Moscow and overnight train to St Petersburg.( valley of Lily)

The red square with queue from l/r to see Lenin in his mausoleum.

The red square with queue from l/r to see Lenin in his mausoleum.

( About 1985) After a week or so in Moscow with the obligatory viewing of Red Square with the mile long queue at the Lenin Mausoleum,  the Stalin built but magnificent underground railway  with marbled statues and chandeliers,  an evening at the theatre watching ‘An American in Paris’ by American composer of Russian parentage, George Gershwin, we all took a late evening overnight train to St Petersburg. It was in July, very hot and days were interspersed with short but violent lightning storms. I was surprised that the giant  down pipes of those large buildings jettisoned the pelting rain straight onto the footpath whereby pedestrians had to perform large leaps into the air not get washed into the kerbs. I was astonished how high the Russians could leap but it did give me a better perspective on The Bolshoi Ballet phenomenon.

The overnight trip to St Petersburg has been covered earlier but is now buried at the bottom of this pile and in any case, my memory might well have shifted to even greater heights.  Here another retell. After getting on-board we were given the seats as shown on the pre-booked tickets. My compartment had a couple and a woman of typical generous Russian proportion and spirit. The two compartments behind me were taken up by an American group of singers who had performed in Moscow and now on their way to St Petersburg.

The Winter Palace (Hermitage)

The Winter Palace (Hermitage)

We soon settled and when I took a walk around my wagon I noticed the Americans who after introduction told me they were part of a choir. As I told them I was Australian they were keen for me to give an impromptu performance of  a Paul Hogan ‘Crocodile Dundee’ and several versions of   ‘Goodyaj, howszego’en maitey?’. I obliged but quickly escaped back to my cabin.  I can only perform on my own without an audience or mirror.The woman and couple introduced themselves and so did I. The Russian woman’s name was Lily and she could speak some German.

IMG_20150406_0009

One has to understand we were all going to sleep together so a kind of bonhomie and familiarity might ensure a reasonable and peaceful slumber later on. Russian trains do not segregate and at least in USSR sleeper trains, sleeping is not fraught with fear of an opportunistic sex maniac creeping in. That seems to be more the domain of those cultures that believe men and women are  so entirely different they ought to be separated from birth whenever possible.  For some, to attack remains the only option to get together.

Lily became instantly the epitome of what their race is known for. A socially, inclusive and talkative person. Friendly and keen to exchange talk on almost anything and everything. It was easy for me when we could also talk in German, but I am sure that even without a common language she would have seen that as a minor obstacle, easily overcome by gesture and body language, facial expressions. It was a hot and somewhat brooding thunderstorm threatening train journey. We were all sweating profusely and while talking Lily would pat and dab in between her generously forthcoming bosom with a crocheted hanky. ( I remember it well) that she kept sprinkling with  Eau de Cologne number 4711.

The Hermitage.

The Hermitage.

We exchanged small talk the best we could of which I have forgotten most but not all. What I did not forget is what ensued after she asked me what I did. “Ich bin ein Kunstler (..) und Lehrer. I answered”. I am an artist and teacher. Well, it was instant pandemonium.  You would know that teachers in Eastern Europe and especially Finland and former USSR countries are regarded and revered like lawyers and doctors, if not a new Dostoevsky or a burgeoning Tolstoy as well.   To be an artist and teacher is like being 2 doctors in one. She took out a small bottle of a greenish colour and poured some of the liquid in a metal beaker. The cabin immediately smelt strongly of aniseed.  She also had a packet of sugar cubes which she had opened earlier and given me some.

She went around the wagon telling all that here was, an Australian artist on board, while sharing the aniseed dipped sugar cubes all round. They all came and wanted to inspect this Australian ‘teacher – artist’. It was my moment of fame. When things calmed down we retired back to our cabin while she kept up the talk while  dabbing and giving  absinthe laced sugar. Around midnight we had enough and  as the aniseed euphoria and drowsiness was starting to wear off, all decided to go to sleep. The couple and Lily promptly pulled the beds of the wall.  We all took turns going to the corridor allowing ablutions and getting ready for bed. I took the top bunk and Lily the bottom one.

We were woken up early by the train lady conductor and given tea and sweet bread which famously gets served in a large very ornate silver  teapot with drinking glasses held in equally ornate silver holders with swan-necked ears.

We had arrived at St Petersburg.

St Petersburg Fortress which had held some very famous people including Trotsky.

St Petersburg Fortress which had held some very famous people including Trotsky.

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29 Responses to “Moscow and overnight train to St Petersburg.( valley of Lily)”

  1. Julia Lund Says:

    I laughed out loud at the balletic rainstorm images you word-painted😀 And 4711 … I went round the factory where it was made whilst on a school trip to Germany in the mid 70s. Reading this, the perfume was there again, a glimpse of a fragrance.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. rod Says:

    This is very good. I look forward to your Crocodile Dundee impression appearing on Youtube.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. ninamishkin Says:

    I was on that train in 1992, one year after the fall of the Soviets, when the northern city’s name had already been changed from Leningrad (which it was called when you were there) back to St. Petersburg (in honor of its founder). Alas, there was no Lily, no aniseed-drenched sugar and no samovar of tea and sweet bread in the morning. (What you brought with you was what you got.) You don’t mention the condition of the W.C. In 1992 it was filthy (and smelly). Sounds like you got the best of the Soviet transportation system, and we got all the pains and tribulations of a country just beginning its changeover from communism to capitalism.

    Liked by 1 person

    • gerard oosterman Says:

      I can’t honestly remember the state of the train’s WC and in any case prefer the aniseed in whatever the whirlwind of my mind is still capable of turning up.
      You are right Nina, it was still Leningrad. Great city in both names! The Amsterdam of the north.
      I just noticed you published another piece of wonderful memoires of your distant past as well.
      Must hurry.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Carrie Rubin Says:

    Taking an overnight train is an interesting experience. Not long after you took an overnight train to St. Petersburg in 1985, I took one from Amsterdam to Paris. (I flew from the US to Amsterdam.) I was just out of high school, going to be an au pair girl in Paris. So naive, so broke. But I made it. I remember a train packed with soldiers. There were no available seats, so they slept wherever they could–on the floor, on the bathroom floor. I felt bad having to boot those obviously tired souls out to use the restroom. It was a strange and memorable experience. But I didn’t get my chance at fame on my ride like you did.🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Andrew Says:

    My grandmother used 4711 and I too can still conjure up the scent. I have only been on an overnighter once – in India. Using the ablutions was out of the question. A) too crowded and b) too filthy. Perhaps the perfume of 4711 would have helped me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • gerard oosterman Says:

      Yes, it was available everywhere at the same time as a bubbly wine called Barossa Pearl.
      Every party had bottles of Barossa Pearl. On Monday mornings clerks and shop girls would talk about Orlando’s Barossa Pearl.
      It was a period known as ‘The Peter Stuyvesant’ generation.
      I can well imagine the state of the Indian train toilets.
      Did you see ‘Slum Dog?

      Like

  6. Curt Mekemson Says:

    Quite the story, Gerard. I can see why you might remember Lily’s “generously forthcoming bosom” but how did you remember the specifics of “Eau de Cologne number 4711?”🙂 –Curt

    Liked by 1 person

  7. auntyuta Says:

    Your adventures in Russia are a real treat to read, Gerard. I feel like I have been on this trip with you. I liked all the comments to this post too. Peter and I, and in the 80s also daughter Caroline, we went on quite a few overnight train trips within Australia. We always had wonderful clean sleepers with morning tea and the SMH served to our cabin. These were the days!🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • gerard oosterman Says:

      Yes, I believe the overland on the ‘Ghan’ is very spectacular. So much still to experience. Glad you enjoyed this story. I ended up afterwards in London full of grilled sardines.

      Like

      • auntyuta Says:

        I am afraid we’ve never been on the ‘Ghan’, Gerard.

        We went several times from Sydney to Muwillumbah on that night-train. In those days our car could go on the train with us.
        To Melbourne we went on the night-train only once.

        We also went once to Brisbane on the night-train, but to Brisbane we could not take our car on the train.

        For sure it would be quite spectacular to travel for several days on the ‘Ghan’ and watch the Australian landscape go past while relaxing with a drink in the restaurant car!🙂

        Like

  8. kaytisweetlandrasmussen83 Says:

    I can see why Lily was such a stand out! Imagine—4711, anise seed, tea, What more could anyone ask of a host? I think your 15 minutes of fame has multiplied by now Gerard. Why wouldn’t watch for a post from a famous Australian artist/teacher? Good story.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. berlioz1935 Says:

    Great story and so Russian. Lily must have been a real trooper, so generous in spirit as most Russians are. I loved them the first time I laid my eyes on them in May 1945.

    There used to be an overnight train from Berlin to Paris that was discontinued last year. Then, last week I saw a news item that the Russian Railway will introduce a train between Moscow and Paris soon, with a sleeper attached. I assume it will more to Western standards than the old Soviet style railway.

    There are many stories about the Transsibirien Railway where people tell of similar experiences and instant parties on the train.

    Liked by 2 people

    • gerard oosterman Says:

      Yes, the Trans Siberian express between Vladivostok and Moscow is a famous one too. I always wanted to do that one.
      I did travel on the Genoa to Stockholm train. A great journey under- broken by pass port controls every couple of hours. One could buy a hot chicken in a basket with bread rolls and small bottle of wine for very little from sellers that used to walk along the train while at a station.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. petspeopleandlife Says:

    That was some experience while on the train with the generous Russian woman. I had a hearty laugh reading about your experiences. I can only imagine what your thoughts were during your travels in Russia.

    You have done a rather decent amount of traveling in your life time. But have you written about how you met Helvi? Maybe you have and I was not following your blog then.

    This was an enjoyable read. Your travel log is interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • gerard oosterman Says:

      Hello Yvonne’
      Yes, I did write on how I met Helvi in ‘Frank Story’. It was when she was in Austria at Lienz on a student holiday. I was there too and I met her skiing. I told her she had beautiful eyes. She looked me in the eyes and said, ‘yes I know’. The answer was so unusual and straight it really floored me.
      She went back to Finland to study and I back again to Australia. We kept in contact and after some time and some letters we decided we liked each other very much…and… after more than fifty years we are still together… and still make each other laugh…

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Dorothy brett Says:

    No Ninamiskin I too was on the same train overnight, shortly after Gerard’s trip, and the WC was horrendous to say the least, no cup,of tea or food in the morning for us. But a lovely big Russian young man, with a red runny nose, chapped face with the soles of his boots flapping in the melted snow in Leningrad, insisted on carrying my suitcase for me as I wasn’t feeling very well. I don’t think he was too well either. But the whole trip was a delightful experience.
    As for bartering a beautiful blond young Russian uninstudentbsold me an LP record called Glasnost, I think, made by the Beatles, for just a very few Australian dollars.
    Dorothy Brett

    Like

    • gerard oosterman Says:

      It is odd, but I have no memories of ever even going to the WC on that train. I must have at some stage with the absinthe and tea.

      I know that WC’s on trains generally are not.places that I give much attention to.
      They usually have unsinkable condoms floating on top.

      Perhaps the tea in the train was part of making Russia attractive to tourists but overall we were spoiled and the guide did a good job.

      I had genuine Russian food of which the two girls from Brisbane complained non stop about. I told them they should have taken frozen meat pies with them and some Mars bars and 4litre Cokes from Woolies..

      Glad you enjoyed the trip too Dot.

      Like

  12. greenwritingroom.com Says:

    What a wonderful trip and with great characters. I remember wagon-lits in France and Germany, but I have never been I’ve never been that far east. There may still be time… but not for everything.

    Like

  13. sedwith Says:

    Another great post Gerard….I love your photos too. Was in Moscow in 74. Amazing experience…Avoiding supposed KGB agents around the intourist hotel and sneaking off with a Russian boy to talk about music life and his possible escape thtough the Red Sea….ah memories you tweak. Thanks Gerard.

    Like

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