I’d taken my last overnight train in Ukraine from Odessa to Chernivtsi, and shared a cabin with a rather round and ruddy-cheeked old woman who looked to be in her seventies. She didn’t speak a word of English aside from ‘Hello’, ‘Good Day’ and ‘Thankyou’, but we managed to introduce ourselves. Her name was Irina, and it appeared that I was one of the first foreigners she’d ever met. She promptly got on her mobile phone and called her nephew, who spoke fluent English. We had a disjointed but entertaining conversation as she spoke to her nephew before handing the phone to me for him to translate. This went on for about forty-five minutes – I didn’t want to think about her phone bill! She had been visiting her sister in Odessa and was returning home – she lived in a small town a few hours before Chernivtsi. She had been a teacher for most of her life, teaching of all things history. She was thus tremendously excited when, through her ever-helpful nephew, she discovered that I’d studied history. She wanted to know all about Australia, which is fairly common – I’ve discovered that people consider Australia to be this exotic, mysterious place and so I try not to ruin this for them.
Once we’d hung up the phone, Irina pulled out the world’s biggest tub of pickled cabbage that you’ve ever seen, along with some blushing pink tomatoes and some kind of sausage. The sausage had the most rancid smell I’ve ever experienced from a non-rotting food product and I struggled not to gag. I managed to pretend that I didn’t eat meat as she was intent on sharing, and as kind as her offer was there was no way I could have managed to eat it. I had some bread rolls and cheese that I brought out and so we shared a simple meal of bread, cabbage, cheese and tomatoes – and in her case what appeared to be blood and liver sausage. Like everything in Ukraine, this was washed down with shots of vodka from a bottle that Irina pulled out of her handbag.
After this early dinner, she gave me one of the juiciest and sweetest pears I have ever eaten, and I in turn offered some chocolate biscuits. Despite being virtually unable to converse, it was a lovely evening. We played the usual game of making ourselves understood via a mixture of hand signals, arm waving, and speaking our own languages slower and repeating words until the other pretended they knew what they were saying and just smiled and nodded. It made for an entertaining trip, and Irina had to call a couple of her friends just to tell them that she was sharing a cabin with an Australian girl. At least that’s what I understood when she gave the phone to me a few times just to say hello to her friends. She woke me up in the very early hours of the morning to give me a bear hug and say goodbye.
It was freezing cold and raining when I arrived in Chernivtsi, and for almost the entire time I was there. On the occasions that the rain ceased, it was only so that I would let my guard down and put away my umbrella so that it could renew its attack. That rain was out to get me, damn it – just as I’d almost got over the cold/flu that I’d had since arriving in Kyiv.
I walked around the town, ducking into shops or cafes when the rain got too heavy or the wind too biting and fierce. This worked well for a while, but I realised I couldn’t keep it up forever and found a somewhat expensive but wonderful restaurant for a late lunch.
On my first night in Chernivtsi, the owners of the hostel I stayed at were away and their friend Terry – an ex-military American with a great sense of humour – was looking after the place. I ended up spending most of the afternoon and evening lazing around the hostel where it was warm, watching Lord of War and discussing everything from politics to renewable energy. I learned a lot about US politics, enough to make me realise that it scares me for good reason!
Terry had lit the old-fashioned gas heaters a little earlier which was an adventure in itself. I’d never seen these kind of heaters lit before and I wish I had a picture of one. Basically they are huge rectangular shaped monstrosities covered in embossed tiles that are part of the house or apartment. To light them, you open the little hatch at the front, turn on the gas and poke a rolled-up piece of lit paper towards the gas pipe. While doing this it is important to keep your face away from the hatch as upon lighting, as a big plume of flame followed by a big puff of soot bursts out, sending little black specks over everything within reach. Hopefully it stays lit and you don’t have to try again.
But those heaters work brilliantly I must admit. They heat up the room wonderfully, to the point that I had to get up and switch off the gas at about 4am the first night as I was roasting.
The next day I decided that I’d visit a couple of churches – there are a few around Chernivtsi.
The first one I went to was the Saint Dukhivskyy Orthodox Cathedral, which sits inside tended grounds with a big statue of someone whose name I’ve forgotten – or perhaps couldn’t read in the first place. It’s also pink – bright pink.
The cathedral was closed so I didn’t go inside. I was still in shock from the colour. I’m not a fan of pink in the slightest, and this was quite garish.
I decided to head to the bus station and buy a ticket for the bus to Suceava, in Romania, that I would need to get at 6.45am the following day. I took a bus there, looking for the word for ‘bus station’ in Cyrillic on the front. It looks something like this: Автостанция or Автогара, depending on where you are. I got my ticket without too much hassle – I’d found a bit of paper and written down:
чернивци – сучава 14/10/2011
As it turned out, because this was a Ukrainian rather than Russian speaking area they use I instead of И for the ‘i’ sound, but only one letter wrong wasn’t too bad and still got me the right ticket. As it was still raining, I took a tram back into town quite pleased with myself. Unfortunately when I got off the tram I realised I’d left my beret on the seat – but it was too late as the tram had taken off. Looks like it was time to find the scratchy beanie in my pack. As I walking back to the hostel to find said beanie and prevent my head being used as a wind-tunnel, the wind decided to attack my umbrella with enough ferocity to first turn it inside-out and then rip the fabric off two-thirds of the spindly little metal rods. It’s safe to say that my umbrella was thus rendered useless, and that it was time to find another. Luckily I still had my €5 raincoat on. After grabbing my beanie I headed to the other church I wanted to see.
This church was St. Nicholas’ Church, affectionately referred to by travelers at least as ‘the drunk church’ due to the fact that it’s spiraling towers make you feel a little disoriented – and the belief that the architect had probably polished off a bottle of vodka when he came up with the idea of twisting towers. I didn’t go into the church as it appeared to be locked and was guarded by a group of beggars sitting in a row with their plastic cups out. I’d already given most of my small change to a fragile and hunched over homeless woman I’d seen when walking to the pink church earlier, and had only enough money left to pay for accommodation, dinner and a tram ticket to the bus station the next morning.
The cold was punishing, so I hit up a few souvenir shops to see if there was anything interesting and found some pysanky, the painted eggs that I know my mother likes.
I headed back to the hostel in the late afternoon. The owners of the hostel, Marcus and Lyuba, had returned from London that morning and so I spent some time chatting with them. They were great fun. I was the only person staying at the hostel, and they invited me to join them and Terry for dinner that night. The pizza restaurant we visited was great, although they had no English menu. Apparently they used to have one, but one tourist ruined it by making a massive fuss out of the fact that they’d forgotten to update the prices on the English menu when they did the Ukrainian ones and so they simply got rid of it. It makes it a bit harder for everyone else who wants to be able to read the menu!
We headed back to the hostel and spent the night watching movies and drinking large amounts of vodka – thankfully mixed with orange juice rather than in ridiculously oversized shots. At about 1.30am I decided I’d better call it a night given that I had to be up early in the morning to get the bus to Romania.
And that’s how my time in Ukraine ended: with vodka, pretty much how it started.