I wasn’t going to eat my food anyway. But I felt irked all the same that this weighty German in his wine-coloured blazer beside me was leaning over my tray table and helping himself uninvited to my lunch in between pauses in his diatribe against all that he perceived me to represent. How he chortled when he found out that I did not know where I was to live for three months.
I was feeling ill (perhaps in part from dislike for my neighbour but most likely down to the journey), I had taken flights overseas alone before, I was 18 and just out of high school but more accustomed to rapid journeys to the south of France or family holidays to Canada. I was embarking into a world that was new to me and was new on the map. Kiev, Ukraine, 1995 a country but 4 years independent.
The churning in my stomach was the same I had felt some months before while skiing in a white out, unable to see neither my skis nor the fingers of my gloves stretched out before me. Floundering. This was a period before the all ubiquitous guidebooks and the internet – there was a real paucity of information. There were no blogs! I had signed up to come out and teach and that was it, my journey felt painfully unplanned and out of control.
I had no map, no home and now my neighbour was suggesting we meet for a drink in downtown Kiev later.
Was I disappointed with my choice of destination? Never, for as soon as we touched down, within clear view were the Soviet style soldiers of my imagination as if springing from the pages of a LeCarre novel or from off the screen during a Bond flick. Customs was equally reassuring, I understood nothing and stood obediently and blankly in front of the official, all the while sweating profusely dressed like some madman in three layers of winter clothes in mid August. My only mental image in preparation in coming to Ukraine was one set to the thudding and foreboding music of Prokofiev, a grey and overcast place with snow on the ground 12 months of the year, a place where everyone is an informer and every foreigner a spy and the gulag a reality.
Over the course of three months I grew up from a privileged privately educated Londoner to an individual who could move seamlessly through the droves of commuters in downtown Kiev. I felt truly independent, wholly adventurous and completely embraced in the bosom of my Ukrainian family.
It was always going to be a learning experience, new language, new place and completely new way of life but some social stereotypes were played out: we few foreigners in Kiev were treated with real suspicion by the authorities and I was later informed that my phone lines had been tapped…but it never occurred to me that in addition to consuming far too much borscht and vodka that I could also bring some of my knowledge and impart it to Olga and Vladimir.
Once, playing in the inaugural game of the Kiev Cricket Club and having bowled out the ambassador on a full toss, I recall Vladimir showing up to watch and having brought a football along with him in case we got bored. He tired first and departed, leaving us in pads on the makeshift cricket pitch, a football field. If cricket were almost a foreign language to me, what on earth could it represent to the Ukrainians?
My Russian and indeed Ukrainian were nil upon arriving in this foreign land but after a few weeks I had garnered some conversational phrases and was making progress. Olga and I would sit chatting fluently in different tongues and pointing at words in a dictionary when something became too complex, and over time we cemented what can only be described as a mother – son relationship.
Really, my epiphany if you want to call it that was a reaction in opposition to another plate of buckwheat with a fried egg on top. “Ukraine has potatoes, millions of them,” I said and set about baking one and in the interim period, grated the cheese.
Neither Olga nor Vladimir had ever tried a baked potato with melted cheese, Olga whispered – I think with a measure of pride – every time we made them again: “карто́фель Richard”, or Potato, Richard style.
That was 17 years ago, and the memory is a clear to me now as if it were yesterday. I guess you could say I ceased being a travel virgin over a baked potato with melted cheese.
(The author spent three formative months in Kiev in 1995, July, August and September and still counts them as some of the most rewarding in his career as a traveller. He lived in an area called Svertoshin with Olga Nikitichna and her nephew Vladimir. He has lost contact his Ukrainian host family).