Monday, November 9, 2009

Stay Calm & Carry On

It takes a lot of energy to maintain constant optimism. When dealing with the Russian commuter train system (the Elektrishka) it takes every molecule of positivity I have to keep it together.

Katerina sent me a text while I was at work, asking if I wanted to go to Shyokova, where she lives, for dinner. Shyokova lies about 30 km to the south-east of Mytischi, and although it is part of the Moscow Oblast it is not part of any of Moscow's transit systems save for the damn Elektrishka.

These slow-moving suburban trains run on their own rail lines, laid down sometime before the last ice age, and although they are cheap they are consistently aggravating. Not only are the cars an invention of some cruel and psychotic Soviet bureaucrat and the benches are hard wood, but these trains are filled with the strangest people in Moscow. One after another, babushkas and vagabonds stand at the front of the car and peddle cheap wares in a bag by yelling an advertisement at the top of their lungs. These wares are usually completely useless, such as plastic magnifying glasses (in case you were on the train and thought "Oh crap! I forgot my magnifying glass!"), pirated CD-ROMs and bags filled with Swiss Army knives. Sometimes they come into the car with an accordion and sing about their wares, which is a grating and surprising shock when it happens suddenly behind you.

Just getting on the trains is a hassle. Customer service in Russia has yet to be invented, and the surly middle-aged women who run the kassa (ticket desks) at the train stations haven't smiled since they were children. To make everything so much more Russian, there are few signs telling you which of the dozen platforms your particular train is arriving on. I suppose people are just supposed to guess.

With all that in mind, I didn't want to go to Shyokova. Katerina had a different idea, however, and she called me up and in her sweetest voice convinced me that the Elektrishka ride to her town wasn't all that bad. "It's only six stops. Just count six stations and get off" she said with her cute Russian accent. "I really want to see you tonight, but if you can't, I understand...." Damnit! Now I was going to Shyokova.

After work I took one of the small marshrutki mini-buses that follow the exact same route as the large articulated city buses (but weave through traffic much faster) to the Mytischi train station, and that's when my eternal friendliness, goodwill towards all people, undying optimism and belief in the basic decency of humankind started to unravel.

"Shyokova" I said to the humorless cow in the ticket booth. "Shto? Shyoko..shto eta?" she grumbled (What? Shyoko...what's that?). With a sigh I pulled out a piece of paper with the name of the town written in Cyrillic and slapped it up against the glass separating us. "SHEE-OH-KO-VA." I repeated slowly, like I would to a four-year-old with down-syndrome. That was a mistake, because she started yelling at me in Russian and pointing at my paper. I shrugged my shoulders and slapped 20 roubles under the glass, and the old bitch gave up and printed a ticket for me.

After purchasing my ticket I wound my way through the crowds of people in the station and attempted to read the digital signs that hung from the ceiling.

Platforma 1: Moskva
Platforma 2: Moskva
Platforma 3: Moskva
Platforma 4: Moskva

I gathered by this point that nobody, including the rail line, had heard of Shyokova so I walked to the platform where I know I've said goodbye to Katerina in the past. I logically assumed that trains would only be running in one direction at the same time on one railway, so when the clattering green elektrishka pulled up to my platform I jostled with a crowd of commuters to get on it. I managed to wedge myself on a bench between a cute blonde who smelled of flowers and an old man who smelled of whiskey, and I began to count the train stations.

One, two, each station an incredibly uninterested voice attempted to crackle over blown speakers to inform people which station was coming up, but I don't know why they even bother. "Psshhhtttt...crkrkrkr...otoskaya pal...ckrkrkrk" is all I managed to hear.

The old man beside me passed out and his head lolled dangerously close to my shoulder. My general kindness and gentle nature was giving away to hardly contained irritation and I gave a quick push upwards with my shoulder. The man snapped awake with a gurgling sound and stared at the floor, as if in deep thought.

Fourth station...crackle-crackle-something-in-Russian...fifth station...the blonde got off, leaving me alone on the bench with the drunk guy. Sixth station.

I jumped out the creaking door onto a dead platform. I was the only one who got off here, and there was not a single light. A big sign in Cyrillic read "Ipreevoti Station". I had taken the wrong train.

By this point, the last threads of decency I had began to dissolve and I had to force myself to keep from setting fire to the boarded-up train station in front of me. My phone vibrated in my pocket. Katerina.

"Where are you?" She asked sweetly. I paused and swallowed back a torrent of bitching that had been brewing for thirty minutes. "Umm...Ipreevoti." I said as happily as I could, then, very slowly so that I didn't lose my cool, I asked her "Where am I?"

"Ipreevoti? What are you doing there? Which train did you take?" She yelled in panic. The worried tone in her voice didn't help my struggle with self-control .

"I took the goddamn train to Shyokova!" I wanted to yell, but instead I laughed and said "I guess the wrong one. That doesn't matter now. How do I get to where you are?"
"I will call you right back." She stated, and hung up.

I looked at my phone for a moment in surprise and then, with nothing else to do, I lit a cigarette. Then she called me back. "Okay, I called a taxi. Walk to the road and get in the green car with the number 1-4-0. He will take you to the restaurant I am at."

The road was in a forest just past the dead station, so I made my way to the side of it. It was extremely dark and very cold, but I wasn't afraid. There were no groups of drunk Russian men in leather jackets around, so I was fairly safe. After ten minutes there were no cars, however, so I called Katerina. "Umm, you did tell him where I was, right?" I asked (kindly). "Yes. You are still there?" she replied, her panic rising in her voice. I wanted to ask her why she was so worried about my location but decided against it. Finding out that I was in the middle of Hades wouldn't have done anything to help my situation.

A set of headlights came down the road, and an orange light bobbed on the roof of the car. A taxi! It was white, not green, and had no numbers on it but I flagged it down anyways. The driver rolled down the window and I handed the phone (with Katerina on the other end) to him. She gave him directions, he motioned for me to get in, and fifteen minutes and two hundred roubles later I was in Shyokova, sitting down at a nice Russian-cuisine restaurant where karaoke blared from another room.

It took two pints of beer and a pot of chicken and mushrooms covered in melted cheese to return my normally good nature, but Katerina wasn't any the wiser. "How can you be so calm all the time? Do you know how dangerous Ipreevoti is? There are skinhead gangs there! Don't you ever worry about anything?"

"What, me worry?" I replied, and then laughed.

1 comment:

  1. Greetings Canada,

    Enjoyable your post about the elektrishka and its vagaries. Got to admit that I like this unique train, and sometimes think I would have been a good hawker, selling plasters that fall off quickly.

    I tentatively added your blog to my Recommended List at so I wouldn't forget to add it later. Is that OK with you?

    Your writing is of high quality, interesting, and often brings readers a smile or two.

    All good wishes,

    Rob MacDonald... Loquacious