Childhood on the Road

Old Lada, packed lunch and angry grandma.

Just now I started wondering why do I like traveling so much. And after traveling for a while I realized that what I love about traveling the most is moving from place A to place B (except if it’s in an airplane. Those hellish boring boxes, who likes them?). You should see me every time I board a train (in Russia especially) and that smile ripping my face into two.  Train, it means I can sleep all day long, drink tea and eat my packed lunch (in China it’s just noodles and shady snacks in Russia cheese, sausage, bread, tomatoes, cucumber and tea/coffee. I have a knife but still eat everything by just biting them in the order that repeats. Cheese-tomato-cucumber-cheese-tomato-cucumber, bite bite bite). If you have been in  Russian train you might know how atmospheric it can be, especially with me on the background, biting stuff.

The story

My mom is from Murmansk and my dad from St. Petersburg, I have no idea how they met, wait I do, in university, and somehow they ended up together (until I was born and they divorced almost right after, wtf?) During Soviet times Murmansk was a restricted area even for Russian citizens and my dad told me my grandpa smuggled him there in the trunk of his old Lada (it had green seats and there was a blue rabbit, a small soft toy that had always been in the cabin, since the very beginning) for a family meeting. What a good beginning for me to be born into this beautiful world and our magnificent Soviet Union. Anyway, when I was little I remember attending kindergarten in Murmansk and in Petersburg, this means I was constantly traveling between the two cities. If you look them up on the map you will notice that they are quite far away from each other.

The methods

During soviet times flying was dirt cheap, I remember only one time when I was playing with wooden little animals and the flying attendant asked me to close the table for a while because we were taking off. I kept asking million questions and my grandma got angry. Oh yeah, I remember worrying that the plane will fall down, grandma said it won’t but I kept insisting what if… and asking if it would be possible to make a huge plastic bag for the airplane, I have no idea why I thought about this.

The trains, my dad would always spoil me with cupe, a bit better tickets and we often had that little cabin just for ourselves. Once we had to travel in an open car with my grandma and I was so disappointed an complained until my grandma got angry. I still remember that awful feeling, that it wasn’t right to travel that way, that I must have a cupe. The spoiled brat I was… Now, when I look at the prices of cupe I just sigh, it’s the double compared to open car. Damn it.

I guess the worst part about Russian trains, the cheap old soviet shits, is that they close the toilet usually 15-30 min before a stop and after. If you forget to relieve yourself, you are doomed so check the ‘only in Russian’ schedule on the door!

Once I was going somewhere with my mom and she told me to wait in the train while she went to buy something. I was afraid she would not make it back on time and I would be left alone in the train. She told me she knew what time the train leaves so she would be back on time for sure but I wondered how can she know when the train leaves (someone didn’t understand what schedule means…), I thought if a train stands and we get in it should leave very soon.

At first I agreed to sit in the train but as soon as my mom was gone I went out on the platform and yelled after her, she ordered me to go back in the train but I refused and promised to wait on the platform, too scared to wait in the train. I kept imagining (like in a movie) how my mom would miss the train and I would be left there alone, the train would be moving fast and I would be panicking like crazy. Imagine a movie scene, camera filming the train window and there is a lonely child sitting alone, that’s how I imagined it. In the end my mom came back and we boarded the train together. Kids…

The best trips, I guess were made on my grandpa’s old Lada. The longest trips took us from 2 to 3 days and the nights, of course, were spent by the roadside in the car. Just me, my stuffed animal (a fox I always kept with me. My grandma once got angry saying I should throw away this dirty toy but I hugged it tightly and said NEVER! I still have it. It smells like childhood.) and my grandparents. Grandma would be the one reading the map and my grandpa drove, in the end they always started arguing and bickering about the directions because grandpa always took at least one wrong turn. In the end we had to ask someone for the right directions. So much help from my grandma and her map reading skills. But, naturally, everything was always grandpa’s fault.

Once my mom was with us, she had gotten her license not long ago and was practicing driving, changing places with my grandpa once in a while. Me and grandma sat in the back. Then one time when we stopped the car by the roadside and my mom got out to change places with my grandpa she suddenly started panicking and her eyes were as big as plates. Grandpa wondered what was going on and when he got out he was shocked. “Faster! Get out, get out” and “Ahhhh!” A truck hit the car from behind but it was driving on a very low speed, the glass at the back shattered but no one got hurt. I remember, the power of that lovely kiss the truck gave to the ass of my grandpa’s Lada sent me flying at the back of the front seat. I cried mostly because it gave me a fright but my grandma scolded em and told me to shut up (Russian love?). It turned out that the driver had fallen asleep while driving…

Luckily, even if we were in the middle of nowhere, we were not far away from a town. The truck driver let me sleep in the truck, on the bed behind the seats. One of us sat in the car while it was being towed. My memory about this accident is a bit foggy. But I definitely remember the truck driver, he was really sorry about what had happened and promised to compensate everything. I remember pitying the truck driver and asking non stop about the fate of our brown Lada. My grandma was really angry and grandpa kept telling her to calm down. What happened after I don’t remember, but since the damages were small we got the car back pretty soon.

Every time I see a light brown Lada so many memories flow into my mind. How we stopped for a lunch break or dinner and used the trunk as a table. The Russian black bread which still tastes the same, as it has always tasted, tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese, sausages and apples. Once we stopped by a huge sunflower field and stole a few, yes Russians eat sunflower seeds but usually roasted. At some point there would be peach trees growing by the road, I remember seeing trucks stopping just beneath them and people collecting the fruits. Grandma always commented it’s bad to eat those peaches because they are too close to the road and polluted. But darn they were good!

The destinations

1. And lessons about life.

So where the heck did we travel since I am talking about the peach trees Surely not only between Murmansk and St Petersburg.My grandma is from Siberia, a small town not far from Perm (by the Urals) and we went there every summer as long as her father was alive. A typical Russian village with dusty road and a small lake filled with water lilies, I still remember the smell. All the houses were build by the main road next to each other so they made a big wall. What I mean you could never walk between the houses, there was always a wooden fence connecting the houses. You could not see from outside but on the other side there were huge potato fields. It looked like one big field but it was actually divided into smaller ones, owned by each resident (remains from the Soviet times?). My grandma spent days on the fields collecting Colorado potato beetles, which damaged the plants, into glass bottles. I remember my great grandpa’s little garden, several berry bushes, apple trees and such, but it was so wild and overgrown with all kind of plants it was almost impossible to get to the berries. I guess I was too small.

*Side comment: it’s 1am here and my grandma is cleaning the fridge…

Now that I think about it that was an idyllic Russian village in the middle of nowhere, something what doesn’t exist anymore. You were rich if you had a car, not everyone had a TV and people gathered to someone’s home to watch it. Now my memories feel like a movie, unbelievable. My dream is to go visit there once more and maybe next summer, I might have a chance to finally go. I still have some relatives living near there and my grandma’s sister in Perm. Whenever I look at her I am reminded of Soviet Union somehow. I hear, everything was better then.

Nowadays I hear the dusty road has been covered with asphalt and only my grandma’s alcoholic brother, she seems to have forgotten about, lives in the ruined house of my great grandpa. My precious fox toy, that house is where I found it and decided I will never let go of it the first time I saw it. And I wonder if the toys I hid under the stairs are still there, my mini kitchen consisting of empty plastic cups and such. I was afraid my uncle would give them away to this one little girl, he always mentioned how she didn’t have many toys and that he pitied her. Every year I came back and something was missing, I was so angry at uncle Misha. I still remember how he looked like, faintly.

I remember me and some friends chasing a rainbow after a rainy day, it looked like the end was just around the corner and we strongly believed there would be a treasure. A story about a man who sat under that huge damaged tree during a storm and  a lighting hitting him, but not deadly, he survived. And the nut tree, I never got to taste the nuts because we either came too late or left too early.

I also learned about telling the truth instead of lies. We came to visit a friend, her grandparents weren’t home. As we went to play in the garden my friend leaned on the loose chicken wire, sounds weird but it looked like fun. I wanted to do it too but as we both leaned on it it broke. Of course, I was blamed for it alone. Later when I came visit her grandma asked why did I break the chicken wire to which I answered  “Well, she started doing it first and it looked fun” My friend got great scolding for that and also for lying while i was left off hook and she had to apologize to me. I remember being shocked about the turn of events. That grandma was awesome.

Once those girls bullied me and a friend (don’t ask me why, but they climbed on a tree and called us names from up there), they wanted to come to our house later but I wouldn’t let them in. In the end they were literally barging in and calling us names from behind the door, I opened it and threw a cupful of sand on one of the girl’s face and hair. She started complaining loudly that she will tell her mom, she even started crying. My grandma came out and asked what was going on, the girls told her that I called them names and throw the sand. She started scolding me but when I said the girls started bullying us first and then wanted to barge in the house she started yelling at them and told then to fuck the heck off. My grandma is awesome too!

At some point some rich people build a stone house in the village, everyone’s house was made of wood. I heard a rumor that a rich family was moving in, parents and their son, about our age.  One day the girls were standing at the stairs of the house, they said the mother invited them for a birthday party of the boy. I asked if I could join too but they said I can’t because I wasn’t there when the mother invited them, moreover I didn’t have a present. I said I would be waiting for them outside, soon the mother invited them in and I stayed behind but she squatted down beside me and asked why didn’t I go in. I said I wasn’t invited but she just smiled and said she was inviting me now. “But I don’t have a present” She said it didn’t matter. Gosh, my heard fills with warmth when I tell you about this woman, she was so gentle and had a very beautiful smile. God bless her.

I remember the interior was very rich and we all felt shy, not knowing how to act in a rich person’s home. One of my friend’s accidentally broke a glass, the mother of the boy said it was okay but someone whispered that the father of the boy was really scary and he better not find out otherwise heäd scold us. After eating we went to play to the boys room and found coins on the floor, we gathered those and for us it summed up a great sun, probably something like a few dollars. One of the girls said no one would notice if a few coins disappeared, for the boy it would be nothing when for us poor that money would be more useful. My comment was “Do you know what’s that called? Stealing!” Haha, I’m so proud of myself.

At some point it was getting dark and I realized I hadn’t told my  grandparents where I was, at that time I couldn’t read clock and could not distinguish time that well. So I suddenly left, more like ran away. I remember the boy coming after me and me thinking why did he notice I left!! I ran really fast to my great grandpa’s house but it turned out it wasn’t that late yet and everyone asked why didn’t I just stay at the party, I regretted leaving so fast, still do. I’m not sure if I ever played with the boy again. Oh yeah, I think he had  a weak heart, asthma or something, that’s why he couldn’t catch me when I left.  My friends scolded for making him run.  I wonder why did he even come after me?

Another time my friend had a birthday party but I forgot to ask my grandma to buy a present. I rushed home to grab some of my stuff to give, though my grandma told me no one needs my trash, but I couldn’t understand why she treated my precious bottle caps and chocolate wrappers in such a way, those were so important to me, and pretty and I thought, of course the girl would like them. I don’t remember how this ended.

2. Abandoned.

Another place where we often travel by car was Ukraine, the city by the name of Odessa. My grandparents had an apartment there and since we came only in the summer it was rather empty. I remember when Soviet Union broke apart and suddenly we needed to show our passports on the border. That time we had to stand on the border extra long and my grandma was getting angry. The people didn’t believe or reacted late, Soviet Union was no more. And after that people in Ukraine suddenly became proud of their own language which sounded so weird to me, they speak hella fast!

What do I remember about Ukraine? Water melons, we would eat them every day and they were so good. Once I remembered finishing half of a HUGE watermelon and spending the rest of the day in the toilet. Sometimes me and a friend would eat the watermelon on the balcony and spit down the seeds, some by passing psycho old woman would always scold us but we’d just laugh at her. We were safe on the 13th floor. The sand on beaches and the asphalt were too hot to walk on bare footed.

Once I saw a little homeless puppy in front of the house and gave it some food. My grandma scolded me so much, she said I could catch some sickness from it. I remember being mad at her, the puppy was so cute and I pitied it, without a home… But when me and a friend found a wounded bird, put in a box and took care of it she said nothing. Never mind, the bird died after 2 days.

I was scared of elevators during that time (hey, have you seen a soviet elevator? You’d be scared of them too!! A total death box) So I would always walk up and down, to and from the 13th floor. Once my grandparents and uncle got stuck in the elevator and I was sure they’d die there and I will never see them again. They told me to go the third building under the window on the first floor and tell the elevator man to come fix it. I think the man said he’ll come soon but it took him hella long to drag his ass there. I was already thinking how the heck will I get back home to Russia without my grandparents and uncle but was too fast to bury them, they survived.

Once my grandma said she was going to the market and asked if I wanted to come too, I didn’t want to but once she was gone I got scared. What if she never comes back? So I went out to follow her, I remember seeing her turn the corner but when I got there she was gone. By now I was completely sure I would never see her again and that I was abandoned for good. A bypassing woman asked what was wrong when she saw me crying as if it was the end of the world, I told her that my grandma left me and will never come back. She said it couldn’t be that way.

The woman had a really gentle voice, she was sweet and kind, I remember having these feelings. She gave me a snickers and told me to come to her apartment to wait. I don’t know if she knew my grandma or something but later she came over to get me and she was SO ANGRY! I just told here wasn’t it such a good luck I met this nice woman who gave me chocolate and she even protected me from my grandma’s wrath by saying your usual “But she is just a child”. I remember my grandma asking what if she could never find me and me answering that I could have then just continued living with the nice woman.

Look at me, accepting candies from adults I don’t know and going to their apartments, this could have ended badly…

There is this one Russian card game we always played, it’s called Idiot. I remember we were visiting some friends and I always lost while we played. In the end I started crying because I felt like a loser.  Later I heard Homer Simpson say following “You know Moe, my mom once said something that really stuck with me. She said, ‘Homer, you’re a big disappointment’, and God bless her soul, she was really on to something!” Haha, now I know why I lost.

The sad ending.

Nothing is like before anymore.

Later when my parents divorced and I moved to live in Finland my grandparents would pick me up every summer and we would go traveling. It all ended eventually. When I was 10 or 11 my grandpa died from a heart attack and the old brown Lada was sold. The end. I asked if my grandma kept that blue rabbit, the mascot of the car, but she said I should have reminded her earlier. I guess the bunny was destined to stay with the car forever.

I always become so happy when I think about  my childhood, it was special and wonderful. I guess memories grow sweeter with time but I clearly remember being happy then too. Now, what is left are black and white photographs and bittersweet feelings. Hmm, I just realized my grandma got angry with me pretty often, well she still does. Some things never change.

What’s left is… to move on.