Looking through the bus window upon the blueberry swamps and moss-covered boulders on the sides of a mountain road, one starts to distance from the war and its news. It’s hard to believe that in Germany one can still find wilderness, where you need to get outside and climb two hundred meters up a hill to get the signal. A deer by the road is not a rare sight. You don’t find these places right away, but we had time to discover local landscapes in the twenty five years since our irreversible departure. Now we’ve decided to come here for a few days, to take a break after five months of helping refugees and discussing news.

Geographically, it’s the South Schwarzwald. The valleys have Alemann names that even the Germans find hard to pronounce. It takes half a day to get here from the Swiss border, with multiple stopovers. The bus runs three times a day, if at all. First you leave behind medieval towns on the Rhine, then fields and pastures, then good old villages, nothing special, often populated by our fellow countrymen. You wait for the transfer at the bus station, where un-sporty guys in sport jackets drink beer, and “Russia” is written in thick black paint all over the concrete benches. There was once a rally here under Russian flags, however, a crowd has gathered for the occasion, just to protest against the patriots. “The Compatriots” were riding, honking, on tricolor-covered Volkswagens and Toyotas, while the protesters stood on the sidewalks, and showed, using  signs and gestures, which direction the rally participants should go. Of course it ended in shouting, as almost everyone turned out to be Russian-speaking.

Soon the landscape changes, real mountains begin. Most of the passengers get off at the bus stop where the road goes steeply uphill. Someone’s trying to board the bus going back without a ticket. “Do you have a card?” - asks the driver in Russian, with an accent - “tell me, who are you? Are you a trendy khokhol?” - “No, I’m Kazakh” - says the free-rider bleakly, but the driver has turned away already, as in, get on, just keep quiet. “What’s a trendy khokhol?” - I ask through the window. The driver smiles and shrugs. “Well, a Ukrainian. Everyone loves them now.” Indeed, the transportation is free for Ukrainians.

No tourists in sight, and I already start thinking that I’ll go alone, but then a group of Russian-speaking Ukrainians approaches from the bench next to the kiosk. Now our driver, a young Polish guy, has to take the rap. In front of him there’s a big guy, balancing on shaky knees, rummaging through his pouch. “Ticket?” - asks the Pole, friendly, but firmly. The guy takes out a gin and tonic can. “Nie piję!”. The guy sighs and finally finds a Ukrainian passport. I start speaking German to the Pole, both of us understanding that we could do that in another way. At last, the buses part their ways, and ours starts climbing up the winding track.

At the final stop my fellow passengers all head towards an old resort hotel. A two-storey building with a large terrace, as far as I remember, has been closed and not exactly run-down, but sort of got stuck in the eighties. Now life is bustling there, children running in the overgrown garden. “Mom, let’s go look at the deers!” “Give me my bicycle back!” “That one fell into the stream, and the small one didn’t”. The only language spoken is Russian, the people must be from the east. There’s a hill with sheep and cows behind the garden fence, above it there’s only field woodland and rocks. A traveler’s dream. I decide to persuade V., a volunteer girl I know, to come in the evening and find out what’s going on.

We arrive at dinner time. Cooking is self-organized, regular meals by the hours, no kitchens in the rooms. Distribution at the canteen is organized in shifts. There’s a total of approximately two hundred people in the hotel, the rooms are spacious and even luxurious, but only one per family. The owner has a few hotels in Schwarzwald, he was offering one or another as a temporary shelter - at first to the Roma from former Yugoslavia, then to Syrian refugees, now to the Ukrainians. “He is a very religious man” - says Lena, who knows everyone here. An influential one as well, it seems: sheltering the refugees at your place is half the job - one also needs to convince the local country community to accept the strangers with their incomprehensible lifestyle and weird habits.

Alina and Sergey from Kherson arrived a week ago, Schwarzwald is a terra incognita for them. They talk about their journey through Russia to Georgia, about eighteen checkpoints and the questioning. About not believing the war has begun. “I was… well, offended” - says Alina - “why do they think they can change other people’s lives like that? I said, I will not sleep in the corridor. We didn’t have a bomb shelter; they said it’s more safe in the corridor with no windows and three walls. And then I saw it. Six kilometers away, looking like nuclear mushrooms. One the size of a five-storey building, another one twice as tall. And everything was orange inside. Ballistic missiles. “We don’t have it that bad” - adds Sergey, - people from Mariupol in a Georgian hotel told us about sitting in the basement for a month, drinking water from the heaters, melting the snow that was black…”

A stately old lady joins our table. Her velvet jacket and emerald earrings fit the hotel interiors and bring us back to reality. Although, what’s the reality here? I attempt small talk with her. “I traveled across the whole Russia” - she says, not listening - “Business trips. I am Russian, I’ve been living in Ukraine for thirty years. Now my friends and relatives don’t take my calls. My city is being wiped off the map. I sent them the pictures of my apartment, what was left of it, they tell me it’s like from some movie. Yes.” Gradually we switch to local topics. Alina and Sergey want to learn German, put the kids to school, of course, it’s better to do that in the city. We discuss the options. My companion suggests we send older people here, they’ll feel better in the nature - and help younger ones gradually move out. “Older people feel comfortable here, Germans are coming here on purpose” - I add, looking sideways at the old lady who withdrew into herself. She straightens up in her chair. “I want to ask you a question” - she says loud and clear, as if in the theater. - “What’s your opinion on the criminal aggression of Putin against the sovereign state of Ukraine?”. Pause. Everyone goes quiet, even at the table next to us. “And what do you think?” - me and V. ask almost simultaneously. The air clears, and soon everyone speaks over each other again.

The resort atmosphere is calming. There’s a high ceiling in the canteen, massive chandeliers, and fake flowers in vases. A fireplace and leather armchairs can be seen through the double hall doors. My brain switches, and I start comparing these not to the German first intake centers, but with something very remote. For example, with Burma, where a military junta leads a never ending war with national minorities and attacks refugee camps from time to time. In the foreign reality full of violence my mind automatically clings to memories of more peaceful places - it was Ukraine once, and a larger part of Russia. Well, it didn’t reach that far at our place! We have it bad, but still it’s better at home! What is home is hard to say now, although its fragments are always at hand. In an improvised shower at the Burman border at the right moment a sentence from Andrukhovych appeared at once: «Ось по трубi повзе змiя!» (“Here is a snake crawling along the pipe!” - Ukrainian, transl.) Not bad for a Moscovite.

Someone’s asking if I can park the volunteers’ car behind the house, and it brings me back to the conversation. “Oh, how they greeted us in Georgia!” - says Alina - “By the way, almost all volunteers were Russians, recently emigrated. And Georgians helped with money, gave everything for free at the market, in the shops. Unknown women approached us on the streets, embracing us, I cried, and they did too. Upon departure a Russian border control officer asks, what’s that, your rear window is broken? You could have fixed that. I say, we’re from Kherson. - So what? - There’re shootings - Oh yes? Shootings? - She shrugged, and left. We passed the border, and the Georgian border control officer spoke Russian to us: hello, come, all of you at once, I see you have the passports, just go, go”.  “One taxi driver was a Putin supporter” - Sergey recalls, - “He was explaining to us the whole way that the Russians are right. But he didn’t take the money, he did at first, but then gave it all back”. “And they drove us for free” - adds Alina, - “and gave us stuff, it was even difficult to accept it all, to admit that we’re poor refugees”.

It’s getting late and we say goodbye. There are many children in the yard, we’re taken to see the bridge they’ve built across the local stream. Barbeque has started in the garden pavilion. Alina walks us to the road. Then we walk along the highway in the dark, huge stars are shining above the valley, the lights in the garden left behind us. We still hear the voices until the road takes a turn, they’re discussing local ice cream.

The next day we got lost in the nearby mountains, caught a bus by chance. We loudly discussed yesterday’s evening. The driver turned around and asked in Russian: “Are you going to walk on foot now? I will leave you at the crossroad then, there’s a path through the forest. It’s shorter than the highway.” I recognize him by the accent, but still can’t quite nail what that accent is. Not a Georgian one. Bulgarian, maybe? “I remember you, you said about trendy khokhol”. He laughs. “Who’s not in here? Ukrainians, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz. I talk to all of them”. “And which language is your native?” - V. asks. He looks at the highway in front of him for a second. I have a feeling he might be from Russia. From the territory of Russia. Dagestan? Ingushetia? “I speak six languages, they’re all native to me”. “What a great answer” - I say, and realize my Russian is not without an accent either. We wish him a good day and get off. The path starts right from the sidewalk into the forest, we have to spread overgrown fireweed with our hands. That’s how you answer, I think to myself. If you don’t dare say you’re Russian anymore. If you meet those who lost everything. And if the fact that here everyone comes from a different place and speaks differently leads not to less but to more closeness and more understanding. Exactly like that: “all native”.

August 2022

Translated by Katia Szarek

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