The Wild Dogs of Kyiv – An Eerie Sight and Sound

There’s a 10-hour difference in time between Southern California and Kyiv, so both times I traveled there I went through some pretty brutal jet lag.  That meant that I was up and about – as much as I felt comfortable doing so – very early in the morning with regularity.  It was actually a nice time to look around a bit, as there was almost no one around, so I wouldn’t be getting in anyone’s way or otherwise annoy people.  It was quiet and almost surreal to watch the sun come up over the old, unique buildings in Kyiv. 

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One morning, after stumbling through a coffee order at a local java stand, I found myself looking at some of the buildings in hopes of memorizing them for use as landmarks during subsequent trips out.  It was just then that I heard a tremendous barking sound around the corner.  It wasn’t just a dog, but it was obviously a lot of dogs.  My initial reaction was excitement.  I have two dogs at home and I really missed them while I was gone. 

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Hula and Kimo

I walked toward the noise and as I got near a viewpoint, no fewer than 10 really big dogs charged right past me and ran across the street.  They decided to skip the underground tunnel – good move. 

They continued to run and bark as if they were hunting something.  The cacophony of barking seemed to bounce off the concrete, causing a strange urban echo.  I noticed that they all looked pretty well fed and they were basically recognizable breeds.  I wasn’t sure what was happening.

As I was processing all of this, someone grabbed my arm from behind and spun me around.  It startled me to the point where I was surprised I didn’t spill my coffee.  It was a little old man who was yelling at me and pointing to my face.  I had no idea what he was talking about of course, so once again I resorted to holding my arms out and looking at him with a quizzical expression.

He figured out I had no idea what he was saying, so we moved to the amateur sign language portion of our meeting.  He pointed at the direction in which the dogs ran.  Then he made a biting motion with his teeth, followed by him pretending to bite his arm and tear away at it.  Finally, he pointed back at me and grabbed my arm.

I was a little slow on the uptake at that point, but I finally figured it out.  These were not dogs that one should approach.  They were actual wild dogs.  As I got used to being up early and walking around a bit, I saw more and more of them around town.  Instead of moving towards them, I stood still and when they got close to me they really didn’t bother me.

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Catching some ZZZs

I saw a couple of them fight once, and it was one of the most barbaric things I had seen in a long time.  They were not fooling around.  Each went for the other’s throat immediately and one actually succeeded. The defeated dog skulked off bleeding profusely, probably looking for a place to die, while the victor grabbed what looked like a discarded fast food bag and took off.

I read later that there are thousands of stray dogs in Kyiv, and almost 3,000 people per year report being bitten by one in the city.  There’s a lot of controversy regarding how they should be handled.  Some believe in capturing and spaying/neutering them while others reportedly shoot them or poison them.  After that day, I knew I should not approach them, no matter how much I missed my own dogs.  This is a city of nearly 3 million people, and wild dogs roam the streets at dawn.  This is just another thing I never knew about this mysterious city before I got there.

The Underground Tunnels of Kyiv

During my initial trip to Ukraine, one of the first things I noticed that seemed at least somewhat familiar in Kyiv was the typical crosswalk sign.  It didn’t say, “WALK” like they do in the United States.  Instead it was a picture of a little green person walking – easy enough to follow. 

In those first few days there, I was happy to latch onto anything that I could understand.  I was crossing those streets like a super-pro-Kyiv-jock to be sure.  Yet there was one question that started to arise as I walked around a little bit more, never losing sight of whatever landmark I chose before heading out: Why were there no crosswalks at so many busy intersections?

When I looked around at these intersections, I saw stairs going underground.  I knew this was for the Metro, an underground railway system that wasn’t unlike the subways you see in different parts of the world.  I had read online that this is not the best or safest way to get around for foreigners who are alone, which made sense to me since I couldn’t read anything or talk to anyone anyway.  I’d just walk around and stay close to home base while I was there that first time. 

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Yet, why was no one crossing these streets?  There were a lot of people around.  It didn’t make sense to me at all.  Finally, I noticed some sort of youth sports team – it was a whole group of kids with matching parkas – walk down these stairs.  I assumed they were getting on the Metro, but about a minute later, they popped up on the other side of the intersection.  Mystery solved!  The crosswalks were underground.  I could finally cross the street in Kyiv.

When I walked down the stairs, I was amazed at what I saw.  Yes, there was a Metro stop nearby, but there were also a ton of these little fruit stands – and by the way, where did the fruit come from in January? – along with little flower shops and bodegas like you’d see on the streets of New York.  What there wasn’t was any sort of walkway or indication of how to get to the other side of the street.  I thought I was going in the right direction, but these tunnels had a lot of twists and turns, and it was anything but a straight shot.

Before I knew it, I was somehow in the middle of a pretty modern mall.  OK – what was going on here?  Was there some entire underworld in Kyiv that I didn’t know about?  If so, how come no one told me about it?  I also realized at this point that I was completely and totally lost.  I walked around for quite some time, trying to look like I had a clue what I was doing.  I looked for any sign that would take me out of this strange subterranean world that was teeming with activity. 

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Finally I saw it – a worn down, dingy sign with the picture of a guy going up stairs on it.  I had found my way out.  I walked up the stairs, popped my head out like some sort of prairie dog, and realized that I had absolutely no idea where I was.  Nothing looked familiar, my landmark skyscraper was nowhere in sight and I was ready to go back to my hotel room. 

I headed back down into the maze of tunnels and tried to retrace my steps.  I walked past the coffee place.  I remembered seeing the place that sold babushkas.  I remembered the drug store type-thing and finally, I saw some familiar fruit stands.  I walked up the nearest stairs to the outside and… nope.  Still no clue where I was. 

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Finally, after deciding to pop my head out of every staircase that led to the surface, I saw my skyscraper.  I walked outside towards it, only to come to an intersection that required me going underground again to cross it.  Not this time – I kept walking along until I could cross above the surface until I somehow found my way back.  It took me almost 3 hours to get back to my room, and I bet I was never more than a few blocks away.

Later, I read a lot of different explanations as to why these tunnels exist.  One talked about how they were there to beat the cold, which made sense.  Another stated that they became popular during World War II, as Kyiv took a pounding during that time.  Regardless, if you’re ever in Kyiv, it is an interesting piece of the city.  Just bring a bag of popcorn so you can find your way home.

 

Being Illiterate... Or 'бути неписьменним' In Ukrainian - I Think

Imagine that it's your first day in a new country, as it was mine in Ukraine in January of 2016.  I had never been to Eastern Europe, let alone Ukraine or Kyiv.  Imagine that you're starting to get that sinking feeling in your gut that you really have no freaking idea how to do anything.  That's mostly because you can't read most of the signs on the streets or on the buildings, no one can understand you and you have no idea what anyone is talking about.  

You've had a long day setting yourself up as a Ukrainian business, negotiating a baby contract and doing many other things, all in Ukrainian.  It's dinnertime, and all you want to do is find somewhere near your hotel where you can eat.  You think about room service, but the only TV networks you get are showing either fruit or trains.  

You wander out into the freezing winter night, and even though you can't read the sign, the lighting makes a building seem like it's a restaurant or a pub or something that has food.  You realize when you walk in that it is a pub or something like that, and you're thrilled - you can get beer and food here.  

You sit down and grab the menu, purposely not paying attention to the fact that everyone else in the place is looking at you as an obvious misfit.  You start to look at your options for dinner and see the following:

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You decide to go with the bechkne, as it's the most expensive thing (about $1.50 American) so you like your chances.  You see a guy with a huge, dark beer at a different table and point at that when the server comes.  You're not sure what's about to happen, but you don't really care anymore.

A few minutes later, out comes your dinner:

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It's a wooden platter of no-batter, deep-fried pigs' ears.  That's right - pigs' ears - the 'treat' that you feed to your dogs.  Fortunately, it came with ketchup, so that masked about 2 percent of the horrifying taste but sadly none of the vomitous texture.  You choke down about 3 bites of this and decide to flush the remaining $1.39 down the toilet.  

That's what it's like walking around in a city almost totally illiterate and barely able to communicate.  You wind up with dog treats for dinner and in a strange way consider that an accomplishment.  

Starting to get the picture of how quickly one can begin to feel like a total moron?

Hello! Or "Здравствуйте" As They Say In Kyiv

Did you think you'd be able to sort of piece together what "hello" looked like in Ukrainian because the English word was right next to it?  Yeah, I figured I'd be able to figure out what words meant in Ukraine too, but that was before I got there.  This should give you an idea of just how clueless I was while I was there having twin boys.  

Welcome to my Flip Flops in Kyiv blog.  Here I'm going to write some shorter stories about different crazy/weird/funny/scary things that happened during our time over there.  Some of them you'll find in the book, in more detail of course, and others you won't.  I feel like I owe it to anyone who's thinking about this to make sure they have an inkling as to what they're in for if they do this. 

I'll be updating this section of the Web site frequently, so check back.  You never know what type of story you might find here.  I certainly never knew what each day would entail over there.  

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Just your average giant snail thing on wheels that you see in Kyiv at dawn.