No real sleep in the last two days — I’m on autopilot, going off a collection of stolen naps. We meet up with Alexander and his girlfriend Natalia (her level of English matches my “special ed kindergartner” Ukrainian).
Off to the famous metro, where for a few kopecks you get to ride interminable escalators down to the bowels of the earth, hypnotized by the faces of those going up the other side. The station by my hotel is one of the ugliest in the city — certainly an indication of today’s Kiev as opposed to the Soviet era — every spare inch of tunnel plastered with billboard-sized day-glo poster ads. It’s like walking through one of those old-fashioned GeoCities web pages designed for nothing except milking useless ad impressions.
We cram into a solid-looking train that speeds away breakneck fashion. Though I don’t hold on, I don’t need to worry about falling — too many bodies pressing me in). We exit at Khreshchatyk station — ah! This is much nicer, what I’ve been waiting for: Brass chandeliers, fluted archways, and marble tile. Later on, at another station, I even get treated to a huge brass bust of Lenin.
Independence Square is everything a big city square should be: Gold statue atop a tall column (check), open stairstepped plateaus (check), important looking Greek-revival buildings (check), big-ass fountain (check), and a glass-fronted ship-shaped mall (check). The boulevard itself is lined by palatial highrises (banks and post offices) haughty in their Terra cotta eleganced modesty, very Champs De Elises meets Fifth Avenue, the most expensive real estate in the Ukraine.
The side-street sidewalks are cluttered with parked cars, especially a huge number of black E-Class Mercedes (“The car someone will buy if he needs to feel like a big man,” Alexander scoffs.)
Up some steps into a park — leaves just beginning to get rusty with autumn — to the Friendship Arch and some great Soviet-era granite statuary of stern-faced men pounding their fists to the sky.
Disco music blares from a shut-down bumper car concession. Beneath the arch, a great overview of the city: The wide River Dnyper, white sands of the island beach, most buildings and streets hidden in a canopy spreading out in a rainbow of greens. “You can see Chernobyl from here,” Alexander says, knowing my obsession with the abandoned ghost towns and badlands populated by camps of radioactive fugitives hiding from the law. Indeed we see a smoking pair of reactor towers, but we’re not sure if it’s part of the official Wormwood complex.
Across the Bridge of Love — couples write their vows in graffiti then seal the kiss with a padlock — and past the being-renovated Presidential Palace. The temperature has dropped and my thinned-out Californified skin is shivering. We cut back to the Globus building — an underground ring-shaped mall — and find a cafe on the second floor overlooking the square. Hot red wine soaked with cloves. Nice.
We navigate moneyed streets around a giant park. Dinner is at a place I ripped out from the Air France travel magazine. Japan meets The Ukraine. Highlight: A rose-shaped unfilled blintz, pastry rubbery yet crispy, topped with sour cream and beluga caviar (with a side of salmon caviar spooned from an oyster shell).
I stay up until 2 checking e-mail and grab 4 hours of sleep. Not bad.