For the past three Summers, I have traveled to Ukraine to visit my web developers.1 The first trip, my wife and oldest daughter traveled with me. The next Summer (2018), I went solo, and missed my wife’s keen sense of direction. Okay, I got lost. But for me, that’s not so unusual. I frequently misplace myself, even in familiar places. But this time, I was walking the streets of Kiev after midnight, in the dark, by myself.
Earlier that day, my gracious Ukrainian hosts fetched me at the airport and drove me to the Airbnb, a nice, modern apartment in downtown Kiev.
I unpacked and settled in, while they returned to their office to finish their workday. The plan was to meet the team at a restaurant later that evening, walking distance from my apartment. Perfect.
A few hours later, I left the apartment with ample time to stroll to the restaurant, even allowing for some misguided turns, my specialty.2 As the wooded path from the apartment joined the street about 100 meters out, I paused to look back. With my reputation for getting lost, I wanted a visual on how the scene should look upon my return.
I noted the path’s entrance from the road and how the tree canopy formed a green arch above, like a forest cave covering the concrete stairs that advanced upward to the apartment building where I would later return. I also observed the yellow and blue flowerpots that flanked the path’s entrance. Good landmarks, I thought. Got it. Locked in. On to dinner.
The web dev team and I shared a wonderful meal together in a hip restaurant in downtown Kiev. The entrance to the dining area greeted us with ceiling-to-floor white macramé.
Once seated, the team suggested we order a few appetizers so I could sample traditional Ukrainian food. Cool, I thought… sort of.
This is the point where I should mention my astronomically narrow palette for finer cuisine, measured in ångströms. But I was in Kiev and wanted to fully experience the culture. Cue the appetizers.
First up, an aspic, made of rooster gelatin. Served cold.
Except for being salty, it wasn’t too bad. I didn’t feel compelled to rush the second bite, but it was palatable. Indulging in a third bite might have diminishing returns, in terms of furthering my culinary enlightenment, so I abstained.
The second dish, Krovyanka (кровянка in Ukrainian) was originally translated to me obscurely as “sausage”. Sounds good. Looks good too.
I was looking forward to this one until Vlad felt I should have a more accurate translation. Krovyanka is pig intestine stuffed with coagulated pig blood mixed with lard and buckwheat, served blackened. Unfortunately, this updated translation was provided before I tried it, much to everyone’s amusement.
Being mostly blood, it was rich, but I managed a small bite and some objective commentary. Culture experienced.
The third dish was Salo (сало). Lard. Pure lard. I don’t remember much about this dish… probably just as well.
After our main course arrived, I noticed the appetizers remained largely uneaten. I assumed my dinner companions were being polite, allowing me to try everything first.
“Are you guys going to eat these?” I asked.
“No way! We don’t eat that stuff,” they replied.3
This is when I realized the joke was on me. Let’s see what we can get Andy to eat and pretend to like. Very funny guys.4
That part had nothing to do with getting lost, which happened later that evening.
Lost in Kiev
After exploring Kiev via a combination of walking and Ubering with Dima, Anastasia and Alexandra…
…around midnight, I decided to call it an evening and return to the apartment. Alexandra, one of the founders of the web development firm, was nice enough to share the Uber with me to ensure I returned safely without incident, dropping me off first. I’m sure it was out of her way so that was a nice gesture.
However, the Uber driver could not find the apartment building where I was staying. This should have been my first red flag… that a local driver couldn’t find my destination even using Google maps.
After circling the area a few times in the car, I thought…
Wait… I recognize something… that’s the trail that leads up to my apartment. I’m glad I glanced back as I departed earlier.
“That’s the path to the apartment,” I said. “The building is through those trees and up the stairs. I’ll just walk the last 100 meters if you drop me off here.”
“Are you sure?” asked Alexandra.
“Yeah, the apartment is just up that hill. I remember it from when I left earlier.”
“You’re sure you know where you are?”
And there are the blue and yellow flowerpots as well, I thought.5
“OK. But text me when you get in.”
“I will. Thanks.”
“No, Andy, really. Text me when you get inside the apartment, so I’ll know you are OK.”
“OK. I will. Promise. Good night.”
“Text me…,” she said again as I shut the car door.
Red flag #2… ignored.
As the Uber sped away to take Alexandra home, I turned toward the trail, stared 1.5 seconds and cocked my head 20 degrees to the right, like a puzzled dog who doesn’t understand what you’re saying.
Wait a minute… I’m not where I thought I was.
I looked back to see my ride turn the corner and disappear out of sight.
Well, there goes that option.
It suddenly became obvious how dependent I had been on the locals to lead me around all evening.
Reality check – midnight. Kiev. No cell phone signal. No Wi-Fi. No Ukrainian nor Russian language skills. No one around anyway. Very dark, except for the occasional streetlight. Alone.
I was sort of in a predicament. But hey, at least it was a beautiful evening. I still had 50% battery life on my phone, and it felt safe. At least it did when we were walking around the city center as a group and all the other people were around, unlike this location. And did I mention I was alone? In the dark. In Ukraine. At night. Lost. That was starting to sink in.
Let the adventure begin.
Before I left Sweden to fly to Ukraine for this trip, I told myself to enjoy the adventure, regardless of how my trip played out. I was traveling alone. Without Sofie to help me find my way around, I would almost certainly be lost at some point. It was just a matter of when. Although, admittedly, daylight hours might have been more convenient.6
Getting lost at night was just going to be another part of the journey for this trip. This would allow me to enjoy an evening stroll and learn to be completely self-reliant in finding my way.
Using the display of my iPhone as a dim light aimed at the ground, I walked around searching for something familiar to lead me toward the apartment, building 15.
After roaming around about 45 minutes, I saw a lady smoking outside her apartment building. She was standing by the green park bench pictured below.
I approached, hoping not to freak her out, and asked, “Do you speak English?”
“Yes,” she replied, not freaked out.7
Excellent. My lucky day.
“I’m looking for building 15. I think I’m close because… that,” pointing to my left, “is building 17 and this,” pointing to her building, “is building 19.” I can’t be too far from 15, one would think.
Apparently, “yes” was the only English word she knew, because she didn’t understand anything I said. Nor did I understand her Russian.
Although we failed to communicate eloquently, I did manage to convey through hand gestures that I was looking for building 15, not 19, where she lived. After a few minutes, she shrugged her shoulders to let me know she knew nothing of the elusive building 15 and simultaneously signaled she had tired of the conversation.
Non-verbal communication is important.
In this case, her shrug said…
I came out here for a peaceful, quiet smoke after a long day and now I have to deal with this idiot. Ask me how many cares I give about this right now.
(I’m pretty sure this picture was taken in Texas, but the point still stands.)
So that was the extent of her help.
I thought to myself, How can you live one or two buildings away from another building and not know where it is?8
Meanwhile, she was thinking, How can you get lost in the middle of Kiev after midnight and be sober? I deal with idiots all day at work… including my boss… and then my husband when I get home. I get one moment of peace to relax and smoke my cigarette at the end of the day and now this. Mint.
She had a point.
But technically, I wasn’t lost. I just couldn’t find. That seems somehow different.
I parted ways with my new smoking friend and resumed my walk, passing buildings 2, 11, 13, 14, 17, 19… not in that order. Some, I circled multiple times. Clearly, there were some numbers missing, if not whole buildings, most notably, fif-freakin’-teen!
After an hour orbiting the general area, several laps, I began to figure my odds of sleeping on the streets of Kiev. Considering my mobile phone battery was now at 20%, I estimated about a 50-50 chance.
While working this calculation, I turned down a narrow alley. During the day, it looked like this:
In the darkness of night, with only my cell phone as a light, it looked more like this:
And then, I recognized something… something from the movies.
This is the scene in every B-grade scary movie when the teenagers have the brilliant idea to separate. One of them inevitably walks down a dark alley in the middle of the night, alone… because that seems logical when they are running from a guy with a hockey mask and a chainsaw… the same guy who cut their friend in half moments earlier… and can somehow walk faster than they can run.
The difference here… this wasn’t a movie.
I was watching myself in third-person on the big screen. Somehow, I landed a bummer role in this horror film. Even the acting was bad. And, against my better judgement, I was compelled to follow the script exactly as written.9 So, there I was, walking into the shadows, even as I could hear the audience yelling, “No! Don’t go down that dark alley!” Apparently, scary B-movie scripts are more realistic than we thought.
Fortunately, I did not hear the buzz of a chainsaw. Instead, halfway through the alley, I heard two people whispering behind me, about 10 meters back. Although I could not see them, I could hear their hushed voices. Either they were following me (not good) or I had just passed them, completely oblivious they were standing silently in the shadows as I walked by. Like I said, it was dark. Really dark.
Had they whispered in English, I would have understood them to say, “Who’s this fool walking around at this hour with his phone pointed to the ground like he’s looking for a lost contact lens? That guy’s giving me the creeps.”
Instead, they whispered in Russian, which to me, sounded more like, “Take his wallet and throw him in the trunk.”
I only know four words in Russian, so this is a rough translation.
In uncertain moments like these, you find out if you possess the mental ability to calm your nerves, think/behave rationally and press on despite your circumstances, or if you follow your gut instinct and just pee your pants. Both were viable options.
While it was disconcerting to be lost and in this uncertain predicament, I simultaneously found myself contemplating how this was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. I was both concerned and euphoric. In other words, I felt alive.
And guess what happened? Nothing. At least nothing bad. I just kept walking.
After an hour and a half (now 1:30am), I figured my best chance to avoid spending the whole night on the streets of Kiev was to return to where the Uber driver dropped me off. Maybe Alexandra will send a search party, since I had not texted her as promised. I felt bad that I was surely keeping her up late waiting for my text. She was probably starting to worry by now.10
As I walked back toward the Uber drop zone, I spotted a young couple holding hands, out for a late walk. This is a good sign.
“Excuse me, do you speak English?” I asked.
The guy replied in English, “Are you lost?”
He grew up in the area and knew how to find the elusive building 15. They said they would walk me to the door, which they did.
Fortunately, this is the apotheosis to the story. No chainsaws. No blood. Only a wonderful experience, a fun memory and a nice evening walk.
With this adventure, I felt more alive than I have in a long time. And the question “Why is that?” lingered with me. I have since put some thought into this. Here’s my answer…
Life is best lived balanced between Order and Chaos – between predictable actions & outcomes and unpredictable newness, possibility and adventure. In the middle, there’s a healthy tension.
We like Order, but we also need a modicum of Chaos, a little strife in our lives. It’s healthy. Chaos encourages, perhaps requires, us to grow through new experiences with some level of unpredictability and uncertainty of outcome.
Good strife, in moderation, adds just the right volume of life-stressors to promote growth through the building of confidence in oneself. For this reason, life should have a certain amount of discontentedness and stress. Chaos prods us to grow and produces self-reliance.
In the months (perhaps years) prior, my life had an abundance of Order and insufficient Chaos. Too much Order produces a stagnant life, a stagnant business, or a stagnant economy.
Getting lost, and dealing with it, helped me find more balance in the delicate duality of Order and Chaos, by adding Chaos. As a reward, my brain released a dose of endorphins or dopamine or whatever the brain does in these circumstances. Hence, the exhilaration and euphoria in the moment. That’s my explanation anyway.
Ukraine – a Parallel
Ukraine is a culturally rich country with proud, entrepreneurial people. And even though I joked about the appetizers at the restaurant, the food in Ukraine is amazing. Truly stunning cuisine.
Politically, Ukraine has been in the news more than normal in recent years. In 2014, the Ukrainian government was completely up-ended in what has been labeled the “Revolution of Dignity”. There are still visible bullet holes in the town square in downtown Kiev (and other cities in Ukraine) from this event that shed blood, ousted the President and subsequently purged parliamentary members from the overthrown regime. Shortly after, a large peninsula on the Southern tip of Ukraine (Crimea) was annexed by Russia.
The exact classification of Crimea is now a bit nebulous. Is it Russian (Крым Наш)? Is it Ukrainian? Is it Crimean? Some combination? The answer, if there is one, completely depends on who you ask. Was this a Russian invasion or an invitation from the residents of Crimea? Again, the answer depends on who you ask. I have heard both versions of the same story, multiple times.
While the issues faced by Ukraine are layered with strata of complexity and nuance, the main struggle, as far as I can tell, is that Ukraine has not been allowed to balance Order and Chaos along its journey.
As a Soviet state, there was stifling, repressive Order. Too much Order and oppression to allow growth. Now, there’s too much Chaos, both internal and external, impeding the stable, controlled growth of a nation.
Internally, there have been bouts of governmental corruption (although this is improving). Internal Chaos is further amplified by divided allegiances, between those who are pro-Russian and those who are pro-Ukrainian. This Chaos shows in the language(s). Even pro-Ukrainians often speak Russian to each other, though they would prefer Ukrainian.11 There’s also Chaos in some governmental systems (like the tax system) and physical structures, but things are improving (for example, with the newly re-established police force).
Externally, there’s Chaos simply from the country’s strategic location, next to Russia. Ukraine is viewed as a strategic set piece in the political chess game between Russia and the West. These two larger opposing forces push and pull, whipsawing Ukraine to advance their own political agendas. Most recently, the political Chaos within Ukraine has intensified as it relates to U.S. politics.
A result of all this has been Chaos in Ukraine’s overall economy. Despite the sheer will of the people, Ukraine struggles to gain its footing on its path to growth. Caught in the middle of two larger political forces, the bullying effects are felt in their daily lives, adding to their struggle to balance Order and Chaos.
But Ukraine isn’t so much lost; it’s just trying to find. There’s a difference.
There’s something about the vibe in Kiev, a blend of vulnerability & resolve, helplessness & hope, and the audacity & bravado to move ahead anyway.
The Ukrainian people are striving for a better future, looking for their path flanked by blue and yellow flowerpots. They have already had the conversation with lady-liberty, smoking her cigarette, who struggled to understand the problem, shrugged and couldn’t be bothered to help. Looking for their collective path, the people of Ukraine have walked down the dark alleys. They have heard the whispering voices of two ideologies just behind them and have chosen to steel their nerves and press on despite their circumstances, to find their way through the darkness, even if it means sleeping another night on the streets of Kiev.12
Addendum – 2019 Trip
To end on a lighter note, when I arrived the next year (2019), my third trip to Ukraine, Alexandra sent Vlad and her husband Denis to pick me up at the airport. They drove me to my destination, a different Airbnb apartment. Once there, I thanked them for the ride and told them I would see them later that evening. However, Denis and Vlad both said, “We are under strict orders from Alexandra. We are not allowed to leave you until the apartment owner greets you at the door.” They were both a little afraid of the consequences if Alexandra found they had left me without officially passing the baton of responsibility-for-Andy to the next person who would look after me. Smart.
It’s good when your friends take care of you, even when you don’t realize you need it.
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- If you need excellent web developers, let me know and I’ll make an introduction.
- It’s also slower going when you can’t read the street signage because Ukrainian and Russian character sets are different from English. So, rather than sounding out words, I had to character match. In Russian, “street” is улица. But to me, it’s “y-pi-backwards N-U with a comma-a”. Sounding somewhat similar phonetically, “cap B-y-pi-backwards N-U with a comma-backwards R” is вулиця, the same word, except in Ukrainian. Basically, I’m highlighting my ignorance here.
- Except the rooster gelatin, which Anastasia continued to spread on bread and eat for nostalgic reasons.
- For posterity, the culprits: Alexandra, Anastasia, Vlad, Ira, Ivan. At least the guys ensured I knew what I was about to eat before it went in my mouth. The girls wanted it kept a secret. Hence, the initial “sausage” translation.
- I would later learn that many of the flowerpots around the city are blue and yellow, because that’s Ukrainian national colors, same as the flag. Blue and yellow flowerpots are scattered throughout the city, a poor location marker. How was I supposed to know that?
- Actually, I know for a fact it’s more convenient during the day, because I tried that too, on this same trip. The main difference is, during the day, I just asked two police officers for directions. One spoke English well and was happy to help. No big deal.
- I believe it was mutually understood she could take me in hand-to-hand combat.
- Turns out, I was only ~70 meters from building 15, but it was a little tucked away and hidden.
- Except I did not randomly decide to take a shower.
- I later learned Alexandra was coordinating with the others to send out a search party. They had agreed to give me 15 more minutes before they jumped in a taxi to try to find me. I texted her 14 minutes later. Just in time. Sorry about that.
- After the recent revolution, many people are now switching back to Ukrainian, which was forbidden under Soviet rule.
- I asked Alexandra to read a draft of this for me… to get her feedback on event sequencing for the evening I was lost and for some help with the names of dishes and other translations. But I especially wanted her thoughts on this section about Ukraine. It’s important to me that I provide an honest, balanced portrayal of my impressions of the country, while remaining culturally sensitive. I really wanted to get this part right. Among other comments and corrections, which I have incorporated, Alexandra added the text below in her commentary back to me. While she did not anticipate that I would include her comment, I thought it best to just use her words rather than mine (with her permission), because it conveys the cautious optimism and grit native to Ukrainians. She writes,
“Even though the tone of this piece is dramatic, I’d add something positive here, a little bit of hope. We have a comic who played a President, now elected as our actual President, with 70% support. Stupid, but at the same time, you can see our sense of humor, no matter how dark our streets are. :) But really, it’s not so bad. We are making baby steps to a better future. People identify themselves as citizens of Ukraine. The tech industry is building a big future for the economy. We now keep our streets clean with less litter. We fight for our rights instead of keeping quiet like before. We no longer bribe, because corruption starts from people who give bribes rather than those who take. A better future won’t happen tomorrow, but it will definitely happen.”