Chapter 4: Chernowitz, Ukraine

It’s Pronounced Like ‚Yash,’Actually, chapter 4:

Chernowitz, Ukraine

Golden leaves fell slowly, gently fluttering through the crisp air like droplets of sun floating to earth. Monica and I stood, frozen by the beauty of the autumn colors around us. Only the wind rustling through the tops of the trees dared disturbed the shushed awe that blanketed the courtyard.

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Behind us, in the strikingly beautiful university building, our colleagues were sitting in various lectures at the conference we were attending, but Monica and I had decided to sneak out and admire the changing shades of nature while we could. In that moment, forever locked in my memory in the pure colors of a cool October day in a setting I couldn’t even have dreamed of, proved to me that you didn’t have to go to every lecture in order to learn something invaluable.

This was the second half of a “cross-border” conference, organized between my placement university, Cuza, and the Yurii Fedkovych Chernivtsi University in Chernowitz—or Chernivsti, Ukraine. The trip across the Romanian-Ukrainian border had been long, with a drawn-out border check, and tensions had been rising in panels at the conference as speakers ran over their time limits or unknowingly disrespected their colleagues, but the cultural opportunity that visiting Ukraine afforded me was a one-in-a-million chance, and I was grateful to have taken it. The University itself looked like an Eastern European Hogwarts, with stunning pattern-tiled roofs and an imposing dome that might have belonged on the home of a Grand Duchess. Even the hallways within the building were grand, arched like they were imitating art and exceeding it. Monica and I agreed that the courtyard was the crown jewel, and the leaves spinning lazily to earth from the mighty oak trees might truly have been made of gold, so ethereal did they seem that morning.

Monica and I wandered in different directions, she elated to be in the heart of this autumn scene after living several years in California without this season of changes. I let my feet carry me about in lazy loops through the garden, stopping here and there to peer more closely at blood-red berries on stark bush branches, or to trace the elegant old arms of trees and attempt to catch the wind as it breathed around us again and sent more sunlit leaves to greet us mortals on the ground. I closed my eyes for a moment to try and hold the unrealness of those seconds, but as soon as I tried to grab it, the wind was gone again, and I opened my eyes still in the real world.

Yes, the real world—this garden was beautiful, and serene, and far removed from any description someone might have offered me had I asked them what they would expect to find in Ukraine. But it was real, nonetheless, and I took it as a sign that even when you might not necessarily know what you were running into (such as, say, a conference with new colleagues from around Eastern Europe in a small city in a country where you only know one word, the one for “earplugs”), you can find places of peace.

Eventually, Monica and I floated by each other again in the garden and wandered back out. We left the courtyard, a place that might have belonged to Titania and Oberon in their faerie kingdom, behind us, and snuck back into the building in time to join the rush to lunch.

The weekend in Ukraine would see me sick and hacking up oddly-colored mucus, but it would also see me laughing a little too loudly over good Ukrainian wine with new friends from Germany, it would see me drinking cup after cup of punch-your-sinuses-into-shape ginger tea, it would see me bonding more with Monica, Sophia, and Matthew of my Fulbright cohort, and it would see me waving goodbye to the last of my anxieties about the next nine months in Eastern Europe. The dance of the leaves pirouetting from their trees to coat the ground like so many gold flakes would replay in my mind’s eye throughout the long, dark ride back to Iasi. With them, I saw the endless possibilities ahead of me, glowing gold against a background of clear blue sky.

 

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