Thursday, July 8, 2010

Travels in Eastern Europe

The strangeness began as soon as I exited the airport. I asked, in English, "Where is the bus to Krakow?" and the man responded in English. That was the strange part...someone who understood me in my native tongue. 

But it didn't end there. Everywhere I went in Poland, people spoke English! The travel agent at the bus depot, the clerk at the KFC, the hotel receptionist, the bar men, the taxi drivers, the shop clerks. And I could eat food that felt like home...particularly the ice-laden diet pepsis that I got at KFC from the fountain dispenser. Yes, Krakow felt like heaven for a day and a half. I breathed in the American-ness of it all, at cheeseburgers and drank ice-cold sodas from the fountain, and spoke to everybody in English. 

Not to mention that it was a beautiful city, full of history and charm and lovely, polite, and friendly locals interested in making sure I had a nice time in their city. I saw where the old Polish kings roamed around, imagined the royalty frolicking on the grass that was too precious today to even set foot on, and admired the tourist traps of bronzed or silver-colored human mannequins representing the history of this country. 

Of course, Poland was more than pleasant. It was a country which survived communist rule with its history intact, a country which has rebounded into a western-styled democracy and capitalist system bereft of the corruption of Ukraine, and a country which has real promise in achieving the kind of status that Ukraine can only dream of. 

But still, after 28 hours of travel when I arrived back in Kharkov, there was something comforting about the taxi driver who tried to cheat me out of 20 Hrivna and still couldn't speak a lick of English, the run-down apartments, the dirty streets, and the general confusion of a country which doesn't know whether it wants to be Eastern or Western in outlook. Somehow, for me, Ukraine is a kind of Motherland, one which I am happy to represent, almost as much as I am proud to represent America, despite all its flaws. 

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