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The Charming Mountain Goat…is grazing in Kiev

July 13th, 2010 · No Comments · Charming Mountain Goat, Travel Writing

Leaving Kiev at dawn, the air smelt sweetly. This was the voyage’s last surprise. I had come across this well used phrase in novels, but never inhaled the air that inspired it.

But here in the northwest outskirts of Kiev, the air really did smell sweetly, pure and warm. There were no blossoms in sight and it was 3.30 in the morning.

The arrival had been a little different. As first impressions go, the drive into town from Borispol Airport started off as a disappointment. Kiev looked no different than the stereotypical former communist countries anyone imagines or expects to see. Bland rows of high rise blocks mixed with dilapidated 19th century buildings. Now and again one of these mansions had been restored to its former glory.

But then the first surprise; everywhere we looked people were outside. They were sitting on benches, walking arm in arm along the wide roads, through the small estates, sauntering along the many greens that pop up unexpectedly all over Kiev.

The majority of the women all dressed in smart summer outfits; dresses, skirts with blouses.  Most of them toted smart handbags. It seemed they were all in their Sunday best on their way to an important meeting.

I was to learn that this is fashion Kiev style.

The next day more surprises. If you have ever some across Russians in the West you will be familiar with their predilection for designer brands and lashings of gold. Although there were some branded names plastered all over fashionable and less fashionable Kievites, the absence of bling was refreshing.

The first and somewhat obvious lesson of this ignorant traveller: Ukrainians are not Russians, just like Austrians are not German and Scots are not English.

These people might speak Russian and look Russian, but – and this might oversimplify the matter: they are just themselves. They dress like themselves, they act like themselves and they live according to their own culture. In a refreshing absence of the blind sense of copying the West and catching up with it, Ukrainians are shaping their lives based on their own ideas.

Another surprise. Tatiana our translator/fixer turns out to be a rocket scientist. She doesn’t advertise this fact. I extract it from her in our animated conversations. Although she is from a family of little means, the scholarships and prizes she won enabled her to study amongst an elite group of physicists. Her English is perfect although (or perhaps because…) she has never travelled to Western Europe. Her mother signed her up to English lessons at a time when the Iron Curtain had no cracks.

When I ask Tatiana if she plays any instrument and she replies: “A little bit the piano.” I am certain she is concert level.

The Holodomor Memorial which remembers the 7-11 million dead of the artificially created famine in the 1930s is predictably sombre and reveals nothing about the reasons or causes of what happens.

Inside, a long list of names of victims is projected on to the rotunda walls. Books with more names are on show. Leaving, we are approached by a young woman, perhaps a student.

She offers to answers any questions, speaking perfect English. “What caused the famine?” we wonder.

It is difficult to guess her age – she looks like a young student, a young woman of perhaps 25. And as we listen to her explanation which starts off a little stilted and scripted, we collect the information she had obviously studied.

But what really sticks in our minds is her emotion and dignified passion about her country, her history and her identity. The Ukraine has its moment in history to remember and document the long Russian oppression. It is clear that Moscow is not pleased about this, but just like the quiet pride of the smartly dress women who are promenading through the city, our guide makes her point calmly and forcefully.

Tatiana and her agree that the Orange Revolution was a wonderful time in the country’s recent history. They both agree that there was a feeling of real brotherhood in Kiev at the time. “But,” concludes our guide. “Revolutions are made by romantics.” She is not resigned or self-pitying, but realistic about her country’s everyday life.

How many of her Western European contemporaries share the same interest in their fellowmen?

Taking off at Borispol Airport to head back west, our leave taking is a little sadder, melancholy and emotional than expected.

For an excellent photo set of the Ukraine, please visit “Che Burashka” here.

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