As when I entered the EU from Belarus, the border into Ukraine was closed to bicycles. From Belarus, this had meant having to wait overnight and taking a train one stop the next day, but it was much easier entering Ukraine. Within 2 minutes of standing at the checkpoint, having been told I couldn’t ride the next kilometre, someone offered to put my bike into their vehicle. Crossing the border, I mainly noticed just how cheap things were. Due to the conflict with Russia, the Ukrainian hryvnia had halved in value. It was similar the year before when I was in Russia, which should be expensive but was instead reasonably cheap – especially the cheese that they couldn’t export to the EU due to a dispute. There were also a number of reminders of the conflict along the road, including memorials showing just some of those lost.
Lviv was my first destination, and the city reminded me of Vienna in a way which was fitting given its position in the Austro-Hungarian empire. When I was in Moscow, I went to see a ballet, and even though it had been Romeo & Juliet I struggled to follow the story. In Lviv, I decided I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to pay very little to go and see the opera. I saw ‘A Masked Ball’ and it was also a challenge to follow along. The fact that the ‘subtitles’ were in Ukrainian did give me some Cyrillic practice but also meant that I had to find the script online and read along on my phone as I watched – not exactly the best way to immerse yourself in a piece of art.
While in Belarus, I’d been speaking with my family about my route plan and my dad had mentioned that his father had been born in what is now modern-day Ukraine, in a place called Zastavna. I had no idea where it was, but it seemed to make approximate sense on a line heading south towards Turkey so I put it on my possible route. Although he had been born there, the second world war had displaced him and his first family and not much was known about his time in Ukraine and the belief was that no-one was still there. My idea had been to head through, take some pictures, look around and see if I could see any Luthers in the graveyards and then head out. Things don’t always go as planned.
The night after leaving Lviv, I stayed in Ivano-Frankivsk with Hordiy & Marta from Warmshowers. There had been two hosts in the city, but I’d contacted Hordiy in a perfect example of how small things change everything in a way we can’t expect. Who knows what would have happened had I stayed with the other guy, but when I was staying with Hordiy I met Max, an IT specialist with an interest in genealogy. While we were having a cup of tea in a café, I mentioned my family situation to Max and within a few minutes he had used a Ukrainian governmental registry website and found that I quite probably had relatives still living in Zastavna. Marta searched Facebook and VK (a Facebook alternative popular in Russia & Ukraine) and found a lady called Yulia Luther, my probable half-cousin. A friend request and message proving our connection (the fact that it would have been our grandfather Joseph’s birthday the next day) and I had an invite to stay with my family in Zastavna, where I’d arrive 2 days later.
Suffice to say, what followed in the next 5 days in Zastavna was just amazing, but I’m not going to write much about it here as it crosses boundaries about what I think should be shared. I was welcomed with incredible warmth, and despite the language barrier heard and shared so many stories from this part of my family using the joys of Google Translate and the help of Max & Marta.