Sunday, September 6, 2009

Train to Kazan

I took the train at 10pm from Moscow to Kazan on Sept 2nd. On the train I met Michael who spoke some English. He had some very disturbing ideas about Americans. He said he saw on the news that a Russian child came to live with American parents and they killed it. He made the gesture of shooting a gun. Once I understood what he was saying I said 'niet'!! He said 'you don't speak the truth'. He literally thought I was lying. So I spent more than 30 min trying to understand what he meant. Turns out the American parents had left the child in the car on a hot day and it had died. I had to look on my translator to find 'on purpose' and say 'niet', 'niet', 'NIET'! I told him it made me very sad he thought anyone would do that to a child on purpose. I think he may have finally believed me, but that is a scary example of the Russian/Soviet propaganda machine at work.

He also thinks all Americans own guns and all women cry rape. Through a weird conversation I told him about the rapist in Philadelphia that I beat with the bat. He made a "roll your eyes" face and said 'all women say rape'. I explained to him the guy came in my window and was definitely a rapist. He seemed to understand and then asked why I didn't just shoot him. (Again, the hand like a gun gesture.) I said because I don't have a gun. He said 'you don't speak the truth'. I said I didn't understand and he said 'ALL Americans own guns'. I said niet. None of my friends own guns. I explained that my uncle owns guns to hunt but none of my friends own guns to kill people. He seemed very hesitant to believe me.

Then he started asking me if my parents have money. When I said none at all he asked if my friends parents have money, and do we put it together - like in the same bank account? I said no only when you are married. He was making me very nervous with these questions, like he was assessing how much ransom someone would pay for me! I even slept with my pocket knife under my pillow, but he turned out to be very nice and he must have just been curious because I wanted to ring the hotel and reserve a room in Kazan so he called for me. He reserved a room and then he proceeded to insist that he and his work colleague drive me there. He then came in with me and made sure I wasn't overcharged and the room was available.

He said he studies English because he would like to move but it is very hard to leave Russia. Can you imagine not being allowed to leave your country?! He said he doesn't want to live in America though because we are all about the individual person and not the collective, like to take care of one another. He said that Americans don't like black people and I said 'but we have one as our President. America is changing.' He looked thoughtful and finally said, 'this is true.'

Our other bunk mate was a strapping young Russian man of just 20, but he was wearing more gold than Midas, and was carrying a Gucci travel bag and wearing an Armani t-shirt and Dolce & Gabana jeans (he proudly showed me the label). I asked what kind of work he did and he said oil. Michael translated that he works for a Houston firm and he does drilling. Oil brings in big money for Russians and they like to display their wealth prominently.

I put my things in the hotel room and ate breakfast, and then set off to explore the city. The white Kremlin is the city's main attraction, but first I found a gorgeous mosque built in 1723. I saw all the women entering were wearing head scarves so I motioned to my head like 'it is necessary?' she said yes and pointed inside and said 'skolko', which means roughly 'how much' or 'to buy'. I try to be very conscious and respectful of other customs and cultures, so I put my jacket over my head, went in and bought a head scarf and then went back outside to put the head scarf on. I hope I am leaving a good impression of Americans here in Mother Russia.

After visiting this mosque and taking some beautiful pictures, I wandered in the direction of the train station to exchange my 3rd class ticket for 2nd class. A woman at the tourist info office wrote out in Russian for me exactly what I needed and I showed it to an official-looking woman at the station. I explained that I needed a 'bank-o-mat' first, as the train stations do not take credit cards. This wonderful woman walked me across cobblestones in her stilettos, to the station next door with the ATM, waited for me to withdraw money, walked me two buildings further away, stood in line with me, and told the cashier what I needed. She even waited until I had the ticket in my hand and checked it before bidding me goodbye. I said 'spa-see-ba bol-shoy bol-shoy', which means 'thank you very, very much and typed into my translator, 'you are a very kind person'. She said 'puh-zhal-usta', which means 'you're welcome', 'not at all' and 'please'- all in one word! lol

I continued to wander and came across an automotive flea market. I took some pictures and indicated I would like to buy an air freshener. It seemed like too much money so I bartered but she said 'niet'. I pointed to the lesser amount I had written and said 'souvenir' trying to explain I didn't want to pay much because it was just a souvenir. Without saying anything more, she took it down and handed it to me. I pointed to my lesser amount and she said 'niet' and pressed it into my hand and said 'souvenir'. She just gave it to me and would not accept any money. Russia is full of wonderful people.

Then there are the not so great ones. To visit the white Kremlin/mosque women must have all their skin covered and everyone must have their shoes covered. Since I was daring a skort and sleeveless top this necessitated having a Muslim attendant wrap cloth around my waist and shoulders, and everyone had to wear paper hospital booties (which of course we had to pay for).

Unfortunately, I got the male attendant and as he was wrapping my shoulders he grazed my chest. It ran through my mind this might have been on purpose, but I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. But the second time when he more like pressed his hand into my breast I knew it was no accident. If I had have been fluent in Russian I would have told him is it not a sin for a Muslim man to touch the breast of a woman who is not his wife, and not even a Muslim?! I would have told him he should have his hand cut off. But since I can't speak Russian, I just walked away feeling slightly violated. I surely hope Muslim women do not have to put up with that kind of treatment.

As I was taking the train to Irkutsk that night and would be on it for 3 days, I went the grocery store (called 'magazine' here) and stocked up. I will spare you the details of trying to find what I was looking for, but will relate another 'this is Russia' story. When I went to check out it was half an hour to closing time. There were literally 12 people in line and 3 store employees, including the apparent manager, were just standing at the only open check stand. Two guys came up to the line and they only had one beer each. When the employees waived the guys forward I thought they were going to open the other cash register for people with only a few items. But no, they just put them at the front of the line in front of all 12 other people who were waiting; "This is Russia".

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