My Commute When I Lived In Kyiv


I’ve taken to leaving for work at around 10am these days. Officially I’m not meant to arrive until around 3pm, and what with it not being a 5 hour commute, I arrive early and get on with work.
A shower, half hour teach-yourself-Russian lesson, and a cup of tea is all I need in the hour before I set off, brief chat with housemate complete. We have two doors to the flat, as do almost all ex-Soviet places, although ours is unusual in that in between the doors we have space for our shoes – most are just a door directly behind another, for security. Being on the second floor (or the first if we’re being British) in a block bereft of a fully functioning elevator system, when leaving I tend to plod down the fire escape, despite the smell of piss and worrying sight of used needles and syringes on the flat roof that extends behind our block. I nod a brief “drasticha” to our concierge, one of four ladies who rotate responsibility for monitoring who comes in and out of the block. All are mid-fifties or older, and vary in character between stern babushka and smiling/shouting/screaming alcoholic. Not even out on to the pot holed road and I’ve run a fairly unfamiliar environment, and this without the dogs belonging to the guy along our corridor – dogs I am unable to judge the temperament of.
Our block is the last of three that peel off the main road, Malishka, (which translate literally as “little one”, as in what one might nickname a child or girlfriend) at an angle of 30 degrees, behind a row of shops. This angle can be confusing when one is trying to establish the direction of a place from inside the flat, as the brain seems to naturally assume that the block is perpendicular to the road. Some days I will walk along the dumpsters beside the blocks, others I will cut through the arch, out on to the road. A small park follows the precinct of sorts, and just before I cross the road to my left, heading for Darnytsya metro station, I stop and talk to my fruit and veg lady. We have slowly developed a relationship based entirely on smiles, laughter and a mutually poor grasp of one anothers’ language. She says “Sank you very much” (the “th” sound too difficult for Slavic tongues often), whilst I just about understand how many grivna and kopekas I need to hand over for my bananas. She smiles a sweet smile (15 years ago she would have been a great beauty) and her gold teeth often glint in the sun, like some sparkle from a toothpaste commercial. We say our faltering goodbyes and I cross the road at the crossing.
For those that have never attempted to cross a road in the former Eastern Bloc, allow me to illuminate some simple truths, the subtle but dangerous differences in meaning that those white stripes across the road convey. In Kiev (well, I say “in Kiev”, but actually I live on the left bank, on the totally flat area that was developed in the 1950’s to house economic migrants drafted here to work in the factories. This area, to the residents of the glacially hilly right bank, the heart of Kiev, is simply not the same city.), as in other cities, one stands at these crossings and waits for a prudent moment to step out and then, and only then, does the traffic begin to stop. Often I find myself stuck in the centre of the road, as a farmer from out of town in his battered Lada ignores me, or an aspirant in a Volga 3110 with tinted windows hurries to his middle management job. It’s more of a worry in the centre of Kiev, where the cars are the all together more frightening Hummers and assorted other toff-roaders. However, touching wood (and often cloth) I still seem to get across unscathed and take the path to the metro. This path is set at the opposite angle to our building and the symmetry is pleasing, some large feng shui to it.
The park through which this path runs is unremarkable, although well lit for those drunken stumbles home once I’ve caught the final metro, which runs until about 12.30am. More often than not I join the queue to buy a token straight away, although if I’m feeling flush, I might splash out 30p (3 grivna) on an espresso. Actually, it’s not about the money, it’s about finishing the coffee two stops down the line and having to carry the cup for the rest of the journey – often I’ll get my caffeine at the other end, paying the 2 grivna surcharge that comes from being downtown. The queues are often long, waiting to get tokens (50 kopeka or 5 pence a journey), not helped by the lack of queuing etiquette displayed by Ukrainians. The trains are efficient, one every 2 minutes or so, and once on board I often zone out to the televisions situated thereon, watching Animal Planet clips, Discovery Channel clips or even trying to get my head around the subtitled news. My Russian has some way to go before I have any understanding of that or of the newspapers people hawk in the crowded carriages. Others sell sweets, maps, magazines, vitamins, all manner of goods on the overland trains, the ones underground being too noisy for their patter to be heard effectively.
The second stop in is Hydropark, an island in the middle of the formidable Dnipro river. This park is a summer place, and only now in the first flushes of spring are people alighting or joining at this station. Pulling away from there, we head towards the hills of Kiev, rising sharply from the river. Looking out to the left, one is treated to the sight of the Statue of the Motherland, a tall imposing steel statue of a woman carrying sword and shield. To ex-pats she is known as Tin Tits. Also in that line of sight are the tops of the various churches and chapels, leafed in gold, that make up the monastery Lavre. Mummified monks lie therein, and a trip to its catacombs is a must on a visit to the city. The last overland station in Dnipro, on the right bank, and from there one is driven directly into the side of a hill and the underground begins.
The first stop on the underground is Arsenalna, the deepest metro station in Europe, one that takes about 8 minutes on an escalator to escape if one does not walk. If one does, it takes about 8 days off your life, so standing still is the best idea. Kreschatik is next, the main Kiev road, and a station linked to Maidan Nezhalostnisti (my spelling is terrible) or Main Square, the site of the Orange Revolution 4 years ago. I may alight here, and grab that 5 grivna coffee, or I may continue on to Teatralna, and bumble across Prorizna to my office, and to here, where I write to you now.

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