You’re probably anxious to get to Irkutsk and the charming lake town of Listvyanka, dear Reader, but I assure you there is more excitement to be had on the train. A Trans-Siberian trek is very much about the journey rather than the destination so let’s sit back and enjoy some more down time…
The girls and I are sitting quietly on the bottom bunks and I can’t seem to focus on my book, my thoughts and gaze are drawn to the landscape beyond our cabin window. Wide open fields are interrupted by upstarts of small villages – some of them full of quaint, charming Russian homes and gardens while others are overwhelmed with large, dilapidated tenements from the Communist era.
Some of the tenements look deserted until I notice the occasional potted plant in a broken window or laundry on a line. This isn’t uncommon in Siberia where many communities are simply dying as younger generations forsake their homes in search of work in the cities. Perhaps it’s just my western mindset, but I find it surprising that these buildings are not torn down, not repurposed, not memorialized in any way – they are abandoned with a shrug of the shoulders, left behind for the siren song of work and a future elsewhere.
I glance at my cabin mates and wonder where their thoughts have wandered.
“And the heart is hard to translate, It has a language of its own…” Florence + the Machine plays in the background. “It talks in tongues and quiet sighs, And prayers and proclamations…”
Making an International Impression
Olga wanders into our cabin to chat and, as it so often does when women are together, the conversation turns to men. She says something about how women often cry after “going with” a guy and the flip American in me retorts, “If you cry he’s definitely doing something wro-“…I cut myself off abruptly realizing I’m not in Boston anymore – this might be a thoughtful cross-cultural conversation about two souls becoming one. I stop fiddling with my backpack and sit next to her, my active listening fully engaged.
“Russian girls, they go out for drinks and then they go with some guy and say ‘oh hee hee! This is fun!’ but then, the next day, the girls cryyyy! Russian girls try to be like American girls but they can’t. Because they are Russian.”
I laugh. “Well, I have news for you: American girls can’t be American girls. Mostly they pretend to have fun.”
Olga eyes me carefully for a moment.
“I don’t understand,“ she muses aloud. “People who do this, they are empty inside and are only trying to make themselves feel better.”
I don’t disagree but I tread carefully in conversations like these, not knowing my new friend’s background and what (or who) we are actually talking about.
After a moment I say, “I think you should only… go with… people who make you feel loved and safe. And never let anyone else tell you how to have fun.”
Olga seems to approve of this response.
For the remainder of the trip we tease her about calling us slutty American girls. I mean, technically she didn’t – but she so did! There you have it ladies, in case you were wondering, the world thinks we’re a bunch of free-loving sluts.
All kidding aside, it is interesting to hear other countries’ impressions of the United States. The “frisky American girls” theory is one I have heard in my travels before, but I have also heard we think we are above international law. I have heard we are a greedy society, boastful and too proud, young and eager to make our presence known. I have listened as people who have never been to the United States rave about it being the best country in the world – which always makes me feel a little bit sad. Sometimes someone will ask a question about the U.S. and I feel the pressure of speaking on behalf of my entire country (even for those uber-conservative square states in the middle).
I pause for a minute thinking about the illusion of fun perpetuated by these abstract Slutty American Girls. I wonder if perhaps there isn’t also a Great Gatsby-esque quality to our grand American dream as well. How accessible is this dream to the average American? Where are we excelling? And where do we need to improve?
These are big questions for a girl on vacation and I decide to make some tea. As I approach the samovar I see OCD Provodnitsa is blocking the hallway as she folds laundry. I make a huge point of rolling my eyes and acting annoyed – not because I actually mind waiting for her to move, I just want to feel in on the haughty, grumpy joke. She looks at me stone-faced and lets out a long, slow sigh. I’ve managed to disappoint her again.
Brace yourself, dear Reader. Next time we actually get somewhere… the beautiful Lake Baikal!