We arrived in this city after dark a week ago. After changing planes in Frankfurt. It took a long time to clear customs as we were behind a sizeable group of orthodox Jewish rabbis, all wearing long ringlets under black hats, who attracted a great deal of attention from the suspicious officials. I think it must be Hanukah. Christina and Vlad kindly met us at the airport, and we shared a taxi into town to our apartment. We are in Kiev in the Ukraine.
The apartment is a bit 1960s Soviet style; a square living room, a square bedroom, a miniature kitchen that boasts an induction hob and a fridge, and a small bathroom where a washing machine occupies a lot of space. The lighting is harsh. But the apartment is wonderfully warm. Which is a good thing as it is cold outside; snow earlier in the week, and freezing rain today. We watched with fascination as icicles formed on branches and hand-rails. The apartment is on the seventh floor. It is 108 steps up from the entrance to the building. I know because I count them every time we walk up and down. The lift stopped working on Sunday morning, and although it is now working again Susie is very suspicious of it.
Our building is at the back of a block that overlooks a four lane road. Happily there is a set of lights and pedestrian crossing close by, which enables us to visit the ATB [small] supermarket on a regular basis. Language is a bit of a problem. Susie is dredging her memory for bits of Russian learnt at an evening class in Oxford some fifty years ago, and she also had a couple of preliminary sessions with our Ukrainian next-door neighbour in Edinburgh. I have signed on with Duolinguo, which is wonderfully encouraging. But I haven’t got much beyond ‘Mum and Dad are over there’. Which limits any exchanges on the street. The Cyrillic script doesn’t help. I can only recognise a limited number of characters. And then I don’t know how they are pronounced.
On our first morning I was totally confused about directions. We turned right from the apartment, and walked to the nearest metro. [We thought we were walking towards town, but in fact we were walking away from it !] From there we took a metro into the centre of town, to the Maidan. For ticket buying and for changing metro lines we were helped by kindly passers-by. No-one had told me that the Kiev metro is probably the deepest in the world. I am well used to the London Underground and the Paris and Brussels metro systems, but here the escalators go down [and up] for several minutes at a time. Long enough for a nervous traveller to recite the Lord’s Prayer in two languages and most of How great Thou art ! I think we are now trying to stay out of the metro, partly for COVID reasons, in order to avoid contact with a lot of unmasked people.
Sightseeing on Day One was cut short by a phone call from Thamarai [see below] warning of an imminent snow storm. We headed down a very long, cobbled hill, failed to find either of the eating places recommended in Lonely Planet, and eventually fell into a very comfortable Italian basement restaurant. Where we ate very well, and were charged a lot of money by Kiev standards. As the snow threatened we risked a bus journey home, overshot our apartment by at least a couple of kilometres, and walked home in the sleet. Grateful for a warm, dry base.
Sunday worship is at 15.00h in the German Lutheran Church, a handsome building on the side of a steep hill. Thamarai kindly collected us. He is an Indian, I guess from Kerala, the CEO of a pharmaceutical company, one of the founder members of Christ Church, Kyiv, and currently the Treasurer. It is a small but friendly congregation, predominantly Ukrainian. Christina, who met us at the airport, is the church warden, a professional interpreter; her husband, Vlad, is a lawyer. Sylvia is an American, ordained as a Pastor in the Nazarene Church. Another member, Anastasia, is a potential Church of England ordinand. We are meeting up to talk. We sang from an unfamiliar American hymn book, accompanied [but not greatly helped] by a professional organist.
Early impressions of Kiev are just glimpses. The streets are very clean, with little old ladies busy sweeping up on Sunday morning. There is a lot of traffic, mainly big, black cars. Big, unattractive Soviet style blocks of apartments are much in evidence. Young people in the city centre are smartly dressed. Most people in the streets and in cafes have an I-phone in their hand. In shops and cafes people pay on their phones. Gullivers is a nearby shopping mall, far superior to anything in Edinburgh, with an imposing atrium. Currently decorated with a Christmas tree and a family of penguins. Escalators take you to a 6th floor Food Hall. Where I think to set up a temporary office. The ubiquitous piped music is uniformly 1940s American, often Sinatra or imitators. Jingle Bells vies with Santa Claus is coming to town.
After our initial Italian extravagance, we are downwardly mobile at lunchtimes. Guided by Lonely Planet we have discovered Puzata Hata a chain of Ukrainian self-service cafes which serve an astonishing variety of food without frills. In the absence of language you just point at what you want. It was a bit galling to discover that the Ukrainian name means Hut of the Pot Belly !
Our awareness of the wider world is limited to France 24, a French language tv news station that functions in English. It is an interestingly different slant on world news, with no mention of blustering Boris and no mention of the cricket. But we are up to date on Macron’s visit to the Middle East and the Pope’s visit to Greece. And there was a fascinating discussion in English by four commentators on the background to the current Russian-Ukrainian dispute. I guess that if Putin’s troops invade, someone will tell us. For the moment I feel that this is a safe place. I just want to hope and pray that we can be some encouragement to the people here.