My ticket on the overnight train to Lviv was for 2nd Class, which was what the guidebook had recommended, but I still wasn’t sure what to expect. The train cars were a faded blue with a gold stripe running horizontally. They apparently ran regular routes because the names of the cities at each end were painted on the side. On this train it said Kiev-Lviv.
My keyboard doesn’t have a Cyrillic option, so I can’t show you exactly what it looked like, but because of the letters used on the train, I know that the city names were written in Russian, not Ukrainian, so I concluded that the cars were pretty old, dating from the Soviet era. “Kiev” is a transliteration from Russian, “Kyiv” is from Ukrainian.
My ticket took me to a compartment with light brown painted walls that had two bunks on each side, one upper, one lower, whose mattresses were covered in a royal blue vinyl and doubled as seats. I was the first passenger to arrive here. There was no indication of assigned bunks, so I chose an upper bunk, put my book bag up there, and climbed up the short ladder to settle in. The bunk had a small light at one end that I could switch on or off. Sheets and a blanket lay folded at one end, no pillow. Making up the bed was a job that belonged to the passenger.
I am compulsively very early for departures, so I settled back to wait an hour (or so) for departure, as usual. At first, there was no one else, then a few people walked by my compartment door, looking for their compartment. As the minutes passed, the number of people increased.
With about a half-hour to go, a woman stopped at my compartment, bringing with her two young girls, maybe five and eight years old, who seemed to be her daughters. They all were wearing cotton dresses printed with small flowers or a plaid in subdued colors, sweaters, white socks and plain leather shoes. The girls were both very clean and their hair was neatly braided. The mother, a nice-looking woman, probably between thirty and thirty-five years old, had a “carry on” sized bag, the kind everyone seemed to use in Ukraine: a dark blue and light purple plaid rectangle made of a woven kind of plastic fiber, about nine inches deep, with two strap-type handles and a zipper to hold it closed. She lifted the bag to the upper bunk.
They smiled at me and I smiled back. We quickly established that I did not speak Ukrainian, for which I tried to indicate an apology, nor did they speak English. The mother seemed sociably apologetic about that, too.
They kept mostly to their side of the language barrier, and I to mine. They played some kind of game and then the mother read to them a while. I read my guidebook. The train struggled into motion. It would be a slow ride – we weren’t scheduled to get to Lviv until morning.
In an hour or two, the daughters changed into pajamas while the mother made their beds. She herself changed into what Americans would recognize as a jogging outfit – loose pants and light jacket or top, both made of velour, a velvet-like fabric. It was an outfit popular in those years before “athleisure” wear. It was looser than casual street wear, but more reserved than a nightgown or pajamas. Then they left the compartment, and I assumed they were making a pre-bedtime restroom visit.
For my part, I made up my bed somewhat awkwardly since my space was a bunk, where I could sit up, but not stand. The train was moving in a rough rhythm and I don’t remember any guard rails. It was an old train. I figured I would sleep in the clothing I had on. Fitting into a book bag for my trip, there was no room for pajamas. I had not thought about these train trips when I packed.
They returned to the compartment, and the girls climbed into their bunks. I climbed down to go to the restroom. I think there were two, one at each end of the car. I had taken off my street shoes and had only socks on my feet. The mother tapped me on the arm. She pointed at my feet. “No,” she said. shaking her head. “No.” She reached down, picked up one of her shoes, and held it up. She said one word, “This.”
I considered a moment, and then climbed up my ladder until I could sit on my bunk and reach my shoes, tucked into the corner. I pushed my feet back into them and tied the laces. The mother was obviously trying to give me advice and the odds were good that I should listen. I hadn’t visited the restroom yet. It turned out that she was absolutely right – water sloshed on the floor, no paper towels, no toilet paper, but at least the toilet flushed and the faucets worked. I held my pants legs up and picked my way across the floor, making mental notes for the next train ride.
I returned to my compartment, smiled and said thank you to the mother. She smiled back, completely understanding my appreciation, and I climbed back into my bunk. I took off my shoes and tucked them back into the corner, being careful to turn the soles against the wall, struggled out of my jeans, then opened my book again as the train continued to rumble slowly through the now-darkness.
In the very early morning sun, we approached Lviv, my second destination in Ukraine. The mother and daughters were up and dressing. I managed getting my pants back on, put on my shoes again, and gathered my things up in order to be ready for departure. Nothing to do but look out of the window to see whatever I could see, and wait. From my upper bunk perch, I could only see the moving pavement of the train station and the occasional person standing on the platform. We finally stopped, there were announcements. I couldn’t understand a word, so I waited for the mother to react. When the mother and daughters left the compartment, I followed, and then I followed the exiting passengers out of the station and onto the station’s sidewalk.
I didn’t have a clue about where to go. I was at the train station in Lviv, and discovery started from there.
According to my guidebook map, the historical center of Lviv was northeast-ish from the train station. I took a guess at where that was based on the sun and my guidebook map. It looked like I should go straight from the station’s main entrance/exit, then head left/north on one of the main avenues. A small victory – I actually ended up where I intended!
It was very early in the morning when we arrived in Lviv. Virtually no businesses were open yet, except a McDonalds near Svobody Avenue. My first task was to find a hotel. I don’t remember making reservations ahead. I was a naive, beginning traveler in so many ways, but I had beginner’s luck during this trip, relied a lot on my guidebook, and most of all, frequently I was helped by Ukrainians.
You don’t see a suitcase in the photo because there wasn’t one. I was often grateful that I had decided to limit my luggage to a rolling book bag from LLBean. It was the smartest decision I had made, pajamas notwithstanding, after I had decided to be part of the OSCE mission. Not having to wrestle with luggage was wonderful.
It has always been hard for me to pass by a book store without stopping in, and Ukraine was no exception. I headed for the bookstore in the photo below, at least, I hoped it was a bookstore because “livres” means “books” in French. It turned out it was. Visiting there was a major turning point in my trip.
When I entered, I was greeted by the store clerk, a woman who looked to be a few years beyond university student. I said I was sorry, I didn’t speak Ukrainian, whereupon she greeted me again in English, and asked what I was looking for. I am looking for a map of Lviv, I said.
She took me over to a table surfaced with shallow bins, where maps were filed, separated by file tabs labeled with region or country, judging by the pictures on the front of the maps. Although by now I recognized the label that said Lviv, Cyrillic was still a mystery to me, so I simply watched as she carefully flipped through the maps in that section. She didn’t speak English easily, so she worked in silence. It was clear that she was looking for something in particular, and when she found it, she pulled it from its bin. “This,” she said. She partially unfolded it, and pointed to the street names.
She was handing me my own personal Rosetta Stone. What she was pointing out on the map, was that the street names were printed in both the Ukrainian Cyrillic alphabet and the Latin alphabet that we use. For the first time, I had a tool that I could use to reliably sound out words written in Cyrillic. So far, I could do that with the Cyrillic letters in “Kyiv” and “Lviv,” but that was a total of five letters. Now, I could transliterate nearly the entire Cyrillic alphabet. I could match Ukrainian street signs to the street names on the map, which I could match to the guidebook’s maps. The guidebook maps, aside from not being as detailed, used the English transliteration in the Latin alphabet for the street names, so I could never be completely sure I had the same street when reading the signs, which were in Cyrillic. It was an incredible leap forward in being able to navigate my way around Ukraine.
It was so kind of her to take the time to do this for me, and I was so grateful. I hope that she understood my thank-yous.
This called for a k-a-phi-e and a pastry while I examined this map more closely. Truthfully, I had picked up the Ukrainian for cafe, based on the phonetics of the letters that looked like English, and the Greek “phi,” which would be a soft sound like “f,” plus, of course, looking through the windows of the cafes. It was pretty obvious.
Less obvious was P-E-C-T-O-P-A-H. If I relied on the same sounds as in English, it would sound like “pect-o-pah,” and who knew what that was? But, using my new map, I could see that some letters that appeared in the Latin alphabet had different sounds when used in the Cyrillic alphabet. “P” was an “r” sound, “H” was an “n” sound, and “C” was an “s” sound. The E, O, and A were close to English, so “PECTOPAH,” when sounded out, became “rest-o-ran,” or “restaurant” in English. And that’s what those buildings were: restaurants, reliably, everywhere in Ukraine that I visited.
The map never helped me actually speak or read Ukrainian in the true sense, of course, but I could read maps, street signs, building signs and – importantly – transportation schedules well enough. The USSR had dissolved in 1989, and Ukraine gained independence in 1991, which sparked a renaissance for the Ukrainian language. Russian was still hanging on in bits and pieces when it came to things like trains and buildings, but was usually close enough for me to understand with the help of my trusty map.
As time went on, I was surprised at how many words that I sounded out were of English origin. “Basketball,” for instance, appeared on a park sign in Cyrillic. Given the context of a park with a paved area and basketball hoops, I could conclude that my translation was correct, a word that had migrated into Ukrainian from English, and then transliterated into Cyrillic. Still, it was piecemeal for me. Most of the words on the sign were Ukrainian, after all. I couldn’t tell you what the sign was saying about basketball. I could sound it out, but it didn’t make words that I understood.
I received kind and generous treatment from Ukrainians, without exception. I was embraced by a young woman (I didn’t get her photo) in front of the Lviv History Museum, who insisted on paying my admission as a way of “welcoming Americans to my country.” At another time, three Ukrainian women helped me carry things from one subway station to another…solely because I was an American. The Ukrainians have long-standing affection for the U.S.
Below are some scenes from Lviv. I was not able to identify where they all were – it’s been sixteen years, after all. You think you’ll remember forever, but you won’t. Remember to label or caption your photos when you travel. It took me a long while to confirm the identity of my photos by using Google maps and Chrome to search, however, I could have avoided having to do that by some timely notes.
Below is the entrance to the Lychakiv Cemetery, “home” to over 200,000 souls, if I recall my original guidebook correctly. The cemetery was laid out in the 18th century over 104 acres (42 hectares,) and graves are tightly spaced. In the latest edition of the Lonely Planet guidebook, which I consulted while putting this blog post together, they noted that there is now a Memorial of Heroes who died in the Russian-Ukrainian War, 2014 – 2020. Sadly, there will probably be additions to this.
In writing this blog post, I researched places and people in Ukraine to confirm my memory. I found that – not surprisingly – some things have changed since I was there. The old train station from 1904 has been renovated, and there are shiny new train cars, though they are still blue with a gold horizontal stripe. I also noted that there are newly developed museums and sights. Revisiting these memories gave birth to a desire to go back to Ukraine and revisit these places with my more-traveled eyes and better camera!
This was the last part of my visit to Lviv. It was a beautiful city, and more European in character than Kyiv, according to my guidebook. I haven’t traveled in much of Europe, so I can’t speak to that, but it did seem “lighter” in atmosphere than Kyiv. It struck me as more relaxed – there were more people outside, visiting parks and shopping, but that could have been due to the weather, also. Even though I was still wearing my coat and scarf, the weather was warming. My next city to visit was Sevastopol, a seaport in the Crimean Peninsula, further still to the south.