Friday, October 13, 2006

"Anticipated Impressions": Part Two of an International Travel Diary From a Guest Blogger

(The finale of Jim Rutman's reflections about a fairly recent trip to Kiev. Read Part One not too far below.)
Of course, visiting any part of the former Soviet Union, for any casual newspaper reader, causes the involuntary dredging up of the ossified journalistic tropes and observational tics that have been so ruthlessly assigned to the bewildered populace and city-and-landscape of the major cities. Even the most practiced appraisers of place tend to run up against the irresistible temptations of photographic and sociological clichés, as if their visa validations (no longer required in Ukraine for Americans, by the way) depended on it. And so even the sullen inside-outsider runs face-first into anticipated impressions: of the challenging, workaday meanness of the average worker or pedestrian; the parade-accommodatingly wide avenues and the atmospherically overstuffed underground passages that connect them; the misleading plaster pastels of older structures attempting to defray the cost of the heavy tolls collected by the institutional giganticism of Stalin’s planners; the rich, oozing, health-code-defying local foodstuffs and omnipresent vendors of street-legal alcohol; the sartorial injustices visited upon the good, sweatily sexy citizens of this vast region: blotchy denim and form-hugging rayon for the boys, revelatory, stiletto-accompanied non-outfits for the fearsomely frank girls; the preponderance of glossy European sedans cruising past unbearably despondent babushkas trying to compensate for invisible pensions at every corrupt public corner in unconscionable demonstrations of the divide between wealth and destitution, the swift and the still. They're all there, evocations of the charter characteristics of the big-boned Russian Soul, waiting to be noticed, debated and puzzled over.

And I was no better than dispensers of such judgmental shorthand, and likely worse, since I compulsively unloaded my biting observational barbs on my far more generous family members.

Kiev is a city devoted to panorama. City parks and their bench culture are pleasingly rampant. And as you negotiate the inclines and declines of this river-bisected metropolis (Kiev is Europe’s third largest city in terms of area, I read) you invariably run into vista. The overlooks on the older, more venerable West bank of the city police that entire fringe and give a determined walker countless markers to aim for and notice through the lush greenery that so prettily suffuses the more heavily trafficked and central precincts.

But in a place that briefly but prominently attracted the world’s political attention, it’s difficult not to feel keenly disappointed and confused. The courageous, frost-bitten, text-messaging youth who willed the Orange Revolution into existence are well hidden in summertime Kiev less than two years after their stint as marshals of the Democracy’s Progress parade. And if you happen to be Semitic in origin, and are unable to find the determined, rosy faces who led that progressive charge, you start to glean a worrisome nationalistic uniformity in the Ukrainian (and historically Semite-loathing) faces of the unhappy passerby. And you feel justifiably bad for failing to understand the scope of the problems that have led to such deflating and numerous backward steps as political stalemate cascades into conflict, strategically expedient re-alignment and fatal compromise. Unavoidable growing pains or more distressing evidence of Soul in conflict with itself? A battery of governmental skirmishes and reversals took place while we toured the city. But I couldn’t read the Ukrainian papers, and so repeatedly returned to my unimpeachable ignorance, an easy place to rest and take in the view.



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