Travel Journal: You Can’t Always Get What You Want, from Moscow to Budapest (1992)

I took the long way back from Taiwan, traveling through Japan, China, Russia (via the Trans-Siberian), Hungary, Germany, France, and the UK. I had grown accustomed to peaceful, meditative train rides in my earlier adventures (the photo is from my first train ride, in China, in 1986), but I was not destined to enjoy another such experience, when I boarded the train in Moscow, bound for Budapest.

Munich, Bavaria, Germany                          August 7, 1992

To catch up with myself, the Moscow-Budapest rail journey was both potentially disastrous and lucky. The train itself was just like the Chinese soft-sleeper that seemed a rolling palace to me when I was twenty and which has grown less novel in my eyes (not as soft) during this trip, until this most recent ride, in which the train seemed to have lost all potential for a pleasure excursion and to have become the scene of an irksome flight. There does not seem to be the “hard sleeper” [available] in Russia, so there is no class boundary to hide behind; [in other words,] there are no hard sleepers, so all the soft sleepers are hard sleepers.

The first one in the compartment, I think I managed a “Not bad, Mr. Miller,” when I discovered my bunk to be the lower, trailing one that would allow the best view. Very soon, though, a loud man with a gold tooth entered the compartment with his copious bags. He immediately took off his shirt and began fussing with his gear, while I, out of necessity, arrogance, passivity, or what have you, began to constrict my space into the corner. He signaled that I should stow my bag below the bunk, out of the way (this was done, of course), and then he began to pile items onto the small table, where I had unsuccessfully staked a claim for my book. First, he set down about six cans of beer; then came two bottles of vodka, cigarettes, garlic (the items must have been chosen in order of aroma – all these smells could be discerned emanating from his bared torso); and finally came the main staples of bread, roast beef, canned sausages, parsley (another item selected for the prime merit of its fragrance), mustard, dried fish, cooked chicken, etc., etc. The flies came later.

The only position from which he could work the table was, of course, my window-seat refuge, so I yielded same to him as graciously as I could. I removed myself to the corridor, while “my” berth became a smorgasbord. The shirtless M.C. sliced the meats while his mustachioed friend and an older, more reserved man, imbibed. My impotent inner ranting in the corridor during this interval need not be detailed here. I presently tried to cop out by requesting a battlefield promotion to a first class berth, but this avenue of escape was soon found to be closed.

(Paris, 8/9) I think it was the shirtless gentleman who invited me back into the compartment and back to my seat, which he yielded; his timely invitation opened my window of acceptance, as it were, for I was then enabled to decide to submit completely to the situation and give up all frustrating hope of spending a clean, serene, evening.

I ingested the oily meats and breads and swilled down that warm beer, [sacrificing] the washed hands and face and brushed teeth that I’d prepared in advance for the trip.

(Paris, 8/10) Finally (actually, it was rather quickly), I was able to put a half-drunk smile on my face and lean my head back against the side, sometimes looking out the window, sometimes dealing with the questions that were thrown at me. The M.C. wanted me generally to eat more and drink vodka; I turned down the vodka by accepting a can of beer, with which I toasted him until he turned his attentions elsewhere (and I was toasted). In short, then, I found on this trainride out from moribund Eurasian ex-Communism that I had one final lesson to learn in the School of Submission. Having forfeited all control over the (initial) situation (which only would have led to conflict, if insisted upon), I was finally able to pass the time as peacefully as possible. I think it’s called buying popularity or respect. Later, the M.C. perceived that I was tired and actually prepared my bedding for me while I was (re)washing my hands.

Of course, a glass of vodka spilled during the night [due to] a sudden stop [illegible], and then the food ritual was resumed again in the morning. I had by then gathered enough respect to request that uneaten food be thrown out and not left out for the flies. Both the M.C. and his friend were Ukrainian and were returning home from their lucrative employment in the northern tundra, where they[‘d] worked on an oil rig. Before the afternoon was up, they had both gotten off the train. I was glad to have met them and also happy to see them go, before the food business got too monotonous.

Author: Harry Miller

I have traveled and lived in Taiwan, China, and Japan and am now a professor of Asian history and a soon to be published novelist.

4 thoughts on “Travel Journal: You Can’t Always Get What You Want, from Moscow to Budapest (1992)”

  1. Fascinating. Especially:
    “Having forfeited all control over the (initial) situation (which only would have led to conflict, if insisted upon), I was finally able to pass the time as peacefully as possible. I think it’s called buying popularity or respect.”
    That’s what makes bookish me, and maybe even on the spectrum since I have always been and seemingly always will be oblivious to social cues, unable to thrive while traveling.

    Liked by 2 people

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