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.”
My Dear Readers,
Writing No More Lies was one of those cases where the words flowed out faster than I could put them on paper. It was easy to write, but so hard to publish. I kept checking the views, thinking, “Oh, good. No one is reading it.” I never actually expected to be Freshly Pressed. I thought, “Oh, maybe someday. That’s a nice goal.”
It was a complete surprise when I got the email just before work on Friday. I went around gasping, “I’m Freshly Pressed!” and clapping and waving non-stop like an excited baby seal. My mother was with me; she can attest to it, though I hope for the sake of my pride that she won’t. (We should have taken pictures, but a photographer I am not.)
I want to give a HUGE thank you to the editors of Freshly Pressed for featuring me and all my new readers and to everyone who liked and commented for all the kind words and support. What an honor! It means a lot. Really. I had no idea what to expect,and my head is still spinning. Thank you to everyone for being a part of my seventh really-truly-deeply-happy moment! I will treasure this forever!
This whole experience got me thinking. I began to reevaluate my goals and plans and my general intentions. After some serious thought, I’ve decided to give the blog a minor make-over to reflect this (just an update or two to the About Me page).
I write as I always have: because I have something to say, because I want to leave something to be remembered by, because I can write things on paper that I can’t say out loud. I write because my silence is over. I’m amazed and delighted that what I had to say resonated with so many people. I hope that this will stay true for the rest of what I have to share (because there is, oh, so much more). I hope I can encourage all of you as much as you have encouraged me!
And also, because I have unexpectedly found myself in need of a new goal, I would like to announce that my first book is in the works! Now, I am not sure how long it takes to write a book — I’m sure it’s different for everyone — but I will post updates as it progresses.
Hold on to your hats, people. The best is yet to come!
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.
“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.
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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