When Natasha, the Ukrainian woman in my train cabin, began to stash the
cigarettes in compartments, behind our locked door and closed blinds, with
army and customs patrols circulating the train, I knew that what he wrote
was true: you will find adventure, or adventure will find you.
Now Kiev, where my uncle works in the German embassy as a diplomat, was
interesting architecturally, as well as a case-in-point of a former Soviet
state in transition. Around the town center, the older, nineteenth-century
buildings are painted in colorful, light pastels, with columns left in the
original cold stone. Walking through the area, you were treated to a
meandering river of color, warming against the bitter chill of encroaching
The Greek/Russian Orthodox church is the main religious body there; there
are several large churches, one dating back to the 10th century, where the
original frescoes have been uncovered, laid against the soaring, curved
arches of the Byzantine architecture that defined the original building.
The churches are capped with large domes, the bodies of the dome painted
in green, capped with gold leaf along the edges and points. The largest
dome traditionally rises above the altar area, and includes a fresco of
Christ overseeing the rituals.
One church we visited is a monastery, on a hill above the river near town.
The monastery is still active, and has been used for hundreds of years,
and inside the hill, all the way down to the water, the ground is run
through with caverns, which were long ago made into lodgings for the
monks. Two of these we entered, bearing long pencil-thin candles held
between the first fingers of our left hands, as custom dictates, and which
offered the only light once inside. In these rooms, mummified bodies of
ancient monks are shown in glass-lidded coffins in small recesses; each
bears an inscription of the monk's name, and often a painting of the monk
in life. Rather than a museum, these are sacred religious sites, and
around us, Orthodox worshippers touched the coffins, kissed them,
genuflected and bowed from the waist, praying, in the manner of their
religion. From the clothes (changed regularly) on the remains would
peek out a mummified hand. One glass cabinet, behind iron
bars, displayed bottles with the preserved heads of monks that had, in
life and in death, kept a special scent about their bodies; this was
considered miraculous, or a special sign, and the heads are kept as
religious relics because of it.
But around all this ancient and beautiful town center, the city is ringed
with old state housing, thousands of ugly apartment blocks, aged and
decrepit. It houses most of the city's population, apparently. Many of the
buildings appear 40, 50 years old, and the balconies are often sheathed in
sheets of wood, or corrugated metal, perhaps to extend their life and
usefulness. It is incredibly ugly and depressing: imagine the worst public
housing you've seen in America, then imagine 1,000 of those buildings,
across the countryside, littered.
On the way to Kiev, I boarded another sort of relic, a train I'm sure was
built in the 1940's in the high style of that time. At the end of the
wagons, where the exits lay, some coal spilt out from beneath the metal
utility access doors; the toilet seat looked like it was built from cast
iron, and the train swung and rattled in a rather shambling, romantic
I was puzzled when, in the middle of the night, the train stopped and we
found ourselves jerked back and forward by the sound and shudder of wagons
crashing together. I'magining it, I thought perhaps a group of drunk
Ukranians had unhitched a car, rolled it back 150 feet, then slammed it
forward against it's brother where we slept. Then, laughing and passing
around the nip of vodka, they pulled the car back, and repeated. At least,
that's what it sounded like.
But, Natasha. She appeared on the train in the middle of Ukraine, on my
way out of the country, with her sister in the cabin next door. She spoke
maybe 30 words of English, and much Russian and Ukranian. We barely
understood each other, but we muddled through the basic introductions and
I understood that she was from a small town, no work, with a nine-year old
child, and apparently no husband.
I asked why she was travelling to Poland (for a one-day visit) and she
indicated the contents of some shopping bags, which appeared to contain
video cassettes. Hmm. Odd.
As we reached the Ukrainian border late in the night, our passports were
taken (always creepy), our cabin briefly checked by a man in military
fatigues. Our train was stopped--as I later found out, to switch the
wheels on the wagons from one gauge to another--for well over an hour.
After the guards had passed, Natasha glanced up and down the corridors,
and her sister appeared, and they talked. Hmm. Interesting.
Natasha fished some items out of her handbag, and handed her sister a few
metal handles--door handles--with some words, and held in her hand a
flat-head screwdriver. Her sister disappeared down the hall. Hmm. Strange.
Then, checking the corridor again, she pulled our door closed, locked it,
closed the blinds and indicated I should sit on the small chair facing the
bunk seat. Lifting the bunk against her shoulder, she crouched over a
small sheet of wood that covered the far side of the baggage box under the
seat. Screwdriver in hand, shaking a little from the effort of lifting
the heavy bunk, she began to remove the screws that held the lid down.
Doors locked. Blinds shut. Ukranian police and army wandering the halls.
I helped hold the bunk up with one hand while I turned away towards the
table, trying, nonchalantly, to study my book of German conversations.
I'm wondering exactly what I will say when the guards come to ask why our
door is closed, and also what Ukranian prisons are like. Is the food bad?
And, of course, seconds dribbling by terribly slowly, Natasha is having
problems removing the lid, because even though the screws are out, it's
nicely wedged in there against the wall. She's sweating, I'm sweating, is
this adventure? Ok, she's got the lid out, and turning, removes the first
of what now turns out to be cartons of cigarettes from her shopping bag.
Rips the plastic wrap off. Begins stuffing them into the exposed
This operation takes an incredibly long time, I can't tell you. I wish I
were anywhere but here at this moment. Of course, just like in the movies,
she packs the compartment all wrong, not enough will fit, so now she's
pulling the damn things out and rearranging. Hastily, but my, she's got a
lot of packs to go. When it is filled, she covers it with something like a
Glad bag, and now the lid won't fit back on. Now I'm really freaking out,
because she's banging the lid with the edge of the screwdriver, which
sounds awefully loud in the small room. I wedge my shoulder under the
bunk, lift it up to give her more room. The lid falls in place, she screws
it in place, and wouldn't you know it, the Glad bag is peeking out the
edge, along the back. She begins to tear at it. Being something like a
Glad bag, it refuses to tear, so she has little itsy bits of plastic bag
in her hand, and tons of the exposed plastic bag still left to go. She
pokes at it with the blade of the screwdriver, then tears some more.
OK, she's now satisfied with that. Lowers the bunk. Thank god, she's done.
She's looking around. Now eyeing the overhead light. Stepping on the bunk,
she begins to remove the screws around the light. Apparently there are
more cigarettes. Great.
At this point I pantomime that I'm going for a walk, and she mimes a
secret knock I should use when I return.
Down the corridor, it's clear that the train is crawling with smugglers.
All these moms walking up and down with shopping bags. At the end of the
wagons, opening electrical and water utility cabinets, stuffing, stuffing.
There are an incredible number of bags. Lots of work. Everybody looks
When I return, and as the train finally heads to Poland, I pull out my
deck of cards and begin to show Natasha how to play patience. She needs
it, she's biting her nails and I can feel the tension like a heat from her
body. Guards pass by at odd intervals, look in, see us huddled together
over this stupid game, and leave us alone.
Nobody got caught; a few hours later, Natasha, now dressed like a
(Ukranian) soccer mom again, has her bags packed and is prepared to exit
in some small Polish town. It's the middle of the night. I figure that,
after expenses, she might make $100 for the effort. I think that will go a
long way in her small Ukranian town.