With the end of my Peace Corps service staring me in the face, I decided to do a bit of traveling in hopes of seeing a few more places in this country that I’ve come to care so deeply about. The fact that other PCVs wanted to do the same, and that the annual humor festival was going on in Odessa – a city I’ve longed to see but have never visited – only added to my yearning to hit the road.
And so I set off, first to Donetsk, a city I’ve spent quite a bit of time in, and then to Odessa – the famed city by the sea. It took an overnight train ride to get there. Luckily I did it with four other friends, making this train ride particularly enjoyable. After settling in we enjoyed some in-transit vodka shots and a couple of beers. Our train was filled with university students on their way back to Odessa, and so we weren’t the only ones imbibing. Sometime late in the evening we got acquainted with the group of young folk in the cabin nearest to us. One of the guys with them had a guitar, which he used to play American hits from the 90s, including Nirvana’s “Rape me”, which we may or may not have sang at the top of our lungs in an open car.
The rain came down in buckets the morning we arrived in Odessa, and it didn’t stop. By the time we’d made it to the hostel we were soaked nearly all the way through. There’s nothing like a good shower and a lie down after a long train ride, which is exactly what we all did. Soon, though, more friends arrived, and the hostel turned into somewhat of an American party.
Some catching up with friends ensued, and then we all went out to some divey basement pub near the city center. It was dark and smokey there, and being Funk Night, the DJ had James Brown on heavy rotation. I sipped a beer near the dance floor with a couple of friends while watching Ukrainians do their best to imitate the great funk legend. After some more drinks and a few games of cards, we called it a night.
Saturday was spent exploring the city. We strolled down Deribasovskaya Street, the city’s famous pedestrian walkway, where cafes, parks, public squares and food kiosks abound. We popped in to see the Passage Hotel’s gorgeous century-old courtyard, popped off to a Greek restaurant for a gyro and then made our way toward the sea.
When you approach the neo-baroque styled opera house, with its archways and metallic dome, you immediately understand its prominence. Supposedly a whisper from its stage can be heard from anywhere in the concert hall.
Walking further, across a small square and through a hilltop parkway, we reached what might be Odessa’s most famous symbol: the Potemkin Stairs.
The Potemkin Stairs were made famous in one my favorite films, Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film, The Battleship Potemkin. In the film armed soldiers open fire on people on the stairs. While the film is a work on fiction, a similar massacre did occur in 1905.
Supposedly the stairs were designed to create an optical illusion. When viewing the stairs from the top only the landings are visible, while viewing them from the bottom allows one to see only the steps. Testing this on my own, I found this to be nearly true.
Past the stairs is the port area. While the view wasn’t anything to write home about, it was nice just being near the sea. Being landlocked for months at a time in the Ukrainian steppe can take a toll on a person.
We migrated from the port toward the city center, where a few of us broke off to dine in luxury at a swanky steak house, where a waiter visited our table with a large plank of raw meat and asked which we’d like to enjoy. I chose the bacon-wrapped filet mignon. It’d been ages since I’d treated myself to anything of the sort. It cost me nearly four times what I spend on food for one week here, but I enjoyed every bite. Besides, after two years doing perhaps the most challenging job I’ve ever done, I deserved it, damnit.
We went big that night. After all, it was Saturday, and the eve of “Yumorina,” or Odessa’s famous Day of Humor celebration, which happens every April 1. As a group we went to a club called “Shkaf,” which translates to “cupboard” or “wardrobe” or “closet” in English. And the place felt somewhat like a cupboard, all worn-in wood floors and dark brick walls. Despite that, the atmosphere was great. On a back wall a large projector showed a game of Mortal Combat. Shouts of “Aroogun!” echoed throughout the place. After ordering at the bar we found our way to another room, which housed the DJ and dance floor. Electronic music pulsed so loud I could feel the hairs on my head vibrate. The scene was like something out of a movie: everyone dancing as if they hadn’t a care in the world. I barely got halfway through my first drink before my friends dragged me onto the dance floor.
Hot, sweaty, drunk and happy, we danced and laughed and lived it up until early morning. On the way home some people popped over to all-hours food carts to satisfy their hunger. The rest of us sang songs in the street as we hobbled on back to the hostel.
The next day was “Yumorina.” At noon we all went out to find a place along the street to take in the parade. Thousands of people turned out. And while it was interesting to see so many people in such a small city center area, all donning wigs, mustaches, oversized glasses and goofy hats, the parade was a bust. For whatever reason, it was all regional football teams who marched, along with their signs and a few flamboyantly-dressed supporters. Still, it made for an entertaining environment.
The weather was the best part of Sunday. Having not seen much of the sun these past few months, I couldn’t soak up enough of it. Along with some friends, I explored more of the city, wandering down streets at random in hopes of uncovering something fascinating. Together we found some interesting monuments, though none that were particularly remarkable, and a dilapidated building once home to Nikolai Gogol, the famous playwright and novelist.
On Monday we slept in, caught up on sleep and gathered our things before feasting at a legitimate Chinese food restaurant. Having not had much in the way of ethnic for during the past two years, that was a real treat.
We boarded a train that evening, myself and three friends, made our beds and turned in for the night. In the morning we arrived in Ternopil, a larger city in western Ukraine.
Arriving anywhere in Ukraine at 3:30 a.m. means having to wait for a couple of hours until the buses start running to get anywhere. We could have taken a taxi to Terebovlya, our final destination, but it would have cost us three times the price of a bus. Plus, we weren’t sure our host, another PCV, would be awake that early. So we sat at the train station for an hour before making our way to the city’s bus station, where we sat another hour before boarding a bus to Terebovlya.
On the bus we all fell asleep. It wasn’t until another passenger nudged and woke us up that we realized we’d arrived in Terebovlya. Upon exiting the bus, we received some peculiar looks, looks that seemed to say, “What the hell are you doing here?”
Most people haven’t heard of Terebovlya, and most never will. Outside of the fact that it has a thousand-year-old fortress, there really isn’t much there. But the town, which is home to a little less than 10,000 people, has a hell of a lot of charm. Despite the fact that I speak only Russian and this part of Ukraine speaks Ukrainian as their first language, no one minded me speaking the language of the east. Mind you, they responded in Ukrainian, but they were all smiles, very pleased to interact with a foreigner.
The PCV we stayed with there had an incredible four-bedroom village-style house, without a doubt the best living quarters of any PCV I know in Ukraine. After a brief nap we joined our host at his school for three class lessons, during which we interacted with young students, discussing hobbies, family, geography and more. We had to endure dozens of photographs with students and teachers before being released for the day.
That afternoon we went for a walk through the forest. After living in the industrial east, an area known as the Donbass, which is marked with slag heaps and smoke stacks, my lungs were happy to breath in the fresh air of the west. What’s more, at the end of our stroll we were rewarded with remnants of an old monastery and fortress that overlooked fields and village homes as far as the eye could see. It was gorgeous.
That evening we cooked our first shashlik (barbecue) of the year. Two kilos of meat, some onions, tomatoes and more all cooked over an open pit. It was pure bliss. At night we enjoyed some locally brewed beer, talked and played “durak,” the Eastern European card game.
The next day we needed to be on a bus by 1 p.m. So rose early to cook a large egg breakfast before going out to explore the fortress on the hill.
I don’t know much about the history of the fortress, only that it’s around 1,000 years old and has been sacked about 15 times by multiple armies. Most recently it was taken over by the Nazi’s during WWII when they occupied Terebovlya. To mark their territory they inset a large tablet into the side of the fortress, which remains today.
From the top of the fortress I looked out over the entire town and to the hills beyond it. Where I live in the east is mostly flat. Slag heaps are the highest points visible. So this was refreshing.
We split up in Terebovlya. Some of us needed to get back home, back out east. Others went on for a few more days. One of my pals and I headed back to Ternopil, where we spent the remainder of the day strolling around the city before our train at 8 p.m. that evening.
I was pleasantly surprised by Ternopil, a city I knew nothing about before going there. Young people were everywhere, as were cafes, bars, parks and shops. I even managed to find a burrito place. And the burritos tasted like actual burritos.
An endearing moment came when I wandered into a souvenir shop to pick up a magnet for my roommate. Looking around I noticed there were a lot of photos of a large lake. So I asked the woman, was there a lake nearby?
“Oh, yes!” she answered emphatically. “I can show you.”
Reaching into the glass case housing the various magnets she pulled out six of them and proceeded to describe to me the path to the lake using each magnet’s pictured landmark.
“You’ll enjoy it,” she insisted. “Good luck.”
With that, my friend and I set off to find the lake.
The woman was right, I enjoyed it. The sun was out, a slight breeze made ripples atop the water, and further out two windsurfers glided along. We took it all in on a bench.
That evening we began what would be a 20-hour train ride back east. It was definitely among the longest I’ve endured since moving here. But we made it home, exhausted, slightly sore and stinking.
It was a good time, like many of the other trips I’ve taken during my two years here in Ukraine. But something about this one in particular had a certain finality about it. During the ride back to site I couldn’t shake thoughts of finishing my service here in just six weeks, and that during that six weeks I’d be busy with all of my Close of Service tasks required by Peace Corps, packing and saying goodbye to everyone who’s been a part of my life over the past two years. I wouldn’t have time to do much else – this trip would be the last of its kind in Ukraine.