Kyiv, November 2009
November is Ukraine’s most melancholic month. The temperature falls below freezing, and the orange and yellow leaves that make October so picturesque fall on to the street and are trodden into dirty puddles (the Ukrainian word for November, Listopad, means “fall of leaves”). The plain, snowless clouds feel low enough to touch. People discard their colourful autumn clothes and clamber into black and dark grey coats. A cold wind blows stern looks onto our faces – autumn forgotten, the country settles in for an attritional winter.
It isn’t just the weather that gnaws at the nation’s mood. Political graffiti is smeared across the walls of an underground passageway near my office, a mark of Ukrainians’ frustration at the repugnant choices available to them for the approaching general elections. Whether Yulia Tymoshenko or Viktor Yanukovich becomes president in January, they are sure to puncture the elation that New Year always brings. One wall just bears the words: “DON’T VOTE!”.
The arrival in Ukraine of swine flu is a sinister sub-plot to the change of season: schools, universities, bars, theatres and cinemas have closed; in Kyiv thousands of people wear medical masks on the city’s trams and metro trains, or pull their scarves up to just below their eyes – many people stay at home altogether; innocent sneezes are met with distrusting stares; workplaces hand out packets of Amizon and circulate emails about how to minimise the spread of the epidemic. Chemists have sold out of pills that boost the immune system and half of the commercials on television advertise medicine.
My morning routine is attritional, too. It is still dark when I wake up. Getting out of bed is each day’s toughest chore. On the way to the office most days I stop for a small cup of three hryvnya hot chocolate from one of the vending machines on my block; now it is a ritual born out of necessity, not vanity as before. I wear a thick pair of tights under my trousers and wrap a scarf around my neck. At the bus stops on vulytsya Sichnevoho Povstannya, peoples’ breath collects in a communal cloud as they wait for their marshrutka to arrive – when they come their windows are covered in frost. Further down the street, homeless dogs shiver at the entrance to the metro.
One Monday morning I arrive at the metro, fumble around my pockets for my monthly ticket as usual, and take a place on the escalators amidst the crowd of other blurry-eyed, grim-faced, darkly-dressed commuters. As we move slowly down to the platforms, I notice someone at the bottom of the escalator to my right, coming up. It is a boy of about my age, in a bright red jacket and designer jeans, the only trace of colour in the vast underground hall. As he stands on the escalator, he is practicing dance moves: his knees flex, his arms make robotic breakdance moves and thunderclaps. As our steps meet, I see that he is miming the words to a dance track coming from headphones tucked under his white woolly hat.
As he passes me, I strain my neck for one last sight of him. I realise that I am smiling. As I look across the escalator, I see that many others are smiling, too. People are tired, cold and restless, but a spontaneous bit of optimism is never lost on anyone.