Every once in awhile, the name of a novel you last read five years ago, or a painting you last saw two years ago, or a song your mom used to play growing up, hangs around in your head for about a week, until you finally go and find it, and somehow, it reminds you of something important that you had forgotten.
This happened to me recently with the tv show Girls. After about a week of the name hanging around in my head, I stayed up later than was reasonable one Wednesday night, clicking on different clips and trailers on my laptop, until what I had forgotten gradually became clear: “Oh my gosh!,” I thought, “I’m not Ukrainian!”
And neither are those girls on Girls. Their lives take lots of random, confused steps. They experiment with drugs and sex. Their senses of humor, or rather, the show’s sense of humor, is a particularly American snarkiness. I doubt that one of them knows how to can vegetables, cook soup, or defrost a refrigerator, as fashionable as this kind of knowledge is getting. I don’t know how to do any of those things either, and though I’ve tried to hide this fact from my Ukrainian housemates, I think they have me figured out. I think they know that I’m not Ukrainian.
The pressure to be Ukrainian, here in Lviv, in western Ukraine, is quite strong. My boss Oleg, at the NGO which helps mentally-handicapped adults where I work, asks me why, at an age when I could have already had everything figured out — a family, a profession, a permanent home — I have nothing figured out. Oleg asks in the nicest way possible. That is, he asks from pure curiosity — a western Ukrainian of my age would either already have these things figured out, or would be striving to figure them out soon. And I must not be striving, because rather than staying home, where already deep relationships would get deeper, and life would build on itself, I picked up shop, and moved to western Ukraine. These conversations get me feeling a bit antsy, and more eager to fit in.
So Oleg’s wife, Tanya, helps me cook slavic, and I have more or less submitted to the whole Greek-Orthodox moral-cultural-aesthetic program. The church services are so long, that you want to feel like you are getting something out of it, by being a part of it. Thus, the longer I stay, the more Ukrainian I will be. Since, as far as I can tell, being Ukrainian is a good thing, I had not resisted this process, until I watched Girls, and saw Lena Dunham dancing, and remembered my cultural heritage, which got me feeling terribly homesick.
I was fortunate that homesickness hit exactly when it did, though, because in many European cities (though not so much in Lviv), in the summer, there are dense pockets of young tourists. Because the American summer begins in mid-May rather than mid-June, many are American in the early summer. And even though, that Wednesday night, I had already stayed up later than was reasonable, I stayed up a bit later, and rummaged through a desk drawer until I found the train tickets that I had bought a week prior. As luck would have it, I had scheduled a trip to Budapest for that weekend, for the exact moment when it wasn’t enough just to be a young American transient, when I wanted to be surrounded by other young American transients, too. In Budapest, I was sure, was such a pocket. The description of the city on one travel website read: “Are all your friends telling you their crazy stories from Budapest? Ready to party, but interested in European history, too?” I couldn’t be wrong.
There are three basic ways to get from Lviv, Ukraine to Budapest, Hungary. You can fly. You can take a train called an elektrichiska from Lviv to Mookachevo, and a bus called a marshrootka from Mookachevo to Chop, and from there cross the border into Hungary by foot, taxi, or another train, not called an elektrichiska, probably already quite late in the night, and find some way to get to Budapest on the other side. Finally, you can take a train called the Tisa, which goes all the way from Moscow, through Kiev and Lviv, to Budapest, each day. I took the Tisa, and so my journey began with a 5:45 am taxi-ride to the train station.
“When’s your train?” the taxi driver said, “six? That’s what all the deevchata (young women) do. We get to the station with two-minutes left and they jump out onto the curb in their high heels and start running, and I yell, you’re not going to make it, but they never listen.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I do that all the time, too. Just not today. My train is at seven.”
At 7 o’clock, the Tisa rolled up, and out came the provodnitsa, which is a woman who works on a passenger train. She showed me to my compartment, and we were off. In the entire car, there was just me, neat and tidy provodnitsa, and a very ex-Soviet man who the provodnitsa called “Meesya,” which is something that you would call a baby. His role on the Tisa was never explained.
On the Tisa
Train compartments are a lot like boats. You sleep in a bunk, under another bunk (in the Tisa’s case, under another bunk still). The floor, or deck, constantly moves, so you set your feet a bit wider and walk more slowly. There are gadgets everywhere, and if you stare at them long enough you can figure out what they’re for. In this fashion, I learned that the latch on the edge of the desk revealed a sink underneath, a panel on the wall opposite the bunks folded down to make a chair, and the hammock, hanging at the very top of the compartment’s high ceiling, held wool blankets for the Tisa’s winter journeys. It was early June when I rode the Tisa, but the day was cold, and foggy, and so I opened up the window, propped myself up with all three pillows for all three bunks, lay under two wool blankets, and watched the fog-covered landscape go by.
Meesya dreaming of the Carpathians
There is a profoundly mentally-handicapped man I work with, who we also call Meesya, who does a lot of lying at home on the couch on the weekends. We ask, “Meesya, what did you think about all that time when you were lying on the couch?” He always answers, “I dreamed of the Carpathians.” And the Carpathian Mountains, which the Tisa crosses on its way to Hungary, are worth dreaming about. Sometimes, it was impossible to tell what was mountain top, and what was cloud. At moments, I could barely tell whether we were on a ridge or in a valley. At other moments, the fog lifted, and through the window I saw beehives, an old woman chopping firewood, the gold domes of village churches dull and gray without the sun, the sign for the deep Carpathians, with only wilderness behind it.
The Ukraine of the Carpathians is timeless. scything hay, collecting honey, digging up potatoes — all of those things have happened in Ukraine for a few hundreds years yet, continue to happen today, and will certainly happen in the future, as Ukraine begins to export more and more of its produce abroad. Ukraine is a very agricultural country, with more than 25 percent of the population directly earning a living from agriculture, and the other 75 percent (the latter figure is my observation) claiming commercial-scale agriculture as their main hobby. I know people who grow their own grain to make their own flour to bake their own bread for fun.
The sign for the deep Carpathians
The city of Lviv, on the other hand, though it does have an old-world European feel, is in many ways, quite modern, with its English-knowing young people, and its ugly luxury mall in the middle of the historical district. The Ukraine between the two, which belongs to a specific historical moment that has ceased but not really, is the Soviet Ukraine, of course. If you are taking the Tisa from Lviv to Budapest, you will feel this Ukraine most sharply in the border town of Chop.
As a general rule, the intensity of Soviet feeling in the ex-Soviet bloc operates on a west-to-east axis. Moscow may be command central, but farther east, in Ekaterinburg, where the tsar and his family were murdered, or in Novosibirsk, the location of the former gulags, or in Krasnoyarsk, where I once climbed up to a viewpoint above the city and felt like I was suffocating in Soviet feeling, equals more intense. Moving westward, you feel like a deep sea diver gradually coming to the surface. In Lviv, you’re breathing full gulps of air. Chop is an exception to this rule. Once a prime gateway to the USSR, Soviet feeling buckles down in Chop.
The Tisa stopped in front of the large, angular, black marble train station, and a Ukrainian border guard walked into my compartment, glanced at my passport, and said, “It’s clear where you are going — home to America.” Then he pointed down at my small backpack and said, “And these are all your things.”
Natives are not immune to the Soviet feeling. Indeed, they may feel more, rather than less, suffocated by it. Though the Soviet Union ended twenty-five years ago, nearly one half the time span that the union lasted for, there’s still a sense of having crossed the point of no-return to these places like Chop, like they are cursed forever. That’s how energetic the soviet undertaking was.
“No,” I told the guard. “I’m going to Budapest, then I’m going back to Lviv.”
The train jerked, and the heavy branch of a pear tree weighed down with unripe fruit scratched on my window. Just before entering the no man’s brush land that separates Hungary from Ukraine, we rolled past an old mural of tractors, nuclear power plants, thick-armed agricultural workers, and baskets and baskets of food. This is the dream of red plenty that never materialized. A sign next to the mural read: Danger! Don’t go near this building. It is falling down.
I’ve since been told that there are a lot of gypsy camps in the fields outside of Zahony, the town directly opposite Chop on the Hungarian side of the border. If I had known that before, I would have stayed awake to see them. As it happened, I fell asleep soon after the mural. An hour, or maybe two later, a Hungarian border guard woke me up, asking “Do you have contraband?” in the most strangely accented Ukrainian I have ever heard.
That evening, I exited the Nyugati Train Station and found myself on wide and busy Szent Istvan Körút, about 800 yards west of the Danube, in the middle of Budapest, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The Soviet feeling was entirely gone. What replaced it is unclear; if it was a feeling particular to Hungary, I have yet to identify it. I glanced down the road, and in one moment saw the Danube, the Margit Bridge, and the hilly Buda side of the city in the evening light. For sightseeing, that glance sufficed. Then I ducked my head and thought about getting to the hostel, and being back in the hold of the culture of Girls and protracted yet socially acceptable young-adult wandering. At long last, I got to a rather pretty belle epoque building with big, old widows, and I was there.
I found them almost immediately at the hostel. Their names were Callie and Chris, and based on what they told me about the jobs they had quit to travel, and the education they would have needed for those jobs, they must have both been somewhere between 24 and 27. The hair on their heads had that stringently hygienic look that American hair has. They were drinking beer, and I sat down next to them, and asked Callie where she started.
“It’s going to sound silly. I’m actually a bit embarrassed by it,” she said. “But I started in South America.”
“I started in Africa,” Chris said.
“That’s not silly at all,” I said, and the three of us spent the rest of the evening talking about our itineraries and trajectories around the globe. So exotic, and exhausting, and far-flung were these itineraries and trajectories that the phrase that comes to mind is “like a bat out of hell.”
The next morning was like seeing Budapest for the first time again, because I’d arrived when the sun was already going down, and because I wasn’t looking anyway. It really is a beautiful city. The next night, Callie and Chris were gone. They were, after all, transients. But I met a girl from California who went to college with a friend of mine, and a medical student doing a summer internship in Vienna, from New Jersey. At eleven at night, I had 8 hours left in the city, and I wanted to fill it with as many cultural experiences as possible. So I went to a bar with the two of them. Their names were Pam and Anita.
We decided to go to a bar which is quite famous in Budapest, called Szimpla Kert, which, if you take the way Hungarian spells sex (szex) as a guide, should not be pronounced ss-zz-impla. It’s one of the city’s ruin bars, or bars set up in basically ruined buildings. When the three of us walked in, I wasn’t sure if the open-air area in the center of the building meant that we were in what was once a courtyard, or if there was just a really big hole in the ceiling. The place was packed, with Budapest natives, with tourists, with a heel-tapping bride followed by the nervous-looking attendees of her bachelorette party, with young British men who yelled “Danke schoen!” to the barmaid when she poured them shots.
For a while, we looked for good Instagram shots. Then we found an empty corner, drank our hard alcohol, and Pam asked me in a very innocuous way, “So how do you feel about drugs?”
“I’ve never taken any,” I told her, “but I know that marijuana is pretty popular at UC Santa Cruz. How about you?”
“Wait!” Anita jumped in, “Are you talking about drug experiences? I want to hear!”
“Do you have any drug experiences?” Pam asked her.
“Besides weed I’ve done molly, ecstasy, and coke” Anita said. “The first time I did coke, I came down really hard, and after that, I was scared of it. So I told myself, it’s just a substance. It shouldn’t control me. So I read about it, and figured out the right dose, and did it again with my boyfriend. It was fine, and so I take it about every six months now. You need to take it more than once every six months to get addicted.”
“Wow. I really admire that — that you didn’t let coke scare you, and that you think about it so scientifically,” Pam said.
“I’m a medical student,” Anita said. “What drugs have you taken?”
“Besides weed, just acid and shrooms,” Pam said.
“What are shrooms like?” Anita asked.
“In one word, intense,” Pam said. “Like life-changing, even.”
“How so?” I asked.
“Two years ago,” Pam began, “I took shrooms with my brother and some friends one night on the beach. And the stuff was way stronger than I thought it would be. It was like I became a part of nature, and all of a sudden I understood that I am a part of nature, like a stone or a wave — and that life is inherently meaningless.”
“I know,” Anita said, leaning in, her shiny, black hair falling over one shoulder, and her glossy red lipstick reflecting the twinkly lights above us that hung from a rickety banister, “that’s totally the same way I think. I mean, it’s classic existentialism, isn’t it?”
“Right,” Pam said. “Just living without attachment and without judgment.” Then she smoothed her white skirt out on her knees, looked up at the second story of revellers above us, and said, “Isn’t this place cool?”
Four hours later, early in the morning, I was back at the Nyugati train station. The provodnitsa seemed happy to see me. Meesya was back, too. The day was hot, and Meesya soon took his shirt off, and let his considerable belly hang over his pants as he stood in the corridor watching the landscape go by. The Carpathians were just as beautiful under the sun as they had been in the fog. At 9:30 pm we were back in Lviv, and few evenings later, I was scraping off the near-translucent skin of young potatoes while Oleg, greeted some guests.
“And this is Frances,” he said to them. “She’s from America, and in America, they have this tradition that after you graduate college you live some place far away for a few years, and you see the world, so that when you come home — well — so that when you come home you’ve either found what you were looking for, or you know that you’ll find it in North America as well as anywhere else.”
I’ve never told Oleg of any such tradition, but I liked his explanation of my presence in western Ukraine. That sense of assuming your place in the long line of people that have come before you, and people that will come after you, like my Ukrainian friends bringing in the harvest year after year — for better or for worse, there’s comparatively little of that in America. So when you reach an age when, conceivably, you could start figuring things out, you feel slightly like you are starting at square one. The world is new, and the possibilities are endless. This sends people like Chris, Callie, and me all over the place. It makes growing up without taking a lot of random, confused steps near impossible. It abets the kind of ignorance that would lead someone to take experiences gleaned from an acid trip as revelations. Oleg’s right. Wandering is an American tradition.