Now it's winter and we aren't faring places, I've still been lucky enough to do some travelling as readers here will know. At the end of November, we were in Poland and then the weekend before last, I was in England. Since in both places I've made extensive use of public transport, I thought I'd share some anecdotes with you that show (I think) why using buses, trams and trains is such a great way to meet local people when travelling abroad.
In Poland, for instance, public transport is very reasonably priced. I think the Poles must have heart failure when they come to the Netherlands and see how much it is here. Like most places now, the chip card system is replacing tickets in Poland although you can still buy paper tickets if you want. We wanted to pay upfront for our whole seven days in the Katowice area, so a card it had to be. Being dumbwits when it comes to understanding Polish, we had to ask at the office for help and this is where the Poles really shine for us. They are so patient and so helpful. Our lady had very little English, but between us we worked out what we had to do. It took ages: she wrote numbers down that we tried to make sense of; she tried to explain how to use the pin code machine, which I eventually understood; she gave us payment options and told us how to get our deposit back if we wanted it, but she made no complaint about the time any of this took and was as sweet as could be.
We travelled a lot by bus and tram in Poland. The Katowice network area is massive and we did quite a bit of sticking pins on the map and finding a bus going that way or simply looking at the destination and saying 'let's go there.' This led us first to Toszek with its gorgeous castle and then to Mikolow, a surprisingly pretty town with an old German square, both quite random discoveries for us. We also tried to go to a place called Halemba - twice - but didn't make it. We still don't know why, but it might have had something to do with a circular route...ahem.
On another occasion, this time on a tram, we met a man who initially told us he was diabetic and needed help to buy food. At first we were sceptical, I'm ashamed to say, but when he told us his story, I felt deeply for him. He used to work in the Netherlands until he he was diagnosed with diabetes, but he could no longer work because of the severe extent of his condition. We chatted to him for much of our journey and learned how things have perhaps not improved for everyone in Poland since the end of communism. 'Thirty years ago, I would have been looked after,' he said 'but not anymore'.
We also took a couple of train trips and while I was really impressed by the trains, I was even more impressed by the conductors. They were not only very nice, they were incredibly patient and helpful too. We had to buy our tickets on the train rather than on the station. Apparently, this is normal practice and the conductors have these onboard hand-held computers to calculate the prices and print the tickets. You can only buy one way tickets, oddly, but that's the rule.
On our second train trip, we went to Zwardon, which involved buying a through ticket from Gliwice Labedy to Zwardon involving two changes. The conductor who sold us our ticket had trouble understanding where we wanted to go. I had the feeling she might not even have heard of it as I don't suppose many people from Gliwice ask to go there. In the end, after many attempts at trying to say the name (probably incorrectly) we had to 'spell' it for her on the wall of the carriage. Luckily, that worked, but I was again surprised by her patience.
On our return from chilly, snowy, Zwardon to Katowice, we had the same conductor as on our up trip - the wonderful Tomasz. I've never met a train conductor quite like him before. He told us so much about the history of Silesia and the area. He also showed us the most beautiful book about the Polish railways with its history and extensive maps and old photos. This was his reading material for the journey...an erudite conductor indeed.
Then a quick hop in time and over to the UK; to Shepton Mallet and Wells in Somerset at the beginning of December to be precise. Although I was staying at a B&B in Shepton Mallet, I needed to get to Wells every day. I'd hired a car, but for reasons I won't go into here, I cannot drive in the dark, so I had to take the bus on Friday and Saturday. Well, I'm so glad I did. It was such fun. I'd forgotten that people chat at bus stops and on the buses in England. That doesn't happen often here in the Netherlands, but in the UK, it's what you do when you're in the bus queue (innit?). For instance:
'Hallo love, you all right?'
'Yeah, pet, but the lumbago's giving me proper stick this week.'
'Oh no! So sorry you're poorly! It's the damp, love. I was just saying to my girls last week this wet weather's getting us all down.'
And so that's the norm. I'd forgotten this, having lived away from the UK for so long, but I was tickled to find out it's still true. On my first evening at the bus stop, after making friendly small talk with a lady standing in the bus shelter, a very nice gentleman, who reminded me rather forcefully of a garden gnome chatted to me on the bus itself and helped me with directions for when I arrived in Wells. In fact he was so helpful, he even wanted to escort me at the other end, but I told him I was more than grown up enough to find my own way. He wasn't convinced, bless him.
The following day, I was waiting at the bus stop in Wells waiting to return to the B&B and got chatting to a lass who was going to visit her boyfriend in Shepton Mallet. While we were talking, a young man came in looking a bit bemused asking if we knew when the next bus to Bristol was. He told us he'd fallen asleep on the bus and should have got off some time before reaching Wells. He had a huge problem because his girlfriend was expecting him to collect her from Bristol Airport and his mum was expecting him home before going to fetch the girlfriend. What made matters worse, his phone had run out of battery power so he couldn't contact either of them. Oh dear. He looked very disconsolate and dishevelled. The girl I was talking to offered to let him use her phone to contact his mother. Between the three of us, we composed a text to tell his mum the bus had broken down and to ask her to come and get him from Wells. We all agreed that the truth was not an option and that he had to play the 'parent game' to smoothe things over. I hope everything worked out for him; he certainly looked a bit happier when our own bus departed a few minutes later. When we arrived back in Shepton Mallet, my young friend thanked me for the company and conversation.
'I hope you have a lovely evening,' I smiled at her.
Then she stepped off the bus into the arms of a romantic looking young man with Byronic curls, so I called out to them.
'Ah, I can see you will have a lovely evening.'
The boy looked puzzled, but the girl smiled. She knew what I knew. What a lovely way to end the day. There's nothing like a bit of random conversation with strangers on the buses to lift the spirits.
Have a lovely Christmas everyone xx