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.