So we arrived in Lviv at the apartment of my father’s cousin Maria. Her building was a post-communist remnant that looked like it belonged in New Jack City. Unlike Oleh’s and Olya’s apartment, this apartment did not undergo a lush remodel nor did it have any modern-day amenities. In fact the conditions were a bit unsettling.
With typical Ukrainian hospitality, Maria had cooked a wonderful lunch which we ate at a dining room table which she set up in the living room. I later discovered that the living room was also the bedroom which she shares with her fifteen year old son.
During lunch Olya and her daughter Christine excused themselves in order to use the restroom. When they returned, they seemed a bit horrified and very shortly thereafter, they became anxious to leave. But when we all rose from the table Maria looked at me with great sadness. She saw that I was planning to leave with my friends and that I wasn’t going to visit that rest of the family who lived in the city of Sambir, 75 kilometers from Lviv.
At that very moment I had to make a decision of character – Do I inconvenience my spoiled American comfort and spend a few days in abysmal living conditions in order to meet my family? Or do I go back to four-star living and leave with my friends?
Once I verbalized my decision all the color ran out of Olya’s face and her eleven year-old daughter Christine started to cry. You would think that I just told them that I would be spending the rest of my days serving hard time in Siberia.
What I came to later realize was that their reaction was based on the anxiety they felt in leaving me behind in such dreadful conditions. You see when they went to the bathroom they passed the kitchen which had five stoves that were shared by the five families that lived on that floor. And at the end of the hall was the bathroom, which had five stalls each locked from the outside with a padlock. Across from the bathroom was a washroom with five sinks – no bathtub, no shower.
But at the moment I made the decision, the conditions were not a consideration. The only think that mattered at that moment was look of joy that I brought to Maria’s face and that alone was worth any inconvenience that I would have to endure. Besides I knew that I could handle anything – after all, I did spend all my summers at Plast camp which was hardly lush. I’m outdoorsy, I’m not a prima-donna – well I am now, but I didn’t grow up that way – I know can do this – no problem.
After my friends left, Maria suggested that we go to Lviv Center and visit some of the city’s sites. Before we left however, I decided to go to the toilet. I was taken back. It looked like prison. I began to think about having to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and how I was going to manage. I began to panic a bit. Exhale. Hold it together. I can do this.
The city of Live is truly magnificent. With its renaissance, baroque and classic architecture, it reminds me of Paris. Maria took me to the High Fortress which overlooks the entire city. But although I was captivated by the beauty of the city, my thoughts were dominated my desperate search for a public toilet knowing how bad the conditions were back at her apartment.
We traveled by bus, packed like sardines. Maria explained to me that we would travel on a
similar bus to Sambir where my family lives. I looked at her with dismay. That trip was going to be 75 kilometers and the idea of traveling that distance under these conditions was unthinkable. Panic began to set in again – this time nearly sending my back into spasm from the stress. I could endure the bathroom situation, I could handle all of us sleeping in one tiny room, but travelling on crowded bus for 3 hours, with no toilet on board was just inhumane. I expressed my concern to Maria and told her that I am Ukrainian and therefore can endure suffering, but I am also American and can’t endure that much suffering.
That night I tossed and turned restlessly…BUT AT LEAST I slept through the entire night without having to pee.
Day 9, April 18
I woke up and my prayers were answered. One of my relatives from Sambir is a driver and has a Volkswagen Jetta – he phoned and was on his way to pick us up. No need for the crowded bus – thank the Lord! He told Maria “I will there in 50 minutes.” She reminded him that is was 75 kilometers away but all she heard was the click of the phone hanging up. He was definitely related – anyone who knows my family is fully aware that we all drive fast.
The roads in Ukraine are riddled with pot holes that could sink a Buick. This didn’t slow down my cousin who drove at 80 miles per hour the entire way. He did manage to avoid most of the pot holes even if it meant driving off the road and across the field like the Dukes of Hazzard. Maria and I were in the back seat being thrown from side to side like sausage casing.
We arrived safely at Sambir. The city is small and quaint. When we arrived we went straight to Maria’s sister’s house and had lunch. This was the first time I met anyone in this family yet it felt as though I knew them for years. There were common family traits that made this family seem very familiar – I felt connected.
Two years earlier my Aunt Alex asked if I would send money to help a relative in Ukraine who was having renal failure. I sent that money and while I was in Sambir I had a chance to meet that relative. He and his wife showered me with gifts and their deepest gratitude; they looked at me like I was their messiah. I was deeply moved.
My family brought me to an art gallery and asked me to pick out a painting which they bought for me as a gift. I picked out a painting of Sambir which now hangs in my bedroom. I thought that was most appropriated.
No visit is complete without a stop into the local church. This one was particularly interesting because it was the site of Saint Valentine’s remains. I was told that on February 14th people come from all over to pray for love.
Traveling to Sambir was one of the highlights of my trip. I made strong family connections and bonded deeply with my relatives. That evening, my cousin, the driver drove me back to my friends house in Lutsk which was 175 kilometers away. While in the car he asked me why I didn’t stay longer. I responded honestly – “before today, I really didn’t know that you all exist.”