We caught a marshrutka southward from Kyiv. It was quite comfy: we occupied the first row, so I had room to stretch my legs beside the driver’s seat; and the front windows were open – sending plenty of fresh air my way. Go figure that at a little over an hour, this was a “short” marshrutka ride.
During the trip, we watched a Soviet movie named Kavzkaya Plennica which Svitlana described as the favorite of 90% of the former Eastern Bloc. It’s a bit dated and seemed on the same level as many American movies at the time – clean humor, simple jokes, and use of fast-forward to make the actor’s motions funnier. There was a trio of guys which right-away reminded me of the Three Stooges. They weren’t as slapstick or rude to eachother, but if you saw this trio: you’d understand what I mean.
If the Carpathians felt like Appalachia, then the areas south of Kyiv feel like New Jersey. Now saying something like that certainly comes with bad connotations to any Americans reading this, but I say it as someone who has a little bit of Jersey blood in me and can see its good parts. I’m not quite sure why I think this, though… it didn’t smell bad like north Jersey does, but it just felt pretty flat with these little rural towns all about – all connected by major highways.
Arriving Bila Tserkva, we approached a maroon car and next thing I knew, I was being introduced to Svitlana’s dad, Mykola, a doctor specializing with larynxes. He’s certainly fit and full of energy, and I could tell he was dearly wished to speak with me; but the language barrier was an ever-present issue. Throughout our time together, our discussions felt like a game of charades – often ending with a call for Svitlana. He took French back in his school days, but I later learned that he doesn’t remember much more of French than I know… bonjour, merci beaucoup, si vous plais, omelette du fromagge, and so forth.
After a stop by a supermarket, we continued on to the dacha just west of town where I was introduced to Svitlana’s older sister, Oksana. Oksana is very pretty and tall enough that I can look her eye-to-eye, and she bears a striking resemblance to a girl I used to work with back at Penn State. Oksana works as a psychologist, albeit on maternity leave to care for her daughter Anastasia – now a toddler and absolutely adorable. I understand that Oksana had taken English classes back in her school days, but had since forgotten almost all of it. She was excited when I said something and she recognized what I had said.
Svitlana’s mom, Liudmila, works as a physical trainer as well as a fitness class instructor. Just as with Svitlana’s father, her mom is in great shape and certainly does not look like a grandparent at all. She speaks German, which was fun to try and use as an intermediary language. Unfortunately, while I can certainly use German for getting myself around and doing what I need to do – and I can read it well enough if I take a little time on some of the words – my conversational German is not quite the best.
After Anastasia’s (my host; not the toddler) dacha outside of Moscow, Svitlana had gotten me worried that her dacha would be a little trailer on wheels with mosquito netting for walls; and that’d be the only building all around. I must admit that if that’s what it turned out to be, I wouldn’t have minded a little adventure. For example, the train ride from Moscow to St. Petersburg – as lousy a night as it was for sleep and comfort – was a good night just for the experience; and it really makes you appreciate it when you have a train cabin like those we’ve had in Ukraine.
However, the dacha was right on the same level as Anastasia’s place. There was a garden with a cornucopia of fruits, vegetables, and flowers; an outhouse across the way; and a house that felt more than comfortable inside its two rooms. Technically, the house was indeed a trailer – as Svitlana had warned me about earlier; but you’d never even notice it was a trailer unless you really got down low to look beneath the structure.
We could glimpse the nearby stream from the dacha. In getting ready to go, everyone was inside, so I figured I’d head around the corner of the house and change into my swimsuit outside. Almost immediately, I heard the sound of people exiting; so I refastened my belt. I was directed inside to change, but was a bit confounded to find Svitlana’s parents sleeping in the one room. There wasn’t really any sort of separation between the kitchen and the bedroom, so I positioned myself to try and get as much coverage as possible; albeit this kept me in plain view through the front door. I very very quickly dropped my pants & pulled on the swimsuit. Privacy is not a luxury to be found here.
After some eating and greeting, the girls and I left out the back of the garden and walked down a path toward the stream. This path was shared with cows, once again bringing back memories of the paths about Switzerland. We wound about a bit for a minute until emerging at a grassy hill. We laid down to catch some sun, with the river only a couple meters downhill.
As we arrived, two girls had just stripped down to their underwear and began swimming about in the water – which made me hesitate when I went to start taking pictures right as we arrived on the hill. I’m sure some of my male friends would hate me for this hesitation, as I ultimately took the photos after they left. There was seriously no appropriate way to pull off photos of the lovely landscape (by which I refer to the stream & surrounding land) without drawing question from my hosts or indeed the girls themselves.
I keep referring to the river as a lake, and I suppose I’m not entirely off. A dam was built nearby about 30 years ago, causing what used to be a quarry to fill up to form a reservoir for the city of Bila Tserkva. So I suppose I could technically call it a reservoir, as I’m not quite sure when a “river” becomes a “lake”. There wasn’t any noticeable current and while it was cold when we first got in; it felt fine once you were under the water for just a couple seconds.
Here I suppose is another correlation that could be drawn with New Jersey. I wouldn’t say the river was polluted in the sense that if I went in, I’d emerge with a third arm… if that were the case, I certainly wouldn’t have gone in. After dipping my feet into the Chesapeake Bay a month or two ago and having funky-feeling feet for the next couple days, I’ve certainly become a bit more mindful of water pollution as it relates to swimming.
This river wasn’t polluted like the Bay or like the water closer to the major cities of Ukraine, but it was polluted enough that when I got in: my hands would disappear from sight about a foot beneath the surface. That’s comparable to New Jersey back in the 90’s, though today I can fortunately see my hands about 2 feet beneath the surface of the Atlantic. This river did have far fewer suds and bubbles than the Atlantic coastline, though. That’s certainly a victory for Ukraine and a loss for my beloved Jersey.
I was the first to get in all the way, with Anastasia soon followed my lead. Svitlana dawdled about with only her toes in, then her feet in, and then a long delay. It wasn’t long after I mocked her that she moved deeper – my mocking having noted that when she was my lifeguard back in Maryland, she used to laugh at how I’d very slowly get myself into the pool bit-by-bit. Now our roles were reversed.
Our urge to swim satisfied, we returned to bask in the sun. Svitlana was first to leave so that she may further socialize with her family as well as get started with cooking her borsch – something she’d been pining to do the whole trip (indeed, she’s been telling me that I need to taste her borsch ever since summer 2006). Anastasia and I stuck around until the sun got nearer to the horizon (which was a bit higher with the low hills and trees) and also until some clouds moved in and blocked the sun, anyway. On our way back, we were faced with a wall of bovine: we decided to walk around the front of the cow which was blocking our path. Ahh, it once again made me miss cow-dodging in Switzerland.
I kept my swimsuit past sunset, as I had been expecting that we’d head back out to paddle about the river. When I learned the trip got nixed, I went inside to change out of my swimsuit and back into my pants. Svitlana’s family had left around dusk, so there was now some chance to get just enough privacy to change. Er, if you disregard the window that gives a clear view into pretty much every part of the bedroom.
I went inside to change, and just as I untied my swimsuit’s knot the girls both came inside. OK, so I went outside. I thought about using the corner I tried to use earlier, when I was getting into my swimsuit; but a bright incandescent illuminated this whole nook. Just beyond, however, was pure darkness. I continued a couple meters further and made the switch – pulling up my pants just as the girls exiting from the house. What timing these two have! I walked toward them and emerged from the shadows whilst refastening my belt.
Now I’m actually pretty free about my body – I could care less if anyone sees me in my underwear or even if I’m buck naked; but somehow I just don’t think it’d be the most comfortable situation for my hosts if they were to catch me in the buff. Memories of that first night in the banya are often in my head… why do my social faux-pas situations always involve personal nudity?
Anastasia and I got to work on a fire to cook shashlyk (Ukrainian shish kabobs). At first I thought we’d actually cook them over the fire, so I tended to it in my usual way: get a good fire going with a tripod of large blocks towering over the small ones; then when the tower collapses, lay some large blocks flat across to keep a low fire going. When you get a good foundation built up again, you pile up another tripod tower, and so on. Doing this helps conserve your wood, which when Anastasia was around the first several minutes: we were rapidly burning through.
When Anastasia returned after having left me to tend to the fire for several minutes, she explained that we actually wanted to use all our wood before cooking; I needn’t conserve it. Apparently shashlyk is cooked over hot embers; not over fire. So with that in mind, I let my pyro side have a little more input… more liberally using up wood to get a “wicked cool” inferno (albeit safely within the confines of the fire pit.
Once our wood had been converted into hot embers, Anastasia placed the shashlyk skewers across the top level of the metal bars. I recommended using the lower level to move them closer to the embers, but she advised that the top level is preferable for a slower, more thorough cook. About an hour and a half later, Svitlana arrived and did just what I recommended: moving them to the lower level. Over another hour and a half, we had to chop some more wood and burn some more embers to finish cooking the meat – a total 3-hour ordeal. Once again: a bit inconvenient; but certainly an experience.