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 comparable to an absurdist comedy. A bad sign came within minutes of arriving at our hotel in London. Back at Rutgers, the point person for booking our trip had apparentl;y made our reservation 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.

Weary and jet-lagged from the long flight and cab ride—Nick decided to take a shower before bed. With a handleless tub located in the middle of the bathroom, Nick slipped. 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 had a serious cut, but we were on a tight schedule and he insisted that 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 Rutgers 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. So Nick was already 0-2.

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 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 bullets.

A few days later, after conducting interviews in Budapest, we flat out missed our flight from Budapest to Warsaw. Apparently, the airline had changed the time of the flight without notifying us—or maybe they had notified the person who had booked the trip back at Rutgers. Regardless, we were stranded on the outskirts of the city in an airport where no one spoke English.

We finally found someone to explain and, 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 find a McDonald’s. 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 spewing profanities, 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 barfed—repeatedly.

The Polish experience was topped off when my passport, along with Carrera sunglasses and other items, were stolen from my room at the Europesky, one of the finest hotels in Warsaw. I clerk at the front desk smuggly smirked 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 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. On our last morning, Nick and I got up at the crack of dawn and took our own tour of Kazimierz—the old Jewish section in Krakow where much of Schindler’s List was filmed. Nick took some amazing black and white shots.

By the time we got to Paris, we were pretty burnt. I don't think I've ever experienced a more beautifult city, but only for a day-and-a-half. We traveled by train for 45 minutes to Tours, a beautiful place with an overwhelming amount of cigarette 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.