Chicken Kiev..In Kiev!

I didn't leave off Mission to Moscow very well; my last posts talk about living in Halifax, and then, two years later, this blog appears and I'm discussing moving from Victoria to Edmonton to Guelph.

Well, I did land in Halifax after returning from Russia, and didn't like it. Jobs pay little and the city is a bit of a trashy dump. When an old friend, Shanana, from British Columbia called me up and offered me a job as an At-Sea Fisheries Observer with my old company in BC, I jumped at the chance. They offered me top pay and lots of work, so I went out to BC after all.

Katya and I had to be apart for almost a year as part of her visa process. I had to show Canadian immigration authorities that I had a job with a stable income in Canada, and she wasn't allowed to enter the country during the processing of her permanent resident visa. We ended up apart for nearly a year as a result.

I got down to business in British Columbia, working hard and earning money. In the summer of that year Katya and I met up in Ukraine!

The Ukraine was perfect. Neither Canadians nor Russians require a visa to visit as tourists, and it was affordable for Katya to get there on the train (not so much for me to get there at the height of tourist season, but what price can be put on love?).

Katya met me at the airport, having arrived a full day before me. Kiev Borispol International is a small airport but the Ukrainian authorities are serious chaps, combing through my passport carefully and asking me what my purpose here was (my Russian work visas aroused their suspicions that I was coming to work illegally). Finally, after a ten minute interview I satisfied the officer's queries and was allowed into the Ukraine.

My reunion with Katya was exciting and awkward at the same time. We had been apart for six months at this point, staying together only via Skype. Nevertheless, we got over it and took the train to her grandparent's home in a small village east of Kiev.

Katya's father is Ukrainian, and grew up in the village of Bobrovitsza. Her grandparents still live there. Our train arrived late at night and we hiked along dirt roads for a couple of miles until we made it to the walled-off and gated home, typical of all houses in this part of the world. We went in and Katya pounded on the door of the house. Lights came on and a friendly-looking elderly couple met us. Within minutes they had a feast of black breads, salt, cheeses, pickles and vodka spread out on the kitchen table!

Her grandparents were obviously overjoyed to see Katya and were very curious to meet me. They have a brother and a cousin who live in Canada, part of Canada's Ukrainian heritage (it's a joke in Ukraine that everybody knows a relative in Canada).

We ate and drank and made merry and then went to bed. I was exhausted, having flown for nearly 24 hours from Victoria, BC to Kiev, Ukraine, with layovers in Toronto, London and Frankfurt.

Katya's grandparents' home in Bobrovitsza, Ukraine.

The pretty street they live on. 

Me and Katya's grandparents in their yard
Katya's grandparents' home is a self-sustaining mini-farm. In traditional Ukrainian manner, subsistence is the name of the game. They live a life that obnoxious west-coast hippies here can only dream of! They grow all their fruits and vegetables, including pumpkins and grapes, make their own pickles and jams, and raise chickens and rabbits for eggs and meat. The only things they buy at the store are dairy products and sausages and the odd canned good. Her grandfather even goes so far as to make his own vodka, which he spent five days shoving down my throat.

Every morning at breakfast he would bust out a bottle of homemade vodka and pour a shot for me. "Pyat gram" he would insist (five grams..the size of a shot of alcohol). "Nyet, nyet" I would say, waving my hand over the glass and indicating that I was still hung over from the entire previous day of drinking his potent vodka. "PYAT GRAM!" he would shout, lifting the shot glass and thrusting it at me. "Davai, davai" I would reply ("Okay, okay") and pound back the shot of vodka. Then I would offer him the glass and he would pour a shot, and then thrust it back at me. "Pyat gram!" Most of the time  he wouldn't drink, but he took great pleasure in testing how much this Canadian could hold. Apparently not too much, because I spent the entire five days at this farm pissed out of my tree.

Finally, after a week of drinking and hanging out in rural Ukraine, we said our goodbyes and took the train to the capital city, Kiev.

Kiev is beautiful. It's a lot more run-down than Moscow, and the relative poverty of Ukraine can be seen with every bus and police car that passed. But the city is so historic, being one of the older metropolis' of Europe. Here was the founding site of Russia (Kievan Rus), the center of Slavic culture and Orthodoxy for centuries, and the site of massacres during the Mongol invasions and later the Soviets and then the Nazis.

Katya had booked us a hotel room near a University for a great nightly rate. I never learned the name of it, but it was in a tall building. We had a suite with air conditioning!

Our first day in Kiev was spent meandering around the neighborhood we had booked our hotel in. It was in the northern part of the city; or maybe it was the western part. Might have been east. Definitely wasn't south. I don't really know where it was! Like the rest of Kiev it was hilly and filled with trees and creeks and ravines that the buildings and traffic-packed roads climbed in and out of. A trolley line with some rough-looking shanty stores ran along a fairly main street nearby.

By this point in my trip to the Ukraine I had become a bona fide alcholic, so we went for sushi and a buttload of drinks at a local restaurant. I don't remember the rest of that night too much.

The next day we took a cab to the Independence Square in the center of the city, where the Orange Revolution had happened a short while before. We walked around the old architecture and got scammed by a guy with a camera and a pigeon. Then we made our way to the Dnieper River and the famous Lavra.

The Lavra is a thousand-year-old monastery still functioning today as a religious pilgrimage site for Orthodox Christians. Built on giant bluffs overlooking the Dnieper, a series of churches and convents hide the labyrinth of caves and underground chapels dug into the actual hill. Here the monks rode out the 400-year Mongol occupation, and devout Christians secretly built underground chapels when religion was punishable by death under Lenin and Stalin. The tombs of saints and priests are also down here.

We paid for a guided tour (only religious pilgrims are allowed unguided access) that required me to wear pants and Katya to cover her head. Despite being underground, it was friggin' hot down there. I would have enjoyed the history and spirituality of the caves and tunnels were it not for the oppressive heat. Even the stone walls were sweating!

After an hour we were led out and I breathed in great big gulps of cool, +35 centigrade air.

After all that exercise we went to a local bar and got drunk (again). An awesome Kievan blues band was playing Beatles' covers, so to remixes of Abbey Road and Hey Jude, we drank Czech beer and ate Ukrainian sausages and somehow made it home.

Downtown Kiev on the River Dnieper

Independence Square, Kiev

The conquering pigeons that cost Katya and I ten bucks

Our Kievan hotel room. No idea where it was.
The next day we had breakfast in a bar (figures) that was, conveniently, playing Avatar. Washing down our eggs and sausages with big mugs of Czech beer, we paid up and went on a pilgrimage of our own.

In 1941 the Germans took the city of Kiev after a ferocious battle that saw the Soviets lose 600,000 troops. The conquering nazis then proceeded to round up all the Jews of Kiev and the suburbs. Over the course of a few months they forced the columns of Jews to the edge of a ravine, Babi Yar, where they had to undress. Then men, women and children were machine-gunned into the ravine. It is estimated that nearly 100,000 innocent civilians, from babies to the elderly, were massacred at Babi Yar, the vast majority of them Jewish. It was the Holocaust By Bullets.

Katya and I went to Babi Yar. The Ukrainians decided, after the war, to leave the ravine as is rather than disinter the tens of thousands of bodies. Today a beautiful and peaceful park, with trees and birds and squirrels, grows over this scene of horror, a fitting memorial if ever there was one. Katya and wandered around Babi Yar for more than an hour, taking photos and sitting on the ledge taking it all in, where so many had spent their last moments.

Then, to shake off the melancholy that had overtaken us, we went to a bar.

The Lavra

The ancient Lavra, built more than a thousand years ago.

Babi Yar

Babi Yar. Beneath the ground generations are buried.

That night we went out for dinner at a traditional Ukrainian restaurant, where I got to have Chicken Kiev in Kiev, thus crossing something off my bucket list. The restaurant was cool, and the inside was decorated to resemble the outside. We ate at a table on the "porch" of a village hut, while a "starry sky" hung above us. Best of all, it was all indoors and air conditioned! The food was fantastic and the bottle of Georgian wine was superb.

The next day we went back to Kiev Borispol where we said tearful goodbyes, not knowing how long it would be until we could see each other again. My flight took me back to Frankfurt, where I had a ten hour layover, and then on to Toronto and then Victoria. Katya's took her back to Moscow, a mere hour-long flight away.

Thankfully, 5 months after that, Katya received her visa and a month later, in December, I flew to Moscow to bring her home to Canada. Our meeting in Kiev marked the 6-month-point of our enforced separation, but it was fun and wonderful and, unfortunately I don't remember too much of it, aside from sobering moments like in the Lavra and at Babi Yar.

Kiev was musical, and cultural, and the food was fantastic and the people were beautiful and friendly and the city was so damn historical. I will definitely be going back some day!

The traditional Ukrainian restaurant we ate at our last night in Kiev. Despite appearances it was all actually indoors!

Chicken Kiev!!


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