Sooke to Kiev 2011

A travel log running from the shores of Vancouver Island to the Dnepr River

Day 19 – August 6, 2011 – Paris to Sooke

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This is it, the last of my travel days. I had originally set up this blog to serve as a travel journal, and to keep people I know up-to-date with my experiences along the way. I do intend to leave this blog up once the trip is complete so that I can refer back to it, but also so that others in our group can do the same. I’ve also decided that, after today, I will write one more entry. That one will come out once I’ve had a chance to get over the effects of jet lag. I intend it to be a summary of what I think I’ve learned through my 19 days traveling almost half way around the world and back again.

A reader following this blog will note that I’m again writing in the present tense. That is because I am writing this as I am flying towards Calgary to make my final connection for Victoria. As I write this, it’s 6:45 Calgary time and we are about 1 hour and 45 minutes before we are scheduled to land. However, right now, it’s actually 2:45 AM (August 7th) Paris time, and 3:45 AM Kiev time. Despite it being August the 7th right now for Paris, it’s still August 6th for me right now and it will still be August 6th when I land in Victoria later this evening. This will be the longest calendar day I’ve ever experienced, lasting a total of about 32 hours. All this is caused by my direction of travel from East to West. My goal is to continue adding to the blog over the course of my journey home.

Unsure of what how long it would take to get to the airport by shuttle, Adam and I got on the one that left the hotel at 10:40. It turns out that if you’re the last stop for drop off at the hotel, that makes you the first stop for drop off at the airport. The shuttle left us off at Terminal 3, and we had to take a quick train ride to Terminal 2F. Eventually, we connected up with others from our group and made our way over to passport control. Despite the chaotic approach to moving people around the airport used by the local officials, we were through the control in a reasonable amount of time. Once through security, it was a very short walk to the gate.

As boarding time drew closer, and pre-boarding announcements were made, people started lining up. I jokingly suggested to Adam that, as a senior citizen, he could get us both to pre-board. Someone from our group got concerned, and asked the gate attendant if the boarding was going to be by seat row. The attendant checked and told her that it would. This being Paris, I wasn’t so sure that would be the case, despite the fact that we were going to board a 747. In the end, the gate attendant’s information was wrong. Once pre-boarding was complete a call for general boarding went out.

Somehow, Adam managed to get himself through the crowd and into the preferred boarding line. I wasn’t sure if he knew that he was in the wrong line, and I got a little separated from him by others starting to crowd the gate. I was sure he’d get turned back and told to line up with the economy passengers. Next thing I knew, he was through. It soon became obvious to me that he was pre-boarding. Seeing my chance I told them that I was Adam’s traveling companion, and they immediately waved me through too! We boarded the plane efficiently, and without having to deal with crowds. In addition to being a wealth of information about Yiddish literature, English, Jewish culture, and Holocaust history, Adam is very helpful in getting preferential treatment when traveling. He’s a handy guy to have around, and I will miss our chats, and his company.

The flight to Toronto went very smoothly. I spent most of my time catching up on my blog entries using my notes, and am very impressed by the battery life of the iPad. It had about a 90% charge when I left the hotel. I spent about 5 hours of the flight time using it to write. By the time I had landed, I still and a 45% charge on the battery. As a whole, and in every respect, the iPad met all of my computing demands over the duration of the trip.

Once in Toronto, the biggest delay was clearing the passport check and customs. Again, I had no bags to carry so I bade our group farewell as they told by the baggage carousels and I headed up to the departures zone to get my Westjet boarding passes. In no time, I was through the security check again and waiting at the gate. This being Westjet, and not Air France, I knew I had to make arrangements for my own food, or pay a ridiculous amount for a sandwich on board. The local Timmies near the gate provided me with everything I needed. I plunked myself on the floor near an outlet, and gave my iPad a bit of a charge so I could continue writing my blog entries.

The flight to Calgary went smoothly. The only disappointment was, unsurprisingly, the food. Admittedly Westjet was thoughtful enough to have the cabin attendants come through twice to offer food and drinks. However, my heart sank each time I was offered a tiny bag of Bits & Bites and a minuscule class with some Diet Coke in it. There’s just no comparison to Air France… Curry Chicken, decent-sized portions, and red wine, all of which is included with the price of your ticket! Somehow, we’re missing the boat with airline food here.

My transfer to the Victoria flight was without incident. My original goal was to tough it out and stay awake the whole time, but at about the 30-hour mark, and while taxiing for takeoff out of Calgary, I was out like a light. The landing in Victoria was slightly delayed, but I was off the plane by about 10:50 and hugging my family. It has certainly been a fabulous trip, but it was also definitely time to go home.

As I said earlier, I will post at least one more time to the blog with the intention of sharing the lessons I learned along the way. For those who are interested, I might post an additional entry that talks about how I managed my notes and postings (more of a technical thing) during the course of my trip.

Thanks for continuing to follow my adventures. It’s good to be back home, in a country I appreciate more each time I visit other places and experience other cultures. We’ve got it pretty good, and I think that we would do well to remind ourselves of that once in a while.

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Written by grarts

August 8, 2011 at 8:59 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Day 18 – August 5, 2011 – Ki’iv to Paris

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This was destined to be a travel day, and the first leg of our trip back to Canada. My day started at 7:00 AM. I hadn’t bothered to pack the night before, which had been my usual habit during the trip, because I knew that our scheduled departure from the hotel was 10:00 AM. After getting cleaned up and packed, I walked down to the corner coffee truck, and got my americano. It was just as good as the last one.

After having a bit of breakfast back in my room, I headed down to the lobby just in time to start loading on to the bus. The vehicle is was a standard size for what you’d see in and around Kiev, which means it just barely fit out group and our belongings. What really stood out was the driver. He was short and very strong, managing to load our stuff in very short order. I like to imagine that his previous line of work was as a prize fighter, or as an enforcer for the Ukrainian mob. His nose looked like it had been broken many times over.

Safely loaded onto the bus, we were driven out to our last tourist stop in the Ukraine: The National Museum of Folk Architecture and Rural Life. Upon our arrival, we were met by our guide for the visit. The museum was built during the Soviet era, and it seems our guide dates from that time as well (if we were to judge his manner of relating to the public).

During the 60s and 70s, the government located a variety of original buildings that represented the culture and architectural styles of 6 regions within the Ukraine. These were then moved to the 160 hectare site and placed into 6 ‘villages’. The plan for visitors is to walk from one village to another to get a sense of the different styles in each region. The fields have been planted with rye and buckwheat to add to the flavor and historical feel of the place.

Personally, I enjoyed visiting the villages themselves and seeing the buildings. I especially enjoyed seeing the wooden church dating from the 16th Century. In fact, despite this being a museum, the church still serves its original purpose. I could have, however, done without our guide. He wasn’t much interested in hearing about what we wanted to see, and wasn’t open to taking a different route that would accommodate those of us who were very tired after a very long trip. He simply droned on and replied that he had been doing this a very long time. As a professional, he knew what he was doing and knew the best way of getting us through the exhibits. He did try to make jokes, but the script-like way in which he recited them simply reinforced my suspicion that he was a holdback from the museum’s previous area. He pretty well confirmed this when he said that under the Soviet regime, he had to tell the story differently than he tells it now.

The guide aside, the museum’s concept is great. Time permitting, I would have wanted to spend time seeing each of the villages. The churches, in particular, were spectacular. As time wore on, I began to lose my ability to distinguish the subtleties between one peasant hut and another. It was very interesting to be able to go into them in the first place. One other thing I noticed is that locals who come to visit put on cultural outfits. I saw many men, women, and kids coming into the museum wearing embroidered peasant shirts. There were even couples getting their wedding pictures taken in the villages, or in the fields of wheat and rye planted nearby. I liked the museum a lot and I’d go back there if I had the chance, but I could do without the guide.

The walking tour over, our guide dropped us off at a restaurant at the far end of the museum. I headed back out towards the main gate with one other member of our group, preferring to get a bite to eat up there. It turns out that I should have stayed at the restaurant. Those who stayed there later reported that the food was very good, and the service was among the best they had received so far. I, on the other hand, ended up at a beer garden, the only place with seats and shade. They did have mineral water, but the only food was medium-sized bags of chips. Stock was low, the only two flavours they had left were bacon and red caviar. Needless to say, I opted for bacon. At the appointed time (2:30), our group reassembled and re-boarded the bus, bound for the airport.

Our driver got us to Borispyl airport on time. Unfortunately, and despite our group asking for confirmation, he dropped us off at the wrong terminal. The airport has a lot of the chaos you’d expect to see at any airport, but it was made especially so as we tried to confirm which terminal we were using for our departure. In the meantime, someone from our group put her luggage on a scale. She was either checking to make sure it wasn’t overweight, or she thought it was the baggage check. It wasn’t a baggage check, but rather a baggage wrapping service. A big guy took her bag, put it on the counter, and had it bagged and bound in no time. Just at this moment, she reached for her bag and was about to set off for the next terminal. He refused to give it to her until she paid the 30 hryvnas for the wrapping job. She told him to unwrap it, but he still refused to give it to her. She quickly paid, he took off the wrapping materials, and gave her back the bag. No doubt, he was muttering to himself about crazy foreign tourists.

Once we had arrived at the right terminal, our group learned that our bags would be checked right through to Toronto. That meant that we wouldn’t have access to our luggage while staying overnight in Paris. This lead to a mad dash as people opened their suitcases as they lined up for check-in, and grabbed essentials to take with them in their carry-on luggage. Yet again, my plans to pack and travel light paid off. Even considering the number of times I had to do laundry, it turned out to be very much worth it. All I did was walk up to the counter and get my boarding passes. As most of our group were checking in their luggage, I headed up to the gate.

Clearing the security check was relatively quick, and I was through in about two minutes. Passport control, well, that was a different matter. It was more like a fifteen minute wait to spend one minute in front of a stern-faced lady. Without saying a word she stamped my passport and I was through.

Whatever you might say about Borispyl’s apparent lack of organization, you have to give them credit for the free wi-fi. In Paris, the rate for wi-fi in the airport is 2.60€ for 30 minutes of time, and 9.90€ for 24 hours’ use. On the question of wi-fi, Borispyl has Charles de Gaulle beaten. Happy that I could use wi-fi, I found an outlet from the same chain of coffee shops at which I had snacked the other day in the mall. It being close to mealtime, I got myself a Diet Coke and chicken sandwich (with some sort of interesting extra filling that I was never quite able to identify). I sat myself down and reconnected with the electronic world.

Boarding was interesting. None of us recall hearing an announcement. Suddenly, the sign at the gate seems to have changed to ‘boarding’ and people lined up to go through the gate. Once through the gate, we didn’t get right on the plane. Instead, we got onto a big bus (with few seats and lots of standing room), and had to wait there until it was full. The bus then drove out to where we actually boarded the plane via an old-fashioned set of stairs leading from the tarmac up to the door. It’s been so long since I’ve used one, I can’t even remember what they’re called anymore! Our departure was delayed, but once in the air, there were no further problems.

After landing at Charles de Gaulle, we had to find the shuttle to get us to our hotel. It was a long walk, and at least two airport train rides to get there. It took another 20 minutes, or so, for the shuttle to arrive. Once on board, it seems that our hotel (the All Season, in Roissy near the airport) was among the last stops. I had hoped that there would be time to get in to Paris to see some of the city. No way. By the time we arrived at our hotel, it was about 9:30.

After checking in and making arrangements for my own room, I managed to make my way down to the hotel’s restaurant. It had been a long day, and I was hungry. Before going on, I should mention that I thought the service at the front desk and the manner of the staff there was excellent. By contrast, the restaurant’s gatekeeper was another story. This lady was very short, barely being able to look over the counter at us. She was also quite wide, and sported an even larger attitude. We were clearly told the buffet closed at 10:30. When we asked questions, particularly about the buffet’s Byzantine pricing scheme, we got our answer but with an additional dose of exasperation and attitude. I tried to explain (in French) that we appreciated her allowing us in to eat, and that we were all very tired from a very long day. Her reply was to say that she was also very tired. So much for the concept of customer service. Despite the aggravation of having to deal with this lady, those of us who wanted to eat, did mantra to get fed. I the end, despite her attitude, the buffet’s guardian did keep it open a few extra minute so people could get what they need.

I would have loved an opportunity to see the sights of the city. But, our arrival time was such that it wasn’t practical that night. I then looked into Metro schedules, and it was possible for us to catch an early train into the city, but we would have to leave at approximately 6:00 AM for it all to work, and for us to get back to the airport in time to catch our flight (scheduled to depart at 1:55 PM). Because of the long travel day I had for the next day, I decided to simply rest. I’d seen Paris once, and I’ll see it again. Maybe next time, I’ll be lucky enough to visit it with my family.

Tomorrow is Day 19, the last of my travel days. Thanks for continuing to follow my adventures.

Written by grarts

August 7, 2011 at 11:34 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Day 17 – August 4, 2011 – Ki’iv

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Today, our day started at a very civilized hour once again. It was nice to have the pace slacken somewhat as our trip was drawing to a close and as we were getting progressively more tired. At 9:30 we met our guide outside the hotel. He quickly led us into the Metro, and expertly navigated us to the site of Babi Yar.

During the Nazi occupation of Kiev, Babi Yar was deliberately chosen as a site for the killing of over 30,000 Jews in late September, 1941. One of the reasons for which the site was selected was the fact that it was some distance outside of the city, and therefore it would be easier to conceal what the Nazis had planned there. However, in the 70 years since the massacre, the city has grown so much that the area now can be reached directly by Metro.

There are also changes to the overall topography of the area. In 1961, a local dam collapsed. The result was tons of clay being deposited within the ravine and the death of 150 local residents. There was also clay deliberately added to the area as plans were made to turn it into a recreation and sports complex. These plans were set aside in response to international pressure, and the natural disaster. Today, the area looks like a very large urban park.

Our guide told us that the area has a history of tragedy dating far back before the Second World War. We were told that early conquerors of the region would bring defeated enemies here to kill them. The mass murder of 1941 is generally known in the West. However, the Nazis continued to use the area as a killing ground over the course of their occupation (which ended in 1943). In total, approximately 100,000 victims of Nazi terror are estimated to have been buried here. As such, multiple memorials have been placed on-site over the years.

The first memorial we visited was a smaller one. It consisted of a wooden cross with stone markers and is dedicated to the Ukrainian victims buried in the mass graves in the area. After the mass killing of Kiev’s Jews, the Nazis rounded up the Ukrainian intelligentsia and brought them to the site to be killed.

Next, our guide took us to the main monument on the site. It stands over depression that is much more shallow than the original ravine. There is a strange contrast that quickly becomes evident as one walks through the area. If there isn’t an awareness of the horrific history of this place, it could easily be mistaken for a large urban park. Trees were planted in the 60s. Yet, as you walk around (what looks like) a normal park, you are also walking on or by a series of mass graves. This is a contrast that I’ve noticed and been curious about throughout my entire trip. Do the people who live next to places like Babi Yar, who walk along the paths, who play soccer here, who watch their kids play here, do they know what happened here? Do they think about it from time to time? I have asked myself similar question about people who now live next to Gruneveld Station, near Treblinka, or near Auschwitz-Birkenau. And, if they do think about it, what are their thoughts? To the outside observer, they are ordinary people doing ordinary things. In some respects, and probably because I come from such a different country, the white thing is a little unfathomable. I would have liked to have asked these questions, but I didn’t have the opportunity. Nor did I particularly feel like approaching strangers going about their daily business to ask them about these things.

Returning to the main monument, it was erected by the Soviet authorities in 1976. At the time, and even now somewhat, the official interpretation of the place was that 100,000 Soviet citizens were killed here by the fascist invaders. Our guide told us that during this period, religion and Judaism in particular, were discouraged by the Soviet authorities. Anyone wanting to commemorate the highest death toll in a single genocidal act by putting blue and white ribbons down, or by saying Kaddish, would be taken away by the authorities.

Some readers may ask why this is considered the highest death toll in a genocidal act, especially considering that approximately 6,000,000 Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. The reason is this. The mass shootings at Babi Yar took about two days. In that time, as I said earlier, over 30,000 were killed because of their heritage. In all of history, there hasn’t been a single mass killing (based on ethnicity) that has claimed so many victims in such a short time frame. Even the mass killings in the death camps could only claim, at most, up to approximately 7,000 victims per day.

As we continued to walk through the area, our guide showed us a memorial that is intended to show how lives were shattered even for those who survived the occupation. We we told that approximately 2.5 million Ukrainians were taken away for forced labour during the war. Many were never reunited with their families. Next we were taken to a pedestal. Here once stood a memorial to Gypsies murdered by the Nazis. Unfortunately, the actual memorial stone wasn’t there. It had been shattered by vandals, and only a few fragments of black polished granite remained.

Moving still further, we came to the memorial dedicated to Tatyana Markus. Tatyana was a Jew, but managed to conceal herself during the occupation. She worked with the local underground. Eventually, like many others, she was caught and brought out to Babi Yar and shot. She is also buried in one of the mass graves that litter the area.

To visit the next monument, we had to cross the street where another part of the park is located. This site is enormous. I didn’t get the exact dimensions, but I can say that I Asa surprised by the size of the site. I guess I shouldn’t have been, given the amount of space needed to bury so many dead. The next monument is a representation of children’s toys. Their arms are reaching out, as if looking for their owners, or one has its head bowed in sorrow. This is dedicated to the murdered children buried at the site. Of all the murders committed by the Nazis during the occupation, our guide told us that the only children killed were Jewish.

Another long walk up a hill brought us to the final memorial we visited. This one is in the shape of a menorah, and was completed in 1991. This one is dedicated specifically to the Jewish victims buried here. Behind the memorial there is also a section of the ravine that it is close to the depth it would have had in 1941. It is very deep. Before leaving this place, one of our group members read a poem with a theme of recognition, remembrance, but also of moving onward. It was very appropriate to the moment, and my summary here doesn’t do it justice. In retrospect, I should have gotten the poet’s name and seen about posting what was read. Hindsight is 20/20.

Our tour of Babi Yar finished, our helpful guide took us back to our hotel via the metro. From there, we had the bulk of the day to explore before our planned evening activity (a Ukrainian cultural dinner). I decided to brave another mall, and see if I could get a bite to eat as well. First order of business, though, was a washroom break. Now, I’m not planning on sharing nasty details, just some observations about how washrooms work here in the Ukraine.

Remember, this is was a washroom in a mall, a very upscale one at that. Nevertheless, just as in much of Europe, you have to pay to use the facilities. For those of you planning to visit the Ukraine at some point, which I honestly recommend you do, a capital ‘M’ is for Men, while the Cyrillic letter that looks like an ‘X’ with a vertical line through its middle is for Women. The access to this particular set of washrooms was guarded, and I use the term deliberately, by a large and severe-looking woman sitting inside of something that looked very much like a ticket booth. After paying the 2 hryvna fee, she let you through the turnstile, placed there to stop deadbeats from using the washroom (although the look from this lady might have been just as, or more, effective!). The washroom ladies are there to make sure you pay, but also to maintain the facilities. Since the washroom is always busy, they can’t wait for it to be quiet before going in to clean. So, they just go in whenever they want (yes, that does mean while men are using the facilities!). None of the locals are in the least bothered by this whole process, so if it didn’t bother them, I didn’t let it bother me.

Having taken care of business, I next found a coffee place. I had a delicious café americano and apple strudel. I’ve been doing tons of walking lately, so I didn’t think the treat would be such a bad idea. It was delicious! And, the coffee place also offered free wifi, so I was able to connect with Facebook on my iPhone.

I looked through the mall, and even found some stores that sold higher end pens. I did resist temptation this time, even I’m not crazy enough to spend 300 bucks on a pen! I headed outside and directly into a very heavy rainstorm. I had my raingear and hat with me, but the rain was coming down so hard that my shoulders were soon soaked, and my pants even more so. Later, when I was connected to wifi again, I posted a video of what the Kiev streets look like when the rain really starts to fall. You practically have to swim to cross the street. In fact, when I did cross the street, I had to jump over a 5 foot-wide stream running down next to the curb. A woman who was with me made it also, but three others weren’t willing to try. I offered my hand and all three managed to get across without getting too wet.

As I walked, the rain began to lift, and I found myself close to Bessarabskaya Square. There stands the only remaining statue of Lenin in Kiev (so I have been told). I couldn’t resist, and got a couple of pictures.

I then made a quick stop at the Mega-Market on my way back to the hotel. I picked up a few more supplies before going back to the hotel to rest and catch up on my notes and post some images to Facebook using the free wifi available in the lobby.

Before long, our group was reassembling in the lobby to head over to the restaurant for our Ukrainian cultural dinner. For tonight, the mode of transportation was taxi. About four taxis were called for the group. The last one was a mini van, and I got into it along with eight others. This would definitely be considered a seatbelt violation at home, but I don’t think they have the same concerns in Kiev, mostly because there weren’t any seatbelts in the van… At all! However, the ubiquitous heavy traffic prevented us from moving at anywhere near a speed that would have been dangerous. Eventually, we got to the restaurant. My share of the fare and tip was 15 hryvnas.

As soon as we entered the restaurant, we were greeted by a very happy man who had a tray filled with little glasses in front of him… Yes, it was vodka. Lots of it. But, it wasn’t just any kind of vodka. Remember please, I am only relaying events, and that I generally avoid sexist comments in my everyday speech. Having written my disclaimer, I can relay what he said in good conscience. He said that he had make the vodka himself, and that he had two kinds. I didn’t catch the main ingredient of the first kind, because I was kind of shocked that he called it ‘girl vodka’ in mixed company. Apparently, they’re a little less concerned about sexist comments here too. I was curious as to what would have been considered ‘man vodka’ and soon had my answer: the main ingredient here was horseradish. Simultaneously curious and revolted, I found myself reaching for the ‘man vodka’ nonetheless. Uttering a quick ‘Na Zdorovye’ I slugged it back in classic style. After the burn wore off, I got the distinct aftertaste of horseradish. It was actually surprisingly smooth and tasty… Then again, maybe the vodka was hitting me a little early.

We were led into our own room and were asked if we wanted appetizers to share. We told them that we did. When we did ask for separate bills, we were told that was impossible. We knew the math would be a challenge afterward, but since we are a group of educators, we figured we could handle it.

The appetizers started coming fast and furious, along with baskets of bread which included the black variety. I wasn’t keen in the appetizers, but really dug into the black bread. For a main course, I ordered Chicken Kiev (which seemed appropriate to the occasion). As we ate, musicians came into the room playing on their instruments and singing traditional tunes. It was all very pleasant, until the bill came.

Now, before I go on, I’m mindful of the fact that some members of our group might read this, and so I’d like to make something clear for my own peace of mind. I enjoyed the meal, the atmosphere, and the music, and I feel that no one is to blame for what happened afterwards, except perhaps for the restaurant staff itself. Personally, I just chalked it up as a learning experience. It was nothing more, nothing less.

Here’s the story. The bill came. One bill for the entire group. It was 8,241 hryvnas. No matter how you slice it, even with a weak currency like the hryvna, that’s A LOT of money (about $1000 Cdn). There were 20 of us in the group, and divided evenly, that worked out to about $40 Cdn per diner. This is consistent with what you might pay for a nice meal in Canada (per person), but it was WAY out of line with restaurant prices in the Ukraine. It turns out that half the bill was for the appetizers alone. Many of us were quite upset, feeling as though we were begin taken (I think that we were, but again, there is no blame to anyone in the group). In the end, and with the awesome help of one of our group who speaks Ukrainian, the bill was settled and we were eventually on our way. Lessons learned: a) separate bills, b) count the appetizers as they come in, c) limit the menu choices for a large group to prevent any confusion, and d) keep your wits about you.

The cab ride back was another adventure. The restaurant did call us cabs. This kind of surprised me, given how the conversation went at the end of the meal. Maybe they were just happy to get rid of us. Anyway, with two from our group, I went up to the cab driver and gave him the name and address of our hotel (again, in Russian). Inexplicably, he got mad and started complaining that it would take him 30 minutes to get there. He got out of the cab and yelled at the hostess from the restaurant before getting back into his cab. I tried to speak to him again, but his only response was to light up a cigarette and tell me ‘ya ne rabotu’ (meaning, ‘I’m not working’).

About a minute later, another cab pulled up. The driver dropped off his fair and I then went up and asked him how much it would be go get back to our hotel. He quoted me 50, which was almost too good of a price to be true. At the same time, the hostess was getting upset again because this wasn’t one of the cabs she had called for us. I called over my two companions when two more asked if they could join us. This was NOT a big car, but I asked the driver if he could take 5. His response was to shrug his shoulder and nod. We piled in.

Again, there were no seatbelts. However, for this ride, the streets were less busy, and the driver could zip along at a more normal Kievan speed. This translates to ‘frighteningly fast’. The lack of seatbelts might normally have been a concern, but we were wedged in so tightly in the back seat that there was little chance of being thrown in the event of an accident. The driver was also taking us back along an unfamiliar route, causing me to wonder if we were about to get taken for a second time in the evening.

My suspicion was misplaced. It turns out, the driver was using side streets and knew a quick way back to the hotel. Thanks to his knowledge of the streets, and his blatant ignorance for a safe speed, we got back to the hotel in 10 minutes. As good as his word, he asked for his 50 hryvnas as he let us out. We were sure to tip him an extra 10. This seemed to make him quite happy and he wished us ‘good luck’ with the only English I heard from him throughout our entire encounter. His honesty was a perfect counterbalance to our earlier experience at the end of the meal.

Safely back at the hotel, if not safely transported there, I wished good night to the others and headed back up to the room. I did some light laundry just to make sure that I wouldn’t have to do any more before getting back home. Yes, this means I’ll be taking hone dirty laundry.

Thanks, again, for continuing to read!

Written by grarts

August 6, 2011 at 9:57 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Day 16 – August 3, 2011 – Ki’iv

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Day 16 was a jam-packed affair. Fortunately, the day started at a very civil 9:00. This gave me time to have a leisurely shower, and get my laundry done at the same time. That turned out to be a real time-saver! The next big challenge of the day was what to wear. When I had woken up, it looked warm outside. From my hotel room window, I could see the construction site of the new stadium being built for the Euro 2012 soccer tournament. The workmen down below (yes, they were all men) seemed to be dressed for summer. However, by the time I had come out of the shower, it had already rained once. I settled on short sleeves, long pants, and packed extra layers, just in case.

The morning start-up was so leisurely, I had time to polish off the other half of last night’s pizza. I even had time to walk down to the corner to find one of the many little coffee trucks seen throughout the city. They are amazing, and you can get everything from a cappuccino, to a latte, to an americano, to tea, and even kvas! My morning jolt of java (I went for the americano) cost me 8 hryvnas (one dollar). For a buck, you can get a great cup of coffee from these trucks.

Fed and caffeinated, I was ready to face the day. Dasha (our guide from the previous evening) met us once again in the lobby and quickly took us down into the Metro. Having already ridden rail in Berlin, Warsaw, and Kraków, I was looking forward to another ride on the Kiev Metro. One stop, a transfer, and then three stops later, we found ourselves coming out from the system at Poshtova Ploshad (Post Office Square).

From this square, you get a great view of the Dnepr River. It also happens to be where one of the only remaining original post office buildings still stands in Kiev. In Imperial times, the post office served much more than as a place to send and receive mail. Post offices were vital to the overall system of communications within the empire. From this square, you can also get a good sense of the geography that helped in determining the development of the city.

Kiev is generally made up of three zones: The hill, the caves, and the riverbank. The hill was generally where the rich an powerful lived. The caves are where the first monks set themselves up to live a hermit-like existence, while commerce and work was done down by the river. Dasha told us that in Kiev, it is said that the hills rule, the caves pray, and the river works.

In addition to having an old post office, and an excellent view of the river, the square is also home to the Church of the Holy Transformation. If I remember correctly, it dates from the 18th Century.

As we continued to walk through the area, Dasha let us know that this was also a part of the city where Jews featured prominently in its development. We learned more about the Brodsky brothers, builders of the synagogues we had seen the previous day. They were heavily involved in the river’s shipping industry. They were also invested in sugar and other important commodities. At this time, employers often provided for the social well-being of their workers. The reasoning was that workers worked so hard and so ling, it was best to provide them with company housing near their workplace so that they could see their families. There were even homes built for widows who had kost their husbands on the job. Fortunately, the Bronsky family did not fall victim to the Nazis. They chose to leave the Ukraine during the 1917 Revolution.

As we walked through the area, we were stopped in front of a large wooden carving that served as an advertisement for a local restaurant serving Jewish (but not kosher) food. The statue is of a bearded man sitting at a table with an abacus and a pile of money in front of him. He had a wily look to him. It was obvious to us all that this was a representation of the Jewish stereotype. Although we haven’t heard, either from our guide or from yesterday’s visit with the rabbi, about blatant anti-Semitism in modern Kiev, but at the same time, the stereotype is used to advertise a restaurant in a way that would likely cause a furor in Canada.

Later in our tour, we came upon the Church of the Holy Mother (at least, that’s the best translation that I could put together based on how our guide described it). The church was home to a hero-priest during the Nazi occupation of the city. Over the course of the war, he gave official documents to Jews certifying that they were Christians. In this way, the Jews avoided the persecution of the Nazis, and a total of 247 were saved. The priest (whose name I didn’t catch) has since been named Righteous Among Nations by Yad Vashem.

As we continued to walk, we came across a street vendor selling a variety of militaria. What caught my eye, and that of several others in the group, were items that looked like German uniform pieces and medals. There were also a lot of Soviet-era medals as well, many of them from after the war. What was really curious was that some of the German items looked like they had been lying on, or perhaps in, the ground for many years. Kiev was the site of huge battles in 1941 and 1943, and part of me wondered if this stuff had been picked up in local fields, or from war dead discovered many years later. It’s also entirely possible that these were excellent forgeries made to look that way for the benefit of gullible tourists. When I asked the seller about them, he happily pointed out those items he claimed to be genuine, those he said were fakes, and one or two where he said he wasn’t sure. In my books, this kind of added to his credibility (such as it was for a guy selling things on the sidewalk in Kiev). I have to admit that I was tempted by some of the more battered and rusted remnants of uniforms and medals there. The thought of owning a piece of that monumental history was very intriguing. At the end of the day, I took a few photographs and paid the man 10 hryvnas as a tip for being allowed to take the pictures (he didn’t ask for it, but he did accept it). Regardless of how you feel for the causes these soldiers fought and died for, the medals were awarded to them and should be either with them, or their families. Even after almost 70 years, taking one of those items back home would have made me feel a little like a grave robber.

A short subway ride and long walk later, we were on our way to the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. It turns out that our subway stop was called ‘Arsenal’. It is also the deepest subway stop in the Kiev Metro and is approximately 150 meters underground. It felt a little more like a bomb shelter than a Metro station, and since the Metro’s construction dates from the dark days of the Cold War, I may not be too far off the mark.

The museum was a further 40 minute walk. It doesn’t focus on the battles for Kiev, but rather the whole Soviet effort to defeat the Nazis between 1941 and 1945. It’s home to a huge collection of displays consisting of photographs, interpretive text, Soviet and German weapons. Each room has a specific theme, some speak to specific battles, while others treat broader subjects (such as the German atrocities committed during the occupation). Some of the displays are very interesting, such as the cabins taken from the destroyer Smart, a ship that didn’t suffer a single fatality during the war. Others are tragic, such as the wreck of an Il-2 Sturmovik aircraft retrieved from a swamp in the 80s. Still others are gruesome, such as the guillotine used by the Nazis for executions and to spread terror. The museum gives a relatively complete picture of the war. Since the facility dates from Soviet times, the official interpretation of the war is somewhat slanted. Still, it’s very much worth the 10 hryvna admission price, along with the additional 15 hryvnas if you want to take pictures during your visit. Most impressive was the Hall of Heroes. On its walls are inscribed the names of all those who received the award of Hero of the Soviet Union during the war. This was the highest military award at the time. There is also a poignant display below the names. Laid out along the edge of the room are 97 military ponchos, while three are standing in the room’s center. These represent the a sobering fact about the ferocity of the war in the Soviet Union. For each 100 Soviet soldiers who started the war in the Red Army in 1941, only three were still alive at the end of the war.

At the end of our tour, I visited the museum’s souvenir shop. To be honest, there wasn’t a lot there. However, they were selling replica caps like those worn by the frontovniki during the war. At 40 hryvnas, this seemed to be a much better souvenir for me than the militaria I had earlier passed on the street.

Our group then split up as we had some free time to explore the city on our own. It being a long time since I had eaten, I tracked down some lunch consisting of sausage, bread and cabbage. Re-energized, I set out on my own.

While it was possible to take the Metro back to the hotel, I decided to walk. Dasha had advised us that it would take about two hours to walk back, but since we had more than four until our next activity, I decided this would be a great way to explore the city.

Although we had passed and seen it on our way to the Museum, I now had the opportunity to take a closer look at the memorial to the victims of the Xolodomor. This human-made famine in 1932 and 1933 resulted from a disasterous policy of forced farm collectivization by Stalin. As a result, approximately 3.3 million people (mostly in the Ukraine) were deliberately starved by the regime. Entire villages were wiped out by hunger. This, along with numerous other acts of terror on behalf of the regime of the day, have helped to earn Stalin a place in history as one of its worst mass murderers.

Further along the same street, I came upon the memorial to the Great Patriotic War. Its located within Glory Park. There is an eternal flame at the main monument, but it is not (as I was first told) a tomb to an unknown soldier. There is Glory Alley along which are buried 37 heroes who died in the fighting in and around Kiev during the war.

Eventually, I arrived back at the Arsenal Metro station. Directly across the street is a large brick building which, I understand, is known as the Arsenal. From my side of the street, it looked as though there were bullet holes in the bricks. In fact, there are bullet holes there, but they date to street battles that were fought during the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. While standing in front of this building, I was able to get pointed in the right direction with the help of my limited Russian and a friendly local. Soon I was walking along Ulitsa Michail Khrushchevovo.

Something that I haven’t mentioned yet is that Kiev has very wide streets. I said earlier that the traffic is very busy, but the added hazard of crossing the streets comes from their width. In some cases, there are signals to help pedestrians cross which are, more or less, respected by drivers. However, there are also a huge number of pedestrian underpasses, allowing people to pass under the street safely to the other side. A single intersection with multiple streets entering it might have eight or more entrances and exits to these walkways. Capitalizing on possible space for retail, malls of different sizes seem to have evolved from what were likely little street booths before. Every set of underpasses has one of these malls. Huge intersections have huge malls with multiple possible exists. Once underground, it’s easy to get turned around and re-emerge in the wrong part of the intersection. However, these malls are definitely a shopper’s paradise, with opportunities to shop every time you go to cross a street! I don’t think that I could be accused of being a dedicated shopper, but even I gave in to temptation once in a while. And, it’s certainly safer than trying to brave the traffic up above.

Continuing my meandering walk back to the hotel, I happened across an enormous post office. This was perfect! I hadn’t had a chance to send off postcards since Berlin, so I ducked inside. It was huge! The first room had a little retail area. I saw some postcards for sale and so picked up a few. The lady asked me if I needed stamps, and when I told her the destination, she took out the right denominations, put them on the cards and then stamped ‘par avian’ on them. What service! I then entered the main area of the facility. They even had desks where you could sit and write out the message. Assuming they arrive in a reasonable amount of time, I have nothing but praise for how the Ukrainian postal system is set up.

I continued my walk down the street, getting ever closer to the hotel. As I was reading the names of the stores, I noticed one across the street called Tsum. While taking Russian in university, I had learned that the large state-run department store was called Gum (pronounced ‘goom’). I wasn’t sure if this was the Ukraininan name for the store, or if it had changed since the fall of Communism, or if it was even the same store. Still, it looked interesting. In I went. Like the underground malls in in the intersections, the different departments are set up like mini-booths. Walking through the store is like walking through a maze. The store wasn’t set up in aisles as would be the case in a Zellers or a Walmart. And, the shelves are stacked very high so that you can’t see very far around the corner. It was easy to get turned around in there. Those who know me should not be surprised by the fact that I found the pen booth, and picked up a nice one for myself. I picked up a nice pen for myself.

As I continued down the street, I managed to find a few more things before making it back to the hotel. That’s the disadvantage of carry-on only… Limited space for souvenirs and gifts (don’t worry, I did manage to pick up a few!).

After a short rest at the hotel, our group gathered in the lobby and boarded a bus for a tour of the city. Our guide, Olga, began with an overview of Kievan History dating back to the era if xxxinsert link herexxx Kievan Rus. While that era was certainly a ‘golden age’ for the city, it’s fall led to Kiev being somewhat of a backwater until the 19th Century.

Our first stop was a beautiful yellow church, that of St. Vladimir. Tis church took 1/2 a century to build, mostly as a result of problems with funding. While the outside of the building is impressive, its interior is stunning. There is an abundance of gold leaf decoration, icons and murals. The central mural depicts Mary and Jesus, and the artist is reputed to have used his own wife and child as the models. It’s still an active place of worship. There is no admission price, but you are asked to contribute 50 hryvnas to take pictures. I only feel slightly guilty at having snuck two pictures with my iPhone but believe me, enforcement of these rules is generally quite lax.

After driving by a number of churches and the botanical gardens, our next stop was St. Andrew’s church. The church is on a very rough cobblestone street, with big bumps and ruts. The building itself is under renovation, so we couldn’t go inside. Still, I got some great pictures from there. I also saw something that you don’t see in Canada. The local priest was actually out on the street with a table set up in front of him. He was selling a number of religious items and texts, but was also soliciting donations for finishing the renovations. In light of my earlier indiscretion at St. Vladimir’s, it seemed only right that I contribute something, so I gave him 10 hryvnas. From his reaction, it was as if I had made his day and it certainly made the donation that much more of a good investment (in my opinion).

After taking a few pictures, we all got back onto the bus and made our way over to our next stop. Our tour guide took us over to Glory Park and the war memorial. I’ve already talked a little about this, so I won’t describe it here again, but I am going to digress a little. I have mentioned the traffic in Kiev before, but I didn’t mention their parking habits. Much of the city’s parking happens on the sidewalks themselves. We’re not taking about pulling the front end of the car up onto the sidewalk. We’re not even taking about pulling up onto the curb with half the car so that the other half is still on the street. Nope, not in Kiev! Here, the entire car parks on the sidewalk, with no apparent order to it. Walking along the sidewalk often means weaving through a number of cars haphazardly parked along the path. Well, it gets better. When we got to Glory Park the ENTIRE BUS climbed up onto the sidewalk and parked, leaving only about 12 inches width for pedestrians. In Kiev, it seems that this is just the way things happen, and nobody gets worked up over it (well, that I saw anyway).

After snapping a few more pictures of the cityscape below Glory Park, we were back on the bus. Our tour was winding down, and we were heading back to the hotel. It was now tine for questions. Someone asked what the minimum wage for Ukrainians was. Olga didn’t know, but soon used her cell phone to look it up online. She told us that it is 1000 hryvnas per month. At the current exchange rate, that translates to $122 Cdn per month. If you assume there are 20 working days in the month, that means the minimum wage is about $6.10 Cdn per day (50 hyrvnas). Olga did say that in Kiev, it’s more expensive to live and the wages are higher. She also said that if you took your Kiev wage and lived outside of the city, you’d live very well.

That having been said, there are a lot of very poor people living in the city. And, making ends meet must be hard. After our tour ended, I went to the local ‘Mega-Market’ to pick up a few supplies. 500 ml of Diet Coke was about 25 hyrvnas. Someone making minimum wage would have to work half a day in order to buy a bottle. I bought half a loaf of very nice bread for 32 hryvnas, as you can buy bread by weight instead of by the loaf. Still, a minimum wage worker would have to work for over half a day just to earn enough for half a loaf of bread from this store. Seeing things like this simply encourages me to tip well while I am here (a tip of 10 hyrvnas is almost equivalent to 2 hours’ work for someone earning minimum wage, and it’s worth $1.22 Cdn to me), and to be thankful for the country in which I live.

The tour and grocery shopping topped off a very busy day. I was soon back in my hotel room and in bed by 10:30. After a busy day, even the communist-era room was a bit of a comfort (which should tell you a little about how tired I was).

Thanks for following my adventures!

Written by grarts

August 6, 2011 at 9:26 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Day 15 – August 2, 2011 – Lv’iv to Kiev

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Today is another travel day. Now, for most of my blog entries, I have written in the past tense. This is primarily because our days are jam-packed. Although I take a lot of notes, I rarely have time to write a full posting in the evening. Consequently, I’m usually behind on my postings.

Not today though! Today we are traveling from Lv’iv to Ki’iv. This means less touring, but more time to catch up on my writing. Doing so also forces me to stay awake on the bus, and take in the countryside from time to time.

My day started at 5:30 again, and I was down in the lobby an hour later. Breakfast is included with the room, but normally doesn’t start until 7:00 am. That happens to have been our scheduled departure time. Our group leader managed to get them to open up for 6:40, and we had a very delicious breakfast, served in a very swanky room with high ceilings and oriental-themed murals.

We are taking a different bus to Ki’iv. It’s much smaller than the one we had in Poland, and getting all of the luggage on was very challenging. Carry-on only once again saved the day for me! My bag fits nicely under the seat in front of me.

Over breakfast, the conversation around the table was on how long it would take to get to Ki’iv, and how terrible the road might be. However, right now it’s 9:18 am local time. Other than the cobblestone roads in Lv’iv, the highway itself is very smooth and comfortable. It’s comparable to what you’d expect in North America.

I did have a chance, before we left, to ask our traveling companion if I could identify him in my blog by name, and he agreed. When I have a moment, I will likely go back and revise some of the text to make it less awkward to read. However, I’m pleased to be able to name our traveling companion, former resident of Radom and child survivor of the Holocaust. He is Adam Fuerstenberg, retired professor emeritus from Ryerson. He is also the former director of the Holocaust Center in Toronto. I’d like to thank him for accompanying us, and for sharing his experiences and insights. He has certainly added to the overall experience of the trip for me and, I suspect, many others in our group.

The countryside is very pretty, and in many respects, mirrors the overall state of the country, sometimes, you drive by farms that are modern, complete with new buildings and modern machinery. At other times, you can easily see an old woman with a single cow at the side of the road. I even saw a horse hooked up to a wooden cart with tires, clearly for work. It looked like something right out of the 30s or 40s, and I trid to get a picture of it, but we drove by too quickly. Just after seeing this, I looked out the opposite window and saw a huge monument with a late-model T-34 tank mounted on top of it (the most common type of tank used by the Red Army during the Great Patriotic War against Germany and its allies).

We stopped at a roadside convenience store at about 10:40 for a quick washroom break, and to grab a bite to eat. You can find many of the same foods here as in Canada, with a few notable additions. Most notably, you can pick up snack-sized packages of dried fish. That was interesting, but definitely not for me. I picked up a couple of small packages of peanuts, and bought myself an espresso. Total cost: 13 hryvna.

We then drove on and stopped at a large roadside restaurant about 18 km east of Zhytomyr. The food was great. They even understand my broken Russian, more or less. I ordered Ukrainian borscht, bread, and a local fermented drink called kvas. It’s made through a process of fermenting bread. The result is an alcoholic drink that smells a little like malt vinegar, but is actually quite mild and somewhat sweet in flavor. Through the help of a Ukrainian-speaking travel companion, we asked the waiter about the alcohol content. He said it was home-made, so it was hard to know the actual percentage. He guessed it would be anywhere from 5 to 6 percent.

After lunch, we had some time to stretch our legs. There was a small ‘zoo’ outside where a number of small animals and exotic birds were being kept. At the back was a dog on a 6 foot chain. She looked friendly enough, so I went up to her and gave her some belly rubs. I wished I could have taken her home, but I didn’t want to contend with the Ukrainian police, or customs officials on the way back home.

As I write this, we are back on the bus, going down the road from Zhitomir to Ki’iv. I take back what I said earlier about the quality of the road. The road is bouncing us around so badly that people are finding it hard to read their books. As I look out the window, we see the occasional person at the side of the highway. It looks like they’re seeking everything from flowers, to herbs, to small furniture.

Eventually, the areas through which we drove were becoming more and more built-up. We had arrived at the outskirts of Kiev. We would have arrived at our hotel much sooner than we did, had our driver not taken a wrong turn. The combination of heavy traffic, construction, one-way streets, and a general disregard for any rules of the road meant that war arrived at our hotel approximately 45 minutes behind schedule.

By this time, most of us were famished. After checking into my near-vintage communist-era hotel room (small, hot, smokey, and with a TV that didn’t work), I struck out on my own to find a quick bite to eat. About a block away, I spotted a bakery (that year of Russian in university was starting to come in really handy). The good news was that it was about a block away from where I stood in front of the hotel. The bad news was that I’d have to cross four lanes of traffic without a signal in sight. I made my way to the corner, and watched how Kievans cross. They wait for a pause in traffic and confidently walk in front of the idling cars. I did the same and soon was enjoying a slightly dry lemon muffin with mineral water. Given how hungry I was, it tasted great!

The pace of our schedule didn’t slacken, in spite of the 11 hour travel day from Lv’iv to Ki’iv. We were soon taking a tour from a very friendly and knowledgeable local guide named Dasha. Our tour started in the lobby, and Dasha took us to some interesting sites in the local area, and filled us in on the history of a city that has been in existence since at least the 10th Century. She also told us of the history of Jewish settlement in the area under the tsars, and discussed the creation of the Pale of Settlement under Catherine the Great. Because Kiev was within the Pale, and it was a major center for commerce, it had a large Jewish population.

It turns out that our hotel is located right in the middle of an area that had a heavy Jewish population before the Second World War. Many of the streets originally had Jewish names, and many of the prominent older structures in the area were originally build by Jews. One of the most prominent Jewish families that contributed to the city’s development in the 19th Century were the Brodskys. In additional to synagogues, the family also built an opera house. One of the synagogues has since been restored to it’s original purpose (as of the year 2000), while another has become a movie theatre. The opera house is still in use today and is just blocks from the hotel.

Dasha eventually led us to the restored synagogue. There we met the current rabbi, and learned a little about what it was like for Jews under the communist regime, and what life is like now for the community. Security at the synagogue is much less than what you might expect in Western Europe, and the rabbi says that things are okay for Jews now. He did say that could change if there is a bad turn in the economy, but for the moment, things were fine. I did notice, however, that you have to pass through a metal detector before you can enter the main part of the synagogue. Before ending his visit with us, the rabbi did allow us to look at (and photograph) the Torah scrolls in their cases (the synagogue holds 14 of them), including one that is about 800 years old!

In addition to being a place of worship, the synagogue also acts as a centre for community life, and also does charitable work. In fact, it runs a kosher soup kitchen and restaurant in its basement. In fact, we left the building via the restaurant. It was pouring rain outside, and so leaving via this area took us directly across from the Metro station.

Dasha was very helpful and got us through the Metro system and back to the hotel. Like many North American metro systems, you use a token to get through the gate. However, these were made of plastic. The price is also a great bargain. You can get to any other station in the system for a total of 2 hryvnas, with an unlimited number of transfers (that’s 25 cents!). The trains run very regularly, and we never had to wait very long for a train at all.

From the hotel lobby, a large number of us went to the easiest restaurant we could find: The Italian place across the street from the hotel. My first meal in Kiev consisted of a four-cheese pizza, with mineral water. Dessert was a very yummy slice of apple pie. I only at half the pizza and took the rest back to the hotel room, likely to eat as a snack or for breakfast the next day.

After that, it was back to the hotel to get some sleep. Thanks again for following my travels!

Written by grarts

August 5, 2011 at 9:06 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Day 14 – August 1, 2011 – Kraków to Lv’iv

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This is the day we traveled from Poland (within the European Union) to Lvov (or Lviv, depending on if you’re referring to it by its Polish or Ukrainian name). Because this was primarily a traveling day, we started at 7:00 instead of the usual 8:30 or 9:00. I headed down to breakfast at 6:30, having gotten up an hour earlier. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was still, somehow, on the list to have my breakfast included with my room.

We met our bus driver just outside the hotel. He was the same one who drove us from Berlin to Warsaw, and then to Kraków. He has been excellent at getting us to our destinations, and dealing with the little glitches along the way. After boarding the bus, we drove for about 3 1/2 hours before taking a rest stop. There I grabbed a quick bite to eat, and something to drink before we boarded the bus again and made for the border. During the drive there, our driver told us that the Ukraine is very cheap, and that the exchange rate is 3 hryvna to the zloty, which makes that about 8.5 hryvna to the Canadian dollar. The road to the border was very bumpy, probably the most bumps for the longest stretch of road that I have ever experienced. Although the road is paved, the nearest comparison I can make is to drive the total distance of 70 km over a poorly-maintained logging road. I’m not exaggerating. My butt was feeling numb by the time we stopped at the border, and I wasn’t the only one feeling that way.

The border itself was a very interesting experience. We first stopped on the Polish side of the border at about 12:20 pm. There, a small woman with a gun wearing a no nonsense expression collected all of our passports. She checked them, and even checked me over twice since I’ve lost weight since the picture was taken. She then got down from the bus, passports in hand, and rebounded about 10 minutes later. All of our passports had been stamped. This was the first time I’ve ever had a passport check by a border official when leaving a country.

Next, it took us about 1/2 an hour to drive the short distance to the Ukrainian border check. The lineup was slow, but we did move every few minutes. Once at the border post, a Ukrainian border guard collected our passports once again. No gun this time, but he wore an equally serious expression. By now it was about 1:00 pm. As an aside, the rule at the border is that only the driver can get off the bus until we’ve cleared the zone. The guard returned at 1:35 and gave us back our passports. We thought we were now home free, but we weren’t quite so lucky.

After getting our passports back, all stamped correctly, the guard told us to pull forward and wait. As the bus idled, which it did the whole time at the border, the driver would run back and forth between different buildings at the border post. Each time he emerged from a building, we all hoped he would come back to tell us he got the green light. People were getting hungry and a number of us REALLY needed to use the washroom.
Finally, at 2:16 pm, he got back onto the bus and told us that we could go. Part of the delay was caused by a drunk border official who refused an initial bribe of 10€ to let us in. The driver offered 20€ and we were good to go!

We very much appreciated our driver’s ability to negotiate the bureaucracy, and also to get us through for less than 1€ each. After researching how much the bribe normally would be, I was personally expecting to pay 10€, and was carrying that specific amount just for the occasion. It certainly pays to have local help who know the system. We wanted to tip our driver in recognition of his awesome service, and so passed around my hat and collected a generous amount, but one that was very fair given the circumstances.

The distance from the border to Lviv is only about 80 km. However, it took us over two hours to get there (the time in the Ukraine is also an hour ahead of Poland). 80 km doesn’t sound far to North Americans, but the road was even worse than on the Polish side of the border. Our driver joked and said now we saw what Ukrainian roads were like. To make matters worse, the wasn’t any feasible place to stop for a snack or to use a washroom. It took us a further two hours to get to Lviv! And I thought my butt was sore on the Polish side!

We arrived t the hotel at about 5:15 local time. Most of us made a mad dash for the washrooms. We stayed the night at the historic Hotel George. Originally built in 1793, it still shows many original features. I knew I was in for an interesting experience when I was handed my room key (for room #18, on the second floor). It was something right out of the 19th century. Never having used a key like this before, it took me. Few tries to realize that I had to turn it twice to unlock the door. Since the key goes into a stereotypical keyhole, you had to reinsert it once inside, and then turn the key twice in the opposite direction to lock the door again. The room has been upgraded with a modern bathroom and shower, but there is heavy wood panelling in the recessed doorway leading into the room. There was also a small balcony overlooking the street below, and with a set of double doors that lock with the same kind of key. The ceilings were incredibly high, even in the room, and tower at 12 to 14 feet. My only ‘complaint’ is that the lighting in the room, and in the hotel overall, is quite dim.

My next job was to get some Ukraininan hryvna. I struck out on my own, and tried to withdraw from 3 different bank machines. Each rejected my card. I started to get a little stressed, and wondered if my Visa card would work here. I have enough Euros with me, but they aren’t much good here. I then found a currency exchange office with a posted closing time of 6 pm (the time now was 5:45). An older woman was outside, sweeping the steps and the door was open. When I tried to go in, she told me that it was closed. I wasn’t about to argue with her about it.

I got back to the hotel, the more experienced travelers told me that they had informed their banks about their travel plans before they left Canada. I made a quick phone call to the bank to let them know where I was, and they told me that everything should be fine from then on. They did advise me that, in the Ukraine, it would be best to find a bank machine in an airport, as they are usually up to international standards. As a backup, I could make a cash withdraw, from my Visa card from any machine displaying that sign.

Our tour organizer had set up a tour of the city with a local guide, scheduled to start at 6:30. A number of us went into the hotel’s cafe. I ordered a bowl of borscht with sour cream, and two pieces of black bread. I also ordered a bottle of mineral water. What I got was the borscht, the water, and a piece of white bread, sliced in two, along with four thick slices of something that looked like cheese. It turns out that the cheese was, in fact, lard. The bread was deep fried in something, probably lard too. I loved the borscht, and the water. I have to admit that I ate the bread, but I didn’t touch the lard. One of our group put it on the bread and ate it, and said it was quite good. I figured I was stressing my arteries enough already just with that slice of bread. When I went to pay, I wasn’t charged for the bread. Apparently it was included with the borscht, and they didn’t give me the black bread because they figured that, as a clued out tourist, I didn’t realize that I’d get bread and lard with my borscht. I appreciate the consideration, but I think I would have preferred the black bread.

I rejoined the group for the 6:30 tour, but I only stayed with them for about 15 minutes. Although I sat all day, the bumps and long hours had made me pretty tired, and I wasn’t really taking in what the guide was saying. The one thing at I did pick up from our guide is that in the Ukraine, there aren’t really any rules for drivers, or for pedestrians. I saw at least one near miss between a car and pedestrian, but neither the driver nor the walker seemed overly excited by this. Seeing further evidence of how cars move down the street, I wold tend to agree with the guide.

I found an ATM and withdrew some hryvna from my Visa card. I then started to explore the streets around the area of the hotel. I was mindful of our leader’s advice that Lvov is generally safe, but not like Kraków. Being out after dark alone wouldn’t be a great idea. As I wandered around, I ran into two ladies from our group who were shopping. They said that the was a currency exchange at the back of the store. Thanks to this timely information, I was able to exchange some of my Euros, and now have enough currency that I can likely spend cash for most of my time here.

I explored the streets a little more before heading back to the hotel. I watched a little news on the TV and made sure that my bags were packed for the next day’s 7:00 am departure. Tomorrow we’re off to Kiev (or Ki’iv, if you’re Ukrainian!).

Written by grarts

August 4, 2011 at 1:08 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Day 13 – July 31, 2011 – Kraków and Auschwitz

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To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure how to start and write this entry. Today was the day that I went to Auschwitz. I’ve heard about this place many, many times, I’ve seen the pictures and the movies, I’ve read the eyewitness testimonies and historical analyses. I wasn’t sure how to approach the day, or my accounting of it afterward. Rather than spend time worrying about it, I’ve decided to just recount the day’s events.

My first surprise was breakfast. I went into the hotel’s restaurant expecting to pay 33 zlotys. The girl behind the counter asked me for my room number, and then told me that I didn’t have to pay. I asked her to check once again, and she did. I wasn’t going to complain, so I had a nice breakfast (tomatoes, yogurt, sausage, cheese, coffee, and croissant). Or group then boarded the bus and we drove to the site of the camp. It takes about one to one and a half hours to get there by bus.

What is commonly-known as Auschwitz is actually a series of many larger and smaller camps. The two main camps were Auschwitz itself (set up in a former Polish army barracks), and Birkenau (a camp built by the SS to serve as a labour camp and extermination facility. Of the two, Birkenau is much, much bigger. Our group went to Birkenau first.

I am not going to explain a detailed history of the camp and its growth over time, as that is well documented elsewhere. Our guide did give some of the history during our tour, but I’d prefer to mention the areas of the camps that I visited with our group.

First, we went into one of the reconstructed men’s barracks. These were adapted from German Army plans for horse stables. The buildings were rated for 52 horses, or 400 prisoners (although there were often many more assigned to a building). We heard about the living conditions, and the sanitary conditions. We saw the primitive and inadequate heating systems that were provided, and visited one of the latrines (with two hundred toilet holes provided for each 2000 prisoners).

Our guide then led us up to the main guard tower over the entryway of the gate. From there, you can can get a better sense of the size of the camp. It is enormous, and today, only 66% of the camp’s total area is still visible. Although the SS blew up the crematoria and gas chambers before they withdrew, the rest of the camp was captured intact by the Red Army.

The camp was designed to house 90,000 prisoners because not all who arrived here were killed quickly. Some were selected for work in the area’s industries, and housed (for lack of a better word) in the camp. While the men’s barracks were built of wood, the women’s barracks were generally made or bricks. When the Germans built the camp, they cleared many of the local villages of their inhabitants. They then destroyed the buildings and used the bricks to build many of the buildings in Birkenau. Although I did take a video of the area I could see, it has to be experienced in person to truly understand the scale of what was built for the purposes of slavery and extermination.

On our way to see the women’s barracks, we stopped near the train platform where the selections took place. It is commonly believed that when the SS doctor signaled to either the right or left, that meant life or death. Our guide told us that there was no significance to right or left, since it all depended on which way the doctor was looking at the time. After visiting the women’s barracks, our guide then took us to the ruins of Crematorium 2. In order to get there, we had to walk along the same path used by those who were sent to be gassed.

Although rubble now, it is still possible to see the stairs that the victims went down in order to enter the undressing room. The broad outline of this horrible building is still easily discernible. Our survivor friend and the Jews traveling with our group stood next to the ruins and said Kaddish. I was asked to read out the translation in English. I was both honored and shocked. Never would I ever have imagined that I would do something like this, at this place, at this time. I am not a religious person, but it was difficult for me to maintain my composure as I did this, and even now as I recount this. Of all the moments in the trip that I will remember (and there are many of them) this is the one that will stay with me the longest, I think.

After viewing the remains of Crematorium 3, we moved onto the receiving area for prisoners who were assigned to work in the camp after selection. This building is intact, and it’s possible to retrace the steps that prisoners followed as they were stripped, shaven, showered, and eventually given their uniforms. This building is located within the area of the camp called ‘Canada’ because it was there that the riches and looted goods were sorted and prepared for shipment back to Germany (while the processing building for prisoners is intact, only the foundations remain from the original warehouses). Inside the building is also a cart used to remove the ashes from the crematoria so they could be dumped in a river, or local pond.

Just before exiting the building, we saw an exhibit of pictures. These were found by a prisoner in the luggage that he was sorting. He collected many pictures and then buried them on the camp grounds inside of a suitcase. When the war was over, he came back and helped find the suitcase. Thanks to this prisoner’s individual act of resistance, these pictures of the murdered are kept for posterity and are now on display.

After visiting the processing facility, we next visited the ruins of Crematorium 4. This is the one that was destroyed during a revolt of the sonderkommando in 1944. Afterward, we visited Crematorium 5 where the only known pictures taken by a prisoner are now on display, showing the crimes in progress at this very site.

Having traveled from the front to the back of the camp, we made our way back up to the main gate. At a brisk pace, it took 15 minutes to walk the distance. From here we boarded the camp and made our way back to the main camp at Auschwitz.

After lunch (yes, you can have a cafeteria style lunch at Auschwitz… Which honestly felt a little odd), we visited the main camp with our guide. It’s so busy with visitors that groups wear radios and headphones to better hear their guide speaking. This camp is much smaller, measuring only 200 by 300 meters. We then saw the exhibits… Looted goods… Mounds of human hair, of glasses, luggage, children’s shoes. It was overwhelming. We visited the punishment blocks, barracks, latrines… Our guide next took us to the gallows used to hang Rudolph Höss. It’s situated right next to Crematorium 1. We were then taken into the building itself, the first room being the gas chamber. The holes through which the gas pellets were dropped were pointed out to us, and we were next taken into the crematorium itself. I didn’t want to stay in there very long, and actually (for the second time this trip) felt physically ill. I was glad to get out.

Our trip to the main camp at an end, we returned to our hotel. We had a short break before going out for our Polish cultural dinner. The restaurant had very ornate decor. We we treated to cultural music and dances (a man and a woman were dancing for us). Just after the soup came, the dancers would choose people from the audience to join them. The girl came up to our group and chose another man. I commented so someone that I was glad she hadn’t picked me. Sure enough, the dance over, I got tapped on the shoulder, and was soon getting spun around the dance floor by a woman in full cultural costume. Fortunately, I didn’t trip over my own two feet, nor do I think I tripped her up too badly. She was very gracious and thanked me for the dance.

The supper itself was quite nice. The soup was borscht with half a hard-boiled egg in it. The main course consisted of pork schnitzel, carrots and beets, and boiled potatoes. It was all delicious!

Dinner over, I headed back to the hotel. The next day was set aside for travel to Lvov in the Ukraine. I packed up for the long trip to Lvov the next day.

Thanks for following my adventures!

Written by grarts

August 2, 2011 at 2:46 am

Posted in Uncategorized