Note From Jon


Monday, May 5, 2008

The Mission: Two train tickets to St. Petersburg

A short diversion before I continue the photo-accompanied daily recaps (I’ll document a couple Darrenisms to compensate for this photo-free post)…

On Monday, Kristin and I went to work. Kristin began her three day conference and I went to work on procuring train tickets for us to St. Petersburg. I clearly had the shorter and presumably easier (at least if I spoke Russian) job. We’d planned to purchase the train tickets before the trip, but I was unthrilled with the travel agency’s attempts to tie my visa support to the tickets (from which liberated me), and then we were told by another agency that “all tickets on all classes of all trains are sold out” (which made me question burning bridges with the first agency…apparently I am not at my most cordial when I get up a 4am to have an email exchange during Russian work hours), so we were left to try our luck purchasing tickets in country.

I was well prepared. Joe let us copy his train tickets and I wrote out a note asking for two more tickets exactly like his, which the front desk crew was kind enough to translate and transcribe for me into Cyrillic (so what if you have to iron in the maid’s quarters with a friendly staff like that!). I followed Joe’s map to the Kaccas (ticket windows) in the Belaruskaya train station and was feeling pretty good as I handed first the note, then the tickets, and then a copy of each of our passports to the ticket woman. Everything was going so smoothly in fact that I felt emboldened to try to confirm that the tickets were first-class “spalny vagon” tickets with only two beds in a cabin. It worked. Not only did she understand my request (well, on my third pronunciation of “spalny vagon”) but I understood her confused question “vamistya?” (together with? if I remembered the lessons correctly) and was able to explain that yes Kristin and I would be “vamistya” in a two-person car but not “vamistya” Joe obviously. This was too easy!

And it was. After some clicks on the keyboard, her face registered there was a problem and she began explaining the situation to me. Shortly, it was clear I had no idea what she was saying (I got lucky with “vamistya”) and I sheepishly asked if she spoke English (at least I asked in Russian). She didn’t. This was going to be fun. In a mix of English, Russian and charades, I found out “this train no spalny vagon”. Joe’s first-class tickets weren’t as classy as he’d thought. Kristin and I really wanted to get the best night’s sleep possible on the leg of the train to St. Petersburg since we’d be busy touristing all day. To us this meant avoiding sharing a cabin with some of the boisterous vodka-fueled cabin-mates we’d read about before the trip (on the way back to Moscow we had no such qualms and had planned to get third-class platzkart tickets before we found they actually were sold out). I got across that I wanted to consider other trains that did have “spalny vagon” cars. She understood and spun her screen towards me. My consideration didn’t last long as all of those tickets were 25% more for one way than the round-trip tickets I was trying to buy. The ticket woman solved the problem by showing me the beds available on Joe’s train and pointing out that Kristin and I could travel in the same cabin “vamistya” Joe. Sold. We’d only have one stranger with us. One Russian couldn’t be that loud… right?

She went on to purchasing the return trip. Click, click, concerned face. We knew each other well enough now that I got a single word and a hand gesture instead of a string of Russian. I didn’t know the word but the gesture said “higher”. I guess the price had gone up since Sunday. She spun the screen to show me the new fee. God bless the Russians for using the same Arabic numerals that we use because although I couldn’t read much on her screen, I could see the new higher price and more importantly I could see what I was pretty sure was the date. 25.05. May 25th. Not April 25th. Now that would be a problem. Of course seeing this issue and conveying it to my charades partner were two very different things. I tried the most direct route of contorting my arm through the hole in the ticket window and pointing to the error. My Go-Go-Gadget finger wasn’t working though and I came up a couple feet short. Thankfully we had a good rapport by this point and she didn’t feel threatened by me reaching through the window at her (in hindsight that could have been a bad idea). What followed was a string of me saying “four” or pointing and saying “not four” (I couldn’t remember “five” in Russian). The problem was she took this to mean I didn’t want four people in my cabin! This was not going well. I smiled apologetically at the growing line of Russians behind me… and proceeded to spend the next five minutes looping through the number for four, the hand signal for five, and the arm signal for I-want-to-point-to-something-on-your-screen- but-can’t-twist-my-arm-through-your-window. Then I remembered the word “Date” in Russian was something like “Datee” (only afterwards did I learn that April and May are equally close cognates in Russian and English!). I tried that. Success! She fixed the date of the request and viola, the price matched Joe’s ticket once again. As I learned throughout the trip, the tourist season starts in May and therefore a May ticket is more expensive than an April one.

I purchased the tickets with the cash I’d brought (6,600 Rubles or about $280 total for the two round-trip second-class tickets). Like the rest of my experience in Moscow, they didn’t take credit cards. Tickets in hand I spent five minutes next to the counter matching every single name and number between our tickets and Joe’s until I was convinced that we had the right tickets (or that they were at least as right as Joe’s). Of course you’ll have to read the future entries to find out if the tickets actually got us to St. Petersburg and back… or if we wound up getting a tour of all those Russian territories I only know from playing Risk (Irkutsk, Yakutsk, Kamchatka anyone?)

<-- Day 2 ---- Days 3 and 4 -->

1 comment:

Emily said...

Yay! A few words go a long way! Did you learn via podcasts?