Culture In Depth Society, 17/08/2019

To Kharkiv with Love: Hitchhiking from West to East

Is it possible in modern society, where everything has its price and media are full of stories that hitchhiking may still have its dangers, to cross five countries covering 3,000 kilometers without spending a penny? Tommaso Giani from Genoa, Italy, proved that nothing is impossible.

Tommaso completed his studies in theology two years ago and he is currently practicing theology with an elderly priest as his tutor. He also teaches in a high school in the suburbs of Florence in the village of Fucecchio.

He first came to Kharkiv in 2009 to support his favorite Italian team, Sampdoria, which played against Kharkiv Metalist at Europa League. On that occasion, he made friends with some young Metalist fans so much that he decided in the following years to come again to visit them and to watch Metalist matches every year. This time, he honored the tradition in a very romantic and adventurous way: a trip from Genoa, which is the home city of his Sampdoria football team, to Kharkiv involving hitchhiking.

He arrived at Kharkiv on August 10, after eight days of changing 32 different vehicles across Italy, Austria, Germany, Hungary and Ukraine. His goal was to meet his friends and to watch Metalist 1925, Kharkiv, – Rukh, Lviv, match which finished in a draw.

Kharkiv Observer correspondent talked to Tommaso and he told about his exciting trip which he managed to make with the help of drivers that the young man called “angels on wheels.” He had a good experience and decided to share it with our readers.

Have you really come to Kharkiv every year since 2009?

Since 2009, I try to come to Kharkiv every year. I made friends among Metalist fans and we exchanged emails as social networks were not very popular back then. The following year, I decided to meet my new friends again and it became a good tradition to come here every year. I avoided my visits only in 2014-2015 when it supposedly wasn’t safe here due to the Russian-Ukrainian war that is taking place very close to Kharkiv.

Why have you decided to get to Kharkiv by hitchhiking? 

This kind of trip was motivated by my mission: I’m a seminarist and preparing to become a priest next year. So, I followed God’s will as the keyword of hitchhiking is trust: you have to trust a driver and a driver should trust you. It’s a bit of a risk but I believe trust can improve the world! That’s the reason I made this journey. I also wanted to find an answer to the question: Is it possible nowadays to travel from Genoa to Kharkiv using the gift of drivers? And the answer is: Yes!

One more reason for hitchhiking travel is that I wanted to explore western Ukraine that I had never seen before.

Have the drivers ever asked you for money?

My goal was to get from Genoa to Kharkiv spending nothing. I know that passengers usually pay drivers in Ukraine so to avoid misunderstanding I tried to clarify, using my poor Russian, that I have money but my challenge is to travel using the gift of drivers so all of them accepted my point of view.

What Ukrainian cities and towns did you have to cross to get to Kharkiv?

I crossed the border with Hungary and started my way around Ukraine from Mukachevo, then followed to Stryi, Lviv, Ternopil, Khmelnytskyi, Vinnytsia, Uman, Oleksandria, Poltava and at last I got to Kharkiv. I arrived three hours before the start of the match that I was going to watch.

Have you got any problems while communicating with Ukrainian drivers?

All of them were very friendly but they generally don’t speak English. So, I had to talk to them using my poor Russian or a dictionary on my smartphone. I didn’t have such problems for example in Austria where most people speak English.

How long did you usually have to wait for the car to stop?

My longest time waiting was in Italy when I was trying to catch a car for seven hours while in Ukraine, I had to wait two hours maximum. In general, I was picked up from 10 to 30 minutes.

Where are you staying in Kharkiv?

I’m staying at the hostel near Botanichniy Sad metro station.

Has Kharkiv changed a lot since your first visit?

Yes, I can see lots of positive changes. This time, I was impressed by the reconstruction of Shevchenko Garden. I could see many people walking there with their families and it wasn’t so good in previous years.

I also want to highlight the reconstruction of Gorky Park. When I came here before it had been reconstructed, it didn’t look so great. One of my favorite places in Kharkiv is Sarzhyn Yar which is located next to Botanichniy Sad metro station. People take some water, walk around and some have a bath in the specially equipped font.

Another one is Zhuravlivskiy beach which is located near Heroyiv Pratsi metro station. When I walk along Sumska Street with my friends, I feel that I’m in my favorite city, in Kharkiv, where I return back summer after summer.

How can you describe Kharkivites?

As I don’t know their native language, it’s hard to describe them because I could hardly communicate with the city residents. Anyway, they look less vivid and less extroverted than Italians. It isn’t easy to communicate with them. If you ask something, they will answer you but they are not as helpful as Italians. For example, Italians can stop a tourist and ask him or her if they need help before they ask for it. But the fact that I come here, again and again, is proof that I feel very comfortable here.

What season do you usually come to Kharkiv?  

First time I arrived here in winter to watch the Europa League match when Sampdoria played against Metalist. But being a student and a teacher at a high school, the only time when I can come here is in the summer. I arrive in Kharkiv in August as the football season starts.

What do you think about Metalist 1925 football team? 

It’s sad to watch the play of this team during the last years as I remember huge posters of leading players hanging around Metalist stadium and a special atmosphere before the matches. But my friends who are Metalist fans told me that the team has a chance to get into Ukrainian Premier League.

Anyway, the mood at the stadium is cheering: a few hundred core fans support their favorite team. I stay with ultras fans during the match when they are standing up, chanting and waving flags. The mood at the last match was stunning! I was also impressed that there are lots of girls among fans like in Italy. Coming here almost every year, I can see how teenage fans are growing up under my watch comparing pictures we took in previous years.

Were there any negative moments during the matches?

My saddest memory about Metalist team was in 2013 when Champion League match would have been held but it was canceled due to the team’s disqualification a few days before the match. I was pretty disappointed as I booked a flight to see that historical match when Metalist should have played in the Champions League for the first time. It was the beginning of Metalist’s decline. When I came to Kharkiv in 2016, another team Metalist 1925 played in the First League. I believe the team will return back into Ukrainian Premier League very soon.

When are you going to leave Kharkiv?

For the first time, I’ll take a plane from Kharkiv to Milan on August 15. It’s further good news as more and more nonstop overseas flights have been started from Kharkiv. It’s much more comfortable than in previous years when I had to get to Kyiv and take a train to arrive in Kharkiv.

Are you going to come here next year?

For sure! Of course, anything could happen but I’m going to keep visiting Kharkiv every August.  By the way, national Italian channel Sky TV will show the movie about my trip to Kharkiv at the end of August. Also, local Italian newspaper “Il Tirreno” covered my trip in the article published on August 15.

What would you like to wish our readers?

If you ever wanted to try hitchhiking trip, choose the city that you would like to visit. Please, don’t give up and you’ll see that this idea isn’t crazy, fill your heart with trust and kindness and it will blow the travel companions away!

Text: Natalia Ivanova

Photo: Tommaso Giani’s Facebook page