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:
I remember this day. I was sicker than a dog, some Ukrainian sinus infection that I refused to succumb to. I should have stayed in bed, but I wouldn’t. I continued to act healthy until I just couldn’t fake it anymore. Fever. Cough. Sinus pressure. I felt terrible. I was miserable.
But this was the day my neighbor’s daughter, Anya, brought out her books to show me how she could read English while I was waiting on my laundry. This was the day we played with clay putty, something I used to do with my grandma, something to me incredibly nostalgic. See that bracelet on my hand? She wanted to give me that, a prize she had won in class. She wouldn’t take no for an answer. I wore it for the rest of the trip, never stopping to think that it might look silly. I counted it precious. It was a comfort, a reminder of the day I learned the truth.
And all it took to rattle my nice little American world was a little girl in a cramped Ukrainian apartment who wanted to show me her English.
This was the day I finally understood that I wanted to make a difference, that I could make a difference, even if it was just teaching a little girl one word of English in a far-away country.
I suddenly remembered a day ten long years ago, standing outside my house at fifteen, breathing deeply of the wind and wondering where it had been, where it was going, and was that some kind of Eastern spice I smelled in the air? I was dying to go and find out. That girl was all fear and trepidation, unsure, and insecure. That fifteen-year-old girl had no idea of where she would be ten years later, that one day she would just up and go away for a month all on her own. Sometimes I remember the girl I was and smile, because I owe it to who I used to be to be who I am now.
I owe it to myself to live my dreams.
We owe it to the young versions of ourselves to fulfill their dreams — those dreams we used to cherish.
People have continually picked this one picture out of my hundreds and commented on how I’m “glowing” or “look really happy”. Maybe I had a fever. Maybe it was just because I was sick. Maybe it’s sweat. But the one comment I can’t argue with, the one that gets me every time, is: “You don’t look like that over here.”
Deep down inside, I know they are right.
There’s only been a handful of times in my life that I can remember being really truly as happy as I was in that picture, when I was relaxed, didn’t care about how I looked, or if I was pretty, or if my tummy pudge was showing. Only six brief moments when I was convinced that life was going to be good and worth living. This was one of those moments, illness notwithstanding.
Because this was the day I realized that my life was a joke. I hadn’t been doing anything worthwhile or helping anyone or making anything better. I was treading water, just taking up space and wasting time playing games on people and computers. I hadn’t really been living the life I dreamed of in the secret attic of my mind, and I had spent a great amount of time and effort trying to convince myself otherwise. I claimed to want a career, a house, and a family. But did I? Had I only been pretending after all?
I was living a lie.
This was the day I stopped lying.
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!
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.
I must say this trip has pretty much been a success as far as my goals were concerned. Some days I think I’ll never be ready to leave, and some days I’m just really, really tired. Some days I think I only see the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much more to learn in this culture that I could spend my whole life trying and never feel like I was finished. And some days I crave frozen pizza and Doctor Who marathons. Continue reading
The words left unsaid, pouring out as poetry.
A Collaborative Mental Health Blog