1st-3rd Septmber, 2012
The waitress sets our cheeseless vegetarian pizza on the table with a bemused expession. It’s hard and stiff like crackers, with slimy mushrooms; rubber olives and a sprinkling of something that might be dill. “I’m only moody in the mornings”, Alex tells me as we munch. I raise an eyebrow. Fronds of fairy lights dangle in the cafe windows, twinkling to a blend of soft ’80s hits from my childhood and brash electro-pop. Packs of dogs bark and chase cars on the dark streets outside. We’re waiting for the night to pass and our bus to arrive. There are no hosts in Chernivtsi, and sleeping outside in this city isn’t an option I’m fond of. It seems more sensible to pay €12 each for the night bus to Moldova, than €10 for a hostel.
As the night ticks by, we make our way to the bus station, buy tickets and take a bench close to the bay where we expect the coach to arrive. But there’s a surprise: our coach is in fact a small minibus.
A family have arrived early with several large boxes and suitcases. The driver begins piling them into the tiny boot. Alex and I load our bags and select some good seats at the back of the bus, hoping to sleep. More people arrive, and more. A woman tells us we have her seats and ejects us to the front of the bus, despite Alex’s objections in Russian. By now our backpacks are being unloaded to make space for more luggage. We have bags on our knees, but we’re lucky. The bus is now so crammed, it appears an elderly man will be forced to stand the entire six hour journey. I squirm in my seat with guilt.
We grind into a petrol station. People squeeze themselves from wedged positions and gasp into the sunlight. Open-handed beggars roam between us, women and children with large brown eyes. The toilet is a hole in the floor that smells fouler than the foulest thing I previously smelled, whatever that may have been.
Another gas station. Please god, just get us there.
We arrive at the border. The man by the driver asks a question in halting Ukrainian. “He’s British”, whispers Alex, indicating the guy’s passport. We get talking. Paul is a polite, softly-spoken man, originally from Wales. He came to Ukraine some years ago and “fell in love with the place”. We swap email addresses as armed guards enter the bus.
Our driver chit-chats with the border guards and we’re on the move again.
Finally, we arrive in Beltsi. We’ve no particular reason for coming here and people seem surprised we’re getting off. It soon becomes apprent why: there is nothing – nothing – to do in Beltsi. No attractions, no couchsurfing hosts – not even a hostel. We find a potential camping spot on g**gle maps, but in real life it’s a thin strip of trees between tower blocks and highway. I spy rough sex action in the bushes while scouting and make a hasty exit. Alex insists we can camp and should keep walking, but I have an instinct we should hitch. He’s in a bad mood. Having kept it together the whole traumatic bus journey, the lack of sleep’s affecting him now. We’re on the verge of an argument and I don’t want to push it. We walk more and more. My hunch is getting stronger. When we see a group of sketchy-looking teenagers hanging out close to where he wanted to camp, Alex relents and I stick out my thumb. Cars pass, drivers stare, nothing stops.
“Last car”… It stops. The guy speaks Russian to Alex in the front. I stay awake at the back in a daze, too tired to sleep. Alex translates: he’s going to a small village where they produce wine. If we like, we can go with him. I smile. This is a keyword for us. The only people we know who’ve been to Moldova told us we absolutely must go to a small village where they produce wine. It’s the only advice we’ve had about the country.
In the village, the men go into a cellar and beckon us to follow. They take a small glass of wine from a large barrel and pass it to our friend. When he’s finished, Alex has a turn, then one of the other men, around in a circle, one glass each.
Our driver told us he only had space until the wine village and now we see why: the entire back of the car, a hatch-back, is now filled with an enormous barrel of wine. However, now we’re friends he says maybe he can squeeze us in. Alex rides in the back, dozing against the barrel. I wake in the passenger seat to the sound of our driver slapping himself in the face and turning the radio up in bursts. Oh god, we’re going to die. “Alex!” “Huh?!” “Talk to the driver – he’s falling asleep!”
Somehow we make it to his village, Cazangic, where the weekly disco is taking place inside something like the village hall. We take a beer each and sit down. Suddenly, we’re quite the attraction, everyone shaking hands with Alex. All the men ignore me completely, until I stick out my hand and introduce myself. They seem surprised, but smile as they shake my hand. “Damn, missed one”, I say to Alex as a guy does a round of greetings and misses making eye contact with me.
“What do you think you’re doing?” demands Alex. He thinks I’m being a bad traveller, not accepting their culture. He thinks I should just sit there, silently, not understanding a word of anything. I’m furious, but exhausted.
Finally, we drive to the house, where we’re invited to sleep. We’re now close to the Romanian border, having driven the entire length of the country in one day.
I wake up late. Nobody’s around but some ducks and chickens, pecking at the dust. I find the toilet outside: a hole in the ground, seperated with a curtain. Our friend arrives home as Alex wakes from his slumber. A rich breakfast is laid on a small table outside – tea, coffee, and some creamy looking concoction similar to porridge. Alex gives me a look. “It’s ok”, I tell him, “I can use the gift clause.”
When I first began travelling three years ago, I was completely vegan. At some point during the first year, I decided to eat eggs while staying with communities who kept their own chickens. At the end of the second year, I invented the ‘gift clause’. I was turning down a lot of generously offered lacto-ovo-vegetarian food, and it was starting to feel wrong.
I’m still a little confused about these ‘rules’, but decide I’m going to eat the breakfast. These people have so little, refusing what they offer feels rude to the extreme.
After breakfast, it’s not long before the wine comes out and various friends call round. It’s already afternoon and a Sunday, so nobody’s working. They bring cheese, olives, tomato, bread and fish. They insist we taste it, despite having just eaten breakfast. I peck at some olives and tomatoes, but they’re insistent. I already ate the porridge, might as well eat some cheese as well. It’s the first cheese I’ve eaten in several years, a firm white cheese they make here in the village. They point at the fish. I couldn’t – could I? Alex translates: the fish is fresh salmon from the far side of Russia where a cousin is working. I put a piece of salmon into my mouth. I feel very, very strange, but undeniably it tastes good.
Several hours and many wine glasses later, we’re still there, stuffing ourselves with olives and cheese. They won’t let us leave. We get lost in the village trying to buy cigarettes, an excuse to sober up. Alex stocks up on the €0.30 variety and I buy big bottles of beer for our hosts. We debate what to do while we walk. Clearly, we are drunk. Leaving now would be stupid. We’re lost even here in this tiny village.
“I know you are bored”, Alex tells me, “I will translate more.”
“Yes, you have to translate more. Translate everything. If somebody says something, translate it.”
“It’s not possible.”
“Ok then, if I make a language sign like this” I make an L shape with my right hand…
“No-no-no”, says Alex, “the sign shall be like this” – he pokes me frantically in the arm.
We ask some children for the house of our hosts by name and of course, they know where it is. We find the house and present the bottles of beer. They respond by pouring more wine and beer for everyone.
One of the men is very interested that I’m a writer. He asked what I write and Alex, failing to explain what a blog was, told him I write a book on the internet. “Will you write about us in your book?” they ask.
“Of course I will!” I tell them.
“You must write his name in the book”, the other men tell me, through Alex’s translation. “And his name, and his.” They begin pointing at one another and I dutifully write down names: Ivan Fedorov. Grisho. Valera. Ivan Kozhuh.
The evening fades into memory and sleep comes, at last. The following morning breakfast is already laid out for us. We eat bread, eggs and jam. When we leave, our hostess insists we take a huge block of homemade cheese, two large jars of homemade jam and two large bottles of wine. We are heavily laden, but happy.
The men from last night call to us from the house they’re working on as we stride past with our backpacks. “What did they say?” I ask Alex. “They said come, join us for some beer!”