A few posts back I mentioned crying for what must have been an hour or more on an over night train ride. I was in a sleeper car heading from Ternopil to Kyiv. The car had four bunks and two other people. I tried to cry silently, but if you’ve ever tried that it always fails miserably. Instead my crying sounded like choking and coughing combined and I’m certain that the other young woman in the car who smiled at me when I entered the compartment knew I had the water works going. Good thing it was dark and the train was rocking us like a giant human cradle.
Let me step back for a minute and explain what triggered it. I had come to Ternopil, western Ukraine, from Kyiv for a weekend trip. My grandmother was born and raised in this city. Her first cousin and her family still live there. My parents and I had visited them back in 2007. I really liked all of them and it was nice that I had a cousin close to me in age who is also a redhead and wants to be journalist (talk about something running in the family).
I arrived in the evening and they were waiting for me on the train platform. We went back to their apartment in a Soviet apartment block. These socialist style buildings have been nicked Khrushchevkas, mockingly after the former head of the USSR Nikita Krushchev. We ate a light meal and called it a night. In morning I chatted with my cousin and her boyfriend who had come back to Ternopil from their university in L’viv for the weekend. I asked if anyone of our generation among their friends wants to become a politician in Ukraine. My cousin started elbowing her boyfriend. After a bit of mocking and probing he said he was interested but then listed the plethora of problems involved in Ukrainian politics – I’ll spare you the list.
Then we headed to church, the same one, although remodeled, that my grandmother would have attended decades before. In his sermon the priest spoke about the hard times facing Ukraine and stressed that there is a path to light and that Ukraine and its people will reach it eventually. After the standing 90-minute mass, we went to my grandmother’s first cousin for a large lunch. They were happy to see me and said I hadn’t changed in seven years (bodes well for my aging). As we started eating, my grandmother’s cousin’s husband rose to give a toast of cognac. He said he was so glad to see me but so, so sad that it had to be during a time of war. And that’s when it hit me. I’d interviewed displaced Crimean Tatars and a woman whose fiancé was gunned down on the Maidan. But this was personal. My grandparents had left because of the Russians and now here they were again invading Ukraine and denying to the whole world that they have any military presence in the country. How fucked up (excuse my language but this deserves it) is it that 70 years later history is repeating itself? This shouldn’t be happening.
We ate a long meal and at one point my grandmother’s cousin pulled me into her bedroom and wanted to know how my family really was doing. I didn’t have too much to report. So then she began listing everyone who had died in the last seven years – many people who we met on our first trip. My great grandmother’s sister who was over 100 when we met her in 2007 lived a really full life and I’m so glad I had the chance to meet her. Before I knew it, my grandmother’s cousin had slipped a gold ruby ring on my finger. She wanted me to have it she said because we are family and because she had been so close to my grandmother. I started choking up at that point. My family in Ukraine isn’t well off. They have their apartments and they all work, but the standard of living there is far below neighboring EU countries.
We spent a good part of the afternoon watching my young cousin show off his ballroom dancing moves. Later in the afternoon my cousin and her boyfriend went to get ice cream while I sat with my cousin’s mother in the apartment courtyard. We had one of those conversations that always leave me glum. She asked about my apartment rent in New York. Needless to say my rent is more than she makes in a month as a nurse in Ukraine. She talked about her life, the hardships, her friend who had gone to work in Poland to send back money, and she asked more questions about my life.
Late that night I got on the train to get back to Kyiv for Monday morning. The ring, the toast, all of the stories I had heard over the past three weeks mixed together into the perfect storm. So I let it go. In the morning I grabbed my bag and headed off the train for another day of reporting. I kept the ring safe deep in my bag. I wear it on special occasions.
In case Ukraine has fallen off the news radar in your home country, according to the UN there are over one million displaced persons and conservative estimates say over 4,800 have died due to the conflict.
Life is full of coincidences – I wrote this post on a train ride — this one in India. More to come soon.