Cities Of The Dead: Lublin, Poland.
Sometimes, those who wander really are lost.
|Sion Smith||Nov 19|
In recent years, there’s been a rise in the number of people who believe the earth is flat. I listened to a talk-radio spot a few days ago and all kinds of fools were calling in to state their case. Personally, I wouldn’t go near that theory with a long stick, but when the taxi driver dropped me off outside my hotel in Lublin, I was two steps away from believing this may indeed be the case.
I had reached the end of the world and wasn’t going anywhere else for three days.
It requires a great amount of skill to trick your own mind that three days will pass by at the same speed as they would if you were at home - all you have to do is live through them and you’ll be back on a flight before you know it.
The steps up to the front door of The Hotel At The End Of The World were covered in bread crates to stop people walking on them while they were being rebuilt, though it might be more accurate if I said they were there to stop just me walking on them because since the cab driver left, I hadn’t seen another human being.
The hotel looked great online. There were magnificent spreads of fruit and pastries laid out on the breakfast table in the pictures but I should have known better. More fool me. When you see that the hotel also rents out rooms by the hour and choose to ignore this fact, you’re going to to get everything that’s coming to you. As it happens, across the three days, there was no fruit, no pastries, no restaurant or even a breakfast room that I could find. Most likely, there was no cook either.
Rooms by the hour. Take heed. That’s a big red warning sign right there. Ignore it at your peril.
Once upon a time, this hotel may have been a grand house fit for travelling kings but once upon a time is far, far away. Today, it looks like something del Toro would take a pass on if he were scouting locations for a sequel to The Devil’s Backbone.
The staircase up to the reception desk might be made of marble. It sure looks like it but when I reach the top, I find the reception desk itself is made from wood that got washed up on a beach. There’s nobody here but there is one of these little bells you smack the palm of your hand on to get some attention. I must have hit it five or six times before it became embarrassing so instead, I sat on the windowsill and read while I waited for somebody to show up.
Forty minutes later, an old woman arrived armed with a box of cleaning materials and acts surprised that a stranger is standing at reception. Maybe they don’t have too many guests. I’m not sure if she is the receptionist or a cleaner. When she finally speaks to me, I have to assume she is asking me what I want. It’s as good as it’s going to get for a guess because I speak as much Polish as she does English. I try Welsh for a few laughs but ‘Happy Birthday little jackdaw who is sitting on my roof’ gets me the same blank stare.
I can’t stand here all day so I reach over the balsa desk and point at my handwritten name in the book hiding behind there... and no, I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t checked in by a computer either.
She nods and I think we’re getting somewhere but she wields a cloth at me and asks for money by holding out her hand and making a gesture with her finger and thumb. I tell her I paid before I came and show her my credit card. She shrugs. I shrug. We shrug together until a bond is formed and she gives up first, handing me a key with a ‘7’ written in pencil on the cardboard fob which appears to have been adapted from a cereal box.
On the wall there is a sign - also written in pencil on cardboard - telling me that rooms 1 to 12 are to the left and rooms 14 to 30 are to the right. The whole ‘Room 13’ thing appears to be international. One day I’ll find one, book it and enjoy the hell out of it.
My room is just what it says it will be. A room. A room that has shrunk to the size of a dog kennel but it is still a room if you go by the strictest definition of the word. Four walls, ceiling, window, floor. I stand in the doorway, put one foot in front of the other and I am at the foot of the bed. I’m all for saving time in these short lives we lead but this is a step too far. I throw my bag at the foot of the bed because my other options are to either leave it in the corridor or throw it out the window which is placed about 10 inches from the other end of the bed.
It’s going to be a long three days.
I wouldn’t say I ‘explored’ the room, but once I had shut the main door behind me, it revealed a secret bathroom for which I was most thankful. I didn’t want to even imagine what the alternative might be.
Kneeling on the bed, I stare out at yet another barren wasteland of Eastern Europe where they are at least trying to catch up. At home, we may talk about The War and all that happened within it but as a country, we were never subjected to occupation and all that brings with it. I am no expert but judging by this panorama, we are looking at another 100 years before this place is able to move on.
Still, there is action on the road outside. The usual fleet of Mercedes, BMW and Audi’s sail by, all on their way to anywhere but here. I feel sad and bury my head in my book for a couple of hours but all the time, what I’m really thinking is ‘this is exactly what it would be like in prison - except in prison there might be a television and two pillows’.
I can’t take any more. I hide my bag under the pillow and if survival is the name of the game out here, I had best find something that looks like food.
Outside, there is a bench in what looks like a stolen bus shelter. Somebody has installed a carpet made of cigarette butts. It’s a contributory thing. You smoke, you add to the carpet. I’ve always considered myself an upper class smoker but this brings me crashing back down to earth. On a low wall next to the bench, a spoon caked in heroin residue. I guess there are more uses for rooms by the hour than I first thought.
Behind the bench and bus shelter type thing, the hotel was protected from whatever was on the other side by a hedge of giant conifers so thick, you couldn’t even see daylight through the branches... but I did hear voices.
I waded through the carpet to see what kind of people they might be. If my current luck was anything to go by, it would be some ghosts who had gotten lost.
To my surprise - and that’s a lazy phrase for a writer to use, but I really was surprised - on the other side of the hedge is what appeared to be a brand new Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant and drive-thru, a 24 four hour petrol station and a car wash.
Meatloaf was right. Two out of three ain’t bad and who knows, I might even be able to make use of the car wash before my three days were out.
I celebrated my find with a KFC meal and free Pepsi refills until I felt sick. Staffed entirely by under twenty year olds, they spoke excellent English. When I asked about this, they all replied quite honestly, that it was essential if you were ever going to get the hell out of this place.
Full of chicken, I went into the petrol station where they still sold cigarettes as identifiable brands for not much more than a few pennies. There is not a country in the world where you cannot simply say ‘Marlboro’ and get what you need.
All of this took less than half an hour. With the alternative being returning to my open prison, I chose the lesser of two evils and began The Walk. The Walk Of The Lost in which you put one foot in front of the other and hope you don’t get too lost.
Getting across an eight lane road populated by German cars all looking for the fastest way home is not easy. I had to wait for some other people to show up first and then copied what they did, figuring that if we were going to get hit, they would get hit first and that should in theory, slow most cars down. It’s not unlike a real life version of Frogger.
As I rounded a corner on the other side of the road, I was met with a giant shopping mall. H&M and Pizza Hut - amongst other greats - broadcast the fact that they were open for business while inside, young kids wandered around with bags and bags of shopping. For such a poor area, they sure seemed to have a lot of cash to get rid of.
I scoured and loitered in the bookshop I found for so long, a security guard began to follow me, so I moved on out of the mall back into the real world.
It was a little like Stargate. One second you were in Place A but if you put your hand through the shimmering doorway, you would then find yourself in Place B.
I took a quick look at some tourist pages on my phone while sitting at the side of the road but couldn't figure out why the pictures I was seeing were not the same as what I could see with my own eyes. I guess it's no different than somebody saying they are in London. One look at the guidebook will show you all those famous landmarks like Big Ben and Buckingham Palace but as you investigate further, you find that you’re really in Ruislip or Fulham.
It had started to get dark and I was tired. Such a place as this is best navigated by a man that likes to wander aimlessly, in the daylight. Funny. I never thought like that anywhere else before now but then again, I’ve never been anywhere I dislike as much as here.
The next day, I confirmed my thoughts about the breakfast room/actual breakfast not existing and that was fine with me. Nobody had killed me during the night and I took that to be a major bonus. I took a shower in the little room and got ready in the couple of inches of water that had drifted out of the shower into the room itself but this too was fine. I was alive and hadn't expected to be. I'm not sure why. Nobody had threatened me, it was just a feeling in the pit of my stomach that I didn't belong here.
Two days left. Anybody can muscle through two days in a strange place if they are smart and I have been around long enough to know not to do anything stupid like cat burgle a rich looking tower block or something
I decide to walk in a very straight line from the KFC - where I had a reliable breakfast banquet of more chicken and Pepsi - and see where the road will take me. I walk for about a mile and nothing changes. I see no people, only concrete in the distance and those German cars barreling up and down in search of a way out.
Soon enough, I come across life on earth. At first glance, it looks like a market. I'm hungry for culture and figure I might find something neat but what I stumble upon is no market. What I have found here is survival. On a stretch of waste ground that must be at least a mile square, I pass through a car park that could be sponsored by Lada. These cars will never make it to Germany. They are lucky to have made it this far. Making it to Germany is not their purpose in life. Their role is to bring people and 'stuff' to this patch of land in the name of staying alive.
An elderly couple sit on either side of a fireplace they may have ripped out of their house to sell before they came. An old lady sits with four small plastic pots with unknown green shoots sprouting from them. An old man sits with some boots that he spits on occasionally to clean the dust off. Another old couple sit with nothing.
Maybe they’re just here for the atmosphere.
Maybe none of these people are as 'old' as I have described.
Maybe they just look old because that's what the breadline does to you.
This isn't the breadline we have back home. That breadline means your iPhone is a couple of years old and you don't have a full Sky package coming in from your satellite dish. On this breadline, I'm taking about fighting to the death over real crumbs from the table and yet, looking around, they seem like the kind of people who would split the crumbs in half so they can all live on for another ten minutes.
There's very few people here that look like they want to buy anything but nobody speaks enough English for me to find out what's going on. Maybe they have been going through this ritual for years. I like to think of myself as a minimalist who treads lightly on the planet but it's through choice. Back home I have 3 Gretsch guitars and a Mercedes. Just one of those things is probably worth more than everything in this market put together… and that includes the cars.
I light a cigarette and stand watching and waiting because I can think of nothing else to do. The man with the spit shoes is staring at me. He wants a cigarette. I walk over, take two out, light them both, keep one for myself and hand the other one to him along with the rest of the packet. I have more in my other pockets but it doesn't make me feel good about myself. He smiles at me with perfect teeth because he has never been able to buy shitty food that will destroy them in secret while he sleeps - then he spits on my boots, pulls down the cuff of his shirt sleeve and polishes the front of both of them.
It's a reasonably fair trade. What can you say. I salute the man and move on. I can't look at this Market at the End of the Universe anymore. It's painful in a way I've never experienced before.
When in doubt, keep moving.
I walk for another two miles or so before I am passed by a man with a dog and then walk for another mile before I see a sports centre. I guess I must have gotten close to civilisation because nobody builds a swimming pool in the middle of nowhere do they?
I don't have the heart to walk much further. I take an investigative left turn but all I find is a paper shop/tobacconist which is closed and a monster of a building that might be the train station. It looks like somebody moved it here from Russia by hand, which they may well have.
Through all of the cities I have visited, I have never once minded being alone until now. I hardly ever feel lonely but Lublin has broken my spirit into tiny pieces - all of which are clinging to the bumpers of German cars trying to hitch a ride to anywhere but here.
All I see is a chasm the size of the Grand Canyon between kids busy learning English to escape and the older generation who are locked in for good with no hope of anything but the same thing as yesterday... except Sunday because there is a market where you can wallow in a collective misery and maybe catch sight of somebody truly worse off than you are to make you feel better.
Somewhere around here is Majdanek - the Nazi concentration/extermination camp. I don't want to be a tourist in a place where officially, 78,000 people were exterminated so I don’t even look to see where it is. I want to see it even less when a little digging pushes that number closer to 360,000.
Marilyn Manson creeps into my head: "The death of one is a tragedy. The death of millions is just a statistic".
I walk back the way I came, less sure about my place in the world than ever and I don't like how it feels. Each step crunches down hard on the concrete and I feel the ghosts of men from the ghetto wearing everything they own, trousers held up with string. Women, hundreds of women, all wearing headscarves, their eyes narrowed by the same wind making my eyes water right now. I walk faster to escape this place I have found myself in, chasing the familiarity of more fried chicken and Pepsi and bump into a couple of guys with spectacularly groomed beards who speak English well enough to tell me I’m a "fucking retard."
I have seen enough.
Just show me the smiling face of the friendly Empire Leader known as Colonel Sanders.