Editor’s note: This series on Bobby Fox’s adventures to Ukraine is excerpted for Untapped from his yet-to-be-published memoir “Love & Vodka” about an American traveling through the harsh and surreal reality of Ukrainian life.
Photo by Anna Pavlik
The date that had been hovering above my head since the moment I booked my trip to Ukraine had finally arrived, despite time’s resistance. With my “secret” nestled securely in my pocket, I was ready to begin my journey. No doubts crossed my mind. There was no turning back.
My parents – still clueless of my plan to propose to a girl they had never met and that I had been with physically for less than an hour – accompanied me to the airport. It was great to have them in my company since I arrived two and a half hours before my scheduled departure. Of course, once upon a time, loved ones could actually see you off at the gate. This would all change just days after my return.
As we headed through security, I encountered my first setback. “Empty your pockets,” the security agent told me.
I scrambled to devise a plan, because I knew that once my little secret was set free from its incubated state of naivety, I would be called to reason – or worse, committed. So I discreetly removed the ring case from my pocket and whispered to the agent: “Don’t let them see this,” nodding in my parents general direction. The guard complied. She gave it a quick inspection, shielding it out of view of my parents, before tactfully handing it back to me, adding “Good luck.” Damage averted.
Shortly after arriving at the gate, we saw a couple in their mid-twenties like myself. They were both crying and holding onto each other’s hands tightly, not wanting to ever let go, but knowing that the time to let go was looming. It was quite clear that they were about to say goodbye for a long period of time. He looked American. She looked European. Ukrainian? I felt compelled to ask them what their story was. Who was leaving? How long were they going to be apart? Would their love continue to grow during their separation? Or did they know deep down that this was the end of the road? Only time would tell, even though I wouldn’t be witness to their outcome. Only mine. Ours.
Boarding time. The couple cried even harder, embracing one another as though doing so could stop time. They kissed, drowning each other’s tears until there was nothing left but goodbye. As it turned out, it was the girl who was leaving. Just before she entered the tunnel, she turned and blew her lover one final kiss goodbye – her face ravaged by tears. And then she was gone. This same scene would be repeated two weeks later, 5,000 miles away.
To this day, I often think about that couple and wonder if they are still in love. And if so, I wonder if they are together or separated by distance. And then it was my turn to board.
“Please, just be careful,” my mom warned for the umpteenth time.
“I will,” I said.
“Just don’t let anyone take advantage of you.”
“She’s not like that.”
“You never know.”
“But I know.”
“Just be careful.”
“I will.” And with that, I entered into the tunnel, which I later described in my journal as being overcome with a complete sense of freedom and joy that brought me to tears.
I knew I was literally on the precipice of something extraordinary. There aren’t too many times in life that you actually recognize one of its turning points as it happens. And that moment was one of them. And never did I feel more free.
As my connecting flight to Frankfurt took off, I clutched onto the ring to make sure it was still there.
Meanwhile, the nagging need to constantly check for the ring intensified. Even in the rare moments I fell asleep, I would wake up, paranoid that somebody got into my pants while I was sleeping. I cannot sleep on planes as it is. It’s even worse when I’m suffering paranoid delusions that somebody is going to pickpocket me as I sleep. No matter how long the flight, no matter how tired I may be, I remain in a semi-conscious – almost zombie-like state until I arrive to my destination.
Upon my arrival to Frankfurt – with several hours to go before my connecting flight to Dnepropetrovsk, I called Katya. It was so great to hear her voice – a voice I rarely heard, despite belonging to the person I was about to propose to. I couldn’t help but think that this was the closest we had been since the day we had met. All that was separating us now was a three-hour flight.
With still ample time to spare, I decided to rest against a column in front of an old-fashioned shuffling flip board displaying gate information. Shuffle after shuffle, I waited for Dnepropetrovsk to show up, like somebody desperately watching lottery picks. And over an hour later, DNEPROPETROVSK showed up, barely fitting on the board.
I headed toward my gate, stopping for a bouquet of flowers along the way. When I arrived at my gate, it was clear I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. The crowded waiting area was filled with the unmistakable look of gloomy Ukrainians. They stared at me like I just announced that I slept with their mother-a look I would get used to from that point on.
I sandwiched myself between two people who — for lack of a better word — smelled “natural.” I then took the ring case out of my pocket and examined it, reminding myself as to the purpose of my mission. And from the corner of my eye, I felt someone ”¦ something staring at me from across. I looked up. It was an old Ukrainian babushka woman.
Carrying a cage. A cage containing a chicken, which begged the requisite questions: why a chicken? Did she come to Germany just to get this chicken? Was it for her, or was it a present? As I continued staring at her chicken, I realized she was staring at me. More specifically, glaring at me. Was I being cursed?
But what did I do? Is staring at another woman’s chicken a crime in Ukraine? Unable to come up with the answers I so desperately wanted, I stared down at the ring. But I felt the woman’s glare intensify. But why? Do old Ukrainian babushka women hate rings? Hate Americans? Hate Americans who carry rings? I figured the glare would subside, that she would get back to minding her own business. But she continued glaring. I put the ring back into my pocket, but her glares remained. And then it was time to board.
I headed through the tunnel, assuming that it would naturally lead to a plane. But it led to a stairwell. That led to a shuttle. That led to another terminal, where the Dniproair plane awaited. Should I have been worried? I convinced myself that at the very least, if it was an airline with a habit of crashing, then I probably would have heard of it. So maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing.
It was one of those small, propeller planes that looked like its best days were during the middle of the Cold War. We boarded the plane through the rear. The propellers were deafening.
I struggled to find my seat. A flight attendant-demonstrating no ability to speak English-looked at my ticket, then led me down the crowded aisle. I couldn’t help but notice the tattered upholstery and torn, dirty curtains. Not to mention the blistering heat that magnified the sweet aroma of body odor.
Upon reaching my seat, I looked through a complimentary Ukrainian newspaper, pleasantly surprised by full-color nude photos and the occasional fully-clothed diplomat.
A woman to my left held a crying baby-a problem of which was remedied by swiftly revealing a breast upon which the baby could feed.
As the plane began to taxi, the passenger to my right did the sign of the cross repeatedly, which only intensified upon take off.
A man across the aisle covered his head with a newspaper. Another man took a swig of vodka from a bottle. I simply clutched my armrests for dear life and closed my eyes, joining my neighbor in intense prayer.
I knew I could relax once passengers pulled out their baskets of food and vodka, filling the cabin with the nauseating stench of pickled herring and smoked fish, compounded by the dirty diaper that was being changed next to me. I had no choice but to lift up my shirt to cover my nose. And of course, I was looked at as the weirdo. As the freak.
I reclined back in my seat, only to be immediately kicked at from behind. Something (presumably nasty) was spoken by the bearded face that slithered in from behind me.
I interpreted this to mean “Pull up your fucking seat, asshole!” So I took his advice and did just that, taking out a Russian-English phrase book in a vain attempt to translate what I was just told. All I gathered was how much the Cyrillic alphabet resembled tables and chairs.
A stewardess came by with a refreshment cart. She handed me what bore at least some semblance to something edible and a can of apple juice. I tried to pull down my tray, but it was broken. So I ate my snack, trying to ignore the creeping feeling that I was making a big mistake.
And then, by some divine miracle, I felt myself slowly fading off to sleep until I was interrupted by the sound of a drill. On a plane. Startled, I looked around the cabin. And indeed, there was a mechanic, slightly resembling Doc Brown from Back to the Future, drilling into the ceiling of the plane.
I didn’t sleep another wink. Never was I more fearful of my life. Two hours later, the plane began its descent. I looked out the window at the sparse Ukrainian countryside, finding it hard to believe we were approaching a city of 1.5 million people.
A stewardess passed out what I gathered to be a customs form, but it was in Russian so I couldn’t be sure. I rose my hand and blurted out down the aisle: “Excuse me!” Based on the reaction of every passenger, I might as well have threatened to blow the whole plane up, so startling was my foreign tongue to their ears.
The stewardess approached, all but asking me to quiet down. I showed her my customs form: “English?”
“Da, English. Minute.” She hastily took the form from me and moments later, returned with an English one. I couldn’t help but feel a slight tinge of shame.
Finally, the plane landed. Unscathed. And the passengers exploded into wild applause.
In the next installment: See how Bobby navigates through the depths of Ukrainian customs.