вибачте, до побачення 09/09/2010Posted by brendan in Avions, Trains et Voitures.
Tags: eastern european trains, l'viv, poland, socializing, travel, ukraine
I’ve been rolled up on, stopped, questioned, carded, and threatened. I’ve been followed, pulled out of stores, sat on curbs, leaned against walls, and propped against fences. I’ve been frisked, handcuffed, been radioed in, and detained. I’ve been yelled at, had flashlights in my face, hands above my head, guns drawn, and jabbed in the chest with a nightstick. I’ve been strip searched with someone in a teflon vest casually holding a semi-automatic weapon, watching.
None of these things took place as our train sat on the Polish-Ukrainian border, but none seem nearly as intense.
I’ve listened to prison gossip, drug deals, drunken threats, and raging fights. I’ve sat up three nights running across the midwest with teenage runaways, discharged soldiers, pensioners and junkies. I’ve stood around at three in the morning talking to midgets, toothless alcoholics, twitching spastics, and whispering parolees. I’ve slept on a bench in Sacramento, slept in a park in Portland, been locked in the station where security turned out the lights, and left curbside in the middle of the night, no phone numbers and snow beginning to fall.
When we pulled into L’viv just past midnight I watched out the window, holding my breath. People filed past towards the rear cars, and for a moment Janice and I believed that fate was smiling. Fate was smiling, but sinisterly. We could hear the aisle filling with boots, bags slapping the walls, seats creaking, foreign words.
The train which had taken us from Tarnów to Przemyśl was hitching a sleeper on its way to Odessa. Two shirtless bar-brawlers with Bic tattoos hung out a window watching the exodus file past, and I thought how much fun this overnight train could be if only we were fortunate enough to share our cabin with two nice people such as these fellows. As we bought our tickets Janice tried to negotiate for a semi-private cabin and the woman booked us in a cattle car.
Invasion came swift and without quarter. People stowed their belongings, set-up their bunks, unrolled mats, and opened their shrinkwrapped sheets and hygienic kits with martial efficiency. A former beauty queen boasting a mouthful of gold, an aging rocker clinging to his hair, and an elfin girl in a Strawberry Shortcake dress and elaborate hair sat on the bunk opposite us, staring.
Linguistic ground-rules were established early. The fatigued family seemed embarrassed that they couldn’t speak English beyond an earnest okay and some nodding of heads. Everyone sat looking a little lost and no one seemed interested in breaking the silence. Rocker eventually decided to square away their few bags, Janice and I invented a topic to divide amongst ourselves, the train pulled out of L’viv and continued east.
They spent long periods ignoring one another, all three regarding us openly but without any registered emotion. Maybe a couple displaced Americans on the overnight to Kyiv are like television without dubbed dialog. According to the numbers above the bunks they had the second level and as the elf began to wane I argued through gestures with her mother about taking my spot. We could continue staring across two feet of flooring all night so I retreated topside and curled onto the provided mat, wondering how often it gets cleaned but sweating too much to deal with sheets. Men walked up and down the aisle without shirts, cell-phones played Russian pop ringtones, an old drunk man was wandering around looking for his pants, the one toilet for one hundred people was locked by people smoking cigarettes inside. I tucked my shoes under the pillow and tried not to look across at Rocker staring back.
Somewhere in the night we stopped. There was movement in the cabin and one or two new passengers boarded quietly. Under pre-dawn grey a railway matron woke me, checking a ticket. She realized I was the American and seemed relieved. We pantomimed about swapped bunks before she let me fall back asleep. I watched the sun rise, wondering why it was in the same window as when it had set. Are we going backwards? No, we’re just that far north. When I finally awoke for good it was Janice asking if I wanted coffee. The railway matrons were working their way down the aisle with steaming vats, filling greasy glasses and leaving a milky froth near the lip. We don’t have any money, I said. It was probably free, but Janice didn’t argue. The family sat in the lower bunk staring. I crawled down.
Before boarding we had found a mini-mart and stocked up on provisions; two cans of coffee were all we had to deal with the situation. I was trying to tip the rolled up sleeping mat onto a storage shelf when I sent the pillow crashing down. Janice’s coffee was in her lap and the elf was buried. Oh god. I don’t even know how to say that I’m sorry. Rocker continued staring at me. Beauty Queen laughed and freed her daughter who hadn’t even stopped drawing.
I asked Beauty Queen if her elf would like an orange, and my offering caused great shyness and was saved for later. An hour passed and I helped Rocker dig bags out from one of the storage bins, which he carried down the aisle. Beauty Queen was getting ready when the elf froze in place, trembling slightly. Plastic bag, buried face, the little girl vomited as her mom struggled against the motions of the train trying to keep anything from spilling. She seemed so embarrassed cradling her daughter’s head, the elf convulsing and spewing liquid for what seemed like minutes. I tried to help clean up but was shooed away, the elf taken to the toilet, Rocker returned and waited. They looked at us: Sorry, goodbye, Beauty Queen said. Sorry, goodbye, Rocker said.
Our next neighbors were not nearly as agreeable. A woman on her cellphone opened my former bunk to stretch out. Her old man companion dozed upright. Janice and I went over printouts of metro maps and Ukrainian phrases. She worked to transliterate things from Cyrillic and I tried to wake up. The countryside slowly became suburbs, slowly became outskirts, slowly became city, suddenly became a train station.
Janice took the picture with my hands in it. Because I couldn’t.