Ever since I first heard of Kiev it seemed rather fantastical with it’s forests topped off by pastel coloured churches with golden onion-domed steeples, it’s myriad of underground chapels within the hillsides, a land with a turbulent history, a land so close to Romania (my favorite European country) so when given the chance to visit either Moscow (a city far younger than the Ukrainian capital) or Kiev itself ofcourse I chose the latter.
It was strange watching the landscapes of Europe as I headed east. As the plane flew over the Netherlands and Germany the land was a vivid green, the sort of green that seemed unnatural, the shapes of the fields uniformed and huge as if all of it was mass produced and on steroids. Crossing Poland the shade of green became weaker, the farmland seemed more messy and unkept until I was over Ukrainian airspace, the land an even meaker shade of green, almost grey, the tiny allotments giving the impression that the planet here was cracked and broken. As the plane landed I decided to go into Ukraine with an open mind, to try and enjoy myself in my first post U.S.S.R. country.
Checking into the hotel, a massive Soviet building covered in bird droppings, was unnerving. The receptionist seemed frosty as if annoyed that I was disturbing her and by the time I got to my room with it’s seventies furniture and leaking bathroom taps I already knew that coming to Ukraine had been a terrible mistake. By evening I was crying on the phone to friends telling them I wanted to leave as soon as possible, that until now the Ukrainians I met had been so miserable and rude. A friend even commented that it was the first time I had ever disliked a place. I’m well known for being a really friendly and polite person with a good heart so to be driven to tears by rude people made me realise it wasn’t me, it was them.
I didn’t know how I was going to get through the days until my return flight, I was just thankful that I hadn’t booked a return flight for over a fortnight as I had originally planned. My heart broke further as I walked across Kiev’s main square with it’s cracked sidewalks and rusty playing area for children, prostitutes mingling in the crowds approaching older men, covers of old German pop songs blaring from the shops, a building on the corner a burnt out shell, the billboards loud and toxic. The buildings reminded me of Nowa Huta, a Soviet styled suburb of Kraków, rather imposing, triggering feelings of paranoia, from that very first stroll I had nicknamed the square “Stalin’s Playground.”
It’s really hard to describe Kiev. As I walked along the Dnieper River the cityscape seemed so brutally horrid and yet so stunningly beautiful. It’s strange to look at the most beautiful churches you will ever see to realise that they are facing the most unsightly modern condos and factories. I wondered who had planned the modern city and felt immense solidarity with the ancestors of Kiev who for sure would be turning in their graves.
Let me give you an example of my interactions in Kiev. I had gone to the mind bogglingly named The Ukrainian State Museum of the Great Patriotic War where there is a huge silver plated statue named The Motherland Monument. I went inside and POLITELY asked the receptionist, an older woman with a brick hairstyle (totally stereotypically Soviet) for a ticket to the upper viewing platform. In response her face dropped, she threw her hands like a maniac in the air channeling her ugly side, mimicking my voice angrily “Viewing Platform! Viewing Platform!” What then happened was so incredibly Soviet Union. She picked up a red Seventies style dial telephone and spoke coldly into it as if she was hissing to some enemy that she had been sleeping with the enemies husband all along. After a few minutes a woman appeared who marched me into a tiny elevator and took me up to the viewing platform. Kiev seemed so grim from up there, a viciously cold wind coming off the steppe onto a sea of apartment blocks looking onto factories belching out black smoke.
That’s exactly how I felt in Ukraine, seperated but hey, I got to rock some fabulous dresses!
Another time I walked into a shop politely smiling, as you do in every other country in the world, to be met by a furious shopkeeper who demanded to know what I wanted. Another time while buying herbal tea I was informed that the seller couldn’t understand Russian when I was speaking to her in English! Thats when I got thinking, maybe they thought I was Russian? My interactions with Ukrainians had disturbed me to such an extent that when returning home I tried to find answers. I did read that smiling in Ukraine to strangers is seen as fake and rude which is so strange as in the rest of the world it’s just basic human politeness. If smiling is seen as rude in Ukraine then why oh why did Ukraine get it all so terribly wrong?
I had searched for days for this blue tower, it had reminded me of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, luckily for me I had found this monastery on my last day in Ukraine, tucked away in a hillside facing the Dnieper River.
There was only one thing in Ukraine I was thankful for and that was it’s monasteries and churches. I would eat my breakfast as soon as I could and escape in a taxi out of there, out to them, spending the whole day in their gardens admiring the architecture. Covering my hair with a scarf and walking through a maze of tunnels while using a candle to guide through the darkness was really moving. In that network of tunnels are tiny chapels where services are going on and people kiss glass coffins where the mummified remains of monks rest. In those religious places there was something rather magical, ancient and spiritual.
The flight attendant on the KLM flight home was so totally out there gay. I told him all about Kiev, how he must never leave his hotel when having a layover there. We must have been half way home when I saw him coming along the aisle with a complimentary basket of wines and chocolates. I wondered who’s birthday it was until he and the other attendants stopped at me and said they were sorry about my experience in Ukraine. They had wrote me a card telling me just to ignore rude people and welcoming me back home to the Netherlands. In that moment I forgave KLM for my food poisoning on the way to Brazil, in that moment I loved the Dutch, I loved The Netherlands, I was glad to be home.