I got on the train to Saratov. I thought I was late so I was rushing like crazy, which meant that I was once again covered in sweat. I have been drenched with sweat nearly the entire time I’ve been here. It’s November, but everywhere I go it is so warm inside. And when I’m outside and moving around my coat makes me sweat. I’ve lost my scarf and I miss it so much because it was my sweat rag. I sweat more in Russia in the winter than I do in Tucson in the summer, no lie.
So I tumble onto the train and there’s a man in a striped tank top with a giant arm tattoo sitting on my bed. It looks like a sailor’s top and later I find out that the man was in the Navy. I politely say that, hey, that’s my bed, and he jokes and says I’m wrong. The other two occupants of my kupe say, “No, no! It’s your bed!” The other two occupants are a middle-aged woman and her daughter, who is maybe ten years old. The man moves out into the hallway while I jostle everyone with my enormous coat and heavy suitcase. The man comes in and sits down next to me on my bed.
I’ve always been grateful to Artour, my travel agent, for getting me the lower bunks. But they are a double-edged sword. If you have the upper bunk, you’re constantly climbing up and down the little ladder to get up there and once you’re up you don’t really have room to sit up straight. But when you have the lower bunk the person from the upper bunk is kind of always hanging out on your bed. Whenever the upper-bunk person needs to use the table they really have no choice. So, if you’re the upper-bunk person your best strategy is to just constantly eat or drink something. And that’s what this man did.
First, it was some kind of sauce-heavy chicken and watching him eat it was a little gross. I moved out into the hall to get away from it but, like a train wreck, I couldn’t help but stare at him in the reflection in the window. He carefully pulled back the skin on each piece, picked off the meat with his fingers, gnawed the bone, and then ate the skin. He had one tiny napkin and this he used to wipe his hands and also, somehow, wipe down the tablecloth. I don’t know how he did it but he managed to completely avoid staining my white sheet.
I went back into the kupe and it turns out they’ve all been talking about me. The girl noticed I was reading an English-language book and that got them all speculating….I fessed up and told them I was an American. Outing myself is another double-edged sword: it saves people from thinking I’m an idiot and an oaf when I breach some cultural norm, but it also draws attention to me and makes me talk about myself. This makes me uncomfortable because everyone asks me the same question: Why Russia? And then I launch into some long, barely-understandable self-analysis about obsessions and curiosity and perestroika. When will I learn to just say I love Tolstoy like everyone else? (For the record I can’t stand Tolstoy.)
The woman and her daughter are on their way home from a sanatorium in Zheleznovodsk where they have been on vacation for three weeks. Zheleznovodsk is famous for its healing mud and the woman jokes that after three weeks of treatments they are now undoing all of it by eating junk food on the train.
The man is on a four-day journey from Rostov to Chayanda to work on the new gasline known as the “Power of Siberia.” It’s one of Putin’s signature projects. The work sounds terrible, though, because each month the man has to travel four days by train to the worksite. Luckily, he gets to fly back to Rostov. He’s not a young man, either. He’s probably in his late fifties.
As part of his ongoing strategy to sit on the lower bunk he pulls out some fruit and shares it with all of us. It’s kind of like an apple but it’s also kind of like a pear. It’s a little dry, but really sweet. He calls it “aiva.” Only later do I look it up and realize it’s quince. I guess this explains why he spends so much time talking about the jam they make from it.
Then the upper-bunk gas man and the woman get into a heated discussion about fat. They’re talking about salo, which is salted fatback. They both heartily agree that eating salo is incredibly good for you. But they disagree on rendered salo. You can use salo for frying potatoes, says the man, but never mushrooms. Not so, says the woman, who insists that there is a special dual-action property of mushrooms+salo. The man isn’t having any of it but then I start to wonder: how often does this man actually cook? The woman later claims that berries will keep you from getting drunk on champagne. She claims she drank three bottles of champagne once and had no hangover thanks to the frozen strawberries she put in the bottom of each glass. The man disagrees on this point, too, but then realizes that he isn’t going to win any points with anybody in our kupe if he gets into a detailed discussion of exactly how much he can drink.
We arrive in Saratov and I’m met by a driver from the hotel who whisks me through a pedestrian-only street to my hotel, which turns out to be extremely fancy despite its low price tag. It has heated floors in the bathroom along with a plasma TV (yes, a plasma TV IN THE BATHROOM). And then the reception lady asks me what I want for dinner because it’s included! I think I’ve wandered into heaven.