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Lost Cosmonaut: Welcome to Dnepropetrovsk

03/22/2012 at 9:55 am

Posted In Arts & Culture, Ukraine

by bobby fox">bobby fox

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. In his first post, Bobby survived a memorable Ukranian Airlines experience.  

When I finally disembarked off the third plane on my long journey to Ukraine, I was greeted by a foreboding single, small, Soviet-era terminal.

Inside, the stuffy, dingy building, I followed the herd to the passport control room. It was here where I had my first lesson in Ukrainian queues ”” or shall I say, lack thereof. The concept of forming a line is pretty much reduced to a survival of the fittest free-for-all. Perhaps years of Soviet control is to blame for this. I was later told that I wouldn’t survive in Ukraine if I had to live there, where the weak are truly eaten. This is both a compliment and an insult.

After I allowed several people to push their way past me, frustration set in and I started standing my ground by inching a step closer toward the customs booth. As I waited, two Ukrainian men in front of me argued with an official in Russian before being rather forcefully arrested.

By flickr user sarahonthego

With my turn quickly approaching, anxiety crept in. The grim-faced officials with their Soviet-looking, olive-colored uniforms didn’t help matters. As threatening as their stern demeanor appeared, I would soon discover that this expression was status quo for all Ukrainians when out in public. In private, it’s a different story all together ”” warm and hospitable would best describe it.

Before I knew it, my time had come. It was time to meet my maker. As I approached the booth, I nervously dropped my passport, clumsily picked it up off the dirty, grey floor before handing it to the official, who hovered over me like a judge presiding over court. He proceeded to stare at it for what felt like at least a full minute, flipping through the pages, feeling the pages, as though inspecting it for authenticity and periodically looking at me with complete and utter suspicion.

This is how people disappear, never to be heard from again, I thought to myself. My thoughts continued: Hold your composure. You have nothing to hide. But neither did many of those jailed under Stalin.

As the official continued thumbing through my passport, I suddenly grew paranoid that he was somehow reading my thoughts, therefore making me feel like I was doing something wrong, which in turn, would give him reason to think I actually was. I was certain that I was about to become victim of the thought police.

He looked at me again. Yep, he’s on to me, I thought. And that’s when he called over another official. They’re closing in on me!, I thought. Just like that other guy who was arrested.

The second official flipped through my passport, just as his cohort had, then stared at me, likely confirming the suspicions already placed upon me as he nodded to his comrade.

And then, in Russian: “What is your purpose visiting Ukraine?” 

“I’m sorry, but I don’t speak Russian,”  I said.

He repeated himself, in very broken English.

“I’m visiting a friend.” 

“What is your friend’s name?” 

I gave them her name. Both officials proceeded to stare at me, as though trying to burn a hole through me, as sweat began to drip down my forehead. One of them muttered something in either Russian or English. I couldn’t understand.

Dumbfounded, I asked him to please repeat himself. So he did but I still didn’t understand, nor did I the third time, either.

Frustrated, he finally, however so reluctantly, stamped my passport, handing it back to me in a manner that suggested disappointment for not being able to place me under arrest, before adding:

“Welcome to Ukraine.” 

And with that, I was on my way to the next obstacle on the gigantic obstacle course known as Ukraine: Luggage claim. How difficult could that be? I approached the squeaky luggage carousel, which was distinguished by a truly unique feature. Unlike any other luggage carousel I ever encountered, which basically allows luggage to continue to go round and round until claimed, this particular carousel didn’t provide this convenient luxury. In fact, carousel would not be the proper term to describe it. It was simply a conveyor belt that rudely dumped your luggage at the end of the line, forming a heaping pile of luggage on the floor, which in turn caused a feeding frenzy of passengers swarming the pile like vultures on a carcass, searching for their belongings.

Despite my growing impatience, I decided to avoid the feeding frenzy and wait for the crowd to thin out a bit. As I was waiting, I noticed something rather peculiar about the luggage itself. Almost every suitcase was wrapped tightly with cellophane and packing tape, covering every square inch. It didn’t take me long to realize why. Most of the bags that had not been wrapped like mummies were opened ”” or at least partially opened ”” with personal belongings hanging out. So naturally, I assumed this would be the condition I found my luggage in.

As luggage and miscellaneous personal items that had fallen out of it continued to cascade into the stockpile below, I began to panic. Where is mine? I took comfort in the fact that new luggage continued to come through the portal, but it was clearly winding down. And then it came to a stop. I figured, hoped, prayed that it was somewhere in the five-foot pile that had formed at the end of the line. Meanwhile, two people began to fight over the same suitcase, before realizing who its rightful owner was (as it turned out, it didn’t belong to either of them). As the pile grew smaller, so did the crowd swarming around it. And then, there were none. And my luggage was nowhere to be seen.

Desperate, I poked my head through the portal. Nothing. I had no choice but to seek help. I scanned the room and noticed what I assumed to be an information booth. Just as I turned to leave, I heard the conveyor belt hum and buzz, struggling to ramp up before finally starting again. I stared at the portal. Nothing. Waiting, waiting. And lo and behold, there it was. My suitcase! Fully zipped. I grabbed it and headed to the next stop of utter chaos: luggage inspection.

After my suitcase passed through the X-ray machine, I was ordered to open my suitcase. Once again, I was overcome with that irrational paranoia airports create when you begin thinking that maybe you are doing something illegal. As the inspector proceeded to remove every item from my suitcase, I was reminded of how painfully difficult it was to fit everything in there to begin with. And now, I was being granted the opportunity to do it again. While digging through my toiletries bag, the inspector pulled out my prescription allergy medication and held it up to me as though he just found a brick of cocaine.

“What’s it?,”  the inspector said in an accusatory, broken-English tone.

“Allergy pills.” 

The inspector was clearly confused.

“Allergies. All-er-gies,”  I said, still not getting my message across.

The inspector began growing frustrated with our inability to communicate. This wasn’t good. He opened the bottle, sniffing the contents before dumping a couple if pills into his hand to examine them.

I decided to try a different tactic, mimicking several sneezes, and pretending to blow my nose. The inspector nodded in understanding and dumped the pills back into the bottle. It worked!

Twenty minutes later, everything was jammed back into my suitcase, but zipping it shut was another matter all together. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get it to close. I re-arranged some of the items, but this did little to help, but fortunately another inspector came to my aid by sitting on my suitcase.

Now, all that separated me from my pen pal Katya was an opaque sliding door. All I had to do was pass through it. Of course, it wouldn’t be that easy. Once I passed through the doors leading to the lobby, I was greeted by a mob of people awaiting their loved ones, holding enormous bouquets of flowers. And just as Ukrainians don’t like waiting in line, nor do they like moving out of the way of somebody trying to get through. And as if that wasn’t enough, hustling taxi drivers ”” eager for business ”” tugged and grabbed at both me and my luggage in a desperate attempt to take me to destinations unknown. I had no choice but to plow my way through them, desperately hoping that Katya’s first glimpse of me wouldn’t be this savage struggle I was enduring. Of course, it was.

“How was your flight?,”    Katya asked upon greeting me, following one of the strangest, most frightening experiences of my life — above ground, on, or below.

“I survived,”  I said, too exhausted to get into the shocking details. I had a sneaking suspicion that my “abnormal” experience was “normal” by Ukrainian standards.

“This is my dad,”  Katya continued, motioning toward the tall, stern-looking man standing by her side.

“Pleased to meet you,”  I said, shaking his rather large hand.

Katya translated.

“Sergei Andreevich. Welcome to Ukraine,”  he said in Russian and translated by Katya. (It is important to point out that rather than using the equivalent of ”˜Mr.’ in front of a name, the proper way to greet a man in Russian culture is by calling them by their first and middle name.

Speaking with a translator was something I quickly grew accustomed to, since Katya’s parents could not speak English … nor I Russian. What a perfect combination! It helped that Katya was a remarkably skilled translator. In fact, she was studying to be a translator.

“Did you get any sleep?,”  Katya asked.

“Hardly. I can’t sleep on planes,”  I replied.

“You must be tired.” 

I nodded with a yawn, as Sergei reached for my suitcase.

“Thanks, but I got it,”  I said, but he insisted.

We then headed out to the parking lot toward Sergei’s car ”” a white, rusted 1986 Zhiguli. Sergei opened the trunk. I attempted to help him lift my overloaded suitcase into the trunk, but he refused my services once again.

The drive from the airport to their apartment in the middle of the Ukrainian countryside to downtown Dnepropetrovsk was about 20 minutes. Along the way, I was bombarded with reminders that I was in a whole other world. The Cyrillic lettering was perhaps the most obvious reminder.

Photo by Anna Pavlik

Photo by Anna Pavlik

I also noticed the lack of street signs and ”” more shocking ”” lane markers, a detail that was made more jarring by the free-for-all approach drivers took to the road. Drivers essentially had no choice but to jostle for position and forge their own lanes whenever and wherever they pleased. I couldn’t help but find this to be a striking parallel to Ukrainians’ apparent disdain for forming civilized lines.


Photo by Anna Pavlik

Three-quarters of the drive consisted of countryside, before we even got into the city. Unlike the sprawling suburbs of big American cities, big cities in Ukraine are usually completely surrounded by farmland and quaint roadside villages. City limits are taken a lot more literally. It is much like the desert surrounding Las Vegas.

Dnepropetrovsk is an industrial city in eastern Ukraine of a little over one million people on the mighty Dneper River — the third-largest river in Europe. In fact, the river divides the city into the right bank and more industrial left bank.

Photo by Anna Pavlik

Dnepropetrovsk was also a center of Soviet missile and rocket building. It certainly would have been a prime target of the U.S. if war between the two superpowers erupted. In fact, during the Cold War, Dnepropetrovsk was a closed-city, which meant very little exposure to the outside world. This goes a long way in explaining the general distrust Ukrainian have towards foreigners to this day ”” especially by the older generations.

Today, Dnepropetrovsk is a bustling city, while still facing the same economic problems that defines modern Ukraine. Like most of eastern Ukraine, Dnepropetrovsk has been living in Russia’s shadow since the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a result, the language, culture and customs are aligned with Russia, unlike the more independent-minded western Ukraine, whose primary language is Ukrainian. Mostly Russian is spoken in eastern Ukraine.

When we first entered the city, I was initially struck by the endless rows of Soviet-era apartment buildings.

How does one not get lost here?, I thought to myself. Not that the U.S. isn’t marked by sameness ”” especially in the suburbs, where downtown means any combination of Best Buy, Target, Applebees, McDonald’s, Arby’s and Walgreen’s, Wal-Mart and Kohl’s. In fact, we even passed an occasional McDonald’s ”” bright beacons of capitalism (and a welcome relief when one gets tired of native cuisine).

With the exception of McDonald’s, there were remnants of the Soviet Union everywhere. We passed an enormous, abandoned factory that sprawled several blocks and completely enclosed by a crumbling, concrete wall. During the glory days of the Soviet Union, this particular factory made the very missiles aimed in our general direction during the Cold War.

We also passed several large, rusted above-ground pipes running along the road like an enormous Habitrail from the depths of hell.

We passed by a statue of Lenin, who I mistook for Stalin. Sergei laughed, explaining that all the statues and streets named after Stalin had been removed and renamed.

“Why not Stalin?,”  I innocently asked.

“Because Lenin didn’t murder 60 million people,” Katya said in response. “Although, to many of the older generations ”” nor did Stalin.” 

We finally arrived at the white-gray bricked apartment building that housed the Katya’s family, across the street from the mighty Dneper River.

Unlike so many of the other apartment buildings we had passed, at least this one was a little less depressing, made possible by the fact that it was built much later, but by no means modern by U.S.-standards. However, recently, modern western-style, high-rises have begun to rapidly transforms Dnepropetrovsk’s skyline, despite the ghost of the Soviet Union hovering everywhere you look.

We parked in the building’s courtyard, which contained a few pieces of rusted playground equipment several children were playing on. A group of young boys were kicking around a soccer ball. Twisting through the playground were several of those hideous above ground pipes, marring any potential for anything resembling a scenic view. Two overflowing, foul-smelling garbage dumpsters butted up against the playground didn’t help matters, nor did the stray mutts and cats that roamed freely around the yard like they owned the place.

When we got out of the car, Sergei once again insisted on carrying my luggage, as we headed toward the apartment. Three old babushka women sat on a bench near the entranceway, glaring at me like the women at the airport.

Sergei dragged my luggage up the three crumbling, concrete steps led to the entrance of the building. I once again attempted to give him a hand, but he refused.

“Is there another entrance?,”  I asked.

“No. Why?,”  Katya asked.

“What does somebody do who is in a wheelchair or something?” 

“They don’t leave the apartment,”  she replied ever so matter-of-factly.

“Can’t they build a ramp?,”  I asked.

“For just a small handful of people?”  This was Ukrainian compassion at its finest.

Sergei proceeded to punch in a code on a date keypad that opened the heavy, wooden door, coated in the faded remnants of various stickers that had been posted over the decades.

I struggled to pull the door open for Katya and Sergei, revealing a dark and foreboding stairwell accented by peeling, presumably lead-coated green paint.

As we headed up the stairs, I asked if perhaps we should take the elevator, considering the weight of my luggage.

“Nobody’s legs are broken,”  Sergei said in reply. Fortunately for him, we only had to go up one flight until we reached the apartment. As we stood on the dark landing, Katya rang the doorbell ”” if you want to call it a ring. It sounded more like a chainsaw trying to slice a bell in half. It echoed throughout the bowels of the musty stairwell.

Moments later, footsteps were heard, followed by the rattling of what sounded like a warden’s key chain opening a door. Then a second door. And then finally, the door that we stood in front of, revealing a cozy, warm interior, contrasting with the drab stairwell. We were immediately greeted by the delicious aroma of Ukrainian cuisine emanating from the kitchen.

Photo by Anna Pavlik

Framed by the golden warmth of the apartment was Katya’s mother, Elena, who greeted me with an eager hug, as though I was a long-lost family member. She was wearing an apron – an accessory I rarely saw her without. Unlike Sergei’s powerful demeanor, Elena was a calm foil with a soft voice, typically reserved for when spoken to or when she had a profound observation to make. Although the consummate housewife, she was also a pediatrician who worked at a kindergarten.

We entered the cedar-paneled apartment, adorned with Turkish rugs, on both the hardwood floor and walls.

“Welcome,”  she said in Russian.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you.” 

A tall, slender woman with short hair entered. Taller than Katya, even.

“This is my sister, Nastya,”  Katya said, introducing us.

I offered my hand to her, but Sergei quickly intercepted it, pulling me away from the doorframe from where I stood. I was confused.

“It’s a superstition to shake hands over a threshold,”  Katya proceeded to explain. “But you’re safe now.”  As I quickly discovered, superstitions are as embedded into the culture of Ukraine as vodka.

I proceeded to shake Nastya’s hand. “It is nice to meet you,”  she said in broken English. Like Katya, Nastya also took English lessons, but never quite mastered the language as her little sister had. This is attributed to the fact that she is ten years older than Katya and started taking lessons at the same time Katya did. She also didn’t spend a year in the U.S.

For most of my trip, I rarely saw Nastya after that first night. She was either at the clinic where she worked as an ophthalmologist, or with her boyfriend — Dimitri — who once came by to boastfully show off his BB handgun and fake dog crap.

“Are you hungry?,”  Elena asked.

“I don’t want to trouble you-“

“I’d only be troubled if you didn’t eat.” 

Judging by the satisfying aroma filling my nostrils, I knew she had already gone through the trouble.
She instructed Katya to take me to my room, down at the end of the short hallway. The modest, but comfortable apartment consisted of three bedrooms, a living/dining room, an office, a shower and a toilet (each contained in their own separate room, about the size of a walk-in closet).

“This is your cage,”  she said as we entered her room. I immediately noticed the lack of an essential piece of bedroom furniture: a bed. Then again, a bed would barely fit in a room so small. Where a bed should have been was a small couch.

“You don’t have a bed,”  I pointed out.

She pointed to the couch.

“It turns into a bed.” 

“So what’s with the rugs on the wall?,”  I asked.

“Well, a little known secret about Ukrainian people is that we have the ability to walk on walls. Especially while drinking vodka.” 

I wasn’t sure how to respond.

“Wait. What?” 

“I’m just joking. It’s for insulation, since the heat in this building is a suck.” 

“You mean sucks?” 

“Yes. Sometimes, the heat doesn’t work at all. We’re all at the mercy of the building landlord. If one person in the building doesn’t pay, we all must suffer.” 

A glass display case contained several dolls and toys from her childhood. Directly next to it was an open, screen-less window, overlooking the park and dumpsters below. The modern convenience known as screens apparently had not been introduced to Ukraine.

While passing by the room, Sergei grew concerned as I stared out the window and said something to me in Russian.

“What’s he saying?,”  I asked.

“He said you shouldn’t be looking out the window.” 

“Why?” 

“Somebody might throw something at your eyes.” 

“Seriously?” 

“It does happen sometimes.” 

Photo by Monica Pevzner

I decided to appease Ukrainian paranoia for the first of what would turn out to be many times. It is the same paranoia that has Sergei convinced that his phone line is tapped. Then again, what Ukrainian who lived through the Soviet Union doesn’t?

From the window, I re-directed my attention from the window to her desk, where I took note of several photographs were neatly displayed underneath a sheet of glass on her desk. The remaining photos featured various family members, her grandfather in his World War II military uniform and an black and white photograph of a little girl pulling a sled.

“Is this your mom?” 

She looked. “It’s me!” 

“Then why does it look like it was taken in 1955?” 

“Color photographs were a luxury back then.” 

Katya then left me to my own devices to unpack. I headed over to the window and looked down below. An older man in tattered clothing was digging through a dumpster, occasionally pulling out scraps of food that he eagerly devoured. And I couldn’t help but wonder if that delicious aroma filling reaching my nostrils was reaching his.

Photo by Anna Pavlik

In the next installment: See Bobby experience Ukrainian cuisine … and his first shot of vodka.

Follow Untapped Cities on Twitter and Facebook. Get in touch with the author at www.foxplots.com,   or @BobbyFox7

Due to unforeseen circumstances, Bobby no longer has has any of his photographs from Ukraine. All photos in this article are provided by Anna Pavlik, Nicholas Chelko, Jeremy Welsh and Monica Pevzner from their travels to Ukraine.

Lost Cosmonaut: Love & Vodka in Ukraine

03/09/2012 at 2:03 pm

Posted In Arts & Culture, Ukraine

by bobby fox">bobby fox

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?

Photo by  Anna Pavlik

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.

Photo by  Anna Pavlik

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.

Follow Untapped Cities on Twitter and Facebook. Get in touch with the author at @bobbyfox7  or www.foxplots.com.
Due to unforeseen circumstances, Bobby no longer has has any of his photographs from Ukraine. All photos in this article are provided by Anna Pavlik from her travels to Ukraine.