Contrary to what you hear in the news, the one word I’d use to describe my time in Lviv is “tranquil.” Even though the city is full of activity, it never once felt stressful like the bustling streets of Manhattan that I'm accustomed to. Moreover, my hostel was full of quiet local Ukrainian travelers instead of boisterous, inebriated vacationers I found through much of Europe. People here kept to themselves and few, if any, spoke more than a few words of broken English. Day and night the noise level at the hostel was kept at a minimum, and for the first time on my trip it felt like I was in a person’s home rather than a hostel. At first it was refreshing to not talk to anyone, but within a few days I was eager to chat, and that’s when it hit me…
I really am all alone out here in Ukraine.
In my quest to find someone to talk to, I looked around for a free walking tour. There’s almost always a tour in English and it was my best shot at meeting another English speaker wanting to explore the city, but sadly my efforts were frequently in vain. Thanks to the news circulating about the fighting in the east, there are very few tourists in Lviv right now and consequently the tours here are often cancelled due to low demand. Determined to find new friends, I stood in front of the Lviv Opera House every afternoon hoping a guide would show up. On my fourth attempt I finally found a guide, but he was only there to let everyone know the tour was cancelled for the day. Although disappointed by yet another failed attempt, I did manage to meet another traveler, Nassir, from Los Angeles who was making his was through Ukraine.
At the recommendation of the tour guide, Nassir and I visited a small local restaurant in the center of town. With nothing to really do, we spent the afternoon discussing our lives back home and swapping various travel stories. It was so refreshing to talk to someone freely especially since I didn't have to simplify my language to be understood. We talked for a few hours and wandered around town until we found a small coffee shop on the Armenian street just north Rynok Square in the middle of town. As Nassir and I chatted on the patio, three middle-aged Ukrainian men sat at the table next to us and, overhearing our obvious foreign accents, asked where we were from. I was thrilled to have some talkative locals who spoke decent English join the conversation, but Nassir did not share my enthusiasm and quickly left. I’ll never understand why he departed so abruptly, but I stayed put; moments like these are exactly why I enjoy traveling so much!
At the table sat an engineer named Adrian, a cardiologist named Oles, and a painter who insisted I called him “Fuck Russia” (I never got his real name). As we talked I found out the three of them were childhood friends from Lviv and were in town for the weekend to catch up since they all now live in different cities. The three of them were surprised to hear I was from the US and at first replied sarcastically, “Where is that? I’m not familiar with that country. It’s in Africa somewhere, right?” After a bit of heckling, their first legitimate follow up question to me was, "What the hell are you doing in Ukraine?" They were all happy I was visiting Lviv, but none of them could understand why I chose Ukraine over all the other countries in the world to visit.
We spent the better part of an hour talking about life growing up in Lviv, key phrases I needed to learn in Ukrainian, and (of course) the fighting in the east. After a remarkably insightful discussion peppered with sarcastic/crude jokes, they raised their glasses of whisky to toast my arrival to Ukraine. With a resounding "Za zdorovja" ("good health") we clinked our glasses and I impressed the group with the only other Ukrainian phrase I could remember, "Slava Ukrayini!” ("Glory to Ukraine!") They invited me to come with them to an art gallery where Fuck Russia was showing off some of his artwork, but unfortunately I already made plans to meet up with my old friend from Spain, Izabella, who was also in Lviv! Before I parted ways with my new Ukrainian friends, each of the men gave me their business card and insisted that if I ever needed help while I was in Ukraine to give them a call.
Lviv just keeps getting better and better.
Running into Izabella was a wonderful surprise. We originally met back in Santiago de Compostela, Spain and somehow she came across a photo I’d uploaded of Lviv. Since I scratched off Russia from my travel plans, I figured there was a slim chance I’d ever cross paths with her again and I was thrilled to catch up with her over dinner. I found out after she finished work in Spain she booked a one-way ticket to Lviv at the last minute because she wasn’t ready to return home to Yakutsk. I can sympathize with her as I have the same feeling toward Katy, Texas, but for those of you who don't know, Yakutsk is a small town in the middle of Siberia! If that was my hometown, I’d probably never return.
At least in Katy, Texas it’s warm.
So far on my travels, the majority of backpackers I've met in Europe are young vacationers focused on partying during their few weeks off work. This isn’t to say their travel style is any better or worse than my own, but it was refreshing to once again chat with a fellow like-minded traveler. Compared to me, Izabella is a far more experience traveler and she’s determined to learn as much as she can about the world around her. She’s been all over the Europe and Asia, speaks multiple languages, and is a true long-term traveler who makes it a point to live and work in the cities she visits whenever possible. As Izabella and I sat among the old, dilapidate apartments in downtown Lviv, we reminisced about how long ago Spain felt and everything that’s happened since we last parted ways. It’s amazing to think that Santiago was just two months ago!
My god how much has happened in just those two months!
Ukraine continues to surprise me, and it definitely feels like a very foreign territory. I am very much out of my element here in Lviv, but even with the difficult language barrier, it is possible to find outgoing locals who are willing to talk and share stories. Plus, it always helps if you happen to know other adventurous travelers in the area. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all this, it’s that I should to stop saying "Goodbye" to people I meet on my travels. While the odds are slim that I’ll ever cross paths with them again, if I could meet up with Izabella in Lviv then anything can happen!
It really is a small world.