CC Issue 02 / Travel / Leisure

Slow Train

Our mobile home, Train 339

Billing by the hour is troubling. Being self-employed this summer means I find myself thrown into this process of determining what each hour is worth. As I plan for next year (back to school, and all) and divvy up commodifiable summer hours accordingly, it feels like I’m taking a scoring knife to my day.

This bothers me when I think about what time meant to me exactly one year ago. My husband and I had no problem spending 88 hours on two elevated bunks in a kupe train compartment. Our neighbors were a gruff history professor, who had the resonant voice of the classiest of Bond villains, and a revolving door of lovely middle-aged ladies who got on and off along the way.

We were taking Train 339 (Chita – Moscow) as part of our Trans-Mongolian Rail journey, and, having spent a few days in Lake Baikal, we boarded it in Irkutsk for our longest leg yet.

We spent practically four days horizontal, watching the landscape skim by. Our diet was cheap and portable, meaning bread, cheese, and salami. We’d play interminable games of “Stupid”, a card game that a young Russian in black and camo taught us on the last train from Ulan Bator. (At least, he told us it was called “Stupid”, but who knows. His English was better than most Russians’, but was still mostly made up of profanities, like “Hey, F*** you!” when you’d win. Nice guy, though.)

We spent hours sleeping, reading, and staring out the window. In Beijing, we’d acquired Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment so we took turns living in the heat-addled brain of Rodion Raskolnikov, which made wandering through the back alleys of St Petersburg a week later a lot more interesting.

And, by peering over the edge of my upper bunk, I picked up a few local habits. A spoonful of jam in black tea makes a fruit tea. Salami is good any time, any where. Be nice to the provodnitsa, even if she yells at you. And, contrary to popular accounts from our Trans-Siberian research, most people don’t spend the whole four days belligerently drinking vodka. Relief!

So, after one glorious unsalaried year, this summer I am working in my favorite hyperactive city once again instead of watching Asia roll into Europe… I know there are seasons for billing your time, and seasons for spending it extravagantly on long train rides. The problem for me isn’t so much struggling with the concept of an hourly wage, it’s a mentality about time, a holism to “the day”, that I miss when it’s dissected by cost-benefit analysis. In one way, it’s a necessary anatomy, but in summers like this, it’s just as necessary for me to remember that I can use that same body for other things.

Edit: Just after posting this, I just read Suhail’s article for CC Issue 02. For a much more elegant narrative of the troubling balance between holism and dissection, see Equus and an Erotics of Life!

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