The new international terminal in Kyiv (Kiev) is predictably bland. After a mini hiatus with passport control, I am met by a driver holding a sign with my name. He speaks zero English & I even less Russian. So we make do with hand gestures. Quite soon I am wondering what the specific hand gesture for “slow down you bloody idiot I don’t want to die today” is. To portray this positively, I would say we make “excellent progress” into town and then get snarled in traffic.
Aside from frustrated F1 drivers in waiting, Kyiv certainly has surplus traffic with it’s 3+ million residents all out at once on its 1600km of streets it seems. The traffic ranges from ancient beaten Volgas & Ladas to the very latest (vulgar-iffic) Porsche 4X4s, Bentley super-saloons and Maybach limos. What’s a Maybach? It’s the uber-luxury brand of Mercedes Benz. Apparently, Ukrainian businessmen send their Maybach to collect Germans from the airport. Often, the Germans have never seen a Maybach, let alone ridden in one… I noticed some very flash cars at the passenger pick up zone that would’ve looked out of place in the swankiest parts of London.
You see, the Ukranian mentality is about showing your status. If you are rich and important you dress rich, drive flashy, eat decadently and generally big-it-up here. They love a bit of bling in Kiev. I oft wonder who actually buys the tip-top-of-the-range motor car and then optioned the biggest wheels and blacked out glass. Say, a supercharged V8 Range Rover with white leather. We are talking the thick end of £100k for all the bells and whistles. Yep, I’ll have one says the Kyiv entrepreneur. In black. With black windows.
And so it follows that doing business here has some interdependence with your, er, style. One Israeli gentleman asked a colleague of mine how they liked his $300,000 watch? A watch costing a THIRD OF A MILLION? All I could imagine was the willpower to avoid the temptation in responding “are you freaking MENTAL!?!” To fill the (surely awkward) silence, the wearer offered that to “do business here… you need to make the right impression.” Wearing a watch worth as much as a family house certainly creates AN impression it has to be said.
The hotel my hosts picked out for me is the most lavish I think I have ever stayed in. Ever. So many staff, so many fresh flowers, so much decor, so many bars/restaurants. Carpets with the day of the week wove in to them in the lifts. By the time I reach my room I am all blinged out. Taking a look out of the window across the rooftops, it could be a district of Paris. To get my bearings I slip on the walking shoes and head out into the city. Hours later I return with some feeling of how the place hangs together. I reward myself with a trip to the sauna. This proves to be the hottest sauna on earth and the steam room likewise. They have a cold plunge pool and this makes all the difference… ahhh.
On the final evening of my visit the HR manager takes me to dinner at a traditional Ukranian restaurant. Ever eaten at “a Ukranian”? Me neither. Well, we start off with horseradish Vodka – home-brewed, natch – with garlic infused pig-fat on rye bread to bring out the flavour. The starters are potato cakes and meat dumplings which are hearty, satisfying and plentiful. Then the main course arrives: meat, potatoes and beer. I pass on dessert. You are probably wearing an expression of displeasure by now? Fear not dear reader, it was a very satisfying meal.
To walk off some calories, we wander back to my hotel and wait in the OTT lobby for her husband. This proves most enlightening, what with it’s mini-Vegas pretentions with Dubai levels of over-appointment. My attention turns to the people. There are a notable number of very heavy set types – turtle-neck jumpers, long black greatcoats – with clear curly cables feeding earphones carrying briefcases. It’s 10PM on a Wednesday. A grand piano is expertly tinkled while a young lady breathes sultry standards in perfect pitch whilst her enunciation is slightly off. (As one might if singing in a second language.) Cigar smoke wafts across the air as surly men carry gesture laden conversations.
The Ukraine’s only casino is in the basement and as we sit and converse about work, two heavies move past ignoring our presence. They’ve right alongside as they drop a stack of bank-bound bills into a designer shopping bag. I think they were dollars. A stack? about 20cm (8”) high. That’d be a lot of money then. In cash. Is this small change for the casino?
Meanwhile on the 8th floor I note the Paradise Cabaret is taking place nightly from 9PM-6AM. “A Theatre Rather Than A Strip Club.” Well, that’s cleared that up then. A gaggle of ladies of a certain age arrive in the lobby. Fur coats and plastic surgery all round. Nice. Trophy cars, trophy cash, trophy wives. It’s a way of life here.
Not before time my colleagues telephone buzzes. Can I walk her to the main street so her husband can avoid the traffic? But of course. As we head down the road I realise the statue I can see from my room is Lenin. Woah, the big Kahuna. There aren’t many statues of Lenin left outside Russia. It is rather clearly under guard. By who? From what? The security are men from the Communist Party in monochrome camouflage. I do not stop to stare, nor ask who is likely to attack the monument as they appear to take the whole thing v seriously. (I note the more contemporary Independence Square monument down the road needs no security…)
Gentlemanly duty duly discharged I make my way back to the hotel and pick my way through a pile of limos* on the pavement, tiptoeing to the lobby. Avoiding eye contact with thugs I bottle out of ordering a beer and people watching.
Perhaps I’m getting old? Only a stout bald guy like me, alone in a high-rolling hotel lobby, with a dubious moustache in downtown Kiev… on a Wednesday…
So I make for my room, double lock the door and write this blog.
* collective noun for a gathering of limousines? A vulgar? An embarrassment? An ego? An indulgence? Answers on a postcard please...