A Long, Strange Trip

A Reflection

This assignment came about when Christine Haska, an influential administrator with Polish roots, decided that one of her favorite Polish professors deserved a cover story. Poland’s attempt to create a democratic, western-like society would be focus of a trip that would also include brief visits to England, France, and Hungary. Photographer Nick Romanenko and I would also gather material and images in England and France for a Study Abroad cover story and visit Budapest for a feature on a faculty exchange program between Rutgers and Central European University. Three features would come out of this one trip.

The day-to-day problems we encountered were worthy of a stupid comic film. A bad sign came within minutes of arriving at our hotel in London. We were told that our reservation was for a room with a single bed, and that no other rooms were available. One of us was either going to sleep on the floor or we were going to figure out a way to get through the night in the same bed. Gross.

Before hitting the sack, however, Nick—weary and jet-lagged from the long flight and cab ride— decided to take a shower. With the handleless tub located in the middle of the bathroom, Nick slipped and fell. I heard moaning through the door., and called security to see if they could help. A man in a suit brought a plaster—the British term for band-aid. Nick’s cut probably required a few stitches, but he said we were on a tight schedule and there was no time to see a doctor.

The next day we took a a 45-minute train ride to Lewis, where the supervising professor for Study Abroad lived. Returning from the long day, Nick turned the wrong way on the train, knocking his tripod into his pint of beer. The beer fell from the shelf and ended up on Nick's clothes and camera bag.

To cap off our weekend in England, our cab driver dropped us off at the wrong terminal for a flight to Hungary and we raced to the underground subway with all our luggage and Nick’s camera equipment. There, you pay when you leave the subway, and we had already converted all our money. Somehow we somehow managed to avoid the ticket inspector and made our flight to Budapest, with only seconds to spare. I remember us landing in our seats, the last ones on the plane, sweating like pigs.

A few days later, after conducting interviews in Budapest for a feature on an exchange program, we flat out missed our flight from Budapest to Warsaw. Apparently, Hungarians can change the time of a flight without notifying passengers. We were stranded in the middle of nowhere on the outskirts of the city in an airport where no one spoke English.

When we had arrived at the airport, we were told that the flight had left hours before, and we should have checked. It took almost an hour to find someone who could explain this to us in barely audible English. It had been our responsibility to call, we were told, even if we wouldn’t have understood the updated flight information, since it was delivered in Hungarian. We were told to return the next day. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, we were told, “Come back tomorrow!” Nick and I took a cab to a flea-bag hotel and then walked about 45 minutes each way to a McDonald’s for dinner. Yum.

Once we got to Poland there were new problems. We learned the hard way that when sleeper trains arrive at their last stop, workers stop shoveling coal and all power shuts down, thus dimming the lights as passengers exit. As a result, Nick left his $300 light meter behind. He didn’t realize it was missing until we were being whisked to a luncheon in our honor by the director of the city’s Foundation For the Support of Local Democracy chapter. Nick was spewing profanities in Russian, and needed calming down. When we got to the luncheon, we were served about a half-dozen varieties of gefilte fish. Gefilte fish is my kryptonite, and I was wrapping napkins and stuffing it in my pockets to avoid insulting our hosts.  

A few days later we were taken to the Bialystock side of Poland, where Foundation officials took us to a restaurant that featured topless dancing girls. Nick had too much vodka, and I barely managed to get him back to his room and on to the bed. On route to the Olstzyn lake region early the next morning, Nick told our driver to pull over to the side of the road. Foundation officials smiled knowingly as Nick wrenched his guts out.

The Polish experience was topped off when my passport, along with Carrera sunglasses and other items were stolen from my room at the Europesky, ne of the finest hotels in Warsaw. I remember the smirk on the face of the clerk at the front desk when I reported the incident. Losing my passport meant that the professor had to pull strings at the consulate in Krakow to get me a replacement, otherwise we miss our flight and small window of opportunity to visit France. To her great credit, she pulled it off, but it wasted three or four hours of everyone’s time.

Poland is where many of my ancestors had either perished in the Holocaust or had the foresight to leave before the Germans invaded in 1939. Three of my four grandparents were born there. For me, the old Jewish section in Krakow, where much of Schindler’s List was filmed, was the trip’s highlight. On our last morning in Poland, Nick and I got up at the crack of dawn and took our own tour. Nick took some amazing black and white shots. I wouldn’t have been surprised if we had been arrested or shot for trespassing.

By the time we got to Paris, we were pretty burnt. I can’t recall any major incidents there. We traveled by train to Tours, a beautiful place with an overwhelming amount of second-hand smoke in the hallways at the university.

Sometimes I wonder whatever became of my passport. If you meet a Polish dude claiming to be me in fancy sunglasses, ask him his middle name. If it’s not Ira (my middle name), the dude copped my creds and shades and bought them on the black market.