I’m not sure that I was looking forward to the train ride to Kazan. When I first boarded the train, the older woman in my train compartment was not friendly at all, despite my attempts to talk to her in Russian and my occasional jokes (shutka). After a little while, two other men named Vladimir (Vlad) & Dennis joined us in the 4 person berthing compartment. Both men were both on their way home to Ekaterinburg after some work in Volgograd. Dennis spoke a small amount of English and for the next 24 hours we talked quite a bit with our noses glued to the dictionary. I can say that I do learn quite a bit of Russian travelling without English-speaking companions, especially when everyone else on the train only speaks Russian. As we were departing Volgograd, Dennis called me to the port side of the train where we could clearly see the Mamayev statue on the horizon. The statue stood defiantly on the horizon as the sun hung low in the sky. It really was a beautiful sight.
The Rubik’s cube was a hit as it always is. Vlad was able to solve about 80% of the puzzle; I was quite impressed at his ability to get that far into the solution.
Dennis and Scott
Grouchy babushka (grandma) and Vlad departed early the next morning and were replaced by a pair of brothers who live on adjoining farms. The brother on the left was quite camera-shy and seemed very protective of his privacy. For this reason I did not take their picture and will not use their names, we’ll just call them left and right brother. Left brother has piercing blue eyes, a few scars, and many tattoos on his arms and hands that looked like he had gotten in the military. Brother right immediately began drinking a LARGE beer as soon as he was settled into his seat. The two brothers brought about a dozen bags full of food, produce, and large cans of beer. Brother right spoke in a slow and smooth Russian style that was very easy for me to follow. I was able to recognize many of the words he spoke making it easy to look them up in my dictionary and then quickly write them into my journal where I could practice them for later memory retention.
Brother left who sat by the window (off right edge of photo below, Dennis on left side in white t-shirt) did more listening than talking and he looked very skeptically at me. He seemed to have a “no-nonsense” type of personality and didn’t seem to get my sense of humor. His brother and Dennis did seem to get it and we laughed and joked through the whole train ride; always with our noses buried in the dictionary. Conversation was slow at times, but, with each new word I learned, it made it easier and easier.
I took out the food that I had brought with me; some bread, a sausage, a few bananas, and some orange juice. Not wanting to be impolite, I offered to share my breakfast (zavtrak) with my train companions. Brother left looked at me with a mixture of indignation and pride as he proceeded to produce bag after bag of some of the most succulent Russian treats I have ever tasted. The next 4 hours became a smorgasbord of one Russian dish after another. The brothers seemed to take great pride in impressing me with the dishes that they served me. I believe that the chicken was the best I have ever tasted in my life. It was seasoned like none I have ever tasted. I thought hard to remember a better tasting piece of chicken and I cannot think of any. The chickens were raised on the brothers’ farms and were seasoned and cooked by their wives. They also served me 3 kinds of bread that were filled with vegetables, meat, and another with carrots and cabbage. They brought a large bag of apples that they had plucked from their own trees. The flavor of the apples was amazing. They did not taste like the store-bought apples in the US, they had so much more flavor. It was like eating an apple that had an amplified flavor. I am not sure if it was because they were home-grown or because of the Russian soil, but they were the best apples I had ever eaten. All of the dishes that the brothers served me were quite tasty and the variety of flavors was akin to eating at a 5 star restaurant. They also served potatoes, cucumbers, and some deep-fried bread that was full of cheese and meat. The food that they had was vastly superior to the store-bought fare that I was eating. I was glad to accommodate their egos as they fed me hour after hour. They explained how they raised the chickens on their farm, grew their own apples, made their own dough with their own eggs, and produced the tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, and other vegetables in their gardens. They told me with great pride how their wives had made each dish, how they raised the chickens and grew the vegetables. I was so grateful that I had taken the train across Russia rather than take an organized tour or flown in an airplane. I have had such a unique opportunity to meet the people of Russia. I have had a chance to see them in their lives, to hear about their daily schedules, to know what they think about many different topics.
As the hours passed by, more and more food was eaten, brother right drank many more beers, and I watched hundreds of kilometers of Russian landscape turn into thousands of kilometers passed…
The conversation rotated from topic to topic. We talked about their work, we talked about mine. There is no Russian translation for my job, so, I usually keep it as simple as possible. Most Russians do not understand, or, if they do understand, cannot believe that I get paid to do what I do, and am allowed to take so much time to travel. The two brothers work in the oil fields when they are not at home working on their farms. The amount of vacation time they were allotted by their companies was liberal by any standard; Dennis was impressed (perhaps even a bit envious) when the brothers told of their work/vacation cycle. Throughout the trip, brother right continued to drink beer and did not stop for the next 24 hours.
Eventually, the conversation turned to the Army. Brother right announced that he had served in the Army. He served during the time of the Afghanistan War and was worried that he would be sent there to die. Fortunately, he was sent to other duties that included a short tour in East Germany. I asked him how he found the German women and he said, rather disappointedly, that he was kept on base and not allowed to mix with the population. I was asked if I had served in the Army and I said that I had. They did not ask too many questions, which relieved me a bit as discussions on the topic of Iraq are usually a long and emotionally charged – for me at least. Perhaps, in an attempt to change the subject, I asked brother left if he had served in the Army. I had long suspected that he had as he had the “1,000 yard stare” of someone who had faced death and had survived. He looked right at me and began talking in Russian. After a short speech, he crossed his arms forming an “X” and stopped talking. Dennis translated, “He says he was in the Special Forces and he does not talk about his Army time.” The look in brother right’s eyes had a very serious look and I believed him. The many tattoos on his arms and shoulders began to make sense…
As we neared Kazan, the style of the houses changed. I began to notice more and more color on the houses. Many were painted in green, blue, or red. Dennis pointed out that many of the Muslims paint their houses green in deference to their religion as green symbolizes Islam. He and I talk about religion. He is Muslim and is married to a Christian woman and he is surprised to hear about the segregation of the religions in the Middle East.
When the train finally reached Kazan at about 2130, Dennis pointed out my “intended” hotel as the train sped by. When it was time to finally depart my new friends, I asked Dennis to translate and I told the brothers that it was my great pleasure to meet them, I thanked them for their food and hospitality, and I wished them well on their journey. Brother left remained true to his nature and politely nodded. Brother right jumped to his feet and walked me to the door. He continued to follow me down the hall and outside to the train platform. There, he shook my hand profusely and said over and over, “Das vidanya druk,” meaning, “Goodbye my friend.” I was very happy to have met him and his brother.
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