Works and Days

Ukrainian Language in Lviv: Isabel Meigs, Winter Fellowship for International Travel 2015

Isabel Meigs, senior Russian major and recipient of the Winter Fellowship for International Travel, reflects on her time in Ukraine, studying Ukrainian language and culture.

On the Sunday in between my two weeks of language instruction, I went on an excursion called “Karpatskii Tramvai + SPA”. The tour left at eight in the morning from the Hotel L’viv in a Mercedes mini-bus and drove three or so hours south of L’viv into the Ivano-Frankivsk oblast and the Carpathian Mountains. Our tour guide’s name was Yurii. Besides myself, there was a young couple whose common language (but neither of their native languages) was English, a mother/five-year-old son pair, a mother/teenage daughter pair, and a whole group of middle-aged friends from Dnipropetrovsk. And a French bulldog wearing a camo jacket.


On the bus ride, the tour guide exhibited his quite remarkable knowledge of local history, or at least that’s what it seemed like. I didn’t catch everything because it was three hours of non-stop Ukrainian history in Ukrainian. I did understand that a woman who was considered a feminist in her time and who was friends with Ivan Franko (maybe?!), lived in one of the towns we passed through. There was even a bust of her outside the town’s library.

The French bulldog, who belonged to one of the middle-aged couples from Dnipropetrovsk, sat in a seat on the bus, and the woman perched on the edge of that same seat for well over half the ride.

When we reached the tramvai part of the excursion, it was raining on about a foot of snow. A tramvai is a streetcar, but in this context, it was more like a very small train. The tramvai ride was about three hours long, and included stops to buy food, drink spring water, and to take pictures with a man dressed up in (what I sort of thought could have been) a WWI uniform. People were invited to shoot his gun, which always happened at the most unexpected moments There was very little karpatskii about this tramvai, as it turns out. It mostly wound around the base of the foothills. There were people selling a kind of honey samohonka (self-made-fire, moonshine) and snacks. There was a musical duo playing Ukrainian folk songs on a bass drum and an accordion. It was all very exciting with an exciting veneer of authenticity.


On our way back to L’viv, those that had opted out of the SPA portion of the excursion walked around Truskavets’, a resort town that was bustling even in the middle of January. The town hotspot was a building where one could go and drink mineral-rich (hot springs?) water and socialize. While there, we briefly lost the mother from the mother/daughter pair.

As bizarre as this day was, I couldn’t help comparing it to all the bizarre excursions I had gone on while studying abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia. It had everything – the mystery meat lunches, the tour guide who was excited to practice his English, too much standing around, maybe less mountains than you had originally hoped for. I drew two conclusions from this. First, the promise of “excursions” in Eastern Europe is pretty uniform. And second, the least exciting excursion is so much more exciting when you’re doing it by yourself.

Traveling alone can be isolating, but often that isolation is endearing to others. I found this true of my traveling companions on the karpatskii tramvai. Especially when people discover that you’re foreign, their curiosity deepens and they’re even more willing to tell you about how they discovered that their French bulldog is diabetic, and how he almost died and how he goes with them everywhere now. Everyone took turns asking me how I found myself in Ukraine, where I learned Russian, wow you speak Russian so well, and you’re so adventurous! Ha-ha thank you, I love Ukraine! Here have my coat to put on your legs you poor girl you must be freezing. 2

Tags: winter fellowship, winter fellowship for international travel, international travel, language, ukraine, russian, adventure