By: R.J. Fox
As I headed toward my assigned gate at the Frankfurt International Airport – between my world and the new one that awaited me – I stopped for a bouquet of flowers along the way for my friend, Katya. When I arrived at the gate marked “Dnipropetrovsk,” I immediately noticed that the waiting area was crowded. I also noticed that everyone appeared sullen; no smiles, no laughter. Not a word of English was spoken. Not a word of German, either, for that matter. The atmosphere felt intimidating and I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb.
I managed to find a seat between two middle-aged men who either apparently had never heard of deodorant, or simply ran out a long time ago. They both glared at me as though I had just announced that I had slept with their mothers. These were aspects of Ukrainian life with which I would soon become well acquainted.
From the corner of my eye, I felt someone … something staring at me from across the aisle. I looked up. It was an old Ukrainian “babushka woman.” Carrying a cage. A cage containing a chicken. This image begged the requisite questions: Why a chicken? Did she come to Germany just to get this chicken? Was it for her? Was it a present? As I continued staring at her chicken, I realized she was staring at me. More specifically, glaring at me. Was I being cursed, I wondered? But what did I do? Is staring at someone’s chicken a crime in Ukraine? Unable to come up with the answers I so desperately craved, I simply stared down into my lap. But I could feel the woman’s glare intensify. But why? Was it because I was American? I figured that her glare would subside, that she would return to minding her own business. But each time I looked up, there she was, glaring, as if to say come on, just try it, I can take you down any day. I looked up. She continued to glare. Thankfully my imminent curse was curtailed by a loud announcement. It was time to board.
I headed through the tunnel, assuming that it would lead to a plane. But it simply led to a stairwell. The stairwell led to a shuttle. The shuttle finally led to another terminal, where our Dniproair plane awaited. Should I be worried? I convinced myself that at the very least, if it was an airline with a habit of crashing, then I’m sure I would have heard of it.
Our plane was one of those small, propeller planes that looked like its best days of service were during the Cold War. We boarded through the rear. The sound from the propellers was deafening.
I struggled to find my seat. A flight attendant—demonstrating no ability to speak English—looked at my ticket, then led me down the crowded aisle. I couldn’t help but notice the tattered upholstery and torn, dirty curtains. Not to mention the blistering heat that magnified the smell of body odor.
Upon reaching my seat, I glanced through a complimentary Ukrainian newspaper, pleasantly surprised by full-color nude photos, along with the occasional fully-clothed diplomat.
A woman to my left held a crying baby—a problem which was remedied by her swiftly revealing a breast upon which the baby could feed.
As the plane began to taxi, the passenger to my right did the sign of the cross repeatedly. This action intensified upon take off.
A man across the aisle covered his head with a newspaper. Another man took a swig of vodka from a bottle. I simply clutched my broken armrests for dear life and closed my eyes, joining my neighbor in intense prayer.
I knew that I could finally relax once my fellow passengers began to pull out their baskets of food and bottles of vodka, filling the cabin with the nauseating stench of pickled herring and smoked fish—the scents of which were compounded by the dirty diaper that was being changed next to me. I had no choice but to lift up my shirt to cover my nose. And of course, I was looked upon as the weirdo … as the freak. Weak American, their stares seemed to be saying.
I reclined back in my seat, only to be immediately kicked at from behind. Something, presumably nasty, was spoken by the bearded face that slithered in from behind me. I interpreted this to mean pull up your fucking seat now, asshole! I took his friendly advice and did just that. I then took out my Russian-English phrase book in a vain attempt to translate what I had just been told. All I gathered was how much the Cyrillic alphabet resembled drawings of tables and chairs.
A stewardess with a purplish bee-hive and make-up plastered on her face in the manner of a circus clown came by with a refreshment cart. She handed me what bore some vague resemblance to beef stew, a stale bread roll, and a can of what appeared to be apple juice. I tried to pull down my tray, but it was broken. So I balanced the items on my lap and dug into the mystery stew/goo—trying to ignore the little voice telling me that I was making a big mistake.
After the stewardess had collected my stew tray and empty can, by some divine miracle, I felt myself slowly dozing off to sleep, until I was interrupted—by the sound of a drill. Startled, I looked around the cabin. It didn’t take long for me to focus in on a wild-haired mechanic, slightly resembling Doc Brown from Back to the Future, drilling into the ceiling of the plane.
I didn’t sleep another wink.
Two hours later, the plane began its descent. I looked out of the window—half-expecting to see a Ukrainian gremlin on the wing—at the sparse countryside, finding it hard to believe that we were approaching a city of 1.5 million people.
A stewardess passed out what I gathered to be a customs form, but it was in Russian so I couldn’t be sure. I raised my hand and blurted out down the aisle: “Excuse me!” Based on the reaction of every passenger, I might as well have threatened to blow the whole plane to smithereens, so apparently startling was my foreign tongue to their ears.
The stewardess approached, all but asking me to quiet down. I showed her my customs form: “English?” I asked.
“Da, English. Minute.” She hastily took the form from me. Moments later, she returned with an English one. I couldn’t help but feel a slight tinge of shame.
Finally, the plane touched down in Dnipropetrovsk. Unscathed.
The passengers exploded into wild applause. I was taken aback. Aren’t we supposed to land safely? Was this a major feat for a Ukrainian flight?
I definitely wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
I disembarked onto the tarmac at the Dnipropetrovsk International Airport (which was roughly the size of the average, small county airport in the U.S.) and was greeted by the sight of foreboding single, small, grey, Soviet-era terminal. Somewhere in there, my friend awaited.
Inside, the stuffy, dingy building, I followed the herd toward passport control. It was here where I learned my first lesson in Ukrainian queues—as in: they don’t exist. The concept of forming a line was pretty much reduced to a survival of the fittest free-for-all. Perhaps years of Soviet control is to blame for this. I was later told that I wouldn’t survive in Ukraine if I had to live there, where the weak are truly eaten. I take this as both an insult and a compliment.
After I allowed several people to push their way past me, frustration set in and I started standing my ground by inching a step closer toward the customs booth. As I waited, two Ukrainian men in front of me argued with an official in Russian before being rather forcefully arrested.
With my turn quickly approaching, anxiety crept in. The grim-faced officials with their Soviet-looking, olive-colored uniforms didn’t help matters. As threatening as their stern demeanor appeared, I would soon discover that this expression was status quo for just about every Ukrainian when out in public. In private, it’s a different story all together—warm and hospitable would best describe it.
Before I knew it, it was my turn.
As I approached the booth, I nervously dropped my passport, clumsily picked it up off the dirty, grey floor before handing it to the official, who hovered over me like a judge presiding over court. He proceeded to stare at it for what was at least a full minute, flipping through the pages, feeling the pages, as though inspecting it for authenticity and periodically looking up at me with complete and utter suspicion.
This is how people disappear, never to be heard from again, I thought to myself. My thoughts continued: Hold your composure. You have nothing to hide. But neither did many of those jailed under Stalin.
As the customs official continued thumbing through my passport, I suddenly grew paranoid, that he was somehow reading my thoughts, therefore making me feel like I doing something wrong, which in turn, would give him reason to think I actually was. I was certain that I was about to become victim of the thought police. It didn’t help that I had just finished reading 1984.
He looked at me again. Yep, he’s on to me, I thought, clutching onto the ring case in my pocket for comfort.
And that’s when he called over another official. They’re closing in on me! Just like those other guys who were arrested.
The second official flipped through my passport, just as his cohort had, then stared at me, likely confirming the suspicions already placed upon me as he nodded to his comrade.
In a stern, official tone, he asked me something in Russian:
“I’m sorry, but I don’t speak Russian,” I said.
He repeated himself, in broken English: “What is purpose to visiting Ukraine?”
“I’m visiting a friend,” I replied nervously, beginning to feel guilty for no rational reason.
“Tell me your friend’s name,” he said, sternly.
I gave them Katya’s name.
As both officials proceeded to stare at me, sweat began to drip down my forehead. It felt as though they were trying to burn through me.
The first official muttered something to me in either Russian or English. I couldn’t understand either way.
Dumbfounded, I asked him to please repeat himself. So he did. And I still didn’t understand. Nor did I the third time.
Frustrated, he finally, reluctantly, stamped my passport, handing it back to me in a manner that suggested disappointment for not being able to place me under arrest, before adding:
“Welcome to Ukraine.”
And with that, I was on my way to the next obstacle on the obstacle course known as Ukraine: luggage claim. How difficult could that be? I approached the squeaky luggage carousel, which was distinguished by a truly unique feature. Unlike every other luggage carousel I have ever encountered, which typically allows luggage to continue to go around and around until claimed, this particular carousel failed to provide that convenient luxury. In fact, carousel would not be the proper term to describe it. It was simply a conveyor belt that rudely dumped your luggage at the end of the line, forming a heaping pile of luggage on the floor, which in turn caused a feeding frenzy of passengers swarming the pile like vultures on a carcass, searching for their belongings.
I was beginning to find it increasingly difficult to believe Katya was waiting on the other side of this chaos. Despite my growing impatience, I decided to avoid the feeding frenzy and wait for the crowd to thin out a bit. As I was waiting, I noticed something rather peculiar about the luggage itself. Almost every suitcase was wrapped tightly with cellophane and packaging tape, covering every square inch. Despite my initial confusion, it didn’t take me long to realize why. Most of the bags that had not been wrapped like mummies were opened with personal belongings hanging out. So naturally, I assumed this would be the condition I found my luggage in. As luggage and loose miscellaneous personal items continued to cascade into the stockpile below, I began to panic. Where is my suitcase? I took comfort in the fact that new luggage continued to come through the portal, but it was clearly winding down. And then it came to a stop. I figured/hoped/prayed that it was somewhere in the five-foot pile that had formed at the end of the line. Meanwhile, two people began to fight over the same suitcase, before realizing who its rightful owner was (as it turned out, it wasn’t neither one of them). As the pile grew smaller, so did the crowd swarming around it. And then, there were none. And my luggage was still nowhere to be seen.
Desperate, I poked my head through the portal. Nothing. I had no choice but to seek help. I scanned the room and noticed what I assumed to be an information booth. Just as I turned to leave, I heard the conveyor belt hum and buzz, struggling to ramp up before finally starting again. I stared at the portal. Nothing. I waited and waited until lo and behold, there it was. My suitcase! Fully zipped, too! Hallelujah! Without a doubt, a good omen. I grabbed it and headed on to the next stop on my road to Katya: luggage inspection.
After my suitcase had passed through the X-ray machine, I was ordered to open it up. Once again, I was overcome with that irrational paranoia airports create when you begin thinking that maybe you are doing something illegal. As the inspector proceeded to remove every item from my suitcase, I was reminded of how painfully difficult it was to fit everything in there to begin with. And now, I was being granted the opportunity to do it all over again.
While digging through my toiletries bag, the inspector pulled out my prescription allergy medication and held it up to me as though he just found a brick of cocaine.
“What’s it?” the inspector said in a gruff, accusatory tone, in broken-English.
“Allergy pills,” I said.
The inspector was clearly confused.
“Allergies. All-er-gies,” I said, still not getting my message across.
The inspector quickly grew frustrated with our inability to communicate. This wasn’t good. He opened the bottle, sniffing the contents before dumping a couple of pills into his hand to examine them.
I decided to try a different tactic, mimicking several sneezes, and pretending to blow my nose.
The inspector nodded in understanding and dumped the pills back into the bottle. It worked! Twenty minutes later, everything was jammed back into my suitcase, but zipping it shut was another matter altogether. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get it to close. I re-arranged some of the items, but this did little to help. Just as I began looking around for some cellophane, another inspector came to my aid by sitting on my suitcase—no doubt an important part of his job description.
Now, all that separated me from my friend was an opaque sliding door. But I would first have to wait for a heaving mob awaiting their loved ones, holding enormous bouquets of flowers, instantly putting my meager bouquet to shame. Just as Ukrainians don’t like waiting in line, nor do they like moving out of the way of somebody trying to get through. And as if that wasn’t enough, hustling taxi drivers—eager for business—tugged and grabbed at both me and my luggage in a desperate attempt to take me to destinations unknown. I had no choice but to plow my way through, protecting my bouquet at all costs, desperately hoping that Katya’s first glimpse of me wouldn’t be this savage struggle I was enduring. Of course, it was. When I finally reached her, we embraced.
“So, how was your flight?” she asked, smiling.
“I survived,” I said, which instantly became my motto for the remainder of my trip.
(R.J. Fox is the award-winning writer of several short stories, plays, poems, a memoir and 15 feature length screenplays. Two of his screenplays have been optioned to Hollywood.
His work has been published in the The Naked Feather, The Medulla Review, Lap Top Lit Mag, The Path, Contemporary Literary Review India, Yareah Magazine, One Title Magazine, The Knotted Beard Review, Bareback, The Zodiac Review, Fortunates, Randomly Accessed Poetics, Wordsmiths, Toska, Enhance, Common Line Journal, Cold Noon, Miracle e-Zine, Shadows Express, The Rusty Nail, Airplane Reading, Untapped Cities, The Lyceum, L’Allure des Mots, Awesome Online, Hackwriters, Litlover, Vine Leaves, Death Throes, Writer’s World Journal, Tenement Block Review, Unchartered Frontier, Wordsmiths Online, The Commonline Journal, The Bitchin’ Kitcsch, Wordplay, Five 2 One, The Wordsmith Journal TravelMag, inTravel Magazine, Dearborn Times-Herald, and Detroit News.
His website is http://www.foxplots.com. Or follow him on Twitter @foxwriter7.)
* Note: Excerpted from “Love & Vodka” by R. J. Fox, to be published by Fish Out of Water Books, Ann Arbor, MI,www.fowbooks.com. © 2014 by R.J. Fox. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without prior written permission of the publisher.