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Poland and Ukraine: The Homelands

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.

Polish FlagIt 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:

Canada

Greyhound busTaking 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.

Poland

Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw, Poland.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?

Poznan Goat ClockI 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.

Krakow Rynek at night.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.)

Rzeszow street at night 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.

Snowy crosses in Stare BrusnoAnd 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.

Ukraine

L'viv train station at night.I decided to go to Lviv. My cousin had been there two years prior and knew some folks who could help me get settled. Lviv it was.

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.

St Michael'sSo 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.

Kharkiv LeninTo 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.”

Ukrainian village houseI 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.

Coffee and Coffee Shops in Poland and Ukraine

Warsaw in summertime.
Warsaw in summertime.

Below I review of some of the coffee and coffee shops I tried and visited in Poland and Ukraine.

Poland

Sowa in Bydgoszcz, Poland
Sowa in Bydgoszcz, Poland.

First is Sowa, a small chain of stores started in Bydgoszcz and spread around Poland. Depending on the store you go to, the ambiance and decor will be different, though the prices are similar in every store. The first was at ulica Mostowa 5 is more properly called a Confectionary Shop, Wine Bar, and Restaurant. The restaurant closes at night but the wine and coffee bar stay open serving small appetizers and desserts. A pianist played classical music which greatly enhanced the already romantic and luxurious atmosphere. The second place right across the street (ulica Mostowa 4), has a large, naturally-lit cafe area but no late-night wine or coffee bar. I liked this one cause I could sit by the window and watch people. Not only that, these cafes don’t just serve up regular cafes, they make their own. Some are served with alcohol, others not. Overall, highly recommended for both the coffee and atmosphere.

The Bookhouse Cafe was probably my favourite cafe I visited in Warsaw. Located on Swietorkryszka Street just around the corner from the Oki Doki Hostel. The atmosphere was laid back and had a bookish feel. Can you guess why? It was located right beside a bookstore! Their double espresso was generous but sold for the same price as other coffee shops in the area. Internet was free, but limited to 1 or 2 hours. As for alcohol, only wine was served. Tried one of their wraps, the chicken one I think and that was pretty good. Never tried any of their desserts.

Wedel's in Warsaw.
Wedel’s in Warsaw.

I should also mention that if you’re looking for a neat cafe and chocolate shop in Warsaw, head to Wedel’s Chocolate Lounge where you can sip your espresso and sample any number of their pralines served on a silver platter. 😀

Finally, the chain stores. Coffee Heaven, iCoffee, Empik Cafes and the foreign entries Costa Coffee and Starbucks all offer a similar experience… clean, uniform, and comfy business-like atmospheres supported by pretty good drip coffee and espresso. Lots of places play jazz music over their stereo but don’t offer any live music. All had free internet. Exclusively Polish were Cafe Trakt, near the Royal Palace, it looked good from the outside but was kinda small on the inside and the coffee was only so-so. Biegu w Cafe is also a chain store, but is some sort of quasi-cafe/pub. They serve up all sorts of dishes and also serve alcohol. Though a nice place for a date, the serving sizes, unfortunately, don’t match up with the prices.

Lastly, for a picturesque cafe culture, head to Krakow. I preferred a place called Momento’s in the Kazimierz District on Plac Nowy. Though not a cafe strictly speaking, it had a neat atmosphere, good food, and double as a cafe and pub. Free WIFI to boot. Other than that, Krakow itself, like Lviv in Ukraine, offers a great atmosphere in which to sit back, enjoy great coffee, and watch the world go by.

A view from a Lvivian cafe.
A view from a Lvivian cafe.

Ukraine

If Ukraine is a country in transition, so is it’s coffee culture. More renowned for vodka than anything else, instant coffee seems to be the de facto standard here. However, “natural coffee”, that is, ground coffee beans, is becoming more popular. Cost is usually the biggest different, “natural coffee” is about double the price of instant. While living in Kharkiv I was able to find very good natural coffee from all over the world. If you’re not a coffee aficionado and don’t care to be, the supermarket offers good Ukrainian coffee under the name of Zhokej. Most of all I enjoyed their dark roast (the black packaging) but their orange flavoured coffee (the orange pack!) also tasted pretty good. Although I don’t usually drink flavoured coffee, Zhokej’s orange flavoured coffee was a delight to smell walking into a room. That being said, who knows how or where they got the orange flavouring from.

Zhokej coffee line
Zhokej coffee line. From left to right: Hazelnut, Dark Roast, Caffe Italiano, Medium Roast, Classic Roast, and Orange Flavoured.

If you are a coffee connoisseur or wish to be, your best bet to find coffee beans from all over the world is Dom Coffee. Doubling as a cafe, Dom Coffee imports beans such as the Jamaican Blue Blend, Kopi Lowak and beans from Sumatra, Java and Ethiopia. Although they boast a wide selection of coffee beans, the cafes themselves are rather Spartan. The cafes look like places to buy coffee machines rather than cafes to lounge around it.

Espresso and water.
A typical espresso and water.

Other cafes in Kharkiv include the Art Cafe, which boasts a much more comfortable, tribal, though smokey, atmosphere. WIFI was free. Like Dom Coffee, they have quite a selection of coffees from around the world so don’t be afraid to ask in broken Russian or Ukrainian for something other than your regular drip coffee. And if you’re looking to hang around the university district, try out the IT Cafe, which also offers a selection of moderately priced meals and… music at night. 🙂 (Though I never got a chance to any bands play there, I did see the drum kit and one of my students said he always had gigs there.)

For the chain stores, the idea of non-smoking sections is a foreign concept to most Slavs, preferring instead to be able to smoke outside and in. The smoke-free atmosphere I could find was McDonald’s. Every other coffee shop I’ve been to allows smoking. Coffee Life is another big chain store throughout Ukraine. Just about every cafe I walked into had WIFI.

Lviv Ratusz
Lviv Ratusz from street level.

For a burgeoning and immersive cafe culture head to Lviv. In downtown Lviv (where I spent most of my time), you could generally walk into any cafe and watch the world walk past. Let’s face it, when looking for a cafe the coffee itself is typically a secondary or even tertiary consideration. Instead, you want atmosphere and scenery. Well, just about ever downtown Lviv cafe offers just that. A couple of cafes that stood out to me were Gloria’s Beans cafe located in the same building as the George Hotel on Procp. Shevchenka. I was also told to try the Blue Cup Cafe, a small cafe located in a naturally-lit nook at 4 Vulica Rus’ka that serves up coffee “Lviv-style”, among other varieties. From what I could tell, “Lviv-style” coffee is none other than Polish-style coffee: coffee grounds at the bottom of your cup. But what Lviv offers most of all is a centrally-located, picturesque, cafe culture, especially in the summer months. You think Krakow is the place to be? Try Lviv, I bet you’ll change you’re mind.


Przemyśl and Warsaw, Poland: A Return to… Civilization(?!)

Przemysl at night.
Przemysl at night.

And so after four months in Ukraine, I wanted to make my way back home for a cousin’s wedding to happen in July. After enduring yet another 23-hour train ride from Kharkiv to Lviv to visit my Ukrainian family, I took the bus from Lviv to Sheheni, on the Ukrainian-Poland border. I had overstayed my visa by a month and was anticipating some trouble at the border. I intended to renew it when I went to Lviv two months prior but I just never did.

The border guards were nice about it. “You overstayed, go see my boss.” So off I went to a little room where a mid-20s female border guard explained what I did wrong, scanned my passport, got me to sign a document stating that I knew what I was doing and under no duress, paid a fine ($65), and then walked across the border to Poland. Not so bad as I’d heard worse stories. In the grand scheme of things it didn’t really matter too much but next time I visit Ukraine I’ll be sure to renew my visa anyway.

Hopping an inter-city bus I made my way to Przemyśl.

Przemyśl is a nice little town. I saw some signs for ESL schools and seriously thought about posting up shop there, or at least coming back at some point. I spent the day wandering around the ornate streets and visited several churches.

Przemsyl street during the day.
Przemsyl street during the day.
Przemysl pink building.
Przemysl pink building.
Franciscan Church interior.
Franciscan Church interior.
Greek Orthodox Church Interior.
Greek Orthodox Church Interior.
Catholic Church interior.
Catholic Church interior.
Przemysl street at night.
Przemysl street at night.

Przemysl sunsetI’d like to note the change between Ukraine and Poland is vast. First, it was difficult for me to switch back into Polish after speaking surzyk for the last four months. I tried to remember the Polish words I was taught but often Ukrainian or Russian came out instead. Further, life itself seemed different in Poland compared to Ukraine. As more than one ESL teacher I met told me, Ukraine offers more excitement compared to the Western world. In a word, Poland, Canada and other such Western countries were, simply “boring”. Both sets of women are extremely gorgeous, but the Polish seem to be a little more conservative in their manner of dress. Gone were the six-inch heels and visible underwear! The cost of things is noticeable as the Polish zloty is valued considerably more than the Ukrainian hryvnia. The cost difference is best realized by the Ukrainian babas (grandmothers) who offer Ukrainian horilka (vodka) and cigarettes on the Polish side of the border. Had I not been going back to Canada I would’ve bought a few bottles.

Speaking of bringing things across the border, the most notable difference between Ukraine and Poland – for me at least – was that there was no general distrust the law, unless you are breaking it. By way of contrast, in Ukraine, no one, absolutely no one would suggest you talk to a police officer unless there was no one else around. The cops in Poland, however, were very nice (which I can sadly tell you from experience.)

And with that, I hopped yet another late night bus back to Warsaw. The bus trip wouldn’t be without it’s uniqueness, such as a drunk man serenading another elderly lady. Four hours later I arrived in Warsaw. Again, the difference between Warsaw in winter and summer was huge. In winter Warsaw had such charm and colour. In summer? It looked like any other western city. I don’t hold it against Poland, however, as I had just come from a developing country. I was surprised to find myself agreeing with my former co-worker who had described the West as “boring”! It’s kinda shocking to go from a developed country into a developing country, especially when they’re right beside each other. How can it be that these things happen?

I took another walk around Warsaw to enjoy the last of my stay in my homelands. Another chapter, another trip, was closing. Although I was glad to leave Ukraine at the time, as time passes I miss the country more every day. I’m excited for the future for both Poland and Ukraine and truly hope that things will improve for both peoples.

So, after visiting my homelands I could only wonder, what next?

Warsaw in summertime.
Warsaw in summertime.

Przemyśl and Warsaw, Poland: A Return to… Civilization(?!)

Przemysl at night.
Przemysl at night.

And so after four months in Ukraine, I wanted to make my way back home for a cousin’s wedding to happen in July. After enduring yet another 23-hour train ride from Kharkiv to Lviv to visit my Ukrainian family, I took the bus from Lviv to Sheheni, on the Ukrainian-Poland border. I had overstayed my visa by a month and was anticipating some trouble at the border. I intended to renew it when I went to Lviv two months prior but I just never did.

The border guards were nice about it. “You overstayed, go see my boss.” So off I went to a little room where a mid-20s female border guard explained what I did wrong, scanned my passport, got me to sign a document stating that I knew what I was doing and under no duress, paid a fine ($65), and then walked across the border to Poland. Not so bad as I’d heard worse stories. In the grand scheme of things it didn’t really matter too much but next time I visit Ukraine I’ll be sure to renew my visa anyway.

Hopping an inter-city bus I made my way to Przemyśl.

Przemyśl is a nice little town. I saw some signs for ESL schools and seriously thought about posting up shop there, or at least coming back at some point. I spent the day wandering around the ornate streets and visited several churches.

Przemsyl street during the day.
Przemsyl street during the day.
Przemysl pink building.
Przemysl pink building.
Franciscan Church interior.
Franciscan Church interior.
Greek Orthodox Church Interior.
Greek Orthodox Church Interior.
Catholic Church interior.
Catholic Church interior.
Przemysl street at night.
Przemysl street at night.

Przemysl sunsetI’d like to note the change between Ukraine and Poland is vast. First, it was difficult for me to switch back into Polish after speaking surzyk for the last four months. I tried to remember the Polish words I was taught but often Ukrainian or Russian came out instead. Further, life itself seemed different in Poland compared to Ukraine. As more than one ESL teacher I met told me, Ukraine offers more excitement compared to the Western world. In a word, Poland, Canada and other such Western countries were, simply “boring”. Both sets of women are extremely gorgeous, but the Polish seem to be a little more conservative in their manner of dress. Gone were the six-inch heels and visible underwear! The cost of things is noticeable as the Polish zloty is valued considerably more than the Ukrainian hryvnia. The cost difference is best realized by the Ukrainian babas (grandmothers) who offer Ukrainian horilka (vodka) and cigarettes on the Polish side of the border. Had I not been going back to Canada I would’ve bought a few bottles.

Speaking of bringing things across the border, the most notable difference between Ukraine and Poland – for me at least – was that there was no general distrust the law, unless you are breaking it. By way of contrast, in Ukraine, no one, absolutely no one would suggest you talk to a police officer unless there was no one else around. The cops in Poland, however, were very nice (which I can sadly tell you from experience.)

And with that, I hopped yet another late night bus back to Warsaw. The bus trip wouldn’t be without it’s uniqueness, such as a drunk man serenading another elderly lady. Four hours later I arrived in Warsaw. Again, the difference between Warsaw in winter and summer was huge. In winter Warsaw had such charm and colour. In summer? It looked like any other western city. I don’t hold it against Poland, however, as I had just come from a developing country. I was surprised to find myself agreeing with my former co-worker who had described the West as “boring”! It’s kinda shocking to go from a developed country into a developing country, especially when they’re right beside each other. How can it be that these things happen?

I took another walk around Warsaw to enjoy the last of my stay in my homelands. Another chapter, another trip, was closing. Although I was glad to leave Ukraine at the time, as time passes I miss the country more every day. I’m excited for the future for both Poland and Ukraine and truly hope that things will improve for both peoples.

So, after visiting my homelands I could only wonder, what next?

Warsaw in summertime.
Warsaw in summertime.

Poltava, Ukraine Part 2: A Guided Tour of Poltava and its Famous People and Battles

Poltava Streets
Poltava streets

My second day in Poltava was also eventful. I had in mind to see a few museums and possibly seit in a cafe to wile away the day. I’d already seen the monuments dedicated to the soldiers, Kozaks, and city memorial the day before, including the ubiquitous statue of Taras Shevchenko. In a museum mood, I decided to pop by the Cosmonautics Museum.

Cosmonautics Museum
Cosmonautics Museum.

Actually, I didn’t intend to go to the Cosmonautics Museum, but I ended up there because the Ivan Kotlyarevskyj’s museum was closed. The Cosmonautics museum is just across the street so I decided to pop by to see if someone knew what was going on. Long story short, the middle-aged woman running the desk didn’t speak a word of English so they decided to call on their daughter who knew English. Hello Ukrayeenka! In walked a typical, slender, well-put-together 24-year old Ukrainian university student who worked in the museum during the summer months when not at university.

She didn’t know why the Kotlyrarevskyj museum wasn’t open, she even asked her mom (the lady running the front desk) to call the owner. No answer. So I decided to take an hour-long tour of the Poltava Cosmonautics Museum. It’s here that I’d learn that Poltava was an alternate landing site for allied World War 2 planes? And that Yuri Vasilievich Kondratyuk (birth name was Olexandr Gnatovich Shargei), a local scientist, came up with several revolutionary ideas for space flight which would eventually be used in the Apollo program? (Though, apparently, NASA would come up with them on their own.) The museum, though small, housed quite a few authentic artifacts and some replicas from Poltava’s long history of space research.

Not wanting to walk around Poltava by myself, again, I asked her if she’d mind taking me around Poltava, like a tour guide. She could practice her English and I could practice my Ukrainian. Clearing it with her mother she finally agreed. Off we went.

We spent the day together and she told me all about the city, its history, its significance, and where it can go from here. I suggested we get a bottle of horilka for our journey, but she said she doesn’t drink that early in the day. Some folks have standards, I guess.

Detail of Painting of Battle of Poltava
Detail of painting of Battle of Poltava in the museum located on the site of the battle. Painted by Grekov studio painters sometime in the 1950s for the Poltava Battle Museum. See their website here. Special thanks to Mark M for finding out more about this painting.

The city of Poltava is the location of a famous battle between the Ukrainians and the Swedes which decided the course of Ukrainian history for centuries to come. It was during this battle that Ivan Mazepa, praised by some as a hero but derided as a traitor by others, would lose the battle and leave Ukraine in the hands of the Russians. We visited part of the battle site and visited the museum where we attached ourselves to an English tour already in progress. I was surprised to learn that the tour group, although listening in English, was actually Swedish. Apparently lots of Swedes like to visit Poltava and its battle sites for its history.

Heading back to the city, we walked around downtown Poltava. My guide impressed me with the knowledge of her city’s history which made me kinda wonder what I knew about my hometown Winnipeg. Churches, buildings, monuments and Ivan Kotlyarevskyj’s house.

Steve, who is Ivan Kotyablahblahblah?

Kotlyarevskyj's house.
Ivan Kotlyarevskyj’s reconstructed house in Poltava, Ukraine.

Ah, well, Mr. Ivan Kot-lyah-rev-ski is one of two famous writers to emerge from Poltava. In any event, Mr. K. is credited as being the first truly Ukrainian writer. He read Vergil’s Aeneid and was inspired to write his own version. The result was a story called Eneyida in which the characters of Vergil’s work are Ukrainian Cossacks but have Greek and Roman names. Not only that, following in the tradition of Homer and Vergil, Mr. K. wrote his book in half the space it took Misters H. and V. – the Eneyida is only 6 books long. He also wrote another famous work Natalka Poltavka which is often taught in Canadian-Ukrainian schools.

Nicolai Gogol
Nicolai Gogol

The other well-known writer from the Poltava region is Nicolai Gogol, though you might recognize his name as being Russian. Gogol is the creator of the legendary Kozak, Taras Bulba, a short story that would spawn a couple of adaptations both in Hollywood and Moscow. Although Gogol’s Ukrainian up-bringing permeates his works, he relocated to St. Petersburg and then Moscow seeking literary fame. So it is with writers, moving away from their home towns. Unlike Kotlyarevskyj, Gogol did not have a house in Poltava, but he watches over the city by way of a sitting statue.

Rushnyk maker in Poltava.
Rushnyk maker in Poltava.

I had promised one of my aunts in Canada that I’d bring back a rushnyk made in Poltava. A rushnyk is a traditional embroidered table cloth, typically given to newly-wed couples. However, since Ukraine is experiencing an influx of tourists, these traditional pieces are slowly giving way to machine-made, mass-produced copies. I was looking for a hand-made rushnyk and, after walking around for a bit, we found a Ukrainian souvenier store. $100 seemed to be the standard price of a rushnyk and I’m sad that I didn’t get two and a Ukrainian shirt. These pieces were amazing. I managed to snap a photo of the lady running the store and her current work in progress.

Of course, we ended the day at a bar and imbibed with a few “live” beers chatting about life. I told her about my time in Ukraine so far, and even mentioned the Ukrainian dating website. She went silent, I gasped as I knew all too well about that silence. Soon after she confessed she works for a dating website: she writes letters and gets paid $10 per letter… but she’s only done four to date. Upon hearing this, I start thinking about offering my own writing services to women. Hmmm, a quote about writing popped into mind:

“Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for the love of it, then you do it for a few friends, and finally you do it for money.” – Moliere

I gave her a few dollars for her efforts as a tour guide and then hurried back to my hotel to gather my stuff for the train that night, the idea of writing to women for money still in my mind.

I had one last stop to make before departing back to Canada and that would be back in Lviv to finally meet my Ukrainian cousins.

Memorial to Ukrainian Kozaks.
Memorial to Ukrainian Kozaks.
Another war memorial.
Another memorial.
Memorial to Peter I
Memorial to Peter I, or commemorating the city’s 1100 birthday. I can’t remember. 🙁
Memorial to fallen soldiers at Battle of Poltava.
Memorial at one of the sites of the Battle of Poltava.
Golden eagle sitting atop the Column of Glory in Poltava, Ukraine.
Golden eagle sitting atop the Column of Glory in Poltava, Ukraine.
Neat bug.
Neat bug.