Kyiv: Under Construction, but what about Culture?

The first thing I noticed in Kyiv was that the entire damn city seems to be under construction. There’s a reason for this – it is. Roads are being widened and/or re-cobbled, footpaths are being created, churches are being restored and even a stadium is being built. While it might be nice to think that it’s all to make life easier for the locals and improve stuff in the city, it’s not. Sure, these are all side effects of the work being done, but in reality Kyiv is being recreated for one reason – it’s hosting Euro 2012 in, you guessed it, 2012.

Euro 2012 is a big football thing – soccer if you’re Australian or American. Calling it ‘soccer’ in Europe is not the way to make friends. The mere mention of ‘soccer’ inevitably provokes an angry response and results in a lengthy lecture. The European Football Championship is held every four years and is a pretty big deal around here. So, while Ukraine is actually co-hosting with Poland, it still wants to make sure Kyiv is looking her very best. However, after traveling in Ukraine, I think that there’s more that they need to do in preparation for Euro 2012, and it doesn’t involve cobblestones or new paint. It’s about people, and it’s about culture.

I imagine that they are expecting an invasion of tourists from all over Europe. Are they going to care if the inner city proudly shows off a new stadium and clean windows? Doubtful. Are they going to care if they’re unable to get to a match because they can’t work out how to navigate the metro system, let alone find any correlation with the map that has street names in the Roman alphabet when all street signs are in Cyrillic? Definitely.

While I would expect the average traveler to at least make an effort to learn the Cyrillic alphabet, I doubt that the average group of drunken British football hooligans are going to take the time to do this. So when they’re unable to get a taxi and need to take the train somewhere it’s going to be  disaster – even in the Kyiv Metro, all signs including the station names are in Cyrillic alone. They won’t be able to get anywhere because they won’t have a clue how to read the name of the place they want to go.

Well, I hear you say, they could just ask a local. And that’s not an unreasonable suggestion. Here’s where culture comes in. While in many countries it’s easy to approach a stranger and ask for directions, fingers crossed behind your back that they speak English, it’s a little difficult in Ukraine. That’s because nobody looks remotely approachable. Smiling is unheard of – apparently smiling at a stranger suggests that you are either retarded or an escapee from a mental institution. Everyone looks perpetually dour, and so it takes a lot more courage to go up to one of the disinterested and cranky looking locals and ask for help. And don’t bother standing around turning your map upside down or frantically [and quite obviously] flipping pages in a guidebook. While this works wonders in some places and results in an immediate bombardment of would-be saviours, in Ukraine you’re just a nuisance; people will walk around you or push past you, sometimes glancing back disdainfully at the tourist who dared stand on the street corner desperately trying to work out where the hell that damned museum was.

Now I’m not saying that everyone in Ukraine is unfriendly, but that’s certainly the impression that you get. I met some wonderful Ukrainians; the problem is that it can be very difficult to build up the confidence to approach someone for help in Ukraine, and nowhere more so than in the capital. It’s intimidating. Your best bet is asking someone young, a teenager or someone in their twenties. They’re much more likely to speak some English – it wasn’t common to study English during the Soviet period.

So, while the masses of tourists who will converge on Kyiv for the games will see a nice, clean city with a brand new stadium, and drink vodka that’s still cheap despite the massive tourist markups, they’re likely to leave with the impression that the city, if not the country, doesn’t really want tourists. Unless there’s some kind of program of cultural awareness in Ukraine – like ‘smiling does not not cause cancer’ prior to the hordes descending, I think that a lot of people are going to come away with a pretty negative impression of the country and its people. Signs translating the metro station names into Roman letters wouldn’t hurt either, and would make the city much more tourist friendly [although to be honest, I learned the Cyrillic alphabet and liked the challenge of transliteration]. Even Tehran has the names of stations in English as well as Farsi.

Why should they consider these things? Because people travel for different reasons, and people travelling somewhere for a sporting event are focused on the sporting event; they’re not there to experience the culture or expand their horizons. Many, if not most, are there to get wasted and watch a bunch of men in shorts kick a ball around a field. There’s going to be a LOT of them, and they will want things to be easy. They want to be able to get to the game without dramas; they want to be able to ask for help if it’s needed; they want to feel welcome. They’re not going to want every little thing to be a challenge. And while it’s easy enough to break through the dour mask that Ukrainians put on in public if you’re there for a while and you want to, if people going there for a few days to watch the footy find themselves glared at and stared at by everyone they pass, and all they experience of the locals is the hand slamming down change on the counter without a smile, they’re not going to have much good to say about the people.

Except the ladies. I’m not talking strip clubs. I’m talking just about every damn young lady in the country. It’s a constant kick to the self-esteem, walking around Ukraine as a slightly-above-size-2 foreign woman. The women alone might be enough to salvage  – or indeed completely overwrite – any negative impressions that football fans may have of the country.

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