Where to put your underpants on the way to the Golden Gates.

December 12th 2007
Published: December 12th 2007EDIT THIS ENTRY

There is a problem with our cosy new flat which neither of us could have expected: the pesky static created by a small room which is full of fabric. No sooner have we stopped bumping into the kitchen cupboards in a sleepy trance during the cold dark mornings than we are sent jumping into them again aftter being zapped by a dressing gown or the sleeve of a work jumper. Never before has a goodbye peck on the cheek been so frought with risk; I now have a little scar on my nose.

Tales of the underground

But I've become rather fond of my 28 minute commute. I can afford to prise my creaking back from my bed - which feels as if it was carved out of the same material as the angel statue on Independence Square - half an hour later than I used to at Jared's and still have time to shower and find four clean socks to put on before leaving.

Then a few minutes' walk (in penguin steps if there is snow on the ground) to the metro.... an unenthusiastic jog down the escalator.... a jostle for position on the platform, a push to get onto the train before the doors slam shut.... a peek at the monitor on the carriage ceiling to check which side of zero the temperature is.... a bumpy ten minutes trying to keep my face out of people's armpits.... more crowd shenanigans on the platform at Palats Sportu, levering myself toward the escalator with my elbows.... a disciplined shuffle amidst the hundreds of other commuters at Lev Tolstoi Square.... another train to Respublikanskii Stadion.... a dash out of the metro and past 'Crockery Heaven'.... a hundred more penguin steps to my building.... a smile for Ira my favourite secretary with the streak of red in her light blonde hair, then into the office and a round of dobroe utro's and handshakes.

Snow fell twice last week, but neither new batch settled for more than a few hours after falling through December's tepid air. I watched as big white flakes tumbled in slow motion past the office window, hoping that the white blanket would settle over the city again, but by the next morning there was nothing on the street besides puddles.

The city is as busy and confusing a place underground as it is above. More
Khreshchatik in the snow.Khreshchatik in the snow.Khreshchatik in the snow.

People in Kyiv have fallen in love with dispensing machines, because there is no woman inside them to be rude to you as you're given your change.
so, even. The little green coins that you put in the barriers have an 'M' written on them and the word 'Kyiv' - below is the metropoliten logo, three oblongs that together look for all the world like a pair of unflattering Y-fronts. I have spent many an escalator trip looking at one and wondering what the makers were thinking of, but am still clueless. Perhaps a reminder to put on a colours wash when you get home...

The inside of my old grey overcoat has split so that the lining has become one large pocket: I'm sure that if I gave it a good enough shake I'd find enough pant-stamped tokens near the small of my back to last me into February. The underground escalators play classical music through their speakers each evening, which helps to clear my head after a day of translations even if I'm often too tired to waltz my way to the top. As soon as I get to Zoloti Vorota station - with it's dark red and blue mosaics and golden chandeliers - I know I'm almost home.

The rumbling, claustrophobic evening commute throws everyone in the city together: graceful ladies in their sixties with bright red lipstick and luxurious fur coats; sullen middle-aged men with bushy moustaches, sports jackets and leather caps; mothers with toddlers swaddled in little red or pink space suits and matching hats; short, stubby old babushki with bags of groceries, wrapped in colourful headscarves and threadbare felt coats; young men in leather jackets and pale jeans; young ladies made up for the catwalk, bony hips squeezed into designer jeans and glamourous coats; plump businessmen with expensive tight black turtle-neck jumpers tucked into grey suits; schoolboys in AC Milan or Chelsea jackets and woolly hats pulled over their eyebrows; cross-looking women with devious eyes and pointed noses; foreign businessmen, conspicuous by their smiles and relaxed shoulders; peaceful elderly gentlemen in stylish black overcoats, newspapers folded under their arms; teenage rebels, the little Roma Zvers and Avril Lavignes.

All work - and some play

At work I've been as busy as Yuliya Tymoshenko's make-up artist, writing the firm's Christmas card to its foreign clients, pencilling words into stuffy contracts, and trying to remember my Pushkin...

"Луна, как бледное пятно
Сквозь тучи мрачные желтела
И ты печальная сидела —
А нынче... погляди в окно"

...for lunchtime chats.

I spent an hour on Friday afternoon recording ten takes of reception's answering machine message in English, deadpanning my way through a list of extension numbers: Oksana Tserkovnikova - Librarian - 132...... Vladimir Doroshchuk - PR Manager - 130................" and so on). On lethargic days I spend the entire day in my chair but the supermarket on vulitsya Chervonoarmeiska is close enough to walk to in my lunch break - and is the only one I've ever shopped in which has a vodka aisle.

Some days are tougher than others. I learned on Monday that the back of the queue in a cold Ukrainian tax office in which I spent my morning is not quite as depressing as the back of a cold Ukrainian ambulance, which took us to hospital that evening after Ana struggled with another bout of food poisoning. Thankfully it wasn't as serious as last time, and the main damage was to my nerves.

On another night we were hauled back to the Militsiya office to identify the two thugs from a folder of photographs, having learned that they had found one of men of who attacked me and knew who the second was. Seeing their mug-shots wasn't pleasant: they are the pug-nosed personifications of the phrase "I wouldn't like to bump into him in a dark alley", which sardonically came to mind as the memories returned.

That evening was a reminder of just how quickly moods in Ukraine change; when "that" phone call came I was with Volodya in the office kitchen, eating buterbrodiki with slices of chicken and delikatessnyi sauce, leaning against the coffee machine, gossiping about the New Year's party he is planning for us. An hour later I found myself at the other side of the city, shivering with Ana in that brown, narrow wooden corridor that makes my throat close. While I stared at the squinting eyes of the first man who put me in hospital and tried to look up from the page, an officer younger than me casually waved a pistol near us, in the manner that an American 'tourist' in Arena City may flash the keys to an apartment on Khreshchatik near a group of girls.

I'm exhausted. My shoulders are so tense that entire evenings curled up in a ball on the bench in the corner of the kitchen, clutching mugs of black coffee, don't help to relax me. I have bags under my eyes as deep as the Dnieper and thoughts of flying home for Christmas are taking up most of my time. I moved to Ukraine the best part of three months ago and since then I haven't had a single day to switch my brain off. Life has moved too fast - from a new job to illnesses to the new flat - to appreciate all that has happened since September, so a week to distance myself from the city, to put my photographs in an album and tell my family the hundreds of good stories, which I collect like matrioshki dolls, will do me the world of good.

Kyiv will be a different place when I get back. It will be 'six-sock weather' and snowy in January if the forecast keeps its promises. The country will be getting ready for New Year, its biggest celebration, and three and a half million of us will be thinking of beginnings as opposed to endings. But before I get back Ana's friend Anyutka will already have swapped the aches and pains of a Kievan winter for life as an au pair in Florida. I will miss her - Ana even more so - but after talking to so many Ukrainians this year about how dejected they are with the country I would need a heart as cold as Puzata Hata borshch to begrudge such a warm and good person their American dream.

My thoughts about living in Ukraine as I fly back before the New Year will be the same as my thoughts before taking my first (and only) sip from a bottle of pickled gherkin flavoured, fizzy Ukrainian milk with dill leaves floating on top from my local supermarket last night: it may leave the bitterest of tastes in the mouth, and may even be bad for my health, but it is an experience that is sure to teach me something.

Next diary: Much Ado About Russian.

Additional photos below
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12th December 2007

Good to know that you are fine!!!
Glad that you and Ana are fine and no bad surprises had happened to you. Don't you feel Cristmas yet? Are you getting a Cristmas tree? Enjoy the weather and get more warm socks. Have a safe trip home. Its nice to read your stories :)
12th December 2007

Move over Michael Palin.... seriously, you're such a good writer. I really think you have a great future writing travel literature! I'm glad the police are doing their job and hopefully you'll feel safer soon knowing those people can't get near you anymore. The countdown to Christmas begins! It'll be nice to know you're back in the country even if work are being total fascists and not letting me have one day off between now and the 21st to come see you. Take good care and wrap up warm. Chat to you soon. xx
7th January 2008

Great stuff! I've recommended you now. Can't believe you didn't link me to this blog before! Keep in touch mate! ~Dawei

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