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.”
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!
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.
The words left unsaid, pouring out as poetry.
A Collaborative Mental Health Blog