OK, everybody knows what Kiev is famous for, right? What…no? Well, let me help you. For food, think delicious borscht (a meaty soup), yummy veriniki (dumplings) and chicken Kiev. For architecture, think heavenly golden onion domes piercing a robin’s egg blue sky and stately monuments to kings and saints. For women, think of Anna Kournikova as just your average girl next door…J)
When I got to Kiev I wasn’t disappointed because all of these things are true! But there were a few secrets they don’t mention in the guidebooks…so I was totally unprepared for these:
- Who knew that high heels were perfect attire for cobblestone streets?
Only In Kiev can you find a super model strutting down a rutted millennia- old byway in 9-inch stilettos, or mom out pushing a stroller in some kinky platform boots. They may have more foot problems than Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, but you have to admire their poise and balance, perched high up there in the clouds atop those thin leather spikes! And just from a man’s perspective, who DOESN’T like that look? (OK, limp-wristed metrosexuals, please shut up! You’re not real men anyway!)
- Yes, just like Mexico, you can’t drink the water
Instead, you haul it by hand from the grocery store conveniently located a mere two kilometers from your front door. Don’t worry, I already know what you’re doing, English System Boy, so I’m saving you the trouble. That’s well over a mile, more than the average USA suburbanite walks in a year. Now you know why Ukrainians are in such good shape! World heavyweight champion Vladimir Klitschko probably did his best training running errands for his sweetheart. “Honey, would you go fetch some water? “ “Yes, Dear, of course I will gladly haul 50 kilos (this time, do your own conversion) of groceries back from the store on this nuclear summer’s day! What a great idea, sweetheart!” By the time he was through with the chores, I’m sure he thought sparring practice was a joke. But of course you realize this is a somewhat necessary inconvenience since you can’t see your feet in 6 inches of bath water.
- “Risks are pretty much non existent as long as you don’t get yourself contaminated…” direct quote from Chernobyl tour web site
Really? Who knew? That’s kind of like saying, “Great White Sharks are pretty docile as long as you don’t get yourself eaten”. Look, when I’m on vacation, I might want to relax by drinking a quart of rum on the beach while giggling like a loon at the mere mention of melanoma. I might want to take a zip line through the jungle if I wanted to impress my Green Weenie friends with my Eco Tour escapades. I might even want to explore some remote archeological dig in a crappy third world country if I want to finally employ my useless liberal arts degree. But what I don’t want is to take a poorly ventilated bus full of sweating Brits to an irradiated fallout zone so I can spend a weekend seeing how the Commies covered up (literally!) a man-made disaster. Who signs up for this garbage? Besides paranoid beady-eyed Naderite whacko fags, I mean? Here’s a direct quote from a tour guide website:
“Hazards are the crumbling buildings, and decaying wooden floors in places… Be careful entering any of these areas, as vegetation always carries far higher levels of residual radioactivity than concreted areas… Guides will always tell you not to step on the moss, and the dust in dried-out puddles tends to concentrate radioactivity. If you bring meals and drinks with you, make sure to keep them well sealed, and avoid opening/consuming any food or drinks within the 10 km area around the power plant…Tap water in the area remains unsafe for drinking or washing because of the radiation that leaked into surrounding dams, lakes and rivers… the ground around entrances to, and inside buildings will generally be littered with broken glass, concrete and debris. The main danger is not in the radiation itself, but in particles of radioactive materials that may remain on your clothes…”
OK, now, boys and girls, doesn’t that sound like a fun summer vacation? Let’s all go to the nuclear wasteland, where we can tiptoe around radioactive mud puddles and shards of glass, but don’t worry, if you’re really careful, you won’t wind up with any “residual radiation” to bring back home! I can see the slide show now back in suburbia: ”Here’s a picture of the concrete reactor-core sarcophagus (ooh!), and here we are eating lunch at the beautiful lead-lined Chernobyl Hotel…notice how our food is cheerfully glowing (aah!)? And here’s a slide of Ken’s chest X-ray, which is free when you take the 3-day tour…
But wait… there’s more! Who can resist a visit to (and no, I’m not making this up) the “Zone of Estrangement” or an action-packed sightseeing trip to the “Dead Town”? And of course for you nature lovers there’s always the Red Forest, so named because of the “ginger brown colour of the pine trees after they died following the absorption of high levels of radiation.” Uh…how do I say this? NO, thanks!
- Topless Feminism-at last, a women’s cause I can embrace!
(Sigh)…If NOW would only take a cue from there Eastern European sisters…A hilarious and much-needed departure from traditional women’s rights groups can be found in Femen, Ukraine’s answer to the scowling, uni-browed troglodytes that stand in for normal women on daytime TV interviews in America. Ukrainian feminists, God bless them, have found a better way to generate support for their crusade, and not just from your garden-variety man-hating lesbians, either: they remove their clothes! Fortunately, I can personally attest that these women have the physical wherewithal to pull this publicity stunt off (pun intended) with a degree of grace and beauty which is normally reserved for soft core porn or Super Bowl half time shows.
One creative stunt involved Femen-ists using semi naked college girls as human slingshots to pelt politician’s portraits with tomatoes. In an almost superhuman display of agility and athleticism, the “slingers” balanced upside down so that the giant rubber bands attached to their ankles could be used to fire the vegetables through the V shaped notch between their legs. Now THAT’S the kind of publicity you just can’t buy! Who really has the right to “freedom of assembly”? Could you get THAT permit past your American Main Street town council?
- Home remedies for the universal health care era
Many natives of Kiev will tell you that if you get sick, your best option is to visit the Caves, where you can pray to the fully-preserved corpse of an 11th century monk for direct intercession from God. As a second recourse, you might expect them to refer you to a hospital or doctor, but you’d be wrong, HMO breath! While Ukraine (like all of Europe) has embraced universal health care, it seems that taking charge of your own well being is de rigeur, and that actually going to a medical professional is only done as a prelude to hospice, unless of course you have enough money to bribe the doctor for preferential treatment.
So you will find a lot of advice on how to stay fit and avoid a deadly visit to the hospital. Like, women should drink beer because it helps their estrogen levels (does that mean beer drinking males are effeminate?). Or, eat salo (pure fat) because it aids in digestion. And there’s this: drink plenty of red wine because it helps flush radioactive waste from your system…useful information in America only in the shadow of 3 Mile Island, but throughout northern Ukraine a pretty valid tip! And then of course there’s a preternatural avoidance of fancy and expensive OTC drugs like aspirin, so you will find all manner of home remedies for everything from skin rash to a mild case of brain cancer covered by natural herbal remedies. And then there’s the ultimate elixir, vodka, which can handle everything from stomach flus to migraine headaches with just the precise application of product, generally considered to be in half-liter quantities taken orally as a substitute for dinner. But, I looked all this up, and guess what? Much of it is true, backed up by at least a little research (except for the vodka, which I am field testing as we speak). And you NEVER see a morbidly obese Ukrainian bent on consuming a metric ton of cheese nachos in advance of the big soccer game. For that, you must travel 6,000 miles west of here, to the land of the free, and the home of the electric shopping cart, not to mention the birthplace of the quarter pounder with cheese. So maybe universal health care isn’t such a bad idea after all…
- Ukrainian service-a study in still life
If you have time to eat lunch in Ukraine, make sure you don’t have plans for dinner. Ukrainian service moves at the grinding speed of Evolution and is designed to destroy whatever is left of your sense of humor after discovering that the food wasn’t all that great, either. And you can’t buy your way out of this. In fact, a good case can be made that, like some kind of bizarre Orwellian paradox, the more you pay for a meal, the more moody and cumbersome the process becomes, such that indifference and arrogance are raised to French levels without the compensation of a spectacular culinary experience. I can only hope that in time the glacial standard of service will approach what you get at the average Driver’s License Bureau in America…but I wouldn’t count on it.
- Cash-don’t leave home without it
Even in the most popular tourist areas (like strip clubs), they don’t accept credit cards here. Yes, Cash is King, and on payday your boss furtively hands you a fat envelope full of bills while keeping his eye out for government agents and other mafia types. This is in part a direct reflection of the stability of the Ukrainian banking system (motto: “serving happy customers since April”) and the tax code (“Give us ALL your money. Now!”). And I must say this has made my month-end personal accounting a blessing. No convoluted balancing of my (nonexistent) checkbook. No wondering if that charge I made 45 days ago in a cheap smoke-filled saloon at 2AM is valid. No hassles over service fees. Nope. Just simple, straightforward, cash-basis accounting. Money in, money out. Even an idiot like me can keep this straight. I think…where did I lay my wallet?
- If you arrive in May, you can dispense with your morning coffee routine. All you have to do is take a quick shower. That’s when you realize, with growing incredulity (and possibly horror), that the arctic stream you’re enjoying can’t be temperature controlled. Yes, only in Kiev can you can experience the exhilarating rush that is normally reserved for the Finnish Ice Bathing Brigade without even leaving your home! It seems that in many post-Soviet countries, routine maintenance is carried out on the city’s hot water pipes and for two weeks in early spring “you don’t need no stinkin’ luxuries” like hot water, you spoiled American! As an additional bonus, this practice dispenses with the need for an alarm clock, since you can clearly hear your neighbors’ primal screams when they take a frigid bath each morning. It’s almost enough to thank God for American utility companies. Almost.
- It’s a good idea to train as an Olympic athlete…
That is, if you plan to use the Metro escalator, which moves at a speed and angle which would give a Rocky Mountain Goat some pause for concern. Insider tip: stay at least a half dozen steps below and behind a slow moving older person. That way, when you reach the top (travelling at very close to Escape Velocity), you won’t be trampled by the large crush of people behind you that are being hurled at your back like an assembly line conveyor belt …
- Your tax dollars at work!
On my first weekend here I was wondering what the big celebration was all about. The main boulevard in town was shut down to vehicular traffic, so I took a late afternoon stroll in the crisp spring air down the middle of Kreschatyk Street and, to my delight, found gaggles of people of all ages drinking in the sights and sounds of a huge open-air gala in progress, not to mention prodigious quantities of alcohol. In a scene worthy of Toulouse Latrec, it seemed that the whole town was out enjoying the festivities: Moms and Dads, teenagers and tourists, vendors and musicians, rich and poor, lovers and poets, priests and prostitutes, and clusters of women and men joined arm in arm in a crazy cacophony of laughter, shouting, music, mayhem, dancing, swirling, and partying, all under a deep purple penumbra that was occasionally punctuated by booming flowers of red, green, orange, silver, and white fireworks over the tall gold Berehynia (Motherland) statue.in the middle of Maidan Plaza.
So I asked what the big celebration was for. It turns out it was a Saturday. Oh, OK… Beyond that, you will be derisively told that it is simply the government trying to buy votes (sound familiar?). But what I found myself thinking was: what a country! Yes, it may be poor, and corrupt, and have an unbelievably sad history-but it is also ancient and enduring, and these people have not only survived, but thrived through some of the worst nightmares ever visited upon a single civilization, and who can blame them for cutting loose a little? So the calendar is liberally sprinkled with holidays of every description and for every occasion or no occasion at all, and it seems perfectly natural that the government pays for it, and who can argue? The people of Kiev know that church, family, hearth, and home are more important than which gang of criminals is currently in office. Long after the puny affairs of mere politicians have been swept into the dustbin of history, St Vladimir and his cross will still be standing guard over a mighty bend in the Dneipr River, and the people will still be here as they have been for well over a thousand years, a testament to the staunch character of a nation. Of that you can be sure…. but you won’t read about it in your tour book!