Almon is 13 and Frankie is 9 years old. Despite my repeating it for the third time, what the boys had done, the repairman was doing, and their mother would do wasn't sinking in. Almon and Frankie looked up from their textbooks and sighed. For three years the boys have been taking Russian lessons with me. This one, in conjugating verbs, was supposed to enable them to talk about all they do. For that to happen, however, it was clear I had to figure out fast what "to do" next.
It's not as if the brothers haven't accomplished much. In the grocery store they practice telling their mother that they need milk, eggs, cheese – and ice cream. They tell their puppy to sit, stay, and get off the bed in Russian. And, given their passion for trains, we play Russian Rails. The game enables them to journey through history and fulfill their home-school language requirement. As they've built their rail empires, they've also increased their vocabulary.
"Could we play the new game?" they asked.
What would it take, I wondered, to break open the real adventures that come with learning a language? We compromised.
The next week when the boys arrived, the game was set up on the table, along with Russian tea glasses and chocolates.
"If we were on a real train today," I explained, "this would be waiting for us in our compartment." I then described the etiquette and adventures of spending days in a cramped compartment with people you'd just met. At that moment, in fact, a Russian friend whom the boys love, was on one of the famed Trans-Siberian trains going from Moscow to Vladivostok. (Their "Uncle" Nikolai comes to America each year and is largely to thank for their learning Russian.)
It would take the train 6 days, 5 hours, and 22 minutes to arrive on the far side of Russia. Nikolai, I told the boys, would be getting off in Ekaterinburg. As I described his route, Frankie's forefinger plotted it out on the game board. It was working: The boys were imagining towns teeming with life beyond the hard-to-pronounce names. I put my phone on speaker and dialed Nikolai's cellphone number.
For the next 30 minutes, we "rode" the Rossiya train with Uncle Nikolai, boarding somewhere near Nizhny Novgorod. He introduced us to two of his traveling companions. The third, a man from India, was already asleep – as well as one sleeps with three strangers and a cat.
Cats are unusual on the train, but the woman occupying the lower left bunk was taking him to surprise her parents in Omsk. Rurik had ridden the entire way in Natasha's arms. It was hard for her to hold the phone, but she was pleased to talk with the boys. They told her about their puppy while the train chugged along. As I translated, they smiled.
When Nikolai came back on, the train was pulling into a station. He decided to take us onto the platform. In the darkness, the station lamps barely illuminated the babushki (grandmothers) selling their wares. Nikolai wanted to buy some pickles. Within seconds, several babushki were at his side. He held out the phone so we could better hear their bartering. The boys then recognized the word "potatoes." Nikolai bought six. To our delight, he handed the phone to the hard-bargaining babushka while he fished more rubles out of his pocket.
"Who's there?" she asked.
"You're talking to America!" I replied.
"I don't have time!" She handed the phone back to Nikolai.
As happens at a station when there's someone on the platform buying, the scene intensified:
"Please, you can see for yourselves, I can't hold any more. That's all. I only have 10 rubles left. What am I going to do with a chicken? No, thank you. I already bought pickles from you. I'm cold. The train's leaving."
As Nikolai leapt up the iron steps, one last babushka decided that for 10 rubles she'd make a deal.
Nikolai handed the phone to the attendant who serves tea on the train. She was from Blagoveshchensk in the far east. Ludmila chatted with the boys as if she'd been expecting their call and invited them to visit.
The train suddenly lunged forward. Two hardboiled eggs, five rubles each, were now nestled on top of Nikolai's steaming potatoes, salted pickles, dried fish, and mandarins.
As the train left the station, the boys reluctantly said good-bye to Uncle Nikolai.
For a few minutes, they had been transported across the world and carried on a real Russian train. They'd met a kind lady with a cat, bought pickles and potatoes, and were invited to Siberia by the woman serving tea. This was their world opening its arms to them.
The next day their mother sent me this note:
What a special day in our lives! The boys have told everyone about it:
"We felt like we were there!"
"The tea lady was really nice and invited us to visit."
"We talked to a woman with a cat!"
"We were all laughing."
The noted ended, "If peace was a language, I believe that today we heard the voice of peace."
The next lesson in conjugating verbs felt like it had a whole country urging us on, even if it still wasn't easy "to do."