Lviv: A Stranger Following (On The Trail Of The Golden Horseshoe: Part One)

It is a surreal feeling to come face to face with your past. A past that you hardly remember and really have no reason to recall. On a day that was supposed to be all about something new, I found myself confronted with someone I had briefly met four years before. It was a sunny and crisp autumn morning last November in Lviv as I stood outside a building at 2 Cathedral Square (Ploscha Katedralna). This was supposed to be the meeting place for the Golden Horseshoe Tour. A guided tour that would take me to visit Olesko, Pidhirtsi and Zolochiv castles in western Ukraine. The building I stood in front of was not yet open, no one else was around and it was almost 8:00 a.m. I started to get a little worried since it was already the tail end of the shoulder season for castle tours. Perhaps no one else had signed up. The tour might have been canceled, but how was I to know. Then slowly a woman began to walk toward me. Her hair and clothing was a bit disheveled and she had a sleepy eyed, languid look. There was something about her that was strangely familiar. An odd sense of déjà vu came over me. I had seen this woman before, but where. Slowly it began to dawn on me.

Townhouses in Lviv's Rynok Square

Townhouses in Lviv’s Rynok Square – cast in a different light (Credit: Бахтина Дарья)

Time Changes Everything – Except For Memories
The tour I had signed up for was organized by Old City Hostel, the place I had stayed at on my first trip to Lviv in September 2011. The same sleepy eyed woman had been working behind the front desk when I checked in at midnight on a foggy autumn evening four years before. Other than a taxi driver, she was the first person I had met in Lviv and the first one that spoke English, albeit quite badly. What made her memorable was her perpetual dreamy eyed look, as though she could fall asleep at any moment. Her only other memorable trait was a smoking habit. Four years had passed and she was still holding a cigarette. Why did I remember her? Other than being one of the first people I met in the city, there was really nothing else notable about her. Two chance encounters usually are nothing more than a quirky coincidence, but this case was different. An uncanny feeling came over me. A sense of “I cannot believe I am back here four years later.”

Had anything really changed during the intervening years? Of course it had, but at that moment time seemed frozen. We recognize the passing of time not by looking in a mirror, but by looking at someone we have not seen in years. In this case, that truism was reversed. Seeing this woman again made me feel like time had not passed at all. It was a disturbing feeling. Between these two chance encounters my life had been filled with unique experiences, but as far as my visits to Lviv went, little seemed to have changed. When she made it over to the building I told her what I was there for, she unlocked the door and told me to wait outside. Her English was still relatively poor. She looked like she had just crawled out of bed. Inside the building she made a quick phone call, then came back outside and told me to follow her. But to where? “Just come with me” I was told and was soon to find out.

Olesko Castle

Olesko Castle – the first of three castles on the Golden Horseshoe Tour (Credit: Mykola Swarnyk)

From The Outside In – A Stranger Following
Anytime I am in a foreign country and someone tells me to follow them, I immediately get suspicious. Visions of thugs pummeling me in vacant alleys immediately come to mind. Whether this paranoia is logical or not is beside the point. Paranoia is not logical, traveling in a country where you can hardly speak a word of the language nor read the alphabet is not logical. Following strangers who give you few indications of where you are going is not logical. Now putting your trust in another person you hardly know may seem logical to some, but it is certainly not common. When traveling in western Ukraine, I am not looking for a near death experience I am looking for an adventure. Most importantly, I am not looking to get robbed. After all, getting robbed at eight in the morning would make for a very bad start to the day. In this case, there really looked to be no chance of that, but one never knows.

Pidhirtsi Castle

Pidhirtsi Castle – the first of three castles on the Golden Horseshoe Tour (Credit: Jan Mehlich)

The sun was out, birds were chirping, Rynok Square was coming to life as I dutifully followed this woman. She did not so much walk, as aimlessly wander. Attempts at conversation were futile. We proceeded northward from the square down Krakivska Street until we came to the mesmerizingly unpronounceable Knyazya Yaroslava Osmomysla Square. There stood a man outside a large bus with slightly tinted windows. The woman said a few words to him in Ukrainian. He looked at me, nodded his head toward the open door of the bus and said “Get in.” Where was everyone else? I soon found out as I walked up the steps into the bus, there were at least thirty Ukrainians staring straight at me. I have scarcely felt more foreign in my life. There was only one open seat left. Thankfully it was close to the front. I felt everyone’s eyeballs move with me as I made my way forward. While taking an aisle seat, I noticed that the teenage boy who would be in the window seat beside me, moved as close as he could get to the window pane. His head was resting on the pane of glass. The poor lad looked scared and miserable. He was going to spend a whole day sitting beside a strange foreigner. We were now inseparably linked, both in the dreaded position of being outsiders.

Zolochiv Castle

Zolochiv Castle – the thrid and final castle on the Golden Horseshoe Tour (Credit: Natari)

Down An Unknown Road
The strange thing is that in these moments, I feel most alive. To be heading off down an unknown road, with people I have never met, to look at castles I know little to nothing about, this is what I live for.  As the bus began to pull away from the curb, I realized that this was going to be a day to remember, a day spent on the trail of the Golden Horseshoe.

 

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