We touched down to Boryspil Airport in lovely summer weather, to applause from the cabin. I wish I didn’t just view the applause as the charming custom of others; I wished to have clapped with them. To physically express my relief, my praise (to God or the co-pilot, who are not one and the same.)
So far, I have two pieces of advice for Ukraine.
1) Fill out both halves of the border control form, the Arrival and the Departure. You will have plenty of time to do it as you wait in a relatively small arrivals hall that can handle about three planes of people. Forty five minutes or an hour of quiet, orderly lines until we reach the border agents. These are all young men, close-cut hair, not the near shaved heads of American men their ages. Our agent looked at our four passports and laughed. Shook his head and laughed. Passed them back over the counter. Pointed to the blank side of the departure form on one and waved us to the side. No words spoken.
Kiev is a magnificent city. A city kind of city, with grand streets and parks, glorious buildings. After we checked in to the Radisson on Yaroslaviv Val, we took a walk down the street past The Polish Embassy. An hour before, coming in from the airport, we saw a motorcade of the Polish president going out. The guards at the front of the embassy don’t seem any different after he’s gone. Maybe a little more nervous.
Soon we are at The Gold Gate of Kiev. The last piece of original city fortification. Massive gate, massive brick structure, massive reconstructed wooded structure surrounding it.
Advice #2: Study the alphabet. Why did I waste my time on anything other than absolutely mastering it. Posta, Bankomat, Restaurant are among the few words I can easily recognize. But I should have been able to understand the monument to Yaroslav the Wise, founder of St. Sophia, at the foot of the gate.
Phil can read Cyrillic letters. He says he doesn’t understand most of the Ukrainian he’s reading. But he’s reading and is better off than I, in my dulled imperviousness to the text that surrounds me. As soon as I post this, I’m going back to my lessons. I want to know what the commercial signs are saying, to read the building names, the street signs. To revel in the ubiquitous historical plaques whose bas-relief illustrations are filled with emotion.
Our brief walk before dinner brought us to the grand vistas and the serious 18th and 19th century public and middles class architecture. I love and recognize the ambitions and success of this city. “They’ve been doing this for over a thousand years,” Phil reminds me. “They’ve pretty much figured it out.” New York is a baby in comparison.
All night in the airplane from New York to Zurich, and then again in the airport, and then again in the plane to Kiev, my father took notes in a small pocket notebook. The notes were all data. The time Sara picked us up, the time we arrived at the airport. The time we left the gate, the time we started takeoff, the time we were served food . Getting out his pen and notebook, he kept jostling me while I slept and I was getting irritated at the pointlessness of it. Irritation was easier to feel than the sadness of it—my father’s short term memory is going. He’s trying to stop information from disappearing. He’s the Borges story “Funes el memorioso” in reverse . For as long as I can remember–ahem, ditch that memory-based phrase, I should just say the follwoing has always been true: For over sixty years my father has recorded the following set of data each time he fills his car’s gas tank: Date, miles driven, gallons, price, mpg for the trip. It was, he told me in one of my kitchen table driving lessons, integral to the proper functioning of the car, this ability to see when the car is doing well. The glory of the physical sciences, he told me, was that the scientist need memorize very little. A few basic formulas. A few constants. The periodic table. That was the beauty of the discipline. But I think the matter of memory was far more fraught for him, even when he had it. He prefers non-fiction because it offers “facts.” Now, my father is trying to keep hold of the things that make his world. Not the names of people who did good in the world, but the numbers that would confirm it.