Before we start, let’s stop: it’s not THE Ukraine, it’s Ukraine. Obama apparently learned this last year. Admittedly I didn’t know this until recently, but I'm not the Prez. And oh yeah, the capital (Kiev) is pronounced more like Keev than Key-ehv.
If you want adventure...
Two months ago, a visiting friend tells me protesters had just burned down his apartment in Kiev.
Instead of complaining about what he’d lost (he was renting it, but still, that’s intense), Tom goes on a diatribe about how much I’d love Ukraine. He’d been living there for two years, and thought that I should see it sometime in the future. Right.
Skip forward to a week ago, and Tom invites me to Kiev.
“Um, isn’t it dangerous still?”
Per him there is a hired mercenary group called Blackwater in the country now, and Kiev is fine. Note: I love adventures, I trust friends [perhaps too] easily, and I don’t read too much news.
So visiting the second-largest European country after Russia is confirmed. What else did I learn or hear before arriving? Not much beyond seeing the protests in Ukraine and Russia being on the attack. Oh yeah, and heard that if Ukraine falls to Russia then this is the first, and most important, domino to Russia claiming the old Soviet Union countries. But I politically digress...
I'm always searching for keys to any culture I meet, and I get one before even stepping off the plane in Kiev: Ukrainian personal space. The seatbelt sign is taken off, people get up from their seats…and the sardine effect takes hold. Passengers aren’t just standing up in the aisle way waiting to get out – they're actively pushed up on one another’s back. (I had to take a picture, as always.)
I hand my passport over to the immigration guard with a, “Hello, how are you?” I’ve never received such a cold, hard blue-eyed stare before. Almost like I'm Rocky about to fight a blue-eyed Drago.
“Thanks” as I get my passport back only to receive that piercing stare again. Ok, it’s his job, I tell myself.
I exit baggage claim a bit delirious from the three-legged 20-hour flight and head over to the currency exchange booth. The lady now has my $200 and passport – I wait…and wait, seriously WAIT. Then it hits me: is this the old USSR way still living here? She prints four pages, cut one of them, and has me then sign two documents. All the while I'm waiting to get my money and passport back, Alex Ukraine (I didn’t get his real name, just his essence) is hugging my back Ukrainian-style.
On the cab ride into Kiev I’m told to steer clear of the Maidan Nezalezhnosti area (“Independence Square”), where the protesters are still located. “Fair enough,” I say to myself, with substantial curiosity to check it out. But I’m not wandering the streets of Kiev freely as I normally would in a new city.
Back to the Ukranian people – I met Drago at the airport’s immigration, but I wasn’t ready for Dragas.
I’m coming out of the bathroom in a coffee shop. I look up and meet eyes with one of the servers and automatically smile. Nothing. No slight acknowledgement, not even a fake L.A. smile. And it’s not just her. I go to a grocery store (a fantastic way to learn more about a culture), check out with my fruit (and $4 vodka of course), and Draga barks at me, “Hey idiot, go back to the fruit section and weigh out your fruit – what are you dumb or something?”
Alright, she said this in Russian, so that was paraphrased, but I got the feeling. It’s the general vibe everywhere I go. Man, this is intense stuff.
Perhaps justifiably, Ukraine appears to be a stiff place. Turmoil is happening in the east and protesters are camped in Independence Square. English is not spoken widely enough for me to gauge if people are normally unfriendly, or if the hostility is the result of what is going on with Russia at the moment.
I’m staying in the neighborhood surrounding an awesome futball arena called Olimpiyskiy. It felt very safe walking the streets today. Although the site of the protests is apparently a few blocks away? Not the most comforting feeling.
So how am I feeling right now? Excited. Looking forward to discovering more about the people and what’s going on... and having fun in the process. Here we go.