The hills were gently rolling. There were patches of snow in the woods. In the open, the snow had melted and the grass was the yellow of old ivory. Just after it started to become light we crossed a stream and the sound of the train changed, becoming momentarily deeper. While we’d been traveling, I’d grown used to the steady clicking of the rails, the creaking of the car, the slight chatter of the metal parts underneath us.
The water was running green with the melt, faster and higher than normal. I could tell this because the water poured white like thick, twisting cords over and around obstructions. If it had run at that height for a long time the obstructions would have been worn down or carried away and surface wouldn’t have been so turbulent.
We’d left Kiev the night before. We had fallen asleep right after having left and now Ivan, who usually stayed awake taking care of details, checking and rechecking our travel plans a minimum of three times, was still not awake. In Kiev, Natasha, the Intourist guide, had called him Vanya and fussed a little over him, scolding him gently, explaining to me that I never had to worry, that Ivan was known for endlessly checking details, for never letting anything go wrong. He had blushed and looked away but it was easy to see that he was pleased. Now he was asleep in that utterly exhausted way one usually sees only in children. He was sprawled on his back, his mouth open, the muscles in his face loose and relaxed.
During the night, I had wakened when the train stopped at Chop. There was a great deal of coming and going and I thought it might be more soldiers getting on but when I raised the blind and looked out, it was skiers. They were lining up with their equipment before getting onto the train. Daily life goes on, I thought, remembering the displays in the Museum of the great Patriotic War, the tables of medals and letters and personal effects and the pictures of the soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Ivan whispering “Only since Gorbachev. Before that nothing. Not even to ask.” Later, outside the museum, he said “Soon it will be over,” but it wasn’t over yet.
As the skiers were getting onto the train, someone else far away was being shot at or shooting at someone, or lying in a hospital or being buried. It had been like that in the USA during Vietnam and it made people crazy. Soldiers in a fire fight, all around them people being wounded, killed, and then they’d get on a plane and a day later they’d be walking down the street in Dallas or Los Angles or Boston and the war didn’t exist. Everybody was shopping or eating burgers or getting laid or doing drugs. At the same time the soldiers knew their buddies were in the jungle trying to stay alive.
In the first pale light, we passed houses that might have been from my childhood in Manitoba. Wooden houses plastered with mud and whitewashed. When the track was higher than the houses, I saw that woodpiles and outbuildings enclosed a muddy courtyard with chickens and the occasional pig. With the melting snow, the roads had turned to mud. I remembered mud like that in the Interlake, mud clinging to my boots, mud on my mittens, mud underfoot as I slipped and slid. We’d lived like that, before the roads were paved and everyone could afford a car.
Outside a small woods, I saw a father and son who had been cutting hay in a ditch. They’d piled the loose hay into a sheet which lay on the ground, had pulled the four corners together, and, as I watched, the father expertly flipped the load onto his back. The son was carrying two hand sickles. I was glad Ivan was asleep. He wouldn’t have wanted me to see this father and son. He’d be embarrassed. He wants everything to be the best, the newest, the way we did when Formica and polyester were the touchstones of progress.
In Kiev, Ivan had been proudest of the new apartment blocks. The hills had been scraped clear and the red earth looked flayed. The blocks were narrow, anonymous buildings. Beyond the buildings there were untouched hills, hills covered in trees, and then a cluster of houses from old Kiev, houses with tile roofs and patchwork fences and fruit trees. I’d recognized them as surely as if I’d lived in t hem. I’d felt I could get off the streetcar we were riding and walk to them, certain that when I opened a gate and entered a yard and said dobra dene, the face and the hand turned toward me would be a hand and face I knew.
“New homes,” Ivan had said proudly of the apartment blocks. “For the people.” When I asked him about the cutting down of the trees, about the ecology of the area, he looked confused. “We have just started to think about that,” he said. “There is much discussion.”
It doesn’t matter where you go, communist, capitalist, developers are all the same. If you put them in the same room, they’d share all the same complaints, the same problems–councils who made too many restrictions, people who protested change, fools who didn’t understand the need for housing–and they’d discover that they were not enemies but that they had a common enemy, the public, the unappreciative blockheads for whom they were trying to do so much.
Natasha had told me that I was lucky to be going to Uzgorod. The best coffee in the USSR was served there. It was true. The Turks had conquered here and though they were gone, the taste for strong coffee lingered. We drank it in the hotel and it was better than any I had drunk in a long time. I was staying in a hotel which had been built by Finns and Hungarians. My table had a Canadian flag. The first night when we had supper, the Canadian flag was there again. I wondered if it was to warn others off or if it was a matter of pride, an expression of solidarity.
Early in the day, I visited a Pioneer Palace. One of the instructors had lingered in the hall, inviting me to visit him after supper. The three of us, Irena, the president of the committee for foreign visitors, and Ivan and I had strolled through the dark, walking to a concrete apartment like the ones in Kiev. We were met at the doorway by Gregory.
“No lights yet,” he said in Ukrainian and Ivan translated automatically. Gregory opened the outer door. “No glass for windows either.” The windows were covered with pieces of plywood. He clenched his fist as if grasping something. “Peristroika,” he said. “Then we’ll be able to order glass from anywhere we want. No more ordering and waiting. With peristroika we can do anything.”
Gregory’s wife was dressed in pink and his daughter was in a white party dress. On the table were cream filled pastries and a dish of walnuts and a sliced orange. I gave them chocolates I’d brought from Canada. Gregory and his wife were engineers but that was not where their hearts were. His wife was a poet and he was an artist. His art was not well understood, Ivan said. We went to look at Gregory’s art. He made pictures from copper. There were fifteen or twenty pieces on the wall. They were carefully done and beautifully framed. Gregory had thought up the idea himself, made the tools, developed his technique, used his engineering skills to gild the surface with touches of silver. He had become so involved with his art that he’d given up his engineering job and taken a teaching position. Once Peristroika was complete he thought there’d be a chance of tourists coming to Uzgorod and buying his work.
We drank Red Rooster. We made toasts of friendship, of brotherly love. The raspberry liqueur was so strong that it paralyzed my mouth. Gregory’s wife turned off the lights and lit a candle and read her poetry. For once, Ivan didn’t translate. She had a manuscript in front of her but she didn’t need it. She knew her poems by heart. Her voice, passionate, pleading, demanding as the lights on the New Year’s tree glowed and reflected off the gifts underneath. All the time she read, I kept thinking about the copper pictures, the tools and the techniques and the dedication which had produced them and the years it had taken and the fact that all these were known, had been known for years in North America and was regarded not as art but as a craft, a hobby, and when peristroika came to Uzgorod it wouldn’t all be glass or tourists but, perhaps, shock and disappointment.