The feeling of Kiev couldn’t be more different from Odesa.
First, it really is a major urban metropolis – like Belgrade – with clearly a lot of wealth behind it. Although Odesa did have its few glitzy corners, in general it really didn’t feel all that first-world: stray dogs roamed about, beggars held out their hands, and countless locals loitered the streets in ripped, stained shorts. It felt like the “raw Eastern-European city” you might envision. But here in Kiev, litter-free boulevards are lined with big hotels, occupied by well-dressed pedestrians, and trafficked by expensive Western sports cars. It truly looks like a different country.
And just like Uman, the vibe of the locals became clear almost immediately. They’re so amazingly friendly! Within five minutes of stepping outside the door a pair of girls stopped to talk to Peder on the street; unfortunately they didn’t speak a word of English, but I’m almost certain it was a “Brazilian-style” open expression of interest.
Then, just a few hundred meters down the road as we stopped to check our guidebook (in front of the beautiful blue-and-gold St. Michael’s Monastery), a friendly guy named Bruce came up to ask if we needed help. He was a Filipino-Hawaiian who’d been staying in Kiev for the past few weeks, and noticed that we looked a bit lost. Minutes later we were walking away with a list of the city’s best clubs, a phone number, and an invite to a night out with his local friends the following evening. Of course, let’s not forget the Italian businessman who drove us straight to our lodging the previous night, or the two Russians who generously invited us to stay with them on our next visit to Kazantip.
Okay, so maybe the majority of these encounters were with foreigners – but still, it felt wonderful to have people actually offering friendly assistance rather than actively avoiding us like so many had done in Odesa. When I used to live in Kyoto, I’d frequently stop and offer unsolicited help to tourists who appeared lost, struggling to decipher a cryptic set of characters on a street sign or map. And while of course it always felt good to help…I must admit that it feels pretty damn nice to be on the other end of the stick as well 🙂
Anyway, our plan of attack for our first day in the city was to run through as much of Lonely Planet’s walking tour as we had time for. Although some of Kiev’s must-see sights are a little ways from the center, many of its impressive churches, museums, and neighborhoods are well within walking distance. So while I spent a few minutes photographing St. Michael’s Monastery, Peder took a seat in the small park just behind it to start plotting our route.
Upon joining him, I couldn’t help but notice that every other bench was occupied by exactly one beautiful college-aged female. Every one of them was sitting alone – listening to music, reading, or studying. “Do you see…” “Of course I do,” he instantly replied.
I also couldn’t help but notice that as Peder read his itinerary aloud, they all seemed to be stealing glances and hiding shy little smiles. So when the girl next to us shuffled her English grammar book, I took it as a hint to say hello. She joined us immediately and was all giggles from then on.
Then as she and Peder chatted about some of the funny Russian phrases he’d picked up in Odesa, I noticed yet another another single girl laughing under her breath across the way. “Can you understand English?” I asked. “Of course!” she replied.
Was it just me, or was everyone around us begging to be talked to? Was this not the exact opposite from Odesa, where so many of the locals seemed to avoid even the slightest eye contact, regardless of context?
As it turned out, this level of general amicability was not an exception, but a common occurrence throughout our stay in Kiev. Whomever we stopped to ask for directions gave their best effort to help, whomever we greeted out of the blue would reply with a smile, and even the police sometimes nodded when we walked past – rather than hassle us and try to extort bribes.
I would come back to Kiev without a second thought; fifteen minutes of wandering around and it already felt like a wonderful city. I can’t wait to see what else it has in store 🙂