Highlights of a recent winter evening in my new favourite place:
Scraped from the boonies, bored and miserably cold newbie riot police hunker 4-deep in front of Parliament, protecting the safety of the building and its contents: equally bored and miserable newbie politicians hashing out a budget for a currency as bouncy as an Olympic gymnast. The threat? A couple-three dozen right wing protesters clearly fortified by something stronger than political zeal.
Meanwhile, just blocks away, people file into a free organ concert in a 19th Century Lutheran church. It’s modern life, folks: simmering protesters shouting slogans at riot cops and contrapuntal organ music just around the corner, close enough for the five-oh to pop in to pee and warm up, spasibo, ma’am.
18th Century music played in a 19th Century building for jackbooted cops and music nerds in a city 15 centuries old. Who says time travel isn’t possible?
Kyiv sits on a cultural fault line of East-West. Add a revolution to the mix, and things really start shaking. But hey-guess-what- people still have to go to work, buy toilet paper, raise families. Hard to believe there’s a war on.
‘We’re still here,’ Konstantin, my tour guide tells me. The free city tour (in English) still runs twice daily from Independence Square, rain, shine or bloody freezing.
This is Kyiv, land of counterpoint and juxtaposition. Most of the time the contrasts work, as in St Vladimir’s Cathedral, whose Byzantine exterior belies the terrific Art Nouveau interior paintings of a disgruntled St Olga and a fashionably ‘fierce’ St Michael. Amidst the Baroque gewgaws, Soviet-era Brutalist architecture offers a rest for the eyes.
Not all contrasts are charming.
The banks suck. All of them. Bring cash, crisp dollars or euros in denominations of 50 or less. Expect the exchange rate to fluctuate wildly, not just daily, but from bank to bank. When you exchange your fancy Western loot into UAH, prepare for lots of notes. (There is a one-hryvnia note, worth about €.05, and coins for even smaller amounts.) ATMs are dodgy. Don’t use them.
Unless planning to ‘make it rain’ in a club full of scantily-clad women, carry small amounts of bills in lots of places, especially on the supremely efficient but crowded subway. Beware of pickpockets and loose women.
For those whose Slavic languages are as dusty as their ancient Aramaic, good luck. Though the city hosted a major football event in 2012, English street signs remain rare. An English-only map won’t help.
When taking the subway or navigating topside, I count the stops or streets to my destination, whose Cyrillic characters I’ve written on something I can’t lose, like my hand. If I need to refer to the image, pretending to look at my watch sure beats whapping someone in the face with a floppy map on the nose-to-armpit subway. Amateur cryptographers, you will be heroes here.
The tap water is toxic. Sometimes. Never gamble with water.
Public toilets can be, well, confusing. Don’t forget to get the paper before you go into the stall. Warning: Eastern European toilet paper lives up to its reputation.
Traveller’s medical insurance is a must. These days, visitors to Kyiv don’t need conflict zone insurance, despite Western opinions about lavatory facilities. Undergoing emergency dentistry in a foreign language is a horror I have yet to experience, thank you, and I plan to keep it that way.
Big city rules apply here. If it’s a stupid thing to do in New York, you can bet it’s a stupid thing to do in Kyiv. Or anywhere else, for that matter. Enjoy this remarkable city in this remarkable time.