Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Train Ride

Spanning the length of the corridor that all passengers have to walk down to get to their individual compartments is a long narrow rug.  Covering the rug is a long thin piece of cotton material, perhaps meant to keep the higher quality rug underneath clean.   In a few places in the corridor, the rug is askew.   It was not that way when we boarded the train, however after all of the passengers pulled their luggage and belongings across the full length of the rug… it was no longer in its proper position on the floor. 

“Go back to your place!” yells the cranky old conductor.  Who, interestingly enough, reminded me of the Disney villain Ursula from The Little Mermaid.  

“But, I have a question” I calmly respond.

“Go back to your place, I am trying to fix the rug and you are bothering me!” Ursula’s twin looks up and then over my shoulder nodding at me and the gentleman behind me.  She tugged forcefully on the rug that we were standing on to prove the point that she could not complete this task while we were standing there. 


“I also need to ask…” the gentleman politely interjects.

Focused, determined and insistent the cranky conductor interrupts him yelling:

“I already said go back to your places!”  

Reluctantly we turn around and walk back to our compartments.  I feel the villainous eyes of Ursula’s twin boring a hole in the back of my head as I calmly walk all the way to end of the hallway where my compartment is located.  

Laughing, I related the incident to Tom complete with an imitation of the cranky old conductor… just as I finished my story the young happy “how can I help you” conductor knocks on our compartment door, sticks her head in and sheepishly asks:

 “I hear you have a question?”

I ask my question about the entrance form we have to fill out for Ukraine.  She answers with a smile and leaves after making sure we have everything we need. 


Tom and I realized that the cranky old conductor has probably been working on the train longer than the younger one has been alive.   The older gal would have started working during the time when there was no concept whatsoever of customer service as there is now with the younger generation of people in service positions.  From the moment we approached to board the train the younger conductor was earnestly making sure that all passengers had their needs met and questions answered.   The older one works the night shift and had been sleeping when we boarded the train.   She was still in her housedress, with four curlers strategically placed in her hair, when she began working on the rug. She completed her mission with the rug and went to change into her uniform before the passport control officials boarded the train around midnight.

It would be easy to interpret her behavior as rude or callous and therefore assume that all Russians are that way.  But, that would be wrong.  I have seen her type many times over the past four years that we have lived in Russia.   One might see the very same woman in her home or meet her in the company of a mutual friend and experience her as being warm, loving and having an incredible sense of humor.  The public face is often different from the private face.  Even in America one person might smile and laugh with co-workers, greet everyone with a warm and friendly “how are you?!” only to come home and raise hell with everyone who is unfortunate enough to be a part of the family.

It is important for each of us to realize that we see the world through the eyes of our own culture.  I love watching the show Amazing Race.  One episode in particular from several years ago stands out in my mind.  There was a male team, from New Jersey I think, that was frustrated with the people around them not speaking English.  In letting out his frustration one of the pair swore “those #@&% foreigners!”    Always remember when you travel abroad… You are the foreigner!  You are the one who is different.  The culture around you is functioning as it normally does.  You may be frustrated, disappointed or perhaps shocked with what you see, feel or experience but that is part of the process of acclimating to a different culture.  This in turn will serve to broaden your world view and prepare you for further travels.   And if you run into Ursula the cranky conductor along the way… just smile and get off of her rug!