Tuesday, August 19, 2008

UA - Bila Tserkva, Uman'

It was an early morning, with Svitlana’s Dad waking us up by calling for us from the door. Svitlana seemed a bit startled when she got up and both Anastasia and I hadn’t moved at all. Apparently she was afraid the shashlyk we ate last night wasn’t cooked enough and we died – I couldn’t help but find that funny. Especially because every time I moved in my bed, it made loud creaking sounds; and since I’m like a rotisserie when I sleep, I creaked all throughout the night. Here I thought I’d have been keeping them up all night with my creaking.

For breakfast I had Svitlana’s borsch. When we finally sat down to eat the previous night, I was a bit confused not to see Svitlana’s borsch on the table. As we were cooking the shashlyk, she asked Anastasia and myself twice whether or not we wanted any borsch. As it’s a more appropriate Western custom to wait until everyone and everything is ready to go, I responded that I’ll wait until we were ready to eat everything. Apparently Svitlana interpreted this as our refusal to have borsch at all, which this morning I discovered was a bit aggravating for her. I tried to explain what I meant when I finally did eat it – and it was quite tasty.

We were soon on the road to Uman’, which is the location of Sofiyivka Park. The drive there passed by more sunflowers than I think I’ve ever seen in my life. I cannot recall ever seeing a sunflower farm other than in pictures; usually I spot sunflowers individually planted in gardens. Alas, the sunflowers were in bloom several weeks ago and were not nearly as dazzling a sight as I’m sure there were in their prime; but they were still pretty even in their faded glory.

As for Sofiyivka Park: I suppose you could call it Ukraine’s Versailles, albeit without the palace. I could see how it’d be lovely in spring and autumn, as Svitlana described to be her favorite times to visit, but in the middle of summer: it was really just a bunch of trees. The rose garden was pretty, but the rest of the park was past bloom. It nonetheless made for a pleasant stroll among the trees.

Returning to Bila Tserkva, we headed toward the dacha but turned just a little bit earlier. We visited Svitlana’s god-family (which also has the god-daughter of Svitlana’s parents). This whole family seemed to speak English pretty well. They run a family business which deals in office supplies, and combined with some American connections through their church: they’ve had the opportunity to use English on a relatively consistent basis. The young man about my age – Victor – learned English in school, as is true for many students today. However, many students don’t have the chances to use their English as Victor does, and hence it’s difficult to speak with many people; but with these people it was a breeze.

In addition to Victor, I met his sister Yelena, father Anatoly, and mother Valentina. Then there was the 14 year old German Shepherd (which I should mention is my absolute favorite breed of dog) named Нюхлен, which I can best translate as Nuke-len (a literal translation would be Nyukh-lien), meaning “sniffing dog”. Thinking back to Anastasia’s name for her cat, Koshka, meaning “cat”, I am quickly earning a fondness for their names for pets here… exactly the kind of names I’d use.

Their house was lovely – albeit not a dacha; they lived hear year-round. Victor took us out in his boat, as was our hope the previous day. First we went up to the dam, where we pulled ashore and got out to walk along the dam. It was built solely to provide the reservoir; not for power generation or flood control (though I’m sure the latter is certainly utilized as a secondary benefit).

Next we stopped by the house again to grab oars, as our petrol supply seemed to be running low. We then continued the other way, where we started having some trouble with the outboard just a little short of the small island we were heading to. Svitlana took to the oars and rowed the rest of the way.

We stood about the island for a couple minutes before heading back to the boat. Victor adjusted the fuel lines and got us going again, but soon we ran out of fuel and Victor manned the oars back to the house. I have to admit, I wouldn’t have minded doing a bit of rowing – it’s been awhile since I’ve had oars in my hands, and I realized then that I dearly missed that sensation.

A short meal and chat later, we were bidding farewell & returning to the dacha. We packed our bags and made our way back into Bila Tserkva proper, where we’d be spending the night at Svitlana’s apartment. As with Anastasia’s place, the apartment was located in what a Westerner would right-away consider your typical Soviet-style tower. Inside, the elevator was broken and as we climbed the stairs, several of the levels were not lit.

Before leaving the United States, everyone had me a bit worried about Russia and Ukraine. I really had no idea what to expect. I had the emails from Anastasia and Svitlana making it all sound so rustic, I had my friends whose families emigrated from the Soviet Union telling me all the reasons their families left to begin wth, I had my guidebooks telling me to fear the police and bureaucracy more than anything else, my pool’s lifeguard Victoria was telling me that if somebody doesn’t like somebody else for any reason: they’ll just have that person shot, and then the four Kaliningrad girls seemed to confirm all of the above.

Climbing up the many flights of stairs, I was contemplating just how I’d react if Svitlana’s place were anything like the stereotypes of the former Eastern Bloc. When we entered, however, I immediately recognized that, once again, my worries were completely unfounded. I was looking into a spacious apartment with nice furnishings, and smiling faces all about – Svitlana’s mom and dad to my left; sister and niece straight ahead.

I keep finding myself thinking at how “Western” everything feels. It just isn’t correct to consider this “Eastern” Europe – it’s Europe; that’s it. It is certainly a bit less wealthy: the infrastructure and common areas aren’t in the best repair, ever-popular cafes are replaced by ever-popular portable snack stalls, and the former Eastern Bloc’s native cars aren’t exactly BMWs, Lamborghinis, or Renaults; but the people are the same, the palaces are the same, the parks are the same, and even the cities tend to, by and large, feel the same. Europe always tends to feel like Europe, no matter where you are.

If anything, areas like Ukraine may have a leg up over the West – for now, at least – as in places like Hoverla: you can look out and see nothing; just trees and mountains. There is a certain charm to being in the Alps and seeing the landscape dotted with little towns among a patchwork of farms and forests, but at Hoverla is was 99% forest; and that brings a charm all of its own.

I by and large spent the evening sorting photos on my laptop, though I did join the kitchen for a bit to eat some borsch as well as varenyky stuffed with potatoes and seasoned with fried onions. This was perhaps the tastiest thing I’ve eaten yet. Well, apart from the Ghiardelli brownies I brought along from America which were cooked up tonight for dessert. Served fresh out of the oven with vanilla ice cream on top, there are just very few things that can compete with that.

In the kitchen, I was introduced to Svitlana’s grandfather, NAME, whom is 85 years old and previously worked as an interior constructor (much like Svitlana’s roommate, Russlan). Her grandfather’s persona and appearance reminded me a lot of my former suitemate James: a rather slumber look with mildly unkempt hair, and even the same calm albeit opinionated manner of speaking.

Sleeping arrangements were handled in the living room, where I took a fold-out chair and the girls took the fold-out sofa. I once again was confounded by the blankets and sheets, which is a common issue for me whilst in Europe. On the train from Kyiv to Lviv, I tried to use the mattress as a blanket. Here I figured that since the bed itself (the bench seat) was soft, why would I have a mattress?

Well, another problem I have is that I can never identify the sheet I’m supposed to wrap around the mattress (our equivalent would be a fitted sheet) and the sheet I’m supposed to use as a sheet. I guess the mattress sheets are supposed to have pockets that you can tuck around the ends of the mattress – just like some pillowcases. However, these pockets and sheets never seem to fit the mattress right; whereas the sheet does. So I end up using the mattress sheet as my sheet.

Then there are the comforters, which always seem to consist of a Happy Meal worth of other goodies inside. I’ve never really opened one up to see what all is in there – mostly for fear that I’d never get it back in – but comforters always seem to have a side that is opened up so you can see a whole bunch of other blankets within. I don’t know, maybe you’re supposed to take all these blankets out? Me, I just like the weight of a full comforter.

I made my best with the bed; quite sure I had the two sheets reversed – and keeping the contents of my comforter intact. While working on my laptop, Svitlana’s grandfather came in and sat down on the sofa to try and talk to me. He didn’t speak a word of English, and I quickly got the feeling that he didn’t realize that I didn’t speak a word of Ukrainian or Russian. Oksana soon appeared to try and explain the language barrier, but the best I could interpolate from their not-in-my-language discussion was that he didn’t quite realize I was American, but rather thought that we were talking about Americans; and with history lingering on in the minds of the older – I don’t quite think he was particularly fond of Americans.

I later inquired about him and Svitlana said that he tends to ramble on with stories, and sometimes he can be pretty rude. Well, that seems to describe pretty much any older person, and dagnabit I’m sure I’ll be the same way in a couple more decades (I’m already halfway there now). Personally, those excuses were the exact reasons I would want to have had a discussion with him. However, instead Oksana escorted him out of the room and that pretty much concluded my night.

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