Down Into The Metro I Go. Hi Ho! HI Ho!
I have faced more than one formidable challenge in my fifty years on the planet. I have withstood the slings and arrows of political debate with the "Righteous" Right Wing forces in Canada, survived natures wrath as she washed me over an out cropping of volcanic rock while I was swimming off a sunny shore in Mexico, negotiated with protesting natives in Honduras, in order to pass through a road block they had set up on the only road out of town, and I have stared down a deadly coral snake that slithered out of our garden in Nicaragua and onto the landing of the stairs I was climbing after my morning walk. These were but mere trifles compared to facing the challenge of conquering my fears of the Moscow Metro!
Upon entering the metro alone, for the first time, armed with a map I did not understand and already stunned from having a heavy glass door slam into my face as I entered the building, I was filled with trepidation. I was expected to find my way to my class in a school I had never been to and I was expected to change trains twice. This was challenge enough. As I walked down the stairs and into the great caverns of the metro system I turned the corner and stepped onto the escalator. As I descended I looked in horror at a crush of people so intense I wondered how I would move through the crowd that awaited me at the bottom. I thought I would surely be swallowed up, devoured by the masses, cast aside, pushed to unknown destinations, and lost forever!
With a will to survive and a sense of humor that made me chuckle at my plight I continued following the directional squiggles I had made on the map, as dictated to me by Katia in the office at the school, before I set out. I took the right train the wrong way twice, ended up trying to communicate my confusion to those who sit in booths at the bottom of the escalators, hoped I understood their directions and finally found a wonderful warm and smiling Russian woman who set me in the right direction. I talked to myself out loud as I navigated my way to my destination. One million busy Russians seem to want to ride the same metro car as me. I wondered at how popular I had become and so quickly too! When I finally arrived at my destination I was relieved and vowed to become adept at this mode of travel even if I had to spend a couple of weekends traveling around in this underground world.
If navigating the metro was the only concern of any foreigner it might be considered somewhat of a small challenge. However this system of colored lines is much more than a transport pathway. It is a place where the mentality of the "herd" is at work and in order to become a member of the "herd" there are some things I needed to understand. This then became my next challenge.
I have traveled the metro systems in Toronto, Montreal and New York. These are systems in which there exists some courtesy and behavior common to the sensibilities and customs I was familiar with. Here, in Moscow, however it is quite different. There is a feeling of urgency, of having to be first on the train, first off the train, first on the escalator. First everywhere! If you are standing on the platform waiting for the train, someone is sure to come and stand in front of you, even if the space is so small you might think they risk being hit as the train pulls into the station. My sensibility is to step back and let them be, but I wonder why this positioning is so important? Is their something I do not understand, some social message here that I am missing?
I have learned to walk differently because of my experience in the metro. I weave now, quite brilliantly I think, around and through crowds of people, who in my mind, have no sense of direction or intention other than moving as fast as they can to get from one point to another. One of the cardinal rules I learned early in is to stay out of the way because whoever is coming at you will walk right through you and since this is a physical impossibility it would mean taking an awful lot of body checks in my daily travels. I sometimes think I could invent a new dance called the "Metro Weave" in which the smooth swift movements of a walk through the metro would be choreographed to music. I think all of the transit goers would find this quite interesting, as they know the steps already.
Sometimes you take your life in your hands before you even get to the escalator. We all have metro passes that assure us entrance to the challenge. The turnstiles each has a glassed in booth in which sits a turnstile guardian. I think their job is to make sure no unauthorized entry into the underworld occurs. I also think these metal gates to Metro Hades have a mind of their own and are not to be trusted. Sometimes you can put your little passport to transit into their little mouths and they will spit it out and you go forth only to be stopped by fast moving, hard clanking, crotch grabbing, metal arms. The bells and whistles sound and you are trapped, like a criminal, seemingly trying to sneak past the guardian at the gate!
One day, as I was heading toward the escalator after disembarking from the train, the herd was so large I thought perhaps I might step out of the way and wait until the throng became less dense. Looking behind me I realized this was not a good plan because I might age a year or two before I actually made it to the escalator. Shuffling forward I positioned myself behind a big, tall Russian man and stuck to his back like a fly to wallpaper. The press of people was heavy and I felt claustrophobic but in a few moments I neared the metal railings that would narrow the crowd and allow me access to the first step of the moving stairs. All of a sudden, from behind me, I felt a mighty push as a woman of about my age shoved me out of the way. While doing so she uttered some very nasty words. I had no need to understand Russian to know she was not being friendly. She got by and stepped one stair ahead of me still muttering under her breath. Fearing that I would lose my temper but being human enough to want to say something back to her I let out a low mean growl, aimed directly into her ear. Startled she turned her head around and looked at me menacingly. I returned her scowl with a well rehearsed and practiced one of my own. By the time we reached the top of the escalator and she realized I was walking in the same direction as her she slowed her hurried pace and melted back into the crowd. It was then I realized I had succeeded in becoming part of the herd.
And then one morning, as I rode the train feeling homesick for my family and friends in Canada and wondering if I could rise to all of the challenges life in Russia offered, I heard music. Not just any music but the sweetest sounds of a violin played with the delicacy of a fine player. The tune was hauntingly familiar but I could not recall its name. I looked down the length of the car to see whom it was who so touchingly lent magic to the day. I saw a small old man simply dressed, unadorned, save for his violin. His expression seemed lined by memory. Moving down the middle of the throng in the car, he continued to play as the train rocked and moved through the tunnel. People dropped rubles into his jacket pocket.
The notes of the song filled the train car with both tenderness and the beauty found in melancholy. I was moved to tears. Standing, holding on to the bar above my head I quickly reached into my pocket for some change and a tissue. The next thing I knew a very dark and handsome Russian man sitting below me got up and gave me his seat. The whole mood of the train car seemed to shift from that of human indifference to something close to that of kindred spirits. In one clear moment the thought occurred to me that this indeed was a contradiction to all I come to expect from my journeys down into the Moscow Metro. From that day forward I began to see the challenge and the adventure for more than just the physical experience of riding the trains.
See the news and information journal "Unbound", where the teachers tell their experiences and share their impressions, and where our dear editor, Lorraine, takes the most active part!