Sunday morning I got a call from my Dad, saying he was pulling up in front of our hotel. As we took the elevator downstairs, I couldn’t believe that we were finally going to be reunited! I ran out to the car and gave him the biggest hug ever, and tried not to cry as he held me close. I’d missed him so much, and we were finally together again! Mom was there too, and it was so great to see her : ) She came to see me in Ukraine in the spring, so I didn’t have to go as long without seeing her! We all got into the car, talking at the same time, and Dad drove us to breakfast. We ate at this cute little diner he and Tori knew about, and it was a great reunion : ) Mom and Dad told us about the wedding they’d been at, while Tori and I shared our all of our best moments from Lollapalooza.
Afterwards we went to their hotel and got settled into our room, and then went shopping for the few hours we had before Lollapalooza. We made a big stop at the Apple store, where I invested in a new Macbook! Tori inherited my old one, which had survived four years and countless travels but is now entirely dependent on being plugged into a charger to work. Which is fine if you plan on keeping your computer home 24/7, but it definitely made traveling around Ukraine problematic when the battery couldn’t hold a charge.
That evening, Mom and Dad went out to dinner and Tori and I headed to our last night of Lollapalooza. The weather had been bad that day, with periodic showers, but we hoped the rain was finished for the day. We saw Flogging Molly, Lissie, Cage the Elephant, and just stopped by to watch the Arctic Monkeys when the rain came back again with a vengeance. Tori and I got drenched, but really wanted to see a few more bands before we called it a night. Fortunately the rain abated for a while, giving us enough time to watch Portugal. The Man and Explosions in the Sky. (If these band names are foreign to you, you’ll just have to take my word that they’re all great!)
The last band we wanted to see was the Foo Fighters, and 20 minutes into their show they played Tori’s favorite song and we jammed along with it. Then another huge storm blew in, drenching us yet again, and we gave up and went home. Sunday was probably my least favorite Lollapalooza day, but seeing Lissie and Explosions in the Sky was almost worth getting soaked (twice). We got back to the hotel and dried off, and a few hours later my phone rang and my friend Branda made my day with the news that she was pulling up to our hotel. As soon as she finished work in Ohio Sunday night, she got in the car and drove to Chicago to see me! We spent a few hours catching up, and I was so happy to see her again. I didn’t think I’d be in the US long enough to see any of my friends, which made her visit even better!
The next day, the surprises kept coming. My friend Raquel drove up to Chicago from Indianapolis with her friend Jake, and we all went out to lunch with my parents and spent the day hanging out in Chicago. In the afternoon, my Aunt Mari and her husband Gene came, and that evening my grandparents arrived in town too! We all went out to dinner at my favorite restaurant for a belated birthday celebration, and I can’t explain to you how wonderful that day was. The next day I was supposed to fly back to Ukraine, so I tried not to think about it as I spent the evening with all the people I love most.
After dinner Branda and I went to a famous dueling piano bar, called Howl at the Moon, where we flirted with one of the pianists and got him to play “Yellow” by Coldplay, and “She Will Be Loved” by Maroon 5. We got back to the hotel pretty late, and the next morning came entirely too soon.
We went out to breakfast with my grandparents before they left for Cleveland, and made a stop at Starbucks so I could take some coffee back with me to Ukraine. Then we spent the rest of the morning packing and trying decide what was essential to fit into my one suitcase. All too soon I was packed and we were checking out of the hotel, and it was impossible to put off the inevitable goodbyes. We spent our last few hours at Navy Pier, shopping for souvenirs for my friends in Ukraine and enjoying the last few minutes together. I was feeling sick inside at the thought of getting on a plane and leaving again, when it felt like we’d only had a few short days together.
Branda, Tori, and I took some touristy pictures in front of the huge bean in Grant Park, and then it was time for Branda to go too. I gave her a hug and my parents gave her directions, and she was gone. Then it was to the airport, where Mom helped me get my bags checked in and my tickets printed. Saying goodbye was less painful than anticipated, knowing that I’d only have to go 4 months until I saw them again (I already planned on coming home for Christmas—Lollapalooza was just an unexpected bonus!) I didn’t cry, but let’s just say that I had to get out the list my friends made in Chernivtsi and remind myself of all the reasons I had for going back, and read it a few times until it sunk in that going back was the right thing to be doing. It made it a little easier, and helped me put one foot in front of the other as I walked to the gate, and flew back to Ukraine.
Michelle and I made it back to Chernivtsi, feeling very pleased with everything we managed to pack into our short time in Romania. I stayed at her place for the night, and the next morning our friend Tammela came into town for a belated birthday celebration at our favorite cafe. At this point it dawned on me that I was really going back to America, and that the day was finally upon us! I was incredibly excited, but also very aware that it would be hard to come back to Ukraine after a week in the US with my family.
So Michelle got out a piece of paper and a pen, and with input from Tammela and I, wrote a list of reasons why I had to come back after my trip. Some of the reasons were funny and lighthearted, such as “you already have a return ticket back!” and “to bring American goodies back for your favorite PCVs!” Other reasons were more practical; “you’re almost halfway done with your service, you can’t quit now!” and “come back for the upcoming trips we’ve planned, to Moldova and Poland!” It was a wonderful lunch and it really made me think about how blessed I’ve been with the friends I’ve made here. They’re pretty incredible.
After lunch I went to the train station and caught the overnight train to Kiev. My train arrived at 8 in the morning, and my flight didn’t leave until 1pm, so I stopped at a cafe and checked my email. I updated my Facebook to say I was finally coming home to America, and then took a bus out to the airport. The airport is about an hour away; if you take the bus it costs 25 greven (Ukrainian currency) to get there, but if you opt for a taxi its always 200 greven (and up). When my Mom came to Ukraine to visit, we took a taxi to the airport when she left because her flight was at 5am and I didn’t think the buses would be running. Taking taxis is easier to do when you’re on an American budget, because 200 greven is only $25. But for a Peace Corps Volunteer, 200 greven is what you’ll spend on food for an entire week—I wouldn’t blow it on a taxi ride!
I made it to the airport in plenty of time, and spoke my last few sentences of Ukrainian as we boarded the plane. My first flight was bound for London, and it was there during my layover where I felt the first pangs of culture shock. The prices in Heathrow were in pounds, so it was even more expensive than dollars! I bought a mug as a souvenir for one of my friends in Ukraine, and a Time magazine to read on my next flight, and it cost 10 pounds, which was almost $20, which was more than 150 greven!
My next flight was uneventful, and I tried to stay awake the whole time so I’d be ready to sleep when I got to Chicago. When the plane finally touched down I was too excited to sit still, just knowing that once I made it through customs my sister Tori would be waiting on the other side. And sure enough, she was there! I definitely teared up seeing her; it’d been almost a year, and Skype dates just hadn’t cut it : ) The crazy part was how nothing had changed; it felt just like always, hugging and talking to her. We took the metro to downtown Chicago, where our hotel was, and we called Mom and Dad in Ohio to tell them that I’d arrived and we were together.
Tori was a great navigator and got us to our hotel in no time. More culture shock was felt as we walked through downtown Chicago—it was so clean! And all the signs were in English! And once we got to the hotel room, I couldn’t get over the bed. It was huge, and SOFT! It had a mattress and everything… and I’m probably boring you by having raptures at normal, every-day things, but let me just assure you that after living abroad for a year these things feel like miracles. Tori got out all the goodies that she and my Mom had packed, such as ginger ale and oatmeal bar cookies (my favorite!). I thought that I would be too exhausted to do anything, but we ended up talking and unpacking most of my stuff so I could show her the souvenirs I’d brought from Romania. It was a great reunion, and so wonderful to be with Tori again. At 10pm, Chicago time (which would be 6am Ukraine time, but you’re not supposed to think about it that way or you’ll never adapt to the right time zone) we got into bed and I took some Tylenol PM to assure that I would stay asleep the whole night. And just like that, I was out.
The next day, the real fun began. Tori started out the day right by making a coffee run while I was in the shower—I got out and a huge cup of Dunkin’ Donuts was waiting for me! I can’t even tell you how happy that coffee made me : ) Lollapalooza was scheduled to start that afternoon, so we had a few hours to burn with some retail therapy. The best part about staying in downtown Chicago is how close the Miracle Mile is, complete with Express, H&M, and even Coach! I was blissed out on shopping, and Tori was a great companion/style guide. I bought tons of new clothes to take back to Ukraine with me, like jeans that actually fit and a few teacherly looking items. I also found some great rock concert type tank tops, so I would be ready to rock out at Lollapalooza. We closed our shopping spree with lunch at P.F. Chang’s, my favorite Chinese restaurant, and at this point I was pretty sure life couldn’t get any better… but that was before Lollapalooza!
We dropped off all the bags at our hotel, and changed clothes, and walked to Grant Park where the festivities would be taking place. In case you’ve never heard of it, Lollapalooza is a three-day music festival in Chicago, where more than 200 bands perform in one weekend. When you buy a ticket for the weekend, you receive a bracelet that lets you come and go as you please, so you can look at the schedule and decide what groups you want to see and what times you have to be there. The first time I went to Lollapalooza, I was 18 and went with my best friend Sammy. My Mom and Tori came to Chicago with us, and hung out while we went to the concerts. It was so much fun, and ever since then Tori’s been wanting me to go back with her! So now she’s 17, and this is her first time at Lollapalooza. Some of our favorite bands were there, and the lineup looked incredible.
At Lollapalooza, right before seeing Muse!
Friday we saw The Kills, Bright Eyes, OK Go, Muse, and Coldplay! I think Bright Eyes was my surprise favorite of the day; Conor Oberst gave an excellent performance, and Tori and I were close enough to see him and enjoy it. Muse was as amazing as anticipated; I saw them at my first Lollapalooza, and they give a great show. Plus the energy of the audience is incredible; the adoration of the crowd makes its almost like a religious experience instead of a concert. Muse is the only group I know that insists on having a grand piano on stage at every concert, which is probably why they’re one of my favorite groups ; ) Here’s a clip of Matthew Bellamy, the frontman of Muse, singing United States of Eurasia / Collateral Damage. The piano solo at the end is incredible, its well worth the minute it takes to watch it : )
We stayed for an hour of Muse, and then made our way to the other end of Grant Park to watch the other head-lining show: Coldplay! The best two British alternative rock bands in one night? Yes please! Coldplay also gave a great show, except that everyone tries to sing along to Coldplay and its annoys me because I’d rather listen to Chris Martin sing than everyone in the audience ; )
I think the highlight of Coldplay’s show was the part where Chris Martin sang a tribute to Amy Winehouse, who had passed away just a week earlier. It was such a sweet moment when he sang part of her song about rehab, and the audience was very touched. I took a video of it, so here’s the clip for you to enjoy as well. I was never a fan of her music, but I almost liked the song listening to Chris Martin sing it!
The next morning, Tori and I had a crazy adventure trying to get my hair cut. Its a long story, but we ended up going to the wrong salon an hour outside of town, and had to race back downtown to the right place. We were 40 minutes late, but they still took me, and I ended up getting 6 inches cut off and coming out with red hair. The stylist who did my hair was incredible, and it was so nice to have healthy hair again! And the red was great, Tori loved the color : ) Here’s a picture of us at Lollapalooza that night; see how happy we are? : )
Saturday we saw the Local Natives, Lykke Li, a few songs by My Morning Jacket, and then Eminem. I don’t think I’d ever pay to see Eminem outside of Lollapalooza, but he does deliver a great show. His attracts a pretty negative audience though, and there was lots of shoving/fights/death threats from people trying to get closer to the stage and other people fighting for their spots. It was intense, and I probably wouldn’t want to see him again, but it was fun for an hour : )
That night after the concert, Tori and I packed up our hotel room and got ready to leave, because the next morning our parents were coming and we were moving to a new hotel with them! Read on for the rest of the Chicago adventure : )
There was no direct train from Sighiṣoara to Suceava, so Michelle and I had bought tickets on different trains that would eventually get us Suceava by 8am the next morning. The first train ride was uneventful, and at 10pm we disembarked to catch our second train. After being in Ukraine for almost a year, we’ve gotten used to traveling at night by train. In Ukraine, every night train has bunks (no matter whether you buy 1st, 2nd, or 3rd class) so you can sleep for most of the journey and wake up ready for the next day. We had hoped that Romania would be similar, but once we got on our overnight train we realized how wrong we were. Our compartment had 8 seats, with no bunks or options for reclining to sleep. Even worse, our compartment had the most obnoxious, PDA (public display of affection)-filled couple that I have ever had the bad luck of being stuck with. It was distracting (and disgusting) how close they managed to be, and between their antics and being forced to sit up all night, it seemed like the longest journey ever. At one point I nodded off for a bit, only to wake up to suction noises coming from their seats. The worst part was that they were in the seats directly facing Michelle and I, so it was kind of hard to miss. Let’s just say that at 8am, Michelle and I couldn’t get off the train fast enough : )
Once our train arrived in Suceava, we made our way to the “High Class Hostel” (isn’t that a great name for a hostel?) where Michelle had arranged for us to take a tour of the Painted Monasteries. A lady from Australia was going with us too, and soon the driver showed up with the car and we were off. When the tour started, I was worried that our exhaustion would make the tour hard to enjoy, but the car was comfortable and the scenery we passed was beautiful. In no time at all we were at our first stop—Suceviţa.
The weather was a little bit drizzly, but the monastery was beautiful. I’ve never seen a church like this, that is covered in murals both on the inside as well as the outside! Suceviţa is an Orthodox Christian Monastery for nuns, and its the largest of all the painted monasteries. It was built in 1581, and is surrounded by heavily fortified walls to protect the church from Ottoman raids. The most famous mural of Suceviţa is the “Ladder of Virtue, showing the saints ascending to heaven whilst sinners (depicted as Turks) fall down to be taken by demons” (check out this website for more pictures and information about Suceviţa).
Our next stop was at the monastery of Moldoviţa, which was built in 1532. Its still in use today, and one of the nuns who lives there described the murals as “the holy scriptures in color.”
The painter of the beautiful murals of Moldoviţa was Toma of Suceava, and his best known mural is the “Tree of Jesse,” which depicts the lineage of Jesus Christ. It was an incredibly visual experience, as you can see the face of each person in Jesus’ family tree there on the exterior wall of the church. I can just imagine how powerful these murals must’ve been for the illiterate peasants who came to these churches to worship; the church is literally covered in murals explaining the Bible for all those who cannot read the words themselves.
Its unbelievable how well preserved these murals are—they’ve been exposed to the elements for 500 years, and they’re still in excellent condition. 7 of the painted monasteries are even on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites, recognized as masterpieces of Byzantine art and architecture.
After seeing Moldoviţa, our driver suggested that we stop for lunch and pulled out a menu so we could order ahead of time. This was our first time eating “Romanian” food, and I was a little disappointed to discover that its very similar to Ukrainian food. Which isn’t bad, but its just not exciting. Here’s a picture of Michelle and I at lunch—can you tell how tired we were? : )
After lunch we headed to see the most famous painted monastery of them all—Voroneţ. It was founded in 1487 by Stephen the Great, Prince of Moldavia, to celebrate his victory over the Turks. According to legend, he built it in under four months!
Voroneţ is the most famous of all the painted monasteries because of its incredible murals, especially The Last Judgment which covers the whole exterior of the western wall. Our tour guide explained the spectacular composition of the murals by comparing them to the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, which are of the same age. The Sistine Chapel is indoors and has faced countless restorations since it was completed, while the beautiful murals at Voroneţ (and the other monasteries) are outside and exposed to the elements, and yet today are still in excellent condition with very little restoration. If you think about it this way, the painted monasteries are even more of a miracle than the beautiful Sistine Chapel!
Voroneţ is known as “the Sistine Chapel of the East”
A closer look at “The Last Judgment” (Click to see the full-sized image!)
The composition of the paint used on these monasteries remains a mystery to this day, and it continues to amaze people how well the paint has stood the test of time. The dominant color of The Last Judgment is a vivid cerulean blue, which is so distinctive that today art historians refer to it as “Voroneţ blue.”
The final painted monastery on our tour was called Humor, which was built in 1530. This was the smallest painted monastery we saw, but I really liked it. I think if I was a peasant in the 1500s and I had so many incredibly beautiful churches within a 30 km radius (and had a horse to get me there), I would probably go to Humor . It has its own unique character, and the nuns who bustled around (and even led their own services) had an aura of tranquility.
Toma of Suceava, who painted the murals at Moldoviţa, was also responsible for the murals of Humor. But Humor’s most interesting claim to fame is not in the artwork, but in the architecture. The back of the monastery features a traditional Moldavian open porch, which was the first of its kind to be built in Bucovina.
In case you’re wondering, Bucovina is a historical term that refers to the area surrounding the northeastern part of the Carpathian Mountains. The territory once known as Bucovina is now split between Ukraine and Romania; my oblast (or region) in Ukraine, the Chernivetska Oblast, is part of Bucovina, while the Painted Monasteries in northern Romania are also located in the area that was once called Bucovina. Just an interesting historical tidbit for you to know : )
Seeing the Painted Monasteries was the last stop on our tour of Romania. So after a whirlwind trip, Michelle and I headed back home to Ukraine!