Ukraine: Lviv / April 2011

Note: This post was written on December 2017!

I was sitting on a train, which started to move slowly and gently. Same train that usually took me to the school in the nearby city, was now taking me to a new, unknown country.

Next to me was a small backpack and a bag with some food. I was very ill prepared for the trip. I actually didn’t plan it. At least not in such form. I just drove to the railway, and asked what’s the earliest possible time to go. I didn’t said anything to anyone, and that’s not something I’m proud of as it lead to some confusion, worries and awkwardness.

In years prior to the trip, I was dealing with a depression and anxieties, which at worst, crippled me so much, that going to a nearby shop was a big struggle. Perhaps just a year prior, I’d found it unimaginable that I could ever sit on a train, and travel anywhere, let alone to a county as obscure and raw as Ukraine.

Now everything was different though, in the year building up to this event many things happened, which made me ready to finally face and conquer my fears.

As train was gaining speed I was almost cheering: faster, further away! Into the unknown! It seemed like my life would have branched into a new reality in which old believes and fears had no power anymore.

I arrived to the Budapest in the afternoon, I had to switch railroad station, something I was completely unaware of due to my hasty departure. There were two girls, somehow confused yet a bit more aware than me, who explained that we’re at Budapest-Deli and must come to Keleti, which is on the other side of the Danube river, and I had about half of the hour. I run, grabbed the first taxi, paid the requested price, and arrived to Keleti with about 10 minutes spare time. I run again pushing through people, some of which were also in a rush, and others who were plotting and smoking in shady corners, screaming after me in Hungarian language. I arrived to the platform last minute, and asked a girl dressed in a Russian uniforms whether the train she was standing next to indeed goes to Ukraine. “Да, паспорт!”, she replied and grabbed my passport, then read out loud: “Slovenia!” and then, half proclaimed half asked: “EU?”, “да”.

I hopped on to the train and soon it started to move. For a while I could observe Hungarian landscapes, cities and villages, but soon there was only my own reflection I could see, as the outside got filled with a thick darkness. There were occasional lights of villages flickering in the distance and from time to time, another train passed by.

I was sharing coupé with two fellas of my age. One was from Switzerland and another from Spain (or possibly Portugal). I had chance to chat with Swiss for a while, he told me about his job and the fact that Switzerland can be a bit boring and he’ll enjoy the variety Ukraine has to offer. They were traveling as a part of a bigger group and were mostly absent. I was reading, until my fellow passenger returned and we agreed it’s time to sleep.

We didn’t get much of sleep though, as at around midnight our lovely stewardess knocked on the door and explained something in Russian. We correctly assumed we arrived to the border.

Two man in a military uniform with a machine gun and a big dog entered, right next to them was rather unpleasant young woman, who looked like a higher ranked officer. We gave our passports. They also wanted to checked luggage. They were all very impatient, excluding the dog, who somehow had the most patience of them all. Spanish fellow had his briefcase positioned somewhere on the upper bunk, and accidentally dropped it on a Swiss’ head. It would be somehow funny if the whole situation wouldn’t have been so awkward. In either case, border control had enough, I think I remember seeing how woman waved her hand in despair and they moved on, with our passports.

We though the whole ordeal would not take too long, but as half of the hour passed we became rather impatient. The train was not moving we were sitting in the middle of nowhere, without passports or any information on what’s going on. Finally we decided to send Swiss guy out to inquire with stewardess; he came back clueless, after some consultation and him repeating exactly what she said, we agreed that the whole thing will take about two hours. I had no idea how lucky I actually was that I took sleeping wagon, as an alternative would be much more inconvenient. After two hours a military man indeed came back with our passports, he looked directly at me and asked: “Марко, куда ты идешь?” — Huh? It was 2h in the morning I was in my underwear, trying to figure it out what he wants. Finally after some moments, and him repeating the question, it dawned on me he’s inquiring about my destination. “Ah, Львов,” I answered. He nodded and then, I think, told me the time at which I’ll arrive to my destination. With that, he said “до свидания”, and the train finally started to move.

Next morning I woke up rather dizzy. Air in our small cabin was very bad so I had to half drag myself out, to the corridor. I opened the window and breath fresh morning air. Outside I saw a curvy, uninhabited, grassy landscape with some bushes, small stream and a road further away. There were patches of thick fog lazily wrapping around bushes and trees. Morning dew could still be sensed on grass. The sky was gloomy and gray. There was a police car driving on the road with sirens on. I’m not quite sure why, but everything seemed surreal. Soon I’ve noticed a village. Mostly small wooden houses with dirt paths connecting them. From paths many small streams were running to a bigger stream near the railroad. Among houses on a small hill, a church with a golden roof was standing, it looked very much out of place. Like a golden coin among pebbles. Next to the church on the hill was a graveyard, with many wooden crosses; one grave had a big pile of fresh earth poured on top.

I started to feel strange. Desperation, fear and doubt started to overwhelm me. It looked like something out of a movie. I had enough, I turned around with question on my mind, — what am I doing here? Were my fears and my inner jail not more comforting than this? And despite not being particularity religious I’ve asked God what’s this all about, and for an unknown reason I’ve grabbed my cellphone, and where would usually be the cellular network name, it was now written: life :). And I understood, and all was well.

"life :)" is an Ukrainian mobile network operator.

Ukraine was indeed scary, foreign and raw, yet mysterious, appealing, almost like something out of a long forgotten past. It was like I’d come back to a place which existed so far only as a notion somewhere deep inside of me, and was now awaken and was swallowing me and it was brutal and scary and yet so utterly irresistible and seducing. I could not turn my eyes away from it anymore, I wanted to fill myself up with landscapes and villages and old rusty factories and churches and graveyards and people who were just waking up and were on their way to the school and work, and it was all like remembering a deep mysterious dream, where each small piece I saw brought back more and got assembled into something familiar.

As I’ve arrived to Lviv nothing but pure excitement was left in me. Though the city was big contrast with villages through which we traveled, it still had that unexplainable atmosphere.

People were in a hurry to job, Babushkas were boarding old Soviet red bus. Young girl passed by in a hurry to catch a train. Behind me was magnificent, massive railway station. In the city spring was awakening.

We meet and greet with Inna, and hop on a bus, and from here on it’s hard to pull everything apart. Because it’s all a tapestry of emotions and events which of order I dare not try to reassemble.

Eating wonderful baked potato one evening, and great pasta one morning in the restaurant to which we returned next (and each) time when in Lviv, and tasting Borscht for the very first time in a wonderfully baroque style furnished place.

Borscht

Walking around the city seeing young girl with pamphlets for a pharmacy, and an old бабушка with home made lollipops, who agreed being photographed after I’ve promised I’ll buy a lollipop.

Babuska

And many Лада cars.

Lada

And so many wonderful people and buildings and monuments. And there were some painful and challenging happenings and some magnificent and revealing. And there was absolute power and strength and fearlessness and, indeed, life.

I was planing to return with train, but did not feel like taking such a trip back so I took plain. I never flown before, it was another of my anxieties. Another challenge, and a chance to overcome it. As I sat on plain I was laughing about my silly worries and frustrations. Stewardess brought wine and a sandwich and I ate and drink. And all was good.

I had to switch in Munich, and my final destination was Zagreb. From Zagreb airport I took bus to the railway and then train to home. I’ve came across some real nice people in Zagreb including a Jehovah witness who gave me some directions in perfect Slovene language.

I was floating in special state for quite some time after this trip. It was one of the most wonderful springs of my life and that year had many more adventures prepared for me.

This trip was above all about conquering my fears. Nothing I could write or tell about it, would reflect the experience. This was like taking a big heavy hammer and smash every single door and wall of my inner jail of anxieties. For me personally, it was almost an archetypal hero journey, and precisely because of that, it was filled with so much purpose. What followed, indeed was a rebirth.

I would like to add one final note, it will be rather cryptic; just for an inconceivable reason; who knows who’s reading; here it goes: I’ve got my punishment. I should not have knowingly participated in anything that would hurt anyone. It just happened. I’m sorry.