When I think of Kyiv, I think of trying to explain salo to skeptical Americans, and drunken runs to the grocery store at 11:00 p.m. with my brother-from-another-mother to schlep fantastic mustard home with us in our luggage. I think of the beautiful painting I bought at a street market -- and then promptly lost in the Hamburg Airport (first time) and then Newark Airport (second time) on my way home with it.
I think of Arturas taking the client out for drinks that, as it turned out, were literally on fire and singed his (the client's) eyebrows -- and left him so hung over the next day that he could barely stand. I think of all the times my envious, Russian-American father asked me, "Are you sure you don't need someone to carry your luggage?" And I think of all the times that Sasha and Artem used to physically stop me from crossing against the light because they were certain my NYC pedestrian habit was going to get me killed.
I remember speculating with my friend Heather in the middle of the city about how the leggy young Ukrainian women eating ice cream while walking on cobblestone streets in 4-inch heels must not ever eat anything else, and how the homeless woman taking care of twenty dogs had the best sales pitch of all time. I think about drinking half-gallon mojitos at a Cuban restaurant with Matt, Sasha and Nastya (pictured above). And I remember thinking that as long as Ukrainians were not prepared to have non-smoking restaurants, they were never going to gain admittance to the EU.
I remember watching Euro Cup 2012 from the sideline behind the Italian bench while listening to thousands of drunk British fans sing fight songs for their team before losing in a shoot-out. And I remember the police raiding the bar/brothel in our hotel bar at 2:00 a.m., just before Matt and I had to leave for the airport to catch our plane home. I remember watching my friend Kari order steak, and raise my eyebrow skeptically at her culinary choice in a country far better supplied with pork than beef.
I think of Kyiv as an incredible, vibrant amazing city with phenomenal food, fantastic coffee and a generous abundance of alcohol and second-hand cigarette smoke. I think of it as the city where American visitors were always given a tour, and were shown incredible beauty and hospitality and sent home with a new appreciation for a city dripping with history.
I think of Kyiv as where my friends live.
And now I watch Putin destroying it and I just cry.
Tomorrow is my 47th birthday. In and of itself, turning 47 doesn't particularly make me feel old until I think of living long enough to see the end of the Cold War, and now the beginning of this next, new, horrible phase of history. It's too soon to know what it will actually be, but since I woke up today to news that Russian troops were attacking a Ukrainian nuclear plant, I think calling it a new "cold war" is probably underselling it a bit. Instead we are all now living in a pathetic old, madman's insane fantasy about what his 'Russian Empire' legacy should be.
And I watch Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy transform from Charlie Chaplin to Winston Churchill almost overnight. I watch my friends, both those still in the country and those who have long since emigrated, take near violent pride in the fact that the Ukrainian military and civilian forces have given the much bigger, better armed Russian forces a run for their money.
And I think of Yana. One of my Ukrainian friends who is nearest and dearest to my heart. She loves animals, and a good, complicated math problem. She is brilliant and funny. She loves spicy food and traveling to exotic locations. She adores Illy coffee and racing motorcycles. She advises startups and explores the world with her equally wonderful hubby, Vlad. And once they made it to Western Ukraine from Kyiv, I asked her if her goal was to go to Poland or to try to wait things out in the western part of the country, she said, "Vlad won't be able to leave Ukraine. So I'm staying with him."
Not that I ever would have doubted that would be her position. But to have her say it so directly gave me pause. Would I say the same thing in her place?
It made me realized that, in the past, I wouldn't have been able to say that. It shames me to know that I was married and would not have been that firm in my conviction at the time. But now, at 47, the second time around the marital merry-go-round, I know I would. Which, once more, I find makes me feel old somehow. Like it took me an insanely long time to learn something that other people figured out at a young age. I don't know if that makes me old, or just slow. I feel a bit of both at the moment.
In my sense of overwhelming helplessness more than 6,000 miles away from my friends, I find myself plagued with another fear that I associate with age: the fear that everyone else will move on and forget what is happening. I fear that American ADD will kick in and by Monday Putin's slaughter will be old news. I fear that my daily check-ins with my friends will stop being possible. I fear that Putin's toxic masculinity will escalate to the point where there is nothing left to save of a beautiful country and a resilient people.
I fear that my friends in the US will never get the chance to take their kids to the amazing city of Kyiv, and show them what it is to be in a country that continues to make the choice to be free, honor the principles of a democratic future and fight for their opportunities. I fear that my father will die and I will never get to take him to one of the places he has always most wanted to visit.
My (Ukrainian) former boss told me last week: "I don't think the world has the resolve. Ukrainian people have the resolve, but I don't know if they have the strength." I've been thinking of those words all week, as we've watched Ukrainian resolve transform into something the whole world can rally around. I fear he is right, though, by themselves, the people of the Ukraine are outgunned and outnumbered. They need the rest of the world.
So this is my plea (call it a birthday wish): please don't let this get lost in the white noise of other crappy news, much of which deserves attention, too. And if you would like to help, there is a ton of need -- from the army, to children, to abandoned pets, to NGOs for refugees.