The hardest part about traveling is “moving on.” In some ways, having to leave for the next city every 4 or 5 days was both a blessing and a curse for me. When leaving cities that had left a deeper impression on me, and friends who had become more than just acquaintances, my bags seemed especially heavy as I lifted them back up onto the train. At the same time, moving on provided me with a new start in a new city, and a good block of time (sometimes 12 hrs, sometimes 40!) to gather my thoughts, reflect on the 4-day marathon I had just experienced, and prepare myself mentally for the next city.
In the U.S., we are not accustomed to train travel, and so we don’t often experience the tearful train platform parting, waving farewell with handkerchiefs out the windows like the olden days. I suppose that since we are a new country, and particularly an entrepreneurial country which gave rise to the likes of Henry Ford and Howard Hughes, the train had only a short lifetime in the US as a the primary means of transportation before being eclipsed by the automobile and plane. As I reflected on the train in American history, a series of images came to my head, wafting from my middle school textbooks and favorite movies: a lithograph of Civil War recruits packed in a train, waving out the windows to New York as they left for the war, (or were they WWI doughboys?), a picture of men in suits reading newspapers in a black and white 1920’s Pullman sleeping car, professional baseball players from “The Natural” playing cards in a cigar smoke-filled restaurant car on route to their next game.
Instead of train platforms, American movies usually stage their tearful farewells and reunitings at the airport terminal, or on the road, with a rolling image of the car driving out into the sunset to “see about a girl.”
Yet, there is nothing quite like a farewell on a train platform. At an airport, one must bid farewell frustratingly prematurely in the departure process, at the beginning of the line for the security check. This is then followed by the awkward 15 minute period of periodically looking back and using primitive sign language to communicate as you snake through the line to the metal detectors. The “final goodbye” is usually anticlimactically big wave thrown over your head as you struggle to stuff your feet back into your shoes, hold your pants up as you thread your belt through, and avoid the other passengers who are doing the same thing. Then you get to sit for another hour in the terminal, knowing that your loved one, your family, your friends, are standing literally on the other side of the wall, and maybe like you, are reading a newspaper, or grabbing a coffee at the Starbucks before they leave.
Although the train represented a leap forward in the march of industrialization, and the mechanization of the natural (e.g. “the Iron Horse”), its advent came at a much simpler time, a slower time. As a result the train platform farewell is much more of a natural, human process. It does not separate you unnaturally from your loved ones with security zones and walls. Nor does it pull out of the driveway in a cloud of dust. Instead, it allows you to stand with your company, hug them, speak about the weather, speak about anything, about the next time you will return. In Russia, no doubt someone will hand you yet another “packet” (plastic bag) of food and goodies for the road, or, like they did in Irkutsk, a last-minute gift, a token for you to remember their city by. This time on the platform ends at the gentle (or not so gentle) order of the conductor, “Time to board!” Finally relinquishing your place on the platform, you walk up the metal-grated stairs, and give a final wave from the top of the stairs. But soon you find a place at an open window, where you continue your conversation, albeit more publicly. For Russians, this final stage tends not to be an emotional farewell, but a humorous one, with witty phrases flying back and forth between the group on the platform, and the person departing. As an American, sometimes I did not know what to say, having already said goodbye enough times to more than fill the quota required for an extended Russian farewell. A part of me felt awkward standing there, looking at my friends on the platform, and they standing and looking at me, even for the mere 10 minutes as the train prepares to embark.
But I think that this is what we all want, what we all need for closure. After all, why do we call our friends on the plane and feel an urge to speak with them until the very moment they are told to turn off all electronics? I suppose we wish we could somehow just see them, and be with them all the way until takeoff, until the moment we really must part ways. How odd is it then to stand and look out at the people who came to say goodbye, even if we have nothing more to say? Must there always be something to say? What is more natural than to be able to see, to reach out to touch the hands of those who have come to say farewell, even if it is done in silence?
The final hug, the final wave, the final call, the progression leading to the final hiss and clunk, and the slight jolt as the brakes are released, and the train begins to roll forward. At first you do not even notice that you are moving, until you realize that your friends are walking ever so slightly to keep up with your window. The final call of farewell, as loud as you dare to shout without disturbing your new neighbors, some of whom who are also standing at the windows. For some, no one has come to say goodbye, and simply stand and look out at the station passing by the windows. Others stand in white t-shirts, fidgeting with a pack of cigarettes they hope to smoke as soon as the train exits the city proper. Walking back to my compartment, scenes from the other compartments flash out from behind partially-closed doors: a family making itself at home with a full spread of bread, juice, and kielbasa on its small table, solitary travelers lying down on their bed with a magazine, their back propped up against the wall, the sounds of crying babies and toddlers, older babushkas lying on their sides like sleeping whales. I finally reach my own compartment, step in, nod to my neighbors, and pull out my journal to write.