Language Barriers, Hooray!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Luggage in hand (or shouldered, as the case may be), we navigated the St. Petersburg subway towards the train station. When we arrived at the snowy, crowded station, we set about trying to find the correct ticket window to exchange our ticket vouchers for actual paper tickets. The lady at the first window spoke no English, but confidently directed us around the corner. We rounded that corner to find the rest hall, where travelers were waiting for their trains, the tracks themselves, and several signs, promising ticket desks and information booths. Following those signs put us into a hall of ticket windows, each labeled with different names (of companies? Of trains? We weren’t sure). We tried a few of those, found no English speakers, and no information desk, just some posters on the walls.

At this point, we were starting to get nervous. We retraced our steps, and asked several likely candidates whether they spoke enough English to answer our questions. None did. When we saw a sign for a ticket hall that had closed at 8:00 (it was 9:30 at that point), our hearts sank even further. But, at long last, we found a helpful station worker, who, though not speaking English, was able to drag us around to a couple more people who were able to indicate that the things we thought were vouchers were really the tickets themselves!

Armed with a little more confidence that we were going to be ok, and would actually be able to make it onto the train, we headed back into the Rest Hall to cool our heels for the hour and a half till our train was supposed to arrive. Now, for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of a Russian train station, let me set the scene. It’s well below freezing outside (the thermometer on the wall reads 0C, but we know it’s colder than that). The enterance and exit doors to the very broad, wide, tall hall are always open as people go in and out, and the only heat is coming from the numerous storefronts that line both sides. In the middle, clusters of one, two, or maybe three people at a time sit or stand with their bags and backpacks, staring up at the board that announces arrivals and departures.

As we’re waiting in that hall, we notice ahead of us a pair of people, both dressed in coats unlike the ones we’d been seeing most St. Petersburg denizens wearing, and the man of the pair was sitting on a framepack not unlike mine. Hoping for one last confirmation that we have the correct tickets, I approach them to see if they speak any English. Delight! They do. Or, at least, the man does. He says he’s from Berlin, and that he and his Russian girlfriend are traveling from there to Magnitogorsk, and then he’ll be traveling on following much the same route we are to Beijing, and then spending a few more months in south east Asia, before going off and working as an au-pair in Italy and France. This is all following up on a year he spent on a working holiday in Australia. We chatted about his travels, about our respective stays in St. Petersburg (we were both equally impressed with the Hermitage and Winter Palace), and about the high prices of drinks and apartments in Manhattan and Sweden. All in all, it was a lovely chat with a fellow traveler.

Finally, our train was posted on the board, so we bundled up and headed out to the platform, where we waited for several minutes as it crawled to a stop, and several more before the conductors opened the doors. Once they did, our very kind conductor led us in to our first train compartment.The compartment was cozy, and very elegantly furnished. We were especially happy with the well decorated mugs, although we learned in the morning that they were intended for our hot drinks, rather than our initial use of beer.Once we’d both finished our complementary beers, it was time to hunker down for a bit of shuteye before our 6:45 wakeup-call for breakfast.


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