I’m delighted to introduce a new guest blogger just in time to kick off my new blog. Anastasia Zhivotov is still in high school, but has already developed a delightful and distinctive creative voice that I believe will make you eager to visit her ancestral home in Ukraine. As you’ll also see from her post, I remain committed to a spirit of adventure, although I’m moving away from the Girls Trek Too name. Some days my posts will be shorter, in hopes that I can post more often while also devoting more time to my historical novel, Tortillas from the Chungking Cafe. And guest bloggers will continue to be welcome, in my ongoing quest to support fellow writers and share new voices with readers. In that spirit, please welcome Anastasia:
Coming Home To Someplace I’d Never Been
By Anastasia Zhivotov
After over ten years of shitty Skype calls and poorly translated emails, I was meeting my extended family. First were my great-great-uncle and his son – waiting outside baggage claim with flowers. I was barely learning to use my legs again when a hug, a kiss, and a bouquet of pink flowers came from men I’d only heard and not truly seen. I finally understood the phrase “a camera adds ten pounds” because what on Skype seemed to be a pudgy man and full-figured son were really a short well-fed uncle and a well-dressed cousin with predominant cheekbones.
Home, the place others might call Lviv, Ukraine.
Finally, after flying halfway across America and hopping along Europe, I was home. Home, where the air was thick with moisture and the clouds hung bloated with rain. Home, where women wore heels across cobble roads and men walked with their toes turned out. Home, where age was determined by width, but gender couldn’t be defined by color. Home, where the tongue was foreign but somehow I understood everything. Home, the place others might call Lviv, Ukraine.
My father laughed and spoke Ukrainian. I made out a word here and there, but before I could catch on, my cousin spoke to me in Russian. They asked us about our flight, but I was too nervous to formulate everything I wanted to say.
Old Renaissance buildings with chipped paint piled atop each other in a town center filled with shops playing techno. Three windows defined a house, as the buildings never seem to separate. Restaurants – the good ones – stayed hidden in basements as they were many years ago.
On the outskirts of the center the Ratusha (City Hall) Tower sat atop a hill. We climbed 408 steps to the observation deck to see as far as the sleepy city’s edges. No stoplights illuminated the road since they seemed not to exist, only lights from houses.
We climbed 408 steps to the observation deck to see as far as the sleepy city’s edges.
Standing atop the Ratusha Tower, I felt tiny but exhilarated by seeing houses and shops booming with life. I understood how zoomed into my laptop I usually was and not the world around me. Always busy with journal entries, I rarely noticed little things, like the locks hanging off the rails around the tower – how happy they made me!
My cousin explained that he and his friends climb the towers weekly just for the sake of being. They hang locks around the rails to remind themselves of their time there. All sorts of locks hung with all sorts of names and designs of all sorts of people simply being. When was I being? I was being on my phone far too often. Maybe it was my hatred for planes showing, but I had never felt more grounded than at that moment. People embraced being together outside of emails.
We returned to the town below, where the smell of coffee never left my nose. Around every corner someone was sipping their share. So bold, it tasted like six espressos poured into a single cup as well as all the coffee grounds lurking on the bottom. There were enough grinds to cover a whole face if one were to tip the cup too far.
One coffee shop outshined the others: the Lviv Coffee Mine. We first walked into a glass-ceilinged patio with a giant coffee roaster, a table-size churning pot of roasting coffee, and bags of coffee beans. Flowers adorned every table. Then a swirling staircase led us to a dark underworld below: a system of dark caves where railways and carts sat filled with coffee beans, gas masks hung on stone walls, and oil lamps provided dim light. Heavy metal music gave the sensation that this was a hard-core work zone. Carts of coffee and the flicker of flaming alcoholic coffee drinks helped me find my way to the seats where we placed our order.
Buried in the basement, I made the mistake of asking what we were doing.
“Getting coffee,” my cousin answered.
He stared at me with a puzzled look. “Then we will drink it.”
It dawned on me when he said that: this coffee shop in a basement cut me off from the rush of the city. There was no rush at all. I realized getting coffee was an activity; how long it might take nobody knew, but nobody cared. There was no beach or forest or hidden waterfall. There was a city and the sensation of ease. I found the loophole where time stopped. The Nokia ringtone didn’t sound once we vanished. Only conversations could be heard.
Every restaurant was located in a basement, where the smell of mold from Lviv’s showers resonated through the passing years. But the food, dear God. The amount was one thing, but the flavor was something else. I couldn’t stop eating. It was too damn good. Plate after plate and I managed to find room for another course. Ukrainian Borscht: beet soup with potatoes and carrots stewed on chicken legs topped with sour cream. Chicken noodle soup with a brewed flavor, its sunshine yellow broth bathing homemade egg noodles naturally thickened with time.
Ukrainian Borscht: beet soup with potatoes and carrots stewed on chicken legs topped with sour cream.
A little past the old city walls, a Polish restaurant served three-foot sausages filled with three types of meat. Deep-fried pig’s ears were chewy, but dipped in a tomato mayonnaise they made my taste buds dance – tangoing with tangy tingles.
We ate yet more at my cousin’s house, where he lives with his parents since there’s no social disapproval for adult children living at home. There, I learned my size six had nothing over my large aunt. She was a beauty.
“So? Is everyone ready for the next course?” My aunt was out of her seat looking at the table of empty plates. A tight shirt squeezed her stomach, but no matter the spandex, it puffed forward. Her chest was bloated as well as her cheeks. I slumped into my chair. I couldn’t eat anymore.
“I have chicken on the stove,” my cousin called out, leaping out of his seat. Before he could get far, the door swung open and in came my great-grandmother.
“Took you long enough,” my aunt shouted from the refrigerator. I gave my dad a questioning look. The woman was thin and very short, her chest was level with the dining table. Her skin sagged from age and hung from her bones.
“She lives upstairs,” my father whispered.
As night lingered into morning, I met over twenty people, because “I’m right next door” literally meant they were next door.
English fell away as a language and America’s backwards culture of lean lettuce leafs and leaner women disappeared. It made sense to me now. No more panics over being too big or too little and many more nights-in drinking tea under starlight.
I found myself returning to the United States already nostalgic for the hour-long dinners filled with non-stop conversations, and a few pounds heavier due to the rich food my aunt was more than happy to feed me. Most of all, I was grieving over no longer seeing my family in person. Back to the shitty Skype call.
Anastasia Zhivotov, a first-generation Russian-American teenager, was born and raised in Colorado. Recently she self-published a poetry-fiction novel about stress and addiction in the next generation, titled Alice in Reality.