Published by In Her Place on November 29, 2011

A Popular Passport

by Avra Kouffman

Try to get comfortable. It’s your first month in eastern Europe and you’re about to take a 14-hour train trip from Moldova to Bucharest, Romania. This overnight journey will be mired in the deepest humidity and where you actually want to go is Ukraine. The trip to Romania is costing you, in total, 28 hours of wrong-direction travel time. But the multi-entrance visa stamp you will need to re-enter Moldova after visiting Ukraine is only available from an embassy in Bucharest.

I hope you’re laughing. It is 2001, so there isn’t even a reigning Communist regime to blame for this bureaucracy. Your Russian friend, Vlad, escorts you to the train and says cryptically, “Just don’t show anyone your passport.” Then he waves goodbye.

Once aboard, however, word quickly – even instantaneously – spreads that an American is on the train. Awkwardly, it is you. People approach, speaking Russian or Romanian, but since you have no idea what they could want (apart from your passport), you smile dazedly and try to imply, through a certain glazed look in your eye, that you are just a little bit slow. You hope they will leave you alone.

This ploy works fairly well for the first few hours, until an official enters the cabin. No false smiles or chatty preliminaries for him. You hand him your passport, doing your best to convey a carefree, yet meek, air of innocence. You are, of course, innocent – at least, in the criminal sense – but you are also an unmarried, unaccompanied young woman, traveling from country to country, hapless and apparently mute.

To everyone else on the train, this situation is incomprehensible. There is already something wrong.

The official gruffly marches away with your passport and does not return for hours. You are now more than a little nervous. You have recently gone around the world and the passport is filled with stamps of a quantity and variety that astonishes even you. Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Morocco. You fear the official who examines it will alter his appraisal of you as a cretin and decide you are a spy.

Tense ages pass. Finally, the official returns, looks you shrewdly in the eye and, in a few pointed words, manages to convey that he now knows the sordid truth about you. One thing he knows is your age: at 34, a good five or ten years older than you appear. You feel mortified, as if you have been caught in a lie.

As the official exits the sleeping car, a cabinmate gestures at your passport, wanting to see it. You have already tried to chat with him, his sister and the third occupant of the cabin, a blind man. It hasn’t been easy, since only the boy speaks even a smattering of English.

Yet, since you are stuck with these people for the rest of the night, and the language barrier between you is thicker than the Great Wall of China, you have no words with which to graciously refuse. You feel as if you are handing a translation of your intimate personal diary to your new acquaintances. You sit silently while they pass it amongst themselves and discuss it in a foreign language.

You wish you’d brought more books to kill the time. What you need is something funny and cheerful. What you have is a horrible, tiny-print tome of Dostoevsky. Back in New York, it seemed logical that eastern Europe would be a good place to catch up on Russian writers.

Finally, it comes time for the four of you to climb into your sleeping berths. The two men remove their shirts and fold them neatly away. Their semi-nakedness makes you uncomfortable, but you, too, feel the brutal humidity. Since it is far too hot to sleep, you listen to your Walkman, the volume turned down as low as possible.

At midnight, the train comes to a complete halt. Sixty minutes later, it is still stationery. You are told the train is changing wheels to fit the Romanian train tracks, and that this is normal procedure. You sit in a dumbfounded silence.

At least you’d like to. Alas, the downtime requires you to bond with the three other sweating inmates of the cabin. Maybe the blind man will tell you, as he did me, “I can sense you have a nice smile.” His kindness will touch you, though you are far too hot and tired to want to exert the effort needed to communicate, a few words at a time, via the boy.

No matter. It is you who are the foreigner on display at very close quarters. Just smile through the humidity and try to seem friendly. You will be here for hours to come, so — you may as well get comfortable.

Read Avra Kouffman’s bio »

6 comments

Enjoyed this!

by Paula on December 3, 2011 at 7:56 pm. Link

Bravo, brave woman! You manage to convey the strangeness, sweetness, fear and humor of it all. Love this!

by Dody on December 3, 2011 at 11:37 pm. Link

Felt sticky just reading it! Must’ve been daunting even for a single female New Yorker! Great stuff & glad you lived to tell!

by Nina on December 4, 2011 at 5:02 am. Link

Great story! I felt like I was there….none too comfortable!

by Alice on December 4, 2011 at 5:29 pm. Link

Evocative, funny, real, inspiring, and always a pleasure. Thank you, Avra 🙂

by Stacy on December 6, 2011 at 3:18 am. Link

What a great passage. The reader feels your discomfort, as well as your sense of purpose and adventure that must, like a guiding star, make this burdened train ride through humid, humbling Rumania, worthwhile in the end (we hope!)

by Roseanne Greenfield on January 2, 2012 at 1:52 am. Link