Saturday, 31 March 2012

After getting lost but seeing a pair of hobbies in the afternoon, in the evening i arrived at a village called Michailiki, had a nice meal in a bar-restaurant, then somehow got into conversation with a group of children. A middle-aged gent, who had probably spoken to the staff in the restaurant, came by and asked if i needed a place to stay, at which the children immediately vouched for his good character. Soon afterwards i was being introduced to a pair of slightly drunken fellows in a hostel place for migrant workers, where they put me in my own dormitory, with only a sneaky bread nibbling house mouse for company. In the morning i was taken for a hearty working breakfast at a canteen with the men, one of whom, when i showed him my diary which happened to have a picture, knew of St Thomas More as the author of ‘Utopia’.

   On that day i was thwarted in my efforts to use the internet in Opishnya, as the Telecom place had closed when i arrived. So, partly for communication and partly for time reasons i decided to try to catch a bus to Poltava, though in the end i hitched a ride and paid the driver some petrol money.

   The Battle of Poltava, 1709, is held to mark the end of Swedish imperial ambitions and the beginning of Russian ones. There’s an impressive memorial in the central square of the city, but from Ukrainians generally i detected a definite ambivalence towards this battle – going hand-in-hand with a distrust encountered almost everywhere, towards Muscovites. Interestingly, a sizeable contingent of Cossacks threw in their lot with the Swedes, believing this to be their best hope of securing Ukrainian independence. In more or less fluid form, this connection can be traced back at least as far as the days of Bogdan Khmelnytsky in the mid 17th century, when the Zaporozhian Host sought an alliance with Sweden against Poland. Curiously enough, it appears to be from just around this time that blue and yellow have been associated with the cause of Ukrainian nationalism...

   After dark there was a thunder storm and a downpour, which made it extra great to find a rather down-at-heel, very affordable hotel on the eastern outskirts. On the next day i ventured back into town, had my hair cut and a less felicitous film developed (my photos of Kiev were just like faded soviet-era postcards), and learnt that the Champions’ League final would be a contest between Barcelona and Manchester United. On the way out of Poltava I got lost again and ratty, but eventually had resort to a well-worn track alongside a railway line in order to pin down the main road. Thankfully also, having previously exchanged emails, i made contact from a public phone with a priest in Kharkiv, whose centre for homeless children is supported by Mary’s Meals. He said weekends were busy, so it would be better for me to try to arrive on the morrow (Friday) evening.

   The night i spent in a sub-road drainage tunnel was reminiscent of an edition of ‘Nature Watch’, though i couldn’t ever identify the creature or creatures which repeatedly tried to approach me. On the next day i took the first available bus to Kharkiv, still a good few hours drive away. In wet weather i criss-crossed town by metro in search of my sleeping bag, which i found at the main Post Office, near Metallurg Kharkiv’s giant footballing arena. Sadly then, getting lost once more, i didn’t reach the Church of St Vincent de Paul at the time arranged, and there were more tears. Still, being Friday they knew that i didn’t need to be fed, and i was warmly welcomed by a Polish nun who showed me to a sofa bed in the library, on which i crashed more or less straight out. Well rested, after a visit to the Church i set off early on the following morning, but i was there long enough to take away an impression of a modern and spacious pastoral centre that is a veritable oasis in quite a severely run-down urban landscape.

   On Saturday 7th of May i took a five or six hour train journey from Kharkiv to a town called Berdyansk, on the Sea of Azov, where i’d been told there was a Polish priest, with whom Mary’s Meals was trying to make contact. A taxi took me to his Church of the Nativity of Our Lady, where he turned out to be very tall and gruff, almost a ‘Black Beard’ sea dog buccaneering type. Presenting him with a box of apricot-filled biscuits, he was pleased to learn that a glitch was responsible for the breakdown in communication between him and Mary’s Meals. I was splendidly looked after with full board accommodation, and even asked to stay for a delicious early lunch after Sunday Mass next day. Then it was enjoyable to attend an organ recital by a talented young lady parishioner, before heading north in more rain for a walk of only about 10 kilometres to the junction with the arterial connection to Russia. Here there was little more than a petrol station so, darkness having fallen, i made my way across a field to a derelict former garage. Although neighbourhood dogs were carrying on a rather tiresome ‘bark-a-thon’, i had ear-plugs and felt pleased to lie down in the shelter of this place, just as more rain started falling. However, about half an hour later someone arrived on his motorbike. He remained with the engine running next to the entrance, just a few metres away, for 20 minutes or so – when he started speaking on his mobile phone it was as if he was right beside me. He went away for a while but had left his helmet on the window ledge of the room where i was. I tried to pack up in silence, but the height of disquiet came when he returned and picked up the helmet, before finally driving off. Of course i didn’t know that he would have had any bad intentions towards me, but fear on his part might have made the situation more dangerous, and i would have been completely at his mercy, so i was most grateful to my Guardian Angel, and needed a thorough shake-down. I moved to a room at the back of the building, in which my sleep was recorded as ‘moderate or good’.

My first pair of shoes (only joking)
   The next day, Monday the 9th of May, ‘Victory Day’ in many former soviet republics, in reference to what they call the Great Patriotic War (1941-45), and also the day when Churches East and West* recall the translation of the relics of St Nicholas the Wonderworker from Mira (now Demre, Turkey) to the Italian port of Bari, i took a minibus to Mariyupole, then a coach to Ukraine’s border with the Russian Federation.

*aside from the discrepancy between the Julian and Gregorian calendars.        

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