I had purposely bought a third-class seat because the very word and concept of "third-class" sounded as anachronistic as exotic to me. I did not know what the journey would be like, but I was sure of one thing: when you’re travelling without "luxuries", you may happen to be a bit more uncomfortable, but you will undoubtedly never get bored.
No sooner had I stepped into the abode of my next four days than I clearly understood why all the Russians whom I had told I would have crossed the nation in a platzkart wagon did call me crazy: no showers, no compartments, but a single long corridor-dormitory, where we are all together, with beds (cots, actually) on the sides.
My Russian friend who had hosted me in Moscow, took me to the wagon and, in a mixture of concern and irony, did all she could to entrust me with one of the provodnitsa whispering in her ear: "She doesn’t speak Russian at all, please keep a special eye on her".
I was indeed the only foreigner in the wagon (and probably on the whole train), and, to the other passengers, I must have appeared as a weird kind of tourist. They may well have asked themselves: "What is this girl doing here, alone, in platzkart, without knowing a single word of Russian?" At the very beginning, they looked at me with ill-concealed curiosity, but they still refrained from talking to me.
As soon as the train left, I felt a thrill of joy: I was onboard of the ever so desired Trans-Siberian and I would have reached my destination 86 hours later, covering 5185 kilometers along southern Siberia. I felt a great emotion. The Russians around me, instead, were probably not very enthusiastic about the idea of spending three solid days in a wagon, and the first thing they thought of, no sooner had the train moved on, was to eat. As if they were not expecting anything else to happen, they pulled out their lunches, set the tables and, all at once, every single traveller was basically chewing swallowing and drinking.
Life in platzkart for us Europeans is a travelling experience in itself. On the first day, the passengers break the ice, they start talking, getting to know each other. On the second day, they get more confident and start socializing; they offer food to each other, they tell jokes and, photos of children and grandchildren enriched with stories and anecdotes spring out of their bags. On the third day the wagon becomes a large family. You will never find this atmosphere on a European train where everyone never leaves their seats and doesn’t show any interest in their travelling mates. Nobody would ever think of offering you food or telling you about their grandchildren. The best aspect of human warmth that you could expect is perhaps some short and basic pat phrases as well as unnatural or fake smiles.
Russian people were the biggest surprise of my Trans-Siberian adventure. What do we Italians know about Russia? Not much actually, apart from some outdated stereotypes on vodka, communism and peculiar fur hats. In Italy we have an austere image of the Russians. A distorted image I would say, probably filtered by the old Hollywood industry which, over the years, has kept bombing and stuffing us with movies in which the Russians were portrayed as negative and evil characters.
However, we must acknowledge and admit that even the Russians do contribute to it all. To begin with, they rarely smile. At first glance, they appear indecipherable, they are not very expansive and extrovert; rather, they look shy, almost angry, but if you have the courage to penetrate that curtain of apparent distrust, you will discover generous, curious and attractive people.
Russian people are great chatterboxes indeed. On the train, everyone wanted to know me, to tell me something, to show me pictures; furthermore, even when I told them in my poor and lopsided Russian that I did not speak their language, they did not worry at all; they smiled and kept raiding me with questions and never stopped telling me about their lives.
Those very few times in my two-month stay in Russia in which I had to travel in kupe (second class), I felt the lack of this warm and relaxed atmosphere in which distances tend to get shorter and shorter with those people who were perfect strangers the previous day, and who, after just a few hours, end up chatting as if they had known each other for a lifetime.