A Contrary Journey
with Velvel Zbarzher, Bard
by Jill Culiner
Genre: Nonfiction Biography, History, Travel
Falling snow obscures all. Surely no one will travel in such a blizzard. Even huge, snow-covered stray dogs curl desperately against the walls and doors of the central bus station. Take a look at the rusty mini-buses with threadbare tires in the station yard: those motorized tin cans will never risk ice-covered, potholed roads.
I’m wrong, of course. I’ve spent too much time in places where people are easily upset by weather. This is Ukraine; snow is normal. The unheated can I board joins other cans, cars, horse-drawn carts, and off we go, gliding along as if nothing unusual is going on. Even the driver is not in the least troubled by high drifts. As we slalom merrily, left, right, centre, left, half-spin, centre again, he chats amiably to the woman sitting just behind him. Further obscuring the view, a special metal attachment just above the windscreen allows for his impressive collection of good luck tchotchkele: toy animals—two bears, a bunny, a puppy—a bouncing crucifix, an icon, several splendid sprays of plastic flowers.
Svyniukhy (Svinich) is now called Privetnoye, and it’s some thirty kilometres away. On these bad roads, the trip there will easily take three or four hours, although I’m not certain about much of anything since I’ve also lost my modern road map and I can’t understand anyone anyway. Outside, white hills swell gently, and despite the snowstorm, a heavy mist makes time inconsequential. Perhaps it’s a curtain of sorts, one through which I must pass in search of the past. Yes, the countryside does resemble that of Michigan or Ontario—my grandmother said it would. Still, there’s something else out there, something quite unlike the New Country. Although Stalin ordered the collectivisation of smallholdings and the ploughing up of boundary brush, the traces of long strips, as narrow as the medieval past, are still stamped into the black earth by those long-gone serfs’ toil. Old mud roads are here too, just wide enough for carts and horses, heading toward villages hidden by hills and coppices. And, everywhere you look, those peasant women are there again, drab, bulky, lumbering homeward.
People climb into and out of the tin can at strange places, without dwellings, signs, or indications of any sort. Sometimes we pause in tiny villages with today’s usual jumble: ruined old houses with tin roofs; beautiful wooden terraces ruined by polyvinyl chloride siding; ugly new shops in cement; brick bungalows lacking style and charm but with effective heating; beautifully tended old houses of adobe with small double windows and, sometimes, a sculpted wooden entry. What I wouldn’t give to be invited into a few of those for a gawk.
The driver, exasperated that I speak no Ukrainian, lets me know it, turning, looking at me pointedly, sneering, making snide comments to smirking fellow passengers, all of them flat-faced, blue-eyed folk. Let him have his fun, I don’t mind in the least. I’m taking in the sight of the men and women trudging through the snow with straw baskets containing flapping chickens or heavy sacks. These tree-lined roads, carts and horses, unpaved mud streets, are visions from another time: yes, I have reached the other side of the curtain. What will I find in Svinich? Will I see the inn? Is there still a bench out in front? What about the river?
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