Saturday, August 9, 2008

RU-UA - St Petersburg --> Kyiv

Another dreary morning, but it wasn’t raining when we left. That’s the best reason I can come up with as to why I kept my umbrella packed when we checked our bags at the train station. I didn’t even notice that I had forgotten an umbrella until it started to drizzle. Then it started to rain. Now when I saw rain, I really mean rain this time. Fortunately it didn’t last long before returning to a drizzle and then eventually stopping entirely.

This was our last day in St. Petersburg, so it began by moving out of the apartment and walking to the train station to check our bags. Anastasia had a train at 20:00, but Svitlana and myself were catching a plane at about 18:00. In either case, we both had all morning to explore.

The clouds remained much of the time we toured the Peter and Paul Fortress, located on the other side of the river. We skipped the churches, but did catch a military tattoo right as it began, watching it from start to finish – about a 20 minute show. It began with a bang, literally, as everyday at noon they fire a cannon from the fortress. I had heard it every day we’d been in the city, and this time I really heard it. It’s not just some little sound byte they play over the muzak system; it is a real cannon that they fire – albeit without the cannonball (unfortunately).

After the fortress, we returned to the train station to grab our bags. Svitlana and I bid farewell to Anastasia and made our way to the airport. Here, I was particularly glad to have a Russian-speaking stewardess along with me. After you go through security just to enter the airport, you then go through a customs point for international flights, then check in, then go to passport control, then go through security, and then go to your gate. This differs from my usual voyages in that check-in comes after customs… and the fact that there was a customs & passport control for a departing flight in the first place. Viva la bureaucracy.

In the airport, I began testing my skills at Cyrillic. Ever since I started going off on my own, this alphabet full of backward-N’s and mixed up letters actually started to make sense. By today, I was at the level of a kindergartener: I could translate most of the letters and, bit by bit, begin pronouncing words. I was reading absolutely everything I could find, which I later began to worry about stopping to intently read a sign on a busy street only to find it translated to “sex shop”.

Cyrillic is actually quite easy. About half of the letters are the same as in the Roman alphabet: they both look the same and sound the same. The B is more like in Spanish, which is a V; although in Spanish you sort of say a sound in between, but in Cyrillic it is definitely a V. The backward N is an H – the middle bar is just skewed. All the Greek letters: beta, pi, delta – they’re pronounced B, P, D. There were a couple others I had some trouble with (and still are a few), but I’m catching on fast. After a couple days in Ukraine, I’ve since begun being able to read signs relatively quickly. It’s surprising how many signs, after translating the letters, are actually English words – or at least recognizable from a Germanic or Romantic language background.

I enjoyed flying AeroSvit airlines, which is the same airline that Svitlana works for (or at least she technically did at the time). Granted, I say that specifically for three reasons. The first is that we got little meals, even though the flight was only about 2 or 2.5 hours long. Not a big meal, but still more than pretzels. Second, the Ukrainian dessert that came with the meal tasted fantastic. It was sort of a chocolate cracker-cookie… I’m not quite sure, but it was good. Thirdly, our stewardess (whom Svitlana knew) was spectacularly beautiful.

It got to the point where I had to take off my sunglasses just so I’d stop looking at the stewardess. I know that sounds strange, so I’ll elaborate. Basically, when you have sunglasses on, one may take more liberties with what is being looked at. So a male, for example, may look more readily at cute girls because said male feels comfortable in that no one can tell he’s looking at them. So by taking off the sunglasses, I lost that security blanket, of sorts. But crikey, she was gorgeous.

Russian women were not at all what I expected. They wear revealing clothes, which supports the stereotype, but I barely noticed any good-looking girls the entire time I was there. Most of them quite simply wear too much makeup. Way too much. Seriously, it’s like they stopped by one of those street artists, but instead of the artist using canvas; he just uses the girl’s face. And it’s not just that: they have no eyebrows. They either pluck them completely, burn them, dissolve them, or somehow remove them; only to paint them right back on again.

It’s really kind of funny… I was talking to a girl at the zoo back in Moscow. She could have been very cute if only she didn’t seem so fake. Bleach blonde hair, too much makeup, and eyebrows formed by markers! I really wish I could have just seen some Russian girls without makeup… surely it must be an improvement. The Russian girls I know back in the USA, including the Kaliningraders, are all gorgeous – and I’ve seen them all without makeup. So I really don’t quite know what it is here…

It turns out this stewardess was my welcome introduction to Ukraine, which stands in stark contrast to Russian women. To every warm-blooded heterosexual male proud to have testosterone flowing through his veins, all I can say is: add Ukraine onto your list of places to visit. Women here are amazingly hot. However, I once again reiterate what “hot” means, as compared to “cute”. You take cute girls home to Mom, but hot girls are the kind you don’t write home about. Ukraine is sadly lacking in cute women, but the hormones induced by these Ukrainians will make you not even notice the cute ones are missing.

Fashion across both counties is the same: lots of cleavage, short skirts, and stilettos. The latter two render some very, very, very, long legs. I’ve never seen so many stilettos, though. Every single female wears them, which I’d personally be worried about considering the number of grates around. Women getting stuck in grates was a particularly common sight in Moscow, actually.

OK, back on track with my travels and less about the female form. Arriving in Kyiv, Svitlana and I rode a marshrutka from the airport right up to the Metro station near Svitlana’s apartment tower. A very short walk and an elevator ride later, I’m face to face with an apartment full of Ukrainians. A shirtless guy with some crazy curly hair opened the door, and I soon learned his name is Yura. In the next 30 seconds, I was introduced to three more: Russlan, Victoria, and Sasha.

Yura speaks decent English, which is surprising since he has picked it up solely from use as an intermediary language when speaking to a Turkish friend. His vocabulary isn’t as extensive as Svitlana’s, but I can talk to him well enough. He works as a bank manager by day, though he graduated with a degree in the economics of cybernetics, or something like that.

Russlan was dressed in nothing but red boxers – he’s got an athletic build and doesn’t speak much English, so I haven’t really been able to talk to him. He often tends to stare perfect straight ahead, like a soldier, but I understand his occupation is in building construction – specifically, working on interiors.

I soon recognized that Russlan is in a relationship with Victoria, a blonde whom is also a stewardess with AeroSvit. She speaks good English and during the workdays, seems to be the only one I see due to her unique work schedule.

Lastly, there was Sasha. If I recall, her age was pegged at 17; whereas the others are all in their low/mid 20’s. She doesn’t actually live here, so I haven’t seen her since this first night. She had the cute and innocent look, though in her eyes I’m pretty sure I could see a much wilder side hidden away.

I was a bit skeptical of the whole situation when I first arrived, as my first impression was that this place was a sort of Animal House. My initial introduction consisted of two barely-clothed men, an apartment befitting of college students, and I right-away espied a hookah in the one room. However, it was Yura in particular that really made me feel comfortable – excitedly offering me more and more food and striking up conversation in English.

The apartment consists of four rooms: the entry, kitchen, and two bedrooms. A balcony provides great views to the south, looking out over a large lake. The catch is: this lake is a sewage retention pond. It’s fine most of the day, but at about 3am: they dump their precious cargo on in; and woo-whee better have the windows closed. Granted, at night the windows typically are closed; the tower also fronts the main highway between the airport and the city; and noise is quite significant throughout the day and night.

The highlight of the evening was just some housekeeping, of sorts. We all walked to the supermarket and loaded up on food; then walked on back and ate ate ate. They were all initially a bit surprised that I don’t drink alcohol, but they seemed to warm up to it and didn’t press it any further. There was plenty of juice and tea around, which I’ve made full use of. Later on we gathered in a circle in the one bedroom and toasted a couple times – they with wine and myself with apple juice. I was still a bit of a wallflower, but they were all quickly making me feel comfortable.

My bed was in what I presume is typically the girl’s room. I think Yura was on his own, Russlan and Veronica shared a large sofa-bed (it’s an L-shaped sofa, so it’s even larger than your usual sofa bed), and Svitlana slept on a pad upon the floor. I’d wager Svitlana has the worst conditions of the lot – the pad does not feel at-all comfortable. I slept on a narrow bed in the corner. When I first sat down, I first thought I was sleeping on top of a cabinet – it was rock hard. However, with a gap between the bed and wall of a couple inches, I’ve found that I can wedge myself into that gap and I’m really quite comfy.

Midway through the night I awoke to snoring. This was quite a trial on my brain as I tried to figure out whether it was me or not. Hey, thinking is tough when you’ve just woken from a sound sleep. I know I snore periodically – usually if I’m flat on my back, or if I’m in a really uncomfortable sort of position. I’d hate to be the culprit in a room with three other people. I tried to wave my hands in front of my face just to make sure I was really awake, and yes I was pretty sure I was; and yet the snoring was still going on. Woo hoo! It wasn’t me! It ended up being Russlan, who sleeps completely flat on his back – often the very position that snorers tend to be in. His snoring is very intermittent, so there’s a lot of silence in which one can get into a sound sleep; and will then never even notice the snoring once it does actually begin. I was just relieved it wasn’t me… I soon returned to deep sleep.

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