One needs people, even if it's only to have someone to swear at.
Bazarov, from Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons
I'm sitting on the subway in Moscow. I've ridden a series of escalators so far underground I must be approaching Tartarus; I'm so far below the city that it could be levelled into oblivion right now and I wouldn't hear a thing. I'm on an old but well-maintained subway car creaking across the once-soviet city toward a destination I’ve long forgotten. The car is sparsely populated, with half a handful of folks littered about in typical subway fashion. To my left is a business-y man of middle age. He is nonchalantly reading some Russian newspaper, his seasoned stance gently swaying as we speed along the subterranean rail. Sitting directly across from me are two young, text-book hooligan types sporting the stereotypical baggy clothing and dangling chains one might find in a tacky music video from the early 90's. They are looking at me and my partner, who is sitting at my side. We have our giant packs in front of us, the hefty bags stuffed and brimming with crap, resting on the floor and pinned between our knees as we quietly enjoy the city ride. My autumn trip has taken me from Belgium to France to Germany to Moscow, and it will take me through Russia, Mongolia, China, and Hong Kong before it ends. No, not ends. Merely pauses indefinitely. The crossing of these multiple climates has forced my hand when it came to packing and my bag sits heavy at 60L and god knows how many pounds. Resting it upon the subway floor is an appreciated reprieve for my tired shoulders.
In true subway fashion I am sitting quietly, indulging my aimless and solitary thoughts when one of the hooligany-y teens speaks up. His accent is thick and he struggles with the words, eventually spitting them out with a smug curiosity.
“How much did you pay for that bag?”
That is not the kind of question I really want to be answering to a couple of kids who could likely kick the foreign shit out of me. It's especially not the kind of question I want to be answering when I remember that there were several – yes, more than one – stores selling knives in the underground shopping area surrounding the subway station. Granted, there were also a few shops selling lingerie and underwear (yes, at the subway station) but that fact really isn't on my mind at the moment. It seems knife stores are like the Starbucks of Moscow, and the chance of these "curious" individuals having themselves a razor-sharp latte seems relatively high. Balls.
He asks again. I sort of mumble something about not knowing, since I bought my bag on sale amongst a handful of other items...with a gift card. He doesn't quite comprehend my rambling answer, shifting in his seat to talk with his companion. They ask some other questions in a mix of Russian and English in hopes of getting a rise out of us; it's clear they want to make us uncomfortable. All things considered, they are doing a relatively good job.
It is also clear that we are becoming noticeably ill at ease as they start to reach over to our bags, evaluating their value as they tug at some of the loose straps. I keep up a firm wall of Canadian politeness to deflect as much awkward and discomfort as I can, but it's a losing battle. There is an ever-increasing likelihood that this is going to escalate into something hospital worthy as the moments tick by, their confidence steamrolling as they laugh at us idiot travellers. Hm. Perhaps I should have bought travel insurance.
All of a sudden we are being saved; our own Red Son is here to rescue us from anything worse than a mere vocal prodding.
The business-y man sets his paper down on the seat beside me, stepping in front of us to confront the young bullies. Briefcase in hand, he completely interrupts their verbal strides with his firm, parental tone. He isn't overly aggressive but seems to just flatly tell them to piss off. Which, after exchanging some words with our unlikely hero, they do. The specifics are lost to me, the incomprehensible Russian far beyond my meagre linguistic capabilities, but the gist is clear. He nevertheless stands there unflinchingly until the kids decide we are no longer worth their efforts and depart. I shake his hand, mumbling an awkward series of thanks as we continue on our way across the once Grand Duchy of Moscow.
Want more? Read part two of The Russia Chronicles here!