Before we bid goodbye to Moscow, we needed to meet our tour guide and fellow travelers. We knew our train for Brest was leaving at 15.40 and we were all supposed to meet at 15.00. The last thing we wanted was to be late so we came to the train station a bit earlier. All sweaty and sticky, we had been hanging around the platform since 14.00 hoping the tour guide would show up earlier because the station was getting crowded and it would take her a while to make sure everyone was here.
We were looking at other people at the platform in a bit of puzzlement wondering whether those were the people to keep us company throughout the upcoming trip. There were going to be a lot of people on the train for Brest and only 40 of them were our fellow passengers. We were hoping we would be travelling with some quiet intellectuals because another last thing we wanted was a bunch of disorderly individuals that would totally ruin this dream trip. That seemed like a scene from a detective story – us looking passers-by up and down speculating on whether they could be people going on a coach trip with us. What if they all got cold feet (like before a wedding) and stayed home and we will be travelling on our own? This might sound like a perfect trip – we were up for it! I’m not very social so I’d love to mix only with my sister and friend without having to engage in some small talk with people I don’t know.
It was 14.50 already but the guide was nowhere to be seen. I saw a picture of her on the website of the travel agency we booked with but ironically she was wearing sun glasses in it, so the only thing I knew about her is that she was slim and blonde. The picture might have been from a while ago and by then she could have dyed her hair black and gained a considerable amount of weight. It would take a discerning eye of Watson and Holmes to identify this lady. She had all essential documents (passport, train tickets) so without her showing up there would be no trip at all. Now it all came down to her. She might have been a bit more punctual and saved us the trouble of sticking around waiting for her to come. To make things even worse, we hadn’t succeeded in identifying any of our fellow travelers. We were told to wait near the first coach and there was nobody around. There were some people looking lost and confused as us but they turned out to be going on another coach trip. Some people were just casually hanging around and by the looks of it, they weren’t looking for anyone. We were done with looking around and playing detectives so we transformed into witches pronouncing curses on the tour guide. We all started into a rant about how misfortunate and miserable we were having our holiday plans wrecked by this one tour guide whose job was to make sure everything was running smoothly instead of leaving us there high and dry.
Now, in hindsight, the whole situation seems utterly ridiculous because she wasn’t late in the first place and it seems funny how it got us on edge. I guess we just wished for the trip to be perfect, it was a dream that we had worked towards for the whole year and this was what got us jittery.
It was 15.00 when a woman who matched what I saw in the photo finally made an appearance (she must have checked her watch against the chimes of the Kuranty in Red Square). Out of the blue, people started crowding outside our coach (there was no way they could have met the tour guide before!) so this was then that we were made sure we wouldn’t be travelling alone. I sized everyone up to see if any of these people would constitute a threat to my dream trip. As I was doing so, I felt a sting of jealousy (I generally have a jealous streak) – I didn’t want all those people there! Instead, I wanted to have Europe all to myself! But anyway, I had to come to terms with the fact I couldn’t afford an individual trip yet so I would have to share my dream with a bunch of strangers (neither of whom hopefully would turn out to be bonkers).
Now that wait and anticipation was over, things seemed to start looking up for us and everything seemed to be as planned. The tour guide called the names of each traveler and gave them all the paperwork. The crowd seemed quite big, which made it feel like there were going to be more than 40 people on the train. I had to make my way through the crowd not to miss our names being called. There was nothing to worry about but Russians love to panic over even small things. It felt as like we were queueing up for some freebie – no one wanted to miss out. After we made sure that all the travelling documents (except for the passports) were there, we were all set to go.
So here it was… Another invasion of privacy (i.e. a sleeper-train trip) began. We weren’t happy to find out we were going to share a compartment with a woman with a four or five year old who looked like a nuisance. The coach was very stuffy but I knew I was strong enough to make it through another trip on a train. As we were already on our way to Brest where we were to arrive 14 hours later, I started reflecting on this short stay in Moscow and texted my Mum about it as long as there was a signal and before we set out far from the capital. The tour guide was walking around the coach giving each passenger individually their passports and providing some instructions on what we need to do after we arrive in Brest. Obviously we had another mountain to climb before we got to Europe. We were to find the coach that would be taking us on your trip. There were supposed to be lots of them near the station in Brest so it might be pretty hard. Seeing a ridiculous picture of me in the Schengen visa made me feel better about that mission. I knew we would be fine…
The way seemed incredibly long. We tried different things to keep us busy but we were soon bored. The only person that kept us entertained was a nuisance girl. I felt like giving her a slap. That should be good fun! I just don’t feel comfortable around loud kids…
Having climbed on our top berths (another mountain to climb), I attempted to learn some basic words and expressions of Polish. My friend joined me and we had a bit of fun pronouncing all these. There is an assumption that Russian and Polish are similar but that is not entirely true (more about it later). We are both language teacher and would feel awkward being in the country without speaking a word of its tongue…
Our phones were going mad with the signal on and off. So we went to get them charged. There was only one socket and we were happy to occupy it. It felt really good and refreshing to be standing there having a chat (about nothing in particular like friends sometimes do) and looking out of the window. We were still in Russia but it was a part of it we had never been to before. The scenery looked different. There were dense woods all around us. I couldn’t believe it was the last of Russia I would be seeing before I come back ten days later. There were some old houses sliding by… We seemed to be halfway between Russia and Poland (where our trip would start). It felt nice to be unaware of what this trip would bring. I wish I could go back to this moment.
There was a long stop in Smolensk so we got out for some fresh air. The station looked really disappointing. Voronezh didn’t seem like a country town to us anymore. The next stop was to be in Belarus. It was getting dark and we had some 7 more hours to go. The next day would the first day of our trip and we needed to get some sleep to get ready for it.
As I was drifting in and out of sleep, I heard the woman and her girl getting off so I knew we were already in Belarus. Even though we were technically in a different country, nothing changed. I tried to look out the window to hear the announcements at the stations we stopped at – they were all in Russian. Belarus was part of what was a huge country till 1991 and it never completely felt like a different state. I was trying to fall back asleep and to quench my linguistic curiosity when one man got in. He was in our compartment where the woman and the girl used to be. It was pretty dark and I didn’t see his face. My friend’s blanket fell off from her top coach and she climbed down to pick it up. The man tried to help her out because it was dark and she was only half awake and he tried to tell her something but she wouldn’t understand. This was when I started contemplating cultural and linguistic differences and letting the thought of being abroad sink in. I was thrilled about it.
Dawn was breaking as we woke up to get cleaned up and dressed. The view from the window was dreary with dense forests and swamps all around. It was still Belarus. I started remembering History classes and Soviet partisans (this is how they called people involved in the resistance movement during the World War II) who were hiding in these woods. I was happy to be in touch with the history of my country but I was looking forward to experiencing Europe which was not a long way off now.
About an hour later we arrived safely in Brest. The bags seemed so hard to carry and I couldn’t wait to put them somewhere. Finding our coach wasn’t that hard and the trip was kicking off right there and then. We were all like a group of kids. The tour guide counted us. Everyone seemed to be here except one person. She had to call the roll only to find out that the first person on the list was the one to be missing. We couldn’t go without him. This was when we experienced the first downside of group travelling when the entire group has to wait on one person. It was kind of annoying. The tour guide was agitated but it wasn’t long before she found the missing person and brought this man of thirty or something into the coach as if he was a small kid. She told him to apologize, which he did. He was now a good boy. We were now ready to go. We needed to be at the Belarus-Polish border as soon as possible not to get stuck there for ages as there were plenty more coaches at the check point.
I was sorry we didn’t have time to visit the Brest Fortress which was awarded the title of Hero Fortress. It is one of the most famous World War II war monuments that commemorate the defense of the frontier stronghold during the first week of the war.