Nine Countries in Twenty-Two Days

While an agenda had been set up previously by a scouting group, invariably on arrival we found the local groups were adding events which meant no free time to rest and recover. In cities like St. Petersburg, Bucharest and Sophia, the meetings tended to be long, formal and not particularly substantial. Generally, there was a set format where we were herded and instructed on what we would be doing, with no room for negotiation. Interactive process was not possible and indeed strongly resisted. Istanbul, Odessa and Almaty in Kazakhstan, however, were turning points where we had more authentic dialogue on the nature of these women's struggles.

In between the stops in cities we spent time on the train, 4 women to a compartment, 12 compartments to a carriage, 17 carriages in all. The concept of individual space and privacy was quickly abandoned as we strove to maintain harmonious relations in often stressful conditions. Each carriage had a stern Russian female guard who took her duties of guarding the hot water samovar seriously. Getting out of stations for refreshments was risky since there was no clear way of knowing if the stop would be for 5 or 15 minutes. Becoming friendly with our carriage guard ensured there would be a warning call to board the train. Food was simple and solid, served by dour Russians who rarely smiled. Snippets of news from a short-wave radio were relayed over the public address system updating us on the raging war-torn former Yugoslavia and the status of the French nuclear tests being conducted in the Pacific.

Between cities we were busy on the train with workshops and seminars organised by participants on subjects such as consumerism, ecofeminism, intellectual property rights, and increasing militarization. Lightening this simulating but heavy load, we also had singing, poetry readings and water colour painting. Auditory overstimulation due to the constant level of noise as the train hurtled along, was a matter of constant adaptation as I strained to hear speakers or simply have a conversation.

The Peace Train participants consisted largely of activists, NGO employees and professionals in the teaching, health care and social policy fields, with some American retirees in the mix. Bright, articulate and full of energetic zeal, there were however some anomalies - all in my carriage- Helen, the eldest participant at age 87, Ellen severely disabled and Marsha, blind, all needing help getting on and off the train with their heavy luggage, surprisingly allowed on the journey despite the application making it clear that everyone should be able to carry their own light luggage and be independent. There were many others who brightened the journey, not least Bridget, a young German doctor who was reeling from a disastrous love affair, one of my compartment buddies. A lovely companion on our stops in various cities.

Occasionally In the cities, we managed to have a few stolen hours to rush off and visit such sites as the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Causescau's mammoth palace in Bucharest, and the stolen art treasure exhibition at the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg. And there were moments of amazement when we had all 17 carriages of our Russian train jacked up 4 feet in the air at the Bulgarian/Ukrainian border in order to change the wheels for a smaller track gauge. And times of surprise when in the small hours of the morning the compartment door would be flung open by guards demanding to see our passports at yet another border.

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author
Born and raised in London, England, Isobel came to Canada in 1973. The first 14 years were spent in rural Saskatchewan, as the wife of a family physician and raising two sons. During those years, she developed her love of painting and ceramics. In 1987 she moved to Ottawa with her family and began her long career as a hospital social worker. This has come to an end and she is now working on memoir writing to share with her family and friends.
One Response
  1. author

    Ed Janzen2 weeks ago

    I would like to comment positively on Isobel Salole’s story, “Nine Countries in Twenty-Two Days”.
    I have been to China and East Germany, when it was still East Germany and know of which she speaks. Good job.
    Ed Janzen, Editor and Publisher CANADIAN STORIES

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