hidden europe 24

East is East: Oleg's story

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: Another world from the tourist and business haunts of central Warsaw, the city’s eastern suburbs are full of apartment blocks and grassy boulevards. Here, the tram stop outside Warsaw Wschodnia station (photo © hidden europe).


About ten years ago, significant numbers of poor people from Estonia were persuaded to travel to Switzerland to take part in medical trials. One of them was Oleg.

Warsaw has a trio of main railway stations, none of which can claim any awards for grace and beauty. Wschodnia is the easternmost of the three. It is set in a grey wasteland of apartment blocks on the wrong side of the River Wisla. Wschodnia means east. And this is the East. The wind from Siberia cuts across the steppes, sweeps over eastern Poland and bites into the huddled bodies that wait patiently at the tram stops outside the railway station. The trains from Berlin to Russia stop at this forlorn outpost in a part of Warsaw to which few tourists ever venture. Passengers in the know have a dozen minutes to gauge the melancholy awfulness of Wschodnia.

Oleg spends the better part of every day on a staircase overlooking the main foyer of Wschodnia station. He shuffles into the station sometime after seven, usually just as the multilingual departure announcements for the morning train to Berlin echo round the station foyer. There is the fatty smell of last night's pizza laced with a whiff of cheap disinfectant. Oleg knows every corner of Wschodnia, but the staircase is his favoured spot. He stays all day, lingering in the evening until the last train to Moscow has been sent on its way. Usually about a quarter to midnight.

Wschodnia is home. Oleg knows the daily timetable and is able to flawlessly recite the departure times of all the international trains that leave Wschodnia. At 7.23 there’s that express to Germany and then at 7.34 a slow train to Lithuania. “That’s a good one,” says Oleg who hasn’t actually travelled on a train for years. “Slow trains are cheaper,” he confides with the quiet intimacy of one who might have spent a lifetime studying Polish railway tariffs.