Sunday, January 11, 2015

Day 5Ö How cold is cold?

There are many reasons I prefer to do my pilgriming in winter, but that is not to say the colder the better.  I climbed into the mountains in glorious snow - exhilarating, wonderful, picturesque, etc... but on the final day of my push over the Transcarpathians, the snow took a respite from falling, the sky cleared up, and it turned cold.  The little thermometer that hangs from my pack, close enough to my body to capture a smitten of heat, was red only in the bulb.  I don't think I ever saw that before.  No registration at all.  Minus 2Ö C and minus 25 F are the lowest markings on the scales.  The slight headwind made my eyes water, an unfortunate occurrence since, I learned right then, in the blink of an eye, upper and lower lashes freeze together.  Conveniently, so pretty did I find the valley that the unfortunate discomfort was not much of a distraction.  I hope not to lose the mercury into the bulb again on this pilgrimage, or any other.

Over the top in the cold, but down the subsequent slope in the knee-deep fresh snow that fell overnight.  Then the temperature rose to a slushy few degrees above freezing, and everything is cold deep and sopping wet.  Everyone is commenting that it's the whitest Christmas they've seen in a generation.  What luck for me.  At the border with Hungary, having a wide transition zone for the switch from Cyrillic to Latin writing and from Eastern to Central European time, I poised to re-enter the EU in the morning and take two days to walk to the biggest pilgrim shrine in Hungary.

I've got to hand it to the Greco-Catholic priests and sisters of Ukraine, who have taken exceptional care of me, passing me along from one parish to another, from one monastery to another, like no where else I've been.  The world, of course, needs more pilgrims, and I enthusiastically encourage pilgrims to come to Ukraine.  I've struggled somewhat with the language - it's a complicated one grammatically, but breaking the Cyrillic code opens vocabulary pretty quickly.  Nonetheless, English is not widely spoken, despite what people may think, but my other languages have come into play regularly, doh! all except Spanish, which is now my strongest foreign language.  Every evening has been something new - okay, say it all again, but this time in German, now in French, back to Italian... arghh, my head!  Next time, Hungarian...

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Day 45 Merry Second Christmas

Ukraine is a wonderful place to be a pilgrim - well, where isn't? My eye is adjusting to the Cyrillic fonts and Slavic sounds.  The richness of languages is clear in a basic and frequent question I hear nearly every day: Mozhe chai?  It's more than the simple inquiry it would be in English, where we would ask - would you like some tea? - here, the question is Could you do with some tea?  Da, mozhne! is the eager response, yes, I sure could.

Western Ukraine is completely different from the eastern part of the county I pilgrimed through five years ago.  The part that is now sadly torn in an unnecessary dispute, I could not walk through these days - I'd be prevented from entering Crimea entirely, where I spent a wonderful extended holiday season.  Because of the current conflict, the bright blue and yellow of the national flag is present everywhere, freshly painted and raised.  Flags generally fly low on their staffs in deference to those who have been lost in the fighting.  New Year's Eve was subdued.  It's not quite a time of celebration in a nation with internal strife.

What I experienced in the eastern part of the country five years ago was a throw-back to a former time where indoor plumbing, even in grammar schools, is absent, heat comes only from the central woodstove with its ubiquitous cauldron of bottomless borshcht, topped off daily, and the household generally sleep together in one room on mattresses on the floor.  People dress simply, and the kerchiefed babuskas in peasantry garb look exactly like those in century-old photos... but the west of Ukraine - it's clean and tidy Europe, as modern as anywhere.  Young people, even in farming villages, are downright chic in their dress, smart phones, and shopping bags.  Houses are big and richly styled with architectural adornments, and cars are generally late-model, though the occasional Lata beater plugs away.  By my own eyewitness, east and west meet somewhere in the middle of Ukraine where two centuries mingle.   Of course, I found wonderful people when I traveled in the east, but I like it here in the west very much.

I've walked south, staying relatively close to the border with the European Union.  The number of cars with Polish, Czech, and Slovakian license plates reflects the open communication among neighboring countries.  Most villages have a European look and layout about them, with the church prominent in the main square.  For my daily walks, I've been staying largely in the forests and between farm fields, stopping for tea once or twice a day, and seeking hospitality at churches.  One night, Evangelical Christians offered a warm place to sleep, and one night I was taken in by an elderly Orthodox priest and his wife, who frantically scolded me (for my pilgrim efforts) in Russian far beyond my capacity to understand, but who treated me otherwise like a lost kitten, putting some milk in the saucer of potato and rice soup.  For the balance of my days here in Ukraine, I've been coddled by Greco-Catholic nuns and priests, who have all taken such exceptional care of me, I feel like a regular pampered pilgrim.  Though I'm still carrying a shameful surplus of chocolate bars and bonbons, they've been understanding about loading me down with too much food - those kielbasa and butter sandwiches freeze within an hour, I plead, please don't expect me to lug ice around all day, and the giant cans of tuna and sardines...please, I can't even open them, much less eat them in one sitting in their slushy congealed oil.  A hearty breakfast and an evening meal is more than sufficient nourishment.

Validation that I'm still on the Amber Road came in L'viv - a gorgeous gem of a city - when I passed an amber shop in the old part of the city.  A reproduction of an old map hangs prominently in a gilded frame in the window caught my eye as I walked by, so I stopped to look for a moment.  Across the street, at a tony cafe specializing in roasting coffee beans, a barista spied the scallop shell hanging on my backpack.  He tapped on the window and waved me in - the first to recognize the pilgrim symbol - offering me a cup of the finest roast on the house.  One day, he said, if he can get a visa, he'd like to walk to Santiago de Compostela.

A slight westward turn after L'viv, the Transcarpathians rolled in under my feet like a foamy incoming tide.  Every day in Ukraine has greeted me with snow flurries, but my approach to the mountains have coincided with a weather front bearing heavier snows.  The blustering swirls are glorious, the winter wonderland, out of a postcard.  It's Christmas Eve (again) and much more fitting to be standing boot-high in fluffy dry snow than in the dreary mud and rain.  I left some worrying priests in a hilltop monastery shrine as I tramped up through a narrow valley to a small village, then turned to cross a pair of long logs lashed together across a nearly frozen river.  Several hours later, after a peaceful afternoon listening to a pine forest fill with snow, I popped out into another valley where nuns and orphans awaited with hot tea.  Winter pilgriming is great!  I'm rather committed now, up yet another high and snowy valley, spending Christmas Eve with a family this time, delighted to serve the delicacies - 12 by tradition - to the otherwise empty placesetting left at the end of the table.  One more day up the valley - to another awaiting priest - and then the final push over the pass, to come down at the border with Hungary.  Ironically, more heavy snow is in the forecast... with the mountain paths unmarked, I'm a pilgrim with a few winter challenges.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Day 34 ... a Second Crossing of the Bug

... and still no proper time in front of a computer (and a very slow connection yet again)... a quick note:

Days of slogging rain, I arrived in the silent streets of Chelm for Christmas Eve.  In the pattern of history, where there is a hill of note among flat surroundings, it was sure to be of pagan significance.  Where there was a site of pagan significance, there followed a Christian church.  Being close to cultural borders, the church flip-flopped from Orthodox to Catholic to Uniate to Orthodox to Catholic again,   Once it was in Poland, then Lithuania, once in Austria, then in Russia, and again in Poland - the town might have its own passport.

A kind priest in the convent of Carmelite nuns I had stay in in Siemiatcytze arranged for me to be at this church on the hill for Christmas Eve, so the Benedictine nuns were expecting me.  After passing through many family homes in the cold and rainy days leading up to it, I had small snitches of the annual delicacies with unpronounceable names.  I was told daily of the rich tradition of leaving an extra placesetting for an unexpected guest.  In my hours of slogging through the wet forests alone, I built up the anticipation of a grand feast with the nuns, despite it's being an order I know from experience to be otherwise gastronomically frugal, and generally vegetarian.  But, to my utter deflation, Mother Superior, with whom I conversed in Italian, showed me a room in the spacious - nay - cavernous Pilgrim House and left me to my own.  Later in the evening, she offered a small plate of cold foot, typical of the holiday table, it seems, but meager all the same.  Midnight Mass - actually beginning at midnight - was packed and formal, with an unusal (to my eye) military escort of the Baby Jesus in his crib from the altar to the forecourt, just as the rain changed to snow.  I went to sleep and rejoined my pilgrim trail at dawn, as is my routine.

Christmas Day was quiet - too quiet - on the road to the border town.  There was no respite at all from the damp cold.  At least it wasn't raining.  I found a roof and warmth, and a hot cup of coffee, only at the police station, the only place I found where I could sit, after nearly 30 kilometers.  There I got the required help finding my host for the night.  Being Christmas, the second of the three day national holiday break, I phoned a friend who helped with the pre-arrangement, and found myself in a wonderful farmhouse with four generations of a Ukrainian-Polish family, who had hot soup waiting, and began a feast of various kinds of fish, roast pork and a Christmas goose.  Coffee and cakes and cookies followed, all the fare of the season in front of the roaring fire.  Christmas turned warm and friendly after all, re-learning a few Ukrainian words, speaking in German and English, laughing and hugging all.  No points off for the perfunctory Benedictines...

I made the border crossing easily enough, though they don't permit foot travelers either to leave Poland or to enter Ukraine, so I hopped in the car of an understanding businessman and he guided me through the process with ease.  I practiced my new vocabulary.  He bought me a map of Ukraine.  All's well.  I'm off the Schengen clock after 34 days.  I expect to travel through the west of Ukraine for a few weeks, ringing in the New Year in some small farm village, passing through L'viv a few days later, and then celebrating Eastern Christmas in some other small village as I enter the snowy Transcarpathian Mountains.  Because L'viv is the only city I anticipate, finding a computer may be a bit iffy coming up...
   ,,,so Happy New Year! in advance, to all my friends and family, and in particular to my friends the students and teachers at Legacy Preparatory Academy in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA whom I met in September and hope to see again one of these days.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Day 30 The Bug had to be Crossed

The Bug River had to be crossed and what few bridges there are.  Do ferries run in winter?  I asked many people. No one could tell me the answer with certainty, so I played it safe and headed a bit further to a town with a bridge.  I found nuns there and a very helpful young priest, and helpful young women at the tourist department.  With everyone's help, a route was gathered together with the objective of getting me to Chelm by Christmas Eve.  I'm heading toward some Benedictines.

There's been a bit a rain with the temperatures staying a bit above freezing, but my pilgrim spirits aren't dampened in the least.  I only have a few minutes tonight to log on and send out Christmas greetings.  Merry Christmas, everyone!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Day 23 Landscape Art

In any art museum with a section of Northern Rennaissance paintings or even those from impressionist and expressionist periods, look closely at one of the bigger paintings entitled something like Sunset over a Winter Landscape, really close, maybe along the dirt road with patches of glistening mud puddles in the textured lumpy snow, or at the edge between a stand of birch trees and a stubbly frozen harvested field... there I am!  Can you see me?  The painting can be wet-on-wet watercolor or coursely applied oil, but objects blend into each other with indistinct edges.  I've been walking across these rich images for weeks now.  What a happy pilgrim I am!

As I passed from Estonia to Latvia and Latvia to Lithuania, walking along another ribbon of dirt forest roads for hours since seeing the last farmhouse or log home of the foresters, I entered Poland without fanfare.  This is the wonderful flip-side to the Schengen coin many complain about... no official entry points, no need for passport control, just suddenly - or gradually as it seems on foot - the signs marking the protection status of the forest stands are printed in another language and the culture is a bit distinct.  Easy-peasy, stress-free, like crossing state boundaries in the US.  Excluding the transit day in Helsinki, I've entered the fourth country of my pilgrimage in three weeks of walking.

Fun unrolls before me daily, and each day unpredictable.  I opted for historic Kaunas rather than Vilnius for the more direct route.  Each, I've been told, promote their amber past.  I stayed the night outside of Kaunas so that I would enter it in the morning, enjoy it during daylight(ish) hours, and get myself away from the hustle-bustle before dark.

Arriving in a frigid church to ask the priest for hospitality, the issue was put immediately to the covey of elderly churchladies who are the ubiquitous furniture of any church.  I waited a bit anxiously as they clucked and chirped with remarkable animation, pushing the priest away from their huddle, until one tall woman erupted from the scrum came directly toward me and planted great kisses on both of my cheeks.  She 'won' on unenumerated bases and took me to her home for the night's stay and years of bragging rights that would follow.  Her lovely large and immaculately kept house, where she and her day-farmer husband raised three children and host 'camp grandma' for the five grandchildren's summer holidays, struck my eye as more Germanic than Scandinavian influenced.  Blackbread, farm cheese, salami, and sauerkraut came quickly to the table, all the while mumbling and gesturing that my athletic clothing designed for winter sport is woefully inadequate and will lead me surely to the grip of winter.  She pulled great handfuls of dried apple rings from the garlands draped around the kitchen hearth, and knobs of dried ginger and lemon peel, instructing me to put these in hot water whenever I could to drink the tea they produced.  In fact, I later enjoyed snacking on them dried from my pockets as I walked - far more sensible food-for-the-road than anything that freezes.

That was entering Kaunas, an equally amusing pilgrim passage came on the exit of the city... I got as far as the village of Veiveriai before the darkness was fully engulfing, as the helpful and indulging nun at the cathedral office in Kaunas had advised (over tea and chocolate bonbons).  The priest preparing for the evening service had the idea to call over to the school for someone who might speak English or German.  A charming teenaged daughter of the English teacher came before the end of the service and took me back to the school.  There, more charming girls all able to speak English with strong competence - and distinctly in the American dialect, like, ya know... - found something lacking in my backpack and so adorned it with a long plait of dried rushes.  I'm sure to be the envy of pilgrims everywhere.

Much chattering ensued as to where I would spend the night, and in the end, I was advanced to the next village where the priest lived in a large home and spoke a mix of English and German... in the sense that he spoke words from both these languages in the same sentence without specific assignment.  I have this problem with Ukrainian and Russian myself.  There I passed some time sipping hot tea and listening to a delightful historical tale of the village, perhaps with some validity, as the portly priest, who could play the role of Friar Tuck without a visit to makeup or wardrobe, drank bottle after bottle of the local beer.

The name of the village traslates to 'punish' in English and was at one time the edge of Prussia.  Kaunas at this same time was within the tsarist Russian Empire.  Napolean and his troops were on the push eastward and spent the night in the village.  Napolean himself spent the evening chatting away with the village priest in the rectory while the soldiers made themselves comfortable in the church.  Reveling while they were preparing a dinner roasting pigs over the fire, somehow they ended up burning the church to the ground.  Napolean enjoyed the evening as the guest of the priest and so made immediate restitution for the damaged church with the spoils of war from the plundering across Prussia.  The church there today was the one rebuilt by that parish priest with the trunkloads of booty.  I didn't quite spend the night where Napolean did, because the rectory at the time since burnt down and a new one rebuilt much later.  But I slept in a village where Napolean slept... surely that makes me a participant in the village's history.