“On the train from Kyiv to Chernivtsi, I saw villages lit with old lamps”

the green church

In honour of Ukraine’s anniversary of independence, I offer a small passage from my recent book, Blue Portugal & Other Essays. Sometimes it takes a person a long time, almost a lifetime, to find their roots, or some of them. Here’s Exhibit 3 from “Museum of the Multitude Village”. Slava Ukraini!

Exhibit 3: villages viewed from train windows

Impossible now to think of train travel without a kind of tenderness—as if that is what love is: arrival after arrival.1

I kept pulling aside the little blind over the window at the foot of my bed on the train from Kyiv to Chernivtsi. It was dark but there were lights in the little villages we passed: lamplight, streetlights, a few dim platform lights smudging the edges of the tracks. We’d had cherry liquor earlier in the evening, a mellow way to pass the hours in a narrow compartment, talking with our Ukrainian host, an employee of Cobblestone Freeway, and sharing some chocolate, and then I put on my cotton nightdress and tried to find the most comfortable position on my side of the compartment. Already our beds had been made up with a crisp sheet, another folded on top, and two square pillows, with fresh white cases.

Three times in my life I’ve spent a night in a train compartment. No, four, because I traveled from Spain to Brindisi on a train, two trains (because I changed in Rome), sitting upright with passengers on either side, and didn’t sleep a wink. Around me people drank wine, smoked, talked all night, eating bread with sliced garlic. I was so entranced by everything I saw—sleeping villages, a floodlit castle on a hill, horses racing along some dunes in the southwest of France as the light returned—that I didn’t mind being awake. But the first time I had a bed on a train was a dreadful experience, traveling from Bologna to Paris. John and I thought we had a private couchette but found ourselves instead with four fellow bedmates, amiable young Italian men heading to a religious gathering. Two of them had heavy colds and they coughed and sneezed repeatedly, but happily joined the others for prayers and hymns. I climbed into the top bunk and tried to get comfortable, knowing I would have to climb down to pee at least once in the night. It was November. Again, I didn’t sleep. At dawn our train broke down somewhere in Central France, just beyond a village tucked in the bottom of a hill. There was no heat. The compartment became foggy with condensation. The single toilet on our car backed up. I will never do this again, I said tersely to John, watching the young men say their rosaries while coughing into the shared air, because by then the full quartet was sick. We went outside to stand in the cold on the edge of fields and waited. Eventually a new engine arrived and we proceeded to Paris, late and chilled, with the beginnings of an illness that lasted for weeks.

The second time, a year later, was wonderful. John was trying to get us from the Czech Republic to the Netherlands in the least disruptive way. I’d been sick while in Brno and was recovering slowly. Rather than face the cattle call of one of the cheap airlines taking people from one place to another with the least amount of comfort, he discovered that we had enough points for a first-class overnight train ride from Prague to Amsterdam, the cost minimal. It was memorable. We were greeted with a glass of champagne as we boarded the train. Our couchette had its own tiny bathroom, with a sink that swiveled on a bronze arm, and a shower. Big plush towels. Our beds were made up with fresh white linen. That night I slept so well, awakened only by the sound of the train stopping at stations; when I’d peek through the blind at the end of my bed, I’d see a sign saying Köln or Dresden. A few people on dark platforms, their suitcases beside them and the sound of outer coach doors opening, closing, while I was warm under the duvet. Our porter brought us a breakfast tray of good coffee, croissants, cheese and ham, and glasses of cold orange juice. From the window I watched children in a small village walking to school, someone mopping the entrance to a bar, and smoke rising from chimneys while a slow river ran under a bridge where a man dangled a fishing line and didn’t look up at the train.

On the train from Kyiv to Chernivtsi, I saw villages lit with old lamps, I saw them close, and in the distance. And oh, Orion stretched across the sky above one small village, close enough to touch. When I checked my husband’s watch, it was 4:30 a.m.. I made a little drawing in my notebook, wanting to remember the exact placement of the stars. I was on the train, drawing Orion, and 32,000 years ago, someone in a cave in the Swabian Jura was carving Orion into a length of mammoth bone to make a star map to keep the memory of a constellation at hand. I could almost hear the cows lowing in the fields to be milked, to be given a handful of hay from the stooks that stood close to the houses. The train took us from darkness to light and from the present to a place where my own ancestors had lived for generations. The train, traveling through the night, as it once took my grandfather from Chernivtsi to Lviv (or Lemberg, it would have been then) to Krakow and then Bremen or Hamburg, for his long journey to North America and another life. Impossible now to think of train travel without a kind of tenderness. I remember the sound of the whistle as we approached our final station, early morning, each village awake too in its place, lights extinguished for the day.

1 Railtracks is a correspondence, a dialogue between John Berger and Anne Michaels, taking place against a backdrop of Tereza Stehlíková’s moody photographs of Bohemia. 69.

4 thoughts on ““On the train from Kyiv to Chernivtsi, I saw villages lit with old lamps””

    1. I’m so glad. It was an utterly memorable time. Or multiple times — the train from Italy to Paris, from Prague to Amsterdam, from Kyiv to Chernivtsi. I dream of those trains.

  1. My family used to take the train from Vancouver back to Toronto to visit the large family they’d left behind. I loved those trips! My father and I would be the two who couldn’t sleep, would sit up talking or just being in each other’s presence. We travelled coach because there wasn’t money to upgrade. We carried our own pillows in a duffle bag rather than paying to rent pillows. We brought our own food. One year my brother broke out in measles and we were quarantined in a little suite for the rest of the ride. Imagine what that was like for me and my sister! goodness! How I would love to repeat that ride, even with all the small hardships and privations. We were poor, I understand now, but we were rich beyond measure in what mattered. Thanks for tweaking my memories!

    1. I found postcards sent by my mother to my father’s parents, indicating that she had travelled from Halifax to Edmonton, and back, with my older brother, in order to introduce the baby to them. 1951. I never heard the details of this trip but I sort of imagine it, my mother in a travelling suit, probably gloves and a hat, with cloth diapers for the baby, and all the other necessities. Another world. I will never forget seeing Orion from the train window, in the small hours, in Ukraine. Magic.

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