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Ukraine Diary 1: Getting There Is Half the Fun


We left Dulles for Brussels at 5pm Monday afternoon. The flight to Brussels was long but otherwise unremarkable.  On the Warsaw flight one of the passengers in the first row of seats almost got into a fight with the flight attendant, but the issue eventually resolved itself. It is definitely true that Eastern Europeans board planes differently than Western Europeans and Americans, more of an orderly scrum than a defined line. We arrived in Warsaw in early afternoon and ate a late lunch/early dinner at a nice restaurant near the Warsaw East train station.  The food and service were good, although I don’t think I was any wiser with regard to either traditional Polish food or what contemporary residents of Warsaw actually ate on a day to day basis.  

The Warsaw that I saw (and we did not see much of it) very much resembles a typical post-modern American city, except insofar that it was almost entirely white.  The demographic skewed younger than I expected, although this is probably a consequence of Warsaw’s particular position in Polish life; I think things would look much different in other cities, to say nothing of the countryside. This thought would recur to me as we entered Ukraine. 

The train to Kyiv was our first step outside the Western comfort zone.  Matt and I shared a tiny sleeper, no air conditioning worthy of the name, 85+ degrees at the start of the trip. Nineteen hours in the sleeper is a stark, undeniable reality, and the only way around is through. Most of the people in our car were Ukrainians, primarily women with children.  There were also a pair of Orthodox Jewish Americans (from Chicago) on their way to Uman for Rosh Hashanah. We were later told that many of the women and children from Ukraine were probably returning to Ukraine for only a limited period of time.  The lack of any direct military threat to Kyiv (apart from the bombing) opens up the opportunity for families to reunite, recalibrate, and restock (sometimes as simple as exchanging summer and winter clothes). Men of military age cannot leave, and so their families return to them when it is relatively comfortable and safe.  In winter the weather grows cold and the energy situation grows difficult, so the city is far less crowded and generally dominated by men. 

We were told that under no circumstances should we flush tissue down the toilet, but rather we should throw it away in the garbage.  The obvious implication here was that we ought to do our necessary business sooner rather than later, or develop our own plans for making it through the 19 hours. We hit the Ukrainian border some time before midnight. This meant a discussion with Polish authorities, then Ukrainian authorities. Shifting to Ukrainian railway gauge took some time; the conductor explained to us after the Ukrainian border guards left that “it was time for sleep” and sleep we did, but the sleep was punctuated by loud bangs and the yells of a great many Ukrainian railway workers. When we finally began to move the outside temperature had dropped considerably and the open window let in a literal breath of fresh air.  I had the upper bunk and in some contexts I might have considered it to be cold, but after several hours of over-heated funk (and let me be clear, there was some funk) the cool air was more than welcome. Fortunately, we were both so exhausted that we did in fact manage to get some sleep, notwithstanding the loud children on the car.

We were intermittently connected to the internet for most of this period.  There was of course no Wi-Fi on the train, but 3G updated periodically.  Overnight we saw the news that Ukraine had hit Sevastopol again, severely damaging a Ropucha amphibious assault ship and a Kilo class submarine.  This, of course, immediately brought to mind Elon Musk’s recent claim that he had saved Ukraine from nuclear retaliation by preventing at attack on the Russian fleet at anchor. Elon is an awfully deluded man, but Putin has responded to such attacks in the past with a barrage of drones and cruise missiles, so best to be aware from this point forward. I had not at that time downloaded the Ukrainian Air Alert app, on which Mark Hamill warns of attacks with a variety of Star Wars themed one-liners. Try it sometime, but note that it absolutely will break through the silent setting on your phone. 

We met our guide soon after the train arrived.  He’s an American who’s lived in Ukraine for several years and has a close knowledge of several of its cities. At this point I had been wearing the same clothes for close to 48 hours, so my first concern was a shower, so we headed immediately for the hotel. It reminded me of the hotel I stayed at in Seoul, although it was, if anything, more swanky. It did not seem that very many of the other rooms were occupied.   I was on the 10th floor, which was obviously a touch worrisome given the potential missile and drone attack, but on the other hand it could have offered a wonderful vantage for the Patriot interceptions.  As it happened, I wouldn’t see either. In better times, it feels like the hotel was designed for nothing so much as uniting wealthy visitors with high class Ukrainian prostitutes. I get the sense that this sort of thing still happens (war and prostitution go hand in hand, after all) but not to the extent it did during peacetime. 

After freshening up we walked to Maidan shortly before dinner.  The field of flags, each dedicated to a single Ukrainian soldier who has died during this war, moved but did not surprise me.  The magnitude of the monument did, however.  It’s difficult to understand 2014 without having a grip on the physical geography of the square, its bowl shape and massive central pillar. The streets of Kyiv were alive with activity, including a great many posters, flags, vendor stalls, and armed forces recruitment stations. Men and women in fatigues carrying automatic rifles were a common but not overwhelming sight.  Much as with Warsaw, I found Kyiv to be a much younger city than what I had expected.  We ate (not for the last time) at Puzata Hata, the local Ukrainian fast food establishment that specializes in a variety of Ukrainian dishes.

And then I slept.  If a missile had exploded outside my window I very much doubt I would have noticed. 

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