If you’re from the more bucolic parts of Ireland, the question “where are you from?” can pose a dilemma.
Your mind goes through a multitude of decisions and suppositions, taking into account where you usually say you’re from, where you’re actually from, who you’re talking to, their likely knowledge of Irish geography, and their knowledge of your specific province or county, until you eventually arrive somewhere likely north, south, east or west of where the actual answer is located.
Whatever hope I have of people having heard of the town one mile where I’m from is roughly twentiethed when it comes to them having heard of the village I’m actually from. When they haven’t heard of that town either, I usually refer to the next biggest one, about ten miles down the lake, in relentless pursuit of that nod of recognition.
Either way, I never usually say I’m from where I’m actually from. And if you can get your head around that, you’re a better woman than I am.
This became slightly more relevant than this post might suggest last November, when I was on the part of the Trans-Siberian railway which is actually in Siberia. Before going to Russia, I thought that everything east of Moscow was Siberia. Imagine my surprise when, two days outside Moscow on the train, I realised I wasn’t there yet.
“I’m surprised,” I said. “I thought we were in Siberia already.”
“No,” said the travelling companion to whom I am spousally contracted. “We’re not.”
“Oh, right,” I said.
I couldn’t help but wonder what Russians say to each other, when they meet up in that trendy bar in downtown baroque Moscow with the horse tethered outside (this happens more often than you think, but for reasons which are far less interesting and horsey than whatever you’re imagining right now, so let’s just leave it there, shall we?)
“Where are you from, beautiful blonde siren dressed head to toe in Chanelcci Vuitton?” says the burly Russian oligarch. “I have not seen you here before. Will you have another vodka?” he adds, in what is in no way a lazy stereotype.
“I am from Omsk,” she says, in that tantalising yet aloof manner of all designer-clad beautiful Russian blondes who know what it takes to survive a cold climate (I imagine).
“My family has many business interests in Omsk,” says the oligarch. “Perhaps you have been propositioned by one of them.”
“Well, it’s not really Omsk,” says the blonde, her icy-cold reserve slipping just a tad. “I come from near Omsk.”
“I see,” he nods sagely, in the manner of one who has been to Siberia, and knows what distance is. “How far away from Omsk?”
“16 hours,” she says, masking her anxiety, for a mere 16 hours’ journey could indicate deep ties between her extended family and the business moguls of Omsk, not all of them savoury.
“But a stone’s throw away,” he says, handing her a vodka which is on fire, and singing passionately of ideological battles. “Come and sit by me, дорогой, and we will speak of your father, brothers and uncles.”
Travelling the Trans-Siberian any time of year can give a good sense of the vastness of Russian hinterland, but if you travel it off-peak – such as in November, which about as off-peak as a sick skier – the sense of distance damn near takes your breath away.
Travelling overland really does give a sense of how big the world is. How else could you travel non-stop on a train through a country for seven days, and still not have run out of country?
It can make one quite philosophical.
I like trains, but I couldn’t give a reindeer’s fart about what gauges they’re on, or how fast they go, or how many carriages they have. I just like going to sleep in one place and waking up in another, without the sort of infantilisation and forced entertainment which accompanies the cruise ship experience.
There’s no hiding the fact that the Trans-Siberian is rough and ready. The toilets are airplane toilets. There are no showers. Depending on your budget, you may have to share a cabin with strangers.
The food can be limited, bland, inedible, unidentifiable, or non-existent. Bunks are narrow. Train conductors are all-powerful gods, and if you annoy them you are as foolish as you are moribund.
Getting visas will be one of the most time-consuming and frustrating bureaucratic experiences you will ever endure. And if I haven’t lost you yet, it’s also one of the best psychological holidays you’ll ever take.
I can’t think of anywhere more mindful than a train. It’s as though your mind, confident that your body doesn’t need any direction for the foreseeable, goes off on its own holiday. And it’s probably having a better time than you.
There is nothing like watching a gigantic new world go by in comfort. A cup of coffee to hand, a book besides, but thinking and doing nothing because you are mesmerised by the way the sun touches the horizon, or the imaginings of daily life in a small hamlet you can’t name which appears to have neither roads nor cars, or the flights of fancy which accompany the utter lack of having to be anywhere but exactly where you are at that very moment.
Trans-Siberian trains run on Moscow time, so even when you’re five hours ahead and five days away from Moscow, and in the middle of Siberia, you feel like you’re existing in a separate dimension.
Your watch is on Moscow time, your phone on local time, but your subconscious is also aware of whatever time it is wherever your real life is supposed to be.
In that delicious space in between, you don’t have to take notice of anything beyond the duration of stops, if you’re out stretching your legs. It doesn’t matter when you eat, sleep, or wake. Only the train matters. Being on it. Feeling the rhythm of it. The world of the train, and the new world outside.
You wake up at 4am and you don’t care. You might read a bit. You might look up something about where you are. You might fall back into a doze. You might wait for the sun to rise, knowing that wherever the hell that is, it’s going to be very gorgeous indeed.
The longer you’re on the train, the more easily the mind slips into hyper away-from-it drive. It only takes thirty seconds to slip into a daydream, or an entire life imagining for someone you see in the distance.
That distance makes it all possible to slip into that other dimension – the one in which the world is much, much bigger than you, which oddly makes pretty much everything all right.
And by comparison, Ireland seems even smaller. So small, in fact, that I might stop fudging the answer about where I’m from, because at the end of the day, it’s just right there.