For the project “Journey to the Center of Europe”, I am going to visit all the places that have ever laid claim to being the geographical center of Europe or the European Union. And write about them.
The first stop was a place far off the beaten path, in a country that many people didn’t know anything about until very recently. Because my first journey took me to Ukraine. I don’t know why, but somehow, the readers of this blog are always keen on me risking my life. Well, if you do need to satisfy your lust for sensationalism, then rather by reading this edutaining blog than by watching a bullfight. Poor animals.
Solotvyno. The first place in Ukraine after walking over a rickety wooden bridge, crossing the river Tisa and with it the Romanian-Ukrainian border.
The bus station is a small container on the main road with an impressive list of buses and departure times hanging on the outside wall. I missed the 8:28 bus to Rakhiv by a few minutes. Doesn’t matter, though, because the next one will leave at 9:10 already. Or so the schedule of departures says.
The station manager, a helpful lady, steps out and informs me that the timetable is no longer valid. The drivers were called to the front, the busses are now serving in the war.
“Nobody knows when they will be back,” she says, and I am not sure if she is talking about the drivers or the buses.
“Or if they will come back at all,” she adds with a sigh. It sounds like her husband is one of the bus drivers.
The day is 15 July 2022. Or, in the calendar currently in use, day 142 of Russia’s attempt to wipe out Ukraine. For a supposed Blitzkrieg, that’s dragging one quite a bit.
There will only be one bus today, at 11:15, the woman says, and she doesn’t blame me for trying to hitchhike instead.
But nobody stops. Some drivers thunder through the town at over 100 km/h, well aware that all the traffic cops have swapped their radar guns for real ones and are patrolling trenches instead of turnpikes.
Finally, a couple stops, but they ask for money. How much, I ask. Between the two of them, they are debating this matter for a while. I don’t understand anything, but I imagine the wife arguing that you can’t just leave a stranger standing by the road like that. The husband, on the other hand, talks of war, inflation, uncertain times. There is a bit of back and forth between the two, until the husband writes a number on a notepad, already covered with so many numbers as if he was in the business of providing coordinates to the artillery: 1500 hryvnia.
Honestly amused by the misjudgment of my financial capacities, I decline. 1500 hryvnia are about 60 euros. For 30 kilometers. (One week later, it will be only 40 euros. Maybe the couple worked at the Ukrainian Central Bank and already knew something about the upcoming devaluation. Or, and this is more likely, it shows that money simply should not be taken so seriously.)
I am disappointed that no one stops. There is a war, after all, and I read and hear so much about people’s readiness to help. I can’t see any of it. And I feel as if some drivers are eyeing me suspiciously. As if there was something absurd about hitchhiking during a war. Perhaps they find it suspicious that a young man, muscular, beaming with fitness, is not in the military. – But then, why they would leave someone standing by the side of the road who just turned 47 last week and couldn’t enlist in the military because he failed the sports test?
Only after three quarters of an hour, the second car stops. Excited, I say “Добридень”. Businesslike, the man says “money”. But because he only asks for 10 euros, and because I have no more reason to be optimistic, I agree.
He asks me for “dokumenti”. I tell him that I am from Germany, which he thinks is so-so, but good enough for the military checkpoint. Maybe that’s why no one else has stopped, because the drivers know that they are looking for spies at the end of the town? But the young soldiers wave us through, barely looking into the car.
A few villages further, the driver picks up two women on the roadside who want to go to Rakhiv. They don’t even talk about the price, which shows that Vasily is known as a fair chauffeur with fixed rates. I am more concerned with his racing driving style, passing other cars in mountainous curves next to steep cliffs, honking wildly, but the women in the backseat don’t seem to mind.
We are traveling along the Tisa. The Ukrainian side of the river is secured with rolls of barbed wire. Why, I am wondering, because I don’t think Romania will launch an attack. But many Ukrainians have already escaped through this shallow, innocuous river to avoid military service. In this area alone, the Romanian border police pick up 5 to 10 men every day. They don’t send them back.
The fishermen whom I spot on the Romanian side are probably happy about the absence of Ukrainian competition. Tonight, there will be war-profiteering trout served everywhere in Maramureș.
The driver and the two women in the back seat find it amusingly curious that someone would make the long journey from Germany to look for the geographical center of Europe in this remote valley in the Carpathians. This is not Paris or Rome or London, after all.
But if my information is correct, the center of Europe is right by the river Tisa. After it has turned north, no longer marking the border. Here, the railroad bridge connects two Ukrainian sides and is patrolled by Ukrainian soldiers.
Tingling names, ringing a distant bell, without knowing exactly what they were, where they were, when they were. Mystical places, like from the “Lord of the Rings”, but it was only the Habsburg Empire. It perished more than a hundred years ago, in a self-instigated blaze that grew into global conflagration. Gone and forgotten, for generations already, one would think. A hundred years is a long time. Except that here, in the far-away valley of the Tisa, nothing is ever forgotten. But more about that later.
There are no trains today. Instead, plenty of cars. Mostly families. Parents take photos of their children. Children take pictures of their parents. A girl forces her boyfriend to take 32 photos of her in unnatural poses. He would like to put an end to his misery by throwing her into the river, if it weren’t for the soldiers watching from the bridge.
It is a beautiful summer day. Lush green. The water in the river is rushing. The highest mountain in Ukraine, Hoverla, is only 25 km away, but the mountains here are so gently curved that, regardless of their height, they look more like hills. Wooden stalls are selling honey, sausages, snow globes and Hutsul costumes. Only one boy sells something useful: Coca Cola and Snickers, in case I have to walk the 30 km back over the mountains.
A light drizzle sets in. The kind of summer rain you don’t even hide from, because you know it will be over soon. Smoke is rising. It is day 142 of the war, of which, by now, nobody believes that it will be over soon. But no shot was fired, no bomb was dropped, no rocket exploded. The smoke is coming from the chimney of the restaurant.
And what is it that draws all these people here?
A stone marker. Built in 1887 and slightly tarnished by time.
At that time, the district of Rakhiv belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After laying the railroad tracks, the Austrian engineers apparently had some bricks, mortar and education in classics to spare and left an inscription in Latin:
Locus Perennis Dilicentissime cum libella librationis quae est in Austria et Hungaria confecta cum mensura gradum meridionalium et parallelorum quam Europeum. MDCCCLXXXVII.
Although Dilove was actually very much at the center of European history. In the 20th century alone, it belonged to or was occupied by more than a dozen countries: the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Hungarian Federative Socialist Republic of Councils, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the Hutsul Republic, the Ukrainian People’s Republic, the West Ukrainian People’s Republic, Czechoslovakia, Slovakia, the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine, Hungary, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia again, Transcarpathian Ukraine, the Soviet Union, Ukraine since 1991.
And now, once again, war.
In this remote valley in the Carpathians, the people who have changed nationality, political system and language several times in the course of their lives probably have a much better idea of what Europe means than those in Paris, Rome or London. Here, they know that borders, nation states and passports are merely random twitches of bureaucracy and form no basis for identity.
Only in the Soviet Union was the Austrian railroad engineers’ memorial marker was remembered again. It happened like this: In 1964 Nikita Tarasov, member of the Geographical Commission of Rakhiv Rayon and as such delegated – on a representative and consultative basis – to the Geographical Commission of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, had to step out for a moment while hiking in the Carpathians. By chance, he stopped right next to this little column, got a flash of inspiration, as often befalls geniuses at the most unprepared moments, and thus put Dilove on the agenda of the 13th Inter-Commissional Meeting of the Academic Commissions of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, where the matter was referred to the Subcommittee on Geodesy of Places of Possible Inter-Rayonal Significance, and in 1986 it was finally decided that this was a most important and unique place that should be decorated with a plaque.
This Soviet plaque is still next to the stone marker. It says something like: “Here, in the opinion of the Geographical Commission of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and with the consent of the competent minister in the honorable Council of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, is a significant point, so unique and unparalleled that it can exist only at this very point.”
It does sound important, but also a bit vague, doesn’t it? The reason was that no one among the geographers was ready to admit any knowledge of Latin, because that would have labeled them as bourgeois. You might as well go straight to the train station and buy a ticket to Kolyma for yourself.
But it didn’t matter, because in 1986 came Perestroika (good), Chernobyl (bad), the return of Andrei Sakharov (good), the sinking of the cruise ship “Admiral Nakhimov” (bad) and no one worried about the marker anymore.
Until 1991, when Ukraine suddenly became independent again. Ukraine regards itself as part of Europe. Quite rightly so. After all, that’s what the Maidan Revolution in 2014 was about. But I don’t want to digress too far. Especially because whenever I visit said Maidan Nezalezhnosti, I am harassed by some stupid birds.
Like half of Europe, Ukraine struggles with the problem that Western Europeans believe that Europe ends at the Oder-Neisse line or maybe in Prague. (Hardly anyone knows that Vienna, Athens and even Görlitz lie further east than Prague.) In order to geodetically underpin its EU membership application, Ukraine henceforth claimed, with reference to the Austrian surveyors of 1887, not only to belong to Europe, but to be the very center of our continent. A banner joyfully proclaims the country’s status as a candidate for EU membership, attained a few weeks ago.
By the way, in many reports and documents you can find the information that the center of Europe is in Dilove. Maybe because that’s the closest bus stop. But from there, it is another 3 km to the exact spot, which is much closer to the hamlet of Kruhlyi.
All the authors who write about Dilove probably never went there, instead copying from each other. Only on this blog do you always receive original, first-hand, fact-checked, thoroughly researched facts. Guaranteed!
And here, you also get the truth about the Latin inscription. It means something like:
This is a permanent location recorded for eternity, determined with European precision by a special measuring instrument manufactured in Austria-Hungary and using the system of latitude and longitude. 1887.
One could almost think that the engineers dispatched to Transcarpathia were pulling a joke with the important-sounding but meaningless text.
I would love to go back with one of the horse-drawn carts. That’s still missing on my hitchhiking bingo card. But they are all galloping in the wrong direction, to Rakhiv, the capital of the district, the Paris of the Hutsuls, the gateway to the Carpathians, the center of the biosphere reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In the right direction, dozens of cars and day-trippers are going, but they make sure to ignore me. Maybe it’s because of the way I look. With a white shirt, beige pants, short hair and freshly shaved, I look like a Mormon or a Jehovah’s Witness. And no driver wants to spend an hour being lectured about Jesus. Especially not when his country is being bombed in the name of Christianity.
Or it could be something else.
Because when, after half an hour, a man in an old Zhiguli stops, he first asks for my documents. When I say that I am from Germany, I am allowed to get in. He too mentions the army checkpoints. Here in the border region, no one really wants to give a ride to a Ukrainian man trying to avoid military service by jumping into the raging floods of the Tisa.
In Dilove, the driver has to stop briefly to get some bread. He leaves me sitting in the car and the key in the ignition. You can recognize the really good people by the fact that they can’t even imagine that somebody would do anything bad. He doesn’t want any money either. In Velykyi Bychkiv (Gross-Botschko in German) he drops me off directly at the bus station. Here, too, the same situation as in the morning: The timetable has been reduced dramatically, the next bus to Solotvyno, 10 km away, will come in two hours.
But maybe the bus station information people and I have always been talking past each other, because later I learn that the people in this region – just as some people still convert everything into pounds, shillings and pennies – do not set their clocks to Kiev, but to Vienna. So they use the Central European time zone instead of the Eastern European time zone, which means a difference of one hour. Or would mean a difference of one hour, if it weren’t more complicated. Because when Transcarpathia became part of the Soviet Union in 1945, the time difference between Vienna and Moscow was two hours. When Ukraine became independent in 1991, and the time difference between Dilove and Kiev was only one hour, many people kept the two-hour time difference to the capital. Out of habit. So, in effect, they were living according to the time zone of London or Lisbon, imagining themselves in good old Vienna. I bet many of them also had a picture of the last Austrian emperor hidden in their house.
Timekeeping is further complicated by summer and winter time, which begins or ends on different days in different districts or is not implemented at all in some districts. In addition, depending on the religion, the Julian, Gregorian, Old Rite, Autocephalous Orthodox or Reformed calendars are used to determine the beginning of spring or fall and thus the time the clock changes.
Trains use the time zone of the destination instead of the local station. So, if from the same station at the same time, one train leaves for Budapest, one for Bucharest and another one for Moscow, one leaves at 1 pm, the other at 2 pm and the third at 3 pm. Although they depart at the same time. Got it? But the local people will give the time in Carpathian time, that is Kiev minus one hour, or, for older people, Kiev minus two hours. On the other hand, if they are talking to a foreigner, they will use Vienna time, naturally. Except young people, they just look at their cell phones and have no idea what time zones are.
In Solotvyno, I had wondered why people were at the station hours before the train left. But now I understand. When there’s only one train a day, you don’t want to run the risk of miscalculating.
Multilingual people also use different times depending on the language they are talking in. And, in case I haven’t mentioned it yet: Multilingualism is quite normal in this region. People here spoke and still speak Ukrainian, Russian, German, Yiddish, Hungarian, Slovak, Romanian, Czech, Ruthenian, Romani, Polish, Old Church Slavonic and, as I tested for you, a little bit of English. One more reason why I think that the search for the heart and essence of Europe rightfully leads you to the Carpathians.
And in case you are wondering whether I made this up – an almost indecent question in view of my research: No! There are even scientific studies about the Transcarpathian time zone. The graph shows the percentage of the population still using the Habsburg time in 2016, the photo shows the opening hours of a pizzeria in Ukraine according to Vienna and Kiev time zones.
This back-and-forth calculation between different time zones must be easy for people who grew up speaking three or four languages. I certainly can’t get my head around it.
I rather walk to the end of town and try to hitchhike. Again, dozens of cars pass by, and I’m starting to get angry. What good are the patriotic flags on the car, if nobody stops? What good are the crosses on the rearview mirror, when you let your fellow man wither by the road in the midday heat? And at some point, I think about the fact that Ukrainians can use the trains for free in the European Union. I’m not a refugee, I am here voluntarily, I don’t want to equate unequal things. But it would be nice to get a bit of solidarity in return.
The increasingly gloomy thoughts are interrupted by a young man in a van, who also first asks which passport I have with me. When I say that I am from Germany, his face brightens. His whole family has found refuge in Germany, he is the only one who has remained in Ukraine.
“Ukraine is not a good place to raise children right now,” he says, and I appreciate the understatement with which he describes the war. He is a kind man. Underneath the current sadness, you can still recognize the pre-war personality. I hope it won’t get buried irrevocably.
Although he is driving something important to be taken somewhere urgently, he makes a detour to drive me to the border in Solotvyno. To the “kordon”, as he says in Ukrainian, reminding me that one hundred years ago, here was to be the “cordon sanitaire” between Western Europe and the Soviet Union.
After crossing the border, a woman on a bicycle catches up with me. She had been behind me, queuing for the Romanian checkpoint.
“Excuse me, sir,” she asks, “may I ask what kind of passport you have?”
“A German one,” I reply.
She thanks me for the information and explains the question: “We were all wondering why you were the only one who didn’t have to open your bag.”
That’s how it works. If you ever need a smuggler, use a neatly dressed middle-aged man, preferably with a German passport. Guys like that never get checked. And now I have to find a buyer for the plutonium I brought across the border….
For people who are checked here every day by Frontex when they just want to visit their parents in the next village or go shopping, for whom these newfangled nation-state borders cut through their beautiful Carpathian land or their Bukovina, for people who can communicate fluently on both sides, this discrimination is particularly degrading.
On the other hand, when dealing with Frontex, you already have to be thankful that they don’t throw you over the bridge into the river.
The red color on the railing and on the bridge marks the border. On one side Ukraine, on the other Romania. On one side war, on the other peace. On one side conscription and combat, on the other college and cinema.
A red line, drawn as arbitrarily as the point near Dilove, cutting the continent, families and lives in half.
So, this was the first episode of the project “Journey to the Center of Europe”.
I suspect that I will also find cause for historical and current reflections on Europe at the next mid-points, as insignificant as they may seem at first.
Have a look at the map and the list of all the places to be visited. If you live near one of these points, I would be happy to meet you! And the esteemed supporters of this blog will receive a postcard. (Unfortunately, I didn’t find any postcards in Ukraine, so you will receive one from somewhere else soon.)
Do you want a posctard?
Actually, you would be surprised how hard it has become to find postcards in some places. But for you, dear reader, I’ll walk the extra miles!