When I took my first overnight train from Kiev to Lviv, I was naive–maybe even stupid. No one in my cabin spoke English; I definitely spoke no Ukrainian. I didn’t understand why the bathroom door was locked when the train was stopped. In the morning, I was confused why the train attendant popped into our cabin four times within an hour and chirped at us before we finally rolled in to the Lviv train station at 6am. The cabin was sweltering hot, and I never got the tea that I had paid for.
It had been an experience, but nothing I was keen on reliving. I promised I’d take the day train for the return journey.
That had been a month ago. I was still riding high off the thrill of finding family in the most epic way imaginable. I’d spent the last week meeting/visiting several cousins all across Western Ukraine.
The Motherland Tour had been a much larger success than I’d dreamed. I didn’t want to leave Lviv, but my roommate was meeting me in Germany that week, and she likely would’ve been irritated if I bailed in a brief Facebook message, “Sorry, I’m staying in Ukraine…but have fun alone in Germany!” (and rightfully so).
I stalled as long as possible to visit with my delightful cousins (26 years is a lot of time to make up!), until I had no choice but to take the overnight train. I had to get back to Kiev.
The Ukrainian Train Adventure
I entered the cabin of my train in Lviv, where an older gentleman was curled up on one of the upper cots. He immediately sat up, and began chattering away in Ukrainian.
At this point, I’d had a whopping three weeks of Ukrainian language study under my belt. Definitely not enough for conversation, but I could catch one or two words per sentence. I’d also become quite good at reading hand gestures and facial expressions. (If you ever need a teammate for a game of charades with Ukrainians, I’m your girl!)
Through a combination of my limited Ukrainian and body language-reading abilities, I learned the gentleman was a professor from the city of Ivano-Frankivsk; and for about half an hour, he sat and spoke to me in slow, clear Ukrainian. Through a combination of charades, my bad Ukrainian, and Google Translate, I told him that I worked in television production and was here visiting family. He was delighted, and explained his daughter had a similar career. He eagerly asked me the English word for a few things — which I was surprised to be able to translate. I wondered if I was the first American he’d ever spoken with.
The train stopped to pick up more passengers, and a burly man joined us. He introduced himself, and put a large bottle of Pepsi on the little table, along with another Pepsi bottle filled with water. I thought it was odd that he had tap water, as clean water is still hit-and-miss in eastern Europe. But this was his country, not mine; he knew what he was doing.
With a new person came the same series of questions. Once we’d shared our reasons for going to Kiev, Burly Guy reached into his luggage and pulled out a plastic grocery bag that smelled sweet and wafted scents of DECADENCE. He sat it on the table, and peeled back the aluminum foil to reveal a dozen ham sandwiches. He grabbed one as he gestured for the Professor and I to take one.
The Professor graciously took one and nibbled away, crowing over how cmachno (delicious) it was. Being raised in paranoid America, I couldn’t help but immediately distrust Burly Man’s nice gesture. I could hear never accept food from strangers echoing from my childhood years, but the Professor didn’t seem concerned in the slightest. I’d heard from several sources that the sharing of food and drink is customary; part of the Ukrainian train experience. And perhaps most importantly, my intuition said both Burly and the Professor were harmless. But when you’re a girl traveling alone, sometimes you have to take the extra precaution.
After multiple gestures from Burly and with a little egging on from the Professor, I caved — and the sandwich was just as warm and delicious as the aroma had promised.
Burly reached for the bottle of water on the table, and poured a splash into a glass and handed it to the Professor — who held his hand up in refusal. Wait a minute, I realized with a thrill, that’s vodka, not water!
It didn’t take much for Burly to convince the Professor, and the Professor took the shot — and made a face of disgust afterwards. Burly poured another shot into the glass and passed it over to me.
When in Ukraine, I thought to myself as I took the shot and resolved to relax and savor the experience.
As the train rumbled through the cold and dark Ukrainian countryside, it was cozy in our little compartment. We picked up another Ukrainian man, who was interested in politics and took the conversation to a level I couldn’t pretend to interpret — which the exception of their discussion over the price of bread.
We all slept soundly that night, thanks to the vodka and full stomachs, I imagine. When I awoke in the morning, the train attendant popped in and told us we had an hour before we arrived to Kiev. The heaters had once again been cranked to 80 degrees and it was uncomfortably hot. We sleepily climbed out of our bunks and people alternated going to the bathroom to wash cold water onto their faces. I looked out of the window to see blackness still, landscapes still shrouded in the darkness of night. I rested my head against the window’s metal pane as I waited — ah, refreshingly cool.
After I splashed cold water on my face, I returned to the compartment. While we were gathering our linens, the train attendant popped in two times to ask us if we wanted tea or coffee. He returned again in once more to ask for our sheets, and also to tell us we were arriving in Kiev.
It was then that I realized how far my Ukrainian studies had gotten me. On my first overnight train, I couldn’t understand why the attendant was pestering us so much. But this time, I understood everything he said. I had even been able to socialize a little with three Ukrainians who spoke no English. It wasn’t much — but it was a start, and a lot of progress from where I’d been a month earlier.
Is there any merit to learning the language of the countries you visit? Absolutely. On top of trusting my intuition and being able to read vibes, I knew enough Ukrainian to know what they were talking about, and could even participate at times. My three rigorous weeks attempting to grasp the fundamentals of Ukrainian led to an experience I’ll fondly remember as the night I drank vodka with strangers on the Ukrainian train.