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Visiting Kiev, the capital of Ukraine and a cradle of Russian culture

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By John Pancake
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 27, 2009

Some cities are love at first sight. People fall for Paris in the taxi from the airport.

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Others take you slowly. Kiev is like that.

I've walked the streets of this Ukrainian capital almost every day for a year. I've watched white-tailed eagles on a vast swampy island in the middle of the Dnieper River, listened as unseen nuns filled a vaulted church with their harmonies, marveled at the parade of tall women in stilettos clicking confidently down icy sidewalks and suffered a mild concussion myself when my feet shot out from under me in a frozen alley.

I've passed markers commemorating millions of murders. I've negotiated for a baggie of turmeric with a man from Samarkand. I've lost my bearings in candlelit catacombs, felt the sting of the winter wind on the city's high bluffs, watched twilight envelop golden-domed churches and talked to the genius behind the city's strangest museum. (And I'm not talking about the toilet museum, either.)

I've discovered wooden windmills, taxi-driver poets, gilded icons, robed monks, blues singers, cheap river cruises, horseradish vodka and a few new things about myself. Perhaps the only thing I haven't encountered in Kiev is a dull day. It is an unsung capital, full of surprises. During the day, you may be startled by the sudden cascade of sound that tumbles out of churches on religious holidays -- the "raspberry bells," it's called. By night, you may flinch at the concussion of the boisterous fireworks that Ukrainians send arcing over the city four or five nights a month.

Sixteen months ago, I walked away from my desk at The Post. Shortly afterward, my wife landed an 18-month job in Ukraine.

We arrived on a fall day as the sun was setting and had our first meal at Oscar's Place, a three-table restaurant on the street where we'd be living. My wife, who speaks Russian, told the barmaid that it was my first night in Ukraine. Don't order, she replied. I'll bring you real Ukrainian food. She did. And it was great, though the first dish -- salo, slices of raw pork fat served on black bread -- is best if washed down with vodka.

Since then, I've been spending the afternoons writing and exploring the city and the mornings studying Russian. (Almost everybody in Kiev speaks both Russian and Ukrainian. I picked Russian because I've always dreamed of reading Chekhov in his native tongue.)

I began with a seven-word vocabulary: Yes, no, please, thank you, hello, goodbye and beer ("peevo"). That was enough to get started. People I met were happy to communicate. Gestures and pantomime worked wonders when words failed. I found myself thinking: I doubt this would work with the French.

To my chagrin, I found that people sometimes addressed me in English before I opened my mouth. Was it my clothes? No, I was usually wearing black jeans and a black pullover, like every other man in town. Shoes? In Washington, I could always spot tourists by their shoes. But my low black boots were exactly what many Ukrainians had on. Finally I asked. Turned out, it was my face. I never thought I looked American, but apparently I do, at least in Slavic countries. Most people here have better cheekbones than Tom Cruise. I don't.

Tragedy and rebirth

Kiev is an old city, one of the cradles of Russian culture. The Russians, in fact, call it the mother of cities. Legend has it that in A.D. 560, three Viking brothers rowed down the Dnieper with their sister at the steering oar. She picked the spot where they settled and named it for the eldest brother, Kyi. Sounds like she was in charge.

Although Kiev is spread out along both sides of the Dnieper, I generally walk the oldest sections, which are scattered along the hills of the west bank. The golden domes of churches, monasteries and bell towers adorn the ridge above the river, as if some giant had dropped a handful of Christmas decorations. The center of Kiev remains a remarkably intimate place for a big city (2.7 million). Not many high rises. Lots of quirky streets and eccentric apartment buildings festooned with sculptural reliefs -- lions here, gods and goddesses there, laurel wreaths above the windows. There's a concrete rhino poking out of one building. And in some sections, the facades are frosted with a layer of ceramic tile.


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