Exploring the Ukraine - A Taste of Kharkov, Odessa and Kiev

I have been to the Old Soviet Union before.  The first time I visited the Ukraine was during the recent political unrest in 2014 about a couple of weeks after John McCain visited Kiev.  I rented an apartment from the USA and to my surprise, it was in the middle of an army camp and battleground that was Khreshchatyk Street, the main street of Kiev.  Flowers lined the street to mark where people were killed the weekend before. Broken tanks and other forms military equipment were scattered aIong the street. Buildings showed signs of recent damage and soldiers, in and out of uniform, were cooking food over small fires. Meeting were going on in the tents that were all over the street. Despite all the chaos normal life continued at the MacDonalds restaurant adjacent to my apartment. As I entered MacDonalds to get breakfast, a man grabbed me and asked in English, "What are you doing here?"  I responded that I was a tourist, and I was there to meet friends.   He said that he went to school on Long Island and was happy to practice his English with me; so, he invited me to have breakfast with him and his family. 

Later that day, I walked through the army camp towards the stage in front of the Maidan. The loudspeakers were playing recordings of recent speeches with a few people sitting and listening. Many eyes followed me, but I did not feel afraid. "Are you Ruski?", A voice shouted. I smiled and continued.  I did not think I looked Russian even though I was well dressed in my black suit.  I walked up the hill to St Michael's Golden_Domed Monastery overlooking the Maidan.  I went in and sat down to give my mind some time to take in this very unusual environment. Some young school children saw me, encircled me and asked me to take pictures with me because they did not often see a black face in their world. I did. And for a few minutes, I felt like a celebrity.

However, I could not escape the war as different men would confess their exploits to me.  "I killed two people last week. I was a sniper shooting from my apartment window."  I am not sure why they choose to confess to me. Maybe it was because they thought I was from the West and I would be sympathetic with their actions.  I saw many young boys carrying guns openly and acting as guards.  I was not sure who the enemy was since these were all the same people from the same country. However, as a precaution, I did not go out at night while I was living on Khreshcatyk because it felt problematic but when I moved to a new apartment two blocks away, there were little signs of war as people went on with their daily lives.

My next visit to the Ukraine was very different from my first. I visited Odessa, a seaport town on the Black Sea which is a hotbed for tourism. People were everywhere on Deribasovskaya Street taking pictures, riding horses and enjoying the sidewalk cafe in front of the McDonalds. In the nearby park, a group of people, young and old, was dancing the Argentinian Tango. The dancing grabbed my attention, so I walked over to watch. After a good fifteen minutes, they invited me to join them.  I did but struggled to learn the steps. However, I was happy to be asked to participate.  They extended the invitation to a party they were having on Saturday night, but I had to decline since by then I would have left town. 

I spent dinner that night, talking with a Ukrainian couple about how it felt to live under the control of the Soviet Union and was surprised to hear that it felt stable. They knew what to expect. They had somewhere to live, and education and many other services were free. A drawback was that the government could move another family in their home if this were needed. They did not like this idea, but it was one of the prices they had to pay for the stability they valued. We continued to talk about the breakup of the Soviet Union and how the breakup affected them. They told me that during the fall, the people received shares in the resources of the country. However, people stole shares from each other, and some became wealthy while others became destitute. They worried about the uncertainty they felt now with the Ukrainian Hryvnia dropping precipitously against the dollar. Two and one-half years ago, you could get eight Hryvnia for one dollar. Now, the exchange rate is twenty-six Hryvnia to one dollar. When you couple this with the fact that the average Ukrainian makes three to five thousand Hryvnia per month, which is about 200 dollars a month, you can see that life is tough for Ukrainians today. 

 During this trip to the Ukraine, I could sense a feeling of quiet desperation among many people. I got the impression that most people saw me as a bottomless American bank account.  So, there is always a scheme to extract some money from me. A young boy ran up to me with a bouquet of flowers begging me to buy them.  I refused.  He threw his arms around me in what seem like am embrace, and as I pulled away, I realized that he was going for my wallet in my back pocket. Luckily, I was wearing a jacket, and my wallet was in my coat pocket.  And that was not the first time I was a victim of a scam. One day during the war, a young man in a bunny rabbit suit asked me if he could take a picture with me. I said yes because I thought it was the easiest way to get out of the situation. In a flash, he had his arms around me, and one of his friends took my camera and was snapping away. I guess this activity attracted attention because a man brought over pigeons and placed them on my head.  Click, Click went my camera, and it woke me up to the fact that I was in the middle of a scam. The man in the rabbit suit said, " That is enough. Pay us." "That will be 200 Hryvnia for me and 200 Hryvnia for my friend."   400 Hryvnia was equivalent to 50 dollars at the time.  The young man with the pigeons stuck his hand out, and I paid him twenty American dollars. In summary, I paid 70 dollars for pictures I did not want. When I tell these stories to other Ukrainians, they say, "This is Kiev.  What do you expect.?"

There are expectations fraud and deceit in the minds of many Ukrainians. They believe the government is crooked and anything, included university degrees, can be bought. Despite this dark cloud of deception, There is also a beautiful side to the Ukraine. The food is good and very inexpensive. I had a beer, a bowl of soup and a main course of pasta in a meat sauce at a nice restaurant for less than eight dollars. Public transportation is twenty cents, and you can rent a decent apartment for two hundred dollars a month. The women are beautiful, in good shape, and dressed well. I don't know how they do it with the salary they make.  Many people are kind and will go out of there way for you. I arrived at the Odessa Airport and was looking for a ride into the city.  Many cab drivers offered me ride to the town for 1200 Hryvnia. I did not bite because I felt that price might be high. I was right. A woman who overheard the prices offered by the taxi driver intervened.  She said that they were cheating me, and she would call me a cab.  She decided to stay with me until the taxi arrived.  However, since the taxi took while to get to the airport, she decided that I should share her cab. The taxi dropped her off at her house and then took me to my hotel.  The cost of the ride was 100 Hryvnia, 1100 Hryvnia less than my first offer.  This act of kindness was not a unique event. A young man noticed my confusion as I wondered around trying to find my way and called me a cab, waited with me for the taxi to get there and explained where I needed to go in Russian to the taxi driver. The Ukraine is a country trying to find its identity between deception and caring for others.  I found both types or people there.

When I visited Kharkov, the old capital of the Ukraine, I was most impressed by Gorky Park. Maxim Gorky Central Park for Culture and Recreation built on 130 hectares of land, nearly 130 football fields, in the center of Kharkov. This park was impressive. It was full of activities for children and populated by families. When I visited Gorgy Park, named after the influential Russian writer, Maxim Gorky, I fell in love with it and wondered why we did not have more free facilities like Gorky Park here in the West. The only inconsistency at Gorky Park was that people were not allowed to walk on the grass. Everything was pristine, and I guess they wanted to keep it that way. 

 I spent my birthday in Odessa this year among Europeans and Ukrainians. Two Ukrainian women approached me on the street and started a conversation.  They were Jehova Witnesses, and they wanted to invite me to a meeting later that day. It was my birthday, and I had nothing special planned so, I accepted their invitation.  They came to my hotel to pick me up, and we were off on a bus to their meeting room.  When we arrived, there was a line of people outside waiting to get in. The guy with me had the keys; he opened the doors, and we all entered. There were around thirty people there with about two-thirds of them women. We prayed, sang songs and had a lecture in English.  I think that they have these meeting in different languages, and this was the English meeting. It was nice to meet more Ukrainian people since I am not religious, I was not a good candidate for further recruitment. Later that evening I had a birthday drink and some dinner with an Englishman who was staying in the hotel across the street from me.