Five days after cruising from Polish territory into Ukraine’s borders, I decided it was time to move East from Lviv. Sounds of church bells and laughter mixed with choirs and chants as they spilled through the hostel window. My bunkmates were up earlier than the sun, ready to begin celebrating Ukraine’s 14th year of Independence from Russia, “День незалежності України.” I followed soon behind, eager to celebrate as well, but from a city over three hours away by train.
Finding my way out of Lviv was a cake walk compared to the experience I had getting in. A short walk from Old City Hostel, I found the Eastbound train and creeped slowly over to my assigned seat.
This train was different than Western European trains I’d grown accustomed to. Trains in Western Europe typically have a ledge positioned about 1 1/2 meters above passengers’ seats – high enough to provide head room and low enough to allow one to heave a substantial load upon for safekeeping during travels. Now in Eastern Europe, I was going to have to get used to a new type of train. The toilets had posted schedules on the doors listing times which you were allowed to use the loo and times which you would find them locked. Bare feet dangled on either side of the walkway and a couple of stewards walked up and down the aisle shorty after our departure passing out mattresses and sheets.
Before I could sit down, a woman motioned at a ledge overhead. I held up my pointer finger and nodded with a smile, meaning to silently say “one moment”. My backpack loaded with gear, it was going to need a lumberjack to lift it the three meters high where it seemed to belong for our journey. Realizing the language barrier after a few attempts at instructing me on the proper way to board a train, she calmly stood up, lifted the hinged lid of her seat, and slid my bag inside. She then motioned to a metal piece sticking out from the wall, measuring no larger than 2 inches on either side. In a final attempt at leading me in the right direction, she pointed at my sandaled feet and up at the metal tab in a sweeping motion. I was to use the piece as a stair, swinging my body from one side to the other with Spidey-like grace until I’d heaved myself up to the ledge three-meters high.
Following her directives, I quickly ducked my head to avoid connecting it with the nearby ceiling and landed with the slightest ‘thud’. Balancing on my sit bones and assuming an awkward fetal position, I swirled my body 180 degrees, feet toward the train’s caboose. In an instant, I’d turned from train passenger to Spiderman, and now to Superman, laying stomach down and head forward, ready to get a move on. Below me, the young woman sat down in her seat, a table and two chairs which converted to a flat bed as well. Sooner than we knew, we were riding in bunkbeds across Ukraine’s sunflower filled landscape.
I napped, read, wrote and watched the scenery pass by in a flurry of yellows and blues as they mimicked the Ukrainian flag in their contrasting colors. Once in Khmelnestkyi, I performed an elegant barrel roll off the side of my reclining cushion and cinched up my rucksack, securing the hip and chest straps before stepping outside. There I was met by my ‘boss’ for the next month: A curly haired woman in her young thirties with a contagious laugh and a smile to match.
Giving me a taste of Ukrainian driving, I tried to hide my fear as she took me flying over pot holes and past colorful van-buses to my temporary home: a room atop the language school which she operates near city center. I was to teach English and work in the school’s cafe in exchange for Russian lessons and the most convenient housing setup. After showing me through the empty levels, we quickly ran downstairs and outside. My flatmates were all away for the weekend celebrating Independence Day elsewhere, so she offered to take me on a quick tour of the main square. We first stopped around the corner to buy two small plastic dixie cups filled with ice cream, freshly made from cream which had been poured into an enormous metal tub right in front of our eyes. It was the beginning of a month-long love affair between that ice cream and me.
After introducing me to a new addiction, the school’s director led me toward the holiday’s festivities, along the way pointing out recommended malls, shops, and restaurants. Children walked excitedly along the street, one hand in their parent’s and the other tightly grasping bouncing balloon strings. Babushkas sat on turned over water buckets selling fresh cut flowers to men of all ages and watched as beautiful women’s eyes lit up with heart shaped sparkles. Blue and gold flags waved from lamp posts and back pockets and voices sang out from a main stage while children’s groups danced around in white dresses with floral accents. We went back to the school after our ice cream had completed their disappearing act and I unpacked for the first time in ten countries.
Throughout the next five weeks, I met some truly incredible friends. The other volunteers came from Poland, Spain, Alaska, Germany, New Zealand and Canada. Each rotated through the school on their own time, traveling at different lengths and different speeds as their lifestyles allowed. Many locals attend the school to learn English, Spanish, Polish, or one of a handful of other languages offered. The teachers were fantastic and I especially adored the idea that my Russian teacher put forth a consistently valiant effort at teaching me the characters and phrases of the language three times a week while I did my best to perfect her already flawless English skills. Each week, I got to go to a local business and sit on bean bags while the employees joined me on the beanies to talk about anything from bicycle trips to newborn babies and sleepless nights. Volunteers rotated working at the cafe each evening, and after classes were over and we locked up the school, some of the students chose to adopt us volunteers and continue learning and teaching at the British Pub nearby. The most expensive bier was less than one euro for half of a liter, and we filled the two hours we had before the city’s typical 11pm bar close filled to the brim with the most random of misinterpreted conversations.
I loved the city so much I couldn’t bring myself to leave when I originally said I would, and took an extra week to make the most of my time there, including a night of pierogi making and an invitation to a breathtaking wedding.
The entirety of my time spent in Ukraine was lovely beyond words, and there are a few more posts coming your way to fill you in on the best of the best!