Friday, January 29, 2010

A different atmosphere

Within some steps, I've gone from having a working vocabulary of dozens on top of a passive vocabulary of maybe 100 words to now being able to comprehend thousands. It's like taking earplugs out and being able to hear again. While I still must indulge on my patient and helpful interlocutors for basic conversational requirements like conjugating my verbs appropriately and declining the nouns and adjectives to the proper gender, number, and contextural position, Romanian, being not only a Romance language but also in Roman letters, is instantly comfortable. Ahhhhh.

Subtleties make houses here look more 'European'. Shops, road signs, barns, too. Such variety in the shops. There are immediate signs of functioning infrastructure. In particular, the absence of outhouses. Ironically, though, I've seen many pony carts being used to haul freshly cut marsh reeds across the frozen streams and fields. A throwback to the last centuries maybe, but one that works. The kilometer markers on the snow-packed secondary roads, with the names and distances to the next villages inscribed from both directions, look like they could be in Italy or France. Reflective of the former Roman presence? I never saw them in Ukraine. I get it now. To the ancient Greeks and subsequently Romans, getting to the Danube was one thing, but crossing the vast delta to the nearly endless marshy steppes was something else. Why bother, I can imagine them questioning. As far as I know, they weren't hurting for real estate. This is one enormous delta. It would need significant engineering works to be drained so a road could be built or the land worked. I can see why they never put forth the significant effort required to build some sort of network of bridges to cross it. All roads may have led to Rome, but none of them started on the far side of the Danube.

For me now, the snow remains, both the charming soft falling kind and the blanket accumulated on the hilly ground. It prevents me from really seeing the landscape well, much less doing any kind of painting to record it. It's gotten a little warmer, though, closer to the freezing point and I enjoy more freedom from peeling off a few layers. In addition to little village shops, there are little cafe/bars, similar to what can be seen in similar size villages in Spain and Italy. I've popped into a few for chai (fruity herbal infusions; no black tea here) and to warm up before a potbelly stove. Conversations start easily. I use an amalgam of Spanish, Italian, and French and am understood pretty readily. Upon learning I'm from America, the old men are all quick to demonstrate their English by saying 'I love you.' It seems to be the only English they know. Endearing in its way, actually.

Visa requirements and interest, I suppose, keep the Romanians from visiting Ukraine and Ukrainians from visiting Romania. I haven't been here very long, but I've seen many cars and trucks with French, Italian, Spanish, Bulgarian, and Polish license plates; in Ukraine, I only saw Ukrainian plates. I sense a different atmosphere because of it.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Standing at the Danube

In Izmail, I stood at the Danube River in a light snowfall unable to continue on St Andrew's route because of modern political borders. A Roman Catholic priest was very kind to me and helped look into availabe possibilities. He arranged for a local reporter and a translator to talk to me about my pilgrimage through Ukraine and how safe and wonderful it's been. The very old city of Tulcea, across the Danube in Romania, is the next place to go. I can imagine that St Andrew used a boat to get himself upstream through the few meanders, but it can't be done now. Apparently, in summer, there was a passenger ferry, but it went bankrupt and wouldn't run in winter anyway. I could walk the 20 km in a morning, but it's not quite frozen enough do so and I wouldn't know where to go to get my passport stamped, anyway. Taking a bus to Reni, 55 km north, then crossing into Moldova for a short distance, then crossing into Romania, then assessing the options to get back down to Tulcea, was the final conclusion on how to progress. Maybe St Andrew had visa issues, too. I don't know. But probably not. How could 'Terra Incognita' have a border patrol?

I executed the plan, learning along the way that it's possible to walk through the customs and immigration posts of Ukraine and Moldova, and to walk along the lonely road to Romania, but that it's not permitted to walk from Moldova into Romania. I suppose because there's a bridge involved. The reason wasn't made clear. Men with guns told me in Russian that I couldn't walk past. I respect their rules. One guard tried to shuffle me into a small car with four Moldovan men, each smoking a cigarrette, but seeing this as my fate, I looped around and pointed to a van with German plates. He allowed me to ask the driver if I could jump in to cross the border as his passenger. The jovial half Russian half German driver was happy to assist. He had two other passengers - a Romanian woman making her way home from Moldova and a Moldovan man trying to get to Bulgaria. The Moldovan man didn't have his paperwork in order, so after a long wait in the falling snow, the Russian/German driver gave him his duffle bag and we went on through the customs points and snowy bridge without him.

I've made it as far as Galata for the night and understand that there's a boat I can take toward Tulcea in the morning. A lot has happened quite quickly; it's a bit overwhelming. It was getting toward dusk when I arrived into this small city and I had know idea where to begin to look for lodging realizing that I don't speak the language, have no local currency, and no letter of introduction. No time to waste. I saw onion domes of an Orthodox church to the right when I approached on the main road, but saw a sign for the city center to the left. I had a good feeling that there'd be a Roman Catholic church in the city and would have a better chance of finding someone to explain my pilgrim needs to. A block later, right where I wanted it to be, a large Catholic church and rectory. It didn't take long to get myself welcomed in - good thing, too, the snow was coming down heavily - although to my great disappointment, when I reached for my Italian, I found it missing... one word, then another started coming back into my head as I tried to push out the now-unnecessary Russian and Ukrainian. The priest I spoke with was both amused and patient. Discussions and introductions, then, lo and behold, a nun who speaks English... phew! I have some breathing room to get my language thoughts in order...

So the Ukraine portion of the show is a thing of the past. It's sad in a way. I'm at the halfway point of my journey, but at the moment it feels like one pilgrimage has ended and another is beginning without time to sit and digest all that I've experienced. That was over 70 days in Ukraine, with the Cyrillic alphabet, and all that borscht! I'm inclined to pop back to the States and debrief all my pals about my adventures, but that would be illogical. The tales will have to wait. More tales are to be had. Stay tuned.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The beauty of the cold

The beauty of the cold is that by wearing all the clothes I possess, I have a light load to carry. My load is very light these days - I'm wearing everything except my pajama tee-shirt and my clean pair of socks and undies. The wind sure whistles 'cross these steppes. While I walk, I stay warm and dry, but the minute I stop, the cold begins to get to me. Brrrrr. The villages are too small to have any kind of cafe and the small shops are by and large unheated, and no place to try to get warm. The cold snap must be nearly over, though, because the sun's been shining for a few days now and the snow is only the blowing kind, not the falling kind. (In Russian, there are two different words for this.) Now I'm left with a 'balaclava burn', perhaps the goofiest sunburn I've ever had - a perfect oval enclosing my eyes, nose, and upper lip...the inverse of the ski-goggle markings. >sigh< yes, Mom, I do use sunscreen, but...

Here's a warm winter's tale:
I came through a village yesterday, Sunday, and sought a place to sit and rest out of the wind. No cafe, no shop, nothing except a bus-stop lacking walls, so to the church I went. It was around 10 in the morning. Cold and silent, but unlocked... the smallest noise I made entering and stomping the snow off my boots aroused the attention of a candle-lady. She emerged from a door off the vestibule. I explained in my polished Russian who I am and that I only wanted to sit by a fire and maybe have a cup of tea. She invited me into a tiny room where I was surprised to find the occupants - a rotund priest (batyushku), his wife (matyusku), and another candle-lady crammed around a small table - crammed in so tightly that no one could move independent of another. Nonetheless, the table was equally crammed with plates and plates of typical Ukrainian food: pickles, of course, cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots, herring... they'll pickle anything here; salted fish, whole, unscaled, ungutted; gelatenous patties of pig's feet meat in aspic; roasted chicken on the bone; cabbage, beet, and onion salad in mayonaise; a plate of raw onions, garlic, and pigfat, all sliced and ready to eat as fingerfood; fried crepes filled with goat cheese; bread, black and white; and a big plate of assorted cookies and bonbons. There were no personal plates or forks... everything is eaten cold with fingers, passed around person to person, a fair portion hanging on the priest's great grey scraggly beard. Instead of the typical hot black tea, there was a pot full of hot sugared red wine. There was no source of heat in this side room of the stone church, other than the presence of the four people squeezed in. I made five, yet hardly contributed to the body warmth of the room. 'Koosh-it, koosh-it', I was told frequently by each of the women and of the priest. The wine tried to warm me up. I wondered why they would spend their Sunday morning brunch this way, in a small, unheated closet of a room I found way too cold to be comfortable - the bucket of water under the table was frozen solid. Then it occurred to me that the smallest of these farm village women has 15 cm (6 inches) and at least 20 kilos (50 lbs) over me, the priest double and triple those numbers... could it be that they don't even feel the cold? But before I left, each of them gave me a great bear hug to wish me well on my continued journey and that warmed me more than the wine. Winter weather...

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Now here's an angel...

Last Sunday, abundant snow and a fierce wind compelled me to walk along a pot-holed road rather than across the preferred fields. I arrived at the edge of a village, my mouth watering at the thought of hot tea that awaited me somewhere within the village boundaries. An oncoming car swerved toward me, the driver waving his arms for me to stop. Oooooo, caution... Stopping the car abruptly just beside me, the driver alighted and muttered unitelligibly, but then, composing himself (and in a rather dashing long wool cape), said 'Holy Mass. Now. Village house.'

It was coincidence that this Roman Catholic priest, Polish by nationality; Russian in language, drove up just as I was walking by the house where he was coming to say Mass to an extended family of Armenians.  The RC priest I met two days before had given him the heads-up that an American pilgrim was walking through the area.  Good fortune for me, and the tasty brunch of Armenian food that was served afterwards was not the least of it - a small respite from the ubiquitous borscht.

But it's the priest I want to bring attention to... Father Viacheslav.  He's an energetic visionary who's not only got grand dreams for his parish, but has done quite a bit already toward the construction of a RC church and ecumenical family center in the town of Yuzhny, not far from Odessa.  Yuzhny is one of the numerous 'model cities' designed and built in the 1980s as perfectly balanced communities, though conspicuously lacking churches of any denomination.  Father Viacheslav has taken good care of me for many days now, arranging with other priests and nuns in the extended area for places to sleep.  He even arranged for a TV station to cover my arrival into Yuzhny - Winter Pilgrim in our Town, which draws positive press for the benefits of pilgrim life.  Beyond that, he's been helpful in discussions with the Romanian and Moldovan consulates about entry options - I'm not sure we've got all of the kinks worked out, but that's likely the subject of a future blog.

Take a moment to visit his grassroots website and direct its attention to appropriate charitable organizations you might know.  This guy's the real deal and is tireless in his efforts to help the people of Ukraine.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Pilgrim Caddy

I walk sometimes with a comical image of a pilgrim caddy. Total fantasy, of course, but wouldn't it be funny if a pilgrim were accompanied by a caddy carrying a magical carpet-bag like the one Mary Poppins carried. From it, the caddy could pull cross-country skis, properly waxed, of course, or snowshoes, either the kind for icy snow or powdery... inline skates for those occasions the road is of smooth asphalt... there have been occasions where hipwaders would have been handy... and, well, for me, stilts... It's complete folly - there's no such thing as a pilgrim caddy and there really shouldn't be, but on those long stretches where there's not much variety in the landscape and not much thought required for finding the right path, this is a recurrent thought - what would my trusty Sancho Panzo offer from the magic valise to make the journey a tad more efficient than my worn hiking boots?

Time's flying by...

Time's flying by so fast, or so it seems to me. I'm just at the wintry doorstep of Odessa and will be on the border of Romania within a week or so. Wow - think of all those kilometers, all that borscht!

I'm enjoying the walk, although the weather's turned on me in the last few days with snow and a strong wind pushing me westward. People seem all the friendlier, though. I feel compelled to apologize to the women of Ukraine for two things. First, I apologize for turning away your constant pleas for me to 'koosh-it, koosh-it' - I'm a small person and there's only so much I can eat. Honestly. And, though I appreciate the gesture immensely, there's only so much food I'm capable of carrying. I try to keep my backpack to it's starting weight of 7 kilos, but I'm given on an almost daily basis, another 2 to 3 kilos of food 'for the road'. It's not that I don't look forward to a roadside picnic, but 8 apples, 6 salted porkfat sandwiches, and a huge bag of butter cookies is more than I can possibly eat, especially after a huge breakfast of goose eggs and fried kielbasa... It's too much! Those tears in my eyes are a mix of genuine appreciation and horror at the approaching backache - I can't carry 10 kilos! Please understand.

Secondly, I want to apologize for turning down the gifts of heavy clothing. I realize high-tech fabrics are relatively new to the world, but my softshell jacket and capilene layers really do keep me warm and dry. A heavy floor-length wool coat with fur trim and that giant fur hat serve well at a bus stop, but I'm not a stand-around-and-wait kind of pilgrim. My lightweight clothes work well as long as I'm moving. So I move a lot these cold and windy days. I can chuckle at the thought of the kind babuska who tsk-tsked me pathetically and pulled a huge heavy bundle out from under a sofa. She turned out the heap of fur into an enormous coat that could have covered a Volkswagon. She put this over me and offered it to me as a more suitable alternative to my lightweight jacket. It seems absurd to me that anyone could think it sensible to wear a great fur coat with a backpack, but then, I'm sure she thought it equally absurd that anyone would backpack in cold weather. The fur coat weighed at least 12 kilos and dragged across the floor. Totally Doctor Zhivago and Lara... not quite in a pilgrim's kitbag. Really, my clothes are just right. There's no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing. Someone said that. Sometimes I believe it.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Last Steppes of Crimea

Turning myself northward, I began the walk off the Crimean Pennisula, back to the mainland to pick up St Andrew's travels to the series of ancient Greek villages along the Black Sea.

The black stones and gravel of the south coast are replaced with coarse golden sand on the west coast, below high bluffs of punky sandstone and conglomerates. I took to the surf again - in places needing to sprint between breakers on the bluffs (as well as one can sprint on sand in hiking boots with a backpack!). The flat expanses on the tops of the bluffs are for many kilometers Russian and Ukrainian military bases, but the beaches are open access - so some soldiers told me.

I stayed one night in a church house where the priest told me he recently acquired relics of 300 Saints, including St Andrew and John the Baptist. I didn't realize the guys were still getting parted out. This is the second bit of Andrew I've encountered.

New Year's Eve was full of the sounds of fireworks, but for personal parties it seemed, not something everybody engages in. (This is Santa's secret, though... how he manages to deliver all of the presents to good little boys and girls - he gets two nights, not one. With Snow Princess, he leaves presents under the tree on New Year's Eve, not Christmas here.) Orthodox Christmas came and went, too, without much fanfare. There were only 6 elderly ladies in the village church when I arrived on Christmas Eve in the pouring rain. The priest interrupted the service to attend to me and went to each babushka to determine who would take me in for the night. Thus accommodated, there was a small evening meal with her grown children and everyone was in bed by 9:30. Christmas morning, I nearly slipped out at dawn to begin my long walk, but the babushka caught me at the door and sat me down for a hot meal and tea. The village slept in.

The bluffs have petered out, the mountains long out of view... a cold north wind brought snow, then was blown away by a slightly warmer east wind that brought mud. How I do prefer snow! Inhabitants are few and villages far between, meaning long treks with no place to stop for rests. Several times, my desires were filled by farm ladies tapping on their windows as I passed and inviting me in for tea, conversation, and the warmth of a stove fire.

The half light of dawn persists on these last steppes of Crimea until the twilight of dusk in low clouds that hug the gently sloping land. The metronome of my walking sticks taps out an allegro in the morning and a bit more of an andante in the afternoon as the kilometers add up and the tread of my boots wears thin. I have no desire for this to ever end.

Side Trip to Russia

The blissful days of Crimea's south coast surf and turf passed when I arrived in the ancient town of Khersoness - now in ruins, but ruins dating from the 3rd century BC up to the middle ages. Cool. Spectacular, even on the first of the year when the museum buildings are closed. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the extensive ruins, a thriving town when the fabled Amazon women roamed the land and Greek fishermen clung to the coast avoiding them. Hoo-ahh. Sadly, the few posted descriptions are only in Russian and Ukrainian. Searching hard, I found a small summary guide in Russian and German and one set of turn-of-the-last-century photographs with captions in French. Yet this UNESCO cultural site is full of profound history. My guiding pal, St. Andrew, walked these alleys. The cathedral built on the spot where King Vladimir was baptized in 988 has been recently restored and is an historic place as well as religious - nice stamp, too.

I asked about pilgrim lodgings and it was arranged by a candle-lady and a man working there, no priest being around at the time. I was to meet a man, Leonid, at 7pm at a nearby address, giving me the whole day to wander around at my leisure. Nice.

Sevastopol, the modern city built beside the ancient ruins, is not only very modern, but very Russian. The fleet fills the unattractive harbor, the flag flies over many official buildings. It's a city that doesn't interest me much. At 7, I went to find Leonid. For the first time on the whole pilgrimage, I faced hostility. Leonid demanded to see my 'American passport'. No one else had ever asked for it, and here his tone was downright hostile. Bad vibe. I showed him my well-stamped credenziale as proof of my pilgrim status and kept my passport hidden in my backpack. He wasn't happy but backed off the issue. He aggressively demanded 20 US dollars. That really chapped my hide. Had he said 160 hgrivna, I might have consented, although it would have been a precedent on the pilgrimage: everyone has considered me a guest in their home, church, or monastery and never asked for money - on the contrary, many priests have given me money for tea and expenses along the road... even when I discretely left 100 hgrivna at the home of the poorest host, she caught up to me by bicycle 20 minutes later hotly and tearfully scolding me for the presumption of my action and flung the money back at me... no, Leonid was shaking me down because I'm American. I balked. He left briefly and returned with the very uncomfortable man from the cathedral.

Leonid, a slight man around 60, well-dressed and smelling nice, again demanded 20 US dollars, bellowing in monotone English: 'This is Russia; tourists must pay!' I sized him up. No threat to me. I could take him. The other man, bigger, heavy leather coat, flinched at the conflict, fidgeting with his tight wedding band. Hen-pecked and well-fed. Bah. No threat either. I can be a hen. I bellowed right back, in Ukrainian: 'This is Ukraine and I'm a pilgrim. No dollars.' (It can't be Russia; I haven't got a visa for it to be Russia.) To the big man, I held up the St Andrew medallion I wear and asked to be taken to the monastery where a pilgrim would be welcomed. He cowered, said something to Leonid in Russian, and crossed himself three times in rapid succession. Leonid backed down and calmly told me in English that he would 'dissolve the problem' and left. Hrrumph. They picked the wrong pilgrim to try to hustle. He returned a little while later with a big plate of food and some tea, very polite, and left assuring me that everything was fine and that I should mention the situation to no one. (Triumph, yeah, but I barred the locked door with one walking stick and slept with the other.) This may be Ukraine and not Russia, but many inhabitants would like to argue the point.