Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Day 45 Merry Second Christmas

Ukraine is a wonderful place to be a pilgrim - well, where isn't? My eye is adjusting to the Cyrillic fonts and Slavic sounds.  The richness of languages is clear in a basic and frequent question I hear nearly every day: Mozhe chai?  It's more than the simple inquiry it would be in English, where we would ask - would you like some tea? - here, the question is Could you do with some tea?  Da, mozhne! is the eager response, yes, I sure could.

Western Ukraine is completely different from the eastern part of the county I pilgrimed through five years ago.  The part that is now sadly torn in an unnecessary dispute, I could not walk through these days - I'd be prevented from entering Crimea entirely, where I spent a wonderful extended holiday season.  Because of the current conflict, the bright blue and yellow of the national flag is present everywhere, freshly painted and raised.  Flags generally fly low on their staffs in deference to those who have been lost in the fighting.  New Year's Eve was subdued.  It's not quite a time of celebration in a nation with internal strife.

What I experienced in the eastern part of the country five years ago was a throw-back to a former time where indoor plumbing, even in grammar schools, is absent, heat comes only from the central woodstove with its ubiquitous cauldron of bottomless borshcht, topped off daily, and the household generally sleep together in one room on mattresses on the floor.  People dress simply, and the kerchiefed babuskas in peasantry garb look exactly like those in century-old photos... but the west of Ukraine - it's clean and tidy Europe, as modern as anywhere.  Young people, even in farming villages, are downright chic in their dress, smart phones, and shopping bags.  Houses are big and richly styled with architectural adornments, and cars are generally late-model, though the occasional Lata beater plugs away.  By my own eyewitness, east and west meet somewhere in the middle of Ukraine where two centuries mingle.   Of course, I found wonderful people when I traveled in the east, but I like it here in the west very much.

I've walked south, staying relatively close to the border with the European Union.  The number of cars with Polish, Czech, and Slovakian license plates reflects the open communication among neighboring countries.  Most villages have a European look and layout about them, with the church prominent in the main square.  For my daily walks, I've been staying largely in the forests and between farm fields, stopping for tea once or twice a day, and seeking hospitality at churches.  One night, Evangelical Christians offered a warm place to sleep, and one night I was taken in by an elderly Orthodox priest and his wife, who frantically scolded me (for my pilgrim efforts) in Russian far beyond my capacity to understand, but who treated me otherwise like a lost kitten, putting some milk in the saucer of potato and rice soup.  For the balance of my days here in Ukraine, I've been coddled by Greco-Catholic nuns and priests, who have all taken such exceptional care of me, I feel like a regular pampered pilgrim.  Though I'm still carrying a shameful surplus of chocolate bars and bonbons, they've been understanding about loading me down with too much food - those kielbasa and butter sandwiches freeze within an hour, I plead, please don't expect me to lug ice around all day, and the giant cans of tuna and sardines...please, I can't even open them, much less eat them in one sitting in their slushy congealed oil.  A hearty breakfast and an evening meal is more than sufficient nourishment.

Validation that I'm still on the Amber Road came in L'viv - a gorgeous gem of a city - when I passed an amber shop in the old part of the city.  A reproduction of an old map hangs prominently in a gilded frame in the window caught my eye as I walked by, so I stopped to look for a moment.  Across the street, at a tony cafe specializing in roasting coffee beans, a barista spied the scallop shell hanging on my backpack.  He tapped on the window and waved me in - the first to recognize the pilgrim symbol - offering me a cup of the finest roast on the house.  One day, he said, if he can get a visa, he'd like to walk to Santiago de Compostela.

A slight westward turn after L'viv, the Transcarpathians rolled in under my feet like a foamy incoming tide.  Every day in Ukraine has greeted me with snow flurries, but my approach to the mountains have coincided with a weather front bearing heavier snows.  The blustering swirls are glorious, the winter wonderland, out of a postcard.  It's Christmas Eve (again) and much more fitting to be standing boot-high in fluffy dry snow than in the dreary mud and rain.  I left some worrying priests in a hilltop monastery shrine as I tramped up through a narrow valley to a small village, then turned to cross a pair of long logs lashed together across a nearly frozen river.  Several hours later, after a peaceful afternoon listening to a pine forest fill with snow, I popped out into another valley where nuns and orphans awaited with hot tea.  Winter pilgriming is great!  I'm rather committed now, up yet another high and snowy valley, spending Christmas Eve with a family this time, delighted to serve the delicacies - 12 by tradition - to the otherwise empty placesetting left at the end of the table.  One more day up the valley - to another awaiting priest - and then the final push over the pass, to come down at the border with Hungary.  Ironically, more heavy snow is in the forecast... with the mountain paths unmarked, I'm a pilgrim with a few winter challenges.

1 comment:

Michèle Dextras & Jean-Claude Barre said...

Be careful in the snowy fields and forests. It can be easy to get disoriented. I can certainly understand the worrying priest.