“Uh, pozhaloosta,” shit, I don’t know how to say ‘can I’... oh, wait, “magoo,” oh shit, I don’t know how to say 'put'—Nik said that was complicated, didn’t he? “Er.” <You point to your bag, then to the shelf over the girl’s bunk>.
The girl says, “Nyet, eto nash.”
OK, she thinks you don’t know it’s not yours—but she’s not using the space...try again. “Uh, pozhaloosta...mnye,” <point between bag and shelf> “nash chemodan...?”
The girl repeats what she said before. Hmm, this isn’t going well...
“Yes, a little.”
Bingo! “Can you ask her if we can use her shelf for our big bag?”
“Sure", he says. Then, to the girl he says, "позалуста, етиамерикански зчяиешЪёйасчн, учфдинжаве зйчасклн.” (That is, Russian gobbledygook to your ear.) And then she assents. You load the bag up, thank her graciously, and then explain, “Ya biolog. Mui izoochayem lastochki.”
“What?!” says the girl in English, “you study lastochki? Why?” And then ensues a conversation you’ve had several times in several countries around the world. Why are you here and what could you possibly want with some little birds?
< --==0==-- >
This is all to say that, although still strikingly absent the bacchanalian atmosphere we had been expecting, the second leg of our travels on the railroad were considerably more entertaining than the first. Apart from playing cards and attending Valeri's unending stream of jibes, I passed most of my time in my bunk. I slept fitfully in the balmy compress of my alcove, reading, or simply observing the sensorial commotion around me. Throughout the cabin hovers the faint smells of chai, smoked fish, and ramen. I hear the somnolent scrape of a foot displacing a sheet; the distant exaggerations and laughter of old men; the sinusoidal pitch and cadence of motherly chat; and above the dinging and clattering of the train, the lilting ebb and flow of children, laughing, singing, and carrying on in perfect understanding, only partly comprehended by adults in any language.
Nineteen hours on the train came and went, leaving us with pleasant memories, new acquaintances, and new expectations for Tran-Siberian train travel. If our second leg on the railway is any indication, the last part of our trip on the Trans-Siberian (between Chita and Vladivostok) may have some surprises in store. But for the next month we will travel the American way—by car—across the Baikal region, in search of two barn swallow subspecies contact zones. More on that to come.