Wednesday, June 18, 2014

How our story began

A long, long time ago, D took me on a trip to visit the city he was born in.

We'd been dating for perhaps a year or two and I still couldn't really understand what Ukraine was. It was only some far away place with a complicated history. Ukraine meant that he drank more tea than anyone I'd ever met and had a family that drove to town to bring him food, worried he wasn't getting enough from the university cafeteria. It meant a super-sexy accent when he spoke English, and hours spent together checking his literature essays for grammar mistakes. It meant me scratching my head continuously over wait?-what-language-do-people-speak-there? Beyond those things, I had no other notions of the country (except for a shady vibe from a geography teacher who had briefly visited the place and came back convinced he'd been followed by the mafia).

D must have taken pity on me, or maybe he was just tired of trying to explain everything, because one spring day he proposed the trip idea. After a long hot summer of driving tour buses across the Arctic Circle -
- we got on a plane in Alaska and disembarked in a daze in Kyiv. The capital city felt overwhelming. I remember following D through the streets, focused completely on not losing sight of his heels. Eating fast food baked potatoes in an underground mall. Taking a bus tour of a bajillion monasteries and cathedrals, all of which started to blend together after the second stop. We caught the train to Crimea, pretty much just showing up at his relatives' place... who took it pretty well. Score one for Ukrainian relatives.

But like I mentioned before, the magic of Crimea is not found in Simferopol. Simferopol is full of buses and markets and passengers in transit. The real draw is the seashore.

D loves water like nothing else. Sometimes it's surprising he hasn't already grown flippers! I find large bodies of water vaguely terrifying and prefer to experience them from atop something floaty but he adores them, seeks them out, and can easily spend hours swimming. Hours. Like a real-life merman.

The creature from the Black Lagoon Sea ; )
We spent a lot of those 3 weeks near the water. It was August and the beaches were jam-packed with vacationers.

People would fiercely stake out a plot of sand and plant themselves there for the entire day. Teenage boys would wander through the maze of towels, chairs, and sunbathers, trying to outshout each other while peddling snacks.

We spent a few days in the small resort town of Simeiz, home to perhaps the sketchiest staircase of all time-

- which paid off with an awesome view.

It was at the top of this rock that I first encountered the wish-upon-a-plastic-bag ritual. A nearby rail was smothered in plastic bag handles, each one tied on by someone who hoped to return to that spot in the future. Now I can't remember if we added to the collection or not, but I'm hoping we did.

One other memory from Simeiz is buying wine out of reused 2-liter bottles on the street. Vendors would sit on a rock wall or under a tree with an array of different-colored plastic containers, filled up with Crimean wine. You could purchase a plastic cup to drink on the spot or take an entire bottle home with you. D told me that these vendors probably worked at a local factory and took a little extra to sell on the side.

After Simeiz we rented a room in Sudak. Sudak was insanely hot. It was almost impossible to be in that room. The lazy efforts of an overhead fan did nothing, nor did dashes to quickly shower off in the shared bathroom, so it meant spending as much time as possible outside and drinking plenty of wine before bedtime (no complaints here!).

Hoping to find a breeze, we visited an old Genoese fortress perched above the city.

Due to the large amount of grumpy-faced photos of yours truly, I'm guessing there wasn't a breeze to be found that day.... but there was a medieval show of battling knights narrated by a belligerent Captain Jack Sparrow (whose drunkenness may have been more than just an act).

Getting to the highest part of the fortress required a climb straight up this "path", clinging to a steel cable.

Death-defying ascent in flip flops aside, it was all worth it in the end-

There was an afternoon trip via boat to Yalta, giving us a glimpse of the toy-sized castle that's on every postcard and calender to come out of the region.

I was hoping to see the 100-year-old castle in person but D had been severely underwhelmed by a school visit years before and vetoed the idea. We went on to Yalta and spent an afternoon on its rocky shores with Odin (yep, the very same redheaded reindeer herder!).

Another day we started at a beach named Happy to trek through an area named Rye e Od, Heaven and Hell, which certainly lived up to its name, providing heavenly views only after a hellish climb. The journey left us in Novyi Svit, New World, a tiny town famous for its champagne, in time for a gorgeous sunset.

The pictures make me feel about a thousand years old- as in, taken roughly the same time as D's 21st birthday celebration!- but I'm glad we've got them. It was the first time and the last time I've been swimming (or, ahem, floating) in the Black Sea. After this single attempt at an August beach trip, the idea of summer trips was abandoned and compensated for by winter visits, when the peninsula was deserted, chilly, and cheap.

They say the past is a foreign country... and in this case, it truly is. At the time it was a bumpy introduction to Ukraine: the hotel that had water only twice a day for 30-minutes intervals and told us on Sunday that the toilet-paper restocking department would be closed until Monday (we ending up just buying our own); the marshrutka driver who, when asked by a Belarusian passenger about seatbelts, pointed at the cliff on the right side of the road and replied "What do you need one for? It's not gonna help you if we go over!"; the relatives who chattered excitedly in a language I didn't understand. In fact, D and I left the country practically not on speaking terms and I certainly had no plans to ever return. Life has a funny way of twisting your words around, though, and now I wonder what it would be like to experience another Crimean August. Just wonder, though, nothing more : )

A friend from Kharkiv is visiting family in the seaside city of Feodosia right now. She posted this picture three days ago:

As we prepare to leave, I find myself wanting to see all the places uncharted on my internal map- the sandy beaches of Feodosia, the coffee houses of L'viv, the sunflower fields of Bohodukhiv, the highest ridges of Mt. Hoverla, the Drunken Church in Chernivtsi. There's still so much to this place, I think it would take a lifetime to explore it all!


  1. Gosh Katherine, your wistfulness is shining through!

    For a "grumpy old man" it certainly tugged my heartstrings.

  2. So I have done my normal thing, stolen your post, and ultimately this will end up on twitter!

    1. Thank you, Rupert! I'd love to hear your Ukraine story- do you have it down anywhere?

  3. We were in Yalta in 2004 I think and you described it to a T. To include the wine in reused cola bottles. We rented the bed room of a 1 bedroom apartment while the women slept on the balcony and her mother never moved from the kitchen table content to knit day and night. It was a hike up the mountain to the apartment with great views. I think when we left we were in the best shape of our lives, stair stepping up and down and swimming in between. How about the jelly fish? Yeah my wife thought my fear of them was funny so she threw one at me and hit me in the head... I did not find it as endearing then. Zak

    1. Sounds like we missed each other in Yalta by only a few years! Fortunately we didn't see many jellyfish, but I do remember seeing a needle bobbing past me in the water :p

  4. Aw! I'm glad you are revisiting those first moments in the Ukraine, this was a fun blast to the past.

  5. As always Katherine a great article. I will miss your posting about your life in Ukraine but I am excited to hear about where you, D and of course Kat end up and life their. Because of your writings you have made us your friend and you have memories to last a lifetime. A heartfelt Spasibo :-)

    1. Awww, spasibo tebe, Al! I will definitely keep you up-to-date on things. And who knows, in a few years you might be writing your own blog from Sumy : )

    2. I didn't get to experience Ukraine in quite the same way as you but appreciate it none-the-less. Thank you for showing me the other end of the spectrum!