Faith, Hope, and Love Remain

Alei's adventures in Ukraine

Hiking, & Hippies, & Homestretches, Oh My! August 30, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 10:02 pm

The past month, like my entire service, has been bursting at the seams with sights, surprises, & sap.  It was at times a whirlwind marked by late nights of sleeping in different beds (or more accurately trains & tents) every evening, but with friends like mine & the clock ‘a ticking I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

After stocking up summer with working at camps & playing with visitors, my friends from training & I found ourselves looking at a looming bucket list & a few empty weeks on the calendar.  What to do, what to do?  Ever the problem solvers, Julia, Ashley & I decided to pack our bags yet again & head out on one last cross-country adventure.  With all of our colleagues & kids out of town, spending the few remaining weeks of our summer together seemed like an obvious choice & a fitting way to end what we started simultaneously two (sometimes) short years ago.  We also knew that the adventure would end, appropriately enough, with our Close of Service Conference which sounded all sorts of  final & warranting of a perfect last hurrah beforehand, so off we went.

Julia kicked off the fun with a stopover in scenic Yampil where we lazed away the day playing the instant makeover game online to decide on the perfect haircut for her & then marching over to the $4  salon to get it done.  The stylist proclaimed the results of her new bob “better than Pamela Anderson”, so I think it was a win 🙂  The rest of our time was spent systematically clearing out my refrigerator & doing goofy workouts that are shockingly much more fun when not sweated through solo.

The next morning we started a full day of travel that took us first to Vinnystia where we met up with Ashley, grabbed a quick ice cream, & then boarded our overnight train out west to Kolomiya.  The mission for this leg of the trip was pretty straightforward: climb Mount Hoverla, Ukraine’s tallest peak.  As seasoned PCVs however, we have learned & were reminded yet again that the simplest things sometimes prove impossible in these parts.  Our plan, based on hours of detailed internet research, was to stay at a hostel often gushed about by other volunteers in a small town within a few kilometers of the summit since the actual mountain was tricky to get to without a nearby train station.  Ideally we’d get in early, fight our way up & down the mountain, & then recover with a leisurely stroll around the quaint town known for its Easter Egg museum.  Sadly these plans were shot down within mere moments by the hostel’s friendly owner who politely informed us that the trek would cost upwards of 500 grevs (1/4 of my monthly paycheck, take the entire day, & involve a torrential downpour.

Luckily Ukraine tends to provide a bang-up Plan B & ours included a tour provided by the hostel that featured a hike through the mountains led by an adorable & English-speaking guide, lunch at a little farm nestled in the hills with fresh cheese made on site, a waterfall & a trip to a local artist’s home where we learned about the region’s ancient pottery technique firsthand.  For 1/10 of the price.  Aside from being an incredible way to take in the scenery & get a full-on Carpathian experience, it was also a nice illustration of all the amazing experiences just waiting to be had when we forfeit our grand plans & expectations.  I am notoriously bad at this, but am loving each reminder that comes my way when I finally do let go & hope to tuck this away as a lesson from my service overall.

Another weakness of mine that I’m noticing Ukraine battering on down is my stubborn desire to do what I think is best.  Blame the oldest child syndrome, but my overwhelming tendency is to show that I’m an independent, self-sufficient woman & can do things by my self, thank you very much.  From that perspective I would have been likely to (OK, fine, I did ) prickle under the the hostel owner’s well-intending advice & been tempted to forage on ahead with our plan just to prove that it could be done.  In all honestly it probably could have, but if I hadn’t given way to the idea that possibly someone (not to mention someone who was a native whose livelihood depended on knowing about cool things & ensuring that tourists have a good time) knew better we’d have missed out on an amazing cultural experience & I would have resented what I now know was only an expression of the utmost concern & care displayed by the hostel.  Point Ukraine. On that note if anyone is ever in the area & wants to see Ukrainian hospitality at its finest I wholeheartedly recommend On the Corner Hostel.  From the train station pickup & drop off, to the delicious homemade meals (with real coffee!), to the cozy beds, & comforting conversation we felt like we were cherished guests in someone’s home rather than weary travelers looking to crash for the night.

How’s that for a tangent?  Moving right along, the next morning we had to bid farewell to Julia who was off on an international trip of her own that would include Dracula’s castle in Romania amongst other things.  Meanwhile Ashley & I got to enjoy 13 hours of (daytime) train travel playing cards & trying to imagine what post-PC life will be like  that eventually brought us in to Vinnystia at 10pm.  Normally this would not be ideal, but my teacher friend Olha saved the day again by graciously offering to let us stay at her sister’s apartment while they were on vacation.  I have no idea how I’m going to sufficiently say good-bye, not to mention thank-you to that woman in 79 days.  We met up with our friends Katelin & Kacey & hung out in the city the following day getting ready for our next two bucket list items on the agenda: an overnight train trip with friends & a trip to the beaches of Crimea.

Most trains have the option of platzcart  or koupe seating.  Both have compartments with four benches (two at ground level, two halfway up the wall)  facing each other that extend down the length of the train.  The main difference is that koupe seats are closed off with a door so you only are seeing/hearing/smelling 3 other people, are longer so your (or at least my) feet don’t hang over the edge, & more expensive.  Platzcart is the usual go-to for volunteers since it’s cheaper & feels safer (just try to pull something with a car full of 60 babusias poised & ready to scold), but since there were four of us & we were looking to ride in style & speak English loudly without getting stares we opted to ball out in koupe, & certainly made the most of the experience.  We assembled a full spread of train food including buterbrods (like open face sandwiches), chips, & bevies, & stayed up late blasting our music & plotting ridiculous schemes for the beach.  Good fun with great people.

The next day we got into the main transportation hub around 4, divided & conquered the notoriously stressful bus station, & found ourselves on a 2 hour bus ride taking us deep into the mountains of Crimea at dusk.  Going off of sketchy-at-best directions we found a taxi driver sporting a captain’s hat that understood the name of the beach I was told to say who said he would drive us for 200 grevs.  The other drivers were all quoting 400, so hopping in The Captain’s car seemed like a great idea until it started off-roading deep into the mountains & traversing a rocky trail that we knew we could never trace back especially in the pitch blackness.  We were pretty sure he was going to kill us.  Then just as we were trying to decide who was most equipped to defend us (I have a mean jumpkick, but Kacey had a Swiss Army knife) good old Captain pulled into what it seemed could only be a movie scene with quaint little restaurants, beautiful mountains, a perfect calm sea & tents lining the beach as far as the eye could see.  Our cell phones weren’t working due to the secluded location, but our friends that had arrived earlier that morning just so happened to see us wandering through & were able to lead us to the campsite that we would have never found in the dark alone.  It all really came together almost too perfectly, & by the night’s end we were setting up our sweet camouflage tent on the sand & falling asleep to the crashing waves.

As if the uncharacteristic convenience wasn’t enough to set our beach apart, how’s this for fun- it was a nude beach.  Luckily the nudity was optional as even after 5 days of  being completely immersed I was too much of a child to not laugh every time I saw someone completely naked save for a ridiculously placed accessory (read: foam butt pad or fedora).  So no, I stayed clothed although “clothed” would more accurately be “swim-suited” since the vast majority of my time was spent lying on the beach soaking up the last of the summer sun.  With 12 other volunteers along for the trip we managed to fill our time swimming in the ocean, building rock creations in the sand, making friendship bracelets, having handstand contests, climbing the surrounding mountains, star gazing, attempting to bathe in the sea, belting out guitar-led sing-alongs, & initiating dance-offs accompanied by drum circles.  It really was a magical experience right down to the dolphins that often swam up to shore, & probably as close to being a hippie as I’ll ever get.

Speaking of hippies, as far as descriptive adjectives go even before ‘nakie’ I would have to classify the non-American beach dwellers first & foremost as ridiculously ‘nice’.  They were mostly from Ukraine & Russia, but came from all walks of life, rocked all sorts of dreads & were remarkably friendly despite our presence as an unprepared & seldom quiet group of Americans.  Many of them lived at the beach all summer & lent us their expertise via advice, hot meals, & great company (naked! Yep, still funny).  Overall it was a weird but wonderful experience that I’m pretty positive will fall into the ‘Once in a Lifetime’ category.

By the end of the week we were a little sad to say goodbye to what we were pretty sure was a different world, but the promise of a bathroom not to mention a hot shower propelled us onward to the next stop on our journey.  Ashley, Matt, Chris, Ricardo & I were all from Group 37 (the people who arrived in country in September 2009 with me) & thus needed to get to the conference in Slavske (out west), & we wisely decided to break up our trip into two overnight train rides which gave us a day to kill in Odessa.  Translation: internet, the chance to wash the sand out of places we didn’t even know we had, & falafel.  Quite a winning combination.  Then before we knew it we were boarding the train, playing Ukrainian card games into the night & waking up in our final destination ready to take in some information on a both terrifying & thrilling topic called ‘Life after Peace Corps’.

The conference was designed not only to help us prepare for our departure in 3 short months, but also make us realize what we’ve accomplished over the course of 2 years & appreciate the ways we’ve changed & grown.  Peace Corps put us up in really nice hotels, fed us copiously, & factored in plenty of time for us to mingle & share with those who have gone through the whole experience alongside us.  Our group is so big (97 people) that there really were names & faces I’d never seen, but it was indescribably great to be reunited with the people who have so colored my entire experience & will now & always be a significant part of who I am.  One of my absolute favorite moments was a group hug/huddle with all of my cluster from Morozivka where we laughed our way through descriptions of how we’ve all changed, promised to instate  bi-annual reunions once home & cemented the deal with beautiful crosses (friendship bracelet equivalents?) that Thomas bought for us in Israel.  I’ll never understand how I got so lucky to be a part of this group, but I know for sure that my time here would be a fraction of what it is without them.  Listening to each others’ ridiculous vacation stories, trying to make each other laugh while busting heinous moves on the dance floor, & saying literally anything that comes to mind knowing that we can all take it makes our motley little crew feel like family to me.  If that’s the case then I won the lottery in that department on both sides of the Atlantic & while I just don’t know how that’s fair, I couldn’t feel more blessed.

See, I told you there would be sap.  They also pulled on our heartstrings by giving us a presentation about how to wrap things up in town & say our goodbyes.  Sitting in the conference room trying to fight back the tears as I thought of bidding a horrible, final farewell to my host fam, kids, & colleagues felt all too reminiscent of a time 2 years ago when I was losing the same battle on a couch during our first language class while yearning for home.  How’s that for full circle?

In order to not end this excessively long note on that depressing tone I’ll throw in something that I found quite hilarious from the ‘Superlative’ portion of the event.  The idea was that everyone would make up & email superlatives for their friends so each person would have an accurate but funny title from people who know them well.  The only problem was no one in our cluster sent them in.  Whoops.  As such, I will go down in Group 37 history as ‘Most Likely to Walk Like a Ballerina’ &…here’s the punchline…’Most Stable’.  The ballerina thing I get mostly because of my posture & the fact that I’m usually daydreaming/monologueing/organizing something while walking which I could suppose could add up to a prance of sorts, but stable?  Really?  Honestly as glad as I was that the moniker I feared (Tallest) didn’t make the cut, I eventually began to wonder if  ‘stable’ was suggested as a mean joke since  without you all in my day to day life I feel about as sturdy as holodets (meat jello).  I was reassured that it wasn’t, but still have the sneaking suspicion that whoever sent that email has probably never had a 5 minute conversation with me.  And they’ve definitely never seen me walk on ice.

So there we have it.  Tomorrow is the last day before fall & while I hate to see the edges of the leaves in town starting to change, I couldn’t have asked for a better summer.  I hope yours was just as memorable 🙂

Yet another of my new favorite toys:

Photos by Alei Cook, Aug 28, 2011 – Making the most of our last summer in Ukraine.

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A Ridiculously Long Log of Our Eurotrip August 9, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 6:39 pm

Proceed with caution, this sucker is lengthy.  Really, probably more detailed than anyone other than Ash or I would hope, but we packed so much into just 2 weeks & in the wise words of Aerosmith (gag me) I don’t want to miss a thing.  The Reader’s Digest version would be London was lovely, Paris was pretty but perilous (& its inhabitants pretentious), Auschwitz was affecting, & Krakow was crazy-cool (Thank you for bearing with my alliteration attempts).  The Ukrainian leg of our trip was a surprising highlight for me as well since I got to see some of my favorite people interact & be reminded yet again of how incredibly blessed I am abroad & otherwise.  The company of one Ashley Chamberlain & her hysterical jokes made it all that much more fun & led me to believe that I really like it here when I have someone to talk to/eat chocolate with.  Who knew?  OK, so if you happen to have a schedule to keep feel free to peace out now or scroll to the bottom for a picture slideshow. Otherwise, here goes…

Sunday, July 17

  • Busride to Vinnitsia, train to Kiev, electrychka to Morozivka. 10 hours door to door, but worth it indeed.
  • Fruitlessly studied French in the morning & got waves of realization that I was going to London & Paris w/ Ashley. Almost cried I was so excited.
  • Played with the hamster & watched TV with my host family. Can’t believe how limited our time left together is. Almost cried again.

Monday, July 18

  • Bummed around in Morozivka.
  • Woke up at 9 & had breakfast with the girls.
  • Rode on the back on Yanna’s new moped to go pick berries from the forest. Thought I might die, but a very picturesque village moment nonetheless.
  • I wanted to treat the girls to manicures while their Mom was at work & explained as such. They reluctantly agreed, but then an hour later said there was no time so instead Yanna gave us manicures. Ready to board the plane to the fashion capital of the world with a French manicure completely covered in loose glitter dipped in topcoat.
  • Picked more fruit from the yard to make into juice. Walked to a pond/lake where we swam, sunbathed & enjoyed kvas & sunflower seeds all day.
  • Snijanna said that the manure smell was Morozivka’s Chanel Number 5. Took a summer shower outside.
  • Had dinner with the whole family & then picked cucumbers & peppers my host mom & went on a walk around town.
  • Talked with the girls and my Host Mom about the problems Baba Raya is having with her 3rd husband (first 2 died tragically. I think one fell in front of a train) & discussed how it’s better to wait & pick the right person since forever is such a long time. Talked about adoption & mixed-race babies. Yanna likes mixed races & my host mom not so much but we all agreed that it mostly matters who you fall in love with & not to choose specifically either way. I love them.
  • I think I would like to live in the village during summer if not for that pesky food pushing.

Tuesday, July 19

  • Woke up at 3:30 due 1/3 parts mosquito bite to the face & 2/3 too excited to sleep.
  • My host Mom’s koom (similar to a godmom/bestie) came to pick me up in their car & take me to the airport.
  • I made it all the way through every gate & security point in 15 minutes & used WiFi while drinking a gigantic Costa Coffee.  One guard even talked to me nicely about Peace Corps.
  • Seamless flight in which I almost cried again.  Avoided the in-flight dining meal of potatoes, peas & spam hot dogs.
  • Tried three different ATMs to get Euro as all I had were Hyrivnia.  Discovered that no one buys Hyrivnia.
  • Tried three times in the London train station to do the automatic ticket ordering before realizing that just because they speak English doesn’t mean it’s not a foreign country.
  • Made it to the right station & excitedly walked down the street smiling like a goon.  I don’t think anyone has ever been so excited to see a Subway &/or red phone booths.
  • Arrived at our hostel after an hour of walking to & past the hostel’s other location.
  • Met Ashley & Jen at last, put my stuff down at our former courthouse hostel, & headed back out for London Tower.
  • Laughed at a Yeoman Beefeater’s cheesy jokes & toured thousands of years of English royal history including the spots where Anne Bolelyn & Co lived, died, & were buried.  Amazed by the architecture & sad to rush through the castle.  Did manage to see & pick out our crown jewels of choice.
  • Walked around the city to what we thought was (the very tacky) London Bridge.  Realized later it was the Tower Bridge & the London Bridge is further down but much more boring.
  • Had my first of many Starbucks.  Sugar-free syrup is my best friend.
  • Devoured Chinese food & mix & match trail mix while strolling through Trafalgar Square & Picadilly Circus.
  • Saw Buckingham Palace, the Parliament building (complete with Big Ben), and Windsor Palace all lit up for night.  Stunning movie scenes left & right.
  • Went to bed fat & very happy.

Wednesday, July 20

  • Woke up & booked it bright & early to St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Very reminiscent of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome & every bit as beautiful.  Remembered how much I like audio tours.
  • Made our way back to Trafalgar’s Square in an attempt to buy Phantom of the Opera tickets.  No luck, but we did manage to get seats for Jersey Boys.
  • Continued with churchiness on a tour of Westminster Abbey.  Absolutely loved all of it but was most impressed with the Henry VII Chapel, burial sites of Jane Austen & Captain Cook, & knowledge that we were walking in the exact location of the royal wedding between Wills & Cate.
  • Used our metro passes to get to & from the hostel in time for our theatre date.  This is as good a time as any to comment on how much I like & appreciate London’s clean & organized public transport.  Little did we know that is not the norm & Brits get mad props in my book for their consideration.
  • Saw & swayed along to Jersey Boys.  Absolutely loved it & will certainly be downloading the soundtrack.
  • Savored a plate of spinach for dinner (& have never been happier about it) before crashing back at the hostel.

Thursday, July 21

  • Jen’s flight left early in the morning so Ashley patiently waited & helped as we made yet another fruitless attempt to score Phantom tickets.  No dice, but drowning my sorrows in a long-awaited cup of Greek yogurt helped a lot.
  • Pressed on & made our way to the adorable Kensington neighborhood for a very scenic morning stroll.  The discussion of logistics regarding our new fun life in Austin (hopefully involving a four bedroom house with our friends & a puppy) certainly didn’t hurt.
  • Checked out the Natural History Museum.  Learned a lot about mammals, but mostly were amazed by the building’s intricate & incredible stonework.  I’m not ruling it out as another future residence.
  • Wandered into Harrod’s for what turned out to be a transformational experience in my book.  I thought Marshall Field’s would forever hold my heart, but I think Harrod’s might have shown it up.  Every section was amazing & I felt like I was in a museum as we walked through gigantic rooms artfully filled with everything I wanted to buy.  Mostly chinaware (which is weird), but still.  Decided it may be worth it to marry rich.
  • Had an evening snack in Heaven The Candy Bar where we split white chocolate mochas, a chocolate peanut butter brownie, and a chocolate & hazelnut pastry.  We loitered for well over an hour picking crumbs off of our plates & expressing indignation that should probably be reserved for murderous dictators about the other (insane) customers who didn’t clean their plates.  Although really, that’s an understatement as their plates were maybe halfway finished & I’m pretty sure the cleaning staff was forced to throw away chocolate concoctions that I would happily eat every day for the rest of my life.  I might be holding onto a little resentment, but it was only because the chocolate was just. that. good.
  • Continued our perusing (our total time in store probably neared the 4 hour point) until we were ready to venture outside for my first proper British meal of fish & chips with a toffee apple cider.  Pleasantly surprised by how much I like English food.
  • Went back & packed up for the next day’s departure.

Friday, July 22

  • Enjoyed a daily to-go coffee while waiting in line to buy Chunnel tickets.
  • Wandered around Camden market with its funky stores & miles of lace, neon, & quirky souvenirs.  Wished I wasn’t so lanky so I could wear some of this season’s dresses without flashing my bum (see how British I am?) to unsuspecting passerbys.
  • Found a delightful DIY Indian restaurant/kiosk with the best chutney I can ever remember.  Turns out spicy food + Diet Coke + seats made from old motorcycles + a river view + good company = quite a lovely lunch.
  • Discovered later that we were right in Amy Winehouse’s neighborhood on what turned out to be her last day 😦
  • Grabbed our stuff from the hostel & headed out for a surprisingly short train ride to Paris.
  • Discovered 5 minutes in how complicated our relationship with the City of Light would turn out to be.  We really loved the experience, but Paris is apparently a hater as almost everything that could have gone wrong did starting with the train station “attendant” who saw us having trouble buying Metro tickets, offered to help by giving us the 10 ticket pass that we were trying to buy in exchange for our 20 Euro, & then sent us on our way.  Moments later while standing in a dingy underground station that looked & smelled a lot like what I’ve grown accustomed to in Kiev we discovered that the badge & uniform were a fun costume as he’d really just given us used tickets & taken our money.  Bienvenue a Paris.
  • A little shaken, but optimistic for a better turn of events we got to our hostel only to find that the room we were sharing with 6 people didn’t have anywhere to lock away the months’ worth of valuables that we were toting.  Attempted to switch hostels, but was told it was impossible by our rather snobby front desk worker & were advised to try again in the morning when the manager would be in.
  • Drowned our sorrows at a nearby café where we discovered France’s two redeeming qualities- cheese & chocolate.

Saturday, July 23

  • After spending the previous evening convincing ourselves that we could stick it out despite the lack of security, we found ticks in our beds.  Hashed it out with the new but even less helpful employee who ended up accusing us of bringing the bugs in, refusing to let us cancel the reservation, charging us for two nights even though we only stayed one, & then threatening to report us to the police.  Would have retorted with “Deport me, I dare you” had I remembered any of my French.
  • Cut our losses & booked it to the closest Best Western.
  • Were convinced we made the right choice the moment our heads hit the clean, individual pillows.
  • Headed out with renewed optimism…directly into a huge storm.
  • Trudged through freezing cold rain for about an hour before finding respite at the Louvre.  Wandered around for 4 hours partially lost in the art & partially just lost.  That place is enormous.  Made it to the Mona Lisa before deciding it was clear enough to try our hand outside.
  • Discovered the healing power of a cheese plate yet again, this time with cherry jam thrown in the mix. Were openly mocked for no apparent reason by a few French customers protecting their stellar reputation.
  • Walked all around the city from the Eiffel Tower, to the markets of Rue Cler, to the Champs Elysee & all the way to the Arc de Triomphe.  Very beautiful, but very cold. McDonald’s mini macaroons & hot coffee helped.
  • Called it a night early in order to Skype with the fams.

Sunday, July 24

  • Woke up early for a much need escape out of town to Versailles.
  • Attempted to aide the early wakeup call with coffee from the machine in the subway.  Was given a cup of hot water instead.  Spilled said hot water on my face while trying to warm it.  Did I mention Paris hates us?
  • Were whisked away into the grandeur of the Palace of Versailles.  Definitely a touch over-extravagant, but an incredible piece of history nonetheless.
  • Went for a long & scenic stroll in the gardens imagining what it would be like to actually have a backyard that stretched for miles.
  • Grew an even greater affinity for Marie Antoinette after touring her “quaint” pink & yellow marble summer house.  It really was a teenage girls’/19th century Barbie dream house  & she was a teenage girl, so I’m in the cut-her-some-slack category.  Played a rousing few rounds of the “which would you wear” game as the mansion had an awesome exhibit that compared authentic dresses from the 1800s with modern designers’ (Vivienne Westwood, et al) interpretations of them.
  • More macaroons accompanying the tour around her once fully functioning peasant village.  OK, maybe that was a bit much.
  • Despite having already spent the majority of the day sauntering around the palace & gardens we weren’t quite ready to burst the bubble of a sass-free day away by heading back to Paris, so we stayed in town for a much needed intake of vegetables via a blue cheese salad…delicieux.
  • Eventually & somewhat apprehensively headed back & made a beeline for the Arc de Triomphe.  Felt a little Clark Griswald-ish trying to figure out how to cross the circle traffic intersection (underground, who knew?) but finally made it & climbed to the top for a gorgeous Parisian panoramic.
  • Decided to man up & stay up late to watch the Eiffel Tower all lit up & sparkly.  We’d caught a glimpse of it the previous night while on the metro en route to the hotel & were under the impression that once it was dark (10pm) the tower glittered for the rest of the night.
  • Walked to the Trocadero (pavilion with the best view in town) & spent 2 hours listening to the Native American band (?) that was playing, taking really artistic photographs, & eating chocolate crepes while waiting for the main event.
  • At 11:00 the dazzling lights started up as did a frenzy of photo-taking during the course of which I was punched by a 5 year old standing nearby.  Apparently they start ’em young here when it comes to attitude towards tourists.  I considered flat-tiring him but though better of it (a.k.a. couldn’t find him in the crowd).
  • Were shocked to find that the glitz stopped after exactly 5 minutes.  Thanked our lucky stars that we made it when we did & headed back for some much needed rest.

Monday, July 25

  • Got an early start in an attempt to beat the lines at the Eiffel Tower.
  • Bought a quiche to quell the upset stomach that I thought was hunger-related & then immediately proceeded to drop it on the street.  Luckily Ashley was a good sharer of her chocolate baguette.
  • Bypassed the queuing folks on the ground floor by climbing the 800 some stairs up to the first level & second levels.  Realized I was not just hunger sick & started a mad search for the restroom where again I was reminded that I don’t know French anymore as all I could muster to tell the attendant should I need to cut the line was “I want to throw up” or “I can throw up”.  The plain old verb for “will” eluded me.  Followed through on my threat.  Take a moment & try to think of a toilet with more international germs to hover your face all-too-near.  Yuck.
  • Determined not to let Paris win again & pretty convinced I had no more chocolate products left in my stomach, I decided to ride the elevator up to the top anyways.  Wrong-o on the latter part which is sad in itself but also because I can now no longer say “Never have I ever puked on top of the Eiffel Tower” which just always comes up when we play that game.  Luckily the view was pretty great & the experience hilarious if not disgusting in hindsight.
  • Slowly trudged back down the tower & started to search for Reese Witherspoon after reading that she was in town for her honeymoon.  No luck on the stalking front, but it did lead us through some pretty swanky areas & along the Champs Elysee which we found much more enjoyable in the sunny weather.
  • Headed all the way down to the Isle de Cite, the oldest part of town located on a little island, & did a 2 hour touristy marathon of the jam-packed sites.  I started with the underground prison that was the last stop of many unfortunate players in the French Revolution including little Marie.  Next door was Saint Chappelle which was  a beautiful chapel created to house Jesus’ crown of thorns & made me wish my mom was with me (as always, of course) since the inside walls were completely stained glass.  Quite stunning.   Finally on to Notre Dame with its gargoyles and grandeur but a lot less singing & dancing then Disney led me to believe.  We liked that part of town a lot better & probably could have done with more time there, but we had bags to pack & a train to catch for the next morning’s early flight to Poland.
  • Thought Paris really was going to be the death of us when we saw two burly men walking briskly past in completely unmarked full camo uniforms toting rifles (or some scary looking gun that I don’t know the name of) at the train station.
  • Made it to Beauvais (the town near the airport) @ 10 & decided that we might only have a problem with the city folk after making friends with the drive-through attendant at a fast food place who let us walk through the car lane & then politely chatted us up.
  • Changed our minds when we realized that our slight dining detour meant that it was now too late to get a taxi & we’d have to walk to our hotel in the dark.  Got lost because the maps are oriented backwards in Beauvais (arrogant American, party of one).  Miraculously found a bus (running NOT according to the schedule) that took us to our hotel where we promptly passed out.

Tuesday, July 26

  • Alarm went off at an ungodly hour & we scrambled to get our stuff packed & out the door.  Thought again that we were going to have to stay in France forever as we ran towards the bus that pulled up to the stop while we were a good 100 meters away & caged in the hotel’s ridiculously inconvenient fencing system.  Luckily our awkward attempt at a sprint w/ luggage paid off & we made it with time to spare.
  • Yet another run-in with rude French airline attendants made us happier than ever to say “au revoir” to France.
  • Packed ourselves sardine-style into a bus that literally drove a total of 40 feet to the airplane stairs.  Oh France.
  • Landed safely in Poland & were immediately won over by their fun airport snacks & friendly citizens who guided us to the bus station, helped us buy our tickets to the town that Auschwitz was in, found our train, & told us nicely when to get off despite our language barrier.  We love Poland.
  • Found our way to Auschwitz thanks again to patient Poles listening to me mumbling through Russian.  (The languages are pretty similar, but Polish uses the Latin alphabet instead of the Cyrillic).  For a pretty big tourist draw there were surprisingly no signs or other obvious indicators of where we were, which in retrospect I think is kind of nice.
  • Spent a chilling few hours paying our respects at the concentration camp where over 1.5 million people passed through during Hitler’s reign just for being different.  It was obviously not a “smile & make a peace sign for the camera” kind of excursion, but I would wholeheartedly recommend the experience to anyone.  Certain parts were understandably brutal, but they organized it in a way where only the facts were given without any embellishment or melodramatic music.  It turns out the facts are more than enough.  Ashley noticed & I agree that despite the purpose of the camp’s creation the overall layout & homey brick buildings made it almost haunting yet inviting & neighborhood-esque.  I’m not doing a great job of putting it into words & honestly don’t know that it can be accurately described, but it was a moving & memorable trip that I would sincerely recommend seeing.
  • Sped along in a taxi towards our second close-call of the day for the last evening train to Krakow.
  • The train station just so happened to let us out into a full-out, fluorescently lit, shiny tile floored, glorious mall with 30 minutes before closing time.  Did I mention we really like Poland?  I savored some long-awaited Subway (everything tasted just like it was supposed to!) & crammed in some window shopping before 11 when we headed out into the beautiful streets of Krakow towards our hostel, which turned out to be not bug infested & actually very cool.  Sadly we had another early morning flight because otherwise we both would have loved to see more of Krakow’s many beautiful sights that we passed by in the evening.  Maybe next time.

Wednesday, July 27

  • After spending all our zloty (Polish currency) on more chocolate we were off to Ukraine which sounded surprisingly comforting to me if for no other reason than I’d be able to communicate easily again.  Never thought that day would come almost 2 years ago while sitting in language class with Crapton.
  • Met up with Katelin, Adrian & Jess near the train station for some catching up & ice cream before elbowing our way onto the electrychka to Morozivka.
  • Almost immediately Ash suffered her first drunken-old-man encounter as one stumbled up to her while we were sitting outside & tried to awkwardly kiss her shoulder.  Even more horrifying, she thought he was trying to spit on her & still she played it off way more casually than I’d have been able to.  Molodets.
  • Then she got some firsthand experience with force-feeding, but handled it like a champ, especially when I couldn’t exactly ask if their “vegetarian” borscht was made with animal-based broth so I just had to claim that she didn’t like soup.  Outrage.  They were a little shy, but sweet & it was nice to see them again as well as pass out on the pullout couch that I now call home.

Thursday, July 28

  • With my host mom at work, Ashley & I toured the town for a bit & then took a roundabout way to Kiev under Yanna’s deft guidance (electrychka, to marshrutka, to another marshrutka, to the metro) since the normal train was out of service due to preparation for next summer’s EuroCup event.  Yikes.
  • Yanna accompanied us to St. Sophia’s church & then headed off to school leaving Ashley & I to spend the rest of the day wandering around the city’s many churches & outdoor markets.  Eventually we found stands that sold our favorite licorice as well as pick & choose candy, & ended up having a perfect dinner in the park before heading to the train station.
  • Boarded our overnighter train & headed out at 11pm for Yampil.

Friday, July 29

  • Arrived bright & early at 4:30 where we were jam packed onto a marshrutka to Yampil.  After 5 minutes of waiting for the bus to go while more & more questionably unshowered people pushed their way on I remembered that Ashley can get claustrophobic & panicked about how the next 2 hours would go/if there was any possible way to get out at that point.  Luckily, she was a champ yet again & fought through the 2 hours of sweat & discomfort with a smile.
  • Crashed in my apartment & woke up around noon.
  • Made our way to the bazaar where we just so happened to run in to practically everyone that’s nice to me in town in a row.  Really couldn’t have orchestrated that better had I tried.
  • Ran some errands & then listened to some Bobby Bones (Austin’s radio station morning show that I will soon get the privilege of hearing daily en route to the job that I still need to find) while repacking for the next & final leg of the journey.
  • Were treated to a garden party at Olha’s house with the whole family & were sent on the rest of our walk around town with a bag full of tomatoes & corn for our train travels the next day.  Love them.
  • Pampered ourselves & our poor/disgusting feet after weeks of travel with a foot soak from Yampil’s fancy new Walgreen’s-ish store.  Upgrade!

Saturday, July 30

  • Slept in for a welcome change before loading up our stuff & heading out on the next adventure, destination Baseball Camp.
  • Had an uneventful three hour busride to Vinnitsia made better by our favorite treat, instant coffee packets & bottled water for an almost-Frappuccino.
  • Met up with my friends Kacey & Sarah & bummed around until our 4:00 train where we whipped out the garlic & pepper feasted on our raw tomatoes like true Ukrainians.
  • Got into Khmelnitski around 7 & had a grand reunion with almost all of my training cluster plus some old friends from camp last year.  Hugs & laughter all around.
  • Proceeded to the first & only disco experience for Ms. Chamberlain.  I think we made it count though with spaz dancing galore & she fit right in even requesting a Kanye song or two before the night’s end.

Sunday, July 31

  • Woke up late & headed out to the baseball field for some Championship game action.  It was the same camp that I had done last year so it was nice to see some familiar faces.  Sadly it was also very cold so much of our day was spent seeking out hot coffee to hold.
  • Hung out with my big, mixed group of friends loving seeing how so many paths had crossed & how lucky I was to be a part of it all.
  • Had a little bonfire with the baseball players & counselors before heading to the train station with Julia for our final stop, Odessa.
  • I’m counting 11pm-6am as Sunday since I wasn’t able to sleep on the train’s upright seating.  Oh well, at least I knew my fellow passengers this time.

Monday, August 1

  • Rolled into the hostel rather early & took full advantage of the couch & shower to clean our cold selves up.
  • Made a beeline to the beach as soon as the sun allowed it where we spent the vast majority of the day sprawled out on the sand sleeping & people-watching to our hearts’ content.
  • Got all dolled up & headed out to a kind-of Thai restaurant followed by a night of strolling around Odessa’s scenic downtown area in search of Baskin Robbin’s.  ‘Strolling’ turned into ‘fleeing” a few times when I saw the idiotic street vendors wielding pythons in the park.  Not cool.
  • Eventually met up with more friends sharing an apartment for the weekend for some card games before realizing that the beach & subpar sleeping arrangements the night before left us too tired to disco it up again.
  • Decided it was well worth missing out the moment my head hit the pillow.

Tuesday, August 2

  • More beach fun.  I think a big secret to our travel success is that we tend to favor the exact same temperature (hot) & arrange everything around seeking warmth &/or basking in it.
  • Were eventually joined by other friends but mostly spent the entire day straight lounging on the beach.
  • Ash very graciously treated Julia & I to a delicious Indian food dinner (at a restaurant weirdly enough called London) before we spent her last night in town walking around the downtown area again taking it all in.

Wednesday, August 3

  • Early morning exit 😦  The hostel worked gave us a scare by not actually calling the cab when he said he would, but we made it to the airport on time nonetheless & even managed to talk the airline attendant into grudgingly letting Ashley take her bag as a carry-on.  Goodbyes suck, but thankfully I think this marked the last of the sad trips to the airport as my next flight will be for HOME on November 17 🙂

I can’t believe a) how lucky I am to have experienced all of this b) how great a friend I have in Smash & c) that you are still reading this!  Seriously, I am sick of my voice right now.  You should go eat a cookie (or possibly a macaroon) to reward yourself on making it all the way through.  Thank you very much for your patience & interest.  Here’s a photo slideshow in case your eyes want a break from reading:

Photos by Alei Cook, Aug 9, 2011

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Eurotrip, posted with vodpod