A great number of people choose to travel where bad news is a rare occurrence: Las Vegas, Yellowstone National Park, South Beach, and San Francisco. When was the last time you read about a tourist-induced riot on The Strip or a coup d’état on Hilton Head Island? Others make for those destinations so obscure from where only bad news escapes. How long has it been since you read an in-depth exposé about the new opera house in Sierra Leone? Or the brand new species of orchid discovered in Rwanda?
Ukraine, other former Soviet republics, and the emerging countries of Eastern Europe, pertain to neither category. Rather, they belong to an unfamiliar abyss from which practically no news reaches the pages of The Times of London or The Boston Globe. Recent political change aside for the moment, what Ukraine lacks in current events, it certainly makes up for in its attention-grabbing history. The birthplace of Russian civilization, or the Kievan Rus, Ukraine is but a teenager in its new historical chapter, now removed from the chokehold Moscow inflicted over it since the days of Stalin. It evokes other images, both present and past. Chernobyl lives in our mind as what can transpire at its worst when hydrogen atoms spiral out of control. We are all peppered with reminders of what Hitler did to the Jews and Slavs along with the Mao Zedong’s butchering of his own people during the Cultural Revolution at about 11,000,000 . But how many take the time to consider the 7,000,000 or so Ukrainians Stalin starved to death? Very few, I imagine. To most, Ukraine, the largest European country entirely within Europe, is but an obscure Jeopardy question or a really strategic position to hold in a game of Risk.
My contact with its immigrant population in the United States ranges from standing in line with them to a closeness far greater than I would ever have conceived. They are a hearty, hard-working, and formally educated people. So many have arrived in the States to apply their skills in a functional economy, having discarded their compost pile of opportunity back in Europe. They complain little and pool their resources very effectively executing an impressive interior market where services and favors are exchanged in place of hard cash. It goes like this: I’ll paint your house if you cater my daughter’s wedding. In the end, it’s all a wash. While harboring a true sense of community like the Portuguese, Ukrainians lack the same level of civic organization as the Poles in Connecticut and Greater Springfield. Ukrainians rarely cause trouble, as they are too busy working or enjoying a frosty bottle of vodka with invited company.
Since San Salvador, the routine of life has been menial with a handful of worthwhile exceptions. I have learned to combat the temptation of engrossing myself in this 16% of the year by which I have come to define myself. I take pride and pleasure in a beneficial and adequate job, comfortable apartment, material “stuff” we Americans love to accumulate, a good baseball game, and even better six-year-old boy.
Yet, while alone, dreaming of travel is my private fantasy. I have come to forsake so many other commitments and responsibilities just to let my mind wander around the world at possible destinations I deem myself ordained to explore. For example, I am in the midst of remodeling my residence. It should have been done months ago. But my heart is not in it. Oh, I feel the obligation that says I am 34, single, and should get the place into shape beyond the eggshell white interior walls with which I started. During T-ball practices, trips to ice rinks, earsplitting visits to Chuck E Cheese, swimming lessons, pick ups and collections, I cannot dismiss the gaping hole that can only be filled by the sound of rails under my feet or the rush I so happily endure when I get to a departure terminal. Nothing has ever come close to replacing this sensation.
Ukraine signifies only the inception of this endeavor. Circumstance, I hope, will lead me to other former Soviet satellites or through the Balkans. I have no itinerary, nowhere to be at any particular time. Ever since adolescence, a connection with Europe has followed me incessantly. I have given in and savored the taste of life among its quaint squares, slower pace of life, and cramped living space. Now it is time to pull back the curtain on a Europe in transition, with its two feet juxtaposed: one still familiarizing itself among the capitalist break-neck speed of high-class nightclubs, luxury cars, and wireless communication, while the other is firmly planted in a forgotten, quieter Europe…the way it used to be.
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