Cossacks and pumpkins

Mother and child - not sure if this is traditional  Cossack baby wear...

Mother and child – not sure if this is traditional Cossack baby wear…

Kyiv’s main street, Khreschatyk, is pedestrian only at weekends – so instead of battling traffic, everybody gets out and about, walking up and down alongside the quad bikes, musicians, and the segways for hire.

main street is closed at weekends

One of the city’s main streets is closed to vehicles at weekends

It makes the city centre feel wonderfully democratic and friendly. You just have to avoid getting your photo taken with a fun fur costumed character who will then pursue you for money. We walked there to catch a marshrutka – the battered yellow minibuses that are part bus/part taxi – to get out of the city centre in search of cossacks…

We were heading out for lunch – in a restaurant in a place dedicated to maintaining Cossack traditions, where we drank chilli vodka with pickles, followed by rabbit stew.

Cossack arrives by horse, and impresses the ladies

Cossack arrives by horse, and impresses the ladies

picture of food

Rabbit stew on the right – and dill with everything

pic of women

check out those coat & boot combo’s

Natasha and I visited because there was a “celebration of Ukrainian womanhood” going on, which involved young women showing off their prowess – with song, dance, and some sort of treasure hunt.

Cossack judge - I think - the Hetman?

Cossack judge – I think – the Hetman?

Young men with their hair cut in a Cossack-style – chupryna (чуприна in Ukrainian),  or oseledets (Ukrainian: оселедець, which means herring) describes a man’s haircut which features a lock of hair sprouting from the top or front of a shaven head – galloped around impressively on horses, and showed off in front of the girls.

Pic of man on hosrse

His hair cut apparently shows that he’s not a full blown cossack yet

The wagon of pumpkins didn’t get used much – evidently, “in the old days” if you didn’t want to marry the boy who asked, you gave him a pumpkin by way of a brush off.  (See how I’ve slipped in a seasonal reference, but without mentioning Halloween, which isn’t really celebrated here).

Pumpkin cart with construction site behind!

Pumpkin cart with construction site behind!

In the evening, we swapped the rough wooden tables and earthenware crockery of the Ukrainian peasant for the luxury of the Panorama Restaurant at the Hotel Dnipro – where we could only afford one drink, but the view was awesome! 

View from Hotel Dnipro Panorama Bar - Rainbow Arch to right is Nations Friendship Arch

View from Hotel Dnipro Panorama Bar – Rainbow Arch to right is Nations Friendship Arch


Molodist International Film Festival


Click on the instagram link above to see my first red carpet…and Maria was too shy to go up it! It’s the 43rd festival and the Opening Ceremony took place at the Palace Ukraine – speeches and folk dance and traditional music were centre stage – which didn’t really reflect the festival’s focus on younger film makers, and international cinema’s appeal to a younger crowd.

However, an international Children’s Jury will be judging the Children’s film section; and tonight I’m going to see one of the films that’s part of the Sunny Bunny section of the festival focusing on LGBT films, a focus which is even more important now in countries in wider Europe, given Russia’s increasingly homophobic stance. And certainly a way of demonstrating that diversity is being celebrated here in Ukraine, where the work of festivals like Molodist is crucial in giving a platform to younger independent film-makers with new stories to tell.

The Opening film was Lech Walesa: Man of Hope by Polish director Andrzej Wajda; and it certainly read differently to me sitting watching it in a country whose own history and recent independence was linked to the break up of the USSR, in which the rise of Solidarity (the trade union formed by Walesa and others out of the Gdansk shipyard strikes in Poland) definitely played a part. Had I been watching in a cinema in the UK it would have been a good film about someone else’s history – of academic but not personal significance. Watching it here, the resonance for the Ukrainian audience was tangible, and the film in this context gave me some insight into how things worked differently during the Soviet era.

Sauntering in a new city

pic of graffiti & church
“I must walk more with free sense”, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal

“It is as bad to study stars and clouds as flowers and stones. I must let my senses wander as my thoughts, my eyes see without seeing.

What I need is not to look at all, but a true sauntering of the eye.” 

I’ve been tempering my wide-eyed tourist gaze with some “drifting” – walking without having a destination in mind in order to savour the mundane ordinary spaces in between the obvious tourist hotspots – taking time to let the poetry of this place rise to the surface.  

pic of busI’ve been meandering down strange alleyways, looking up to see the lie of the sky as well as down at the lie of the land, and peering through gaps in fences.

pic of gap in fence

This ‘sauntering’ helps me absorb the multiplicity of layers of history & geography & politics that old cities are built of: in this respect Kyiv feels like Lahore – both have been places of trading and passing through, of siege and conquest and occupation since ancient times. As someone who’s easily distracted, my solo journeys over the years have often had a quality of meandering to them: following my nose, or my ears, rather than a map, has led me down some intriguing paths… and though they’ve usually started as solitary pleasure they rarely end that way.

I discovered artist/walker Phil Smith’s wonderful website  where he explains the concept:                        “ By whatever means are necessary, it is the struggle of the differences against the big sameness (dressed in oh so many colours, of course). And those means may be entrepreneurial, may be trespass, may be poetic, may be effete, may be abject, may be disarming, may be perilous, may be made at a cost, may be invisible, may be best unspoken of for the time being, may be both naïve in hope and canny in practice. 

Phil is also the author of the Counter Tourism handbook – which you’ll be able to obtain if you follow that link above – “Beneath the simple sounding stories in the Visitor Guides and behind the locked gates marked Private there lies a multitude of inconvenient stories, hilarities, wonders, extremes and outrages…”


Lard and the Lada

pic of lumps of lard

Lada: My first car was a Lada – which I had forgotten until coming to Ukraine. The cars in Kyiv are a good indication of the gap between the Rich and the Rest – lots of massive new 4×4’s with tinted windows, mainly BMW, driven by people who are on the phone and smoking while trying to manoeuvre through highly congested streets full of other drivers in similarly oversize vehicles, and then there are the Rest: people driving very battered ancient Ladas held together with string.

pic of jars of pickled veg

Pickled anything

Lard: People are slim – noticeably slimmer than in western Europe in general, and the UK in particular where we’re all a bunch of fatties in comparison to Ukrainians. This may be linked to the price of food, which is high. The average teacher earns about £300 a month, yet a lot of food is about the same price as in the UK. The staple diet appears to be apples – which are cheap and plentiful right now. There are lots of tiny old women laying out small displays of apples & mushrooms on street corners; and I’ve been shown the local market by a colleague, Masha.

pic of market

Pomegranates from Azerbaijan – he makes them into juice using a massive press

The cheese counter had 14 different women each serving their own special curd cheese; there was plenty of beetroot for borscht, grapes from Moldova, pickled cabbage and cheese-stuffed aubergine & peppers. And huge lumps of lard – a local treat which I’ve avoided so far. Probably because I’m not hungry enough. Like the British wartime diet of bread & dripping, I imagine you’re glad of a chunk of raw pig fat if you end up cold & hungry.

Church Bells v. Riot Police – this morning it was all going on down my end of town: the church bells at the monastery calling the faithful, and right opposite the church, the militia being trained in riot techniques: banging on their shields. And over all that, the ubiquitous Daft Punk’s Get Lucky playing through the PA at the start of the Kyiv Half Marathon.

Kissing – And finally, which comes first – the mistletoe or the kissing? There’s quite a lot of kissing couples around –  Kyiv’s clearly a romantic place; and there’s a lot of mistletoe – lots of trees bedecked with balls of mistletoe. Could these two things be related?

pic of ball of mistletoe

Is this responsible for all the kissing?

A new home, and tourism in a post-Soviet landscape

I’ve moved into a flat – at the bottom of Andreyiivsky usviz – the historic street that leads down from one of Kyiv’s many golden domed cathedrals. Sacrificing practical considerations for romantic location, I now live in a nineteenth century building with dodgy pipework, wiring that wouldn’t look out of place in Delhi, and the best selection of street vendors selling Soviet antiques and Ukrainian crafts this side of Tashkent.

No sooner had I moved in than thousands of tiny ants also moved in…weirdly, the infestation was focused on two brand new, never been worn, items from Zara – both ended up crawling with little ants, but no other clothes on the same shelf were affected. My landlady arrived with ant killer and a tub of anti-wrinkle cream which she rolled into small balls and left inside on the window shelves. She doesn’t speak English, and my Ukrainian doesn’t stretch to quizzing her on this strange practice – I wondered whether it was the ant in anti-wrinkle that was to blame. She had previously taken me to show me where to fetch my water – you can’t drink the water from the taps so one has to buy it from the supermarket, unless you live handily close to a monastery with a supply of clean drinking water.

I visited the Lavra, Ukraine’s most historically significant religious location – a service was in full swing with beautiful singing drifting across the site. (And I’m struggling with sizing my photos so bear with me as I get to grips with blogging).

Picture of view across the river Dnipro in Kyiv

Church, monastery gardens & the river Dnipro, KyivPicture of the cathedral at the Lavra

Goodbye Manchester Hello Kyiv/ Kiev

I’m starting a secondment with the British Council working as one of 5 “Canny Creatives” across the far flung corners of the Western Balkans and the former Soviet Union – from Kazakhstan to Serbia, Azerbaijan to Ukraine – to develop opportunities for UK artists and companies by developing cross cultural partnerships and sharing innovative creative practice.

I plan to share what I observe – both professionally, and when I’m being a tourist-visitor – via this blog; and I’ll aim to keep it short, opinionated, and with plenty of visual aids.


And not too many rules…  There is no Security Department in this blog. 

Last week, apparently, it snowed here in Kyiv. I packed more clothes as a result of the text from Natasha saying it was cold. I paid extra for a second case (to be expected), and then I had to pay extra again for a case that was over the weight limit due to the amount of knitwear and thermals I threw in at the last minute. And now I’ve got here, it’s a balmy 14 degrees.