all things withdrew, as it were, to the root of their being

this never-ending story begins here.

it takes place here:

drohobyc, ukraine. look to the upper middle to find Zaluzhany, the village where my grandfather was born.

ok then.

october 29, 2011

entering the bus lot. far left, bus station building, a work in progress.

looking around the bus lot, we finally decided that maybe one of the actual structures on the left side of the dirt parking lot would be the best place to look for information. there were two, actually, but one of them was very obviously vacant and probably being remodeled. the other building, closer to a shack or trailer, actually, had a lot of signs in the windows, none of which seemed to have anything to do with travel. but, at least it looked like there were people and things in there, so that’s where we started.

well, it turned out to be a food shop, which was good because we thought maybe we should buy some water for the day. all liquids were at one counter, food items at another, and you had to ask for the things you wanted. the purchase turned out to be more confusing than we could have imagined, and the woman resorted to english to ask if we wanted bubbly water or flat. i was impressed, until i realized that that seemed to be the extent of her english. it was disheartening enough that we didn’t even try the other line for snacks. not that i felt like i could eat, anyway. i was getting nervous about what we were doing, now that it was fully upon us.

water in hand, we went back out into the dusty lot and, constantly dodging moving buses, went over to the seemingly-vacant building that seemed to be our only choice. people lounged around below an overhang, near an information window with no one sitting in it. opening the door to one side of the window, we found ourselves in what was going to eventually be a room with multiple ticket windows, but at the moment was a work in progress. stuck in the door by our indecision, we barely had time to decide to leave when a man ran up and asked us our destination.

it seemed that, since the building was under construction and the info window unfinished, the man in charge of information was free range, rushing around the lot, accosting anyone who looked like they needed help. with nothing marking him as a worker, though, we were really confused for a minute, until we realized others were coming up to ask him questions. he also had a stack of official-looking papers in his hand, so we told him the name of the village and he said, “one moment,” and rushed off to help someone else.

unsure of the pecking order, we stood by the door where he had left us until he had helped enough people to come back to us, at which point he checked some of the papers in his hand.  nodding at what he found, he lead us to a corner of the lot from which we could see across the street to the next block over. he pointed and gestured and flailed, and at some point we understood that we had to go to the buses on that side of the street and ask someone there for the bus to zaluzhany. ok.

we left the lot again and crossed the street to a mini-parking lot that ran along the sidewalk and was full of matruszkas. a few buses down the line we found a bus that had our destination listed on the wooden sign in the front window, so we asked the driver if this was the right bus. his answer was vague, but again there was a group of four or five women hanging outside the bus, and one of them took us under her wing and told us it was possible, sure, possible. without a direct yes we were uncertain, but the woman and eventually the driver both said it was possible, sure. at some point we decided that maybe the bus only stopped there when someone wanted to stop there. maybe. we weren’t sure, but that would have to be good enough, so we got on.

it immediately became apparent that it was a 20-seat bus that already had probably 40 people on it, so mom and i were jammed up against the front windshield, standing there, waiting for the bus to move. the woman, who continued to stand outside the bus with her friends, had told mom that it was leaving in 15 minutes or so, but she didn’t offer up that information to me and i didn’t ask, so i assumed that, like every other bus so far, we would go when we were full, which we definitely appeared to be. still, we stood, my back bowed to the shape of the windshield, until my backpack, which i hadn’t thought to take off, shifted the rear view mirror and the driver went nuts.

since we had been speaking Polish with the woman outside, and since my apologies were in Polish, this prompted the driver to go into a tirade, unsuccessfully under his breath, about the stupidity and uselessness of the Polish people as a whole.

he didn’t say much, but what he said was easy to understand, even though it was in ukrainian. I was shocked by his assumption – i’m used to causing minor international incidents, but this was the first time i found myself bringing blame and ignominy on the heads of innocent people. deciding i was used to people thinking americans are stupid, and that there is already enough bad blood between the ukrainians and the Poles, i began to talk, loudly and unnecessarily, in a whole slew of american english.

mom probably thought i was crazy, since i started commenting on the weather and the bus and my bag, all for no reason and in a stupidly loud voice. considering that i had yelled at her the day before for speaking in english, she could have been offended. but i think she understood what i was doing and played along.

i didn’t think about a secondary outcome of this decision, which was that ukraine is somewhat desperate to enter the EU, somewhat eager to show that it is a safe and happy place for tourists of all nationalities. us not being Polish apparently had some effect on the driver, as he calmed his tirade, and didn’t say or do anything when, ten minutes later, mom knocked the rear view mirror off completely.

so, i took the bag off my back, continued to stoop in pain, and waited. and waited, yelling in english, wondering why we weren’t moving.


eventually the driver let out a short command, and we were surprised to learn that the women outside the bus had been standing there so that they wouldn’t have to stoop over the way we just had been for about 10 minutes, because they immediately shoved themselves onto the already packed bus. i ended up crushed even harder against the windshield, practically sitting on the dashboard, my spine twisted and turned in ways i previously thought impossible. mom had it worse, with nothing holding her up aside from all the bodies around her, none of which kept her from obstructing the gearshift on a regular basis, which the driver begrudgingly accepted.

first leg out of drohobyć

i’m unsure which way we turned, as i could only look through the windshield by turning my neck at odd angles, but i know we went down some bumpy roads lined with houses. i had my camera in my hand, mostly because i was so paranoid about someone taking it in the crush, so i managed to take some photos behind me, out the windshield, so that later i could see where we had been. this distraction didn’t last long, though, because after we had been driving for a few minutes we stopped again and let two more people on.

i didn’t think it was possible, but it was. it was around here that mom knocked the rear view mirror off completely, and the driver just threw it on the dashboard and carried on. or maybe that happened after we stopped one more time and let one more passenger on, and everyone, especially the people who had just pushed their way on, groaned.

not bad, for a blind shot behind my back, if you disregard that black mass that is surely the edge of my jacket.

at this point we resembled the most disastrous game of twister ever, and the newest addition, a teenage boy, had to yell out his destination and hand me the money to give to the driver, which i accomplished only by passing through multiple tangles of arms. after that i spent all of my time trying not to accidentally kiss anyone.

we carried on like that for what felt like an hour but was probably only five minutes, and finally stopped at a village, where the teenaged boy who had been last to get on opened the door like a champagne cork.  most of the people got off, including our original helper-lady (mom called her half-an-angel, since she wasn’t too clear about the information she gave us). she did say goodbye as she left, and one of the other women who had been standing with her took the helper mantle upon herself when, a few minutes later, we finally pulled up at Zaluzhany, and she emphatically patted my arm as she gave us directions into town.

actually, the driver,though maintaining a patina of grumpiness by being curt, was also nice enough to give us the same directions, so we had two people pointing and saying “straight ahead – that way,” one still patting my arm, while we climbed, exhausted, from the bus.

our chariot departs

it had probably been twenty or twenty-five minutes, all told, from the minute we got on the bus to the time we got off, but we had spent that time tied in knots, and now we were unsure what to do next. we took a minute to stretch and get our bearings as the bus pulled away, the windows full of staring faces.

we were at a crossroads, of sorts. literally and otherwise. from where we stood after getting off the bus, the road to and from drohobyć lay to our left and right. immediately in front of us was another road that ran straight ahead as far as we could see. it was lined with cottages and houses. that was the direction we had to go in, with no idea what, exactly, we were looking for. two people had gotten off with us, but one went another direction, and the other moved away from us with the great speed of someone who doesn’t want to have to help some stupid americans.

Zaluzhany, with fast-moving bus rider.

i suppose i should stop and say what information we had, aside from the assurance that my grandfather and all of his siblings had been born and had grown up there. my grandfather had a sister who had been sent to siberia after WWII, when the area was becoming ukraine; though the day we arrived at Zaluzhany we were still uncertain as to many of the details, including the why. the story we had heard from my second cousin was that this great aunt of mine, as the train to siberia was pulling out of the L’viv station, had handed her baby out of the window to some ukrainian workers, who had placed this baby in an orphanage. My great aunt had then spent 15-20 years in a labor camp, after which she returned to Zaluzhany and found her baby grown up, living back in the village, and more of a ukrainian than a Pole. shortly after, my great aunt died, and her daughter remained where she was, married, and had her own children, who supposedly still lived in the area.

recognize these kids? they’d be, like, 60 now. no? sheesh. some help you are.

all we had was a photo of this great aunt’s daughter, and her children, with a surname scribbled on the back in my cousin’s handwriting. we had no idea if they were really still there, or if that was still the right name, or if anyone was still alive. we didn’t know where to begin. so we just started walking.

we were walking slowly, as if the answer would just appear to us if we gave it enough time. i assumed there would be a church or a store somewhere along the line, or some other official building that would hopefully be open on a saturday. a modern church came into view, but it didn’t inspire confidence, maybe because it was so shiny and new. a short distance down the road we passed an intersecting road off to the left, and i became distracted by a woman coming down it, leading a small group of cows, prodding them with a switch. i stopped and stared, wondering if maybe we should walk down the side street, or ask the woman with the cows. indecision gripped us, which actually turned out to be lucky.

as we were standing there, staring at cows, and everything else around us, as if we had never seen any of it before, a car pulled up next to us and a woman jumped out of the passenger’s seat. she exchanged some words with the driver, who shortly pulled away again. this woman could see the state we were in and did not hesitate, but marched right over and asked us if she could help. i remember our reaction as being akin to an explosion of relief, which i described in my notes as “ha!! ok!!” my mom asked if she spoke Polish, and she said no, but we were able to understand each other a little. mom told her that her father had been born there and that we were looking for the janusiewicz family.

the woman was immediately on board, though she had never heard that family name in the village before. she asked us questions and we tried to answer. just as we were exhausting our meager amount of information, the woman with the cows reached us and was immediately pulled into the mix. i wish i had gotten a picture of her, as she had a mouth full of gold teeth, and she brandished her cow switch with force as she pondered our photo, and the name janusiewicz. no luck on both counts. i didn’t even think about my camera the whole time, as half my brain was focused on the conversation and the other half was preoccupied with watching her cows go wandering off in all directions.

as we were standing there, a car came down the street towards the direction we had just come from, and the first woman announced that it was her Polish-speaking friend, and he would help. she flagged him down and we went through the process again – picture, surname, etc, but this time mom was able to go into more detail, since the man really did speak Polish. still, no help. later we couldn’t remember if we had mentioned my grandfather’s name, jakub zielonka, at any point; we were just so set on finding out if there were any relatives alive at the time, but it began to seem less and less likely. still, pan michał, the newest arrival, told us there was someone we should talk to. “get in,” he said.

i looked around to see the cow woman wandering off to gather up her herd again, the other woman nodding happily as she pulled herself away, and mom shrugging her shoulders. why not.

so we got into a strange man’s car in the middle of nowhere. he turned it around as we all waved goodbye to the two women who had helped us, and started to drive farther into the village, away from everything we had encountered so far.

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One response to “all things withdrew, as it were, to the root of their being

  1. Ah, getting into strangers cars in foreign lands, babbling in second an third tongues with not a prayer of success beyond blind luck. Jealousy descends upon me.

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