Friday, April 14, 2017

Ukraine: a travel report written by a ghost

I wrote this piece several years ago about a travel of mine to Ukraine, in 1999. Now, I found it by chance and I thought it was worth publishing. It is titled "written by a ghost" but, after all, a Chimera is a sort of ghost. So, here it is, it has now a curious feeling as it comes from a time when cell phones didn't exist and the Internet still a novelty. Maybe you'll find it interesting. (image Insource)

Travel writers are rather ghostly figures: wherever they go, they pass by so quickly. They don't speak the language, they don't know the local uses, they miss the details, the subtleties, the complex interactions, the love, the hate, everything. The only thing they can glimpse is that, really, people out there are very much like us, or perhaps that they are so much unlike us.

Yet, traveling means, in a certain way, seeking for adventures. Some travelers report of truly dramatic events that may involve even being shot at, and missed. In most cases, however, the adventure consists of much more banal events: being packed in a too hot (or too cold) train, arriving too late to pick up the coincidence, being served awful food, finding yourself in some ugly place, surrounded by people who smell bad and who don't understand a word of what you say.

The story that I am telling you doesn't involve shooting anyone, no physical harm was involved, and the people I met were mostly well behaved and not bad smelling, even though not all of them spoke English. But I think it was much more adventurous than the average travel report by a tourist. So, let me tell it.

First of all, Ukraine. At the time of this story, in the late 1990s, the Soviet Union had gone several years before and when I arrived in Kiev I was told many times that this wasn't Russia. Apparently, it was important for Ukrainians to specific this difference. It was fine for me, except that I had been in Moscow several times already and I can tell you that Kiev at that time looked very much like Moscow, just a bit of a warmer place. The same smell of gasoline pervading everything, the same mixture of new and old, of misery and wealth, the aspect of everything falling apart, and here and there something new springing out, skyscrapers, alien in the gray landscape.

Let me explain you a bit more. My trip to Kiev was part of my job. After the fall of the Soviet Union, many researchers in the West felt that it was their duty to give a hand to their Eastern colleagues who were in trouble, having lost their salaries and their research grants. It was a time when NATO would pay the salary of Russian and Ukrainian researchers. I know that things have changed quite a bit since then, but that was the way it was. So, in Kiev, I visited a number of research centers since I was managing a NATO grant destined to pay salaries to Ukrainian researchers. After the fall of the Union, these institutes had become cavernous places, full of obsolete equipment and where you could see researchers walking aimlessly along empty corridors. Ghosts? Maybe; surely they gave that sensation to me.

Of this trip to Kiev, I have a few recollections such as having had dinner at a MacDonald's where they could speak something that vaguely resembled English and where the girl at the counter asked me if I was American. That had a curiously parallel ring with when, at a MacDonald's in Washington DC, they had asked me if I was Russian. I suppose that ghosts can take many shapes, depending on where they manifest themselves. Then, there was the lady of the hotel where I was staying who was very angry at me because she thought that I had damaged the samovar of my room. There followed a quarrel in Russian and she seemed to find that something I had tried to tell her in Russian was so funny that she went away, laughing. I can also remember the lady of the travel agency who for some reason abused me in Russian for quite some time (or, at least, I think she did; the tone, at least, was unmistakable). Then she looked at my passport, realized that I was Italian, smiled, and said in a dreamy tone something that eve with my very limited Russian I could understand as "Italy, good country".

So, as a travel, my days in Kiev could be described as rather adventurous already. But that kind of adventure was part of the usual trade of travelers: bad food, alien places, people who look like gangsters and who don't speak a word of English. Truman Capote wrote an entire book about his travel to Moscow in the 1950s ( "The Muses Are Heard") where the most adventurous thing that ever happens to him is to witness a fight in the street; he never speaks to anyone except through interpreters. So, I could tell you many more details about my visit to Kiev but my trip to Ukraine would reserve me a much more adventurous time. That was when I took a trip to a town in the East of the country where they had another big research center that I was supposed to visit.

Excuse me if I don't tell you the name of this town; there is nothing really special about that place and I am sure that if you know Ukraine you'll be able to recognize it. It is just that not mentioning the name provides a certain feeling of "never-never land" for it. I can tell you that it is on the Dniepr River, not far from the better-known city of Poltava; where the Russian troops led by Czar Peter the Great defeated the Swedes of King Karl XII. For me, going there was partly because of my job, partly curiosity, partly wanderlust, and partly I don't know what. As I said, ghosts can manifest themselves in many places.

But I have also to tell you that going to that remote place, all alone, not knowing the language, never having met the people who had invited me, well, it was a little too much even for the ghost I felt I was. So, to make the trip a little less adventurous, I teamed up with a couple of Italian businessmen. I had never met them before, but we had a common acquaintance and so I came to know that they knew that town well and that they were going there more or less at the same time when I was going to Kiev. So, I contacted them and they said that, yes, they would have been happy to meet me in that town and so it was agreed. Excuse me if I changed the names of these two Italian businessmen in order to make them not recognizable. But I left unchanged the names of the Ukrainian people I met. It seemed right to do so.

The trip from Kiev took about four hours by car. We followed the Dniepr River, crossing many villages and small towns where old ladies wearing wooden shawls were selling vegetables on the edges of the road. The river was frozen at that time of the year with some people standing on the ice and - I think - fishing. My driver drove an old red Lada, he spoke not a single word of English, and he offered me cigarettes that I politely refused. I remember that he never wore his seat belt but he made the gesture of wearing it every time we crossed a police car; removing it immediately afterward. It was a behavior that was typical of Southern Italy at that time, where drivers refused to wear seat belts. At least, I knew that there was something in common between Italy and Ukraine.

So, I arrived where I was to stay: Vladimir's home, the translator who was hired to help us manage in that place. Vladimir and his wife, Tanya, were renting their apartment to visiting foreigners and the arrangement was that Tanya would also cook meals for the three Italian businessmen sharing the apartment (actually, two businessmen and myself). Tanya was in her 30s, she was nice and helpful, her English was good. I only have to say that her attempts of cooking pasta Italian style were not very successful. But never mind, ghosts are not really affected by bad cuisine. About the apartment itself, I had already experience with Soviet-style apartments in Moscow. In the 1990s, they had this typical aspect of being part of a building that had been bombed just a few days before (I am afraid that some of these apartments in East Ukraine have actually been bombed in recent times, but that's another story). In any case, these apartments are large, warm, and comfortable. Surely not fancy, but they have all that's needed.

In the apartment of Vladimir and Tanya, I met my Italian partners, Giorgio and Alberto (cousins to each other), who had arrived there a few days earlier. Of the two, Alberto was a newcomer; like me, he was there for the first time. Giorgio, instead, was a veteran of the place and he had been there already several times. Over some five years of shuttling back and forth, he had created a lot of business contacts and he had even learned a version of Russian, or perhaps Ukrainian. As the Italian merchants of ancient times, he seemed to have built a small commercial empire in these remote lands. He was surely a man of sharp wits and quick intelligence. At that time, he was 63; a stout man, looking younger than his official age and with the physical built of a fighter. He told me that he had been a Karate master. A man, no doubt, fascinating under many respects, but also one that gave you a certain mixed feeling. But let me go on.

Theoretically, as I said, my trip should have been about visiting a research center, but something went wrong with this idea. The contacts that I had seemed have vanished, just as the research center itself. Whether it existed or not, it remained off limits for me during the whole time I was there. I don't know exactly why that happened; maybe they were suspicious of me; they thought I was a Western spy, a CIA man, or that, maybe, I could call up the NATO headquarters in Brussels and unleash a bombing raid on them. The whole story remained forever mysterious to me, but how could I complain? After all, I was a ghost.

So, I found myself engaged in accompanying Giorgio and Alberto in their business visits. It was fine for me; I took it as a form of extreme tourism. I think also for Giorgio I was some kind of an asset; his prestige of businessman was enhanced if he could take with him an Italian university professor as I was. So, off we went visiting all sorts of companies and businesses. Of two full days of this work, I can tell you a few glimpses. One was that if there ever was a dreary town on this planet, this one was it. It may be hard to imagine a medium sized town (they told me it had half a million inhabitants) which has absolutely nothing that could be of even vague interest for a tourist. For what I can say, it was all the same: rows and rows of tall apartment buildings and large squares of rotten industrial plants. It was an industrial town, one of those "closed towns" that, at the time of the Soviet Union, were forbidden to foreigners for military or strategic reasons, or whatever. Maybe they really had some important military secret hidden somewhere. Or, more likely, they were ashamed to show to me the disastrous conditions of a formerly important military research center. Perhaps, but I had the feeling that the whole thing, the secrecy, the evident diffidence of some of the people we met, was simply part of the logic of this particular place but that it didn't have to be grounded in any physical reality. Maybe they were all ghosts and I was the only real human being in the area. But never mind that.

If I have to be a travel writer, at least I don't want to bore you with a detailed report. Rather, I can just try to convey to you some impression that combines shrewd business and brute force, a movement to build and to rebuild and, at the same, time the immense difficulty of getting rid of the old ways. We visited somebody's office, a large man dressed in a striped suit. He looked exactly like the villain gangster of the 20s in a Hollywood movie. His office was small, nearly empty. It was furnished only with an old table with a plastic top, one of the windows panes was broken, on a little table on a side, there was a bible. Out of the window, we could see the main square of the town: an expanse of concrete full of holes so large that they could have swallowed an entire tank. In the center, there was a larger than life statue of Vladimir Illich Lenin. Later on, Giorgio told me that the man in the striped suit was negotiating with him the sale of 30 harvesters from Italy, a trick that, alone, was worth several million dollars.

As you see, that was not exactly my field, but I went along. It was all new for me and, in many ways, fascinating. Giorgio was looking very professional, dressed in a smart suit and talking softly and convincingly. For these meetings, he didn't trust his Russian enough and it was Vladimir who translated from Italian to Russian and back. So, I could follow the negotiations, too, even though I was not there to sell harvesters or anything else. I have no idea if these meetings resulted in some multi-million dollar business for Giorgio but, again, this is not the point here.

For a travel report, what I have just told you would already be something special. It is much more than what the average travel writer can ever hope to see. I had visited Ukrainians at work, I had stayed in one of their apartments, eaten with them, had business with them. I had this feeling that some travel agency could have organized my trip as an example of extreme tourism, something under several respects more adventurous than touring the Himalayas in a Land Rover. But that was not all. If ghosts can see what happens in the real world, they rarely interact with humans except with howling and chain-clanking. But maybe I was not a good ghost since I tended to speak to people, at least with those who could speak in a language I understood. And one of those people was Vladimir, the interpreter.

Vladimir was a man of remarkable culture, proficient in many languages, and also in many ways a philosopher and perhaps even a sort of prophet. His origins were from somewhere in the great plains once inhabited by the nomads of the East and he had something of the "spiritual" face and the penetrating eyes of Eastern monks. He told me about his way of learning languages. He said it was simple for him: it was just a question of remembering things he had known in one of his previous lives. I think it would not work so well for me but, for him, it seemed to be just perfect. In addition to Russian (actually, Ukrainian) he could speak Italian, Spanish, English, German, Turkish, some Japanese and perhaps some other languages that I don't remember right now. We exchanged a few gifts, I gave him a book by Borges in Spanish that I had taken with me to read, and he gave me one of his Italian-Russian dictionaries. For some reasons, none of the pictures I had taken on this trip came out in print except for one and that shows him.

Besides that dictionary, Vladimir's picture is the only souvenir I have of that remote town. No other material objects that say that I have been there for real, that it was not a dream. Wasn't Borges telling the story of a man who dreamed to have been in Paradise, that he picked up a flower there, and that when he woke up he had that flower in his hand? Maybe something similar had happened to me, though the place where I went was no paradise. Definitely not and there is something more that I can tell you about that place, about a woman called Valentina.

The first time I saw her, I had arrived in town just a few hours before and I was sitting on the sofa in the living room of Vladimir's house, watching Ukrainian TV. It was then that Valentina entered the room and sat in the armchair close to me, smiling at me. And that was an experience in itself.

I have to explain that. You see, Slavic women are often handsome, but some are spectacular and Valentina surely was. It is easy for a writer to say that a woman is beautiful and then leave to the reader the task of figuring her in his or her mind. In real life, often you can say that a girl is pretty, sometimes you say also she is "beautiful" meaning the same thing. A truly beautiful woman, instead, is something you see only in TV or in your dreams. But Valentina was no dream and no literary construction, she was real. Dark hair, a perfectly symmetrical face, a sweet smile, big, dark eyes, a body which was the perfect balance of curves and slenderness. Not that she was actually perfect: whoever had worked on her teeth hadn't done a good job and those first small wrinkles on her face were painful to see in such a beautiful woman (later on, I learned she was 33 at that time). But never mind that. As I said, she was real: a spectacular woman walking in that living room wearing a yellow two-piece dress that I think you could buy for five dollars in any Salvation Army shop in the US.

It goes without saying that my attempts of entering into a conversation with Valentina were doomed from the beginning. She spoke nearly zero English and I spoke very little Russian. During the days that followed, I put together part of her story from what Vladimir and Tanya told me. She was, obviously, Giorgio's lover but, on this point, there was clear disagreement between the two, with Giorgio having lost interest in her but with Valentina still being interested in him. The situation was complex, with Valentina trying, as far as I understood, to convince Giorgio to go back to the apartment where they had lived together while he was in Ukraine during the past five years or so.

All that was, of course, none of my business. Besides, as I said, I was a ghost. I could only watch, and watch from a rather remote viewpoint as I could have no idea of what Giorgio and Valentina were telling to each other, nor what Valentina was telling to Ljudmilla (Ljuba), a friend who always accompanied her in her visits to Giorgio.I was told that Valentina and Ljuba lived together and Ljuba had about the same age as Valentina. A pretty girl, I could say, although in no way as spectacular as Valentina. Surely she had her story, her world, her loves and hates, all the small and big things of a whole life, again something that was wholly inaccessible to a ghost.

The afternoon of the third day of our stay, Giorgio said that our work was almost over and that we could take an evening off. That turned out to be a rather special experience, well worth a travel report written by a ghost. But let me tell you also that I was rapidly getting sick. That year's flu epidemics, which I had escaped while in Italy, had caught up with me in Ukraine. Sneezing and coughing, I considered if it would not have been a good idea for me to stay home that night. But I picked up a box of aspirin tablets and went with the others. Unwise, I know, but that's what I did.

The place we went to was Nina's bar. How can I describe it? It is difficult to imagine this place if you have never been to the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. It had, of course, all the things that a bar should have: five or six tables, a bar, music playing, dim and yellow lights. But the shabbiness of that place is something almost impossible to describe, unless you had been there. If you had, as I did, I guess you would find that the specific shabbiness of it would merge with the general shabbiness of everything else in that town in the middle of Ukraine and hence disappear.

Nina had closed the bar for everyone else; that night was to be our private party. We had a dinner of a rather modest culinary appeal (but not the worst in my life) and we drank wine, vodka, beer, other liquors I would not be able to name. And then there were the ladies. I guess this kind of entertainment must be rather common everywhere in the world for traveling businessmen. Just let me tell you that I was not much used to it, actually not at all. We had two nice looking ladies serving us dinner, and three more sitting at the table with us. There was Ilona, a spectacular blonde who was clearly Giorgio's target. Then Valentina (not the same Valentina), a girl of porcelain skin, red lips, and black hair. She seemed to have been assigned to Alberto. And Svetlana, a young redhead, she sat close to me. There was also another, older, Svetlana who sat intermittently at the table, just as Nina herself. This older Svetlana, not really old but clearly after her prime, seemed to be masterminding the whole business with the ladies.

Of course, given my state, my survival during the dinner was made possible only by aspirin. I swallowed, I think, one tablet every hour and that kept me more or less alive and awake. Maybe the mix of aspirin and alcohol gave me a high, maybe I caused me to became convinced that I was just dreaming of being there, that I wasn't really there, but peacefully asleep at home. Anyway, it prevented me from doing the sensible thing to do: excuse myself and go back home.

So is this part of a travel writer's story? Maybe, and yet sordid bars in the suburbs of a large town must be common everywhere in the world; what is there of so interesting with this specific one? Good question: I have no answer to it, so let's just go on. Dinner being over, we spent some time drinking and in conversation. I discovered that Nina, the owner of the bar, could speak English. She had studied in some technical school; actually, the cases of life; she had been a classmate of Tanya, Vladimir's wife. A nice girl, Nina, also smart and knowing a lot of things of the world. In her early 30s, she had the heavy physical built of Slavic women. It would have been hard to define her as pretty but she was lively, just a smile of her could carry more message than all our laborious conversation in English. Later on, Giorgio told me that he had met Nina a few years before, when she had a kiosk on the street, selling drinks. It was Giorgio who had bought this bar for her. I suppose it had been in exchange for something, but that's life.

Most of the time, Nina was not at the table, she was running the place. So the conversation with the Ukrainian ladies was most problematic for us, except of course for Giorgio who seemed to master Russian/Ukrainian well enough to have a good time with his spectacular blond friend, taller than him of a whole head. Those of us who spoke little or no Russian, myself and Alberto, had a more difficult time. I had Svetlana sitting by my side and my Russian-Italian dictionary in hand. Out of it, slowly and painfully, I could string together concepts, one word after the other. In a way, it was a full immersion Russian lesson. Out of my earlier trips to Russia, I already had in mind a number of simple Russian words: "glass", "dish", "bottle", "knife", "fork"… With that dictionary, I crammed into my mind a series of more complex concepts, including "beautiful girl" (referred to all the ladies present) and "witch" (referred to the older Svetlana). Later on, when I took a Russian class in Italy I found that most of what I had learned that night was Ukrainian, not Russian. The two things were similar but not identical, close enough anyway to cause a lot of confusion for a beginner as I was.

With Svetlana, I could carry out some kind of belabored and grammar-less conversation. I got the impression that she was not very much used to the kind of job she had been assigned to that evening. I think that the initial idea was that she should have been just serving at the table but that, at the last moment, someone had realized that there weren't just two Italian businessmen that night. They were accompanied by someone else, another businessman, or perhaps a professor of some kind. In any case, they had to find a girl for him. And so the job had been assigned to Svetlana in a hurry.

Indeed, Svetlana seemed to be a little out of place at that table, just as I was. Ilona and Valentina were clearly professionals. The way they dressed, their heavy make-up, the way they moved and smiled - it was all studied and performed with class and experience. Svetlana, instead, had no make-up and her gray two-piece suit looked like it was coming from the same Salvation Army shop where Valentina had bought her yellow one. Still, she seemed determined to play her role. She was not very tall, thin, had large gray eyes, the pale skin of Slavic women. In those laborious exchanges made scratching words in Cyrillic on a paper napkin, I understood that she had been born in that town, that she had never been outside Ukraine, that she would have loved to visit Italy, and a few more details which told me absolutely nothing about her. I had sometimes the impression that she was in fear of me, sometimes that she looked at me as if she genuinely liked me. Or maybe she was already an accomplished professional with hundreds of customers. How could I tell?

Everything is an illusion anyway; I just had a glimpse of another human being sitting near me; physically close, but incredibly remote at the same time. She had her story, her family, her place, her things, her way of seeing the world, but all that was completely denied to me. I had the feeling that, actually, we were both ghosts; that if we had tried to touch each other we would have embraced just thin air, as it happens to Odysseus when he tries to embrace the shade of his mother Antikleia in Hades. Would that have happened to us if we had tried? Of course, that was likely to be tested, later on, if things had gone according to protocol; the way these things are supposed to go. But I was spared this test as I'll be telling you in a moment. But let me go on.

It was maybe midnight when Valentina (Giorgio's Valentina) knocked at the door of Nina's bar. That was unexpected. Earlier on, other customers had shown up at the door but they had been politely told by Nina or by the Older Svetlana that the bar was closed. But, when Valentina appeared, neither Nina nor Svetlana could find a way to tell her that she couldn't get in. So, Valentina walked inside together with her usual friend, Ljuba. They were accompanied by two men; Giorgio told me that they were two engineers from a company we had visited the day before. They sat all together at a table not far from ours.

Of what happened afterward, I have a sort of a hazy memory, probably because of the mix of alcohol and aspirin. I wonder if ghosts see "real" people in the same way as we are supposed to see ghosts; that is bluish, translucent, and unsubstantial. My impression of that evening at that point was that I had ceased to be a ghost, but that everyone else had become a ghost instead. I remember Giorgio, in a certain way to be admired, carrying on his conversation with his tall blond friend, totally ignoring Valentina as if nothing special had been going on; as if she had not been sitting at another table in the same bar, but somewhere else, perhaps in another universe. I remember that, at some moment, I found myself sitting near Valentina. I remember her tense face, I remember that she was telling me something in Ukrainian. I got out my dictionary and I started a laborious work of trying to understand what she had told me. Too slow; time was flowing on, inexorably. That weird night was moving on to whatever had to happen.

I don't think that Valentina succeeded in exchanging even a single word with Giorgio. It was, maybe, 3 a.m. when she gave up and left, together with her friends. We were, again, alone with our friendly ladies at the table and the idea was now, I think, to revert to protocol. There was something that was supposed to happen, but I was in a state of near-stupor and I couldn't realize exactly what I should have been doing. Never mind, with or without my intervention, some kind of plans were under way, involving going back to our apartment, I presume, together with the three ladies. But the plan collapsed when someone tried to call a taxi. Apparently, the bridge on the Dniepr river was closed. That was the only bridge that connected this part of the town to that where our apartment was. No way to cross the river and get back home.

Long after these events, I am still not sure if understood correctly what was the problem and if it could be a reasonable thing that there was only one bridge crossing the river and that it would be closed at night. The point was that, anyway, we couldn't leave Nina's bar and we had to stay there until 6 in the morning. Of that time, I have vague recollections and the fact that the night passed was mainly testified by my empty box of aspirin tablets (I gave some also to the older Svetlana and to Nina; they had a hard time that night, too). I remember also that, at around 5 a.m., it started snowing. I was sitting close to Svetlana and we were both looking out of the window at the flakes slowly falling down in the yellowish light of the street lamps; both almost hypnotized. She was not sick with the flu as I was, but she must have been horribly tired, too. I thought that we could have fallen asleep together on a bench as if we were two tired children, but that didn't happen. Instead, that night was too much for the older Svetlana, whom I saw having collapsed into a chair and sleeping like a log. But the other ladies, as I said, were professional entertainers and they made a point to keep entertaining us. They kept drinking and chatting with us no matter what, continuing until the light of dawn appeared. out of the windows. That weird night was finally over.

It was maybe 6 a. m. when we walked out of Nina's bar in a cold and gray morning and we went back home by bus. I must say that Giorgio was to be admired here. He was obviously tired and upset by that sleepless night. But he sorted out a smart suit and a tie, drank some coffee that Tanja had made, and off he went with Alberto for one more day of business. For myself, I just went to bed and I stayed there. Sneezing had been replaced by pain in all my bones and moving any part of my body had become painful.

One of the worst things that can happen to a traveler is to fall sick in a hotel room in a foreign country. I think I'd rather be chased by a band of terrorists than to have to endure that. Fortunately, I was not in a hotel, I was in Vladimir's house and Tanya was very nice to me, inquiring about my health and bringing me hot tea, extra blankets, and a thermometer to measure my temperature. Just the fact of being in a room full of old things, books, clothes, boxes, trinkets, things that clearly belong to someone, makes you feel like being home; no hotel room, no matter how fancy and expensive, can beat that.

It was late afternoon when I felt well enough (more aspirin) to dress up and walk out of my room. I was feeling really like a ghost in that empty apartment. There was a light on in the living room and I walked there. Lying down on the sofa, there was Valentina, her eyes closed, a piece of cloth on her forehead. In a novel, you can say that someone's skin is gray. I don't know if I can say that of a real human being, one whom I saw in front of my eyes. But Valentina's skin color was closer to gray than the skin of anyone else I had ever seen. I remember that I thought I could just turn around quietly and go back to my room, but she opened her eyes and she saw me. She sat up and I had to sit down near her and inquire how she felt.

She felt bad, obviously. It is not difficult to convey the concept of a headache in any language, just touch your head and make the appropriate face. Then, aspirin is also a word universally known, so I gave her some (I had taken two boxes from Italy, I expected that flu to catch up with me). Aspirin seemed to be popular with Ukrainian ladies at that time. Then I sat quietly while Valentina slowly regained some color and finally sat up, not in good shape but at least back in touch with the real world. She was still wearing that yellow two-piece suit.

That afternoon, Valentina told me a lot of things. I sat and listened. How in the world did I understand what she told me, mostly in Ukrainian? Maybe because I knew already part of this story from what I had heard from Giorgio and Vladimir. Or maybe because of that full immersion in Russian the night before. I also remember that Tanja would occasionally appear that afternoon to translate for me and that Valentina had managed to sort out a little English. But, perhaps, I understood only because of some supernatural factor, didn't I say I was a ghost? I don't know; maybe I got it all wrong, maybe what she was telling me were comments on the Ukrainian soccer championship. Maybe. You may not believe me, but I have this feeling that I understood everything right.

Valentina told me that she had lost the best years of her life after that man, Giorgio. He was rich, sure, but it had not been just because of that and because he was a fascinating son of a bitch, and as he was seducing her at the same time he was seducing many other girls, and keeping also a wife down in Italy, she surely didn't know anything, poor woman. Poor Valentina, too: now everyone in town said she was a bitch, that she had sold herself for money, and also for an old apartment and what was she going to do with that? She had a job, yes, just a worker in apartment restoration with her friend Ljuba, and how in the world was she going to scrape a living out of that? And she was getting old, and Giorgio didn't want her anymore, and life had no more purpose, no more meaning, no way out….. I remember that I thought that she was going to weep at any moment, but she didn't.

What could I have told her? Of course, nothing that could have mattered. After all, I was a ghost and, besides, a non-Russian (non-Ukrainian) speaking ghost. I could only sit there, try to tell her something gentle in English, which I don't know if she understood, and that was it. So it goes.

Later on, Giorgio and Alberto came back home and Valentina disappeared in the bathroom to make herself more presentable. I don't know if I myself was presentable at all, but perhaps enough that we could go out for dinner at a restaurant with Valentina, and again Ljuba who had appeared from somewhere. It was one of those places for the "new Ukrainians", fancy, expensive, with glaring lights and bad food. Valentina was doing her best to smile.

The morning after was our last in that remote town. We all were leaving, back to Kiev by car and then from there to Italy. At breakfast Valentina was there, drinking Italian coffee with us. Of her face and expression, it would be hard for me to give you a description; I'll let you imagine it. I'll just tell you that during the return trip we had from Giorgio a description of Valentina's performance in bed the night before.

Look, I am not saying that Giorgio is a worse man than myself or anyone else. We are all human and we all are (or are gradually becoming) ghosts. So, it is typical of human males to boast about their sexual exploits. Who am I to criticize? Who knows what had really happened that night? I don't know, life flows on anyway and, besides, I was a ghost.

Of that trip back to Italy, I remember mostly the pain in my bones. But it passed, eventually, and so this is the end of my travel story. I don't know if you liked it, or if you found it interesting. After all, nobody got killed, nobody got hurt, the most physical damage reported being ordinary headache. Even in terms of feelings, nobody even wept, even though someone got close to that. So, was it worth to write this story? Who knows? There are many more details, more people, more small events that I could have told you, but I have this feeling that, as it was written by a ghost, that all characters in it are ghosts, that a certain degree of vagueness is inherent to this fact.

I don't know if I'll ever go back to that place in Ukraine. Years have passed and I lost contact with everyone, there. If by any chance I'll be there again I wouldn't know how to find Valentina, her friend Ljuba, Svetlana the redhead, or my philosopher and interpreter Vladimir. Even if I could, maybe I wouldn't know what to tell them. Only, at times, I sit back on my chair, and I just wonder what it is that they are doing right at that moment, and if by some chance they happen to think of an Italian ghost which just passed by for a few days in their world and then disappeared forever.

1 comment:

  1. This is a gift of a great story-teller that a routine and rather banal every day life of a post-soviet province suddenly becomes fascinating and intriguing! Thank you, Ugo.