“Well I’m not sleeping in there. I don’t want to be raped”, whined the American decisively as she dropped her heavy backpack and heavy body onto a bunk in our four-man compartment. Five girls, four beds. No one spoke.
Although fate had blessed us by allocating the American a separate cabin, she refused to play along. Seeing my chance to escape her I offered to swap places. I felt annoyed and relieved in equal measure. The American tilted her head in a pose of compassion, muttered a garbled protestation, and keenly held out her ticket and took mine.
I had just arrived in Moscow, 19 years old, heading to Kazan on the overnight train to start my three month stay. Having spent nine months practicing foreign sounds and learning a complex grammatical structure in a London classroom I was thrilled to be in Mother Russia for the first time. Everything felt foreign and I was ready to break off my handful of Russia.
Russia: six and a half million square miles, 11 time zones, utterly impenetrable. Sitting smugly in the peace of my own cabin, I sensed I was embarking on an adventure in an exotic land. I was leaping into adulthood.
The train was still at the station. A lady entered and began unpacking. Clearly a regular traveller on the train, she changed into dressing gown and slippers, made her bed and stowed her bag within two minutes. I greeted her with a smile, struck dumb by the realisation that my Russian lessons hadn’t equipped me to construct a single piece of small talk. Until she asked me to describe my family, hobbies or the weather I would remain mute. I read my guidebook.
Two middle-aged men arrived. They entered together but it was impossible to tell whether they were friends, acquaintances or complete strangers. I wondered whether Russians were immune to the need to fill a silence, or seek to reassure and be reassured by their fellow travellers through the exchange of anodyne observations. I read my guidebook.
When I looked up again we were moving through blocks of flats of Moscow and both the men had their slippers on, beds made. The sun was still high in the sky, procrastinating over the start of a short summer night. We all went to bed at the same time. I followed their lead and tried not to appear as a novice. I was on the bottom bunk with the lady above me. The table held a homely arrangement of a jug of water and four glasses on an embroidered square of tablecloth.
When I awoke it was half light. Whether it was still light or light again was unknown. The sun was not in the sky. Parched, I sat up and poured myself a glass of water from the communal jug. Through the gap in the ill-fitting floral curtains I could see the Russian landscape passing by. The blanketed plains slept under a huge, living sky. A surge of joy at being in Russia rose in my stomach.
When I returned my gaze to the compartment the man on the bunk opposite me was propped up on his elbow, drinking a glass of water. He caught my eye, and tipped his glass, in a silent ‘cheers’ motion. Then he brought out a large beer bottle, opened it up with his back teeth and offered it to me. I held out my glass, he poured, we chinked glasses and drank.
We watched the bruised purple countryside unfold through the netted window, listening to the sleepy breathing of our co-travellers. When the bottle was empty my drinking companion fell back to sleep. The semi-darkness and rhythmic rattling of the train coupled with the effects of the beer lulled me into a state of serenity as I receded into my thoughts.
I pictured my classmates cocooned in their disapproval in the next compartment. My mind tried to tame my thoughts into neat, expressive phrases for letters home but my senses were brimming over with new impressions and my imaginary audience couldn’t keep apace. I relented. There was no need to tell anyone, I could savour the moment for myself. I was liberated.