Gone, but Not Forgotten
By Paul Miazga
I had long wondered what a visit by my parents would actually be like. I could only try to recall my thoughts and feelings during my first few days and weeks in Ukraine five years ago, but that was all conditioned by the events of 9/11, which happened two days after I first arrived.
For my parents, it was naturally hard to sum up all that they had seen and felt in the 10 days they were here. What to make of so many gold-domed churches; cobblestone streets; street-side beer vendors; ramshackle Soviet-era apartment blocks; vendors selling dried fish and fresh meat in open-air stalls; people whose only job is to tell people not to go down a stalled escalator; local parks simultaneously playing host to 16 wedding parties at the same time, and finding few people who actually spoke English on the street? Was this really Europe or someplace else entirely to them?
As it turned out, some of the greatest impressions my parents seemed to enjoy were those of our drives in the countryside, seeing the hills and fields roll past in the “breadbasket of Europe.” My parents grew up in rural areas and they said that the city – exciting, mind-boggling, overwhelming – just didn’t provide the same attraction or point of reference for them as did our drives to and from Lviv, wandering about as we did on an old, tree-covered stretch of single-lane highway until we returned to a main highway, and a short day-trip out to Bila Tserkva to see centuries-old Oleksandriyivsky Park. For people who come from a city of 200,000 in Western Canada, there couldn’t have been a better way to spend a day than out in the country seeing what real Ukrainians were up to. [And good for them: I’ve often regurgitated the old adage, “Kyiv is not Ukraine,” as a way of encouraging friends from outside the country to get a better sense of life in this country.]
What made me most happy that they came is that they bothered to come at all. Kyiv, I have forgotten, is rather far from Western Canada and not an easy place to which to travel. What’s more, my parents – no spring chickens they – found walking about the city’s numerous hills and winding streets rather difficult. There was no shortage of things to do, but how to access them without walking or using local transportation (which requires some amount of language proficiency; my father’s fading Ukrainian and Polish language skills weren’t much help in a city that has long been more Russian-speaking than Ukrainian).
But they managed. They enjoyed the city far more than I’d figured and were far less hampered by language than I would’ve imagined. They took chances with public transport and got to where they needed. They got lost at times wandering around the city but weren’t too shy to ask for help, which they invariably got. They delighted in little things that I’ve simply become accustomed to (or find tacky): Ukrainian restaurants with themes, people (especially women) dressed up for work or even to go out (North America has become far too casual in dress in their eyes) and buying fresh fruit on the side of the road no matter where you go, among others. I think I have a new pair of eyes for the country after their brief visit. I was already feeling nostalgic for their visit as their plane took off into a sun-filled sky mid-Sunday afternoon.
They’re no doubt already making preparations for my visit in a little less than a year from now.
Speaking of Themes
As above, my parents helped me to see the country through new eyes over the last 10 days, and part of that included how foreign guests to Kyiv must enjoy themed Ukrainian restaurants. And there are so many of them, too.
To begin, you have truly classic Ukrainian restaurants such as Kozak Mamai downtown or the little eateries at Pyrohovo (the outdoor folk art and architecture museum), where the wait staff is dressed in semi-traditional costumes and live folk music from professional musicians creates a swoon in the night air.
Then there are the more modern Ukrainian restaurants, but with tongue-in-cheek décor showing animal parts sticking out from walls and thatched roofs overhead calling to mind buildings of yore on the Steppe. These include Pervak, O’Panas, Tsarskoe Selo and several others.
A really interesting twist on local Ukrainian restaurants is from places such as Koleso, on the Dnipro River in Podil, where the décor harkens back to the turn of the last century, when Kyiv was part of Tsarist Russia and the upper crust of society looked not to village inns but artful restaurants that represented the very cutting edge of haute couture and cuisine in the city. Few such restaurants like this exist in Kyiv, making Koleso certainly worth checking out.
Finally, on the two extremes: café-style Ukrainian venues such as Puzata Khata (the portly house) and Domashnya Kuchnya, where all manner of Ukrainian food is inexpensive and served fast-food style, and high-end establishments such as Lypsky Osobnyak (Lypsky Mansion), where Ukrainian food becomes akin to high art and the clientele include the likes of Giorgio Armani and soccer star Andriy Shevchenko.
Depending on the kind of experience you’re looking for with respect to Ukrainian food, Kyiv has about as many options for guests to the capital as there are styles of borshch (a soup), the national dish.