Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Cheese-Grater Man On The Night Train To Ukraine

I’ve been working on a “Russia wrap-up” of sorts and had wanted to get that posted before beginning on a new topic involving travels to a new country.  But I keep thinking about the valuable reminder I received from a man with a cheese grater on the night train to Ukraine, and wanted to share it while it’s still fresh in my thoughts.

Let me back up a bit.   Just after my last post, I left the hostel to catch my train from Moscow to Kiev, or Kyiv, as it is spelled here in Ukraine.  I got to the train station in time to savor one last cottage-cheese blini (a Russian, crepe-like pancake) and spend some leftover rubles on one of those wooden, stacking Babushka dolls—a souvenir request from my brother’s in-law.   I had just stowed the doll in my bag when the board flashed my train’s arrival, prompting me to head down the pitch-black track in search of my wagon.

I found it near the end and handed my passport to the wagon conductor.  He examined its cover, then turned to a man standing nearby and announced, “A-meer-a-kin,” which I found a bit disturbing.  He handed the passport back and gestured for me to climb aboard.  The lights inside the wagon were not turned on, so I proceeded through near-blindness to find my seat, passing a smattering of passengers sitting quietly in the darkness.  I fumbled through my bag for my book light and used it to locate my bunk.  In the process I caught a glimpse of the train’s stark, metal interior—an obvious relic from the Soviet era—and figured I was in for a very long, 14-hour train ride.

Closer to departure a wave of passengers piled in and filled every available space with their persons and belongings.  Since it was only half-past seven, and not yet time for sleep, the passengers assigned to the top bunks gathered on my bottom-place bunk to sit and socialize, including a Ukrainian man and his teenage son who intermittently chatted and played video games.  I listened intently to the constant, foreign chatter that filled the car for a word I could recognize, but none floated up.

I opened my roll-up tote packed especially for the occasion and began to arrange my essential overnight-train items.  These included a small roll of toilet paper (in anticipation of the perennially understocked WC); bottled water; a travel-size Bath & Body Works anti-bacterial hand gel, coconut-cream scented; an eye mask; the aforementioned book light; an I-shuffle loaded with a special mix of relaxing bedtime music; a fluorescent-orange Scotty “Lifesaver Emergency Whistle;” and finally, The Economist’s 2010 year-end double-issue.  The latter was given to me by Alan the Australian, who had recently picked it up in Sweden and generously passed it along after I told him that I had searched all over St. Petersburg and Moscow for it (or for any English-language magazine, for that matter), to no avail.

The cabin was now half-lit when a wagon attendant came round to distribute packets of scratchy sheets and pillowcases.  They were sealed in plastic to indicate—presumably—that they had been laundered between rides; though, from the looks of them, I had my doubts.   We set to making our “beds” which consisted of unrolling a limp, dingy, unevenly-stuffed cotton mat onto our hard-vinyl benches, covering the mat with our sandpaper sheets, and topping it off with a threadbare, wool blanket. 

When I finally had my bed to myself, I got as comfortable in it as possible, opened the magazine, and began reading “The world this year” roundup.  This immediately brought me back to the Redondo Beach Café on the Pacific Coast Highway, where, before embarking on this journey, I had made a Sunday morning ritual of reading my weekly Economist over a satisfying turkey-bacon-and-egg breakfast.  I longed to be back there again. 

For some reason this bit-memory from my old life triggered a mini-meltdown concerning my present and future ones.  I began by seriously questioning what in the hell I was doing alone on this shivering, backbreaking train somewhere in the middle of Russia.  And soon my thoughts turned to more worrying concerns, like how exactly I would earn a living upon my return and, more particularly, how I could convince a future employer that I really do value things like work and stability.

I confess; I get like this sometimes when travel begins to feel more punishing and less joyous.  I conduct a searching evaluation of my motives, as well as my sanity, and often imagine myself in future job interviews clumsily attempting to explain the latest gap on my resume attributable to “world travel.”  I was thinking of these things when a number of men and women began streaming through the hallways, yelling out various words like “Choco-la-te,” “Confecti,” and other items apparently for sale.

Soon a large, mid-30s, teddy bear of a man came through the wagon carrying a giant, dark-blue duffel bag.  He paused at the foot of my bunk and pulled from the bag a rectangular, shirt-sized box on which was pictured a metal cheese grater with varying attachments, amid other depictions of grated cheeses and vegetables.   I found this bizarre and felt confused as to why this man had chosen to sell this particular product on this overnight train.  He must have read the expression on my face, but nevertheless stood waiting for an answer, so I said to him, very politely, “I really can’t use that at the moment.  But thank you.” 

The man’s eyes went wide at the sound of my English, and now he looked at me eagerly like he wanted to say something but couldn’t find the words.  He continued to stare with an innocent grin and seeming intense fascination.  After a few seconds, he giggled, shrugged, and then disappeared down the corridor.  

Some time later I saw him come through once more, holding up his cheese grater, and smiling at me sweetly as he passed by.  I wondered how he’d been faring considering his bag looked just as full as before, and suddenly I felt inwardly embarrassed at my earlier thoughts of worry and self-pity.  There I was, with my coconut-cream hand sanitizer and relaxing bedtime music, fretting about a likely-bright future that many around the world would trade me for in a heartbeat, and practicing to explain away an adventure that some people spend their lives only dreaming about.  Meanwhile, here was this Russian-Ukrainian train peddler attempting to eke out a living by traipsing up and down the aisles of a crowded, old, rickety train in the wee hours of the morning, trying his best to unload a duffel-bag full of cheese graters that no one seemed to want. 

Of course the plight of this cheese-grater man did not make the train ride any less backbreaking, or my future any more certain.  But it did remind me of the many privileges I enjoy for which, I thought, I ought to be more grateful.

I wanted to write “grate-ful” there, but thought it would be too ridiculous.