Culture Shock: Poland to Italy via Bonn

15 December 1999: 

It was a long trip. We traveled from Poznan to Bonn to Firenze to Roma and then on to Sicilia! Which, if super-imposed on a map of the USA would look something like going from Great Falls MT to Seattle to San Francisco and then on to LA.

We also looked at our entire trip so far in this same way: from Bonn to Orkney in Scotland to Vama, Romania to Poznan, Poland and now into Italy. The distances work out to landing in somewhere in South Dakota, travelling to Seattle, then all the way down to Memphis TN back up to Chicago and now down towards El Paso TX. It might be fun later on to actually find the maps and superimpose them, but for now we have just used our fingers and rulers on wall maps.

As we walked around Poznan our packs felt VERY heavy and Cheryln especailly was having a hard time. It did not occur to us that it had been over two months since we had last been in Bonn and we had a lot of crap with us. We do not buy souvineers, such as it is. We keep our various tickets and maps and schedules and we always save a handful of coins. These make the best souvineers of our trip. We talk about making a scrapbook of the tickets when we return, i don't know if we will though - that is one of those things that often slips through the cracks when getting back into the swing of home. As far as friends are concerned, it is always fun to hand someone a coin from Slovkia or some such. But this, combined with food, extra or new clothing, geneological information and other misc. things made our packs very heavy. Oh yeah, we also had a bottle of wine as a gift for the guy who set us up with the grape harvest job.

We got to the station in Poznan with about an hour before our train arrived - it was the standard InterCity Warsaw to Berlin run. We needed some food so Cheryln sat with our packs while i went out for a walk. I decided to go to the grocery store next to the Internet place we had used - i knew i could get there in about 10 minutes, it was a nice store and we really liked the Havarti-like cheese we had gotten at the cheese counter. When i got there i was flustered from walking so fast and purposefully in the cold and probably looked a bit unfriendly. I quickly picked up a couple of things that we needed, water, 70% chocolate, milk, bread and then went to the cheese counter.

There was a friendly woman there who was surprised that i knew exactly what i wanted (the really good cheese we had had the other day) and was thrilled that i spoke English. She chatted a bit with me, which was nice, but i was still feeling rushed from hurrying to get there and was aware that i needed to get back. I shopped a bit more and then she called me back over, asked my name and where i was from... she was very excited to meet me! It was fun - being American does have it's advantages. We were liked Poznan and were talking about maybe going back - perhaps i will visit that store again!

I added up what i had, and it looked like i was not going to have enough money without breaking a big bill -- which i didn't want to do since we were leaving the country in a few minutes. So i put back one bottle of water and it added up almost perfectly! I had been adding up the time wondering if i had time to do Internet, and i did have 15 minutes, but that didn't seem worth it, so i went back to the station and we caught our train. It was a very, very nice train... probably the nicest train we have been on Europe - in many countries, especially on the private lines, they sacrifice comfort for speed, but not in Poland, this InterCity train was wonderful. Again, we had a compartment to ourselves. It was a fun ride.

We had a lot to acomplish in the Berlin station - we needed to call my cousin in Florence to make arrangements, buy tickets to Bonn, validate our Europass, buy Bahncards, make reservations to Bonn, make reservations to Florence, get some food, and then catch our train. We got off the train ready to go, but the long long lines in the ticket office got us feeling down. We waited for about 25 minutes in the Bahncard line and since the clerk was taking about 15 minutes PER PERSON and it sounded like you had to wait 3 weeks for the card, we finally decided that that task would have to wait until another time, so we left that line, Cheryln got in the International line and i got in a domestic line. I was able to quickly buy a Guten Abend Fare, a discounted ticket to Bonn for the high speed train that left in an hour. When i was done Cheryln had just reached the front of the line, so i went over to join her - however someone in the back of the line got very angry and started shouting and ran up to me at the counter and grabbed my shoulder to pull me back, i tried to explain that we were together, but i am not sure he understood.

We had found that most of the DeutcheBahn clerks in Western Germany spoke fluent English, even though we usually could get by in German. This was going to be complicated though and we got a clerk who spoke very little English. She was friendly and willing to work with us, despite the long lines, but it was tricky. The first thing we needed was for her to validate our railpass.

We had made the terrible mistake of buying a railpass before leaving the US. It was very expensive, although it was the cheapest one we could buy and now it was going to expire if we didn't start it, despite the fact that we really didn't have a use for it. Railpasses rarely pay for themselves -- it is cheaper to buy tickets along the way (and look for the many discounts); in fact, unless you are under 25 AND travelling for less than a month AND planning on taking an international train 3 or 4 times a week, it is always cheaper to just go with tickets. We KNEW better than to buy a railpass, but at the last minute before leaving we decided to get something. That decision cost us money and hassle.

So now we needed to get it validated so that it could be used - we planned on using it in two days. As we tried to explain this, the clerk was very confused and things looked grim for a moment, until she realized that all we wanted was for her to stamp the empty box. She got really happy and smiley and stamped the box!

Then we needed to make reservations from Bonn to Firenze for December 17th, two days hence. But when she typed it in, she said that there were no reservations availible on any train from the 16th through the 20th and on the 21st there was a reservation avalible but it was going to be over 100 DM! This was a disaster - we were going to meet my cousin Elaine in Florence the next day, and we had to be in Sicily to meet relitives for the holidays on the 21st or 22nd. We were upset and she was flustered. She kept trying different things and we were panicking. Through all of it there was a language barrier that was making all of us uncomrfortable.

Finally i had a thought based on something she had said previously - i asked her to make the reservations only from Bonn to Milano. It took a minute to explain that to her, but when she did it, it was fine. We got our window seats in a compartment and it cost 10 DM. The only problem had been the Milan to Florence portion of the trip and we later learned that in Italy they only reserve a small portion of the train - so if there are no reservations availble that DOESN'T mean the train is full, which is what it means in most other countries. Then she had to run around for 10 minutes trying to figure out how to enter our pass into the computer (so the computer would charge us for only a reservation and not for the 500 DM ticket!) All of this was done, of course, while wearing our heavy packs.

Finally we left, all smiles on both sides of the counter and went to find a phone to try to call Elaine. My phone card was running out, and calling a cellphone in Europe eats money fast, so when she offered to call me back i agreed readily. I told her the number of the phone booth i was at, and the code, 1, that was posted on the phone book for Berlin. But she never called back. So i checked again and discovered that the code on the phone book was the PHONE BOOK CODE, and the area code was something very diffent! So i called her back, she was frustrated and i told i was wrong and gave her the right one. Still the phone never rang. I waited about 7 minutes and finally picked up the phone to try one more time, and Elaine was there! The ringer was just turned off and she had sat with the phone ringging for ever! AUUG! (We later found this piece if information to be extremly useful!) So we made plans to get together and it was all good.

We had time to grab some bread for the train and stick out heads out of the door of the station to see the un-re-built church (and the big McDonalds, ug!) and then went to catch the high speed ICE train to Koln. Germany is just comming off of 16 years of rule by the right-wing, Nixon style, ultra-corrupt Helmet Kohl (Kohl means cabbage in German... a fact that i find extremely funny.) During his tenure, many things were privitized, the trains, phones, post, to name but a few. In all cases the service has degraded and the price has risen. DeutcheBahn, as a private company has decided that people must LIKE airplanes, so they are making their fast trains as much like airplanes as possible - as many people as possible squeezed into tiny hard seats in huge open seating compartments with both smoking and non-smoking in the same pressurized, de-humidified room. Most of the regular or slow trains we had taken were very comfortable, but this was not. We got to Koln at just before midnight and were just in time to catch the midnight InterCity train to Bonn. This is a night train that runs from Amsterdam to Basel... it was an important part of my trip back in 1990.

We arrived in Bonn, walked the short distance to Oscar Romero Haus and everyone was excited to see us. Britta was there and although it was late at night, we sat down with Britta and Sonja and talked about out travels. It was very nice -- we certainly enjoyed being welcomed like we belonged there! Then we slept!!!

The following morning we had the traditional (at least for Oscar Romero Haus) long relaxed breakfast, eating a lot and visiting a lot. After breakfast, at around 11, i was washing the last of the dishes and took a bite of chocolate and, what was that?, a large piece of one of my teeth came out! It didn' hurt, but i could feel a big hole where the filling, which is what it turned out to be, had been. It was not a small filling but almost half of a tooth. When i was a kid i had a dentist who did a great deal of unneccessary work on me; he was a real sleazeball and eventually his dental licence was removed for corruption and inproper behavior, but not soon enough to prevent him from destroying my mouth. He drilled on my teeth whenever he wanted some money, which was quite often, and many of those fillings have now surpassed their 15 to 20 year lifespan and tend to fall out at very inappropriate times. Luckliy this one didn't hurt, but it was, nevertheless, a problem. I was pretty upset when Sonja and Cheryln came back into the room a few minutes later.

At first Sonja fed off of that, but Cheryln actually kept pretty calm and she tried to keep me calm. But then Sonja went into action, calling dentists, and found one that would take me that afternoon at 14:30. I was not very happy that my day in Bonn was going to involve a stay in a dentist's chair, but i figured it was a good cultural experince. The most amazing thing was how quickly and efficiently Sonja took care of it. Within 7 minutes of my filling coming out, she had an appointment lined up for me. Explaining how i would pay was difficult. I told them that i didn't have insurance and would just have to pay cash. Since every single person in Germany has 100% insurance, both Sonja and the dentist had difficultiy understanding what i meant.

Actually our plans for the day had involved going to the eco- laundrymat down the street. Oscar Romero Haus has a washing machine, but no dryer, and since our clothes were REALLY dirty and we were leaving the following day, we figured we should splurge on the whole thing. The dentist, of course interfeered with those plans. We did go ahead into the center of town and ran some of our other errands, but i was very stressed out.

One errand we did was to buy a BahnCard. Most countries in Europe have railcards that you can buy for the equivilant of a couple of long train rides, and it gives you a major discount, often 50%, on all rail travel for a year. Often students can get it for almost nothing! We bought one in England and it really made a lot of our railtravel possible! When we had first arrived in Germany, Sonja suggested we buy one, but we pooh-poohed that because 260 DM each seemed like way too much. Well at this point we had not even really started our main Germany travel and it would've already paid for itself! So we figured it was a good idea. We went to the station and there was an extremely efficient and friendly clerk who answered our questions (No, the 30 DM extention to all of Europe is only for people over 60. Yes, the second card for a couple was half price.), processed our forms, and gave us a temporary card to use until the main one arrived in 3 weeks, all in about 90 seconds.

After that we wandered around the Zentrum, the old town, which we had become quite fimilar with on previous visits. This is a really gorgous 1000 year old coblestone 20 block area with stone buildings with every single storefront still active. However now, at Christmas time the entire area was just PACKED with a wonderful Christmas market, booths filling every street and every square! It was cool! And best of all was the Reibekuchen. Germany has many seasonal treats, plum cakes in the late summer, delicious Zwiebelkuchen, onioncakes, during harvest time and, reibekuchen, potato pancakes, at christmas. There were stands everywhere! But i couldn't eat anything!!! I really wanted to walk around the market quite a bit more, but we decided to go on to the dentist - the office is right in the middle of the Zentrum! (It is above a Benneton.)

But first we went to the cash machine. I had no idea how much this was going to cost. Figuring it would be a little cheaper than in the USA, i got 600 DM out (about $310) but made plans to leave Cheryln and my passport there if i needed to run and get more money. We got there about 15 minutes early. They were very friendly and understanding -- since they were trying to fit me in to the schedule, they said i might have to wait a bit. Cheryln, thankfully, waited with me. We were facinated with the way everyone said hello and goodbye to the entire waiting room as they came and left. I was very nervous, but enjoying the cultural experince. It was only about 45 minutes before they called me in.

I am used to dentists in the USA, i figured once i was in the chair, i would have to wait for 30 or 45 minutes more and then have the dentist come and go while working on me... but this was not the case. The dentist was extremely friendly. Sonja had seemed certain he would speak English, but he did not. He was professional and gentle, but did not have that nervousness in speach and action that most dentists i have been to have had. He looked at the filling, which i still had with me, and looked at my mouth.

Then he told me, auf Deutsch, that he could not replace the filling but would have to make a new filling. I was pleased with myself that i understood him -- although he did repeat himself several times for my benifit. Then, since he had been told i was paying cash, he said, in English, "it will be very expensive". I nodded and prepared myself. He said it would be Hundertzwansig. He, and the assistant, looked a bit shocked. I repeated it and then he did too. He thought i didn't understand the German, but in fact i was shocked at how cheap it was --120 DM is about $61, about 15% or 20% of what it would cost at home! I said, yes, that would be ok!

He worked very quickly, not like dentists i have been to at all. He said he would have to drill a little and was getting the shot ready. I asked how long he would have to drill and he said that it would be one minute or one and a half minutes. I told him i did not want the shot and he was surprised, but understanding. The drilling wasn't bad, only hurt once. And he never got up to go somewhere else, leaving me half finished in the chair!! It was very quick, only about 25 minutes and i was back out in the waiting room! It is a temporary filling, i must get a crown when i go home, but it served my needs, it was cheap and it was really a great way to really see the culture!!! Talk about getting off the tourist track!!

We went back down to the market and looked at some of the little toys, and thought about getting some gifts. There were some piramids that were not nearly as nice as the ones in Dresden, it made me wish i had gotten one in Dresden!! But best of all we found a booth with really, really good Reibekuchen and had several portions. YUM!! Then we went to do our laundry. Our pack of dirty clothes was still locked under the stairs at Oscar Romero Haus so we walked up to the laundrymat. It was amazing how dirty our clothes were. The place was a bit expensive, i think we spent 15 DM or something (about 8 bucks) but it was worth it. The way the machines worked was really cool, you put money into a box in the wall, chose which machine you wanted, it despensed soap and automatically started the machine. It was cold and rainy and we wanted to be inside while waiting for the wash, but there was a guy chainsmoking in there because he had no where else to go, so it was a problem.

After that we had dinner at Britta's house and heard more stories about her summer in Uganda, which was wonderful. We got home late and we still had to clean out our backpacks - we got rid of everything we didn't need and didn't want to carry. Maps and tickets and extra clothes and gifts and all of that we left with our other things in storage at Oscar Romero Haus. We also decided, sadly to leave our big heavy coats in storage. We had clothing for autumn (or for Seattle's winter) and that would be enough while we were in the southern Mediterranian; but we would miss our emotionally protective coats!

In the morning when we put on our packs, we discovered that they were MUCH lighter. Almost pleasent to carry! We had to catch a very early train, so we were up and out of the house before we saw anyone. The train was only about 5 minutes late and we had a very nice compartment all to ourselves after the first hour. Also, since we were required by our ages to buy a First Class Europass, we got to sit in First Class, so we had a somewhat comfortable place to sleep - with seats that folded out into makeshift beds. We streched out and tried to sleep for the first few hours of the trip, after we had passed all the castles along the Rhein, that is.

By mid-morning we were awake and stuck our heads out in Basel Switzerland to get a breath of air in our twelfth country. The trains in Germany still run pretty much on time, although since priviatization, they are often a few minutes late, but in Switzerland the train starts to move with the tick of the clock, every time! (Italy, however, is another story!) The ride over and through the Alps was gorgeous - this was of course part of our plan. The train went along the side of huge valleys with lakes and rivers below and little swiss villages hanging off the sides of the mountains. And of course there were plenty of waterfalls. I got my exersize just running back and forth across the car from window to window. It is really strange how this country with four official languages combines the very different cultures of France, Germany and Italy, along with some smaller more unique ones - they seem so contridictory! We had no one in our compartment until we crossed the Italian border, and then it filled up, of course the sun set right as we left Switzerland so the windows were not important any more.

When we arrived in Milano, just a bit late, we had only about 20 minutes to adjust to a new country, figure out what train to catch to Firenze, find it, figure out if we needed a supplement, find a Bancomat, get money, figure out what platform to catch it on and and get on train. We split up and started running around the station. In every country we had been in, from Scotland to Romania, ATMs were everywhere, but it took FOREVER to find the single ATM in the Milan station! One of my first introductions to Italy was the Bancomat, aside from being poorly labeled and hard to find, the amounts were listed in Euro first and Lire second. We had spent most of our time in Germany, which doesn't like the Euro at all (like privitazation, Kohl pushed it through against popular opinion) and you can see almost no evidence that it exists anywhere. Austria was pretty excited about the Euro, but not at all like Italy - they acted as if the Lire didn't exist any more!

When i finally got back to our meeting point, Cheryln had discovered that the train that we had to catch in 5 minutes was a privatized fast train, Eurostar -- and we would probably have to pay some sort of expensive supplement (that is why our reservations would've been so expensive back in Berlin!)... but it was already about 7pm and the next train would not get us to Firenze until about midnight.

We waffled a bit and worried and then Cherlyn made an Exeuctive decision (the kind that are so often needed when travelling), she decided we would get on this train. We did and found seats quite close to each other. First Class was very plush and had free beverages and snacks! The conductor looked at our pass and smiled. We did pay any supplement - we are still unsure if we were supposed to, but the conductor didn't care, hell, it's ITALY!

As we looked around us, we noticed that we were the only people in the car who didn't have a cel phone sitting on the table in front of us. We thought this was a characteristic of First Class -- turns out it was a characteristic of Italy! Our heads were spinning - from orderly, friendly, comfortable, restrained Poland (and Germany) in winter, to warm, but rude, chaotic, polluted, individulistic, passionate Italy in essentially one day! Talk about Culture Shock!

When we arrived at the station in Firenze we discovered that the directions to the Hostel in the book were not so good, so we called - and the directions they gave us were not so good either. They insisited the bus ran every 10 minutes, but the schedule clearly said every 30 minutes. So we waited. While we waited we tried to keep our distance from a couple of loud, obnoxious American boys who couldn't figure out where to go and wouldn't read the bus schedule. Once we were on the bus the boys were still loud and clueless. At one point a very nice man offered to help them, and even suffered a bit of their abuse before they realized he was helping. He gave them good directions (in perfect English) to the hostel, which just required them to read the signs.

Then he asked, "Where are you from?" When they responded, "America". He said, with the most amusing smile, "Oh, that was clear. Where?" Cheryln and i could hardly control our laughter!

The bus ride was kind of long, about 20 minutes, and when we finally saw our stop, we whispered in the ears of the loud boys that this was the hostel stop. At first we couldn't see where we were supposed to go, but after walking a block or so we found the sign and a big gate. The four of us walked through the clear, moonlit night along a road through olive groves for about 5 or 10 minutes discussing camping clothing and finally arrived at a large Tuscan Villa, which was our hostel. It was gorgeous on the outside, and pretty darn nice on the inside too. It was due to close for the night in only 10 minutes!

The clerks seemed kind of rude to us, after Germany, but not too bad. We quickly called Elaine to tell her we actually made it all the way and finalize our plans for the next day and then went to bed. We were required to sleep in seperate rooms (this is not Poland after all!). I had the interesting experince of making my bed, a top bunk, while someone slept on the lower bunk! It was a resonably comfortable room, although i was glad i had two blankets! I was very tired and looking forward to seeing Elaine and exploring tomorrow.

© Copyright Mark Canizaro 2000



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