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.