It was around October I believe. All current research Fulbrighters had been summoned to Moscow for a two-day meeting with the program advisers to go over additional information about the fellowship, as well as answer any questions and address any problems, etc. It was supposed to be a quick, easy, trip. It turned out to be the night I really wish I learned how to use maps better.

Nizhny is located to the east of Moscow, about four hours if you take the Sapsan or “express” train.  All other trains take about eight hours or so, with many running overnight. I naturally had booked tickets on the Sapsan, due to depart that day after my Russian lesson at the university. I packed my suitcase for the weekend, headed to my Russian lesson, and asked my tutor which bus to take. Should be simple enough, I thought. There was a bus station right next to the university. I just had to get in and wait till it pulled up to the only train station in the city. However, once I got to the bus stop, a sad realization swept in, “What if I’m standing on the wrong side of the street?”

I’ve always avoided buses. They’re not particularly conducive to my directionally-challenged nature. I learned how to navigate subways long ago, and the Moscow metro is wonderful in its simplicity. However, Nizhny’s metro only covers half the city. The “marshrutkas” are the main means of transport in the center. My first few days were a nightmare, but then a friend recommended a wonderful app—2GIS—to aid me in my navigation woes. Unfortuantley, while 2GIS shows you which bus number to take, it does not, however, show you the proper side of the street (unless you’re one of the crazy individuals who can read a map properly).

Following my Russian teacher’s instructions, I initially stood on the same side as the university (i.e. the correct side). But then I began to question this decision when the bus I was looking for did not come, but it passed by the other side. Worried about missing my train, I decided to hop on over to the other side and jump on the bus. I looked at 2GIS, which appeared to confirm the accuracy of my route. Now, I don’t remember what exactly I had typed into 2GIS, but the directions I was following were to the “station” where boats docked. In other words, the oppositie direction of the train station. I called Patrick, the other Fulbright student, frantic, and he confirmed that I was, indeed, going in the opposite direction. I jumped off the bus at the next stop, crossed the street, and waited for the next available bus headed towards the train station.

At this point, I knew there was no hope—I was not going to make my initial train. However, there was still one Sapsan left. But timing would be tight. I called our Fulbright advisor in the hopes she could help me purchase my tickets. Sadly, at this point, the official website for the Russian Railways did not permit payment from American bank cards. To purchase tickets online, you had to go through a third-party website. We used Tutu. Since Tutu was not showing any available seats, but the official website was, I had one choice—I had to buy the tickets at the train station.

As soon as the bus arrived, I rushed inside the train station doors and ran to the ticket coutners. My heart sank. Before me were long, long lines. There’s a reason people are willing to pay a commission in order to purchase railway tickets online. The other option is to either go to the ticket counter or use a machine that looks like it was taken straight from a 90’s sci-fi film. The process of buying train tickets is more complicated than in the United States. For one, even if you are just traveling to another city, you have to provide your passport information, which then must be input into the computer. You also have to pick your seats and then of course pay, and as a general rule, Russian cashiers do not work fast. The whole process can take 10 minutes for a single person purchasing one seat. The minutes were ticking away when the worst happened—the cashier put up the “pereryv” sign. In other words, it was time for her ten-minute break. I rushed to the next booth and finally arrived at the counter, only for that same “pereryv” sign to go up at the next counter. I pleaded with her through the glass, but she just tapped her finger against the sign. I went back to my original line, got to the counter and asked for a ticket. I would have just enough time to make the train.

“Sorry, we stop selling tickets 30 minutes before departure.”

“What?” I asked, looking incredulous.

“Yes. We can’t sell you a ticket for this train.” The reality set in. I wanted to cry. So much wasted effort. So much wasted money. The only option was to take the train overnight, something I had never done by myself before, and arrive early in the morning. I also had to wait for another 2 and a half hours before I could board.

Nizhny Novgorod has one major railway station, and it is a far cry from the massive, overpopulated railway stations in Moscow. It consists of the ground floor, which has one small cafe and market for essentials, and a below-ground floor where you can find a few little food kiosks, similar to those you would find under the Moscow metro. I decided to grab some food (a banana and fries) and take a seat near the cafe. I was prepared to sit there for the next 2.5 hours.

Then I noticed the man sitting next to me, perhaps in his forties. His clothes were riddled with grease spots, and I distinctly remember his broken fingernails, caked in dirt beneath the surface. He began speaking to me. I’ve never been good at handling these types of situations. My American sensibilities make me want to be polite, but the voice of my mother saying “Don’t talk to strangers” makes me want to walk away. Of course, in the Nizhny Novogord train station, there aren’t a whole lot of places to go.

He told me he was from Dzerzhinsk, a factory town not far from Nizhny Novgorod. He worked in one of the factories, hence the grease stains and dirty fingernails. Now, my Russian at this point was not as good as it is now, so I’m not entirely sure of what he said, besides asking me where I was from. I think he told me I was beautiful. I know he told me that I could come to Dzerzhinsk, become his wife, live a comfortable life, not work. I smiled and excused myself to go to the bathroom. He offered to watch my bags, which I naturally declined, and then he hastily asked for my number. I gave him a fake one. So much for my plan to just wait at the cafe.

At this point I was just sort of pacing around various parts of the small rail station, eventually settling in on the second floor waiting area. At long last, I could board.

I actually love Russian trains. They always run on time, and, unless it’s a high-speed train, they all have beds. There are three classes. Third class is known as “plastkart” where there are no cabins but just one large car. Beds are situated in groups of four on one side with sets of two along the windows. It’s cramped, loud, and void of privacy, but it can be great fun. It’s a great way to meet locals, and, if you’re lucky, get offered some food from the enormous tuppleware containers Russians inevitably bring. Second class is a four-person kupe. There are two top bunks and two bottom bunks enclosed behind a set of doors. First class is the same set-up but with only two beds.

That night I was sleeping in a four-person kupe. While kupes are arguably nicer, it’s also a bit of a gamble. Who are you going to be forced to spend the night with behind locked doors? Will they have small, loud children? Will the men be sleeping in something other than just their underwear? Will your fellow passengers be drunk and insist on inviting stranger into the kupe while you sleep? Upon reaching my bunk, I quickly assessed my neighbors. A couple was on the lower bunk and next to me on the top level was a man who looked to be about my age. He offered to help me as I shoved my suitcase into the tiny overhead space above the bunk (I live in fear that my shoes will be stolen).

“Where are you from?” he inquired, quickly taking note of my accent.

Oh no. Not this again.

“America, the Chicago area.”

Shocked, he asked, “How old are you?”

“22.”

“And you came all the way here, to Russia by yourself? Are your parents ok with that?”

I give a little chuckle. “Not really. But they didn’t really have a choice.”

“Why are you here?”

“I received a fellowship to study Russian peasants.”

That response elicited an incredulous stare.

The next few hours we chatted, first about what I was doing in Russia, and then about his life. He told me he returning to Moscow from a business trip. Although he was just two years older than I was, he was married with a small child. He showed me pictures of his family, clearly very much in love with his wife.

Eventually I tried to sleep, without much success. The top bunk is always quite stuffy. We arrived at 5:30 in the morning, before the metro even opened. I had to take a taxi to get to the hotel. Now, at this time there was no “Uber”. “Yandex.Taxi” was still pretty new, and even if you used an app, by asking to be picked up from the train station, you were guaranteeing yourself a phone call with the driver in order to explain your location.

Now, several years later, I consider one of my greatest accomplishments the ability to speak with Russian taxi drivers over the phone. At that point, particularly at 5:30 in the morning and no sleep, I had no such ability. Fortunately, my new friend from the train was happy to help. He walked with me over to a cafe where we could sit down. He purchased me a cup of coffee and then sat with me, in the cold, while he ordered my taxi and spoke with the driver to explain exactly where to pick me up. He then led me to my cab, only saying goodbye after confirming with the driver that I was indeed being taken to the correct location. After such an evening, I was eternally grateful.

Now, some may suggest that the man on the train had alterior motives, but I tend to believe that he was just genuinely interested in the small girl who had traveled on her own to Nizhny Novgorod. He friended me on Facebook a few days later, and, with the help of Patrick, I successfully made my return train (Sapsan) to Nizhny.

While difficult in the moment, this night is now one of my fondest recollections of my time in Russia. For one, I think it excellently illustrates what I mean when I tell people that life in Russia is just harder. In addition, it’s the story I use whenever people ask if the stereotype about Russians being gruff, unfriendly, and rude is true. Yes, if you walk into a coffeeshop, you may not always be greeted with a smile. But, when you need help—should they choose to assist—they go above and beyond. They might now always ask you “How are you doing?”, but they’ll offer up their couch for you to sleep on for two months, rent-free, while you look for an apartment, even if they hardly know you.

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