From Soberness to Fallout
There is nothing quite like train travel in Ukraine, especially in the summer. From the moment you first step onto your wagon, guaranteed to always be the one at the back of the train, to the moment you step off, smelling like you’ve been deep-fried and slathered in sweat, you’re sure to have a hell of a time.
My train to Odessa departs the station at 18:03 and, after the obligatory vodka stop, 18:02 finds me running down the platform to my wagon which, as you’ll remember, is always at the tail end of the train. When I arrive the porter gives me the same disgruntled look that every porter here has ever given me, and I clamber on board thankful I’m not in Germany where the trains always leave on time. Take note: when traveling by train in Ukraine be sure and take platz car if it’s a true Ukrainian experience you’re after. Platz car, also known as 3rd or, on those especially lovely trains, 2nd class, is like a visit to Dante’s 9th circle of hell; you’re not looking to stay a while. There are no cordoned off spaces, just one big common space crammed with as many beds as is possible to fit in a seemingly 500-year-old train. The thought of getting drunk here, as compared to last night, isn’t merely an obligation – it’s a pleasure. I learn a little over an hour and 2 vodka shots in that I’m not the only one who feels this way as a shirtless man with a shaved head stumbles my way.
Since I’ve lived in Ukraine I’ve more or less learned two things. 1. Be sure to have a cell phone with you in case you get stuck in the elevator and, 2. I would make the CIA’s worst undercover agent. It doesn’t matter whether I am speaking or not, I am always spotted, from a distance, as a foreigner. It’s enough to make me feel like “The American” in the George Clooney potboiler. Not because I’m a 40-something year old former World’s Sexiest Man Alive (got a wait a few years before the age lines up) but because like his character, we’re talked about as a singular entity.
Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, taking vodka shots with Dmitry. Like most Ukrainians, Dmitry doesn’t speak a word of English beyond simple metro speak. English was added to all the metros in the Euro Host cities just before the games started last month. Dmitry demonstrates this newfound proficiency along with an ample wave of his hand to illustrate the words: “Doors are about to close. Next stop, hell.” Yes, Dmitry added that last part, as there is currently no metro stop on any of Kharkiv’s three lines that currently go by the name of “hell,” though that may surprise you once you get here.
Like most Ukrainians Dmitry has the rare ability to not only out drink me but to more or less appear normal in doing so. That is, as normal as he appeared initially, which isn’t saying much. After my third shot I can feel that familiar lightness in my head that always precludes drunkenness. I remain however, more or less silent, even though Dmitry is peppering me with so many questions that I start feeling drunker by the minute. I can’t understand a word the guy is saying though he seems utterly oblivious to this, gesturing wildly with his hands and speaking at a pace that would make it difficult to understand him even if I did speak Russian. He pauses momentarily to gauge my understanding of something he’s said and must read my blank expression as evidence that I need more vodka. He passes the bottle to me, which is actually my bottle, but before he does he motions for me to watch him as he takes a giant swig of the clear liquid. I then take my own swig, as much as I can muster before I inevitably start choking, and notice faintly how the vodka has acquired the taste of sausage and cucumber. As I’m wrapped up in this thought, Dmitry takes the bottle again and downs another Russia sized gulp. By this point, I’ve about lost count of the number of times I’ve been passed the bottle and am clearly starting to feel the vodka radiating through my head and emanating warmth through my chest. My sensory skills have improved though, and suddenly I’m aware of the entire wagon’s eyes on us, me particularly. I feel once again like some rare exotic fish doing continual flips out of the water and drawing the attention of all those passing.
“Oh my god, look! It’s an American drinking vodka!” I imagine they’re thinking to themselves. No one else seems to be drinking though, which strikes me as odd considering this is an overnight train ride in Ukraine and in platz Car to boot. I mean, if there was ever a reason to drink, this would be it! But instead the entire wagon seems to have gone silent, a silence broken only with Dmitry’s rapidly spoken Russian, or Ukrainian… I’m not quite sure which it is anymore. He cackles wildly at something he’s said and the grating sound reverberates against the fragile walls. A heavy-set woman dressed in a much too tight matching white shirt and pants suddenly appears next to Dmitry, by the sound of it ordering him to do something. Judging by her pixy haircut and a gash on her right ear, it won’t be another haircut.
He responds to her repeated orders by taking another swig of the vodka bottle and waving her off with a dramatic flourish he must have gotten from mistakenly tuning into a BBC series one day. Lady Catherine de Bourgh would be proud.
Dmitry’s, errrm, wife, shouts something at him, the bitterness wearing her face like a carnival mask, and after a little more huffing and puffing returns to her seat about 10 meters down the train where a little round-faced boy of about 5 stares back up the wagon at us. Dmitry is mumbling something under his breath now, his swags off the vodka bottle more frequent than before. The wagon lights are now dim, the whole place awash in an eerie silence punctuated only by Dmitry’s increasingly loud mumblings. I fear he has fallen off the precipice, utterly unaware that the lights are down and the rest of the wagon is asleep. I’m nearly off it as well, my head beating as if my brain is struggling to retain those last bits of sanity.
Dmitry hasn’t gotten any quieter, causing eyes to flutter open and burn into me, as if somehow I am responsible for corrupting this poor Ukrainian househusband.
I find myself in the position of trying to plot out my second escape in two nights, only this time I’m on a train where freedom seems to have run out. Dmitry’s wretched moaning seems to have reached an ever higher pitch, my shushing having no effect. I wrack my brain for ideas, but it doesn’t want to cooperate, pulsating like an electromagnetic force field keeping useful thoughts out. My weak legs manage to prop me up and I slink down the train car like a melting Gumby, dangling feet smacking into me and slowing my progress toward the door at the end of the wagon. Even in my drunken state the rank odor the army of feet gives off causes me to sober a little, slapping them away from me I propel myself through the wagon as one would machete their way through thick, tropical foliage. When at last I push through the door at the end of the jungle, I find myself face to face with yet another door to my right. I stand there a moment, contemplating whether a jump from the train would be especially wise, though it’d get rid of the smell. One last bit of rationale convinces me otherwise, and I instead stumble through the door on the opposite side.
My brain is pulsing faster than ever, echoing that of my stomach. I suddenly understand what the reactor at Chernobyl must have felt like, seconds before melting down. I imagine the toilet hovering below me will be just as adept at containing the fallout as the reactor wall. At this moment I don’t think I care.