“Never talk with strangers.” Никогда не разговаривайте с неизвестными.* This simple advice would have saved me a lot of trouble if I had been conscious enough to heed it.
When I stepped on the train to visit my friends in Vladimir, I had no idea that I would soon be unwillingly locked in a Russian soldier’s embrace, his determined gaze meeting my horror-filled eyes as he got ready to plant an unwanted kiss on bewildered lips. Этого не может быть. Но это было. Here I was, stuck in an agonizingly long second, his homely face with pathetic brown eyes looking at me like I was a piece of grade A American beef…
THE STUPID GIRL WHO JUST WOKE UP
Now I won’t lie, the Russian platzkart has always exuded a bit of romance to me, the possibility for late night conversations with a handsome and charming traveler while speeding through the taiga has always seemed more epic than than a stale stroll on the beach. But just to get things straight, “Lieutenant B.”, as we’ll call him, was neither handsome nor charming. It all happened when I woke up on my platzkart bed to see a soldier in full uniform sitting on the bed across from me. He was homely and a bit stocky, with greasy brown hair and brown eyes. I must have looked startled at his presence, because he quickly said, “don’t worry, I’m just here to charge my phone, the only outlet is at the front of the train.”
The layout of a Russian platzkart. Photo Credit: Glucke, Wikimedia Commons
“Oh, don’t worry about it. It’s fine,” I yawned, shooting him that reflexive, wide smile that my sleepiness had prevented me from censoring. That was my first mistake. In America, when a girl smiles, it’s polite. In Russia, when a girl smiles, it’s an invitation. Whether he heard my accent or not, I don’t know, but while my guard was still down, he asked me, “where are you from?”
Without thinking, I shot back “from America. I’m a teacher here.” Second mistake. Stupid, stupid, stupid girl. At the word “America,” something changed in this nonchalant Russian soldier, and before I knew it, he was sitting at the table across from me, ready to talk. Again, I stupidly took him at face value, thinking, “what’s the harm in some small talk? I only have an hour left on the train.” I asked him if he had a family, and his calculated response warned me of his real intentions.
“No.” he said. “I wouldn’t have gotten acquainted with you if I were.” With eager, puppy dog eyes, he told me “you’re very beautiful. It’s me who’s the ugly one.” Although I tended to agree, in reflexive “politeness,” I said “nyet,” and smiled.
When he offered tea, my first reaction was to hesitate; after all, the age old trick is the drug in the drink, but he seemed to read my mind, and said “relax,” and showed me a sealed tea bag to prove that his intentions were less than criminal. He excitedly got two mugs from the conductor and poured us tea. Not wanting to be rude (stupid, stupid, stupid girl!), I sipped the tea very, very slowly, convincing myself that if the drink was drugged, then I wouldn’t get enough of it in my system to do any damage.
I joke about my “stupidity,” but in reality, by the time he had brought the tea out, I had realized that letting my guard down in those first few moments of consciousness had invited me to play this game of cross-gender interaction by his rules, rules that were very different from American girl-guy flirtation. There is a much more pronounced power differential between the sexes in Russia, and it became clear that this soldier felt a certain power over me. At this point, I did not want to make him angry. I had no idea how reactive his temper was, nor did I think anyone on the train would help me if something did happen, so I resorted to trying to play his game as best as I could, hoping that I could bide my time with fawning pleasantries until I could escape into the fresh Vladimir air. As the conversation went on, my nervousness took center stage, and the very words I didn’t want to say kept coming out of my mouth. Long story short, he found out I was single, and then he really turned on what he thought was the charm that might get him a green card.
RUSSIAN PICK-UP LINES
I don’t remember the sequence of Lieutenant B.’s wooing session, but the cheesiness and systematicity of his whole routine was hard to forget. In less than twenty minutes, this Russian soldier played me terrible Russian pop music to set a romantic mood, then sang me his own song, after which he said confidently. “You love it when I surprise you, don’t you?” (Ты любишь, когда я тебя удивляю.) He showed me pictures of himself as a child, and he asked me if it was hard for me to be without a man in my life. He could be my boyfriend just for the train ride. He could come to America with me. He even bluntly asked, “so, do you like me?” But it was his Martin Luther King Jr. style speech that made me want to flee the train more than ever.
“What are your dreams?”he asked. After I answered, he began.
“I had a dream, to buy a car. I bought a car. I had a dream, to become a soldier. And I have a dream,” he looked at me suggestively, “to kiss a foreign girl.”
Oh no he didn’t.
“My friend dated an American, and he says they are so much more interesting to go out with. He says they’re different. And Russian girls have no soul. If you have money, they’ll be by your side, but if you lose it, they’ll leave you without a second thought.”
EATING PIG FAT
Yes, it got even weirder.
“Have you ever tried sala?” he asked. Now sala is a Russian food I had done a good job at avoiding on previous trips, but I had actually put it on my Fulbright Bucket list as something I wanted to try. From what I had heard, sala was gelled meat fat that you put on bread. Apparently, also the food of love. Lieutenant B. ran to his seat and brought me back a slice of brown bread with two chunks of congealed fat. I took a bite into the chewy, bacony fat and breathed a sigh of relief when it didn’t make me throw up. “So, do you like it?” he said.
“It’s not bad,” I said honestly, at which he decided to gift me with an entire bag of cut up fat and brown bread!
About this time, his soldier friend appeared in my section of the train, and Lieutenant B. asked him to take a picture of us. He wrapped his arms around me hard while his friend snapped a picture, and then, this was that fatal moment when he looked at me as if he was about to go for that foreign-girl kiss.
“Nyet,” I said firmly.
“On the cheek?” I made a face, and before I knew it, his mouth was planted on my cheek while another picture was snapped. Oy. His friend left, then he came over to me, combing his hair, (which apparently was supposed to be attractive?) and asked me, “Can I please just kiss you before you get off the train? I just want to feel the difference.”
Well, he would feel a difference for sure if he actually dared, my lips were so chapped they were cracked, and***ahem***, never having kissed anyone before, he’d probably leave with the impression that American girls were the worst kissers on earth. But more importantly, never having kissed anyone before, there was no way that I was going to let my first kiss be with some random soldier who saw me as nothing more than a check off a bucket list.
He was persistent though, and before I got off, he asked again, and in frustrated Russian, I said “I can’t!”
“What do you mean, you can’t?”
“I don’t kiss people that I’ve just met,” I told him. He deflated, finally accepting my “no,” and I breathed a sigh of relief as I exited the train. But I walked along the platform to the train station, I felt a tap on my shoulder, and I turned around to see Lieutenant B behind me, shooting me a creepy grin. I quickened my pace, thankful that he didn’t decide to follow me. Soon, I was safe with my friends in Vladimir, memories of the soldier taking a more humorous than scary tone, but I will say that this experience opened my eyes to the need to be on my guard at all times while traveling alone, especially in a culture where what I consider to be simple politeness can be taken as an invitation to kiss me, then marry me and then finally, get that visa to America…
*The title of a chapter from one of my favorite pieces of Russian lit, The Master and Margarita.
I remember I went a market in SPB in search of Tapochki and the people selling them were from Central Asia – they asked me if I wanted to take their son home with me. I said no thank you, I am married. And they were like, it’s okay, he can be your “molodoy chelovek”. Well, no he can’t – I’m married!
Wow! You just never know what to expect here. One of the most difficult thing for me in navigating situations like these is realizing that what I consider politeness may be interpreted differently. It’s one thing learning the language, but another trying to control what are reflexes for me, like smiling.