Brief Encounters of the Best Kind

I get a lot of different reactions when I tell people I’m traveling alone– concern over my well-being, confusion as to my motives, but more often than not, some combination of the two. “Isn’t it lonely?” is one question I hear a lot.

It is at times.

Other times, it’s anything but.

On the overnight train from Moscow to Kazan my coupe-mates were two middle-aged businessmen in their mid-30s who drank a beer each for every ten pages of my book I read. They were well-dressed though. The first thing they did when they stepped into the cabin was hang their expensive suits up. We didn’t talk much.

On the overnight train from Kazan to Yekaterinburg my bunkmate was a young Russian guy who had recently finished his enlistment in the army. He was surprised to see me reading a book in English, and we struck up a conversation. He told me the last time he had made the trip from Kazan to Yekaterinburg, he had been riding in an open railcar delivering goods from the Russian army. He had slept on a board that night. He told me Yekaterinburg was a nice city, and I’d probably like it.

In the hostel in Yekaterinburg my bunkmate was a young Welsh guy who was taking the Trans-Siberian in the opposite direction of me, from East to West. He had started in Japan, gone through China and Mongolia, and was on the final stretch of his trip before Moscow. We spoke while immersed in the tasks we had at hand– he was talking to friends on Facebook, and I was probably updating this blog. Despite the distraction, our conversation covered a range of topics from 70s Nigerian music and why it was great to the similarities of Welsh and Mongolian pronounciation.

On the train ride from Yekaterinburg to Novosibrsk one of the neighbors was an art history professor who had lived with his American wife and eight kids on the outskirts of Novosibrsk. We spoke in English and talked about things we liked about New York City– the Cloisters, Strand bookstore, pizza. He told me about this great view of the skyline you could get from the pier next to the Hoboken train station, a place I admitted I’d never been to. He invited me to visit him and his family in Novosibrsk when I returned to Russia. I wanted to return the favor, but I realized I didn’t know where I would be in the next few years and didn’t have the luxury of offering strangers a place to visit.

On the second stretch of the train ride, from Novosibrsk to Krasnoyarsk a family returning from a wedding party joined me. Chekov couldn’t have plotted it better. A wife, a husband, a mother-in-law, her best friend, and a daughter. Over the next eight hours, wife and mother-in-law made a series of passive-aggressive jabs at one another, unlocking Trans-Siberian quantities of suppressed emotions and bringing up entire histories of unappreciated gestures, returned presents, and unreturned affection. The husband vacillated between the two, the daughter threw tantrums at an amazing frequency for a ten year-old, and the best friend tried to remain neutral but ultimately grew bored of the entire thing and sabotaged her earlier attempts to make peace.

On the last stretch of the train ride, from Omsk to Angarsk a quiet college kid replaced the family. He got on late at night. We smiled at one another and said “Hello.” and nothing else for the entire trip. Sometime a few hours into the next morning, I noticed he was reading a book with the writings of Nietzsche, Freud, and Sartre. I wanted to say a lot of things, but I didn’t want to have to go through the inevitable explanations that would come with them– the questions of where are you going? where are you coming from? what are you doing here? I was worried my personality wouldn’t translate. And it didn’t translate, because I didn’t even make the attempt.

In the hostel in Irkutsk the only other guest was a man from Taiwan who had studied in Russia briefly and was making a return trip. We shared photographs from trips past and present– New York, Russia, and everything in between. The view from the Empire State Building is really nice at night, it turns out. Too bad I can’t speak from personal experience.

In the guesthouse in Angasolka on Lake Baikal my best friend was a two year-old boy who had some obscure Italian name that I couldn’t remember. He ran free on the grounds of the guesthouse. One night he knocked on my door and dragged me to a campfire, literally. There were six guys sitting around it, seven counting my charming young friend. I sat the two year-old on my lap and spent three hours drying my still-wet-from-the-shower hair by the smoky fire. I ate grilled ommul, a type of fish endemic to the Irkutsk region, and homemade birch kvass, a fermented drink made from black bread. It felt foreign to myself, holding someone else’s child and listening to strangers introduce themselves in a language that I had stopped associating with myself from an early age. The campfire made everyone’s faces look like masks, my own included.

On the local train from Angasolka back to Irkutsk I met three travelers who had stayed in the same guesthouse as me, a husband and wife and their twenty-year old cousin. They owned a bubble show business. The husband wanted to talk to me about a book he had read on American business methods. I recognized his voice as the one I had heard the night before from the neighboring room, discussing how Americans were able to fire people on the basis on competition- you didn’t just need to do your job well, you needed to do it better than everyone else. He seemed fascinated by the entire thing and determined to run his new ideas by a real-life American to test their authenticity. We identified a lot of the same problems: the great road block of bureaucracy, the diluted Soviet-era sense of responsibility, the self-destructive sense of entitlement of many Russian employees. He was at an incredible disadvantage– the first generation of proper businessmen in the country with no tradition behind them– and he made me realize it in a way that I had been unable to until that point.  He was a hilarious guy too, with the face of a sixteen year-old kid though he was a good decade past that.

On the train from Irkutsk to Khabarovsk I was an old man. I walked on the train with only the desire to drink tea and listen to Chopin etudes while watching the scenery of far eastern Siberia roll before my eyes. In the neighboring cabin was a loud group of twenty-something friends. One of these friends walked past me while I was reading a Kerouac novel. He looked into my eyes very deeply and meaningfully and told me he had lived in England for six months and that later on, we would have a conversation about this. We did. Several.

“I learned to speak English fluently within a month. It’s a very easy language, and I have a very well-developed intellectual capacity. I have two advanced degrees.”- “No, no, I forgot all of it right after I left, you see.”

“I like England. It’s a very nice country, but the people are, how do I put it?, soulless. They lack a real Russian soul.”- “Did you know scientists actually proved that the human soul exists? There was a patient who was brain dead, and he was still able to talk and go through the motions of everyday life.”- “Yes, yes, he was able to TALK. That proves the soul exists, that the human mind isn’t the most important thing. You should trust me, I’m a doctor.”

“Can I show you my pride and joy? This is the business award I won in Altay (pulling a liter-bottle sized trophy from his suitcase). I own a business, etc, etc.”- “You see that kid right there (pointing to a member of his group). He’s never left Sakhalin (island where he ran his business), I said ***, we’re going to organize a trip for the company, and you’re going to go on it. He saw his first large city on this trip.” “This trip really means so much to him. He took me aside and told me himself. You know, it feels so great to know you’ve given someone an experience that changed their life. That’s why I do things like that. I’m that kind of guy.” 

“You’re an interesting person, a very interesting person. And intelligent, I can tell.” “You know I can read people very well… very well. You could say it’s a talent- a lot of people have told me that. I can’t read you, and that happens to me very, very rarely. Though I understand you, really I do.”

On the train from Khabarovsk to Vladivostok I continued to be an old man but with greater success.  There was an older Italian guy who got on at this point. the only really obvious fellow Trans-Siberian traveller that I’d met during my entire time. He made it so easy to tell. Within fifteen minutes, he whipped out his cellphone for a conversation in rapid fire Italian, and then took out his Lonely Planet travel guide to consult. He didn’t speak Russian well. I asked to see the pewter mug that he bought from the train stewardess, taking care not to revel my identity.

In the hostel in Vladivostok I walked into the kitchen for breakfast and found my Italian friend over a bowl of oatmeal. We laughed and talked briefly. Preparing dinner that night, I met another guest at the hostel, a thirty-year-old half-British, half-Russian woman who worked with incarcerated teens. She had been traveling for the last year, having the kind of experiences that life usually doesn’t allow time for. We talked about Russian identity, learning how to reconcile the advice our mothers gave us with the real-life experiences of the world-at-large, learning how to communicate with adults even with the language of a child, learning how to care a little less about failing to live up cultural expectations. And also– the best parts of New York, the worst parts of Los Angeles, misconceptions between socioeconomic classes and whether people have a right to them, teenagers say the darnest things, the anthropology of Papua New Guinea, how to properly crochet a Papua New Guinean bag, bad Russian stereotypes, life in a Russian village, and so on.

There was also a middle-aged Belgian woman, a strange character who told us, over breakfast that Romney would probably try to convert Europe to Mormonism. He had a lot of Pisces in his horoscope for the coming year.

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