People you meet in train stations
Pasazhyrskyi was exactly the sort of name I wanted for Kiev’s train station. Add the neo-baroque interior with its multi-level chandeliers hanging from cavernous ceilings, and starkly decorative interior levels that were simultaneously ornate and austere, and I was enchanted. It felt like travel, for me and for locals, whose constant flow gave the place a kinetic momentum that dared you to stand still.
That was the main atrium. The room to the right was different. Lined with dozens of ticket windows, each with their own immobile line, this room felt like a storage closet where fully charged batteries have been left so long, you’re not sure they’ll work anymore. My list of cyrillic letters was growing, but this was beyond me, so I picked the shortest line and gave the embarrassed inquiry “English?” She drew a 68 on a square of paper and pointed.
Window 68 had a short line too, but the woman in front was leaning on the counter in a proprietary way that spoke of long-term occupancy. I’d had enough time for my feet to gain a feeling of concrete permanence in place when the twitchy fellow behind me opened a conversation. “So, where are you going?” He asked. He was standing too close.
My modern traveler’s caution went up, but he’d hear the answer in a minute anyway. “Lviv,” I answered, “and you?” Somewhere I’d never heard of, a university there. Where was I from? He said he was from Germany. His accent and appearance were pure Chinese. He asked what I thought of Ukrainians. I told him how much I liked them, feeling like we were working down a list of prepared questions, wondering where it was going. He bagged on Germans for awhile and I told him I found them a very welcoming people too. He asked if my credit card would work here. Did I find Ukraine expensive?
The blank wall mindset is familiar. Firm-faced, it offers no offense but denies encouragement and implies a willingness to react strongly if they push it. I suspect all travelers know the mode. It takes awhile to shake off. A good meal helped. Then I went to check out Kiev’s subway system.
The station was hectic but ample, a blend of Soviet iconography and European modernism, and since I had no need to be anywhere in particular I decided getting lost for awhile would be fine. In fact, it seemed inevitable. Except then a voice said “Can I help you? Where are you trying to go?” and gave a bemused smile when I said nowhere in particular. This guy, on his way home from work, had entirely different energy from the pushy train station guy, and when he said his train would pass a temple I hadn’t seen yet and invited me to tag along, no alarms went off in me. By the time we reached the stop (that I probably would have missed on my own) it felt like I had a new Ukrainian friend.
Neither experience was particularly remarkable, neither drastic, and both happen every day, but they showed part of the reason I find travel so addictive: the incredible vulnerability of it. I didn’t know where to go, the best way to get there, or who to trust. (I also didn’t know that “Pasazhyrskyi” just means “passenger.”) I was pretty helpless. And I was alive. Alive in a way that the sketchiness of one moment was a minor adventure and the friendliness of another was a major blessing. Back home I would have just gotten on the right train without talking to anyone, alone and bored in my normalcy and relative security.
One day, two stations, three people, two entirely different experiences, and one happy traveler. Where’s next?