Ukraine: Ready or Not, Here We Come

by Rachel on January 25, 2010

Independence Square, Downtown Kiev.

It was Tuesday and time for another internal transfer, this time from Russia to Ukraine.  Just days before our departure, a Russian plane from Moscow to Siberia had crashed on the runway, 127 dead.  It was all we could do to march ourselves off to our flight.  The Moscow airport was far more comfortable than the one we used in St. Petersburg.  It was cool, not so crowded, dreadfully confusing, but still reasonable, all in all.  We boarded a positively frigid airplane (a Boeing 737, not a Tupolov) and were welcomed by friendly Ukrainian staff.  Where had they been on our St. Petersburg to Moscow flight?  We left early, arrived on time, picked up our bags and were met by a jolly man named Eugene who helped us all the way to our pleasant Kiev hotel.  It was one of the more successful 8-hour periods of our trip.  No one fainted, we lost no luggage, body temperatures remained quite constant, and we got from hither to yon all in one piece.  One must be appropriately grateful when so many things go right.

Waiting for us in the lobby of the Kiev hotel was one of our Russian cousins.  As I outlined in my post about my Russian family, my father’s Aunt (who lived to the grand old age of 105) had two children.  One left Russia in 1999 for Germany and the other stayed behind.  We met the stay-behind relatives on our visit to St. Petersburg.  The family that immigrated to Germany included my father’s Aunt, her daughter, son-in-law and her granddaughters.  One of the granddaughters served as our host on our visit to Germany in 2004 and not long afterwards volunteered to meet us for the Ukraine portion of our Russia trip.  Then living in Europe, she was born in Kiev and spoke fluent Russian, German, English and Hebrew.  The small Sterns met her in 2004 when she spent three-weeks visiting us in the States.  They were immediately smitten, as were the rest of us.  There had been a great deal of anticipation on our end about seeing her again in Ukraine and our smallest son, ever the Ambassador of Goodwill and Charm, proposed a toast to our quiet, reserved cousin the moment we sat down to eat that first night.  He put up his glass, thanked her for coming to meet us in Ukraine and concluded by saying “I love you” at which point he leaned over and kissed her smack on the lips.  He then demanded that all of us put our glasses together (fondly referred to as a “bunch-up”).  There wasn’t a dry eye around the table.  Family.  It’s a powerful thing.

Kiev had some of the same feeling of St. Petersburg, but with far fewer massive monuments and palaces.  It was crowded, the traffic was insane, many of the buildings needed attention and the average income was just $200 a month.  We thought that it took vigilance to get around Russian cities, but Kiev took that to new heights.  Not only did the drivers have a total disregard for pedestrians on the roads, they (the drivers) quite frequently opted out of the heavy traffic and drove straight down the sidewalk.  No, I’m not making that up. We saw it over and over and over again.  YOU try to keep wandering, inattentive young children safe without losing your mind when every outing includes the possibility that someone is going to plow right into you, not because you are recklessly walking in the middle of the road, but because you are holding your child’s hand while walking on the sidewalk. Ask yourself, could you do it?  Not so much.  Every once in while New Yorkers manage to drive their cars up onto a sidewalk and into the windows of a grocery store or pub – but generally they don’t MEAN to do it.  The seriously insane Kiev drivers drive up onto the sidewalk ON PURPOSE.  Pedestrians are obligated to keep a vigilant eye out for sidewalk drivers and to stand at the ready to dive out of the way.  I cannot begin to tell you how much I hated this particular part of our visit to Kiev.

Much like our visit to Moscow and St. Petersburg we hired a driver, a minivan and a local guide to escort us around the city. Ukraine was and is not a Western tourist destination and as a consequence a competitive market for English-speaking guides was absolutely absent.  We had the only one in town.  Given the lack of competition, and the assuredly low wages associated with such occasional work, the woman available for the task was neither a rocket scientist nor pleasant in demeanor.  She was, however, capable of endless, age-inappropriate, unstoppable prattle.  She went into ghastly detail about this massacre and that unconscionable tragedy even after I begged her to cease and desist given the age and impressionable nature of my small kids.  She was the last person on the planet in need of a microphone given her capacity for volume and useless loquaciousness and the microphone in this particular van was TOO LOUD and slightly grating in tone.  It was the worst possible combination.  We spent many hours in the van privately hoping she would suddenly come down with laryngitis, or some other catastrophic vocal chord disorder.  Don’t people sometimes spontaneously go mute?  It could happen, right?  The problem was that we could not manage our way around Kiev without her, and we couldn’t just call the tourist agency and ask for a different guide since she was the only one.  It was this particular guide or nothing.  We were stuck but good.

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