Things I knew about Ukraine before this trip included: the painstakingly decorated Easter eggs, the traditional women’s dress is a heavily embroidered white tunic with garlands of flowers (sadly, it occurs to me that I probably know this because of the Olympics), it is a former Soviet republic and this is the land of perogies, borscht and vodka and Chicken Kiev.
I had wanted to travel somewhere I had never been this fall. And more than that, I wanted to travel somewhere I didn’t know much about. I was searching for a place to explore and in doing so spend some time exploring myself and thinking about what my next steps are for my career and work. I had narrowed it down to Japan, India and Israel when Matt proposed another option: Kiev and Prague. He was going on a business trip and invited me to come along. Obviously I jumped at the chance.
After being in Kiev for a week I feel like I know a lot more but I’m still not entirely sure where to start. It’s a strange town. In place of the easter eggs, flowers and Soviet stuff (although there traces of those too) is some incredible architecture. I’ve been running every morning that it’s not been raining and even on the side streets outside of town there are enormous, beautifully decorated and colourful buildings, some recently revived, some in need of repair and some in progress – with printed scaffolding over top to shop what the building is meant to look like. Probably there are modern buildings somewhere in the city but I haven’t seen many.
The next thing of note are all the churches. The beautiful golden domes of the Russian Orthodox churches peek out from the colourful buildings at every turn, or at least it seems so from our hotel, which is positioned right between St. Sophia’s cathedral (an almost 1000 year old cathedral with its wedding-cake bell tower) and St. Michael’s Golden-domed monastery. St. Andrew’s is a short walk away and looks like it should be some giantess’ jewelry box but the inside is not my favourite – it’s too red and ornate and comes off looking a bit gaudy. Instead I love St. Volodymyr’s which on the outside is a pretty standard issue Neo-Byzantine cathedral but inside is all black and gold and candlelight, making it hard not to feel the glow.
But Kiev Pechersk Lavra monastery / Kiev Monastery of the Caves is HQ for Russian Orthodox churches in Ukraine. They believe it is one of four places in the world where the Virgin Mary lives and there are also 73 “imperishable relics” – the bodies of saints who were buried in the caves and who have been deemed uncorrupted. That belongs firmly on the list of things I didn’t know about Ukraine before this week. The top part of the complex is maintained by the church but feels fairly secular – there are many churches but also souvenir stands and a series of museums. I wandered around there for a bit and then went to the lower part, it was obvious that something very different was happening…by now I had noticed that women cover their heads when they’re in the church and so I had been trying to do the same on my visits but here all the women’s heads were covered and everyone bowed and crossed themselves coming through the gate. But there were no tourists, no English words anywhere and I had no idea what was going on, so I went back up to the gate and bought a tour.
The first order of business was getting dressed to go underground. Women have to have covered arms, a covered head and wear a long skirt and there are wraps to be bought or borrowed for this purpose. My tour guide was lovely and patient with all of my questions but as she explained all the mysteries of the saints to me and how they died and how to pray to them, I couldn’t help but feel awkward. It was unbearably hot in the catacombs with all the people and my jeans / skirt / shirt / wrap / headscarf combo, not to mention that there are no lights – just a few candles above the relics – so everyone carries a candle in their hand, trying not to get beeswax all over the place as people jostle against each other in the narrow corridors. But that’s not what made me uncomfortable , it was because I was the only tourist in a place packed with pilgrims waiting patiently for me to get out of the way so they could access the relics.
I’m so glad I went but I will be processing it for a while….what it means to be a tourist and what a privilege it is. No photos were allowed down there (and I wouldn’t have taken any in any case) but Wikipedia has one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Iliya_Muromets_Kiev.jpg.
There is PLENTY of perogies, borscht and vodka. Actually they are no perogies but varenyky (or vareniki), the difference being that perogies seem to be baked or fried after they’re cooked and varenyky are simply boiled or steamed. There are no perogies that I have seen but varenyky are all over the place, in all kinds of flavours, as well as pelmeni – which are filled with raw meat and then cooked whole. So far I’ve had mushroom (pelmeni and varenyky), and cabbage, potato, meat, sour cherry and blueberry varenyky and you would think that I would be getting tired of them by now but I assure you that I have a very high dumpling threshold. My favourite by a long shot are the sour cherry and I want to try the poppyseed ones before we leave but I’ve had sour cherry three times now and I’m not sure I’m going to be able to come away from it.
Borscht is predictably delicious and slightly different everywhere but it always comes with a side of garlic brioche and sour cream. Actually everything comes with sour cream and you always get a basket of bread with a meal (including with the borscht and brioche). Chicken Kiev is apparently Russian in origin but Ukrainians have either adopted it or they share a common love of cutlets because there are plenty of similar items on the menus under different names. All of the fried things I’ve had in Kiev thus far have just tasted like oil though, so I am not a fan.
And of course there is vodka. We have had lots of local beer and been happy with it (Stare Misto and Bitburger are the favourites) and there is wine from the area but vodka is everywhere. So far we’ve had regular, organic, honey-pepper, cranberry and horseradish. The horseradish smelled like it came out of a barn but on the palate it was beautiful – infused with horseradish for certain, but also honey and raisins and some other things. I’ve been told that no one drinks vodka for the taste but I might have to argue for this one because it was amazing. Unfortunately it is house-made and not available in store but our other favourite is honey-pepper. It’s infused with honey and a bird’s eye pepper and is so perfectly balanced between sweet and spicy that shooting it feels smooth and natural. This one was hard to find but I was able to source a couple of bottles. I guess it really wouldn’t be that hard to make either.
What else? There is so much bread that I’m beside myself, lots for breakfast along with cold cuts, sausage, cheeses and two kinds of smoked herring. There is also kasha, a mushy Russian granola / porridge which is interesting. For lunch I’ve been having beer and dumplings and in between there are amazing pastries – my favourites are raspberry or the new-to-me combination of pineapple and ricotta or cottage cheese. Sounds weird but it’s delicious. Almost every restaurant has shashlik – barbecued shish kebabs – cooked over an open fire and salo (lard) shows up a lot too. Basically it is just pork fat, so that takes some getting used to but it does help with all the vodka.
The thing that has made me the most sad is that the people have not been kind. My favourite thing about travelling is meeting new people and finding out how they live but in Kiev Matt has been working and I have spent most of the week alone. It might be that I have bright red hair now and tattoos (although I’ve tried to keep both of those covered) or that we’re staying in a luxury hotel that alienates us from both the hoi polloi and the nouveau riche, or that I don’t speak a word of Russian OR Ukrainian…or that they don’t have a culture of tourism here. But I don’t think so. I had been warned that smiling was not part of the culture but I thought that people would still be nice under their stoicism. I know many Ukrainians in Canada who are incredibly warm and I have no doubt that they are friendly with each other so I have spent a lot of time thinking about it as I move from park to cafe to park with my book.
The season has definitely turned here and there has been a beautiful fall breeze rustling the chestnut trees. For the most part I’m happy to be outside and I’ve spent a lot of time reading and thinking. What must it take to make an entire nation of people shut down and turn inward? What has the cost been of being kind to strangers? We come from a place of enormous privilege in North America, not only because we are able to afford to travel and stay in a golden hotel and speak our own language to the locals but because we can even afford to have a culture of tourism that enables us to travel to places only to see them. Being part of a culture that is welcoming to strangers is a privilege. Smiling easily is a privilege. I purposely skipped the Museum to the Great Patriotic War (WWII), the Chernobyl Museum and the Babyn Yar mass grave site because I am too sensitive but being sensitive is an enormous privilege. I have a lot more thinking to do about this but there will be no sitting in parks today; it is pouring rain in Kiev and we leave for Prague in a few hours.
Here are my photos from Kiev: