Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Tuesday 10/27

The first day went by in a tired blur, so on the second day we had more of a chance to take in our surroundings. The "Lemberg Hostel" is located on the top floor of a 100+ years old apartment building. Mika, a young Ukrainian woman in her twenties, runs the hostel simply because "she likes meeting people." Her father owns the space but let her turn it into a hostel, basically as a huge hobby-project. She speaks English well, but far from perfectly, and although her business skills are lacking, she is very kind. When we arrived in Lviv, the hostel was full of people: an older Canadian couple, the three of us, a troop of about 15 teenage Ukrainian dancers with their chaperons, and a Jewish man named Miguel, from Spain. The view from our dormitory window looked out across the city and over buildings as old as ours.

Miguel is easily one of the most interesting people I have ever met. He is 33 years old with a doctorate in Philosophy, and has spent the last seven years traveling and living in India, the Middle East, and Europe. When we met him in Lviv, he was on his way home to Spain. Although he dressed head to toe in traditional Jewish clothes, including the hat and full beard, he told me that he is not very religious, and that he doesn't even know if there is a god. He told me all about Pakistan and Germany, his favorite countries, and showed me pictures of his sister and 79-year-old mother in Spain. We discussed "cooltoorah" and "arkitektoorah" (culture and architecture), and he told me that the best way to make your hair soft is to put almond, avocado, and onion in your shampoo. Things with Miguel got more interesting as the week went on. Miguel's hat box had a postcard warning "Please!!! Don't touch the hat!!!!" written in several languages:

Jessica, Camille, and I decided to follow our guidebook's recommendation and check out the local cemetery. We were a little (ok, a lot) skeptical about it, but on Mika's insistence, decided to give it a try: "But don't get lost!" she warned. Nine tram stops later we said goodbye to some young Ukrainian girls we'd just met, and walked into Lviv's cemetery.

The word "cemetery" brings to mind neat rows of headstones, carefully mowed lawns, and little bundles of tired flowers with a uniformed man playing "Taps" somewhere in the background. This was not one of those cemeteries. This cemetery was a jungle of trees and vines consuming graves that barely peeked through. The most modest headstones were once-flat slabs of rock, now almost completely eaten away by time, hidden by ivy and overshadowed by the surrounding graves. The most elaborate were monuments with life sized portrait-carvings of the dead, marble angels lounging across the caskets, and huge ornate mausoleums. The graves were not laid out by rows, but simply stuffed wherever they could fit. Huge trees popped up everywhere, protecting everything with a muffling canopy. The cemetery went up and down hills, with paths twisting in and out and around and back. When Mika told us not to get lost, we realized that she wasn't talking about the tram trip, but the cemetery itself. The whole scene was blanketed by a thick bed of yellow leaves. We were left alone to explore the quiet, labyrinthine tangle of graves and overgrowth.

We took the tram partway back, but hopped off as soon as we saw something of interest. The first point of interest was warmth, the second was food, both of which we found at an Indian-themed (as in Native American) restaurant. Ironic, I know. With the English-translation menu, we ordered almond hot chocolate and sat down at a table in front of a giant mosaic of Che Guevara. Our almond hot chocolate arrived, and to our surprise, it was literally almond hot chocolate, that is, heated chocolate pudding with a single almond on top, to be eaten with a spoon. We just had to laugh.

We wandered through town, stopping in markets, churches, and art galleries. As it got dark, we stumbled across a loosely-organized outdoor market selling only used books and a few vinyl records. At the center of the book-sellers' stands was a statue of a man holding out a book. I walked slowly through the stands, picking up decaying books whose words I could not read, looking at photos of poets and dancers whose names I could barely sound out, and just holding the musky, brittle pages in my hands.

On the way back to the hostel, we decided it was about time to "Walk the Block," so we got out our paper compass. We ended up with "LLLRL," so we turned through the city blocks until, lo and behold, we ended up at a beauty salon! Since the compass led us directly to its doorstep, we knew it must be fate, and since we knew it was dangerous to mess with fate, Camille and I got manicures while Jessica got a haircut. Only one person in the place spoke English, but looking hot is a pretty universal concept so we had no problem communicating.

On the way back to the hostel Camille thought she saw a man "exposing" himself. Jessica and I didn't believe her, until we walked by and witnessed it for ourselves. We shrieked with laughter, and staggered home doubled over trying to hold our ribs together, but I don't think the guy noticed us as much as we noticed him.

At the hostel, the three of us played cards in the living room and listened to Miguel's flamenco music while he made himself dinner. We noticed three of the young dancers asking him questions in English until he got so annoyed with them that he gruffly told them "Practice your English on the Americans, it's not even my first language!" The three girls shyly turned their eyes toward us, but didn't dare say anything until we said hello and invited them over. Their initial shyness immediately disappeared after they asked us if they could practice speaking English with us. They sat next to us on the couch and we talked. Their English was far from great, but with their enthusiasm and our guesswork, we could almost always understand each other. Their group came from a small town in far eastern Ukraine, and we were not only the first Americans they had every met, but also the first native English speakers. I felt weirdly honored. The three girls were soon joined by the other dancers, all girls except two boys. Pretty soon the living room was so packed that we were all basically sitting on top of each other. The ice was broken. We taught them slang (which we wrote down on note paper for them), and they showed us videos from their dance competition. They had an impromptu flexibility contest to show off their best moves. We exchanged email addresses and phone numbers. When I told them I was from California, their eyes widened, "Have you met celebrities!?" We all played cards together until Mika enforced quiet-time. The dancers, who had traveled across the country to Lviv for a competition, invited us to their final performance the next day. When we accepted, they were so excited, and their chaperons were excited and shocked. We couldn't imagine passing up an invitation from a dozen Ukrainian dancers, and they were delighted to have American guests as souvenirs.

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