(Note to Reader: This was written on a train trip from Budapest to Lviv, specifically the stretch after crossing the Hungary-Ukraine border at Chop, Ukraine until Lviv)
15 Chickens, a Pink Gown and a few bright blue towels hanging from a clothesline, these are the only colorful scenes in the backyard of tumble down, endless squat houses and a landscape the color of drizzle.
The current count: 10 bicycles and 3 cars
A cyclist is riding away with a bundle of stuff from the town dump. Within sight and smell of this dump are nice, two story houses, looking prosperous and indifferent.
A small road and paved at that, but every 50 meters there are piles of fill that have yet to be deposited in an endless succession of potholes. Two men, one younger, the other middle aged, shovel the fill in a hole. Only 25 or so more to go, Sissyphus would be proud.
Border towns always suck, but at least Chop has a memorable name.
A slender young lady walking in the middle of nowhere along tracks three railroad lines away, wearing a bright red winter coat, black tights and talking on a cell phone. Everyone is headed somewhere.
Bicycle swerving all over a pothole covered road. The rider is talking on his cell phone.
I get the stinging suspicion that this place was better off a hundred years ago, but not much. This is what happens to an area when history decides to have its way with it
Train stops for no apparent reason, in no apparent place. Footsteps, voices, there must be a station here. I cannot bother to look.
Eight lines of railway tracks the other side of my window and not a train, not a car, not anything on them.
Four cars and one bike at a road crossing. Now that is progress!
Every time I see an abandoned concrete blockhouse I imagine something sinister.
Everything that must be built, must be made from concrete. This was communism’s rule of thumb.
The Romans could build temples and tombs, arches and columns, roads and baths from concrete. The communists could only build a disaster.
Anytime I see a no smoking sign on a train in Eastern Europe I prepare for the smell of smoke. The sign should state, No Smoking – Right NOW!
The further from the border, the better things get. There are even green fields in Eastern Europe in the winter.
I can see the Carpathians in the distance. Thank God for hope!
I spot a marvelously kept cemetery on the edge of a village. The dying, grey light in the brown fog of a winter afternoon cannot even snuff out the colorful flowers and wreaths covering the headstones, easily spotted through a blurry train window from 400 meters away. These are people who respect their dead.
I would never consider myself a religious man, but every time I see a church steeple rising above a village I feel comforted.
The first Orthodox onion domes, two wrapped in gold, two in blue. That has to be worth it. The place they rise from looks to be more like a town than a village. On the edge of the town, there is another cemetery. Beside it an abandoned collective farm, the manor houses of communism. Their labor day has come and gone.
I just want this heavy industry to end. Well it did, but it never quite went away. It feels like it never will.
This landscape can swallow you with its nothingness. This is what outer space feels like on earth
Ideas of progress are never to be trusted in this land. Not ever.
Sometimes I look out the window at the encroaching darkness and feel like I could spend the rest of the evening hiding. I have no idea why.
I can feel my hands getting dirty while I am sitting here looking out the window.
Lights, how marvelous, they remind me of home.
More lights, oh no, it’s another damn factory. This is the only one that looks like it is still working. There are lights on full go, a good five stories up. I am suspicious. I think they are left on to appear to have something to do.
Smokestacks – the skyscrapers of sub-carpathia.
The train slows, there must be a station coming. Out the window there is another train hidden by a high, fading white wall and all the lights in the cars are on. No one, not a single person is sitting in any of the ultra-illuminated interiors of these cars. Through their frosted glass the vacant rows of seats look frightening, like a murder is about to happen or already has.
The train whistle blows, the singular voice of hope, sweet, shrill and pure.
Looking out the window, I saw a man standing in a lighted room with his coat still on and back turned. I have never felt so sorry for someone. I have never felt so sorry for myself.
What good would a shopping mall do anyone right here, right now. What good has a shopping mall ever done anyone?
A Trabant at a railroad crossing, its headlights illuminate a cobblestone road, a light from a near past casting a glare on a distant one.
The future is but a shadow amid the darkness.
After this I will never fear what is coming next.
At the border it felt like we would never get started. Now it feels as though we will never stop.
Train finally comes to a halt right beside a supermarket. The store name is written in cursive Crillic. Now I am really done for!
The attendants have it in for me. It all started when we started. It seems that one of the attendants was sleeping in the compartment that I was supposed to inhabit. I did not know she was an attendant. It is not like she was wearing monogrammed pajamas with the words Ukrainian state railways emblazoned on the front of them. She refused me my rightful place, with grunts that slowly grew to high pitched moans. Finally her compatriot came and directed me to an empty compartment. That was fine, but then the request for my passport. I gave it to her. She glanced at it, raised an eyebrow and blurted out, “America.” Next question, where was I going? “Lvov.” Where was she going? “Lvov.” I tried to tell her I had been to Lvov before. She did not comprehend. All I could think of was Rynok Square in the old city center so that was what I said. She looked at me quizzically. I said it again. Then I tried to stammer out what I believed was the Ukrainian name of this square, Ploscha Rynok. She looked at me confusedly, so I tried saying it louder. She just stared at me. So I said it even louder. Loudness of course is the last refuge of the incomprehensible. Finally she left. Probably did not care to get yelled at, in a polite manner I might add. Later I made an even worse mistake. I went to the bathroom and forgot to lock the door. She walked in, but I had my back turned and she could not have seen a thing. She shrieked. I heard her stomp away and slam the door to her compartment. A couple of minutes later I came out and made my way back down the hall. She came out of her room and as I looked back, she barked several words at me in Ukrainian. She then made a hand gesture showing me how to lock the door. She hurried past and went in to see her colleague. I heard whispers. A scandalous glance was cast my way, followed by loud snickering. Now I am met with silences and icy glares. Thank goodness I brought several large bottles of water. Just asking for such at this point might cause an international incident.
It is getting hot! According to a chart posted in the corridor that even I can somewhat comprehend, it seems that if it is 5 degrees Celsius outside than the heat should be set at 40 Celsius in the train. Well 40 Celsius is nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit and it gets worse, like Death Valley worse. 0 Celsius outside gets the heat knocked up to 50 Celsius. For every decline of 5 Degrees Celsius another 10 Celsius is added until finally at -20 C the heat gets ratcheted up to 90 C. Glad there is a warm spell hitting the area at the moment. I wanted a train to Lvov not a 14 hour sauna! I know Ukraine is having some issues with heating during the winter, but if that is there idea of energy conservation they are going to need all of the Middle East’s considerable oil reserves just to get through a winter.
The time to learn the Cyrillic alphabet is not on an insanely long train trip while staring ignorantly at an encyclopedic explanation of regulations no one ever bothers to look at. The only thing mandatory about these kinds of regulations is the posting of them.
No one I know would have taken this train route. It is through a land they know nothing about, to see nothing in particular. It not about either the journey or the destination, it is about the experience.
It is getting hotter.