Amazing Places on This Planet

May 5, 2018
Večer (in Slovenian)

Friday, April 27

I’ve been walking around Kyiv too much these past few weeks. Today, I’ve done 15 km. The city’s such a happy place again, after half a year of winter’s cold and gloom.

Yesterday, I suddenly realized that 32 years ago, when the Chernobyl Power Plant blew up on April 26, 1986, everything was exactly the same as it is now: people were drunk with springtime joy, the city was crazily beautiful and so tender, life was good because we’d all survived yet another winter. That day, my mother took in a dog from the street, and I, a 12-year-old then, couldn’t have been happier when I got back from school: a dog of my own, finally! And, until much later, hardly anyone knew anything about the horror that was happening just 100 km to the north of Kyiv.

Chernobyl is about thousands of disrupted human lives, the criminal cowardice and silence of the authorities, the fear of the invisible threat, which lingers on for years afterwards. It is also about an interrupted Kyiv spring.

Saturday, April 28

We’re flying to Istanbul tomorrow, so today is the day of packing. I can’t wait, I love traveling, but at the same time I hate leaving, always feel desperate, even when we’re just going on vacation. There are these brief trips that don’t involve any heartbreak, such as saying goodbye to dear friends, and then there are the real, long-term departures, when you’re leaving places and people you love for long enough for it to feel like forever. And a tiny part of me refuses to admit that there’s a huge difference between the two. What’s good about it, though, is that I love returning to those places and people I once left, and this seems like a good explanation (though not the only one) of why we’ve been stubbornly traveling to Istanbul as often as we can for the past 19 years, ignoring other amazing places on this planet.

Sunday, April 29

Getting through passport control in Istanbul and then, through a traffic jam, to our friends’ place takes longer than actually flying here from Kyiv. But these 40 minutes of waiting just to get your passport stamped prepare you well for what’s ahead, for Istanbul’s scale, the amount of life here, all the people, cars, boats, cats, food, laughter, noise, everything. Istanbul is like a huge puppy that can crush you to near death, accidentally, just playing happily with you, unaware of its own force. It’s an incredible city, always overwhelming, never boring. Tiresome, too, perhaps, but we’ve never stayed for more than three weeks here, and somehow that’s not enough time for me to get tired of Istanbul.

We are flying on to Edremit tomorrow, so we’re spending the night with our dear friends who live close to the airport. I take a walk along the seafront, where hundreds of people are enjoying the sun, barbecuing, flying kites, riding bicycles, taking selfies, eating out in cafes, and watching airplanes fly by just a hundred meters above us. Every two or three minutes a plane appears over the Sea of Marmara and heads for landing, bringing in all those crowds of people from all over the world that we hung out with at passport control earlier today. It’s mesmerizing to watch these planes, I could do it for hours, checking where each one’s coming from with the Flight Radar app, imagining what those places are like, dreaming of traveling to some of them one day, looking at the sea in between these arrivals. It’s a good way to fight my fear of flying, too, very reassuring — so many planes, and they all land without any problems.

Monday, April 30

The day’s first call to prayer wakes us up at dawn, reminding us that we aren’t in Kyiv anymore. But no matter how different Istanbul is from Kyiv, it feels just as much like home, just as precious.

Our flight to Edremit takes about 40 minutes, our friends pick us up at the airport. Our friends, who have long been like family to us. Each time we return to them, it feels as if we’d never left.

After two antiques shops and a delicious lunch — oh, how I always miss these hedonistic meals that we have here! — we finally make it to the mountainous village called Kayalar, which translates as the Rocks. Our friends’ beautiful house sits right above the village, but it’s the Greek island of Lesbos a dozen or so kilometers away across the Aegean Sea that dominates the view: you see it once, you cannot take your eyes away until you leave, and even then this view stays on in your mind. As always, I have no words to describe the beauty of this place.

Tuesday, May 1

If it weren’t for the minibus with loudspeakers and May Day stickers all over it, riding through the streets of Edremit yesterday, blaring “Yaşasın 1 Mayıs!” (“Long live May 1!”), I’d probably not remember about May Day today. Here, the holiday still has a genuine feel, with the annual attempts to hold rallies in Istanbul, despite all the police and their water cannons, tear gas, and helicopters circling above Taksim Square.

Back home, it’s just an extended weekend for most people, the time to go to their country houses, plant potatoes, detox or get drunk, relax. In the former Soviet Union, May Day is an anti-work holiday.

My mother says they stopped taking it and other Soviet holidays seriously after Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 speech, in which he denounced Stalin and his crimes. I somehow have a very vague memory of just one May Day rally, the one they forced people to attend in 1986, on the sixth day after Chernobyl. This is something that is still hard to fathom and impossible to forgive. The official evacuation of Kyiv’s schoolchildren began two weeks later, in mid-May. I was sent away on May 7, for a whole year. That summer my father wrote me in one of his letters: “The most striking thing about Kyiv now is that you won’t see a single child as you walk outside. Just imagine, a city of 3 million and no children whatsoever.”

Wednesday, May 2

In the courtyard of one of the antiques shops that we stopped at on the day we arrived, I noticed five cannonballs of slightly different sizes. I lifted one, it was rusty and very heavy.

“Imagine how horrifying it is to have those flying all around you,” I told our 12-year-old daughter.

The shop’s owner said they were from the WWI battles that took place in Çanakkale, an hour or so away by car.

Troy is over here, too, whatever remains of it. Mount Ida is nearby, and that’s where the Greek gods sat watching the Trojan War.

Behramkale-Assos has the ruins of its ancient temple on top of the hill, and the view of Lesbos is simply perfect from there. Pure tranquility. Aristotle lived there, St. Paul passed through. An elderly local man once told us his ancestors’ graves were on Lesbos and out of reach to him — an echo from the 1923 population exchange between Turkey and Greece. Fishermen’s boats make for a beautiful tourist sight, but coast guard boats are there as well — the magnificent Lesbos, so idyllic from a distance, is now witnessing the tragedy of thousands of refugees.

This is the ancient land, packed with stories and myths from the distant and not-so-distant past, and it is so full of life still.

Thursday, May 3

A few weeks ago, I spent an hour looking through old Soviet postcards at Kyiv’s book market, three boxes of signed ones, sent by strangers to their family, friends and colleagues 30–40 years ago. The vendor said he had 30,000 more stored in the corner of his tiny, dark shop, and I immediately saw myself spending the rest of my life there, sorting through this treasure trove. Then I reigned myself in and bought just 15 cards for less than 50 euro cents.

Some of them are handwritten calligraphically, with pencil-drawn lines, some are even typewritten, a Soviet practice I’ve totally forgotten about. Some make me a bit depressed, others make me smile. I have them all in front of me now because I’d been hoping to write about them. But Kayalar is a very fjaka-inducing place, so it’ll have to wait.

But here are two teasers.

From a 1979 New Year’s card, Astrakhan to Kyiv: “Nothing good in our lives, all the same over and over. Drinking is ruining everything.”

From a 1983 March 8 card, to the same recipient, from a different, Leningrad-based, friend: “I’m thinking about last summer so often. How good it was. Wish we could repeat it at least once more.”


Nika Smetana (aka Veronica Khokhlova) lives between Kyiv, Moscow, Istanbul, and Otok Vis; loves walking, languages, cities; loves telling stories to herself and to anyone who’d listen; has always kept some sort of a diary, got herself a blog in 2003; occasionally writes and edits Central & Eastern Europe content for various venues.