Lunch on Day One in Ukraine involved our dreadful guide instructing our minivan driver to pull over near the entrance to an underground shopping mall. The food hall portion of this mall had FOOD POISONING written all over it in both Cyrillic and English so that even I could read the signage. My gastro-intestinal system was not on good terms with me throughout our visit to Ukraine and this particular day I chose abstinence rather than spinning the dial of the Wheel of Digestive Misfortune. I was certain that my obsessive planner self had pre-paid for restaurant lunches for every day that we had a guide just so that we would avoid just this very circumstance, having to buy lunch in a grimy, underground Ukrainian food hall. I’m not much for food halls in West LA where we have rules about sanitation, steam heat settings and what all. No such regulations exist in Ukraine. Had an American food inspector set foot inside one of these fine establishments I’m quite certain they would not have pinned an “A” on the window on their way out the door. I tried to communicate to Guide Natalia that she and the travel company owed me and my fine family lunch, right before she unceremoniously left us in the road. Unfortunately I had not thought to carry ALL of my tour documents with me and Natalia conveniently forgot hers as well – so there we were, trying to determine which of the available food offerings were less likely to kill us, or at least not leave us heaving in our hotel room. We ate (well, truth be told, SOME of us ate – my father and step-mother joined me in my “just say no” to food poisoning campaign) and after a catastrophic attempt to use the mall bathroom, we limped back to the minivan.
Though it grieves me to do so, I must spend a moment discussing the near total lack of public restroom facilities in Ukraine. Bathrooms outside of private homes/apartments and hotels were strangely absent. I’m certain that the Ukrainians, of all people, have not discovered some sort of advanced medical treatment that allows human beings to go days without, shall we say, relieving themselves. And yet some of the most heavily utilized public attractions in the country were completely devoid of a loo. It wasn’t that the loo was there but it needed cleaning, or toilet paper, or a door – no, it just wasn’t there AT ALL. Natalia, as a part of her guide services, plotted a trail through town that allowed us to stop at large hotels in between visits to public attractions, so that we could sneak in and use the hotel’s toilets. The “major tourist site/hotel/major tourist site” strategy might have worked if the travelers in question had predictable restroom needs and were over the age of say, 10 but under the age of 70. On a good day my husband, sister and cousin were really the only members of our merry band who fell into those categories. The rest of us were young, old or infirm (or some combination) and had NO means for predicting when in fact we might need to SPRINT to a restroom. At one point we found ourselves illegally u-turning the minivan (check that, I’m certain that there are NO illegal u-turns in Ukraine) in order to drive recklessly back to our hotel, bolt up the stairs and throw the youngest Stern onto the seat of our clean, non hole-in-the-floor toilet – as it was, according to our guide, the closest guaranteed normal toilet experience.
After loathing Guide Natalia all day for two straight days, we made the command decision to pay her and send her home without so much as a “see you later.” The relief was palpable when we were finally rid of her. We toyed with the idea of driving to Konotop, the small village outside of Kiev where my great grandparents had lived and my paternal grandfather was born. After a long discussion with the agency that handled our hotels and transfers, we determined that such a trip would mean 3.5 difficult hours in the car each way. Earlier in our Russian holiday this might have seemed possible (though not terribly sensible). By this stage we had two too many tired kids and a plethora of adults with non-trivial and capricious digestive complaints. Seven hours in a car with no promise of a functioning bathroom along the way, nor upon our arrival in Konotop – gave us all pause. Virtually the whole village was destroyed in WWII, so there would be little to see of the place where my father’s father was born. Though a significant part of our reason for coming this far had been to go to Konotop, we made the safe and sensible choice, and stayed in Kiev. As my father is want to say, one does sometimes have to settle for enough. In this case, we’d had enough of challenging travel and our experience in Kiev needed to be “enough” Ukraine without the trip to Konotop.
Our trip to Konotop cancelled we instead had a free day to explore Kiev. We set out on a walking tour described in my father’s locally purchased guidebook. It was oppressively hot and after soldiering across town to visit Kiev’s famous “Golden Gate” (more on that in a sec) we collapsed and sought shade in Kiev’s mid-city botanic gardens. Kiev’s Golden Gate was front and center in the local guidebook and had been pointed out to us once or twice as we sped across town with Natalia the Nightmare. Erected in 1037 it was once the entrance to ancient Kiev. The Mongols sacked Kiev in 1240 and largely destroyed the Gate. What is visible these days doesn’t look much like a gate, nor is it all golden. I think some of our disappointment must be attributed to what six Californians think of when someone says “Golden Gate.” Yep, you know it. It’s big. It’s beautiful. There are clean restrooms nearby and some seriously good Chinese food isn’t far off. Auntie Em, we aren’t in San Francisco anymore. Not hardly.
We were absolutely saved by the Kiev botanic gardens. Located right in the very heart of the city the gardens were just exactly what a team of tired tourist needed on an oppressively hot July day. The narrow paths were shady and serene. The birds fluttered and squabbled. Cheerful locals offered the wee Stern boys some of their lunch leftovers so that the boys could torment, um – feed, the birds.
We successfully argued our case with the tour planners that we had, in fact, pre-paid for a restaurant lunch. It must be noted that all negotiations and shopping outings were handled with aplomb by our steadfast, bright, native Russian-speaking cousin. You should be so lucky as to have such an able, caring, good-natured travel companion. After our respite in the glorious botanic gardens we made our way on foot – careful to avoid any careening cars – to the park near our hotel where our replacement lunch was located. It turned out, much to our surprise, that our local park, just two blocks from our hotel, boasted a bastion of kid friendly entertainment. It was possible to rent kid-sized motorized tractors. There were pony rides (refused by the Stern boys) and an inflated jumper with a slide that both boys LOVED. The pre-paid replacement lunch for the prior day’s debacle was delicious, so tasty that we elected to eat there (Opanas) two more times over the course of five days. Immediately after lunch the Stern boys discovered the park sprinklers. A fabulous half hour of dashing through the water ensued. It was the absolute highlight of the Kiev portion of the trip for the boys. We eventually made our way back to the hotel, tired but quite happy.Print This Post