I had to laugh earlier this week when I read the Associated Press‘ gushing ode to the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.
Shining with Orthodox golden domes that rise from forested hilltops, crisscrossed by narrow cobblestone streets, and speckled by quiet, leafy parks, Kiev draws visitors with an Eastern European charm.
Cobblestone streets? Leafy parks? OK, the city’s got some of them — but that’s not the Kiev I remember.
What about the choking traffic and car horns, the crosswalks that are mere suggestions? The air, redolent with smoke and industry? What about the lines, the surly shopkeepers? The taxi drivers who pounce on you outside the train station and smile through gapped teeth as they haggle the price to your destination (one cab driver, learning I live in Berlin, smiles and points earnestly to the dashboard on which a swastika and a set of Nazi wings are affixed)? What about the hawkers and babushkas who pluck hectoringly at your sleeve in equal measure along wet, reeking underground passageways. What about any of this? It’s the stuff of sidebars in such stories as the AP‘s.
During a month crisscrossing Ukraine last fall, I spent a great deal of time in Kiev and the grimy realty of the place, the evidence of the Moscow elite coming in and buying things up, eclipsed those quaint cobblestone streets and what were some pretty stunning monasteries and catacombs, which the AP somehow things encapsulates the city. But so what, you say? Who wants to read about the reasons why one shouldn’t go to a place?
For me, all of the above makes Kiev more worth visiting, if only to see if these two poles — bona fide tourist attractions on the one end and a city unprepared to meet the demands of tourists on the other — can ever really meet.
The AP makes Kiev sound like a tourist destination, in the same way Prague is a tourist destination (ridiculously, the New York Times actually named Kiev the “next Prague” a few years ago, not realizing how far it still has to go to earn the renown of the Czech capital). I can still see Amna Cernychika, shaking her head and smiling in her office at the Ministry of Tourism, confiding in me: “I think we are not ready to attract so many people from western countries, because they will be disappointed of the situation here, of the level of service.”
Such articles as the AP‘s, reprinted on CNN.com, talk down to readers, and they condescend in their assumption of what readers are interested in — while glossing over, if mentioning at all, other aspects of a place that are apparent to a traveler after 30 minutes. The flip side of the coin deserves proper airing, too.
Kiev is expensive in the way that Moscow is expensive, meaning unreasonably so. Yet it is with a certain degree of pride that locals will brag about this expense. Kiev is not trying to be the next Prague. It’s trying to be Moscow’s little sister, a place of excess and new money, a place where status equals where you shop and eat and what you drive, a place that wants to happily combine all the rich trappings of western states with the stubborn holdover of old fashioned, frowning Soviet unhelpfulness. The couples strolling Khreshchatyk — Ukraine’s “main street,” lined with Hugo Boss and Louie Vuitton — do look fetching, but the happiest people I saw were at the terrace bar of Kiev’s 5-star Hyatt, the deep-pocketed businessmen and speculators who were closing deals at the tables around me.
Kiev is many things, but ‘charming’ it is not. It is drab and picturesque, fraudulent and honest, uninviting and tempting. You’ll come out on one these sides or the other, or maybe somewhere in between. But either way you’ll have to encounter both.