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The Old Man and the Crook

Posted on March 5, 2010 at 9:13 AM

FALLING OFF THE BANDWAGON, PART 8

Yes friends, this is (give or take) the 8th time I’ve tried to take life and turn it into words. As you can see, I am an epic failure. Or it’s just really difficult to talk about yourself in a way that is funnily self-deprecating while still being ever gracious to your host motherland, Ukraine.

In the intervening months, life went rather like clockwork. It trucked along at a nice, regular pace. To recap:

 

OCTOBER kept busy with Saturday school, probably an English seminar, a Halloween dance party in Kharkov and two weeks of Fall Break in Budapest and Vienna. There was also the overblown imaginary outbreak of the supposedly deadly pig FLU; masks, vaccinations, and all. Totally political and totally hilarious if the kids hadn’t unnecessarily missed weeks of school. Poor little bored guys.

NOVEMBER ate up several weeks of needless Swine Flu quarantine, a Thanksgiving celebration, hanging with the neighbors, preparing for the GRE, taking the GRE, writing grad school entrance essays and arranging the grant for a journalism center in our school.

DECEMBER kicked off with the incredible Balkan Music Festival in Kiev (Gogol Bordello and the No Smoking Orchestra), then a trip home to Minnesota, which was absolutely refreshing and totally necessary. People balked when I said, “I’m going home for the whole month.”

I, on the other hand, rejoiced. It was a time of loving togetherness, incredible foods—notably spring rolls, goat cheese, real wine, the Joelle Goldade menu, pickled green beans—seeing old buddies and my cat and driving in cars and long baths and running water and carpeted floors and English, sweet English. Speaking went without struggle, mishap or hitch.

The only strange thing was a trip to Minneapolis. It reminded me to mourn the old life because it’s never coming back. My girlfriends and I stayed in a hotel and it was weird to stay in a hotel in a city we’d lived in for years; our university city; our college town. Yet there we were, squatting in coffee shops after check-out time.

THE OLD MAN AND THE CROOK

“Don’t get into any trouble!”

“I’ll try not to!”

This was the final exchange between me and many relatives during my trip home. They’d tell me to avoid trouble and I’d reply that I’d try, but you never knew what was on the other guy’s mind.

The reality of this hit me the minute I stepped foot in Ukraine.

“Taxi! Taxi! Taxi!”

Taxi men lined up in front of Boryspil, Ukraine’s biggest airport, hawking rides at ridiculously inflated prices. The average Ukrainian teacher makes about 1,000grn a month. A single taxi ride to Kyiv can cost 300grn.

A taxi man latches himself to me, assuming I’m a foreigner paid in euros or dollars. I explain that I’m a volunteer teacher paid in local currency. He nods and says he’ll knock down the price to 70grn for 10 kilometers. Ridiculous, but not bank robbery. He even shows me his trusty meter.

I get in and we slug through the watery, rutted streets. It’s dark and we’re swerving and splashing and driving on curbs and sidewalks. Finally we arrive at the train station. I thank him and hand him a 100grn bill.

“Not enough,” he says.

“What do you mean?”

“Look at my meter. You see my meter?”

His meter reads 300grn.

“But, but, but,” I sputter.

“Give me your money!”

“Huh?”

“Give me your money!”

“But you said…”

“Where are your dollars?”

“I don’t have any!”

“Where are your euros?”

“I don’t have any!”

I empty my wallet of a pair of 100grn bills.

Sobbing—people expect women to cry here, so when faced with a chance to hold it in or let loose, I always wail—I go to the nearby store in search of an ATM. There isn’t one. The shop ladies hear my plight and chase the man away.

“Everything will be okay,” they say.

“No, it won’t! I have no money for the train.”

But I’d forgotten a couple bills hidden in my bag. I buy a ticket. A young man sees me struggling, so helps to lug the bags, talking about his business as a dentist.

Ukraine! You're not so bad! I think.

Then we get on the train. You can see your breath. The light flickers off and on. Dentist man is still talking when we hear the clamor of rough men voices. The people in our car look back in unison.

It’s a brawl.

Five burly drunk guys are throwing punches and insults and slams. I bury myself deep in my coat. Pretty soon, people are calling the train conductor, demanding him to stop. Then they call the police. Then the conductor starts yelling over the intercom. Nobody actually intervenes though, because they’re a mad tangle of blind drunk men.

Ukraine! What’s wrong with you? I think.

The cops show up. The guys get forced off. I sit for thirty more freezing minutes. When I arrive, I realize I’m wearing ballet flats, carrying two huge suitcases, a phone with no service, a path drifted with snow, and a kilometer to walk.  I panic.

I could leave my bags and explain, I think. Or I could walk for two hours.

I stare at the sky and curse myself for making such a stupid decision to move to such a stupid country where I’m not even doing anything and nobody cares and I’m alone and it sucks and it’s mean and I just want to go home.

That’s when a little old man appears. He is a foot shorter than me. He’s wearing a big padded cap and an old toggle coat and floppy rubber boots. He’s dragging a little red sled.

“Do you need some help?” he asks.

“That’d be nice,” I say.

With a piece of twine, he ties the bags to his sled, wrapping and arranging and securing. He gives me a wink and we’re off.

As we walk through the woods, we talk about the weather, where I’m from, his old work as a veterinarian, and how he used to be the town mayor.

“Watch your step!” he shouts.

“Do you need some help?” I ask.

We make our way carefully. The path is full of black ice and slippery spots. His sled keeps falling into the ditch. We regain balance and keep on. He tells me the history of his tucked-away, woodsy town.

Finally we arrive at my adopted host Mom’s house. She and her five cats welcome us, treating the old man as if he were an old friend. She explains,

“He is the kind of man who loves people and animals. He is unique. Most people, like me, only like animals. But he is so kind to everybody. That’s why he was mayor.”

We sit down at the dining room table, where she has prepared a heaping bowl of cabbage and potato dumplings. It smells like home. Her girlfriends arrive. They criticize the thinness of my socks, push a glass of brandy at me and ask about America.

I eat, drink, explain, and fall asleep with an orange cat on my bed.

 

Ukraine! I think. Ukraine!

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6 Comments

Reply Carla
7:10 PM on March 7, 2010 
What a story! Please save me a copy of the book and I can't wait to see who plays you in the movie!!!!
Reply gramma
10:23 AM on March 8, 2010 
Krist, It was good to see an entry in your blog again. What an amazing young woman you are. I was worrying about you and your trip home. I hope all is going well. Your mom was telling me of the e-mail you received from Ted Conover. There were none of his books in the library, but I will try at Barnes & Noble. I am reading the tragic story [true] of my supervisor's grandparents and 6 family members who were murdered in 1920 near the little town, Turtle Lake, ND. It is written by a local author, Vernon Kane.. Hoping you will hear soon of your acceptance to grad school. Keep us posted.
Love you, Gramma
Reply Brando
5:15 PM on March 8, 2010 
Oh Kristi, what a good story. I miss you. Happy Woman's Day!
Reply Mom and Dad
7:37 PM on March 8, 2010 
Kristi, I am lined up right behind Carla to get your first copy!! The book will be amazing and I love your stories...such life you put into them. Love you lots. Mom
Reply Dad
8:23 PM on March 8, 2010 
Great story Kristi! I enjoy reading your blogs.
Reply Gwendolyn Danfelt-Martin
9:41 AM on March 18, 2010 
Kristi! I've stumbled upon this via our friend Facebook and read a number of your blog posts--thank you.

In "Pitched" are those ideas for books/stories? I want to read all of them but mostly the one about dating/springtime.

If all blogs were as well-written as this, I'd spend more time online. Greetings!
Gwen