One particular cold night I joined the dining car “entertainments.” Although the menu showed a long list of items, there was not much to eat except Mattjes herring, grits, and sardines. But that night I came for the vodka. As soon as some passengers noticed my German accent, I pretended to be from East Berlin. They started to tell WWII stories like who in their families had been killed by the German army. I was starting to get worried. The more stories that were told, the more vodka was drunk. It was more like vodka with tea instead of tea with vodka. The men asked me to sing a song since they had been singing all night. The only song that came to mind was Marlene Dietrich’s famous Lili Marlene: “Vor der Kaserne, vor dem grossen Tor, steht eine Laterne und steht sie noch davor, so wollen wir uns wieder sehn, vor der Kaserne woll’n wir stehn …” Everyone knew the song. It brought back many sentimental memories, and luckily everyone loved Marlene. Soon I had them crying in my lap and I had a hard time getting out of the growling, crying group of men in the dining car. These were men who were traveling from one labor camp to the next. Thanks to the size and power of the babushka (compartment officer) who pulled me out of the fangs of these moody drunken Russian men, I escaped. That night she not only locked the door of my compartment but also stayed put in front of the door.
I travelled alone on the train and was allowed to keep a compartment for myself. Since I spoke only little Russian, I think the agency that I booked this trip with tried to protect me by giving me a first class compartment all to myself. The “babushka” locked my door at night after bringing the last cup of hot tea. Years later I realized she was not only locking me in, she was locking danger out. She even left the tea glass, with its precious silver engraved cup holder with an image of Sputnik and Russian symbols, in my compartment. I was afraid until the very last moment of the train ride because I kept that precious souvenir hidden in my suitcase. People have been arrested and gone to Siberia for less.
My longest stretch without leaving the train was the route from Lake Baikal to Nachodka. For a full week I saw only white Tundra, birch trees, pine trees, and white snowfields. It was in places like this that the barbaric fashion was invented to spice up Russian tea with the fire of vodka. Sweet brown sugar was the usual additive. If you were lucky, blessed or rich you had a special luxury of some cherry compote or marmalade. This heap of berry marmalade dissolved in tea was like a meal in itself.
Most black teas in Russia came from China and India but they also grow their own teas since not everyone can afford the good strong teas from other countries. The tea would be made in a samovar. The bubbling hot samovar was often used to warm up cold train compartments. The babushka would leave it overnight in my berth so I could refill my glass with more hot water. The samovar stayed heated for a few hours with some pieces of coal, glowing in the dark like the eyes of the wolves, keeping me warm. I remembered that Russia had been drinking tea since 1638, when the Mongolian emperor sent a gift to the czar, the first shipment of Chinese and Indian teas. With the thought that for many middle- and lower-class Russians, tea was their only luxury, made me treasure ‘my’ samovar even more.
Nan-in, a Japenese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.
Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on going.
The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
From Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. Compiled by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki. Published by Doubleday.
I would be traveling to Moscow and then to Kiev, Novosibirsk with a visit to Novigrad. Novigrad was where all the smartest of the brains of the then Soviet Union studied and worked on world changing projects. From Novigrad I would head to lake Baikal and Irkutsk along the Mongolian border. This section of the trip would be accompanied by howling wolves running alongside the moving train through the night, their eyes glowing red in the dark. The wolves were barking, their howling presence seen through their breath was transformed by the freezing cold air into shades of smoke in the snow-covered steppe Tundra. All these impressions I absorbed while being uplifted by a hot glass of tea served regularly by the big “babushka” who worked on the train. She, dressed in a heavy black coat, came through the train with a huge teakettle and refilled the glass just when you thought your cold breath was filling the compartment like a fog, and your fingers had become stiff despite the woolen gloves. You have rarely wanted a warm glass of tea more than that.
My journey begins in 1972 Berlin, Germany, at the Central Station. I enter the train that brings me to Moscow to connect to the Trans Siberian express to Nachodka, Russia. I made a choice: the money I’d earned in the previous few years could have bought me a home in a comfortable environment in Europe. I could have continued to enjoy the securitiy of having a satisfying job as an art director, working for one the most prestigious advertising agencies in Düsseldorf. Instead, I chose the life of a nomad, traveling from place to place in Asia and around the world wherever the wind blew me. It did not take long to make the decision since I was not very content living in Germany. Since early childhood I was exposed to the destruction of WWII. The depression, fear, guilt, and grief that lingered over so many people for years after kept me in a serious mood and overly sensitive to other’s feelings. My spontaneous openness and dramatic creativity was not easily accepted. Berlin in the early ’70s was not at all carefree, but it was full of creative people from all over the world. The political confrontations and student protests made me curious to see with my own eyes other cultures like Russia. Goodbye Germany, hello world.
The photo above is Berlin’s Central Station. (It looks much better than it used to.)