Much Ado About Russian.

January 8th 2008
Published: January 8th 2008
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Red, green and yellow lights adorn Kyiv's buildings - from its expensive boutiques to its listless housing blocks - to mark the end of the year. A sharp wind bites at my ears on days when I forget my woolly hat; the temperature has fallen to minus 13, but the only trace of the snow that covered the streets when I left two weeks ago is the white ice that fills the cracks in the pavement, like the froth on a cappuccino that has been left to go cold.

I am not the only one who winter has started to sink its teeth into: on my way to work each day I pass three dachshunds in the courtyard of my building, who seem less than impressed at being lifted from a warm floor by their owners first thing in the morning and a frosty, freezing pavement put underneath them instead. Ana bought me a thick black scarf as a New Year's present, and I would feel like wrapping their long brown bellies in it if they didn't have woollen jackets of their own.

The winter holidays bring out my neighbourhood’s eccentric side: one day as I walked home I passed a queue of six men on horses at the McDonalds ‘Drive Thru’, clip-clopping past the window to collect their food.

I spent two weeks at home over Christmas, which neatly coincided with the time that I would have had to leave Ukraine anyway to collect a visa. Despite its Notting Hill address, the Ukrainian embassy in London feels unmistakeably Eastern European, as if the small room had been built from the same plans as all Russian post offices. I am sure that the same scene - a dusty wooden counter (with a smudged plastic window separating the public from the grumpy officials on the other side), and people waiting with weary patience for documents of their own - can be found from Cherkassy to Chukhotka wherever there is a form that needs to be filled in. Beaurocracy, too, knows no borders: I almost needed to bribe the lady to give me my passport back after I arrived for the second time without the correct receipt.

Tbilisi manners

In the satellites of the former Soviet Union New Year is the year's biggest celebration. The Communist regime banned Russian Orthodox holidays such as Christmas on 7th January, and the last week in December has taken its' place as a time for optimism and overindulgence. People on the street seem less tense, perhaps soothed by thoughts of a couple of days away from work and a Mikhail Zadornov concert on television later.

Comedy and variety shows monopolise the TV schedule, glitzy broadcasts from Moscow with Russian cabaret singers singing their classics under soft lighting and wigs, or trendy young comedians satirising Ukrainian pop stars or the bad luck of Dynamo Kyiv's goalkeeper. Every show is well worth rushing in from the cold to tune in to.

It has been my third Ukrainian New Year, and with each one I have become a little more used to my surroundings. My Russian, which used to perplex and embarrass me in equal measures, is now something familiar and comfortable, like a favourite pair of felt valenki boots.

No sooner had I arrived at my flat after flying back to Kyiv than it was time to leave again, to go to my firm's New Year's party at a Georgian restaurant not far from our office. The setting was perfect for the start of a new spell away from home - food from the Caucasus, vodka from Russia, jokes made in Ukraine. The night was organised and presented by Vladimir and Maksim, a task that they threw themselves into with a gusto to suggest that they had spent more time in the office lately planning games for the evening (‘decorate your partner with toilet paper using only your teeth’, ‘take clothes pegs off your partners' clothing while blindfolded’, ‘first to swallow a whole banana wins’) than they had working.

The prospect of a new year and a new start filled everyone with optimism, as if the waitresses had slipped it into our wine glasses as we shuffled on the dance floor, or the DJ had mixed it into the Russian pop music that we were shuffling to.

New Year

For New Year's Eve we invited our friends Jared, Joel and Lyuda to a party of our own, and on the evening of the 30th I strolled with Ana around the Lukyanivska market to find some fresh food for a buffet. The market, usually filled with the sound of noisy haggling and rustling shopping bags, becomes calmer at night, the fruit sellers pacified by the cold air and only pointing out the ripest bunch of bananas on their stall when they sense an imminent sale. People were hurrying between the rows of tables, in search of pineapples, peppers, grapes, guavas, tomatoes, turmeric, mandarins, mangos, carrots and cucumbers. What was only grocery shopping for Ana was an evening out for me; I followed my nose to the tables of spices, tried to decipher their names from the loopy handwriting on the squares of cardboard beside them, and listened to the happy murmur of those stocking up for the upcoming feast.

Anything that we couldn't find there (vodka, caviar, crisps) we bought from the supermarket. I left Ana to choose a Kievskii torte, quickly learning that the scrum around the cake shelf in a Ukrainian shop on the evening before New Year’s Eve is not a place for the unskilled or faint hearted. The next morning Ana prepared the food for the party. I was banished to the living room - what would I know about how to make a Ukrainian buffet? - to watch another variety show.

When Jared arrived he had just returned from a week with friends in Budapest, a town that he compared to Kyiv with the words:

"All the buildings are colourful and classical, without any ugly Communist-era housing blocks. You can get a seat on a trolleybus without having your face squashed against the window. We found a room in a great hotel for $25.” But then, realising his unfaithfulness to Eastern Europe’s shabby charms, he added:

"Their river isn't as wide as the Dnieper, though."

The kolbasa and caviar sandwiches had been polished off before Jared had finished his tales of Budapest. Stories, and vodka, flowed. Ana’s buffet was so well received that we were still in our flat at half past eleven. I began to worry that we wouldn't make it to Independence Square in time for the twelve o'clock fireworks; we grabbed our coats and scarves, ran along the icy pavement to Lukyanivska metro station and rushed to the centre.

The pillars on the platforms of Maidan Nezalezhnosti metro station had posters for Nescafe and Nivea face cream wrapped around them, as if Kyiv’s advertisers had predicted the approaching week-long hangover and decided to cash in on our need to look and feel respectable against the odds. The five of us were still inside the metro at five minutes to midnight, where a little party had broken out on the escalators. The people of Kyiv - who on a normal weekday don't look at you even if you step on their toes - were tipsily waving and blowing kisses to those on escalators going in the other direction. I was desperate not to be stuck underground at midnight, but, judging by the cheers from underneath us as we scampered on to the street, those who didn't quite make it outside in time enjoyed themselves just as much as those who did.

We arrived on Independence Square with only a minute to spare. We ran towards the giant and generously decorated fir tree in the centre, and jostled for a space underneath it. As soon as President Yushchenko finished his speech, the crowd of more than twenty thousand looked up to the patch of sky between the angel statue and the Hotel Ukraina, as hundreds of fireworks set the sky on fire.

Jared opened a bottle of sweet, cheap Sovetskoe champagne that we brought from home, and we each gave toasts from little plastic cups, our breath forming alcoholic clouds in
New Year on Independence Square.New Year on Independence Square.New Year on Independence Square.

Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Kyiv.
the frozen air. As we tapped the cups together for the third of fourth time Ana tripped on a stone, and fell backwards into the Christmas tree.

More than a little tipsy, we staggered onto the metro again and went back to Jared and Joel's flat in Livoberezhna, to continue the celebrations with some American friends of theirs. I barely managed to say hello to them and wish them a Happy New Year before passing out between the cushions of a familiar feeling sofa.

Next diary: The Tramp and the Orange Princess.

Additional photos below
Photos: 13, Displayed: 13


Lyuda, Ana, Jared.Lyuda, Ana, Jared.
Lyuda, Ana, Jared.

Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Kyiv.

8th January 2008

It looks amazing! Happy New Year. Catch up soon. xx
8th January 2008

Good on ya, mate!
Thanks for bloggin' your NYE report. Little things helped. I'm destined for Kyiv, Odessa and Kherson in less than a month with almost no clue. Think it's time I found one? I'd be delighted to buy lunch or supper next month if you're willing to be found... but with such a beautiful wife as yours, I wouldn't blame you for melting into the culture there... Thanks again! Raymond (
9th January 2008

Just a comment from a perfect stranger...
Jonathan, I have been kicking around the idea of visiting Odessa this spring and started reading your blog to get some insight as to what I could expect. When it comes to well thought out and obviously effortless writing, you sir, take the cake. You are truely missing your calling and wasting a tremendous talent if you don't take if farther than an obscure blog. It's just after 10pm here in Alabama, USA and, for no other reason than your excellent writing, I've spent the last hour reading all of your entries (your desciption of a cold fall rain was exquisitely depicted). I'm glad that you and Ana seem to be doing well and wish you both the very best. A perfect stranger "Remember, God has a plan for does Chance, Fortune, Luck, and Fate. Make your own plans" General George S. Patton
9th January 2008

In case my Mum is reading.
...Ana isn't actually my wife, but thank you very much for the comment! J
9th January 2008

Hey Jon, all really interesting - you capture the vicissitudes of life in Ukraine quite well. How long do you plan to stay? Max
21st January 2009

Great Stories.
Such interesting stories Jon, your blogs have had me captivated for ages as I read through them...only a few to go now! The way you describe the people and places you encounter is fantastic, I could almost be there. Eastern Europe sounds incredible.Keep up the good work matey,I will be following your future tales with growing interest...oh and by the way, Happy New Year. Best wishes Mike. Aberdeen, Scotland.
5th February 2009

I'm hooked!
Hey, what they all said are true. You've got talent! Keep writing. I enjoy reading your blogs.........a few more to go.

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