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When Russian concrete enters the soul


I’d been teaching English as a Second Language in Kaliningrad, Russia, for about 9 months. I was beginning to feel about as drab and lifeless as the concrete cellblocks that lined the streets, which most Russians called home.  Winter refused to relinquish its icy rule, despite the efforts of Spring and the result was an ugly in-between slushiness that wet your feet and stained your soul.  It was time for a holiday.  Time to shed my Michelin man jacket and knee-high boots and exchange them for a cardy and flip-flops.  With the assistance of one of my students, Vova, a dark-haired guy with a quick mind and even quicker tongue, I booked my eight-day tour of Italy.

It was a 5am departure time from a car park in the city.  Arriving in time to throw my stuff in the bus and be introduced (a series of grunts and gestures) to my pouting 17 year old travel partner, Yulya, we found our seats and began to make them our own. Apart from Yulya, who spoke English quite fluently, no-one else on the trip spoke more than about 5 words of English.  I was not much better in that, even after many months of immersion in that knotted language I’d still only managed to learn the very basics.  This was bound to be amusing, if nothing else.

It was about a three hour drive to the Polish border which was our first stop.  As we got closer and prepared to unload our gear for customs I could feel the anxiety set in.  It had been my experience that if anyone was going to hold up a busload of people at an international border manned by big grumpy men who don’t speak English, it was going to be me.  But thankfully, not this time.   On the other side of the checkpoint, the group made their way over to the duty free store.  It was a shed like building with a fluoro light and a single glass-top counter where ancient and weary looking product samples rested in peace.  After purchasing what appeared to be the entire contents of the store, my travel companions made their way back to the bus and we all settled in for the seven hour drive before us.

Having never been on a bus tour before, I didn’t know what to expect other than a numb butt and a lack of sleep.  However, a few hours into the journey and it became clear to me that this wasn’t going to be a typical bus tour.  Within an hour or so of leaving the border we found ourselves pulled over on the side of the road.  I could hear Yulya talking quite excitedly with the girls seated around us and of course I was curious to know what was going on.  The woman who I assumed was the tour coordinator, a short blonde lady with too many teeth, looked quite unimpressed as she spoke with the guide and the driver.  Yulya, in her desire to include me simply turned to me and said, “oh my God, they’ve forgotten the fucking tour bus papers”.  Without these papers, we could not get past our next border into Germany.

The tour company was actually based in Lithuania and the driver had left he papers in the Lithuanian office.  That was two countries away!  All we could do was wait there on the side of the road surrounded by forest and the promise of rain.  I confess, I was happy for that time.  It was cold and damp but I felt something warm within me.  The greens seemed so much greener and the blue sky so much bluer here in Poland.  I wanted to gather up all the colours and take them with me; wear them in my hair; make them my own.  I settled for a bit of pink in the cheeks, for now that was enough.  About four hours later the papers were delivered and we were back on the bus.   

Through my leaking window I watched the Polish countryside hobble past me in the rain, clutching at its brokenness in defiance, determined to recover and progress.  I wondered where Russia’s determination had gone.  During the time I’d spent in that weary country I saw nothing but yawning wounds left to fester unattended and apathy towards what lay ahead.  I was scared that even after my very short stay in that world, its bleakness had begun to infiltrate my heart and corrode my spirit.  Italy was the answer; I’d find myself again in that land of colour and pride.  We just had to get there first.

As the afternoon set in, those cold Russian barriers came down and were replaced by drunken camaraderie and Russian hospitality.  All the smoked fish wives put aside their scowls for a while and unwrapped their pre-packed three course meals for their pickled cucumber husbands.  I felt quite silly with my dried fruit and nuts; so western.  Cabbage and vinegar.  I can still smell it now.  It’s difficult to know what was worse, that or the smell of 40 adults in a confined space for 12 hours. 

What a merry crew we were as we headed for Germany, and so we remained until the lady behind me started yelling out at the top of her voice.  I looked around and saw a brown liquid dripping down on her from the roof and smoke pouring out the back left hand side of the bus.  Once again we were on the side of the road.  People were not happy. As I stood alone in the patchy afternoon sunlight, I couldn’t help laughing and capturing the moment on camera.  English speaking foreigners are a rarity in Russia and I felt an overwhelming sense of their shame over the events of the day, as if all that had taken place were a direct reflection on them and their hospitality.  Catching a few of their eyes and smiling broadly, I was relieved to see smiles returned and in some small way, the mood lightened.  

In an hour the problem was fixed and eventually, by about 11pm we arrived at the German border.  After waiting like innocent criminals for 2 hours, all cheer frozen from us while they studied our passports, we herded off together back onto the bus.  It was 3am before we got into bed that night.  Hours of circling the Leipzig industrial area in search of our hotel left the majority of us exhausted and cranky, no longer able to see the funny side of anything.  Sleep visited briefly, and hastily left at 6am allowing us to prepare ourselves for another Act of this comedy of errors. 

Aside from two or three distinct experiences that stand out in my mind, the rest of that trip remains a series of smudgy green and yellow images through my rainy bus window.  I quite like it like that.  At the time, I don’t believe that adventure cured me entirely of my chilly grey depression.  It’s only been in hindsight that I have understood the ephemeral nature of colour.  It occurs to me that perhaps it is necessary for us to dull and fade, to lose the rosiness in our cheeks and the golden-brown tint of our summer skins.  For without losing them, how will we ever know the joy of finding them again?

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