“Get over the [lack of] smiles, the harsh tones of voice, the unemotional stares.”
Well maybe I shouldn’t put this in quotes – it’s only been a recurring thought in my head walking around Kiev, Ukraine, for a week.
But I can’t shake it. Is this due to what’s going on with Russia? Have I not been running into the right people? Perhaps I’ve been giving off a vibe that says, “Don’t bother me”? Something is up. In a week I haven’t met a single real friendly person, not including the Ukrainians that are friends of friends. Someone who flashes that random genuine smile or glimpse of “Hey I feel you.”
Ok, I lied. I did meet one.
I’m on the sidewalk trying to explain what I need to a street vendor. A girl walks by, notices I am clearly not getting ANYWHERE with this guy selling mobile phone minutes, and asks if I need help. I think I almost hugged her out of pure gratitude for stopping and speaking English to me… until I noticed her boyfriend standing next to her eye-punching me. But all the same, a very nice deed was done that took 10 minutes of a stranger’s time.
Experiencing Kiev's Central Station
Then again, I’m in a big city – almost always less friendly than smaller cities or towns. And I have another friend of a friend out in a city/town called Poltava. Time for a train or a bus or whatever. Let’s do this. (I had no idea what I was getting myself into, as you can see at left).
I’m now standing in the middle of this large train station; I’m seemingly out of options. (Besides taking a video, of course.) I can’t read the Russian-only schedule board. The information window lady doesn’t speak English (I sound like such an American punk right now expecting everyone to speak some English, I know I know). And I start laughing. Perhaps a bit of a whimpering laugh?
OK OK, let’s try one more window – the one that doesn’t have a line 10-people deep.
“Previet. Do you speak English?”
"Niet." With a finger sway.
“I neeeed go to Poltava. Pohhhllltahhvahhh.”
The 50-year-old-looking ticket lady turns to a colleague sitting next to her, “Man, these Americans should really start to learn other languages besides that Ingleski,” or so I assumed she was saying.
Then it happens: "Where you try go?" A travel angel (not ‘agent’) has landed. This random woman starts asking me VERY broken English questions on where and when I want to go. She then translates this to the tough ticket lady. My new friend asks me another question, which I don’t understand. A man approaches the window to initially ask something about his travel, but upon hearing the English and sensing a need to communicate, asks me if I speak French (surprise, I don’t). He and Travel Angel then begin talking to one another about what I need.
After 10 or so minutes of blessed Travel Angel and I walking around the station, visiting three separate windows, we get the answer: the quickest way to Poltava is via bus that leaves every hour…and costs less than ¼ of what the train leaving in 3 hours does.
Travel Angel is now telling me something. Realizing that I don’t understand what she’s saying, here comes a visual I won’t forget: she holds a pretend machine gun and makes gunfire sounds. I continue on with my dumbfounded expression until she says, “I from Donetsk.”
This is the part in Eastern Ukraine with heavy fighting going on with Russia and rebels. Wow.
We walk out of the train station to find the buses. Travel Angel talks to one of the drivers to make sure American Idiot is getting on the right bus, and she smiles a goodbye. I offer her money, then a cool pen I have, but she won’t accept anything. I want to give her a hug but I don’t know the culture well enough. So I take her picture, hold her hand, and say, “Dya ku yu" (“thank you”).
“Dom, I think you’ve been wrong here buddy…you just don’t understanding these Ukraine peeps,” Dom says to himself.
Read more from Dominic's "Why Ukraine" series here.