August 24th is Ukrainian Independence Day. This year it falls on Saturday so the prescribed national holiday is the following Monday. At my office we are given the following day off as well. As a new resident of Ukraine, perhaps the most proper etiquette would have required me to stay and observe the celebrations with the natives. But frightened by the impending long string of days with no work agenda and little to no friends or acquaintances to involve me in impromptu engagements, I fled town. I sought the comforts of home instead.
From Kiev’s Zhulyana airport (conveniently located near the center of the city), Vilnius is just an hour’s flight away (Whizz Air).
I arrived very early Saturday morning. Outside the wind already blew with an autumnal chill. But greeted by the “Citizens” passport control I felt an unexpected warmth. In that brief moment, being acknowledged as a citizen of this very small country, I felt happier than ever knowing that I belong somewhere. Certainly seeing that the “All Other Passports” line was much longer, helped to evoke these feelings.
Getting in to the city with the train, located right outside of the airport, is a breeze –7 minutes to the Central train and bus stations which lie just steps away from Old Town. But my real journey began once I boarded the bus to Jurbarkas, the town where my grandmother lives.
First order of business was getting kicked out of the seat I had chosen, by a middle aged woman draped in dress made out of old curtains and sporting terribly permed hair, who insisted on following the seat assignments. We were barely outside of the city center, before we began stopping on every corner, in every other village and town, to pick up more passengers. Once the bus managed to gain some speed, before long it would have to yield to cycle tourists and slow moving farm vehicles – combines and tractors. A distance of about 190 kilometers lasted three and half-hours.
My grandmother was already waiting for me at the station when the bus arrived around one in the afternoon. After a warm embrace we walked to her apartment.
The weekend was a calm repose that percolated at the pace of a small town. I spent a good portion of the time in the kitchen as my grandmother cooked and served her classic meals – soups with hardy helpings of sour cream, lightly fried fish with caramelized onions, potato pancakes with side of Shepard’s salad, cepelinai with cheese curd. She did this all the while chirping about my sunken cheeks and protruding bones. I did my best to improve my ‘emaciated’ condition.
The rest of the time we strolled around town along newly laid walking paths and riding bikes along the river. Jurbarkas is a quite town located right on the banks of the Nemunas River. It has always looked pretty in an aerial view– with a long bridge stretching across the river, two lofty towers of the red brick church, which survived the bombings of World War II and the surrounding green spaces. But recently the town has gotten a major face-lift, for an even better up close view.
A few years ago many of the old soviet era apartment buildings have been renovated with hefty subsidies from the European Union (this has happened across the country). The main initiative was to improve energy efficiency, but the project also drastically improved the facades by covering up the ugly white bricks, giving the buildings a cheerful paint job and replacing rapidly deteriorating wooden window frames with sleek plastic ones.
Along with the building renovations, EU funds have also generously improved recreational areas. There is now a bike path along Nemunas River that stretches for about 10 kilometers and goes to the neighboring town of Skirsnemune. There is another walking path that loops around almost the entire town of Jurbarkas along which you can find playgrounds, gazebos, tennis courts and other sports fields. Led by my grandmother, the intrepid walker, I could not believe how much this has improved the town, nor how much my grandmother can still walk at her age.
Some places I could not even recognize. As a little girl I would accompany my grandmother to her cousin’s house, who lived just a little outside of town. Back then after walking along a major road, we would turn off in to a meadow and have to cross a small stream by walking on a wooden plank right before hiking up a steep hill. This was quite the operation for a young child. Now there was a paved pedestrian path almost right to her cousin’s house.
Evenings my grandmother and I would spend drinking tea on the balcony, chatting about what has happened to this or that neighbor, all the while watching the last newly weds of the day emerge from the church across the street happy with new marital bliss or kids march back and forth along the street humming patriotic songs about brothers or oaks with makeshift bows strung across their shoulders.
And although the pace was slow, the weekend came to an end too soon. After saying goodbye to my grandmother, who was too busy rushing off to her volunteer work to shed a tear, I was heading back to Vilnius and then back to Kiev the following day. But I was lucky enough to catch a ride with my childhood best friend – Agne, who was visiting home for the weekend as well.
We have been friends since before we remember. She lived right across the hall from my grandmother’s apartment and as little girls we never heard the end of the complaints about our door slamming as we raced back and forth from one another’s homes. Through out the years, even as I didn’t visit my grandmother for a while, we kept in touch – at first through letters, then e-mail and finally once again in person. Even though our friendship has ebbed and flowed, we have found our selves getting closer once again as we get older. We could now laughed about the silly games we used to play, reminisce about the crafty houses we made for our paper dolls close to 20 years ago and the relationships we were now in and how much we hated the idea of marriage for the sake of ticking a box.
Once in Vilnius we went for a stroll in Old Town. In the dwindling late summer sun the cobble stone streets, baroque church towers and secret alcoves drew the city in to an undulating scene of coziness, perhaps only properly explained by Scandinavians (http://www.npr.org/blogs/pictureshow/2012/01/30/146080892/winter-doldrums-got-you-down-have-some-hygge). I won’t say more, as Old Town deserves its own entry, but I will say that this did make me dread a little my return to sprawling Kiev.
Agne and I wrapped up the evening at her place watching The Lorax in 3D and sipping some Kanapinis Alus (hemp seed beer, giving the beer a light nutty flavour) from a microbrew. Lithuania has not been left behind by the microbrew craze. Many small shops have popped up around town filling plastic bottles from kegs with a variety of domestic and imported small batch beers one liter at a time. Would highly recommend trying in addition to the standards of Svyturys and Kalnapilis.
I arrived back to Kiev early this morning. I was quite proud of how clever I’ve gotten, as just in a months time, I have managed to figure out the taxi system. After asking for the rate from the first cab driver who was standing right outside the door, I gave him a look of disbelief and walked away after he quoted me a rate three times of what it cost me to get there on Saturday morning. So I walked over to a taxi driver that had just arrived to drop off passengers. I asked him if he was free and what the rate would be. He was asking for just a few more hryvnia then the guy who took me to the airport. He had himself a deal!
A few minutes in to the ride, the cab driver asked me where I was coming from. I knew immediately that he was not Ukrainian. It wasn’t because of his slight accent; it was because he spoke to me. I told him I had come from Lithuania after visiting family. He said he had never been to the Baltics and wanted to know what it was like and how it was different from here. Trying to stay politically correct and dance around the edges I said the roads were better, but it was because of a lot of EU funds. He stopped me and said that’s not what he meant – he wanted to know about the people. I tried to say something, but couldn’t figure out a good way to put it. So instead he told me about Ukrainians – that they were difficult to live with, awfully clever by their own declaration, somewhat rude. He himself was from a far east republic of Russia. He said that there youths still let their seats go on trams for older people. He asked me who the president of Lithuania was. He said he knew of Brazauskas, a former president, while he was still in the Communist party. He said the politics in Ukraine were all messed up. Before I had a chance to ask him why he had stayed here all this time, we had arrived. I thanked him and got out in to the sunless gray street.
Welcome back to my new home!