The pieces are set; the squads-finalized, accommodations-fully booked, overdue construction projects-glossed over, and the plasticy, inflated “fanzones-”furnished and ready for a two-week long party. The opening ceremony of the world’s third largest sporting event-the UEFA European Football Championship-is mere hours away. Towns across the Ukraine and Poland are buzzing with anticipation for the flood of tourists, noise, color, and passion that will envelop the two host countries for nearly a month.
The historic city of Lviv, beating heart of western Ukranian culture, will play host to Group B, a.k.a. the “Group of Death.” Germany, Portugal, Netherlands, and Denmark will duke it out for the right to call themselves conquerors of one of the most difficult groups in recent tournament memory. Here in the region once known as “Galicia,” the atmosphere is one of optimism and warmth. The charming renaissance, baroque, and classic architecture, combined with the delicious coffee and beer, and the friendliness of the locals, will no doubt leave a strong impression on the minds of tourists, players, and pundits alike.
Lviv is a city of multiple heritages. Its balcony covered stone cobble streets, with three-window baroque facades rising above, relics of the Austrian-Hapsburg era, (which also left behind a strong cafe culture), its ornate Gothic churches, marks of its Polish past, which upon first visit are full of elderly worshippers, the seemingly out-of-place modern Soviet “block-style” apartments, and the multitude of theatres, museums, and book-fares made this place one of Europe’s true hidden gems-but not for long.
Droves of German and Portuguese tourists shoved past me in the dimly lit Art Noveu train station, filling the thankful Ladas, Skodas, new Japanese imports, and flashy European makes, whose eternally cigarette-puffing chauffeurs were more than willing to accept them.
After an overnight flight to London, a two-hour layover, a three-hour flight to Kiev, an hour shuttle bus ride to the train station, and a 13-hour overnight train, I finally made it to Lviv in one jet-lagged piece. Having been under the mistaken impression that the Euro competition would produce a multitude of signs in English, I was dependent on my guidebook and helpful Ukranians in navigating Cyrillic. Yet it was also pleasantly surprising to not have encountered any other tourists on my drowsy train journey through central Ukraine, a somehow reassuring fact that made me feel like an exotic foreigner. While the Kiev Train Station felt like one sweltering mass of people-young and old, rich and poor, all walking fast and talking on their cell phones, the trains were a throwback to a previous era.
Having chosen a fare in the narrow kupe sleeper compartment for a reasonable 188 Ukranian hryvnia (about $20 US Dollars), which I thought I would be sharing with three others, I made my way down the platform and consulted with various attendants before running into a young assistant who spoke English and directed me to my car. However, not being able to read the ticket, I initially settled into the wrong compartment, from which I was soon redirected. The kupe class was a long, and comically narrow corridor with miniscule boxy compartments on its left side and windows on the other. The compartments contained four bed-seats with two bunks on each side, and sparse bedding packets to cover the adorning red vinyl and worn foam. Slava, my non English-speaking kupe-mate, was kind enough to have shared his crackers and chocolate with me as we churned out of Kiev and into the forests and wilderness of central Ukraine.
Jetlag soon caught up with me, however, and I slept amazingly deeply throughout the rickety stop-and-start journey with no real idea of who would meet me on the other side. At 5:45 am we crawled into Lviv, I gathered my things, thanked the compartment attendant, and wandered around the station looking for my contact Ioora. With no Ioora in sight, I found the “internet hall” and Skyped my Ukranian friend Lili who was still in California. The conveniences of modern technology soon bore fruit as an enthusiastic, but tired-looking Ioorah found me and took me through central Lviv into the maple and pine forests that bore numerous modern suburban homes.
Eventually we reached Lili’s cousin’s house where I was eagerly met by her younger cousin (also named Ioora), and two family friends, Anatoli, a former physics teacher, who spoke excellent English (and Portuguese, having lived and worked in Portugal for four years), and his wife Maria, whose hospitality took me by surprise. After a large breakfast of blini, open-faced egg sandwiches, and ham and cheese, Anatoli and I hopped on a small packed bus into the compact “friendly city.” With the impending kickoff of Poland against Greece, I can only hope that this tournament is reflective of the same friendliness and positivity that I’ve encountered thus far in Lviv.
This post is dedicated to my friend Alexander Ryan Amber. Rest in peace Al.