Escape from Horodok

Published in the November 6, 2011 issue of the Ukrainian Weekly:

On Sunday, I took the marshutka to Horodok again to spend time with Aunt Stefa’s family. I didn’t want them picking me up at the bus station when I could walk, so this time, I went early, walked through town, and didn’t give them a call until I passed the train tracks.

I was determined to go home that evening, for once to resist their insistence that I spend the night. I simply wanted to do some work that night, as well as some laundry for tomorrow. They first asked about my evening plans as I removed my jacket. “Tonight I’ll go home,” I said. “Nooooo way. You can stay here.”

“I think tonight I’ll go home,” I repeated. “Don’t be silly,” they said.

During lunch they asked me again, and again when we loaded the car to drive to a different relative who’d just had a son.

Each time, I told them I was going home, and each time they acted like it was the most outrageous thing in the world. I didn’t argue, but my resolve grew.

We ate, drank, and skyped with my mother in New York before piling into Liubomyr’s car, presumably to drive back to Aunt Maria’s, who’d joined us at dinner, then to Aunt Stefa’s. I asked him to drop me off at the bus station, and everybody — Aunt Stefa, Aunt Maria, my two nieces, my cousin — reacted with horror and surprise, as if I hadn’t been telling them I was going home since the minute of my arrival.

“I wanted to give you marmalane,” Aunt Stefa said. “and pickles, mushroom preserves, verenyky.”

“Next time,” I said.

“Andri” — her son-in-law — “can drive you home in the morning,” she said for the fifth or six time. Andri was a taxi driver and had driven me back to L’viv in the past.

“I want to do some work,” I said.

“You have to come to our place, the marshutky aren’t running any more,” Aunt Stefa said, her voice slightly defiant. For a moment, she thought she’d won.

“They run until ten. I have another hour.” (I had checked.)

“Liubomyr, seriously, drop me off at the bus station,” I said.

“Noooo,” everybody shouted. My nieces said something about her English homework which I usually help her with when I visit.

I did my best to keep my voice pleasant, but firm. I love these people. “I’m not going to argue, but I am going to go home tonight,” I said. My third cousin laughed a little, for which I was happy. I felt like was murdering the pet hamster they’re all so excited about.

“Drop me off here,” I said as we passed the bus station.

“Noooo,” everybody screamed again.

“Are you crazy?” Aunt Stefa said. “It’s late. You’ll sleep at our place.”

“If you don’t drop me off, I’ll have much farther to walk,” I told Liubomyr.

“You can’t do it this way,” Aunt Maria chimed in, her voice sounding reasonable. “You can sleep at my place.” In the past, Aunt Maria and Aunt Stefa had both made me swear to spend the night at their place on the same night. They don’t argue between themselves, but they argue with me, and make me answer why I didn’t come to one or the other. It’s flattering but exhausting.

As the bus station vanished behind us, Aunt Stefa quietly explained to everybody how I would spend the evening at her place. “We’ll have tea, you can play cards . . . ”

“And you’ll help with my English homework,” said my ever-enthusiastic niece.

“. . . we’ll fold out the divan like we always do, and in the morning I’ll give you some food and Andri will drive you home.”

I had made a point of sitting near the door when we loaded the car. So when Liubomyr stopped near Aunt Maria’s to let her out, I made a quick exit from the car, my niece’s little hands too slow and too feeble to restrain me.

“Where in the world are you going?” said Aunt Stefa with genuine surprise, as if I hadn’t spent the last half hour, as well as most of the day, telling them.

Everybody got out and stood on the narrow, snow-covered street, by Aunt Maria’s gate. They looked to be in utter shock, and I was quick to take advantage of the confusion. I kissed each one of their stunned faced, thanking them for the wonderful evening and telling them how much I enjoy their company. I got through all of them before the shock wore off.

“You can’t,” pleaded Aunt Stefa. Each of my nieces, Aunt Stefa’s granddaughters, grabbed one of my hands and pulled me. I was prepared for a physical struggle. I have a few years of experience in brazilian jiu jitsu and blue belt. I felt confident I could out grapple my relatives and get away without anyone being injured.

“When I was in the army, forty paratroopers used to listen to me,” I said.

Liubomyr, who stood by his car door watched and laughed.

I was preparing to break the grips of my nieces, but Aunt Stefa, finally revealing a limit to her insistence, told them to stop because it wasn’t polite.

“Why do you want to go?” Aunt Maria said.

For the ninth or tenth time I told them I had a lot of work to do, and that I work better when I wake up in my own bed. Also that I needed to do some laundry for tomorrow.

They talked about darkness, Aunt Stefa’s marmalade, crime, and the possibility of Andri driving me home in the morning, but I could tell I was finally wearing them down. Their pleas lacked the vigor of the earlier ones.

I asked whether I was walking to the bus station or getting a ride. Liubomyr said, “let’s go.”

I kissed them all once again. Now their faces looked like I really did murder their hamster. Liubomyr turned skillfully on the shoulderless, snowy road, and I waved goodbye through the window. Only one of my nieces waved back.

In the evening, Aunt Stefa called and sounded surprised that I’d gotten home so quickly. She asked if I was angry. “Of course not,” I said. She asked why I wanted to leave, and I told her that I have a lot of work and feel scared that I might not finish. She told me Andri would bring me the bag of food tomorrow in his taxi, and I said it wasn’t worth it.

She started pleading again. I wanted to get to my laundry, so I acquiesced. He would drop it off in the evening.

After lecturing to a friend’s economics class about traditions of economic liberty in the U.S. vs. Ukraine, I hurried home and made it just at seven. At nine, Aunt Stefa called and told me Andri couldn’t make it.

Andri is a very angry guy, and I had a suspicious he’d consider that bag of food as excessive a gesture as I did. He’s much more insistent, though, and quick to shout. I can’t help but try to be polite, especially to people expressing such profound hospitality and concern.

That evening’s insistence was out of character for me, but I wanted to assert my independence to these relatives who I’ve known for less than two years. Perhaps that’s why it had an effect on me, and why I want to write about it.

Aunt Stefa called me the next morning and told me to meet her at L’viv’s bus station tomorrow.

“I’ll bring the food and give it to you, then take the marshutka back.”

I couldn’t believe it. “Aunt Stefa,” I said. “Thank you, but it’s not worth it.”

“Of course it is!” she said.

“I’ll get it next time. I don’t want you to spend two hours on the marshutka just to bring me food. You’re food is good, but it’s not worth it.”

“When next time? I’ll bring it to the bus station and hand it to you.”

I’m much better at winning these battles when I’m prepared. When I enter the situation knowing from the start what I need to do. Also, in English, I’m much, much better at the delicate art of polite rejection. In Ukrainian, I only manage to piece together crude expressions — “the food is good, but no thank you,” for example. Also, (my last excuse) she called me when I was still in bed. I folded.

“At least come over for coffee,” I said.

“Good,” she said. I sensed her mind already made intricate calculations concerning marshutky, busses, hours, glass jars, money. It seems to be a very elaborate challenge which she enjoyed.

As we agreed, she called me a third time that afternoon to arrange details.

“I’m going to come with Liuba [my cousin]. We can go to the museum where Andri [a different Andri, her son] is working [as a guard]. He’ll give us a tour.”

“Wonderful,” I said.

“You’re not too busy?”

“No,” I lied.

“What time is good for you?” she asked.

“I’m busy, but my time is flexible. What time is good for you?” I said.

“Any time. Just tell us when.”


She paused. “I can’t make six. I thought we’d drop the kids off at school and then go.”

“What time is that?”

“Any time. What suits you?” She asked again.

I guessed, then guessed again. When my guess, 1pm, was close enough, she suggested 2pm, and told me she’d call when she left Horodok. “If that’s okay with you,” she added.