(Not so) strangers on the train

I just got back from a weekend in Kyiv: did a healthy lifestyles workshop at an international school, visited my host family in the village where I trained, and had a Healthy Lifestyles Working Group meeting. It’s nice to make a long weekend out of it because it takes 15 hours to get to/from Kyiv on the train.

And these train rides can be either interesting/pleasant or miserable. This was my first time on the overnight train by myself (on previous trips I’ve traveled with a fellow PCV), so I kept my fingers crossed for pleasant — or at least not sketchy — seat-mates. In плацкарт (“platzkart,” the 3rd-class cars that most PCVs use because it’s cheapest) you share an open compartment with three others (two sets of bunks face each other; the top is called верхнє (“verkhnye”) and the bottom нижнє (“nyzhnye”); I prefer the bottom because you can put your stuff under the bench and then you lie on it to sleep so it’s pretty safe). Two people are across the aisle in the бокове (“bokove,” the side beds with are smaller and thus not as desirable) seats. Everyone is pretty close together, so you can imagine that seat-mates could make or break a night on the train. I cross my fingers for women/grandmothers as opposed to guys who may or may not be drunk/creepy.

Luckily I ended up with great seat-mates on the way up to Kyiv on Thursday night. It’s interesting, train travel, because people are usually quiet and mind their own business for the first few hours. Not out of unfriendliness, but sort of as a way to feel out their seat-mates. After a while someone usually starts small talk, which may or may not turn into a full conversation. On Thursday my seat-mates were a young woman who looked like a student, and a middle-aged, overweight-but-well-dressed woman. Across the aisle were a babusia (grandmother) and what looked like her grandson. They looked like pleasant traveling companions but we didn’t talk to each other until the well-dressed woman asked to read the magazine I’d finished. I said “sure, but it’s in English. I’m American,” which of course sparked the usual questions: “what are you doing here? who pays you? don’t you want to go home?” etc. The woman was a nutritionist (I think) who was going to Kyiv for a conference, and we had a pleasant conversation. Then the girl, who had retreated to her top bunk, came down to join the conversation and the woman relayed that I’m American. The girl, 20-year-old Natalia who’s a Ukrainian literature student at the Chernivtsi university, later told me quietly that she was on her way to the U.S. to spend the summer with her aunt in Florida. She was cute. A few hours into the trip a man got on and filled the empty seat in our compartment. It soon came up in conversation that he was 41 years old, but he is the youngest-looking 41-year-old Ukrainian man I have ever seen! (People, especially men, age here really fast because the majority of them drink and smoke a lot.) I would’ve pegged him at early-mid 30s at the oldest; his skin was smooth, tanned, and he looked fit. Turns out he’s a former professional soccer player who had played all over Europe.

So Thursday’s train ride was a pleasant success. I hoped Sunday’s would be nice as well.

And it wasn’t bad. In fact, on the platform in Kyiv I ran into a woman from my town, Iryna (not the piano teacher), who I tutored a little bit in the winter and whose daughter I teach at school. She invited me to join her and her companion in their coupe (four seats, like platz, but enclosed. This is 2nd class and more expensive.), the entirety of which they’d bought out — she’s well-off, to say the least. So after settling in in my area I headed through the train — from car 11 to car 3 — to visit. Turns out they were just returning from a week in the United Arab Emirates; Iryna showed me pictures and we chatted for a while. Then she invited me to get off with her in a town before Chernivtsi so her husband could drive me back with her to Sniatyn. A generous offer, which of course I accepted — it ended up saving more than an hour of travel time. Back in my compartment, my seat mates were three men: two who drank some beer, which I worried a little about but they ended up being fine, and one man who spent the entire time reading religious books. I figured he was pretty safe to be sitting with. The only talk I had was a brief conversation with one of the beer men who noticed I was reading the Kyiv Post in English and asked what I was doing in Ukraine. He’d heard of the Peace Corps, which was cool.

Two successful train trips book-ended a really nice weekend with “family” and friends. And a plus on the Sunday train is that we got to keep the window of our compartment open for much of the ride — some people, especially older women and women with children, think that fresh air will make you sick and so insist on closing windows even when it’s 90*F in the train. I hope the rest of my train travel this summer is as tolerable.

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