A throwback to my time in Nizhniy Novgorod three years ago. It’s interesting to reflect on the perspectives I held then and how I have grown…
From the moment I first landed on Slavic soil, everything in Russia had seemed full of novelty. Washing clothes in my dorm’s scummy tub wasn’t gross; it was adventurous. Russian cigarette smoke didn’t make me cough; it spiced the air with culture. Even being forbidden to flush toilet paper was somehow exotic.
So when a drunken man stumbled into our sleeping car on the way to Moscow, I wasn’t surprised that I felt the same childlike excitement. The over-friendly man took a seat across from my friend Kelly and me and scooted close to my messily bearded friends Mitchel and Andrew (for some reason they had made a pact to spend the whole semester without the luxury of a razor.) Andrei, as he introduced himself, was thirtyish, with sandy blonde hair, nondescript eyes and foggy glasses. If this were Boston, I might have felt repulsion, pity, or even fear. But instead, I felt like a little girl at the zoo, sensing her skin prickle at a lion’s roar but knowing that the bars of a cage ensured her safety. Somehow, I had persuaded myself that this was a different world, a Narnia, where nothing could actually go wrong. Well, at least I could get away with things that I couldn’t in America. I could go on sketchy amusement park rides without my father’s resistance. I could zoom around town in an overstuffed car without wearing a seatbelt. I could strip down without shame in a communal bath house. So I could certainly make friends with a drunken man on a train. I became very friendly.
Sadly though, my friends didn’t share my excitement. At Andrei’s sudden arrival, Mitchel’s blue eyes flashed with an overzealous annoyance. Andrew seemed amused, but only yawningly, perhaps enjoying Mitchel’s discomfort. They clearly didn’t understand that this wasn’t just a drunken man, this was a drunken Russian man! How could they not see that we were in for a treat? Mitchel’s eyes bugged out in frustration, Andrew leaned back in boredom, Kelly took the role of cautious observer, but I was on the edge of my seat. To my delight, after ten minutes of listening to Andrei’s jolly blabber, he was ready to tell us his life story.
“Do you know why I’m going to Moscow?” Andrei’s eyes glinted, confident that he was the charmingest Don Juan this side of Mt.Elbrus. “I’m going to meet my love!” He breathed ecstatically. I leaned in closer.
“Well, you see, I am married.” He paused. “But it doesn’t matter! It’s love!” My eyes went wide in surprise and delight. If I’d looked at my reflection in the dirty, Soviet-era window, I’m sure I would have seen a girl grinning like a child eating birthday cake, the joy in the sugary messiness of the night staining my face. This was not adultery; this was not real. This was just a story, and we were now extras in Andrei’s epic of a tryst. Wasn’t this why I had fallen in love with Russia? Every day was an adventure, filled with intriguing characters that gave me stories that could be told and retold when I was back in boring old America. Encouraged by our silence, Andrei then launched into a poetical diatribe on the meaning of love. I struggled to keep a straight face as I translated his words to my disgruntled friends. At this rate, this story was going to make my top five.
“Drink with me, my friends!” he cheered, clearly planning to take advantage of the train’s food service.
“No,” we declined, motioning refusal with our hands. I tried to explain our refusal, excited to see how well I could communicate in my third grade Russian.
“I usually don’t drink, so I don’t want to risk getting drunk right now.”
He leered at me knowingly. “You’re just afraid to fall in love with us.” I giggled. What he could have meant by his Gollum-like assertion was a mystery, but I gleefully etched it into my mind, adding it to the file that stored the antics of my favorite Russian characters.
“We have to get him out of here!” Mitchel growled. No, please no! I wanted to know what was going to happen next.
“I’ll have three beers,” Andrei ordered the train attendant.
“Remember, we said we are not going to drink with you!” Mitchel retorted in his Tennessee twang.
“No,” he said, incredulous. “They are all for me!” Andrei explained. Mitchel rolled his eyes. I grinned, adding the quote to Andrei’s budding character résumé. Our enigmatic professor Harley, who had grown up Amish and lived as an expat in Bulgaria for a number of years, came upon our saloon scene. The seventy year old man with his ever-present black beret and love for cats was famous for his unpredictable constancy. It was his paradox of character that made him so intriguing; the more he talked about himself, the less we knew, and it always seemed he was slightly smirking at us with his mysterious old eyes. His reaction to our plight was signature Harley. Mitchel silently begged our professor for help with desperate eyes. But with a conspiratorial smirk, he started to make conversation with our new friend. After a few minutes, with the mischievous gait of an adolescent boy, he kept on walking through the train, leaving us to fend for ourselves.
The rest of the night played out just as I had hoped, with Andrei resisting Mitchel’s pleas to leave and his tales continuing and the account getting juicier and juicier. Late that night, Andrei finally left our cabin, leaving three green beer bottles and a memory that I can now see was loudly caricatured by my craving for novelty. This character, this piece of entertainment, had bills to pay and work to do and a wife that he had hurt.
And in my ecstatic grabbing at a Russian adventure, I had simplified him into a cartoon character, colorful but flat.
I didn’t see him as a human, but as an extra in my own personal plotline.
I hadn’t thought about Andrei’s poor wife, married to a drunk who was running off with another woman.
And I certainly hadn’t thought that Andrei too, might be a hurting, lonely man.
I wonder what Andrei is doing right now. Maybe he’s sneaking off on another escapade with his secret lover. Maybe he’s late for work, nursing a hangover from too much vodka the night before. But maybe, just maybe, he’s at a bar, telling his friends the story of the stupid but amusing Americans he once met on a train to Moscow.