To start off the summer, I decided to take a month to really explore Ukraine. I’ve been in and out of Kiev a lot recently, but I hadn’t been to the countryside in ten years.
First stop was Odessa. Slavic and Vitalik picked me up at the airport, tucked me into a car packed to the brim with food and drink and sleeping bags, folding chairs and frying pans, Slavic’s dog Ponya and Slavic’s new girlfriend, Lena. Lena and I hit it off right away, which was lucky, since the five of us were about to spend a week together in a little cabin on the Black Sea.
That was the first adventure - fried eggs in the morning, long walks on the beach, sunshine and storms, and lots of cheap red Ukrainian wine. Also, getting re-acquainted with Odessa. She was always a beautiful town, but she’s cleaned herself up lately, re-gilded her roofs and swept her streets, and she’s looking better than she’s looked in a long time. It was good to see.
Next up - we returned to Kiev, Slavic and Vitalik went back to work, and I picked up my rental car. I wanted to go West and South, to see the little towns and fields and rivers, and get into the Carpathians, eventually ending up in Lvov, the Lion City, an architectural treasure-house that is Ukraine’s cultural capital.
There’s something about a map, a full tank of gas, and the open road that brings out the wonder in everything. Just turning off the Kiev-center streets onto Prospect Pobeda, towards the edge of town, passing the familiar sights - Kiev Polytechnic, the Wedding Palace, the big tank in front of the military institute - made my ears perk up. Then these fell behind and the city started to thin out. I saw the first flash of green fields. I crossed over the ring road. And then there I was, at last, out in the open country, headed for whatever Fate wanted to bring me.
A road trip, according to long and venerable tradition, must include the following things: cheesy 1970’s rock music, strange snacks from roadside stands, wrong turns, hitchhikers, scary motels and the wild exhilaration of the open road. I kept to this formula as the road took me west, through the little town of Zhitomir, into the fields and forests of central Ukraine.
May is the sweetest time in Ukraine, as the country shakes off the long winter and the rich black earth explodes into life. Fields bloom, the sunflowers take off, and the weather alternates between sultry-hot and torrents of rain.
Ukrainian roads are not like other roads. They’re soft on the edges, well-seeded with potholes, lined with cherry trees and tall poplars. They take you into the heart of villages, past grannies selling radishes and kids out herding cows, within arm’s length of geese and goslings, and horses hanging out with their colts. Sometimes you get stuck behind a tractor, or the road turns to dirt, or the cows come into the road. The key is to open your mind to enjoying whatever comes - while keeping both hands firmly on the wheel.
That rule applies to the towns as well. The towns I visited - Zhitomir, Khmelnitsky, Kamenets-Podolsky, Chernivtsi, Yaremche, Ivano-Frankovsk and Lvov - ran the gambit from lovely to decaying and from chaotic to pristine. On my very first day I lost the road atlas of Ukraine which Slavic loaned me, so I had no maps for any of these towns. Once I hit the city limits, I would just follow my nose, head for the center, and hope to find a decent hotel somewhere. This worked surprisingly well: using the “nose” method, and with the help of a few friendly taxi drivers I managed the whole trip with nothing more than a one-page, large scale map of Ukraine to go by.
A road trip is like a microcosm of human life. For example, take my visit to Chernitvsi. I’d only visited the town once, ten years ago, and knew no one there. I arrived a total stranger, hoping just to find a hotel. Through a fortunate series of accidents and inquiries, I found the Hotel Bukovina, a tranquil hotel near the central stadium. They gave me a small, quiet room with a view of the back courtyard, lots of light, and a windowsill suitable for leaning on.
For five days this room became my home. I arranged my things, found a favorite corner, developed a routine. The room acquired some memories. I took the phone call from a friend who wanted to gossip about work, stood by the window watching a summer rainstorm so intense we seemed to be actually underwater, lounged on the bed, watching ‘The Wire’ . I had the usual small struggles and triumphs, and many peaceful hours just lying around and thinking.
After a few days, it felt like I’d lived there forever. The room was as real a home to me as many apartments I’ve had. But when day six rolled around, I moved on: packed up all my stuff and went back on the road. One last glance at the hotel, the trees, the friendly park across the street, and I was gone. Off to the Carpathians and Lvov, and new rooms, and new memories. In just a few days, I’d lived a whole cycle, from arriving fresh to putting down roots, to moving on.
Now, I don’t have many permanent ties - at least not to places - I’m kind of a nomad. So sending me on a road trip is like turning a gambling freak loose in Las Vegas. I get light-headed when I indulge my nomadic cravings like this.
So maybe it’s not surprising that when Valery caught up with me in Lvov he insisted on cooking something. He dragged me to the market, where he bought enough food to last a week, and proceeded to prepare delicacies - fresh salo*, salads, borscht - which will long stand in my memory as one of the great feasts of all time. We cracked open a bottle of Croatian red wine, and toasted each other, and made plans for further trips.
A good start to the summer, especially thanks to the kindness of friends. Next up: a long, sunlit stint in Croatia. Stay tuned...
*salo, a treasured Ukrainian delicacy, is salted lard. Yes, that’s right, my fat-conscious American friends, lard. Also known as, fatback, pork rind, and crackling. Think fatty bacon, served uncooked and thinly sliced, accompanied by black bread, garlic cloves, or anything else that comes to hand. Yum.