Beneath the cold post-Soviet veneer of the city of Kyiv lies a warmth that is unparalleled. A happiness that breathes, but also a pain that at times seems too much to bear. This city teaches you things. It moves you to be better, to find love in the smallest of things, and to embrace every hardship not as an adversary, but as a friend.
Some people say that Ukrainians don't smile, and in some way, that’s true. But the lack of smiling faces does not equate to a lack of happiness. The difference between Ukrainians and, say, other Europeans, is that Ukrainians guard their happiness. For them it’s precious. It’s fleeting. And it is always at risk of being taken. Yet once they let you in, it’s an amazing feeling. You can lose yourself in a Ukrainian smile, and for that matter, find yourself as well.
Sure the city itself lacks a bit of infrastructure, and things are done quite differently here than say in the United States, but that is what makes it special. There is an interesting mesh of new constructions and Soviet-style Stalin-era buildings. To me every single room, every single structure, tells a story. You get a host of stylish (some might even say posh) establishments, clearly aimed at foreigners, but you also get the small hidden gems, which, if you can find them, will definitely change how you view the city.
Like any and all things of beauty, (as the rose can look beautiful, yet prick you till you bleed) , Kyiv undoubtedly has its flaws, for nothing is perfect. The beauty merely hides the minor blemishes and imperfections. I am an African American male who does not speak Russian or Ukrainian, living in a country that is ethnically diverse, but completely lacks such diversity in terms of race. Needless to say, I stand out a bit. I don't talk about it often, because its difficult to talk about. You see the beauty of being different in a country like Ukraine is that you get to see the good the bad and the ugly. You see, the best and the worst of us all. Kyiv leaves me in awe of its beauty, and can at times bring me to tears with the some of its ugliness - like any place I suppose.
I have been confronted with Nazi salutes by men and women merely passing by. I have been harassed at clubs by people who at least had the common decency to tell me directly that they were racist. I’ve even been told, as a U.S. citizen, to go back to Africa – and more than once. But these instance are not enough to change how I feel about the city - it’s merely a truth that cannot and should not be ignored. It’s a small percentage of people here that feel that way, and most stares I may receive are out of curiosity. The hardest part I suppose is the feeling of isolation you can have here, being different as I am.
My expat friends will never understand, and as soon as I hear “yeah I get that too, or it’s because your foreign, or because you speak English, I know not to ever bring it up again. For it is beyond their grasp, and whether they realize it or not, belittles my experience. So I find it easier to keep it to myself.
With that being said I still love the city of Kyiv, and I love Ukraine as a country. I won’t let the few ruin the positives that I have gotten from the many. Sure the situation is tense, but I have never felt unsafe here. The good outweighs any of the bad. If there’s one thing that I have learned traveling, it’s that often it doesn't matter what your looking for. Ultimately, it all comes down to what you are willing to let find you. I did not find Kyiv, it found me, and it continues to find me, again and again, every day.
You never know how strong you can be until being strong is the only choice you have left. Ukraine is a strong country. Its people are courageous and loving. Yes, there are bad elements here, but the good are worth the visit, and often lead to people staying. Kyiv breathes life into those who are willing to seek it. It’s not a paradise by any means - it’s a home, and like home, you take the pain and learn from it, you take the laughs and store them away for a rainy day, you take the dysfunction and call it love.
The road ahead for Ukraine is a difficult one. Russia is bearing down on it, and Ukrainians find themselves stuck between a rock … and a concrete slab. Yet when ever things escalate, a sudden calm comes over me, and I understand why Ukrainians fight. You see, I remember that some roses can even grow through concrete, and in a land that others have turned gray with aggression and discontent, that beauty - that rose - is something worth fighting for.
Alphonsine Williams is an American writer, Internet show host and journalist living and working in Kyiv, Ukraine.