My cabin mate on this first 25hr train from Moscow to Ekaterinburg is a Russian model-type dressed in a fur-lined jacket, black shirt and stylish jeans, who travels with two designer shopping bags but no luggage.
She doesn’t speak English and neither do the train attendants so when a young uniformed man shows up in our open doorway and starts an official spiel, I try to hand him my passport and train ticket. He waves them away, embarrassed. He glances to the model for help but she shrugs. He peeks at me and tries his spiel again looking down at the floor and over to the wall to avoid my blank incomprehension. He’s determined to get through it and I feel bad so I throw out random words to guess what he is after. This creates more confusion but then I remember my verbal translation app and his face lights up as I grab my phone. He comes closer, clears his throat and pivots at the waist to speak into my palm….pinwheel of death. He thinks a moment and signals me to try again. This time it works.
“The cost of our service is the reason food let us anew,” he says. Apparently this app translates in riddles. I latch on to the key word and say, “Food?” as I act out eating soup. He lets out a relieved sigh and even the stony-faced model cracks a smile. The app gains confidence and tells me I have the choice of kebab with rice or turkey with buckwheat baked potatoes and vegetables, before losing the thread. Kebab it is.
He returns an hour later, his own phone app in hand, “Can I help the flooring of the laundry?” I regret my “uh, ok” when he disappears for a few minutes and returns in a lab coat.
He makes the bench up into a bed with a thin, lumpy, futon-like mattress which he wraps in a crisp white sheet, and finishes off the narrow duvet by turning the cover inside out and putting it on like it’s come fresh out of the dryer.
The model is too tired of life by 5:30pm and with door open, lights on, and people walking by, she unselfconsciously slips off her jeans and slithers thong-first under her duvet. I look down at the floor and over to the wall.
The train movement feels like a combination of a five-year old kicking my seat and never-ending air turbulence. But it’s funny how what scares people on a plane works so well on a train. Even the low murmur of voices from the cabin next door is soothing because I can’t understand the language even if I could make out the words. I am annoyed by them banging on the wall between us until I realize that it is the coach doors closing and I’m suddenly fine with it. Makes me think I should adopt a train attitude to all life’s irritations.
The cabin has two facing red vinyl booths with a small faux-granite table between them. Each bench could seat four adults, shoulder to shoulder, which gives ample room for the model to stretch out on the opposite bunk. She floored her own laundry.
The curtains in the window frame the flashing view of snow and birch trees. Those, as the two main ingredients occasionally livened with pine or fir, combine and transform as the train moves on. Sometimes we’re hemmed in by birches that form a thin barrier between the tracks and wide fields broken up by farms or industrial buildings. Sometimes we are skiing through dunes, massive undulating waves of snow. The skies change from grey to bright blue to blizzard-white within an hour or two and every once in a while the view opens up to a still lake or a winding river as we go over a bridge.
The train doesn’t smell of anything as we are hermetically sealed in, although I gather that may change after 24 hrs.
The train attendant has bonded with me. He comes by frequently to try some English but scurries away if I answer with more than one word. His latest visit is an offer to bring me more tea, which comes in a thin glass with an ornate silver or pewter base and handle. He remembers from an earlier time that I take one sugar. I mention lemon to make conversation (this is what passes for conversation when you are desperate) but that scares him and he takes off.
On his next visit he asks if I’m from Canada. Once we get past yes, we’re both at a loss as to what to say. I make a trite comment that Canada is far away but he is perplexed. So I shape my hands into a plane taking off and make a whooshing sound. He mimics both gravely then says “Dohn unnerstand,” and runs away.
This is how I spend the train ride while the model sleeps. This and reading and writing these posts and gazing at the birch and snow and binge-listening the full season of a twisty-turny podcast. And as much as I appreciate my undemanding Russian model trainmate, I begin to wonder if she is real. In the 12 hrs we’ve been on the train, she hasn’t spoken or eaten or drunk anything or used the washroom. But then I hear it, she’s human after all. She snores.