The barest bones of the experience is often too hefty a skeleton for paper and pen. Traveling solo puts the full weight of it all onto your shoulders, and there is nothing you can do about all the little details that lay hidden inside you now, un-relatable and fully your own .
I came to New York in summer carrying the roots of a trip to Odessa in my suitcase. Kyiv had been four weeks that were months in the sum of the intensity of relationships, revelations and experiences. Volunteering at a summer camp for Jewish girls from Ukraine held something expansive and powerful in its parts, a weaning of the strengths and flaws inside us. Camp was difficult, in that it defied and defined nature in small increments of sweaty seconds, where Americans and Ukrainians and Israelis relearned the language of love and of connection, without the words we have held necessary all our lives.
Half the girls were from Odessa, and most of those girls lived in what is known as an Internaht during the year- a delicate mix of boarding school, orphanage and dormitory, depending on how you chose to look at it. The dawning of August found me stubbornly refusing to face the farewell, an uncharasteric anxiety plaguing the nights of the last week, as the hours ruthlessly dwindled. I made a pact then, to return, to return soon and with American chocolates and all the good parts of me that I could muster.
So, I came, and against almost everyone’s advice I came alone, because it was hard to sync schedules and budgets and preferences with my friends. It was one of the rightest decisions I ever made, and one of the coolest and most unique experiences I ever had, but I also hate glossing over the bones of reality, and so I’d also like to clarify that it was really, really hard, and ate up half my heart. I had to be everything- funny and warm and patient and wise and witty and generous- and I had to be all that all of the time, and all on my own, and it never came to feel like I was fully enough.
The bare bones of it all of course, was that I came, was that I said I would and then I was there, bags under my eyes and untamed flight-hair and suitcase full of Hersheys chocolates. There were the initial sliver-seconds of a press of someone’s lips to my face or the wild sturdiness of someone’s arms round my shoulders in which everything felt sufficiently right for that moment, and I knew with such deep certainty that I should I have come, that I felt almost whole.
Then there were the other bones- the times when girls sprawled on couches watching TV and I wandered the hallways, slightly aimless, and feeling intruder and outsider both, passing roomfuls of girls bent over homework or their phones. There were conversations that were painful, thrumming with the underlying lack and bleakness of children cast away from homes broken in half and slowly drowning in alcohol and spurts of violence, and there was the helplessness we feel when we come up against the boulder that life can be. There was anger sometimes too, directed at me, anger at what I didn’t say or who I didn’t sit next to, or whose sister’s name I didn’t remember.
Odessa itself kidnapped my heart unexpectedly. Something about the cheeky sprawl of the port city claimed the soul of the sixth grader within, who had been besotted by Jack London’s stories and dreamed of growing up to be a sailor. The bare bones of its story is sad- a poverty to its streets and a stifling stagnation to its economy that is hard to fully grasp as a child of New York, and wild dogs roaming the streets, strolling hungry and at home among the humans hurrying along against the winter chill. The homes are colorful, personality and history stained lackadaisically on their walls, but they are also obviously tired, and slightly sunken under the weight of the 70-year-old winds.
Beyond the poorness, or perhaps even alongside it, there exists a dignity to the people that I’ve never witnessed yet before. There is a warmth to the air that touches your eyelashes even in the dead of winter, and a defiance nestled in the old cobblestones. It’s a city in which almost all the women smoke cigarettes and dye their hair, and politely offer each other seats on the street trolley. Odessa is known as the city of humorists and satirists, and even within the walls of the Internaht there was a sharpness and wit that managed to strip life of its pompous seriousness.
I spent ten days there, and I met so many new and marvelous people, and learned stories that ached with their loss and triumphs, and I took cabs by myself, with a phone that had long lost its service somewhere over the Atlantic, and I got lost and relied on the kindness of strangers, and I spent almost every morning holding Sarah, three weeks old and spanning the length of my arm, left by her young and drunken mother, and constantly screaming inconsolably for someone to hold her. I brushed my teeth every night standing alongside the wide bathroom window, looking out at the grey burned-out facade of an old factory, and some nights there were homeless young men, one with blue eyes blazing almost silver under the streetlight, digging through the dumpsters.
Perhaps there is an unspeakable hubris, I wrote late one night, sitting desolate on the deserted couch in one of the common areas, to come a chipped vessel in an attempt to fill voids no one can even dare to speak of. The gist of it all was that my trip was an exercise in trying to patch up the biggest tears with nothing but the desire to fix them, and the poorest of needle and thread. There were certain girls I wanted to take back home with me to the point of desperation, and then I had to let them go. And that is one the toughest aspects of heaving around these bones- it’s that I learned to break all the barriers, love brazen and without filter, and then you have to let go anyway, walk out there into the shivering, violet dawn, leaving those girls all behind, warm and soft in slumber in the shared rooms that are both their prison and their home.
*The name of the organization that runs three of these children’s homes- one for toddlers till the third grade, and then a separate boys and girls home, is called Tikvah of Odessa, and it is an incredible augmentation of people and projects and ideals that can take anyone’s breath away- so feel free to check them out and get in touch: http://www.tikvaodessa.org/home/