The Tramp and the Orange Princess.

January 21st 2008
Published: January 21st 2008EDIT THIS ENTRY

It became so cold last week that on Monday my peach yoghurt turned into a block of ice inside its bottle during the five minute walk between the shop and my flat. Ana bought me a pair of black stockings to go under my work trousers and keep my legs warm, but I had only just managed to wear them in before the temperature rose again to a little below freezing. Respite from the frostbite.

The grim, grey, snowless sky is so low each morning that it almost rests against the top of the buildings. My kvartal has become quieter since the New Year's parties with everyone reluctantly returning to work. People on the street are outnumbered by gangs of ravens, their black feathers fluffed up to keep the cold out, a nuisance to superstitious Ukrainians who won't walk on the same path as them. I've taken to putting on the woollen scarf which Nadezhda Vasilievna bought me every morning and only taking it off at bed-time. Andrei called it "Jonny Manchesterskii style" - how cool my colleagues would think I look in the matching tights I don't know.

My weekends are lethargic with the uninspiring weather, and on Saturday the only way I could think of shaking off the ennui was to take the metro across the river Dnieper. Whenever I have nothing to do I gravitate towards the part of the city which lies beyond the left bank, even though I don't live there any more. Only a few minutes' train ride from the colourful lights of the centre the scenery turns a dull, humble grey. Fishermen have cut holes in the ice which now covers the river, and sit patiently for the bites that will earn them a few hryvnya each at Livoberezhna market. My pointless trip was at least a better way to spend the afternoon than watching Ukrainian pop music videos on the music channels; three minutes of pouting and bum-wiggling which only the Russians can match.

And that's just the presenters.

Perhaps it's inevitable that January is a lethargic month, an anticlimax following the excitement and optimism of New Year's fortnight. Having been in Ukraine for four months nothing seems new any more. Now that I know my Shovkovskiys from my Kozlovskiys I need a new part of Ukrainian culture to explore. Ana took me to an ice sculpture exhibition one evening after work, which I thought would be a collection of impressive statues chiselled by one of the city's most talented artists. But the place turned out to be a children's playground with half a dozen knee-high swans melting under disco lights. It was a rather underwhelming way to be parted from an hour's wages; the tramp relieving himself on the park railings attracted more attention.

On Tuesday I started a second passtime, as an English tutor. Because renting an apartment in Ukraine is so improbably expensive, and with so few of them having trustworthy landlords and floors that you couldn't fall through, the view of a golden-domed church from my balcony as I look for two clean pairs of socks each morning is costing myself and Ana half our wages.

The Irish bar on vulytsya Zhytomyrska seemed a good place to meet my new pupil. It was our mutual friend, the ever-charismatic English teacher Sasha Moskalenko, who put Vladimir in touch with me, but as I walked into O'Brien's I didn't even know what he looked like. It could have been an uncomfortable hour but I needn't have worried; he, and indeed his English, was confident and charming and the evening soon became less of a lesson, more of a chat with a well-spoken and interesting man over a piping hot macchiato.

Ukraine is always a good conversation-starter. He is proud of each of the regions which make up his country and urged me to see each of them during my time here. The beauty of rural, once-Polish Lvivska oblast' in the west, the Carpathian mountains in the centre, historic Crimea and the Black Sea to the south, and the pretty towns just a few hours away from Kyiv, are piling up in my 'places to go' list. But as I glance at my 'things to do' list on my desk, they all seem a long way away.

It made sense to talk about politics as it's a topic about which people in Kyiv never run out of things to say. Vladimir trusts Yuliya Tymoshenko, the new Prime Minister, more than the other brutes in the Verkhovna Rada. Her reputation as a strong woman - and especially as one who has protected Ukraine's reputation since the 2004 Orange Revolution - is qualified by her nicknames: foreign newspapers have called her 'the Slavic Joan of Arc', 'the Orange Princess', 'the Goddess of the Revolution' and 'the Princess Leia of Ukrainian politics'. I kept my opinions to myself; it's never a good idea for the teacher to talk too much.

Conversations about Yuliya Tymoshenko often lead to one on Ukraine's ambitions of joining the European Union, as it is one of her priorities. For people of my age the bottom line is that membership of the EU will make it easier - if only slightly - to move abroad to work or study. At the moment obtaining a working visa and moving to Canada or Britain, which so many talented Ukrainians aspire to, is next to impossible; wealthy countries are becoming paranoid about migration from Eastern Europe, and Ukraine does not want its young, multilingual students to leave.

Vladimir's generation will always be sceptical as it appreciates that the government still has too many Communist habits for Europe's taste. Such a move would also lead to property prices rising even more, in expectation of an 'invasion' of boozy Europeans on cheap flights - as Prague has suffered - that would dilute the Ukrainian identity which it has been trying to build since 1991.

We agreed that the conversation is only hypothetical as, despite talks planned for this year, European Union membership will be beyond Ukraine's reach for at least twenty years. "What is best for the Russian-speaking east may not suit the Ukrainian-speakers in the west. They will never get all Ukrainians to think about their country in the same way."

One of the presumptions about life in Ukraine in which I was as wide of the mark as an Andriy Shevchenko volley is the way people talk to each other. I supposed - with everyone living in such close company in apartment blocks - that Ukrainians would be sociable with people they don't know. I imagined ladies in fur coats gossiping in the queue at the Post Office, chattering about their grandchildren's school grades or the weather or the price of bread. Not a bit of it; they seem to hate each other. Women who work at shop checkouts and in ticket kioski are the most rude: when I buy my lunch from Mega-Market whichever lady who says "take your change..." does so with such a hostile grunt that the words " get out of my sight" might just as well follow as soon as I turn for the door. Getting a "please" or "thank you" out of these khamki is as rare as a Dynamo Kyiv away win; I don't wait at the checkout with the shortest queue any more, but at the one where the woman has the least frightening scowl.

People in my office are busier at lunchtime that while they are working. Loaves of bread, thick pink slices of "doctor's" sausage, tubs of cabbage salad and cartons of apple juice appear out of kitchen drawers and are assembled into lunch on every available surface. I receive more than a few puzzled looks while lazily unwrapping a ready-made supermarket sandwich and clicking open a bottle of yoghurt. One day Oksana gave me a slice of sweet black bread, and helped me to shovel some little silver kilki fish onto it with a plastic fork.

We swapped little fish for sweets on Tuesday, secretary Ira's birthday. Whenever one of us has a birthday we get together around the long table in the conference room after work over a buffet of fruit, wine and cake and sip boiling hot, strong tea from a tall, silver samovar. As we eat we take turns to give a speech, the prospect of which gives me cold sweats, in any language.

When Ukrainians give toasts they turn the Russian language, so flat and harsh when you hear it on the street, into something lyrical. Contrarily, the intonation in my voice gives me away as foreign but my speeches are always flat. Ira's toast was no exception, but struggling to put her loveliness into words is, I suspect, a feeling that many men in Kyiv besides myself can relate to.

It was agreed that my punishment for another useless speech would be to write her a poem instead. For all my years of studying Russian poetry it didn't take me long to realise - past midnight that evening, tucked under the covers in bed clutching my notepad and a pencil, searching for words which rhyme with Levkóvich - that knowing what an Onegin sonnet is is hardly the same as being able to write one. I couldn't think of anything in Russian, or in Ukrainian, and with only "porridge" jotted in the margin I fell asleep.

But I never had the chance to admit defeat as the next day my mind was occupied by sad news. Zhanna, who helped me so much in November, would be leaving the office at the end of the week. I could feel tears in the back of my eyes as she told me that Friday would be her last day. I really enjoyed working with her. She is the embodiment of modesty and eloquence, and everything else that is good about Ukrainian people.

When I can speak in front of people as confidently as my colleagues I will know that I have adapted to the culture, and can move on to look for another challenge somewhere else. It's reassuring to know that - based on my shy few words to Zhanna as we gathered around the samovar on the evening she left - that there is still a long time before that happens. But it is upsetting to know that it will come too late to tell her in the right setting how grateful I am for her friendship.

Next diary: Therapy at Gloria Jean's.

Additional photos below
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21st January 2008

It's hard when friends leave. My friend has just left work but every so often they're replaced by a nice person. Or sometimes by an evil genius. There's a story behind that comment but unfortunately I have to surf for jobs again so will send you a message shortly explaining everything. xx
27th January 2008

great pictures Jon. Sounds like you're doing ok, despite the cold and other things.. It's good that you've found a nice place; it's probably worthwhile to live more comfortably at the expense of well, more money, all things considered.. sounds like you're becoming quite savvy with the way you present yourself too, which seems wise. When are you next in good old england?

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