One day, as i was standing in front of the school office waiting for them to open, i took notice of an ad on the wall saying ; Heart surgery conference sponsored by Mc Donald’s in Lviv, Ukraine. It caught my interest and i started to read the details. It told, free accommodation and food. It didn’t take me long before i decided to visit Dracula land, well, it is not strictly speaking dracula land, but geographically not far from each other.* I had never been into the woods of Transylvania and the mountains around, i asked my friends if they wanted to come, but no one was keen, as i really wanted to i decided to go by myself. I sent them an email and we exchanged some letters, i was more interested in Ukraine then the conference, they replied that they are glad to have me, and that they will provide me a translator and that a man will pick me up at the train station.
The day of my departure i went to Keleti train station, which is in Budapest, it was late autumn to beginning of winter. It was the night train to Moscow, a 3 days journey if you where planning to travel to the Russian Capital, my trip would take 12 hours. I was stunned by the sight of the train, looking as taken out of a movie from 1940’s. The trains in Hungary aren’t exactly modern, but this one was something out of the extraordinary. The interior was made out of wood and was decorated with red carpets and plastic flowers, the curtains where green and the beds had thick wool blankets smelling heavy.
The train conductor told he needs to take my passport and ticket and that i will get it back when i reach Lviv. I craved a coffee even though it was evening, so i asked the conductor for one, he came back with an an Nespresso instant coffee and told it would be ten hrivna, i got a bit embarrassed as i didn’t have any Hrivna on me and told i have Hungarian money or euros, the train conductor shook his head, and told i can only pay in hrivna, but then he added, its ok, you don’t need to pay, enjoy your coffee. I was glad for the generosity and told thank you very much! He had already turned around walking away but replied, not to mention!
During the first hours on the train i was watching the landscape from the window, i was lucky as there was a very bright full moon and i could see the villages clearly, smoking chimneys gave a pleasant smell and the windows where shining in an orange warm color that gave a sharp contrast to the blue dark background, hills, mountains covered in snow, the moon was so bright that evening, it casted big shadows from the trees, the train went slowly and ringed me into sleep.
The train reached the border after midnight, and we stopped there for several hours, they needed to change the wheels, i couldn’t sleep for the hammering and noise. A man came in and teared up the bottom bed, in order to be able to change the wheels he needed to loosen up some screws in my coupé. The border guards came in asking a lot of questions, one women that reached an impressive height, covered in fur and used a strong red lipstick asked me why i want to go to Lviv and several other questions, meanwhile she held my Swedish passport strongly in her hands checking it out, in the end she took out a big stamp and i was set to go into Ukraine.
In the morning the train conductor woke me up and he gave me my passport, we reached Lviv, i could hardly see how it looked like because a thick fog had settled over the city. I climbed off the train, looked at the platform but found no person waiting for me. It was extremely cold, i couldn’t read anything as the letters where in Cyrillic. I walked to the main entrance, and looked out on a square, old cars, on a big street that looked like this.
Lviv have been part of several countries throughout its history, Poland, Austria, Ukraine, Russia, even Germany for some years. I knew nothing about the city before.
A man fitting the description they given me came through the early morning fog. As he came closer i could see he was holding a paper with my name on, and i waved. We told hello and then our conversation stopped, apparently he spoke no English, so our communication was limited to nil. He took me to a car from last century, i tried to ask his name and after some effort i figured his name is Ivan, he didn’t say much. He was blond and pale with greyish blue eyes and a typical Ukrainian nose. Which is a bit potato like, don’t get me wrong, i actually love those noses, they give character to a mans face.
Ivan drove to the university, the road was in terrible shape and icy, not only once did the car start to slide, but we managed to get there in one piece. Lviv and the nature was beautiful, we drove by many impressive buildings. Everywhere it was hanging orange decorations.
Despite my wool cardigan, boots and jacket i felt that i freezing badly. Ivan walked some steps ahead of me and upon reaching the building he opened and held up the old doors, and i came into a big foajé, it was cold inside as well, i could hear footsteps echoing and a person came and started to talk to Ivan, and then he turn to me and told in English.
– Welcome, we have been expecting you, its such a thrill to have a Hungarian here. I was so relieved he spoke English, and Ivan seemed to be relieved to.
-My name is Alex, let me introduce you to the others, they are on the second floor, let me take your jacket.
– Thank you Alex, it is very nice but i rather keep my jacket on as it is a bit cold for me, i told it as my warm breath could clearly be seen while talking.
-You are cold? Oh i have a solution for it, just come with me. We all went for a while through the corridors and arrived into a huge classroom on the second floor, it was crowded with people and slightly warmer then the corridor, people where laughing and having a good time. Aleks went over to a bar, and took a bottle of cognac and came over, poured up a very generous amount and gave it to me.
– Here it is for the cold, you will be better from it.
I didn’t really believe him but i was willing to try, so i took a big zip of it, and it tasted really good, it was 10.30 in the morning. Aleks was a tall dark blond young man, he was outspoken and warm. I could feel the cognac working and i got in very good mood. Aleks took up a package of ciggarettes and asked if i might want one, i declined, although i occasionally have one when i feel like it.
I got introduced to some people in the the room, it was so many people i couldn’t keep track on everybody.
-Biktopia, we will not have time to show your hotel right know as the conference is about to begin, we will do it later.
The whole group of people went to an aula, where a skilled surgeon was telling about his experience with hemangiomas, there was around 200 guests from all over the former USSR countries, they all spoke Slavic, so it was self given that the conference was held in Ukrainian, i could see in front of the table there was all the flags off the countries taking part, and i could see they managed to get a Hungarian flag too, i was pretty touched that little me got a flag. After the surgeon several others where holding lectures, like this young girl in the next picture, Aleks tried to translate, more or less, but we soon started to just talk about other things, he apparently, just like me, was here to have a good experience. We where talking about many things and he was eager to go out for drinks after the conference.
The hours went and the conference was over, i did have a good time, but mainly because Aleks was very entertaining. I started to figure out the group of friends, it was Ivan Aleks, Leila, and Vlad, Leila was a beautiful blond girl, but she seemed stressed and also a bit unhappy, i found out later that she was having problems with her boyfriend.
So as Aleks seemed to be carrying me under his wings, i followed them around, they where nice and fun people, me and Ivan started to communicate via Aleks.
I finally got to get to the hotel i was staying, i was insisting on having a shower before going out in the night, i didn’t expect it to be so difficult as the hotel was quite far away from the university, but Ivan and Vlad drove me there, i took my shower meanwhile they where sitting in the lobby waiting, i was so happy to finally get warm again but i was a bit ashamed to make them drive me to my hotel for this and then back, but off we went, to some club, quite nice place, of course ice cold, i was very impressed by all the lightly dressed girls, i was shaking teeth. Ivan and Aleks ordered some drinks, strong shots of some spirit, we drank it fast, just to have another one on top of it, i was careful and at my second glass, when people didn’t see, i actually poured it out under the table, the drinks kept on coming, and i did the same over and over, i got into some conversation occasionally. We just got more and more in spirit, i was pouring out half of my drinks but i still managed to drink to much. We started to dance and laugh having an awful good evening. One time i got to be left alone with a guy i couldn’t remember the name of. Some had gone to dance, others where ordering drinks, and this guy poured up yet another shot to the 2 of us and told.
-Here it is custom, that if 2 people are alone, and wishes to cheer for good health, you kiss each other on the mouth, i am not sure if all that booze was working on me, or if i was tired, but that had to be stupidest comment i ever fell for, only the next morning i had a revelation of how simply i was gamed in that moment, but of course i kissed him.
The next day i moved in to Ivans place because the Hotel only payed the conference but i was staying one more day for the roundtrip in Lviv region, We where all very hangover and me and Aleks tried to not talk to loud to disturb the conference, Ivan had to sit in the front and organizing the power point, he was completely out of sync, and he looked a bit rugged from yesterday, i think me and Aleks where still tipsy.
In the end of the day, we all got presents, it was the Netter anatomy book in Cyrillic, i already had one which i worship, in English, but i was glad i got one more, it was a good memory.
It was Aleks last day at the conference as well, so we sad godbye to each other, he had to go back to work in Kiev, Ivan and his friends took him out to the trainstation and we sad goodbye, as the train started to leave, the Ukrainian national anthem started to play in the loudspeakers.
So i was left in the hands of Ivan. I followed him everywhere, and i loved it, he had a quite packed schedule consisting of, saying farewell to Aleks on the train station, visiting a friend to give medicine, meeting up a friend to discuss sth, meeting up a friend that gave Ivan money, entertaining me. I realized, Ivan was immune to cold, they didn’t heat the house only the kitchen, and Ivan didn’t use his car the last days, so we went by foot, which was very amazing experience, he lived a bit outside town, so we had to walk for 15 minutes from the last bus station, it was a led dark night, i could only hear the sound of crisp snow under our feet, and i could only rely on Ivan to lead me to warm and safety as i followed him, it was mostly silent between us, in a very good way, occasionally we smiled to each other and it was relieving that we couldn’t talk, it would have been the jitter of empty words, now we just walked side by side in this beautiful landscape inhaling ice cold air in the darkness. I was watching him as he was walking.
In the evening Vlad and Leila came over to his place, Vlad could play guitar and sing, so meanwhile we where sipping Cognac, Vlad was playing for us. Ivan and me somehow managed to understand each other better and better, his English improved dramatically, his mother was also a dr, and people kept coming to her in the evening, she let them into the kitchen and the patient was sitting next to the kitchen table, getting a coffee and some spirits.
The last morning we went to the city to catch the others for the round trip. We walked to a bus station through a beautiful village, i went there the last night but didn’t realize how it looked like because of the dark. i loved the smell of smoke, dogs in the garden, apple trees, plum trees, chicken houses and horses.
I learned that for Ivan hospitality, generosity and friendship is sacred, and that is an oh so common thing to be in the slavic countries. I was welcomed into their homes.
in Lviv they have very peculiar overcrowded mini buses that stops not only in Bus stops but everywhere. I have never seen so many people fitting into a buss ever, at one stop, the line of people entering was endless, and the bus was already full, i cannot understand how we all did fit, it took its time but we did.
After reaching Lviv center and meeting up the people from the conference, we got into a large bus that was ice cold. The first stop was a museum with Ikons from the region, i was freezing my ass off. I so didn’t want to get off the bus, as i knew it was double the cold outside.
Two girls saw my dilemma with me freezing in the museum so when we went back to the bus they told me they have some vodka and juice, they poured it up to me, and they eagerly waited for me to drink it.
The next stop was abandoned mental institution, if walls could talk.
The third stop i cant remember exactly what castle it was, but it was beautiful as well, what i was completely amazed about was a women and her shoes, i can barely walk in high heels normally and this woman took a hard terrain easily with her stillettos.
We drove around the whole day, i loved what i have seen, i loved the nature and the feeling to it, it was soon time for me to go back home.
I was very sad i had to leave. I knew i hardly meet these people again. Ivan drove me to the train station, we exchanged emails and he took me to a to a shop where i could by some spirits to home.
Me and Ivan entered the train, it was the first time i felt a real warm since days. We went outside and we smoked a cigarette and somehow we managed to say goodbye to each other. We had been together so much it felt like i was saying goodbye to an old friend instead of someone i just met. It was hard, i was never good at goodbyes as i never know when or if i will see the person again.
On my way home i was sharing coupe with a very nice girl, we started to talk, and i found out she was heading toward Croatia and that she was a dancer/stripper in a club there, she told she earns a lot of money this way, and that she can live easily from this back home. I offered a drink to her. We had a great evening together, once the train stopped, she knew it would stand for ages, so she told she will buy ice cream as she was to warm, i smiled for myself, ice cream, my bones where still frozen, after a while she came back and she had bought one for me to.
I went back to Lviv once more, with a danish girl and a Norvegian, but that is another story.
* Transylvania is in Romania.