Monday, August 11, 2008

UA - Kyiv

Today began with a late start, as I spent all morning and the first hour of the afternoon sitting in the apartment typing away at this here journal. Prior to Kyiv, I had only written as far as the first day of Moscow – written only so I could send off an email to everyone saying that I’m alive. So this was catch-up time. I also began stitching my photos together so that I could try and cut down on how much of my laptop’s disk space I was using. At my current rate, I’d be out of laptop space a week shy of my return to the USA.

I arrived at Kontraktova pl. Metro station and was immediately disoriented as to what direction I wanted to go. At first, I tried comparing the road layout around me to what was shown on my map, but that was quite difficult to do since I was right near the middle between the two pages of the map. Then I remembered… I can read Cyrillic! I went down a couple streets and looked at the address panels, which show the street name and building numbers.

I was soon reoriented and on my way to get some Georgian food at Minimo. Just standing beside the terrace, staring into my phrasebook memorizing the phrases I’d need in the next few seconds, the smells of the food filled my nose with glee. I went inside and was seated right back out at the terrace – a lovely place to people-watch. I got some beef prepared in Georgian spices (I remember it was #56 on the menu) as well as a Georgian salad. Both tasted fantastic.

Just as my main meal was about to arrive, my alarm went off on my phone. The alarm indicated that I had 30 minutes to get to Maydan Nezalezhnosti to meet Svitlana. How could this be?! We were meeting at 1700 and I could swear I had just arrived here in downtown Kyiv. I devoured my food and, waiting for the bill, sent a text to Svitlana indicating that I was on my way.

The wait for the bill took 10 minutes, when I finally requested it and got it 30 seconds later. Restaurants are odd things here in the former Soviet world. Some you seat yourself & the workers stare at you with a confused look if you just stand there waiting for service. Some will lead you to a seat, as is more common in the West. Some will bring you the bill, and others will wait until you request it.

Grocery stores can also be unique… one store in Russia was broken up into four sections. In each section, you’d place your order and get a bill. You take the bill to that section’s cashier to pay. Then you take your receipt back to the ordering station, where they’ll give you your order. If you want different items from different stations, you repeat the process each time… so you could stand in queue for up to 16 times! At a grocery store I went to here in Ukraine, you place the order and pay at the same place, but the clerk still gets the items for you; and it’s also split up into different sections. Then there are also your conventional Western-style supermarkets, where you just load yourself up with goods and pay at the end. This mix of methodologies can be quite confusing to Westerners.

While sitting, I could swear I heard some guy across the street yell “No fat chicks!” very loudly. Surely this was a Russian or Ukrainian phrase which just sounded like that, but it was still strikingly similar to the English words I thought I heard.

With my bill paid, I quickly went off to the Metro station – only a block away. I entered the station right at 1700 – fortunately I was only two stops away from our meeting place. As I was waiting for the train – I had just missed one – I looked at the clock to see how I was doing for time. 16:05?! What? I still have an hour? Oh… right… when I traveled from Russia to Ukraine, I changed to a different time zone.

I already used a token to get into the station, so I sure wasn’t about to put it to waste: I was riding that Metro, dagnabit, even if the only reason I was in this part of town was to go to the Chernobyl Museum – which I didn’t make it to. En route, I sent another text to Svitlana to let her know of my mix-up; not that it matters since I don’t think either text made it.

Bumming around for an hour, this time I was on time for our meeting. Since I had just eaten, I only grabbed some grape juice at Kozak Mamay; but I ate a tasty coffee torte at Marquise de Chocolate, located above. I also helped Svitlana with her dessert, which was some sort of sugary nutty confection. Svitlana led me around a couple more areas of town, eventually ending up at the Chimera Building in the administrative area of the city. The building is neat with its gargoyles and such, as its architect sounds like Eastern Europe’s answer to Le Corbusier.

Walking down the stairs and back toward Maydan Nezalezhnosti, we passed through what is perhaps the most posh part of town. Audis and BMWs were the norm (the former being particularly prevalent in Russia) and Svitlana also pointed out that a beautiful woman who had just passed by us was Ukraine’s equivalent to Oprah. I interpreted that as indicating that the woman is a major talk show host or something along those lines, and thankfully is far better-looking than Oprah.

We walked toward the Olympic Stadium to the south, just shy of which we parted ways and I continued on my own to the stadium. The stadium was built back in the 80’s, when Moscow hosted the Olympics. It’s in decent condition and was undergoing some limited restoration or reconstruction at the time. I walked about and took a look through the gates at the field, reminiscing on how Rome lets you walk right out onto the field of their stadium.

Next I decided to make my way back toward the river. I once again passed through Maydan Nezalezhnosti and this time it was dark out. I grabbed some more nighttime photos at different angles, but at one point I went to use a lamppost as a tripod and found myself constantly itching at my legs. The time was just shy of 21:00. When another minute had passed and it became 9-o’clock, the city’s lights sparkled on. It was then that I noticed why my legs were itchy: I had apparently positioned myself right on top of a mass of ants. Fortunately, this wasn’t like the last time I did something similar, where at about 10 years old or so, in Florida, I wandered over a colony of fire ants. These here Ukrainian ants weren’t the biting type, but they crawled their way onto every leg hair, and the agony of tickling was immense, I assure you. I was traumatized for the next hour: constantly brushing my legs because I could swear I felt something brushing along my legs.

During my hour before meeting up with Svitlana, I was at the Friendship of Nations monument and espied great views over the river; and now that the sun had set, I wanted to return. I actually spotted the Friendship of Nations monument the night before – it’s tough to miss, as it’s lit up as a massive rainbow at night. It’s a bit tacky and was actually built to commemorate the “union” between Russia and Ukraine… of course with the Soviet Union dissolved, it is not exactly the most appropriate monument.

I wound up through the parks past the Dynamo Stadium – which is sunken into the ground and has got to be among the most inconspicuous stadiums I’d ever seen. My guidebook has a touching bit about the Dynamo team’s actions during World War II, which is actually a great story and worth reading into.

Once again, I returned to a quiet apartment with nearly everyone asleep for work. I could hear that Svitlana was in the shower, so my knocks went unanswered. I passed the time by standing on the balcony, staring out over the towers. She must have just gotten in when I arrived, as I heard the water shut off after about 20 minutes. Returning, I nabbed an apple, some chocolate, and was off to bed.

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