I recently left civilization.
I was one of the last to board the plane, chasing after my rolling hand luggage as it sped towards the ticket desk, having been informed by the flight attendant that the gate was about to close.
Just because it was in a rush didn’t mean I couldn’t be amiable.
“How are you today?” I asked, handing my ticket over.
“I’m fine, and you?”
“Not as good as you,” I said. “You get to stay.”
She smiled sadly and handed back my ticket, having confirmed that I’d been sentenced to this flight.
“At least Kiev is hot.”
“So is hell.”
Alright, so I didn’t actually say “so is hell” at the time. I wish I had, but the truth is I didn’t think about it till moments later when I was walking down the jet bridge. The distant cousin of “l’esprit de l’escalier” (Diderot’s remark, meaning “the wit at the bottom of the stairs”, i.e. the clever retort you think of only after you’ve already left the dinner party on the upper floor), mine was a case of “l’esprit du pont à jet”.
I adopted an extra cheery tone when boarding the plane. Smiling widely, I wished the initial crew member “good afternoon” and repeated the greeting to each flight attendant as I rolled down the aisle.
Having found my seat, I moved to put my carry-on bag in the overhead compartment but it was already full, aside from a jacket that was spread across a space easily large enough for two suitcases. I moved the jacket to the side so that I had room to stow my suitcase.
It soon became clear who the owner of the jacket was — a stout, burly man with a grimace plastered to a face only a mobster’s mother could love. He was sitting on the other side of the aisle from me and, seeing he was clearly peeved that I’d jostled his jacket to make room for my carry-on, I shut him down with a cheerful “hello!” that in reality said: Hello! You may really want to argue with me but we probably don’t speak the same language. Sorry about that.
Soon after I took my seat, he exchanged angry words in Ukrainian or Russian with one of the flight attendants who then took the man’s jacket out of the overhead bin and handed it to him, an act the man apparently couldn’t manage himself.
That lovely fellow aside, it was clear by their lighter features that the majority of the passengers on this flight were Danish, which was something of a solace, if not a surprise. I’d noticed during my many escapes from Ukraine that those flights arriving in the country almost always seemed to carry fewer Ukrainian passengers than those departing from it.
Clearly, I wasn’t the only one seeking to escape.
It’s like the old analogy about the frog in boiling water.
If you stay in Ukraine long enough, you become complacent and forget what the rest of the world is like. But leave, even for a weekend, and the memories of civilization come flooding back. Once you return to Ukraine, once you’re dropped back into the pot, you realize damn, that water is hot!
This was what I was thinking as I leaned forward to get a look out the window. We were flying now, the Baltic stretching out like midnight into the east.
When leaving Ukraine, I always took the aisle seat, eager as I was to depart the plane as soon as we’d arrived back in the West. But I usually aimed for the window seat when flying back into Ukraine, intent to reflect on whatever place I’d just left and the experiences I’d had there.
The pattern, though, had been disrupted this time. I had checked in too late and a window seat was no longer available. So now I was forced to try and catch a glimpse of the Baltic over the sleeping form of a middle-aged, heavyset Ukrainian woman with typically short cropped hair and a mouth that contained several gold fillings.
The pilot’s voice crackled over the intercom. First in Ukrainian, then in English.
“Our flight duration is just over two hours. We will be passing over Poland before touching down in Kiev. The temperature in Kiev …”.
Poland. That a single country and a bit of sea could separate what was perhaps the most developed society in the western world from Ukraine, a country that was decidedly not that, was stunning. But Poland, as recently as ever, has always seemed a country locked in a tug of war between the western world and a derelict building held together by a sign reading “please pardon our dust”.
The romantic Baltic would soon give way to that, and then it would be too late.
But something could still happen.
The plane could crash, plummeting while still in Danish airspace back to earth. We could be rescued and taken back to Denmark. The tin can we were locked in could scrape the bottom of the sea.
Either seemed preferable to the alternative.
The flight attendant came over with her cart bearing all manner of purchasable items. No antidepressants though.
Why does one choose to live outside of civilization? What makes it worth it?
There’s an element of intrigue in living in the borderlands, in the very oddity of it, like experimenting with LSD just to see what it’s like. But a couple of bad trips is usually enough to warn you off it. You don’t then pack up and move there.
The money then. That was it.
You live in a place you don’t like to get the money you need to every so often leave. So long as you had a trip to look forward to, well, that made everything a bit more palatable. Until you wake up to find you’re 60 and, shit, I’m not immortal after all.
You’ve lived outside of civilization for so long that you no longer know how to live in it.
No no, the Ukrainians had it right. A neighbor in our Soviet apartment building had recently left his well-paying job to go work as a dishwasher in Poland. The woman who cut my hair had just the other week asked, like so many do, in typical astonishment, why are you still here?
Perhaps it’s those of us living in civilized, capitalist society who fail to understand the obvious — that it’s not money that matters most but the place in which you earn it. That’s why we fail to understand the immigrants coming to seek a better life in our countries. They know what we’ve never figured out because, unlike them, we’ve been living this whole time in civilization.