From Russia, with (Not Exactly) Love?

9 Oct
Mom and Alicia on our train TO Naples - when everyone was healthy (but apparently tired).

Mom and Alicia on our train TO Naples – when everyone was healthy (but apparently tired).


I thought the Cold War was over, and – Putin aside – Americans and Russians generally got along now. I may have been wrong. That, or we encountered a group of Russians who were having an incredibly bad day as we left the Amalfi Coast.

Monday we took the train from Salerno to Rome. It was the same train we’d taken to Naples earlier in the week, so – having learned from our first ride – we wisely chose seats on the western-side of the car so we’d be shaded for the ride.

We were a bit nervous about the journey because my mom had woken up sick as a dog the previous day. She’d been in such bad shape (a self-rated “1” on a scale of 1-10) that we’d explored the airline’s policy for changing tickets so she wouldn’t have to travel until she was better. But, trooper that she is, she rallied for journey from the coast back up to Rome.

So we found ourselves sitting on the shady side of the car, my mom slumped in a seat with a wad of toilet paper in her pocket to combat her perpetually runny nose, crossing our fingers that we’d be able to make it to Rome with as little hassle a possible.

Things were looking good – until (about an hour into our journey) we pulled into the Naples.

At Naples, it felt like the entire population of Italy was boarding the train. We looked at each other, relieved that we had claimed our seats before the masses joined. And then, without warning, there was suddenly a group of five very large people hovering over us, frowning and pointing at our seats.

My sister, our translator for the trip, said, “Scusi…” then asked a few questions in Italian about the seats that elicited blank-stares. She tried English. They shook their heads, still frowning. Then – hearing them talk to each other – a lightbulb went off and she harkened back to her college years and tried Russian. Boom!

Turns out, the five angry people hulking over us were Russian and had reserved the exact seats we were sitting in. While there were plenty of other empty seats in the car, they were hellbent on having the precise seats that were on their tickets. The thing was – they wouldn’t show Alicia where on their tickets the seats were indicated. She wasn’t asking to challenge them, but rather the figure out how the seating arrangements worked since we couldn’t find any seat numbers on our tickets.

They just kept glaring at us and jostling us and speaking loudly to each other. My mom looked confused. I sat there uselessly holding a half-eaten apple.

[Back-story: Just before the train stopped, my sister asked if I wanted to split an apple. She handed it to me to start – then began composing a text message, which took about ten minutes. I’d eaten my half of the apple well before we’d pulled into the station, but had continued to hold the core, waiting for her to wrap up the text so she could have her half. In the middle of this, the confusion ensued, so I was slowly realizing we were going to need to move, I was going to need to somehow move a backpack and two suitcases down the car and my hand was incapacitated because it was lamely holding a half-eaten apple.]

Finally, I knew what needed to be done. I handed my mom the apple and said, “C’mon – we need to move. They reserved these seats.” I gestured to some other seats down the car. “We’ll just go sit there and get out of the way while we figure out where we’re supposed to sit.”

Much like a puzzle, where you need to move one piece to a temporary spot to make room to move the right piece into place, we needed to maneuver into a temporary space to get out of the Russians’ way so they could claim their seats. But they were standing in the temporary space and got angry when we tried to move into it, despite the polite hand gestures and earnest looks I was giving to show our intention was only temporary.

We finally managed to extract ourselves and move down the car, my sister and I relaying our bags to a new location while my mom carried the apple. We eventually got a nice Italian guy to look at our tickets a show us where the seat numbers were hiding – and got situated in our new block of seats on the opposite end of the car. (To do so, we also had to displace another group of people, but we were nice about it and took the time to point out on our tickets – and theirs – where the seat numbers were located. I’d like to believe our interaction was educational as opposed to confrontational.)

Once we were parked in our forever-seats, we breathed a collective sigh of relief. My mom offered up the apple, which was now browning and had been through too much – by which I mean “held by a sick person” – for anyone to want to eat. We wrapped it in a bag. Alicia pulled out her knitting and resumed working on a scarf.

“Well,” I commented. “That was certainly a cluster.”

Mom nodded.

Alicia got a big smile, “At least I got to speak some Russian!”

I’m not sure we did anything to strengthen US-Russian relations with that little interaction, but at least we didn’t start an international incident.

When I shared this with Alan after returning home, he got caught up in the frustration of the story. Before I could finish, he was offering up Russian phrases he’d learned while living in Georgia. I don’t speak Russian, but even I could tell he wasn’t using the word “mother” to talk about my mom’s health.

Probably best that he wasn’t on that leg of the journey.


9 Responses to “From Russia, with (Not Exactly) Love?”

  1. Lorna's Voice October 9, 2014 at 3:12 pm #

    Perhaps it’s genetic. My grandmother was Finnish with Russian blood in there somewhere. She was the most miserable person I ever knew. For real. 😐

    • pithypants October 9, 2014 at 8:03 pm #

      It made me laugh – whereas most Americans would (I think) approach the situation somewhat apologetically (“sorry to make you move, but I think you might be in my seat – do you mind checking your ticket?”) – this crew just stood and glared and yelled. Their anger was such that you’d think someone had taken their seats, sold them, and told them they’d have to push the train to the destination.

      • Lorna's Voice October 10, 2014 at 7:58 am #

        I think glaring is just their way of communicating efficiently! 😉

  2. thesinglecell October 9, 2014 at 7:51 pm #

    I feel like this could have gone much less well. Which is not to say it was fun. I kept waiting for James Bond to show up and gallantly handle the whole thing… or shoot the Russians using a pistol with a silencer, then sit down and calmly take the apple from your hand to finish it. Kudos to your mom for withstanding misery heaped atop misery. And to your sister for apparently being somewhat trilingual.

    • pithypants October 9, 2014 at 8:01 pm #

      It was actually hilarious. All week, Alicia was excited to practice her Italian – until our last night, when we stayed with an Italian family. On the drive to their house, there was awkward silence. “Alicia,” I said, “You’ve been wanting people to talk to – here’s your chance.” She shrugged and said, “I can only do transactional things – like order food. Not carry a conversation…” And so I’m thinking trilingual might be a bit of a stretch – though she is pretty fluent in Spanish.

      • Alicia October 14, 2014 at 9:34 am #

        I’m a legend in my own mind when it comes to languages. A 100-word vocabulary does not mastery make.

      • pithypants October 18, 2014 at 5:34 am #

        It’s better than anything I had.

  3. dianeskitchentable October 12, 2014 at 9:08 am #

    Well whatever you did must have worked because Putin just withdrew groups from the Ukrainian border.
    I’m laughing ny ass off because the same thing happened to us when we took the train from Rome uo to Florence. Buy 2 tickets, take 2 seats…until someone comes along and starts gesturing that those are their seats. In our case it was a couple of old Nona’s and I know not to mess with them! So we moved until the next stop when we were apparently in someone else’s seats…what the ? Do you think they can show the seat numbers a little better? Hope your Moe’s doing better though. It doesn’t sound like she needed ‘the incident’.

    • pithypants October 13, 2014 at 7:17 pm #

      Right? It’s kind of cryptic. And I remember the same thing happening when I lived in France, even though I spoke the language. I’m thinking the train companies enjoy the confusion.

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