Dancing the tango in the Ukraine

Luton airport, the last days of 2014. Past security, I’m waiting for my friend Ian at the bottom of the escalators leading to departures. It is late afternoon.

I’d left my car in the valet parking, giving up the keys to the attendant with what felt like reckless abandon, answering his questions about my impending trip with more than a little mischievousness: “I am going to the Ukraine.”

“Oh, are you with the navy?”

“Err… No, I’m not. I’m going to a tango festival.”

“Tango? (Puzzled look) Oh!! like on Strictly Come Dancing?”

(No. Not like Strictly Come Dancing) “Well, err… mmh… yes. Kind of.”

“Oh wow. I love that!! Are you a contestant?”

(No. The tango that I dance, all musicality and warm embrace, is not a spectator sport, and even less a competition.) “Well, mmmh… it’s not really… Well. (I look at his shiny eyes and expectant face) Yes.”

“Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow oh wow oh wow. Oh wow… That is just so… really… wow. Well… Good luck!! ”

“Thank you”, I smile, and wave, graciously, as I make my way to the terminal with a tiny swagger in my stride.

At the bottom of the escalator, Ian arrives at last, and a couple of hours later we land in Rzeszow, where we are spending the night before continuing our journey in the morning. It is Poland at Christmas, and it is snowing, big, fat, heavy, slow snow. It is also -14 degrees. We come out of the taxi into a magical winter wonderland, giant bedecked tree and festoons of twinkling lights in the middle of the of so white town square, piped jingly music muffled by the falling flakes. Our hotel is like something out of Heidi, red wooden cut outs and felt appliqué. And posh. We venture back out for dinner, looking for something ‘typical’ to go with the setting, but somehow end up in an Irish pub serving pizzas with names like ‘Scream of Banshee’, ‘Hot Leprechaun’ and ‘Waves of Shannon’, the Dropkick Murphys in the background an added touch of surrealism.

Ian had arranged for a taxi to pick us up at 9am the following morning to take us to our final destination, Lviv, two hours away on the other side of the Ukrainian border. But in the morning, no sign of the taxi, and no email to tell us what’s going on. We don’t have a number, and reception has no information. We start thinking of alternative ways of getting there should we need to, but the daily night train is long gone, and the chances of finding someone who will drive us at the last minute on New Year’s Eve for an affordable price seem slim.

Finally, as we approach mid-day, we spot our driver, who had apparently been there all along, and been waiting for us, in the wrong place, perhaps, I’m not sure: he doesn’t speak English, although he has brought his daughter with him to translate. I’m so relieved to see him, I don’t even mind the state of his car, rather clapped out. The daughter is chatty and we trade nuts and some chocolate; the roads are wide, everything straight and flat and looking very new. I remember thinking ‘big EU investment here’. There’s hardly any traffic. We stop at a small service area, a couple of portakabins by the roadside, clean loos, and a swaddled babushka sitting at a table near the entrance. Ian and I have both left the car! I realise suddenly, with all our possessions inside, money, passports, phones, luggage, everything. I wash my hands quickly and hurry out. The driver and his daughter are both standing by the car, smoking and stamping their feet against the cold as they wait for us, two rather trusting westerners who have thrown ourselves on the kindness of strangers.

The border looms at last, and everything grinds to a halt. Furry-hatted guards in grey soviet-style overcoats, buxom women and jowly men, gravelly voices and serious faces, breath curling out in the cold air. The driver collects our passports, which are then whisked away out of sight. We crawl past one border post, thin metal windows appearing to offer very little shelter from the bitter cold. We stop and start, stop and start. We glimpse our documents being carried from one office to another, ten minutes turn into one hour, then two. The queue going the other way is even more stationary than ours, people standing around cars and waiting for the red tape to unfurl, and the border to open at last. On our side, we wait too. Finally, a tap on the car window jolts us out of our stupefied boredom, and our passports are handed back.

We are now in the Ukraine, behind the old iron curtain, and into another world, of rutted roads and falling down houses, and Michelin-man people shuffling their way around in the icy cold. Forlorn bus stops, spindly skeleton trees, and stray dog roaming in packs. Even the car starts behaving differently, developing an assortment of rattles and wheezes as we bump along, the wipers desperately trying to fend off some of the snow without quite managing, like a dog waging an ineffective stumpy tail. Screeech…. sigh…. screeeech… sigh (that was the noise they made). The engine and even the floor are vibrating in protest, and I’m starting to imagine one or the other, possibly both, may drop down to the ground any moment now. It is cold, very cold, even with the heater on.

Finally, Lviv, some five hours after we set off. The city, like its surroundings, is icy all over, the main drag rutted and half deserted; by the side of the road, I can see what looks like plucked chickens, pinky cream skin exposed and vulnerable in the bleary street lights (something which I witness again in the daylight, along with vegetables and other farm produce for sale, unceremoniously piled up on newsprint laid out on dirty pavements). Rusty cable cars rattle past, old-fashioned numbers painted wide on flaky green livery. Our hotel at last, in a small courtyard. Brown fake leather sofas in reception, our rooms clean but tatty and old-fashioned and really, really cold. There is a gas shortage, and we are given extra fleecy blankets for warmth.

It is well into the evening, we have been on the road since 11am, and we are hungry. Everywhere is fully booked up of course, being New Year’s Eve, and the only food we can find is from the hot food counter at a supermarket at the bottom of the main road, a long way to walk in an unknown city by -11 degrees. And then, a loud bang, and a heart-rending yelp pierces the night. A stray dog has just been hit by a speeding car, the rest of his roaming pack stopped in its tracks as he is thrown into the air and lands with a thud by the side of the road. It is all of a sudden just too much. I cry out, tears of shock and tiredness flowing unbidden. My friend embraces and comforts me. It is so cold, and I feel so far away from home, in this hostile and utterly unyielding place.

This is increasingly feeling like a seriously bad way to spend the New Year; my mother’s words in my ears: “the Ukraine? Really? Could you not find somewhere else to go, how about going with your friends to this other festival in Sitges? I would feel so much better about it…”

But instead, we are here, huddled in Ian’s room around greasy chicken and congealed chips. And we have, despite all of this, come to dance.

So we put on our outdoor clothes again and walk out, penguin-style, down treacherous pavements to the hotel where the festival is taking place. It is only 500m away, but it feels like much farther at the speed we’re going. I slip and fall square on my behind, wet bottom adding to the list of today’s woes. When we reach the hotel at last, it is like a shining beacon of modernity in the cold night, its bright lights spilling out warm and invinting. We collect our tickets, and make our way to the separate dressing rooms. Mine is warm, and full of chattering women, Russian voices laughingly taking off layer after layer after layer until there seems to be hardly anything left to take off, long gleaming white limbs and small of the back exposed, all high breasts and caked make up and teased blonde hair. Maybe it is Strictly after all.

Feeling dumpy and unglamorous, I take off my gloves. I pull down my hood and take off my earmuffs. I take off my full-length coat and my down jacket, my angora cardigan and my fleece neck protector. I take off my scarf and my cashmere sweater and my hiking boots. Off come the leg warmers and my red tango trousers, split down the side. Off with the thermal long johns, the knee-high socks, the woollen tights.

And I put back my tango trousers, red and split down the side, and rearrange my backless top, strap on my sparkly shoes. I bundle all my outdoor gear, and stuff it in a cubbyhole, grey and utilitarian beside mounds of fake leopard coats and furry wedge boots. I shake out my hair, reapply my lipstick in the mirror, and grab my red fan. I am ready.

Ian and I ride the lift to the top floor in silence, feeling subdued, a bit apprehensive but also excited. New place, new festival, new dance partners, will we get dances, will we enjoy them?

But the music is always the same, here, and everywhere around the world, greeting us when we step out into the small lobby.

Familiar and comforting accents that we know and love, and have danced to so many times, violins and piano and bandoneons that make our feet itch and our hearts ache as if it was the last time they ever would. And suddenly I hear my name called, and I turn around, and see faces I know, bodies I have embraced in Croatia over the summer, in Turkey in the autumn. Everyone is here, strangers but friends, smiling, glowing from the music, and the warm embraces.

I am home.