Kyiv in April: Soft Weather, Firm Souls
by Peter Roetzel, April 2000.
At Easter time, a day flight into Ukraine begins with the snowcapped Carpathians thrusting through a bronze, semi-opaque light which halts their advance. Below unfolds a landscape, well-carved by dirt roads and numerous villages, that is several weeks behind Mid-Atlantic greenery timetables. Two hours beyond Frankfurt, the Dnipro appears as a dark braided ribbon. It carries no sediment but is molasses-colored from organic content. Descending upon modern day Ukraine brings home the striking image of encroaching modernity as small high-rise apartment blocks and assembly factories crowd out the cottage-style buildings.
If you are not a Ukrainian citizen, immediately upon entry you must queue for national insurance-- it's just a few dollars. If you skip this step, you end up going back after queuing in the initial foreigner passport check. Then, the “deklaratsia” must be filled out, either for the "green" or "red " line, depending on how much possessions you have to declare. After this, a pass through the x-ray for your bags and a final clerk interview. They stamp your papers and out you go.
About 18 miles west of Borispil Airport, Kyiv greets you. Soviet era housing engulfs the typical homes and soon after there are few houses. Hotels for business and tourist visitors are pleasant and clean; many offer European plan (breakfast included). Carry with you at all times your hotel card bearing your name, room number, and length of stay; also carry your travel agency data. This gets you your key when you enter or leave the floor. Television is cable with Ukrainian, Russian and West European offerings plus the endless music videos and commercials.
Monument to Saints Andrew, Olha, Cyril, and Methodius in Mykhaylivska Square
Dawn comes softly without heat or cold, and the same mystical, metallic quality of lighting carries until noon when sunshine invades and the visitor becomes aware that the cradle of Rus' is alive and that this ancient and populous city is a soft and mild place.
A trip downtown is best done on the Metro (50 kopecks, or 9 cents US). You introduce one or two hryvnia bills into a machine and it yields green plastic zhetony (tokens) featuring the chestnut crest and an M. Announcements come in Ukrainian, covering safety precautions, station locations, destinations, etc. Passengers are quiet and polite. There's no accosting or rudeness onboard, but just wait for the egress/ingress scramble. Kyivans rush seamlessly in and out of the subway cars and can attain their goal quicker and more gracefully than any American. You'll exit into galleries emblazoned in granite, marble, and bronze and plaqued in tiles. Some stations even include chandeliers. Steep ascents open onto streets with lots of room to walk and none of the murderous car-dodging we face at home.
Good walks are to be had from the bazaar near Respublikansky Stadion in the south to Andrivskiy Uzviz in the north and on or near the Kreshchatik Street. During the course of a week you can take in the following: Pechersk Lavra Monastery; Lysenko National Opera; National Culture Palace; numerous art galleries; the circus (more like the Smithsonian than a tent!); St. Sofia complex (about all that survived the 1240 sacking by the Mongols); the Golden Gate (Zolotiy Vorota) replica; restaurants of every taste; and a wonderful incline railroad stretching from near St. Andrews Church down to the River terminal. A look at the Varangian influence is the monument to the founders of Kyiv: three brothers and sister Lybid, who appear both stern and serene. This Viking-style bronze is in the shadow of a victorious Mother of the people monument, which commemorates the end of WW II and towers in titanium metal from a hilltop, .
The human imprint is strong but subtle and requires dedicated observation. The mythical refusal of public employees to serve the needs of clients is just a myth. The Ukrainian spirit is strong yet contemplative and not very effusive. There is neither resignation nor boundless projection into the world of tomorrow. The feeling generated by Ukrainians is one written about in recent genres as the “eternal present." All things are bound up in the moment yet not all things are entirely evident.
A traditional lunch is the richest expression of gastronomy. Pickled vegetables, potato with garlic and onion, salads, cold meats, fresh bread, sweets, nuts, fruits, cold fish, and regional drinks fuel long conversation. A post-lunch walk or some gardening give a country feeling in a big city. Fruit trees blossom despite the high latitude and provide more juices year-round in less packaging than used in the USA.
Amidst the soft weather and the calm hosts, a visitor should have patience, good walking shoes, a notepad, and alertness to the availability of potable water. Mineral water generates almost as much thirst as it quenches!