Why am I doing this?
No, seriously. Why am I doing this? This isn’t Amman. This isn’t even vaguely Arabic. We’re halfway to Kiev on a bus that isn’t the Skybus that Google and Tripadvisor recommended. Come to think of it, I didn’t even ask the driver where we’re going. It might not even be Kiev. I’m going by the size of the city and the great big river we crossed earlier and assuming it is. Other than that, I really don’t know. I can’t read the alphabet. Any and all Russian I learned in those four after-school sessions has jumped clean out of my mind, except that the letter P becomes R and K, T and A stay the same. Ten points for effort for this worn-out linguist! I mean, there’s no escaping it this time: this is sheer lunacy, even by my standards.
‘We could be going anywhere right now,’ says Andrew. ‘We could literally be going anywhere.’
We really could. It all looks bleak and Soviet; pine forests, grey skies and grim skyscrapers with peeling walls. Even the hooded crows look seedy. But I do have £33 worth of Ukrainian hryvna in my wallet (or at least, I think I do) and I plan for us to be back at the airport for six o’clock at the latest. So there is some semblance of a plan beneath the anarchy. Blimey, but what I wouldn’t do to have fellow linguists and Russian speakers Shahnaz and Rosie here with me now, if just to have a vague idea of what’s going on.
If that whim decision to go for the twelve-hour layover bothered me slightly at four o’clock this morning, it was practically crucifying me by nine, when we’d touched down in Borispol Airport and navigated customs. Andrew managed a good couple of hours’ sleep on the journey from Amman; I did not, and it’s really beginning to kick in now, as I’m no longer constantly on the move. But fatigue is the smallest of barriers to the determined adventurer!
…once again I find myself picking up the mantle some two hours later. Two sentences later I woke up with the iPad slipping off my legs onto the floor of the bus. So I take that back. Apparently fatigue has other ideas.
I digress. After a minor financial confusion over the exchange rate of the Ukranian hryvna, Andrew and I made it to Kiev (it really was Kiev in the end) with six hours to kill. Cue at least half an hour of ‘wow’, ‘I can’t believe we’re doing this’ and ‘this is absolutely bonkers’ as Andrew patiently bears my childish enthusiasm. We took a wander into the old part in search of the Bessarabsky Market to grab a bite to eat. Every single stall inside, without exception, was manned by what can only be described as the stereotypical babuschka. And no, try as they might, Andrew and I didn’t understand a word of what they were saying. But an idea struck me at one of the aisles and I procured a tin of caviar from one of the stallholders who was anxious for us to try a spoonful of all of her wares, from sweet to tongue-zappingly salty, from lumpfish to Beluga sturgeon. And if you think I’m exaggerating, I point you towards the sequin-scaled monstrosity lying headless on a mound of ice near the market door, barbels removed. It hardly needs saying, but this is a world away from Amman. Period.
The miracle of Kiev is that there is so much to see in so small an area. Like I said, a world away from Amman. In just under four hours we had covered almost everything there is to see. Beginning with St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral, an elaborate Orthodox affair in gold leaf and black-robed majesty, we set off an a tour of the old city. There’s something really special about Orthodox churches. At first glance it all looks a bit showy: giant crosses, bold block colours, gold used just about wherever there’s breathing space, not to mention all the icons. But it’s a great deal more complicated than that. It was Andrew who pointed it out to me. The congregation, outnumbering the sightseers by about nine to one, were mostly women, in varying states of dress, but the one thing they all had in common was the wearing of a headscarf. A kind of step-down for us from Jordan, perhaps.
‘Surely it doesn’t work like that,’ says Andrew, as a scarfed young woman in high heels leaves the cathedral after making the sign of the cross twice across her chest and bowing out, a lurid pink thong showing above the cut of her miniskirt. Apparently, it does. You know what they say about book covers…
One of the subjects that came up in conversation with Fahed and Massoud yesterday was the subject of Ukrainian women, whom Fahed believed, as ‘proved by science’, to be the most beautiful women in the world. I set out to test that theory today, both to conduct some kind of fair test in light of such a sweeping statement (especially when any suggestions of Spain and Colombia had been overruled just minutes before), and more so to justify this ridiculous little side-quest into Kiev at the end of our labours.
I’m going to surprise myself, but Fahed’s got a point. Ukrainian women are pretty stunning. They must be, or we wouldn’t have run into not one, not two, but a total of seven weddings in the course of our wanderings. There’s also a heck of a lot of them; more than the men, anyway, at least from my observations. A bit like Elvet Riverside, come to think of it. But seriously, those weddings we walked in on (there was hardly any avoiding them, they were all over the place…) Flowing white dresses everywhere on a backdrop of marble steps, spiralling turrets and Orthodox spires. My heart was on a serious flutter. Perhaps it’s the healthy skin tones, the raven hair, or the eyes that shelter a mixture of light and dark? Or even the fabulous dress sense? No, surely it’s the curled smiles most of them are wearing… (I wish Nizzar Qabbani could help me out here, I’m teetering on the edge of the villainy of objectivity)
Before I go too far, I’ll throw you the anecdote that tipped me over the scale of utter disbelief of Fahed’s claim to conceding a little ground to the guy. In the grounds of the St. Sophia Cathedral, Kiev’s jaw-droppingly beautiful UNESCO cathedral complex, Andrew and I stumbled upon an outdoor recital by a young Ukrainian student playing quite possibly the largest lute I have ever seen. I believe, if memory serves, that it is called a bandura? We still had a good three hours to kill so we stopped to listen, and am I glad we did! No sooner had she put her fingers to the strings than the girl began to sing, and in all my years as the son of two music teachers I have rarely heard a voice so magical. Like a siren, but sadder and more graceful. I was totally drawn in – so much so that it took me some time to realise that the bandurist and I had been staring at each other unflinchingly for almost a minute before I snapped awake, and she’d been singing all the way through.
‘You should have got her number or something,’ said Andrew, as we moved on to the Great Gates of Kiev twenty minutes later. ‘You haven’t got forever. Get them before they’re all gone, that’s what my godmother told me.’
I’m not running out of time yet – at least, I hope I’m not. Maybe I should have done or said something. As ever, I was lost in the music, I guess. Too lost to appreciate that we kept looking back at each other after her set was over. My obliviousness reigns supreme. At the very least I have a good three minutes of her set on video, so I can listen to that siren song again if ever the mood requires. And by that I mean, of course, sleep. Andrew fell asleep during her recital. If I hadn’t been so entranced, I guess I might have done so too.
Water under the bridge, hey? But what an adventure, and what a way to end my time in Jordan! It’s been a pleasure to live and work alongside you, Andrew, and I wish you all the best in France (knowing that you’ll be back in the comfort of your own home by the time you read this, and that Babette won’t have to check on how you’re getting on in this long-winded fashion anymore!) As for the rest of you, dear readers, I shall probably take a few days’ hiatus to catch up on sleep, as I’m dangerously behind, and to clear my head. Just a few minutes in one of Kiev’s parks was enough to recharge my batteries right the way up – green, green, GREEN, oh my God, the trees, the leaves, the grass and all of the GREEN – but I intend to set up stores for the winter, as it were. Villafranca’s not lacking in countryside, but I’ve learnt my lesson, and I’m not setting off into the open world without a well-supplied heart next time.
There’s still another hour to go until boarding begins for the flight back to London. Farewell, До свидания and I’ll catch you all later. Yours truly needs a well-deserved break from all this madness. Until the next time! BB x