My Ukrainian Epiphany
How a Few Moments Reshaped My Entire Identity
We get out of the car, stepping onto the red brick sidewalk. I look around and take in the sight. Across the street sits the Kyiven Opera, coated in a peeling layer of paint the color of milk hot chocolate. Construction is well underway, with a copious amount of scaffolding surrounding the golden dome of the ancient building.
The street before us is bustling with traffic; an assortment of prehistoric Russian Ladas and primitive Ukrainian Zaporizhias with peeling paint are intermixed with shiny new M Class Mercedes and V8 Audis. The cars seem to drive in no particular pattern, and the sound of perpetual honking is louder than that of New York City.
There is a pharmacy down the street from us with a bright green LED display informing everyone within the vicinity that it is, indeed, a pharmacy. To the right, I see a small corner store, with a large yellow banner labeled магазин продуктів, which literally translates as “store of products.” Next to the door is a multi-colored electronic panel, with the words “trade of currency” pasted on top in bright big letters. It is covered with the rates of conversion of countless currencies to and from the Hryvnia.
Further down is a booth with newspapers poking out from the inside and commercials and posters covering it on the outside. Hidden behind the counter window I can faintly see candy, ice cream, soda, cigarettes, and beer, all made for the consumption of the same target market.
The city street smells distinctly of gasoline and oil, and yet somehow, my nostrils do not feel like they are on fire.
The buildings around us are particularly interesting. Some are the architectural wonders of the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, shockingly well preserved in such an urban environment, while others are the casualties of Nikita Khrushchev’s communal housing program, thorns injected into Kyiv’s skyline in the sixties and stuck in it ever since.
As I turn around and look at our building, I immediately notice that it is one of the latter. A nonsensical assortment of worn-out air conditioners sticking out from the façade of the building. The eggshell colored paint is peeling badly, revealing the paper white color of the drywall underneath it.
As I stand there and take it all in, I quickly decide that I love it. I love all of it. I love the tingling sensation I feel in my nose hairs when I take in the air. I love the thunder-like sound the metro vent under us groans out every time an ancient blue and yellow train passes under us, emitting warm air escaping from the tunnel. I love the wooden boards surrounding the scaffolding, which are painted a patriotic blue and yellow, disturbed only by an occasional advertisement or glue-pasted crumpling paper poster. I love the giant billboards, half of them peeled, littering the skyline in front of us like bird excrement on a Lamborghini.
I love the patriotism. The pride. The giant Ukrainian flags leaning out of each and every building. The small Tryzubs on nearly every car, whether in keychain form hanging off of the rear view mirror or in shiny silver plastic, glued to the trunk. I love the giant banner covering the Trade Unions Building—a casualty of the revolution, burnt down by police—with giant rusted chains being cracked, pulled, and broken apart under four giant words: “Свобода - Це Наша Релігія.”
“Freedom - This is our religion.”
I have not seen it yet, and yet I know that it is there. I realize, right then and there, that I have a unique heritage. Not just any heritage, but a heritage to be proud of.