The funny thing about this human experience is the notion that we’re obliged to keep “civilization” rolling, when at some point we won’t be around to see how it all plays out.
Spoiler alert: There aren’t any endings except your own, and even if there are, it’ll be biology making the final call.
An ending was planned for SSTS Tour S-819, and it would be in Poland. We departed Vilnius at 12:05 p.m. on July 8, 1987, bound for Warsaw by rail.
But would there be an end to communism in the USSR and Eastern Europe? At the time, it didn’t seem so.
The opposing -isms seemed locked firmly into place. Ordinary citizens in the Bloc went about their business, just like us. The majority kept their heads down, worked their jobs and raised their families. They made do, and the system survived.
However, we were about to experience palpable ferment in Poland. By 1987, Solidarność (Solidarity) had become more than your dziadeka’s* trade union, and a shift was underway.
In the 1980s, Solidarity was a broad anti-bureaucratic social movement, using the methods of civil resistance to advance the causes of workers’ rights and social change. The government attempted to destroy the union by imposing martial law in Poland, which lasted from December 1981 to July 1983 and was followed by several years of political repression from 8 October 1982, but in the end it was forced to negotiate with Solidarity. In the union’s clandestine years, the Pope and the United States provided significant financial support, estimated to be as much as 50 million US dollars.
Solidarity’s leader and shipyard electrician Lech Walesa surely was the most popular Pole still living in Poland, although first place overall went to a fellow from Wadowice in residence at the Vatican by the name of Karol Józef Wojtyła — Pope John Paul II.
After World War II, Poland relinquished territories to the Soviet Union in the east and absorbed former German lands in the west. Ethnic Poles arrived from one side, and Germans were expelled from the other. The Jewish population obviously was no more.
After the war, the vast statistical majority of people in Poland identified as Poles, and were staunchly Roman Catholic. Communism in Poland utterly failed to create a New Polish Man (or Woman); the countryside successfully resisted collectivization, and the factory workers took their “leading roles” literally, not with the usual grain of symbolism, whether implied or imposed.
It made for a certain conformity to tradition, and as a result, an accompanying rebelliousness. Poland was a headache for the Kremlin throughout the Cold War, and America was happy to exploit the situation whenever possible.
Consequently, by 1987 arguably the third most popular Pole was from a small town in Illinois by way of Hollywood, as explained by a native during our stint in Warsaw.
“There is only one place in the world where your Mr. Reagan would have received more votes (than in 1984),” the man told us, gesturing to the surrounding urban landscape.
“Here, in Poland.”
It may have seemed as though communism wouldn’t end, and yet all around us there were cracks and fissures, albeit not always evident to short-term foreigners. Ironically, whether wittingly or otherwise, yet another outsider was trying to ride the tiger while rewriting the big rule book, ultimately helping to enable the collapse of the very edifice he sought to reform.
His name was Mikhail Gorbachev, and he lived in Moscow.
Our group already had done the USSR, and visited Gorby’s pad, otherwise known as the Kremlin. We’d black marketed, eaten caviar, raised Nick’s flag above our Leningrad hotel, watched Orthodox priests swing their censers, patronized the V.I. Lenin Memorial Shithouse and done push-ups with a Latvian student group, as led en masse by Mette the most badass ever Danish bartenderess.
Oceans of alcoholic beverages had eased the passage, and a few rivulets remained to be consumed as the train left Vilnius for what proved to be a grueling 9-hour trip on the single hottest day of the summer to date, all windows open though to little avail.
Upon arriving at the border, there were the customary bureaucratic unpleasantries, as well as the requisite bogie exchange, as described previously.
The primary reason our border stop lasted so long was the need for something called a bogie exchange. It had nothing to do with Casablanca or Lauren Bacall. Simply stated, the standard Soviet rail gauge is wider than the gauge used in both Eastern and Western Europe (with the exception of Spain and Portugal).
So it was that for a solid two hours, as wheels were exchanged and passports stamped, the train sat motionless at a scorched agricultural plain of a border crossing, with visibly wilting greenish-brown crops stretching to the horizon, and a town nestled atop a low hill, perhaps a few hundred yards away.
Most of us remained on the train, except for the two friends from Los Angeles – quiet, laid-back and West Coast hip. They spied the town, briefly conferred and made for it, returning 45 minutes later, their bags stuffed with non-resealable bottles of clear liquid with tiny paper labels.
I didn’t need to ask.
Just then, as we congregated in the corridor to begin passing the bottles, an elderly shirtless man was spotted striding in our direction. It was Mr. Greiman, and therein lies a story.
If memory serves, Mr. and Mrs. Greiman lived in Australia, where they had moved after escaping war-torn Eastern Europe during or soon after WWII. They’d seen bad things, and hadn’t forgotten them.
The Greimans were in their late sixties, and had joined the youth and student tour for the sole reason that doing so enabled them to obtain the necessary visas to visit relatives in either Latvia or Lithuania (it’s hazy), with whom they hadn’t met in decades owing to the Iron Curtain.
It is a matter of significant regret that I failed to appreciate the unique position of the Greimans, whose lives and experiences were the polar opposite of the boisterous band of party-hardy Anglo collegiate types comprising the remainder of the group.
By contrast, Mr. Greiman’s persistently annoyed mantra was “get off my lawn.” I’m guessing he had justification, and that I might have learned a lot from him by giving a little and perhaps staying sober for an evening, but I didn’t.
It was my loss.
Now Mr. Greiman was lurching toward us down the sweltering rail corridor, torso fully exposed, and wild eyes fixed on the first open bottle. He fairly snatched it from one of the Los Angeleno’s, while mumbling please and thanks at once, hurriedly lifting it to his lips and drinking – gulping – deeply of what he apparently thought was mineral water.
Luckily the window was down, and adjacent weeds along the track duly received a tremendous Greiman vodka shower. I don’t recall seeing the Greimans again after this episode, but I’ve always hoped they got what they needed from the trip in spite of the impediments of nearby youth.
It’s strange what you remember, and what you don’t. The train came to a stop in Warsaw well after 9:00 p.m., and we congregated on the plaza in front, waiting for our guide and the bus to the Hotel Nowa Praga.
There was a women dressed in peasant garb, standing behind a rickety wooden table by a shoddy cement wall. She was selling admirably healthy strawberries, and none of us had Polish złoty to spend on her wares.
Barrie didn’t ruminate. Taking stock of the situation, he produced a few dollar bills that she happily accepted as illegal tender in honor of the wonderful Mr. Reagan, depleting her stock to nothing.
Then Barrie grandly announced the reason for her bountiful crop: Undoubtedly these were Chernobyl strawberries, fertilized with the fallout from the nuclear disaster the previous year.
We ate the nuclear strawberries, each and everyone, laughing all the way to the hotel.
* grandfather’s, in Polish