I knew it was time to leave Ukraine when they knocked down the cigarette stands across the street.
It’s not that I smoke cigarettes, but that was my go-to place for late night chocolate. I had established a rapport with the salesgirl that didn’t need language. A smile, a Здравствуйте, and then she would pull out the box of assorted chocolate bars for me to rifle through.
And then, a month before I was set to leave Ukraine, I looked out my window, and all I saw was rubble.
They’ve been doing this for over a year now, at least. Tearing down the kiosks that crowd the corners of Kyiv. The day after I renewed my contract at work, the nearby Georgian food stand disappeared. I was devastated. These kind of pop-up shanty stores are probably illegal, and so prevalent that I’m amazed that they all manage to stay in business. So on one hand, I understand tearing them down. But also, come on. What happens when I need a chocolate fix and the productky across the street is already closed?
It was an omen, I decided. Things were changing in Kyiv, and I needed to leave before they changed too much.
Or rather, I needed to leave Kyiv before I changed too much.
I remember arriving in Kyiv two years ago, at the end of February, and how it was dark and misty when we left the airport. I remember the little café we went to for dinner and the hip bar for a glass of wine. I remember being tired and a little unsure but open. I had just finished three weeks of traveling in Mexico, which had been glorious but also unsettling. I had felt ungrounded there, and I was ready to be planted, at least for a little bit.
I would hardly call my life in Kyiv ‘settled.’
~ ~ ~
I’ve been living in Tbilisi for about three weeks now, having stepped off the plane with no apartment, no job, and no friends. But Tbilisi is an easy place to live, and now I have all three. I’m surprised to find it reminds me more of Bucharest than Kyiv, which is maybe a good thing.
Last week I got an email from a friend, saying “I didn’t know you were even thinking of leaving Kyiv!” Probably because all I do is talk about how great Ukraine is. Cheap cocktails, nice people, fascinating city, etc etc etc. And yes, I do love Kyiv.
I was also insanely miserable.
A lot of it was not Kyiv’s fault. I felt like I was faltering at work. Creatively, I wasn’t producing anything interesting. Friends had left, returning to their ‘real lives’ in the States.
Some of it was Kyiv’s fault. I hadn’t seen the sun in five weeks. My hot water inexplicable shut off for three weeks in the middle of October. The dating option for expat women seemed to be assholes or nothing.
I don’t remember exactly who I was when I first touched down in Kyiv for my three month ‘trial run,’ but I remember who I was when I returned last September. I was elated, full of the happy bubbles you get inside when you feel like you are somewhere you belong. But slowly I had changed, morphing into a cynical, bitter, angry woman with a short fuse. Things that wouldn’t have bothered me before now set me off in a deep rage, as I really believe only a New York woman can feel. I yelled at a man who pushed into a crowded metro car after me, and then we spent an awkward five minutes shoved together, me fuming and him wondering what English nonsense had come out of my mouth.
Was it just a lack of vitamin D that had turned me into a crazy person?
~ ~ ~
In my nineteen months in Ukraine, I kept myself busy. I slept on overnight trains, in hostels where no one spoke English, and in my very first apartment that was all my own. I went to my first ski resort, an emergency clinic, and horseback riding in the mountains. I made mistakes, American-style brownies for my students, and friendships with bartenders around the country. I fell on the icy sidewalks, into anxiety, and, looking back, I think maybe I fell in love.
I lived a very full life, but it began stacking up on itself. I started seeing the city in layers. I looked around cafes and restaurants and saw the past. Here’s where we spontaneously planned a weekend getaway, here’s where we learned to blow hookah smoke bubbles, here’s where we had a goodbye dinner for a friend. And maybe that was the problem – all those goodbyes. People left Kyiv, but their memories stayed with me.I was mired in the good and the bad of my past lives, and all I was left with was the regret that things had changed. And no matter how desperately I tried to move forward, make new friends, eat at new restaurants, see new sights, I seemed stuck. It was doing my head in.
So I decided to learn from everyone else, and I bought myself a plane ticket home. To New York. That home.
To be honest, I so desperately wanted Kyiv to be a place where I could be happy. And maybe that’s still possible. But I knew that, if we were to ever have a happy future, I needed to put it in the past before I totally went batshit crazy.
~ ~ ~
Both the café and the bar I went to that first night underwent renovations shortly before I left. I thought it would be deliciously poetic, on my last night in Kyiv, to visit to both of them in their new guises. I was going to go alone, because I like being miserable. But I worked late, finishing up paperwork, and as the texts from my friends came in, asking where to meet me, I ditched my self-pitying plan. I was tired of retreading the past. I had changed, and I wanted to go to one of my places in Kyiv.
So we went to Hendrick’s, my favorite cocktail bar. I told the bar manager it was my last night, and he gifted me a bottled cocktail to take home with me. I talked to strangers about how much I adore this city. I felt loved by my friends. I drank too many cocktails and deeply regretted it on the plane the next morning. But I didn’t regret choosing to ditch the past and instead celebrate myself and the life I had made in Kyiv.
I didn’t cry when I left Kyiv. I didn’t feel a sweep of relief, either. Maybe it was the hangover. But I think it was because I had spent the last three months boxing with my complicated feelings for Kyiv, so that when I boarded the plane I was more interested in seeing what movies were playing than I was in doing any more self-reflection. I was leaving, that’s all.
I miss Kyiv terribly, but I know I made the right decision because I 100% do not miss the person I was those last few months. I will keep telling good stories about it, because Ukraine is a special place. And hopefully in a few months I’ll be able to go back, even if just for a visit, and I’ll be able to appreciate everything the city has come to mean to me. With the fast rate of change that Kyiv experiences, it will not be the same, I’m sure.
But then again, neither will I.