"European Russia 2006" story # 1

Kharkov, Ukraine           May 20, 2006

A graceful dark-haired fox gave me directions and bus money to the center of a small Ukrainian city I'd just hitchhiked to from Romania. We stood there for a moment, trying to understand one another, each speaking different Slavic languages and being amused. Her elegance stopped the world.

"You're back in the U.S.S.R.! Don't know how lucky you ah-are." - Mr. Lennon

Minutes later, the world continued. Dusk and I were nearing the central square of Chernivsti, pop. 500,000. We came on streets quiet and unnecessarily wide and friendly, as if in countryside. Chernivsti's streets were paved with slate brick, and it was a pleasure to slide on them, as if I was walking through some preserved scientist's experiment or superior alien ship. I walked beneath a bridge and under heavy silent buildings lit up orange-red in the evening.
     When I turned the corner and saw the central square, it was possibly the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. The town hall sat happily and lit-up, like a special cake. It was the creamiest light blue color with thick white icing atop each of its two stories. A similarly-colored top-hat emerged and held the milky-blue/yellow Ukrainian flag.
     A row of wedding-white buildings ran perpendicular to the town hall, and their lit-up facades wore decorations. One's decorations reminded of lollipops from Candyland. The central plaza was made up of spherical glowing balls, gardens of passion-red tulips, round glossy-leaved mini trees, and some benches. The people out around me wore simple but nice and dark, elegant clothes. The air felt peaceful, somewhat solitary, and as if struggling here didn't exist.
     I ate fresh chocolate balls and cookies from Romania, went off to find a place to camp, and returned in the morning to exchange money.

Two evenings later, I was slurping borscht from a decorated wooden spoon on the other side of the country.
     The pink borscht contained meat and cabbage and vegetables. Following the borscht, I ate kasha (tiny split white beans) and chicken. Also available to me were a salad made of carrots, green and red peppers, and tomato sauce; delicious mushy skin-colored cheese to be spread on dark mineral-rich bread; and tomato juice. Following the meal, I drank tea with "ochanka" (porridge) cookies and caramel and chocolate sweets in bowls.
     To the left of me at the table was awesome Lisa, who I'd just met. Twenty-three-year-old Lisa and her staticky light-blond hair had found me in the rain and come with me on an adventure to find the apartment I was supposed to go to. And even though I was a first-time guest in this apartment, Lisa too had found her way inside and was talking to our hosts like an old fond acquaintance. She ate beside me and even wore a fuzzy brown sweatshirt our hosts had loaned her, and she looked so cute.
     Before I'd met Lisa near the white imposing buildings of Kharkov, I bought some cherry-pink flowers from an old hunch-backed lady and planned on presenting them to my hosts. However, Lisa really made fun of me for this and said such flowers are traditionally given only to graves of the dead. Later, in my hosts' apartment, I said, "I think I don't smell so good. Can you smell it?" and she: "I think everybody can." ha ha, FUNNY girl - funny enough to smack her!
     We were in an elevator once, and she asked me what my job was. I tried to divert the subject because I'm a bad liar, but she had me cornered. I assumed she'd be disappointed - like many money-minded Eastern European girls - when I said I'm a world-traveling wanderer. But, she loved it. I spoke about ways she could work her way around the world. But, she said she hates waiting tables; she'd already gotten fired once for spitting in someone's food.
     We casually brushed each other's sides, walking in the Kharkov subway. Lisa said she lives with her mom and works occasionally. I gathered she maybe works with a date-finding service for men, but I wouldn't know in which way. She was supposed to meet people, related to her work, this night, but she didn't feel like going so she came with me.
     Our gracious dinner hosts were Larissa and Anatoli, sixty-something parents of a Russian friend of mine living in the Czech Republic named Igor. They only spoke Russian, and perhaps Ukrainian.
     Black-haired Larissa is an accomplished childrens' book writer, and she was doing the cooking. She and her husband told me they eat soup with wooden spoons so as not to burn their tongues.
     Anatoli, gray-bearded, big-spectacled, happy, and belovedly friendly, laughed when I called Larissa a "dobra kucharka" (good (feminine) cook - in Czech or Russian) though I still don't know why. He has - I think - Parkinson's disease. He's little, and he walks and speaks in his own way.
     He stood over me at the table, serving me and removing dirty plates and silverwear. I'm just happy Lisa wasn't waiting on me. He was ever eager to help me and try to speak with me. The other time we laughed a lot was when he made a ring with his fingers around his nose and barked, "Klook-klook-klook!" It took me a long time to understand he wanted to portray the animal, pig.
     Actually, I laughed a lot with these people. Anatoli and Larissa had given me a robe and slippers when I entered their apartment, and I showered before dinner. Their petite apartment has many rooms and quietly comfortable classic furniture, with pictures of Igor's family and Russian books blocking the walls. I felt immediately great here.

It had taken two days of travel to get from Chernivsti in the west, to Kharkov in the east where Russians are the majority and Ukrainians the minority.
     On the first day, I hitchhiked to Kiev. The hitchhiking was good, but the houses and plains we passed were uninteresting. I gave small amounts of money to my drivers, as is the custom here. Some were very nice - such as Vadim and Eliek - and we tried to speak Czech/Russian together.
     I probably wouldn't have gone to Kiev, but because I'd lost my backpack the day before in Romania, I could go to the big city without having to carry a lot around with me. In the capital's wide loud center, a statue of a warrior angel stood high, high atop a white column standing on a golden white arch. It seemed the statue was so high it couldn't possibly be connected to the ground. Elsewhere, the wide gray River Dneper slowly churned its way through town. Kiev was full of unartistic bright block letters advertising companies. I would've preferred to have my backpack than to have seen Kiev.
     I camped in my tent, for the second night without my long-lost sleeping bag. It rained to drown. I woke in the morning, and my toes were half-frozen, and I couldn't sleep.
     The next day kept raining and was cold, so I rode a bus the rest of the way to Kharkov - which was slightly more expensive than hitchhiking.

I stayed a few more days in Kharkov. Larissa and Anatoli really stuffed me, with meals cooked from potatoes, soft gray-meat dumplings, eggs, light-colored sausages, pasta, purple ham legs, fish, and "pelmini" (meat wrapped in pasta shells).
     Unfortunately, Lisa called one night, and Larissa - who thinks I'm a bad candidate for a husband, as well as a bad son because I travel - didn't let me talk to her. She has my e-mail address. I hope I hear from her.
     Larissa and Anatoli were great. "Budu skuchat bez vas!" I told them. (I'll miss you!) It would've been great to stay in Ukraine. But, I headed to the stronger culture of Russia.

do svadania,
Modern Oddyseus

Much thanks to Larissa & Anatoli; and a near-thanks to Igor & Ira for places to stay!

go to the previous story                                                                                   go to the next story

J. Breen's modern-o.com