In August 2008, while living in the Czech Republic, I jumped at the chance to take a two-week class in Kyiv (Kiev). I had been there earlier that summer for less than twenty-four hours between two night trains en route to Moscow.
“Don’t take the night bus,” my Ukrainian friends warned. I would be robbed while I slept, and people would steal my backpack from under the bus when we stopped. As a precaution, I kept my backpack with me and enjoyed the Russian dubbed version of “Gladiator” on the mini-tvs. The bus seemed to be full of mostly migrant male workers heading home. The border seemed like a huge movie set or a Soviet-era leftover of floodlights and catwalks.
“Use the bathroom on the Polish side, before you cross the border,” my Ukrainian friends advised. It was the last fully functioning toilet I would see for two weeks.
There was no sleep to be had as the driver took the pot-holed roads to the capital at full speed. In the morning, I wasn’t fast enough to capture the charming horse-and-cart I saw on the main road, but I needn’t have worried as I was to see plenty more.
I was very glad to see Sveta’s smiling face at the lively parking lot as bus station when we finally arrived. A friend of a friend, she had been my tour guide for my previous day in Kyiv. Now she took me stay with another friend whose family who lived closer to where my classes would be.
The family lived in a three-room flat in a typical Soviet-era block that looked exactly the same as the flat blocks of Moscow and St Petersburg. Every morning I wound my way out of the complex down to the main street and took a bus past the little old ladies selling produce from buckets: mushrooms, beans, bundles of herbs. I’d get off and walk through a similar neighbourhood, passing an old lady sweeping the street with a broom made of branches, to get to my school.
My afternoons were occupied with trying to change money. After class I’d race from one bank to another, trying in vain to change my Czech crowns or get an advance on my credit card before they closed. I should have brought US dollars, Euros, or Russian roubles. I imposed on the generosity of my hosts until the last day, when I miraculously got an advance on the card. I saw a newsmagazine with a picture of an army boot with Georgia sticking to it like a piece of gum, ready to stomp on Ukraine, but I didn’t have the money to buy it.
My hosts were very busy collecting items to send to Eastern Ukraine, which had suffered devastating floods that summer. They would take it in turns to guard the depot 24/7 until the items could be transported out. Every night I would come back and talk with the mom in the kitchen for an hour. She would ask about my day, correct my Russian and tell me to eat more. Then I went to my room, their living room, to study.
My class went ten days straight, with no break for the weekend, so I had two free days at the end. My host sister took me on an evening disco cruise on the Dneiper to celebrate, pointing out the stunning sites on the river as we danced the night away.
I wanted to find the village my great-grandfather came from but there’s some confusion over the name and my new friends talk me out of it.
“Do you want to go to Chernobyl?”
We headed out of the city and stopped for a tea break in middle of the forest. Then we went to Tanya’s house for tea. She had a beautiful garden to feed her family and lovely cats. Her son had been accepted to a major college in the city, but he needed a laptop. Where could she get the money for a laptop?
Of course, one can’t actually visit Chernobyl without a special pass, but we stopped for a picture by the sign. About twenty villages that surround it are closed; their names still appear in maps but in brackets, but I’m informed that there are great mushrooms there which are (illegally) collected and sold in the city markets.
Then we went to visit another Tanya, who lived right on the edge of the villages whose names are in brackets. Her son, Sergei, had just got back from Spain, where a special program enables him to spend every summer with the same family. Every summer they make her a beautiful album of what he did and send her a box of chocolates. “Take them,” she said. The family in Spain doesn’t know she has a stomach condition that prohibits eating chocolate.
Another Tanya heard us speaking English as we walked through the village and stopped us. She is wearing rubber boats on her way to muck out the horses. “I’m an English teacher,” she explained, “I wish classes had started, you could come and be a guest speaker. I listen to the BBC all the time. Conditions here are terrible, you know. We thought it would be better after the end of the Soviet Union. I never thought I’d have kids, but then when I was forty…” she shakes her head and points at an adorable little boy peeking shyly out of a protective huddle of kids.
I stop to take a picture of two men in a horse and cart. “Yeah, take your picture!” one of the men yells. “Why don’t you take a picture of that guy? He’s the one who got us into this.” I pose awkwardly under the statue of Lenin.
We stop to visit someone’s 80-year-old babushka whose wooden cottage is painted in bright blue and green gloss. “Come in, come in!” she invites me when I hang back. “I paint my house every summer!” Inside, the cottage is as neat as a pin with wooden furniture pushed up against the walls: bed, table, chairs. Pickles, bread, and cheese are laid out. “Eat, eat!” she commands. I play with some kittens. “Take one!” she offers. “Go pick some apples!”
We go to pick apples. “Chernobyl apples,” my friends laugh as we fill our bags from the enormous orchard.
We stop by a small tranquil lake, where my new friends share their picnic with me: sandwiches, tomatoes, cucumbers. “Isn’t it beautiful here? Tell all your friends to come.”
The next day I head 80 km south to Bila Tserkov (White Church) to visit a friend from back home who married a Ukrainian. The mini-bus is jammed with kids. Since you pay for the seat, the kids’ dad has four all piled up one on top of the other. One is carsick. The bus pulls over and all the women help with a plastic bag, tissues, a candy, water. We continue, with the driver admonished to go more carefully.
After dinner we walk though the beautiful grounds of the 200-year-old Aleksandria Park, the trees green and the air warm, full of couples on a romantic stroll and laughing kids.
My last night in Kyiv is spent in Sveta’s grandmother’s apartment. Her grandmother has gone to the dacha, so I get her bed in the living room, a creaking wooden room with bookcases soaring to the ceiling where I pass a sleepless night.
My tummy has been hurting and I’m eager to leave. I feel Sveta is not getting ready quickly enough to get to the bus station in time. There is a problem with the lock. We have to stop to buy a bottle of something for someone in the Czech Republic. The streets are clogged with traffic because today is the first of September and all the children are going back to school with their parents for the opening ceremony: arms full of flowers and white puffs in the girls’ hair. We finally find the bus and Lyuda is waiting there with her parents. Olya’s dad meets me with a package for her.
Lyuda’s mom has packed us an enormous lunch and we eat it and the Chernobyl apples all the way back to Czechia. Lyuda is taken off the bus before Poland to have her documents double-checked and she’s almost in tears when she finally gets back on. “It’s my fault,” she says, smiling through her glistening eyes. When we finally cross into Poland, we’re in the European Union and the entire bus breaks into applause.
Lyuda’s Czech husband is waiting for us off the bus. “So,” he says, “How was your trip?”
When I get back to my country my camera is stolen. I have the stamps in my passport and a few photos I can scrape from emails I sent. It doesn’t matter. I’ll never forget my trip to Ukraine.