And a Little Amsterdam to Boot

A full day layover in Amsterdam before being taken back to the real world. Can’t beat that!

Started with a funnel of fries and a fairly nasty curry sauce (should have stuck with mayonaise):

Then a walk for six hours around the entire tourist-part of the city. Fun avoiding the legion of bikes, stoned tourists, and trams. Cars are easy.

I know it’s lame to fall in love with something as obvious as Amsterdam, but I could keep weaving through the circular streets for another six if I had to. The black canals plus “I’m beautiful without really trying” architecture just works.

Ended the last night in Europe with a vomit-inducing carnival ride — up a few stories then upside down and fliperoo! How cool is that: I got to see the whole Dam Square upside down!

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Final Kiev Night

A final dinner with the whole gang at an Azerbaijani restaurant. It was so good with so many courses and so much pomegranite and Georgian wine that we actually forewent the conference’s hyped disco-bowling-a-go-go party.

There were also some special surprises:

I’ll avoid telling you about how we barely escaped with our lives after winning a few hundred American Buckolas playing Russian Poker at the seedy hotel casino. What happens in the Ukraine stays in Ukraine. (I think Stalin came up with that slogan.)

Biz biz biz

Today was all about meetings. A breakfast meeting, coffee meeting, lunch meeting, impromptu cigarette break meeting (I didn’t smoke, but the smell of my skin and clothes, I might as well have), not including the many official meetings set up beforehand. Overall, many utterly talented, utterly reasonably priced, utterly strong worth ethic’ed, utterly dealable companies and individuals to make games with.

The live sessions have a great UN feel to them. 99% of the audience speaks Russian, so most sessions involve me nodding into my live-translation earpiece and laughing at jokes a few seconds after everyone else. My company gave a group panel on why Eastern Block developers (that term is not preferred here) should publish with us. A drunk guy approaches me later and said that my English is “Wow… Way cool. Wow.” I think he means I slur and mumble.

We then put on a cocktail party in a bar hidden snug beneath the conference floor. The signature cocktail was something I call a flaming-upperclass-mudslide (they called it a B-52): a striated admixture of black Kahlua at bottom, white Baily’s in the middle, and crystalline Grand Marnier atop — lit quickly and flaming blue and drunk by sticking a straw deep in the bottom of the shot glass and slurping from dark to light as quickly as possible.

Next was a “Slavic Dinner” spread put on by one of the hosts. A weddinglike display of little treats (mostly meat oriented) as well as vodka a’plenty.

Finally — a party at a club called Botcha (beer barrel) where I downed much of the aforementioned homebrew and was, much to my surprise, highly entertained by the Swingin’ trio band flanked by an upright bass and led by a tattooed, Elvis-voiced drummer who sang, with heavy Ukrainian accent: “Sixtee-an tons and whattooyoutooget? Udderday oder and deepain det.” I then tried to follow the goings on of some Ukranian Renaissance Fair refugees putting on a contest to find the most valiant knight. Competition included proposing to a maiden by getting on your knees and singing, a jousting match with no horse and giant Q-tips, and archery across the bar.

Back at the hotel, Alexander and I desperately looked for playing cards to start up a game of poker. There’s a certain stage of drunkenness where you get an idea in your head and single-mindedly pursue it at all costs. Usually it involves sex, drugs, or violence, but in this case it was just some innocent gambling. Alas, though we tried to steal, bribe, and wheedle, there was not a pack of playing cards to be found.

One last warm beer, a clinking of bottles, and to bed.

Crypts and Reactors

Being thrust into the unknown, shedding your spoken and written language, losing your body’s inherent sense of time, no idea how you connect to the larger picture — it’s all a wonderful thing. It leaves you knowing who you really are without the benefit of society to lift and carry you in its mighty currents.

I’m a child.

A childlike joy in new foods and sights.

A childlike trepidation of dark corners, conquered by a childlike willingness to keep marching.

I take a keen child’s pleasure in sounding out the Ukrainian words and, every so often, actually understanding their meaning.

Today was:

– Cave monastery. Kievo-Pecherskiy Lavra. The underground crypts are kinda cool, but the real highlight is walking through a thin tunnel-like building hugging the hillside being hawked religious necklaces, pocket-sized Mary and Jesus icons, holy water, anti-abortion plastic fetus sculptures, and other goodies.

– Home style lunch at Ukrainian fast food joint. Borscht and Kashi, with a mushroomy salad. Mmm mm good.

– Chernobyl museum, where what’s on display is are the human extremes for scientific cleverness generating civilization out of split atoms versus a massive PR attempt at saving face to the point putting the entire world at risk. Some of the displays are actually still a bit radioactive:

– Funicular ride up the mount to St. Sofia’s Cathedral. It’s friggin’ beautiful, gold-domed splendor, but in the end just another Cathedral Tourist Attraction. Too many gilt trimmings to really draw out any specific detail.

Kiev – Day One

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.

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: