As my eyes travel around the room, I am both terrified and fascinated by the USSR propaganda lining every inch of the otherwise barren space. Each item feels like a jab in my side.
“Miss,” the guide’s small voice calls me back to reality.
I smile into her somber blue eyes. “This was an amazing tour,” I tell her. “Thank you so much. I really appreciate that you spoke English for my dad so I didn’t have to translate.”
“Yes, I heard from the guards at the front that you could speak Ukrainian. Will you speak some for me?”
I shrug and begin the normal pleasantries. I stop when I see her shoulders shaking. She is weeping.
“Are you okay?” I reach out an arm to comfort her.
She takes a deep breath to steady herself. “It’s just . . . this is the first time I’ve ever heard a foreigner speak Ukrainian. It’s a miracle. You represent everything that these people who died here fought for—freedom. Ukraine. The Ukrainian language.”
When I first found out that I would be living in Ukraine for a year and a half, I was excited. Although I didn’t know anything about the country or the people, I welcomed the adventure.
Before traveling to Ukraine, I spent many sleepless nights bathed in the light of my laptop as I scoured Google for information about the country. I could hum the national anthem, and I bought everything Ukrainian-themed in sight. I was happy as I imagined what Ukraine would be like, how I could positively contribute, and how many friends I would make.
The first of many surprises came when I learned about the existence of the Ukrainian language—and the expectation that I would one day be a fluent speaker of it. When reality set in, my opinion drastically changed.
During my first couple of months in Ukraine, I don’t think I did much else but cry. I had spent 12 long weeks in an intensive training program where I had learned the basics of the Ukrainian language. But, as fate would have it, nearly everyone I spoke to in Kyiv spoke only Russian. It didn’t take long for people to figure out I had no clue what I was doing or what was being said. Conversation was nonexistent.
The icy fingers of isolation took hold of my heart, and I felt completely alone. Loneliness extinguished my passion for Ukraine. Instead of being excited, I felt dread from the moment I woke up each morning. I lost hope that I would ever be able to speak to people, let alone be able to connect with someone.
Change came when I met Lyuda Herra Miranda, a native of Kyiv with a huge heart. Lyuda has an interesting story; she and her twin sister live together with their respective husbands and children. Their husbands are from Cuba, which is nearly unheard of in Ukraine. But they don’t let the difficult circumstances of raising a multiracial family get them down—they are some of the happiest people I know.
Lyuda’s 10-year-old daughter, Lauyra, struggled with her English classes. She would come into the room as her mom and I talked and throw herself dramatically onto the couch to get our attention, blaming the world’s ills on the English language. We laughed and teased her in return. I didn’t think much of it until I realized that I could see myself in that little girl. Here was my opportunity to change.
“Lauyra, can I help you with your homework?” No one could have known the import of that question when I asked it. It led to a friendship I will always treasure.
I don’t know how or why, but I somehow knew what to say and how to help her. I even caught her smiling a couple of times as we played games. Then one day, she came home with a paper in her hand, a red A marked clearly on its front. Lyuda grabbed my face and started planting kisses all over me.
“Thank you,” she said, fighting back tears. “Thank you.”
Eventually I became fluent in both Ukrainian and Russian. I made many dear friends and gained a confidence I never thought possible. All of these wonderful things considered, I have never forgotten that simple moment with Lauyra.
Looking back on my experiences in Ukraine, I realize that the greatest knowledge I gained is this: there is something universal that lives in each of us, regardless of our circumstances, binding us together as global citizens, despite whatever may have created the walls between us.
Like anyone else who reads Stowaway, I have a passion for experiencing different cultures and exploring the world. But I’ve learned that when it comes to travel, there’s more than beautiful panoramic pictures, exotic foods to try, and endless lists of places to see. The trip we take to know ourselves and love others can be a joyful—though frustrating—road. But if we keep our eyes and hearts open, we may discover things about ourselves and others that we never knew.
Photo credits (from top):
Flickr user thisisbossi
Flickr user alexeyklyukin