Kiev Bound

I’m on a plane. Without kids.

Nice.

Somewhere over Wyoming I begin to feel the vodka-tonics warm my blood. The soup of foreign language around me has already lulled me to a blissful state of otherness.

It’s all enough to make me actually sit through Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.

Bad idea.

I finish the novel — Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Bliss.

I drift and come to somewhere in Northern Europe. The little map on the plane’s TV tells me we’re almost there. I’m saddened by how foreshortened the journey has become. Little do I know I’ve missed my connection to Kiev and will have another 24 hours bouncing between Amsterdam (get to know Schiphol well), Munich (Greg and I take a bus to the town center, see a roadsign for Dauchau, delight in the narrow streets and fine stone edifices, a lot of random cuppolas and fine-bricked steeples, then rush on a bus back to the airport where the French-German agent tells us we’re idiots, at the wrong gate, and will miss our connection), and Paris (where we opted to go to spend the night to get the next earliest flight to the Ukraine — spring for an airport Hilton, great buffet breakfast in the exec lounge with gravlox, stinky brie, perfect-crusted baguettes).

Finally arriving at the Kiev port, I mosey slowly around the empty customs control area. Big mistake. Simultaneous flights from Tel Aviv, Vilnius, Prague, and Moscow come in and the hall fills with representatives from the Earth’s pushiest cultures. It’s odd to hear so much Hebrew while I’m trying to train my ear on Ukrainian.

I scramble for a spot. An hour later, we’ve hardly moved. When I make it near the front, I see why: My line is constantly being interrupted by “VIPs” who have bribed agents for special service.

But no matter. Plenty of advertisements to practice Cyrillic reading, plenty of adequately exotic faces and costumes in which to play “Guess the Home Country.” The Israelis with yarmulkes and Moscow debutantes with their fur and bottle-blond and boots are the easiest.

Finally — through customs without a bribe — and in. Crushed by vaguely menacing hawkers with thin-leather jackets and ice-blue eyes who offer a $50 value on a 100 Hryvnja(US$20) cab ride, money change services, or a hit job.

The taxi zooms through a tunnel of aspens and poplars. The city outer regions are a forest of identical Soviet cement high-rises, as far back as the eye can see. Laundry hanging from paint-peeling balconies. Then approaching town the sky fills with cranes and the naked floors of tremendous skyscrapers still being constructed. The buildings become fine stone, the boulevards wide and inviting.

A huge sculpture made of “Eastern Block” stone:

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