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.
Tuesday, November 12, 2013
It was Sunday morning and I was on my way back home from the post office. I’d been trying to withdraw money from the ATM there, but I’d forgotten the PIN on the new card (a replacement for the one I’d just lost) and ended up accidentally locking my account. I was pissed.
I saw Anatoliy rolling on the sidewalk ahead. I didn’t really want to talk to him because my Ukrainian deteriorates when I am stressed, but he was on my only route home, moving slowly, as he always does.
Anatoliy is a handicapped man in his fifties or sixties. You can see him almost every day around the town center, selling coffee and tea in flimsy plastic cups. Sometimes he sells very sweet compote that his wife makes too.
Everybody knows Anatoliy because he is very friendly. For my first few months in Novoarkhanhelsk, he absolutely refused to let me pay him the couple of hreven for my coffee. His English is very limited, but he uses it to the best of his ability, experimentally throwing in English words and phrases when he can. He treats me not as a foreign curiosity, but as a friend, and always seems concerned about my well-being.
We said hello. Anatoliy smiled and asked if I wanted any coffee. I said I did. While he filled my little plastic cup, he asked me how I was doing. I complained about having lost my bank code, and lamented the disorganization of my mind. Anatoliy told me not to worry too much. It would work itself out.
I asked him how his family was doing. He paused for a moment, his countenance changed. He said a word I didn’t know. He searched for synonyms until he found one I knew- “bida”, trouble.
His son had died at the age of 37.
A little while ago, on my way to school, I’d come across a procession. There was a drone of mournful brass, men in suits carrying a coffin, women following, sobbing and moaning. Someone carried a plaque on a pole with the face of a man who was too young to die.
I told Anatoliy I thought I‘d seen his son’s funeral. Anatoliy shook his head- that was somebody else’s son. His son had died in the Donbass region.
He had no children, but he had a wife. He’d died of heart failure. At this point, I stopped understanding everything that Anatoliy said, but he kept talking about the way his son had been raised and shaking his head. He said something about alcohol. He repeated several times, “It just wasn’t right.” I concluded that he partly blamed himself for his son’s death, but I may have misunderstood completely.
I put my hand on Anatoliy’s thick coat and I told him that I did not know what to say or how to say it, but that my heart was with him. He thanked me and we were silent for a moment. He looked down the road like he was about to say goodbye.
I realized I had not paid Anatoliy for the coffee and I felt awkward. I counted the money in my pocket and mumbled something, trying to hand him the bills. Anatoliy looked at me sternly and shook his head. He would not accept the money. He asked me to drink the coffee in honor of his dead son.
Anatoliy said goodbye and started to roll across the street. It was one of the wider streets in Novoarkhanhelsk, two broad lanes. He was going towards the grocery store. I stayed on the sidewalk for a little while, watching him get to the other side, drinking the instant coffee in the plastic cup that he had given me.
Monday, November 11, 2013
Friday, November 8, 2013
Dancing in Donetsk
Robert Lang asleep, perhaps dreaming of the girl he met in the bar the previous night
We were hanging outside a convenience store in Donetsk and this old guy approached and noticed a green balloon. He kicked it. The balloon bounced. The man casually but persistently kicked this balloon around. When the wind would blow the balloon across the street, the old guy would follow and bring it back. When it got trapped behind a trash can, he gently pried it out with his foot. For 15 minutes, we stood and watched. Then the man turned towards the street like there was something he needed to do, and continued on his way.
Sleeping in the train
In Lviv, we were drinking hot chocolate, and we heard a big bang and saw green smoke around the corner. Patricia guarded our bags while Kyla and I went to investigate. In a central square, there were people chanting and holding long heavy flags horizontally, like 2x4s, over their heads. Other green and white flags shot out from the crowd or out of apartment windows. Someone told us it was a football rally.
Our friend Peter was there. He noticed some red and black flags waving with the rest- that wasn't a football team, but the flag of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, a group that fought for Ukrainian independence during World War II but was also implicated in some nasty instances of ethnic cleansing.
Smoke bombs dropped and everyone ran for cover. They played the team from Kharkiv and I'm pretty sure they won, but I don't remember exactly.
Hungry creature, drawn under the influence of a shit mood