So here we are in the West Ukrainian countryside on a train travelling at something like cruising speed. There are villages and other inhabited areas everywhere, and the whistle blows constantly, so we probably won’t go really fast.
I love this. I haven’t been on a traditional and practical* train since Grade 3. Shelley says she may have never been. This particular train originated in Moscow, and we’re riding from Lviv to Ivano-Frankivsk (named after the famous author Ivan Franko who helped legitimize literary Ukrainian) to meet Shelley’s boyfriend Oles and his family. After a night there, we’ll be off to Yaremcha to meet Amy in the Carpathian Mountains.
* - This excludes the restored lines, miniature railways, metros / subways, and trams / streetcars that I’ve been fortunate enough to experience.
This train doesn’t seem to have a “coach” class – every car has folding bunks, so we’re sitting on benches in cubby holes instead of on seats per se. These third-class “berths” are great because we can just stash our stuff on the top bunks since no one is sleeping at this point, and it looks like most of the people in this car are just on for a few hours.
I wonder when I’ll get a chance to share this…
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Lviv has been wonderful to the very end (click for photos by Alan Grant). To be sure, I’ve had my fill, but in the sense of a buffet table a mile long with all your favourite foods – you can only have so much in one sitting, but in a few hours you’ll want to go back for more.
The train gives its mournful, inevitable warning, and we slow to a crawl.
On Friday, Shelley and I each got to spend some time alone, which was refreshing. Later we went out to eat and found a nice little “Greek Bistro,” and I had some hearty (albeit expensive) mousaka, which was the first hearty and healthy thing I’d had to eat in days. Yum. It’s all about the lamb and cheese.
Now we’re stopped. A train rolled by in the opposite direction on an adjacent track. Now we’re moving again.
We went to our room early on Friday night so as to meet Shelley’s cousin, boyfriend, and another couple on Saturday morning, but we didn’t meet them until the evening. In the meantime, we returned to my favourite Ukrainian pizza place and stuffed ourselves silly, and then Shelley purchased a magnificent blown-glass sceptre, which only took ten minutes for the nice lady to wrap and tape. I’m glad my mom, when asked about a souvenir, said “tablecloth” and not “ornamental glass-blown ceremonial sword.” Sure, this stuff is cheap by Western standards (and the souvenirs in Krakow, a not unsimilar city in Poland, are shockingly expensive by comparison), but I don’t need a hand-made “tinkle-tinkle” luggage location system (“Now in 798 individual pieces!”), if you follow me. But I wish Shelley the best of luck with her sceptre. Truthfully, there were some beautiful things I was tempted to buy, but not having my own place to put things in, I decided to pass on them for now. What would a roving pseudo-independent bachelor want with a gold-trimmed green stoneware vase? A place to put his old floppy disks? (Hey, that’s an idea! Floppy-disk planters!)
We met Shelley’s crew (cousin Irena, her boyfriend Max, and their friends Inna and Pablo) in front of the opera house and then we went to have drinks and desserts at an art café. Some of us tried the absinthe, which was an elaborate ritual apparently designed for the amusement of the server and fellow diners. There was a gallery inside and amazing graffiti outside. I took many pictures of both and the streetscapes on the way back, but for once I wasn’t the only one. Both Pablo and Max are avid photographers (and Max had a really nice Olympus superzoom which he used to its full capability), and at times all three of us were lagging behind the girls on the walk back to the square. I gotta hang out with these guys more often. I felt like I was with Karol and Melina (my old host brother and sister-in-law) in Poland again – now if I can just meet some astronomers, I’ll be all set.
After we got our bearings again, we decided we were a little hungry, and so we went to Celentano Pizza (Are you starting to see a trend yet?), which had true Western pizza; it tasted like regular take-out, which I had been craving more than I had known. The venue was dingy compared to my other favourite place, but the pizza was the tastiest and cheesiest. I enjoyed, relished, and generally luxuriated in that delicious triangular confection.
We then returned to our room (now singular, in the name of privacy and saving money, which I’ll get to in a moment) and got ready for the morning. We watched the last hour of Casablanca on Turner Classic Movies (how that’s on regular cable in Lviv, I don’t know) – I can only say wow. It’s too, too excellent. I nearly cried, but I also laughed. The ending (!!) had something for everyone. So now I need to go back and watch the whole thing.
I was also tempted to pick up a copy of Jane Austen’s Persuasion at the bookstore yesterday when I bought my postcards, but it was like $4.20 (too expensive!), so I decided to wait for home and the library.
This morning we rose and went to Lychakivsky Cemetery, the most beautiful I’ve yet seen. There were countless narrow, winding paths among the trees and tombs – their above-ground hatches gave me a potent reminder of my own mortality, compared to the graves in my area which are comparatively subtle and largely out of sight (excepting the monuments).
Needless to say, we snuck in for free (almost inadvertently, though – there wasn’t a clear place (to us) to check in), and I probably took pictures I wasn’t supposed to take, so as penance I’d better read some translations of Ivan Franko.
On the way to the cemetery, we walked past a very photogenic medical school, and on the way back we stopped for tea and sandwiches at a tiny and simple pre-fab café / snack store that had the friendliest sellers and patrons I’ve yet seen in Ukraine. The sandwich tasted like the ones the B’s eat sometimes (“Be careful, that’s not Canadian mustard!”) and my nasal passages were ablaze while Shelley could have used a little more mustard. I highly respect and admire that.
We got back to the hotel, cleared out lickety-split, and found a cab waiting to take us to the train station. We negotiated a really nice fare ($3.50) and raced through the city centre and out again. The guy was really keen and knew all the shortcuts, leaving us at the impressive classically-styled train station with oodles of time to spare. We found our platform and had our “feel like I’m in a movie” moments.
Incidentally, once you’ve seen one Ukrainian village you’ve seen them all, but I often wonder what it would be like to live there. An abandoned factory looms to my right. Welcome to Brushtyn! Let’s eat our take-away sandwhiches…
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By the way, be careful opening your carbonated mineral water on the train. The explosive result was an amusing conversation-starter, and I didn’t get too much water on myself… =)
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The Hotel “Nezhalonosty”
One of the reasons we were happy to leave Lviv was our hotel, which we’ll probably never forget, not even after therapy. It was a marginally comfortable place to stay, but with many little annoyances. To wit:
- The hot water (as indicated by a sign in all our bathrooms) was only available between 7-11 and 19-23 (seven-eleven, seven-eleven). This wouldn’t have been a problem except that we were meeting at 9:00 in the mornings, and the water didn’t get tolerably warm until then at times. Later, things improved (and by then I would have been able to grow things in my hair), and thankfully I’m clean now. Lviv has pervasive water problems, so by even having water all the time I’d say we got off pretty easily.
- If you want housekeeping, you have to be there and open the door for the floor lady, which again isn’t a big deal except ours came in and counted only one towel (we honestly have no idea what happened to the other one), and so after making us feel very bad about that and having us look under our beds, and hither and yon, she replaced only one even though Shelley and I were both in the room then, so this morning I dried off with a dish towel.
- And, naturally, there were the usual things: showerheads and electrical outlets that didn’t work, one key for each room, midnight lock-up, short blankets, cracked windows, etc.. but we made do quite happily.
For my money, though (and sadly, I mean this quite literally), the worst thing came when Shelley and I had to book our rooms again after the rest of the team left. She paid 70 UAH and I paid 140. For the same thing! We decided to bring this up to them the next morning (Saturday) when we booked, but the lady (a different one) said that there was nothing she could do (and we had no recipts), and so Shelley and I just paid 70 each to have my room again. Apparently they charged me double-occupancy for the privilege of not having a new stranger share my room (a fair interpretation of “just me,” and “only me,” I suppose, but I was trying to get out of paying double-occupancy!), as evidenced when she asked Shelley if she’d mind if someone else stayed in her room. Uh, yeah. So we shared my original room last night.
So why didn’t we switch hotels? Max showed me the pictures of the rental apartment where he and his friends were staying. It was cozy, clean, and beautiful. And between the four of them, it was 50 UAH ($12) each per night. Argh! But we didn’t know any better. And Eduard arranged the place we got only because nothing cheaper was available for seven people and five rooms simultaneously, and the irony is that these places would probably have been nicer.
Amy (she has a cell phone now – actually, everyone but Lee does now) says she’s going to a really nice place tonight – apparently there’s a sauna and a Jacuzzi, and it would come to 80 apiece if we doubled up. Niice. It has to be better than the helltel, anyway.
Not that there wasn’t anything good about our hotel, just very little. =) Seriously, some of the eccentricities were appreciated. For instance, if you happen to be coming home past midnight on certain evenings, you might not even have to buzz or knock or yell to get in (Eduard’s advice to us, “If they lock the door, just yell really loud.”), because the entire staff will be having a vodka party in the lobby.
Also, said staff are usually on the friendly side, if a tad paranoid. (“What is your room number?” “Show me your key, please!”) Friendly, for sure – one guy even looked for an English program for me to watch on the lobby TV while I was waiting for my groupmates – I certainly didn’t want or ask for such unfair attention, but it was nice of him nonetheless.
Speaking of TV, the line-up wasn’t too shabby. We has Ukrainian channels, Polish channels, Russian channels, German channels, and even two full-time English channels (BBC World plus a channel that switched between Cartoon Network (I even caught Samurai Jack!) and Turner Classic Movies, and the CN/TCM channel was commercial-free.).
There was plenty of music on the coax, and I discovered everything from Little Tony (“Figli de Pretorika” – really nice) to a new Ah-Ha (“Cecile”), and developed an appreciation for Depeche Mode (the remix of “Enjoy the Silence” is singularly awesome). Lee and I also found that Fashion Television doesn’t necessarily mean textile fashions (especially late at night), if you get my drift. And everyone got a laugh watching Homer Simpson purposely neglect to sell his pumpkin futures before Halloween – in German. We were practically on the floor.
Finally, the stairs were large, spacious, and inviting, unlike most modern North American hotels (beyond the mezzanine, anyway). There were elevators, but these were a small, highly frightening, chain-driven afterthought which inspired fun games such as “Name That Noise” while we were suspended in a box apparently hoisted by amphetamine-influenced simian slaves.
In the end, the best advice would be to marry a Ukrainian who also speaks Russian, who, if he or she liked you, would greatly simplify your negotiations with service providers all over the former USSR – sure, it seems like an extreme step, but this can be an extreme country. =)