Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Familiarity Breeds Content

I was in a train station when the revelation hit me.

But before I get to that, let me backtrack to the previous evening. I’d been in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania for a few days, and was waiting outside the main train station for the overnight bus to Warsaw, Poland.

There were no benches nearby so I seated myself on a lower step. It was an interesting place to loiter.

It was an early Saturday evening so young people were on their way out of the station for a night on the town, others were returning home after a day out, and in front of me a steady stream of trolleybuses was picking up and dropping off passengers, including the occasional trademark Eastern European old lady with a scarf around her head.

After a while, a few more people started hanging around the bus stop sign. First up was a young slim guy with a long ratty ponytail, and what appeared to be his mother and younger sister, towing a lime green suitcase. I drifted into eavesdropping range and detected Polish being spoken, so dropped in a few words about going to Warsaw. We all nodded.

It is strange how little change of perspective is needed to make people into kindred spirits. In Poland I was the foreigner, trying to understand the place and its people; but in Vilnius the Poles and I were all outsiders, having to get by with English because we didn’t know the local language.

The bus tore off through the night about 10pm, scheduled to stop only at Lithuania’s second city Kaunas and the eastern Polish city of Bialystok on its way to Warsaw. I was awake as we crossed the border, and was amazed to see the complex of customs houses, sidings and truck bays I’d dozed through a few days earlier.

What was more remarkable was the way in which we ignored these empty buildings and joined a convoy of trucks threading their way between them. As both nations are now part of the border-free Schengen zone, there are no border crossing formalities between them. Bypassing the redundant border checkpoints was an exhilarating experience – as borders are imaginary lines set by humans, so may they dissolve.

But that wasn’t the moment of revelation. About 5.30am we pulled into the bus bay behind Warszawa Centralna, Warsaw’s communist-era main train station. I walked into the lofty ticket hall, bought a ticket to Lublin, the next city on my Polish itinerary, then took the escalator into the labyrinth of corridors that run beneath the station.

Low-ceilinged, lined with dozens of shops, and linked to further pedestrian tunnels leading to tram and bus stops, these corridors are inherently disorientating. But I realised, as I walked through them, that I’d finally (after many years) worked out their basic configuration.

I strode unerringly to a particular cafe I was looking for, and stepped in just as they were opening. I ordered the same coffee I always ordered there, then sat in the same chair at the same table I always sit in when I’m killing time before a train journey from Warszawa Centralna.

That’s when I realised how completely at ease I felt there. I was so used to the place and how it worked, that I might as well have been a resident of Warsaw. And, it occurred to me, I visit Warsaw more often than a lot of places closer to home – I’ve visited the city on four occasions, for example, compared to the one time I’ve been to Brisbane.

So I seem to have lost the mild unease that usually accompanies travellers when they head into a foreign country – that frisson of irrational fear when surrounded by an alien culture.

I assumed, on reflection, that I’d now travelled widely and often enough that it had withered away, leaving behind a lively but assured interest. Also that I now felt experienced enough with new places to deal with their differences without any conscious effort.

It was an interesting moment. But one I rather liked.