Wednesday, January 14, 2009
After nearly 24 hours of traveling - complete with very interesting seat mates on my various airplanes including a narcissistic Pennsylvanian, a devout Southern Baptist student missionary, and a loaded German businessman who had one too many opinions about what is wrong with the US - my arrival in Kiev was, to say the least, surreal. Meeting Ira at the airport, I almost felt as if I had simply returned to Minnesota, and the cold wintry air and snow-covered landscape did little to hinder that illusion. However, I was quickly jolted back into my post-Soviet reality as I watched the Cyrillic alphabet float past me on storefronts and billboards, passed dozens of soviet-style apartment buildings, and confronted monuments to a Soviet past. There is something about the traditional fur caps and parkas that adorn so many of the passersby that immediately makes me feel as if I have taken a step back in time. Not to mention, the golden onion domes that rake the skyline serve as constant reminders of Kiev's hundreds of years of orthodox history.
I have found myself laughing more than once at the many "isms" of Europe and Kiev that are both familiar and new to me. My first real reminder that I was "no longer in Kansas (aka the USA) anymore" was the techno music that greeted us first thing in the morning that we got into the car, and as I have pointed to ornate buildings asking Ira "what is that?" expecting to hear that it is a library or that it houses some sort of government ministry, I have to laugh at my unfamiliarity with old architecture as Ira informs me that they are "just buildings." More than once, I have felt like I am in a crash-course of Ukrainian culture and I am sure that Ira is already getting tired of my endless questioning. I have learned that parking on the sidewalk is ok (and often preferable to the street), yellow lights come before red and green lights, and that vodka really is no big deal.
So far, we have been to 3 churches; St. Michael's, St. Sophia's, and the Kiev Lavre church. The first two were very similar, both old and beautiful, their interiors adorned with depictions of orthodox saints and topped by the classic golden onion domes. Ira's prefers St. Sophia's but the way that St. Michael's, which is a beautiful periwinkle color, caught the evening light was rather magnificent. Visiting the Lavre was a different experience altogether. Instead of being a single cathedral with a couple of outside buildings, it was an entire complex that had been built and used by monks. The most unique feature of the lavre is the network of caves that the monks dug out and lived in beneath the men's cathedral. To say the least, going down into these small tunnels to see the remains of hundreds of saints and monks encased in glass coffins, with tiny candles as our only source of light, was nothing short of creepy.
Driving through Kiev is like a constant history lesson, and more than once Ira and I have both commented that we would be making Professor von Geldern proud as we discuss the implications of Soviet cultural and political policy on Ukraine. Multiple times a day we pass through Independence Square, where the Orange Revolution of 2004 took place, and yesterday we visited the Iron Lady, built in the 1970s in commemoration of World War II.
Luckily, I have had Ira as a personal tour guide, chauffeur, and translator in all of this; without her, I have no idea how I would manage here. Only 3 days in and I am frustrated by the fact that my 6 years of Spanish is not doing me any good (obviously). Therefore, I have begun attempting to make sense of the Cyrillic symbols, getting easily confused by the fact the a 'B' makes a 'v' sound and a 'P' makes an 'r' sound, as well as trying to broaden my non-existent Russian vocabulary (which has led me to decide I will take up Russian when I get back to Macalester so I can at least have simple conversations with the people around me when I come visit again).
Despite her translations and commentaries, Ira could do little to shield me from the complete cultural immersion I got last night; AKA dinner with her entire family at her grandfather's birthday party. Not only did I realize how helpless I am without any Russian/Ukrainian language skills, but also got to learn several cultural nuances: carnations are the only flowers appropriate to give to a man; you can only pour an alcoholic beverage into a glass if it is on the table, not in someone's hand; you suck on pickled tomatoes; and when making a toast, the last person you cheers must be a man, but not your husband. As for food, I ate enough to feed an army as I tried dish after dish of traditional Ukrainian food, most of which I can't pronounce and had never heard of. And of course, as it was a birthday, each adult gave a toast or two, after which everyone drank vodka without flinching at all, as if it were apple juice (I stuck to champagne, which was in no short supply.)
Of course, not everything has been unfamiliar. Tuesday night we went to a basketball team between Kiev's leading club and the Skyliners from Frankfurt, Germany. Kiev won, and it was a lot of fun, especially since I can understand basketball, no matter what the language. And last night was the first of our nights on the town, which we spent at Buddha Bar, a bar/restaurant/lounge, which had the perfect ambiance to give me a taste of the city life I've been craving. And today, there will be lots of one of my favorite cultural activities: shopping!
To say the least, the fun is just beginning...what a semester this will be :)