"Passport! Passport!" I was blasted out of my sleep by a Polish border guard with a heavy accent and a voice that carried the same implicit authority as the hand cannon holstered at his side. Crossing through the Czech Republic from Prague into Poland in the middle of the night, holed up in an old Soviet- era train car, is a surreal experience. The girl in the cabin with me-a friend of a friend-lay across a bench seat, unmoving. The two other guys in our travel party were in the cabin next door.
"Hilarie. Wake up. We need our passports."
I shake her. The guard looked at me as though it was becoming ever more clear to him that I had murdered her in her sleep. I handed him my passport and went back to work on her. After waking me up every 20 minutes for the last hour shouting and panicking and puking out the window, she chose this moment to lie there unresponsive. She'd been feeling ill earlier in the day and downed half a bottle of some Czech-brand NyQuil like it was Sunny-D, and had with mixed results; hallucinations of dead rats and vomiting for the most part, although it was becoming apparent that the medicine contained a heavy dose of tranquilizers as well. I rooted through her purse in the dark and found her passport. I handed it to the scowling guard with a sheepish grin. He glanced at the U.S. seal, stamped them, and handed them back without a word as he closed the cabin door and moved on.
This was the night of April 8, 2003, and I was on Spring Break. Foregoing beaches and bikinis, I had set out with some friends to travel to Prague, Krakow, and Budapest. The United States had begun the attack on Iraq a few weeks prior, and Poland was a member of the coalition of the willing. Talk of the war had been common in Scotland where I was studying. Most, it seemed, opposed Britain's involvement, even as Her Majesty's Government, led by Tony Blair, joined the United States as our primary ally. With war on my mind, I stared out of our quiet compartment into the silent woods. We were on our way to Krakow, about an hour's drive from Auschwitz, which we would visit. Fifteen years before, we would have been deep in enemy territory, well behind the Iron Curtain. Sixty years before, these tracks may have carried prisoners. Alone at midnight it is easy to imagine forgotten graves amidst the trees.
Five hours later we rolled into Krakow, sick, tired, hungry, and disoriented. Our planning for the trip had been minimal, as we thought improvisational traveling was the only proper way for students in their early 20s to see Europe. We had no hostel to go to and little money. There was no dining car on that train, so needless to say we were hungry and thirsty as well. It was 5 a.m., and nothing opened until seven. As if on cue, snowflakes started falling, slowly at first but picking up rapidly.
We wandered into a huge open square at the center of the city and were confronted with the most desolate landscape I've ever seen. It was snowing heavily by now and the sky was gray with first morning light. We had a sick girl, we were dragging duffels, we had no shelter, and nothing was open. To complete the scene with grim comic effect, there was a lone man in the distance bent over a push broom, sweeping up garbage. We had packed light, ignoring the possibility of snow, and now the cold was setting in. A malaise was spoiling my natural optimism, and suddenly the whole trip began to seem like a pretty bad idea.
We wandered for the better part of an hour looking for an open café? or a hostel with no luck. Our hopes jumped one last time as we saw a light come on inside an alley. We trudged over to find a café?, but the doors were still locked. With Hilarie's continued poor leave with a new round of green vomit, we decided that our best bet was to stay there out of the wind, huddle together for warmth and wait for the café? to open. As we made our camp, a face appeared in the café? window, and then disappeared. Seconds later, the door opened up and an old lady with a striking resemblance to my grandmother stuck her head out and beckoned us in.
Speaking only a few words of English, this old Polish lady brought us tea and toast as we warmed to her hospitality. She cared for our sick friend, giving her a mystery potion which settled her stomach. She asked us where we were staying and when we said we did not know, she took our guide book from us and called a hostel, booking a reservation.
As we were awed by the kindness of this stranger, a television screen in the upper corner of the café? broadcast CNN International. Slowly our attention and hers shifted to the screen, and we watched the now famous footage of a U.S. tank pulling down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad as Iraqis jumped and cheered alongside. We didn't understand the commentators, but the images were more than enough explanation. As we looked on quietly, this old woman turned to us, smiled and said, "Baghdad is free. The Americans make Baghdad free."
The sense of history I felt watching the fall of Baghdad in a café? with an old woman in Poland is hard to overstate. This is a woman who lived most of her life under the rule of dictators, not an hour from Auschwitz. She saw it all, from the Nazi invasion through the Soviet occupation. She saw martial law and the empowerment of Solidarity. She saw construction of the Berlin Wall and listened from behind it as Ronald Reagan beseeched Gorbachev to tear it down. As we watched the liberation of another people it was clear that a lack of a final U.N. resolution and the issue of weapons of mass destruction meant little to her. She was witnessing the birth of freedom for a people not unlike her own.
Those who were alive when Kennedy was shot can recollect where they were when it happened. I will remember as a nine-year-old my mother's anxiety as she held me and we watched bright green night vision images of bomb blasts as her brother fought with the Marines in the first Gulf War. I will remember watching with horror the live image of the second plane slamming into the World Trade Center as a sophomore in my dorm room. And I will forever remember the smile and simple declaration of an old Polish woman as U.S. troops took down a statue the day that Baghdad fell.