Before I get to the big narrative concerning Kyiv, let’s not neglect all the neat things that have been going on here in Ostroh. One thing I’ve noticed is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Take when I was researching for my EAD (essentially a half-day presentation) on the environmental situation in Ukraine. At the cybercafé, I had to rush and tear to download as many pages as I could within an hour to take them home to look at later. Why? Because a bunch of ten-year-old kids were scheduled to play Counterstrike. I won’t soon forget that grumpy kid standing behind me with his arms crossed while I was downloading an e-book about Soviet environmental policy to my floppy disk.
I’ve also made some new friends, as I’ve hinted at before; I’ve gone out with Anya and Sasha and the gang numerous times. They’re just awesome. Andriy, one of this group, went to Regina last week with seven other Ukrainians as part of the NetCorps group. It felt so strange to be standing at the gates of Ostroh Academy at 5am last Saturday to see them off. Not only are they the successors to my first project, but I’ll still be here when they all come back three months from now. It boggles my mind.
Some of us also go to “shaping” class at the academy’s gym on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. It’s hilarious and very hard. I’m the only boy who participates, and at first I was discouraged from trying it (and my high centre of gravity doesn’t help matters), but now our instructor (also named Sasha – I think I know like fifteen Sashas now) accepts me there. Besides, I’d rather do something that’s traditionally for females (at least in Ukraine) and have direction in it than just lift weights by myself. I could get hurt out there! Anyway, we’ve all been trying hard to figure out what the Canadian equivalent to shaping is – we think it’s somewhere between aerobics and flexibility training for sports.
In Poland we got to play volleyball and I actually became a decent volleyball player. I also wanted to work out there, but all they had was aerobics, and that was explicitly for women only. Fair enough. Anyway, it’s not like this stuff here is super girly, except for the push-ups that are done on the knees, but when stuff like that comes I do regular push-ups instead.
If I have any advice to share considering working out, I would suggest starting early. It’s very difficult to do your first chin-up when you’re twenty-three, six foot two and one hundred seventy pounds. Actually, it’s impossible. I just do what I can, and I feel really good afterwards. I wish now that I had been able to see the fun and social side of exercise when I was little. Even by high school the only thing I remotely enjoyed was walking, and as soon as I didn’t have to take Phys. Ed. anymore, I dumped it. The last time I took Phys. Ed. was grade 7 (at Sandy Lake Academy for grades eight and nine they were content to let me do other things most of the time – gym was basically recess). I still remember how our last unit was gymnastics. I don’t think I completed any of it, and as punishment I was forced to sit down and write an essay instead of going outside to play Lacrosse with everyone else. I mean, given my situation at the time, shouldn’t any physical activity on my part have been encouraged? What’s wrong with this picture? Anyway, I know that they emphasise activity in a much more holistic way now – the focus is to just get the kids moving instead of worrying too much about abilities and talents in specific areas. Of course, children with talent should be given the challenges they’ll need to excel. But everyone else should just be allowed to learn and have fun. This could go for any class; lamentably, it was all too true for music class, in which I could and should have achieved much more than I did.
I’m not complaining; the education systems in Canada are getting better every year. As they say, the rules of the road are written by the blood of the victims. In the last few years of my life, I’ve been finding many new opportunities and doing things that I thought I would miss out on forever. I have to admit that my problem before was attitude; even if it was fostered by a horrific educational system (PEI’s more so than Nova Scotia’s) and a terrible school experience, so what? My education is my responsibility anyway, and I wouldn’t be the person I am now without all the crap I had to endure before. Quite frankly I am bewildered as to how I ended up in this position of comparative peace, maturity and prosperity.
Do I have to?
Kyiv was wonderful! It was surreal, amazing, scary, happy, invigorating, ugly, beautiful, and everything in between.
We came to Kyiv on Tuesday, and our first stop was the Canadian Embassy. We went upstairs to the conference room and had an informal meeting with Lee, the director of CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) operations in Ukraine (the only country in Europe that will continue to receive CIDA assistance by 2010). Lee and the others told us about Pub Night which is held every second Friday for Canadian nationals and members of the diplomatic community. Among other amenities, they have card games, beer, and real pizza. Naturally we were leaving Kyiv Thursday morning, but this is something fun to keep in mind if we’re in Kyiv at the right time, and I have a feeling this will come to pass. Anyway, I have a feeling that I can just call them up and they’ll talk to me. It felt so good to be welcomed and appreciated. No stuffy stiffs here! They actually want people to come visit them, which is an attitude I really admire. They also put out lots of posters and information sheets out on the street in front, with information for both Canadians and Ukrainian nationals. I saw nothing of the sort at any of the other embassies that I had the privilege to see - they were largely just a flag, a door, and a plaque – except for China’s, which was big, and Poland’s, which was a new, modern building. Lamentably, I have to say that, as Her Majesty’s Loyal Subject, I was a little disappointed with the British Embassy, although they’re on an awfully nice street.
Afterwards we ate and then we toured Kyiv in our little bus (fortunately with many get-out-and-walk bits). We saw parks, cathedrals, markets… oh, and lots and lots of skaters. Vince, you could live here. Actually, you could probably teach them a thing or two… sheesh, you’d practically be a god. I don’t suppose you speak Russian or Ukrainian or anything, do you?
On this first night I came back to the hotel on the bus with the girls; I was still in my suit and I wanted more than anything to change and relax. We pooled some various snacks and drinks together and sat on the balcony, and I went back to my room fairly early.
Wednesday was Ukrainian Independence Day, probably one of the best times to be in Kyiv. What luck! We had a jam-packed, incredible day. Roch and Lee and I left the hotel first, and we took a tram and the metro to a special market that wound its way up a hill. Seriously, we spent like two hours in the market. It’s like the Trans-Siberian Railroad, but vertical. We could have spent a fortune there; they had all kinds of kitschy, useful, and beautiful things.
A while after that, we made it to Independence Square in time to catch the end of President Yushchenko’s speech. In an effort to get a closer look (and better photos), I ended up standing in a sea of Nasha Yukraina (Our Ukraine) supporters. At the end of the speech, they started waving their orange “Tak!” flags and cheering, “Yushchenko! Yushchenko!” I didn’t know whether to cheer or not to cheer, because if I did cheer, people might wonder what business a foreigner has cheering for their president, and if I didn’t cheer, people might wonder if I’m some sort of nut for not cheering for their president that they fought so hard to elect in the midst of the previous establishment which did everything it could to squash the reformers. Inside I was cheering my guts out, and I washed over with euphoria for the Ukrainian nation and I knew in my heart that they could achieve anything they wanted to. But I’m not a Ukrainian (not even by descent, as many exchange participants tend to be), so if anyone asks, I don’t have an opinion.
One thing I discovered in my walkings around was that Kyiv is a very ostentatious sort of city. For instance, most of the billboard advertising is targeted at the rich, while in Canada the advertising tends to target the middle-class. There was so much emphasis on expensive things that I actually felt kind of inadequate, though grateful for my comparatively simply life. But why is there so much advertising for plasma screens and designer watches? The downtown didn’t feel like a people’s downtown so much as a rich people’s downtown. (On the plus side, at least they have a vibrant downtown – many North American cities do not, and Halifax is a notable exception.) Perhaps this all stems from the reality that Ukraine has a comparatively small middle class. People also assume that most rich people are crooks – only a few people have managed to become legitimately wealthy, although these population segments have tremendous growth potential in the new political climate.
With the expectation that the downtown ought to be full of rich people (or at least tourists) comes the accompanying baggage of hustlers and professional beggars. You’ll quickly learn not to look at the monkeys or falcons or ponies that you see in the squares, because you’ll be asked if you want your picture taken with the diaper-wearing monkey. The “Gypsies” selling flowers will come up to you whenever you speak to a girl (fortunately the girls I’ve met say no more quickly than I do) and I even had one young-ish woman beggar poke me in the small of my back for almost a minute (tip: try not to sit at the table on the edge of the refreshments tent – not that we had a choice or anything) before she gave up and went away. Actually, I kind of liked being poked. It tickled.
To skip ahead, on Thursday morning I was trying to compose a text-message when a little boy carrying a doll came up to me and shoved his change cup in my face. I turned away from him, and he started tugging at my backpack straps. I walked in circles, trying to get away, but he kept following and tugging. He did give up, and I felt a little bit bad about this until my boss Olexi told me today that these beggars were probably part of a racket. They often “borrow” kids and dress them in urchin-clothes and take the profits. Sometimes they actually go to other parts of Ukraine to find old and/or disabled people to take to Kyiv, and the racketeers take the profits. I’ve even heard a story about the racketeers exporting beggars to London, but I’d have to see that to believe it. Still, human trafficking is a problem these days as never before.
I’ll tell you about the time I really got taken for a ride, or rather, a walk. This was Wednesday afternoon, Independence Day, in Independence Square. I was standing near a street with my map (always a bad idea, but I still hadn’t learned at that point) trying to figure out the way to the British Embassy, as I wanted to walk to it to know where it was if I decided to apply for a Holidaymaker visa (as a Commonwealth citizen, I’d get a discount; and being in Ukraine, I’d be paying in hryvina!). So I’m kind of lost in thought when this fellow comes up to me and starts speaking to me and asking where I’m from. I said I was from Canada, so he tried speaking to me in French. This actually worked for a while; I was surprised how much I understood! (An odd thing about Parisian French is that it’s often easier for Anglophone Canadians to understand than Quebecois French!) But after a minute or two he switched to English – there were just a few too many words I didn’t know. The basic idea was this: he was associated with the cab drivers and the like, and he found people and helped them get around, if they’d help him out a little (ie: $$). The problem was that he left me no opportunity to politely refuse him. I couldn’t make him understand that I’d seen a lot of things already, and that I didn’t want or need him for what I hadn’t, and besides which, I didn’t have time for him, as I was to meet the group in half an hour. This was the defining moment of our “conversation”:
“Are you married?”
“Tell me, where do you stay?”
“I live in Ostroh, in Rivne Oblast.”
“Oh! Rivne Oblast! Yes, there are many beautiful girls there! Tell me, are you a Christian?”
“Are you Catholic?”
I shake my head “no” rather vigorously.
“Are you Protestant?”
“Oh, good. Then I will pray for you. I will pray you to meet a beautiful girl in Rivne Region, you will get married, and… yes! Yes! If you help me, I will pray for you.”
After that my morbid curiosity kicked in on top of my politeness and then the only decent thing to do was go along with him for a while. He started talking about the gate and some events of ancient history, which I have to admit was rather interesting. Then we happened to walk past a thirty-something woman, whom he harassed into talking with me (“Beautiful girl! Beautiful girl! Maybe you want…” he would whisper.)… he even made us take a picture together, but really I found the whole thing rather embarrassing, but I didn’t want to say that I didn’t want his help, because then I’d be hurting this other woman’s feelings. Anyway, I made it clear to them both that I was quite okay with this woman going her own way, and then he let her go.
He then showed me the pillar in front of the post office where people wrote things during the Orange Revolution. They cleaned all the other pillars, but the writing on one is being permanently preserved behind plexiglass. I took pictures. We went to the monument that marked the distances to other cities. I’d already seen it. So then he took me to the other concert stage, a few blocks up Kreshyatyk, north of the Square. We noted the TV coverage, and the view of the Dnipro river that I’d get if I just followed him a little more. I looked at my watch and said that I guessed that was all, and “here’s something for your trouble.” I gave him 15UAR (about $3.50, but more than enough to purchase a meal at a restaurant, and at that rate he was making more money than I was at my previous job at Symcor Services and far, far more than my CWY allowance). Oh, but he wanted five more, maybe for a drink. All I had was a 2 (50 cents), which I gave apologetically. “Maybe you could give me the 20, and I’ll give you…” (Um, no.)
I was glad to be rid of him so cheaply. He went back towards the Square; unfortunately, that was also where I needed to go. I walked ten to thirty paces behind, wishing he’d walk faster so that I could get back to the group only five minutes late. I didn’t want him to see me again. It wasn’t the money; I just didn’t like him.
I told this story to Olexi today and he buckled over with cynical laughter. For sure, I am grateful for this learning experience. I don’t really care about the money (it was a lot of money to me, but only because I’m in Ukraine on a fixed income), but looking back on this, I don’t appreciate the condescension and being treated like a total rube. I guess I have to stop acting like a rube if I don’t want to be treated like one, though. At one moment I was sitting on a ledge on a wall watching the electric busses and marshutkys come and go, and a girl came up and started speaking to me. I thought she wanted directions.
“Ya ni rozimiyu Ukrainisky.”
“Odna hrivnya budlaska!” (twenty-five cents) she demanded. I relented. Maybe she wanted bus fare. I wasn’t looking at a map, and she wasn’t speaking English like most people in Kyiv do as soon as they realize they’re dealing with foreigners (which often happens as soon as I say, “Shcho?” the Ukrainian way to say “What?”).
Anyway, after the episode with the self-appointed guide, Lee found me and we joined Roch at the aforementioned tent, which we stayed at until the evening. Everything seemed to be happening at our feet and we didn’t need to move much. We also didn’t want to lose this table; there were about 100,000 people in the square and somewhat less places to sit. Plus when it rained we made new friends! I also managed to contact my new buddy Slavic who had been visiting Ostroh a few days earlier, and I talked to him for quite a while. I also got to know Shelley’s cousin Anya (another Anya) quite a bit better.
That evening we were treated to the most beautiful fireworks I had ever seen. It was worth the six-hour drive only to see the fireworks. You know Gandalf’s fireworks? Lee and I made it home on a late-night tram, another adventure within the adventure.
I really found my rhythm on my last day in Kyiv. I felt like I knew where everything was, I was taking hundreds of good pictures, and I was also kind of happy to be going home at the same time. I remember climbing the escalator at Kreshyatyk station while parts of the Nutcracker Suite played on the speakers. I felt then that I was truly in Ukraine. (Incidentally, the escalators in the Kyiv metro are the world’s tallest – picture riding from Lower Water Street to the top of Citadel Hill on a single escalator. I’ll post the exact figures later. Anyway, they are truly something to behold.)
Before I left Kyiv, I wanted to eat at McDonald’s. It had been about two months since my last hamburger and Lee had been talking about it a lot and had already been. In the food court underneath the Square I bought a double cheeseburger meal (in Ukrainian, “daybl chesburher menyu”) for $3, was served in less than thirty seconds, and the fries were the best McDonald’s fries I’d ever had. I vacuumed them up like a starving man and licked the salt and grease off my fingers. The burger was an exquisite dessert. The fountain Coke was icing.
There’s more, but we’re both tired. Let’s just say that coming back to Ostroh was more of an education than some of us had anticipated. Have a good weekend, everyone! Sorry for killing your Friends pages… =)