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Ukraine

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Back in 2014, a mild mannered Ukrainian woman used to do the weekly rounds in our Moscow office, handing out sweet cheese pies. She didn't speak a word of English but would bring me two pies every Friday; most others got one. It turned out that she thought I needed fattening up, and had decided that a second helping of pie would do the trick.

Growing anti-Ukrainian sentiment across Russia at the time must have made it tough for her, yet still the pies kept coming and her smile never left. I wondered what life was like for those back home.

Fast forward three years and I had landed on a damp Friday night at Kiev’s Zhulyany airport. As airports go, Zhulyany was unwelcoming, but my hotel was something else. In true soviet style, it was huge and hardly any of the space was actually used for anything worthwhile. The lobby was dominated by the flag of the USSR and pocked with security guards seemingly all watching one another. Barely anyone spoke any English.

A particularly unhelpful receptionist suggested I eat a late dinner in the hotel restaurant, as she couldn’t think of any other options in the centre of the nation’s capital. Too tired to argue, I trudged across to the restaurant, passing two more security guards and no fellow guests. Once inside, I was shown to a table directly across from another security guard. He stopped gawping straight at me every now and then to stare at his phone. There was no one else in the restaurant. Browsing through the menu, it crossed my mind to ask him to join me for a bowl of the “bread in proteins”. Perhaps he was on a diet, in which case the “vitamins salad” was sure to go down a treat. As the sad-looking waitress neared my table, it was a straight shoot-out between the “fishes”, the “boiled egg” and the “chicken kiev”. I went for the kiev.

Forty-five minutes later, it arrived. Presumably it had taken so long to produce one solitary chicken drumstick as whoever was working back there had to pop down to the nearest Perfect Fried Chicken to source the ingredients. It did come out with a flag stuck in it, which scored high. As I cut in, milky chicken juice oozed out and the flag fell over. A metaphor for Ukraine’s fragile sovereignty perhaps. The soggy fried potato accompaniment swam about the plate, sluicing oil in the process. A side of stale bread came out a few minutes later. Perhaps the plan was that I would have something suitably dry to soak up the chicken milk and oil slop. I trudged off to bed afterwards, feeling slightly confused and a little bit ill.

Round 2, the breakfast round, started as a different but equally miserable waitress barked at me for a few minutes before returning with a bowl of coleslaw. There was a different security guard this time and he barely looked up from his phone, but he was sat in the same spot, and so was I.

That morning, I headed through the snow flurries to the Kiev Pechersk Lavra Monastery, a golden-domed orthodox church sat on top of ancient catacombs and overlooking the Dnieper river. Looking across the city, Kiev’s elaborate churches sparkled through the snow storm.

Past a few more monasteries, I found what I had been looking for, the Mykola Syadristy Microminiatures Museum. Syadristy, a self-taught artist, is known for creating wondrously diminutive works, which can only be seen through a microscopic lens: a chessboard on a pinhead; a rose vine in a hollowed out hair; and the smallest book in the world at just 0.66 square millimetres with 12 pages of poetry in cryllic. Travelling through Europe never gets dull.

Kiev is on high alert, and the city is full of lost-looking bald men in military fatigues on vacation from the eastern front. A memorial to the Heavenly Hundred sits by Independence Square - protestors shot at by government snipers from surrounding hotel rooftops. Barbed wire barricades are dotted around the place: some covered in graffiti and some draped in bunches of flowers.

That evening I found a “Fun Up”, a few hundred yards from the barricades past Independence Square. I didn’t know what one of these was, but it turns out all you need is a hundred or so young, happy Ukrainians, some very loud Ukrainian pop and a man dancing around in a chicken costume. I had eaten a chicken kiev and I had now seen Kiev’s chicken. I felt like my work here was done and I headed off to eat, with the impression that Kiev was making its way through this difficult period with its head held high.

I finished the trip as I had started it, in a cold, fairly unfriendly canteen-style restaurant for which many former-soviet states are known. I had borsch and enjoyed the sort of miserable waiting staff that would not seem out of place in Moscow. I'd missed that. The scowl at the sound of spoken English and the action of violently slopping food onto a plate before dishing out a grunt or two. Something about it just felt right.

Until next time then x

Posted by Peter.Moules 06:22 Archived in Ukraine

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