Sunday, April 3, 2011

Nothing Says Ukraine Like a Long Train Ride...

The title says it all...and I couldn't wait for Heid to get a glimpse of Ukraine first-hand.

After spending a few days in the Western Ukraine city of L'viv, I wanted to head down to Simferopol, where I taught English for a spell. From there we could make a quick trip to the Black Sea, visit my former colleague Olga and just see the place I once called home. But, first a 24-hour train ride lay ahead.

I didn't even struggle a little bit when buying the tickets. However, when we boarded the next morning I soon realized that I neglected to make one important request: to have a cabin away from the bathroom. In fact, we were right next to the loo which, as previous experience has shown me, can lead to some unpleasant odors. Luckily, however, nobody was sharing our four-bed least not immediately.
After a few hours of chilling in our cabin and playing cards, we arrived in the town of Ternopil...and with that came our cabin mates, Nikolai and Victor. The two burly middle-aged Ukrainian men entered our compartment with a couple of small bags and a big suitcase, which they proceeded to try, unsuccessfully, to fit beneath the bench in numerous different ways. Finally the hoisted the massive thing into an overhead shelf. Shortly afterward came the obligatory introductions, where I explained my rudimentary knowledge of Russian, Nikolai tried some broken English, Victor explained he would only be speaking Ukrainian (as he has great pride in his homeland) and Heidi smiled and nodded.

Shortly thereafter Nikolai, from the bench the two men shared across from us (which would later serve as a single bed that evening), explained it was time for lunch. He grabbed a fully-packed duffle bag, unzipped it, and began emptying its contents onto our tiny shared table. First came the table mats, plastic silverware, napkins, toothpicks, cups and shot glasses (despite the fact that alcohol consumption is now forbidden in train compartments. That being said, this is Ukraine and such a rule is like outlawing gay men from a Cher concert. Who is going to enforce it? Certainly not Cher's publicist!)

Next came the liquids, which included a 2-liter bottle of sparkling water, four small bottles of beer and about 1.5 liters of samogon, or Ukrainian moonshine. Although vodka is probably the national drink of this country, samogon is what puts the hair on your chest and makes a boy a man...or an alcoholic. But all those drinks are worthless without some food...

From his, seemingly, endless bag Victor produced a bounty of edibles: a dozen hard-boiled eggs, bread, deer-liver pâté, salo (cured slabs of pork fat), pickles, a couple of different pickled beet salad spreads, and even a whole chicken (fully cooked, and still warm, as if he picked it up at the train station). I knew where this was headed, and my suspicions were confirmed when Victor set four plates and began spreading the pâté on four pieces of bread. I whispered to Heidi that our pathetic store-bought sandwich would stay in its bag, as we were about to get down Ukrain-style. While she prostested and asked me to do the same in Russian I explained that such efforts were futile.

In the tongue of his motherland Victor explained that we were guests of his country, in response to Heidi's feeble attempt at a "no thank you" with the wave of her hand. "Vceo domashnie," he proudly explained to me. In turn I quickly translated to Heidi that this grub was home-made and declining such an offer would be nearly insulting. Of course, if you accept ones food, you must also take his drink.

"No, daviete," Nikolai exclaimed as he raised his shot glass, moments after his business partner topped off the four shot glasses with the clear fire-liquid in the unassuming (re-purposed) water bottle. In suit, we all raised our plastic cups and clinked them together to a toast to us ("Za Nas!"). I showed Heidi that a pickle chaser helped with the burn and she grabbed one too.

For the next hour we had a long, and hearty, meal along with some good conversation. Nikolai had worked in Canada for six years and was anxious to try his hand at rusty English, while I was more than happy to speak to them in Russian, which is a close cousin to Ukrainian. Along with the food came a few more shots, and a glass of beer. (I merely pointed out that I hadn't seen honey beer in Ukraine before and, seconds later, the bottle was opened and a plastic cup full of the brew was in my grasp!)

After the meal we talked football (aka soccer): Dynamo Kiev was playing Italy that night and the guys were bummed they wouldn't be able to watch because they were on a train to Simferopol. A little later we all started to pick up reading materials and the compartment fell silent for some time.

At dinner Heidi and I snuck off to the restaurant car, for some peace and quiet. The guys were great but too much time in such a confined space with strangers can be taxing.

A little after 9pm we were back in the car and reading, while bathroom smells seeped in through the wall and Victor sung along to Ukrainian pop music which blared from his cell phone, apparently unaware of our presence...or simply convinced that everyone else in the world longed to hear those tunes as well. Being too polite to say anything, Heidi and I sat in agony until a lady from the next compartment over came in around 11pm and politely implored him to turn the music off. Without even acknowledging her he shut it off and we were able to sleep, or at least rest.

You can certainly lay out on the bunks, but the tracks are often uneven, leading to a bumpy ride. Beyond that, after a day of consumption men are more likely to snore, and the two of them took their turns filling the void of the evening with loud inhalations. (I'm sure I participated as well.) Nonetheless, I did manage to get some sleep, albeit not the most restful of our year-long journey.

After sunrise, we all lay in our bunks, wide awake, until an hour or so before arriving in Simferopol. At that time we took turns washing up in the bathroom, folding our bedsheets and packing up our luggage. When we pulled up to the station, we both thanked the men for their hospitality, shook hands and headed our separate ways...

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