It was too good to be true: a whole “kupe” in the train to myself: three empty bunks and me: 11 hours–Ekaterinburg to Tobolsk. Open the nice fresh packet with crisp sheets and pillowcase, shake them out, make your bed, read a few pages of Daniel Beers’ The House of the Dead, and ahhhh, sink into blessed silence. It is 1:00 am after all. The rocking of the train, the clicking of the wheels, reverie, blissful sleep….
…. suddenly thuds, clanks, growls, and slams. It is 4:00 a.m. I keep my eyes closed–not hard to do, really, at that hour–and anyway, it’s better not to see. Gruff, booming male voices, something about the window, a crank (the one directly over my head) is not working, and for some mysterious reason, it is an emergency and must be fixed now, at 4:00 a.m. A tool has to be borrowed immediately from the provodnitsa. Tromping footsteps to her booth at the other end of the train car, and then back. Clangs and hammering noises. Blurts of commentary, grunts. This problematic window latch is the one right over my head, did I already say that?
Why do you need to fix your train-car window at 4:00 am? It’s not your train, you are here for one day, and then you will be gone forever. The temperature in the train is nice, actually, quite tolerable. Soon the sun will rise and people will be awake and you will be able to see your surroundings, and to fix anything that you feel needs fixing. And just curious, do you notice that someone is “sleeping” in this bunk over here? Just curious. More bangs and grunts. Finally, one last click followed by contented murmurs.
Now begins an incessant and raucous shuffling of plastic grocery bags; things seem to be being taken out and put back in. The bags have to be rolled and crumpled up noisily by a minimum of three different people. I guess they have to get it just right. There is some discussion of jam (varenie), and some jar noises. Something is being drunk and slurped. Hello people, it’s a sleeping car on a train, and it’s 4:00, no wait, wait, 4:30 a.m. and there IS someone sleeping here. What card to play: feeble old lady? Mommy’s mad? Oh wait, hey, how about the long-suffering model of Russian womanhood? She just takes it in with grace and forgiveness. That one is the least effort. Just lie there. Grace and forgiveness.
I am beginning to understand Russia.
There’s some additional shuffling and tossing of things, and eventually, silence.
You wake up nervously at 7 and consider your surroundings. The entire four-person kupe is the size of one queen-size bed; you are lying on one side of it, and on the other side, separated by a small table, lies an extremely large 40-something male in a blue-and-white wife-beater (yes, that is the correct term) that doesn’t completely cover his belly. When he sits up, grunting, I see, first and foremost, a very deep, fresh scar over his right eye. Disheveled hair, stubble. There’s a sort of low rumble of breathing, something like what you imagine a bear to sound like. This is the guy I can see–two others are large mounds in the upper bunks making sleep noises.
OK fine. I’m not a morning person but what is to be done (chto delat’)? Good morning (dobroe utro). Good morning back at me. He gestures around the kupe, sort of fixing on my bunk. “Nichego!” he rasps.
Forty years I’ve studied this language. I think, uh, is he saying it’s a nice kupe or a bad one? I’ve been in worse ones, but I sure have seen better. The last one I was in had a plug where you could charge your device, and it was cleaner (kind of like this picture, which I stole off the internet). There was a nice, quiet girl in the bunk above, and she had an adorable fluffy cat in a cat case. And the other two bunks were empty. And the curtain rod stayed up in that kupe. And they provided a toothbrush! Anyway, I say, vaguely, “da, nichego” and give a brave, friendly grin.
And I will never know what we actually said to each other.
You are not in danger on a Russian sleeping train (I tell myself). They don’t even let people drink alcohol on them any more! But if you bring your American notions of personal space, you are doomed. Ponder the thought: what’s so great about privacy, anyway? And when you think about it, big scary guys are nothing more than ordinary little boys who, with the flow of time, got big. It won’t last long; they will start shrinking soon, and sagging downwards. And in this moment you have a choice: you can kind of be like the mommy, or, as may be becoming the case in my case, the grandma. In any case, why not just let everything wash over you and see where you fit in?
When the train finally reaches Tobolsk, my sleeping companion lurches up off his bunk, grabs one of my suitcases, and rolls it to the exit for me.
I do not know his name. I am grateful for his help. I will never see him again.
On the platform, a sea of eighty or so rough-looking guys who have stepped off the train stand around smoking. I see a total of three women: one young lady in a short dress and extremely high heels and another one with her, less put together, who gives the feel of a minion or loyal attendant or the orphan girl who was taken in by distant relatives. And there’s one middle-aged woman with a family.
I am the fourth female. Looking around, it occurs to me that what I am doing is actually pretty strange. Who gets on trains in Moscow with the goal of tracing the steps of Russian classical writers across Siberia? But then in life, if you think about it, some of what everyone does is strange. Some people spend their whole lives staring into a small, flat box. They even stare into it when walking down the street. They talk to it, waving their arms in the air and grimacing. They stand with their backs to a cliff and hold the little box out in front of them and grin into it, while backing up. They do not look up, or back. And their whole life runs through that little box.