I counted myself lucky as I stood just inside the commuter train, breathing in the smells of humanity, as shoulders, knees, and butts pressed into me on all sides. At least it wasn’t winter, so no one’s fur-trimmed jacket was tickling my nose. But it was rush hour, and I was on the one train line to Elektrostal where the crowds don’t thin out a half-hour from Moscow. Indeed, midway at Zheleznodorozhnoe, just as many stone-faced, sombre-coated commuters came aboard as left.
The crowd shuffle did allow me to slide my way from the lobby forward into the car itself, where 3-person benches lined the car on both sides. Maybe, maybe some lucky soul right in front of me would arrive at their station, pick up their belongings, and relinquish their seat to me. The aisle was packed with my competitors for any open seat, so it didn’t seem likely. By this time, my sore re-injured ankle was aching.
I was clinging to a hand-hold on the back of a bench, nearly breathing down a young woman’s neck. She had quietly arranged her small bit of personal space so she could study an advanced German textbook. Maybe she wouldn’t be too annoyed if I spoke English in the train. I usually avoid speaking on commuter trains, because some Russians are not so welcoming of foreigners, and others are outright hostile.
So I called Johan to tell him I was on the way home. At one point I described my sore, woebegotten ankle and said, “I’m just afraid the crowd will push me one way and my knee will go the other.”
A few minutes later the young woman gathered her textbook up and beckoned me onto her seat. I expected her to start pushing her way forward, but no, she stayed! She wasn’t getting off. Had she understood me? I doubted it. Very few people speak even hesitant English, much less well enough to successfully eavesdrop on one side of a telephone conversation in a noisy train. I glanced up at her, and she returned the traditional Russian-in-public stone face, so I couldn’t tell.
When my station came up, she was preparing to leave, too, so I thanked her in English, and she beamed. “May I ask you a question?” she said shyly.” “Where are you from?”
“Oregon,” I said, “on the west coast of the States.”
“A foreigner! I can’t believe there’s a foreigner here!” she said gleefully.”I’m studying German, too, but English is my favorite language!”
She was probably part of the more educated segment of the young generation in Russia, who tend to feel that whatever is not Russian is better. If she is like our students, she’s studying foreign languages in order to become a foreigner somewhere else.This is a new sentiment in Russia, as new as the collapse of the Iron Curtain, as old as Czar Peter the Great’s admonition to the aristocracy to speak only French. In any case, I was as surprised as she was to find an English speaker right in front of me.
The next morning, I received an email from a non-believing high school friend who asked about the Biblical view of redemptive suffering. I replied, “I don’t subscribe to the idea that God makes humans suffer, or that God wills human suffering, or even that there is inherent goodness to suffering. It’s just that God created a world in which natural processes (earthquakes, storms, hungry lions, etc.) or lousy human choices result in human suffering. I think that where God comes into the picture is that God redeems suffering, or helps one turn it to a good use. The big example is the Resurrection, of course, after human leaders made cruel choices to keep their own power, among many other reasons for the Resurrection. I have witnessed lots of more metaphorical resurrections in people’s lives, though. There’s one scripture about how ‘God gives beauty for ashes,’ and that’s been my experience.”
I realized as I wrote my friend that I had witnessed one of God’s acts the day before. My ankle still hurt, but as I think over that train ride home, I remember only the joy of a stranger’s kindness. Heaven-sent, I think.
Contributed by Judy Maurer, Reedwood Friends