Overnight train to Lviv...
little more on my mind than to be on my way, I called a friend of mine in Lviv to inform him of my arrival the next morning. For the past few days, we had been exchanging mails; each time he reminded me that he was waiting for me to call and let him know when I would be in town. I called him from the post office in Odessa, the only place phones are consistently reliable, and all was in place.
The advantage of train number twenty-six is that, while it arrives in Lviv at first light, is that it pulls out of Odessa around 6 p.m. This affords me to peer out the window and absorb some of the scenery, people, and landscape of Ukraine. Between intermittent stoppages, the train sped north, splitting bountiful fields of food: tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, cabbage, and corn all neatly planted by mechanized labor in the midst of the deepest, most moist, blackest earth. Then came grains: corn and wheat. Behind those fields extended massive orchards of peaches and cherries. Wherever I looked, I saw food. Ukraine had always been entitled “The Breadbasket of the Soviet Union”. Just as the endless rows of
Not showing off to the public, but for the neighbors...
crops went by, I pondered how a country so fertile and agriculturally productive became subject to Stalin’s mass starvation in the 1930’s. It is bitterly ironic for Ukraine to have the most fertile of land, yet be a victim of a tyrant hell-bent on seeing his own people wither away from malnutrition in the name of collectivization.
Directly alongside the rails, lone men herd sheep and the occasional meandering cow. Every open plot of arable land that does not pertain to a particular household is a makeshift garden. Every spot. Food grows everywhere. People take advantage of what the land gives them. Nothing goes to waste.
This time, I share my cabin with a young and tolerable married couple from Ternopil. Already having visited their hometown, it gave me a chance to establish a good rapport with them that would last the length of the journey. They were going home from a ten-day Black Sea getaway. I do not see any real attraction in a long-term stay in Odessa on what are average beaches at best. But, they enjoyed their time there all the same. They offered me food and drink. I scurried through my daypack to offer something
Lviv Opera House
Centerpiece of the city...
as well. Finding a few stale cookies and a crushed cheese sandwich, I decided that an impromptu lesson on U.S. geography and some conversational English would do the trick. It worked. Their questions unsurprisingly turned to my visit in Ukraine. What was I doing here? Why Ternopil? Where to next? You want to go to Moldova? I was prepared for the interrogation and delivered the basic replies: vacation, teacher, writing, Phillip, explore, Connecticut, etc.
The setup of an overnight train compartment forces you to engage other travelers. The interlude you share is singular and temporary. In doing so, with a little imagination, you can become anyone you want. Our discussion, however laborious due to the language barrier, reminded me of train journeys in years past and particularly the time between Avignon and Strasbourg, France. Seated next to two American college students clearly on a study abroad stint to improve their French, I told them I was a ski instructor in Zermatt. But really, to my feigned embarrassment and timidity, I lived off my aristocratic parents in the Île de la Cité in Paris. To these girls, this untruthful revelation of wealth and privilege made me far more charming and good-looking
Are You Kidding Me?
The glasses are left for the public...
than I had ever imagined. Inquiring if I spoke English, I offered the expected French cultural resistance and murmured in my best French-accented tone: “Zee deefeeculté with Engleesh eez dat I have problemz with zee words.” They bought the whole act. Before disembarking at Strasbourg, I picked up my bag and said in our English, “It’s been fun. But be careful. People are not who they seem. And this isn’t Richmond.” I winked and left.
On a subsequent journey, I think I was a doctor on the way from Lisbon to Madrid. Long train journeys do these things to you. It alleviates the boredom and helps pass the time.
This time, I stuck to a story well within the bounds of reality.
In spite of three incorrigible children prancing and screaming in the corridor, I shoved my face against the one window that slid down, and gazed quietly at the gentle rolling fields that carry on into the horizon. I like to look down and watch the spectacle of the opposite parallel rails rush by, but seemingly not move at all. Our wagon jerked back and forth in no particular pattern. The wheels screeched sharply around tight corners. I
In a city most have never heard of...
ignored the kids and thought how happy I was to be on a train in Europe. It was then that I understood that train travel was the one satisfactory element lacking from journeys in Central America and Mexico. What was that next stop and would it be an exciting place? A mill town or a dump? Who knows? Who cares? The point is that I was on the train and I would get to Lviv.
Dusk and the darkness that soon followed sent me back to my compartment. As I walked down the corridor, I popped my head into the compartment I thought was mine. Instead, the two middle-aged men inside were the first indication I had gone too far. The second was a stiff wave of body order so horrific that it induced a gag reflex violent enough to eject my two front teeth right out the window. The primary culprit was a slimy man of about forty, filthy to the point where the caked perspiration on his shirt ensured that the contours of his shirt matched that of his body. I could not muster looking at his companion as I darted away gasping for air, tears running down
An Austro-Hungariam masterpiece...
In Ukraine, body odor attacks the olfactory cells the moment you step aboard any train, bus, or tram. And boy, does it take a while to make the adjustment. Some wagons reek of it from the previous occupants. Can you even picture the horror on my face when I cannot get any window to open? I look for sledgehammer, but find none. I panic as if from a movie scene where the victims are trapped in their car underwater. Only thing is, in their case, they escape to safety. For as kind as the couple from Ternopil is, they smell. To make matters even more distressing, Mikhail has opened up a slab of dried fish on which to snack. Add this to the already repulsive odor and you get the idea.
I stepped away from my abode and took refuge in the corridor once again, but to discover a family of four in a concerted effort to close a busted window. It so happens they were getting a bit chilly. All four drove the handle upwards and succeeded to lock in the last morsel of fresh air. I thought to myself, they eliminated one more soldier in
Always time for a drink...
the battle against the stench of passengers, rancid toilets, and raw fish.
Having lived overseas, I am all too familiar with the European’s aversion to bathing. But, to be fair, I will give Western Europeans a bit of positive mention; for the most part the French, Belgians, Germans, and Dutch have accomplished so much in this matter. Nowadays, all but the oldest generations bathe regularly. Throughout the seventeen-wagon procession north, a woman passes by with a wheeled cart, selling cold drinks, sandwiches, and other treats. Better she start with a pallet or two of Irish Spring. Even better than that, give the stuff out for free…with instructions.
I remember now that in Odessa, it was difficult to gawk at those gorgeous women while downwind from them.
Stepping onto the platform in Lviv, Igor was there to grab my daypack as I manhandled my bulky one down the wagon’s steps. He maintains an apartment here and another only two towns away from my own place in Connecticut. So, not only do I have friendly, English-speaking support, Igor also has acquaintances in Lviv to whom he plans to introduce me.
His spacious apartment couldn’t be better located: It is a short minibus
I dropped in on this rehearsal...
or tram ride from the station and one-and-a-half blocks off the main square. It is typical in the sense that its exterior is in shambles, but the inside sparkles. Under renovation, Igor currently manages a few do-it-yourself projects to spiff up the place. Laminate flooring is already in the hall. The kitchen is redone in pale green cabinetry and brick face on the wall. Igor has put in what I believe to be the best toilet between Vienna and Vladivostok; I couldn’t be happier. His shower is a modern example of what you get in the States. This is a man who, between flipping roasted vegetables in the kitchen, can dash off, drill a few holes in a doorway, and have a shelf installed before the meal hits the table. A handyman by trade, his work is tidy and flawless to the naked eye.
The truth is that his place, as with countless others in Lviv, needs constant attention. The baseboards in the living room have turned warped and have dislodged the hardwood flooring. I have know idea how he will remedy this. A back room is completely torn up, with not even raw materials having been bought to start
After The Storm
It appeared out of nowhere...
there. Rotten support beams have been discarded into the outside hallway to be thrown out. He can do nothing about the city water system, which runs to houses only between six and nine in the morning and the same hours in the evening. So, you have to arrange your bathing and washing needs accordingly.
We have met Oles, a silver and spiked-hair chain smoker of about sixty, who is a well-known member of the local artist community in Lviv. In the know, Oles is the kind of guy that takes twenty minutes to walk a city block for all the people to whom he is obligated to exchange pleasantries, from whom he receives suggestions, or for whose children he buys treats. He exchanges kind words and shakes hands with police officers as well as cleaning ladies in next-door buildings. This guy can work a room! He has invited both Igor and me for coffees and meals and I have yet to see a bill paid. We just say thank you to the wait staff and we are in a taxi bound for an exhibition somewhere or the ethnographic museum.
The Smachna Plitka (Смачна Плітка) is one among many eclectic underground cafés in the city. Set down a staircase below street level, this is what you would come to expect for a place where artists, writers, and intellectuals pass their idle time: Soft lights pierce through billows of smoke. Couples and groups alike absorb the light, stringy classical music that plays in the background. People converse gently and their voices echo off the stone walls. The servers split their time between bringing drinks to the table and sketching portraits. European cafés are meant for people to meet, not for introverted thought. But in Smachna you feel comfortable doing both. During the Soviet era, Lviv’s dissidents would gather here and discuss theater, art, and politics. Like so many others, they displayed a schizophrenia, saying aloud what was the political establishment wanted to hear while concealing their contempt for the Soviet Union and reflecting this surreptitiously in their art. Gossip is decoratively inscribed on the walls and completes the cafés visual spectacle.
I love the place.
Together with other random acts of generosity, Oleg sent Igor and me to the theater for a six o’clock performance. The performing arts in Russia and Ukraine are not taken lightly here. Most large towns promote their dancers opera houses and theater companies.
Orgia (Оргія) or “Orgy” was the evening’s show. So, by the title, you can see I had very lofty expectations. How soon they were dashed only moments after the curtain went up. Set in Roman times, it tells of the story of Greeks wishing to break free from their Roman oppressors. An inner conflict ensues: man versus man, a woman gets predictably involved, and the main character commits suicide to avert insufferable inner torment. I applauded when he fell to the stage, plastic knife in chest, not because this signified the end of the play, rather the end of my agony of sitting there and witnessing the tedium. I counted at least six men nearby sound asleep. Younger ladies played with their cell phone hidden underneath purses and light jackets. The dialogues were dull and seemingly pointless, though I must confess how surprised I was to see the Romans of that era speak perfect Ukrainian, kind of like Cardassians articulating starship coordinates in an accent originating from Denver. You get what you pay for: a single ticket cost $ 2.
Igor and I discussed theater etiquette prior to the show. We agreed that Americans have few manners when it comes to the performing arts: they dress down, speak aloud during the show, and excuse themselves to the restroom during an act, trampling over other patrons. So, I offered a wager that someone’s cell phone in the theater would indeed ring before the end of the show; the stakes amounted to the first beer after the show. He accepted, firmly telling me that Ukrainians are more reverent to their surroundings.
Five minutes later a cell phone rang to the tune of Beethoven’s ninth symphony. I gave Igor the sign that I won. The woman whose cell phone sent a knife-like interruption throughout the theater, took the call! That should have earned me dinner. But Igor has done more than enough already.
Roaming Lviv’s timeless streets and squares brings to light that it is an Austro-Hungarian masterpiece of a city. Cloaked by fifty plus years of Soviet rule and bureaucratic visa requirements, visitors only now trickle into Lviv and savor its wooden portals, dark cafés, and medieval alleyways. Copper green spires rise above balconied row apartments of mustard, gray, amber, and brick. Colorful antique trams rumble through the center, criss-crossing each other. You long for that sensation of the clanging of old trolleys that cut, swerve, and dive down old cobbled streets deep into long-forgotten neighborhoods? Miss the herky-jerky motion of being tossed about the inside, while holding on to the handrail above? Come to Lviv. Ride trams one and nine and receive a ten-cent tour of the highlights of Lviv’s stunning, yet at the same time subdued churches, tiny shops, and statues. The Armenian church is not to be missed. Small eateries, whose only evidence of existence is the set of tables and parasols on the sidewalk, hide in lost corners adjacent to art galleries. Its museums tell of the city’s history and people. No souvenir stands and just a negligible number of neon lights blemish its spectacular virginity. Lviv’s magnificence is on display in all of its elegant and decaying beauty. This is what Munich must have looked like seventy years ago.
After the Soviet Empire disintegrated, Prague and Budapest became the first “must see” cities of Eastern Europe. Open to tourists and inexpensive to the point of absurdity in the 1980’s, the Americans, Dutch, Germans, and British flooded in to marvel in the vacuumed environment of cities untouched (and tragically unattended to) for decades. Then it was Kraków in the 1990’s. These cities are all now westernized. Discount airlines fly directly in from Birmingham, Oslo, and Lyon. Tourist pamphlets and open double-decker tour buses blaring “Look left to see the palace…” and “Constructed by King Rupert XIV, this bridge used to span…” pock the landscape. Wooden placards of plump chefs advertising the reduced tourist lunch specials are on seemingly every corner and are inescapable.
Lviv knows none of this. With the exception of a small number tour buses that herd channeling Poles to view neighborhoods all of which used to be Poland, a sort of reminiscing visit, only the aimless Swedish couple or American teacher show up. It has absolutely no tourist infrastructure. None! Its joke of a tourist office actually (and I am not making this up) charges you a nominal fee to ask a question. Only a handful of hotels could cater to western tastes, and even that would be insufficient given that Lviv’s water supply is only available to it from six to nine in the morning and the same hours in the evening. Changing over traveler’s checks is a nightmare; banks still use abacuses. Carry cash or a debit card. Nothing is signposted for motorists. Retrieving information at the train station is meaningless; everything is in Cyrillic and no one is available to answer questions, for free or if you are willing to pay. Few folks here speak English. Polish or Russian will get you very far, however. Buildings collapse to the ground every now and then although dozens are under renovation from UNESCO. Water mains burst frequently. Power outages take place from time to time. Lviv is a marvel, but it is not comfortable.
Make no mistake: Lviv is the next Kraków, I promise you that. It is only a matter of time that people here will wake up from their post-communist slumber, realize Lviv’s potential, the magnificence around which they live, and harvest its dividends. But it will take high-level organizing from Kyiv, an admission that it is imperative for locals to treat guests with civility and respect…a monumental task since no one here extends this courtesy to each other. Come to Lviv before it is too late and be in awe of an enduring remnant of years past; a European city the way it used to be.
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