Lugging my pack, I waded, pushed, shoved and cajoled my way through the maze of humanity that was the living stuffing of Moscow’s Kazan station. Finding a small vacant spot to unload my pack in the grim surroundings did not prove easy; the rain outside made finding a clean, dry place impossible. In desperation I finally resorted to buying some relatively expensive American fast food, which allowed me to sit in the isolated emptiness of the station’s restaurant.
The faces that stared out of the crowd outside varied from vacant and bored to harried and anxious. Families of gypsies were heaped up on top of bundles resembling wool bales, while their slender children dodged in and out of trouble.
The train to Yoshkar Ola was on time and I found my cabin with a sense of relief. I sat down on the bottom bunk after stowing my pack and tentatively waiting to see whom my travelling companions would be.
As the punchy beat of the theme to the 1980 Moscow Olympics pounded out over the PA system, I strained to see out of the smeggy windows the confusion of people and bundles and bags on the platform. Russian families were out in force to say goodbye to loved ones; hefty Muscovite women were hauling equally hefty looking bags.
While observing this scene of agitation my mind was trying to unravel the next piece being belted out by Radio Moscow. The catchphrase finally caught and I realised it was a Russian version of Abba’s Money, Money, Money.
The pace on the platform was becoming frenzied with the train ready to leave at any moment. Still alone, I was just stretching out, preparing to burrow into some Pushkin, when two middle-aged men joined me. Peering over Dubrovsky occasionally, I could see they were well dressed and respectable-looking (having to share a cabin with these guys, I was hoping their manners were equally respectable).
The one who seemed to be doing all the talking looked like a tall thin version of the pope; his friend bore a fair resemblance to Lech Walesa. They were very industrious in their stowing and unpacking and seemed to manage quite well despite our narrow cabin. After a while I became aware of a stillness and a tangible sense of anticipation around me. I peeked over my book to see two pairs of eyes looking at me. Lech Walesa said, ‘You eat?’
My gaze came to rest on the window-side table where a veritable feast had been laid out. Tomatoes and cucumbers lay on a newspaper tablecloth, accompanied by a greasy red salami and a loaf of rye bread. The obligatory salt completed the bill of fare. I was still full from my Russian version of a Big Mac, so I politely declined.
‘No, you must join us.’ They both gestured vigorously at the food with huge smiles. I tried telling them that I had already eaten, patting my full stomach, to no avail.
‘You must not be afraid to get fat!’ Lech wagged an admonishing finger at me with, what I soon learned, was a characteristically flirtatious twinkle in his eyes.
The pope’s name turned out to be Sasha, but to my stumbling one-language tongue, Lech’s name was too much, so Lech he stayed. Their cheerful smiles were infectious and I sat cross-legged on my side munching happily on the tasty salami. Then the cognac came out.
I thought with relief of my pre-trip research that included Russian toasting. Then I remembered how it is good manners to down the first toast in one…
Lech poured out generous helpings in plastic containers that had held yoghurt in a former life. Impressed at their improvisation, I made some suitable comments, to which Sasha replied sagely, ‘Ah, communism is a great teacher.’
One Russian word I learned over the next few hours was tew tew, which apparently means ‘a very little’. I wore this word out as the cognac bottle kept tilting in my direction.
After a few hours we stopped at a seemingly desolate station where crowds on the platform were trying to sell what looked like their household contents. Lamps, chandeliers and boxes of glassware were all held up to the train windows for our inspection. Women carted buckets of luscious strawberries up and down the platform. Answering a question of mine, Sasha informed me that the proliferation of glassware was due to the local glass factory. When the train set off again, we settled down to black coffee, laced with cognac naturally, and strawberries.
Sasha, it turned out, was actually a Georgian who had moved north to escape the violence and fighting. Lech, on the other hand, was several generations pure Russian. They were both united however, in their dislike of Yeltsin, their humorous disparagement of Khrushchev, their pride in their grandchildren, (their apparent resemblance to famous Poles) and of course, their passion for cognac. And just as I thought I was getting to the end of the ordeal, Lech dragged out another bottle.
Our conversation dragged on late into the evening. What my companions lacked in English, they made up for with their gestures and hilarious expressions. To amuse ourselves we taught each other to count in each other’s language. Lech was determined that I get my pronunciation exactly right, which even sober would have been difficult.
I have vague memories of finishing the food; none at all of the last of the cognac. My companions left me at some ungodly hour when we arrived at their business destination. Luckily, I had set my alarm. Even luckier, Yoshkar Ola was the last stop. I eventually staggered out of the train at eight o’clock in the morning and collapsed into the arms of Galina, my hostess. I heard her murmur to her companion, ‘Poor girl, these train trips are just so long and exhausting.’
--First published in Traveller Magazine, London, 21 September 1994