Linguistically Challenged: The Train From Helsinki to Moscow

I have travelled a lot over the last decade and have never been a victim or even an observer of a Culture Shock – being hard to shock in general, I always thought it was a bit of a myth.

Being too adventurous and open-minded for my own good, without knowing any Russian and failing to research the fact most Russians do not speak English, I boarded an express train from Helsinki, Finland to Moscow, Russia. I somehow managed to work out the extravagantly complicated train ticket and waited patiently in the wrong aisle for two hours at the Helsinki train station. Staring at the ticket, I wondered, if by chance, it was intentionally designed  that way to send clueless foreigners like me who did not know Finnish or worse, Russian on a wrong train off to Kazakstan to fend off ill-fed chickens and aging women with no teeth in retribution.

After what seemed like a week I looked around and saw the 200 people who were waiting for alternative trains had left. I asked what looked like an employee (actually a Policeman) where I needed to catch my train. He looked at me from head to toe and muttered something in Finnish (I think…not knowing the language and all, it could have been Afrikaans for all I know) He pointed me to the direction of a train that looked like it was about to leave. With one oversized suitcase, one large duffel bag, a backpack, a handbag and a train ticket I ran after the employee climbing the ladder into the first carriage. I yelled, “I have a ticket!” The Officer saw me and obliged. “No, you are not first class. You are in the 22nd carriage. We are about to leave. I suggest you hurry.” Perfect English, just not what I wanted to hear. The train had sat in front of me for a good half an hour. I had stood there like a complete douche lord waiting for it to leave without me, apparently.

I started to run – well, waddle with the baggage both physical and emotional weighing me down past 5 carriages. I looked at the next carriage number – 12. Are you kidding me? I kept running, regretting not bringing running supplies with me. A gallon of water and some Shape Ups would’ve come in handy. I stopped next to carriage 19. I needed to catch my breath. I started to waddle again as I heard a loud whistle. I ran to what felt like Siberia. Finally, I got to carriage 22. I hadn’t noticed until then, just how long each carriage was. Was it built to migrate countries? The Russian Officer at this particular carriage did not speak any English at all. Luckily ‘passport’ in Russian sounds exactly the same as the English ‘passport’ – only if you had swallowed a fly halfway through pronouncing it and decided instead of spitting it out in front of company, you’d swallow it.

I handed over my passport. They looked at me from head to toe and muttered “Australie?” “Niet, Australie…AUSTRALIE?????” among themselves in surprise. I know for a fact I wasn’t the first Australian to board a Helsinki to Moscow train but felt if they didn’t fear looking ridiculous doing so they would’ve searched my bags for a pet Koala or a Brown snake. With an excess of  72 kg of luggage I climbed the ice-covered stairs into the carriage and slipped face first into the steel entrance. Hurrah!was my first thought…I am not dead and I did not split my head open. Nor was I wearing a skirt.

Inside the train my problems really started. Once I found a place to stash my oversized luggage (right in the middle of the anorexic aisle obviously sized up for Alessandro Ambrosio or a malnourished person of some type) I walked into my “cabin” to find a young blonde girl. She was from Russia but lived in Helsinki with her Army Officer husband who was Finnish. Moments after the train took off, a Russian Officer came into our cabin and angrily dictated lightening speed Russian for a good four minutes before handing us both a form. Convinced they just had a heated argument of epic proportions, I had hot flashes thinking within minutes I would find myself dead and hacked into small pieces and stuffed under the Soviet floorboards. As it turns out I have an overactive imagination and she was offering us a mild tea.

Of course the form she handed us was in Russian. It was also long enough to keep me occupied for the trip. I asked the girl in my cabin to help me. I knew some of it which was obvious even in Russian. The rest of the form I didn’t understand, was asking about valuables, if I wanted insurance or if I was carrying a weapon or cash. (Who would smuggle a semi automatic into Russia? Someone who missed the memo on Stalin and KGB perhaps) My newly acquainted Finnish friend saw I had 6000 roubles in my pocket which is roughly $200 US and thought I was an English Aristocrat and assumed I was intent on purchasing her or the Kremlin. I could never quite figure out which direction she was leaning towards.

Four hours later we finally completed our forms. The Russian woman came back in and yelled something at me in Russian. I hadn’t learnt to say, “I don’t speak Russian” so I sat there blankly staring at her trying to understand through sheer telepathy. I must have looked like a complete snob or an illiterate hobo. She complained to the girl in my cabin that the form was in English and she was unable to translate it so the Russian Officer asked the Finnish girl to translate the written English to spoken Russian. My stressed-out Finnish friend who had now aged roughly 6 years since meeting me mere hours ago proceeded to read out loud each answer in English and then translated it into Russian and at times, into Finnish, when she couldn’t figure out the direct translation. Paper work is always a pain but in three languages when you only speak one, it becomes tedious and stressful. I fear now that if I did want to buy her she wouldn’t let me. I was too much work. The Kremlin could have me as far as she was concerned.

Ordeal aside, time began to fly on by and I become nervous for the first time in my entire life. Am I stupid, brave or just naïve? I don’t even know Russian. I don’t even know how to say I don’t know Russian. The sun slowly dawned on Moscow and an announcement followed shortly after.  All I understood was “Mockva” and assumed it meant we would be there soon.

I had no idea that when I was looking out of the window that the next six months of my life would be the hardest, most isolating months I would ever endure. The girl who sat looking out of that window is not the girl I am today. Being so isolated physically, emotionally and linguistically, all I had was myself and through this 6 month journey I was able to find out who I really was. Sometimes you need to be shocked, whether to bring you enlightenment, to show you that your beliefs and way of life are not the only way or merely to garner an unexpected emotional response. When I exited the train station I arrived to the below sign, I swallowed my pride and started walking into the unknown. This was going to be a long six months.

Have you had a similar experience?

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