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

Artifacts that Reveal Bits of My Family History

My family may have lived for many generations in the Poltava, Ukraine area up until the beginning of the 20th century. Below are images and objects that may have part of their lives. Menorah - Judaism was an important part of their identity
19th Century Sitting Room

Foot pedal Sewing Machine

19th Century Parlor Room

Harbor where they may have set sail for America

Around Poltava

Sculpture Across from the History and Science Museum
Classic Temple Amidst it All

Offers and Opportunities!

Open-Air Market

Inside a Pizza-Parlor

Public Gardens of Poltava

In a Town Square
Layers of Beautiful Beds

fish-eye lens view of orange-red marigolds

Within a Park

Exploring My Poltava Homeland

I've always known my Dad's side of the family came from Poltava. To me it was just a name of a remote Ukrainian early 20th century farming village where there were nasty pogroms that caused my grandfather Petrov Wolfovitch to relocate the family to America. He left Poltava in 1904 when my grandmother, Olga was pregnant with my Dad. About six months after my Dad was born (in 1905) Olga and all of her children (Sonia, Sam, Sol and my Dad, then named Isidore) boarded a ship to America. None of them ever returned to visit Poltava.

Tears filled my eyes as my train neared the Poltava station. Finally, I was returning to my Ukrainian homeland! Obviously much has changed in the last 106 years! When they left and until the early 1940s, Poltava was a major Jewish there are some Jews, but not nearly the numbers there once were. What has struck me the most was how similar Poltava is to my hometown Palo Alto. I keep wondering if there is some bio-geographical gene that draws people to live in certain places. The overall feeling here is one of friendliness, safety, nature and beauty. Like my visit to Iasi, Romania (my maternal homeland), I feel this deep reconnection with my roots.

Being a second generation American, I was raised pretty much clueless about my homelands. Sometimes we would eat borscht, vatroushki, piroushki and mumiliga; but it was all pretty remote. Iasi and Poltava seemed like distant places in that grand geography of things. Growing up in California, I mostly heard about New York City as my family's cultural homeland. And truly if the two sides of my family had not migrated to New York, there's no way I would have ever come into existence!

The clouds and the light here in Poltava feel familiar. And despite that the Russian signage and language is a blur, I've been finding my way around just fine. Today one of the hotel desk receptionists gave me a note she had typed in Russian to use to buy my final train ticket to Kiev. I found my way down to the local bus stop and showed it to the money collector who then motioned to me when to get off. At the train station, I handed it to the ticket clerk and voila, $11 later, I had a ticket. Afterwards I explored the little market stalls by the train station and then caught a bus into town.

Having completely run out of hair conditioner, I thought I'd try to buy some. It was super challenging trying to figure out what was what by looking a pictures of split ends that then looked magically repaired after using these strangely named products. Suddenly an English speaking Russian woman appeared and explained it all to me. I bought her suggestion and then began to chat her up. She's an English teacher and a tour guide, I wanted to hire her on the spot! Already obligated, she walked me to the Poltava History Museum which apparently has one the best collections anywhere in the Ukraine. She then told me where to walk afterwards to find explore some of the city's spectacular temples.

The museum had no signage in English, but I could tell by the passion in which the Russian-speaking tour guides were explaining things that it was all pretty amazing. Being a seasoned museum-visitor, I could pretty much tell what I was seeing...and altogether I felt I'd absorbed much of what 18th and 19th century life in the Ukraine (when my family lived here) was like. My sense of rootedness increased exponentially!

The Train from Odessa to Poltava

Yes, it was a 15-hour train ride and I shared my compartment with Maria a 62-year old Ukrainian who snored loudly. Despite our apparent linguistic disconnect (she speaks Russian, Ukrainian and German) and I understand a little German via Yiddish we communicated! We drew pictures, I taught her yoga and pilates stretches, shared tea, discussed how little sex she's had in recent years and laughed our heads off!

Train Compartment
View of Ukrainian Countryside

Maria, my compartment mate

Contemplations from a Ukrainian Train

Written as my 27-car train chugs through the countryside....

Despite the cheap price ($35) the train did include sleeper facilities including sheets, pillows and a fuzzy warm blanket. The access of basic things to all feeling could be one of the nice vestiges of communism. I'm trying to sort out what that was all about. Big boxy artless apartment buildings—functional, but oblivious to the human spirit. We humans need art and love. How did Russian passion squinch itself into the totalitarianism of the Soviet state?

Same time having lived my life as an American in the so-called free world, I know all about internal oppressions—psycho-emotional and social barriers that keep us from being all we might imagine. But we do have this sense of personally being in charge of our destinies...that it is absolutely possible to make it big and even get rich quick. The Ukrainians have had the last 21 years to incorporate chunks of these ideologies. It’s no longer a new independence…and largely what I’m seeing are young people who have known no other way – working for wages as well as entrepreneurs like my host Andre in Odessa. There was some begging, largely amongst elders...and no sign of outright starvation as one might find in Africa.

Altogether life is cheap. And being that there’s so little independent tourism, no price distinctions are made between locals and foreigners. Despite that today’s high school students are learning English, amongst many other languages, travelling here as a non-Russian speaker is very humbling. It’s like Brazil – another compelling country with an interior-oriented media. When I scan the countless Russian TV channels (including the Simpsons poignantly dubbed in Russian), I so want access. What is going on? This language sounds like it is so full of guts and glory. I want to speak and think how they all do!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Exploring Odessa

I took a local bus into the center of town and cautiously looked around. With all the signs in Russian, how would I find my way back? I noted buildings and fountains and corners, trying to keep my orientation. The signage was a complete blur--it all looked like gobbly-gook... just how my efforts at pronouncing anything comes off to my Russian listeners. They quickly shake their heads letting me know I am absolutely incoherent and that there is nothing they can do to help. Then sometimes, just to get even with the universe, I'd pretend I understood them, just to engage in social chatter. I feel like I completely get the Russian emotional core -- the parts that talk in sweet patter, that at the drop of a second can transmute into a passionate roar or a perfectly-staged shouting match. The Russian range is my range--we access all dimensions.

I wandered around an open-air market place, chatted up some high school girls who reported that they are required to study five languages - Russian, English, French, Polish and Latin. So different from mono-lingual America! I then found my way to the train station to book a train to Poltava, my Dad's birthplace. The 7 PM train was full and I was offered a place on the 1 AM train. It sounded like a really slow train, but then what am I here for but to experience it all? I paid about $35 for the ticket and continued to wander, checking out the Russian version of McDonalds, one of the few American corporate exports. Same food, much classier presentation...and very popular! I tiptoed by a church where honey, flowers and apples were being sold and then blessed with holy water by a priest. When I began to focus my camera on the blessing, the priest motioned me away... And I then scurried into a cell phone store, trying to buy a Ukrainian chip for my phone. My phone is apparently incompatible with the local technologies, so I guess I'm stuck with asking locals to lend me their phones to stay in touch with my hosts.

Then I attempted to retrace my steps back to where I got off my bus into town. It was useless. Nothing looked the same, but I did remember I'd been on bus 168. Suddenly, I saw one whiz by, though I was nowhere close to where I'd been dropped off. The street I was walking on seemed quite industrial - not the buzzy downtown with cafes, banks, and fancy shops. I showed someone the card from the hotel (which is really a card from the car wash because the hotel does not have a name) and he showed me where to board the 168. It was a super-long (and crowded) ride with passengers handing crumpled bills to the driver as they stepped off the bus. I found my way into the car wash and up into my room, congratulating myself on managing to find my way in and out of town!

Peace Sculpture (adjacent to a war mongering missile sculpture)
Juices, Apples, Flowers and Honey for Blessings

Ukrainian Students

Honey and Apples in Open Air Market

Seasoned Shopper Examines the Produce

On the Beach in Odessa

Beachside Beer and Snacks

Me in the Black Sea with Birds...

The water was very cold!!!

More of me...

Out of Chisinau and into the Ukraine

Somehow I found my way to the Gar Auto Nord bus station to purchase a ticket to the Ukraine, being careful to book the route that bypasses Transdienstre where huge visa fees have been known to levied on unsuspecting travelers. The following morning I caught a taxi to the bus station and located the mini-van that would be my transport to Odessa. Once the van was packed with passengers, the 3 1/2 hour journey began. Roadsigns became more Russian ... and everything felt more remote. At one of the passport check points, a kind female passenger showed me the ropes for accessing a very smelly toilet including handing me a wad of her personal stash of toilet paper. Sooner than I'd imagined, we arrived at Odessa and I was immediately accosted by taxi drivers. They all looked slimey and I felt bewildered. Eventually I gave one of them the phone number for Andre who was my AirBNB host. A call was placed and after a bit of back and forth on the phone, Andre determined that the guy was a rip off artist and proclaimed that he would come and get me himself.

The moment he arrived (I'd borrowed a local cell phone in that I couldn't figure out how to dial Ukrainian numbers on mine) to explain where I was standing, Steve and Kathy from Winnipeg, Canada appeared. They were truly bewildered having spent the morning biking around Odessa looking for a place to stay. I suggested that Andre might have rooms for them as well and for the next 22 hours, we became a trio. Andre has a carwash that's about 10 minutes by car from the beach and has recently built a bit of a hotel on the top floor.

The rooms have modern furniture and AC and for a night it was fine. Cathy and Steve's bed collapsed in the middle of the night, but that's another story..which isn't mine:) We found our way down to the beach and the Black Sea. Things for sale included dried fish, Odessa tzchakis, and beer. Being super-hungry we ate -- pizza, chicken kabobs, and salad. And then I tried taking a dip in the Black Sea. It was cold...the kind of cold where one needs to take a very quick plunge in -- otherwise it's just too cold! Being a photographer, Steve readily sorted out my camera and documented my experience...

My Chisinau Digs...Basic and Interesting!

Vic - the mad Russian artist/musician
Sergio (my host) and Me in Front of the House

The two Polish Bicyclists (also couchsurfers)

Front of House

The Kitchen!