Tuesday, January 14, 2014
Sunday, November 17, 2013
The bus to Novoarkhanhelsk from Uman was 40 minutes late. Most everyone came inside the station, where it was warm. There were dour faces behind the ticket windows, glaring lights, a couple in the corner, their limbs entwined. I was across from a woman with a delicate jawline and slightly crossed-eyes and I could think of nothing but her going down on me.
I had only slept a few hours the previous night and felt strange. I could feel my pulse. My eyes buzzed around the woman like a restless fly.
Someone mumbled something, and everyone rushed out the doors. I walked behind the woman. Her leather jacket clung tight to her torso and I wanted to ask her if she'd like help with her suitcase but I was too much of a coward.
The bus was waiting in the lot. There was a big crack on the left side of the windshield. The bus was already crammed with people and their was a crowd collected near the open door. The driver came out and started moving people's bags into the hold. He had an ironic smile that suggested his day had been long and absurd.
The woman in the leather jacket showed her receipt, climbed the steps, and vanished in the mass of people at the back of the bus. I stood with the crowd outside- I didn't have a ticket. I never buy tickets at the desk, I just pay the driver when I get on.
The driver got in his seat and we all filed in- I was one of the last. Everyone was standing, pressed up against eachother. I was pushed near the driver with a middle-aged woman. They were talking. I couldn't tell if they knew eachother, or if the driver just had a very familiar way of speaking.
It was very dark on the bus and it was hard to move my arms, but I managed to fish out the twenty hreven for the fare. Another passenger and I pushed our bills toward the driver, but he just smiled and waved our hands away. “It's dark. I don't even know that you are on this bus.”
We drove. I liked the quiet rumble of the driver's voice. It put me at ease to listen to it. I would understand snatches, but mostly it was sound. There was a bobble-head dog on the dashboard- its motion was calm and steady. These are bumpy roads, but the driver took them smooth.
I had my back to the door. All the passengers were just lumps and shadows until some light from outside would illuminate a piece of a face. I searched for the leather jacket woman but could not find her.
The driver's hand hung out the window with a cigarette. He just wore a thin shirt and kept the heat very high. I was hot inside my coat and sweater, but it was not unpleasant, with the soft tones of the voices and the people all quiet and close together. The glimpses of faces I saw seemed calm, unconcerned about what time they would get home. There were even some sleepy smiles. It was the kind of quiet that happens when you are tired with someone you love.
The woman asked the driver if she could set her purse up on the dashboard. The driver turned with a grin and said, of course not- the dashboard is for the dog. The woman shook her head, let out a long smoky sigh, and put her purse somewhere else. The dog bobbled away, unmolested, until the end of the route.
This is Liuba. She has big glasses and a tired, but kind face. She sits in this nook in the school's main hall, selling boulytchky, sweet buns, from morning til noon. They are delicious, and for me, an essential morning ritual. As I sink my teeth into the soft white interior, I feel myself gaining strength for the coming battle against the seventh grade.
You can get your boulytchky filled with apple jam, cinnamon, or poppy seeds. I used to favor cinnamon, but over the past few months have switched to poppy seeds “mak” - a scrumptious dusting of sweet black grains.
I love the way the order rolls of the tongue, “Odyn boulytchky, z makom.”
“Zmakom?” Liuba inquires.
“Zmakom,” I affirm.
Sometimes you can see some kid standing in front of the table, his face scrunched up in pathetic supplication. He doesn't have the two hrevens today, but he'll bring it tomorrow- he promises. But he already owes two hrevens and fifty kopecks, Liuba reminds him. No, no, he already paid that- yesterday, remember? Liuba shakes her head. Lies.
Every school I have visited in Ukraine has a boulytchky lady. Other government institutions also employ one, patiently sitting at a table with a cardboard box, day after day.
I talked to some of my school's workmen about boulytchky and they said that today's boulytchky can't compare with those from the Soviet Union days. There used to be a big centralized factory in my area, that manufactured bread and buns for a large part of the country. These factories had good ingredients, equipment, and know-how, and the result was very high quality product. Ivan, a workman with the lovably wrinkly face of a Shar Pei, used to work transporting the bread from factory to town to town.
After Perestroika, the big factory lost its prominence, Ivan lost his job, and the responsibility of bread production went to many smaller factories, spread out across the region. There was less money and organization, hence the inferior quality of the bread.
It is hard for me to know if this is accurate, or distorted by old mens' nostalgia. We would need to do a blind taste-test, which is not possible. But Ivan, Igor, and Roman, admittedly a little drunk, reminisced about the bread and boulytchky of yesterday for almost half an hour, with passion and pathos that took me completely by surprise.