The journey with the night train is uncomplicated and peaceful. I share the cabin with a Russian woman, who takes me under her wing, and two Russian men. My luggage is stowed away, and my travel companions explain how this will work through pantomime. Of course, I understand only half of what they try to tell me. For example, I didn't realise that we women were left alone in the compartment so that we could change into our nightgowns. Later we would do the same for the men. While I was still contemplating whether I could leave my luggage with them in the cabin, the conductor came and told us to move. He knows who is where and has the car under control. He later enters the cabin in the night to wake the travellers at the right stations and provide tea in glass cups. He has already set up a way to talk to me. He communicates by throwing one-word phrases at me. My cabin mates do their best to translate them into pantomime, and so Чай (tea) is the first Russian word I learn.
An hour before I arrive, I am still awake on my bunk, looking out of the window. Have we arrived? When will the city come? From the small strip of the window I can look out of from, I see only snow, bushes and street lanterns throwing their wandering light into the cabin. Here is nothing. Not even small garden sheds. No industry. Just rails. It cannot be Samara.
The wandering light in the cabin and the rhythmic twitching of the train are massage and torture in one. I arrive in Samara after a long, sleepless night and stumble upon the track where my hosts are already waiting for me. A. and I. are two dark-haired people with open and friendly faces. Their cheeks are reddened by the cold, and their breath hangs suspended in the air. I. speaks English (also German), and I'm happy not to have to pantomime. Everything around me is alien. I cannot imagine how this station leads to a city. From the rear bank of the car, I get my first impressions. Everything is buried in snow. Deep lanes on the streets make driving an adventure. A. chauffeurs us around a bit while I. explains the main sculptures, monuments and sights. I have no idea how far we are from the city centre when we finally stop at a row of houses and enter the garage.
My decision not to stay in Moscow or St. Petersburg has made itself without me having to make a big decision. I found the family in Samara online, had a Skype conversation with I. and a positive gut feeling. On this blog, I have repeatedly said that I have had the experience that capital cities often don't reflect the situation in the rest of the country. "What exactly do you expect from the Russian province?" was the question my family asked several times. This province offers a place to linger, an exciting environment and new unecpected challenges. In my use, the word province primarily is meant as an insult. It refers to a region where there are only few cultural and societal events. In the case of Samara, however, nothing could be further from the truth. This is the sixth largest city in Russia. It has a university and several theatres. It's a province in the ancient Roman sense of the word: in that it's not Rome/Moscow/St. Petersburg. Samara even has a subway (if only one line) and a wild mix of sights. There are traces of wealthy merchants from the beginning of the twentieth century, a few nobles of the same period, churches, as well as Soviet and contemporary profane buildings. The city consists mostly of high-rise housing estates. There are new high-rise buildings whose façades flash in the sunlight and old ones with long icicles hanging from the roofs and unsealed bricks exposed to the tides, thus gradually deteriorating.
I have once again more luck than foresight and am lucky in that I live near the Volga in a new and generously cut family home. There is a small apartment waiting for me on the ground floor, which surpasses my wildest dreams. It consists of a small bathroom, a kitchenette, a dining table and a sofa bed. I can hardly believe where I have landed. The AuPair is in many ways different in Russia than in Finland. I am a private teacher to the children more than a nanny, which is, of course, also related to the age of the two girls. The needs of this family are entirely different, and so I have to find an entirely new role.