The Way It Used To Be - Chapter Two: Ternopil

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Europe » Ukraine
June 30th 2005
Published: May 28th 2008
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Gramma Always Knows BestGramma Always Knows BestGramma Always Knows Best

Food, food, and more food...
At first glance, it is easy to observe a sharp disconnect between Ukrainians’ understanding of the world and the means by which they live. Their comprehension of history, geography, and particularly technology, does not correspond to their inferior surroundings. Ukrainians are seemingly denied the chance to prosper in a society lacking in the basic ease in which Western Europeans thrive. Electrical engineers accept jobs as taxi drivers. Mechanics toil daily on unwanted second hand vehicles from Germany dating back to the days of Brezhnev. High-level skills abound, but there is nowhere nearby to apply them usefully.

A walk around the neighborhood unveils the state of disrepair in which ordinary people carve out a living. Suburban residences consist of mammoth, nine story rectangular eyesores, the first floor of which in some areas serves as a modest (read: understaffed and poorly serviced) grocery store. Rusty corrugated scrap metal covers broken and worn away support bars on exterior balconies, above which overgrown weeds, moss and mildew spread to other units’ exteriors. I presume no façade has been painted in years. The discoloration running up and down the building evokes someone’s idea of splattered neo-modern art. The open area, a quadrangle-shaped courtyard, passes as

Classic Monastery, Old School rules...
a park and attracts children from all around to its makeshift sandbox, bent-out-of-shape monkey bars, and various laundry lines displaying the neighbors’ pink panties and pushup bras. The few benches available are cracked or beyond use. Nevertheless, local residents meet, share a beer, gossip, and keep an eye out for the children who really know and see nothing by which to compare their dismal setting.

The inside of a residence is at best functional. Modern conveniences are next to zero. Few places have a freezer. Hot water exists, but requires some tools, a good swing with a hammer, and a Ph.D to properly figure out the plumbing system. Electric wires climb and snake throughout units and eventually connect to an antiquated black box of knobs, gauges, and clamps. At first glance, you’d be convinced this is the very contraption used to revive Frankenstein. Toilets are but undecorated and ancient miniscule closets in which to do your business and be gone.

Yet, every apartment I have visited has hospitable hosts, has been kept squeaky clean, and no one complained. So, I am not about to either. I am well taken care of, stuffed with the local cuisine to the
Where's the bathro--Where's the bathro--Where's the bathro--

Right next to the shower...
point that I feel like a squirrel after the visit to the taxidermist, and have rather enjoyed myself.

Over the river, through the woods, and about 40 miles north of Ternopil, the grand and spectacular monastery of Pochaiev (Почаïв) rises out of the ordinary rolling farmland. The massive complex of golden-colored, onion-domed edifices dominates the otherwise ordinary and dusty town by the same name. Before entering through the iron gates, all women must cover their heads in a scarf and put on a skirt or dress, even if it covers a pair of pants. Of course, men can come as is, which in my case meant a t-shirt sponsoring Bass beer and a pair of jeans. Something is wrong with this picture, but I let the irony go. It being Sunday, Pochaiev receives hundreds of pilgrims, many who are simple country folk on pilgrimage from all points in Ukraine. Many come in peasant clothes, hunched over and clung to their grandchildren’s arms just to make it up past the sloped entrance. They come to pay homage to saints, icons, and altars, all brilliantly maintained and in pristine condition. Upon entering the main church, or Sobor (Собор), you cannot help

Not to be confused with the bathroom...
to realize that one church does not look like every other one after a while. Every free space of wall is adorned with oil paintings and portraits of Russian Orthodox saints in gilded frames. Ornate patterns of decorated blues, both pale and deep, pinks, peach, and light green, run from floor to ceiling. The combination of background colors and art is so intense that someone had to point out that the ceiling, also, was but another surface in which the art continued to amaze. If you have ever seen the Sistine chapel, Pochaiev’s Sobor holds its own and then some. It pained me incessantly to adhere to the monks’ insistence not to take photos inside while others clicked away at their leisure. A walk around the grounds brings you to other houses of worship wherein women silently polish candlesticks, columns, and ceramic fittings with the finest of brushes, smaller than what you would use to clean your teeth every morning. No machines. No detergent. Rather it is just extremely meticulous and tedious work that most likely never ends.

A thirty-minute taxi ride over roads that were once paved, never paved or once hiking trails, deposited Kolya, Oksana, and me
More FoodMore FoodMore Food

Eating well is the common denominator around the world...
at a nearby relatives’ home where we were guests for lunch. Not too far from Kremenets (Кременцъ), we spent the afternoon in a rustic farmhouse. No, wait. Rustic doesn’t quite describe the place. Think Little House on the Prairie. While the ladies prepared the meals, newly hatched chicks chirped under the sink. The men predictably lounged in the dining room and discussed nothing in particular until the food hit the table. Between the salami, noodles, and vegetables, lunch was tasty. Even better was how heartily I was made to feel welcome. All in the family spoke to me, even if comprehension among us was not a priority. Tolik kept my vodka glass full until I gave up and surrendered my pride of competing with him. The afternoon transpired and everyone was jovial and laughing. I took particular note of the two other teenage girls and Oksana: all pretty, dressed tastefully, and talking about boys, of course. How odd to be so removed from modernity, yet carry on like any other adolescent would in American suburbia.

How removed from modernity, you ask? I excused myself, in broken Ukrainian, to use the toilet and was told to put my shoes on
At HomeAt HomeAt Home

Think my boy knows how to have fun?
and follow Tolik outside. On the way behind the home, Tolik pointed out the shower cabin, thirty feet into thicket and weeds. It looked as if it would fall down with the next gust of wind. Then came the outhouse. My first mistake was not walking out beyond it and making nice with a tree. The stench that hit me when the door opened involuntarily set me back three steps. This is Europe? Not the one I knew. Even for me, it was disgraceful, yet I said nothing and peed away into a chasm of filth. Exhaling and zippering up simultaneously, I begged my bodily functions to wait until our return to Ternopil if nature should call.

It is no wonder Phillip looks forward to spending his summers here. He has an absolute blast in Ternopil. Suffice it to say he also knows his way around town rather well, especially when it comes to the parks. Only six years old and ten months removed from his last visit, he has no trouble guiding us to the nearest playground, paddleboats, and go-cart tracks. The center of Ternopil contrasts enormously from its outskirts and receives its fair share of tourists. Few,
Old MillOld MillOld Mill

Kolya spent a fprtune on me at this restaurant. Sheer generosity...
if any, are foreigners. Its downtown streets cater primarily to pedestrian traffic and are lined with various shops (mostly empty), cafés, gardens, and fountains. The architecture is a huge improvement from anything else in the local area, as the theater and city hall blend in elegantly among a leafy backdrop of cast iron statutes and flowered balconies. Very little trash ruins the scene in spite of the few places to put any. Not all is ideal, of course. Few crosswalks or traffic lights function properly or at all. The whole town could use a coat of paint. The sidewalks resemble a videogame minefield. Most of the parks have not seen a lawnmower in years. If you are willing to look beyond this, there are places far worse than Ternopil to lounge around for the afternoon.
Kolya and Galia have invited me to lunch at the Stare Mlin. From the décor, my best guess is that this means something to the effect of “The Old Mill”. Clearly one of the top eateries in town, it attempts to recreate a traditional Ukrainian country ambiance and succeeds in a few areas. The predictably awful and unfriendly service was tempered by rather decent food
By The LakeshoreBy The LakeshoreBy The Lakeshore

When my boy wasn't showing me where to buy ice cream...
and conversation. Our waitress looked like she walked out of a scene from Dangerous Liasons covered head to toe in traditional attire.
“Hey, Kolya,” I said. “I think I’ll have a beer.”
“There is no beer here.” translated through Oksana. I saw the beer list on the menu. So, he was up to something. “Richard, drinking beer without vodka is like throwing money into the wind.” Just then, a carafe of what I was hoping was cold mineral water arrived with two shot glasses. I told him that I didn’t want any vodka, an absolute waste of time my part. And the drinking ensued. Luckily, after the third round, I bowed out having and told Kolya I needed to change my socks downstairs. It was the best I could come up with and got out of imbibing amounts that soon would end my afternoon excursion very, very early.
The bill arrived and I fell well short in contributing my share, in spite of throwing money in Kolya’s face. We tossed a hundred hryvnia note back and forth until I sparked his anger, and then relented. It still strikes me as a shameful episode because a meal for four at this
Fuse BoxFuse BoxFuse Box

The genesis of Frankenstein?
upscale place must have cost around $30 USD. This is two days pay combined for Kolya and Galia. I found it absurd that they squander such money when for me such an expense is negligible. If they had been better off, fine. But, it irritated me to see them extend such unconditional hospitality out of proportion to their means all on my behalf.
Ever since coming to Ternopil, I have been at the top of the proverbial food chain when it comes to attention, however much I discourage it or insist that it be toned down. I have my own room, quite a treat in a four-room apartment in which six others also are staying. Surrendering my room to Kolya and Galia or Oksana and Vasiliko only garnered a dismissive waving of the hand from Nina, as if I were speaking to her in medieval Swedish. Nina draws a hot bath for me each morning just as open the door and peek out into the morning. I sit at the head of the table during meals and my glass is the first to be filled. My plate is always the largest of the entire setting. Nina surveys the table and peers at everyone’s portions, never taking a seat herself. Then she dumps copious rations of vegetables and dumplings on my plate to where I need to pile it in a cone so that it does not fall to the floor. My attempts to clear the table are met with much scornful disdain. I have come to appreciate the thoughtfulness, but will also be pleased no longer to be the object of their constant hospitality once I am away on my own. I am itching to move on now, but not on account of the over-the-top treatment. Rather, I need to get my feet wet, look for hotels, read and order from a menu without help, and establish my independence. 


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