Catching a Train in Ukraine

4 Feb

“The only way of catching a train I ever discovered is to miss the train before.”  ~G.K. Chesterton

I have always loved trains.  Even after I ran along train tracks as a small child (completely absorbed in my own little world, as only a child can be) never hearing the train whistle alerting me that it was chasing me down the track, it’s powerful wheels churning faster than my little legs.  I love to run. But I also love trains.

And my love for trains wasn’t dimmed by the incident on Amtrak headed to Boston when we hit and killed a person.  And we sat there in the darkening train for hours on end, after seeing the train conductor stumble past on, with tears in his eyes, no doubt being questioned over and over by the police.

But the Ukrainian train that brought so many emotions to the surface almost killed my train passion.  I’ve always loved the thought of riding the TransSiberian Railroad.  I’m not immune to the delightful train scenes whisking kids to the countryside (think The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe).  And the delightful intrigue and spy scenes that take place in trains with sleeping berths (think Mission Impossible, Indiana Jones, Sherlock Holmes).

But this train.  This train came at the end of a very intense 2 weeks of staying with a Ukrainian family (the kind that want to practice their English and cook you 9 course meals which is incredibly sweet but also frustrating when those practice sessions and meals take place at 2 or 3 am and you know you have to be awake at 6 am and dealing with 100+ kids who all speak a different language than you).  A very intense 2 weeks that involved being chased down the street, performing minor surgery on a lacerated bloody foot, dealing with difficult personalities.

So here we were, all this energy and excitement and exhaustion crammed into this train berths.  And I lay on a top bunk and tried to sleep, to find relaxation in the clacking of the train wheels, to ignore the swearing and very-drunk-on-vodka singing of the Russian in the next berth.  And sleep was impossible.  Because we were on a Soviet era train with tiny bathrooms and when would we ever experience this again?

Because we had been warned that the train would stop, but not really, at our stop at 3:15 am.  Yes, the stop was listed on the train.  Yes, we could get off there.  But no, the train would not physically stand still and let us off.  In order to conserve fuel, the train would merely slow down and we could jump from it onto a platform.  We would have ~60 seconds to get all 30+ of us and our luggage off the train.  They even agreed to open 2 doors.  We would gather in the hallways at 3 am, line up the suitcase, us girls would jump first, a bag in each hand, the guys would follow, tossing the larger duffel bags containing our sports gear.   It is a testament to how long we’d been in Ukraine that I didn’t find this entire plan ridiculous.   No one blinked an eye.  We knew that somehow, somewhere, to some person this “stopping but not stopping” made sense.

That probably explains why I found myself in the dining car, surrounded by drunk Russians singing traditional songs, staring out at the very-unchanging scenery, watching the light disappear, discouraged.  Our team had fulfilled our mission: 150 Ukrainian students versus 3 British, 1 German, 1 American and 1 South African.  We’d managed to teach some drama, some art, some sport, and most surprisingly, some English.  We’d met the local town officials and, on an hour’s notice, put together a very entertaining evening for a large part of the town.

Our team succeeded but despite being splintered.  Despite a lot of sarcasm and surface discussions from one individual in particular.  And I was the one mostly singled out for his frustration and annoyance.  As the oldest, we were lumped together haphazardly, expected to get along and be good role models and we were not.  Now, all these years later, I wonder if I should have just addressed him on the first day – laid out the ground rules – questioned why he was acting this way – tried to negotiate some friendly agreement.  But I didn’t.  And I, the one who thrives on sarcasm and biting wit, let his comments get to me.  Once you let something under your skin, it burrows deep.  In this case, very deep.  Our team viewed the trip as a success, I viewed it as a personal failure.  I’d failed to get him to open up, to shed light onto why he was being so difficult, and why I was the one being personally chosen to be bullied.

And then he came into the dining car.  And we sat together, on opposite sides of the table, and I wanted to be home.  Not home to England where I was living but home to New Hampshire – to the house with the wooden beams and ice cream cones in summer and laundry on the clothesline.  Instead, I was on a dirty train stuck talking to someone who I wanted to hate but couldn’t.  I’d even failed at that.

He surprised me then with a present.  A present that was 2 weeks too late and useless.  But he opened up.  He talked about his life growing up. His family.  His achievements (there were several award-winning record-setting ones) and his failures (mostly relational).  He didn’t draw conclusions and I didn’t either.  I just listened.  And instead of being grateful for finally understanding him a little, seeing that curtain of self cinched back just a tad, dipping below the layers of apparent unconcern for our feelings that he’d worn for weeks, I felt angry.  Angry that he was a real person who only opened up when he wanted to.  Angry that he wanted someone to really know him and he’d picked me.  Angry that I couldn’t say or do anything to change how he interacted with people.

“Why me?”  (I’ll never know exactly what I was asking.  Why did you pick on me so much? Why did you put me down and appear to hate me? Why are you choosing to open up to me?)

“Because you cared. Because I don’t think anyone gets under your skin and I did.  It was a challenge and I won.”

“A lousy challenge.  A worthless challenge.  You  made me feel like nothing.”

“Only people who are something feel like that.”

There was never an apology.  We got up at 3:00 AM from the still-singing dining car and walked to the sleeping berth to collect our bags and prepare for our stopping/unstopping exit from the train.  And for once, I was glad to leave.  To pretend that I got on the wrong train and somewhere there is another train where things make sense.  Where trains stop and start like they say they will.  Where people act how they really feel.  And where a simple “Why me?” leaves a satisfactory answer.

Maybe the train I missed, the one where life makes sense and every story has a tidy ending, doesn’t exist.  Maybe the train I caught, where life is crazy and strange and stories don’t begin and end, is the one I am still traveling on.


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