Ukraine Diaries I

Teksti Oksana Chelysheva

This time the border control at Kiev Borispil airport didn’t go smoothly.

This time the border control at Kiev Borispil airport didn’t go as smoothly as it was during my previous arrival in the end of July. A young female officer decided for some reason that it is suspicious that someone, Oksana by name, has Finnish passport and the Finnish ID-card. The most suspicious detail of all was the country of origin in the passport. Russia as it is the fact. While in the Finnish ID-card there is also the city of birth indicated which is Zaporozhye. Russia is not Zaporozhye. Zaporozhye is a big industrial center in the central part of Ukraine located on two banks of the Dnieper. These two facts didn’t match in yen head of a border guard.

She called her senior. The male officer in his 40s didn’t approve the vigilance of his subordinate.

”It is none of your business where exactly she was born…”

I assume that later he had to explain that once upon a time there was another country, called the USSR. People could be born in Zaporozhye and then move to Russia’s Nizhny Novgorod or, vice versa, they could be born in Russia’s Lipetsk and then come to live in Zaporozhye…

Borispil was jammed with people that evening, and there were not enough taxis. Queues were horrendous. The alternative was a bus. But it turned out that there is no regular bus service between Kiev and its main airport. All services are being provided by private companies. The buses were inter-city type at the price of 50 grivens per person (taxis charged cosmic 350 that day). One of my Kiev-based friends strongly recommended to never pay more than an average price:

”Our current situation with a lot of foreigners coming to Ukraine is spoiling taxi drivers. They use the chance to force prices up misusing foreigners’ lack of knowledge and, consequently, taxis are getting rather unaffordable for locals the majority of which are not well-off.”

Remembering that, I joined the queue for a bus. There was a woman next to me. One glance at each other was followed by the first question for better directions from Kiev railway station, the bus final destination to Mikhaylovskaya Street where my friend lives.

The world is small. Tanya happened to be from my native Zaporozhye. She has been living in a small village near Jerusalem for the last 25 years. Her family left the USSR in 1990 with the last large alia of Soviet Jews.

”Is it difficult to live there now?” I asked Tanya referring to the last military operation.

”If you read media, it is tough. If you just live, you don’t notice. You know, I’d compare it with the war in Chechnya in perception of someone living in Tambov. There is war but it is distant and it has nothing to do with your everyday life. That military operation cost lives of our 60 boys and many on that side. And there has been no other result. Now there is ceasefire with Hamas.”

One word after another and we decided to exchange phone numbers. Tanya mentioned that one of her childhood friends, the local Jewish community chief’s daughter, a journalist in Zaporozhye, is now coordinating the effort to help those who are fleeing the East of Ukraine. I could not but remark that there has been no single positive decision on asylum cases from Ukraine in Finland.

”I wish Finland took responsibility over plight of the people from the East”, Tanya sighed.

”My friend and I keep calling each other every week. The number of people from the East coming to Zaporozhye is growing and they don’t have any financial help from the state. The state has other priorities at the moment, unfortunately.”

A new entry appeared in my notepad. My new aquaitance’s and her friend’s phone numbers.

Later that evening this absence of such a budget line among the state priorities was confirmed in a Tirol cafe, where my Ukrainian friend a I had a belated dinner. All aid to refugees is being organized by volunteers and public initiatives. Their situation differs from region to region, depending on the willingness to assist them from both civil society and local authorities.

”But any attempt of ’positive discrimation’ in favor of IDPs results in tension between them and locals. For instance, in one region a decision was taken to arrange places for IDPs’ kids at the expense of those local families who have been waiting for chances to get places in kindergartens. Definitely, the situation resulted in arguing: ”Why it is them, not us. We were born her. We waited for too long…”

Notes on the language issue.

There is a wonderful chain of cafés in Kiev. ”Lvivska maysternya shokoladu” (Lviv handmade chocolate). It has become the favorite with a friend of mine, a French living now in Kiev. She treated me to their chocolate at home on arrival. She brought me to the nearest cafe just the following day.

Only when we came there, she told us:

”There is one peculiarity about this place. It seems that it is part of their internal policy to refuse to speak Russian.”

”Do they speak English, German, French or Italian?” I wondered. Sort of…

It happened to be a problem for my friend. She speaks Russian. But she doesn’t understand Ukrainian. It is less complicated for us, Russian-speaking, to follow it. Especially when your great-grand-father in from a small village on Kherson region spoke Ukrainian to us when we came to visit him in summer. We responded in Russian and there was no problem within our family.

The dark chocolate with hot pepper was delicious. The young man serving our table looked a bit reserved which was very much unlike waiters in Kiev. He hardly ever smiled. At some point I noticed a small brownish paper, sticking from the tissue-holder.

It said, ”Dear customers, you can use this form to send a direct message to the director of the cafe. You can help us to become even better…” It looked OK. However, there was one more line printed in small letters, ”You can leave the name of a waiter who you are not content with. You can find the name indicated in the bill. Could you also leave your name and contact number so that we get in touch with you for further details? We would also need the time of you visit to our cafe indicated.”

The decision was spontaneous. Yes, we will fill in the form. But to state that the only thing we don’t like about ”Lviv Chocolate” cafe is this invitation to report on waiters. The time came to leave and the waiter brought us a bill. It was then when I told him in English – as the ”policy” of the cafe was ”no-Russian here” – what the reason was for us to ask him to bring us a pen. I also told that we liked the cafe, that he was a model waiter, very nice and helpful but it is not right to expect that customers would be mean towards them in return to their service.

His English was not perfect. He understood that we were satisfied with him and that we were complaining about something different. But what it was was still vague for him. We both could have tried to explain it in Russian which he definitely knew. But Russian was banned in that cafe. He would have had to respond in Ukrainian which my friend didn’t understand. Therefore, I would have had to interprete for her from Ukrainain to Russian which would eat our time.

Our conversation drew attention of two young couples sitting at the next table. One of the girls started to explain in Ukrainian what we meant to explain. The waiter was definitely relieved. ”We trust you to put our ’proposal’ into the box at the entry”, we told him.

But then the girl asked us:

”But why don’t you approve of it? They meant well. I used to work in this chain of cafés. The owners want it to be genuinely European, also in the quality of their service.” I was stunned to hear that. That is what they see to be European. My eyes were wide open: ”You see, it is not right. It is not right to propose that customers report on the staff. It is not European style. It is KGB style.”

Her companion supported us. He happened to be a British who spends more time in Ukraine than in London. He introduced himself to be a business consultant.

”They do mean well. But it looks that lack understanding that what is OK in Lviv doesn’t look proper here in Kiev. Also with the language… It is easier for me to speak English in Lviv as I get different treatment. I speak Russian but not Ukrainian and people in Lviv feel offended when foreigners learn Russian, not Ukrainian…”

BTW, out of three owners of this chain of cafés only one is Ukrainian. The other two are Italians. Thus, it is difficult to claim that this kind of ”language policy” is the preference of the Ukrainian side.

The young waiter came up to our tables again. He told that he had put our ”opinion” into the box linking customers and the director. In the news days I have visited this cafe a few more times, always speaking English to the staff. Not because I felt offended by the managers’ stance on the Russian language. It is more because I would not like to complicate the waiters’ life by taking negative on them…

Pavel Evgenyevich is a very good man. He is in his 70s. Former pilot of charters. A rare kind of an absolutely handy man. In Russian there is a saying, ”the one who can make porridge having only an axe”. Pavel Evgenyevich is this type.

Tall, broad-shouldered, kind, reliable and unfailing. A refugee arrives at 6:30 am at the railway station. OK. Pavel Evgenyevich is there on time to pick her up. A young mother has to take her newly-born baby to hospital for a regular check-up and measurement, he is ready to drive them to the policlinic. There is no space to properly dry babies’ swaddling bands and crawlers, he immediately invents and makes some stretching construction along the corridor of a refugee station. Pipes were leaking so much that water was dropping through the ceiling into the kitchen. He has fixed them. The time has come to install some heating system. He has done it.

Pavel Evgenyevich loves animals as much as he loves people. There are a few shelters in Kiev. He has taken under his personal patronage a no-kill shelter run by volunteers which is almost abandoned by the attention from the authorities. The new ones also have other priorities.

”There have been several attempts to get rid of the shelter but it failed, fortunately.”

There are 1000 dogs and some 300 cats in that shelter which Pavel Evgenyevich helps. The chances that any of them will be ever adopted are scarce.

”There are a lot more incoming animals than outcoming”, he tells.

Today Pavel Evgenyevich is going to spend in the animal shelter. Winter is coming. It is already cold in Kiev. He has already made 16 dog kennels. The plan is to make five more. He spends his own money to buy everything needed. The shelter administration has also asked him to do something with roof over cats’ section. It rains now like cats and dogs. The cats are suffering as water flows down the roofing as waterfall.

How does his family cope with his devotion to help?

”They have got used to it…”, Pavel Yevgenyevich smiles.

The family is just asking the father to let them know if he is going to spend the Christmas with them. He assures me that he has promised the family to return by then. He says he is going to keep his promise.

Actually, his family is very far from him. Because he is from the North of California, the USA.

”But does it really matter if my daughter works in Washington, DC. It is almost as far as it is Ukraine now”, he smiles sadly.

Pavel Evgenyevich is a ”nickname” of the man whose name is Paul.

Yesterday he drove me to Mezhigorye, the former residence of president Yanukovich which he fled in February this year. Now there are IDPs living there, including women and children from the east of Ukraine.

Paul’s car was fully packed. There were boxes with children’s canned food as well as some timber for dogs’s kennels.

”What has brought you here?”, one of my first questions is.

He tells that he came to Ukraine some ten years ago as a tourist and it sank deep into his heart. He fell in love with it. Then the time for all the color revolutions came. He came to see what it was like to fight for democracy. Back then he didn’t interfere. Just observed as a tourist.

But in February this year he realized that he could not just keep watching the coverage of the events in Maydan on his TV screen. He packed some clothing and left for Ukraine. But not to fight. He went there to help the people.

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