I left Artemovsk on a blustery Tuesday afternoon. It was Dec. 21, and the first of many legs of my journey to Prague. The last afternoon bus from the main station brought me 25 km west to konstantinovka, where I spent three hours with my PCV pal Ben, drinking beer and cooking a chicken dinner. Ben’s always willing to put me up for a few hours before my train leaves from the city’s station at 8:18 p.m. (Cheers to your hospitality, pal!).
On the train I found my wagon nearly empty, an oddity if you consider that usually people are crammed in like sardines and left to either freeze (more often than not the windows won’t be sealed shut, allowing the winter’s cold to slip in) or overheat (In the off case you find yourself in a wagon in which window seals are up to code, you’ll most certainly be wishing you hadn’t, as the thermostat seems not to have an OFF setting). My bunk partner, an older woman in her 50s, proved great company. Not only did she speak English, but Russian, Ukrainian, Swedish and some Dutch. We chatted in the morning before arriving in Kiev, and she told me about her daughter, who dances in the Imperial Russian Ballet Company, and of her expat life with her new husband in Sweden. She’d been in Donestk – her hometown – visiting her ailing father. He didn’t have much time left, she said. This would most likely be the last time she’d see him, she said. I helped carry her bags and showed her to the bus station, then I went on my way.
I spent the morning and early afternoon in Kiev, mostly warming myself inside the Peace Corps Ukraine headquarters, before I began my second leg of the journey, a trip to Obukhov to visit my former Ukrainian host family.
Two metro lines and a marshrutka ride later, I arrived in Obukhov, the place where I spent the first two months of my time in country. I really enjoy my host family, Viktor, Tanya, Lyosha and Lena. Though Lyosha has joined the Ukrainian army and wasn’t able to be home, I spent that evening with the other three. I also met the babushka – Tanya’s mother – who’d come in a month earlier from Russia. She’d made borsch and galupsi, which she nearly force-fed me the moment I walked through the door. Lovely people, these Ukrainians.
In the morning I rode the marshrutka and metro with Viktor into Kiev. We parted below ground before I made my way to the bus that would take me to Boryspil airport. I was pleasantly surprised how quickly and efficiently I passed through security and customs. The new Terminal F is great. The only setback was the captain’s news that we’d be sitting on the tarmac for an hour before we’d be able to fly to Vienna, where I’d connect to Prague. Thick fog and snow had stalled and even cancelled many flights. I was lucky to only be delayed. Two and one-half hours later, I arrived in Vienna. My connecting flight had also been delayed. There were no problems. I pushed on to Prague, where I found Bri waiting for me outside the terminal.
Bri recently moved into a new flat, which she shares with a Slovak girl and a French girl. It’s a spacious, fantastic place far enough outside the city center to avoid the rampant tourists, but close enough in to get everywhere by foot or tram in just a matter of minutes. The neighborhood is called Zizhkov.
The first full day I was here, Bri and I, along with her friend Nikki and Nikki’s boyfriend Gleb, took a train to Dresden, Germany to visit its famous Christmas Market. We were not disappointed. The traditional roast beasts and bratwurst were excellent. There was plenty of snow on the ground and even more coming down on us, but the hot wine helped keep our spirits up. We enjoyed an eight-hour jaunt around the city before returning to Prague.
Christmas Day had us preparing food for about a dozen guests – expat friends of Bri’s. They arrived in the evening and didn’t leave till about 2 a.m. We had a potluck, with every type of dish and food group represented. The wine never stopped flowing. There was dancing, singing and more.
Since then, Bri and I have been through nearly half the city’s neighborhoods, hunting for churches, gravestones, a dancing building, cubist architecture, and an array of statues. There was a night of karaoke, and there will be another next Monday. New Years Eve should be a wild time. We’re going to join the street hooligans that toss fireworks aimlessly in the streets of old town Prague, then, from the Charles Bridge, watch the larger ones shot into the sky. There’s rumor of a party at Bri’s, but no word on whether that’ll happen for sure.
About this city, I’ll say this: It’s gorgeous, vibrant, diverse and unpredictable. There’s a wonderful blend of the old and the new, which fits seamlessly together. From what I’ve observed, the city is accepting of all sorts of people from all sorts of places. I must have overheard a dozen languages being spoken today alone, and not just from tourists. At the moment, I’m cozied up in a quaint, modern cafe around the corner from Bri’s apartment, sitting next to a frosty window at a small wooden table. Outside, snow and ice coat the sidewalks and lie in between the ruts of cobbled streets. I’m warm for now, but I know the cold will nip at any exposed skin on the walk home. Today was warmer than yesterday by about three degrees. Still, it’s just 26°F at 5 p.m.
Tonight we’re staying in and making dinner. Not sure what’s on the menu. But after all the walking Bri and I’ve been doing, it’ll be a welcomed break. There’s more to come soon, as I’ve still got eight days before I fly back to Ukraine. If you’re interested in viewing some photos of my time here thus far, you can see them over at flickr.