Thursday, May 17, 2012

My friend Robin comes to Crimea

At Hrdilez, the Crimean Tatar spring festival

The caverns along the coast in Novy Svit
Robin at Swallow's Nest with the Black Sea behind her
At Serdar's university
Signing autographs at the Victory Day parade in Simferopol
At the library with Nadjie

Looking out a "window" from one of the caves in Chufat Kale
Last night with the family

My last couple of weeks was taken up with my pal Robin coming to visit me in Ukraine!  What a great time we had. I had been planning her visit for weeks, trying to narrow down all the choices to the best possible places. We kind of ran out of steam at the end, but we managed to see some beautiful sights in both Kyiv and Crimea.
I took the train up to Kyiv to meet Robin’s plane and got us a nice apartment to stay in the center (apartment rental instead of hotels is a common practice here and other European countries—cheaper and usually a lot nicer). Robin’s visit happened to fall on two major holidays in Ukraine—Labor Day and Victory Day. Labor Day is a big communist holiday and sure enough, as we tried to get to the subway station on the main street in Kyiv, we were greeted by large groups of people carrying the communist party flag marching down the middle of the boulevard. I’m sort of used to seeing communist party signs and paraphernalia, but I think it was pretty interesting for Robin—a true ex-Soviet country experience.
Besides our encounter with the communist party, we also saw many of the famous historic sites in Kyiv, did some souvenir shopping (for the nephew a Green Bay Packers Russian matrushka stacking doll!) had a great meal at a Georgian restaurant, and made our way out to Babbi Yar, the site of the worst single massacre of Jews in the Holocaust. There are three memorials there, including a large beautifully decorated menorah which marks the actual ravines where people were shot. The whole area is a large suburban park now, and the ravines are mostly hidden by dense woods. But here and there you come out into a clearing and peer over into a ravine, and stop a minute and think what it must have been like for those thousands of people who thought they were going to a different community and instead were taken to their deaths. It was a peaceful place, those woods once filled with such horror. Nature is so indifferent to the cruelties of humans.
Robin wanted the experience of an overnight train trip in Ukraine, so I had booked a “kupe” for our trip to Simferopol. We lucked out and got one of the new kupes, which means the bathrooms are self-contained and not locked during the station stops (because the rest of the time they use the tracks for their disposal), and we shared our 4-person compartment with two delightful young people who spoke some English. One of them was going to be married in five days, so it was pretty fun to be in on his excitement. They both got off a few hours before Simferopol, so we had the luxury of the compartment to ourselves for the always somewhat hectic last few hours (imagine sharing a tiny bedroom with three strangers and trying to negotiate getting up, getting dressed, putting away the bed things, having some tea, packing and being ready to hop off the train the instant it stops, as some trains only remain at a station for a few minutes).
Serdar and a taxi were waiting for us at the train station in Simferopol, and we were whisked home to a wonderful, warm welcome from the family, a welcome that only grew the longer Robin was with us. There were many great meals, lots of laughter trying to communicate with me as a translator (I didn’t do TOO bad…), pictures of family and home to share, and on Robin’s final night, she took them out to dinner and we all ended up dancing! Well, not Safie and Serdar—Safie occupied herself taking videos of us and Serdar spent a lot of his time off somewhere talking on his phone.  But Neshet and Lenura and Robin and I all love to dance in our own worlds, so it was a lovely experience to share that passion across the barriers of language and culture. We did Crimean Tatar dances, folk dances Robin remembered (or tried to at Neshet’s urging) and plain own disco. What a joyful end to Robin’s visit to Crimea.
I won’t go into much detail about what all we did in Crimea, as we traveled mostly to places I had been before (and recorded in this blog) and that I knew she would love to see—the spectacular coastal trail in Novy Svit, the palace of the khans and the cave city of Chufat Kale in Bakchiseray, the trails around Ak Mechet that lead up to the top of rock cliffs with beautiful views of the surrounding pastureland and distant mountains, the annual Crimean Tatar spring festival of Hirdilez where she had a chance to experience Crimean Tatar culture in full display. We made the obligatory trip to Yalta, that being the one place in Crimea almost all foreigners have heard of. There we did something new (for me)—we took a boat tour down the coast to the “Swallow’s Nest”—a castle perched on top of a steep cliff that is the often photographed symbol of Crimea and even of Ukraine. I had been there before but had read that it was best viewed from the sea. And I would have to agree with that, but what interested me more was the whole view of Yalta and the surrounding coastline. I had often seen pictures of that view from the sea and also reproductions of old paintings. Out on the boat and gazing back at the original old waterfront buildings of Yalta, I had a glimpse of how Yalta must have looked two hundred years ago during Czarist times. If I could block out the ugly (to me) high rises that pop up everywhere, I could understand how this beautiful coastal city was a haven for writers like Chekov and a magnet for the Russian aristocracy. Yalta and the surrounding mountains were also an ancestral home for many Crimean Tatars in the centuries before Russia took over Crimea, and that too I could envision.  Those few hours on the sea gave me an appreciation of Yalta that I have been hard put to find amidst the glitz and commercialism of modern day Yalta, and for that I was grateful.
Love to all from Crimea, where it is lonely without my friend Robin.