In early '90s, when Russia was starting to open up and change for the better. People were starting to have more possibilities to earn money. Most of them left their normal jobs and became entrepreneurs. So did my father.
Like many other Russian men, my father left his 20 year job as engineer and became a business man. He did everything from construction to import-export. The money was more then he ever made in his lifetime (by Russian standards).
With the money my dad made we could afford a new TV and a washing machine. My mother got her long awaited "dublenka" (sheepskin coat which is really popular in Russia) and I got new tennis shoes and two more tennis racquets.
Of course, being a "business man" was a dangerous thing in crazy '90s. Some people didn't survive, and were killed by their rivals. As many others, my father was also faced with danger of being killed over a business deal. But he chose family over money and I am thankful to him. He is a great honest man, and I am proud to be his daughter.
On one of the sunny afternoons, my father set me down in our small kitchen and said: "Here is a thousand dollars, I want you to go play those tournaments you wanted." It was probably most of our savings we had, and I was hesitant to accept his offer. But I knew that my parents would sacrifice more then that for the well being of their children.
Looking back, it was already a sacrifice living in 43 sqm (420 sqft) apartment in four, for over a decade. It was my parents, my older brother and me. On some occasion my grandmothers would visit and stay for a while. When that happened, my place in the apartment was restricted even more, to underneath the table in the living room. I slept on unfolding metal bed, referred to as "raskladushka" in Russia.
I looked at the money laying in front of me on a kitchen table. Looked at my father. I knew I had to be very careful with spending it. The road ahead was long, 7 weeks on the road, through 4 different countries, I had to pay for transportation, boarding and food. I was only 16 years old but I knew how hard it was for my dad to earn this money and I also knew, these would probably be the only tournaments I would play that year. So I took the money, put it in a pouch and was on my way to start my trip.
The most remarkable adventure of all happened in Budapest, Hungary. I remember taking a train from Slovakia to Croatia, with a layover in Budapest. I got there at 10pm and all the visitor centers at the train station were already closed. And taking a taxi to go to some hotel in the city I knew nothing about was a bit scary. So I decided to stay at the train station and wait till 6 am for my next train.
I found a nice spot in the middle of the station where I can have a view of everything and made myself comfortable on a metal bench. For a couple of hours I did my crosswords and wrote my diary, feeling safe. Then, about midnight I saw a couple of men. They appeared out of nowhere and now were eyeing me. It made me uncomfortable and I hugged the pouch with money underneath my sweater. But than the men were gone the same mysterious way they appeared. I breathed out with a relief.
Another hour has gone by. A man came in the station and walked right to my bench and sat down behind me. I really needed to go to the bathroom, but carrying a heavy bag and my tennis racquets with me seamed such a bad idea. So I turned to a man behind me and asked him in English to look after my bag while I used a bathroom. I knew that I might not see my bag again, but at that point I was to tired and sleepy with my bladder about to explode, that I didn't really care.
Surprisingly when I came back, the man was still sitting on the bench with my bag next to his feet. He turned his face to me and I saw that he was just a couple of years older then me. "You should not be sitting here alone."-he said to me in good English. Happy to see my bag still there, I sat next to him on the bench and we started talking.
He told me he was Romanian. I told him I was English. I didn't know what was the political situation between Russia and Romania, so I decided that England would be a safe choice. But when he asked me where in England I was from, I came up with a first city in mind, Manchester, he told me he has been there. "Oh no,"-I thought-"now what do I do? I have never been to Manchester!"
Thankfully he never asked me my address and I tried to speak with the best English accent as I possible could, to pass for a British girl. Now when I think about it, I ask myself: "What the hell was I thinking!?"
His name was Rado. He told me that he escaped from prison and was heading to a French army. He had no documents and needed a plan to get on the train illegally. The words "prison" already sounded bad enough for me and I moved my bag closer to my side. But I needed to know what he was in prison for? "I killed someone"-he answered calmly. A wave of cold shock run through me. Oh my God, he is going to kill me too!!!! Oh my God!!!
Inside I was screaming, outside I tried to appear calm. I came up with a plan, talk as much as I could so he would have no time to kill me. Talk all the time. And so I did.
Rado carried my bags while we were looking for food, he didn't say much just listened to my crazy talk about weather, food, my cat, my parents. He mostly stared at the road while walking with sad look on his face. I felt bad for him and had a strong urge to hug him. But I just kept talking.
At one of the closed food stands we met a boy about my age. Rado started talking to him. I didn't know what language it was. All I knew I didn't understand any of it, and I didn't like that. So with a huge smile on my face I suggested that we find food and I buy it for everyone.
But all the food stands at the station were closed. So our new friend took a chocolate bar from his left pocket. "We can share it"-he said in broken English. The sound of a familiar language made me feel better and I started talking again.
Our new found friend didn't tell us his name, but was kind enough to tell us what he did for a living. He was a "pickpocket." Ahhh, so nice! Here I am in a company of a killer and a thief, sharing a chocolate bar! I even smiled at this thought and made a joke. " Do I look like one of your victims?"-I asked. "No, you are to nice to steal from."-he answered. And all three of us laughed.
The night was passing by fast. We talked about our lives and dreams. The "pickpocket" gave me his phone number and told me to find him a nice English girlfriend. And when the sun started to come up he said his Good byes.
Rado accompanied me to my train. Helped me to my seat, and stood outside my window until the train started moving. " I know who you are and where you are from!"-he shouted to me-"You are my angel!"
I was looking out of the open window of the fast moving train. Rado's figure was becoming smaller and smaller. "On the contrary Rado, you were my angel tonight."- I said into the wind.
Sometimes I wonder what happened to Rado. And if he was a criminal. But I know for sure, he was my protector during that night. Who carried my heavy bag, listened to my crazy talk and just kept me company. And for that, I am thankful.