Canada: Winnipeg, The Great Canadian Shield bus trip, Ottawa, Kingston, Toronto
Poland: Warsaw, Łódż, Bydgoszcz, Gdańsk, Sopot, Toruń, Poznań, Wrocław, Kraków, Auschwitz, Rzeszow, Lubaczow, Stare Brusno, Przemyśl
Ukraine: L’viv, Kyiv, Kharkiv, Poltava, Yeompil, Sokolivka
Although my trip to Poland and Ukraine was not as epic in terms of breadth as my Asian adventures, it was much more epic in terms of its personal meaning and maturation. I’ve added another 2 country stamps to my passport and a bunch more cities to my little Facebook travel map.
It was an eye-opening experience to visit Poland and Ukraine. I can’t say I ever believed I’d go to Ukraine, nor Poland for that matter. The idea to go to Poland came as a result of meeting a very lovely Polish girl while travelling through southeast Asia in 2010. After hearing her talk about the country, the seed was planted to explore my ancestral homelands. And so, after 6 months in Canada, I ventured across the Atlantic ocean again and backpacked through Poland before doing a 4-month stint teaching ESL in Kharkiv, Ukraine.
Visiting Ukraine was a shock to my system, however, and I’m still not sure I could formulate the reason why. I’d travelled before, I’d grown up in the Ukrainian-Canadian community and heard so much about the country, both good and bad. Several of my friends and family had gone there before me. But visiting the country myself was a shock. Thinking back, Ukraine isn’t as poor as folks make it out to be and despite numerous forums and message boards that boast horror stories of run-ins with the cops, nothing too major happened. The worst was brought upon me by overstaying my visa.
And now for the summary:
Taking the bus from Winnipeg on January 1st, we managed to hit a snowstorm as we crossed southern Ontario. During one stop for the night I managed to get myself into a little trouble thanks to a guy who fancied himself a fighter from “the other bus” that had left Winnipeg about 9 hours after we had. That left me with some busted glasses and my first story.
Finally making it to Ottawa, I stayed with family for Ukrainian Christmas and discussed my plans to go to Ukraine. I also had the chance to meet the Ukrainian ambassador to Canada. Although they gave me several contacts in Ukraine, I still felt the need to go exploring by myself.
On January 14th, I took off from Toronto to Warsaw, Poland since I’d heard that flying into the Boryspiel airport in Kyiv was extremely corrupt. I stayed in Poland for two months, immediately loving it. I was in Warsaw for a week before being persuaded to attend a crazy party in Łódż. While there, I auditioned for a Polish ice cream commercial… and failed.
After Łódż, I reconnected with the Polish girl who I had met in SE Asia in Bydgoscz and stayed there for a week. Her family was more than gracious in allowing me to stay in their apartment for such a lengthy period. We used Bydcity as a centre from which to explore Toruń, Gdańsk and Sopot. But Ukraine was calling.
Back to Warsaw I went and stayed for another 3 weeks contemplating getting a job there. Being a Canadian citizen, however, I thought it would be too difficult to get a EU work visa so I decided to leave. You might want to note that I didn’t try very hard to attain a work visa. It was Ukraine I wanted to go to. But before getting to Ukraine I had another little missions: finding an old cemetery in which a few of my ancestors are supposedly buried. But why go straight there when you can take the more adventurous and interesting route?
I took the train over to Poznań for a few days but there wasn’t much there other than an embarrassing run-in with the cops. I stayed for the great goat clock spectacle then boarded a train for Wrocław.
Wrocław was a neat city and it was there I met a former travel agent while we were both drunk and stumbling home at 5 in the morning. She gave me her number and we agreed to meet up later that day. She acted as my tour guide the entire weekend, showing me points of interest, facts about the city, and she even brought home made chocolate cake. She recommended I go to Kraków before Ukraine and, once in Ukraine, if I stayed in Lviv, she’d come and visit me.
So off to Kraków I went. A much renowned city, Kraków was used by the Germans both as a ghetto for the Jews and a hang out for German officers. Steeped in history and untouched by the bomb-fucking that Warsaw got, Kraków is a picturesque city overrun by tourists and students. Kraków also serves as the base of operations to visit Auschwitz and the Wieliczka Salt Mines. I contemplated settling down and signing up for Polish lessons here. It was close to Ukraine, architecturally interesting, and I was beginning to run low on cash. But no, I had in mind to find a cemetery first (I don’t know why I didn’t think I couldn’t find it after getting a job.)
Taking the train into Rzeszow, another picturesque city, I met up with a couple of hard-drinking Poles who introduced me to the daze-inducing Spirytus. After I recovered from that little adventure, I changed my mind and thought it would be possible to find Stare Brusno by bus. It would take longer, but be much cheaper than renting a car. Boy, that was a mistake.
The cemetery, located among the ruins of an old town called Stare Brusno, was about two hours outside of Rzeszow and the easiest way to get there would be to rent a car. My first attempt at trying to find Stare Brusno was to take a bus from Rzeszow to neighbouring Lubaczow whence I would take another bus to Stare Brusno. But while in Lubaczow, looking at the map and considering the infrequency of the bus schedule, I opted to return to Rzeszow and rent a car… my first time driving outside of Canada!
Back I went to Rzeszow to rent a car. Preparing for my solo roadtrip I brought some food and my recently purchased Behemoth and Lanki Lan Cds. The Great Steven Sirski Polish Solo Road Trip In Search of A Cemetery in Southeastern Poland had begun! (We are now in talks to make it into a feature length movie. Xaxaxa!)
Well, after a few wrong turns and sporadic blizzard-like conditions, I found the cemetery nestled amongst a forest, resting peacefully, stilted in time, sheltered from the rest of the world developing around it.
And such peace there was in Stare Brusno! Isolated cemeteries are very quiet and peaceful, but not in a frightening way. I noted that many of the tombstones had faded or been washed out. As a history graduate, you take note of these types of things. I also wondered who would care for such an old cemetery? Kinda makes you put life in perspective. I would find out later that there is a book being written about Stare Brusno and its inhabitants. If you’re interested, I can send you the contact details.
Goal accomplished, I had no more reason to stay in Poland unless I got a job. I debated the idea for another day but I knew where my heart wanted to go: Ukraine, my ancestral homeland, the country I’d heard so much about.
Crossing the border into Ukraine wasn’t such a big deal, though the train station in Rzeszow wouldn’t sell me a ticket through to Ukraine. Instead, I took the train to Przemyśl and then had to find a bus that would take me over the border only to get in at 11 pm. I remember thinking just how unreal the entire situation was. I was finally visiting Ukraine!
What a rush it was! 11 pm. Lviv. I was in my ancestral homeland. If Stare Brusno was memorable, the fact that I was now in the country my grandparents came from was simply astounding. Hopping into a cab, I got a lift to the Kosmonaut Hostel near Shevchenko Park. This would be my base of operations while in L’viv. I was too excited to sleep and, after checking in, immediately went out for a walk in my new city. I didn’t stay out too long as I was wary of the cops and other thugs out at that time of night (it was a university district after all!)
I would spend a week getting drunk in Lviv – what would my grandparents think??? – sampling many types of vodka, experiencing the club scene and investigating the cafe culture before I would secure a job in Kharkiv on the other side of the country.
So it was off to Kyiv on an overnight train to get trained for a few days before I was back on the night train again to Kharkiv. I would revisit Kyiv and spend a few days there taking in the sights, noting the split in the country that happens from West to East.
Stepping off of the train in Kharkiv, I simply had no idea what to expect. Nothing. For all the stories out there, all the blog posts, all the alcohol I’d consumed, nothing could prepare me for how I was going to react staying long term in Ukraine. I told my family back home I wouldn’t return until I was fluent in Ukrainian. Well, things didn’t turn out that way.
I stayed in Kharkiv for four months teaching ESL, touring around the city, sampling many types of horilka, making acquaintances with many of my students, and befriending a very nice lady in the neighbourhood. I spent Easter in Kharkiv and almost survived the full 5-hour church marathon, but retired an hour and a half shy of the finish mark. We went back for the blessing.
To be honest, I wanted to quit teaching in Kharkiv a week after being there. I didn’t like it but my boss talked me into staying. Not only would it make her life easier since the term was already starting (and she was pregnant), but she was sure that my view would change if I gave Kharkiv a chance.
She was partially correct. My view of Ukraine changed but my discomfort in Kharkiv didn’t. Not having the proper work visa was one problem, the other was the fact that I wanted to study Ukrainian and in my mind I could only study Ukrainian in L’viv. I wasn’t very happy about settling for a primarily Russian-speaking city with architecture that paled in comparison to L’viv.
I gave notice I would be leaving after my second semester. I just wanted to go. Not only that, a couple of my cousins were getting married in Canada and I wanted to attend the weddings. I didn’t want to be that cousin who disappeared from the wedding photos because of some reason like “he was busy working in a country he didn’t want to be in.”
I made my way back through Ukraine on train (again), finally met my extended family in Ukraine and visited their village. Not only that, the friends I made in L’viv took me to see their home in the village as well. Such a difference between Ukrainian city and village life! By now I had less than a week to get back to Canada for my cousin’s wedding.
I said my goodbyes then made my way through the Polish-Ukrainian border, through Przemyśl and up to Warsaw. I flew back to Toronto in time to snag another bus from Toronto to Winnipeg. I got back just in time to attend the first wedding.
Back to Canada
Mission accomplished. I’ve been to Ukraine. I’ve seen the graves of my ancestors. I’ve walked on the land they called home. I’ve studied and learned a bit of Ukrainian and Russian. I’ve learned much more about Ukraine and Poland and those lessons are much more vivid as a result of being there myself. And now, after being out of the country for over seven months, I want to go back.
But not just yet. I have over adventures in mind and, really, I need to make more money before I head back to Ukraine so I’m not so broke the next time. Sure, Ukraine is cheap, but it’s not a good place to be if you don’t have much money (just ask the people who live there!)
For now, I’ll take the pictures and the writings and be content with the fact that at least I’ve visited my ancestral homeland. As for my Ukrainian, well, I’ll have to find a way to keep that alive while out of the country.