Sunday, July 13, 2008

Die Ukraine: zufallsbedingt

A week in the Ukraine is possibly not everyone's idea of a dream vacation (possibly not even mine). A trip to the Ukraine is good for making you really happy to be back in Berlin. That said, there were many highlights (mixed in with a few dark moments that in hindsight are actually rather amusing).
Kiev is particularly lovely at dawn/dusk, when its many, many, many golden-domed churches glow in the setting/rising sunlight. Both Kiev and Odessa (we took the night train down) have some remarkable architecture. It's often falling apart, but still makes for some good urban wandering. Kiev is home to the world's deepest subway station (sidenote: the subway (and train) stations have amazing chandeliers, mosaics, etc. and they play loud patriotic music in them: really odd and hysterical): it takes 4.5 minutes to get above ground from the station. And for those of you who rate a vacation based on how tan the vacationer is at the end, well....Ukraine isn't quite the Caribbean, but Kiev has (very polluted) river beaches (we ate shish kebob, drank vodka, and listened to synchronized Russian pop music) and Odessa has ... the (less polluted) Black Sea (if you get off the night train before 6 AM like we did, you can have a picnic breakfast on the beach and watch the older crowd swim, do calisthenics, and drink cheap beer out of soda bottles. Later, when the sun is fully risen, the microminiature bikini/speedo crowd takes over (less calisthenics, but same beer).

We found a few surprisingly good museums - my favorite was the Museum of Microminiature at the Kievo-Pecherska Lavra (monastery, where incidentally I was forced to wear my sweater on my head and my travel towel as a skirt over my jeans so that I might be allowed to see some mummified Russian Orthodox priests who are apparently still in denial that women have hair and legs. This is actually somewhat ironic considering that the going fashion among my Ukrainian contemporaries was in an altogether different know, micro-miniskirts, more cleavage than shirt, and 4-inch stilettos (often the cheap, plastic-y kind ... never mind the sad condition of the sidewalks in Ukraine). Totally unclear what the Microminiature Museum has to do with Russian Orthodoxy, but it was full of very small objects that you had to view through a microscope, including a flea fitted with golden horseshoes, a guitar-like instrument with strings one-fortieth the width of a human hair, etc. It was highly amusing.

As I mentioned, there were some less good times...such as, for example returning to our apartment in Kiev to find that they had changed the locks. This turned out to be mostly a misunderstanding, but because of certain cultural differences, most Ukrainians come across as extremely rude and unhelpful to Americans (and their very friendly Mann), rarely smiling or thanking anyone and certainly not going out of their way to help two panicking foreigners. When you think you might have to sleep on the street, it's challenging to remember that this is a cultural difference and not a blatant, nation-wide attempt to make you crazy. Also, very few people speak English (not saying they should, it's Ukraine, not the US ... just that it makes traveling for people like me more challenging) and there is a serious lack of street signage...You may remember that I first took up with mein Mann (in part) because he was in the army and is good at reading maps and jumping out of planes. Ok, we didn't jump out of any planes, but he was able to decipher cyrillic after trying for about 2 minutes and he has a killer sense of direction. He is useful and I think I will keep him.

I'd like to say that I did as good a job navigating the food scene, but ... Ukraine is not one giant Veselka (Ukrainian diner near my first apartment in NYC). This is not to say that we didn't find any treats. I am a sucker for anything with poppyseed filling and we had some poppyseed buns that were way more filling than bun. This was, I must mention, the ONE time we found a bakery in all of our 7 days there and in all fairness, it wasn't really as bakery as they were not baking there, but they did have a wide selection of fresh baked goods. Other days, I had to wander around until I could find a kiosk where they sold usually stale bread products. Very odd. Anyway, I'm also a big fan of Ukrainian pickles - mostly cucumbers, eggplant, and green tomatoes. They are garlicky and I intend to buy some here at the Russian store on Torstrasse. We had excellent blini (with cabbage and prunes or with mushrooms from a little hut in a park in Kiev and less excellent, but more opulent blini with caviar for our farewell (to Ukraine) dinner). Some decent borscht, varenyky (the cherry-filled ones are my new favorites), and a cheesecake-like concoction. There were a few good picnics - one particularly delicious stuffed eggplant that I bought at the market in Odessa (the biggest open-air market in the former USSR, I might add) and an excellent smoked mackerel (from the same market). I guess it's just that the bad meals were so bad..a Georgian meal I will not bother to discuss and all the dry breakfasts, etc. Also, it's just sad to be this excited about German coffee.

Finally, if anyone is still reading, I will leave you with one of my favorite images from our trip: the vodka selection in the grocery store in Kiev: Seriously, they have an entirely separate aisle for other kinds of alcohol.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Der Unabhängigkeitstag

We had such a nice BBQ planned for the Fourth of July -- Berlin is full of parks and in many of them you can bring your own grill and have a cookout. I made star-shaped stracciatella meringue cookies with red, white, and blue sprinkles. I even tracked down sparklers so we could have a mini fireworks show. The weather has been perfect for the last several days: high 70s, blue skies with only a few picturesque puffy, white clouds. But we woke up this morning to thick gray skies and a precipitous drop in the temperature. And then it started to rain and didn't stop all day. As I wasn't invited to the opening of the US Embassy here, we dragged ourselves across the park to The Bird (an "American Steakhouse and Bar" - really an "authentic" American Burger joint, where they charmingly have "angry hour" instead of happy hour (so-named, I must conclude because the American staff there is trying (and succeeding) to outdo the famed Berlin rudeness) and declare that soft drinks and juice are available for "sissies"). It wasn't the most festive of Fourths, but at least the burger and fries were good. And, as we were traipsing back through the park, the Embassy was setting off their fireworks. We stood on the hill and watched the show (I provided a concert of patriotic (American) songs sung loudly and seriously out of tune for all within earshot).

So now that we've made what we could of this rainy Fourth of July, we are off to Ukraine. Why? (everyone asks): for a week of vacation or honeymoon number one (as I like to see it). We will try to avoid the radioactive berries and mushrooms, eat as many varenyky as possible, and possibly find out what all is fuss is (or was) about Chicken Kiev. Details to come......