Just Expat Things – Day Ten. Railroad Symphony


Tonight, I catch the overnight train to Lviv.

Finally, one place in Kyiv that hasn’t changed a bit since two years ago. The train station.

A friend and I drink McDonald’s coffee while killing time before the train. I keep wanting to check my phone for the live platform update. UK brain deformation number four, I think.

Around us, minibus drivers shout out destinations every few minutes. They carry large placards – Poltava, Rivne, even Lviv. But it’s the shout-outs they rely on to get some fare.

The scene puts me in mind of the space docks on Persephone, in the pilot episode of Firefly. Not entirely uncivilized, but outside the core planets of the Allied Federation. Far enough for the rustic charm of shouted destinations advertising long uncomfortable travel. Truth be told, I’ve always wanted to come to the station, buy fare for the first destination I hear, and just go. Maybe next visit. (No, really. I wanna.)

Boarding the train. Showing passport. Shooting down a joke about my relation to the Belarus president.

The smell inside cannot be confused for anything else, ever. I can’t even begin to dissect it. Trodden-on (downtrodden?) rugs, plastic leather of bunks, heavily used bedrolls… but those don’t have individual smells that make up the blend, they already smell of it. What makes the blend?

I buy a coffee served in an unmistakable pidstakannyk. Legend has it these are the reason for the supposedly Slavic-exclusive habit of drinking tea with the spoon still in. In a mug, the spoon is irrelevant. In a pidstakannyk, it keeps the glass in place.

Train attendant asks me if I like Nescafe Classic. “Does anyone?”

He asks where I’m from, marvels at my Liverpool origin, then questions the reasons behind the goggles on my head.

“Steampunk.” – “What’s that?”

I try to deliver an explanation in fifty words or less, but he’s not listening, instead commenting that a garna divchyna [pretty girl] like me shouldn’t ruin her looks by wearing this weird thing on her head. I intend to laugh it off, but my feelings for his advice must show on my face already – because he instantly adds, “I kid, of course, you wear what you like.”

Why, thank you, sir. Sir is too kind.

Making the bed on the top bunk of a moving train: +3 to Agility. Changing clothes while lying down on said bunk – another +2. (Putting on sweatpants back to front: -2 to Charisma.)

My friend and I stay up late, to the annoyance of the two sleeping strangers we share the compartment with. “Вагонные споры – последнее дело…” Not exactly arguing, though. Just talking in hushed voices, deep into the night, about handling good and evil in fiction, the different manner it was done by Tolkien, Sapkowsky and Martin, and whether a writer has responsibility to use their skills in a certain way as opposed to another.

Train wheels add punctuation to our talk. Ba-dum, ba-dum. Pause. Ba-dum, ba-dum. A clanky, rhythmically arrhythmic heartbeat.

You don’t get that sound in the UK trains. Theirs is more of a steady roar. The fancier the train, the more it sounds like an airplane.

Ba-dum, ba-dum. Pause. Ba-dum, ba-dum. I can honestly say I’ve missed that sound.



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Just Expat Things – Day Four. Old Friends



Worlds collided today.

Edinburgh, 2010.
“I’m from Ukraine!” [that was me] – Oh! Wow! *high-five* [that was him]

Kyiv, 2015.
Good morning from Ukraine! [that was him] – “Wow, so this is surreal.” [that was me]

Ukraine! I heard a rumor that people weren’t sure I was going to show up in Kiev. We are here. We are ready to rock. 

I heard no rumors, but wasn’t surprised for a second. I was expecting it to fall through. Safety, politics, whatnot. For x’s sake, the man was heading to Russia next.

Don’t miss it because I don’t know when I’ll be back. ❤

If I’m honest with myself, this show was the reason I flew back here. Were it not for him, I don’t know when I’d come here, myself.

A crowd of 500 or so in a venue meant for 3-4 thousand. Looking a bit lost. I’m at the back – which in a crowd this size, is not far away at all, laughing increasingly hysterically every time the frontman of the opening band refers to the headliner as “Mr. Way.” The man will never be a Mr. Way, he’ll stay Gee until he dies.

Disbelief. Through the opening act. Through the painfully long stage change. To the very last moment. To absurd. To the point of when the guitarists and drummer appear, I expect one of them to say that “Mr. Way” couldn’t make it.

Mr. Way made it. I was just hoping that the reception would not make him regret it.

It took a few songs for everyone to get into the swing of things. It was like a first date. Perfectly pleasant. Perfectly awkward. Both parties permanently out on a limb.

Then, a third of the way into the set, something happened. It also happened to happen with the start of my favorite song. Being a live punk rock  aficionado, I don’t use the words ‘the crowd went wild’ lightly. But boy, did it go wild.

After that, it only got better. Gone was the awkwardness. There was no room for pleasantries anymore, either. Just sheer passion. From audience to stage, from stage to audience, endless self-perpetuating cycle of energy, the kind that lifts you up, turns the air thin, and the world transparent and golden.

Last songs. Curtain call. Two more songs by way of encore. Another curtain call. I know the show protocol enough to know that one won’t get answered.

I was three steps away from the venue exit when a voice announced from the stage there was going to be an autograph session in a few minutes.


Don’t get me wrong, he’s a sweetheart who pleads with every venue to let the fans stay inside for long enough for him to meet everyone who wants a word or a hug, and when even cooperative venues call time, he’s known to hang outside until 3 am till everyone has had a chance to see him.

But surely, not here? Not in the capital of a country with an active war zone. Sure, Kyiv of all places is safe, yeah, except two days before he got here, a live grenade killed three people in the downtown.

Surely, there were explicit instructions from the music label to get in, perform, and get the hell out?

Maybe I’ll get to ask him one day.

The queue is long, and moves fast. Everyone gets five seconds, tops. He signs and offers high-fives. Looking very focused, but lighting up like a lightbulb whenever a fan says something to him.

My turn. I ask him to write ‘Keep running’ on a piece of paper for me. An old message, and one I intend to wear on my skin.

“You wouldn’t remember this…”
[he’s writing]
“…but I met you after a show in Edinburgh in 2010, and told you I came from Ukraine…”
[still writing]
“…and you traded me a pack of cigarettes for my yellow goggles.”
[he looks up. a spark of recognition] “Oh! Good to see you!”

Worlds collided today.

It was beautiful.


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Just Expat Things – Day Three. Controversial Accessories

(Day Two was essentially Day One minus the sprinklers. You’re not missing anything.)




Today, the elephant in the room finally steps on me.

I was so close, though. Only one day from moving to a friend’s house, away from the constantly talking TV set, which is bad enough, and the constantly talking Russian TV channels, which is worse.

I’ve spent 90% of my awake time out of the house, and the remaining ten in my allocated bedroom. Leaving only for food and bathroom. Literally. Forced to listen to the living-room TV on those expeditions.  In the three days here, I’ve heard the TV talk about WW2 three times. One documentary. Two movies.

It’s 2015. It’s not even May. Not that I needed any proof that Russia has been bringing the 1950’s back, but. But.

Then again, whatcha gonna do, as a nation, when your last achievement was 70 years ago? (Yeah. Shots fired. Not that anyone will notice. Both sides busy firing rockets.)

My grandfather is 78 this year. He didn’t go to war, but he was alive during it. So I don’t begrudge him his memories, and the heroes of his lifetime.

I just wish he extended me the same courtesy. (Hah.)

Back to the elephant in the room. The one currently trampling around Donbas.

My grandfather is not exactly pro-Russian anymore. Not after people started seriously dying. But he will never be pro-Ukrainian.

Thing is, it’s easier when you’re pro-something. Things are more clear-cut. You can love some things and hate others. But when you’re forced to stop being actively pro-something, and don’t become actively pro-something-else, the logical outcome is to hate both sides.

The anger, it’s so real. So close beneath the surface. I kept quiet about everything and anything that could have brought it up. Stayed away from any dangerous topic. Was unaware that dangerous topics included the weather.

Kyiv was covered in smoke today. The same smoke I smelled on arrival, but more. Forest fires just outside of city, thanks to the super-dry summer.

“They said it might rain later today. Should clear the air, damp it all down.”
[vague agreement]
“I also read that they put the fire out fairly quickly, but there’s still lots of ash flying through the air.”
[instant expression of ridicule at my naivety to believe the media]
“…I mean…” [desperate backpedaling] “…obviously they’d write something like this…”  [not fast enough]

The rant about the lies in the Ukrainian media comes out of nowhere.

How you can’t believe anything they say.
(Okay, yes, it’s a good idea to take the media with a grain of salt.)

How if they say that the separatists fired artillery, that must mean that actually, the Ukrainian army did that.
(Where did that come from? I was talking about the weather, for Pete’s sake!)

How both sides are lying through their teeth about everything.
(Does that mean that when Russia says Ukraine fired, it actually was Russia?)

How everything is terrible and hopeless and everyone lies and…

I’m lacing up my boots, acutely aware of the blue and yellow bracelet on my wrist. Flag colors.

On my way to Ukraine, my mother asked me to take off my steampunk goggles if grandfather said anything bad about them. Why he would take issue with a piece of plastic on my head, I could not know. (And he didn’t.)

What I’m curious about is why she didn’t ask me to take off a much more controversial accessory. Did she forget about it? Or was she afraid of the response I would give?

I survive the rant by making several noncommittal grunts. (It’s a skill. You have to say ‘mmhm’ with the exact right intonation, neither rising nor lowering. Perfectly neutral acknowledgement, precariouly balanced on the edge between agreement and sarcasm.)

Then I escape the house, flag bracelet still unnoticed.

On my way to the bus stop (working from a downtown cafe today), I stop myself before I cry.

Look, I’m not stupid, okay? I’m pro-Ukraine. Not pro-media. Not pro-government. Pro-Ukraine. Pro people who are dying. Pro people who are trying to help them to not die. Pro people who were reporting on the war before the media did, who earned my trust back then and hold it still.

“I never claimed to be a saint.” ~Slipknot

I idealize. To survive.

I romanticize. To survive.

Am I too far outside the situation to see clearly? Maybe. I am privileged enough to be outside the situation. Privileged enough to idealize and romanticize.

But I’m not stupid. I know that life is more Game of Thrones than The Lord of the Rings. (One more reason to choose JRR over GRRM.) I know that life rarely has THE good guys and THE bad guys.

But I believe in the sliding scale. With very good on one end (which no one ever reaches), and very bad on the other (which is less populated than an idealizing mindset would prefer it to be).

And in this war, one that I am too far outside of to see clearly, I’m not assigning labels of perfect good and ultimate evil. But I will fight to defend my idea of the two sides’ positions on the sliding scale.




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Just Expat Things – Day One. Syrniki and Globalization



Jet lag and exhaustion keep me unconscious until noon. Then it’s time to go find my base for the day – the nearest coffee shop that is air-conditioned (for weather reasons) and non-Russian-owned (for political ones). Google tells me that my favorite haunt a short walk away is still open.

I dig through my suitcase to find my best armor and the strongest reminder of home. A shirt with the name of an American band, purchased in Hungary three years ago at what turned out to be the last time I saw them. Around my neck is a necklace with a seven-legged spider. The eighth leg has been lost in its faithful service as a backpack decoration.

In the elevator, I spend a few seconds looking for floor zero. UK brain deformation, item two.

Outside. Same old yard, same old steps up the hill towards the street.  Those are stone steps with metal corners that have, at one point, drawn blood from everyone in the neighborhood. Annoying in dry weather, dangerous in the rain, lethal in the snow. When I was little, I remember one of corners was missing, the “naked” step gradually crumbling away into nothingness. Years later, it was fixed up. Last time I was here, all corners were in place. Today, on my way up, I count three of them gone.

There’s a small garden behind the cobbler’s booth at the top of the stairs. Twig fence with clay pots as decorations.

I make my first stop in a small supermarket, determined to keep hydrated in this heat. You can’t drink tap water here. My brain is not UK-deformed enough to forget that fact, but enough to grumble about it.

The prices are higher than I remember, which is to be expected, given that the local currency quartered in value. But the markups are uneven. At first glance, it looks like the more added value a product has, the less the price has increased. Food and veg prices are 3-4 times higher; cash register side products like chewing gum and condoms – maybe twice the old price. Water falls somewhere in the middle.

I get two .75l bottles of lightly carbonated Morshynska. The checkout clerk is surprisingly polite, all hello, and please, and thank you, and have a nice day. On my last visit, I got quite the culture shock when I smiled at a salesperson and had a pastry shoved at me with a scowl that made me wary of eating it.

Halfway to the coffee shop, a spinning sprinkler is watering a tiny lawn next to the fire department. I stop near the fence and let myself get sprinkled a few times.

I pass a young teenager in a vyshyvanka. A voice at the back of my head wonders if he’s being patriotic or fashionable. I silence it, because either option is equally valid.

Google has lied to me. My favorite outlet of Coffee Life, a decent Starbucks ripoff, has been rebranded into an oddly named C0ffee-Tea. The new place no longer has Hawaiian toast (served with the best honey mustard in the world).

I order syrniki, and get offered a choice of toppings. Sour cream, honey, jam. The idea of ‘toppings’ (used as a borrowed, transliterated word, not any local equivalent) on a painfully Slavic dish amuses me greatly.

(For an explanation of how the food itself isn’t wrong, but sounds jarring… Consider ‘fish and pomme frites,’ ‘bratwurst and mash,’ or ‘maize on the cob.’)

That said, globalized syrniki taste just as fine.


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Just Expat Things – Day Zero. Boryspil Smells of Smoke



I’ve always thought that ‘expat’ is just a fancy word for ‘immigrant,’ and no amount of official persuasion that ‘it is about the type of stamp in your passport, not your race’ will persuade me otherwise. Plus, The Guardian agrees with me.

Regardless, my brain tends to interpret ‘expat’ to ‘expatriot’ rather than ‘expatriate,’ which is funny, because I’m far from a former patriot. Rather, a newly-minted one. Nothing like a revolution and an invasion to make one choose a side.

I wear on my wrist the colors of peace, the colors of war, and a Tolkien quote… The colors of peace are legitimately the Ukrainian flag. The colors of war are on a wristband bought at the Reading festival, UK, a year ago, and the only politics they may be related to take place in the year 2018 in post-apocalyptic New California. The Tolkien quote is “Not all those who wander are lost.”

It’s been two years since I visited my birth country, which, patriotism notwithstanding, I cannot in right conscience call my home country, because home is a difficult thing. Now I’m here for a couple of weeks.

Liverpool, train, London, underground, Gatwick, hotel, plane. Finally, KBP.

Dry grass over the fence from the tarmac. I realize this is the first time I’ve seen dry grass in two years. The UK is so wet that it’s green all year round.

Passport control, luggage, buying a burner phone sim while waiting for a taxi. The driver calls and tells us to walk some way from the entrance, along the road, because there’s no room for him to pull up. Terminal D, the fanciest one in KBP, has a tiny taxi rank, most of which is full of buses. We roll the luggage trolley until we run out of pavement, and leave it instead of making it jump a tall curb. Buses zoom past a few inches behind our backs while the driver helps lift the bags over a fence of knee-high concrete blocks.

The air is hot and smells of faraway smoke.

I ride in the front. I have to stop myself before I get in on the driver’s side. UK brain deformation, item one.

On the way to Kyiv, I keep an eye out for familiar landmarks. The Wild Bean cafe, a reminder of New Zealand which had sat at a gas station by the side of the Boryspil highway for years, has been replaced by something off-brand. A large piece of land behind a long black glass (noise reduction?) fence, which might have belonged to someone in the old government, has been turned into a resort.

My mother chats non-stop with the driver. I feel kinda bad for leaving the trolley so far from the terminal.

At the entrance to my apartment block, a new concierge nods at me when I say good evening, then, a moment later, asks me which apartment I’m headed to.

Childhood home of twenty years is stifling hot and just stifling. I’ve lived in one place between the ages of 7 and 27. Between the ages of 27 and 30, I’ve lived in two cities and five homes. Looks like those last three years were enough to become an easily-suffocated tumbleweed.

Too tired, distracted, and generally weirded out to do anything useful, I spend the last few hours before sleep playing a mobile game set after a nuclear apocalypse and watching a show about bureaucrats in the US state of Indiana.

Next day>>

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