The Only Light Ever Needed Was Cast By the Moon – Debrecen to Lviv By Rail

– Metternich said the Orient begins at the end of Vienna’s Ringstrasse. Perhaps that was true in the early 19th century, but for me it begins east of the Tisza River. The Hungarian- Ukrainian border, languid, nondescript, but from one shore to the next everything changes.  The alphabet changes, the language changes, the people change. Here is the edge of an eastern world, obscured by a mysticism that I will never understand.

– The customs control officer asks if I have any drugs, I say “yes, a prescription.” I open my suitcase and move to show him, he says wait a minute, walks off and never comes back.

– Five miles off the border and thus far bikes outnumber cars five to zero. In the far east of Europe prosperity has a very different definition.

– Onion domes…the towering spires of Orthodoxy, the spirituality and sensuality gilded in the East.

Railway platform sign in Debrecen, Hungary

The sign says it all except for the points of departure and arrival

A Fire That Looks As If It Could Burn Forever
– First sighting of the Carpathians, a slow dark rise to prominence. Such subtlety has nothing to do with Dracula. This is a deceptive wildness.

– The castle above Mukacheve (Munkacs) is an entire tourism industry inherited by a people who just happened to survive the rest of Europe’s suicide.

– There were no such things as curves in communism. A whole world was shaped and sized out of boxes and blocks.

– Where the hills are higher than the houses is a Ukraine hardly anyone knows.

– Beyond Mukacheve, a river with water so still it is hard to conceive that it has ever moved.

– I have never seen a rail yard that looked presentable, not even in Austria.

– An overgrown station, abandoned siding and a fire in the woods with no one around. The fire looks like it will burn forever, but only in the same place.

– Chimney smoke is always synonymous with hills. Concrete is synonymous with trash.

– The night closes in and for the first time I feel safe. The valley narrows and I feel comforted by everything I do not know.

– Stopped right in front of a sign for the village of Karpaty, the mountains had already announced it much better.

Karpaty, Ukraine - station sign

Karpaty, Ukraine – station sign as seen through a blurry train window

Happy Days for Socialism
– I never ceased to be amazed by the glamour and neatness of Slavic women standing among utter ruin. They have an almost pathological indifference to dereliction. If only they would put a little lipstick on their public spaces.

– A Trabant with glitzy hubcaps, the pop culture equivalent of Happy Days for socialism.

– An unbelievably beautiful Orthodox Church, all freshly painted deep green onion domes and shimmering gold crosses in the middle of nowhere.

– Every time I hear the whistle blow, I imagine the conductor is a small child playing with joy.

– Only a wee bit of light left and silhouetted against the sky is a block style building. Communism was always a nightmare waiting to happen. It was constructed from the opposite of imagination.

– Low lit houses, rooms hidden behind drawn curtains, something bright and glowing is on the inside.

– I can barely trace the faint outline of a mountain against the dying light. Nature is pulling a cover over the sky.

Ukraine passport stamp

The stamp of approval for Ukraine

Everything Is Illuminated
– The sound of a train stopping, starting, turning, it is a form of transportation being constantly put on the rack and then broken on the wheel. The cracking and popping are phantasmagoric in the extreme.

– Just thought we passed through a cement plant, all mixers and large cylinders, illuminated by lights that brought a very bad evening at a carbon factory to mind. Got up, pressed my face close to the window and suddenly there appeared above, the top of a church with three gold cross topped domes illuminated.

– I just recalled the face of a Portuguese woman who sat beside me on a flight from Amsterdam to Budapest from five days ago. It was squeezed into a permanent grin, but she could never quite smile.

– There are no smoking messages in Ukrainian, German, French and Italian. There is no throwing toilet tissue in the toilet written in Ukrainian and English.

– Trains always sound more impressive and less frightening from the outside.

– I open my Lonely Planet Ukraine guidebook to the western Ukraine section where the first thing I read is about the Holocaust in Drohobych. Later I reopen the guide, where I once again read about the Holocaust in Chernivtsi. Bruno Schulz and Paul Celan I must get to know you, if only the rest of the world could have known you longer.

– Doors are flying open, terrible cracking. The rails sound less like steel and more like wood.

This Trip Was Brought To You By the Austro-Hungarian Empire
– During daylight I saw people living like they were not far removed from the 19th century, now with nightfall and the sounds of this train I feel far removed from the world, any world. A compartment to one’s self is as close to outer space as you can get on earth.

– The attendant in the car rushes up and down the hall from time to time, as though there is some terrible emergency. It must be a strange job filled with strange people, some going abroad and some going home, all of them thinking they are headed toward something they know. Not realizing we are all headed into the unknown.

– The reason we are so pleased to say “I knew that was going to happen” is because we so rarely ever know what is going to happen. And even more rarely, are we correct.

– I have now realized that long distance train attendants have some of the world’s longest commutes. Budapest to Lviv in 14 hours is a long way home from the office. Or perhaps she is continuing on to Kiev, a 20 hour commute. Los Angeles traffic is nothing compared to this.

– It is moments like these, hearing loud voices in a Slavic tongue that I wish to know all the things that have ever happened in this train car. The smuggling, the passions, the frustrations.

– There is a guy in this carriage who has managed an incredible feat. He has spent more time in the bathroom than me. The Jana flavored water was a dangerous idea that tore my stomach up, so now I am having Jana water with Alka-Seltzer.

– The bathroom maven looks as though he could earn a good living threatening to beat people up.

– It just occurred to me that this entire trip was made possible by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The bones of that empire were made of steel.

– The only light ever really needed was cast by the moon.

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