It’s a chilly September evening. I’m waiting on an old wooden bench on a long busy train platform. The platform extends into the gathering darkness as far as the eye can see, and is protected by a long tin roof, not quite as far as the eye can see. It’s raining, and the rain beats on the roof, and except for the rain and the few pairs of neatly folded clothes in my bag, I am alone. It occurs to me that I may be alone for a long time. Through the fog, across the rows and rows of darkening tracks, I make out the silhoutted clocktower and domed roof of a proud old train station. I imagine the inside, a cavernous central hall, marble floors, sturdy pillars, and an arching, frescoed ceiling. The whole place echoes. It’s warm. I long to escape the cold and step inside. But I have been told, “Wait on the platform.” Warned. “Our gypsies will hypnotize a man and leave him with nothing.” And had the stakes raised. “Every one of our train stations is full of gypsies.” So I wait on the platform. As I wait, I listen. Russian – bubbling with warm greetings and passionate disagreements over who should carry what luggage – blends with the patter of the steady rain on the tin roof overhead. I have arrived, but I am not sure where. A little ways down the platform, a hardened man in a leather jacket watches me. I’m sure that I blush. Like watercolors in a trembling hand, my simplest outlines, red-headed and American, bleed through, soaking me, blowing my cover. So I stare up at the sky. In my moment of arrival, I recognize only those pieces that don’t belong. Me. The stranger. The foreigner in a city bare of foreigners – an American here to teach English to Ukrainians, my first job out of college.
“Welcome to Ukraine.” A young woman with a strong accent greets me. My new boss. I stand and extend my hand. She has black hair, slender lips and pale skin. Pretty. “Welcome to the very first capital of Ukraine. Kharkov. I’m Katya. And you must be Sam?” We carry my bags over the tracks and load a waiting taxi. “Sorry the weather is not so good.” Katya apologizes. “Which weather is in America now?” I begin to answer and the driver chokes the engine and the car vibrates. “It is the same,” I reply, “in Boston.” Russian music climbs from the cab’s speakers. “Strange,” Katya observes, “I thought it would be sunny?” I begin to explain, “Well, of course, it depends on the place, on the day…” But I miss the point. Katya is assuming that the same moment is better somewhere else. In Boston perhaps. “Anyways, welcome to Cold Mountain. This is your neighborhood, where your apartment is, up this hill, about thirty minutes walk from school.” Cold Mountain? “Yes. The neighborhood is called, it translates to, something like… Cold Mountain.” It is cold, pouring rain. Through the heavy rivulets running down my window I can see the dark outlines of long stocky buildings rising rockily from a muddy hill, Cold Mountain, each building stacked floor upon floor, holding thousands and thousands of apartments. “There’s your building. The one on the corner.” Katya points to a dilapidating high-rise. Most buildings are more than six stories, some are twenty and stretch whole blocks, many times longer than they are tall, filled with broken elevators and crumbling perfectly-equally-proportioned apartments. Each apartment has its own tiny balcony, with space enough for drying clothes. These cling to the buildings for dear life, crammed together, like beetles on a cinder block. “The entrance is in the back.” Our taxi pulls into a dirt lot that extends along the rear of my building, past a sad, sopping pack of tattered dogs, creaking to a stop in front of a muddy merry-go-round. We unload the taxi and walk up the cement steps to the 11th floor. “Broken elevator,” says Katya. Apartment 202. Same as my area code in Washington, DC. “Here is the bedroom and living room,” Katya flicks on the light. My bed is an uneven brown couch. “And here is the kitchen.” My kitchen drawers are wedged at odd angles. “And the clothes washer.” I notice that my ceilings are stuck with huge swathes of pictorial wallpaper – entire forest scenes, trees and deer and puffy white clouds. Pastoral company. Then, suddenly, Katya notices— I’ve been walking around the apartment in my very muddy shoes. “Don’t you think, perhaps, you should take your shoes off?” Katya’s disturbed. She can’t take her eyes off of my feet. I slip my shoes off. “And your poor socks are full of holes!” Well, all my socks are. “And the American girls don’t mind!?” Katya can’t believe her eyes. I guess I never thought about it before.
“We cannot forget.” My neighbor in Apartment 203 is Ivan Ivanovich, a surly firefighter, probably fifty years old. He has strong, swollen fingers and always wears a jean jacket and beautifully polished patent-leather shoes. He lives across the hall with his son, wife, and wife’s mother. Sergei, Tanya, and Larissa. The Ivanovich’s. “Maybe in America it is easy to forget?” I am a guest at their kitchen table, invited with a mixture of kindness, awe, skepticism and interrogation. The table is set with cabbage-dumblings stuffed with rice and pork and cherry-dumplings doused with sour cream and sugar. And there is, of course, and as always, alcohol. Vodka and cognac. “I mean, what do Americans know about our history?” Ivan asks, pouring one for me, and one for him, and one for his wife. “Do they know anything!?” I tell the truth. “Not much.” More like nothing at all. “During the First World War,” Ivan explains, “we fought against ourselves. The east of Ukraine with Russia, the west with Austria. And now they want us to be one country.” He nods gently to Tanya. “My grandfather against hers, they fought, and killed.” As Ivan speaks, Tanya’s old and quiet mother shuffles endlessly between table and stove, cooking, cleaning, clearing, and demanding only that we eat and eat. “Ochen vkusna. Ochen vkusna. Very tasty,” I repeat. “A toast!” Ivan reaches suddenly across the table and grabs the vodka. “To our Great Patriotic War! Then we were united!” The what? “Against Hitler! With Churchill and Roosevelt. Don’t you know it?” Of course. “But we have a different name,” I say. Ivan grins, showing his gold capped molars. “But who won the war? Not you, do you think?” Before I can respond, Ivan asks his wife. “Kto viigral? Who won?” She doesn’t blink. “Mi cdelali. We did it. Vce vmecte. The whole of the Soviet Union together. Russians and Ukrainians. No help from the West.” Ivan beams. “The Americans never set foot here. You see? Russian soldiers defended our city, with us. So, back then we were united. So, how should we feel now, about all this—!?” Ivan gestures at the shabby world around him, sad. After desert, Ivan pours more vodka, and falls further into disappointment, with Ukraine, its bad roads, its corruption, its falling educational standards, and lack of opportunity. “We expect better from ourselves,” Ivan admits, “Imagine, I mean, men flee to America to be better, more successful, to flee the past. But no one escapes to Ukraine. No one. Ok, of course, some Africans and Chinese,” he pauses, “but no one really—it is why I hope my son will learn English and go to America or Canada. Or maybe to Germany.” He wants to know which country is the best. “Canada?” I offer. Ivan laughs as he pours another round of vodka. And we toast to “humour” and “friendship between nations.” Later, Ivan shows me a video on his cellphone. He and some firefighter friends are in the woods throwing cans at another friend who is trying to squat and shit behind a tree. For me, the room starts to spin. But Ivan keeps pouring. “Do you want to see the photos from Firemen’s Day?” In Ivan’s pictures, a dozen men sit eating around a long table. Their plates are stacked with salads and cold meats. Their glasses are filled with vodka. They are at work, in the firehouse, on call, drinking, and making toasts. “What happens on Doctor’s Day?” I ask. “The same of course,” Ivan replies, “But of course the surgeons drink only a little. And the people they try not to get sick.”
The next day, with my hangover not worn off, my students take me to see their favorite statue. She lives in the woods. To get there we take a tram to the edge of the city, get off in a field, and walk into a forest. We walk and walk until, finally, through the pine trees, I begin to see the statue’s outlines. Coal-colored and carved from granite. “Sh—Sh—She’s a mother,” stutters my most outspoken student, Pavel, a doctor with thick glasses and a terrible speech impediment. “The m—m—mother of our n—n—nation.” A World War II memorial. That is, The Great Patriotic War. “But l—l—listen.” Thump Th-Thump. Thump Th-Thump. I listen. Thump Th-Thump. Thump Th-Thump. Granite aside, the statue is alive. She has a pulse. Beneath my feet, generated by some subterranean machine, her pulse rises eternally up. Living history. “Now l—l—look around,” says Pavel. Everywhere in the clearing I see emptied champagne bottles and coins and rice. Relics of the dozen weddings that visited last weekend, every weekend. “The m—m—memorial is,” Pavel explains, “an important stop on wedding-days.” In Ukraine, newlyweds, though they are about to embark on a seemingly new chapter, pose in front of as many historical monuments as possible – many deeply tragic.
5 AM. And I’ve just left a nightclub called Galaktika in the back of a friend’s taxi. Oleg, the driver, has a silver earing, a black mustache, sleepy eyes, and a daredevil’s approach to the road. We whir ruthlessly through the quiet city. “Isn’t it strange?” I ask, pointing to a picture hanging from Oleg’s rear view mirror. In the photo, Oleg’s sister is wearing a beatiful, pearl-white wedding gown and standing in front of the statue with the heartbeat. I think it’s strange, the idea that brides and grooms and families celebrate in that somber place. Oleg glances up. “No. Is it strange for you?” A bit. “Americans don’t usually mix the dead and the living.” Oleg doesn’t answer. “The groom is American,” he offers instead. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, marriage tourism has exploded in Ukraine. Every year many thousands of western men come to find younger or lovelier brides than they might find in their own countries, girls who want to escape to the West. “Now my sister lives in Florida,” Oleg explains. Three years ago, here in Kharkov, she married Paul. “Would you marry a Ukrainian girl?” Oleg wonders. “I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe, but I don’t think so.” Oleg doesn’t believe me. “Why not? Our girls are pretty. And you are an American.” Red lips, long hair, long lashes, short skirts and high heels, even in the supermarket. It’s tempting. “Do you think your sister loves Paul?” I ask. “Loves him enough. More all the time. My mother says that the best thing an American can do for Ukraine is to take one of our pretty girl’s home and marry her. And I don’t disagree. Maybe I am jealous. Maybe I want to see Miami too,” explains Oleg, “Ok, I admit it, I do.” The phone in Oleg’s jacket pocket rings, a popular Russian pop song. “Privet. Nu shto? What is it? What do you want?” Oleg is impatient. As he chatters, I gaze out the window. The city is peaceful at this early, orange hour, and so I nod off. “Do you want to hear about another girl?” Oleg shakes me awake when he finishes his call. He tells me about a prostitute named Oksana, who he met years ago, when he first began to drive cabs and his sister still lived in Ukraine. Every night Oleg picked Oksana up on Poltavski Shlach and drove her home across the city. On this particular night, it was winter, and Oksana was cold. She told Oleg she felt like she had been standing outside forever. “I was drinking a beer,” Oleg explains, “when suddenly, from out of nowhere, a horse appeared. Black as night. A stallion! And we damn nearly fucking hit it! You should have heard the hooker scream!” He laughs and mimics a cursing cry, slamming both hands on the steering wheel in front of him. “I put both feet on the brakes!” He presses down for effect. “But Oxsana’s face hit the windshield! And, well, she was pretty, but then her nose broke everywhere. And the horse just leapt over the car and disappeared.” Oleg and I sit stopped in the middle of the road for a long moment. “Can you believe it? A horse in the city. Oxsana’s nose on my glass. Maybe I imagined the horse. Maybe not. But something made me stop. Life arrives in strange ways you know. You never know how it will come or where it will take you. And I think that is why my sister married Paul. She knew that.” With that, Oleg releases the brake and pulls off down the road again.
“Nothing ever changes,” says Lena, my Russian teacher, a widow with a daughter my age. “Now America has mothers like me.” Her husband died in Afghanistan, in the Soviet’s ten year war there (1978/1988), a war the Americans are fighting again. It is late fall and we are returning from gathering mushrooms. It’s a tradition, in October and November, to venture into the woods and gather fungi. Families do it. Friends do it. Everyone knows which are safe and which are not. “Was life better in the Soviet Union?” I ask. Lena grins. “Not really. Life was easier. That’s all. If you went to school and to work and had a family, you got what you needed. Almost. We had no diapers, no toilet paper or tampons. And only four colors for women to die their hair! Instead we had a man in space. And in the eighties, the city had no cheese.”After years of shortage, Lena’s husband brought some from Moscow. “But people were angry! They called him arrogant, bourgeois! They wouldn’t let him on the tram.” At the edge of the woods, we reach our tram tracks. Soon, a tram appears, creaking and heavy. Lena flags the driver. And we step inside, leaving the chilly autumn evening behind. All around us, tired faces stare at nothing, while the tram pulls off down the tracks again.
I knew I needed stitches right away. For my leg. Just a few. It was a bike accident that did it. So I go to the hospital for stitches. Arriving after midnight, I find that the front door is locked and all the lights are out. A hand-written sign with an arrow points to the back of the building. There, I slip past a lone, sleeping guard, and beyond into the dark hospital hallways. On the third floor, finally, I see a dim yellow glow seeping from beneath an office door. I knock. “Good evening,” a soft spoken doctor greets me. I blink in the sudden light. “Take a seat.” Showing the nurse my wound, I ask, “How much will it cost?” The nurse sizes me up. “Thread is $2 and anesthesia is $3,” she lowers her voice to a whisper, “And anything extra is your kindness.” My kindness. The nurse sews me up. “Keep it clean,” she warns. Anything else I need to know? I’m thinking about a prescription, to prevent infection. “No, not in Ukraine. The best way is to pour vodka over the wound three times a day.” Vodka? I’m incredulous. “Yes, vodka. I would write you a prescription, but you can’t just trust pharmacists these days… They go against us, you know, tell the people to buy medicines different to what we prescribe. They collect the receipts, you know, and at the end of the month the drug companies come and they pay for how many people the pharmacists can convince to ignore us doctors. But you can trust vodka. You can always trust vodka. There’s nothing selfish in it.” As I leave, I slip the nurse one hundred hryvnia ($15), knowing that she will share with the doctor, and he with the bosses above him. If we were caught, the nurse and I would bribe the police for taking bribes. They too, would pay up to their bosses, and those bosses to even taller bosses. This is the pyramid of the economy.
“The punch has been spiked,” my American coworker Steve tells me. We’re waiting in line at a corner kiosk, “and everyone is forced to drink.” We’re getting vodka for my week-old stitches. Maybe we will drink some, make some toasts, to stitches and absurdities. “System is fucked dude,” he concludes. Steve has a crush on the girl who works in the kiosk. Like every other night, he drawls a Russian hello in his woodsy Texan accent. “Priiiiiivet.” And a big American smile. She nods businesslike in return. “Can she really not be curious?” I shrug. “PRIVET!” From behind us, a loud greeting from a familiar, gruff voice. Oleg, the sleepy-eyed taxi driver. “Moy amerikanskiye druzya! My American friends! Kak dela? How are you?” Oleg lives upstairs from Steve; they like to cook stews and smoke methamphetamines together (Steve has taken a year off from a prestigious American medical school to come to Ukraine). Tonight, Oleg wants to have a party. Some of his friends are already on their way. “Vam nuznho pit tozhe! You must join us!” We agree. And Steve proposes his own apartment, because Oleg lives with his grandparents. “Udobno, ya shastliv. If you’re comfortable, I am happy.” Oleg consents. Two hours later – with darts, accordions, vodka, sardines, marijuana and an original Nintendo – the party is underway. Toasts are made. Cigarettes take the group out back to a picnic bench under a willow tree. Back in for dancing. Oleg, heavyset and sweaty, removes his shirt. Somewhere someone drops a bottle of cognac. “BANG! BANG!” A crashing knock breaks the air. “BANG! BANG!” For a moment, all of us freeze. And then, in charge the police, marching straight for Steve. “Shto takoy!!? What is this!!?” Their leader motions to the smoke in the air. He sniffs. “Ya spracil tebe, shto takoy!? I said, what is this!?” Steve is speechless. His Russian is bad. Mine is better, but I don’t dare speak. The police grab Steve, pulling him into the back alley and then to their car. He disappears. For a moment, all of us are silent. “Militsia ochen plaxaya. Ochen plaxaya. Police are very bad. Very bad.” Oleg mutters. “Will they hurt him?” I ask. “Mojet bit. Maybe.” Oleg is serious. Steve’s location and condition are unknowable. There is no one to call, nothing to do. And so, after hours of waiting, I go home. BRRIIINGGG!!! BRRIIINGGG!!! Steve calls me at 6AM. There is a mischievous grin in his voice. What happened? “They drove me around asking me questions about America. How much does a Honda Accord cost? How much is a house? All that. Then they brought me to the nearest ATM, the one by the 24-hour supermarket. And I gave them five hundred dollars. Then they drove me home. So easy dude. Like I said, system is fucked though.” The next day, when I tell my students, the room falls deeply uncomfortably silent. “What?” I ask. My students are shocked that what is obvious to them has not occurred to me. “What?” I repeat. Finally, Pavel, the doctor with the stutter, ventures, “y—y—you and Steve shouldn’t hang out with Oleg anymore, o—o—or his friends.” Why? “They tricked you. With the police. They all took their cut.” All of my students nod in ashamed agreement.
During my last semester as an English teacher, a young couple invites me on a tour of their university, the National Aerospace Institute. The inseparable couple, Alexey and Natasha, are the first to arrive for every lesson, sitting always in the front row. Natasha, the stronger student, whispers answers and encouragement to Alexey whenever he stumbles, which is often. In return, Alexey attends to Natasha’s every move. He takes her coat and hangs it. He sharpens her pencils. To visit them at their university I will have to travel to the far end of the city, riding the metro past stops with names like The Soviet Army, The Square of the Working Hero, The Tractor Factory, Moscow’s Boulevard and Pushkin’s Boulevard, each one buried deep underground. At the other end, a warm meal. In this city, entering the subway, descending by escalator, I expect never to emerge. Each station is an underground opera, boasting high-carved ceilings, miles of pearl-colored marble, hundreds of clickity-clacking stilettos, and long shadows cast by elegant chandeliers. On the walls, expressionless men in overalls swing hammers and women in shawls wield sickles. A proud and tireless proletariat. “Did you have a good ride?” Alexey meets me at the subway’s exit. “I was afraid you would be lost.” As we enter the dorms, we pass a heavyset, stubborn old woman, the lone guard. Probably a widow. I notice that her ankles are swollen. Probably from drink. She wears a blue apron and thick slippers, and lives alone in a cramped room at the entrance to the dormitory, checking each person as he or she enters. Her bed is next to a sink, across from a miniature television, and under a wall full of keys. After the 11PM curfew, one has to knock, wake her up, and pay a small bribe to get in. “On pravda Amerikanyets? He is truly American?” she asks Alexey. “Da. On moy druk. Moy prepadavatel. Yes. He is my friend. My teacher.” The old woman is incredulous. “Prepadavatel? On maladoy. A teacher? He is too young.” But Alexey insists. “Chestno. Honestly.” They stare off and when she relents Alexey nods to me, and I hand her my passport. There is some money slipped inside. “On shpion? Is he a spy?” The old woman asks at me with simultaneous suspicion and disinterest. Alexey answers. “Ne znayu. Mne kajettcya, net. I don’t know. Not to me.” Finally, the old woman gestures us past, but holds onto my passport. Nothing in the dormitory has been renovated in years. The stairwells and hallways are unlit and the elevator shrieks ominously. “To save money.” Alexey explains. “Hello! Hello!” Natasha pulls open the door to Alexey’s room. “I hope you are hungry?!” Their room is warm and cozy. From behind a curtain, the hum of a hot water boiler greets me, bubbling away. “Would you like some tea?” Natasha offers. “Yes, please.” I wiggle my toes in my borrowed slippers. “Sit down. Have some borscht. Have some sour cream. Do you need more salt? Black or green tea? With honey or sugar?” Natasha jumps up when the water boiler pops finished, ready to pour me my second cup. “Eat, eat. Talk later.” She repeats. Like all of my students, Natasha and Alexey worry that, as an American, I do not eat right or know how to prepare food for myself. And perhaps I don’t. As I eat Natasha’s delicious soup, I notice that the chicken’s bones are still floating at the bottom of my bowl, soft and edible, left over after hours of being boiled to make broth. I stare at the bones, unsure whether they are meant to be eaten or not. I was always taught that a guest should always eat everything. Not wanting to be impolite, I do just that. “Do you eat the bones in America?” Dinner is over and the three of us are taking a nighttime stroll. Natasha looks worried. “For us, this is not very normal.” The air is cool and clear. At the National Aerospace Institute, to save money, street lamps go out at midnight, leaving only the stars and the moon. Under their light, our conversation finds its way to the differences between America and Ukraine. Natasha asks. “Well, what’s your favorite difference?” Walking, I think. And I reply, “I think it is the walking.”
Kharkov is a city of strolls. Its densely wooded parks, Shevchenko and Gorky, fill with slow-moving feet during spring, summer and fall, and stay full until the last of autumn’s leaves has turned and fallen. Both are named for writers. Taras Shevchenko (1814-1961) was a nationalist intellectual, the first poet to write in Ukrainian, back when the Ukrainian language was banned, a hero still today. Gorky (1868-1936) was a Russian, the founder of Socialist realism, the only State-sanctioned literary form in the Soviet Union—where certainly nothing was written in Ukrainian with State encouragement. Perfectly opposed, and therefore perfectly Ukrainian, nowadays Shevchenko and Gorky sit side by side, each providing a place for people to enjoy their own two feet. Walking is the national past time here, the escape without leaving. “What did you do this weekend?” It is a common question for a foreign language teacher to ask on a Monday. “I went for a walk” is the most common Ukrainian answer. And it is a fitting description for everything. I walk. And walk. I walk with my students. I walk with my teacher. I walk alone. Entering Gorky park, I step onto a broad shaded boulevard, full of little benches, mustard colored amusement park rides, and creaking carnival games. Dates flirt, groups of old men huddle, and kids zip by on roller blades. I venture on until the voices begin to fade and the trampled footpath gives way to wilderness. In all directions, lovely little hills rolls up and over each other. Walking, pausing, standing, and walking again, I escape, I keep moving.
For sixteen months I stroll, eventually wandering all the way back to the train platform with the tin roof, the place of my arrival. I remember the rain overhead. I remember my fears, red-headed and alone. The holes in my socks. I am going home. Standing on the platform, I watch the lines of the tracks wind and curve into the distance. At dawn the train will take me to Kiev, where a minibus will bump and roll and bring me to the airport. Then I’ll show my passport and I will return to that place that I call home. People will ask me, “What were you doing?” And I think I will tell them, “I went walking.”