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‘To stop others thinking that they’ll find love on the couchsurfing site and messaging random girls.’
I told her we were on our way to Kazakhstan.
‘I sympathise,’ she quipped. ‘In Moscow, nobody ever looks at you in the street. In Kazakhstan, they do. They’re checking your nose hasn’t turned white with frostbite—it can be—40°C in the winter.’
Beyond the capacity of my imagination, it just sounded exciting. Naivety was remarkably motivating.
‘Everyone leave now!’ shouted the flushed Russian host. ‘We’re all going to a café down the road!’
Nobody budged. Nobody could.
Eventually, the host got his way, so we returned to Max’s and convened in the kitchen. As we snacked on bread and bananas from our own supplies, Max quizzed us on all matters travel.
‘Show me rucksack! Vot about sleeping bag? Khow much you pay?’
We presented him with our gift, a Lonely Planet guide on Thailand (he’d dropped a hint in an email while we were in London) and he yelped with joy.
His tiny, mouse-like girlfriend scurried in wearing mintgreen loungewear with SWEET GLAMOUR twinkling in green crystals.
‘Try ze rucksack!’ said Max, excitedly.
My rucksack practically toppled her, but she beamed. Their delight infected us all. Natalie didn’t speak English so Max seamlessly ran two conversations without ever revealing the strain.
By 1am, we could delay the inevitability of kitchen camping no more. We pushed the kitchen table right to the wall and unfolded the sofa-bed—the kitchen disappeared. I filled my empty water bottle from the just-boiled kettle—the only drinking water I could find—and the plastic warped. I wasn’t used to having to think about where I’d get my water. I sandwiched myself between Ollie and the wall and we killed the lights, but the glow from the appliances’ LEDs held their steely gaze on us. I couldn’t sleep: the fridge was whirring, I was boiling, I had a dead arm from the wooden ‘mattress’, and there was a foreign body in my bed snoring. Meanwhile, my mind was imploding from the day’s events. Was it really only this morning that we were lost in transit? It felt like we’d lived a week in one day.
‘I vont to khave breakfast!’ Max, in football shorts and his Cambodia T-shirt, entered the kitchen—it was rather like joining us in bed. All evidence of the night was efficiently tidied away, and Max set about producing a Heidi-style brunch: watery cabbage soup in need of salt, with trace elements of onion and carrots; smetana; chewy, sour black bread; and spineless ‘Russian standard’ cheese. Random Bloke joined in, and he and Max chatted in Russian. I was grateful not to have to join in, since I couldn’t think of anything to say. I just wanted coffee. Which wasn’t included.
Mystified by the ease with which Max played host, I asked, was the concept of couchsurfing intrinsic to the Russian psyche?
‘Yes!’ he said, practically bursting. ‘I met man in Kiev at ze station and khe invited me to stay khis khouse. Russians are wery khospy-table.’
I, too, could accommodate people on my kitchen floor, but it would take a Blitz for that to happen.
‘Okay, you do the voshing-up!’ Max left the kitchen and it struck me that the couchsurfing dynamic was all about sub/dom. Max was instinctively dominant and we happily submitted. Maybe it could also work as a dom/dom dynamic, and even dom/sub, with a guest dominating a submissive host. But when both were submissive, as it had been with Olga, it left the relationship needing a kick.
‘Perhaps that’s what I should do,’ Ollie piped up. ‘I’ll get couchsurfers into my house, and say to them, ‘You can stay in my house, but you do the washing-up.’
Max returned with his Moscow guide book: ‘You could go here, you could go here…’
Actually, we said, we were interested in the All-Russia Exhibition Centre (a Monaco-sized tribute to Soviet glory). Max seemed unconvinced, but went to print out notes. Now a troika, Max, Ollie and I left the apartment. Feeling shattered, I wished we were a deux. We passed the obese woman in the janitor’s cabin and Max explained that yes, she did live in that one tiny room.
‘Rent is wery expensive in Russia. She’s probably from Uzbekistan. Zey take zose jobs.’
Ollie couldn’t have told me that, I thought to myself.
Outside, Max hucked and spat on the roadside. I sneezed. Ollie blessed me. ‘Yes,’ said Max, ‘Cheers!’
First we visited Moscow’s space park, where a one-hundred metre tall, titanium totem to The Conquerors of Space pointed vertiginously skywards. As we walked down the Avenue of Cosmonauts, Ollie struggled to keep up with Max’s long strides; despite our polite requests, the pace never slowed. Ollie wisely sat out the Monaco-sized glory park. Max guided me indefatigably round the eighty-two Stalinist pavilions, Gagarin’s Vostok rocket and an Aeroflot Yak-42 (smirking not permitted). Without Ollie to share in deciphering Max’s accent, I struggled to understand him, and when I could, I felt too socially retarded to converse, relying simply on a repertoire of, ‘Oh yes, wow, how interesting, I see, umm, gosh’. It became increasingly apparent that Max had taken the day off to hang out with us, despite not really rating our choice. The consummate host never let on.
Max peered into a souvenir stand with hungry eyes: ‘Now I know vare to send my couchsurfers,’ he clucked.
‘Do couchsurfers usually bring presents for you?’ I asked.
‘Sometimes zey offer to buy food, but mostly I say no, pliz. Many zink of it as a place for staying so zere is no obligation to leave presents. But it is a custom of Russia to bring a gift because you don’t pay the bill.’
I resolved to keep on giving.
We scooped up a smiley Ollie, and took the scenic monorail (which Max had researched for us earlier) to Moo-Moo, a chain restaurant decked out like a Friesian cow, serving up Russian classics: borscht, cabbage-stuffed bread, kvas (fermented rye bread water), and, of course, vodka. Two men on the neighbouring table asked to join us. ‘Sure!’ said Max. For the rest of our meal, Max tirelessly translated the glassy-eyed Igor and Sergey’s rants on the war in Georgia (and the Western media’s blindness to Saakashvili’s evil), eulogies to Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (‘most important Russian book!’) and pushy vodka toasts to ‘united nations’. But Max remained the jolly messenger, never getting political. I’d tried to discuss politics with him earlier, but he’d laughed it off; it didn’t seem relevant to him. Natalie appeared halfway through, to nibble on an eggcup-sized portion of vegetarian gratin and saucer of salad, after which our hosts skipped off to their Latino dance class.
Couchsurfing was a hungry beast, so Ollie and I busied ourselves in an internet café. There was a constant need to plan ahead, arrange back-up and confirm arrivals. Each acceptance felt like a minor victory. Perversely, however, we found ourselves, like naive kittens, seeking just a little more danger. Our next stop was Yekaterinburg (some 1,814 kilometres east of Moscow), where our host, a journalism student called Polly, would be on holiday in a ’rather fashionable’ hotel in Turkey when we arrived, leaving us in the curious company of her pet rat. Danger indeed.
Max was expecting a Spanish couple—our replacements—to arrive at 8am from St Petersburg. Ollie had suggested we wake at 7am to prepare for them, but given our own delayed arrival, I overruled it. At 8.30, the doorbell rang.
‘Hola! Buenos dias!’ they trilled.
Max, the expert logistician, deftly organised us like human elements in a sliding-tile game, and then began the breakfast ritual. The girl immediately offered to do the washing-up. I was so slow on this sharing and helping thing.
‘Do you always like to have surfers, Max?’ I asked, when the amantes weren’t listening. I was shocked by his turnover.
‘I need a rest,’ he replied. ‘Sometimes Natalie don’t like zem.’
‘Are there ever surfers that you don’t like?’
‘No, no!’ he heehawed like a donkey, before adding, ‘Zere vos a Sviss couple cycling viz all zare kit.’
That was as rude as he could bring himself to be about them.
It was checkout time for us—we had a train to catch aboard the world’s longest railway. While packing up, it occurred to me thatMax must now have something of a collection of objets oubliés.
‘Ah yes!’ he said, convulsing with laughter. ‘It’s like a muzeum khere. I khave towels, I khave trousers, I khave tooz-brushes…’
‘Actually,’ I added, ‘I can’t find my top.’
‘Too late! It’s in the muzeum, khuh khuh khuh!’
CHAPTER 3 YEKATERTNBURG: THERE’S A RAT IN THE KITCHEN (#ulink_3d46fb62-fd7b-5719-9898-d4b64bb8ccdc)
‘Well, that was odd.’
Ollie and I were rumbling towards Asia on board the Trans-Siberian Express, and I was grappling with why Max could possibly choose to live in that chaos. We had thirty hours to work it out before it all began again in Yekaterinburg.
‘Max is having the time of his life,’ Ollie mused, as he stretched out on his sailor-sized bunk. ‘He’s meeting experienced travellers from all over the world, showing them his city, dodging his shitty job and working from his phone. He’s got it all worked out.’
Still, he must have possessed a spare brain lobe to accommodate the madness. Perhaps it was a reaction against Russia’s isolationist stance. Whatever, it would be hard to look at a Soviet block and still think ‘prison with windows’—we knew now that within their walls could be warm and colourful homes.
Ollie, meanwhile, was getting familiar with my dinner of Russian biscuits.
‘I couldn’t be my normal cheeky self,’ he said, his mouth full.
We were both caught up in manners: this was a shame—cheekiness had its role in social lubrication.
‘And you can’t be selfish as a couchsurfer,’ he added. ‘I was really having to push my leg because I felt rude telling Max to keep slowing down.’
He inspected the growth on his knee. It was bulging hard and taut. Ollie strapped a chilled bottle of water to the lump (he’d left his gel pack at Max’s) and added, ‘It would be really churlish to call a host boring—but Olga wasn’t so exciting.’
He was right. That was blasphemy.
As we pulled away from the relatively westernised Moscow, we pressed our noses against the window. Nothing to see but nothing: the Siberian birch, it seemed, had a monopoly over Russia’s hinterland. Staring out of the window began to feel like sticking one’s head into grey cloud: ready-made emptiness, waiting for our minds’ overspill.
But at least, I realised, one part of my mind was filled with peace: The Emperor Department. Usually so fraught with the minutiae of our last five arguments, now it was quiet. There was surely something out there for both of us that was more stable, that was better for us. We should be using this time to heal. I’d been sending trip updates to The Emperor, but now I sent this emotional update, and I felt it strongly. Maybe thousands of miles and all these weeks was the only way to save ourselves from ourselves.
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