Video Killed The Ruskiwood Star
A gruff-looking inspector asks for my ticket and I hand him my used papers. He looks inquiringly and I blab something about waiting for the next train to Moscow. He’s unconvinced, mainly because the only word he understands is “Moscow”. Old Russians hate it when you don’t speak their language. No patience, no interest. He’s not sure if my claim is legit, so he’s about to order me out. The waiting room is for passengers only.
The fella next to me interjects. He’s been watching me and says something to the inspector that makes him hesitate. The inspector then shifts his attention to my seat-mate’s ticket. He walks away. I sigh. A reprieve.
“Hello man,” says the guy next to me. I size him up. He doesn’t look like a crook and he just helped me out. But I’m alone. In the middle of Siberia. In the middle of the night and my hackles are up. I smile back, nonetheless, and put on my broadest Aussie accent.
“G’day Mate! Gee, this isn’t exactly the Qantas Club, is it?!” Blank stare, toothy grin. Somewhere crickets are chirping. Clearly I’ve overplayed the accent a bit. “Sorry, you speak too queeekly,” the man says. “You are American?”
“Nah mate, I’m Australian.” We exchange names. Ivan’s smile becomes electric. “Osster-alian! I never met someone from here.”
“Well, I’m honoured to be the first,” I respond. Ivan then tells me that I’m only the second native English speaker he has ever met. The first was an American just four hours ago. I’m stunned.
It turns out old Ivan and his mates are movie buffs. They meet up weekly to watch Hollywood movies, practising their English with one-liners and clichéd phrases. They don’t have tutors. They just figure it out. They discover the world through cinema. Now Ivan is testing his linguistic skills – first with a Yank, then with an Aussie. And man, he passes with flying colours!
We have a brilliant discussion and I discover that Ivan knows more about the world, and Australia, than I’d ever expected. It’s remarkable considering Ivan hasn’t been outside Siberia. He hasn’t even made it to Moscow. When he learns that I’m running marathons around the world, he’s shocked, but gracious. I’d have been jealous.
Then, as Ivan picks up his kit to leave, giving me a warm handshake, I realise I’m jealous. Ivan speaks English and Russian. He knows plenty about my world, because he has made the effort to discover the nuances of my culture in my own language. I’ve had this growing feeling that everyone I meet is a whole lot smarter than me and it’s largely because they can understand me. But I’m not learning how to understand them. What’s that adage? You’re not learning anything if you’re doing all the talking.
I lie on my bench, gripping the handle of my pack, and consider my predicament. I’m spending more than $100,000 to see as many countries as possible in a year. I’m on an adventure of discovery. I’m here to get cultured, but I can’t read anything and most people can’t converse with me.
It begs a question. What if Hollywood wasn’t the centre of the film world and, arguably, modern pop culture? Imagine if the Russians spent as much as the Americans on cinematic rubbish with whizzbang effects. Instead of a Cold War with outrageously expensive nukes, they could have had a glitzy film blitz – winning the world’s hearts and minds through entertainment! I’d be fluent in Slavic, having grown up with Tsar Wars and Saving Comrade Rybakov.
I’m from the lucky country, but still I feel jibbed. Could it be a lack of decent movie choices that makes me ignorant? Or am I just a lazy bugger who should have done his homework by watching The Barber Of Siberia instead of Friday night football?
I wonder if I can make amends. If I watch a Russian movie every day I’m here, with subtitles of course, perhaps I’ll get the hang of it? I vow to get online and find Russia’s top 10 action movies; I’ll replay the coolest lines so that I can use them in conversation. Imagine, the locals would welcome me as a connoisseur of Russian cinema. I’d make friends and know how to book a hotel room.
And I wouldn’t be lying on a godforsaken bench, in the middle of Siberia, waiting for daylight.
Tristan Miller’s book, Run Like Crazy, documents his journey running 52 marathons in 52 weeks around the world.