Communism had fallen, but no one told the bakeries. It was the early, hopeful years of Yeltsin (before he devolved into a bloated drunk) and the news agencies were reporting that Russia was flowering, backed by B-roll footage of the first McDonalds near Red Square. I was 21, my first passport stiff in my money belt, eager to witness democracy blooming.
But the bakeries hadn’t changed.
There were still three lines. In the first one, you told the counter representative what you wanted and got a scowl and a chit of paper in return. In the second line, the chit and 20 rubles were converted to a receipt. (Twenty rubles—that month, at least—was worth about 4 cents.) In the last line, the third bakery attendant, standing shoulder to shoulder with her comrades at a counter that was no more than eight feet long, reached in the wire bin behind her to pick one of the two wares for sale: pasty, flavorless white bread or the dense, sinus-burning black bread, the kind that Russians sniff after downing a shot of cheap vodka. It was a bakery only in the sense that it sold bread; the bread itself was baked in a central location and sent there by truck, already stale.
Outside the milk and cheese store, I did the math. “Wait,” I said to Christina. “A cheese and tomato sandwich requires waiting in nine lines?”
She stared back at me in alarm: “We are going to starve.”
Christina and I were in Moscow as a sort-of Build-Your-Own Study-Abroad Adventure. In hindsight, our naivete was adorable: we thought we’d just pop over to a newly-former-Communist country, rent an apartment and practice our Russian. We figured some multinational would be keen to hire half-literate twenty-year-olds with no work experience. We fell victim to the vaguely racist assumption that because Russians look European, we would find familiar cultural signposts.
We were wrong.
We spent our days grimy and bewildered, goggling at the communists busy reinventing themselves as mobsters, clinging to each other in fear and confusion. Everywhere we went, Russians rolled their eyes at our expectations. Every day, we were told, “This is not allowed.” No, foreigners cannot buy train tickets at the train station, but only at an unmarked building halfway across town. No, cameras are not allowed in Red Square today, only on Tuesdays. No, we will not exchange dollars out of our dodgy exchange bus today, but maybe tomorrow.
For six weeks, I asked, “Pochemu? [Why?]” like a tenacious three-year-old, with no results. No explanations. Never a rationale or a conspiratorial wink acknowledging that the rules didn’t make sense. Just a humorless shrug, pursed lips and eyes sliding past me to the next person.
One morning, we woke to BBC coverage of a mile-long line in front of the central bank near our apartment. The Russian government had devalued the ruble overnight and it was now illegal to use yesterday’s bills. But the new currency didn’t come in denominations small enough to buy a single loaf of bread. “Do we have to buy ten loaves at a time?” I asked a neighbor. She shrugged like I was overreacting.
In frustration, Christina and I spread our fold-out map of Russia across our landlady’s polished dining room table. We were searching for a might-have-been-golden summer, if only we had been smart enough to study Italian instead of Russian. Six creases away on the map, marooned in a swath of unblemished green, with only a handful of towns listed in the smallest possible font, we found Lake Baikal. The deepest lake in the world, four days on the Trans-Siberian Railway over the Ural Mountains and across the taiga. Christina said, “There have to be trees and sunshine and summer there, right?”
Our train was an old Soviet one, a faded army green like in movies set during World War II. In the bathroom, sticky with the stench of fifty years of splattered urine, the toilet opened straight onto the tracks below, the flashing pattern of railroad ties visible between my bare thighs as I squatted. We searched for the dining car, which was empty, not no one is eating at the moment empty but hasn’t been used in three years empty. We carefully counted out our stash of smuggled granola bars, but they wouldn’t last four days.
Vera was the doyen of our train carriage. Her tasks were to provide us with endless cups of tea and boiled water, to swab out the bathroom on rare occasions, and to ensure that no one took their drunkenness past the everyday-acceptable standards in a country where vodka bottles come with pop-tops; once opened, they must be finished. We watched Vera in full battle mode the next morning, rousting a drunk off the train, blistering his ears with insults and calling, “Tovaretsi! [Comrades!]” The men in our carriage leapt to her aid, as we marveled, imagining the eye-rolling, it’s-not-my-business response she would get on the 4:15 Amtrak from New York to Philly.
Vera scowled at my inept attempts to escape a drunk fellow-passenger. “American girls are too nice,” she said. “You cannot smile while you tell him to go away.” Fifteen minutes later, she re-appeared in our cabin with two men, both named Alexander. “You will be friends,” she informed the four of us. “Play a card game.” The Alexanders meekly complied.
They taught us to negotiate with gangs of locals who rushed the train at every station, selling bread, mysterious sausages, and desiccated post-Chernobyl fish. In return, I did my best to translate the English songs on Alexander the First’s mix-tape. He squinted at me, brow furrowed in confusion, while I tried to explain that, “I rock a mic like a vandal/Light up a stage and wax a chump like a candle” doesn’t make sense in English either. Alexander the Second asked me to explain the barcode on his pack of Marlboros. I shook my head, not knowing where to begin.
As any player of the board game Risk knows, Irkutsk is deep in the center of Siberia. It is nearer Beijing than Moscow, and within hailing distance of Ulaanbaatar. Irkutsk is a human-sized Russia, with Shrinky-Dink versions of Moscow’s block-long office buildings and the ornate tsarist churches of St. Petersburg, just returned from a 70-year nominal exile as ‘Leningrad.’
There were a few more smiles in Irkutsk, the same amount of rain, and a lot less pavement, so my pants were muddy to mid-shin before we figured out that Irkutsk and it’s train station are not actually on the shores of Lake Baikal, but sixty miles away; the scale of our eleven-time-zone-wide map misled us. The only official way to get the lake was an exorbitant $25 InTourist excursion; our four-day train ticket, in comparison, had cost $8. When we asked about other options, the woman at the front desk let out a puff of air—Russian for, “Who knows?”—and turned back to her magazine.
But we hadn’t spent four shower-less days on a train to give up that easily. Like cartoon detectives, we worked our way slowly east, stopping pedestrians and asking shopkeepers until we cobbled together an intricate combination of trams and buses and missed connections. Finally, at a turnout at the base of Lake Baikal, a woman we befriended on the bus shoved us out the door. “It is the most beautiful view of the lake,” she insisted. “You must see it!”
Squinting, I could almost make out the line where the grey fuzz of rain became something slightly more solid, perhaps a lake. The howling wind blew us into a bus shelter where another woman huddling there informed us that the nearest food, shelter and the bus back to Irkutsk was six kilometers up the lake shore.
Christina and I collapsed on a bench. “Six days to get here! And this is all there is?!” I spread my arms to encompass the rain and the mud and my eternally wet socks.
“I hate this fucking country!” Christina shrieked and we laugh-cried until we couldn’t breathe.
To hitchhike in Russia, you just point your arm out and vaguely down. That summer, cars would stop immediately because everyone needed the money. That got us to the next bus shelter, where a group of young Russians tumbled in, rained out of a camping trip. They wrung water out of their socks, laughing and opening cans of food and bottles of vodka. They were so many kinds of lovely—pink and bearish and cheekbones and lanky—and I could not look away. I was suddenly ravenous for their sense of belonging, for their confidence, for their beauty, for all the things I hadn’t realized were mine too, back in my real life, where it wasn’t just me and Christina pretending not to be conquered by this hall-of-mirrors culture where you can see what you want but never quite get it.
Cars occasionally stopped outside the bus shelter and passengers ran out in the rain to confer with drivers. One woman came back, beckoning to us. We followed her and her grandmother into the backseat of a decrepit old Lada with a gigantic bear of a man at the wheel and headed off into the dark. We arrived in Irkutsk to discover the four-hour-late bus leaving as we just arrived. When I turned on the shower in our hotel, hoping to warm up, there was no hot water.
It took us two more soggy days in Irkutsk to figure out how to buy a ticket back to Moscow, because the obvious answers—the train station, the concept of “round-trip”—were apparently not options. Our return train was shiny toy-train blue with a jaunty yellow stripe, and full of just-arrived Westerners. A woman from New Zealand asked me to translate for her; InTourist forgot to give her group their bed-sheet coupons. She crossed her arms and rolled her eyes at me, “They want us to pay before they give us sheets, but we’ve already paid.” I smiled politely, marveling suddenly at the innocence of these foreigners, assuming that anyone cared the teeniest bit about what is right or comfortable or efficient. Nonetheless, I accompanied her to the train captain’s office and kept a smoothly blank face as I told him in Russian, “This foreigner does not understand how things work. I know there is nothing you can do for her but she insisted I translate.”
With an equally blank face, the train captain replied, “Yes, that is the way with some foreigners. What can we do but play our roles?”
I turned to the New Zealander and translated that he was very, very sorry that he could not fulfill her demands and then tried to describe this culture where every scrap of decision-making authority rests in a distant room nestled within the walls of the Kremlin. But she had just arrived from Normal Life, so she huffed away in exasperation at the irrationality of Russians. But I smiled at the train captain because finally, I was on the inside.
Back in Moscow—after 12 days of trains, buses, hitchhiking and never actually seeing the lake—we were greeted by a sign on our building stating that the hot water in our neighborhood was turned off for the month. We didn’t bother asking why, just shrugged and followed rumors to a Russian bathhouse. We sat naked in a steamy room while battleship-shaped women smacked us with scented branches and hollered at us for not covering our hair.
“Is this hilarious or terrifying?” I whispered to Christina.
She shrugged, “It’s warm.”
On the way back from the bathhouse, the bakery had only the bitter black bread. We stood in first line, calculating the days until we could fly home to an America that—when we’d arrive—would feel relentlessly friendly and disconcertingly foreign. Waiting, we tortured each other, muttering, like a culinary rosary, “Focaccia. Bruschetta. Panini. Ciabatta.”