Our story so far: After three relatively glorious years in Saranac Lake, New York the author liquidated many of his assets and set off back into the world to claim his fortune or at least stave off boredom as he enters his thirties. After a grueling pace of travel that took him through a half-dozen European countries, the author finds himself in Ukraine where the adventure begins as he makes his way east.
CHERNIVTSI, Ukraine After elicited a blank look of stupid incomprehension that has become my signature expression as I travel east, the Slovak border guard switched to English.
For what purpose do you travel in Ukraine? she asked.
Tourist, I offered lamely.
Nearby, a leather-clad Russian who looked like he could be Vladimir Putin’s scruffy nephew guffawed with derisive laughter. There was about a dozen of us bus passengers queuing along the Slovak-Ukrainian frontier on the furthest fringe of ‘Fortress Europe.’
Did I mention it was snowing in the bus? I mean inside the bus it was snowing. While the sour-faced driver sucked his life away on cigarettes, us passengers sat with teeth chattering as snow poured from the overhead vent. A kindly faced Ukrainian woman sitting across from me gave me an apologetic smile which I interpreted as ‘It’s not usually snowing in the buses.’
Twenty minutes later the bus rolled into Uzhhorod, a bustling border town that prospers as a trade center on the doorstep of the EU.
The first thing I notice are the dogs. Scruffy dogs everywhere. There are no dog catchers in Ukraine so these half-tame, half-wild creatures are denizens in their own right. Some roam solo, others in packs of three or four. A few pairs stick together. All walk with a swaggering purpose and look both ways before they cross a busy street. These canines were streetwise. They weren’t wild enough to look fearsome yet you know better than to try to pat them on the head.
The crumbling Austro-Hungarian architecture is impressive though many of the 17th century buildings have been renovated into building supply shops presumably for thrifty Poles and Slovaks who cross the the border to buy linoleum and plumbing supplies.
Another notable feature was the teenage girls dressed like go-go dancers who walked with an air of confidence making eye contact with strangers on the street that was a marked contrast from the reserve of young people I’d grown accustomed to in Slovakia and Austria.
After several hours later on a Soviet-era train that was remarkably comfortable each wagon featured a drop down shelf with a bedroll and clean sheets – I was in L’viv, the cultural capital of western Ukraine. I’d prearranged to stay with some strangers-from-the-internet and my hosts took me to a Ukrainian nationalist partisan theme-bar for dinner. Costumed guards ask for the password (Heroes of Ukraine!) before allowing patrons to descend into a subterranean dining room where militia-uniformed women brought us mushroom soup and a honey liquor that reminded me of mead in that we drank out of tin cups, partisan-style.
What follows was three packed days in the city that was surprisingly free of harrowing ordeals and therefore not worth writing too much about. There was the trip to the banja a traditional sauna in which you beat yourself with oak branches to cleanse the skin; a drinking bout with a hostel owner that ended with us retreating from an all-night cafe bar after a loquacious bar patron inexplicably smashed a window with his fist (then, to his credit, immediately offered to pay for the damage); and general delight of losing oneself in a country where everything is written in a foreign alphabet in which I can read with the proficiency of a first grader.
A night-train brought me to Chernivtsi an ancient town that’s been traded back and forth between Romania, Ukraine and so forth and after a night spent in a vacant hostel there’s an early morning to Moldova where things, I have been promised, should get really weird.