The Breath of a Thousand Strangers

Kyiv, January 2009

The smell in the corridor is a familiar mixture of boiled cabbage and cheap cigarettes. A brown carpet in the bedroom is fixed to one of the walls instead of the floor. In the bathroom half of the bathtub sits under a chimney and the lock on the toilet door is on the outside. The kitchen is decorated in eight shades of beige – a flat so infuriatingly fragile could only be Ukrainian.

I was staying with Ana and her roommate Alisa, while I searched for a new job and a place of my own. As uncomfortable as our living situation was, I had missed the country’s eccentricity after two months at home.

I had arrived back in Kyiv after two weeks travelling through Ukraine.  On the way between Lviv and Luhansk provinces I had taken a car journey across the Donbass steppe with a friend of Ana’s father, a boisterous pastry magnate called Gennady, who told me stories about a man he used to know who could straighten horse-shoes with his bare hands and who fought the Germans in his underpants. On another night Ana and I spent three hours waiting for a train in a sparse wooden cabin on the edge of Nyrkovo wagon yard, where the freezing air burst into my lungs so sharply as we lifted our suitcases on to the train that I thought I would pass out.

After a fortnight of provincial landscapes and peaceful life moving back to the capital was an awkward adjustment, even more so as it meant spending the first month in an uncivilised district called Svyatoshin. I had been there only once before, to visit a friend: as I waited for him at the entrance to the metro at five in the afternoon, a girl of about nine pulled down her knickers and urinated on the steps.

The air in January was bitterly cold, and snow only fell on the handful of days when the temperature flirted with zero degrees. Muddy puddles formed in the pot-holes on the pavement – cigarette butts drown in them, and behind them lie the reflections of rusty yellow avtobusy. The streets are consumed by a watery grey mist, which gives them a sinister glow.

The hostility of Svyatoshin is sickening. There is little space to breathe between filthy grey concrete housing blocks. Most of them have abuse and swastikas scrawled on their sides. Factories spew black smoke into the low clouds. Wild dogs stalk people, or lick seeping wounds on street corners. Every single person’s face is fixed in a lifeless stare, their untrusting eyes glazed over, their lips motionless. Swaggering men in black sports jackets swig from bottles of beer as I walk to the shop at nine in the morning – at night I shiver at the sound of footsteps behind me.

At dusk one Saturday a couple of tramps argue at a set of traffic lights and hit each other across the face. When they realise that they are both too drunk to land their punches properly they yell foul words at passers-by, then take turns to pull off each other’s woolly hats and throw them on to the spit-sodden pavement. This demented street theatre continues for minutes.

The metro smells like the stale breath of a thousand strangers. In the passageway that leads to the platform old hags in faded headscarves sell vegetables, eggs, cigarettes, milk or magazines. Some lean on the corridor’s grubby walls; others sit on upturned cardboard boxes. Wrinkles trickle down their expressionless faces – some of them may not have smiled since Yeltsin’s day.

On the platform heavy doors slam into people’s shoulders; women with sharp noses and even sharper tongues barge through the crowd, cursing anyone who does not get out of their way; a man with his legs cut off above his thighs supports himself on two blocks of wood and begs for kopeiki. I pay for a forty hryvnya metro ticket with a two hundred hryvnya note and the woman behind the kasa reaches for a calculator to work out the change.

Nothing can redeem what now surrounds me. The thought that I gave up my flat in Lukyanivska in search of something better hits me as many times per day as the metro doors – and hurts more. I now miss everything about my old neighbourhood: the comfortable commute, the Alibi pizzeria on my block, the dachshunds in my old building and their dapper winter jackets, late nights at the Kyivska Rus’ cinema. The two districts belong to the same city, but different worlds.

I avoided being at home; in January I spent a lot of time travelling across the city. Meetings and errands took me to each corner of it: a job interview by Universitet, a Friday night cafe crawl with Ana in Pecherska, shoe shopping in Lisova market, a salad and a year’s worth of gossip with my friend Zhanna on Kontraktova Ploshcha, a trip back to Lukyanivska to fix my camera, and a few evenings guzzling Khreshchatik’s creature comforts with Helen, a good friend from London who had come to Ukraine as part of a business trip.

I learned a new Ukrainian superstition: if you are going somewhere and have to return home because you have forgotten something, you must not leave again until you have found a mirror and looked yourself in the eye – otherwise the journey you are about to make will be fruitless.

Beyond Svyatoshin, my mood was mostly even and optimistic. The rest from Ukraine had done me good: fitting in to the culture no longer feels like a task; I lose my temper at situations less. There are plenty of things here that bring a smile to my lips – like the logo on the front of my metro card which looks like a pair of men’s underpants, or the thoughts each time I take a marshrutka journey past the Karl Marx Sweet Factory about what type of revolutionary candy is created inside.

But a depression hangs over the city. While I had relaxed since the autumn, the people of Kyiv had suffered. The global financial crisis has damaged the lives of almost everyone, many of whom had already lived in poverty. Unemployment has reached twenty percent and the price of a grocery shop has almost doubled since October. Money began to fall out of my wallet like sand through an egg timer – I have no spare change for Trotsky Toffees or Lenin Lollies.

I spent a few days teaching English at Kyiv International School, after their Office Manager (Natasha, a friend of mine) asked me to fill in for one of their teachers who was ill. The school has been designed with all the idiosyncrasies of an American high school: at 8.30 the principal welcomes all students to class through a tinny tannoy in the corner of each classroom; the corridors are clean and decorated with children’s artwork; students have designed name tags for their lockers; on the sports field there are goal posts for both hockey and soccer. Children chatter happily as they make their way to class.

The students are the children of foreign businessmen or rich Ukrainians – on my first day I taught almost fifty children of between six and sixteen, from a dozen different countries. Despite their different ages, backgrounds and mother tongues they were united, from Akash to Zinchenko, by one thought: that for as long as the person at the front of the class wasn’t Mrs. Teranec, they didn’t have to do any work. As I read the news during my lunch break on the day that Barack Obama became president of the United States, I wondered whether the first week in his new job would involve as many Israeli, Russian and Korean tantrums as mine.

Not having found a permanent job, at least, made me more sociable. On nights that I couldn’t stay in Svyatoshin I slept on friends’ sofas – by the eighteenth day of the year I had slept in nine different places.

One of these places was a flat belonging to a friend, Zhenya. He lives in a humble, two-room apartment on the edge of the city. We spent the evenings in his kitchen, discussing the financial crisis over mugs of tea or football over glasses of beer, and listening to Russian folk music on the radio. The conversations about football continued from where we had left them at work in the autumn.

So often I have used the word ‘humble’ to describe the atmosphere in Ukraine when I have meant to say that it is ordinary, ugly or listless. But its people can be said to be humble too, in a much kinder sense of the word: open-minded Ukrainians – like Zhenya – are generous, warm, and always good company. His hospitality made up for the discomfort of his spare bed, which felt like I imagine a stretcher in a war hospital would.

A week with Zhenya taught me about the drinking culture in the former Soviet Union. To people in places like Svyatoshin alcohol may be nothing more than an anaesthetic, but drinking with an enlightened Ukrainian is a sophisticated passtime: it involves a great deal of sips, but not many will pass without a toast to your health or to your family.

When Zhenya’s flatmate reclaimed his bedroom I spent a few nights with my friends Paul and Christine, a couple in their early thirties from Wisconsin who live in a village called Vishneve, a twenty-five minute marshrutka journey from Kyiv. Paul is the pastor at the International Christian Assembly Church in Lybidska, and Christine organises the Church’s events.

The top floor of their house was the perfect place for me to collect my thoughts, after claustrophobic days on crowded metro trains and in narrow supermarket aisles. I would sit on my own in their loft until the early hours of the morning, in the middle of the spacious room lit only by the orange glow of a radiator, a thick blanket around my shoulders to keep the cold out, and let the ideas in my head pour from a black felt-tip pen into my diary. On some nights rain splattered on to the window panels on the ceiling – on others wet, shapeless snowflakes drifted across the beam of the yellow street lamp outside.

One of the events that Christine organises is a gathering every Friday for Paul’s congregation – a blend of American missionaries, Ukrainians and foreign students – in a hall in Lybidska, before they meet again for Church in the same place on Sunday mornings.

I had spent a dozen Friday evenings playing cards or board games in the hall, but had been too apprehensive or busy to come on Sundays. I realised that I should have made the effort much earlier: Paul’s sermons are passionate but sensible, profound but often very funny.

I stood at the back of the hall and helped to run the refreshments bar in the corner; I have more experience of serving coffee than I do of serving God. It was the perfect vantage point from which to observe what was happening. The Church band is made up of two Ukrainians, a Nigerian and an American. They begin the service with half an hour of Christian songs – not inaccessible hymns but contemporary, contemplatory soul music. As they sing, an African man raises his hands in the air and silently sways his hips in rhythm with the music; an elderly American couple stands solemnly; toddlers play on the floor at their parents’ feet; a Vietnamese man supports his young daughter on his shoulders and walks through the crowd, shaking hands with friends as he passes them; a Ukrainian girl checks her make-up in a small mirror. I look again – she is actually mopping tears from her eyes.

There are a hundred or so people in the hall, of about fifteen nationalities. They each worship in their own way – the atmosphere is warm, tranquil, sincere. At the end of the service many people stay in the hall and gather around the coffee bar. I am hugged by people I imagined had forgotten me. I tell people I am looking for a flat and a new job – pieces of paper with addresses and phone numbers scribbled on them are thrust into my hands.

I step out into the cold and make my way back to Svyatoshin, having learned – and felt – much more than I expected to. During an insecure January, the friendships, lessons and three hryvnya cups of coffee on Golosiivska Ploshcha were like Manna from Heaven.

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2 thoughts on “The Breath of a Thousand Strangers

  1. Thanks for this description. Am trying to write about the time I spent in Slovakia and your description fits the common scent of places in this country as well !

    Like

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