A Pastoral Land Where Time Stands Still
“My friend Ivan and I were on a bus rolling through the wheat fields of western Ukraine. Green shoots, gentle slopes, farm animals, villages, towns, and churches continuing on until the horizon all gave the region a 19th-century look. Only the power lines and cars gave away the here and now.
“Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union after World War II. During those Soviet years, western Ukraine became the Soviet breadbasket. The Soviet Union fell in 1989, and Ukraine achieved independence in 1991. But the region looks as I imagine it must have looked 50 or a 100 or even 200 years ago. They’re still growing wheat.
“We heard Ukrainian spoken far more than Russian. The Russians stay mostly in the east, and in and near Kyiv (Kiev), the capital.
“I say we were rolling along through the breadbasket, but bouncing or jostling along might be more correct. The roads look like they’ve been pounded by jackhammers. Even on expressways, vehicles must slow down to avoid potholes. Highways resemble open pit mines. The costly imported Mercedes and Audis I saw passing us must get beaten up in a matter of a few months.
“Clearly, over the past decade or so, while the rest of the world improved its roads, Ukraine spent its money on something else.
“The challenging roads made little difference to our driver. At a break–buses here stop every now and again at bathrooms…very convenient–Ivan said, ‘Check out our bus driver. He’s a character.’
“Ivan’s front-of-the-bus seat gave him a closer view of the driver than I’d had.
“The driver turned out to be a cell phone addict. I’d only seen one cell phone addict before, in the seat next to me on the plane over here.
“She’d boarded the plane while talking on her phone, carrying three bundles, and blocking the aisle. When she finally sat down she continued to talk and dial, talk and dial. Nonstop. Right before takeoff, a flight attendant physically took the phone away from her, stuck it in the addict’s purse, and put the purse in the bin.
“Now, here in western Ukraine, our bus driver talked on his phone full time, drove the bus part time. Every now and again he put the phone away, but, after a few seconds, he’d pull it out and start screaming into it again. He was never more than 15 seconds or so without it.
“One thing I noted with both addicts: They talk, rarely listen.
“We stopped in Vinnytsia to see the remains of Hitler’s World War II bunker, just outside town. Germany occupied Ukraine at the beginning of the war, and Hitler spent a couple of days here in his easternmost front.
“Borders around here have changed a great deal over the centuries. So have the people who run the countries within the borders, from Swedes and Hapsburgs to Poles and Russians.
“In the 1980s in Argentina I met a guy in his 90s, the father of friends. He had grown up in the 1890s in a shtetl in Eastern Europe. He lived in the same place for the first 10 years of his life, but the country he lived in changed three times. He was unclear as to exactly where he had lived (after all, he was a small boy). But it must have been in this region where I am traveling now.
“The fluid borders show up in many ways. Cities here have a Polish quarter, an Armenian quarter, a Hungarian quarter… Menus offer Polish and Russian food. Architecture comes from the Hapsburgs, the Germans, from local traditions. The statue in the main square may be of a local hero or a Magyar king.
“I like the cross-cultural mix, from imported goods at market to ethnic restaurants, from the music and culture to the multilingual speakers. I can see myself spending more time here in western Ukraine. I’d have to learn the local alphabet. I’d have to learn to read a menu and maybe to say a few words in Ukrainian. But I suspect I could get comfortable…”