The Russian Social Experience

Day 3 in Russia brought our 24-hour day trip to Moscow. As it turned out, our train departed for Moscow at 6:45am, not 6am as previously stated by Sergei. Our group (minus Max and Irina) consisted of a mix of drunk and sober members. We met the rest of the group on the train platform. Sergei and Al were completely intoxicated having only stopped drinking at 5am and running on 20 minutes of sleep, which was more sleep than I was running on.

Sergei said, “Hi, guys. I’m drunk. Dis means I am not sober but I slept 20 minutes, so I am good. Let’s get on dah train. I can’t read my ticket. It is going to be rough day. Long, rough day”. We asked a train employee to guide us to our train coach because our Russian host was too drunk to read the text on the tickets. And as a reminder, it was 6:30am.

Our train to Moscow was fantastic. It was modern and German engineered and clean and fast. Unfortunately, we would not be taking that train back to St. Petersburg because Sergei recommended to the group to buy tickets for the “overnight sleeper train”. The travel time from St. Petersburg to Moscow was four hours (non-stop) with a top speed of 124 miles per hour. Our seating arrangement was as follows:

The prerecorded safety announcement played (in Russian and English) as the train left the station. The conversation began immediately after the announcement.

Me: “The announcement said something about ‘mobile bars’. What is a mobile bar”?

I was thinking a mobile bar was some sort of cell phone charging station. 

Sergei: “It is bar on veels. It is mobile. It comes to you. Voodkah comes to you (and he pointed at me like in that iconic Uncle Sam poster)”.

Not coffee. Not tea. Not even juice. Vodka. Vodka comes to me at 6:52am. I should have known better.

Al: “Ah, this train is German engineered. I feel safe”.

Sergei: “Der have only been couple trains blown-up on deese tracks by terrorists, so it is safe. Noding to vorry about. Vee still have dah journey back, remember. Anyding could happen”.

Al then fell asleep.

Camie: “What time does our train depart Moscow tonight”?

Sergei: “Um, 9pm. It is overnight train. Yep”.

Camie: “Why do you call it an overnight train? The travel time is only four hours. We will be back by 1am”.

Sergei: “No. Dis train is four hours because it is non-stop train. Dah sleeper train is ten hours and stops all dah time. It takes forever but it is social experience. Russian Social Experience. More culture for you”.

Peter: “So, we get back at like 7am”.

Sergei: “Yes, something like dat. It is social experience. Vill be very fun. Vee vill buy boiled chicken, hard-boiled eggs and voodkah and vill party. Dis is Russian tradition. You vill not forget dis experience for entire lifetime. Dah train vill smell like sweaty socks but it is fine. Vill be fun. Social Experience”.

More light conversation was had, we got yelled at for being too loud and then the conversation ended when Sergei passed out.

We arrived at the Moscow train station and the first thing I observed was that there was no English signage to be found anywhere. None.

The Moscow Metro is known for its “enchanting palace like” stations.

I found the Metro stations to be grungy and dirty and not necessarily palace-like but I only saw a handful of stations. I learned that there is a theory of a second, deeper Metro that is designed to evacuate key city personnel in the event of a nuclear attack. Additionally, Sergei mentioned that all of the stations are at least 100 meters below ground for the sole purpose of surviving a nuclear attack; however, I could not find documentation to support his statement, aside from the theory about the second Metro.

Our first stop in Moscow was to Red Square and The Kremlin. The Moscow Kremlin to be exact as there are many “kremlins” in Russia. A kremlin is simply: A major fortified central complex in a city. This is the Moscow Kremlin:

Our visit to Red Square, St. Basil’s Cathedral, The Kremlin, and Lenin’s Mausoleum was a short one, doused in the pouring rain. The rain has successfully tarnished all of our trips this year with the exception of Prague because Prague is magical. The rain has also tarnished my experience of living in England.

We took shelter in a coffee shop nearby and that is when everything really went to shit. Sergei (who looked like he was about to die) explained to the group that Marina was not feeling well and that he was going to take her to his aunt’s house. Then Sergei and Marina ran off into the cloudy sunset, leaving us at the coffee shop without a map, no knowledge of the city and no idea where we were. I think everyone was slightly panicked but being the educated, intelligent people that we are, we quickly came up with a very logical order of rank:

  • Anya was first in command because she grew up in Poland which, out of the group’s home countries, is physically closest to Russia.
  • Al was second in command because he had been to Moscow previously albeit intoxicated.
  • Peter was third in command because he knew more Russian than the rest of us combined.
  • Dario was not held responsible for anything aside from maintaining his dark, “open” hair. The only reason he didn’t rank last was because he had memorized the Russian alphabet on the flight to St. Petersburg, something I had not been smart enough to do.
  • I brought nothing to the table except an umbrella and the occasional gatekeeper duties, therefore; I had no real responsibility, a position I am not used to having. I was like the toddler of the group and my leaders were first graders.

With our Russian tour guide napping soundly on his aunt’s couch, the group decided to visit a museum nearby to get out of the rain and waste some of the remaining seven hours we had in Moscow.

On our way to the museum, we passed a row of metal trees covered in padlocks. Known as the “Trees of Love,” they are part of an endearing tradition in Russia where newlywed couples pick out a lock, engrave their names on it, lock it on a bridge or a “tree of love” and then toss the key into the river. The trees were emotionally moving. There were thousands of locks on each tree and the whole artistic display of the trees on the bridge was unusual and unexpected.

Look at those awesome rain clouds in the photo. F you, Rain.

I must declare once again that Peter and I are not museum people so we found the museum to be very boring. I opted to sit on a couch and read celebrity gossip on my phone via their free wi-fi. The group joined me a little later and we ventured to a coffee shop that “felt familiar” (we had visited this chain coffee shop in St. Petersburg, so we knew the menu, etc.). As luck would have it, our server spoke perfect English!

The next three hours were spent squatting at the coffee shop. Dry, full, and well-hydrated, we walked to the nearest Metro station. Prior to descending underground to tackle the Moscow Metro, we stopped at a small shop to purchase the necessary goods for the Sleeper Train Social Experience: vodka, fruit juice, cheese, deli meat, and bread.

While I waited for my leaders to finish shopping, I wandered off like a toddler and found a walk-up cigarette shop. Russians love to smoke. The shop also sells gum.

Long story short, my fearless leaders got us back to the main train station and Sergei and Marina met us with additional goods: boiled chicken (a.k.a. rotisserie chicken), imitation meatball thingies that almost made me vomit, butter, rice, smoked fish, bread, and vodka.

We would find out later that two liters of vodka was not enough for our overnight train journey. As Sergei says, “There is a fine line between having a good morning and bad morning and the difference may be 50 grams.” Of vodka, of course.

We boarded the sleeper train around 8:30pm and I prepared myself for the stench of sweaty socks. Confirmed: It smelled like sweaty socks. The exterior of the train had seen better days, like on its maiden voyage in 1961. The interior of the train, however, looked as though it had been recently updated with new upholstery and paint and a remodeled bathroom.

One funny story about the toilet… Sergei explained that the bathroom would not be open until we were about 20 minutes into our journey because the toilet was just a “hole in the train” and all the pee and poop just drops out of the bottom of the train and onto the tracks when the toilet is flushed. So, in an effort to help keep Moscow clean, bathroom usage was postponed until the train was out of Moscow city limits. As it turned out, the toilet was not “a hole in the train” but we were not permitted to flush anything aside from pee, poop, and vomit. So, yes, poopy toilet paper had to be tossed in the bin.

Finally, smoking was not allowed in the cabins; however, was allowed in the rear of the train car next to the door with the window that opened. All-in-all, not too shabby.

The train car (a.k.a. coach) was divided into cabins, each with their own sliding door, accessed via a skinny hallway that ran along one side of the train car.

Each cabin slept four people, however, it could seat six comfortably. The cabin door was centered on the cabin and there were bunk beds to the left and right as you walked in. The top bed folded up to allow more headroom for people to sit on the lower bed. Opposite the cabin door was a window and a table that extended between the two lower beds.

Bed linens were wrapped in sealed plastic wrap, just like pillows and blankets are on international flights. Last but not least, there were a lot of hidden cubbyholes in the walls of the cabin – perfect for storing half liters of vodka. Al was super excited about the hidden cubbyholes.

We booked two cabins (next to one another), however, since there were seven in our group, one of the cabins would have an unfortunate and random bunk mate. We split into two groups:

  • Sergei, Marina, Dario, and Anya
  • Peter, Al, me, and a random female bunk mate (“Anastasia”)

I entered our cabin and started making our beds because I knew we would be returning to our cabin very early in the morning and I did not want to disturb Anastasia any more than necessary. While I was unwrapping the linens, Anastasia’s boyfriend appeared and then they pretty much started making a baby right before my four eyes. I felt like a bystander in a [drug name removed because I get literal hundreds of spam comments pertaining to that drug] advert. You know the one. The one with the two bathtubs on the beach. Most uncomfortable commercial ever. Yeah, that one.

I was trapped in the cabin. The love birds had blocked the door with their pretzel legs and I wasn’t sure what the protocol was for interrupting two Russians getting it on, so I put on my voyeur hat and sat there. Then Anastasia started crying hysterically. Not only was I trapped but I was confused with their situation and why she was crying.

At the time, I didn’t realize that non-ticketed passengers were allowed to board the train to say goodbye to loved ones, so I assumed Anastasia’s boyfriend’s cabin was elsewhere on the train. What the fuck was all the crying about? Could they not make love in his cabin? Could they not be separated for a mere 10 hours?

After 10 minutes of one of the most awkward moments I’ve had in my life, the train attendant stopped by and said that all non-ticketed passengers had to get off the train as the train was about to depart. This is when I realized that Anastasia and her boyfriend were going to be apart for more than 10 hours. I trained Anastasia (she spoke English) on how to use the steps to get up to her bunk and then warned her of what was to come over the course of the next four to five hours. Then I fled to Sergei’s party cabin.

Shortly after the train departed, Sergei set the food out and the vodka started flowing. The next six hours would go down as my favorite part of our trip to Russia. It has been a long time since I laughed that hard for that length of time. Sergei is very humorous and I hope that at least a few of my friends get to experience him one day, in a “Russian Social Experience” kind of way, obviously.

The vodka ran out shortly before 3am and I retreated to our cabin for some shut-eye. Al and Pete joined Anastasia and me in the cabin about 30 minutes later. Al had the bunk above me and his intoxication level obstructed his ability to get on to his bunk bed. Al hung from the rail of the bed for a brief moment before he figured out how to swing his leg up on to the bed.

We arrived in St. Petersburg shortly before 7am, hopped in a taxi (a licensed one!), and got a couple of hours of much-needed shut-eye in our sleep cave.

Click here for the next post in the ongoing Russia saga.

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