Unfinished Business

My mother asked me to look up an old friend of hers before I left for Ukraine in September 2012. We met Kitty on that fateful first trip in November 2002, and lost touch with her not long after. Fortunately, this is an age of technology, information, and connection. One quick search and I found her in less than 5 minutes. Years had fallen prey to those bittersweet words “lost touch”, years during which I had simply never thought to look.

I sent a message to Kitty. You know the kind: Hello. Remember me? Mom sends love. I’m coming to Kyiv. Can we meet?

She was thrilled. Of course, she wanted to meet.

Yaroslav the Wise

Me with Kitty and Yaroslav the Wise, Golden Gates

One morning in Kyiv, Kitty called me, waking me out of a deep slumber. Communication was always an adventure of its own. And this time was no different. Between my broken Russian, my morning stupor, and her few words of English, we were able to arrange a meeting time and place. She took a bus down from Chernihiv and met me by the Golden Gates.

I wasn’t sure I would recognize her after 10 years. But every so often life brings you those rare, beautiful, and perfect moments. Because when I saw her, I knew it was her. I knew it was her and I was certain. She said I looked exactly the same. We talked and hugged and walked arm in arm down the street. I swore to myself the next time I saw her I would be fluent so that we could talk about everything. 

She had been my mother’s friend, true, but as my mom’s emissary and bearer of gifts, Kitty and I discovered that we shared something that gave us a common bond: love for my mother. In a way, that sort of made us sisters.

Mom had sent her a picture before they lost touch. Kitty had kept it framed so she would remember always, that awful picture where her eyes were closed. The memory of that time and place was so dear to her; it kept her going. She never thought she would hear from me or my mother again. She thought that we were lost forever.

Kitty, 17, and, my mother, Rita. This is the picture Kitty kept in a frame.

Kitty, 17, and, my mother, Rita. This is the picture Kitty kept in a frame.

And yet here we sat in an Italian/Sushi place in Kyiv, Ukraine, reunited and sending good thoughts to Mom, who was far away and probably sleeping soundly in America. Kitty said that when she received my message she cried buckets, tears just running down her face.

Kitty and Me

Kitty, 27, and me, 25. I never realized until I posted this, how much I look like my mom. Spooky!

But as often as life gives you little moments of bliss, it will also contrive to be cruel.

We rode the metro together, both headed for home. I was off to my flat, Kitty to her bus. I was promising to come back soon and bring my mother; she was begging me to do so with tears in her eyes.

Then it was my stop. Levoberezhna.

A fierce hug. A swift good-bye. And I was out of the train car. I could see her through the window. We waved as the doors closed, a sad farewell through the smudged glass.

I’ve noticed that Ukrainians generally don’t do prolonged good-byes. None of this: “No, you hang up. No, YOU hang up! No, you…” Just “see you” and gone. Sometimes it’s better to simply walk away. But I waited. And then I understood a little better the value of a swift good-bye.

When you say good-bye to someone through a train window, you can see them, you can smile, you can wave, you can cry, but it doesn’t change anything. You can’t reach them, speak to them, or hold them. You can only wait for the inevitable. And then suddenly, with a rush of wind snatching at your hair and clothes, they are gone. You blink and your loved one is vanished. And you all you can do is just stand there on the empty platform.

So I stood there, left behind, alone in a sea of people, who didn’t know and didn’t care who I was, who Kitty was, or about our story. And that’s the thing about Ukraine: no one pays you any mind, whether you’re waving a sad farewell through a train window, or crying alone on a street corner.

Goodbyes on a train are the worst.

For all I know, when the subway train took Kitty away, it might well have taken her away forever. Phone numbers change. Profiles deactivate. And long-lost loved ones are swept back into the oblivion they emerged from, as unreachable as ever before.

Sometimes I feel like I am always losing people, even as soon as I find them.

It makes me wonder, what’s the point? People come and go. They waltz in from the wings onto the stage of life, and then they dance right on through and off the other. Would it be any better, if they never danced through my life at all? Friendships that seem strong can shatter into pieces. Grudges can start with only one little misunderstanding. This flood of time can sweep someone out of arms reach in an instant, and you’ll find yourself like I did: alone at a station, knowing you’ll never see them again, but hoping. Always hoping.

What else can I do, but hope? Maybe there will come a day when I won’t be the only one looking, and I’ll be the one found.

Maybe there is no point. Maybe finding and losing people is just a part of life I need to accept. But suppose for a moment that every person who passes through our lives does so for a reason, to teach us something. What if we are given heartbreak in order to make us wise? What if we lose people in order to teach us to appreciate what we have while we have it, and then let go? What if we endure pain so that we will learn compassion? What if without these things, we would have no capacity for happiness or joy? Think of a sunny day, how much more precious that warm sunlight is after a week of cold, grey rain.

Kitty once wrote to my mother, and I feel she said it best: “Unbearable things happen in life, but you keep living — to see, to hear, to understand — and one day, life turns around and greets you again with a smile.”

At the end of the day, lost or found, I am one heartbreak closer to that smile.

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Kyiv Moods

Kyiv has many faces and many moods, always changing. Not all of them are pleasant, but all of them are unforgettable.

A few of my favorite moods of Kyiv:

No More Lies – Weekly Writing Challenge: Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

wpid-IMAG0661_BURST002.jpgI remember this day. I was sicker than a dog, some Ukrainian sinus infection that I refused to succumb to. I should have stayed in bed, but I wouldn’t. I continued to act healthy until I just couldn’t fake it anymore. Fever. Cough. Sinus pressure. I felt terrible. I was miserable.

But this was the day my neighbor’s daughter, Anya, brought out her books to show me how she could read English while I was waiting on my laundry. This was the day we played with clay putty, something I used to do with my grandma, something to me incredibly nostalgic. See that bracelet on my hand? She wanted to give me that, a prize she had won in class. She wouldn’t take no for an answer. I wore it for the rest of the trip, never stopping to think that it might look silly. I counted it precious. It was a comfort, a reminder of the day I learned the truth.

And all it took to rattle my nice little American world was a little girl in a cramped Ukrainian apartment who wanted to show me her English.

This was the day I finally understood that I wanted to make a difference, that I could make a difference, even if it was just teaching a little girl one word of English in a far-away country.

I suddenly remembered a day ten long years ago, standing outside my house at fifteen, breathing deeply of the wind and wondering where it had been, where it was going, and was that some kind of Eastern spice I smelled in the air? I was dying to go and find out. That girl was all fear and trepidation, unsure, and insecure. That fifteen-year-old girl had no idea of where she would be ten years later, that one day she would just up and go away for a month all on her own. Sometimes I remember the girl I was and smile, because I owe it to who I used to be to be who I am now.

I owe it to myself to live my dreams.

We owe it to the young versions of ourselves to fulfill their dreams — those dreams we used to cherish.

People have continually picked this one picture out of my hundreds and commented on how I’m “glowing” or “look really happy”. Maybe I had a fever. Maybe it was just because I was sick. Maybe it’s sweat. But the one comment I can’t argue with, the one that gets me every time, is: “You don’t look like that over here.”

Deep down inside, I know they are right.

There’s only been a handful of times in my life that I can remember being really truly as happy as I was in that picture, when I was relaxed, didn’t care about how I looked, or if I was pretty, or if my tummy pudge was showing. Only six brief moments when I was convinced that life was going to be good and worth living. This was one of those moments, illness notwithstanding.

Because this was the day I realized that my life was a joke. I hadn’t been doing anything worthwhile or helping anyone or making anything better. I was treading water, just taking up space and wasting time playing games on people and computers. I hadn’t really been living the life I dreamed of in the secret attic of my mind, and I had spent a great amount of time and effort trying to convince myself otherwise. I claimed to want a career, a house, and a family. But did I? Had I only been pretending after all?

The truth?

I was living a lie.

This was the day I stopped lying.

Hedgehog in the Fog – Memories of a Lost Childhood

Hedgehog in the Fog is a short animated film from the 70s, written by Sergei Kozlov. There is also a book by the same name.

From what I gather, the hedgehog and the bear cub drink tea, count stars, watch sunsets, and generally muse over autumn and the beauty of life. Even though they are very different, they are the best of friends whether they understand each other or not. I want to say it is the most adorable thing I have ever seen, but that would not be quite accurate. “Entrancing” is more like it.

When I first saw the film, I felt as if I had found a missing piece of my childhood. It was fascinating, with an uncanny hint of the familiar. Perhaps I was struggling to recover memories from a parallel me in a parallel universe. Or maybe I enjoy my Sci-Fi a little too much.

At any rate, I found myself trying to imagine that other world in my mind, 5,000 miles away and 8 hours ahead, a world where little Eastern European kids grew up on these stories while I was reared on Gumbi and Bambi. I tried to picture how my life might have been if I had been born “over there”, instead of “over here”. It was a curious and generally futile exercise, but I still tried.

Then I tackled the book. It was right up my alley, all fog,  mountains, sunsets, and twilight. About sitting in the gloaming and watching night fall. I love all these things. But autumn has always made me sad for some reason I can’t explain. In these stories, it always seems to be autumn.

Sometimes, it leaves me wishing for friendships like that. Maybe I have them, but at times my friends all seem so far away. We all live in different states or different countries. Maybe in fact it is the distance that brings us close, all the possibilities of the times we could have spent together, if situations were not as they are. Maybe I already have a friend like that, but I’m sitting too close and I can’t see it. Perhaps I won’t really appreciate it until it’s gone.

What makes for sweet and charming tales on paper (or e-book) might not be so in practical everyday life. I have to remind myself of this.

All that being said, I connect to this story in a way that my adult mind does not understand. But the little girl inside me, the one that treasured her stuffed teddy-bear and stuffed hedgehog, remembers. And she is devouring these stories and animated short films with child-like voraciousness.

Personal musings aside, Hedgehog in the Fog (Yozhik v Tumane) is really cute. It’s short, only about 10 minutes long. The above video even has English subtitles. Oh, I don’t expect anyone to have the same emotional reaction to it as I do. But it really is a gem of a movie. It even won awards! No excuses now. Go. Watch. Enjoy!

I saw lots of little hedgehogs in Kyiv, but I was never fast enough to snap a good picture.

I saw lots of little hedgehogs in Kyiv, but I was never fast enough to snap a good picture.

Impressions from Babi Yar

Babi Yar

Babi Yar

“What shall we do today, Karina?”

“Sarah, today, I will show you Babi Yar!”

Me and Karina, normal girls at Babi Yar

Me and Karina, normal girls at Babi Yar

I didn’t have conversations like this in America. Of course, we didn’t have anything of Babi Yar’s magnitude in my little American town either, just a couple of museums and Trail of Tears plaques that no one knows about.

Karina and I sat on the steps of Babi Yar, ate our lunch, and shared our secrets, just a couple of “regular girls” with regular girl problems. But no hardship of our lives could compare to the tragedies that occurred here. By comparison, I felt we were very small and not as important as we liked to think. I rather liked feeling unimportant and being reminded that after all my life is not so bad.

Babi Yar, front view

Babi Yar, front view

This was one of the times in Kyiv that never left me, one of the small things that subtly and quietly crept under my skin. I found myself there twice, once with Karina and again to arrange transportation to the wedding (more on that later). Both times I got the feeling that by celebrating life, we honored the dead. By living our normal lives and everyday triumphs and woes, we were showing the departed that life does indeed go on, that dark nights do not always last, that we who remain still carry on.

Perhaps it’s a silly notion, that they find peace when we live the lives they could not, that it helps complete some kind of cosmic unfinished business. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking.

But it stayed with me, the conviction that I owe it to them to remember and then live a full and happy life. As much as is within my power.

Read more history here.

See more pictures here.

The Park Bench

DSC00084

The Bench

I never really stopped to think about what actually makes an adventure an ADVENTURE. Not until I found myself in a flat full of strangers trying to explain in broken Russian and English how I came to be stranded at the airport. When, in such situations, someone tells you in Russian, “Oh, you had an adventure!” you never really forget it. Especially when the strangers end up being good friends that you love and miss.

It was the same with that night I almost spent on a park bench. At the time I didn’t really think, “Oh, what a nice adventure!” I was thinking, “It’s 3 a.m. I don’t care who takes me home or if I’m even kidnapped, as long as they give me a bed to sleep on!” Of course, I probably would have cared immensely the next morning.

Anyway.

It was a strange sequence of events.

I was going home one evening after visiting with some friends.

I said, “Just tell me the bus number. I’ll ask where to get off. Seriously! I’ll be fine!”

They would have none of it. “We don’t want you to get lost!”

A friend of mine offered to come get me and take me home so that I wouldn’t get lost in the great, giant, unfamiliar city of Kyiv.

HE got lost.

I was not happy.

“How are you lost? You live here!”

He was rather embarrassed, which is why he shall remain nameless. (By the way, friend, if you ever read this, forgive me. It was too good of a story not to tell.)

It took forever to even get him to admit that he was lost. Apparently Ukrainian men don’t like to stop and ask for directions either.

It was even longer before someone remembered that some phones have this crazy thing called GPS…

But it was already 11 p.m. or so and we still ended up having to walk and walk all the way because the buses were gone by this time. We saw the last bus pass us on the road. I promptly burst out with, “Oh! That reminds me of a song!” Something about walking all night until the morning (videli noch, gulyali vsyu noch do utra), but I was not feeling nearly as bright and chipper as the song pretends to be.

I like the Zdob si Zdub version.

But the original is by Viktor Tsoy. (Once watched, it can never be unseen.)

Or copy and paste this into youtube: видели ночь гуляли всю ночь до утра

Sometime around 1 a.m. I finally got back to the apartment I called “home”. I knew there would be a couple of extra people staying the night there. What I didn’t expect was a person in my bed. Apparently, the girls had taken over this room. Fortunately, I figured that out before I crawled in with whoever was in my bed. That would have been awkward.

As I rolled a mattress out on the floor (I just really wanted to fall into something bed-like and sleep), the person in my bed woke, saw me, and suddenly stood up clutching the covers to him.

Wait.

Him?

HIM?!?!

I had assumed it was a girl. And here I found myself in the dark with what appeared to be a naked man who had cozily taken up residence in my bed. The sight could not be unseen (kind of like the Viktor Tsoy music video).

In such situations there is a perfectly logical course of action to take:

  1. Panic.
  2. Babble. Some suggested babblings are, “I’m so sorry,” or “Izvinitye”, but definitely forget all your language skills immediately, both native and learned. And most importantly…
  3. Run.

I panicked.

I babbled.

I ran.

Straight outside to the bench in front of the building.

3 a.m. found me texting my friend, the very same whose lack of direction got me into this mess and left me on a bench in Kyiv in the wee hours of the night while all the drunk people walked by and peed into bushes.

“He-e-e-y, buddy. So I have nowhere to sleep.”

“Should I come get you?”

“Yes. Please. Now.”

I wondered as I sat there on that lonely bench, what the hell I had been thinking coming to Kyiv. The city obviously didn’t want me there, had tried to leave me at the airport, eat me in bus doors, and now here I was all but homeless. And that was when I saw the moon rise over the roofs. Sitting there debating whether I should just stretch out on the bench (it wasn’t that far off until dawn), humming “Up on the Roof”, I kept reminding myself that I should be miserable. But all the same deep down, I never doubted that I would come through it okay. My spirit soared right up there with the moon, and it didn’t matter if I was exhausted or sleeping on a bench. I was in Kyiv and making memories. I was happy.

Don’t misunderstand me. I was miserable. But it was a happy misery.

Someone who was walking by (and peeing into bushes) stopped and asked, “Vsyo normal’no?” Everything okay?

He might have been about my age, maybe even cute. But it was dark and I was on a mood swing, somewhere between “the universe hates me” and “Kyiv is trying to kill me”. I figured he was probably drunk. I told him, “Spasibo, vsyo normal’no. Everything’s okay, thanks,” while secretly wondering if he was going home to a nice comfy place to sleep, and feeling very envious about it at that.

No sooner did Prince Charming the Inebriated wander off, than my friend showed up to rescue me, for what would not be the last time.

“Listen,” my friend warned me, “I didn’t clean.”

“I don’t care what your place looks like. I’m going to sleep. Not look.”

“And my father might walk out in his underwear.”

I groaned. “Fantastic.”

I fell into bed at last. Well, a fold-out couch, actually. And I was nearly purred to death by a very old cat. She must have decided I needed some “good lovin’”, and showed it by sneaking up and meow-ing affectionately in my face every time I dosed off. I wouldn’t have minded. I like cats. But she had an old, deaf, cat “meow”; that is, loud, scratchy, and, generally, startling. I think she liked to see how high she could make me jump. And Pops did walk out in his underwear. But I slept in a nice comfy bed, even if catching forty winks was more like playing a losing game of tag.

And that is how I almost spent the night on a bench in Kyiv, and learned the true meaning of adventure.

Keep Calm and Drink Coffee

Some of you know of my coffee addiction. Back in America, I developed this habit of going and chilling at my favorite coffee shop whenever I felt too busy or overwhelmed. I’m one of the regulars; that is, they know me by drink, if not by name.

Here in Ukraine, they have these little vans with espresso machines in the back and they park them literally on every street corner. It’s a coffee addict’s heaven! Continue reading