This is my moment of zen. I hesitated to share it with you. In a culture as public and communal as Ukraine, I get territorial about my precious private moments. I took this photo on the coast of the Black Sea, after the rest of my party departed for a nap. It was pretty bold of me to stay behind. I caught more than one disapproving look from my friends as I insisted I would be fine by myself for a few hours. Despite truly enjoying their company, I couldn’t believe the exhalation I had once they disappeared over the hill and I was totally alone. Granted, the beach was packed. A man in a speedo next to me was sunbathing face-up while his naked children built hills of rocks near my head. But they didn’t know me. They didn’t know I was an American. They didn’t know a single thing about me. Freedom. From a town of 8,000 people who routinely tell me what kind of yogurt I like best, where my favorite store is, and what time I usually go to the post office, It was unbelievably refreshing to be anonymous. I kicked up my feet, read Harper’s Magazine, and drank an imported beer. Sweet, sweet solitude never tasted so good.
Parts of the intensely shared life that is my reality are endearing. Sitting at a table that would be uncomfortable for six in America, there are at least 10 people, elbows touching, plates wedged in at all angles. There’s never a question of enough space. Entire families live in single rooms, people sleep in armchairs, you eat standing up, but you never consider inviting less people over. In a teacher’s meeting at school, I searched for where the English faculty had congregated. I shuffled over to the back corner, stepping over the physics department, and giving a cordial nod to the geography teachers. I slipped in next to my three friends. It was halfway through the meeting before I realized we were only using two chairs. Personal space is as scarce as a tortilla chip in Ukraine. But it’s not only the physical that’s compacted, it’s mental and spiritual spaces as well.
Coming home from my favorite corner store, my neighbor called out to me from her balcony. “I have mail for you,” she said. “From Aaaa-merica.” She always sings America, giving it a mystical, cheerful quality that I’ve come to revere. I scamper up the steps, drop off my eggs and bread, and walk into her apartment. “It’s a lot this time,” she says excitedly. “Dance! Dance!” I do a little jig and hand her a souvenir magnet from Crimea. She holds it in her hands like treasure and passes over my stack of mail.
“That one is pictures,” she says pointing to the biggest package which was bulky and heavy. Her grandson Vadik speaks English and read the customs declaration, which was partially honest but purposefully vague. “This one’s from your Riley,” she says winking at me, “and the last one’s not interesting, it’s just work stuff from Washington.” While I’m truly grateful that she picks up my mail when I’m out of town, the unbelievable part is that she not only scrutinizes every envelope, she expects me to open my mail in front of her. If I start to leave or hesitate to rip into them under her watchful eye, she makes small talk about the stamps or the address labels and guesses what she thinks is inside. Despite the fact that opening someone else’s mailbox is a felony back home, I can’t deny her. Although practically blind and completely illiterate in English, she’s just too earnestly interested in my personal correspondence. I give in. She claps her hands together and hums as I tear across the seal. I translate partial phrases, summarize main ideas, and describe the pictures. She holds the letters in her hands and squints with a magnifying glass for any familiar word. “Ukraine!” she cries at a letter from my friend Janice in the package reportedly containing photographs.
I reveal two large bags of contraband Swedish Fish. My absolute favorite candy. I immediately open one and give her a handful. She squeezes one between her thumb and pointer finger. She smells it. She plops it in her mouth. Chew, chew, chew, chew. Swallow. Gasp! “Was that gum?” she asked with concern pointing to her intestines and making an X with her arms. I assure her it is safe to consume, but she goes back to the kitchen and shows me a pack of gum. She shakes her head and points to her stomach. Even though I have a pretty decent Ukrainian vocab, there are still words like digestion and water soluble that I don’t know. I pop four fish into my mouth and chew them up. “Mmmm,” I say. “It’s okay, really. You’re supposed to eat them.” Suspicious yet intrigued, a common emotional combo for her, she extends a small coffee cup for me to fill. “For Vadik,” she says.
My two weeks in the Black Sea came complete with an advanced course in group mentality. Traveling in a group of four, I assumed we would have two rooms of two. Instead we pulled two extra beds into one room. It didn’t save any money. The rate was per person. They just wanted to all be together. All the time. We woke up at the same time and ate the same meals at the same time. If someone bought a bottle of water, the first thing she did was offer it sacrificially to the group. Regardless of the inevitable culture clash of traveling as the solo-American, it was a unforgettable trip. Over wine one night, my 33-year-old friend, a mother and wife, who traveled for the first time without her husband or son told me something I can’t stop smiling about. “I feel that I’m different since you came here” she said. “I feel that I became stronger.” That one comment was worth every shared seat, letter, and drink in Ukraine.