We are welcomed to Ukraine with a police shakedown

Trip Start Oct 02, 2011
Trip End Oct 27, 2011

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Saturday, October 15, 2011

When you look up the city of Uzhgorod in Wikipedia, the first sentence implicitly tells the complicated and troubled story of this area of the world. Here's how it reads:  "Uzhhorod or Uzhgorod (Ukrainian and Russian: Ужгород; Rusyn: Уґоград, Ужгород or Унґвар; Hungarian: Ungvár; Slovak: Užhorod; German: Ungwar, Ungarisch Burg; Yiddish: אונגװאר , translit. Ungver or Ingver, Polish: Ujgorod." 

At various times in its history, this city—and the entire Transcarpathian region--has been under the domination, in reverse chronological order, of Ukraine, Russia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the Austro-Hungarian empire, Ruthenia, and the Tartars among others..  It once had an enormous Jewish population and was seriously in the sphere of Polish-Galatian influence.  So what is now called Ужгород, the Ukrainian spelling we see on all the road signs, in my grandfather’s day was known as Ungvár in Hungarian or אונגװאר in Yiddish.  Grandpa Klein spoke Hungarian, which is still spoken widely in certain parts of Transcarpathia.  Others here speak Czech, Russian, German, Roma, and a few Yiddish, Polish, or German.  We are only a kilometer or so from Slovakia, very close to the borders of Hungary and Romania, and not so far from Poland.  A complicated and troubled place indeed.

By the way, in case you were wondering, a 'Uzh’ is a type of water snake with a yellow ring around its neck.  And ‘gorod’ means city.  So loosely speaking, we’re in Snake City.

Breakfast was served in a light and airy dining room edged with all sorts of climbing plants.  There were five breakfast choices: Transcarpathian breakfast, European breakfast, Continental breakfast, American breakfast, and Healthy Start breakfast.  I chose the Healthy Start, which was French toast and Cole slaw.  Both were delicious, albeit somewhat incongruous to my puzzled American taste buds.  Undoubtedly this was the first time I’ve had Cole slaw with coffee. 

At breakfast we suddenly caught sound of an anomalous American voice, and we oriented to it like a dog to foreign footsteps.   We introduced ourselves to Peter, a missionary from the US who we found lived in Uzhgorod and worked with the local Roma (Gypsy) community.  He in turn introduced us to the two men he'd been talking with: a Roma Pastor from Uzhgorod and a Ukrainian pastor from about 800 km to the east who ran a prison ministry.  They invited us to join them for dinner at a Georgian restaurant.  Why not!

After breakfast we spoke with Yelena, the director of the guest house, who told us that there was an active Jewish community in Uzhgorod that would be happy to help us locate information about Grandpa Klein.  This gave me the same hopeful and giddy feeling I had at the Great Synagogue in Budapest, where a similar promise had been made.  But based on the denouement of the previous experience, I didn’t nurture the feeling.  We shall see.

On the way to the city center we stopped at an ATM in a sort of shopping mall and were approached by a Roma woman carrying a small child, requesting money.  We were advised by the missionary and the pastor not to give Romas money.  Many work for “pimps” who assign them a territory to beg in.  The pimps take most of their “earnings.”

At the city center we parked and walked over a foot bridge to the old part of town.  The railings on the bridge are encrusted with locks, both old and new, each etched or painted with the names of a pair of lovers (see photo for an example).  We were told that couples ceremoniously lock the lock and throw the key into the river below, pledging unending love.  We all wondered how many of the irreversibly declared couples are still together.  None of us were particularly optimistic about the likely percentages.

We were immediately drawn to the big pink building that looked about as much as the synagogue it had been as the Great Synagogue in Budapest (see the photos).  The good news is that this relatively old synagogue exists at all.  The bad news is that it now houses the Uzhgorod Philharmonic.   

As we strolled the cobbled streets of Uzhgorod (often pursued by Roma) we were struck by all the cars tarted up in lace ribbons and plastic flowers.  Then we spotted a bride in a fluffy white dress, squired by her newly minted husband.  A hired photographer followed in close pursuit. Then another.  And another. Curiously, each couple was free-ranging.  No members of the theoretical wedding parties were in evidence.  And alas, none of the brides were blushing, and none could even be described as “glowing” (see photos). 

We learned that weddings are allowed only on certain days.  Thus today, Saturday, was a heavy wedding day.  This explained the concentration of brides, but not the sober faces.  Once again we found ourselves not understanding what we were seeing with our own eyes.  Who knows, perhaps in this culture it would have been inappropriate for a bride to glow, or even blush. 

Rounding a corner, we heard some lively Gypsy music and came upon a little band—two accordions, a violin, and a vocalist, belting out a tune that reminded me of Klezmer music.  They were serenading yet another newlywed couple, again without evidence of friends or family in the vicinity.  The groom seemed a bit self-conscious, but took his bride for a spin.  And in her spike heels on the cobbled street she spun surprisingly well. By the end of the dance the groom seemed a little ambivalent about the whole thing.  To see the video we took, pursue this link to YouTube:  Copy this: http://youtu.be/gR-OXs958s0 and paste it in your browser.

Later, back at the guest house we met our newfound hosts and drove after them to the Georgian restaurant.  We were ushered up two steps to a door flanked by curtains into a large private room.  Peter immediately drew the curtains to keep out as much smoke as possible--non-smoking restaurants haven’t yet been invented in Ukraine.  Dinner was both raucous and delicious.  Peter had thoughtfully ordered special food for us weird vegetarians—roasted potatoes, all sorts of salads, and grilled eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers.  There were three types of bread.  Our private server was a very pretty young woman with tightly braided hair and a stylish white pleated blouse.  On the front of the blouse she had written in thick English letters with black marking pen, “Fashion Hype.”

The ride home was quite eventful.  Virtually immediately after leaving the restaurant we were confronted by a police roadblock.  Several cops wielding flashlights with long glowing snouts signaled us to pull over.  Carole, the driver, was asked to produce her license, then the car insurance certificate, then the registration.  Alas, in the course of unpacking the car Manfred had left the registration in his room.  So he informed them that the registration was in our hotel and invited the police to follow us there.  To no one’s surprise, the cop said, “No.  Now.”

Pretty much from the start it was obvious that this was a shakedown.  We were informed that the “fine” for not having the registration was 45 Euros, which Manfred reluctantly but realistically produced.  Once it was safely in the hands of the law enforcement officers we were waved on our way.  I suppressed my impulse to politely ask the policeman for a receipt.  

Later, our suspicions were supported by the locals: if we had come up with the registration we would have been asked to produce the car’s warning triangle, or show that we carried a set of four reflective safety vests.  If we had had all that, maybe we would have been asked to document that each of us has a change of clothes, or perhaps that we were carrying the required Ukrainian-Pakistani dictionary. 

We drove home in chilly silence. 
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Daniel on

One of the many reasons I'm not really sad not to have come to beautiful Ukraine.

Monika on

Dear Carole, what a wonderful thing to spend your B-day on such a marvellous trip. I have read most of your blog and I'm delighted. Ken is such an accomplished writer! HAPPY BIRTHDAY SWEET CAROLE, greetings to the 4 of you, safe and happy trails!

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