Monday, September 21, 2015

Patriotic fervor

As I write this, I’m on a “signature” train dashing from Irkutsk to Kazan’. The train is gorgeous and everybody in our wagon seems dignified and friendly. Any of them would make good roommates. Our actual roommates are a couple of doctors, parasitologists, on their way to a conference. They keep pretty much to themselves, but they’re certainly courteous, thoughtful and pleasant. They also sleep later than either Carrie or I. I fled the compartment first, overcome by the heat accumulating up there in my upper berth. Carrie ultimately tracked me down to say that the restaurant car, while not officially open, was unlocked and pleasant.

Since then, we’ve been hanging out, off-and-on, in the restaurant car all day. The restaurant crew works for a private company owned by an unspecified oligarch. Being around them so early in the morning, we came to understand their esprit de corps and we’ve gotten to know a few of them by name. So after Carrie went back to the compartment this afternoon, I went over and asked to sit down with one of the kitchen guys and a railway fellow chatting with him.

Presently, my interlocutors found out that I’m American. The railway guy offered his derogatory and racist opinion of President Obama and then the kitchen guy explained why Russia is behaving so aggressively toward America. He said that it’s in the Russian nature to give, and give generously. But, if that same person were to reach out and take something, that Russian guy would chop his hand off immediately. To emphasize the point, he explained Russian strength. He asserted that you could take any American soldier, with his fancy uniform, electronic apparatus attached to his breast and weird gear on his helmet; and if he threatened the nationalism of a drunk Russian villager, the drunk Russian would break the G.I. in half. Russians are that strong, he affirmed.

The more he talked, the more heated he became. I said nothing except to answer or dodge one or two questions. When they asked me if I thought Russia were an aggressor, I answered honestly and openly. I said yes, I think both Russia and America are acting like aggressors and I’d like to see the end of it. My tact didn’t overcome my honesty, and it fired up the guys even more. I got a better opening later, allowing me to address the kitchen worker individually. I pointed out that he and I had white hair and opined that we know better than most people that we weren’t always right in our lives. We may have thought so when we were young, but now we’re not so sure. He nodded in agreement. I continued, explaining that since we know we might be wrong, we also know that we should listen to each other so we can find out where we may be mistaken.

After a while, the train guy asked me why I came over to their table in the first place. I explained to him that I’d been in the restaurant car early this morning and came to understand that the staff might be better understood as a band than as a team of coworkers and I found it pleasant. My companion had left the dining car and I had the choice between returning and hanging out with “my own,” or else going over to talk to somebody with a new point of view. I chose the latter. “Right!,“ Dmitry exclaimed. At this moment, we introduced ourselves to each other and the conversation turned. Now they want to drink vodka with me this evening, so I had to explain how disappointing I am to my Belarusian friends, but I just don’t drink. It’s OK. Vladimir and Dmitri treat me now as a friend, and I’m grateful for their goodwill. We know we’re friends as people, even if in some respects our countries are at loggerheads.

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