The night before Aunt Nancy left, I was checking Facebook before I went to sleep. A friend of mine had been in the hospital, in a medically induced coma, and that night I heard that he wouldn’t be coming out of it. David was an internet friend, one I had never met yet I felt that I knew him very well. We’d both been on a now defunct discussion forum, one on which many erudite and thoughtful people discussed all manner of things, and where we really got to know each other. Many of us had met up in real life and had always found that the connection carried over. It’s funny, in the days before Facebook made us use our own names, we used pseudonyms and yet shared a lot more of our inner selves than we do on our carefully managed social media profiles. I fully expected to meet David sometime when I was in his neck of the woods, and I was looking forward to it – he was an interesting and very kind man. But on hearing of his imminent death I didn’t know how I felt. I guess my first reaction was disbelief and distancing – how could this be real? I went to sleep.
In the morning, all seemed to be fine. Nancy got off to the airport while we were still sleeping, we woke up and got ready to go, just at check out time. It was to be our first day on the trip alone as a family, going beyond where any of us had been before and I was planning to post something triumphant along those lines when we finally got onto our train. This, incidentally, as a suburban train, was the only one we hadn’t booked for our time in Russia. We were to get a train to Vladimir and then a bus to Suzdal, getting there in the afternoon. It should have been simple.
As we packed up though, someone asked, where’s K’s jacket? We frantically searched the room and couldn’t find it. I got more and more panicked and upset, way too much for a jacket, and finally just broke down and cried. It had hit me that David was dead (or almost), and now, somehow, the jacket was linked with that. I started to obsess about getting it back – I won’t say I thought that it would bring David back, but that somehow they were linked. If I could find the jacket it would be ok.
The most likely option was that it had fallen off her pack – it had been strapped to the outside – in the train or on the Metro. So as we got the Metro, we somehow managed to ask if there was a lost and found – the workers at the turnstile had one number and tried to call, but couldn’t get through. They then took us down to an isolated information point deep in the Metro bowels and a young woman apparently tried to call all the stations, but I didn’t hear her actually talking to anyone, so who knows what she really did. Anyway, we’d exhausted what we could do on that option. So, we took the Metro to the correct train station.
The next issue was to try to buy tickets to Vladimir. We found the line for suburban trains, stood in it forever, and finally managed to get tickets, with the help of a young female law student who was next in line, and helped to translate. Then, still obsessing about the jacket, I came up with a plan. We had 50 minutes, the train station where we’d come into Moscow was one Metro station away, we still had two Metro tokens. I would go there, find the lost and found, and then come back and we’d have time to get the train.
Except, Moscow metro stations are huge, and when I got there, I first had to find the correct train station and its entrance. Then, there was no sign for anything like a lost and found. I found a ticket refund counter and tried to ask, but she did the “I don’t speak English, so I’m not going to try to communicate at all,” thing until I found someone else to help. Then she said it was somewhere and drew a quick map. By then I knew I had to leave, but I couldn’t resist trying to look for the place. I took another circuit of the station, but I couldn’t find it so I had to give up. I was going to lose the jacket and my friend, and I was panicking about that, but I had to get the train.
I ran for the Metro, ran down the long escalator, got on and thought I could probably make it as I watched the minutes tick away. I got to the station, confirmed my family weren’t where I’d left them and then ran for the tracks, catching up to them on the way. We got to the track just before the train was supposed to leave, thinking, phew, we’ve done it, despite everything.
Except there was no train there, and nothing on the board and no one around. We finally found someone to ask and they took us somewhere, but we didn’t see a train there either, and by then, it was too late. It was gone. We’d missed it. In the mood I was already in, it felt like a complete failure.
What to do? We first tried to get a refund for our tickets. I stood in line, still panicky and upset and feeling like my bottom had dropped out, only to have the woman slam to window shut as I finally got to the front of the line. I waited some more until it re-opened, only to be told that these tickets weren’t refundable (most Russian Railway tickets are within a certain amount of time). Now what to do? They hadn’t been expensive, but every other train was, except for one train that left in the evening, which would get us into Suzdal around midnight.
What about a bus? Supposedly there were busses too? Ivo went to check and found that there were busses that left from outside the station, the ticket booth a lone kiosk on an empty square. We all traipsed outside to buy tickets, only to find that the next few were full and the first available one would get us in even later than the train.
So, I tried to buy tickets for the train after all, this time from the machines. As I did so, a very kindly woman from the Railway came to try to help. But nothing was working. And when I mimed waving goodbye to our earlier train, she became super determined to help. So she led me over to handicapped window and “translated” for me, though truthfully, the only language skill she had over her co-worker was the ability to try and meet me halfway in communicating. We finally bought tickets, but as I was going to pay, I saw that it was more than our previous tickets, and realized they hadn’t given us the child price for the kids. I thought that would be an easy fix.
Except that it wasn’t. It eventually transpired that she’d given us seats in three different cars, and of course, kids can’t travel alone. The ticket sellers response was that, well, you’ll just have to go tomorrow. At this point, I just couldn’t handle it any more. I managed not to lose it, but I was more emotional than they were probably expecting, but of course, they didn’t know about the rest of my day. I just said, no, we have to go, we have a hotel there, and nowhere to sleep here. Eventually, she said that I would have to take K on my lap and L and Ivo could sit together and we just wouldn’t take the other seat. And, no, we couldn’t pay child prices and we had to pay for K’s ticket too. So, with no other option, I bought the tickets.
Our angel then insisted that I come with her to see where the track was. And, it turns out that even if I’d not stupidly gone to look for the jacket, we might have missed the train. It turns out that it was in a whole separate part of the train station, a different track with the same number. She then took us to wait in the waiting hall and told us to be at the track super early.
She wasn’t even done then. Knowing I was from Canada, she found an African French speaker who spoke Russian and brought him over. Of course, regrettably, I don’t really speak French, but Ivo does, and so, through him, she made sure we understood that we were to get there super early – each time we talked about it she said to get there even earlier – and to ask the carriage attendant if she could find us seats together. We assured her that we understood, thanked her repeatedly and off she went. I later saw her helping a mobility impaired older woman from the waiting area, presumably to the train, and I’d seen that she knew pretty much everyone in the station, so I guess her job was just to be an angel. She did it well.
So we stayed seated in the waiting room and Ivo went to find us food. At that point I was feeling raw with the death and my inability to do anything about it, or the jacket, feeling like a complete failure at travel and just tired, but feeling a little better because of her help.
At the appointed time, very early, we went to stand at the correct track and saw the train come in. We rushed to get onto the train, and tried to communicate with the train attendant. At first, she also didn’t want to try, but we had another young woman, this one a TV producer who’d worked overseas, come to our rescue. Once she’d explained to the carriage attendant what the problem was, she also totally wanted to help. She told us to wait, she couldn’t do anything until the train was moving and she knew which seats were empty. We did, and as soon as we were underway, she ran through the train to look. She finally found a space for K and me (it turned out she’d even asked a woman to move so we could have two seats together) and we sat. I was just emotionally dead by then, so I just sat and stared out the window and let K do something on her iPad.
At Vladimir, the TV producer even helped us to find a taxi (much too late for the cheap bus at this point) and agreed the price with him. We thanked her profusely and headed off to Suzdal. We’d been in touch with the apartment owner and, even though it was so late, he met us there, a funny bearded man with a sister in Amsterdam.
Ivo loved the apartment, in a crooked wooden house with many things obviously done with whatever material was at hand, like the linoleum over the kitchen cupboard to serve as a counter. He felt like we were finally in the real Russia. There were three beds, so K got the couch and a light sleeping bag, and we all went quickly to sleep, utterly spent.
Naturally, we slept in the next morning and we took it slow, I was still sad. After breakfast and my coffee, it was time to do laundry. Our first test this trip of the Scrubba.
We finally headed out in the early afternoon.
As we walked into town we realized that there was something going on. There were police blocking the roads, and many families going both ways with strollers and ballons. The first thing we found was this wooden sculpture garden, which was full of Russian families taken pictures of themselves and others.
Then, we looked across the street and saw the stage and market stalls. Ah ha, a local festival! We headed over and saw some of the local talented kids singing and doing Russian dances not badly at all.
We also looked at the stalls – being on a trip like this does make it very easy though, since the need to carry whatever you buy for a year does tend to cut down on souvenir purchases, though the fur lined boots and scarves were tempting. And we wandered around the various buildings and churches.
We did buy some consumables, like kvass and candy and pastries (the main food available was big piles o’ meat), and K and I watched the music for a bit while Ivo and L went back to the apartment to get some stuff. K really likes to listen to music and dance to it whereas L finds it boring.
Some of the local men, drunk, were also dancing.
And this guy was both sad and fabulous – he was drunk and toothless but seemed be holding back the dancing that was screaming to come out of him.
And K was also dancing
We also walked down to fortress, the UNESCO World Heritage site, and took a look around, although only the grounds were open by then. Our city kids enjoyed jumping on hay bales, not something they often get to do.
And then we had a nice dinner and I told Ivo about David and why it was so unfair that he was gone. And I silently toasted him with mead, still with a heart full of sadness at his passing, before walking back through the festival to our crooked wooden house.