Tom left the next morning to travel back to Germany. I had a decision to make. I could immediately go south and spend extra time in the Balkans (Bosnia, Macedonia etc…) or I could travel through Ukraine to get to Moldova, Romania, and Bulgaria. I had been leaning towards more time in the Balkans but I found myself in bed staring up at the ceiling and looked up bus tickets from Krakow to Lviv (Western Ukraine) and it was cheap so I bought it. Meeting Serge on that accidental bus ride was what sealed the deal – that amount of kindness sticks with you.
It would be two nights in Ukraine and then a bus further south. But, you see, this was the first time in the entire trip where I had no commitments – no one to see and nothing to do until my return flight at the end of November.
Ukraine was the one country in Europe I didn’t want to go to. I heard some horror stories about guys getting drunk in bars and then waking up robbed of all their belongings. Back home the news was exploding with indictments against Paul Manafort and his relationships to Ukrainian oligarchs. There was also my close friend in college who dated a first generation Ukrainian girl and she broke his heart and I listened to him cry for months and months. “Never date a Ukrainian girl, Jim,” he said. And that’s pretty much all I knew about Ukraine. Or The Ukraine? I don’t know, it’s already confusing. What else had I heard? Oh yes, that it was the second poorest country in Europe, after Moldova, and that corruption had gripped every part.
The bus ride was eight hours long and I somehow left all three pairs of headphones in my baggage below so I had no choice but to stare out the window as Poland passed me by. The difference between Germany and Poland was stunning, the difference between Poland and Ukraine made my jaw drop. It felt right. It felt big. It felt foreign–the most foreign place I’d been so far on the trip.
The bus pulled up to an abandoned car park a mile outside of Lviv. There was some sort of housing project to the right that resembled Bushwick in the 1990s and then a bunch of broken down cars all around. Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh baby. It’s adventure time.
I found a cab to take me to the airbnb and started the Ukrainian journey. As we got closer to Lviv, it looked less and less like the fall of the Soviet Union and more like a Christmas fairyland. My god, it was beautiful. Cobblestone streets and beautiful apartments. He pulled up to my building and I went into the bar on the bottom floor where the host left my keys. It was called Music Lab and there were pictures of Kurt Cobain and Miles Davis and such on the dark walls. The bartender was good looking, really good looking, and she asked me about my banjo (not a euphemism) and gave me my keys. I made a mental note to go back there. The apartment was incredible. It was like a wooden cabin nestled in the woods but instead it was in the center of a city with traditional Ukrainian plates and paintings lining the walls and white rugs underneath. Who cares about rugs, you ask? I don’t know but these rugs were great. It was also the cheapest place I’d stayed so far. I was feeling so good that I got on the wifi and did a bit of tinder swiping and made plans to meet with a girl that night. What did The Beatles say in The White Album? “Well the Ukraine girls really knock me out, they leave the West behind. ” We shall see, Paul. This girl was absurdly out of my league.
I suggested a wine bar around the corner and got there early to scope it out and read my book. My phone is always on airplane mode so unless there’s wifi I’m cut off from the world. And places like this never had wifi. The main room smelled horribly of B.O. I assumed it was from the guy in his 60s with long curly grey hair. Olia showed up and I got so nervous that I raised my hand in a Native American salute-like wave and asked her if she wanted wine, red or white, dry or sweet, and then went to the bar to get it. It took longer than expected at the bar and I felt antsy about the B.O. smell and when I went back in the room she wasn’t looking at her phone. Just staring ahead. So intriguing. A million points to Olia. She was very shy and she was very beautiful. Too beautiful. We had two glasses of Cabernet and I tried to keep the conversation going as best I could. She seemed fascinated by music and plays but rarely asked questions. I kept asking if she wanted another drink when her glass was still half full and I don’t know why. I guess I wanted to ensure that the night would continue. We moved to another spot, a sort of music hall that she suggested. We stayed there for a few hours, we closed it down actually and we started to bond even more once the alcohol moved through us. I put my hand on her leg and asked if it was ok. She said yes but I couldn’t tell if she was just being polite. She had this long dark green skirt, I had a green v neck t-shirt. Her eyes were green/grey and I loved them.
We bonded over Friends trivia and she said that watching Friends at night is like her lullaby to sleep. I figured that Friends was still on Netflix like it was when I was in China so I invited her up to my place to watch it. She sat at the end of the bed without taking her shoes off and crossed her arms. I showed her a little bit of the banjo (no, no, I’m telling you it’s not a euphemism) and then went on iTunes to try and buy the episode of Friends she liked best. But the internet was too slow to handle it. Goddammit, technology! Be a wingman for Christ’s sake. What else could I do? I put on the Sex and the City movie instead. I mean, it’s still New York City, and this is actually filmed in New York.
I only booked the epic apartment for two nights so I had to change places. I found a decently cheap hotel room in the Hotel George. It’s the oldest Hotel in Ukraine. I arrived at noon and they told me that the room was ready but it didn’t have a bathroom in the room. That’s why it was so cheap. It’s a shared bathroom with the floor. Oldschool as hell. I was a little pissy but they told me to check it out. I took the elevator to the fourth floor and walked through the hallways of the hotel from The Shining looking carefully around every corner in anticipation of two creepy twin girls.
But I fell in love with it. I fell in love with the windows that open up to the city and the two or three pigeons that make their home there. It was the perfect place to write. Fuck a bathroom, this is worlds cooler than a hostel and I even have my own sink. Although I didn’t shave because Olia told me that she likes my beard.
I blinked my eyes and 10 days had passed. I spent every night with Olia. She went to work and I tried to write in the George hotel, then we met for dinner. One night she took me to a jazz club. We walked through the dark streets of Lviv and came to what looked like an abandoned building with wooden slats blocking an entrance and after a few twists and turns we made our way into a low-lit cafe with an upright bass, a piano, and drums. We sat at the front table and the three Polish musicians played a few classics and some originals, with one or two dedicated to their homeland. They were good, really, really good. The Barracuda showed me the beauty of riding through Manhattan at night listening to Miles Davis (hipster much?) but it’s not like I pay attention. And that’s some of the tamest jazz there is. But when it’s in person, and when it’s done right, like these three musicians who clearly spent their entire lives studying and improvising and would perform in a dumpster if it only meant they could perform for an audience, it’s really something to experience. I still zoned out after a bit but it was a good zoning out, not like school growing up, where every single class the teacher would talk about something and after 30 seconds I would find a girl I thought was attractive and then imagine sex with her. Looking back now, the idea that I would pay attention in school is, frankly, preposterous.
Serhiy (from the 2nd failed Krakow bus ride) made contact. He had his daughter send me a message. Then, another girl, his “kind of” daughter that he met similarly to how he met me also sent a message and met me at the hotel. We went for a short walk and she told me all about her life in Ukraine. Her name was Ksenyia. Serge was still in Poland visiting his eldest daughter and wouldn’t be back for another few days so I decided to stick around Lviv even longer. I hadn’t left the city limits – and it’s not exactly enormous – in eight days. Ksenyia knew about the banjo and she told me that she had a friend who ran a small music shop on a side street. We went there together during the day when she had off from school. It was a small shop that specialized in Ukrainian instruments. I could walk across the floor in one big step. On the far wall were over 50 dusty accordions. It was dusty, dirty, cold, and I couldn’t be happier. There were a few men sitting around. Each man had a large mustache and an alcohol-beaten face. They were drinking clear liquid out of a clear bottle and offered me some. Ksenyia made a worried face and said that I should drink only if I want to. At 2pm? Sure. The four of us ripped a shot with Ksenyia abstaining on the side. It was like fire and they cut two pieces of sausage and put it on bread for me. After eating it they gave me some water. But I hadn’t made a face so it seemed like I was part of the group now.
I had Ksenyia translate that I had a problem with my banjo. The metal holding the tailpiece had broken off and I was worried that with some stress, the whole thing would break.
They said to bring it in so I went to the hotel and brought it back. They all crowded around the tailpiece and talked a mile a minute and then the owner shrugged confidently that he could fix it. They gave me some more home-brew and meat and I sat there playing banjo for them. I played Moonshiner for the occasion but also The Cuckoo and Little Sadie. Ksenyia had to leave and eventually it was just the owner and I and we smoked a cigarette together while I played. Then I drunkenly got up and walked back to the George Hotel to meet Olia.