Monday, December 24, 2012

So there I was....

Story time.....

April 28th 2012.

Let me set the stage a little for you. Here we go.

There is nothing quite like a Russian train. Those of you who have traveled Europe on trains have no idea just how thrilling a night train can be until you have found yourself scrunched up on a 4-foot long plank, crammed into what is essentially a shipping crate on wheels chugging tortuously slowly through a frozen Russian tundra, which is filled with as many other 4-foot long planks as it can hold, all of which are occupied by sweaty, haven't-bathed-since-the-Cold-War Russian people that have no sense of propriety nor privacy as they munch on their kolbasa while sitting in their nappy bumhuggers and cussing loudly about why they are still alive. And heaven forbid the sun come up... cuz if it does then the frozen ice chest on wheels becomes an Easy Bake Oven within 30 minutes. Air conditioning still has yet to break through the old Iron Curtain.

So there I was, young, restless and on train headed from Lugansk to Kiev. That train fell two hours behind schedule... somehow. Honestly, how does a train fall behind schedule in the first place? Did we run out of coal? Maybe we got stuck behind a herd of babooshkas crossing a dusty road on their way to the market. Maybe the conductor fell into a vodka-induced stupor and forgot to push the button that makes the train go. What an idiot.

Two hours behind schedule. Yep. This essentially turned my already 16 hour train ride into an 18 hour hell-coaster full of Russians sweating, stinking, snoring, screaming, swearing, and standing around all fat and naked-like. I was pissed.

*on a side note from when I left Russia for Ukraine:
 The border police from Russia were decent folk, probably happy to have me leaving their country and not stealing their women. The Ukrainian border police stared at my passport for 15 minutes, intermittently looking up at me, probably trying to figure out what reason drove me from my plush, beach-side condo in Florida or California or wherever it is that I hobnob with movie stars on the daily and drive my hummer. They probably figured I was there for their women. Or that I was an international criminal.

Back to my awesome train ride.... So, by the time I arrived in Kiev I had about an hour and half until my flight was leaving for London. This mean I had just enough time to catch a taxi out to see the temple in Kiev. That was cool. My taxi driver even got out of the cab and took some pictures of me in front of the temple and asked some questions. She was a nice lady. I tipped her.

So the time came for my flight to leave. Then that time passed. Then 45 minutes passed and my flight still hadn't left. The travel gods were pitted against me. The delay of this flight was of particular annoyance, and I'll tell you why. The reason this was a big deal was cuz it was my sister's wedding anniversary and she and her husband were going to travel Europe at the same time as me before they settled in Spain for her husband's summer internship, only they had a different itinerary. I was hoping to meet them in London before we went our separate ways since I hadn't seen a member of my family for 5 months.

The 45 minute delay got me into London 45 minutes late, as you might expect. Now, I was already on a touch-and-go schedule to catch my train from London to Hollyhead, which left at 11:30 pm. After my flight delay I had to stand in a line of angry Russians for another 45 minutes at the UK Border Passport check. Once through, I asked the nice British lady at the information desk what the fastest way to get to Victoria Station was. That's where I was meeting my sister and her husband. She directed me to take the Greenline Express. So I did. Little did I know that the Greenline Express made about 14 different stops before it made it to Victoria Station. It took me over an hour and a half to get there.... All the while I was trying to send message on my iPod to my sister over a sketchy WiFi network to let her know of my dire situation.

By the time I arrived at Victoria Station it was already 10:56 pm and my train for Hollyhead left from Euston Station in a meager 34 minutes. The problem here was that Victoria Station is at least a 30 minute drive from Victoria Station, but I didn't know that until later. So I jumped off the Greenline Express bus, and ran in a panic to try and get to the departure board my sister had described to me where we were supposed to meet. Only I couldn't find it. I couldn't even find the right entrance into the station. I ran around outside looking very tourist-ish (touristy?) and surrounded by British accents, which can be pretty distracting.

I looked at my watch after jogging back to where the bus dropped me off and the time showed 11:04. At this point I realized that there was no chance of finding my sister and if I stuck around much longer I was going to miss my night train across England, which would mean I would miss my ferry to Ireland, which would mean I would have to re-purchase train and ferry tickets and also find a place to stay in London. Which would mean a lot of money. Panic set in. The panic was heightened when I realized I needed to find a taxi and had nothing but Ukrainian grieven, Russin roubles, and a some American dollars on me. No pounds. I needed an ATM.

I ran a little further down the street and stumbled upon the entrance to Victoria Station that I had been frantically searching for, complete with giant departure board where I was supposed to meet my sister. Her and her husband weren't there, of course, but there was a string of ATMs. I hastened over to them and put in my card. I had no idea what a taxi was going to cost, but I figured it couldn't be more than 40 pounds, so that was the amount I requested from the machine, only I pushed the wrong button and requested it in dollars instead of pounds. Crap. So I told the machine that no, I was not finished with my transaction and finally got some pounds to work with. I turned and sprinted out the exit and tried to flag down two different taxis, but they were occupied. The light on the street adjacent to me turned red and I noticed an empty taxi stopped at the light. I ran up to the man and asked him (and I don't know why, but I think I used a British accent thinking he would understand me better) how much to get to Euston Station. The able taxi driver pulled the cigarette out of his mouth and tapped the meter. I hopped in.

I wasn't sure how to explain my situation in British English, so I just clenched my fists in the back seat and would ask how much further every couple of minutes. The nice man kept assuring me that it was just up ahead, but my time was running out. It was already 11:19 pm. I swear we must have hit every red light on the twisting path from Victoria to Euston and I was sure I was going to miss my train. I steadily watched the meter creep up over 15 pounds, but the cost was the last thing on my mind. I needed to catch my train.

At 11:25 the taxi pulled up in front of Euston Station. The total charge of my taxi ride was something like 18 pounds, which I found out later was something like 40 dollars.

I grabbed the two bags I had and sprinted up the broken escalator into the train station. I had less than 5 minutes to get my tickets, find my train, and catch it.

I found the automated ticket booths and spent about a minute there before I realized they were the wrong ones. So I found the right ones, which were just behind the wrong ones, and printed off my tickets. I searched the departure board for where my train was leaving from and it showed A. Turns out that platform  A was clear down at the opposite end of the station.

So with my two bags bouncing around me like children around a pinata, I booked it as fast as I could through the station and rounded the corner of the platform just in time to see my train beginning to shut all its doors.

The station attendant ahead of me saw my situation and that it closely resembled the situation of the Asian man who was 25 yards ahead of me and also sprinting to try and catch the train. The attendant took my ticket, tore it in half with practiced accuracy, told me I better run, and wished me luck with all the sincerity that a British accent can hold.

So I did. I ran.

As the train's last doors closed and the wheels started turning I jumped into the last car. I literally caught my train as it was leaving the station. It sounds cliche, but it happened. Then I shook my fists at the heavens in defiance of the travel gods who tried to destroy my travel plans. Little did I know they would have the last laugh.

Now, the ticket system is weird on the trains in London (but man do they have awesome trains!). For my trip from London to Hollyhead I had about 6 tickets, which confused the bejeezus out of me. My head already hurt from the previous day's train ride delay/the flight delay/the Greenline Express extravaganza, so I  I dozed off for a few minutes... and I missed my stop where I was supposed to switch trains.

Yeah, you can imagine the string of curse words the ran through my mind.... then down my cerebral cortex... turning into little electrical impulses that then reconstructed themselves as actual curse words that were shouted forth from my mouth. Fury. That's what I felt.

*Pictured: Not me.

I comported myself and went walking down the middle of the train to try and find someone to help me. It was the final stop for that train, and I found a bunch of attendant people in the last car beginning to go through and kick everyone off the train. They were really nice, and when I explained what happened to one of the ladies there, she told me that another train would be coming through this station at 5:45 am and could take me the rest of the way to Hollyhead. It was then 2:34 am. Rather than shaking my fist at the travel gods, I decided to offer them sacrifice by way of reading a handful of boring travel brochures and feigning interest. Then I took up a seat on a bench in the waiting room that one of the attendant ladies was nice enough to unlock just for me. Feeling safe, I dozed off again.

At 3:25 am I was awoken by a gentle tapping of a finger on my shoulder. In a hazy fog I came to, and perceived that a family had joined me in the waiting room. I still have no idea why they woke me up, but the mother apparently was trying to engage me in conversation. Trying to. It was difficult. She was from Dublin, Ireland and spoke with the thickest accent I have ever heard. It didn't help matters that she had been pounding a bottle of whiskey and was tossing in Irish slang every other word. Incomprehensible.

But I pretended like I understood and it soon became apparent that I was not from around wherever it was that we were. When I was revealed as an American, things got much more interesting. But this is a story for a different time. All I will tell you for now is that it involved me, a man from Yorkshire who's claim to fame was that he grew up near Sherwood forest and liked to beat his kids, the drunk Irish lady who you already met that tried to spike my Coke with her whiskey, a kid who stole a cell phone and was on the lam from the police, a different guy with weird teeth that acted as everyone's moral compass all Jimeny Cricket style, and a ham-and-brown-sauce sandwich that was absolutely delicious and gross at the same time.

Delicious because I was so hungry. Gross because the angry, drunk Irishwoman made it with her grubby hands and gave it to me. Bless her heart. 

And that was only the first 18-or-so hours of my Europe adventure. There's more, but it will have to wait. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

we'll leave some footprints in the sand, they won't stay, but we won't mind...

I usually mostly always only love to do the things that I am good at. That's why I hate playing basketball. I distance myself from it.

Growing up I always had a comfort zone of things that I excelled at--like eating half a box of Cap'n Crunch for breakfast and finishing the second half after I got off the bus at 2:23 pm, or being able to spell "legitimately" even though I didn't know what it meant yet, or being able to tie my shoes so that the loopy part of the laces were exactly the same length, which always made me run faster. Life was much more complex for me back then. There was so much I could do.

Whenever my brothers and sisters and I would play games in the backyard I always took it a little too seriously. If we were playing army men, then I wanted to be an army man. A real one. So I'd dress all in green, strap knives to my lower legs, shove as many guns as possible down the sides and front and back of my green sweats, and go crawling through the flora and fauna of my mother's garden, getting a ticklish feeling in my stomach that made me feel like I had escaped my 10 year-old life of cleaning my room and coloring inside the lines. Then my mom would call us for dinner or FHE or something else of less importance, and I would have to let go of that feeling. And I was sure I was the only one who ever got it.

Now I'm a Junior in college, and that ticklish feeling never really finds me anymore. I look for it when I write, but I can never focus enough. It would come to me on Friday nights underneath stadium lights, but that was 5 years ago. I felt it when I saw a girl I liked after a while of her being gone, but she's never around. I get it when I read, sometimes, but only if it's something I've never read before by someone I've hardly heard of. Sod was laid where my mom's garden used to be, and shoe laces fell off the ladder of my priorities a while ago.

Different feelings that aren't so ticklish sometimes thump their way down into my stomach, now. Like when I open the door of a dark, empty chapel and see the obedient pews still facing the podium, though no one is there. Or when I come home later than usual and sit in my grandpa's old lawn furniture out back, trying to take some of the quietness and put it inside of me. Or when I see a young, crippled person walking with a cane 60 years too soon.

Maybe those are the feelings I really want, because they find me much more often. Or maybe it's me that seeks them out. Maybe I'm just growing up, but I don't think that's what growing up really means. I don't want it to.

I used to stare out the window of the car and know that I was going to be exactly what I wanted to be, but I didn't do it quick enough.  Now I'm a Junior in college. My life that used to be so complex has become terrifyingly simple. And that ticklish feeling--the one that used to gurgle inside me with a plastic gun wedged somewhere between my bellybutton and the earth--well, maybe I distanced myself from it when I was no longer good at dreaming.

Monday, July 9, 2012

"my three words have two meanings...but there is one thing on my mind" Lego House--Ed Sheeran

The world might not be in as bad of shape as it is if all the people in it were Irish. Not the big city Irish people either, but the ones from the small fishing towns and villages along the coasts. But I'll get to that later. For now I need to get caught up on what happened between now and Moscow. I wish I had the patience to sit and write out all the details of everything I remember, but I don't. At least not for here on the blog.

This past winter in Moscow was the longest winter of my life. Maybe because I was away from home again. Maybe it was because it snowed almost everyday right through the first week of April. Maybe it was because I didn't have a nice, heated car and had to hoof it everywhere I went. Maybe it was all of those things. Maybe there were a few more reasons, too.

It was also the most memorable winter of my life.

Maybe it was because I lived on a floor full of foreign students in a dorm on the campus of the Russia Academy of National Economics under the President of the Russian Federation (pretty official sounding, eh?). Maybe it was because my atheist professor could have doubled for the part of Professor Trelawny in the Harry Potter movies. Maybe it was because I had a German bishop with a Russia-hating wife in an international branch where I was called as a primary teacher. Maybe it was because I was back in the former Soviet Union and this time I wasn't a missionary. Maybe it was all of those things, but there are definitely more reasons, too.

About two weeks into my stay in Moscow I went and bought a $40 guitar to give me something to do in my down time. I don't play very well, but that guitar made more friends than I did. It all started when the rest of the international students got moved in to our floor and decided to get together in the commons area and drink. Me and my roommate (2 of 3 Mormons living on the floor) got a knock on our door that night and invited to come out and drink with everyone. Well, we didn't drink, but we ate a lot of chips.

After about an hour or so of people drinking and me eating chips, the other Mormon lad on our floor asked to see the guitar that I bought. Before long we had 17 people from 10 different countries crammed into a tiny dorm room singing "Heart of Gold" as loud as they could--over and over and over. We must have sung it 7 or 8 times in a row. This taught me one of the great truths of this life: that good music and enough alcohol can bridge any language, cultural, or age gaps.

The dorms in Moscow made our social life loads more fun. Because we were on campus so much we were able to meet lots of the students, who wanted to hang out with us because we are from America. We even got to "teach" two classes of students studying English. And that was where we met Anna, who in turn introduced us to Seva and Vannya. These three people are some of the greatest that I know.

The first time that I met Seva and Vannya was when they picked us up and drove us outside of Moscow to a foster home for young boys. On the way we stopped at a supermarket and Seva bought a bunch of juice, cookies, crackers, notebooks, pens, crayons, and play-dough to take to them. I found out later that  Seva and his father have been doing this sort of thing for years, and he brings his friends with him whenever he goes.

While on the way to the foster home, Seva told me about a conversation that he had with a young black student living in Moscow who's father died recently. His father had been the one paying for his tuition, so when the payments couldn't be made anymore the university kicked the young man out and gave away his spot in the dorms. I listened, and then logged it away in the "Sad Stories" part of my brain.

The day after we went to the foster home, Seva took me and my Canadian friend Simon (who lived on the same floor as us and was one of those that got super drunk the night we sang "Heart of Gold" a thousand times) and treated us to a game of Russian billiards. While Simon and I were playing, I eavesdropped on a call that Seva made. Seva, in less than 24 hours, had found a place to stay and a job for this young black student. 

That story is the best way that I can describe Seva. His friend Vannya is cut from the same mold. And I found myself wishing I was more like these two Russian 20 year-olds--wishing I would do good things for people just because I could and wanted to, and not because someone was expecting me to. They drink, smoke, swear, watch what would be R-rated movies if Russia had any kind of a rating system, and do just about everything that would be condemned by any Happy Valley-an.

But more than that they are good people.

This post took a little different direction than I intended. I'm tired and going to bed. Looks like I'll have to catch up on my Moscow adventure in periodic installments.

I'm not even close to telling you why the world would be better if we were all small-town Irish folk. But I'll get around to it--maybe in a month or six.