You know it’s true, you really can get used to being the square peg in a circle town. It might have taken a year, but hearing my name on the street finally feels ordinary. Groups of “We Real Cool” teenagers greet me in German or Japanese, in any foreign language they know. Gazes and stares blink out “Incredulous!” in some Ukrainian Morse code when I ask for strange spices like clove and ginger at the shop. Little starfish-shaped children all bundled up for winter yank at babushka’s coat sleeve and whisper, “Missamanta, tse missamanta.”
Yes, that’s right, here I am. And here, in Ukraine, that is what I am: Miss Samantha, the rootless and forever smiling foreigner-in-residence. With her excessive use of ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ her USDA-approved toothpaste, and a checkered coat that just screams, “I’M FROM AWAY!!” With all that noise, it’s a wonder I can hear myself think.
Considering the frequency with which I write about running in Ukraine, you may have been persuaded to believe that it is a national pastime, that Ukrainians are a lot who take to the streets in sneakers and tracksuits on the daily. I assure you, this is not true. So, if you are sitting there fancying Ukraine to be such a place, please accept my humblest apologies. It seems you have been misled. It seems, what with all my talk of running on icy patches past grazing goats, I have led you astray because a runner’s country Ukraine is not. In fact, I’d bargain that there are more people running around the Charles River in Boston on any given day than there are running in the whole of Ukraine.
I’d bet my last jar of peanut butter on it.
Needless to say, here I am running again in a place where people don’t run. The truth of it is, though, that’s why I love to do it. When I’m running in Ukraine, it’s not me who’s foreign but what I’m doing. It doesn’t matter that my coat is checkered or that I’ll never properly pronounce the word for love, it doesn’t matter that I’m an American; I am a runner and that is foreigner enough.
Now, while Ukrainians may not be wind-sprinting down Carl Marx Street, that’s not to say they aren’t active participants in my physical training. (You may, oh diligent reader, remember a previous incident wherein I participated in a pas-de-deux with an inebriated fellow I encountered while out running in the fields.)
“Here’s another one,” I say to myself, looking ahead down the road.
A man in a bright pink, green and blue MembersOnly jacket rides his bicycle toward me. In his limp, fish lips he dangles a cigarette. He has the kind of hair that people sported to look cool back before I was born; nappy waves to the shoulder – distant listlessness in his eyes. Just the kind of character I try to avoid when I’m out running on my own.
But, I’m so intrigued. It’s the jacket that really gets me – especially since here, in Ukraine, the color spectrum usually dies out somewhere between dark purple and black. This jacket would have been Thrift store find-of-the-semester in college. He rides the way you imagine people riding in places that don’t allow cars – like Fire Island or Put-In Bay, like some college kid who’d started riding one day and never quite figured out where he was going.
Despite the jacket, I brace myself for another unpleasant interaction on the road. I clench my jaw a little, stare straight forward and speed up, annoyed that yet another drunk ne’er-do-well is messing with my runner’s chi. As we draw closer, I plan escape routes, ways to avoid his attempt to engage me in another two step. He’s getting ready to do something, I can tell, and I practice my…er, yoga moves in my head (and promptly make a promise with myself to do more kickboxing). Just a few feet ahead of me, I catch his creepy, off-the-deep-end eye and immediately wish I’d been born a boy. I’ve got chills and not just because it’s below zero.
And then, out of the blue, it happens just like that.
“God Bless ya, young one!,” he says.
“May God give you health!” He shouts again, almost toppling sideways off his bicycle.
Yup, definitely drunk, but not nearly as harmful as expected; in fact, kind of sweet in his own way. More “Weekend at Bernie’s” than Freddy Kreuger for sure. My gate slows and my fists unclench; I’m nearing the end of my run anyway.
And here I am smiling because that’s the thing about Ukraine – when you learn to take the good and trust that the rest will right itself eventually, it becomes a pretty amazing place. Sure, the sun sets at 3:30pm but have you caught the blaze in which it goes?
Let’s just say, these days, I’m learning to take the blessing and run.
ps – Sam is currently serving in the Peace Corps in Ukraine. You can follow her blog at: http://atyourperilmisspeace.wordpress.com/