I guess it has been awhile since my last post, eh? Well as most of you know the lack of writing doesn't mean a lack of doing. I have so much to write about I don't even know where to begin. But since I don't have a ton to time I'll stick to our last two days which were spent in the Ukraine.
For Christmas I wanted to plan a surprise trip for Ryan. He has been wanting to go back to Paris where we've only spent less than 24 hours a few summers ago while on our juniors abroad trip. But when I probed him about that he said that since our time is quickly diminishing he'd prefer to see a new country if we had the chance. So I headed to a map to get ideas of where we could go that we haven't been. To find a new country we haven't been to we are having to travel further away, which is starting to require more flying. I was very excited to find a pretty cheap flight to the Ukraine that fit our Wednesday and Thursday weekend perfectly if we flew into Lviv and out of Kyiv. Why not? We'd heard from someone at a hostel in Budapest months ago about how much they loved the Ukraine and it was somewhere we had not been. So on Christmas day I wrote Ryan a letter and part of it was telling him I had a surprise trip planned for him but if he wanted to know where he had to figure it out. I gave him the latitude and longitude coordinated for Lviv and told him that was where we would fly into and then told him how many degrees we'd move to travel home from. Since I found the coordinates online I didn't think it would be too hard for him to figure out, just more fun than telling him straight where it was. However he kept searching and couldn't find it so finally I said I'd tell him if he was tired of searching. I'm more of a lover of surprises than he is anyway. So then I just told him, but he was excited all the same. And that is how we came to have a trip to Ukraine.
We had requested a half day at work on Tuesday, but ended up being given the whole day off. We flew out of Memmingen, which is called "Munich West Airport." It is actually a totally separate very small airport in the town of Memmingen, which is very separate from Munich (1.5 hours by train separate). But for us driving it takes the same amount of time as going to Munich's airport. Thank goodness we had no surprises at the airport with our luck I'm always nervous these days.
We arrived in Lviv at 5:30. They are an hour ahead of our time. Pulling up to the airport in the plan was interesting because we wondered where the terminal was. As it turns out the "terminal" was the small very old building that looked more like a small train station than an airport. But they let us into the country so we were still feeling good.
I had arranged for us to couchsurf here and had directions from our host how to get to his apartment. The bus was easy to catch outside the terminal and a very nice man who had been on our flight asked the driver in Ukrainian to signal to us so we'd know when to get off since the majority of people don't speak English. As it turned out with my instructions from our host I could have figured it out anyway. And we easily found the apartment which we were thankful was very warm in contrast to the below freezing temperatures outside.
Our host, Andriy, was very nice but also fairly quiet. He fixed us tea and then disappeared for a little while. I think he was trying to fix his fridge which he said had just stopped working. But eventually he came back to the living room to chat. We had brought him a postcard of Garmisch and some small euro coins both of which he collects from his surfers. We chatted about traveling, couch surfing, and where we were from. Then I spotted an accordian on the floor and discovered it was his from his childhood and when he was at his grandmother's over new years in the Carpathian mountains he'd found it and brought it home. He let both Ryan and I hold it and try to play. I've always thought it looked very difficult having to play different buttons with each hand while pushing and pulling the instrument. Well my assumptions proved correct. Ryan made it sound much better than I did and Andriy was very impressive with what he can still remember. It was very fun though and something I hope I never forget.
Andriy asked if we wanted to rest or what we'd like to do. We asked if there were any good restaurants near by. First he recommended the one almost on the door step of his building, but then asked if we'd want to go to a party his roommate had invited him to. We thought what he meant was it was friends getting together at a restaurant for dinner. We thought it sounded nice and he'd said his roommate was from Pennsylvania. Andriy called Michael to make sure we could still come and then we headed to catch a bus downtown.
I should explain the buses. I loved them, but some locals I guess get tired of them. If you want it to stop you have to put your arm out. Then to climb in and sit if yoru lucky, but most likely stand in the aisle which gets very over crowded. Then you put down money on the carpet next to the driver (it is raised up not on the ground) or you pass it up to people in front of you. The bus cost 1.75 UAH. One US dollar is equal to 7.98 UAH, so the bus is so cheap. Even for our half hour-plus ride from the airport. I guess we weren't there long enough to get tired of it but I really did enjoy the experience. Oh and if you were sitting in the seat next to the driver or standing near the place people put money you are expected to give change. On one ride I was in that front seat and he sort of motioned for me to pick out change but I didn't know what coins where what so I waited for him to hand me the change and then pass it back.
When we arrived at the "party" it turned out to be "English club" at the youth center Michael works at. He is a missionary for the Free Methodist church, so we more or less arrived at a college youth group where everyone speaks English to practice. So we felt safe, comfortable, and really right at home. The night's theme was "Roll It." They were making tex mex burritos because another leader, Shannon, is from Texas. Some dessert rolls and sushi. Then they played some games and watched videos on you tube having to do with rolling something that were all funny. It was a very fun night and everyone was really nice. So nice in fact that a young woman named Olia came up and started talking to us and offered to be our free tour guide the next day. She said she loved showing people around and would meet us at the apartment at 10 the next morning. We couldn't believe her generosity.
After "Roll It" Andriy asked if we wanted to go hear some music. We said that sounded great. We wandered to one of the only places that seemed to be open. I'm thinking Lviv does not have a hopping night life. Downstairs in the building was a cool exhibit with drawings a man has done on drafting paper or even scrap paper of intricate towns. Everything was really tiny and there was so much detail, but it was all just sketches. We didn't ever understand why he did this or why it was being displayed but it was cool all the same.
Then we went upstairs to a room very full of smoke and two musicians at the front. We realized how lucky we are Bavaria passed the same law we are now accustomed to at home of no smoking inside public spaces. What I'd say was going on here was a coffee house. People were packed around table drinking tea, coffee, and beer while these people performed and then after awhile more people went up to join and then even more people would come up with instruments and they all just jammed. Obviously all very unplanned and very cool. I loved it.
We weren't sure what to do when Andriy went to the back of the room. Ryan looked around to find him and he sort of waved in our direction a "here I am." But we didn't know if he wanted to go or was sitting with friends. Eventually he did come up and ask if we wanted to go and we said yes and we headed out. On the way out he asked if I wanted to smoke marijuana and I said, "no thank you." Then outside he asked if we smoked and we told him no. He seemed surprised, but he didn't try to make us smoke and didn't even smoke himself so I guess it was nice of him to offer?
We took the bus back to his apartment. It was sooo cold waiting for the bus on the street, which made it feel like an eternity before the right bus pulled up. Back at the apartment Andriy asked if we had a nice time and we said that we had a very nice time. Then I returned the questions which I received the answer, "I guess so. I wouldn't have gone out otherwise. I would have fixed the fridge." So we weren't sure if he was pleased or not to go out, but he had been the one to offer. He was just really quiet and we couldn't read him at all. But he excused himself to go look at the fridge more. I'm not sure what he was looking to fix since the repair man was scheduled to come the following day. And we were tired so we got ready for bed, I read a little bit, and then we were quickly asleep.
We woke up the next morning, got ready, and then just sat there waiting for Olia to arrive. I think Andriy was in the kitchen the whole time we were up, so we didn't really interact with him in the morning. When Olia got there at 10 we discovered Michael would be joining us, which was nice. We also met Greg downtown. Greg, did I mention already, is an American who just arrived in Lviv a week ago to work with Michael's organization for 4 months. So we thanked Andriy for his hospitality and headed out for the day.
Olia was an excellent guide. And I just can't get over how nice it was of her to offer to show us around. We started at the opera house. We learned that a very long time ago there was a river running through the city, but that it was later diverted underground where it remains today. A pity really because it would add so much to the city to have a river running through it today. We also learned that the man would designed and build the opera house committed suicide when he discovered a small crack in the building. He was afraid his work would come crashing down and couldn't stand the thought of such an event. To bad he took to such drastic measures because the opera house is still standing today centuries later. We learned a bit about the various occupations of the Ukraine. Olia's grandmother speaks German from the Austo-Hungarian occupation, Polish from the Polish occupation, Russian from the Soviet occupation, and Ukrainian. There is statue in the city center of Poland's most famous author that the Polish people erected in recent times. Olia said you always know the people standing near it must be Polish and that there still is a large population of Polls in Lviv. Also the Polls still seem to think the Ukraine belongs to them.
It was also interesting talking to Olia about the difference between the west of her country where Lviv is and the east. Olia believes that the west is the true Ukraine. The people in the west speak Ukrainian, celebrate Ukrainian traditions (dancing, holiday celebrations, singing, eating, etc) and have the utmost pride for their country. The east is quite contrary. They speak Russian and in fact many people don't even know how to speak Ukrainian if spoken to by someone in the west. Michael's group has had to find a translator when speaking to people from very far east in the Ukraine. People in the east have no idea how to celebrate a traditional Ukrainian Christmas or Easter holiday. And many people in the east would prefer to be a part of Russia and have no patriotism for the Ukraine. Of course Olia has some bias having been born and raised in Lviv, but she made very convincing points as to why Lviv is a true representation of the Ukraine. And both Ryan and I were very happy with our choice to spend our time in Lviv after hearing Olia's point of view.
After touring around for awhile Michael was hungry and it was approaching the time he'd have to leave us, so we flipped a coin to decide between the restaurant Olia wanted to the one Michael wanted. Olia won the coin flip and we were pleased with where it led us. There was an open door from a main square that led us down a corridor to another wooden door that was closed. Olia knocked on the door and then exchanged some password phrases with the man who opened the door who was dressed in uniform holding a gun. When he let us all file into the building he got a canteen out of a cupboard with a small tin shot glass. Then he filled it with a Ukrainian honey vodka for each of us to drink before we headed down the stairs to his left. The vodka was delicious. Down the stairs we were in a basement room, which opened into another room, and another, and another. Michael informed us, once we'd selected a table, that if you find open and unoccupied cellars or attics you can just take it and pay the fine. Sometimes the fine could be $100 or maybe $1,000 but once you pay it the space is yours forever. This restaurant has done just this and recently took over yet another adjoining open cellar to expand. The whole space was originally a hiding place for young men who were out to fight the soviet forces. It is all still decorated accordingly. Olia recommended the Borsch, which is a Ukrainian soup. However it had meat in it so I had a mushroom soup instead. Ryan and I also shared an order or dumplings stuffed with potatoes that we tasty. And from Olia's suggestion I had a glass of juice made from dried fruit she said. It was the most peculiar flavor. It tasted smoked. Not bad, but not something I'd look for again.
After our nice meal Michael had to head to work and Greg headed off to where he is living. Olia showed us just a little bit more. She made sure to point out the way to get to the High Castle because she had wanted to take us there for a good view of the city but we didn't have time before she had to go tutor some little girls in English. And then she took us to buy our train tickets. Thank goodness she did because I am not sure we'd have been able to do so on our own without speaking Ukrainian. After waiting for some temporary computer problems to be fixed and waiting in line for awhile we had out tickets for departing Lviv at 9:49pm and arriving in Kyiv at 7:00 the following morning. Perfect.
We had to say goodbye to Olia but offered out profuse thanks before we did and had her write her full name so we could become friends on facebook. What did we do before social networking? We probably would have had to exchange actual addresses. Now that is a crazy thought, eh? :)
At this point Ryan had to use the bathroom and we were both cold so we headed to a coffee shop. Olia had said Lviv is known for their great coffee shops. The one we chose was very nice. Ryan had a coffee and I had a delicious roobious tea infused with grapefruit. Mmmmmmmm. It was the perfect way to warm up and decide our plan for the rest of the day.
After that we headed to the City Hall to climb their tower for a view of the city. We wanted to make sure we did this in day light. When we made it to the top it was cold but thankfully not windy or I'd be scared the chill would be unbearable. It was a great way to see the city from high and smack in the center. After many pictures and having a look from each side of the square tower we headed down.
We stopped at the tourist information office to get directions to the train station on the tram for later that night and pick up a map of the city to use the rest of the day.
Then we headed up to the High Castle. Today there is no castle, but a large hill that provides a nice view of the whole city and beyond. When we got to the top it was really nice with blue sky above us. Outside the city limits it was very open snow covered land which we had had a glimpse of flying in. The whole area is very flat except for the hill we stood on. We didn't stay up there long before heading down into town again.
We stopped at several booths in town (not all in a row but throughout the day) that were selling Ukrainian donuts. Olia and Michael had told us this was a special Christmas treat and we should try them if we saw them. Christmas in the Ukraine starts on the 24th and goes till the 14th of January. They follow the new and old calendars and the old calendar has New Years falling on the 14th, so they literally celebrate for nearly a month. Sounds awesome to me. Michael said he hadn't had a donut the whole time he'd been living in Lviv, about 10 months, and then had at least 30 or more in the last month. He said it isn't uncommon or unrealistic that people gain 20 pounds in this time either. Yikes!
When we'd been on top of the city hall tower we'd seen a car on the top of a building. I had remembered that the restaurant Michael had wanted us to go was in a building with a car on the roof. I figured they must be one and the same and suggested to Ryan we find it and have dinner there. We walked all around the area it must be in, but when you are on the ground it is much harder to spot a car on the roof than when you are on a tower. So eventually we had to go to a tourist office and ask for directions. This restaurant is one of 9 in the city owned by a single man and he owned the one we'd been to earlier in the day as well. They all have some sort of significance to the city. And I'm guessing none have great signage because this one we had to walk in an unmarked door and up some stairs which led to the restaurant. The restaurant was about 4 level high with a couple rooms with tables on each level and each decorated with a different theme pertaining to the city. The room we sat in had lion's legs and feet coming out of the ceiling as if the animal had stepped through from the floor above. The city Lviv was named after the founder's son who's name was Lion or what translates to it and sounds like Lviv or something (I can't ever remember the specifics). And in nice weather you can sit on the room and there is even a metal spiral staircase that leads to the car perched on the very top of the roof. Olia said we were lucky to get such nice weather, but it was still super cold all day long and by this time it had even started to sprinkle snow on and off.
We shared a baked fish and salad for dinner. Ryan had a Ukrainian beer, which was fine not great. I had a glass of semi sweet Ukrainian red wine that tasted like very sweet dark purple grape juice. Ryan thought it tasted like communion juice. Well it was bad for wine but not bad for juice. And we shared a baked pear with a honey ginger glaze for dessert.
After dinner we went ICE SKATING! It was so much fun. Oh and so cheap like everything. I mentioned the bus. But our train tickets for an overnight train in the upper class were about $30 for both of us. And ice skating was about $4 with skates for an hour in the town square. We'd seen the rink set up the night before and walked by several times during the day and I had really wanted to go. I've always wanted to go ice skating in the center of a city and when I was in NYC it was close to $30 for an hour and I wasn't willing to pay that. It was very very fun skating with Ryan to American music under the night sky in the Ukraine. I'll never forget it. And we have pictures to make sure I don't.
When our hour was up we had to run back to get a shot glass at the only open shop in town that was attached to the restaurant we'd eaten at. We didn't love the shot glass, but we get one everywhere we go and since it was the only open shop it would have to do. And then we stopped into a cafe to buy a couple slices of really tempting cakes to take for our train ride. Then we walked to where we had to catch our tram.
Aboard the tram I didn't know how much it cost for a ticket and there was a little window to slip the money to the driver. I put in 3 UAH and Ryan held up 2 fingers. We received 3 tickets though so I guess they were on 1 each. Oh well we paid 10 cents to much in USD. I tried to give someone the extra and she just looked at me like I was really odd. Oh well, I tried to be nice.
Thank goodness the tram didn't pull away when we got off at the train station because half way from the tram to the station Ryan realized his gloves where still on the tram and I would have hated if he lost them. But when he ran to get them a nice man already had them in his hand to give to Ryan.
We had about 20 minutes to wait for our train to arrive. When it did we handed the woman our tickets at the door to car 9, which she kept and indicated with her fingers that our beds were in cabin 5. I don't know what it would have been like to sleep in the cheaper area and I don't even know how much those would have cost, but I felt like we were riding in luxury for super cheap as it was. There were four beds in our cabin. We had the top two. There was a pad for us to roll out on our bed with a pillow. Then we each had a package of clean sheets, pillow case, and small towel, and a thick blanket on a shelf. I was just so impressed. And the woman we'd given our tickets to came around if anyone wanted to purchase coffee or tea before bed. Seriously it was way nicer than I expected. We weren't sure if they announce when we needed to get off so unfortunately neither of us slept perfectly because we kept automatically waking up worrying about the time. However at about 6:30 a man came around opening the cabins making sure everyone was up and asking us to take our bedding apart and then gave us our tickets back. So if we are ever taking a night train in the Ukraine again we'll know they do wake you up. Although the beds were also pretty short especially for Ryan so it wasn't the type of situation we'd want to do ever night of our lives, just to give you an idea.
When we got off our train and walked out of the station we realized that without Olia as our translator and tour guide we were a little lost now. So after pacing back and forth for 10 minutes around the front of the station we went back inside to ask how to get to the center of town. She pointed in the way of the metro. Although with our map in our travel book we were trying to find a cafe open 24 hours and near the bus stop for the airport. We we started walking. We walked and walked and walked. Then we realized we walked too far. Then we finally decided that it probably wasn't there anymore since the book we had is now 11 years old. Ooops!
So we just started walking. I thought we were walking toward the center of town, but I don't think we were. But eventually we found a place for breakfast and it turned out to be really good, so bonus I guess. And the spoke enough English to tell us to go back to the train station to find a bus to the airport.
After eating it was time for us to head for a bus. As we approached the train station we saw on a street below the station there was a large market. Well I'm a market fiend so I said we had enough time to walk through. They had everything from clothes, to food, to laundry detergent in many different booths. Obviously where locals would come to stock up.
Oh I just remembered something else Olia told us. She said that although people in the Ukraine are very poor they spend a lot of money on their clothes so it doesn't look like they are as poor as they are. She said every woman has a fur coat and let me tell you I believe her because I've never seen so much fur in my life. And so many people wore those round fur hats that you see in photos and on movies that just sit on top of a head and oddly don't cover your ears. Do you know what I'm talking about? Well I was excited to see lots of people wearing them. People make around around.... well I forget, but it wasn't much and at least half or more go towards their rent. Michael pays the equivalent of $100 a month for his room in his apartment and said it only costs that much because they have internet in the apartment. Just to give you an idea of what it is like in this country that obviously is still trying to turn around from a difficult past.
Okay so back to getting our bus. We left the market and walked to where the buses were. I had written airport Borysil in the Cyrillic alphabet and showed it to a woman waiting for the bus. She didn't speak English but conferred with some other women and they pointed us into the train station and up the stairs and straight ahead. Just to be sure we had the right instruction we went to the info desk in the train station adn again we were pointed to the same place. We headed up the stairs and straight ahead and eventually discovered the train station had an entrance on each side. We exited the building and headed to a bus. We showed our piece of paper I'd written on and were pointed forward. We got on that bus and showed our paper and were pointed one more bus forward which was a charter bus, but finally it was the correct bus. It cost 25 UAH each for the 40km ride to the airport. That is about $3 so although it was more expensive that Lviv it was still super cheap.
Driving away from Kyiv we discussed and were again very glad we spent out time in Lviv. Kyiv was a very big city. It would have been cool to see the Caves Monastery (as the name indicates it is a monastery built in caves) and St. Sophia's Cathedral which is supposed to be really incredible. However overall Lviv had so much character and felt much more comfortable that the really huge city Kyiv is.
At the airport we headed inside to check in. Unfortunately we weren't in the right terminal and due to time we ran to the other terminal about 400m away. With backpacks and boots it was quite a work out. But we made it and there were still plenty of people checking in so we were in no way late. Phew... it felt good to know everything went so well. We made it to Lviv, enjoyed our time, successfully made it to Kyiv on a night train and now were in the airport for our flight home. Yay! And had just enough money left to share a tea before we boarded the plane.
We are so glad we went to the Ukraine and if our travels someday in life take us back to Eastern Europe it would be great to visit again. Lviv is obviously very up and coming. They are hosting a soccer tournament in 2012 and already starting to transform the city for the event. I think it would be great to see how things change and develop.
So back in Germany...
Before heading home we went into Memmingen, the town the airport is in, to get some lunch. I'd read in the magazine on the airplane that Memmingen has a great walled old town that wasn't at all destroyed in the war. I'm so glad we did go into the town because it was super nice and very cute. We found a great restaurant where Ryan had his fav German dish, cheese spatzle, and I had a baked flat bread with lachs on it. It was so so good. I'm sad so many people think Memmingen is just a town with an airport that Ryanair flys out of because it has such a special and historic characterfilled town.
Then it was back to Garmisch. And for some reason I felt much less tired than I normally do when we return from a trip. And it felt like we'd been gone much longer than a weekend. It was a really great trip. And I am glad Ryan enjoyed his Christmas present!