Kyiv has many faces and many moods, always changing. Not all of them are pleasant, but all of them are unforgettable.
A few of my favorite moods of Kyiv:
“How do you tell if a Ukrainian boy likes you? I don’t understand the boys here at all,” I whined to one of my roommates, Anna.
I was about three weeks into my trip, and stressing about relationships, obviously, or the lack of them. America has labored unceasingly to teach me that if you are over 25, single, and childless, there is something wrong with you. Hence I was begging Anna to explain how these things work in Ukraine, as they seemed incomprehensible and I was convinced that Ukrainian guys were not interested in me at all.
Looking back, I don’t know why I wasted brain power on the thought. I didn’t really want a boyfriend, maybe only to feel popular.
Anna gave me a piece of advice that has proved to be one of the most important things anyone has ever said to me.
“Just relax,” she said sagely. “Besides, maybe it was just the magic of the night, a foreign language, being in a different country. You don’t know. Time will tell. If something is going to happen, it will happen. So you don’t need to worry. Just relax and enjoy it. If you’re falling in love, this is the fun part.”
I kept forgetting that she was a few years younger than me. I can still hear her voice like an echo:
If you’re falling in love, this is the fun part.
I didn’t want to spend my time in Ukraine worrying over boys and relationships. I wanted to be happy, fancy-free, to see and do everything, speak Russian, and generally be on holiday and enjoy myself.
She was right after all. I had been beguiled by the night, a pair of pretty eyes, and the music of a beautiful language. Somewhere along the way, without even knowing, I fell in love.
I realized it walking down Tychyny street one day. I was so excited about discovering new words and understanding, and how incredible it was to be in a foreign country with all the language skills of a two-year-old. I almost missed it. I was pondering the process of breaking through the language barrier, chipping away at it little by little, word by word, when suddenly, I knew that I would have no do-overs. I would never pass this way again. Once I broke through the language barrier, I couldn’t go back and do it over again. So right there on a little sidewalk in the left bank in the big city of Kyiv, Ukraine, I made up my mind to enjoy the process as much as I possibly could, while I tried to conquer the city and the Ukrainian/Russian language. Anna’s words came back to me with a crash and the equivalent force of a falling grand piano: “This is the fun part.”
It stopped me dead in my tracks, stunned.
Then I knew. I was in love! I was in love the way you love someone you can’t stand. You fight. You argue. You quarrel. They make you angry. They make you crazy. They make you mad. Until one day you wake up and you realize how angry crazy madly you love them, no matter how bad it gets. And the rest is history, or so they say.
Of course, Anna and I had been talking about a boy. And she had been absolutely right. Only, it wasn’t a boy I fell in love with. It was Ukraine, Kyiv, that place and time. I fell in love with life and the unhindered living of it.
I didn’t have to worry about how to make that “special someone” like me, or if that “special someone” was the “right special someone”. Suddenly, it just didn’t matter. I saw everything clearly. For once, it was simple.
Love is not a real-life game of Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey, though a lot of people treat it that way. To pin all of my hopes for happiness on someone else, or hang my dreams on their fragile wings, and then try to make them feel the same, is an unfair exercise in futility and a dangerous one.
It seems to me that people generally believe they must have a significant other in their lives to be happy. But I protest. Hearts are far too precious treasures to leave at just anyone’s mercy. Why had I ever thought I would find happiness by doing just that?
I don’t mean that I stopped wanting someone special in my life; I just stopped thinking that I had to have someone.
I wrote a besotted love letter in my journal, one stormy night not long after that conversation with Anna:
“I got off my bus early and walked home. I like to do this sometimes, because it helps me collect my thoughts. Or if I’m not quite ready to see a flat full of people. But this time, I got off because it was raining gently, I thought, and as I walked it got more and more, until I was laughing up at the Kyiv night sky, for sheer joy, because I realized that now I’ve seen Kyiv in so many moods, not all maybe, but I love her in all of them.
“Kyiv to me is like a woman or a person. You know, the ones you meet [with whom] at first you don’t get along. You fight, you humph, you disagree, you torment. And then one day you wake up and realize how crazy madly you are in love with them and how boring your life would be without them. Kyiv is maybe not the woman you would marry and raise kids with, but she’s the one you judge all other women by, the one you never forget. Kyiv is that affair to remember, the one you never quite get over. I laughed at the rain, because I’ve seen Kyiv sleepy, quiet and still, drunk, hungover, chilly, and warm, depressed, and wild, hurried, and bored, angry, and tender. I laughed because if by some chance this is the only time I ever spend with Kyiv again, I wanted to let her know that I enjoy every minute. That I love Kyiv in all her moods.
“Kyiv is that rare person you meet once in lifetime that you love so much that it doesn’t matter if they love you back. It’s as though after 3 weeks in Kyiv, breathing her air, eating her food, meeting her people, and drinking her beer, has spread Ukraine throughout my system, my cells, my blood. She’s under my skin and in my heart. It’s as though we finally stopped fighting. Maybe we can at least be friends. I can not tell you in any language how alive I felt on this night, sharing Ukraine with people, and walking, feeling her flow all around and through me.
“I can’t imagine, when I write such things with such emotion, admiration, and tenderness, what it will be [like] to go back [to America].
“Ukraine is not for the faint of heart, but she’s worth it. We are alike, she and I.
“Someday I hope someone loves me the way I love Kyiv, Ukraine.”
Hedgehog in the Fog is a short animated film from the 70s, written by Sergei Kozlov. There is also a book by the same name.
From what I gather, the hedgehog and the bear cub drink tea, count stars, watch sunsets, and generally muse over autumn and the beauty of life. Even though they are very different, they are the best of friends whether they understand each other or not. I want to say it is the most adorable thing I have ever seen, but that would not be quite accurate. “Entrancing” is more like it.
When I first saw the film, I felt as if I had found a missing piece of my childhood. It was fascinating, with an uncanny hint of the familiar. Perhaps I was struggling to recover memories from a parallel me in a parallel universe. Or maybe I enjoy my Sci-Fi a little too much.
At any rate, I found myself trying to imagine that other world in my mind, 5,000 miles away and 8 hours ahead, a world where little Eastern European kids grew up on these stories while I was reared on Gumbi and Bambi. I tried to picture how my life might have been if I had been born “over there”, instead of “over here”. It was a curious and generally futile exercise, but I still tried.
Then I tackled the book. It was right up my alley, all fog, mountains, sunsets, and twilight. About sitting in the gloaming and watching night fall. I love all these things. But autumn has always made me sad for some reason I can’t explain. In these stories, it always seems to be autumn.
Sometimes, it leaves me wishing for friendships like that. Maybe I have them, but at times my friends all seem so far away. We all live in different states or different countries. Maybe in fact it is the distance that brings us close, all the possibilities of the times we could have spent together, if situations were not as they are. Maybe I already have a friend like that, but I’m sitting too close and I can’t see it. Perhaps I won’t really appreciate it until it’s gone.
What makes for sweet and charming tales on paper (or e-book) might not be so in practical everyday life. I have to remind myself of this.
All that being said, I connect to this story in a way that my adult mind does not understand. But the little girl inside me, the one that treasured her stuffed teddy-bear and stuffed hedgehog, remembers. And she is devouring these stories and animated short films with child-like voraciousness.
Personal musings aside, Hedgehog in the Fog (Yozhik v Tumane) is really cute. It’s short, only about 10 minutes long. The above video even has English subtitles. Oh, I don’t expect anyone to have the same emotional reaction to it as I do. But it really is a gem of a movie. It even won awards! No excuses now. Go. Watch. Enjoy!
“What shall we do today, Karina?”
“Sarah, today, I will show you Babi Yar!”
I didn’t have conversations like this in America. Of course, we didn’t have anything of Babi Yar’s magnitude in my little American town either, just a couple of museums and Trail of Tears plaques that no one knows about.
Karina and I sat on the steps of Babi Yar, ate our lunch, and shared our secrets, just a couple of “regular girls” with regular girl problems. But no hardship of our lives could compare to the tragedies that occurred here. By comparison, I felt we were very small and not as important as we liked to think. I rather liked feeling unimportant and being reminded that after all my life is not so bad.
This was one of the times in Kyiv that never left me, one of the small things that subtly and quietly crept under my skin. I found myself there twice, once with Karina and again to arrange transportation to the wedding (more on that later). Both times I got the feeling that by celebrating life, we honored the dead. By living our normal lives and everyday triumphs and woes, we were showing the departed that life does indeed go on, that dark nights do not always last, that we who remain still carry on.
Perhaps it’s a silly notion, that they find peace when we live the lives they could not, that it helps complete some kind of cosmic unfinished business. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking.
But it stayed with me, the conviction that I owe it to them to remember and then live a full and happy life. As much as is within my power.
Read more history here.
See more pictures here.
The quiet of the park belies it’s past. It seems impossible that anything awful could ever happen here. But this is Babi Yar. This is a place out of a nightmare, a site of mass murder, horror, and hate.
But on this day, it was peaceful and calm. People covered the steps of the monument in flowers — things of fragile, fleeting beauty — wishes and memories.
This is how we honor the departed. We remember. We pray to God it never happens to us or to our children. And for as long as we live, we keep moving forward.
I never really stopped to think about what actually makes an adventure an ADVENTURE. Not until I found myself in a flat full of strangers trying to explain in broken Russian and English how I came to be stranded at the airport. When, in such situations, someone tells you in Russian, “Oh, you had an adventure!” you never really forget it. Especially when the strangers end up being good friends that you love and miss.
It was the same with that night I almost spent on a park bench. At the time I didn’t really think, “Oh, what a nice adventure!” I was thinking, “It’s 3 a.m. I don’t care who takes me home or if I’m even kidnapped, as long as they give me a bed to sleep on!” Of course, I probably would have cared immensely the next morning.
It was a strange sequence of events.
I was going home one evening after visiting with some friends.
I said, “Just tell me the bus number. I’ll ask where to get off. Seriously! I’ll be fine!”
They would have none of it. “We don’t want you to get lost!”
A friend of mine offered to come get me and take me home so that I wouldn’t get lost in the great, giant, unfamiliar city of Kyiv.
HE got lost.
I was not happy.
“How are you lost? You live here!”
He was rather embarrassed, which is why he shall remain nameless. (By the way, friend, if you ever read this, forgive me. It was too good of a story not to tell.)
It took forever to even get him to admit that he was lost. Apparently Ukrainian men don’t like to stop and ask for directions either.
It was even longer before someone remembered that some phones have this crazy thing called GPS…
But it was already 11 p.m. or so and we still ended up having to walk and walk all the way because the buses were gone by this time. We saw the last bus pass us on the road. I promptly burst out with, “Oh! That reminds me of a song!” Something about walking all night until the morning (videli noch, gulyali vsyu noch do utra), but I was not feeling nearly as bright and chipper as the song pretends to be.
I like the Zdob si Zdub version.
But the original is by Viktor Tsoy. (Once watched, it can never be unseen.)
Or copy and paste this into youtube: видели ночь гуляли всю ночь до утра
Sometime around 1 a.m. I finally got back to the apartment I called “home”. I knew there would be a couple of extra people staying the night there. What I didn’t expect was a person in my bed. Apparently, the girls had taken over this room. Fortunately, I figured that out before I crawled in with whoever was in my bed. That would have been awkward.
As I rolled a mattress out on the floor (I just really wanted to fall into something bed-like and sleep), the person in my bed woke, saw me, and suddenly stood up clutching the covers to him.
I had assumed it was a girl. And here I found myself in the dark with what appeared to be a naked man who had cozily taken up residence in my bed. The sight could not be unseen (kind of like the Viktor Tsoy music video).
In such situations there is a perfectly logical course of action to take:
Straight outside to the bench in front of the building.
3 a.m. found me texting my friend, the very same whose lack of direction got me into this mess and left me on a bench in Kyiv in the wee hours of the night while all the drunk people walked by and peed into bushes.
“He-e-e-y, buddy. So I have nowhere to sleep.”
“Should I come get you?”
“Yes. Please. Now.”
I wondered as I sat there on that lonely bench, what the hell I had been thinking coming to Kyiv. The city obviously didn’t want me there, had tried to leave me at the airport, eat me in bus doors, and now here I was all but homeless. And that was when I saw the moon rise over the roofs. Sitting there debating whether I should just stretch out on the bench (it wasn’t that far off until dawn), humming “Up on the Roof”, I kept reminding myself that I should be miserable. But all the same deep down, I never doubted that I would come through it okay. My spirit soared right up there with the moon, and it didn’t matter if I was exhausted or sleeping on a bench. I was in Kyiv and making memories. I was happy.
Don’t misunderstand me. I was miserable. But it was a happy misery.
Someone who was walking by (and peeing into bushes) stopped and asked, “Vsyo normal’no?” Everything okay?
He might have been about my age, maybe even cute. But it was dark and I was on a mood swing, somewhere between “the universe hates me” and “Kyiv is trying to kill me”. I figured he was probably drunk. I told him, “Spasibo, vsyo normal’no. Everything’s okay, thanks,” while secretly wondering if he was going home to a nice comfy place to sleep, and feeling very envious about it at that.
No sooner did Prince Charming the Inebriated wander off, than my friend showed up to rescue me, for what would not be the last time.
“Listen,” my friend warned me, “I didn’t clean.”
“I don’t care what your place looks like. I’m going to sleep. Not look.”
“And my father might walk out in his underwear.”
I groaned. “Fantastic.”
I fell into bed at last. Well, a fold-out couch, actually. And I was nearly purred to death by a very old cat. She must have decided I needed some “good lovin’”, and showed it by sneaking up and meow-ing affectionately in my face every time I dosed off. I wouldn’t have minded. I like cats. But she had an old, deaf, cat “meow”; that is, loud, scratchy, and, generally, startling. I think she liked to see how high she could make me jump. And Pops did walk out in his underwear. But I slept in a nice comfy bed, even if catching forty winks was more like playing a losing game of tag.
And that is how I almost spent the night on a bench in Kyiv, and learned the true meaning of adventure.
Imagine a morning where all is quiet and the light in your window is made soft by grey clouds and long sheer curtains. Your eyes open to a completely different world. Maybe you quit your job with no back-up plan. Maybe you ended a relationship or began one. Or maybe you traveled thousands of miles away from home. You’ve seized the day, chosen your own destiny, accomplished the impossible! But what if later if becomes apparent that you have grabbed a bull by the horns or a tiger by the tail, what then? Well, what does it matter? In that moment, when all of life with all its possibilities is spread out before your feet, before you decide what to do next, you are the master of your own fate.
And knowing this, you get out of bed and face the day.
Sep 6, 2012
I awoke to a new world filled with that soft light and master of my own fate, although I didn’t quite know it yet.
My first thought was, I’m in Kiev.
I kept repeating it to myself over and over, trying to understand what it meant. I’m in Kiev. It boggled my mind. (In fact, I kept repeating it all month: “I’m in Kiev. I’m in Kiev.” It never became any less surreal.)
The events of the previous night, with all its panic and stress were long gone, along with the jet lag. The night was over. The grey and overcast light was familiar and comforting. This was how I remembered Kiev. I needed that rainy first morning.
I carried a gift from a friend with me. “A small token,” she said. “Something to go with you on your travels.” It was a key chain, a flat metal circle, with the words “carpe diem” engraved on it. It didn’t seem to hold great meaning at the time. In fact, it seemed rather ordinary. But I put it on my set of Ukrainian keys all the same. And every day, every time I left the flat or returned home for 32 days, I was reminded to “seize the day”, to make the most of the time, to never let a second go by unnoticed, until I began to believe that life is precious, that every moment I spent in Ukraine was a small miracle, a gift I thought I would never have. I came to love life as I had never loved it before.
Beware the ordinary things. The simple moments, the quiet mornings, the everyday unimportant things that people say – these are the things that creep under your skin unnoticed. These are the things that change your life while you’re not watching. In the end, it’s the little things that steal your heart.
I still carry that token. It reminds me that every moment is a small miracle.
“…for life is holy and every moment is precious.” – Jack Kerouac
a journey of a thousand turns
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