I used to tell people that I would drop everything and leave for Ukraine tomorrow if I could. Most people think I’m exaggerating. Or they just look at me funny, like what I said was completely outrageous or I sprouted alien ears. For almost 7 years I’ve hardly said a word about my previous experiences in Ukraine. So now I’m not really sure what to say. I’m a little shy about it. It’s as if it happened in a former life, so far removed from my present one. How do I express 10 years of sentiment and history in 2 sentences?
1) I have unfinished business.
2) Her name is Anzhelika.
10 years ago, in 2002, I made my first trip to Ukraine. Ukraine in November was all bitter cold, but it wasn’t as frigid as it could be. There was some snow on the ground, I think, but it was dirty snow, black and ugly from the abuse of roads and traffic. The buildings seemed to be endless concrete, and I couldn’t tell one from another. Gray sky and drizzle — it was altogether dreary.
My mother and I traveled with a group on a 10 day mission trip, to Chernigov, 87 miles north of Kiev (according to Google maps). There was no heat in the buildings, but so many people would pack in for the seminars that it would eventually get too hot. I mainly occupied myself with learning Russian and making friends. I was 15.
I had one friend in particular named Anzhelika. She didn’t speak any English and my Russian was very poor. We used a dictionary to look up important words. The rest was a grand game of charades. Interpreters were with us, of course, and always ready and willing to help, but generally they were occupied with the adults and had very little extra time for kids. But that didn’t stop us. The real adventure is communicating without words. Speaking through interpreters — where’s the fun in that? Kids have a common language in their hearts that knows no bounds.
Anzhelika, 11, wearing the scarf, and Sarah, 15
I don’t remember what we talked about. I don’t remember what we tried to say. But I loved her to pieces, and it was mutual. We were inseparable. She gave me the scarf she always wore. She skipped school and showed up at my hotel room early the last morning in Chernigov to tell me good-bye. She wanted to come home with me. I’ll never forget that moment: I looked to my mom for answers, hoping she would know a way that I could bring my little sister home with me.
Of course, there wasn’t one. But try telling 15 and 11 year old kids that.
I was inconsolable the entire drive back to Kiev. Oh, I wasn’t wailing hysterically or anything like that, but I couldn’t stop the slow drip leaking out my eyes. One of the ladies in the group “rebuked” me, saying I shouldn’t get close to the “natives”, because you connect and then never see them again, and this is the result. I know this because, my mother told me about it later. Apparently, I wasn’t listening at the time. I was a little broken up about leaving Anzhelika.
I dragged about our last bit of time in Kiev, haggard, emotionally drained. The last morning in Kiev, I was extremely melancholy. The trip was over. We were leaving. I wanted to stay so very badly. Here I had found family, a place of belonging. Go home? I was home. Leaving hurt.
However, during the night, there was one final gift to ease the parting. It snowed on Kiev. It was beautiful. I sat by the hotel window with my hot tea, etching the view on my memory, in case this was good-bye forever.
Farewell Kiev in Snow
In my mind’s eye, I can still see the view to this day.
I kept in touch with Anzhelika. It was harder in those days. Internet translators didn’t exist. I deciphered her letters with a bulky Russian-English dictionary and a Russian grammar. It took hours, but I never noticed. Sometimes I could find a friend of a friend or a Russian language student from the university to help me read them. Every word was precious. She wrote that she loved me like a sister and I would always answer that I felt the same.
I wrote her as soon as I knew I was coming back in February. She found out from the local pastor when and where we were flying in, and my now 12-year-old little sister hopped on a train by herself and surprised us at the airport.
The adults panicked. Anzhelika and I didn’t care. We were together. The adults, however, feared an international incident if anything should happen to her, so they put her on a train back home. Again, it was a miserable parting. They made me write her a letter telling her not to do something like that again. It was as I feared it would be; I didn’t hear from her after that. I had hoped she would understand that the words didn’t come from me, but maybe it hurt her too much.
Over time, I lost touch with people. I thought I would never go back to Ukraine, the only place on earth where I considered myself to be truly at home. I had no means to go back; I believed I had no reason to go back. I became increasingly depressed and restless. I was moody and unpredictable, prone to anxiety attacks.
I still had the scarf she gave me and all her gifts and letters. I would wonder about her, if she was alright, if she was happy. I thought I would never know.
But then, I heard from Anzhelika again when I was 21. She wrote me at my old address, the only one she had. By a strange series of events, the letter got to me. I hadn’t studied Russian in years, but again I did my best with the dictionary and grammar. At that time I didn’t even have internet. She said she was doing well, she was in church, and told me some things about her family. We exchanged a couple of letters and I sent her some stuff, including a nice fat red cardinal, which has its own story. But we soon lost touch again. It was my fault this time. I meant to write to her, but I lost her address while moving to another city, and I couldn’t find it again. My bleak outlook continued. I remember these 7 years from 18 to 25 as my wilderness, my journey through the desert.
Until January of this year, 2012, when the sand abruptly ended. I was surfing the internet and ran across a European social network similar to Facebook. On a whim, I typed in her name and found her profile. I knew her face immediately, even though the last time I saw her she was 12 and now she is 21. I couldn’t believe it, but I knew it was her. I made a profile. I sent her a message. It was the day after her birthday, January, 18, 2012. Happy Birthday, Anzhelika! С днем рождения, милая!
I started planning my trip to Ukraine soon after. The next day, actually.
And I discovered something I hadn’t known before. I still had friends in Ukraine. I began to reconnect with them one after the other, and I came to realize that most of my friends had never been lost to me at all.
Anzhelika is planning to meet me at the airport when I arrive. And I don’t care if the moment is magical, stupendous, momentous, or whatever. I care that for the first time in 10 years, I will see my girl again. And for the first time ever, I will be able to talk with her. I’m a little nervous. But she still writes me that I am like a sister to her, and it seems the bond we had 10 years ago, hasn’t changed a bit.
I still love her like my own sister. And if you asked me, I would still answer, “I would leave tomorrow if I could. I’d leave in the next 5 minutes, packed or not. I’m ready.”
Suddenly, I decided to go to Ukraine? No, I’ve been dreaming of this for years.
Thank you for reading! Like or comment to let me know you’re thinking about me while I’m overseas!