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First Unrelated Visitors


August 28, 2001

Dear Friends and relatives,

After three years here in Ukraine, we finally had voluntary visitors. Of course we've had a couple kids visit, a Mom, and a brother and sister-in-law too and we thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated all those visits. But it's a bit different when the visitors are not compelled by blood lines. The fact that it took three years is a measure of just how off-the-beaten-path Kyiv is.

Roger and Kathleen Huston arrived in early August. I've known Roger for years as part of a bunch of us who made our livings hanging around Washington and trying to figure out the process of regulating nuclear power plants. Sort of like the old court attendants who used to get paid bribes for being friendly with royalty and then telling other folks what mood the king was in. What the heck, it puts bread on the table.

The plan was to spend most of our time at home in Kyiv and we had to do that even more than I thought due to the recent turmoil over my resignation. I did not have the time I had hoped for day-trips but Marianne and Gabby served as hostesses and Roger and Kathleen took off on their own too.

There were plenty of visits to the normal attractions but I can only tell about them by hearsay. Roger did have a new digital camera however so there may be a supplement to the story. Meanwhile, I'll just talk about two excursions that I personally witnessed - A new view of St. Michael's church and a new, more exciting, way to get to Lviv in Eastern Ukraine.

St. Michael's

We've been here three years. Blue and gold St. Michael's church has been here half that time. This was one of many churches destroyed in the 1930's during Stalin's rule. The government of Ukraine has been rebuilding a number of these churches in a collaboration between church and state that is unheard of, and illegal, in the U.S. Some say that church-government collaboration goes back continuously for several hundred years around here - even during most of the Communist era but it's hard to balance that last thought with the recorded destruction of well over 90% of the churches after the 1917 Revolution, the ensuing civil war, and the Stalinist period.

Enough politics. The current rebuilding has given us visitors nice places to visit. On the first Saturday of their stay, we took Roger and Kathleen on a neighborhood tour, starting with our new-old church. Actually, I believe we started with a trolley bus ride for a couple stops. Always a good introduction to life-in-Kyiv-without-a-car. The first time it's fun. The fifth time it's fine. But eventually the tired, old busses don't seem so cute. Too bad that some of the government money for church monuments doesn't go for better busses to help people in their daily lives. Oops, politics again.

At St. Michael's, we were entering through the bell tower, as we always do, but were stopped by another church-goer who led us to a door and insisted that we go in and climb the tower. We had never known such an excursion was possible but with new tourists we get new tours. We climbed some inner stairs that were filled with scaffolding. Not something that OSHA would allow "back home" but at least the painters hadn't shown up for work yet. At the top, a smartly dressed young lady told us that we could indeed go out on the bell platform - for a one hryvna fee each. This is under a dollar for all of us so we paid and the attendant opened a door to the outside.

There we saw:

-- BIG bells. Roger stood under the biggest.

-- Small bells. One of my favorites pictures for some reason.

-- Medium bell ringing mechanisms. There is a network of cables and levers and wires that run to each bell from a device that looks like a piano.

-- St. Michael's church. A nice view looking down at much of the church building. The old Orthodox churches seemed to have been constructed with separate, and massive, bell towers instead of attached belfries.

For me, the rest of the St. Mike's visit was just a repeat of past visits - and I'll spare you repeats of past Diaries. Next we went to St. Sophia's, a church that truly is old and one which I enjoy even though I've seen it a number of times. Remember, we used to look out on it everyday from our other apartment. But, this visit was pretty normal and I must say that the place must be visited to have a real sense.


Train Trip To Lviv

On the following Friday (I told you I was skipping a lot) we were going to catch the train to Lviv in Western Ukraine. The plan was for the overnight train to Lviv Friday and the partner overnight train back on Sunday night. There was no time to spare since Roger and Kathleen's flight out was early Tuesday. No problem, Marianne had made arrangements months ago on the "Grand Tour" train over and back and at the Grand Hotel for our one night stay.

That was the plan. However, an hour before we leave for the train station, we discover that we do not have reservations for the return train. And there is only one train (not actually true I learned later). And it's the peak of summer vacation so there's no space Sunday night. Not on the Grand Tour, the regular First Class or maybe not even in second class (which we would probably not take anyway).

Marianne is furious with the travel agent so we all head off for his office to see what's possible. Igor the agent positively shuddered when Marianne the Furious walked into his office less than an hour before train time. Calls were made. Options were investigated. (My favorite was the plane option. Somehow Igor "knew" that the computer that said the plane was full must be wrong. "There are more seats than shown. Do you want to take it?" No. ) Assurances were given. ("There are no places to reserve on the train but that's fixable '99% of the time'". Yeah, right.)

At a half-hour before train time, we made a decision. Despite the fact that the train takes 10 hours, a car only takes about six between Lviv and Kyiv. If we don't get the train, we could always hire a car (and driver), leave a little early and still have a night's sleep. Probably even save some money. So it's off we go.

Since there are five of us, daughter Gabby was visiting by now, we had two taxi drivers, Volodymer and Sasha waiting to rush us to the train station - two worried taxi drivers. The normal process is to get to the train station about 30 or 40 minutes early. That gives enough time to fight the crowds, find the right track, board the train and settle in before the thing lurches off into the darkness.

This summer, things are even worse because the main train station building has actually been closed for renovation. (the subject of a future Diary). The "fight-the-crowds, find-the train" part gets preceded with a crawl-through-the-mixed-up-traffic part first. Anyway, the normal 10-minute ride stretches to 20. We hit the station area 10 minutes before train time - and trains do leave on time around here.

The normal drop off is blocked so we get let out a good quarter mile from the trains. We run through tunnels under all the tracks and pop up on the "normal" side of the station. The last time we went to Lviv the train left on Track 6 so I led the way to the next tunnel and stairs labeled "tracks 2 through 18". Of course there are no signs anywhere. We run down two flights of stairs, across to Track 6 and see no train. So, we run UP three flights of stairs to the bridge over the trains where the signs usually are. Not tonight. Not a single sign.

Completely out of character, I ask for directions. (Me, an American male, asking for directions!) A very nice man manages to understand my bad and panicky Russian and tells us the Lviv train is on Track 1 - the only track not accessible from the bridge. Well, not exactly.

Our Good Samaritan leads us down the stairs to track 2. The Lviv train is just a few yards away, on the other side of Track 2. Our friend crosses the track and knocks on the doors of one of the train cars. No one opens the door. He runs down three more cars, with the five of us in his wake back on the Track 2 platform.

This time the conductor opens the door so the choice is clear. Our troupe leaves the safety of the platform and we cross the tracks for the open door. Of course the stairs don't work so the landing to the open door is about chest high on me, shoulder high on Roger, nose high on Kathleen and over Gabby and Marianne's heads.

I make it first and get helped on board by a shocked conductor. Then he and I haul the girls aboard. Marianne was the last of the trio because she had stopped on the train track to answer her mobile phone. It was our worried taxi driver asking if we had made it. "Almost." Later, Gabby and I gave her mobile-phone lesson #1: "When standing on busy train tracks, it's OK not to answer the phone. Sasha will understand."

By now, Roger was the only one left on Track 2. Unfortunately, Roger was sharing it with a moving train with a big bright headlight. He seemed calm and sure enough, we pulled him on board with plenty of time to spare - 10, 15 seconds at least.

We gathered our troupe, walked down the halls of another two or three train cars and collapsed into our pleasant double rooms. It had been a very long time since most of us had had so much exercise, with such incentives and in 90 degree (F) heat besides! We were all babbling about what a story we'd have and that's what travel is all about: stories.

Our stay in Lviv was pretty much like our other stays in Lviv. It's a nice small city, with a "European" flavor since it largely avoided Russian domination until after World War II. Instead it was dominated by Poland, Lithuania and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The saying is that there are old residents of the area who have lived in five different countries but have never left their village.

We'll just finish up with some pictures. We have more complete Lviv rundowns on earlier Diaries:

-- Newly restored Lviv Opera House. Unfortunately there were no performances during our stay but we were able to look around the building. The ceiling was particularly well done with lots of details. Marianne was particularly taken by the balcony support on the right while us guys favored the left-hand support.

-- Graves. We toured the famous graveyard, as we had done last time.last time. It seems there's always room for a grave or two. This time our tour was ended when a nice old lady came up to us and warned us of thieves who prayed on tourists wandering around off-the-beaten-path. After a warning like that, the tranquility of the place was lost. No matter, we escaped safe and sound again.

The rest of the stay was "normalna". Good food (cheap - half the Kyiv prices so a quarter California prices.) Pleasant hotel. All the churches, monuments, parks, and strolling avenues a person could want for a day or two. Then it's back on the train for a ten-hour bumpy ride. Oh yeah, Igor was right, space "opened up" for the trip back. Thanks in part to some other tourists who opted for an airplane ride back to Kyiv. It seems Igor was right on that one too, there WERE seats the computer didn't know about.

Early Tuesday morning, we drove Roger and Kathleen to the airport. After two weeks, I believe they'd had enough Ukraine adventure for awhile. Maybe they'll write their own account of the visit and we can, with permission, distribute that as well. I'm curious, what did they REALLY think?


John and Marianne.

Coming up:

-- Gabby's summer visit

-- Kyiv's new train station. The nicest in Europe?























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