Thursday, August 25, 2011

Winding it Down..

I spent my last day in the Ukraine visiting Kiev sites and hanging out with Erik, Julia and their darling daughter Sophia. In their 6-floor walk-up studio apartment, I kind of melted into their family. I slept in the partitioned bedroom area and they watched TV, smoked and drank beer on the big red living room couch. Julia showed me how to make crepes stuffed with spinach, smoked chicken and mushroom sauce. They were delicious! Their dream is to move, at least temporarily, to America so that Julia and Sophia can become U.S. citizens. Money, in their Ukrainian world, is tight. Working, even a professional job, pays very little, so largely Julia teaches private clients Polish. Erik teaches English, but contends his future is in web design. We discussed ways I might assist him in finding more clients… you never know:)

Julia called a taxi to come get me at 4 AM. I set my alarm for 3:30 AM, I wake myself minutes earlier and disconnect the alarm. I rearrange my bags a little more, leaving, Erika and Julia them my copy of the Lonely Planet for Eastern Europe—perhaps in the mean time they can better find their way around a piece of the planet I’m now leaving. A non-English speaking cab driver arrives, my bag is loaded into the trunk and we listen to music on the empty streets and freeways that lead to Borispol International Airport. I pay the driver about $22 for the ride and suddenly English is no longer an uncommon language. I check my bag, hoping so much that it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle of things and then make my way to the gate for my first flight from Kiev to Amsterdam, spending my last Ukrainian currency on a bottle of water. Carry-on luggage scanning is very casual, a half-opened water bottle gets through as do little bottles of things in my purse that are not in plastic bags. This first three-hour flight is pretty woozy and most passengers nod off after munching on a Ukrainian pastry filled with a flavorful egg, tomato and fish concoction. In Amsterdam I wander over to my connecting flight on wonderful KLM Airlines. I’m seated between two young guys in the “Economy Comfort” section and am served one delicious treat after another plus an endless assortment of movies and TV. The guys each disclose that they are in long-distance relationships with European women. We chat a little about the fantasy of having this potentially perfect future if only continental distances can be collapsed. As for me, I’ve been there and done enough of that that it holds little appeal…I’m glad to not have anyone in distant lands who would make it all betterJ

Thinking over the last 3 ½ weeks of travel through Eastern Europe, I’m no doubt happiest that I made it to my homelands of Poltava and Iasi. My days in those cities were spent in comfy hotels, filled with long walks, wherein I concocted stories of how my relatives might have lived. Visiting the sites of Budapest, Vienna, Kiev, Bratislava and Prague were eye-popping spectacular. And couch-surfing is just fabulous for diving into other lives, cultures and subcultures. I melted into all kinds of otherwise inaccessible moments –the weekend of parties and girl talk with Doris and Elizabeth in Vienna, Sergio’s down-under digs in Chisinau, thoughtful chats with Veronika in Budapest, Toni’s busy ex-pat life in Prague and in Erik, Julia and Sophia’s cozy home life in Kiev. I was able to witness the effects of 20-years of post-Soviet communism. For the young people in the region, opportunities for education, work and travel popped open. Market shelves are now lined with stuff—some wonderful…and some emblematic of capitalistic excess. For elders who had lived much of their lives under governmental custodianship, it’s been a raw and difficult challenge. They did not plan for their retirements and state-supplied pensions are very low. Those with instruments good voices sing on the streets for cash; others just beg.

And then there has been the fall out of WWII wherein countless Jew, Gypsies and Gays were exterminated. Visiting these once dark places and poking around museums and graveyards, I witnessed streams of light, understanding and hope along with a gentle, yet small return of Jewish populations. In big cities like Vienna and Budapest being openly gay is celebrated and around Romania, especially, the Roma (Gypsies) are proudly present. While my own families left the region at the turn of the 20th century in search of religious tolerance and economic prosperity, I feel so very grateful to have been able to glimpse the beautiful places that house my ethnic and geographic roots. In that these regions were never part of the British empire, little English is currently spoken. Thus while I look like them and may carry the same psycho-emotional wiring, intercultural conversations were limited.

Ukrainian Independence Day

Twenty years ago on August 24 Kiev became an independent nation. Below are some preparations being made for a nation preparing to celebrate.

Celebratory Stars and Golden Trees

Blue and Yellow are the Colors of the Ukrainian Flag
Program for Independence Day Activities

Performers Getting Ready

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Kiev That Came to Me...

Being an enormous city with layer upon layer of intrigue and only a day and a half to visit, I largely surrendered to Erik and Julia’s suggestions. They hadn’t been out an about in years and took advantage of my need for guidance to see the sites. And for young Sophia, it was her first time to look at Kiev’s sites as well. I was taken way above to overlooks, to a monastery complex with many small temples, including several that were underground and cave-like. I looked over the main downtown streets and witnessed grandstands being set up for celebrations of Ukrainian independence on August 24. There was no doubt much more to see, including an open-air ethnographic museum, but with a baby in a stroller who needed regular diaper changes and bottles of juice and milk we saw what we did…and after nearly a month of site seeing, whatever we saw was just fine with me.

My hosts - Julia, Erik and Sophia

Sophia being very cute

Peering through a Gate at the Kiev Monastery Complex
Locals on a tour of the Monastery Complex

Monastery Steeples Tickle the Sky

First Looks at Kiev

The infamous Russian Stacking Dolls...

Top of St. Sophia's Church

Park Sculpture

View of Kiev from the Train
Lighting Long Thin Gold Candles in St. Sophia Church --There were singers belting out prayers and back forth the long hall. The moment was fantastic!

Leaving Poltava..Onto Kiev

My hotel called a taxi who silently (the driver spoke no English) got me to the train station. There I chatted with a young family from Kharkiv, a large city to the east of Poltava on the border of Russia. They are Jewish, had studied in Israel and explained that there are now about 3,000 Jews in Poltava. Being that presently Poltava’s population is about 300,000, Jews now comprise about one percent …

The train, unlike my previous long ventures from Budapest to Iasi and from Odessa to Poltava was relatively fast. It was first class with nice seats – Russian soap operas were screened on the ceiling mounted TVs and there was a snack bar. Beer and vodka were actively imbibed, despite the morning hour. Upon arrival in Kiev as always I was accosted by a rip off taxi-driver. I attempted to take advantage of the situation by asking to use his cell phone in that mine had been unable to accommodate a Ukrainian chip. We called my hosts, Erik and Julia who then told me how to take the subway and a tram over towards their apartment. The taxi-driver got pissed that I wasn’t going to use his services and demanded payment for the use of his cell phone. I paid him a little over $1 and eventually he stopped fuming.

Suddenly I was thrust into a mega-city with a huge metro system. My eyes popped as I rode shown a steep escalator—I steadied myself by asking endless questions of any English speaker around to be sure I got on the right train. Next I was supposed to transfer to a tram…the one I was looking for didn’t seem to exist—soon I found out I was standing in the wrong area and was walked to a completely different end of the plaza. Eventually one came and I pronounced my destination as Russianly as possible. I got off in what looked like the middle of nowhere and looked for someone with a cell phone. I found an English speaking woman who called my hosts, after some Russian chatter, she then walked me over to a bench where Julia, a pretty Ukrainian young woman soon arrived. I followed her up the six flights of her apartment building wherein I met her 1 ½ year old daughter, Sophia and Erik, her husband who hails from the SF Bay area. Julia went off to teach Polish classes (she holds degrees in law and Polish) and Erik and Sophia showed me around Kiev. In the evening Julia caught up with us and I bought them dinner at a pizza parlor.

Erik has been an on and off expat for upwards of 20 years. The low cost of living and the abundance of beer seems to have grown on him. Having not spoken rapid conversational English in a while, he was unfamiliar with some of the terms and phrases I was using. We were both amused. He’d lived a rough and tumble existence as a drug dealer (pot, LSD, ecstasy) and a web designer (very acidy looking graphics) but since the birth of Sophia has focused on being a house husband (a rare profession in the Ukraine).

After about a half a glass of beer I grew sleepy (my standard response) and after countless bottles Erik became increasingly talkative. Witnessing my diminished energy to chime into the once animated patter, he and Julia suggested I go to bed. They live in a small apartment studio apartment – I slept on a bed that was on the other side of a divider wherein they and Sophia watched pirated TV downloads like True Blood and Desperate Housewives.

Life in a Four-Star Poltava Hotel Room

In that many of my sleeping spots were quite humble (stretched out in train compartments and in small nooks in the homes of couchsurfing hosts) it was a real treat to have a Junior Suite at the Hotel Palazzo in Poltava. I took a long soak in the tub
Living Room area with my laptop and stuff

Sleeping Area after a perfect night's sleep

Sunday, August 21, 2011

White Temples of Poltava

Classic Rounded Gold Roofs
Center of Temple Complex

Front of Temple Complex Through Trees