I felt nervous about going to Russia, the same way I felt about Myanmar and China. I’m a relatively intrepid traveler, but the combined force of a different alphabet, not so much English and a regime that feels repressive makes me quiver a bit. But I had the most magical times in Myanmar and China, and being in a place in the flesh among people just living their lives makes all of the warnings about surveillance, data-hacking, personal danger, vague feelings of unease all recede. Going into a place, the Warnings are loud; when I’m in a place, what I notice is the woman trying to pretend her shoes don’t hurt her, a couple telling each other about their days walking home.
I took the train because it felt romantic in the literary sense, the right thing for Intrepid Spinster Wandering the Globe. (But I also upgraded, because I can, and I like to lie down whenever I can. Unlike all of the Emperors and Queen and writers like the Brontes who slept sitting up. When did people realize that lying down to sleep wasn’t flirting with death?).
I liked that the Conductrice (there is no other word) for our first class wagon was wearing a skirt and comfortable shoes and a little hat with a red hammer and sickle emblem on it. I liked that the food in the fancy car was delivered by a woman with two reusable shopping bags, one with a snack pack of a bad packaged croissant, a yogurt and an apple juice, and the other a plastic box full of still-warm blintzes.
There is something about a train frontier that’s unique, not the stamp stamp stamp of airport immigration or the oddly intimate interrogration of having a border guard peer into your car. Especially when no one speaks English. The officials come to you, one at a time, in your little personal cave, and observe the nest you’ve made in 3 hours, the half empty haribo bag. First the Estonians, handing you back the papers you’ve filled out and flipping to find your entry stamp in Frankfurt and stamp you out, then a looooooooong wait while they cover the entire train. Then a creaking across a long high river bridge, past the red post marking Russian territory, guarded by one soldier on the river bank. Then the Russians. So many of them. The kind woman who takes your passport away to inspect the visa that cost $600 but will give you freedom to move about without a guide, the man with the broken nose scar who peers into the carriage and looks around, the two men with the sniffer dog who licks your hand (blintzes), then the woman who asks you about anything to declare and looks upward, decides to leave you alone.
And that’s it, after more than 90 minutes. You fall asleep, ish, in your little nest, hoping the Conductrice will wake you up when it’s St. Petersburg. You wake to see the 1030 pm sunset over the fields, and wait as you flow through the edge of a city, then get off the train at midnight in a huge station that has withstood wars and rebuilding and time and deprivation. And a loud anthem spreads through the station, greeting you. A song of St. Petersburg.
And in the station, like at the Great Wall of China, the first recognizable brand is Subway.