Crossing 3

Russell Scott Valentino

Our editor-in-chief, Russell Valentino, is writing a series of posts from a trip across Eurasia via ferry, plane, and Trans-Siberian Railway.

I’m buying my ticket, having waited in line for the last twenty minutes. I lean down to talk through the space between the glass and the counter, aware that everyone behind me and to the left and right is listening. Just as I’m getting ready to pay, a guy from the South—I’m guessing the Caucasus but possibly Central Asia, Russian speaking, but with an accent—comes up, apologizes to me, says he’s in a big hurry and needs to pay for a piece of luggage for his train that’s leaving in three minutes. The woman in the window snaps at him, can’t he see that she’s in the middle of something, he yells back that his train is leaving, she yells back that that’s not her fault, he yells back that he just needs to pay for that one thing, she shouts she’s busy and he has to go to another window, he curses and says you’re all busy at all the windows, she curses louder back that that’s not her fault either, he slams a fist on the wood next to me with a final curse, and disappears. She looks at me (by this time she has seen my passport) and says, “We have that kind here sometimes, too.”

At which I have no idea what to say so just take out my credit card to pay, at which she says, oh no, you’re paying with a credit card, and I ask, is it a problem? Well, she’s already prepared the ticket for cash (a different process). The money machine in the adjoining room might work, and I might be able to take out enough cash—I say I’ll try, and she says she’ll hold onto the ticket (and my passport) in case it works. I’ve got the cash now and, thinking I’ve already stood once, I should be able to skip that part, but I also know that Russians are constantly on the lookout for line cutters, so I stand sort of on the side in the front and ask the next guy waiting, if you’re not in too much of a hurry, I just have to pay, she already prepared the ticket, it’ll only take a second. He says, my auntie is waiting for me outside. Of course, I know what that feels like so fine. The second guy doesn’t even let me get past the if you’re not in too much of a hurry part: but I am in a hurry, he says, I’m even starting to get nervous about making my train because that witch up ahead of us just now was talking so much. Well I’m not in a hurry, my train isn’t leaving until 2:30 in the morning, so in the local parlance, I “stand again.” Problem solved. But no.

Two Russian guys are sitting on the window sill. I ask if they’re in line. Yes, we’re behind her, one slurs, none too distinctly. Okay, I say, putting my stuff down. There is a ritual here. I remember reading about it first in Hedrick Smith’s book (I lied before, I read it) and then experiencing it first-hand during previous stays: when you’re behind someone in line but you’re not actually standing there physically all the time—maybe you’ve got other stuff to do; maybe you’re too plastered to stay on your feet—that person needs to acknowledge it. I am behind you, says one. The other needs to respond, confirm, yes, you are behind me. It means in effect that she or he accepts responsibility for upholding your case before others in line, especially those farther back. She or he becomes a potential advocate. But it’s an agreement, and the person ahead has to agree. What I noticed when the two zombies on the window sill said we’re behind her was that she didn’t even look back. I was just going to keep my place and see if they even noticed. I didn’t think they would, but if they suddenly opened their eyes a crack and said, hey, that’s our place, I would have just said okay, sorry about that, and let them in. And when another guy came up and asked who was last and I said me and he said I’m behind you, I had no problem saying yes, you are behind me (and feeling a slight wave of preparatory righteous indignation at anyone who might want to challenge me on this point), and he went away to do something else. But then the ticket clerk saw me, said what are you doing back there, come up here, you’ve already stood once (which, of course, I knew, but what was I going to do, say these people right here wouldn’t let me in? so I just smiled and said I wasn’t in a hurry, at which she shook her head and chuckled), and had me come up to pay, well, then we had a problem. The woman behind whom the two drunks had claimed to be standing was still in line, but now the guy whose case I would have defended with all the rhetorical skills at my disposal was technically behind the guys on the sill, and when he came back and I told him this, he looked at the two inebriated souls, uttered a quiet curse, and looked down at the floor. Then he looked at me, nodded, and moved to another line.

(When I told my oldest Russian friend this story, she smiled sadly and said that for twenty some years of her life something like that could have been a weekly, even at times a daily occurrence, and that’s why to this day her stomach roils at the thought of “standing,” and she will pay much more in order to avoid it.)

I’ve taken the greyhound train, the cheaper variation, mainly because the schedule was right. It’s just as fast as the Rossiya (they both can get from Vladivostok to Moscow in six and a half days) but this one’s older, not as sleek on the outside or nice on the inside, and doesn’t have the same level of service. This means fewer foreigners, too, in fact none that I am aware of—I don’t see a single one for the entire crossing—, and also a different class of native passengers, with suitcases that tend to be taped up. At first I’m alone in my four-berth compartment, but somewhere around 4 a.m. I am awakened by the arrival of two others, who settle themselves in beneath me in the dark. In the morning, we exchange a quiet hello. They’re a little shy of me at first, but slowly we get acquainted. We’ve got time.

Anna (Anya) and Fyodor (Fedya) have three grown children and two grand-children, one who’s just two years old and calls them on their cell phone every once in a while, his voice ringing throughout the compartment (Grandma, when are you coming home? I have to do potty. Well, tell your mama or papa. I did, but come home soon because I have to go.) They’re on their way from Vladivostok to Ukraine to visit relatives, by train the whole way because she doesn’t fly—17 days of travel in all.

They’ve known each other since they were in school together and have been married for thirty years. They talk with each other constantly, often sitting at the table attached to the window and looking out, one on each side. I wake up sometimes to the patter of the tracks under us or, more often, when we’ve stopped and it’s dark and quiet, I hear them whispering, laughing softly. They fill the compartment, partly because they’re not small people, but mostly with their personalities, their hominess. They seem, in fact, to have brought a good chunk of their home with them: tomatoes, cucumbers, and fresh dill from their garden, which Anya chops up and mixes with a dressing she put together before leaving, boiled potatoes (also from her garden), apples, two kinds of bread, dried and salted fish, Russian and Chinese candies (they live not far from the border), brandy, two kinds of tea, sugar, sliced up lemon. At any station with more than a ten-minute stop, they step off and stroll up and down the platform, arm-in-arm, talking with the vendors, haggling, buying smoked fish, chicken, pirogi, fruit, or bread. (Anya uses a wonderfully colorful verb to describe what they’re doing, “shastat’,” which means something like “mooching about.”)

Sometimes vendors get on the train and travel between two stops, making their way from compartment to compartment with items like hand-knitted wool scarves, cosmetics, or stuffed animals, and Anya has them come in and lay out their things on the lower bunks. She asks them questions, dickers, and makes occasional purchases. On one occasion she places an order for some baby clothes and a shawl to be knitted, and arranges to have the things delivered on the train as they pass through the same area on their way home in a few weeks’ time.

Fedya likes to eat. Actually, they both do, and the sound of munching spills out into the hallway. He doesn’t drink beer or wine, which are always on sale among the platform vendors, but he often manages to find someone selling contraband vodka (there’s a law against selling hard stuff at the stations), which he drinks with his meals, including me after our first couple of days together. Actually, by the end of the trip, we’re sharing all our meals, and I’m doing my best to coordinate my own purchases to supplement the household. The one time I almost miss the train is when I venture out too far into Novosibirsk in search of cognac for Fedya (his favorite drink) and have to run to get back, with only three minutes to spare. I apologize to Sasha, our car attendant, who was worried about me, and nine-year-old Polina from two compartments over scolds me: “You're the last one! We were waiting for you!” Fedya’s eyes sparkle when he sees what I’ve brought.

He makes Anya laugh a lot. He often pretends to complain about how she isn’t feeding him enough and he’s going hungry, and she says things like, “Oh, I can tell by looking at you,” at which he puts both hands on his round belly and says, “What, this? It’s just water!” He reads the signs of towns we pass, and she corrects his pronunciation, moving the stress to the end of a word or the middle, and he repeats the name the way she has just said it and adds, “Akh, who the hell knows anyway?” at which she responds, “I do,” and he says “besides you.” Sometimes he and I stand in the hall and look out the windows at the country passing. As we go by a tiny village of run-down shacks somewhere east of Baikal with unpainted wood and corrugated steel sheets as roofs and a single, deeply-rutted muddy path leading in and out, Fedya says, “Man is the kind of swine that can get used to living just about anywhere.” Later we stop at the formerly off-limits (to foreigners) town of Skorovodino, but they cut the stop short and won’t let us out because we’re behind schedule. Fedya recalls a saying from when he was in the service there many years before: God created the Crimea and Sochi, but the devil made Skorovodino and Mogocha (another town in the area).

They are from Spassk-Dal’nii, a town of 40,000 in the Primorskii krai to the south of Vladivostok. It’s one of the places that Vladimir Arseniev, author of Dersu the Trapper (the basis of the film Dersu Uzala), passed through in his Far Eastern travels. There’s a small river named after him not far from their home. They have their own large garden, some livestock, and don’t buy much food at the store, mostly dried goods and bread. And they managed to set up all three of their children in apartments or houses nearby, and all without taking out a single loan. A head taller than her husband, solid and thick all around, Anya is good with numbers, quick at calculating, and somewhat proud of the fact that she managed to steer them through the most difficult years of the immediate post-Soviet period, “when people lost everything,” she says. She made a conscious choice. The system was too unstable. Banks fail, people get robbed. Better not to enter that world, she says.

They read newspapers and do the crosswords. Anya picked up a romance on the train, but usually they don't read books. I don't like what they're writing now, she says. She remembers poetry from school and can still recite it by heart. Esenin especially, Nekrasov. But they've changed so much of the curriculum now, and most of it isn't worth much. They talk about our heroes from the past only to criticize them. And why does everything have to get reduced to people's sexual orientation anyway? She never understood Mayakovsky or Akhmatova, she says. She's never heard of Aksyonov or Sinyavsky. Solzhenitsyn is too heavy. No, these days she'd rather play a video game when she gets home from work.

Just west of Chita, they turn on the train’s heater after a chilly night. Anya and Fedya are pleased. They froze last night, they say. Didn't I? Fedya asks if he can ask me a personal question. They wear their wedding rings on their right hand, but mine is on my left. Is that a Catholic thing? Anya says maybe I can visit with my family one day and laughs, "They'll never want to come back after they see how we live!"  Fedya asks how I'll get to St. Petersburg after we arrive in Moscow, and in one of the long pauses, I say, it's a beautiful city, to which Anya replies with a sigh that she's heard as much, but they've never been to Leningrad.

Later that day, the sky is dappled with enormous cumulous clouds, and it suddenly feels like fall. I get some potatoes with butter on them at one of the stops near Ulan Ude, and Anya  insists on putting her nose in the plastic bag to smell them. They seem okay to me, but she's positive--oh, no, sour, can’t eat those. Here, she says, have some of ours.