Four years have passed since I last visited Ukraine. In the interim I have taught myself to read and write Ukrainian well enough to get by so my family and I have been able to correspond. Each year since my first trip they have awaited my return. The decision was finally made to take the trip this year and my husband Bill accompanied me on the sojourn.
( Read history of painting in Part V )
THURSDAY JULY 3
Today is vacation day. I arise early because as usual I still have to finish packing. Bill and I feel the need to visit Baba's grave, so some time is set aside to do that. The cat is out prowling as time nears for us to leave. I scour the neighbourhood, hollering for him, but all I attract is a bee, who obviously distressed by the commotion stings me. Little was I to know that this was an indication of how the rest of the vacation was to unfold. We board the plane at 1700. Oh Dear! We are in big trouble as a stewardess yells at us for having too much hand luggage. We accept the tongue lashing and settle into our seats. Shortly an announcement is made that we will be late leaving as the toilets are not working. The bad omens are coming fast and furious.
SATURDAY JULY 5
We managed to see a little of Amsterdam yesterday and this morning we are on our way to Ukraine. While waiting to board the plane, a conversation ensues with a female who is also travelling to Kyiv. She thinks I am a Ukrainian from Poland, so at this time I feel confident that I will be able to get by with my language skills. In fact, I will find it difficult to comprehend everything. Part of the difficulty is the Russification of the language, and a large part will be due to the fact that Ukrainians speak very quickly. Unlike the last trip, this plane is completely full of passengers. When we arrive in Ukraine, the first thing I notice is that the airport has been updated. It is no longer necessary to take a bus from the runway as the plane taxied up to the terminal. Indoors there are more signs of improvement, even the renting of baggage carts for the princely sum of four hryvnias (about three Canadian dollars). I was later to learn that the exchange rate at the terminal is tantamount to robbery.
Unfortunately there was no improvement noted in the dispositions of the airport staff. They have retained their miserable crabby Soviet-style personalities. We are yelled at for not moving the luggage from the x-ray machine fast enough. There are two lines formed to go through customs, so after some deliberation we choose one. It takes us forever to get through the line-up as the locals keep barging in front of us. Being a polite Canadian, Bill is having difficulty accepting this behaviour, as we are pushed further and further to the rear. An exasperated official informs me I am in the wrong queue. Finally, we are next in line to pass through customs when a male and a female employee remark that we are Canadian and should be at the #12 station. We trundle over to #12 only to be ignored by the customs person. When I comment that I was sent here, I am sternly told to wait. After a few minutes of waiting I note that there are no tourists at the next aisle. I ask that official if I may be processed through her. She agrees. Darn good thing. Bill watched as a Canadian who was also sent to number twelve was required to produce all the cash he was carrying to be counted. This would have proved interesting had I been required to disrobe as my bank vault was again strung in my underwear. A formality of actually writing the word "no" in the area of the declaration form that asks if you are bringing in guns (I had just put a slash mark there) and a verbal declaration of items contained in our baggage and we are officially in Ukraine.
We are met by Igor, who by good fortune had decided to give us five more minutes after waiting more than an hour. I had made contact with him via the Internet and after numerous messages being sent back and forth, we greeted each other like long lost relatives. Unfortunately I could barely understand him as his vocabulary is primarily Russian. I do understand when he tells me there are more US dollars hidden in cupboards and mattresses in Ukraine and Russia, than there are floating around the US. He tells me I will be surprised by the change in Kyiv since the last trip. As we drive from the airport, this is already evident by the large number of apartment buildings being constructed. Sites are familiar to me as we enter the centre of the city. The statue of Lenin still stands guard at the entrance to Shevchenko Boulevard. Past St. Vladimir's Cathedral and the seven metre monument to Nikolai Shchors, the hero of the civil war, we are soon at Ploshcha Peremohny (Victory Square).
Although not recommended by Igor or my travel agent in Vancouver, I again chose to stay at the Lybed Hotel. I was familiar with the area, it was close to the train station and St. Vladimir Cathedral and it was for one night only. Security at the hotel has been increased. We are scrutinized by a fellow in battle fatigues when we enter the parking lot. The lobby area had been upgraded, but the room is exactly the same except we are on the sixteenth floor. The view is unchanged, but the alcohol kiosk with it's digital readout sign is gone. The TV is turned on by plugging it in. The on/off switch is not working. The ladies at reception attend to us quickly and pleasantly, but we are told there is no hot water available. The bellhop, an elderly gent, is dressed in a uniform. I found myself missing the funny ducks that greeted me on my last visit.
It is a warm day. In the hotel bar, two bottles of beer cost US$9.33. This was my introduction to increased costs in Ukraine. I take Bill on my old tour. The Ukrainian store is changed. No more junk for sale. All items are new and displayed in an organized manner. It could have been Walmart. I am pleased that shoppers now have more options, better products and plenty of food to purchase. The prices were basically comparable to the cost of items in Canada, which I considered to be extremely expensive for Ukrainians. Walking up the street, there are fancy new store fronts at the establishments that once held rusty bins filled with potatoes. Today the shops are trendy clothing boutiques and furniture stores. It was evident that Ukrainians now have all western goods at their disposal, including computers. Once again I sit on the steps of the Circus building. In the centre of the wide road between us and the Ukrainian store is the 40-metre Obelisk rising above Peremohny Square. It commemorates the citizen's contribution toward the victory of the war. I notice there are considerably fewer people hanging around in front of the store and considerably more people hailing taxis. The tunnel under the street, once bustling with shoppers is basically deserted except for those intent on getting to the other side.
After dinner we go to the train station to purchase return tickets to Kyiv from L'viv. What a zoo! The crowds and confusion are irritating, so three line-ups and at least an hour later, I abandoned the exercise. Probably for security reasons all ticket windows everywhere I travelled have very small openings. This makes it impossible to speak to the ticket seller which results in a lot of yelling as their microphones usually are not working. It appears the trains are full as many people are trying to buy tickets from other passengers, including me.
The night is very hot and muggy. My hair, wet after a lukewarm shower will not dry. The bee sting I sustained while looking for the cat is unbearably itchy. Bill and I take turns getting out of bed. At 0200h a rain storm hits. Shevchenko Boulevard looks like a raging river. Illuminating the night along with the lightning is a huge sign advertising Camel cigarettes. I note that the street lights are left on all night.
SUNDAY JULY 6
The hotel dining room has not changed but the attitude of the hotel waitresses have. At breakfast, they are noticeably more friendly. The lively church bells signal the start of service at Saint Vladimir Cathedral. Despite this being my third visit to this site, I am still impressed with the richly adorned church. This time I have a good look at the large blue ornamental doors that have fabulous bronze sculptures of Princess Olya and Prince Vladimir. The service is lengthy with a lot of pomp and ritual and the choir is excellent. Some people kneel on the floor while most stand or wander about during the prayers. I wonder if wife-battering may be a problem as part of the service is dedicated to not beating wives. Some women are noted displaying considerable emotion during this part of the priest's presentation. During the service, confession is held in view of other worshippers. It is predominately women who come forward.
We return to vacate the room, but are allowed to keep it until 1500. Walking back up Shevchenko Boulevard, I find the building I thought to be a bank during the last visit is the train ticket office. The line-ups are long, so we carry on to the University ("the Red Building"). It is sadly in need of a paint job. Across the street, I again visit the statue of the artist, poet and national hero Taras Shevchenko. We encircle the park and return to the hotel via the road behind the Fomin Botanical Gardens. This greenbelt covers 56 acres. In preparation for the train trip we purchase sausage and cheese at the Ukrainian store. Shopping is different in that first you decide what you want to buy from the display case. You then pay a cashier and return with your receipt which you exchange for the product. At an outdoor market across the street, we buy bread. Numerous venders are selling everything you may need for a meal or snack. Reminiscent of South America was the meat and fish displayed without benefit of refrigeration complete with flies sampling the fare.
Igor arrives to assist us to the train station. We not only require help to find the correct platform, but including my bag we have eight pieces of baggage, so his muscle is appreciated. A hug later he is away and we settle into our cabin. WOW ! what an improvement!. No more bunk beds. It is spanking new, with clean linen and soap provided. The door latch is extremely secure. Although covered with lace and crimson red curtains, the windows are too dirty to see outside. It is hot and humid, but the conductress insists on closing the windows as soon as we leave. A furious local loudly grumbles that we are not cattle and in the stifling quarters we should be allowed to breath. Shortly the conductress arrives to collect our tickets. Well folks, I do not have them as I gave the tickets to Igor to produce to this same conductress for inspection prior to boarding. and as he needed both hands to pick up the luggage he was carrying, he tucked the tickets away in his pocket. Despite the fact she had seen the tickets, a payment of $78.00 US$ is demanded. I protest! She tells me she will wait for four hours to see if a telegram arrives from Igor saying he has the ticket. What nonsense! We enjoy our makeshift dinner and I head out between cars for a smoke. Another nicotine addict is already out there. Within minutes a creepy guy dressed in civilian clothes arrives. He fumbles in his pockets and flashes an ID card in my face. It appears I am being fined fifty hryvnia (about $40.00) for smoking. Not my male partner in crime - just me. When I demand he point out the "no smoking" sign, he shows me words painted on the wall. I kinda go ballistic, asking how the hell he expects me to be able to read Ukrainian and that the expectation would be an international sign commonly seen in civilized countries. I figure if I am going to pay, I am going to get my money's worth. In hindsight, my ranting and raving could have produced more problems for me, but it appears he was taken aback by my roaring mouth and I did not have to pay. As we settle to sleep, I now have two areas to scratch, having sustained a mosquito bite on the wrist.
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