Irkutsk to Vladivostok: Russian families and James’s perfect woman

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I’m not feeling the best in the morning and I know the fireman doesn’t like me at all now. He’s looking at me with the utter disgust that is reserved for behaviour you consider unthinkable.
“How is your head?” He asks disgustedly in Russian.
I drink half a litre of orange juice followed by a litre of water before replying,
“It’s fine.”
“You must be stupid to drink so much”, he informs me angrily.
“If I had a wife like yours with me, I would not drink at all”, I venture in shabby Russian.
This makes them pay attention to each other for long enough for me to find another noodle bowl and fill it up at the samovar. On my return I find he’s gone for a cigarette and his wife remains.
“He used to drink…a lot… when he was young, but now, not at all”, she explains slowly in Russian.
I nod my understanding.
“That has a lot to do with you too”, I say, smiling.
She grins shyly and smiles in the way women do when they know they have enraptured a man.
“Maybe.”
He scowls at me on his return and I leave the hot cabin to find somewhere with air-conditioning. There’s nothing worse than a reformed man and I’m not interested in a discussion in broken Russian on the evils of drinking. There are so many better ways to spend your time on the train.

Drinking, for instance, comes to mind.

Lari wanders by and tells me
“The fireman didn’t like you coming in drunk like that. He was going on about how bad you are earlier this morning.”
“I noticed when I got up just then. Apparently he used to drink plenty, but not since she came along, or at least not while she’s around.”
“Did she say something?” Lari asks.
“Yep, then I finished eating and got out of there.”
“We met Dima’s family and spoke to them half the morning. Dima can say ‘hello’, ‘how are you’ and ‘good’ in English now.”
Every time he passes any one of us from this point, we have that exchange. Don arrives and says,
“Dima keeps forgetting I can’t speak Russian. He just comes up and starts chatting away and I try to understand, but I just can’t. Now he’s transferring all these videos onto my phone through Bluetooth.”
Dima appears to have a pretty extensive collection of videos on his mobile phone for a ten year old. We’re watching them for a while when he approaches again and claims Don’s phone to put more of them onto it. Dima met another boy from the next wagon and they had got talking about videos and this crazy Australian guy. Now Dima needs Don’s phone again to transfer more videos onto it from his new friend’s collection. Don watches him take the phone from his hand and then scuttles off down the train after him, nervous lest his lifeline connection to the world be severed in some way.

Dima at play

I’m actually still surprised at how commonly the train is used for family trips. I don’t think there’s been a single time when there haven’t been at least two family groups in our wagon and normally in every wagon you pass while moving around the train. It’s quite normal to step over and past a young child doing a jigsaw in the corridor, or a pair of children playing any number of games. There’s many times when one to four kids will come flying past in the midst of some game. Normally the kids are even more fascinated that we’re from a strange country and can’t really speak to them. Sometimes the extended family take up three or four adjacent cabins to have the kids in one, the parents in the next and grandparents in the last. This made for large groups that would spread around the passageways, passing food and drink between them, playing games, talking and watching the crazy Australians. They often offer food to us and we would talk and catch up with different members of the family as we wander by at all hours of the day and night.

A dishevelled and certainly half-drunk man shambles into the passageway from a nearby room and Don introduces me to Dima’s father, Alexei. He’s a short guy, wearing a very bright Hawaiian shirt and has the kind of simple, good-hearted honesty about him you only really find in people who’ve never lived in a big city. His face is unusual, not pretty, but not ugly either; definitely unique. After talking to him for a few minutes it occurs to me that his face and eyes make him look like a Nerpa seal. That suits him well as a proud resident of Severobaikalsk and devotee of Lake Baikal. His home town lies at the northwest corner of the lake and only came into existence in 1974 with the construction of the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) railway. He speaks minimal English, but is so happy to talk about his home and the lake that his story comes out in a few conversations during these days on the train.

He’s thirty years old and has lived and worked in Severobaikalsk his whole life, making him part of the first generation of children there. He’s a builder of some kind and loves working outside. He feels a strong connection to his place and the lake. Baikal comes up in every conversation as a point of reverence and it comes as no surprise when I discover he’s a follower of a religious leader in the area. Fundamentally Buddhist in nature, it seems to also capture some of the animist and shamanistic beliefs that have been a part of the lake’s life since people arrived on its shores. When I invite him to come and visit me in Australia, he explains that would be impossible since he can’t cross a body of water, especially not an ocean, due to these beliefs. Apparently the religious leader believes this, so the followers have taken it on as a part of their faith. Alexei’s trip to Vladivostok is a summer holiday for the family and they have one of his two children (Dima) his wife, Olya, and a cousin of little Dima who’s travelling with them for the trip. Alexei’s daughter, who is six, is staying with her aunt having a separate holiday. Olya has her hands full on the trip, with two young boys and one slightly older boy, Alexei, to look after. Alexei spends the entire train journey in a pleasant state of warm drunkenness. He’s always happy to see us, greets us warmly and frequently could be found lying in his cabin sleeping off the last two litre bottle of beer. I don’t think I ever had a vodka session with him though. Olya seems to revel in motherhood, looking after all her boys feels like breathing to her; she’s always there with all of them safely in hand.

The air inside our wagon is still hot and I suggest we go to the next wagon to sit in James and David’s cabin and enjoy the air-conditioning. The three of us wind our way past the children playing snakes and ladders in the corridor and discover them both reading books quietly. David has the Trans-Siberian guidebook in hand and is noting the kilometre markers we pass regularly to be ready for the next object of interest that will be passing by the windows. I have the same book, but have somehow completely failed to pay attention to the distance markers. There’s always something going on inside the train, external distractions haven’t been necessary. David welcomes us enthusiastically and offers some Italian noodle bowls to us just in time for the beer lady to reappear. I wonder if she just waits for us to appear in the wagon before arriving with some cold ones. I consider the wisdom of having a beer so soon after last night’s efforts, but my body’s happy with the idea, so I give in quickly and let the afternoon roll by.

Don comments on all the families on the train and James immediately notes there’s a cute girl in the cabin next to theirs and another one further down the passageway. He pops his head out the door to check if they might be in the corridor and returns it just as swiftly when he sees only the children.
“They were here before. Do you think I should be trying to date them or something?”, he asks Lari.
David buries his head in his book, desperately trying to escape James’ madness.
“Maybe you should marry one of them and have babies, right now, here on the train”, suggests Lari.
Don and I look at each other, wondering if one of us is going to take on the sensible role instead of mother Lari. We seem to agree it’s more fun to let loose and enjoy hearing James’ philosophies of the female psyche.
“You treat women like babies. You give them lots of attention until they start crying. If she’s crying in a good way its ok, but if she’s crying in bad way it’s not”, James explains, “But how do you tell?”
“What exactly do you say to women to make them cry so often James?”, I ask completely innocently.
“Probably just talking to him will do it for most women”, David interjects.
“I’m sure they’re really tears of joy”, proposes Lari in her most reasonable sounding sarcastic tone.
“You think so? Maybe I’m just not understanding them when they’re crying, maybe that’s it. I always get babies over-excited, but not women.”
We burst out laughing again as David mostly looks miserable.
“James, have you thought about just letting through a trickle of crazy?” Lari asks.
“Do you normally play peek-a-boo with women James? Or do you try your pickup lines on Babies?” Don ventures.
“I don’t know, babies just love me, they always go nuts and it’s so fun when they do it”, James continues mournfully.
You can’t hate the guy for a moment, he’s so sweet and harmless; and absolutely oblivious to the world outside his mind. It often seemed like he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see the world in front of him. It was always clouded with the miasma of doubts and worries and self loathing. I suddenly thought he really would make a good Jewish stereotype.
“Another similarity between babies and women is when they run away, you should chase them. Or not. But how do you know?”, James continues.
“If she looks back over her shoulder, you have to follow her”, advises Don.
“Unless she gets a restraining order, in which case you should stop doing that”, I add sagely.
James looks thoughtful for a minute then stands up to check if the girls are outside again.

We spend a few hours chatting and noting towns passing by the windows. A couple of times we reach marker points and all stand at the windows to find the noted buildings or views. I go with Don and James to talk to the provodnika to find some beers. We know he has cold ones in his fridge because he’s made a point of telling us almost every time we walk past. I arrive as a Russian traveller buys two cans for a hundred roubles. I ask for four cans and he wants to charge me four hundred. I smile and laugh and hand him two hundred and walk off with the cans. He accepts it happily enough; he’s just trying it on with the foreigners to earn a little extra. A half litre can of beer normally costs around thirty roubles in a shop, so he’s still profiting nicely. We decide to visit the dining car again for dinner and the chance of another vodka inspired session. James has decided that he’s going to find out why we, and most of the Russians, spend our nights on the train in a warm, happy, quietly drunken state. It’s just not something he’s ever done, despite being thirty-five and English. Of course we are good Australians and can’t pass up the chance to introduce him to the joys of pissantry. So he joins us for the session for the rest of the night. As we’re waiting for our meals to be prepared, Don administers shots on a regular basis; purely for scientific purposes of course. I’m taking the chance to write again, I’ve almost finished when I notices James is watching me intently.
“Oh is my handwriting the same today James?” I ask from real curiosity.
“No. Yes. I mean it is, but how are you writing that? You’re not remembering something that someone else wrote are you?”
“umm…no…this is something that happened last week.”
“But it just flows evenly, no corrections, it’s like you’re just writing down something from memory, something you’ve always known. It’s so steady and even, you’re just noting it down”, he gushes in amazement.
I stop to think about it for a moment.
“I can’t say I’ve ever really thought about how I, or anyone, actually writes. This is pretty normal for me I think. Sometimes I‘ll think of a better way to say something later and I‘ll change it with a footnote. I prefer to use a word processor, I’ve used them since I was about ten, so it’s the most normal way for me to write”, I pause, watching James actually taking an interest in something that isn’t women.
“How do you write then?” I ask, passing him the book and turning to a blank page.
“I don’t, I mean I can’t like that, I think about it and change everything and it’s messy and then I throw it all away and start again”, he burbles.
Considering the way he speaks, I understand that completely and continue thinking aloud,
“Actually normally I have a delay between when I have the experience and when I write about it. I can often feel something in my mind at work organising, shifting and sorting through everything. So…when I get to now, actually writing, I feel like most of the work has already been done for me, I really am just noting down the story as it comes out.”
“And he wont shut up, even in his sleep”, Don adds with a smile, while sliding another shot my way.
“Just because it’s true, doesn’t mean you get to say it”, I caution Don with a broad smile,
“Na Zdorovie!”, we all toast together.

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