I’m on the train bound for Odessa. The Ukrainian night is starkly black. I see no towns outside my window. In a way, I feel like I’m in Dr. Zhivago, traversing the lonely and foreboding Russian wilderness, yet I know that I’m passing through some of the richest farmland in all of Europe.
It’s a twelve-hour ride to my destination. At first, I was going to fly, even though the price tag was $299, an amount I was not thrilled to pay. My brother’s girlfriend, Marina, told me to take the train, so I acquiesced. It was only a nineteen-dollar ticket.
I didn’t want a twelve-hour train ride at first. A flight was only ninety minutes. However, I realized that the train ride would be overnight which meant I would be able to sleep. No time would be wasted by traveling during the day and I would have a savings of $280.
I purposefully bought a first class ticket consisting of a cabin with two single beds, meaning I might share space another person. My other options were sharing with three other people or with five other people. My Lviv host encouraged me to get one of the cheaper cabins and save ten dollars. He said I’d have someone to talk to. No way.
I wanted the time to sleep and write. I didn’t want to hear several other people snoring, laughing, and drinking vodka. Chances would be good that they wouldn’t speak English and I’d be sitting there with a blank look on my face.
So, I bought the ticket today, the day of the trip. At the time of purchase, no one had bought the other side of the cabin. I gambled that nobody would. I was right.
I had taken a cab from my lodging to the train station. Cab fare was about 67 hryvnia or $2.50. I gave the guy 100 hryvnia and called it good. The station in Lviv was reminiscent of other stations I’ve seen in Europe, particularly Milan—grand, elegant, an architectural masterpiece. Even though I can only read perhaps five percent of the Ukrainian Cyrillic alphabet, I was able to decipher which platform I needed for my departure.
Lugging my overweight suitcase filled with my gifts of cheeses, wine, chocolate, coffee and sausages, I found my train. It was nothing like I expected. Even though I know Ukraine is quite poor and is a former Soviet Union satellite, this locomotive specimen took me aback. It is probably sixty-five years old.
Everything in this train is made of steel. This is the era before the famous line spoken to Dustin Hoffman in 1965’s The Graduate: “I’ve got one word for you—‘plastics’”. In other words, if this train has a collision with anything other than a nuclear bomb, the train will emerge victorious.
The cabin itself has a mirror on the door and a mirror on the wall above each bed. The single beds give new meaning to the term “single”. My shoulders, seriously, are as wide as my bed, meaning either I have a fantastically impressive physique or this bed is unbelievably wimpy. I think it’s the former.
Two down pillows are provided along with two small towels. There’s hooks for a coat along with hangars for a suit jacket. Storage is above the door. There is also “storage” under the beds—about enough room for a briefcase.
The room has no electrical outlets, understandably, as it was built in an era before portable communication devices or even portable hair dryers. This means I cannot charge my iPhone or my laptop. After they die, I will be reduced to looking at pictures and video on my camera until it gives up the ghost. Air circulation is non-existent. The windows don’t open a crack, I’m assuming because the winters here are so severe. But what about the summers?
There’s a small rug that slides along the floor, just as there is in the hallway, making the use of a suitcase with wheels (an 80’s invention) cumbersome.
A water closet is down the hall and when I entered to answer the call of Mother Nature, I was perplexed for a moment as the toilet resembled a torture device. I never did figure out how to flush.
There is no dining car, not even a smoking car from that era. In other words, no snacks for me. I will have to resort to nibbling on a chocolate bar. Good thing I brought these food gifts.
Riding this train takes me into an era that I have never known. An era that was simpler. Of course, I don’t know what train travel was like even in America sixty-five years ago. Something tells me western trains had a few more creature comforts. Life under the Soviet system was austere and severe and had no room for such decadent things as a dining car or extra leg space.
At least I have this cabin to myself. So far. We have been traveling for two had a half hours and have stopped at least three times. I snoozed for a bit; perhaps we stopped more often.
I suppose there is still the possibility of a passenger invading my little domain somewhere along the way, a prospect I don’t relish. The thought of Boris Badenoff arriving in my cubicle and proceeding to fart, belch and remove his shirt to reveal a forest of hair on his back stimulates my gag reflex.
It’s now 8:00 a.m. We arrive in Odessa at 8:40. I finally fell asleep around 1:00 a.m. after playing a Frasier episode on my laptop. I’m afflicted with bed hair so I fear that I will cast a frightful figure when I meet Marina’s parents.
My iPhone is charged to fifty percent, or thirty-nine percent, depending on the ghost of Steve Jobs. Apple can’t seem to devise a worthy battery so it’s a crapshoot. My laptop battery is down to eight percent so I’m charging my phone as much as possible in case of a problem at the train station in Odessa.
The sun is shining brightly into my cabin. As I watch the countryside roll by I see thousands of acres of woodlands with scrub trees. The occasional town is exactly what I pictured—small and poor. Like something out of a news article in the seventies depicting a backward Soviet way of life. Of course, I cannot get out to see the lifestyle for myself.
Many of the houses are tiny and there seems to be a lot of debris and abandoned buildings. Nevertheless, one has to figure that, at least these people probably own their homes, something that was illegal under the Soviet system. I have an idea of what my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ hometown will be like.
I know I keep saying it, but I can’t wait.