The Bus from Przemysl

posted on RomanInUkriane and on NH Novella:

I.

Yogurt. Juice. Mandarins. A bicycle chain repair machine. Coffee creamer. Goods tightly bound in plastic bags, or placed individually in the overhead compartment.

Constant, frantic noise of middle-aged women, like walking into a chicken coop. rows full of boxes. seats piled high. windows blocked. boxes and bags.

The business of clearing seats, of ladies reminding each other what belongs to whom.

Diapers.

The doors close. The driver climbs over some bags to find his seat. A woman calls for the man sitting in front. He pulls a roll of packing tape from his coat pocket, steps over bags. he seals a torn-open box, returns to his seat, resigned to the duty of his labor, completely silent, unlike the women. A woman hands him a bag of vacuum sealed sausages. Some tumble to the floor. He kneels to retrieve them from under a seat. He will hold them in his lap for the rest of the trip. Another bag of sausages goes to the lady across the aisle from him.

The driver insisting the under compartment is full, unpacking a bag of thermoses — each is boxed, ready to be shelved in some store — and placing them individually in the overhead.

Boxes of powdered milk under the seats.

Slowly, things settle to private conversations. There are big snowy fields and villages in the distant forested hills.

What a vulgar, vile idea it was to reduce all this to the brutality and ignorance of a post office.

II.

I see the traffic before I see the border. Three lanes of vans and cars. All still. People stand among in their coats. So many. Later, I’m told they will mostly be crossing on foot.

I’m happy to see the bus steer into the lane for opposing traffic. We skip almost the entire line, then the driver stops and cuts the engine. We wait. There’s a 100 zloty note prominent on the dashboard.

One of the women speaks to the driver. 150 zloty. A quiet conversation. Another 40 zloty. I am a bystander to this world. (my ticket cost only 25.) A shuffling of documents.

We wait beside a flatbed trailer with two cars chained in place. I think they have no tires, but then see the tires laid flat. The frames rest upon the tires. Perhaps these aren’t cars at all. Perhaps in this moment they are merely scrap metal. A different thing entirely.

I watch my travel companions. Fascinated by their world. They know this trip well. I imagine their lives, look into their bags: Kiwi. Mushrooms. Butter. Seeds.

The Polish guard collects passports, looks, each of us carefully in the face. No smiling. Soon they’re returned.

More waiting.

The Ukrainian guard does the same and then (rejoice!) we are through! Breathe again.

At a gas station, the flurry of activity, the frantic clucking crescendos. One woman can’t find her bag. Two men carry crates of juice to the gas station. A woman exits the bus and six bags are unloaded onto the curb beside her. The two come running back from the gas station, arms swinging. The driver yells hurry. Boxes go into the trunk of a waiting car.

Such intricate chaos. God bless it, I think. God bless these people, this system.

At the next stop, numbers — forty yogurts, no sixty. Counting. Such hustle and precision! Nothing like US Army logistics. Ha.

A box of yogurt and a box of butter become two boxes, half-full of each.

Now, there are hryvni on the dashboard.

A lady unloading the overhead places a large box of chocolate snacks in my lap without asking permission or speaking to me. She clears a space on the seat across the aisle and moves the box there. I feel . . . accepted.

Boots, crackers. Someone needs something from beneath the seat adjacent to me. I begin to help. The boxes of butter are heavy.

Men await our arrival beside one grocery. The women hand them boxes through the door. They stack them in the alley in the spots where snow had melted away.

Now, the hryvni are gone.

A microwave gets passed from the from to the back of the bus. They yell at the driver to open the rear door. They call him by his first name.

Four bags go beside the traffic circle where a taxi waits.

The stops get quieter, less frantic now with fewer people and fewer goods. It is dark when we finally reach L’viv. I am one of only three passengers when the bus parks beside the train station. I exit with my suitcase and walk home.

Snow is falling lightly. Everything is calm. Freshly returned from the west, L’viv’s poverty is clear. I carry the suitcase because its little wheels can’t handle the disastrous sidewalks, the snow and slush, the trolley tracks buckling the cobblestone streets. Yes, Ukraine is poorer that the west — run down in many ways. The roads and sidewalks, a disaster. But still, it’s very beautiful. Everywhere, under dustings of snow, in the shadows cast by electric lights, there are hidden treasures of architecture, history, religion, faith.

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.”

“Six.”

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.

The Ghostly Bandurist of Desyatynna Street

Published in the April 3rd, 2011 issue of the Ukrainian Weekly.

During my recent visit to Kyiv, I veered off the touristy Andriivs’kyi Descent, and walked down Desyatynna Street, hoping to find the Bandurist I had once seen playing there. Desyatynna is a very unspectacular street. The sounds of the merchants at their tourist shops on Andriivs’kyi fades as you walk. It is residential. From an apartment of one building hung a sign protesting the construction of additional units on the roof. The street gets more interesting when it dead-ends into the parking lot of the imposing, Soviet-style Ministry of Foreign Affairs, not far from St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, but I only walked to where I had once seen the ancient Kobzar. As on my previous four or five attempts, there was no sign of him.

I’d seen him only once, and now wonder if he wasn’t a ghost. There are many more ghosts wandering over Ukraine’s black earth than over the U.S. I don’t know how to describe it to my American friends. Perhaps it can be understood by Southerners and Indians, by the losers of wars. Those ghosts, half in the wind, half in your blood, press you with that lonely urgency. You sense some critical knowledge which nobody’s telling you, as if you missed a day of school and are now condemned to stumble on in confusion.

It is a rare thing when one of them speaks to you.

I saw him in November. Small, sharp drops of cold rain had just begun falling through the wind. I actually walked past him, coming within several steps without noticing him. Then I heard a tinkling in the wind, bells you might associate with angels or the souls of babies. I turned and saw the ancient man.

His sun-baked cheeks were sunken, and eyes half shut. He looked so emaciated, my first thought concerned whether or not I should seek medical attention for him. The grey ends of his mustache curled off his face, and blew in the wind beneath his chin as I wondered what to do. His fingers were gnarled like roots, with thick, brown finger nails. They seemed to barely move over the strings of his bandura, perhaps having learning efficiency over several lifetimes of practice. I saw all this before I heard him, as he played very quietly.

The street was empty except for us. I would have liked a second opinion, a verification of sorts. Some magic in the sounds he produced held me frozen in place.

The wood of his instrument was blackened where his fingers gripped it, and the strings too were black with grime except for where he plucked them. There, the strings shone as brightly as the domes of St. Michael’s Monastery. He wore a great wool hat, and an over-sized coat. I felt so absorbed by this strange apparition that it was his ragged velcro sneakers which seemed anachronistic, rather than the man himself. A melodic groan blew from his skinny neck, and I stepped still closer.

Between breaths he opened his eyes slightly and seemed to take me in without giving anything back, never interrupting his ancient song. I leaned even closer, tilting my good ear toward him. It seemed he sung of a young girl whose lover will not return from war, children begging for bread, and a solemn line of horsemen and the grasses of the endless steppe opening then closing behind them like water. The sounds unwinding from his strings contained the rocking of slave ships on the Black Sea, devastated cities, and a mother whose children are condemned to work foreign lands. There were Scythian Mounds, torn open graves, betrayal and forgotten glory. There were people hiding in their gardens with the wagon cars outside, and the ashes of a library.

If I could only have listened longer, taken a seat at his torn, velcro sneakers and listened, I might have learned that missing bit of knowledge for which I’ve been so hungry, that elusive clarity. The movements of his long-practiced fingers to retell the stories and glories consumed by fire, reignite the lights vanished by darkness. It was all there, but I woke up. I startled awake, as if from a dream.

The ghost had vanished in the wind. I stood over the withered Kobzar. He played on, but my usual reality crept back into my thoughts, crowding him away. Some important obligation — I don’t remember what — compelled me to move on. I made a mental note to return to that spot, thinking, idiotically, that I could capture all the loneliness and history with my digital camera and post it on this blog.

Regardless of how futile it would be, I’ve returned five or six time now with no luck. If I do come across the ghost again, I hope I’ll find the courage to sit at his feet and listen.

Bukovel Resort: Skiing the Carpathian Mountains in Ukraine

What interested me most about my recent visit to Bukovel, Ukraine’s only major ski resort, was the rapid, uneven development of the resort and the region. Bukovel is located 240 km from L’viv, where I lived during my 2010-2011 Fulbright Scholarship.

Before dawn on Saturday, we went to the statue of [Ukranian scholar and statesman] Mykhailo Hrushevski, where a private bus picked up all the skiers. Many L’viv residents make day trips, leaving at 4am and returning at 10 in the evening.

At about 8:30, we passed our hotel near Bukovel and asked the bus driver to drop us off. Four and a half hours is a long time to travel 240 km, and a testament to the state of Ukaine’s roads. For much of the trip, the bus weaved from the adjacent shoulder, across the lane of oncoming traffic and into the opposite shoulder to avoid potholes.

The gross corruption and incompetence of the Ukrainian government is universally blamed for the pathetic condition of the roads (among many other things). Ukrainians are all holding their breaths for Euro Cup 2012, some with fear of national humiliation, others with childlike anticipation of calamity.

Read more at gonomad.com

To read more about my travels in Ukraine and reflections, visit my other site, romaninukraine.com.

A Visit to Bodrum, Turkey

I made the trip to Turkey last summer to attend the 2010 Property and Freedom Society conference. I wrote a brief essay about the travel aspect of the trip. Here’s an excerpt:

En route to my room, I passed two swimming pools (three if you include the children’s pool), a giant chess set, a marble pool-side bar, a clay tennis court, lush gardens, and as much polished stone as I’d ever encountered outside Washington, DC. I much prefer the sort whose maintenance I am not obligated to finance.

(Read more from GoNomad.com)

 

Visiting Free Ukraine

It’s difficult to write about Ukraine without writing about history, and it’s difficult to write about Ukrainian history and still leave room for anything else. I want to write a travel essay.

My parents were encouraged to visit Ukraine in the 1970s after a friend of theirs did so and suffered only a long interrogation by Soviet agents. The lady happened to run a hotel in New York’s Catskill Mountains, and her interrogators revealed their knowledge even of the price of pierogies at her hotel’s restaurant. (Read more at GoNomad.com)

Canoeing the Upper Iowa

We canoed the Upper Iowa, and spent most of the first day floating and fishing from the canoe. We’d cast into the dark deep swirls in bends behind rapids.

This was ideal. Where there were no such spots, we cast where little creeks flowed into the Upper Iowa, or behind fallen trees, or into deep spots.

When possible, we cast upstream, and pulled our lures down toward us ahead of the current, so they’d wiggle in the water. I caught the first fish, which was a joke. It was barely double the size of the lure. An ambitious little guy.

In places, the river was wide and no more than eight inches deep all the way across, the surface rippling over the stony bottom. Now and then, the canoe dragged, and we pushed against the bottom with our paddles.
(Read more from gonomad.com)