American Toilets, Ukrainian Style

There are three essential items one should always carry in Ukraine: hand sanitizer, wipes, and toilet paper.

Public restrooms in Ukraine are my worst nightmare. Okay, maybe not my worst, but they are pretty close.

Now I’m pretty tough. I’ve been to Ukraine enough to know the ropes of public restrooms. I’m not bothered at all by the ones in the floor where you have to squat. Or the ones that stink to high heaven as if the sewers have been backed up for twenty years. Or the ones that are pretty much just a hole in a concrete slab in the middle of the countryside. Those are all fine. The really scary toilets are the ones just like ours in America. I quickly learned that people do not understand how to use these toilets. My best guess is that some Ukrainians think it is unsanitary to actually sit on the toilet seat. So what do they do? Apparently they hop up and squat.

Walking into a bathroom stall in a super fancy McDonald’s after holding on desperately for hours, only to find shoe prints on the bowl is approximately horrific.

But when you have to go… What can you do? Obviously, everyone else is doing it, and my bum is definitely not going anywhere near that nasty toilet seat. (May I reiterate at this point: wipes, paper, sanitizer!)

But once, after doing as they do in Ukraine and thinking myself very Ukrainian for it, I got caught. The next lady in line, an older Ukrainian woman, saw the seat after I exited the stall and bawled me out right there in the restroom. My Russian was not that great at the time, but I understood enough to know she was yelling something to the effect of “don’t you people know you’re supposed to put your bottom on the seat and not your feet?” The repeated smacking of her bum and thigh might have been a clue also. I’m thankful she was smacking her own, and not mine.

She was very not happy.

And the lady cleaning the sink kept right on scrubbing like it happened all the time.

Well, it would have been pointless to try to explain that at least five other people had squatted on that seat before me. (This is why you always carry wipes with you. And sanitizer. And toilet paper.)

So when an angry Ukrainian zhenschina shoves a wad of paper towels at you, what do you do? Why, you take the wad of towels and you clean the seat for her. And then you write about it.

Because you have not fully experienced Kyiv, Ukraine until you have been yelled at by a Ukrainian woman and cleaned a Ukrainian toilet.

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.

This is the Fun Part

“How do you tell if a Ukrainian boy likes you? I don’t understand the boys here at all,” I whined to one of my roommates, Anna.

I was about three weeks into my trip, and stressing about relationships, obviously, or the lack of them. America has labored unceasingly to teach me that if you are over 25, single, and childless, there is something wrong with you. Hence I was begging Anna to explain how these things work in Ukraine, as they seemed incomprehensible and I was convinced that Ukrainian guys were not interested in me at all.

Looking back, I don’t know why I wasted brain power on the thought. I didn’t really want a boyfriend, maybe only to feel popular.

Anna gave me a piece of advice that has proved to be one of the most important things anyone has ever said to me.

“Just relax,” she said sagely. “Besides, maybe it was just the magic of the night, a foreign language, being in a different country. You don’t know. Time will tell. If something is going to happen, it will happen. So you don’t need to worry. Just relax and enjoy it. If you’re falling in love, this is the fun part.”

I kept forgetting that she was a few years younger than me. I can still hear her voice like an echo:

If you’re falling in love, this is the fun part.

I didn’t want to spend my time in Ukraine worrying over boys and relationships. I wanted to be happy, fancy-free, to see and do everything, speak Russian, and generally be on holiday and enjoy myself.

She was right after all. I had been beguiled by the night, a pair of pretty eyes, and the music of a beautiful language. Somewhere along the way, without even knowing, I fell in love.

I realized it walking down Tychyny street one day. I was so excited about discovering new words and understanding, and how incredible it was to be in a foreign country with all the language skills of a two-year-old. I almost missed it. I was pondering the process of breaking through the language barrier, chipping away at it little by little, word by word, when suddenly, I knew that I would have no do-overs. I would never pass this way again. Once I broke through the language barrier, I couldn’t go back and do it over again. So right there on a little sidewalk in the left bank in the big city of Kyiv, Ukraine, I made up my mind to enjoy the process as much as I possibly could, while I tried to conquer the city and the Ukrainian/Russian language. Anna’s words came back to me with a crash and the equivalent force of a falling grand piano: “This is the fun part.”

It stopped me dead in my tracks, stunned.

Then I knew. I was in love! I was in love the way you love someone you can’t stand. You fight. You argue. You quarrel. They make you angry. They make you crazy. They make you mad. Until one day you wake up and you realize how angry crazy madly you love them, no matter how bad it gets. And the rest is history, or so they say.

Of course, Anna and I had been talking about a boy. And she had been absolutely right. Only, it wasn’t a boy I fell in love with. It was Ukraine, Kyiv, that place and time. I fell in love with life and the unhindered living of it.

I didn’t have to worry about how to make that “special someone” like me, or if that “special someone” was the “right special someone”. Suddenly, it just didn’t matter. I saw everything clearly. For once, it was simple.

Love is not a real-life game of Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey, though a lot of people treat it that way. To pin all of my hopes for happiness on someone else, or hang my dreams on their fragile wings, and then try to make them feel the same, is an unfair exercise in futility and a dangerous one.

It seems to me that people generally believe they must have a significant other in their lives to be happy. But I protest. Hearts are far too precious treasures to leave at just anyone’s mercy. Why had I ever thought I would find happiness by doing just that?

I don’t mean that I stopped wanting someone special in my life; I just stopped thinking that I had to have someone.

I wrote a besotted love letter in my journal, one stormy night not long after that conversation with Anna:

“I got off my bus early and walked home. I like to do this sometimes, because it helps me collect my thoughts. Or if I’m not quite ready to see a flat full of people. But this time, I got off because it was raining gently, I thought, and as I walked it got more and more, until I was laughing up at the Kyiv night sky, for sheer joy, because I realized that now I’ve seen Kyiv in so many moods, not all maybe, but I love her in all of them.

“Kyiv to me is like a woman or a person. You know, the ones you meet [with whom] at first you don’t get along. You fight, you humph, you disagree, you torment. And then one day you wake up and realize how crazy madly you are in love with them and how boring your life would be without them. Kyiv is maybe not the woman you would marry and raise kids with, but she’s the one you judge all other women by, the one you never forget. Kyiv is that affair to remember, the one you never quite get over. I laughed at the rain, because I’ve seen Kyiv sleepy, quiet and still, drunk, hungover, chilly, and warm, depressed, and wild, hurried, and bored, angry, and tender. I laughed because if by some chance this is the only time I ever spend with Kyiv again, I wanted to let her know that I enjoy every minute. That I love Kyiv in all her moods.

“Kyiv is that rare person you meet once in lifetime that you love so much that it doesn’t matter if they love you back. It’s as though after 3 weeks in Kyiv, breathing her air, eating her food, meeting her people, and drinking her beer, has spread Ukraine throughout my system, my cells, my blood. She’s under my skin and in my heart. It’s as though we finally stopped fighting. Maybe we can at least be friends. I can not tell you in any language how alive I felt on this night, sharing Ukraine with people, and walking, feeling her flow all around and through me.

“I can’t imagine, when I write such things with such emotion, admiration, and tenderness, what it will be [like] to go back [to America].

“Ukraine is not for the faint of heart, but she’s worth it. We are alike, she and I.

“Someday I hope someone loves me the way I love Kyiv, Ukraine.”

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.