The Way It Used To Be - Chapter One: Kyiv and the Train Station

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June 29th 2005
Published: May 28th 2008
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Transferring to an overnight train in Kyiv...
No one ever cares for stories about transfers in neo-modern, faceless terminals, which beer I had for breakfast after deplaning, or the various looped repeats of BBC World I had to endure before boarding for Kyiv. However, my proverbial five minutes while connecting in Finland did indeed reveal a few points of interest.

I used to think Dutch to be an utterly useless language. I always claimed that in its written form in was the result of a fat woman sitting on a typewriter. I still feel this way. Now I have been exposed to Finnish. Envision the Swedish Chef tripping on LSD while walking over a bed of fire blown chards of glass, and then explain how to cook the chicken. That’s Finnish, unintelligible both spoken and written. Any language whose words attack the reader with multiple combinations of vowels in the same syllable laced with unpronounceable dipthongs is destined to be the target of ridicule. From the Finnair in flight magazine, I took note of työtekijöiden, ykrisityisohtia, and my favorite, sisäänrakennetu. With vocabulary like this, any Finn successful is mastering their own language should enter the U.S. National Spelling Bee; they would have to be a front-runner for

Happiness for a young American boy...
first prize.

Ukrainian International Airlines has a long way to go to reach the standards set by Finnair or even a discount carrier. Worn and broken in chapped leather seats sometimes fail to recline. No matter what the stewardess says, my tray will not stay in the upright and locked position. The overhead instructions for exiting and life vest deployment come in both newly painted Ukrainian under the original Portuguese, making one conclude that the Brazilians got the best of this aircraft before passing it on as second hand goods. The crew’s pilot did his best to impress passengers (and the farmers below) with some nifty turns and sharp banks to the left and right upon approach. There’s no feeling like looking out from the window seat and seeing Earth go by you 1,000 feet below, at 300 miles per hour at a 70 degree angle, while the hostesses nonchalantly makes a final sweep of the cabin. They never even missed a step.

At best, Kyiv’s Borispol Airport can be described as utilitarian. If this is how visitors get their first glimpse of Ukraine, then it will a long time until Jet Blue comes calling here. At best a second rate airport, services are sparse, assistance almost impossible to find, and surly customs officials are certainly a throwback to the Soviet era. After ripping up my first declaration, being threatened with jail time if had mentioned inaccuracies, and my pleading with yet another officer, Phil and I entered the ordinary departure lounger to greet his grandmother and cousin, Oksana.

In my vast three hours experience in Kyiv, it is safe to say that at least in an administrative capacity, Ukrainians do not treat each other with a chip on their shoulder, rather an enormous boulder. The “You’re not going to screw me!” attitude is prevalent whenever asking anyone a question, requesting help, or even trying to be courteous. A sense of skepticism is the first real barrier you have to overcome. Displaying courtesy or smiling is perceived as signs of weakness and vulnerability.

The outskirts of Kyiv do not inspire, but I expected worse. Dozens of old women gather at street corners to sell whatever belongings they can gather. Empty lots are unkempt, grass never mowed, and vehicles are predictably out of date. It strikes as a second rate city just as Tunis did. Police are about, but without an overwhelming armed presence. Beautiful women abound, none too shy to display their latest, and rather skimpy, summer attire.

Ukrainian law does not permit foreigners to acquire train tickets without a passport in hand. So, Phil’s family had no choice to arrange a compartment for us to Ternopil only at the station after getting off the airport shuttle. With all trains booked over capacity, we had to settle for the midnight train destined for Chop, resulting in a layover of seven hours at the train station. Between keeping Phil from running off with the pigeons, telling his grandmother to stop feeding me, marveling at the length of the lines to buy tickets and how little progress forward they made, and remaining vigilant over a mountain of luggage, I will not miss my time at the station. The whole experience is a testament that everything in Ukraine amounts to inconvenience, which people have simply come to accept. Even trying to teach myself the Cyrillic alphabet and basic vocabulary could not pass the time quickly enough.

Our sleeper car for the overnight journey could pass as quite a museum piece in many railways exhibits I have seen. Straight from the days of Krushchev, it exemplifies how deplorable conditions are on the surface. All the windows have been glued shut, sending the interior temperature of the car to stifling levels. No air moved because there existed no ventilation. Compartments in third class are open, but thankfully everyone seemed to settle in and it never got too noisy. The rancid toilets force me back a step when I open the door to a cramped cell of exposed and leaky pipes, wet floor, and horrid odor. Ironically, the lack of attention the window by my couchette has received in the past thirty years, and this includes soap and water, has benefited me. The window has been secured to the wall of the car by a series of rotten and decayed two-by-fours nailed into the frame. This has produced a draft when the car finally departed and reached a consistent speed. The paper-thin foam that serves as a mattress for my couchette does not conceal that I may as well have been sleeping on a concrete slab.

Nina, Oksana, Phillip, and I attempted to get a little sleep. I fought the delusional spells of jet lag and let my mind wonder: It had not been a good day. Things did not go smoothly. Ukraine is not a comfortable place. Jetlagged, unshaven, and in need of a bath, I looked around to see everyone intact and well. As we sped westward into the night, I closed my eyes and adjusted my rhythms to the constant jostling and swaying of the train. The wheels screamed over rusty rails; in places they drowned out the few inhaling snores and exhaling whistles within earshot. My last thoughts before assuming unconsciousness were of utter contentment: destinations unknown stood before me while I glided over a relic of a European railway system below. I wonder if anyone in Ukraine has seen a passenger asleep with a smile on his face.


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