Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Kiev on My Mind


I have traveled to many places in the world.  Many of the cities are seared into my mind for their vivid culture, stunning architecture, and tasty food.  Most recently, South American wonders like Quito, Lima, Machu Picchu, Isla del Sol, La Paz, and of course, Buenos Aires, have found places in my mind and heart. 

And while Argentina had an above the fold article in the New York Times this past Friday (As Argentine Economic Crisis Swirls, President Keeps Low Profile), the Ukraine is facing a far different type of crisis. 

In 2009, I had the great pleasure of spending 24 hours in Kiev.  I purposely missed a connecting flight in Kiev while en-route to Istanbul and had a fabulous 24 hour sprint through the city.  TIME magazine did a photo essay and brief story in this week’s magazine (Kiev Rocked by Violence) and it got me thinking about how beautiful a city it was. 

So I wanted to share an essay of mine that was published in Pace University’s Aphros Literary Magazine back in 2010. 

When I talked to my Argentine lover recently about the stories in the paper regarding the economy in Argentina, he laughed it off and said, “Yeah, this happened in the 80s, again the 90s, and the early 2000s.  It's nothing new to us.” 

But what’s happening in Kiev is new – certainly by modern standards.  And it has destroyed the makeup of a stunning city.  My essay comes from a time when the city was more peaceful, and still in one piece.

Kiev in 24

If the New York Times can tell travelers what to do with a city in 36 hours, I was doing it in 24.  Kiev, Ukraine, here I come.

It was a pleasant flight aboard AeroSvit airline.  Considering it’s an utterly carnivorous, meat-n-potato country, I can’t complain about my vegetarian meals. 

The plane lands; we debark.  Initial awkwardness of deplaning after a nine-hour flight ensues.  Blacktop against mountains with scattered smoke stacks makes for a meager skyline.  Numbness settles.  The busses hurry to the terminal. 

“Passport control,” customs, baggage claim.  Let the real game begin: finding my way into the city.  My phone failed me, so I was left to my own devices.  I’m roaming around the rush of people, all the huggers and kissers, looking first for the exchange rate; second for an ATM; third for a way to the city center. 

I’d read nothing about a train system and am not a big fan of busses.  It took a move to Harlem, after four years in NYC, to begin enjoying the liberties of above ground travel.  I knew I couldn’t walk, and therefore left with some of the biggest swindlers on earth: foreign cab drivers. 

A cabbie approached me; I brushed him off.  I wanted nothing to do with his improper albeit persuasive pitch.  He cajoled and questioned, we bantered, I buckled.  Hell, he was even offering to get me an apartment for the night.  When I asked how much, he said “Sixty US dollars.”  “You’re fucking crazy,” I quipped.  He laughed.  I said “$25,” “40” he threw, “$35.”  “Done.”  I grinned.  I’m always happy when I get someone to drop just above half their offer—China taught me well.  Besides, his English was good, he immediately offered me a cigarette, and got on the phone to get me that apartment.

Driving now.  He gave me a run down of what to do, how to do it, and a short list of sites to see.  He pointed out Soviet-era architecture: he didn’t need to.  It was overwhelmingly evident as the buildings were heinous and had fallen derelict, reminding me of “X” marks the projects in NYC.

We crossed over the Dnieper River, onto the pre-war western bank.  It was gorgeous.  Suddenly, beacons of eastern European architecture abounded, meeting the eye with grace and exuberance.  I did not study much in the way of eastern architecture, but it struck me as an amalgamation of styles: Beaux Arts, Neo-Classical, Gothic, and a touch of Rococo—if only for all the gold.  Bustling streets with vendors and shoppers, peddlers and bums, I was awakened by this now radiant city.

Past the government buildings, riding along the main park, on through Independence Square, and just to the north, we arrived at my home for the night. 

It was lovely.  A third floor walk-up in a 19th Century building with wide, long stairs.  When I walked inside, my eyes popped: fifteen-foot ceilings, French doors, a balcony, and a full kitchen.  And of course, all the Russian gaud to go around: glistening ivy wallpaper, awkward room-size area rugs, antiquated kitchen gear, and, and velvet drapes, but no plastic on the furniture. 

Off I went, exhausted, into a city I knew next to nothing about. 

City-centre was jammed—it was a Saturday.  A festival was taking place at the southern end and the main street was blocked off to traffic.  Classical music blared from speakers on streetlights.  I felt as if I were in a Busch Gardens theme park.  Part of my mission was to buy a phone card, as my phone didn’t work—quite the annoyance considering my timeframe for exploration.  I walked and walked, stopping at booths and stores to see if they had any.  No one understood a lick of English.  Finally, a nice, I’m thinking Dutch, gent asked if I needed help as I was going back and forth with the gold-grilled woman behind the glass wall.  “Yes!  Please.”  All the phone cards were for mobiles.  Great.

I continued to peruse. 

I suddenly became aware of just how far east in Europe I was.  What they lacked in diversity of skin color they made up for in their myriad meshing of styles.  Some of it down right scary.  It was a Saturday and I could probably count on one hand the number of women wearing flats.  Most were in 6-inch stilettos, with platforms adding even more height—amazing.  Leopard with stripes, lace with leather, spandex with tulle and pretty pink bows.  I was mesmerized. 

I admired buildings and poked into a few shops.  I walked and walked.  I realized too that there was no open-container law.  Everyone was drinking: sitting and drinking, walking and drinking, smoking and drinking, drinking and drinking. 

After much ado about nothing, my stomach began to call.  I was nervous about eating.  I did not hear or see a bit of English.  And I doubted there would be any menus in English.  Moreover, since I was not in Asia, there wouldn’t be pictures to point at. 

I found what seemed to be a cute, off the path place called “Kitsch.”  Good logo, good look, good name: AKA a go-to place in NYC.  I sat outside in the sunlight because I had tired of being just as white as everyone else on the street.   

The waitress came over to hand me the menu.  I laughed, ordering a beer to start.  She got that.  I drank it.  I said the word “vegetarian” and her cute pale blonde face kinked.  No meat?  Nothing with legs?  Things that don’t need to be cooked—but not fish either!  Fuck.  The table next to me was getting their food and I pointed to french fries.  A vegetarian’s traveling staple: when all else fails, go starch.  I had a big beer, fries, and chocolate ice cream.  How indulgent.

Back I trekked to the apartment for a late afternoon nap.  The bewitching hours were approaching. 

Totally out of character, I napped for two hours, as I’d been awake for almost 36.  Felt like a hundred.  I showered, powered, and was on my way.  To where, I had an idea. 

Kiev is laid out as a U shape off the river; picture a sprawling Amsterdam.  Roaming north to seek out more striking architecture and take in all the gold ornamentals, I found myself where I had ended that afternoon.

I did find a building I had not earlier though: the Opera House.  Rich and round, its assertive fa├žade exuded theatrics and luxury.  I admired it for a while, absorbing details and signs of aging.  Dusk made this most difficult, but the sky added a mystical glow, begging my attention.  

Walking further, I stumbled onto what seemed to be the Fifth Ave of Kiev: Chanel and Tiffany were neighbors, I’m sure Louis was not far away.  I quickly caught a cross street as I did not need their temptation. 

Strolling again.  Hungry too.

I rambled through a market: fruits and veggies—mostly greens and roots—fish and lots of meat.  I’d have cooked in a heartbeat.  Just outside was a large, seemingly traditional restaurant.  It was busy with groups laughing and chatting outside.  I walked up the street a bit more to no avail, returning to the aforementioned establishment. 

There was a sink at the entry.  People were lining up to wash their hands.  Wow: this should be EVERYWHERE, I thought.  I felt so proud to take part in this cleansing, but I kept it all inside and followed suit.  I stepped one room further and discovered the cafeteria-style eatery.  I had a cheese blintz and three desserts. 

As night fell further, my feet tingled with excitement.  I walked on, making my way to Independence Square where partying had yet to cease.  I bought beers at the underground bodega, used a lighter to pop the tops.  I sat and watched couples fondle hands, legs, and lips whilst sipping warm ales as tourists posed and glittered with wonderment.  I began to grow impatient; my body was dying to dance. 

I hailed a cab, told him my destination: Androgin, Kiev’s premier disco.  I arrived shortly after midnight, shocked to find the place empty on Saturday night.  My blood began bubbling.  I had limited cash and left my wallet at home for security reasons.  I ordered vodka neat and sipped very, very slowly.

Come 4am, you couldn’t move.  The stage lights came up for one of the best drag shows I’ve seen.  Choreographed numbers and real singing, vivid colors and costumes, not to mention all the beautiful bodies.  Dense cigarette smoke loomed as a hazy curtain; sweat and sex, seduction and lust dripped from the ceiling.

I got home at 6am.  Slept for a few hours and was off to the airport.  I finally arrived in Istanbul and spoke to my mother. “Jeffrey, did you even find a place to stay?” she asked. 

I sighed.

If I’d only known Kiev, its cabbies, and that clubs were perfect for errant transients.