18 August 2006

studies, marshrutkas, and krakow

It's been a while since a big update. We've been really busy here in L--, and things are about to get busier. I've been having individual tutoring sessions with students from Karen's college as well as from L'viv National University. We're working under the framework of 40 minutes of English and 20 minutes of Ukrainian. I have such sessions almost every day, which is really helping my spoken language come to the surface, giving me quicker access to this most foreign of languages. On my own, I read a lot of Ukr newspapers; I've got myself quite a collections of interesting articles.

It is interesting to read these articles because I find some of the same frustrations I have with the systems in place both in Ukraine and L'viv voiced by citizens of this country. For example: public transportation. We ride marshrutkas--mini vans--around town when we need to get somewhere faster than our feet will carry us. The drivers of these vehicles are, according to our standards, very irresponsible drivers. They veer into oncoming traffic, take turns at improbable speeds, and are either all gas or all brake. All while having 15 people sitting down and another 15 people standing in the narrow aisles of these vehicles. More than once in these vehicles have I been bandied about like a potato in a sack (vigorously shaken). Sometimes I question their credentials, thinking that most of the drivers are probably the boys in school from whom (side note: from learning Ukrainian, I'm really starting to understand how to used whom in my own, native language) nothing is expected until they drop out of school. Later, they attend driving school. Maybe. Lo and behold, in an article written in the L'viv Gazette a week or so ago, citizens and writers are discussing the same issue. They talked about the bad driving, the danger in riding these vehicles (though we're in no more danger here than on a LA freeway with cars nearly caroming off of each other each second), and the general lack of ability the drivers have. They discussed measures to supervise, and if needed, suspend these drivers from work.  In a country that isn't even allowed, on the whole, to fail students out of school, it's nothing more than a lot of hot air. But people are talking about it; they are sharing my frustrations. This is a rather large, and welcome, discovery.

Speaking of Marshrutkas, we took a series of them on our way to the WONDERFUL city of Krakow, in Poland. First we went to the Ukrainian border town of Shehini. There, we walked to the place at the border that you can walk across and met about 1,500 babusyas. We walked past the end of the line, to kind of get our bearings, and we had all 1,500 babusyas screaming at us, "Can't you see the line!" "Can't you see we're waiting." So I played the card my parents sometimes blame foreigners in our country of doing: I pretended I didn't understand them and kept on with what I was doing. My wonderful wife, however, was against this idea and took us to the back of the line. Undeterred, and knowing we'd be in line for literally six or seven hours with all of the babusyas smuggling cigarettes and vodka into Poland if we didn't play our "i'm an American card", I found a gaurd and produced some uber Ukrainian. I told him we were American, new to the whole border thing, American, and that we didn't know where to stand and that we were American. He proceeded to ask me bunch of questions which, I assumed meant he was really interested in the intricacies of my life or he was waiting for a bribe.

During this exchange, I told him we were meeting our friend in Krakow who flew in from the US. Only, up until then, I thought the word from friend who is a girl is "podruha." Turns out, instead, that I was telling the guy I was going to  Krakow with my wife to pick up my girlfriend (like the dateable kind). He laughed. We laughed. He pushed us to the front of the line. Grateful we were, but we still had to wait an hour in the crush of babas who were sending cigarettes across the border. But, 2.5-3 hrs (with the time change) after we left our door in L'viv, we were on a marshrutka, in Poland, to the strain station.

Then we were in Krakow. AMAZING! It's really a must go. We toured the city, soaked up all of the old and nicely preserved churches and buildings, listened to a bugler who, every hour, came out of the main tower of the main church on the main square to blow a tune, only to cut off mid-note after about 45 seconds--signifying a time, back in the day, when Tatars invaded, the tower bugle dude tried to warn the city, and was cut short by a swift moving arrow (though the town, so I heard, was duly warned anyway). The public transportation was amazing in the city--we could find out everything we needed to know from things called "schedules" which are notably absent in Ukraine. People were friendly AND helpful and FRIENDLY and HELPFUL. 

We took two side trips during our time in Krakow. One to the salt mines, very near Krakow. It's an old salt mine that found bored miners carving intricate statues out of the salt rock beneath the surface of the earth. We waited 2.5 hours in line for a 2 hr tour and it was the most unique thing i have every seen. We ended up 400' or so beneath the surface. Down there are churches carved out of salt, statues of famous people (like the Pope and Jesus and Copernicus--not Britney Spears or George bush), kings, and other neat things. We descended 380 steps at the first part of the tour. It was crazy deep, vertigo inspiring stuff.

The second trip was to Auschwitz-Berkenau, about 2 hrs outside of Krakow. This was a huge tour and we didn't have nearly enough time to see, appreciate, or let affect us all of the things that were there. Our tour was almost four hours. We saw all of the things you'd expect. The empty bunkhouse. Gas chambers. Gallows. Memorials to those who lost their lives, written in all of the languages that were spoken there (+English). The monstrosity done there is too massive to fully comprehend, but I walked away not asking how the Nazis could have done this, I was asking how humanity could have done this. Such evil, I feel, could be perpetuated by any human/group of humans. It wasn't unique, unfortunately, to that group of Germans. I hope we, as humans, can carry on the memory of what happened there and not allow it to happen again. (Not completely off page, a man on our tour kept comparing A-B to Guan-Bay.)

So, that's a lot to read. I hope you enjoyed it. We are back in L'viv now, really noticed how far Ukraine got left behind, how far Poland--or parts of Poland--got ahead. Realizing we are here for a real reason. We'll continue to do our best, in ways that are good.


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