Cool But True

Kyiv, May 2008

It felt as though I had been away for two months, not two weeks, such had Kyiv changed while I was at home. Rows of chestnut trees had flowered along all of the city’s streets and boulevards – their lush green leaves brush against the windowsills of the pink, grey and blue Tsarist era buildings, and conceal the bareness of the khrushchevki housing blocks. The smell of freshly cut grass fills the air even in the centre. Summer had arrived.

Translations about oil pipelines in Azerbaijan and articles about Ukrainian legislative changes pile up beside me on my desk at work. They are complicated enough to make your head swirl, but there are distractions: the door of the office is always open, which allows not just the warm air to drift in, but also the jazz and blues soundtrack from the bar which has opened opposite.

It is tourist season. The inconspicuous cafés that I had walked past a hundred times without noticing have erected patios on the street with wooden tables and elegant flower baskets, and are overflowing with customers. Jugglers and buskers have come out of hibernation, and are joined in the centre by stilt-walkers on weekend afternoons. The souvenir stalls in the underground passageways which link metro stations are piled extra-high with blue and yellow “Ukraine” and red “CCCP” t-shirts, flags and other colourful knick-knacks.

Kyiv is now crawling with sex tourists. For each elderly foreigner with a camera around his neck, there are half a dozen elderly foreigners with a young girl on their arm; I’m afraid I might slip in pools of saliva on the pavement. The “mail-order bride” industry, an adventure for lonely men and a cynical way for Ukrainian girls to move abroad, is an eastern European cliché that still thrives here.

English is spoken on the street more often than Ukrainian, and conversations between couples – I overhear dozens every evening – have an air of boredom to them that suggests, whatever each party’s respective motives for the courtship are, that neither of them is in it for romantic evening walks along Khreshchatik.

The transition from tepid spring colours to vibrant summer ones happened suddenly, as if the boxing glove-shaped chestnut trees had been shipped in before the mayorial elections as a publicity stunt for the party of Vitaliy Klichko, the former super heavyweight champion.

The elections were the month’s biggest talking point. The city was taken over by canvassing as candidates were advertised everywhere: on metro trains’ television screens; on café trays; on the doors of shopping centres; trolleybus stops, and anywhere else where the pictures of men in dark suits were sure to catch the eye. On Independence Square, prime minister Yuliya Tymoshenko’s bloc set up dozens of white tents to publicise her candidate, with people inside giving out leaflets and free pens. Her party’s logo – a white flag with a heart in the middle – summed up perfectly the peaceful (and loved up) mood of Kyiv in May.

Despite being bombarded by options, much less than half of Kyiv’s voters cast their vote, the lowest number ever. It was a reflection of how weary the Ukrainian public has become of political rhetoric, and an acknowledgement that it will take more than glossy brochures and free pens to get rid of the corruption that still cripples the city.

With the changes in the weather come changes in fashion, and Ukrainian summer clothes brighten up the city just as much as the trees and flowers. Ukraine’s eccentricity reflects in the way people dress. Men (who in the winter dress in blacks and greys, like extras from a Sergei Bodrov Jr. gangster film) wear tight t-shirts that are multicoloured, ripped or sequinned, sometimes all at the same time. Businessmen have changed into stylish, casual cream suits and pointed white shoes.

Women dress just as glamorously: there are as many dark sunglasses, stilettos and silver tights in the fruit aisle at my local supermarket as there are on any Parisian catwalk. Glamourous bags are compulsory, bras are optional.

But no Kievan chest is complete without a slogan, always in English and often confusing. I keep a list of the most entertaining ones, like “Practice Your Subtital Instinct”, “The Milky Way Is Not Enough”, and “Reaching For Your Future”.

My favourite slogan is printed on a yellow jumper I found on a sale rail in the clothes hall at Lisova market: “Mr. Riser Moronay Fawr Go Takers Chesel Sassofono’s The Spungo Don’t Over Up Gives Moro Olver Taken Spiing Chisel”. As the woman running the stall shooed me and my notepad away, I began to wonder how the random words had arrived on the jumper. Had it been copied from someone with bad handwriting? My guesses were as far-fetched as the words themselves.

Is The Spungo a gentle giant in a children’s fairytale? Is spiing a type of speed skiing? Or perhaps it is the manager of Dynamo Kyiv’s shopping list: are Chesel and Chisel Romanian defenders? Is Olver a new Swedish goalkeeper, now that Oleksandr Shovkovskiy is nearing retirement? Is Moro our next Brazilian status-symbol striker?

I bought a t-shirt that says “Cool But True”, which could describe summer weekends in Kyiv. The town sparkles, from the golden spires of St. Sophia’s cathedral to Mercedes’ bonnets to girls’ studded belts and earrings. Every Saturday night there are live, free music concerts on Independence Square which attract crowds of thousands: one evening Ana and I stood in the shadow of the giant angel statue and listened to sets by two of the best Ukrainian rock groups, S.K.A.I and Druga Rika.

Mariinsky Park is also an ideal place to relax. It is in the high part of the city, not far from the Lavra monastery, in the grounds of Mariinsky Palace. People bring picnics, skateboard, take their dogs for a walk, or eat ice-cream while looking out over the city from the path that skirts the park.

One evening we had an unexpected guest. I had met Ryan a few times at university, and he had since spent a year studying in Russia, as I had. Kyiv was one of his stops on the way home as he travelled from St. Petersburg to Poznan in Poland, where his girlfriend had been living. We agreed to meet after I finished work, and I arrived on Independence Square ready to help him find his way around town. After all, I thought, his Russian would be much worse than mine, and Ukraine can be a daunting place. He must be nervous.

I found him paddling in a fountain, his shoes in his hands, the skin under his eyes sunburned after a day exploring the city. He had found places in his first eight hours in Kyiv that I haven’t been to in eight months. When we met Ana, he explained to her his plans for next year, in a crisp St. Petersburg accent and using prefixed and reflexive verbs of motion in the past perfect tense. He even piled his plate high at the stolovaya buffet without an introduction to Ukrainian food.

After dinner we walked to Taras Shevchenko Park, where we sat by a fountain with bottles of Slavutych beer, and shared travel tales. He had spent a week in Tatarstan in the spring and stayed in Kazan, my favourite town. I envied his stories, about places and things I realised I hadn’t seen for two years, and will probably only ever see again in photographs – the stunning turquoise minarets of the Qul Sharif mosque, the giant Lenin statue, the wide, clean streets of ulitsa Baumana. Kyiv made a good impression on him, too.

That night was the European Champions League football final: Manchester United versus Chelsea in Moscow. I had spent most of the day reading the previews and predictions on the internet. Posters of each team’s star players alongside the caption “a great perestroikas” kept me smiling all through my lunch break.

We rushed back to my flat for kick-off. Myself, Ryan and Ana sat on the bed with more bottles of Slavutych, until the game finished just before 1 in the morning. Manchester won, which made getting up at 6.30 to see Ryan to his train to Poland more bearable.

The next weekend was a vote that absolutely everyone in Kyiv cared about: Eurovision. It is possibly the only time of year when the country is able to broadcast itself to the rest of Europe, and so they always try to make an impression. It isn’t always successful, though: I expect that, when many Europeans hear the word “Ukraine”, their thoughts turn to Verkha Serdyuchka, last year’s cross-dressing entry, who wore a space suit for the occasion.

Ukraine’s song this year was “Shady Lady” by Ani Lorak, whose concert we had been to on Kontraktova Poshcha in the winter, where she wore a white fur coat and we couldn’t dance in case we slipped over on the icy square. This time she had put on a shiny silver catsuit, and did Ukraine proud, finishing in second place.

Russia’s Dima Bilan won. If the voting was to decide the “European Sexy Flat Tummy Contest”, the result would have been almost the same.

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