One of my most innate Gdańsk adventures lies yet before me. I am going to ride the SKM, a kind of overground metro that connects all of Tricity – that is Gdynia, Sopot and Gdańsk. SKM stands for Szybka Kolej Miejska, fast city train, and wonderfully the Polish have not only made the company name the name for every vehicle that is part of the service, but also personified the abbreviation in the female so each train is called an „SKM-ka“. It is as though in German you would say SKM-in or in Spanish SKM-ita. It adds a whole different dimension of personality to the old, slightly dodgy-looking yellow, blue and white trains. It makes me think of them as old grumpy fat ladies who, while being harsh and cold to everyone, are truly loveable.
The 15 minute train ride is uneventful – but it leaves me with time to reflect, like on countless other occasions, on this city. While a long-distance train seems a slow way of transport compared to, say, flying, this SKM-ride makes me feel like everything I connect with the city is rushing by, like someone fast-forwarded my thoughts.
First stop: Gdańsk Stocznia. The shipyards. This is where the Solidarność movement came about, where people went on strike to fight an unjust regime – one of the places where the end of the Cold War began. Another stop: Gdańsk Wrzeszcz. This is where my grandfather was born almost 100 years ago when it was called Danzig-Langfuhr. Yet another stop: Gdańsk Przymorze – Uniwersytet. Przymorze means „by the sea”, I love how the name is so poetic, although the area between Wrzeszcz and Oliwa is actually not exactly pretty but quite industrial. Finally Gdańsk Oliwa, where I get off. This, like Wrzeszcz, is a place that is familiar to me from literary depictions of Gdańsk. Grass’s Tin Drum, Chwin’s Death in Danzig, Huelle’s Who was David Weiser? – all their heroes have walked these streets, like I do now. Maybe my love for Gdańsk partly originates on the pages of books. I wouldn’t be surprised.
And with all these thoughts that revolve around Gdańsk throughout history and in literature, the thing I love the most about this moment is what I’m here for: I’m going to visit a friend. I’m not on a huge mission, not sightseeing or researching. I’m here just to hang out with someone, like any other person in this city might do on a Saturday afternoon. In this moment I’m not a tourist on a journey, I’m not an academic at work. I’m just me in a city that I love.
When I get back to Oliwa’s train station later that afternoon, the electronic board says that the SKM-ka to Gdańsk will be there in 5 minutes. I’m overjoyed with my good timing. Little do I know. I take out my headphones and turn on my music, sitting and waiting for the train, but it doesn’t get in. On the other side of the platform the board says that the train to Wejherowo will be there soon too. When it arrives, I wonder why it is going in the direction that I thought Gdańsk Główny to be in. Well, I must have lost orientaion. A few minutes later the board changes. It now says my SKM-ka will be there in half an hour. Shortly after this, another train going in the other direction is arriving on the platform’s second track. It is only then that I realize that I just let my SKM-ka pass by.
And that when I already have a history with this! As I now have half an hour in the cold, there is lots of time to remember at least one previous unfortunate incident with track numbers. A few years ago when I was living in Poland as a volunteer, I needed to go back to my home base in Lower Silesia from Toruń. My friend and I got to the platform, the rusty old board said that our train to Poznań would leave on the left track. We got on, chatting away, but after about 45 minutes we really started to ask ourselves why the train hadn’t left the station yet. After quite a bit of a hassle we found out that this was a regional train, when we should have taken the fast train from the opposite track that had left about 30 minutes ago. Not only did the train we were on leave later, it was also slower, so that we missed our connection in Poznań by way more than an hour. We did catch another train to Wrocław, and my friend made it home to her village by bus. I couldn’t get to my tiny town that day and, bound for a friend’s place, had an odyssey on Wrocław’s city busses to the outskirts of town and got lost in a jungle of the highest socialist concrete skyscrapers i had seen to date in the middle of the night. It all pretty much scared the life out of me and I wasn’t so hot for Wrocław for a while after that.
What do I learn from this about Polish trains of any kind, be it SKM or PKP?
- Never trust electronic boards on the platform.
- Always check both sides of the platform for your train and if in doubt, when a train is coming, ask a local if it’s yours.
- Always bring an extra sweater when you go to Gdańsk in winter. And wear it whenever there is even the slightest chance that you are going to be taking public transport. You may have to wait. And it will be cold. I at least am going back to Berlin with a runny nose.
… and with a smile on my face. Because when it comes down to it, this entire post just makes me realize how German I am and I really enjoy the fact that Poland, however well I may know it already, can still confront me with my own cultural imprint that I will most likely never get rid of.