Sunday, December 9, 2007


The train from Chișinău to Kiev was another sophisticated sleeper, and I had it all to my lonesome. Small difference on this one, though, passengers were expected to pay a nominal fee for sheets, and Moldova is the one time I exchanged all of my local currency into euros before leaving. I only had nine lei left over (85 US cents), and I needed 20. At least I got one more use out of the sleep sack I've been toting around, wadded up at the bottom of my pack. The porter for my carriage didn't speak any English, and I didn't have any handy fellow traveler translator, but she wasn't quite as brusque as the Romanian porter had been. When I boarded, I did witness more of the conspiratorial talks between the porter and what appeared to be passengers in search of passage. The only word I understood was No, and even if that hadn't been easy enough the decipher, the repeated head shakes were clear enough. More people trying to sweet talk their way onto a train, or maybe just a package through for delivery? Still don't know, still want to find out. Curse my feeble language skills.

The night porter plays a pretty crucial role in overnight travel, and can make the difference on a journey. You won't necessarily see them a lot, since they usually leave you in peace, it's more that you would notice their absence if they weren't there when it mattered. In addition to keeping an eye on the security of the carriage, they keep track of who needs to get off at which stop, calling in at your cabin in advance to make sure you know the stop is imminent, and waking you up if necessary. They also wake you up before the wee hour border checks, and help out the border agents. The first agent I saw leaving Moldova was the four-legged furry kind with a nose so powerful I could hear the sniffing approaching from down the hallway. I had my rucksack stowed in a bin under my berth, and had to give the dog access for a couple of whiffs. The Ukrainian agents were both women in army fatigues, and the one who had to deal with me only looked annoyed when it became clear that I didn't speak Ukrainian. Or maybe it was just impatience, since it was dark o'clock in the morning. I had to fill in a short paper form stating personal information and my destination, and the night porter stepped in to make sure I was filling it in okay. Half was left with me, and half went to wherever all the little scraps of eastern bloc bureaucracy go to be bound up in neat bundles, stacked up, and forgotten about.

It's a little hard to tell, but that's a statue of Lenin there, the only one remaining in Kiev. It kind of looks like he's asking you to admire the latest Porsche and Lexus, no? Shows how much Ukraine has changed, sort of. City center is all neon pizzazz, restaurant chains, and cafés. Just believe me when I tell you that there's at least three coffee shops in this picture of Liberation Square.

The Kiev metro costs 50 kopecks a ride (10¢ – eat that, BART!) and even though trains show up every three to four minutes, they're always packed. Sometimes there enough room to stand without smashed up to anyone, but without being able to reach anything to hold onto, so you need to subway surf, which is a good way to build up some solid leg muscles. At other times it's sardine packed, to the point that, should the train have the misfortune to smash into a tunnel wall, everyone would probably still be standing up, wedged in the exact same place as before. Getting into or out of a carriage is a pushin-n-shovin' free for all, and anyone with a modicum of manners would simply be left on the platform with the doors closing in their face. Remarkably, there's no ass-grabbing, although plenty of prime opportunities are at hand. Even getting to the platform is cut-throat; I saw a woman cut off, by mere centimeters, a girl using a pair of crutches, who was approaching the escalator. I'm not really sure what the point was, as 98% of the riders stand still on the escalators. Really, why bother walking. You could actually get some quality reading time on the escalators; the metro tunnels are so far underground, it can take over two minutes to complete one ride. I took a video, but blogger isn't letting me post it, and I've given up trying to figure out why. I never took the metro more than a couple of stops beyond city center, and I wish I had; another hosteler reported that it doesn't take very long for the downtown sparkle to give way to run down neighborhoods looking as if the Iron Curtain never parted.

I spent a chunk of one day at the monastery complex of Kiev Pechersk Lavra. Paying my entrance fee, I couldn't figure out why I received four tickets. Someone figured out later that each ticket had a price designation; the fee was 10 hryvnia, which entitled me to three 3 hryvnia tickets and one 1 hryvnia ticket. Depending on how you look at it, it either (a) is a waste of paper, (b) is a charming remnant of Soviet pencil pushing, or (c) makes perfect sense. I'm going with (b). Other than a dense concentration of orthodox churches, there's a system of catacombs. They're commonly referred to as caves in a lot of the literature, but the ones I found were more like underground corridors. They're lined with glass coffins displaying the preserved bodies of saints. Is it still a relic if the whole body is there, or does it then qualify for a new term? The lighting is minimal, and most observers purchase tapers at the church shops, and carry them through for lighting. I didn't, so resorted to bogarting candlelight. As with most of the orthodox churches I've been in, I was one of very few, if not the only tourist. My brilliant deduction was based on the observation that I was the only person not kissing each and every coffin along the corridor, crossing myself with sweeping gestures in front of the churches, or seeking a blessing from the priests. Religious devotion is a strange thing. Why was the woman walking down the hallway in front of me so convinced that these mummified bodies were holy? I hope it's for some other reason than she read it somewhere, or because someone told her so. I've really liked the Orthodox churches I've been in; they can be ornate and beautiful, interiors wholly covered in icons, glitteriness, and paintings, but the lighting is usually quite dim, sometimes being only from candles, which imbues them with a mysterious and meditative quality I found lacking in the Roman Catholic churches. Ruminative atmospheres, but not enough to make me abandon my skepticism.

I had a little trouble finding my way around the complex. The doors to most of the churches and buildings were closed, and I was never totally sure if I was supposed to walk through some doors or not. The only signs in English were ones requesting Please Close the Door! (it was cold). I only found the caves by following other people; I had been looking around for a cave-like entrance, but they are accessed through ordinary buildings. There's a Museum of Books, which is one of the few places with a sign, but even if it hadn't, the door would have been a dead giveaway.

Lack of helpful outdoor signage only continued inside, and I almost missed the second floor displays, which would have been a damn shame. The first floor displays are mostly about printing, including printing presses, but the second floor is all about book design and illustration, including collections of ex libris bookplates. Oh man. There is so much high caliber art in that place, I would have been happy to smash the glass and make off with any one of the items on display.

Just down the street from Pechersk Lavra is the Museum of the Great Patriotic War complex. I didn't go into the museum, but took a wander around the grounds. You can't get lost trying to find it, since a 62-meter high statue of Motherland towers above it. This is my favorite patriotic girl, from another set of smaller sculptures. To get the full effect, imagine a rousing anthem playing in the background.

Other museums visits included the best and the worst in one day. The worst – the Chernobyl Museum. I know that tourism is still young in Ukraine, and I know it's unreasonable to expect English signage to be everywhere, but the lack of English language labeling made what could have been a fascinating museum impenetrable. I can only assume that any non-Ukrainian speaker would have a similar experience. It takes for granted that anyone visiting already knows details of the disaster, and most of the displays are documents and identity card photos. I can't tell you what the documents are, because I couldn't read them, and there was no explanation of what they were. There were some obvious items, like identity card booklets, but then the identity and story of whomever it was wasn't explained. What's curiously lacking are images of Chernobyl itself, either from the time immediately after the explosion, or from today. I'm told that the reason to visit the actual site is not necessarily to get an unhealthy dose of radiation, but to witness first-hand the abandoned city (I didn't go). I left the museum unsatisfied, and just as uninformed about the event as before I went it.

A much more stimulating experience is a short walk away at the Museum of One Street. Crammed into two rooms, plus the foyer, this museum is an artfully cluttered collection of items from the daily life of the residents of Andriyivskyy uzviz from the turn of the 20th century. It's as if you walked into the apartment of an individual who had impeccable taste, a naughty sense of humor, was a shopaholic, and who never threw anything away. Old jazzy tunes swing quietly in the background, and there's no English explanations, but there's no Ukrainian ones either. This museum is all about looking, and drooling over what you're looking at.

Hitting the streets on my first day in town I came across the opera house, and noticed that La Traviata was on the schedule for the following night, November 28th. Amusing coincidence, because when I bought my opera tickets in Belgrade, the guy in the box office accidentally printed out incorrect tickets, for La Traviata on November 28th. Joking about it as he reprinted the correct tickets, he asked if I wanted to see it, and I told him maybe I'd come back. Sounds like some sort of destiny. The woman in the Kiev box office didn't speak English, so I just asked "Traviata?", and wrote 28 on a scrap of paper. Nodding, she indicated a seat on a chart. The chart was folded over, but I was pretty sure she was pointing to an orchestra seat, something near the front. I didn't know how to ask for a cheaper seat, so I just said okay, and it still only cost me 100 hryvnia, about $20.

The Kiev National Theater follows the same model as the one in Belgrade, except it's bigger. I expected virtuosic performances, but it was kind of sloppy. Violetta was good, except for the high notes, Alfredo held his own but had a propensity to turn, in not so subtle way, to face the conductor, I'm pretty sure someone backstage was having a very loud conversation, but the big disappointment was Germont's Act II aria. If I were the general manager I'd have handed him his final check and called in the understudy. I may have gotten a different perspective from a cheaper seat, but from my vantage point in the sixth row it looked like he just couldn't be bothered to put in the effort to sustain a reasonable performance. It annoys me that anyone with that ability would be so cavalier about it when it came to a performance. Or maybe he was really that lousy a singer. But in the end, I paid $20 and saw an opera in Kiev. Not a bad evening. Especially because on the way out I was handed a 2 for 1 coupon to one of the many café chains, one branch of which happens to be right behind the opera house. Two giant cappuccinos later (plus tiramisu), caffeine overtaking my system, I went back to the hostel and stayed up really late.

In Belgrade, Chris and Gaby had done their work prepping me for Ukraine, with salivating tales of a cafeteria full of cheap Ukrainian food. And to make it more of a culinary adventure, nothing is labeled in English. I recall my language difficulties in Turkey, but at least in Turkey people seemed used to encountering English speakers. Not so much in Ukraine. In an odd way, I like this, because it poses a challenge and makes things difficult. Difficult things can be nerve-wracking at the time that you're dealing with them, but they are almost always interesting and rewarding in retrospect. I can think of a lot of hair-raising strange foods, but none of them are in a Ukrainian cafeteria. I was looking forward to it, because unless you're able to decipher the Cyrillic, it's down to pointing and hoping. I was feeling slightly malnourished after my Moldovan malady and unintentional fast, so hit an establishment called Dva Gusta, which turned out to not be the same chain that I'd heard about, but functioned in exactly the same manner. Deciding to play it safe than sorry for a first meal, I ended up with a lot of chicken and some baked cheesy cakes. I'm not sure if they were supposed to be a main or a dessert, somehow magically managing to be endowed with qualities of both, dense but not too sweet. Of course, it's always more fun to have partners in culinary adventures and stupidity. Returning the next day with two guys staying at the hostel, Thomas and Iain, I decided I had to find the chicken kiev. I've never had chicken kiev, but was tasked by a friend to discover if butter really does squirt out when you slice into it. Standing in line, under the perplexed gaze of the staff who were no doubt wondering what the hell we were doing, we squinted at the Cyrillic, managing to find the letter string for "kiev", but not knowing what the word for chicken was. Iain finally resorted to charades, something small, fried, and hand grenade sized was handed to us on a plate, and cameras at the ready, we sliced in. The butter was positively volcanic.

Language skills, or lack thereof, may be surmountable where food is at stake, but buying train tickets can be something else entirely. Buy as many train and bus tickets as I have in the last three months, and you encounter some people who are clearly having a bad day, but for the most part ticket sellers try to be helpful and accommodating. Ukraine is the first place where I encountered flat-out rudeness, and a complete disinterest in providing any help, specifically in regards to securing transportation. I don't know if it's because they aren't accustomed to tourists (there's that excuse again), or if it's a holdover from the days where you got paid the same whether you were helpful or not helpful, and since being not helpful is easier, why not take the path of least resistance. Buying a train ticket without sharing a common language should actually be quite simple. It requires a tiny bit of homework, ie, figuring out the local word for departures. Then you just look at the departures board, and write down all the info on a slip of paper — date of travel, name of destination, train number, time. Handing this to a ticket seller should be enough to get a ticket, although some charades to sort out details may come into play. Sleeper car? Upper or lower berth? One ticket? It's not rocket science. It does, however, help to have a brain with enough cells to know which month is which. Iain and I both wanted train tickets to Lviv, but he was leaving two days later than I was, in December. I wanted to leave November 30th. Copying down train information from him, I neglected to switch the month, and about five second after being handed my ticket, realized what I had done. And this was from the nicer of the two ticket vendors we encountered. Advised by one of the guidebooks that a certain window at the Kiev train station was used to dealing with foreigners, we showed up and proved that they were dead wrong. Thomas asked the girl at the window if she spoke English, and she wouldn't even look at him. Question repeated with the same result. A Ukrainian in the next line leaned over and asked, in Ukrainian, if she spoke English. She looked at him. No, she didn't speak English, and she wasn't even going to try to help us, merely turning to the next person in line. That piece of advice riddled with bullets and shot to death (I'm finding guidebooks more and more worthless the longer I travel), we went to the next window, where the woman actually made an attempt to help us. She wasn't pleased by having to reach over to get our slips of paper from the counter, but we both got tickets after relatively painless exchanges. Except I had given her the wrong date, and had a correspondingly incorrect ticket. I could do one of two things — spend another 100 hryvnia on a correct ticket, or try to convince her that I was an idiot, and see if she would reprint my ticket for me. I figured the idiocy was fairly evident, so convicing her of such would be easy. And in case she tried to hurl a sharpened pencil at me, I was reassured by the presence of the plexiglass window between us. Yet it wasn't without a little trepidation that I went back to the window. If looks could kill I'd be a splotch on the floor of the Kiev train station ticket salon, but to her credit, she reprinted my ticket, free of any charges.

I ended up being a little distracted in Kiev (those not interested in finances or office politics can stop reading, since I'm about to let loose a rant). I need to go home soon, and had spent a couple of weeks communicating with my job to figure exactly I need to be back, so I could finish planning my trip and buy plane tickets. My job gives me stock option grants, and taking a leave of absence of over 90 days affects the vest date of any shares that have not yet vested. The final word was that I needed to be back on December 21st in order to not have stock option vesting affected. To put this in context, the company is completely closed for winter holiday from December 22nd through January 1st. So, they want me to fly home from overseas, show up at work for one day, during which I will do exactly nothing except read email, and then go on another ten day break. This didn't make a whole lot of sense to me, so I posed what I thought was a sensible and logical solution, which was that I work remotely on the 21st. Reading email in Latvia and reading email in California amount to pretty much the same thing. No, this is not an acceptable solution, since this activity wouldn't hold up to a stock option audit. Now, I appreciate the fact that my company is generous enough to grant me stock options, but let's be quite honest, the amount they give me, relative to others in the great vegetable garden of options, amounts to a pea pod. But that's not even what bugs me, since slipping a vest date just means the free money comes later rather than sooner. What bugs me is that in the six years that I've been there, I have never worked remotely. Never. I've taken vacations and I've called in sick. Other than that, I've always been onsite for paid hours. Many others seem to work remotely on a daily basis, and as far as I know, it's never questioned. Working from home? Or cleaning your apartment and checking your email once an hour? Let's see that hold up to a stock option audit. I told The Job them I'd see them in January. Even if I made it back to California by the 21st, I wouldn't go in on principle alone. Gggrrarr.

Okay, rant over.


DMBY said...

Good for you! Stupid auditors.

Sandy said...

For love and for life, she won't go back!

Take that!

Cybele said...

i was in kiev in 1990. you are there in 2007. cool!