Another enormous Lenin statue, ho-hum. You mean American cities don’t have these?
“From now on,” I said to Anna as we picked our way through Kiev’s uncomfortably vast Kontraktova Ploshcha, “I want you to give me a running commentary on all the things you find ‘Soviet’ about Kiev. You’ve gotten me so curious what you mean by that; I have a feeling you’re seeing all sorts of things that I now take for granted.”
And thoughtfully, with eyes that wandered from the Kiev streets to her childhood in Moscow twenty years ago, Anna began supplying me with revelations: detail after detail about the post-Soviet world that had, at some point, begun to pass beneath my notice. The distinctive gray asphalt, perfectly formulated to shed dust like crazy, such that a babushka with a twisted straw broom must always be present to sweep the sidewalk clean. The tram and trolleybus wires overhead that slash through every urban photograph. The coats of gloppy paint that blur the sharp edges of every interior surface. The frumpily patterned sofas in every sitting room. The sidewalks that double alternately as free-for-all parking lots and as drag strips for hurried drivers who expect pedestrians to jump out of their way. The three-minute metro escalators, so long that the bottom can’t be seen from the top, with the rubber hand grips that always go just a bit faster than the steps, such that if you try to lean you will inevitably and hilariously topple forward onto your face.
These are the tiny, prosaic details that will mean nothing to you if you haven’t been here. Yet these are the minutiae from which one’s subconscious forms its sense of place. And each of them, I discovered, had at some point ceased to be part of “life in a strange country” and had become, simply, Life.
The post-Soviet world has subsumed me. Minus the (ever-shrinking) language barrier, I often feel nearly as comfortable in Ukraine as in America – an exaggeration, obviously, but right now I can almost believe it’s not. I send packages and get haircuts and buy fruit by the kilo from babushki sitting on overturned crates on the sidewalk. I wolf down redolent shawarma purchased from greasy kiosk windows on back streets. I hop on marshrutkas based solely on a feeling for where they might go. I jump in unmarked taxis after loudly haggling for a fair price, and I strike up a Russian conversation with the taxi driver after we’ve come to an agreement. I regularly sleep on overnight trains and have distilled the process to a science, reveling in all the fascinating rituals and cultural encounters that are an indivisible part of the experience.
Each of these lessons was hard-won; every one of these small-scale acts, believe it or not, was something that scared me out of my mind the first time I set foot in Russia. But now? It’s all just Life.
It’ll be ten months abroad by the time I get back home. I wonder what my old American life will look like through these eyes.