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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Day Six-The Train (from 12 Last Days of the Soviet Union)

The Train
by Douglas Messerli
For years I believed that traveling by train, particularly long distances, was somehow romantic. Perhaps I had seen too many movies, or had been too strongly influenced by my favorite childhood reading, a book wherein a young boy took a train ride with his mother to meet up with the father in a faraway state. Those trains, the trains of the 1950s Hitchcock films and within my little Golden Book were glorious machines which combined dark green (one of my favorite colors) trimmed with oxblood accessories. Trains, particularly in which one had sleeping quarters, seemed like a little hotel on wheels, all of which thoroughly satisfied my peripatetic predilections.

So, when we were told that we would be traveling via overnight train from Leningrad to Vilnius, I was thrilled. Even after we waited in the cold night for hours until the train arrived, and had crawled up the stairs into what was clearly a derelict version of any train I might have conjured up, I still tingled with the excitement of such a voyage. Each sleeping room contained four beds, and I, having spent much of my adolescence at the top level of a bunk bed, opted for the upper space.

On this train there was nowhere else to sit. The narrow halls contained only a couple drop-down stools, upon which even the smallest child might feel ill-at-ease. Accordingly, we sat in foursomes on our beds, chatting until we all were ready for sleep.

The gentle sway of the train soon lulled me into dreams. After a short while, however, I woke up with a headache, an array of uncomfortable odors in my nose. A couple of guys in our party had purchased a large bunch of garlic in Leningrad, and it hung from our ceiling. I love garlic, but this huge floral-like composition had clearly been soaked in some kind of herb or spice, and stank something awful. The next door bathroom—more an open privy than a toilet—added its own rankness.

I attempted to put it out of my mind, and let the rhythm of the rails lull me into sleep once again. A few hours later, however, I awoke in a fit of coughing, by throat inflamed, by nose and eyes dripping. Was I getting a cold? It hardly mattered, for I felt as sick as if I had contracted some rare disease. I lay in the dark for a long while, but could no longer even doze, and, finally, I could no longer bear the prone position.

Slowly, as quietly as I could, I sat up, gathered my bag of books and papers and jumped to floor, slipping out into the narrow hall, at the far end of which sat the carriage conductor. I tried as best I could to find some comfort on the tiny pull-down stool, but could hardly balance on the spot, let alone battle book and cough. I was miserable and wondered how I would withstand the rest of the tour. Had I been transformed into a vampire?

Seeing my discomfort, the conductor came forward, speaking Russian and waving his middle finger in a signal of “follow me.” Given my “humpty-dumpty” position I had little choice, even though I was somewhat fearful of where I might be taken.

At the far end of the train car was a little door I had not previously noticed. He opened it, and I peeped in, discovering what was clearly his small office, consisting of a desk and a tiny bookcase shoved against walls covered over with magazine clippings and photographs. He signaled for me to sit, and I did, trying to convey my sincere appreciation for his kind act. I took out my notebook and began to write.

After a few minutes of observing my actions, he imitated my insistent penmanship and shrugged his shoulders as if asking what it was I was writing. I pointed to him and smiled. “I’m writing of your act of kindness in my notes,” I pointlessly reported.

But something friendly must have been conveyed, for he soon came forward, asking me a question in Russian. I shook my head, obviously not comprehending a word he had said. He came closer and for a single moment I wondered what was in store. He pointed to a small figure of Christ pasted to his wall, and to another reproduction of a painting of Mary.

“Christ,” I responded, which brought a smile to his face, having interpreted my head-shaking as agreement.

“Christos,” he proudly agreed.

“Yes, Christos. Da, Christos,” I responded.

Suddenly he pointed to another figure a few feet away from the religious iconography, just as proud of displaying this clipping as he had been of his statements of faith.

I put on my glasses and carefully surveyed the figure: Einstein!

“Einstein?” I laughed.

“Da, Einstein,” he laughed back.

Then he turned, almost as if embarrassed, and left me alone. I wrote a bit more in my journal, read some of my book, and waited for the morning to come and the others to wake.

Every once in a while the conductor returned as if to check on my well-being, which, in turn, somewhat troubled me. Was he trying to see if I had finally abandoned his comfy hole so that he might return? I certainly felt happy in this little spot, but I had no intention of putting him out of his little kingdom, and soon after I returned to the hall, standing near the window to look out at the vast white landscape lit up the rising sun over what I presumed was Belarus.

Finally, the sun inched up a little higher in the sky, and my travel companions begin, one by one, to emerge, congregating in the little wafer of space in which I stood.

“You’re up early,” the first to appear noted.

“Couldn’t sleep,” I grumbled.

“The smell is something terrible, isn’t it?”

“Unbearable, in my case.”

“Guess we shouldn’t of bought that garlic, but my mother insisted I bring some back.”

“I’m supposed to bring some Russian dolls for my Grandmother! Haven’t seen any yet.”

When our tour guide appeared, she reported that she had just been told there was nothing to eat. “They forgot to load food on the train in Leningrad,” she groaned.

I was nearly famished, and dreaded the hours we still had until we reached Vilnius.

Some time after, however, we were told to gather in the dining car. The cooks had discovered some beets, and, indeed, we witnessed a couple of bunches of beets laid out in the connecting links between cars.

We all eagerly crowded into the tables, where we were each served a bowl of borscht. At the bottom of each bowl sat a small piece of something that looked a little bit like meat. None of us dared say what we all feared. Yet that borscht was absolutely delicious, better that anything we had yet eaten in the Soviet Union. My cold melted away with each sip of the hot concoction, and by the time we reached Vilnius I felt much better.

As we left the train, I shook the hand of the obliging conductor, wishing him well. He once more beamed in quiet delight.

Los Angeles, May 19, 2010

1 comment:

Mike Messerli said...

I love Russia. The food and accomodations are horrible, but the country and the people are amazing. I hope to be there again this fall. What was the purpose of your trip? Your story made me smile. The overnighter is notoriously horrible. I feared I would have to use it on a trip from Moscow to Kiev, but was able to get a cheap flight instead. Good story on your part. Good writing.