Ukraine! Travel Memories & Food Allergies... From a Guest Writer

Today's post is written by my dear friend, Sarah Mravec!  She has been there more than once during one of my anaphylactic scares and her written humor translates into 100% funny!  Happy reading :-) 

Amanda and I have traveled together to seven countries over the course of our nearly decade-long friendship. In 2012, during the time Amanda was living in Vienna, Austria, we chatted one day over Skype about where our next adventure should be. “Oh, where to go next?”  

We decided to visit Kiev, Ukraine in May 2012. What?! Well, she wanted to see her friend Adam who would be visiting the city, and I wanted to see whether the rumors of people walking tigers on leashes in downtown Kiev were true. I love animals… I just wondered if the city was filled with quirky, flamboyant personalities with flair to spare, who assumed walking tigers on leashes is the prevailing norm. So, those were our reasons. At the time, they seemed solid. Well, hers is still solid. Mine was always iffy. Regardless, I was all in. So, I booked a ticket.

I am a seasoned traveler. Suck it up princess,” I told myself, as I struggled through the seventh bleary hour of rapidly waning interest in bratwurst, duty free jewelry, and lederhosen, during my long layover in Munich, Germany. We planned to meet there, and head to Kiev. Finally an aero miracle - an A320 from Vienna landed! Hurrah! Amanda’s plane arrived; we embraced, had a quick drink, and then caught our flight to Kiev. We arrived to a lovely apartment on the edge of the dodgy part of town. The building boasted a decrepit elevator, and we smartly declined its service in favor of walking up three flights of stairs (but not before taking several photos of the old lift, pretending we were riding it, and then posting photos to Facebook to scare our friends and families). The Kiev apartment was quite lovely and was what one might imagine of older, quintessential Russia.

 The (unused) Elevator!!!  Yep, that's an elevator!

The (unused) Elevator!!!  Yep, that's an elevator!

Many things happened during our trip to Kiev. We met up with Amanda’s friend Adam; also a seasoned traveler and a truly awesome person, and we spent our days and evenings with him. Hanging out with Amanda and Adam was the highlight of the trip. We were the three amigos, but Ukrainian style. We had a great time – we didn’t always feel safe, and there were a couple of very tense moments that might be suitable for a “What to Expect in Kiev” blog, but on the whole, we had a marvelous time.

… Except for one day, near the end of our trip.

Amanda, already on Vienna time and a morning person if ever one existed, acclimated much better to the damnably early rise of the sun. She popped out early one morning to grab some groceries across the street… foods that worked with her allergies, like yogurt and some fruit. She arrived back at the apartment. The doorbell rang. I was starting to rouse from slumber, but wasn’t in a position for company, as I was still in mismatched pajamas with hair askew from several days of intentionally not showering (more details on that in a bit). She looked through the peephole and saw two men milling about. She said “Hello?” several times and they didn’t respond. Very odd.

She came into my bedroom and reported the situation. I was confused. Was I still in DC and listening to some early morning cable news show? I was in Cosmo Kramer mode, but even less coherent. We chalked the situation up to language confusion and a case of knocking on the wrong door. Twenty minutes later, the same two men were knocking outside of our door again. Again, Amanda said “Hello?” and they didn’t respond. No words. They lingered a while, then disappeared.

Amanda and I have traveled enough to know that you shouldn’t be ethnocentric when dealing with other cultures. However, the men at the door did not say a word. And this freaked us out. So, we decided to leave the apartment at once. In a flurry, we threw our stuff into our suitcases, and booked a hotel room across the city near the U.S. Embassy, in a different and somewhat safer part of town. We both were due to fly out the next day, but we didn’t want to take any chances.

We checked in to the hotel, feeling safe and secure, and we were hungry because we hadn’t really eaten that day. The hotel was a well-known U.S.-based international chain, so we felt safe ordering food, especially given Amanda’s food allergies. We ordered some wine, and perused the menu in good spirits. The menu consisted 95% of Ukrainian language descriptions, with 5% English words thrown in for good measure.

What happened next might be every anaphylactic traveler’s worst nightmare. Amanda took a couple of bites of her limp lasagna that resembled grey roadkill, and then looked at me with wide eyes. I saw her expression and immediately started panicking. I knew what that expression meant. Amanda doesn’t make this face often.

I will never forget the next few moments. She said I think I might be allergic to something in this lasagna.” She started feeling a potential reaction, and was completely unsure of the ingredients. She sat very still for a few moments, which truly felt like an eternity, trying to assess if she was in fact having an allergic reaction to her meal.  She took an anti-histamine to slow any potential reaction.

At the same time, I felt helpless…I looked at the menu again. Trying to keep my wits about me, I did my best (and it was a poor attempt) to translate the Ukrainian menu, and to summon my memory of what Amanda had told me about administering her Epi-Pen. Was it just one pen, or two, that was needed? On the thigh, or in the arm? Does it auto-inject? Do I stab her with it, like in Pulp Fiction? Seriously, does she need one injection or two? How do I open this thing? Oh my God… what do I do?

Amanda was understandably panicking, but also weirdly calm, thinking of what to do next. And, that’s like her. Even in panic, she is calm. As I was reading the menu, nothing other than the words “lasagna” and “pizza” were translatable. We flagged down the waitress to ask her questions, but broken English prevailed, giving us no firm answers.

Amanda rummaged through her purse and got her Epi-Pen ready. I remember asking her quickly how best to administer it, in case I needed to do so for her. The instructions were so lengthy, and the type so small, I felt convinced I would screw it up, and my friend would truly be in peril. I had no one to ask for help, and no idea how to call for an ambulance, if we needed one. And, because I was aware how anaphylaxis works, thanks to Amanda, I knew time was of the essence to make these crucial decisions and take action.

A few more minutes passed. In Amanda’s world, when it comes to anaphylaxis, minutes count. In fact, they matter greatly. Around the five minute mark, she thankfully sighed with relief and said “I think I’m fine.” All clear, Houston.

For Amanda, and for me, the episode was truly harrowing. When traveling, especially outside of the U.S., there are always cultural differences and nuances that increase your vulnerability. In this case, language barriers prevented us from being able to communicate meaningfully with the kitchen staff, and barred us from reading the menu with strong comprehension. The Ukrainian alphabet consists of Cyrillic script, which is largely not translatable to English in the same way that, say, Spanish or German might be.  For example, in Spanish, the word tomato is “tomate”. In general, the Ukrainian language does not afford these types of rough language equivalencies.

I am happy to report that Amanda had a close call, but was completely fine. The worst thing that happened on our trip to Kiev (aside from fleeing our apartment) was our self-imposed moratorium on taking showers and baths. The water in the apartment was not filtered, and we found that out after each taking a shower the first day from the landlord. I was on antibiotics at the time, battling an allergy-induced sinus infection, so it must have killed any bacteria that would have otherwise liked to take up shop in my body. Amanda, unfortunately, was not on antibiotics, and had to deal with a bacterial infection a few days after taking her one and only shower on the trip.

Safe to say, I think we both learned several lessons during this trip on how to play it safe when reading menus scribed in foreign languages, not answering doors when very strange strangers knock, and the value of being stocked with wet-naps (aka portable showers) to do the trick when an actual shower is not possible!

Author: Sarah Mravec, August 2016

 Taking in the sights in Kiev!  Thumbs up!

Taking in the sights in Kiev!  Thumbs up!

 Visiting a museum, like tourists do - photo, yes, smiles, no at this memorial...

Visiting a museum, like tourists do - photo, yes, smiles, no at this memorial...