It’s early on Tuesday morning and I’ve just finished packing my suitcase. Among the kaleidoscope of books and clothes, I’ve tucked in some other things, too: guilt, uncertainty, exhaustion, joy, trepidation and excitement. This evening, I’ll get on a train and start my journey home (with a fair number of stops along the way – including a gig umpiring for orphans in Western Ukraine!) Maybe it’s because I had coffee this morning for the first time in a month but my feet are dancing and my fingers are shaking and I am mad with expectation. I get this sense of urgency when it comes to recording these last few months and weeks in Ukraine. I get this sinking sense that if I don’t remember it then I might forget.
This morning is all too familiar.
Except now, two years later, it’s not the early-morning Acela and it’ll take far longer to get there.
Once upon a time in a land far, far away, I took a train from NY to Philadelphia for Peace Corps staging because, in those days, I walked around with the notion that there was no transit more romantic than the train. I indulged in any opportunity to sit in the wide, plush seats of the Newport News or The Vermonter; and even though the Amtrak automated phone service had sent me reeling into quasi-psychopathy more than once, I was still in love.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that train ride as I pack for a late-service trip home for my dear friend Laura’s wedding. It was a bizarre journey, I’m sure, for everyone involved. After all, I boarded the NY-DC commuter train with two rolling suitcases, a hiker’s backpack and a mandolin. High odds for deathly glares from the briefcase brigade.
“You know, New Yorkers usually don’t tolerate this kind of thing,” said another passenger as he helped me pick up one of my suitcases that had fallen.
Well, New Yorkers don’t usually pick up and join the Peace Corps either.
Except I knew just what he meant. I was scared out of my mind that this was only the beginning of the inconvenience I’d cause and the discomfort I’d feel during the next two years. My suitcases and I were getting in the way of progress and achievement. And I hated being an obstacle in the path of forward momentum. I did not go slowly. I slolemed down sidewalks and dodged pedestrians of leisure with relish.
In that moment, I wished I could commiserate with everyone who humphed and shook the pages of their WSJs as I labored by with my bags. I wanted to iron out the pages of my reading material in anger, too. A physical reaction to my discontent with this clueless young woman blocking the path of progress.
But I couldn’t, certainly not with the mandolin hung around my neck and a suitcase handle in each hand. I would have to go slowly and brave the stares of those who knew better.
In retrospect, that trip was the most difficult of all my service.
The process of boarding that train to Philadelphia felt longer than the 27 hours I spent traveling back to Ukraine from Prague. I spent the whole trip masked in my bravest face of nonchalance. I read The Economist, tried to restore my tarnished image in the eyes of the madding, commuting crowd. It was more trying than traveling from Kyiv with two enormous balkan bags of baseball equipment. More exhausting than my first Ukrainian Summer when I carried a Turkish rug around with me in a black, canvas bag for a month. Is this what I had to look forward to??
Luckily, never again did I have to board a train alone with such a heavy burden. Even today, though I’m one suitcase down from my original load, Luba is walking down to the bus station with me and carrying my mandolin.
It is hard to think of leaving. Especially when we had such a nice time last evening in our neighbor’s summer kitchen celebrating yet another little-known Orthodox holiday. What’s more, I can’t imagine an easy way to go about saying goodbye to an entire town. (I can imagine every pattern on every dish and each cornice in the apartment we’ll find in Chicago, but I can’t pin down an image of this goodbye.)
The hope is that I move more slowly now. You know, less forest, more trees. But the jury’s still out on that one. Because, well, old habits die hard and I’m a sucker for the kind of crammed and crowded forward motion that only the LIE can provide.
Yet, there’s got to be something said for the fact that, this time, going home takes two trips.