This feature story is not about the hard life in Kiev suburbs and daily commuting, but rather an attempt to describe the suburban trains, their passengers and the atmosphere. Perhaps this sketch, addressing this aspect of suburban life, will scare the readers. Or perhaps quite the opposite – it will encourage them to take a trip in the future. Nevertheless, here I write about the real life and ordinary events that take place on commuter trains in the Ukrainian capital.
There are two types of commuter trains: electric and diesel. In common parlance they are called “elektrichka” and “dizel”. The trains may vary depending on the used technology, but the atmosphere and the audience, as in a respectable theater, are the same… The experience described in the article refers to the route “Kiev-Korosten”. Among the late- and post-Soviet travelers and hitchhikers, there is a special name for electric trains – “dogs”. “Riding dogs” means the cheapest way to travel from one train to another. The passengers of commuter trains call them gently “tiagi” – apparently from the verb “tianuc'” (to pull).
“Elektrichki” (plural of elektrichka) are not just a kind of the railway transport which runs on electricity. For example, in the summer 2012, before the football championship EURO-2012, Ukraine has bought new electric trains from Hyundai, which are expensive, fast, and have modern design. I suspect that quite soon a new middle-class passengers will be formed – people who highly rate speed and comfort. But let’s go back to the “dogs”.
What is the difference?
What helps to distinguish an elektrichka and a common passenger train? The color scheme is traditional: an elektrichka is nearly always blue-gray, and a passenger train – blue with a yellow stripe. Inside an elektrichka we have two rows of benches (with three seating places) near the windows, set in pairs, so you can always sit face to face with other passengers. The fact that the seats are designed for three passengers is obvious to everyone, so putting beside you a bag, which will take another place, in an attempt to mislead fellow passengers would be rather foolish. In such case you will be asked to take it away. But if a weary traveler falls asleep, taking the whole bench, nobody probably will even ask him to stand up. I have been observing such situation in an overcrowded train with no free places to sit down – nobody has ever woken a sleeping man. You can call it the after-work-tiredness solidarity.
What can we find inside?
There are several types of seats in cars – wooden benches, covered with lacquer and dark patches of dirt that has been accumulated over the years, plastic seats or soft, dark-red or wine-colored “sofas”. Under the seats there are often empty beer bottles and the husk of seeds. Sometimes an innocent kitten’s muzzle juts out or a dog’s tail sticks up from under a bench. The animals are not banned in the suburban transport. The windows in the train are the product of the collective art of passengers and the rail dust. Traces of rain, scratches, stains of unknown origin on the windows create patterns in the Rothko’s style. Every day elektrichki guest a lot of different actors – from students to retirees, from the urban freaks to the respectable-looking middle-aged. They share two things: an unwillingness to pay fares and the desire to quickly reach their destination.
The passengers are a very diverse group. It includes pensioners – who are going to Kiev in the summer to sell products from their gardens, while in fall they carry wild berries and mushrooms – not to mention students, who do not take their eyes from e-book readers. And of course there are also middle-aged people who commute daily to and from their work. Finally, one can meet Gypsies. Usually, they work in Kiev supermarkets, live in small towns not far from the city, rent cheap housings. They are more cheerful than other passengers. Gypsies rarely tell fortunes, at least on the train.
Nobody sees him, but his voice is heard on each stop. There is no pre-recording, so a driver has to announce stops within his voice abilities, hoarseness and laziness included. However, the radio does not work well, and if you are traveling for the first time in this area, you can hardly expect distinct speech. Sometimes the driver forgets to turn off the radio, and then all passengers can enjoy his talks with an assistant or his call to his naughty son. Sometimes, a driver reports: “Shanovnі pasazhyry, poїzd dalі nie їde” (Dear passengers, the train does not go further). This means that you need to go out and look for another way to get to the city. In such situations, I feel really sorry for the driver, as he takes upon himself the negative reaction of passengers regarding the railway and its quality.
Sellers of 1000 small things
These people deserve a separate epic saga. I am always amazed by all those small things that they are trying to sell. Can you just imagine that you are in an urgent need of: a set of sewing needles, wet wipes (“3 packs cost 5 grivnas”), rubber gloves (“for little hands and big paws”), raincoats (“great protection from rain… or thunder “), swords of the Jedi (!), keys to open cans with the threading, male/female-children socks, meat choppers (!), sugar cocks on a stick, flashlights with a magnet, corn sticks, children books with puzzles … the list is endless. Each seller has his original speech to attract potential buyers. The text has to be constantly improved as the competition is unbelievable. At the same time, all train sellers coexist peacefully. You will not see on a train two people with the same goods. If in a car there are two sellers, one waits patiently, giving time to the other to finish his speech and go further.
Train musicians perform mostly classics of Ukrainian pop music and all what is painfully familiar to middle-aged passengers. They collect money as if in passing, but, at the same time, with the sense of an honestly done job.
This sketch of a suburban life can scare someone, or, quite the opposite, attract others, but that is the real life and ordinary events that take place on commuter trains in Kiev – a phenomenon on its own.
Translated by MA