Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sunday 10/25-Monday 10/26

By the time I finished writing about my Poland/Slovakia trip, it was time for Vacation Number Two. At first we wanted to go to Romania, but after thinking about it, we decided on a Ukrainian "staycation" instead. This was my thinking: I'm spending four months in Ukraine, but I never get a chance to see anything outside the Kiev bubble. So on Sunday night, Jessica, Camille, and I (same group as Poland, minus one Jessica) hopped on a night train to Lviv.

Tania, our native coordinator, helped me purchase tickets in advance for the three of us, and I had to memorize the layout of the information on the ticket (departure time, seat number, etc.) since I couldn't actually read it. The evening of our departure, the three of us met at the train station with plenty of extra time. The first great thing about traveling by train is that it is vastly different than dealing with airport messes. There are no lines to wait in, no baggage restrictions, and absolutely no security. The train station is just a semi-open building where anybody can walk in or out. We simply arrived half an hour before departure, checked to see what platform we needed to be on, and walked right up to the train. The only official we had to deal with was the ticket-checker at the door of our wagon. Incredibly easy.

The train itself was quite an experience. We traveled third class, which basically translates to "no doors." Each wagon on the train was split into six or seven compartments, with four bunks in each (Basically. There were two more bunks in each compartment, but they were on the other side of the aisle.) Second class cost significantly more, but had doors between each compartment. Totally unnecessary. We were warned with a bunch of horror-stories about traveling by train and having stuff stolen, but there was nothing to worry about. The beds fold down from the walls, and the bottom bunks rest on a luggage compartment, so the bed folds down and acts as a lid, making it impossible for anyone to steal your stuff while you sleep. (Unless you are a heavy enough sleeper that you wouldn't notice if somebody rolled your body toward the wall and lifted up your bed...) Since this was a sleeper train, there were no seats. Before the lights turn off, the people in each compartment just sit on the bottom bunks. The three of us played cards on the tiny table between the bunks, and the fourth guy in our compartment, a quiet Ukrainian guy, just ate his dinner and pretended he/we didn't exist.

The train left the station at 9:30pm, and around 11 the lights turned off. I followed the Ukrainian guy's example, grabbed a mattress/pillow roll, and covered them with sheets. I was so grateful that the sheets were fresh and came sealed in plastic bags: one sheet to cover the mattress, one sheet to use as a blanket, a pillow case, and a piece of cloth that we couldn't figure out. Sleep was hard to come by, though. My bunk was so close to the ceiling that I could barely turn over. It was also way too short, and I couldn't let my feet dangle into the aisle without knocking everybody's heads. While the train was moving, it was really cold, but we stopped at three stations during the night for half an hour each, and it got burning hot. So, all in all, night trains in Ukraine are definitely not the Hogwarts Express.

When we arrived in Lviv, a worker came by to make sure that everybody was awake. We stumbled off the train around five in the morning, just wilted with exhaustion. As I rolled up my bedding, I noticed that the mattress pad was covered in rodent poops. Wonderful. The morning was gray and foggy, and our breath smelled bad from having no where to brush our teeth. We hauled our bags to the tram stop and found our way to the hostel. Our bags felt incredibly heavy, and the tired fog of the morning made us irritable and frustrated.

The day was rough. The hostel owner, Mika, greeted our sorry corpses and led us straight to bed. We woke up and tried to follow a walking tour from the guidebook, but the map showed streets that didn't exist and directions that took us in circles. We tried to get excited about exploring Lviv, but we were so exhausted that we just ended up bickering. That afternoon was possibly the lowest point I had in Ukraine. The map was wrong, we were walking in circles, and I was irritated by everything that Camille and Jessica said. Even so, the city was beautiful.
Lviv Opera House

Architectural differences, above and below.

There is a certain joy in finding "I love you" written in English, when all the language around you is a blur to your ears.

We finally gave up and headed to Puzata Hata for dinner, our favorite cafeteria-style Ukrainian chain restaurant. Ten reasons why we love Puzata Hata:
1. It's warm.
2. It's dry.
3. It's cheap.
4. It's delicious.
5. You can point to what you want--no language required.
6. They don't care how long you stay.
7. Clean, free toilets.
8. The toilets are throne-style, not squatters.
9. Borsch.
10. It's loud enough to that we can talk at normal American-volume without sticking out.

We ate borsch and played M.A.S.H. (a tell-your-future game that predicts your entire life: who you'll marry, where you'll live, how many kids you'll have, your superpowers, etc.) at our table, staying long after we finished our food. In the booth next to us, a Ukrainian man leaned over and asked us where we were from, because his friend could hear us speaking a different language. We talked to them both and found out that this guy was one of those horse-riding gymnast-acrobats for the Ringling Brothers circus.

We folded a piece of binder paper into a fortune-teller, the kind that kids usually use to answer yes-or-no questions. Instead of writing in answers like "Yes," "No," or "Maybe," we made it into a direction-giving compass of sorts. The idea was this: Whenever we are bored/indecisive exploring the city and can't figure out what to do next, we will consult the compass. Possible answers included:

Follow fabulous: We would choose an outrageously-dressed Ukrainian and follow them (secretly) wherever they went. For a while.

LLLRL: Turn left, left, left, right, left.

Ice-cream: Whoever got this one had to find and also buy the other two ice-cream.

There were a few other ones, but the main point was that the compass gave us some instruction for the direction of our exploration. We called it "Walk the Block," and used it whenever we wanted some help getting lost or finding a new adventure. The day ended much better than it began.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Start Wearing Purple

A weird, wild dream come true: Gogol Bordello playing live in Ukraine. The band is based out of New York, but the lead singer is from a town outside of Kiev. His family, descendants of gypsies, fled after Chernobyl and endured refugee camps for seven years. Quite a history. He also plays Alex, the translator, in the movie 'Everything is Illuminated.' Ladies and gentlemen, please meet Eugene Hutz:

As you can probably imagine, he puts on a wild show. We bumbled our way through buying tickets in advance, apparently making the lady in the box office pretty irritated, because I ended up with literally the worst seat in the stadium. We had to get our native coordinator from ILP on our cell phone to explain to the ticket-seller what we wanted. Not our finest moment.

The show was in Kiev's huge indoor stadium, Palats Sportu. All sorts of cool Ukrainian kids milled around with wild hair and grungy t-shirts, a respite from the polished boots and Prada shoes seen everywhere else. A band with an accordion greeted concert-goers outside, and people paused to dance before entering the enormous stadium.

The cheapest tickets we could find entitled us to both a chair and standing room in the back of the floor space. I figured out that the ticket-seller must not have liked us very much, because I counted chairs to my assigned seat and found myself all the way in front of the stadium, up against the front wall, behind a huge pillar. The stage was not even visible. The only seat as bad as mine was the one mirrored on the opposite side. Except mine had a big nail sticking out of the seat, so I win. We also noticed that the stadium was only half-full. Thank you, ticket-vendor!

The opening bands were crummy, so another teacher and I went to find the bathrooms. They weren't squatter toilets, but there were such dirty footprints on the seats anyway, that they were impossible to sit on without fearing disease. We ended up talking to three Ukrainian girls who were smoking in the already-disgusting bathroom (I love stereotypes), until we heard Gogol Bordello's most-loved song come on. We politely ran out of the bathroom, bolted down the halls, and back into the stadium. The place was completely transformed. Everybody was out of their seats, dancing on the floor, dancing on the stairs, dancing in the aisles, dancing with friends, dancing with strangers. Jessica and I tried to run through to find our friends, but the crowd had become impossibly thick and tangled. We gave up and made eye-contact friends with the strangers around us, dancing a sort of wild dance to the beat that surged through the people. For that one song, I swear we all understood each other.
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