Lots of bread, but no circus

13th March 2022 |

In 1993, when I was on a long journey through Europe, mostly on foot, I walked through a part of Ukraine, between Poland and Romania. Ukraine, newly liberated from the Soviet Union, was deep in crisis, but the crisis was economic. I can’t think of anything useful to say about the tragedy unfolding there now, so I thought I’d offer you a short extract from my book about that journey, “The Gypsy in Me.”

I arrived in Ukraine from Poland by train, to the city that was then Lwow but is now L’viv.

I joined the human tide that swept into the station building and swirled around inside it. There was not a calm spot anywhere. Almost every arriving passenger had brought huge bales, boxes, and baskets, and they were bobbing about in the confusion as though two columns of porters on safari had met in head on collision.

I searched the station walls in vain for any sign of a language I understood, or a map that might tell me where to go. Outside the station, to my disoriented eye, all was frantic chaos. There were buses and trams, but I could not know where they were going and the competition to get on them was fierce. I should have been patient, followed my own rules, sat it out quietly somewhere until the crowd dispersed and I could get some kind of grip on the situation. Instead, anxious for a quick resolution before it turned dark, I asked a policeman.

Two of them were moving through the crowd. They wore pale blue uniforms and I swear it was the colour that seduced me. I confused them subliminally with the United Nations and equated them with peace and security. I walked up to them and said, “Hotel?” One of them turned to me and I saw immediately that I had made a mistake. He had the kind of face I personally detest, a lean, jocular, ass-kicking face. He managed to grin and bark simultaneously.


I showed it to him. He scanned it, marched me briskly out of the station, and yelled at a crowd of disreputable men gathered around some vehicles that even a wrecker’s yard might have refused. The call was answered by a burly and villainous looking man in the standard black leather jacket, and the cop addressed him with an offhand, joking remark. To me it sounded something like:

“Here’s a little gift for you, Georgi. Don’t forget to cut me in on it later.”

Georgi, if that was his name, ushered me to his taxi, if that’s what it was. There was not really enough of it left to tell. We were able to squeeze in at the front somehow. A comrade of his already occupied the remains of the back seat. I had just enough of my wits about me to remember the Russian for “How much?” so I said “Skolko stoit?”

He raised both hands.

Dyesyat dollar. Ten,” he said.

Outrageous as I knew this must be, I felt like paying a penalty for my own stupidity and let it go. The contraption ground into motion and we set off. Georgi spoke about ten words of English, and the same number in German. He quickly came to the point, and I understood him a lot better than I let on.

He did not want to take me to a hotel. Hotels are expensive. He had a room. It was somewhere called Ternopol. He would take me to the room. Hotel bad. Room good. Ternopol. He wanted to imprison me in a room, take all my dollars, and then sell me to a laboratory for radiation experiments.

Reasonably enough, I refused.

“Hotel”, I kept insisting. In frustration he slammed his fist on the steering wheel, which I thought a risky thing to do. He held frantic conference with his mate, then started all over again. Actually, as I watched him perform I began to warm to him. Scurrillous and unshaven as he appeared, there was a soul in that bulky body, and it was strained to bursting with resentment over my thick-headed obstinacy. I could sympathise, having endured hours on the train with much the same emotion, and I had to admit he expressed it much better than I had. Fuming with impatience, slapping at everything near him, he tried again and again to get me to surrender to his plan, and we seemed to drive around forever while I wondered whether he really needed my permission.

So I was quite pleased at last to find ourselves outside the Grand Hotel in the heart of town. It was too grand for me, but at least the clerk spoke English. With sorrowful disdain he spoke of another, cheaper establishment and sent us and our jalopy a few hundred yards farther along the road.

It was called, curiously, the “George’a Hotel”. What the “apostrophe a” meant I tried later to discover, but it dated back to Polish times, and nobody seemed to know. The name was up there, in stucco, on the facade, and that was almost all that could be seen of the hotel, for the rest of it, including the main entrance, was obscured by scaffolding.

The side door, the only way in, was more like the entrance to a jail than a hotel. People entering and leaving had to run the gauntlet of a bunch of tough-looking men who were gathered round it, laughing and smoking, while watching them from the side street was an even bigger crowd of soldiers or police with a military vehicle. There should have been an air of crisis, or at least some tension around this unusual scene, and it was puzzling that all the players were evidently treating it as a normal everyday occurrence.

It struck me, not for the first time, that I had spent the greater part of the day being mystified by one thing or another. The explanations I gave myself were pure speculation. Without language, passing through societies in catharsis, I was no better able to account for the phenomena around me than an illiterate peasant resorting to magic and superstition. I was schooled to be forever explaining things, and to be miserable unless I could understand and interpret what was happening around me . . . and yet, the kaleidascopic images I had witnessed that day were all the more fascinating for being inexplicable. Ignorance might be more hair-raising than blissful, but I had survived, and there was a certain joy in simply recording how things were, rather than forever asking why?

Feeling unduly magnanimous I gave an extra five dollars to the rogue who had brought me there. He wanted more and I laughed and squeezed through the hotel door. The receptionist was just as haughty and abrupt as I expected. It would have been more correct to call her the interventionist, but I already had a sense of the local style, and laughed it off. The price of the room was $14, with no bathroom and a suggestion of occasional hot water. She made it clear that only a fool would not know that the restaurant was open until eleven, and she thought me stupid for asking whether I could call Germany from my room. Then her phone rang and she had no more time for me.

I climbed a fine staircase with elegant curving bannisters to the first floor, where the rooms were arranged around a central well with a broad domed skylight above it. Tall carved doors opened on to big rooms with lofty, molded ceilings and high windows. Clearly this hotel had once had a lot of class, and maybe one day would again. Meanwhile, it was a disaster. I managed to squeeze a meal of sorts out of the restaurant and walked out into the night.

The tough guys round the doorway wanted to buy dollars, and from them I discovered that the unit of currency, for want of a better name, was actually called the Kupon. One mystery resolved. The hotel was close to an intersection of several big and busy streets. The statue of a local hero, Shevchenko, stood in the middle of the road. Beyond it, in the direction from which I had been driven, I saw that the street broadened out into a great open area, about a hundred yards wide and very long. Down the middle of it ran a broad, cobbled carriageway and at the far end stood a fine, ornate building that looked like, and was, an opera house.

On each of the four days and nights I stayed in Lwow, I spent some time walking around this splendid esplanade. I joined the enthusiastic audiences that gathered to watch chess players with time clocks hurling joyful insults at each other as they slammed their pieces across the board and their palms on the clocks at breakneck speed.

On the afternoon of Saturday, the big market day, the benches were packed with peasants resting under the bright sun. There were many stout women, past their youth, firmly seated on the benches with their legs apart, skirts smoothed tight over stockinged knees, in blouses, wooly cardigans and scarves round their heads, weathered faces fixed in expressions of satisfaction. Done with the market, it was their chance to claim the freedom of the city for an hour or two before the long road back to their farms. Some of them had a man alongside, bucolic, slightly tipsy and grinning like a jester.

Other older men, pensioners maybe, in faded nondescript suits with stiffly pressed pants like the post-war clothing of my parents’ generation, walked carefully with canes, upholding their dignity. Farther along towards the opera house, the crowd became younger. The racing chess virtuosi were there that day too and a dense knot of men watched and listened to their good-humoured taunts, but many other, quieter games were in progress, attracting less attention but creating pools of tangible reflection alongside the mainstream of people ambling to and fro.

I was there on Sunday, August 14th too, which happened to be Ukraine’s National Independence Day. Up and down the esplanade fiery impromptu orators draw small crowds into loud and lusty argument, while ancient veterans paraded in pale blue uniforms and little boxy caps, larded with operatic piping and medals.

Overlooking the scene from all sides were the great ornamental buildings of the nineteenth century. In this vast precinct from a bygone era there was a peaceful atmosphere which I thought would be impossible to reproduce among modern buildings, however carefully designed or placed they might be. Those massive old stone blocks, dinosaurs from the age of czars and emperors, were once as potent and aggressive as the concrete power structures of today. They had housed the great corporations and institutions of empire, and must have been hot in the pursuit of profit and the prosecution of control. They had been raised up over the labours of millions. In their time they were overbearing symbols of the powers that ruled the throng, that chained armies of clerks to their desks, labourers to their gangs, and soldiers to their batallions.

The polished black cobble stones I walked on, like the billions of others that paved Europe during that century, were laid by hand, and cleverly too, to form a pleasing fan-shaped pattern. Rich men in carriages could look down and see their superiority illustrated in stone beneath their horses’ hooves. But that was all in the past. Today, the pattern in stone was just that, a pattern. The big buildings had taken their toll and were paid for long ago; the heat had gone out of these monoliths of a hundred years ago, their force was spent, and a cool serenity remained. The art survived the loss of power and became benign. In Lwow, where the war passed them by undisturbed, they now shed their benevolence over the newly liberated population. Time matters. Time changes things. Time can’t be faked.

That was the best of Lwow (which I learned to pronounce L’viv*, as the Ukrainians do). The rest was hard scrabble. I began immediately to look for a map to guide me between L’viv and the Romanian frontier at Chernivtsy, but without success. The hotel clerk told me categorically that there was no such thing as a map of Ukraine. Of course I didn’t believe her, but proving it was another matter. I spent Friday in fruitless efforts, and gave up. All I could think of was to find an atlas of some kind and make a copy or tracing. At least I would know the names of some towns along the way and have a rough idea of the distances between them.

The main library, as it turned out, was nearby and close to the market, and I went there on Saturday morning after looking round the stalls and buying a few odd things I hoped would keep until I was on the road. It was a modest library, with very little on open display, but the woman (Why always women? What do the men do?) at the reference desk was nice, and helpful. She found a school atlas. The 200 miles I intended to walk were shown on three inches of map, but still it was a lot better than nothing. I tore a page out of my notebook, did a rough tracing of the roads south and began to make dots for the towns. The cyrillic script was printed so small that I had difficulty reading the names. It was an old atlas and the roads were indistinct and undifferentiated as to importance or condition. I foresaw having a great deal of trouble.

It was then that the usual miracle intervened. A chubby, balding little man in his sixties bustled into the reading room, and stood next to me at the counter where I was working. As he was talking to the librarian I saw his eyes wander my way, and then he asked if I spoke German. So I began to explain what I was up to, and he said he could help.

“Come and sit at the table”, he said. “You see, I am a geography professor, retired actually, but I have surveyed every bit of this territory you are going through, between here and Chernivtsy.”

He gave me the names of the towns where it would be best to stay, where he thought there were hotels; and he knew from memory how far they were from each other.

“But why don’t you get a map?” he asked.

I laughed. “That’s what I was trying to do, all of yesterday. It’s impossible. There aren’t any.”

“Come”, he said. “I’ll show you”.

We went out together and he walked me to the very first and most obvious shop I had gone to, just a hundred yards from the hotel. Within minutes he had procured a road map of Ukraine. I was astonished and a little humiliated.

“How is that possible?” I asked. “Why didn’t they give it to me yesterday?”

“Ach, don’t blame them,” he replied. “They only came in today. By Monday they will be all gone. Do you want a small scale ordinance survey map? They have those here too.”

But the flow of miracles had dried up. They had maps of everywhere but the area that interested me. And as for dictionaries, phrase books or guides, there were none. Still I pushed my luck.

“Do you know anyone in the English department of the university?” I asked. “It would be a great help to talk with someone there.”

My cherubic factotum, whose name I wrote down, lost, and later couldn’t remember, was more than willing. We walked the streets behind the hotel for fifteen minutes to arrive at a classic example of a nineteenth century temple of learning, not very different from my own alma mater in London, lavish with brown marble and granite, echoing flagstones and neo-gothic windows, where thoughts fly heavenward while the feet freeze. L’viv has a typical continental climate of hot summers and long freezing winters. During the summer months, when the building is largely empty, the architectural environment is ideal. It was pleasantly cool and breezy as we clattered up the long flights of steps and down the galleries to the small rooms where the English department was tucked away. Luckily a secretary was working there to tell us that one of the professors was probably in town. She phoned his home, and then told me to call him later when he would be back.

I thanked my guide profusely – he seemed not to want anything else – and buoyed up by my good fortune I went to the post office, thinking I would write to my son William. I had sent letters from Russia, and postcards from Poland, but I didn’t know how long they would take, or whether they would get there at all.

It was an intimidating challenge to write something comprehensible to him about my experience. A vast chasm separated it from anything he could have known. I wasn’t sure how to make the bridge, and thinking about it made me uneasy. Even though we lived a rather simple life by American standards it distressed me to see him already taking for granted so many things, in the way of food, leisure and entertainment, that I regarded as luxuries. It made me equally uncomfortable to watch his growing addiction to electronic imagery, junk movies, and cool clothes. At home in California I used all the cliché arguments on myself to restrain my objections:-

The world has changed out of recognition since I was a boy.

So I wrote down a few anecdotes I hoped would amuse him, and returned to the George’a. I found the hotel full of bicycles. That is to say, the hall was packed with them, some assembled, some in parts, big bikes, little bikes, baby bikes, flowing up the staircase and through the doors. Accompanying them were a number of men who resembled the cop at the station. By now the receptionist was talking to me – as I found in Szczecin and later, it takes time to develop a relationship – and she told me that the bicycles belonged to a party of Serbs. Their buses were waiting outside and would be leaving soon. They came twice a week to buy bicycles. Two years before it had been the Poles. Last year it was the Romanians. This year, it’s the Serbs.

It was revealing to observe how conventions give way to necessity. This once luxurious hotel condescending to act as a bi-weekly goods depot brought home how close to the bone the knife of austerity had cut. Yet people behaved with dignity and spirit where the Russians, I thought, were more stoically enduring. I supposed that Ukrainians were feeding off the joys of liberation, while Russians viewed their new freedom as a mixed blessing.

As for the Serbs, I could not restrain the foolish reflection that one should not be dealing in bicycles while one’s compatriots were out raping and torturing [in Bosnia]. Of all people, I should know, in war or peace, life goes on in all its trivial detail. Wasn’t I the one who, at the age of thirteen, looted the bombed ruins of a block of flats down the road from my school and came away with a caged canary?

I had hoped to get the English professor to have dinner with me that evening, and on the phone he said he would be pleased to meet me, but not until tomorrow, at lunch-time. It seemed worth spending another day. On my walk back from the university – more correctly, the Polytechnic Institute – I had passed a restaurant with huge plate glass windows and majestic purple velvet curtains drawn inside them, so I thought I’d try it out.

At first the headwaiter wouldn’t let me past the lobby. It was not for foreigners, he said. The menu was only in Ukrainian. How I understood him I don’t know, but I took the menu from him and read out some items I recognised, like kotleta, salat pomidor and kartofel.

Dobre“, he said, half-convinced, and let me through. It was an enormous space, two stories high, with pillars, dim wall lighting and chandeliers. Carved wooden partitions discreetly separated the tables, visible through the gloom only by their small table lamps. They covered most of the floor, but there was a curtained stage on the left and a small dance floor in front of it. The atmosphere was one I love, of mysterious shadow and suggestion. I was halfway through a pretty good meal when the lights went down even further and a hilariously bad cabaret struck up on the stage, consisting mainly of girls writhing in swathes of chiffon without the benefit of choreography or dressmakers. Coloured spotlights wandered about looking for something worth lighting, and I think the music was being poured out of oil drums.

It was an evocative, if unintended, throwback to the improvised nightclub scenes of the forties, and I enjoyed it immensely. Back on the Esplanade, though, something else of a much superior quality was being offered that night. A slim young man, with refined features, sat with a guitar in front of the opera house, singing songs of great dramatic range and depth. Behind him, in the deep embrasure of the main entrance, a girl danced. She also was wrapped in long black chiffon, but hers was consummately well designed to follow every nuance of movement. What had been ridiculous in the restaurant was made sublime. A crowd of hundreds stood around them in a large arc of silence. It was clear that the words matched the music in importance, but even without them this was a performance of great merit. His songs had the force and delivery of Jacques Brel’s, but were distinctly his own, and her inventive improvisations kept fresh and alive what might easily have become tedious. Like everybody present I felt a great joy at being surprised with such a wonderful gift. People were generous with their coins and surrounded the couple with congratulations.

When I came back to the hotel and walked under the scaffolding my happy mood was abruptly broken. A sinister figure was lurking in my path, hiding stock still in the shadows. At the other end of the scaffolded tunnel a small girl was crying out for her mother:

Gdzie jest Mama? Gdzie jest Mama?

At her feet a little poodle was scurrying around in a panic. Then the hiding figure burst into peals of laughter and stepped out from her hiding place. A horrifying kidnap in progress was transformed into an innocent game. They had wanted to see if the poodle could find Mama.

On Sunday I took the professor, whose name was Yuri, to lunch at the Grand Hotel. It was a cheap gesture. I was getting a very good rate for my dollars from the tough guys outside the hotel, and I could easily afford it. For him, as he admitted, it represented a small fortune. I was beginning to realise that the modest amounts I carried with me in dollars made me a plutocrat by Ukrainian standards, a heady but disturbing phenomenon. I told Yuri of my incredulousness when I discovered a loaf of bread cost only a small fraction of an American cent. He interjected a sobering thought. I might be a Kupon millionaire, he said, but by the time I left Ukraine I could also be a dollar pauper. He warned me that outside L’viv I would be forced to pay my hotel bills in dollars. This was the exact opposite of what the receptionista had told me, and so I was inclined to believe him.

I would not be able to get dollars for them, he said, and there would be nothing to spend my Kupons on, unless I intended to invest in bread. We calculated that I had enough Kupons to buy 50,000 loaves. I said that although I had the highest regard for Ukrainian bread, it would be difficult to get so many loaves out of the country while they were still edible. But we agreed that if they could be dried in the right conditions they would make excellent bricks; light, strong, durable, with a high insulation factor, and of course a valuable resource in the event of a siege.