Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Happy birthday, Igor!

(When I started this post, I was on a bus from L'viv [Lvov], Ukraine, to Ostrava, Czech Republic, traveling with a group of students and my Hartwick colleague Prof. Amy Forster Rothbart. That was on January 19th. It's taken me a little while to finish it. My previous dispatch, on our outing to Chernobyl, is here.)

Here’s the situation: you’ve put your students through a rough morning. You had them be up and out the door at 7:20 to catch taxis to the bus station for an 8:10 bus to the outlying town of Zolochiv, where they stand in the snow for a while waiting for the bus, before they finally head inside to wait and you continue standing in the snow waiting for the bus, then when it’s 8:10 you check with the dispatcher, who informs you that the 8:10 bus won’t be running today because of the snow and the next one isn’t until 11:00, which is useless, so you put the students in new cabs and drag them to the train station, and get tickets to Zolochiv.

The question is, How do you make it up to them for having dragged them through such a chaotic morning? And the answer is obvious. You have them stand on a snow-bound train platform in Zolochiv and sing “Happy Birthday” to a beaming Ukrainian Railways conductor.

And don’t pretend you didn’t see that coming. I mean, the question answers itself.

Brendan Cahill, Hartwick ’12 (political science), joined the Peace Corps after college and ended up teaching English in Ukraine—specifically, in Zolochiv, a town east-southeast of L’viv, with about 10,000 to 20,000 people (Amy saw differing reports).

When Amy was setting up the Ukrainian portion of our course, she was in touch with Brendan, who really wanted us to come out and talk with his students and meet his colleagues. We also appreciated the chance to see a different aspect of Ukraine. We’ve been in the capital Kyiv, and L’viv, smaller but still a reasonably large city.

And we’ve been meeting with public-interest lawyers, environmental activists, journalists, students who have studied in the U.S. on exchange programs—all in all, people from an urban environment who have extensive exposure to Americans and other westerners. Amy’s coincidental connection to Zolochiv would add a useful further dimension to the course.

So Brendan set up our visit for Friday, January 18th. After he had it arranged and we’d put it into our schedule, Brendan’s Ukrainian counterparts realized that the 18th would be an important holiday toward the end of their Christmas celebrations. (Orthodox Christians in Ukraine still organize their religious observances by the old Julian calendar, which runs about two weeks behind ours.) This seemed a little odd—if someone were involving you in an event for December 25th, it’s unlikely you’d make the plan and only later realize it wouldn’t work because it would be Christmas Day.

But there it was, so we moved the event to the 19th. That was also the day that we had a bus scheduled to pick us up at 6pm to take us to Ostrava, in the Moravian part of the Czech Republic, so we really wanted to be back in time, and had a preference for being dropped at our hostel, rather than having to take 6 cabs from the bus station to the hostel.

And why not a train? Well, that’s hard to answer. At the beginning of setting up the visit, Amy asked Brendan about getting out to Zolochiv by train. Trains heading from L’viv east to Kyiv or south to Crimea pass right through the town, so she thought that perhaps the train would be a convenient solution. But Brendan’s Ukrainian counterparts assured him that the way to go was to take a couple of “marshrutky.”

These are apparently vans that run on informal routes. There are places around town where you can often find them, and you flag them down and get them to go where you want to go. Because of their size, this would have had us going in two different vans, for a trip of … 75 minutes? 90 minutes? We had trouble getting a clear answer on that.

Our first appointment in L’viv, on Thursday the 17th, was with an environmental lawyer. Making small talk, Amy told him our plans, and he immediately advised against the “marshrutky” plan. He said we should go to the bus station the day before and arrange our own bus. This seemed quite sensible, so Friday evening, Amy went with her friend (and our Ukrainian facilitator) Olya to the bus station. They couldn’t arrange a bus of our own, but they were able to buy tickets.

Well, sort of. They were able to buy 20 tickets. As best as Amy understands, the bus station itself wouldn’t sell more than 20, and only the bus driver can sell the last few. So you show up early for the bus, and talk the driver into “adding a seat” (which actually just meant selling you one more ticket, not physically adding a seat to the bus). Olya would be going her own way that morning, so it would fall to Amy and me to negotiate this, but we were game.

So at 7:20 in the morning, we had all the students heading down the stairs to the waiting taxis, and we drove through the unplowed streets of L’viv, with more snow coming down. We got to the bus station in good order, reassembled our crew (including three who got dropped off on the sidewalk by the street rather than inside the area of the bus station). And we learned that it was platform 10, and we stood by platform 10 in the falling snow. There was a bus parked there, with a woman in the “assistant” seat—sort of like shotgun, but for someone who … sells tickets? (There’s certainly no “in-flight service.”) She wasn’t interested in talking to us.

After a while, we realized it was pointless to have the students standing around out in the snow, so we sent them into the not-very-large waiting room. The driver arrived, we asked him about Zolochiv, he said he wasn’t going there, and in a few minutes he left. It wasn’t yet 8:00, so we figured the Zolochiv bus wouldn’t be long. 8:00. 8:05. 8:10. No bus. We go to the dispatcher’s window. She looks on her computer and informs us that the 8:10 to Zolochiv won’t be running today, because it hasn’t been able to head out in the snow. The next bus to Zolochiv is at 11:00. That won’t do us any good.

So Amy calls Brendan to give him the bad news. He has put a lot of effort into putting together this event, as have his Ukrainian counterparts, who are really looking forward to it. Brendan has told us that we’ll be like movie stars in this town, a group of 21 Americans showing up to talk with them. It’s a Big Deal. And here we are, telling him it’s falling through.

He tells us he’ll call right back, which he does, after having consulted with the Ukrainians, and this is the first we hear about trains. It turns out there are trains roughly every 30 minutes from L’viv to Zolochiv, and they take about 90 minutes. Just take a train headed for Ternopol—making sure, of course, that it does actually stop in Zolochiv. Simple. Except that we don’t know if there are holes in that “every 30 minutes.”

We don’t know if the travel time is accurate. We’re not even sure there are trains that stop in Zolochiv. You’ll remember that Amy had started off asking about trains, and this is the first time we’ve heard anyone say they actually went where we wanted to go. We’ve been deferring to local knowledge, and if local knowledge says to flag down a couple marshrutky or hire your own bus, well then, that must be the way to do it. We’re reluctant to scare up another set of taxis and drag the students from Bus Station No. 2 over to the main train station, without knowing for sure that there is actually a train that we’ll be able to catch that will get to Zolochiv in time to be of any use to us. The day would be simpler without Zolochiv.

But Brendan has put so much work into this. Also, two of our students are former football teammates of Brendan’s, and they’re rooting for this crazy caper to come off—they help rally the group. Amy finds a cabby and explains the situation, and he agrees to round up some friends. This is tricky, because it’s the last minute and it’s still part of the Christmas holiday (yesterday, the 18th, was a bigger deal, but apparently the 19th is part of it too). And the price is almost twice as much per cab as our earlier, pre-arranged rides, because it’s the last minute and we’re pulling people away from their holiday celebrations. But we can manage it.

Because of the last-minute and holiday nature of it, it takes a while for all the cabs to get to the bus station (the snow-filled streets don’t help either). Amy and I stay at the bus station, sending students out of the warmth of the waiting room to be piled into cabs as they arrive. The students are to wait for us in the main hall of the train station (they know this space from where we gathered after our train arrived from Kyiv Thursday morning). Amy and I arrive in the last two cabs. It’s about 9:20. There’s a 9:38 bound for Simferopol (in the Crimea) that stops in Zolochiv. At 10:46. That will work just fine.

The tickets are cheap. We have to buy them at two different windows—something about how they can’t sell (or print out?) too many at one window. So our clerk calls out to her colleague at the next window and essentially commandeers her to serve us. I split off to that window and pick up nine tickets, and Amy stays at the first one and gets our other 12. Tickets in hand, we march quickly to Platform 1 and look for wagon no. 3, which turns out to be almost at the front of a very long train, out in the snow, not under the shed roof of the station. (“Of course!” say some of the students.)

And this is where we meet Igor (though we don’t yet know that he’s Igor). He comes off a bit grumpy at first, not thrilled about this large group scurrying his way along the platform. It’s very close to departure, we should have been on the train already. I hand him my stack of tickets. He looks through them to confirm that they’re for the right trip, then tells us to have 9 get on board. Amy hands over her stack, Igor looks them over the same way, and tells us to get the next 12 on board (fortunately, that takes care of everyone).

So we’ve made it onto the train, and now Igor starts being accommodating. The students don’t know how to read their seats from the tickets, so they’ve spread out into whatever empty seats there are. Igor comes along to check tickets, and instead of making sure everyone is in their assigned seats, he just has me go through with him and identify which of these people is “ours.” All taken care of.

With that behind him, he informs me that he can bring us tea, tea with milk and sugar, coffee, or espresso, for prices of 3, 4, or 5 hryvnia (40 to 60 cents). Rather than do it piecemeal, he asks Amy for her pencil and for a piece of paper from her notebook, and has me go down the car taking beverage orders. Once I bring back the sheet, he starts carting the drinks away, one section of the car at a time.

Igor is all bustle, going back and forth. At one point, another conductor comes in and takes a few pieces of scrap wood from the canvas bag near us and puts them in the samovar to keep the beverage water hot. And then the beverage service is taken care of.

Igor calls me to him out of our compartment and into the aisle near the compartment that serves as his office. “I have a favor to ask. Today is my birthday.”


“Thank you. I was wondering, would it be possible for your group, or for some of your group, to sing ‘Happy birthday’ to me? I’ve never had that.”


The next time he passes by, I remember to ask his name.

As the train is approaching Zolochiv, we spread the word. Some people are more confident about their singing than others, but really, it’s no big deal. We get all our sleepy students off the train and out onto the platform. Igor takes a couple people’s tickets, then we launch into song.

It's really touching how happy Igor seems--some small dream of his has just been fulfilled, in an unexpected way. He climbs back on board his train, waives us goodbye, and off he goes.

Brendan and his Ukrainian counterpart are waiting for us on the platform, and we are whisked away to the school in a few cars and a mini-van (I’m the last passenger on the mini-van, and I make the ride standing, sort of, my upper back and head bent down so that I fit in the vehicle; other people are on laps).

At the school we are ushered into a classroom where we are served tea and pastries. There are welcoming speeches. The new head of the local education department gives a rather long one, clocking in at about 35 minutes (though it would have been only 15 or 20 had there been no need of translation). It’s a taste of Soviet-style oratory.

These are important guests whom he needs to impress, so there are lots of numbers about how many teachers there are, and how many directives from the regional education department have been complied with. It tells us more about what he thinks is important than it does about the state of the schools in the area.

When he says, “In conclusion,” the relief in the room is palpable, among Ukrainians and Americans alike. But this “in conclusion” is proportional to the speech overall, so there’s another 5 or 10 minutes left to go. The next speaker is mercifully brief.

The most important part of our visit here, the most irreplaceable service we can offer, is the conversation with the students, who are patiently waiting in one of the classrooms upstairs. But after the welcome speeches, it is absolutely necessary that we visit the school museum. There is a charming combination of folk art and the students’ work, but the visit really could have been covered in the 5 minutes we were promised, rather than the 15 it actually took. Some of us had gone off to use the bathroom and Amy had suggested to the docent that she could start her explanation with only those who were there, but the docent wouldn’t hear of being so rude.

She had a pointer about 15 inches long, with which she methodically indicated the various objects of interest. In the second room of the museum, I noticed a picture of a different museum docent in the very same museum, dressed the same, holding an identical pointer, using an identical gesture to indicate some of the objects in the collection, to a group of three Ukrainian students who were … captivated, shall we say.

Having absolved our duties in the museum, we headed up to the classroom—almost. On the way, we passed two tables spread with more student art work which we appropriately admired. And pictures were taken of us with the teachers and the local education authorities.

After that, we did actually, really, finally make it up to the classroom. And it was great.

Brendan had arranged a pretty much every-other situation, so an American was sitting across from a Ukrainian conversation partner, and had a Ukrainian on each side, each of them with an American across from them, so there wasn’t an “American” side of the table and a “Ukrainian” side. There were a few more Ukrainians than Americans, but the seating arrangement allowed groups of three or five to form up pretty easily.

Can you tell who's from which country?

At least some of the chairs had little flags of one country or the other.

And the room was quickly a pleasing babble of native and accented English. Our students loved it, and we heard later from Brendan that it was a thrill for his as well. Some of them have never travelled all that far even within Ukraine. In many cases, Brendan is the only native speaker of English they’ve ever had the chance to encounter. And here was a whole room full of them.

Amy and Brendan (standing) in conversation

Meanwhile, I was spirited away to another classroom to be interviewed on camera. I hope I didn’t say anything offensive in response to questions about my impressions of Ukraine, or how things have changed since I’d visited the Soviet Union …

After conversation, we were led to the dining hall, which had one long table set up for a rather elaborate feast of traditional Ukrainian food. Pretty tasty, and there was even some stuff the vegetarians could eat.

Enjoying a Ukrainian Christmas feast
From the banquet, we walk a few blocks to a bus that has been arranged to take us to Zolochiv Castle, a classic piece of Baroque-era military architecture, with a nicely restored royal palace within the protection of the fortifications.

Then back to the bus. Amy has wisely arranged ahead of time for a bus to take us back to L’viv. We were OK with sort of winging it to get out to Zolochiv, but remember, we’ve got another bus that’s supposed to be leaving our hostel at 6:00pm to take us to Ostrava, so we want a little more certainty about our return trip from Zolochiv to L’viv.

After our experience in the morning, we think about ditching the bus and taking the train, but we decide that the bus still makes sense, because it can take us directly to the hostel—if we arrive back at the train station, we have to arrange another 6 taxis to get all of us over to the hostel.

But it turns out the driver doesn’t want to go to the hostel, he doesn’t want to get tied up in traffic in that part of town. The contract that the Ukrainians had arranged respects the drivers preference on this point, and so it says we are to be taken to … some convenient place on the outskirts of the old city center. Convenient for the bus driver, that is. We will have to get tram tickets, hop on the number 2, go a few stops, then walk a few blocks.

OK, we don’t have a problem offering the guy a little extra money to take us where we want to go. We’re just pulling out of Zolochiv when Amy makes what seems like a generous proposal, an extra 200 hryvna, on top of the 1,000 hryvna we’ve already agreed to pay, in order for the driver to take us where we actually want to go. But no, the destination is listed in the contract, and that’s where he’s going to take us.

Amy is rather bemused to find, in this of all situations, a Ukrainian too honest to take a bribe.

As we approach town, I recognize an intersection that Amy, Olya and I had passed through on our way to dinner the previous evening. Our hostel is about three blocks to the left and the driver has his right turn signal on. I quickly ask the driver if he can let us off here, it’s very close to our hostel. The driver says nothing, but does pull over in about another three blocks, where it’s finally safe to do so. OK, six blocks to the hostel, through familiar streets, that’s doable, as well as being simpler and more predictable than traveling from wherever it was he was planning to take us.

We make it back to the hostel, the students finish packing, or showering, or getting a quick bite to eat before our bus to Ostrava arrives.

Amy and I go to settle up our bill with the hostel manager, and she asks about our day. “You went to Zolochiv …” It’s understandably unclear to her why we would have done such a thing, until Amy explains. And then she asks how we got there, and we tell her.

“You went to Zolochiv by train?” she replies, as if this were the most whimsical, bizarre thing she’d heard in her entire adult life.

Because who would think of taking a train to Zolochiv? After all, the only factors in favor of the train are that it’s faster, cheaper, more predictable, more comfortable, and safer than the “marshrutky.” Oh, and the major rail line runs right through the town.

Yes, it really is a puzzle why anyone would want to take the train rather than live life to the fullest in a “marshrutka.”

So Ukraine, if you have any more big “travel mysteries,” we’re tentatively planning to be back in two years—maybe we can help.

And Igor: Happy Birthday!


  1. Whew! Loved your post, Karl. I really missed the blague from Prague.