Yesterday was Defenders of the Fatherland Day, a wondrous event in which guys wander around and collect free small gifts in every restaurant, café, and shop solely on the basis of maleness. (Don’t worry: Russian women get some sort of analogous day next month.) Chocolates and drinks and small trinkets and such came my way all day, despite the fact that I come from the place the Fatherland spend two-thirds of the last century defending itself from—but I digress. For now, I’m raising my coffee cup to the hope of more gifts and less defense in our mutual futures. More gifts and less defense in everyone’s future.
(Well, except college basketball, which could absolutely use some defense before it becomes as boring as the NBA. But again, I digress.)
Defender of the Fatherland Day also means a hefty percentage of the male population—at least those in public—wander around half a millimeter from blackout drunk, beginning from mid morning. Because of this, Defenders of the Fatherland Day will henceforth be remembered as the closest I’ve come to being murdered.
It happened, as all the strangest Russian things seem to, on the public transportation system. I stepped onto the metro, which was sardine-can full. In order to let one more person squeeze into the car, I shifted my shoulders a little bit. When my shoulders shifted, my backpack nudged the guy behind me.
He shoved me once, hard, then slurred something, and shoved me twice more, in case I might’ve errantly thought it was an accident. You’d think a person in this situation would feel some anger, or even terror, but that wasn’t the thing at all. By the time I turned around to make eye contact, I was laughing. And not a chuckle. A full-on, unstoppable, unmistakable laugh. Maybe even a cackle, though I don’t know if I had time to make it quite that far. It was on the edge of a cackle, though.
That reactions requires some background, although regular readers of the blog probably already have a sense of where I’m going, because the Russian transportation and I have history the way Mike Tyson and ears do. On trains and in buses, I’ve been shoved, stomped, kneed, and kneed in the back of the knee (which is a very different and far more intentional sort of kneeing, I promise, and its intent is to take someone down). I’ve been elbowed, shouldered wedged inescapably into corners and pinned up against walls. My foot has been run over by strollers, trolleys, and a pair of skis. A kid once spent an entire bus ride wrapping both arms around my knee to stabilize himself, because his mother’s knees were already taken up by the younger siblings. If Russian public transportation were capable of hiring a lawyer, I’d have a restraining order against it. If it were a country, the U.N. would’ve long ago sent in legions of those peacekeeping guys with the white helmets and clear shields to help me get to the grocery store and back in peaceful safety.
Some of this stuff was intentional. Most of it was not; transport is just crowded, and crowded vehicles create discomfort. That’s not anyone’s fault. But anybody who steps into a bus, metro car, or marshrutka understands they’re about to be jostled. Expecting anything else is like a running back expressing surprise when eleven giant defenders try to tackle him: “You mean someone’s going to try and stop me?
So I laughed, because to paraphrase a young Daniel Craig from his brilliant role in Road to Perdition, “It’s all so… hysterical”.
Until I made level-eye contact with about the middle of his chest. It wasn’t quite as hysterical anymore. Guy was enormous. But by then, the laughing was too far down the tracks—there was not stopping. So I looked right at him, and I didn’t stop laughing because I couldn’t, except for one small gap, during which I managed to say, “получить машину,” or, get a car.
Which, of course, made everyone else laugh.
Because, seriously. If you can’t handle getting nudged on a packed train, well—get a car.
The merciful thing about very big guys, and very drunk guys, and especially very big, very drunk guys, is that they telegraph their punches like crazy.
I had plenty of time to duck. So did the lady who I’d let onto the train. And everyone else around us.
The unfortunate thing about very big guys and very drunk guys and especially very big, very drunk guys is that when they finally get around to throwing the punch they’ve been telegraphing, they put everything into it.
When you’re wobbly and top-heavy to begin with, and you put everything into a punch on a moving train and the objects that—by virtue of being contacted—might keep your momentum from shifting all the way to the floor have had plenty of time to duck, well, you’re going down. Hard, and with lots of noise.
Physics, 1; very big, very drunk guy, 0.
I was still winding down from the laughter when I stepped off the train—not because I was being malicious but because this whole thing happened in the span of one metro stop—about two minutes of actual time. The police officer who had been watching the whole thing from a couple feet away had the guy in restraints by the time the door closed.
I may not have defended the Fatherland this week, but I definitely defended the heck out of my backpack, and that’s not nothing.
Aside from being a holiday, this week marked another landmark: I have survived winter in Siberia.
Not just winter, but one of the snowiest, coldest Siberian winters on record.
Now, I’m not naïve enough to think that we’re done with the cold in Novosibirsk, but for a few hours on Thursday, the temperature nudged above freezing for the first time since early October. The snow and ice, which in some spots has compacted to a depth of feet or even meters on the top of walkways or roads, has started to soften, and heavy equipment operators are all over the city, removing as much of it as possible before the temperatures head northward. The first days of thaw have Russians looking upward. Not just to glance the suddenly sunnier sky, but to stave off a very different sort of certain death than I encountered on the metro. See, the sidewalks aren’t the only things covered with compressed snow. Roofs are, too, and when the stiff starts to melt, it does what slick things do on a pitched surface. First it slides, then it falls. So, Volkswagen-sized hunks of ice have a habit of randomly falling several stories to the floor. Some buildings have caution tape up already to keep people from walking in the ice zone. Mostly, though, pedestrians just jostle for the sidewalk lane closest to oncoming traffic. Vehicles are far more predictable and easier to avoid that sudden ice from the heavens.
So I, too, am looking up and keeping toward the road, and trying to keep my laughter internal when I think things like, for the first time in my Russian experience, it’s actually safer to ride the bus than to walk, even when guys are trying to deck me.
I’m tired from all this surviving, so no Question and Answer Session this week, but I’ll resume next week: feel very welcome to send your questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
Fulbright Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the Fulbright program or the U.S. Department of State.