It was clearly a well practiced routine, careful, elaborate and worthy of a Japanese tea ceremony. First newspaper was spread out over the grubby table – as an impromptu tablecloth it was scarcely any less grubby but this was an important part of the procedure. Smoothed and folded and tucked, it was the canvas upon which the meal would be created.
The food started to come out of the cloth bags – a jar of pickled cucumbers, fresh tomatoes, then the lid lifted from an enamelled cooking pot, full to the brim with boiled potatoes. Boiled eggs too, still in their shells and wrapped in a teacloth, followed by a bunch of spring onions wrapped in a poke of paper. A sausage next, also in paper – the old man took out a wooden handled knife and started to slice it, popping chunks into his mouth as he did so. His hands were huge – holding the meat in his left hand, knife in the right, he worked the blade towards himself using his thumb as a stop. Glancing up, he caught me watching and gestured for me to take some. I did, and his wife, busy peeling the eggs, smiled and passed one over to me. “Eat!”, she said. Despite a full belly, I did as I was told – it was delicious.
This was the night train to Moscow. It would cover 1000km over the next day and half – I remember it as taking 36 hours. Was it really that long? It is quite possible – a quarter of a century later and it can still take 24 hours. I had only been in Rostov for a couple of weeks, sent down here to teach English in a local school, but had since been summoned back to the capital. The company that initially employed me (and issued the invitation that got me my visa) had lost a teacher and wanted me back. There was a tug of war, English teachers being hard to come by back then – excitingly, a local KGB officer was called in, to pull a few strings and make the case for me to remain in Rostov, but Moscow insisted. They also held the trump card. My visa didn’t allow me to work outside the Moscow Oblast. This didn’t seem to have mattered before but now proved to be a useful clincher. My place on the train was booked.
I was disappointed – I had enjoyed my brief stay in the criminal capital of old Russia (Rostov and Odessa were known as the father and mother of Russian crime), with its vast river, its Cossacks and its unmistakable edge. There was even the odd bomb, left by persons unknown, to keep us on our toes. Compared to Moscow it seemed provincial, more rural, more Russian somehow. The markets, the dusty streets – it all felt like I had gone back in time, and I loved it.
Three or four days before my departure I was taken to a rustic looking place, down by the river, with the promise of fresh fish cooked in the Cossack style. This turned out to be slabs of sturgeon grilled over hot coals on a great iron device, smoky plumes lifting into the evening sky. The fish had a melt in the mouth layer of fat under the crispy skin – a quarter of a century later and I can still taste it. It was, without question, the most delicious thing I have ever eaten. It was also the most poisonous. Within two hours I was lost to fever and hallucinations. I’ll never know how ill I actually was – I drifted in and out of consciousness for a couple of days whilst anxious people spoke in hushed voices about what to do with me. I do remember one woman, presumably a doctor, in a white coat. She forced me to swallow foul pink pills that made me puke, and then black ones that tasted of coal. I lost a good bit of weight but, come the day of departure, although still quite weak (I hadn’t eaten a thing since the fish) I was clearly on the road to recovery.
My dear hosts, teachers at the school, wanted to give me a send off and, on the way to the station, took me out for dinner. To be frank, there really wasn’t much in the way of eateries back then. Post-Soviet Russia had the odd stolovaya left – atmospheric places (the name just means “canteen”) that offered basic but good grub that was eaten standing up, or cavernous, kitsch, opulent and over-priced dining halls – almost exclusively for the use of the Party nomenklatura and now just empty relics. So I was astonished when, having entered via a non-descript doorway and a manky set of stairs, we found ourselves in a smart and modern Indian restaurant. A vegetarian one! I can’t say that I ate hungrily, because I had no appetite, but boy, did I eat royally – I relished the flavours, the textures, the smells. The sheer fragrance! I was stuffed when we finally left, and feeling decidedly odd.
By the time I boarded the train, I was exhausted. Weakened by the illness and worn down by the fantastic feed, I was quite ready to collapse into my bunk and sleep my way to Moscow. The compartment was empty and I watched the light fade over the rooftops of Rostov, over the slow river and then as the city thinned into countryside, I saw the sun go down over endless grassland. It was dark as we pulled into Shakhty. The door slid open and my next set of dining companions entered.
They were an elderly couple, or so it seemed to my youthful eyes. They were most likely in their sixties – she wore a floral dress and a headscarf, which was removed and packed away. He was wearing some kind of grey slacks and standard issue flat cap. They looked the part. They had come well prepared for the long journey and laid out the meal with care. And, now that the ice had been broken and shyness overcome by the sharing of food, they were utterly charming. I was quite possibly the first foreigner they had ever met and they were quite possibly as curious about me as I was of them. No risk of them shopping me to the police as others were to do!
“Are you married?”
“What! You are 24 and not yet married?!”
“England? Is that near Belgium?”
“Are there coal mines in your country?”
The last question was pertinent – he was a miner (which was no surprise – Shakhty means “mines”) and took great pleasure in explaining the process to me. His spoke with his hands – huge dinner plates that looked as if they had been hewn from the same bedrock as his coal. And how he used them! They told me almost as much as he did, describing and shaping the world in the air with beautiful reassuring movements, making pictures of the story as he talked. Suddenly Russian seemed easy to understand – if only everybody had hands like this to translate and explain the nuances of this gorgeous language.
His wife, having satisfied herself that I had no more questions to answer, sat back and listened with relish, laughing at the performance and at my occasional puzzlement – and all the while feeding me. And this is where the trouble lay. Already full to bursting, I could not eat another thing. But how could I possibly refuse this open and wholehearted generosity. Several eggs, sausage, gherkins and then, horror of horrors, dry boiled potatoes. There was not a drop of moisture left in my mouth and, despite the extraordinary spread, nothing to drink. Why didn’t I just wander down to the end of the carriage and the samovar dispensing endless hot water and tea! Perhaps shyness, or perhaps I hadn’t yet discovered that particular perk of Russian train travel yet? Either way, I was parched and no amount of chewing was enough to ease the passage of this endless supply of boiled eggs and potatoes. But the hour was late, and with time came relief. We turned in for the night – the table was tidied away, the seats folded into beds and the lights put out. I slept a broken and uncomfortable sleep as the train carried on through the night, stopping from time to time at deserted stations, half lit by orange pools of light.
In the wee small hours my companions quietly assembled their bags in preparation to disembark – we said our goodbyes and off they went, leaving me bereft and suddenly quite alone again, miles from anywhere and anybody. I locked the door, pulled the blanket up and tried to get back to sleep, at least as much as my distended and uncomfortable stomach would allow me. Not for long though – at the next station there was a shy knock. I slid back the door and in came an elderly couple, laden with bags. A sheet of newspaper was produced and laid out over the grubby table. I groaned inwardly, feigned sleep and turned to face the wall.
Photographs courtesy of the fantastic History of Russia in Photographs website – an extraordinary collection, and a very easy way to pass the time for a few hours.