Saturday, December 8, 2012

Kiev, Ukraine

We'd landed in Kiev about 20 minutes earlier.  I put Kyle in charge of sorting out the travel from the airport to our hostel.  Why, might you ask? I don't know; let's not talk about it. We'd been sitting on a bench outside the airport waiting for some unmarked, unnumbered shuttle bus to take us to the main subway station.  Finally, we went to information and inquired.  There was no shuttle bus from this terminal, only public transport.  That sounded like the worst possible idea: climbing aboard a public bus, sorting through our newly exchanged currency to pay the driver, requesting he stop at our desired location, then hoping he'd inform us when we got there.  Taking a cab sounded much more reasonable... the extra cost seemed well-worth less complication.  Decision made. Until we got outside and stood in front of the automatic doors marked "Arrivals" for ten minutes, trying to outlast the other.  Who would brave up, test out his/her Russian, and ask one of the sketchy looking cab drivers to take us?  Finally, Kyle said, "OKAY. I'll just DO IT."  The grumpy man looked at the hostel address, huffed, then thumbed us towards the next cabbie.  This other man, fortunately, took our bags without expressing his distaste.  Hs first named price was also lower than our limit.  We gazed out the passing buildings for the short ride into the center of the city.

We were dropped off smack in the middle of a busy street in the center of Kiev.  The driver took our money and gestured to an unmarked white and rusted door a few yards away.  We followed the instructions from the owner's e-mail and entered the digits on the keypad, heard a click, then walked up two flights of stairs.  A young Ukrainian woman was waiting in the open door, ready to welcome us.  We were asked to immediately remove our shoes, then were shown to our room.  Traditionally, when you stay in a hostel, you stay in one big room dorm-style with travelers and backpackers from all over.  We opted for the private room, as this was our first stay in a hostel.  We were able to escape each night to our room and know our belongings could be safely locked up whenever we left.  It was a very simple room with a worn leather armchair, a writing table, chair, and set of bunk beds.  Dasha kindly provided us with free linens and towels (most hostels charge a small fee for these comforts).  We set our stuff down, and stretched out for a quick nap.  When we awoke, we propped open the door and started preparing for our first stroll around the city.  A grisly 40-year-old walked past our door, skidded to a stop, then knocked on our open door frame. 

"Aha! You must be the Americans! Welcome, I'm Achim.  I see you have a map there.  Need any advice on what to see, what to do?" he spouted off in a heavy German accent.

"Sure," we replied.

He then went on to draw a map on our tourist map of all we should see.  He routed out the nearby sites and recommended restaurants along the way.  Finally he asked, "Do you have plans for this evening?"

"Well, no," we said.

"Now you do, see you around here at 8:00 or 8:30!" and he left.

We scrambled to get our things, then headed out into the gray clouds.  We didn't get very far before I started getting mouthy.  Kyle wisely said, "Okay, I think it's time to find a place for lunch." We decided on a restaurant that was a cafe by day, karaoke bar by night.  I stuttered through my feeble Russian, and we were seated at a table in the corner.  The table was surrounded by enormous, plush high-backed sofas too far from the table.  We ordered Americanos, traditional borsch, and pelmeni.  Borsch is maybe the most well-known dish to come from Ukraine/Russia.  It's a soup flavored predominantly by the cold-climate beetroot, but contains other vegetables, beef, and fresh herbs like dill and parsely.  A huge dollop of sour cream (A dollop, a dollop, a dollop of Daisy) is splashed into the center.  It was served with warm toast and garlic lard for spreading.  Yes, lard.  The idea sickens me, but the taste made my eyes roll back and my toes curl.  It was amazing.

I had the other traditional food, pelmeni - very similar to pierogies or dumplings, but stuffed with juicy well-flavored meat.  These are also served with a hearty serving of sour cream.  We ate our fill, ordered more coffee, and spent an hour talking casually. 

We took a short walk around the city, saw some very old architecture, a few brick roads, and mostly a city not unlike Moscow.  We headed back to the hostel to freshen up before our night out.

Much to my bad luck, Achim stopped by our room while Kyle was in the shower.  Harmlessly enough, he asked if we'd join him in a toast before going out.  It's only tradition! You're in Kiev! You must drink vodka! Well, of course.  I told Kyle what I'd agreed to when he returned, but he just smirked.

We sat in the communal kitchen and met our hostel mates.  A 20-year-old French guy, skinny as a skeleton, an almost incoherent French accent, and a huge goofy grin.  He was bearing two recently purchased bottles of Ukrainian vodka.  His name? Jean-Baptiste.  I kid you not.  He told us we could call him JB since Jean-Baptiste might be a little too French for us.  His friend Ivan joined us half an hour later, an Italian guy living in Spain, wearing slippers that he may or may not have chopped off the abominable snowman.  He had a hearty laugh, and a sense of humor that was surprising for his lack of English.  Next was a Mexican guy raised in Chicago.  He has been staying in that hostel for a few years, as he works from his computer.  He travelled through one weekend and just never left.  The other employee of the hostel who checked us in earlier that day (Dasha) sat cross-legged by the fireplace.  Kyle and I took the only open seats and began taking it all in.  Several Europeans gathered together, happy to meet other travellers, and all communicating confidently in their varying levels of English.  Achim lined up the shot glasses, filled them to the top, and made a toast. 

Jean-Baptiste called me out, "Uhhhh, eekscoose me, but I sink zat you should drink zee whole thing!"

I wish I could Jean-Baptiste.  College taught me nothing.

We started exchanging stories, who works where, doing what, how long we'll each be in Kiev, etc.  Suddenly Achim yelled out, "ONE!"

I looked around confused.

He repeated, "ONE!"

I looked at Dasha who says, "It's a counting game."

I mumbled, "Two...?"

Jean-Baptiste called out, "Sree!"

Ivan said, "Four!"

Achim started lining up the shots for another round.  Oh damn, I thought.

This went on for an hour or so, and two more pony-tailed stragglers joined us- an American living with his girlfriend in Denmark, and a German who just spent six years living in China.  Achim decided it was time for the bar.  He called the taxi company, covering up the moutpiece of the phone, saying, "They understand a little English, but you have to say the street names with a Ukrainian accent!" He went on calling out Ukrainian street names in his usual German accent.

The bar was in an unmarked building behind a bunch of other buildings.  An open staircase led to a basement, where we entered a smoke-filled room with clinking glasses and loud voices.  The men behind the bar wore blue doctor's scrubs, and the cocktail waitresses flounced around in tiny nurse's uniforms.  The shots were served in test tubes (does that really fit the hospital theme? maybe not..), and there were two 'special' shots on the menu.  One was called The Helmet, and another was The Injection.  Upon ordering our cheap sandwiches and beers, the table next to us geared up for their first Injections.  The nurse came over with an enormous syringe, some white cloth, and a few packs of paper towels.  She started dressing the man in the white cloth, which turned out to be a straight jacket, then she laid the towels on the table for the man's head to rest upon.  She laid him down, climbed up on the table, then started plunging the syringe full of liquor into his mouth.  Achim told us the shot is supposed to all go down in four seconds, but she's a nice nurse, so if you're not swallowing quickly enough, she'll let you have up to twenty. The friends of the injection patient got a real hoot out of this and ordered another round.

The next shot goes a little something like this: the bartender puts some metal helmet on the shot-taker.  A rag is lit on fire, then dropped onto the helmet.  After a few seconds, the nurse douses the fire with water.  Next, the bartender takes four large glasses each containing one shot.  He slams the first glass into the helmet repeatedly, then hands the guy the shot to be drunk.  This continues for each shot, until they're all downed. Again, how does this fit the hospital theme? Not sure, but unique, if nothing else!

An interesting friend of Italian Ivan joins our table.  I never learned her name, but she was raised by Ukrainian parents in New York city, so she speaks perfect Russian and English.  Then she spent a few years in Spain, so she also speaks fluent Spanish.  Throughout the night I caught myself open-mouthed just looking around at all these people, all capable of speaking at least two languages, but most up to four or five.  Meanwhile I can barely spit out a coherent Russian sentence after three months of studying.  It was quite impressive.

On our way out of the bar a group of two girls and a guy overhear us speaking English.  Some obnoxious voice I associate with stereotypical party girls calls out, "Oh wait, you guys like all speak English? Awesome, totally awesome where are you from? I'm from Chicago, but I'm in the Peace Core. Yeah, it's pretty good. I'm teaching English, but like whatever, there are plenty of other countries that could like totally use my skills more, if you ask me, but whatever, like ya know?"

Woah, sister.

She went on, "Sooooooo, tell me all about yourselves! Where are you from? What are you doing here ya know? Oh don't worry, I'm not the police! You can tell me the truth! Hahahahahaha"

A few of us mumbled very short answers, which was more than enough to get her blabbing again.

Eventually the English-Spanish-Russian speaking girl joined us.

She said, "Oh. You learned any Russian since you've been here? That's cool."

They started speaking Russian together, then the party girl said, "blah blah blah... в Украине"

The other girls cut her off, "No, на Украине."

Party girl: в Украине
Trilingual chick: на Украине
Party girl: в Украине
Trilingual chick: на Украине
Party girl: No, no, no, my friend here is Ukrainian.  She told me I'm right. 

They stared each other down for 60 straight seconds, then each gave a smart little chuckle and rolled their eyes.  We decided to leave and Party girl replied, "Wow, it was like SO great to meet you.  Have a fantastic night!"

We continued bar hopping, while the youngest member of our group threw up at almost every stop.  Finally, someone wised up and called a few cabs.  We stumbled into the hostel and slept until noon.

We took another walk around the city, but spent most of the day doing what we do best: reading at a coffee shop.  We were asked to return to the hostel around 8:30 again, but not for bar hopping, instead for traditional Ukrainian borsch prepared by Dasha. The soup was delicious, perfect on another cold, cloudy day, and I helped myself to two huge portions.  We watched some clips of American Beauty on the American movie channel, then crawled into our bunk beds.

The next day we had business to attend to at a travel agency.  We followed our instructions for renewing our visas but found ourselves wandering around the second floor of yet another unmarked building.  We were about to give up, when a man walked right up to us, and said, "Shelly, Kyle? I recognized you from your passport photos. I'm Ramone, please come in."  We basically dropped off our documents, picked them up a few hours later, and were done.  Nothing like the thousand steps required to apostille each and every document for Korea over the span of 8 months.

We visited a traditional Ukrainian buffet for brunch. The servers were dressed in some snazzy Ukrainian outfits that clashed with their disgruntled faces showing their disapproval at our inability to speak fluent Russian.  We had some mysteriously named vitamin juice, eggs, chicken, mushrooms, meat filled crepes, potato pancakes, pumpkin porridge, quiche, more sour cream, and honey cakes, all for just under $8! Needless to say, we went back for dinner and breakfast the next day.

Kyle spent another night out with the boys, while I played online Scrabble until I fell asleep at 10:00 pm.  Yes, I am 85 years old.  They woke me up around 3:30 am when they came in debating about Communism and its presence in China.  Achim gave Kyle a firm hug and me a kiss on the hand.  Well, he didn't actually kiss my hand, just the air above my hand.  He explained actually kissing my hand is against the law and has been for over 400 years.  Or something like that.  We thanked him graciously for his genuine hospitality, knowing full well he wouldn't be awake for our departure the next morning.