The empty cafeteria has just closed for the night but, seeing this stranger arrive, the old woman goes back to make one more coffee. Gas flames caress the heavy blue kettle and her hands are animated in their amber hues as she turns to offer me two jars to choose from. Wondering if one is decaffeinated I remove the lids and inhale, but this only serves to evoke scents of coffees remembered. Babushka shakes her head and my heart is transported momentarily home before returning to select. She makes a drink so hot and strong that the plastic spoon melts into the gloop lingering at the bottom of the cup.
Most of Warsaw was destroyed during the war before rising phoenix-like from the ashes. New is built in the image of old, denying the blip in time that cost this city so much. Below the streets is an intimate neighbourhood; warrens of passageways and bountiful kiosks form a warm refuge in the cruel cold of winter. I board a train in this hidden sanctuary; ahead through an icy darkness lie Moscow, another language and the unknown.
With eyes closed I feel the railway’s familiar rhythmic rocking ker-klunk (ker-chink) ker-klunk (ker-chink) to undertones of shuss-shuss from engines. I am anywhere and I am nowhere. With phone turned off my only companion is time and, opening the window, I lean out into the sharp black night. The blind chill of wind hits my face and screams in my ears “I am free! I am alive!”
In darkness the train stops at the border between Poland and Belarus. Shapes move in and out of half-lights glowing from carriage windows. A creature cat-stares me from shadowed illumination as a green uniform, little more than a boy, comes to check my passport.
The air-tourist senses less of a country than the visitor who travels by land. Just as siblings share similar features, so too do airports. Travelling by train, however, presents a wider awareness of our species with authentic Reality TV on view through carriage windows. Travelling by train also, through necessity, takes the traveller across other countries on the way. This being my first land expedition, I had not considered this point.
“Dar eez problem.” I hesitate and look uncertainly at the young man. “You do not have Belarus tranzeet viza. You come now. Leave train.”
Spat out into the cold and empty night, I cautiously put my trust in this green stranger and follow him until we arrive in a white-lit, white-walled waiting room where I am left deposited on red plastic. There are no advertisements here. No snack machines. No sounds but footsteps. The floor is stone grey and the tables wooden brown. A dozen passengers sit or stand simply waiting. Beyond a large window the middle-of-night blackness watches in. I turn to a woman with a profusion of blue eye shadow; she stares at me and I stare back for what feels an eternity. My head is numb and my hands start to shake.
Words spoken in different tongues say little to an ear deaf to that language; eyes, however, touch an unspoken place. Border guards arrive to escort me to the platform for my return to Warsaw and hand me over to a railway guard. Pasty, tubby and balding he takes me to a cabin and sits beside me talking Russian. I search his face blankly, lost in translation. He considers me a moment, then familiar sounds emerge.
“I love Liverpool!” he exclaims.
“Football?” I offer my question with uncertain voice, wondering as to its context.
“I love Liverpool! Beatles! Paul McCarrtney. Rrringo Starr.” As I pause to consider this revelation he bursts into song; “Yesterrday, all my trrroubles seemed so farrr away!” The sound carries far beyond the cabin door and in his eyes I find my own. Momentarily we discover a lingua franca and I laugh.
Before leaving, this man teaches me to lock the door. “Polish bandits” he warns, narrowing his eyes and pointing up and down the passageway. Then he is gone, leaving me alone, heading in the wrong direction on the wrong side of midnight. With the door locked I sink into exhaustion but I cannot sleep; maybe it’s my adrenaline, maybe it’s the guard’s Polish bandits, or maybe Babushka’s coffee had been caffeinated after all.