FAST TRAIN RUSSIA by Jay Higginbotham


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As a young American teacher on the creeping Trans-Siberian, with no one to talk to and nothing to do, Higginbotham had the good fortune to meet up with a comely and spirited young Soviet teacher who spoke English. . . and who broke the ice for him with the others: it makes for a brief idyll of US-Soviet friendship, if a mere breath of a book. How the book arose is curious: in 1979 or so, 13 years after the trip, Higginbotham was approached at his desk in the Mobile Public Library by a Russian journalist, writing travel articles, who'd just come in on a freighter. The two struck up an acquaintance; the Russian, Lev Knjazev, encouraged Higginbotham to write the story of the trip; and, translated by Knjazev, it was published in the USSR. A movement is also afoot, we're told, for Mobile to have a Russian sister-city. There is, undeniably, the appeal of an intense, abbreviated, person-to-person experience. Higginbotham, determined to make himself understood, pantomimes the question ""woman""?--about unseen newcomer Tamara--to his stolid, suddenly uproarious compartment-mates. The Russian conductors, playing chess, insist that he play too--but pick as his opponent (he later learns) the weakest player among them. At each brief stop (the longest is 17 minutes), Higginbotham, Tamara and the others race for the kiosks, then jog alongside the departing, accelerating train until the last possible moment (""to make the most of every second on solid ground""). And Higginbotham, once accepted, plays blindman's-bluff and such with the children, learns a Russian game called durock, meaning fool (much ""Ya durock"" after that), and teaches one-and-all tic-tac-toe. After an exuberant midnight run down the platform, Tamara asks: ""Do you have fun like this in America?"" That caps a day on which, introduced to an elderly WW II veteran who'd fought alongside Americans, Higginbotham had pulled out a souvenir medal from Mount Fuji. Small gestures echo, engagingly, on both sides.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1983
Publisher: Dodd, Mead