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Just Expat Things – Day Ten. Railroad Symphony


Tonight, I catch the overnight train to Lviv.

Finally, one place in Kyiv that hasn’t changed a bit since two years ago. The train station.

A friend and I drink McDonald’s coffee while killing time before the train. I keep wanting to check my phone for the live platform update. UK brain deformation number four, I think.

Around us, minibus drivers shout out destinations every few minutes. They carry large placards – Poltava, Rivne, even Lviv. But it’s the shout-outs they rely on to get some fare.

The scene puts me in mind of the space docks on Persephone, in the pilot episode of Firefly. Not entirely uncivilized, but outside the core planets of the Allied Federation. Far enough for the rustic charm of shouted destinations advertising long uncomfortable travel. Truth be told, I’ve always wanted to come to the station, buy fare for the first destination I hear, and just go. Maybe next visit. (No, really. I wanna.)

Boarding the train. Showing passport. Shooting down a joke about my relation to the Belarus president.

The smell inside cannot be confused for anything else, ever. I can’t even begin to dissect it. Trodden-on (downtrodden?) rugs, plastic leather of bunks, heavily used bedrolls… but those don’t have individual smells that make up the blend, they already smell of it. What makes the blend?

I buy a coffee served in an unmistakable pidstakannyk. Legend has it these are the reason for the supposedly Slavic-exclusive habit of drinking tea with the spoon still in. In a mug, the spoon is irrelevant. In a pidstakannyk, it keeps the glass in place.

Train attendant asks me if I like Nescafe Classic. “Does anyone?”

He asks where I’m from, marvels at my Liverpool origin, then questions the reasons behind the goggles on my head.

“Steampunk.” – “What’s that?”

I try to deliver an explanation in fifty words or less, but he’s not listening, instead commenting that a garna divchyna [pretty girl] like me shouldn’t ruin her looks by wearing this weird thing on her head. I intend to laugh it off, but my feelings for his advice must show on my face already – because he instantly adds, “I kid, of course, you wear what you like.”

Why, thank you, sir. Sir is too kind.

Making the bed on the top bunk of a moving train: +3 to Agility. Changing clothes while lying down on said bunk – another +2. (Putting on sweatpants back to front: -2 to Charisma.)

My friend and I stay up late, to the annoyance of the two sleeping strangers we share the compartment with. “Вагонные споры – последнее дело…” Not exactly arguing, though. Just talking in hushed voices, deep into the night, about handling good and evil in fiction, the different manner it was done by Tolkien, Sapkowsky and Martin, and whether a writer has responsibility to use their skills in a certain way as opposed to another.

Train wheels add punctuation to our talk. Ba-dum, ba-dum. Pause. Ba-dum, ba-dum. A clanky, rhythmically arrhythmic heartbeat.

You don’t get that sound in the UK trains. Theirs is more of a steady roar. The fancier the train, the more it sounds like an airplane.

Ba-dum, ba-dum. Pause. Ba-dum, ba-dum. I can honestly say I’ve missed that sound.



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