Our apartment was located in the Cherepanova Hora historic district, a 25 minute walk from Independence Square, often referred to as “Майдан or Maidan,” Ukrainian for square.
Independence Square received global attention in the 2004 Orange Revolution and again in late 2013 and 2014 during the Euromaidan protests over widespread corruption, abuse of power and the violation of human rights. In more peaceful times, it’s a popular spot for socializing, drinking and people watching.
In our neighborhood, there was a large supermarket called “Mega Market” a few minutes from our flat. After browsing around, taking in the sights and smells of the foreign looking products in their foreign looking packaging, we came across the deli counter, a personal favorite. There’s just something about a European deli: the mouth-watering, marbled meats and the aromatic cheese displays — so exciting.
Despite our initial hesitation over the language barrier and the fixed gaze of the now looming attendant, a sturdy woman in an off-white smock with a scowl that could frighten Stalin, we ordered salami and thanked her by saying “спасибо” or “spasibo,” Russian for thank you. She handed us our package and in a gentle yet firm voice corrected our oversight — “ти кажеш спасибі” or “ty kazhesh spasybi,” Ukrainian for “You say, thanks.” Repeating what she said brought on a hearty burst of laughter. We laughed too, grateful for the small connection we made at the deli counter.*
When out shopping, we try to pay for goods with exact change. This can prove challenging in countries not using the Euro. The colorful and sometimes odd shaped coins of varying denominations can be a challenge at first. At the check-out counter, my wife will hold out a handful of change and let the clerk pick the right amount. It seems like a gesture that might annoy the clerk, let alone customers in line behind us, but we always get an eager response with some helpful instruction. The sour-est of expressions blossom into smiles.
Public transport is another entertaining way to immerse in the local culture. Food vendors line up along the walkways tempting commuters and tourists alike — the sights and smells impossible to ignore.
We passed by a counter selling big sausage wraps. I was struck by the length and width of not one, but two sausage links stuffed into each sandwich. I asked some people who just ordered a sandwich, “Do you like what you’re eating? Isn’t it huge?” Snorts of laughter followed with the vendor feeling pretty good about his chances for a sale. And yes, I bit (literally) — it was delicious.
Life lived in the streets. Families with children frolicking in the park. Young people socializing, playing music, enjoying each other’s company instead of gawking at their phones in a silent, hypnotic stupor.
Locals lounging in chairs, on blankets, or whatever they can find, absorbed in a film projected onto a giant blow-up screen on a warm summer night in Kyiv’s central park. I believe the film was “Meet the Parents” complete with Ukrainian subtitles, or was it dubbed? I forget…
This is the Kyiv I remember back in 2019. Yes, the architecture was/and is stunning. Even some of the stark, communist style buildings are impressive. But it’s the people that make the city what it is. They seek the same things that we strive for: food, shelter, clothing, and the freedom to make a better life for themselves and their families.
This is not the Ukraine of 2022. Freedom has taken a backseat to survival. Ukrainians are again dying at the hands of a foreign power, a nightmare scenario played out too many times over its history.
My heart aches…
* All translations are by memory (as much as possible) and the assistance of Google translate. Results may vary. ** All photos by Rick and Bonnie Martens copyright 2022.