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In a Land Far, Far Away

One of the Freshly Pressed posts this week was about travel and how to sustain a nomadic life of adventure. Her blog offered excellent advice for anyone trying to meet their financial goals for travel — and indeed Ms. Hilary Billings’ advice is applicable to everyone trying to squeeze seemingly unattainable financial goals into a budget. (Pssst — go check out her blog.)

Reading her post made me reevaluate where I am right now and where I thought I would be five years ago. There was also an episode of How I Met Your Mother this week that added some comedy to that sort of self-reflection, so it’s been on the brain.

If you’d asked me in 2007 where I would be in 2012, I would have said Scotland. Or Europe in general. I was freshly returned from over a year and a half abroad (or, to be more exact, in my last semester in Krakow), and Europe was home. In five years, I’ve only made it back once. As some of you know, Scotland was supposed to be in the cards for year before I got a stinging slap from the past in the form of a surprise 1099 and an $1100 tax bill.

Does it upset me that I’m not where I wanted to be geographically? Yes and no. What upsets me isn’t so much the geographical location in which I find myself (I have the triune blessings of husband, puppy, and kitten that cannot be discounted), it’s that I haven’t significantly changed my habits and lifestyle to make those things possible.

If you’d asked me twelve years ago what I wanted most: fame, riches, or a passport full of stamps — I’d have chosen the latter. And I’ve almost achieved that. There are only a few spots remaining in my passport to fill. I may not have gotten to every European country by my twenty-fifth birthday, but I did get to 11 of them. Not a bad feat.

I’ve decided to hold myself accountable to my goals by sharing where I’ve been with you, in the hopes that it’ll stir up that travel bug and motivate me to get my ducks in a financially sound row so I can do this thing.

Today, this is the one I want to share with you.

My actual passport -- they stamped this on the wrong page, but it's okay.

If you can’t read Cyrillic, that says “Ukraine.”

Lviv, 2006

I’d been in Poland almost a year at this point. I had a circle of friends from all over Europe who had convened in Krakow, and I found myself that November planning an excursion to Lviv (Lwów, in Polish) with a Dutch friend called Jan. Jan spoke fluent Russian, I spoke mostly fluent Polish, so he arranged our lodgings and we set out on a long bus ride from Krakow to the City of the Lions (Lew in Polish means lion, and “lwów” is the genitive plural meaning “of the lions” — I’m sure Lviv means the same in Ukrainian.)

It was, from the start, a journey of contrasts. Lviv used to be a part of Poland back when the entire country of Poland was situated several hundred miles to the east, and remnants of that heritage still remain throughout the very old city. Somewhere in the far east of Poland, our bus passed a car crash. To this day, I remember the black-bagged body on the side of a frigid highway with searing clarity.

The border crossing went smoothly and without fuss, and once we reached the main bus station, Jan and I boarded a tiny, cramped minibus into the city center. He conversed in Russian with a jolly man with red cheeks creased deeply by laughter who found a lot to laugh at — mostly that two Westerners would visit his city in winter on a whim. We stayed in a small efficiency flat just off the Rynok, the Market Square.

The fabled "Black House" of Lviv, made of sparkling black granite. (I think it was granite.)

Lviv is a jewel of a city. Filled with beauty and colorful buildings and statues that sometimes steal your breath with their grandiosity and other times make you smile with their approachable feel, Lviv is home to some of the most lovely architecture I’ve ever seen. When we arrived, the city was preparing for its 750th anniversary and was in the process of a city-wide makeover.

The opera.

When Jan and I arrived, we found our lodgings, bought some pelmeni (Ukrainian filled dumplings, rather like small pierogi), and went to the opera to see if we could find tickets. We bought tickets to Madame Butterfly, and though we were both severely under dressed for the occasion, no one made fun of us.

The ceiling of the opera house kept me looking upward as we waited for the curtains to rise.


Though my Cyrillic-reading skills are labored at best, I couldn’t stop watching the subtitles tick across the board throughout the opera. I think both Jan and I teared up watching it. Underdressed or no, that experience still gives me chills to remember.

Our conversations in Lviv with locals tended to be an interesting mashup of languages. Ukrainian has a lot in common with both Polish and Russian, and a bit that is solely its own. Listening to people speak, I would understand chunks of sentences with black holes in the middle. A whole sentence here and there would resound with clarity only to fall off a cliff in the next words from the speaker’s mouth.

Jan had thought his Russian would help more — turns out though most Ukrainians speak Russian in Lviv, they don’t care to. He’d speak, and I could see the cues of understanding in the faces of the listener, but they’d say they didn’t understand and walk away.

I had more luck with my Polish, which rankled Jan no small amount. It’s a little different in Kiev, but western Ukraine has a lot of national pride and still remembers how eight million Ukrainians were systematically starved to death between the World Wars. Thanks, Stalin.

Jan and I ate simply while we were there. I developed a deep fondness for Ukrainian borscht, which is heartier than its Polish counterpart (though you can find barszcz po ukrainsku in Poland if you hunt for it). A thick stew of red beets, potatoes, ham, and carrots topped with a dollop of sour cream was just what I needed that trip. I’d made the dubious decision to bring one pair of shoes that succumbed in short fashion to the sidewalk slush and left me with very cold feet that weekend as we explored the reaches of the city.

One of Lviv's many gorgeous mosaics.

On our way from the city center to one of our other destinations, we stumbled across a slew of massive mosaics that took up the sides of entire buildings, depicting everything from abstract shapes and colors to symbols representing the purpose of the building. These were found near the university, and the next one on the side of the pharmaceutical college.

Our destination that day was the Lychakiv Cemetery and its installation of the Polish defenders of Lviv. I mentioned that Lviv used to be a part of Poland, and  between 1918 and 1920, that point was contested with blood on both sides.

Ultimately the constant product of war.

The cemetery is the final resting place of many Ukrainian and Polish intelligentsia like Ivan Franko (Ukrainian poet and writer), Zygmunt Gorgelewski (the Polish architect of the Lviv Opera), and Maria Konopnicka (Polish writer). It is a hushed place with people of many faiths buried side by side with history, from the November uprising in early 19th century partitioned Poland to names who fell victim to the World Wars of the 20th.

More lovely church architecture.

As Lviv changed hands, so did its dominant religion. From its previous Roman Catholic majority, Lviv became a predominantly Eastern Orthodox city, and churches of both faiths pepper the city.

Churches large and small.

This one's more...large.

All over the city, there are things to surprise you. From hidden palaces:

I've always wondered who used to live here.

To all varieties of sculptures:

Gods to war heroes, poets to humble peasants -- all have a home in Lviv's stoneworks.

Old Town

This dude's super friendly.

Not a few people thought I was crazy to spend so much time in Eastern Europe. There’s a prejudice that still exists, saddening me every time it noses up from underground. I remember hearing a pastor once speak of his missionary work in Romania, saying how he saw some Romanians laugh at him and his group for not understanding their train system.

“So many years after Communism, they remembered how to smile once more.”

That statement put bile in my mouth. It sums up that prejudice from the west —  people think that Communism was gray, without color or laughter, where people’s souls died. Not true.

They retained their beauty and their smiles. Life goes on, in hard political times as in times of abundance and plenty. Never have I experienced the kind of welcoming hospitality that I found in central and eastern Europe, where a guest in the home is a god in the home. Beneath what westerners perceive as a dour exterior, these countries are filled with warmth and love. A pride in hearth and home that many of us have forgotten.

Visiting Ukraine impressed deeply upon me that these are lands of wealth. These are rich lands, lands full of people who understand the burden of sacrifice. People who understand rebuilding time and time again. People who understand perseverance and loss, struggle and famine and war. People who understand what remains important in an existence challenged often by nations with more strength and power. Family. Home. Language.

They’ve endured. And they never forgot how to smile.

Have you visited places off the tourist map? Where did you go? What reactions did you receive from peers — and locals? What were your favorite experiences?

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