Thursday, June 29, 2006

My Adidas

I arrived in Odessa this morning, after traveling through the night from western Ukraine in a train compartment that included one friend, one veteran of the Red Army, and one muscular young man in black Adidas sweat-pants, the last of which, I'm told, is the apparel of choice for Ukraine and Russia's young Mafioso set. (It is also pronounced Oddy-dos, the last like the computer language, which completely, you know, ruins the Run DMC song.)

Anyways, maybe an hour or two into our journey, after my friend had stepped out into the hall, the Army veteran tapped me on the shoe and asked if I could leave him and Mr. Adidas alone for five minutes. It took me a moment to process the words in Russian, but then I was nodding and slightly afraid, wondering what in the hell they'd be doing alone and how I might have insulted them earlier. There had been one inappropriate laugh, when I'd thought I'd heard Mr. Adidas tell a joke, only to have him turn a stern and stoney face in my direction to suggest otherwise. I got up and went into the corridor.

My friend was looking out a window, watching the green fields of western Ukraine blur by. I told him what had just transpired. We discussed our concerns and analyzed various scenarios. Were our bags in danger? I had some valuables, some cash, some electronics. What could they be doing? "My passport's in there," my friend said. "Did you see he's wearing Adidas?" I said. "What does that mean?" he said. I told him. "Is that right?" he said. I said it was.

The provodnitsa, whose job it is to take tickets and hand out linens and clean the wagon's toilet, came by and opened our compartment's door, looking to give someone their change for a cup of coffee or tea. Before realizing her mistake -- wrong compartment -- and closing the door, I saw the army veteran standing with his back to us, Mr. Adidas hidden behind his body. What were they doing? Going through my bags?

Maybe three minutes later, my friend said it was five minutes. I stepped toward the far window. "Open the door if you want," I told him, "but I'm not with you. You work alone."

He gave the door another look, then turned his face back to me. "Five minutes has got to be up, hasn't it?"

I shrugged. "What is time?" I said. "What are minutes?" I asked.

We waited. The fields blurred by, cows and peasants. The sun moved in a downward direction. Then the door opened and Mr. Adidas stepped out of the compartment and stuck his hand out the window, to the side of my friend. Whatever he'd been holding inside was soon scattering out over the green fields near the Moldovan border.

Minutes later, all four of us were again back in the compartment, with me and my friend sitting there silently like people who didn't quite get the joke. With no parting statement, Mr. Adidas got up and went with the Army Veteran to a compartment at the end of the wagon, to which the provodnitsa, a young woman in modest heels and a crisp blue cap tilted jauntily atop her head, soon followed with a plate of fried eggs and cut tomatoes.

Have you ever seen a catered meal on a Ukrainian train? My friend, after four years in the country, had not. After almost a year, neither had I. The same for the empty compartment at the end of the wagon being used as a private dining room. But then Mr. Adidas, who was journeying to Odessa, Ukraine's capital of Shady ... well, maybe he had some kind of relationship already built up. What's your name? he'd asked the provodnitsa when she'd come to take our tickets. "Lena," she'd said. "Pleased to meet you, Lena," he'd answered, and now she was giving him eggs?

Mr. Adidas was the last to make his bed that night. He kept going in and out of the hall. I slept with one eye open, waiting for him to jump up to his bunk. He didn't. He made his bed at last, but he then left ... and remained gone ... for a very long time. In fact, I never saw him asleep. And he was on his feet, first one up, when I awoke to the sound of his and the Army veteran's banter.

The provodnitsa, usually a solid middle-aged woman with all the charm of Brezhnev, had her own compartment at the end of the hall, the four beds made up with fancy sheets to give her and the train's other attendants a place to catch some sleep, if necessary. I have heard stories. Of provodnitsas who sell more than coffee or tea. "Coffee, tea or me?" the old saying goes.

In the morning, my friend asked for tea and coffee, the first for him, the latter for me. But after maybe twenty minutes, still nothing. I said enough's enough at that point, I can stand many things but not missing coffee, and left to see the provodnitsa, a rather touchy-feeling young woman come to think of it who'd reached for my hip-bone, and then another time my forearm, while sliding past me in the hall.

The provodnitsa followed me back to the compartment a minute or two later to ask more specifics about my order -- one sugar or two? -- and then, with a look that lingered just a beat too long, she asked Mr. Adidas what he wanted.

"Tea, Lena," he said. "Thank you, Lena."

I had coffee.