The Linguist’s Lot

Kyiv, January 2010

If November is Ukraine’s most melancholy month, January is its toughest. With the lawyers I work for coming back from their winter breaks with all the enthusiasm of “dvoiki” schoolboys returning to class on the first day of term, and European investors waiting for the results of Ukraine’s presidential elections before calling upon the lawyers, I have all the time in the world to indulge in my hobbies. It is an opportunity to start the year creatively and productively, but the month goes to waste. Determined to develop my writing I search on Kyiv’s newsstands, in its online ‘papers and on the lips of its people for a story to turn into an article – and find that there is only one: the arrival of a bitterly cold spell of weather that puts paid to all but the most mundane activities.

By the middle of the month the temperature in the capital is eighteen degrees below freezing. Ukrainians, ordinarily the hardest to read of eastern Europe’s introverted citizens, now wordlessly betray their emotions from beneath heavy coats. The look on four million faces says: Sod this for a game of soldiers.

The sky is nondescript pale grey or bright blue. Workmen have shunted December’s snow to the side of the streets, where it remains in frozen piles. Puddles and potholes throughout the city are covered with treacherous black ice that makes people curse the devil’s mother as they collapse on to the cold ground. Not even adroit penguin steps can stop elbows being grazed and bums being bruised once in a while.

Once the temperature falls below minus fifteen the wind feels like an ice pack pressed firmly against your face. Shoulders and wrists ache; teeth chatter; cheeks turn the colour of beetroot borsch. You can cope even in minus eighteen, though, if your hips and throat are well-covered.

Getting up in the morning is a trial. Ablutions sacrificed for an extra couple of taps on the snooze button, I let my stubble grow into a beard; after each scalding shower the same turtleneck sweater goes over a thermal vest. To walk to and from the metro on the way to work I button my winter coat up to the neck and put this year’s furry ushanka on top of last year’s woolly hat. I only take off my scarf to wash and sleep.

With little work to keep me occupied in my office on vulytsya Turgenivska I flick idiosyncratically between familiar, comforting websites to pass the time. I memorise Sachin Tendulkar’s batting average to two decimal places and learn about politics in Burundi, and only get up from my desk to make mugs of tea.

As I walk home at night the freezing air in my lungs breeds hunger. My resolution to lose weight is abandoned in a glut of Georgian comfort food – thick pork shashlyki, chicken plov, rich Satsebeli sauce -, Czech Krušovice beer and chocolate cookies. Ana and I press ‘pause’ on our social life but we loaf around in fast forward: in the evenings we draw the curtains and exhaust DVD box sets, preferring the company of doctors and detectives to people we know. By the end of the month my snazzy flannel pajamas from Kharkiv (a present from Ana’s mum on January 7th for Russian Orthodox Christmas), despite the “XL” sewn into them, are anything but baggy.

In the last week of January a solitary memorandum lands in my inbox. The project makes me think. The investors will spend two days in Ukraine and may take home ten times more hryvnya than I have saved in two years living in the country. It hurts. Perhaps not being appreciated is the linguist’s lot: although my skills are rare and hard-earned the company I work for values my expertise at just six Euros an hour. A Georgian dinner costs less, but my bank account is still empty at the end of the month.

As soon as Europe thaws the real stories will appear again, but I will be in the wrong place to catch them. My plans to see the world – to feel and write about more than tea and aching wrists – have been pushed aside, like last month’s snow.

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Related posts: Kyiv in Winter (photo set), Winter in Ukraine (photo set)

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About Jonathan Campion
JONATHAN CAMPION is an English travel writer and Russian-language translator. He now lives in London, after spending four years working and travelling in the Former Soviet Union. Jonathan writes for 'Panorama', the in-flight magazine of Ukraine International Airlines. His writing has also been published in the book 'The Expeditioner's Guide to the World', on the Guardian newspaper's travel pages, and in print and online travel magazines. Twitter: @jonathancampion. Email: jon.campion@yahoo.co.uk

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