Monday, December 17, 2007

singular taste sensations

There's a cobbler in the same building as the Kosmonaut hostel, and even though he's a complete curmudgeon, his services include reheeling ladies boots with a variety of stilettos.

Eddie once arranged a rubbish pick up at the hostel, and the truck knocked down the heel display. Eddie received a phone call from the receptionist, during which he could hear the cobbler in the background yelling, "Big problem!" No kidding. Based on the number of Ukrainian girls teetering around the cobblestones of Lviv in shocking boots, the guy must have hrynvia spilling from his coffers. How would the ladies find him when his sign is down?

Lviv was all about enjoying daily minutiae. The Kosmonaut lets you do your laundry for free, although due to restricted water supply to central Lviv, it has to be done between 6:00 and 9:00, either in the morning or the evening. I took full advantage. When you're living out of a backpack, having machine washed clothes can become more important than having a square meal. But enjoy the laundry basket high while you can, because it never lasts long; for some reason my trousers manage to get dirty again mere days later. I look down at my cuffs and idly wonder what I walked through to make them look that way.

Sloth is creeping in. Maybe it's because I know the end of these travels is near, and it's making me lose momentum, or maybe it's because the days are short and cold. It's the kind of laziness where I don't even bother buying fruit, because buying a liter of fruit juice and drinking it straight from the carton is way easier. The Kosmonaut is a fairly big hostel, and since staff outnumbered guests, I was motivated mainly to sit around the common room, a slight burning sensation permeating my thighs from my laptop. As sparse as the population was, it was mostly enjoyable company. There were two oddball Americans. One wanted to get rid of some Polish złoty but turned his nose up at my offer of dollars. Another was an student of Russian with a slight air of a serial killer, who had a strange habit of answering questions that were clearly directed at other people and launching into conversation topics that had us all feigning extreme interest at whatever what was directly in front of us, be it or crumbs on the kitchen table or weather report web pages. Thankfully neither of them stuck around very long, leaving me, Iain (my chicken kiev comrade from Kiev), a Dutch guy named Marek who had an obsession with smoked fish, Eddie the hostel owner, and his staff, who were disproportionately young, disproportionately female, disproportionately good looking, and disproportionately helpful, not necessarily in that order.

I caught another sleeper train from Kiev to get to Lviv. There was a Ukrainian guy in my compartment who spoke very little English, which was more than I encountered anywhere outside of the Kiev hostel. He asked me what I was doing in Ukraine, appearing pleasantly perplexed that anyone would be there by choice. I tried to explain in simple phrases. I'm not sure I got the point across, but eventually he declared that he was very happy that I was there. Since there were no dark of the night border crossings and passport checks and sniffy dogs, I had the whole night to snuggle up in my upper berth, being thankful that the violent train lurches always seemed to hurl me into the wall instead of catapulting me out into the compartment. I was so sound asleep in the morning that the porter had to wake me up, gently shaking my knee. I got lost on the way to the hostel, either getting on the wrong tram or getting off the right tram at the wrong stop, and spent a couple of hours first walking around, then hopping a tram to backtrack to the station, realizing I was going away from the train station, hopping on another tram to successfully go back to the train station to start over, and finally got on the right tram and got off at the right stop. By the time I got to the hostel I was feeling like it was time for another nap. However, my circular route gave me not only an impromptu tour of the town, I got a first hand look at the peculiarity that all the tram drivers and ticket sellers were women. Discussing this observation with Eddie later that day, he not only concurred, but made mention of the fact that, no matter how rollicking the ride may be, their hair never moves. Sadly, I was never situated in the tram to be able to observe this. These women aren't to be trifled with, either. Riding a tram with a wonky accordion door that refused to close on its own, the driver began by making demanding announcements over the loudspeaker, which was an oddity in itself, since the trams seem to be at least sixty years old. When did they get loudspeakers? Anyway, some well-intentioned male soul standing by the door made a plucky, yet unsuccessful, effort to get it closed; he was sort of at the wrong angle to strongarm the door into behaving itself. After too much time and at least a couple more loudspeaker announcements had passed, the ticket seller stomped over and in one deft movement, wrenched the door shut with one arm. As Iain observed, she accomplished this with such skill as to suggest that the door had in fact been broken for about six years. I'm not really sure what the point was, though — the door opened and got stuck at each stop, forcing a repeat performance and more annoyed, yet simultaneously ennui-laden announcements from the driver. Ticket Seller was clearly in a league of her own when it came to woman-handling disobedient doors. After her effortless performance, another chap gave it a go and only proved himself a rank amateur in an embarrassing display of lack of arm strength. Not wanting to be volunteered for door duty, at which we would most certainly have failed, Iain and I shuffled away from the door. And if that tram duo weren't enough to leave us with cuddly memories of Lviv public transportation, we were accosted during our final tram ride to the train station by the ticket inspector, who, aside from the Ukrainian, could have stepped into the role of Miss Marple in any Agatha Christie production. Hair flawlessly coiffed, dressed very well indeed, she flashed her badge in her artfully gloved hand and demanded to see our tickets. I love the Lviv tram tickets, because I'm pretty sure they're still using the same batch that was printed in the 50s, but they're close to the consistency of tissue paper and sort of easy to lose. Thankfully both of us had managed to hang onto ours, and she turned her attention to some joy-riding boys, and with little effort, got them to cough up tram fare.

Here's a picture I snapped on the way home from the bania. Other than trams, Lviv has a swarm of minibuses, and this one seems to be powered by something coming from the rooftop tanks.

There's no way to buy groceries in Lviv without crashing into the language barrier, because all the shops in town are of the ilk where everything is in cases or behind the counter, and securing any of them involved interacting with the women (invariably women) behind the counter. I wonder if shops like this are from the good old communist days, when there wasn't several brands of butter to choose from. You just went to the store and bought butter, whatever butter they had, and most likely in a rationed amount. I didn't want butter, but I wanted some snacks and fruit juice, so I squared my shoulders and walked into a shop, expecting the same blank stares, rolled eyeballs, and sighs that I had received at the Kiev train station. But, no such behavior. As small as the shop was, there were at least three women behind the counter, and each had her particular domain that covered about seven feet of space. Getting bread, cheese, and blueberry yogurt from one of them, I shuffled down the display case where another helped with my juice selection, and then the first one rang me up, so to speak, which means she typed the total into a calculator and showed it to me so I knew how much to pay. I quite like the small shop phenomenon of Europe, even if it's just fruit and vegetable stands on the street or spilling out of a small storefront. I think it inspires to better eating; rather than pick up a week's worth of random groceries on the weekend, you just grab exactly what you need for a day on the way home, except without having to navigate huge stores and stand in long lines. This is a particularly good way to buy cookies. Since the temptation of an open pack of cookies is to just keep eating until they're all gone, it can be an unfortunate case if it happens to be a large pack of cookies. All through eastern Europe I've noticed bulk cookie stands, all sorts of cookies in generic cardboard boxes. Kiev had bulk candy kiosks, usually located in the mini malls that line that the underground walkways. Picking up dinner items in a marketplace, Iain discovered the primo cookie lady of Ukraine. Not only were her confectionary delights of premium tastiness, she was scrupulous in measuring them out. The easy way to buy in bulk when you don't speak the language is simply to hand over some amount of money and then point at what you want – I'd like four hryvnia worth of that cookie. We visited Cookie Lady two days in a row, and both times she measured out our order to the cookie, and then topped it off. In fact, all the vendors in the marketplace were meticulous when it came to measures and payment, down to the kopeck on what were already bargain prices. They could easily have rounded up numbers to the nearest hryvnia, but that just didn't seem to be their way. There are plenty of other places who would have looked at us foreigners with money signs in their eyes, but I never got that sense in Ukraine.

Always on the lookout for a good cup of coffee, Eddie directed us to a couple of local cafés. The first, Blue Bottle, we only went to once because they served us unremarkable coffee, but they do have a noteworthy location. Tucked into the very back of a courtyard, no doubt half the people who enter the yard's archway are immediately convinced they are in the wrong spot and back out. You need to walk through yet another small archway all the way to the back, and if you go after dark, you may miss the completely unlit wooden sign. A much better café was Zolotyi Dukat, distinguished by what must have been a twenty page menu of coffee, tea, and bizarre chocolate brews, complete with ingredient lists and creative descriptions. Croatia got kicked off the top hot chocolate spot by a shot-sized cut of dark hot chocolate under a cloud of cream. This wasn't just a creamy cocoa, this was a high percentage of pure melted chocolate. I'm forever spoiled to what dares to call itself hot chocolate in standard American establishments. Not quite as good, but still memorable was the Orange Revolution hot chocolate (the bitterness of reality and the sweetness of liberation, or something like that). Orange and chocolate is one of my favorite flavor combinations, but this wasn't as orangy as it could have been, although it did have bits of candied orange sprinkled on top. That they weren't sinking is a testament to how thick the chocolate was. The coffee drizzled with cream, chocolate, and lemon didn't blend well on the palate, but won points for presentation.

Unexpectedly, the coffee concoction with egg powder and a flotilla of prunes nestled into the cream was a winner, although the cinnamon sprinkled on top slightly overwhelmed the other flavors. Who'd have thunk those flavors married well? Sadly, we only discovered this café two days before leaving, and so didn't have the opportunity to continue drinking our way systematically through the menu. Clearly, I have unfinished business in this town.

Lviv offered more opportunities to sample the finer points of Ukrainian museum management. The Pharmacy Museum is behind the counter of a working pharmacy, and winds through the building, including one display in a room that has no working lights. Getting slightly turned around in the last hallway, we were startled by the sudden appearance of an extremely vexed woman who shoved open the exit door and, in no uncertain terms, ushered us out. The Art Gallery controls the humidity in a delightfully low-tech manner, attaching ceramic vases filled with water to the radiators. The vases even seem to be specially fabricated for this function, being formed to snuggle into the radiator sections. And the Museum of Ethnography and Crafts makes sure no one tampers with the historic clocks by sealing the cases with a piece of string between two wax signet seals. But you'll only discover this if you manage to figure out which of the closed, unmarked doors is concealing said exhibit.

I wish I had more time to stay in Ukraine. I enjoy the language difficulties and communication challenges, and how being a foreigner there can be demanding and the furthest thing from easy. I like how I heard barely any English, or any other recognizable language, spoken on the streets. And although it's probably not really the case, I kind of felt as if I was part of a first wave of travelers to visit, since the visa requirements, at least for Americans, were only recently lifted. There's part of it that still feels like old Eastern Europe, but even so it's rapidly disappearing. I discussed this with Eddie, and we both shared the sad sentiment that we may really not be able to see unspoiled Eastern Europe anymore. But at the same time we felt selfish, because we shouldn't resent the fact that these countries benefit economically from blooming tourism now that Communism is a thing of the past. And speaking of, I'm on my way to the place where it all started to unravel.


DMBY said...

Very jealous of your hot chocolate cafe. It is raining cats and dogs in the Bay right now and that would be a great way to warm up!

cheese skipper said...

i want one now, too. vilnius - zero degrees. this hostel tea isn't quite cutting it.