Thoughts on L'viv, Ukraine, and a very long flight home

Sept. 27, 1998
Elisabeth Sherwin --

I'm still a little dizzy from Monday's 21-hour flight from L'viv, Ukraine, to McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento.

This was a California National Guard-sponsored trip for journalists, educators, agribusinessmen and civic leaders. The flight to the Ukraine only took 18 hours and I managed to recover from that during our three full days in the beautiful, ancient city of L'viv.

But the return trip was a killer. We flew on a Boeing 727 from L'viv to Iceland for refueling, to Gander, Canada, for refueling, to Andrews Air Force base to let some people off and take on some new passengers. We refueled there, too. Then we were all set to fly into McClellan when unexpectedly strong winds made the pilot decide to make an extra refueling stop, this in Grand Island, Neb.

"I've never been to Nebraska before," said the TV journalist from L.A. sitting next to me. "And I didn't expect to go there today."

But the stop was welcome for more than one reason. It would have been a shame to run out of fuel somewhere high over the Sierra, of course, but the passengers also needed refueling.

We were rushed out of Andrews Air Force Base so that President Clinton could fly in after his speech at the United Nations. He may not be held in universal high regard, but when the National Guard was told to hurry and get out of there, they sure did. In fact, in the rush our on-flight dinner was left behind. And remember this was a long, nearly endless, flight.

So someone smart called ahead. When we swooped down in Grand Island, there was the pizza delivery girl on the runway, ready to hand off 16 large pizzas to go. All was forgiven.

I managed to shred the film in my camera, so I have no photographic proof of making this short, intense journey. But there are some images I will carry with me for a long time, I hope.

Among them: The exquisite architecture in old L'viv. The churches date back several centuries and despite hardships and official condemnation they were gilded, golden and beautiful. I wandered into an ancient Catholic church on Saturday evening and after a few minutes realized a Mass was taking place. The priest and four young servers were at the altar, but not a single participant was in sight. I still don't know why no one was there, but the next morning a big crowd turned out for Mass at St. Yuriy's Cathedral that overlooks the town.

The cobblestoned streets. A street near our hotel was being repaired during the few days we were in town. No asphalt was used in the reconstruction, just more cobblestones. No skateboarders here. No parking lots or fast-food restaurants either.

The ghostly Lychakivsky Cemetery. This is built in a dark woods and crammed with the most beautiful monuments and headstones seen outside a 19th century museum. I expected to encounter Count Dracula behind a crypt on this rainy late afternoon. Instead, I saw fresh flowers placed at the tombstones of famous poets and patriots, evidence of enduring respect.

The $3 ballet. It only cost $3 a ticket to see a ballet at the turn-of-the-century opera house on the main square in L'viv. The L'viv ballet isn't a serious threat to the Bolshoi, but the audience was so appreciative, the atmosphere so warm, the building so ornately beautiful, that it was an evening to remember.

Gorgeous crystal wine glasses. I didn't know that L'viv was the place to buy crystal, but two knowledgeable fellow travelers took me to a run-down market where crystal was being sold for less than glass at Target. I hand-carried the crystal back home and will remember L'viv when I put them on the table.

The yearning of the excellent bilingual L'viv University students to find graduate programs in the United States. The dozen or so Ukrainian students who volunteered their time to help us navigate around the city were so eager to study in the United States that it was heartbreaking. They only lack money and that's the determining factor.

A sumptuous dinner. This was prepared by Andre von Oettingen's cousin, Ella, at their home. White and black bread, homegrown peppers and cucumbers, salads, a thick soup with meat and potatoes seasoned with parsley and dill, and a main dish of flavorful beef and potatoes. Watermelon for dessert, just like home. I also had a L'viv hotdog during the holiday parade on Sunday. (L'viv was celebrating its birthday.) The dog tasted similar to what we have here, except for the hardy wheat bun and the condiments of shredded cabbage and carrots.

This trip must have been a logistical nightmare for the National Guard. Except for that slight hitch at the airport, remedied in Grand Island, everything was wonderful. I had never traveled on a group tour before and found myself part of a good-humored and very funny crowd. I was pleased to be a part of it and for that, National Guard, I salute you. Let's do it again.

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