When I arrived at the gate for connecting flight from Germany to Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, it was clear I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. The crowded waiting area was filled with the unmistakable look of gloomy Ukrainians. Not a word of English was spoken. Not a word of German, either, for that matter. They stared at me like I just announced that I slept with their mother—a look I would get used to from that point on.
I managed to find a seat between two people who either apparently never had heard of deodorant, or simply ran out a long time ago. Another aspect of Ukrainian life I would soon grow accustomed to.
From the corner of my eye, I felt someone…something staring at me from across. I looked up. It was an old Ukrainian babushka woman. Carrying a cage. A cage containing a chicken, which begged the requisite questions: Why a chicken? Did she come to Germany just to get this chicken? Was it for her, or 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?
But what did I do? Is staring at another woman’s chicken a crime in Ukraine? The woman’s glare intensified. But why? Do old Ukrainian babushka women hate Americans? Hate Americans in t-shirts and jeans? I figured the glare would eventually subside, that she would get back to minding her own business. But her glares remained. And then it was time to board.
I headed through the tunnel, assuming that it would naturally lead to a plane. But it led to a stairwell. That led to a shuttle. That led to another terminal, where the 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 probably would have heard of it. So maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing.
It was one of those small, propeller planes that looked like its best days were during the middle of the Cold War. We boarded the plane through the rear. The propellers were 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 sweet aroma of body odor.
Upon reaching my seat, I looked through a complimentary Ukrainian newspaper, pleasantly surprised by full-color nude photos and the occasional fully-clothed diplomat.
A woman to my left held a crying baby—a problem of which was remedied by 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, which only 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 armrests for dear life and closed my eyes, joining my neighbor in intense prayer.
I knew I could relax once passengers pulled out their baskets of food and vodka, filling the cabin with the nauseating stench of pickled herring and smoked fish, 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 at as the weirdo. As the freak. Weak Americans, 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, asshole! So I took his advice and did just that, taking out a Russian-English phrase book in a vain attempt to translate what I was just told. All I gathered was how much the Cyrillic alphabet resembled tables and chairs.
A stewardess (with a purplish bee-hive and make-up plastered on her face in the manner of a clown) came by with a refreshment cart. She handed me what bore at least some semblance to something edible and a can of apple juice. I tried to pull down my tray, but it was broken. So I ate my snack, trying to ignore the creeping feeling that I was making a big mistake.
And then, by some divine miracle, I felt myself slowly fading off to sleep until I was interrupted by the sound of a drill. On a plane. Startled, I looked around the cabin. And indeed, there was a mechanic, slightly resembling Doc Brown from Back to the Future, drilling into the ceiling of the plane. I didn’t sleep another wink. Never was I more fearful of my life. Two hours later, the plane began its descent. I looked out the window at the sparse Ukrainian countryside, finding it hard to believe 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 rose 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 up, so 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?”
“Da, English. Minute.” She hastily took the form from me and moments later, returned with an English one. I couldn’t help but feel a slight tinge of shame.
Finally, the plane landed. Unscathed. And the passengers exploded into wild applause.
Bobby Fox's works have been published in the The Naked Feather, The Medulla Review, Lap Top Lit Mag, The Path, The India Contemporary Review, Yareah Magazine, One Title Magazine, The Knotted Beard Review, The Lyceum, Detroit News, Dearborn Times-Herald, TravelMag and InTravel Magazine. This piece is an excerpt from a travel memoir entitled Love & Vodka about his travels in Ukraine.