It would take the train 6 days, 5 hours, and 22 minutes to arrive on the far side of Russia. Nikolai, I told the boys, would be getting off in Ekaterinburg. As I described his route, Frankie's forefinger plotted it out on the game board. It was working: The boys were imagining towns teeming with life beyond the hard-to-pronounce names. I put my phone on speaker and dialed Nikolai's cellphone number.
For the next 30 minutes, we "rode" the Rossiya train with Uncle Nikolai, boarding somewhere near Nizhny Novgorod. He introduced us to two of his traveling companions. The third, a man from India, was already asleep – as well as one sleeps with three strangers and a cat.
Cats are unusual on the train, but the woman occupying the lower left bunk was taking him to surprise her parents in Omsk. Rurik had ridden the entire way in Natasha's arms. It was hard for her to hold the phone, but she was pleased to talk with the boys. They told her about their puppy while the train chugged along. As I translated, they smiled.
When Nikolai came back on, the train was pulling into a station. He decided to take us onto the platform. In the darkness, the station lamps barely illuminated the babushki (grandmothers) selling their wares. Nikolai wanted to buy some pickles. Within seconds, several babushki were at his side. He held out the phone so we could better hear their bartering. The boys then recognized the word "potatoes." Nikolai bought six. To our delight, he handed the phone to the hard-bargaining babushka while he fished more rubles out of his pocket.
"Who's there?" she asked.
"You're talking to America!" I replied.