Published: October 1st 2007September 24th 2007
Ana never tells me her plans, especially when she moves from place to place. I suppose it's due to Ukraine's unpredictable nature, and people's unwillingness to 'count their chickens before they hatch'. While she was working in America last summer I got a message saying "Hi from Broadway!"
when I thought she was in Philadelphia, and she appeared in Kyiv this autumn when I thought she had University coursework due in Lugansk.
So when I learned that I had been offered this interview in Ukraine I was tempted not to let her know my own plans until I had arrived from London; "Surprise! Meet me on the balcony in Maidan Nezalezhnosti at 7!"
, my sms would have said...
In the end I lost my nerve and told her five days before. It's just as well, as she had already bought a train ticket home to Popasnaya for the day after, to see her mum on her fiftieth birthday. Nadezhda Vasilievna invited me too so, just a day into my stay in Kyiv and a few moments after the end of my interview, I found myself dashing across town so as not to miss the 18.30 train, to take us
the best part of a day to Lugansk.
Travelling on Ukrainian trains is a hit and miss affair, and it all depends on who you happen to be sharing a compartment with. In my few trips across the country so far I have been paired in one of these cramped cabins with a scholar returning home after spending five years in Austria, three lads who insisted I shared a hamper of chicken wings with them, a lady who did not say a word to me for all of the ten hours to Kharkov, and a miner from the Donbass with a hand missing, who polished off two bottles of vodka in less than an hour before punching me with the bandaged stump every time I fell asleep. It's never simply sitting on a bunk-bed and waiting for your destination, there is always a story to tell at the other end. But this time my 'story' was a tale of discomfort and grime. The platzkart adventure
Myself and Ana took up two of the fourteen 'cheap seats' in the narrow, musty platzkartnii vagon
. Out of sheer boredom we made our bunk beds and went to sleep straight away
but even if the middle of the night, as the train crawled south-east through Ukraine's steppe, I couldn't rest. I was woken up - surely for the first time in my life - by my nose as the stench of a many times unflushed toilet rushed into the cabin. The metallic shriek of the breaks, flies in my duvet and an inevitable sore head kept me awake, while most of the oafs around me were snoring their heads off. A visit to the toilet didn't do my temper (or the soles of my shoes) any favours, either. By the time we arrived in Lugansk that morning I was in a foul mood; I always seem to be when I arrive there.
Ana took me to her University first to meet her old room-mates, Olya and Ira. We chatted for a while in their dorm and my mood steadied itself. When we left to do some photocopying before moving on, all of the town's bad habits revealed themselves again. Spend half an hour in Lugansk and you'll already be able to tell that it is a place from which which literally everyone is trying to get out. If companies aren't
advertising ways to 'become acquainted' with Western men then they are selling cheap flights to Turkey or Gemany.
You will understand why they want to leave, too. The buildings are ugly, the streets are dusty and strewn with litter, and there is no effort made to make shops or public transport seem welcoming. This is reflected in the people - Lugansk has an atmosphere of constant, passive hostility that I haven't felt anywhere else. Sometimes it isn't even passive; when we stepped on to the avtobus
to Ana's parents house in Popasnaya and took the seats which we had booked, a middle aged woman in a green dress yelled abuse at Ana for "thinking she's better than the rest of us". The town has been very cruel to Ana over the years; she has done brilliantly to become one of the few who have left through their hard work alone. We were happy to move on again.
The bus ride of two hours took us through the Donbass countryside, but driving through rural Ukraine didn't feel the same as it had all that time ago when I arrived after a year in Russia. It wasn't as attractive. My
naivity had melted along with the coating of snow. The reality of how difficult life here is had become visible, and all the more so after what had happened in the bus queue. The national anthem, Shche Ne Vmerla Ukrayina
('Ukraine Hasn't Died Yet') suggests that in the eyes of the people the land was dying even before it became an independent country, in 1991.
If it stands for the Ukrainians' pessimistic nature then their flag - light blue and dark yellow to represent the summer sky and corn fields - is a sign of their potential and a reason to be optimistic. The Donbass
The fields were a rugged green instead of yellow as we went along, and we arrived in Popasnaya just after dusk, a sweaty twenty five hours after leaving Kyiv. The happy part of the trip could start. Even though there wasn't a smetana
cake waiting for me this time it was good to be among familiar faces again. We all sat in the rustic kitchen and had a dinner of chicken, mashed potato, home-made spicy adzhyka
sauce and cups of tea. Later Mr. Kovalchuk brought in two watermelons from the family allotment
and we got through half of one of them, with biscuits and more tea on the side. It was a really peaceful and sociable night. There's something about being in that kitchen on ulitsa
Stepnaya in the evening, sitting on a creaking chair and listening to the leaves rustle outside that makes me feel relaxed. Myself and Ana stayed up late as we always do, and found space for yet more biscuits.
The Donbass is the spiritual home of the 'diminutive' in Russian - putting soft sounds into the middle of a word to make it more endearing. So 'pechenie' becomes pechenichka
, 'rubashka' becomes rubashechka
and 'vkusno' becomes vkusnen'ko
. Half of the new words I learn come from Ana and her mum making ordinary things sound cute! If that wasn't confusing enough there is also a Ukrainian dialect called Surzhyk
, spoken in the provinces, in which you'll find Russian, Ukrainian and Polish words mixed into the same sentence. It's named after a peasant bread made from several different types of grains. It's mainly the elder generation who speak it, and I have no idea what Ana's grandmother is talking about.
I slept until late the next day, and
only had a shower in the afternoon. To my horror there was no hot water but I didn't say anything; instead I crouched in the bath, and held the shower head above me until my shoulders tightened up and my teeth began to chatter. I only told Nadezhda Vasilievna when I was dry and dressed - to which she said "oh, why didn't you tell me you needed hot water, I would have flicked the switch!"
Twenty or so of Mrs. Kovalchuk's family and best friends got together in the evening for her birthday party. The café was dark and echoey but the people soon brought it to life. Ukrainians always seem so nonplussed on the street, but it's different when there's an occasion and a collection of people. Everyone wanted to know about me, and the compliments about my Russian were good for my self-esteem. I sat next to a jolly blonde lady called Lyudmila Ivanovna, who remembered me from a couple of years ago and her husband, Gennady Viktorovich, who is an equally jolly chap with a shiny head, an expensive suit and a handshake which could bring a bear to its' knees. We all took turns
to stand up and make a toast. There was so much food on the table, from salads to sweets, that you could barely see the tablecloth. A little girl called Olechka whose parents are friends with the Kovalchuks asked me if I spoke any Ukrainian, and she swapped me some words in exchange for a some English ones, and an extra slice of birthday cake. The evening was over by 9, a not improbable state of affairs considering the first bottle of Sovetskoe
champagne was opened at 4.
The journey home - of which the less is said, the better - was another twenty hours of ugliness and ill temper, made ever tougher by the cold I had caught as a result of that shower. Both myself and Ana were emotional and exhausted when we got back to Kyiv - not how I'd planned my first weekend away. Next diary: The Kyiv Confusion.
There are more photos below