*I just want to preface this, and to ward off angry comments, by saying that I love Ukraine and I love trains. Just not those two things put together.*
There is being uncomfortable, and then there is taking the night train to Kiev. Is it possible to get used to shuttling between the Ukrainian capital and its second largest city in a third-class compartment? Sure. It’s reportedly also possible for the body and mind to get used to various other tortures. It’s just a question of time.
Time is something I have way too much of.
I’m lying on the upper bunk in the open compartment typical of the third class, “platzkart”, wagons- the preference of the proletariat- desperately attempting to ignore the rattling of whatever that couple is doing in the bunk across from mine…
It’s past 2 am.
…and desperately wishing I hadn’t chosen the previous morning to sleep in.
Who am I kidding. We know full well what they are doing, don’t we? It’s common knowledge really. Couples only “do” one thing in bed. Unless they’re sleeping because they boarded the train exhausted. Because that’s common knowledge as well.
Common knowledge I had tossed aside in favor of a pillow eighteen hours before.
That’s the only way you board these trains. Exhausted. On the verge of passing out if at all possible, which should bring the news that a bottle of vodka accompanies many passengers as no surprise.
I have neither alcohol nor need to sleep, merely the staccato breathing of a shirtless old man on the bunk below me to pave the way for my lubricated dreams.
Lying here for hours with nothing to do but worry about the cleanliness of the sheets and whether your pillow is infested with bed bugs is a sleep preventative in itself. Feeling like you need to pee but are afraid of climbing down the bunks beneath yours is another.
Once down, plunging forward in the direction of the bathroom through a narrow slit congested with overlapping appendages and dangling limbs makes for a fun time only if you’re a fetishist, a peculiarity nevertheless cured by the smell emanating from most of these unshod feet. “This little piggy” is a horrifying option when dealing with such amphibian toddle toes.
Once through and able to breath again, I sling the little bathroom door shut behind me, a move which ripples through the unidentified liquid sloshing about on the floor. Not a good time to have forgotten my shoes.
Back on the hard board that doubles as a bed, my own feet now sprouting forth into the aisle, I try and regain a less painful position. Laying on my side seems the best variant, though with my nose pressed up against the pillow it may also open up my sinuses to an insect invasion overnight.
I realize I’ve fallen asleep when I’m jolted awake by someone’s hands pressing tightly against my feet. Though I had presumably left plenty of room, hands are gripping my soles and pushing them up towards me, as if they might simply fold nicely in place alongside my chest, or perhaps just break off. Worst of all, the train is stopped and I am now awake again.
Oh yes, trains (and sleep) require near constant movement. If for no other reason than the grating sound of the train wheels against the track blot out the cacophony of sounds coming from within.
In addition to the old man’s struggled breathing on the bunk below- the furtive movements of the couple on the bunk across long since elapsed- from somewhere seemingly above is a sound truly like a creature grasping for life. Sometimes growling, sometimes gasping for breath through untold layers of mucus, it’s enough to haunt any dreams that were thinking of granting me reprieve and send them instead hurtling in the other direction.
From somewhere deeper within the train a baby cries and the sound of a man biting his nails echoes.
You finally drift off to a claustrophobic sleep only to awake again to an intense spasm of groaning from somewhere nearby.
Readers aware of these trains will wag their finger at my complaining over a ticket that cost me all of six dollars, and they’d be right, only I’d be willing to cough up a whole lot more than that now just in order to get the wheezer across from me to stop flinging wet dollops of his nasal batter at the open window next to my head.
The sheets feel moist, and the sound of the man biting his nails is only growing louder, until I think the one thing might have caused the other, and only when the train starts moving again, nearly throwing me off my bunk, do I snap out of it.
It’s after half an eternity- the broken, antique serpent slithering once more across the bleeding Ukrainian landscape- that the venom of sleep finally takes hold.
Next stop: the dining car.