“It’s like you’re going to the moon! A place with only a one way ticket.”
I was in the tourist office in Ivano-Frankivsk, trying to find the return bus times to Starunya, the village where my father was born in 1914. I already had the details of the three daily buses out, but no return buses were listed anywhere. The young woman was stumped too.
“I’m not sure if I can risk going,” I said. “It’s too far to walk back.”
“Yes, I just checked. Seven hours.”
She suggested that I ask at the city’s various bus stations – most of which are situated miles out of the city – and at every one I was met with head shakes. “There are no times.”
“But there is a bus back?”
“Yes, there is a bus.”
Perhaps it was a circular route, where you got off and then waited for the next one to arrive.
At bus station number 3 the next morning, there were buses going everywhere but Starunya. An elderly woman was also waiting and I decided to practise the Ukrainian I’d been learning. I didn’t understand everything she said, but I gathered that she was going to visit someone who was very ill, and she started to cry. I had no words to comfort her; all I could do was hug. Her name was Vera. We sat together on the bus and exchanged telephone numbers. “I like you!” she said.
“I like you too!”
Vera got off the bus at another town and I watched her wandering around looking for her connection. Then I heard her voice, “Michelle?”
“Tak?” There was Vera, on the steps of the bus holding a bag of bananas she’d just bought for me.
Starunya seemed to be one long circular village, strung out along a road more like a dried up riverbed. There seemed to be no centre so I just left the bus and began walking, past signs in English to a mud volcano that lies on the edge of the village. The views were green and gentle, stretching away to the Carpathians on the horizon.
“What are you looking for?” a man called to me through his gate. I explained that my grandmother and father had been born here, and I pulled out the old family photographs. “It’s interesting, I know these people, I recognise them,” he said, “but they are not here.”
My father had left this village and married into another one on the opposite side of the main road. I was heading there next day, and said so. He nodded. “That’s where you might find people. Over the road, down the other side of the hill.”
He invited me to sit on the swing seat in his garden and brought me some homemade apple juice while his wife telephoned people with my grandmother’s surname. She wrote down the number for me and a tiny ginger kitten nibbled at my foot.
They called to an elderly woman walking down the road, and she joined us. It’s strange how people remember the family, even though they are long gone. I caught the words for German, partisan and that name Bandera that had haunted me on a previous trip. It sounded like my grandmother’s side of the family had been involved in the Ukrainian resistance. It was hard to tell whether the tone was disapproving or merely excited.
“Partisans . . . is that good or bad?”
“Not bad,” they reassured me. “Not always correct, but not bad.”
The man took me to the edge of his garden to point out Starunya’s three churches. “That one there’s the oldest one, and you can see the cemetery.”
And so I walked down to the valley, where I asked for directions and a man led me into a field. “Go straight on and you’ll find the cemetery; the old graves are on the right, and the new ones on the left.”
I walked past discarded crosses and turned to the right. My grandmother died before the second world war, and most of the old metal crosses had lost their inscriptions long ago. She was somewhere here beneath the overgrown grass, the dried leaves and the plums that had fallen from overhanging trees, but I now knew I wouldn’t find her. There were later graves with the same surname, often with an accompanying photograph, and these were probably relatives, although perhaps distant.
A couple were making a beeline for me. “Who are you looking for?” I couldn’t follow what the woman was saying and opened my Google translate app, but it simply couldn’t cope with the speed and the volume. “Come,” they said, and led me through the old graves into the newer section, finally stopping at the edge of a freshly dug grave.
“They will bury a young girl here today. There will be many, many people here, people you can ask. Someone will know where your family are buried.”
I could understand their logic and it was so kind of them to help me. But it sounded like a terrible idea. How could I impose on people during their worst moments?
I thanked the couple and moved back to the older section, where I sat on a bench and ate Vera’s bananas. Soon came the unmistakable rhythm of a priest’s intonation and the cries of grief, along with quieter sounds that had been in the background since I’d arrived. Rustlings in the undergrowth; I liked to think of them as family ghosts, acknowledging a foreign spirit as one of their own.
The bus back to Ivano-Frankivsk came, although the driver made the mistake of turning off the engine to have a short break. When it was time to leave, the bus choked and spluttered but refused to start. I joined the straggle of passengers drifting down the road to wait for ‘another bus’ to take us back to the city.