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Przemyśl, Poland: Three for Four

It happened so quickly it took me a minute to process. The vodka bottle was pulled into the car and the cash was grabbed by the person inside and then the car took off accelerating at high speed. Only moments earlier I had been asked by a Polish border guard to unzip my coat. He had been searching for vodka and cigarettes I might have taped to my body in a smuggling attempt. Welcome to the border between Poland and Ukraine.

As soon as you cross from western Ukraine into eastern Poland you start noticing the differences immediately — the roads are better and the standard of living is higher. Poland is a member of the European Union while Ukraine is not. Selling alcohol and cigarettes near the border is a job for some Ukrainians. In Ukraine, vodka and cigarettes are much cheaper than in Poland so people will cross the border daily and sell them in Poland and then buy food products and electronics (which are much more expensive in Ukraine) and cross back over. Of course all of this is illegal, hence the coat check. Approximately 300,000 Ukrainians are estimated to be working in Poland and Ukrainians are the largest group of non-European Union member migrants applying for residency in the EU. The border is a stark illustration of why Ukrainians want to see a dramatic change at home. It was also the first time in my life I had crossed a border between two countries by foot.

Road

So why did I cross the border and have to deal with unzipping my coat to prove I wasn’t smuggling vodka? For a long time I had wanted to see the town my maternal grandmother grew up in which is today in eastern Poland. The border between eastern Poland and western Ukraine shifted many times over the past several hundred years. My mother knew that her mother was from the town of Medyka where the family owned vast farm lands. Apparently there was so much to harvest that Hutsuls from the mountains in Ukraine would come to work. My grandmother went to school in the town of Przemyśl (the majority of photos in this post).

Between Churches

So while on my reporting trip to Ukraine (read the other stories I wrote here, here, and here), I set out from the western Ukrainian city of Lviv to Przemyśl. My friend Areta came with me. She’s a pro — she knew which bus to get on, where to run to once the bus stopped (let’s just say everyone gets off the bus and tries to get first in line), and which line to get into at the border as American citizens. Plus as a fellow Ukrainian-American, Areta and I both share a lot of curiosities about the past and the lives of our families — check out her wonderful blog on the past and Ukraine here. Areta had visited Przemyśl several times before and knows a lot about her family’s life there. I on the other hand, don’t know very much and just wanted to wander and see the city:

Rynok

A little sun

Medyka

River

Church

Walking around was both foreign and familiar. Like Lviv, Przemyśl has that fantastic Austro-Hungarian architecture that many people will recognize from the movie The Grand Budapest Hotel. I understand very, very, very basic Polish and some words I grew up saying, sklep – store and trystavky – strawberries, are actually Polish and not Ukrainian. It just shows how people moved and intermingled between and before the two great wars.

Doggie

Tiled

P. Zamok

Street

Villa

Grand Budapest

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Back to Ukraine: “We Must Defend Our Land”

I keep thinking, please, please stop. Please don’t buy me that coffee. Please don’t buy me lunch. Really, you don’t have to. When I first came to Ukraine in 2007 the currency was 1 USD to 8 Ukrainian hryvnia. This summer it was 1 to 14. And now it’s 1 to 25. At one point last month it went to over 30. I’ve been in Ukraine now for several days and the hospitality and generosity of people going through a truly difficult time, an economic crisis and a war, continues to amaze me. People have their pride and really care about how they treat guests. At the same time it makes me really sad to see this country going through another economic crisis as well as the war that began a year ago. I spent the first few days of my trip in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv where I reported on the volunteer war effort. I keep hearing the same phrase over and over that roughly translates as “we must defend our land.”

Rinok

People are doing what they can here. Circumstances aren’t great: the army still doesn’t have the weapons it needs, reforms aren’t moving fast enough, and too many people are unnecessarily suffering. It has been nine months since my last trip here and things haven’t gotten better. Yet for many people in western Ukraine, there’s a sense that they will overcome, because freedom and territorial integrity come above everything else.

Shadows

I’ve said it before here, Lviv is one of my favorite cities in the whole world. The history, the old buildings, the people, the food, I love this city. I’m lucky to have spent several days there reporting and walking.

Cobblestone

Side Street

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Crying on Trains and the Ruby Ring

A few posts back I mentioned crying for what must have been an hour or more on an over night train ride. I was in a sleeper car heading from Ternopil to Kyiv. The car had four bunks and two other people. I tried to cry silently, but if you’ve ever tried that it always fails miserably. Instead my crying sounded like choking and coughing combined and I’m certain that the other young woman in the car who smiled at me when I entered the compartment knew I had the water works going. Good thing it was dark and the train was rocking us like a giant human cradle.

Morning View Ternopil

Let me step back for a minute and explain what triggered it. I had come to Ternopil, western Ukraine, from Kyiv for a weekend trip. My grandmother was born and raised in this city. Her first cousin and her family still live there. My parents and I had visited them back in 2007. I really liked all of them and it was nice that I had a cousin close to me in age who is also a redhead and wants to be journalist (talk about something running in the family).

Morning Sun

I arrived in the evening and they were waiting for me on the train platform. We went back to their apartment in a Soviet apartment block. These socialist style buildings have been nicked Khrushchevkas, mockingly after the former head of the USSR Nikita Krushchev. We ate a light meal and called it a night. In morning I chatted with my cousin and her boyfriend who had come back to Ternopil from their university in L’viv for the weekend. I asked if anyone of our generation among their friends wants to become a politician in Ukraine. My cousin started elbowing her boyfriend. After a bit of mocking and probing he said he was interested but then listed the plethora of problems involved in Ukrainian politics – I’ll spare you the list.

Ternopil Cathedral

Then we headed to church, the same one, although remodeled, that my grandmother would have attended decades before. In his sermon the priest spoke about the hard times facing Ukraine and stressed that there is a path to light and that Ukraine and its people will reach it eventually. After the standing 90-minute mass, we went to my grandmother’s first cousin for a large lunch. They were happy to see me and said I hadn’t changed in seven years (bodes well for my aging). As we started eating, my grandmother’s cousin’s husband rose to give a toast of cognac. He said he was so glad to see me but so, so sad that it had to be during a time of war. And that’s when it hit me. I’d interviewed displaced Crimean Tatars and a woman whose fiancé was gunned down on the Maidan. But this was personal. My grandparents had left because of the Russians and now here they were again invading Ukraine and denying to the whole world that they have any military presence in the country. How fucked up (excuse my language but this deserves it) is it that 70 years later history is repeating itself? This shouldn’t be happening.

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Chernobyl: A Strange Quiet

Dear readers, I apologize for the prolonged absence. As soon as I returned from Ukraine I jumped into work and then back to grad school (never take five classes and work three jobs, including an editing one that resulted in a 300-page journal that let me indulge in my Ukraine interest). So as part of a resolution to blog and write more regularly this year, I have a lot of catching up to do. So here we go, more stories from Ukraine, stories and photos of food from the trip I took to Japan last year, and coming soon a trip back to Asia to a country I never got a chance to visit the first time around.

One of the places I wanted to visit this summer when I was in Ukraine was Chernobyl, the site of the catastrophic nuclear meltdown in 1986 — a moment I believe eroded a lot of trust and played an important, if sometimes overlooked, role in the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. Why this need to visit? One of my earliest memories involves smelling cigarette smoke. The man smoking the strange thing, something that I had never smelled before, on my parent’s driveway while I peddled my tricycle had come with his daughter to California from Ukraine. They were staying with my family as the daughter, in her early 20s, went to a hospital to receive some cancer tests here in the US. My mom tells funny stories about the young woman knowing all of the lyrics to Madonna songs better than most Americans — and this was in 1990, before the USSR had even collapsed. One story my mom recalls in particular is after the young woman returned from a trip to the mall. She asked my mom how t-shirts, ones that looked identical made from the same material, could cost different prices. It was the capitalism and culture shock that would soon sweep across eastern Europe. All of this left an impression on me and as a teenager I read Irene Zabytko’s The Sky Unwashed, a work of fiction about the reactor’s collapse and how it impacted local people. So I wanted to see the place that is about an hour and half drive from Kyiv. Below is the welcome sign as you drive in:

Chernobyl Sign

I went on an English-speaking tour through Solo East with some non-Ukrainian speaking friends. The guides told me they had been to Chernobyl hundreds of times themselves. Today people still work within the area usually on shifts of about 10 days. I spoke in Ukrainian to one of the guides who told me that the biggest problem now is that the men who come in to work get bored at night because there is nothing to do, so a lot of heavy drinking takes place.

Ferris Wheel 1

The entire area has a strange quiet. I’ve been thinking for months now whether or not I enjoyed the tour. It’s all a bit kitschy — not quite disaster tourism, but kind of. Part of it felt like observing a place that was abandoned by humans where nature has taken over — it could be anywhere really. But then you notice the Soviet artifacts, the pictures of Lenin lying on the floor of an abandoned elementary school:

Lenin

Other people on the tour brought their own or rented company Geiger counters and were interested in seeing the radiation levels. Here’s a good, short backgrounder on the whole incident.

Radiation Count

For me what stuck out the most was imagining what life must have been like. The town of Pripyat where most workers at the reactor lived, was considered a good place to be during the Soviet period. It had amenities, a nice swimming pool and a carnival had come to town. Scientists and engineers earned higher salaries in the USSR. And then one day the residents were all told something had happened and that they had to leave. Here’s an abandoned restaurant complex:

Restaurant

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An Indonesian Short Story: Magical Burps

Before I continue writing about my travels in Ukraine, I wanted to go back to Indonesia. I’ve been thinking about Indonesia a lot this past week because an important presidential election was just held there and because I just went “back” to Indonesia after reading and reviewing Elizabeth Pisani’s book Indonesia, Etc. The presidential election isn’t quite over because both candidates claimed victory and the official counting won’t be finished for another 10 days. It’s a pivotal moment in Indonesia and all of that got me thinking about my first days there.

So here’s a short story I wrote some time ago about sambal and masuk angin. Enjoy.

 

Magical Burps

The burp caught me off guard. It was my second day in Indonesia and I was busy worrying about lunch, learning a new language and my own foolish decision to accept a yearlong job offer in a country I knew almost nothing about. “They had a dictator named Suharto. It’s the fourth largest country in the world and the most populous Muslim nation. Bali is there. And, it’s going to be hot,” I told my friends in a self-assured tone that was masking all of my deepest fears.

On my first day in one of the hottest countries I had ever allowed my pale, prone-to-burning body to enter, I had gone to lunch with teachers and students from my language school. “Sambal,” my teacher Asti said as she handed me a plastic bowl with a red substance inside. I had watched as everyone else at the table took two, three, four or even five spoonfuls of the red sauce and dumped it on top of their plates full of rice, vegetables and meat. Two spoonfuls later, I was a total wreck. My pale skin had turned bright red, I was sweating profusely and I was desperately trying to hold back tears. “You like spicy food? You like chili pepper sauce?” Asti asked. Why, oh why, hadn’t she asked this a minute earlier?

The loud, deep burp interrupted my painful recollection of lunch. I was startled. I looked over and saw a group of middle aged motorcycle taxi drivers sitting with their tank tops rolled up over their bellies while smoking clove cigarettes that created clouds of intoxicating smelling smoke. As soon as they noticed me, the shouts of “Hello, Mrs.! Where are you going?” and “Beautiful” started. And then, one of the drivers burped again.

Motorcycle Blur

 

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