Thursday, January 27, 2011

Chasing Wild Geese Through Multicultural Ternopil

Recently I read an emotionally-gripping memoir about a Polish Catholic student nurse who risked her life to save countless Jews during the Holocaust.  The real nail-biter parts of the story take place in Ternopil, Ukraine, where this young nurse was forced by the Germans to work in a munitions factory, and later as a housekeeper in the private villa of a German army major.  At one point, the student nurse transfers a number of Jewish workers from the factory’s laundry room and hides them in the basement of the army major’s nearby villa, where they remained safe from imminent deportation to a Nazi death camp. 

Since Ternopil is only a two-hour train ride east from L’viv, I decided to go and poke around to see what I could see.  I knew the old factory was situated in a place called Harres-Krafa Park, which, according to the book, took up about three city blocks.  The villa was located down “three long streets” from the park.  The book contained pictures of both places, taken in the early 1940s.  I jotted down some general notes before passing the book along to an American peace corps volunteer working in Crimea.  But beyond that, I had little else to go on.

I didn’t think I could accomplish what I wanted to accomplish unhurriedly in a day, so I planned to spend the night in Ternopil.  I couldn’t locate a hostel online, so I asked Olana, my hostel administrator in L’viv, whether she knew of one.  She didn’t, but told me she would talk to a friend and get back to me.  Two days later, Olana handed me a printed map of Ternopil with two addresses listed at the bottom; no specific names or contact information were included.  

Olana also mentioned that she had an “Afro-American friend” willing to meet me and show me around Ternopil.  I wanted more details and this is basically how our conversation went:

So your friend is American?
He is black.
Uh-huh, but is he American?
He is from Nigeria.
So, he is a Nigerian-American?
I don’t know.
But he is your friend?
Well, he is not my friend.  I don’t really know him.

After more questioning, I finally teased out what facts I could.  The man in question is a Nigerian studying in Ukraine (as a good number of African students do), and my administrator stumbled upon him over the internet, apparently while putting out feelers for Ternopil hostels.  They had never met.  Of course Olana was just trying to be helpful, but we both agreed that maybe it wasn’t the best idea for a woman traveling alone to arrange to meet a complete stranger in an unfamiliar place.

I arrived in Ternopil on Tuesday with my piece of paper and began the search for the two hostels.  I couldn’t find English speakers to help me get oriented, so I did my best by pointing to the map and saying words like “center” and “Ruskya” (the main street) in my best Ukrainian accent.  Eventually I found my way to the first address.

It did not look like a hostel.  It was a several-story building with what looked to be an official, government-issued plaque posted on the outside.  I entered and found two guards sitting behind a wooden table next to a security monitor.  One of them spoke a few words of English, and soon we established that this was not a hostel, but a student dormitory connected to an academy of learning.  As I spoke with the guards, a small group of young, black men wearing book bags, stone-washed jeans, and pointed-toe shoes came down the stairs and exited the building.  There goes my Nigerian, I thought. 

I was getting ready to leave in search of the second address when a man of about fifty entered the foyer and asked if I spoke Spanish.  “Un poco,” I replied.  That was a bit of an overstatement, but we nevertheless were able to conclude that neither this nor the other address written on my paper was a hostel.  At this point I knew I had to make myself vulnerable in order to find a bed for the night, so I explained that I had just arrived in Ternopil and was looking for a place to dormir for un poco dinero, like in a hostel-dormitorio

The Spanish-speaking man told me to wait un momento and disappeared up the stairs.  He came back now wearing his coat and motioned for me to walk with him.  “Donde?” I questioned before agreeing to follow him, and he told me he knew of a hotel dos calles away for not much dinero.   At this point it was still light out and I didn’t see a downside to checking it out.  On the way I learned that the man’s name is Nikolai.  He is from Barcelona and has worked as an electrician in Ukraine for ocho años.

The hotel was two streets away, just like Nikolai said.   We entered the lobby and approached a woman sitting behind a window at the front desk.  Nikolai kept reconfirming that I needed a room for only one person.  “Si, solamente una persona,” I said, for the third time.   I was told that a room for one cost 180 Ukrainian hyrvnias, or about $22 US.  This was almost three times the amount I was paying for my hostel bed in L’viv, and more than I wanted to spend.  But one thing that has gotten me this far is knowing when to stop looking for something cheaper and lay the money down.  This was one of those times.

The room had a desk, a bed, and a TV whose channels were all in Ukrainian, but still it was a small slice of heaven to have my own room with a key and unlimited privacy.  I wanted to lie down after the exhausting events of the morning, but I had a munitions factory and villa to find, so I quickly freshened up and headed out again.

On the search down a Ternopil street.

I spent the next few hours poking into businesses where I thought English might be spoken and asking if anyone had heard of Harres-Krafa Park.  No one had.  I ducked into an internet café for more research.  I didn’t learn much else concerning the park, like whether it was still standing, but I did read that Ternopil oblast (or province) has an official state archive that was first established in 1941, and it was nearby.  I figured if anyone would know about Harres-Krafa Park, the people at the archive would, so I made plans to go the next day, and hoped someone there would speak English.

Back at the hotel room—with no wi-fi or English-language television—I pulled out a book from my hostel’s exchange in L’viv.  It’s called A Long Way Gone, and is a memoir written by a child soldier of Sierra Leone’s 1990s civil war.  On the front cover a reviewer had written something like “everyone in the world should read this book.” I finished it that night, checking myself off the list.  It was a horrific account of this child soldier’s plight, but also profound and illuminating.  I wanted to give the book to the next person in order to keep the story going, but it had to be someone who could read English.  I figured I knew just where to find such a person in Ternopil.

The next morning I checked out of the hotel and headed back to the student dormitory where I had seen the African students the day before.  I wanted to thank Nikolai again if possible, and intended to find a new reader for the book.  A good prospect emerged from the dorm upstairs and I seized my chance.

“Excuse me,” I said, holding out the book out to a young, black man on his way out the door with a book bag slung over his shoulder.  “I just finished this and would like to pass it along to someone who might be interested to read it.”  My English stopped him in his tracks.  He glanced at the book’s cover on which an African child soldier appears, looked back at me, and then began stammering excitedly with questions:  What are you doing in Ternopil?  Where are you from?  Where are you going?  Where have you been?  Did you come here alone?  Finally he asked whether I was going toward the city center.  I said I was, and so was he, so we walked together, asking and answering more questions in turn.

The young man's name is Gaton, and I learned that he isn't my Nigerian.  Gaton is from Cameroon and has been studying computer science in Ternopil for one year.  He speaks French, English, some Ukrainian as of late, and the language of his tribe, which is the same one to which Cameroon’s president belongs, he told me proudly.  We talked about how Gaton is treated in Ternopil.  He told me that he gets beaten up a lot because he likes white women and wants to date one, but when he tries to talk to them in the nightclub, things get ugly.  Apparently there is much racism in Ukraine insofar as interracial relationships are concerned.  Gaton wants to go to America one day to study Cisco, and perhaps date whomever he chooses.

Could this be my Nigerian?
I listened to Gaton with a sympathetic ear.  I now know that both Russia and Ukraine contain virtual seas of light-skinned people in which the occasional dark-skinned person shockingly stands out.  Each time I would spot a black man in Russia (I think I saw about a half-dozen during 26 days of travel in two of Russia’s largest cities), I wanted to ask him what he was doing there, because I’m just curious that way.  But for some reason in my mind I would hear Eddie Murphy in Delirious scream “Why motherf@#&!r?  A black man can't have a suitcase?” and I chickened out.

My new Cameroonian friend and I arrived in the city center and I could tell he wanted to spend more time with me, being an English-speaking white woman from America.  But writing is something that must be done alone, so I held my hand out to him to signal that it was time for me to go on my way.  He shook it, and we said goodbye.  

No eggs, but the restaurant did serve these
nutritious cherry cheese pancakes.
I went to a café in the city center, where an English-speaking German teaching in Ukraine helped me order breakfast.  I wrote for a couple hours and spent the next few walking through neighborhoods and down city streets.  Earlier I had trouble finding the state archive building, and wanted to give it one last try before leaving town.

I approached two guys having a smoke outside a building that said “Medical University.”  They didn’t look like typical Ukrainians, but I couldn’t place their ethnicity.  I began by asking whether they spoke English.  They answered yes, and I asked directions to the street for which I had been searching that supposedly held the archive building.  Both guys were extremely friendly and we stood chatting for a few minutes.  I learned that they are studying to be doctors. 

The nearby town square.
I asked whether they had come to Ternopil from other countries.  One replied, “yes, I am from Iran and he is from Iraq.”  I was taken aback for a moment, thinking about the infamous Axis-of-Evil declaration and the Iraq War, and wondering what my new friends thought of the American in this cozy little triumvirate on this Ukrainian street corner.  They must have detected something from my quick change of demeanor.  The Iraqi guy spoke up and said, in an almost-reassuring tone, “actually, I live in Dubai now, and my two brothers live in America; one in California, and the other in Texas.”  I snapped out of my inner thoughts and replied, “I live in California too.”  Our countries of origin fell away once more as we engaged in further chit-chat.   Finally I wished them luck in school and departed.

My wild goose chase in Ternopil ended without my finding the archive building, the Harres-Krafa Park, or the major’s villa.  But I met some interesting people from across the globe and in the process learned some things.  

The Ternopil voksal, or train station.
Upon my return to L’viv last night, I had a long chat with my Italian roommate, Giovanni, who is also a writer and a traveler, and apparently sometimes works as an itinerant clown, but I’m not too clear on that particular detail.  I did teach him the English word "juggling."

Right now I am finishing this post as I share the breakfast table with a man from Hong Kong who is looking to open a Chinese restaurant in Ukraine, and an elderly British man who was born in Scotland and later moved to France.  He told me he is now traveling in Ukraine to meet a girlfriend.  I don't know, but I think that’s a euphemistic way of saying that he’s looking for a Ukrainian bride, an extremely popular pastime in these parts. 

Today I will take one last look around L’viv and then I must say goodbye to Ukraine.  Tonight I'll begin the journey to my next stop:  Krakow, Poland.  I hear the border between the countries is an absolute nightmare to get through, so I'm bracing myself for a long, arduous bus ride.  Wish me luck.