Travel Stories

The Way To Look At It

Train from Moscow to St. Petersburg, Russia
Summer 2009
Age: 18


Bathroom Break

“I don’t want you to go” Em said with her arms on my shoulders, around my neck and mine around her waist.

“Trust me, I don’t want to go either” I told her thinking about how I should be spending my last few days in Moscow with her instead of going on this stupid trip to St. Petersburg.

It had been two years since I had been back in Moscow. I returned with the church for the annual Russian mission trip at a children’s camp where we taught English, baseball and assisted in camp activities with our sister church in Russia. The children’s camp was now over and we had a few days left before we had to go back to Northern Virginia.

The fire had rekindled with the Russian I had fallen in love with at age 15 and broken up with at age 16. I hadn’t seen her for the past two years and now we were in each other’s arms shielded behind a pillar in one of Moscow’s train station so we could properly say goodbye. The two leaders from the Russian church who were coming with us to St. Petersburg were very conservative and looked down upon at even holding hands at ‘such a young age’ if marriage wasn’t in sight. It was understood from the American side of the church to be respectful and to follow the golden rule of ‘don’t do anything stupid.’ A rule I had become very familiar with throughout my middle and high school years.

But a day trip to St. Petersburg? Are you kidding me? It would be nearly impossible for someone to convince me that it was worth visiting Russia’s cultural capital for less than a day or any other major city for that matter. I would have to eventually go back to see everything I missed! Throw in the fact that I had to pay for these expenses in full from the plethora of cash that came with that high paying ($10/hr) high school summer job and that I would lose one day with Em after coming from across the Atlantic Ocean and you were just looking for trouble. However, I had to apparently ‘stick together’ with everyone from the American team. Not sure what the hell they needed me for though since the two Russian leaders were taking them.

“Fine” I had told our team leader, giving in to this one day trip to St. Petersburg. I figured my mom would get disappointed if I went to Russia to do God’s work and came back excommunicated because I escaped the train station to run off with a girl, which in turn damaged the relationship between the two churches and ended all further trips to Russia.

*Insert overly dramatic meme here*

Em and I walked back to the group at different intervals because it would be too sketch if we both came back from the bathroom at the same time. Ira, Em’s best friend, and Ira’s older sister Yuliya, my guardian angel (she always saved my ass whenever I got into too much trouble in Russia which pretty much happened every trip), each gave me a slick smile which I tried to ignore because no one comes back from using the bathroom with a grin. The train to St. Petersburg was heading out soon so the team of 7 Americans and 2 Russian church leaders got on board.

5 Second Conclusions

The 2 Russian leaders showed us to our compartment of 6 beds. “We booked a cheaper class for ourselves closer to the end of the train. They’re just seats not beds” Di said. She was one of the Russian leaders which I really looked up to. Very smart and knowledgeable woman that I may not have always agreed with but understood completely her point of view. I counted how many beds were in the compartment and how many of us would be sleeping in it. The math wasn’t adding up which was strange because I was usually good at calculus. When the summation was equal to or less than ten and there was still doubt in mind I resorted to the most trusted and basic form of counting known to Mrs. Holcolm’s 1st grade class.

“One, two…” the extension of each finger began. We were a total of one hand and four fingers. Minus two fingers for the seats the Russians were taking. Minus one hand and one finger for the 6 beds we had. I was left with a thumb. It was confirmed.

“We’re missing a bed” I told everyone who also confirmed that one thumb remained.

“The most beds they had in one compartment was six. So I booked one bed in the compartment next to you all that has four beds.” Di said and tilted her head to the next compartment down the corridor.

Kay, a nice lady from our team who had good intentions but no thanks I’m good because she wouldn’t leave me alone about wearing a band aid that one time when I got a small cut, insisting that she knew what was best for me in which I eventually gave in to the stupid band aid 10 minutes later so she could leave me alone, cringed and her eyes were filled with horror. Her eyes were facing the same direction of Di’s head tilt towards the compartment next to us. Curious to find out what she was seeing, I turned my head to discover what terror brought fear into this poor woman’s soul. She was staring at three thug looking Russian guys hanging outside the compartment that one of us had to sleep in. They were tall, fit and one of them wasn’t wearing a shirt showing his tattoos to the world. Their stoic faces weren’t talking to each other but staring at us, not wondering how they would steal our passports and money but how quickly they could do it. All they needed was a gun and you had a Straight Outta Compton album cover. I looked back at Kay who instinctively held her fanny pack closer at the sight of this immediate danger.

“Silly Kay” I thought and shook my head at what she saw and that horrible fanny pack which just adds a whole lot of unnecessary insult to injury. Who the fuck invented that nonsense? I decided to ignore her 5 second conclusion and go with my own which was three gents who were about to be my mates.

Let’s rewind, crush those glasses Kay was wearing to look down the corridor and relax to see what was actually in front of us for a correct 5 second conclusion.

I turned my head to discover what terror brought fear into this poor woman’s soul. There were three guys stretching their legs before the long train ride to St. Petersburg. Clearly, this wasn’t their first time taking a train because they were wearing house slippers which you should always have because putting your shoes back on every time when you want to walk around the train or go to the bathroom is for rookies. I was about to take off my shirt too, it was hot as balls on this train. Why weren’t they talking to each other and staring at us? Because there was a bunch of foreigners looking lost, confused and now scared. I’d be staring at us too. Their eyes gave it all away though, the eyes always do. These were just some young guys going back home to St. Pete. Like I said, three gents who were about to be my mates.

Same 5 seconds. Two different conclusions.

“Silly Kay” I thought again for round II and was damn well about to do us all a favor and throw that fanny pack out the window of this moving train.

Boys will be Boys

“Who is going to that compartment?” Kay said in a whisper, feeling sorry for the unlucky individual who would draw the short straw. I didn’t have time for such nonsense questions because it was obviously going to be me. I decided to not waste any more time and walked over to my future mates.

“Hi, do you guys speak English?” I asked in Russian. They each looked at one another and one of them said that he did a little.

“What about Spanish?” I said knowing damn well they didn’t speak it but needed them to crack a smile. They looked at each other and laughed saying ‘why the hell would they know Spanish’.

“I’m Shawn, what are your names?” I said introducing myself shaking each of their hands firmly. After our introduction I walked in the room with them and claim the remaining bed.

“Hey look!” one of them proudly said as he looked out the window showing his friends the three beautiful girls smiling and waving into our compartment at him.

“That’s my girlfriend and her friends” I said disappointing the lad and correcting his false boost of confidence. I walked over to wave back making it clear that the three girls outside were there for me.

“Which one is your girlfriend?” one of them asked curiously.

“The prettiest one” I quickly responded and the train began to move. The three guys got closer to the window to get a better look before the train was too far and they would be out of sight. I caught the kiss blown at me and sat back down once the train left the station. The three of them looked at me and nodded out of respect. I was in, we were officially mates. Why? because nothing gets you more respect on a train to St. Petersburg amongst the 3 lads in your compartment than having them watch 3 Russian beauties send you off.

Basic Math

My poor Russian and their poor English was more than enough to strike up a conversation to get to know each other. I told them about the mission trip I was on with the church but for whatever reason they were more interested with the story about my relationship with Em and how young I was when I got my job to go back for her.

However, story teller Shawn was rudely interrupted by Pi who knocked on the door which one of the gents opened. Pi was the other leader from the Russian church coming with us to St. Petersburg. I didn’t like Pi and Pi didn’t like me which was common knowledge amongst everyone on the mission trip. We’ll be nice and not bring up the reasons why.

He stuck in his head letting me know we were having a team meeting to which my monotone “be there soon” response was poorly accepted with a frown. He left and I looked at the gents.

“I don’t like that guy” I began and explained a few things about our issues.

“We literally didn’t like him the moment we saw him get on this train” one of them said and a stronger bond amongst us formed. Their 5 second conclusion was on point. I told them I’d be back and left the room.

We stuck 9 people in the 6 bed compartment to discuss the usual useful information that gets discussed at all meetings of any sort that I have ever attended. I didn’t have an opportunity to provide my in-depth feedback regarding this important discussion because unfortunately for us all I was preoccupied with falling asleep which apparently wasn’t appreciated. Not too sure what they expected by having me sit on the top bunk next to a pillow.

Jon, my boy who I’ve travelled a lot with to Russia, woke me up once the meeting was over. As I was walking out Kay decided to inform me of her great concern.

“Shawn, I’m greatly concerned. I think it’s best for us to hold your passport and valuables here with us. I don’t think they’ll be safe in the other room” she said. I was 98% sure that my passport and valuables would be safe in her fanny pack but I was 115% sure that my shit would be safest with me. Given the higher safety probability of 17%, dividing by ‘I trust the lads more than you’ to the power of ‘leave me alone’ I responded with the standard “Nah, I’m good” but of course if it wasn’t her way then it was the highway which obviously didn’t make any sense because we were on a train. “I just think you should protect your important belongings correctly and it will be safer with us here.” She continued. This conversation would have gone on until we arrived to St. Petersburg or I gave in but fortunately for me I was already out the door and left saying “No thanks” going straight into my compartment.

The Real MVPs

“We’re getting beer, you want one?” The gents asked in Russian.

“Davai” I responded which I will translate for this blog as “I’m down”

The train guy working the food/drink cart brought in 3 beers and 1 chai. I took out some rubles to pay for my drink but the gents refused my money.

“On loh” one of them said jokingly as he pointed to the mate drinking his chai and I chuckled. He called his boy a loser because he didn’t drink. I was just happy that I understood and thanked the lift in Em’s apartment for teaching me all of the “don’t say in church” words I knew in Russian.

“Do me a favor, the church folks aren’t a fan of drinking…” I began.

“So switch the chai and beer if they stop by” one of them said pointing back and forth with his two hands between the chai and the beer.

“Exactly” I said almost letting a tear of happiness slip down my cheek. I had just met these guys and not only did they already have my back but we didn’t even have to finish our broken Russian/English sentences to understand each other. We were all clearly well versed in the International Bro Handbook which stated in Chapter VI, section 4, part b (beginning on page 87) that “Any threat to one bro’s beer, whether it be spillage…” turn to page 88, “… a threat to all bros’ beer.”

Knock on door. Cup switch. Door opens. It was Pi.

“What are you drinking?” Pi asked suspiciously right away. I appreciated him getting straight to the point. I wasn’t about that whole ‘good morning’, ‘how are you?’ nonsense when that had nothing to do with what you really wanted.

“Chai” I replied putting my cup in the air saying cheers. He looked around and stared at all the beers in everyone else’s hand. The gents were trying really hard to not to laugh at my poker face. Meanwhile, Pi awkwardly stood there not wanting to leave knowing something was up but saying nothing.

“So…do you need something?” I asked.

“No, just want to join you guys” he said trying to impose himself to our conversation and way of life. To put it in perspective, this wasn’t one of those times a kid wants to join a bunch of other kids playing a game so he can have fun too. No my friends, this was that one coworker that had no problem throwing you under the bus and just sticks around to look for the right angle to make his move at. I was sure that Pi saw the train worker hand the beers to us from the food/drink cart and wanted to let the American team know of my ‘inappropriate’ behavior since Christians shouldn’t behave a certain way. I looked at one of the gents, didn’t say a single word and knew that he understood.

“You can’t join us” he told Pi in Russian sternly. Obviously I couldn’t just tell Pi off since that would only cause problems with the relationship between the two churches. Fortunately for me though, the gents in my compartment had nothing to do with that and anything they said or did was fair game.

“Why not? What are you guys talking about that I can’t know? Are you guys talking about me?” Pi said not wanting to leave the room proving how annoying he was. I was going to sit this one out and play the “I don’t understand any Russian, just over here sipping on my chai” card because I knew Pi was about to get kicked out in less than 30 seconds, either willingly or by force.

“Of course not, we’re just having a conversation. You need to leave.” the alpha among the 3 said standing up, walked up to Pi and looked at him straight in the eye with not a grain of mercy. 12 seconds had gone by. It was pretty obvious that I was staring at my watch since I held my wrist up so it could be in line with the confrontation in front of me. I had the word ‘multitasker’ on my resume right next to ‘detail oriented’ which means I could definitely watch the tics on my wristwatch and not miss any of the action. Pi had taken a step back which now put him out in the corridor. The gent that confronted Pi immediately closed the door and locked it.

“19 seconds! Not bad!” I said shaking his hand with a pat on the back, approving at how quickly he had kicked Pi out of our train compartment without any brute force. He sat back down and we all laughed. We continued talking about important things like which Russian girls are more beautiful, the ones from Moscow or St. Petersburg. This thorough discussion lasted for almost an hour. I may not have met a single girl from St. Petersburg in my life at the time but no way in hell would I back down from my fully biased opinion regarding the topic. PowerPoint decks were brought out with detailed slides of analysis, stress tests, plenty of graphs (both pie and bar) and years of historical data.

“But did you exclude outliers?” one of the gents asked questioning data from 1987.

“Of course I did, what do I look like to you? A bama?” I shot back. The discussion at certain moments became too heated and we had to remind ourselves that this was a room full of gentlemen that could act civilized and come to a comprehensive agreement or at least say ‘fuck it, whatever’ which is what ended up happening.

But really though, outside of that convo, we spent most of the night laughing and learning about each other’s culture, norms and  personal life. These were some of the nicest and coolest guys I have ever met in my entire life. It’s not about that old cliché ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ because trust me, sometimes you will have to. It’s all about seeing what is actually there, not what you have been falsely told is.

© 2017, Traveling is my Religion, All Rights Reserved

One Commnet on “The Way To Look At It

  1. OMG I LOVE THIS. I remember the team being SO worried and concerned about the three “thug-looking” men. They were so scared! I was a little bit worried….but everything inside me was like “Shawn will do just fine, he’s a guy” sure enough those thoughts were confirmed when you told me you became best friends with all of them. Yes that one huge, 6ft, shirtless dude with tats looked intimidating… but I couldn’t help but see exactly what you saw myself, just 3 tired guys heading to St. Petersburg. I know at the end of the day God granted you a wonderful character where you “pull a Shawn” and make friends with everyone. I love hearing your side in more detail! Keep writing, so I can keep reminiscing these memories 🙂

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