a cloud of desperate contortions



fireworks on the rynek

i’ve been distracted, i’ve been busy, i’ve been lazy, i’ve been annoyed.  so many reasons i haven’t finished the story that i started here over a year ago, so many possible excuses, all of them real, all of them valid.  the truth is that this year started in quiet desperation, moved on to nighttime panic, soared momentarily to balance and calm before plummeting to mortal terror and heartbreak and oh such a variety of agony.  within the fog of all that, i haven’t been able to make much time to create.

i’m not complaining, really — i have it pretty good.  and most of this is my fault — if you don’t deal with things when you need to, they have a nasty habit of coming back to haunt you.  that’s what happened this year.  so many goddamned nasty chickens came home to roost.

but a few other things happened, too, like realizations about life and what i need and who i want by my side.  another is that my mother came into a LOT of information about our family — information that has derailed, contradicted, or confirmed the many paths of research we have been on all this time — which means that the story i started writing about our trip to ukraine is now expanding beyond this blog’s ability to contain it.  sorry to leave it on a cliffhanger, but i think i should hold back the rest of the story … for now.

consider it a synopsis of a longer work yet to be fully conceived.

another thing’s been going on, too, which is that this blog was started by a newly-expatriated and confused person who wanted nothing but to work through all the shit around her, preferably in writing, in public.  that was the focus here.  recently i’ve realized that this particular name/space/format/whatever does not serve my current purposes.  at the beginning of this past year, suffering from cabin fever, social anxiety, and financial panic, i started a tumblr, so that i could force myself to post SOMEthing, usually small, sometimes eloquent, frequently unneccessary.  i didn’t tell anyone about this site until relatively recently.  it works for me right now.  i really like wordpress, and i like the idea of coming back to a longer-format blog, but for now i’d like to consider this particular blog closed.

if you follow me here, please follow me there.  i will try not to disappoint.

new year’s eve fireworks are exploding all around me as i type these words direct, trying to be as immediate as possible, to let everything fall to the “page” as directly as i can.  when i’m done typing, i’m going over to my desk in the corner, where there is wine, and a giant blank book, and a few projects i need to finish so that i can move on.  it’s time to move on.

2012 was pretty suck.  let’s hold our thumbs for a brighter 2013.

janice flux

PS.  in poland, crossing your fingers means you are lying, even if you’re not hiding them behind your back.  instead, they hold their thumbs in their fists and say “i’m holding my thumbs for you.”

PPS the pictures of the fireworks out of my window are just awful, despite the fact that people are actually setting them off in the street below.  so instead i stole the above photo from this site, like a dirty thief, but one who LOVES giving photo credit (REUTERS/Maciej Swierczynski/Agencja Gazeta/Handout).


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.

We, on the contrary, love its creaking, its resistance, its clumsiness.

this story starts here.  it takes place here:

october 29, 2011

the next morning was rough.

morning through our window

both mom and i had slept horribly, but i think i got a little bit more sleep, even though i was up from 3:30 on, with small amounts of napping occurring somewhere in there.

i think i finally got up a little after 8, though mom had been up for a while, having given up trying anymore. we were ostensibly cranky but possibly goofy. odds were on cranky.

still, we had a few things to eat, left over from the day before. strangely, we had a bunch of cheese, which seemed to keep well in our string of freezing rooms. we also had an apple, and a tomato, and bread. heaven.

breakfast. note asshole space heater in upper left. asshole.

so, breakfast without coffee, and no real idea about where to get any, but still we were heartened by the fact that there was food, and there was sun, and we were about to find out, one way or another, something about our family.

after breakfast, we packed everything up and went down to check out. we had no idea what to expect in the village, whether or not we would find any family members still there, or if we were going to be stuck there for the night one way or another, or what-have-you. we told the kind woman at reception, the same Polish-speaking one from the day before, that we had found the ukrainian name for the village, and her eyes lit up when she heard it. she knew exactly which village we were talking about. it was less than 5 kilometers away. awesome.

she excitedly and eagerly promised to watch our suitcase in case we couldn’t make it back. both of us had backpacks with the most important items in them, so we felt secure in leaving a suitcase full of clothes. we also asked about the possibility of getting one of the more expensive rooms if we did make it back, not wanting to take our chances with weird drafts and screaming/failing lights and dampness. no problem. she told us how to walk to the bus station, though we had a pretty good idea. she also told us to just head towards the market square to get coffee.

our coffee saviour. picture actually taken the 31st.

that last point was a little too vague for my liking, but we headed out, retracing our steps from the previous day, past the car where the seemingly-dead dog had lifted its head to sniff the air for any possibility of food. the dog was gone, but the car was still parked on the grass. vendors were still unpacking their goods for another day of outside sales. the cafe we found was right before the turn to the street that would lead us to the market square, more or less around a long corner from the hotel.

i was too shy to take a picture of the place that day, still awfully shy about stepping on cultural toes or drawing too much attention to us. two days later, i got a shot, before we left town. but still, to paint the scene:

a path cuts through what, in another place, may have been considered a park — green grass on either side, a few trees —snaking outwards from the plaza in front of our hotel. in drohobyć, the path is lined with tables loaded with merchandise. this “park” intersects an ascending cobblestone street; to the right, the rynek; to the left, downhill, more outdoor market. on the corner, doors swung outward invitingly, steep steps down to a cosy basement enclave — three booths to the left, a bar/counter to the right.

outside, by the door, was one table, no chairs. as we approached, two men greeted each other over beers, taking their places on either side of the table, laughing heartily.

it was just after 10 am, but we were the only ones ordering coffees. the place was full of men of varying ages, all of them eating herring in cream and throwing back vodka and beer. the only women there worked behind the counter.

we asked the woman who made our coffees for milk and she wrinkled her brow and shook her head. no, no milk. ok. no problem.


it felt like a victory, but also like the last calm moment before battle, as we sat at one of the booths immediately after it was vacated and stared at our coffees, which were sitting on plastic placemats graced with sunflowers. i had compartmentalized all steps of the trip the day before, but now that we had some semblance of a home base, or at least a hotel with nice people and the reassurance that there were people who would help us, i had stopped and now i had to start again. we were beginning to know our way around. we were safe, but we were also about to throw ourselves to the wolves again. i regretted, for a second, not letting oksana drag us to the bus station the night before. but then i got a flash of memory — fatigue, hunger, the inability to move — and i stopped myself.

we finished our coffees, and after a frantic moment of thinking that i had lost my hat, searching for it under the table and around the small cafe, and then giving up, we were on our way.

(i later found my hat in a completely obvious place in my bag — where i had looked. twice. obviously not closely enough. lack of sleep or stalling? who can say?)

i don't remember what this says, but disney's gonna be pissed.

we wheeled through the outdoor vendors and onto the main drag, passing tables and signs and bulletins, everything demanding my attention. my cyrillic was coming back to me, slowly, so i kept testing myself. now, months later, i look at these signs and i can’t figure out what they say. it comes and goes.

we had also asked the woman at the hotel where the grocery store was, and she told us it was on the way to the bus station. we stopped in for much-needed supplies, and i marveled, on the way out, at the international phenomenon that is the crane machine. i’ve had two ex-boyfriends who were obsessed with crane machines, and last summer, when i drove across the US in too short a time, i documented as many as i could find with a desire to compile them for the ex who is still my friend. now i had a ukrainian machine to add to the pile. my mom watched me taking multiple pictures and thought i must have surely lost my mind.

crane! machine!

across the street were the ruins of a truly stunning building. we wondered about its history as we continued on our way.


the street to the bus station is lined with more outdoor vendors, but these unofficial. no tables with tarps and carefully-laid items here. shoes, clothes, bags, luggage, electronics, etc, placed on pieces of cloth on the ground, or directly on the dirt-rimmed edge of the grass, worn in by years of such activity taking place. we ogled the merchandise but kept walking. one woman stood, serene and official-looking, her coat of fine material, her hair styled like crazy, bracing a fluffy-white puppy in her hands, holding it out slightly, as an offering.

spongebob stuffed animals smiling maniacally from a toy store window. produce. shoes. old ladies sitting on crates. and then, there we were, back at the bus station that had been our first glimpse of drohobyć, from where we had taken the bus whose driver had been the only person to refuse us help.

that had only been the day before. not even 24 hours before. whoah.

i was hoping that this encounter would be more pleasant as we marched onto the grounds and then looked around, confused, wondering where the hell to go.

two or three bars of a chorus, played on a distant piano over and over again

october 28-29, 2011

while there were lights ...

this story begins here.  this post begins here, with all the lights going out.

well, not ALL of the lights went out.

we plugged in the heater that had been provided by the front desk, into the same socket where it had been plugged in before dinner, and the lights ever-so-slowly dimmed. it was strange to attempt to mentally process this with my decimated mind; it was as if some invisible someone had decided that it was too bright in there and i had to figure out who and where that someone was, and how they were doing that. so tired. i watched the lights go out with a sense of wonder, and then confusion when they went out all the way. and then i tried the bathroom light, which still worked.

THAT was when my molasses brain grasped what was happening.

so i stayed in a dark and cold room, watching our stuff, while mom went down the stairs to reception and complained about our lack of illumination. it was a bit of a toss-up, since i could maneuver the stairs easier, but mom could speak more of various languages that, combined, could make some sense to any possible listener in this english-free area of the world. it was a delicate issue, which caused some friction and grumbling. meanwhile i experimented. i plugged the heater into a socket outside the bathroom door and it worked just fine; but the light above it, in the foyer, was out. i pondered imaginary electric schematics created by lunatics until my mom came back with a man we hadn’t seen before.

his reaction to the situation was to remove lightbulbs from various lamps and fixtures around the room and to check them in the light from the bathroom, while i tried to explain that, no, everything was out. i unplugged the heater, plugged it in elsewhere, no function; back to the working socket, function; back to another socket, no function; but he seemed uninterested in my protestations that the lightbulbs were not to blame.

eventually he admitted defeat and motioned to my mom to follow him somewhere. so again, alone in a dark room, fed but still exhausted and annoyed, i gathered our still-unpacked things, retrieved my mom’s computer from it’s hidey-hole, and hopefully waited for someone to return.

new room. slightly better. ready for sleep.

eventually they came back for me and my fears of disappearing moms were vanquished by reality. our hero had set us up in a new room down the hall, on the other side of the creepy lounge. this was apparently the “slightly nicer” wing of the hotel. “slightly nicer” means the room had a begonia on the window sill. mom mentioned that the bathroom was nicer, but i didn’t tell her about the rusted and bloody razorblade i found on the small shelf above the sink; instead i wrapped it in toilet paper and threw it away.

we crossed our fingers as we plugged in the heater, but the lights didn’t even flicker. finally, we were able to settle in a little, to plan for the next day, and get some sleep.

it was 9 pm and almost twelve hours ago we had been arriving in przemyśl.

our plan was to wake up when we woke up, have some of the bread and tomato left over from our travel food, which we had been too stressed and adrenalized to remember about until then, and then just to head to the bus station and see what happened.

with that, mom went to sleep. i was reading, relaxing, trying to get comfortable on beds made of two lumpy mattresses, when suddenly the heater did something strange.

it wasn’t quite warm enough for my liking when it sounded like the internal fan on the heater threw a ball bearing, or was somehow jammed with a stick wielded by the same invisible someone that had dimmed the lights in our other room. a high-pitched whine emanated from the appliance that was quickly becoming my nemesis. still, i didn’t deem it worthy to get up and turn it off until, suddenly, the overhead light started … growling. i can’t think of a better word for it. the lights and the appliances were ganging up to threaten our very lives.

i have a fear of fire, bred in me from before my birth when my mom, pregnant with me, lost everything she owned in a house fire that had been set by my father for the insurance money.

for reals.

so i jumped up, turned everything off in a rising panic, and tried to go to sleep.

this is where the physics of currents and the motion of gasses started to play tricks on me. it wasn’t that warm in the room, but it wasn’t horrible, and we had some warm blankets. i tucked them in all around me before laying down my head, but after a moment with my eyes closed i started to feel something strange. rather than getting warmer in bed, it felt like there were localized drafts converging upon various parts of me, one leg was cold, the other warm. my back was freezing. attempting to tuck the covers in more did nothing. cold air was miraculously heeding no barrier.


the thing is, it wasn’t that cold out. sure, slightly chilly october night, but not too bad. the damp in the room, though, sunk into our bones. but moving air? and lots of it? i remember being cold, and confused as to why. and then i guess, eventually, i fell asleep.

i only know that i fell asleep because suddenly it was 3:30 in the morning, and i was cold, and i was awake, and i needed to pee.

nicer bathroom?

this was when i realized that, indeed, the water had been turned off at 10pm.

and i almost jumped out of my skin when, spurned by the sound of me moving around, my very-awake mom suddenly and loudly pleaded with me to turn on the heat. the lack of sleep and the fear of fire prompted me to react with a yell of, “i can’t turn it on! it’s going to explode!”

my mom talked me down and i turned on the heater, which continued making it’s buzzing, broken-fan noise for a little while. mom tried to convince me that it was perfectly natural, but it didn’t sound like she believed it much herself. but maybe she was right, because eventually it stopped making that noise and started sounding like a normal space heater again. but then it went back to buzzing. then back to normal. etc. etc.

i know this because i was up most of the rest of the night, listening to the heater trying to figure out its identity.

An event may be small and insignificant in its origin

october 28, 2011

i suppose i should take a minute to talk about the hotel tustan in more detail. or at least our room. the overwhelming feeling i got from the whole floor we were on was that we had wandered onto the set of david lynch’s idea of eastern

european bourgeois splendor gone to pot. it was obvious that, despite the grey concrete facade, the hotel used to have some variety of gorgeousness within. beneath the threadbare carpets there was stained hardwood that, despite recent warping, spoke of a more glamorous past. old elevators sat idle, their doors forever closed to the obvious deathtraps beyond them. and the room itself … well.

the first thing i noticed was a sign on the bathroom door that declared a time limit on the availability of water, which was limited to nine hours a day in two distinct installments, from 6 am to 10 am and from 5 pm to 10 pm. this, perhaps, explained the presence of a bucket full of stagnant water in the bathroom, which i can only assume was for emergency flushing needs. in addition, the whole bathroom looked like it was about to crumble back to the dust that had spawned us all.

the bedroom itself contained more water, in the form of a “crystal” container full of what i can only assume was supposed to be drinking water. there were glasses, too, and it all seemed very inviting, but for the fact that we didn’t know where the water had come from.

the room had a balcony, the door to which was bolted shut.

all of this seemed very shady to us, and we started to wonder what the “more expensive” rooms, which we had passed over, would look like.

but, as i said before, we stashed my mom’s computer in a cupboard, leaned the suitcase in front of it, as if that would be sufficient to secure it, and went on our merry way to find some food.

on our way out we stopped by the first floor and gawped at a wedding dress shop, which seemed to be open yet without human oversight. the dresses seemed to glow in the artificial light. or maybe i was just hungry.

we retraced our steps through the outdoor market and passed the dog who i had thought was surely dead. as we passed, it lifted its head, sniffed the air complacently, and returned to its earlier pursuit of looking dead. i would soon realize that the landscape was full of such animals, lying prostate and starving, moving as little as possible due to lack of food, but definitely always still alive and full of the struggle to remain so.

the vendors in the outdoor market were packing up as we threaded our way through their wares and tried to find an ATM. we still had plenty of money from my mad dash to the cash exchange, but we wanted to be on the safe side. we soon found a machine down a side street, across from a meat shop with the sauciest advertisement i have ever seen on a meat shop. money secured, we continued backtracking, looking for … SOMEthing.

the main town square was par for the course, businesses lined the sides while the center was occupied by a grand and imposing town hall. we started off by walking the perimeter, looking for restaurants, and here is where the town square’s similarity to other squares i had encountered ended. there were businesses, cell phone stores, banks, mortgage centers, libraries, city offices, shops of various sorts, but very few eating establishments. we made a slow circle around, looked with interest at a bar in the corner, which didn’t seem to serve food, though later we realized we had been wrong, and found nothing. when we got to the northern side, i made note of a grocery, which was interesting but useless … after all night on a train and all day in various states of travel we needed hot food. it was here that i pondered a street off to the side, which seemed to have something promising. mom decided to check out the burger place, which was the only restaurant we had seen so far, while i went down the side street and saw what i could see. i made her promise she wouldn’t go far while i dashed off on my errand of discovery.

the side street provided nothing but more shops without food in them and a closed cafe. i soon discovered that this street led to another, which, if followed to the right, eventually brought me back to the hotel. i made a grand loop, glancing by the hotel, and headed back to the town square, empty-handed.

as i made my way to the burger joint where my mom was supposed to be waiting for me, i had a moment of panic when i realized that i couldn’t see her anywhere. i headed a few steps beyond the burger joint, and managed to glimpse her almost exactly where i had left her, but was surprised to see her talking to someone. as i got closer, my mind had a sort of break; there was something wrong. then i realized it wasn’t wrong, it was just … out of place. the woman she was talking to was speaking english.

as we had made our way around the square, we had spoken about the things we saw … in english. we weren’t speaking particularly loudly, but it also hadn’t occured to us that the people around us would be listening, a common mistake of many misplaced americans. at some point we had passed this woman, who had heard us speaking our mother tongue and seeming incredibly lost. at the point when i had run off, she had approached my mom and asked, in english, if we needed help.

oksana was to be our fourth angel of the day (if you don’t count the overly nice woman at the hotel) and perhaps the most determined. she immediately took us under her wing and whisked us off down the street we had originally climbed, claiming there was a “traditional ukrainian restaurant” not far from the hotel. she was particularly determined to find me something vegetarian. we passed the turn-off to the hotel, and dodged packing vendors who were continuing to clean up from the day’s outdoor market. nestled amongst many outdoor stalls was a door, beyond which we found the ukrainian equivalent of a milk bar, or cheap food for the masses. unfortunately, they too were packing it in for the day, and there were very few options left food-wise; the only vegetarian option being a solitary potato pancake that looked as if it had been sitting in grease for days. i was craving potatoes, but not like that.

so out into the street again, and that was when it was divulged to us that, actually, the strange-looking establishment attached to our hotel was a pizza restaurant. the windows were tinted, and the name of the place was “drive,” stated in shocking blue neon. when we had passed it, twice, earlier, we thought it must definitely be a nightclub. what else could it be? neon, latin-alphabet sign, no visibility, “drive”? next door was the sign for a disco, so we just assumed it was all of one.

oksana told us differently and then ushered us in. it soon became apparent that the name of the restaurant came from someone’s obesession with racing vehicles, which were depicted in rather plain-looking frames on the walls. a t.v. in the corner played a variety of things that were not limited to sport of the vehicular variety, and the fixtures looked like they had escaped from some northern-californian metal-worker’s studio, where he or she was surely preparing them for the newest bay area cafe. the tables were fake marble atop what may have been steel frames. everything glowed with blue.

oksana insisted on ordering for us, but would not eat with us. though her story had come out in bits and pieces as we ran around, it wasn’t until we sat down with some beer and food in front of us that it finally sank in. she had grown up in drohobyć, but now she lives in l’viv, studying journalism.her studies bring her all over the world, and she has been in Poland before.  she was in town to visit her father (it was not clear what had happened to her mother, or maybe i just can’t remember), who had also grown up in drohobyć and still lived there. he had filled her with food and then she had gone off to the center to meet with an old friend, who had not shown up and was not currently answering her phone. oksana seemed not at all unnerved by the fact that her friend was nowhere to be seen, perhaps it was a common occurance, and we spent some time talking about how it must have been fate so that she could run into us and help us out. most importantly, she said, she didn’t have much of a chance to practice her english now, so she had been delighted to overhear us on the town square. her train back to l’viv was in about an hour, the train station was ridiculously far from the center of town, and she had been on the verge of giving up and leaving the center, so there had definitely been a rather narrow window in which we could have met her. and we had.

even more, she had grabbed on to the fact that neither she nor anyone else had heard of the village we were looking for, and made it her personal mission to find out why. her first inkling had been that maybe we still had the Polish name, and surely it had been changed since the end of the second world war. somehow i had been sure that we had thought of that, as we had looked up the village in the past and had found all sorts of google maps that mentioned the existence of “Wacowice,” though it had been impossible to find any additional information about the place. but i was willing to try anything.

as we ate our surprisingly good pizza and drank ukrainian beer, which oksana seemed surprised we had been interested in — why? when the pizzeria had perfectly good czech beer?— she spent some time on her smart phone, researching the etymology of village names in the vicinity of her home town. it was surprisingly quick, the response. “you have the wrong name,” she announced. “it’s zalużany.” (this is the pronunciation translation into Polish that she gave us — i’m having trouble finding a way to transfer the name of the village into the ukrainian alphabet, but one map i just found online gives the english pronunciation of both ‘zaluzhany’ and, the original name we had, ‘vatsovitse.’ weird)

oksana was determined to help us as much as she could before leaving town. the problem was, we were exhausted. now that we had the right name of the village, she insisted on walking us back to the bus station to check the bus times for the next day, and to make sure we knew where, exactly, to go. the problem was that we were exhausted, and she didn’t have much time. i felt guilty for insisting that she stop trying to help us. she really wanted to. i couldn’t imagine going back to the bus center, even though i knew we wouldn’t really need a bus back. the bus from there before had nearly killed me, and i was just totally done moving. we were eating next door to our hotel. why the hell would we move any farther. the lack of sleep and constant travel was getting to me and i couldn’t image going another step.

but i also think mom and i were having a sort of reaction to all of the niceness we had encountered that day — kindness fatigue, if you will. we both KNEW that oksana was completely honest, and that she really wanted to make sure we were safe, but her determination started to seem dishonest to us. it had nothing to do with her, it had everything to do with our american inability to realize that so many people could just be so nice. this wasn’t your average amount of niceness and helpfulness, we’re talking about a level of giving that was foreign to our upbringing, to our very culture. maybe i didn’t trust it, but that was my baggage, not hers. but i also think i needed a break from it.

oksana also told us that some people will steal from foreigners and that she was worried about us. my kindness fatigue saw suspicion in that statement, suspicion that quickly dissipated and then turned to impatience — we could take care of ourselves! here are the many ways in which our american-ness became manifest when we were too tired to control it. all these thoughts whirled in my brain and only one thing stood out — i was fucking tired. we were right next to the hotel. i was not going any farther from my bed. we assured oksana that we would be ok, that we would find the bus the next day, that there were people in the hotel who could help us, and she shouldn’t worry. after insisting we fill her in on the story, we exchanged facebook names and said our goodbyes, again without a picture.

i had another beer in the restaurant as we finished the pizza and pondered if we were hungry enough to have another. (price was no concern — we paid $8 american for a large pizza with three toppings and three half-liter beers).  some families came in for a friday night out and there were children and loud vehicles on the t.v., so we decided to go back to the hotel, exhausted but feeling good about the world.

until, after we collected the key from the front desk, we plugged in the heater and all of the lights went out.

the proof of our love for matter as such

a crumbling house between bus stops

the logical thing to do, at this point, would have been to cross the street and wait for the bus in the other direction. alas, we were not being logical, and i apparently had some steam to walk off, so we just started walking back in the direction from which the bus had come. this required heading up a very steep hill, dragging a small but noisy suitcase, and my angry but determined mom. i’m not actually sure either of us was thinking at that point, there was just movement towards a destination and some grumpiness and the idea that we were at least off of the constant stream of buses, for a little while. it was almost 5 pm. we had crossed the border almost 6 hours earlier. we were in drohobyć. we didn’t know where the hotel was, but we were pretty sure of where the bus had gone after the stop we were supposed to have gotten off at, and that was something.

in front of us on the hill was a young woman with small child, pushing a stroller. we bickered for the sake of bickering until the small child realized our presence and told his mom to make room for us to pass.

at this point i realized we may have to ask directions anyway, because even if we made it back to the stop for the center of town, we still didn’t know where the hotel was. i had the name of the hotel written in latin and in cyrillic, as well as the cheat sheet of ukrainian phrases that brendan and i had printed out for our trip to kiev over a year before. i pulled out the sheets and desperately tried to find the pronunciation for the word for “hotel” while my mom suggested that we ask the mother. i told her she seemed to have enough to worry about.

shortly after a gentleman passed us going in the other direction. i want to stress the fact that he had been walking AWAY from the center of town when we stopped him to ask for directions. the other important fact at this juncture is that the ukrainian pronunciation of the “h” in “hotel” is closer to to a guttural “g” sound. my mom had stopped the man before i could find the exact piece of paper that contained the pronunciation for “hotel” so there we were, the three of us on the sidewalk, my mom having completely forgotten all of her ukrainian and russian at this point, asking the man in polish for the hotel tustan. he smiled and spread his arms in the international signal of “i have no idea” seconds before i found the sheet with the pronunciation and blurted out something that sounded like “gotel! gotel!” his benevolent smile became a benevolent expression of understanding as he said, “ah!” and decided that he would walk us there.

he abandoned his earlier trajectory and headed back towards the center of town. we quickly passed the stop where we should have gotten off the bus, and i gave quiet thanks that the next stop was really so close to the center. thus began a ten minute walk where my mom tried to talk with this smiling older gentleman and i tried to understand what either of them was saying as we headed into the town proper.

the main square of drohobyć is on a small hill, so we had to walk uphill again to get to the rynek. the man excitedly told my mother about his family in Poland while both of us wished we had learned more ukrainian. i could tell he was telling us his family’s intricate Polish/Ukrainian history, but there was so much that i couldn’t make out. my mom asked him questions but also seemed to be periodically at a loss. he pointed out a church on the cusp of the hill that would become the market square, but neither or us seemed sure, later, what he had said about it. i just kept thinking that the man seemed like a professor, which turned out to be the case. we walked through the main market square, and down another hill, through outdoor market stalls, the man telling us about himself the whole time. i was half listening to him and half marking the route to get back to the market square, as it started to become clear that the sandwiches we had eaten on the train that morning were definitely not enough food for continued existence. we passed tables full of hats and socks and tights and gloves, to the side a small car parked on the grass with the skinniest dog ever either sleeping or dead in front of the driver’s side door. we turned at the possibly dead dog, down a short path, and another left turn into a square dominated by a statue to the right side, a scary grey building to the left.

the front of the hotel. (this was actually taken two days later. oops)

this is where our third angel of the day pointed to a door and told us we had arrived. he hugged us and kissed us each on the cheeks and wished us a pleasant rest, and then was gone before i could even get a picture.

there was no name on the hotel, but there were the latin letters “hotel,” so we were sure we had arrived. we went up the steps and into a hallway, into another doorway to the right, and then more confusion. there seemed to be a few kiosk-type businesses inside the main hotel, one of which seemed to be an internet cafe of sorts, though that interpretation was not evident right away. we paused in confusion and then continued farther into the building, up a few more steps. there we found another window, one that looked more like a hotel check-in. i don’t know how long this confusion lasted, but it feels like a full 10 minutes in my memory before we finally decided that this was the right window. we approached tentatively, and eventually a woman sat up visible behind the glass and told us that, yes, she did in fact speak a little Polish.

thank fucking god.

we asked for a room, and the woman was glad to oblige. she showed us the price list, and the price that sofia had quoted us was on the botton of the spectrum. the equivalent of $20 american for one night, two people, no problem. my mom took the opportunity to tell her all about our family search, the village we were looking for, everything. the woman was happy to help us, but she had never heard of the village we were looking for. this had happened earlier with sofia, but we had just assumed that maybe sofia didn’t know the village. with a second rejection we started to worry, but it was not a priority at the time. the priorities were quickly becoming putting our stuff down and getting some food.

the woman gave us a key and said she would be up in a minute to bring us something.   we were directed even farther into the building to the staircase. no elevator for my mom ‘s hips. so up we went

the stairs were on a far end of the building, with windows onto a side street. the first floor had closed doors off the stairwell, covered in notices, and the second floor also had closed doors, but without notices. it later became clear that the first floor consisted of shops, the rest of hotel rooms. we had to go up the third floor, european style (fourth floor american style). the doors were also closed, so we were nervous about opening them. when we finally did, we found ourselves in a large lounge-type room full of couches and tables and dead plants. two hallways stretched off this room, to the right and to the left. our room was to the right, all the way down.

the “lounge”

we opened the door to a simple room with two beds and one of the most decrepit bathrooms i have ever encountered. we had just put our things down when the woman from the desk came bustling in with a space heater, explaining that we may need it. it was true. the dankness of the room was palpable.

once she had gone, we got our bearings for a minute, let the space heater do its thing for a minute, and then stashed the only thing we had with us that was worth anything, my mom’s computer, in some piece of furniture before deciding to head out onto the town again to find some fucking food.

there are things than cannot ever occur with any precision

view from the bus

our first real view of drohobyć was this dirt lot, crowded with buses, both parked and pulling in and out every which way. it was beginning to feel like a familiar sight. the lot was surrounded by construction, as if someday there would be an actual bus station there. in front of the construction were concrete platforms with numbers ranged around, each one with a space or bus in front. we went looking for space number one, and found it in the back left of the lot. we stood there for a moment, looking around for any indication of information. the sign indicated that this was the space for the bus to truskavets, which told us nothing.

we were there for only a moment when the bus pulled in and the other few people in the region started getting themselves together. we apparently looked lost enough to attract the attention of the older woman in front of us. i will repeat that. we were so anxious and lost that she could sense the trouble behind her and turned around to ask us if we were ok. my mom asked her if it was the bus to the center of town, and, with a little bit of back and forth, we finally got through and she nodded her head vigorously and told us how many stops and how much it would cost.

at this point the bus was fully parked in front of us and the driver had opened the door. our new angel pushed us on to the bus and started pointing a finger at the driver and giving him commands in a loud voice, leaning through the door to make herself really heard. my mom was able to translate and give me a play by play. the woman was telling him where we had to get off, and then said, many times, “you make sure to tell them! they don’t know where to go, so you HAVE TO TELL THEM! make sure to tell them!!” the driver shrugged and came to collect our money, which was when we realized that we had only large bills and lots and lots of change. he stood over us while i slowly placed small coins in his hand, and i was still digging when he got impatient and started asking with his hands if i thought this was supposed to be enough for both of us.

it became clear that the bus driver was not going to be one of our angels.

finally i got enough coins in his hand or he gave up on waiting and moved on to the other people on the bus. we took off, and i marveled at the fact that the woman who had just helped us, who had seemingly been waiting for the bus, was not actually on the bus with us. had she just been standing there to help people like us?

she had said it was about two stops, so we looked out the window and waited for the first stop as i bemoaned our choice of seats in the very back of the bus. how could he tell us when to get off if we were as far away from him as we could possibly be? we only went about two or three blocks before we stopped for the first time. the street up until then had been straight, but after the bus started moving again things moved closer together and the street started to twist in serpentine constructions. soon we were at the second stop, but that first stop hadn’t looked much like an actual stop, and this one didn’t look like any sort of center of town, except that there were more people milling about. we were both unsure, so we sat, paralyzed with indecision, as the bus started to fill.

the doors were open for a full two or three minutes while the driver collected money and very obviously did not tell us anything, or even look in our direction. i had a feeling this was the right stop, but clung to the idea that the driver, like almost everyone else so far, was a good guy who would help us when the time came.

we started to move again, and i finally broke my paralysis to ask my mom if we should have gotten off there. luckily we were both hyper aware of our surroundings, so we watched every turn of the bus as it twisted and went over a hill and got farther away from what must have been our stop. we were both quiet, uncertain, until the bus stopped again and even more people got on. since we were in the very back, a few of the people who got on decided to sit down and block us in, one of which was a woman who was quite large and basically sat down on mom’s leg. this seemed to be the thing to make her stand up and take action, but she didn’t seem sure of what action to take. i started prodding her to ask someone, which manifested in her asking everyone if this was the stop for the center of town, in Polish. the large woman next to her ignored us at first, and then seemed to notice my frantic hand-motions and mom’s darting eyes and desperate voice. she listened for a little while, and then her and the man next to her started to nod their heads and tell us frantically that yes, we had missed the stop. this bus was about to go 11 kilometers outside of town, to the spa town of truskavets. we would have to cross the street and wait for the next bus going back in the other direction. they had to say it many times. we grabbed our many things, pushed ourselves through the crowd, and rushed off the bus.

this is where some sort of american idea of justice grabbed onto my brain and would not let go. i’ve talked to people here in poland about this trait, this very american thing of demanding satisfaction, and they have often shown confusion. if there is a movie playing on the bus and you think it’s too loud, why would you complain? if the train is too hot or too cold, what can you do about it? it’s just the way of the world. there are more important things to complain about. if the bus driver didn’t tell you where to get off the bus, that’s just the way the bus driver is.

but my brain was clinging to the thought of having to take another bus back to the center, and we didn’t have any more change. it was the bus driver’s fault, so he should give us a refund to get back in the other direction. i quickly ordered my mom to demand some sort of refund, or at least to let him know he had failed us. it was stupid and futile. my poor mom was hanging out of the open bus door, yelling at the driver in Polish, that he was supposed to tell us when to get off and he hadn’t. it quickly became clear that he couldn’t have cared less, but still she hung on and told him how he hadn’t lived up to our expectations. soon it became clear that he wanted to close the door and move on, so pulled on her sleeve, said “forget it, sorry.” and gathered ourselves for … some sort of continued action.