Playing the fool
It started with a phone call last week – a friend was supposed to go to Budapest, and found out when she got to the airport for her flight that the airline had gone bankrupt, so there was no flight (this was at 5 a.m.). In my infinite wisdom, I begged her to come visit me in Kirovograd, if only to get out of her city – in no way was I comparing it to Budapest or her second destination, Prague.
I was finally able to convince her to come on Friday, but not before she made me promise to return to her city with her on Saturday, and go to Odessa on Sunday.
Right now, it is a bit of a challenge to convince me to go anywhere because until just today, the weather was still cold – and I am SO tired of wearing tights, wool socks, and four layers to stay warm. I finally switched to my lighter jacket because I refuse to wear my winter coat anymore (it SHOULD be warm by now!). Therefore, convincing me to leave my little nest with my space heater, especially to go on a train where I was laying in a draft, or to walk around in the cold and rain, well, that was a challenge. Nevertheless, I wanted to spend time with my friend before I leave Ukraine, so I made my deal and she arrived in Kirovograd on Saturday.
The day did not have a promising start – on my way to the train platform to wait for her, a CLEANING WOMAN from the train station came out and stopped me. “Are you waiting for the electrichka to arrive?” she asked. “Yes,” I said. “Well then why don’t you have a ticket?!” she asked. “Because I am waiting for my friend,” I said, “do you have a problem??”
Now, I am not very happy with the fact that I responded to her rudeness with rudeness. But I did not think this woman had any right to be questioning me, in SUCH a rude manner, about why I was there. “No,” she said, “I don’t have a problem, YOU have a problem.” My response? “Bitch”. Yes, I fell back to my English, but again – REALLY? I was the ONLY person she questioned.
Later that day, I found out from a friend that apparently there is a law in Ukraine that you cannot go onto the train platform without a ticket. This is a law I have NEVER seen enforced, in all of my travels and waiting for others to arrive. In addition, it was not a police officer who asked me, it was a cleaning woman from the train station, so in my opinion, not at all a valid interrogation.
Yet when my friend arrived and we started talking, my mood was lifted. We had pizza for lunch, I got a speaking engagement sprung on me (I should know better by now that when there is an opening of a photo exhibit, I will be asked to speak at it), and after I fed her a dinner fit for an American, we went to the skating rink.
All in all, a good day. Back to her city the next day, and on Sunday morning, early in the a.m., we were off to Odessa.
Our first stop in Odessa? McDonald’s, of course! Every American who travels anywhere (and especially in a developing country) knows that McDonald’s has clean bathrooms for public use. Unfortunately, it seems that the Ukrainians who travel have also picked up on this fact, so we had to detour to a second McDonald’s to avoid waiting in an hour-long line, which would have defeated our purpose in going there anyway. Then it was off to run an errand or to, and then to join the crowd who was there to celebrate.
And what a crowd it was! People of all ages and from different cities around Ukraine (and from outside of Ukraine) were there to celebrate this “holiday”. My friend was quite the celebrity there – SEVEN people asked to have their photo taken with her. We got into the spirit – I with a lavender wig and she with a pair of pink bunny ears – and even ran into another Peace Corps Volunteer. We ate cotton candy, popcorn, and she and our “escort” had ice cream. Given that I was cold with four layers on, I felt perhaps ice cream was not the best idea for me. We had our photo taken in front of the opera house, with a Ukrainian “king”, and with the crowd. Then came the parade.
I had not seen any parades in Ukraine – at least not on this scale. There were many thousands of people in Odessa for this celebration. I, being the American that I am, was expecting some sort of barricade for us to stand behind. Imagine my surprise when our escort got to a certain area of the street, said “okay, let’s wait here” and we stood there. In the street. No barricades. Nothing to keep the people off of the street (reminds me of the Kiev marathon, where they also did little to keep people off the street during the race). So how did they control the crowd? Police. Many, many, many policemen (ALL men), who walked along, AS the parade was happening, and pushed us back. Some literally pushed us (yes, I was manhandled, and was NOT happy about it). Between the people pushing me from behind and the police pushing from the front, well, there was a lot of pushing going on.
Because of the police presence, there was not a lot of opportunity to actually see the parade, until what were apparently the “less important” parts of the parade came, because then the police were gone, and I was able to understand why they were there in the first place. People crowded onto the street, nearly blocking the path of the parade. As the parade would pause to wait for the first performers and such, people would jump into the the parade and have their photo taken with the people who were performing.
I looked at my friend and said, “you know, I didn’t think that Ukraine could shock me anymore. I was wrong.”
Of course, I was irritated because all of these people taking their photos without regard for anyone else wanting to take a photo meant that MY photos did not turn out as well as I wanted. I admit, this was also a huge cross-cultural moment, and maybe I did not handle it very well. I am so accustomed to people standing behind the barricades that were put up, and simply watching and enjoying the parade in an American/western way, that this way of doing so was a bit surprising to me.
After the parade, most people stayed to hear the different concerts that were going on. We stayed for a while, sought shelter in a shopping center, then returned outside, and eventually made our way back to the train station to wait for our train. Did I mention that we danced with a clown too?
All in all, it was a good day and I was glad I got to play the fool. It may be a role that I play often, but this time, I was aware and consciously doing so.