at a high table thinking lonesome thoughts, watching a steady stream of weary compatriots queue up to buy teas and coffees; seemingly unable to do further damage to their already pickled livers by following my lead and biting off a big bushy mouthful of the hair of the dog.

Twenty minutes later I sat there finishing my second beer when a no-nonsense Pole insisted that he had to buy me a drink to celebrate the sterling work that I had done the previous night during Spain’s masterful and mechanical dismantling of the Irish team as they cruised to an all-too-easy 4-0 win.
We gluttonously swallowed the beers that my new friend had bought before diving headlong into another pair of pints that I was compelled to buy to reciprocate his generosity.
The man sitting at the table beside us sensed a bit of mischief in the air and he promptly joined us just as my three travel companions completed their pilgrimage through the rattling carriages in pursuit of thirst-quenching piwo.

There we sat, four Irishmen and two Poles, all in high spirits, guzzling imperiously and chatting frenetically - with animated hand gestures, user-friendly pronunciation, wide-eyed incredulity and exaggerated enthusiasm; forging a firm but ultimately meaningless friendship.

Our travelling companions were two very different beasts. The first man was a sad and tired-looking young man in his early 30s who ran an Irish bar in Gdansk (and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of Ireland’s Italia 90 team), while our latest recruit was a 50 year old dentist who worked in Berlin. Alcohol being what it is, it blurred my judgment and the younger man was slowly phased out of our conversation and he disembarked the train at some godforsaken stop with a shy whimper as the dentist took centre stage…

In hindsight and under the unbiased scrutiny of sobriety, the dental man turned out to be rather more of a mental man but we weren’t to know that at the time.
He had great teeth; pearly-white movie star teeth. That gave him a great air of trustworthiness and respectability – assholes just don’t have perfect teeth, do they?!? He was charismatic and full of life too; eager to make up for lost time - married and divorced twice (with two kids to show for his trouble) - but now he was well and truly free and single and, dare I say it, ready to mingle.
He was headed all the way to Berlin too and it went without saying that we would spend the whole journey together, cementing our friendship and regaling each other with the quixotic tales that drunk people keep locked away in the dusty recesses of their minds for just such an occasion. You suddenly remember every hilarious hi-jink you’ve ever engaged in and recount great tales of bravery, debauchery and virility – neglecting to mention that your life is really more tae, beans and shite than Arabian Nights.

After a couple of hours of fraternal drinking we arrived at our stopover in Szczecin. I bounced off the train in a fit of drunken delirium and, if I may say so myself, I was at the top of my game.
I went to the information desk in the station and got a city map and made a bee-line for a group of thick-looking cunts sitting outside the station bar. My dental friend had taught me a few choice phrases during the first leg of our trip and I was eager to try them out.
I did my best ‘lost tourist’ face and leaned in to ask Thick Cunt #1 if he could tell me how to get to Ulica Sezamkowa - Sesame Street to you and me…
He gritted his teeth and shook his head sourly with a mixture of anger, annoyance and grudging respect for my gall. Wisely, I left him and his friends and moved down the road a little and poked my head in the window of a taxi to repeat the trick. It went a little better this time and the driver laughed and even got a friendly poke in the face from my novelty over-sized foam hand for his trouble, the lucky divil. I was leppin’ around the street like a pissed fairy then; the one-man show in full swing and men, women and children alike feeling the full force of my drunken tomfoolery – and, thankfully, taking their tickles and prods with good grace.

Nevertheless, my friends made the wise decision to take me out of harm’s way for the rest of our 90 minute stopover and set about finding a place to sit, have a beer and watch France play Ukraine. Our dental man had been to Szczecin many times before and said he knew just the place, so off we marched.

We had just finished ordering and were getting settled into the nice outdoor seating area when our Polish friend discreetly informed us that the local lads beside us, who had watched us like hawks as we came in, were ‘hooligans’. He advised us to behave ourselves and try to avoid getting involved with them. All well and good in theory…until the waitress arrived a few minutes later and brought us all two beers each - along with our food and informed us that the locals had sent us over a round of drinks as a (now customary) show of respect for our singing during the Spain match.
We waved over to them and thanked them from the safety of our seats but they beckoned us over to join them. So much for keeping a low profile…

More handshakes, backslaps and animated smiles as we loaded our small-talk guns and prepared to riddle the breeze with a magazine full of bullets.
The meanest-looking of the group intimated that he liked my leprechaun hat (or the ‘piece of resistance’ as my friends and I had christened it). It had been an inspired purchase, setting me back a mere €2 and it had seen more than its fair share of action. It capped off the ‘demented-Irish-dickhead’ look very well indeed and I was loth to part with it. Nevertheless, I overcame my reluctance and decided that giving our new ‘friend’ the hat was the best way to avoid the possibility of any hassle later on. A wise move. So, the hat was now in Polish hands (or, well, on Polish head to be precise) and I would not leave empty-handed either. They proudly presented me with a hideously-coloured scarf of the local football team. Hardly a fair swap for the best hat in the world but I suppose it’s the thought that counts…
Only one thing for it, so: a presentation photo! Huge cheesy grins, bright eyes and magisterial handshakes were the order of the day. The handshakes grew more vigorous with each passing second and next thing, what bounced out of my pocket only the cheeky little boiled egg that had made a name for itself on the train!

We all nearly lost the plot laughing and I came up with the fabulous idea of sharing the egg with the hooligans to cement our bond and show that ours was a lasting and meaningful friendship. A few triumphant mouthfuls later, the egg was no more. A few beer-sodden minutes later the friendship that the egg symbolised was no more either. The time had come for us to leave the pub and head back to the station.

I didn’t engage in much eejitry on the way back as we were short of time and beer and needed to stock up before getting our train home. We pooled our pennies together and left our dentist to do his worst. Piwo! Wahey!...and back on to our rolling locomotive for a quiet ride back to Berlin. Wrong again…

While fishing in my pockets for my ticket I found my tricolour facepaints and suddenly had another inspired idea. I topped up my own war paint and went off in pursuit of new recruits for the Green Army.
‘Snoozing’ people pretended not to see me, others just said ‘no’ and some stopped me in my tracks with a stern look before I even got to suggest anything to them. It wasn’t going too well.

Thankfully, I found a few half-dead Irish people in one of the carriages and I broke my duck. Confidence slowly crept back and I got brave. Brave enough to put a big green, white and orange stripe all over a sleeping bald man’s head. Others who saw this were laughing so hard that they were unable to resist my charms. I was on a roll now – making progress slowly but surely. Then I met the driver in the end carriage. She was a very serious-looking Turkish-German woman with a crew cut and trendy thick-framed glasses. She wasn’t in the mood for any messing and told me to stop and sit down. I begged and pleaded with her and asked her for one good reason why I couldn’t paint her face and she said that her husband wouldn’t be happy.

Somehow I used this to my advantage and managed to convince her that she needed to be painted so that she’d have some evidence to back up the story of the Irish bollocks on the train – a story that she said she would be telling her husband and her friends. So, not only did I paint her face, she took a photo of me on her iPhone for good measure. Oh, the sweet smell of success!
Further emboldened by this, I turned around and marched purposefully back through the four carriages and painted every single person on the way back to my seat. All of them: babies, geriatric old farts, drunken Irishmen, nervous housewives and timid postmen alike.
The only ones left without my seal of approval were the three people sitting in the seats behind where my friends and I had stationed ourselves. I asked the dentist to explain the situation to them and help me complete my collection but he was reluctant. He said that two guys playing dominoes were kind of neo-Nazis (since when have Nazis played dominoes?!?!?!) and he didn’t advise interrupting them for the sake of indulging my silly shenanigans.
As for the third person – well, she was an Indian girl sitting alone with tears in her eyes. When I asked him what was wrong with her, he laughed and started mocking her – it seems they had had a row while I was off gallivanting and he had come out with some nice racist remarks that upset her. None of us knew what he had said but we knew he’d been a naughty boy, so we told him to apologise. He screwed up his face scornfully, waved his arms at us with disdain and indignantly trudged his way to the toilets to smoke an illicit cigarette - disappointed, no doubt, that we hadn’t turned out to be his partners in bigotry despite what the day’s drunken buffoonery may have led him to believe.

So, my friend John spoke to the ‘Nazis’ and explained my need to them and they grudgingly obliged me. Meanwhile, Donal spoke to the Indian girl and her mood improved and she let me complete the set! Wahey! You can’t spell persistence without ‘pest’! Everybody on the train painted! A total of 70 or 80 people; a modest enough number but still a great achievement in many ways. My work was done and I could rest easy.
I flopped back into my seat with a serious sense of accomplishment and the sudden realisation that I was more drunk than I had thought humanly possible. The train rolled on into the murky German night and I closed my eyes and let the gentle rhythm rock me to sleep.

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