Travels

A Metal Man and the Colossus of Kiev

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And so we gathered together again – from Britain, Hungary, Switzerland, Denmark (et cetera, et cetera) though mostly from Russia and Ukraine – over Easter 2006 for the Eurocon, this time in Kiev, the furthest to the east a Eurocon has been held so far.
Usually you’re lucky if a local mayor turns up at a Eurocon, but in Kiev the opening ceremony, with dramatic banner for backdrop, was thronged, and attended by two government ministers, and ended with the Ukrainian national anthem heroically sung by massed choirs through giant speakers. Half of Ukraine wants to join the EU, and half is pro-Moscow, an awkward situation, so this ceremony seemed to say that if a European Science Fiction Convention meets in Kiev, Ukraine is almost part of Europe. I heard that some pro-Russian Ukrainians deliberately stayed away as they didn’t support this viewpoint.
Aside from a multitude of towering new apartment blocks going up (looking well designed, at least on the outside) a first impression of Kiev is of battered little buses which wait until they’re full before setting off, whereupon all the packed passengers pass their money forward hand to hand with great honesty to the driver, and he passes change back, whilst presumably he pays some attention to other traffic. Then you notice a Bentley leaving the road to drive along a wide pavement to stop outside a bank, or a casino – never have I seen so many of both, often for convenience next door to one another. Old women sit on subway steps hoping to sell a few buns, while down below is a de luxe shopping mall. Not to mention an elegant metro with the longest, deepest, fastest escalators I’ve ever seen, the cost of traveling anywhere on it mere pennies.
For all non-Russian-speakers our hosts recruited personal translators from some of the many Kiev schools that teach in English; and wow, were they fluent, and tall for approximately 15 years old. This was of course useful, though it became a bit of a burden if a flock of translators accompanied a few of us into a pub or cafĂ©, since we felt we ought to pay for those schoolkids – not that they were in the least greedy, just that Kiev seemed an expensive city unless you’re a bun-lady outside of the Dior and Bentley economy. Stop at an ATM to extract more Hryvna!
A sumptuous publisher and writer reception (sort of) didn’t produce any actual business; my Russian agent Alexander advised me to get drunk instead. Wonderful Imants had hoped to bring my Whores of Babylon in his Latvian edition to Kiev, but Imants paid the translator, an alcoholic poetess, in advance so she drank instead of translating. Even so, Imants was to win a Eurocon award for Best Publisher; and quite right too – any publisher who pays translators in advance is a paragon! (I’ll visit Latvia in the Autumn for the launch of Whores, after Imants has detoxified the poetess. Incidentally, many speakers of Euro-English believe that “bitch” equals “whore,” which lends a new meaning to “Stop bitching, will you?”)
Sergey Slussarenko stroked his whitening beard whimsically after receiving the Eurocon Encouragement Award. We went to a birthday party at Sergey’s flat, which wasn’t new, so the electricity failed and the only clue to events came from camera flashes. In such circumstances all you see are retinal afterimages, so you experience a situation only after it already happened, an interesting time-slip effect. Due to darkness, I sat upon Sergey’s large amiable woolly dog. Only when I shifted and tried to pull the comfortable cushion with me did I discover that the cushion was alive.
Peter and Roberto and I decided against a day trip to Chernobyl. Rain (of which there was plenty) would have dampened down the dangerous dust, but we could already well enough imagine desolate melancholy and trees growing through the roofs of abandoned cottages, and we were avoiding mushrooms which concentrate radioactivity more than any other foodstuff. So instead we went to see the huge weird house designed by architect Vladislav Horodetsky, an admirer of GaudĂ­, who erected this residence as a challenge on a steep hillside – five floors on one side, three on the other – and adorned it with protruding elephants’ and rhinos’ heads. Giant frogs squatted along the parapet, and creatures resembling Chthulhu dangled over. Halfway along the nearby gloomy Pasazh, where the arty crowd used to hang out, we came upon larger-than-life Horodetsky himself having coffee at a table on which lay his book about big game hunting in Africa, all in metal.

Tough Security chaps scrutinised us whenever we entered the Hotel Sport beside the convention centre. A nearby coffee bar and pizza place with beer-hall at the back, which many of us settled on as a watering hole, also had its own Security. Pizzaria Security and hotel Security teamed up in the middle of one night to bang on the door of Hungarians Sandor, Jun, and Attila, hunting for Jonathan Cowie, convinced that he’d stolen a cushion from the pizzaria, since a CCTV camera caught a slim bespectacled person doing so, and Jonathan fitted this profile. When we escorted the innocent Jonathan to our watering hole in the morning to sort things out, lo, a mystery man had already thrown a cushion in through the doorway, and run away. That mystery man later confessed with – let us say – a Gallic shrug, that he was sleeping on a floor in the Sport and wished to be more comfortable. More challenges from a mischievous universe awaited Jonathan, although over these I draw a veil of sub judice.
Mist and rain veiled the city much of the time; however, in a park full of palaces, Roberto discovered the Colossus of Kiev, a heroic Soviet-era statue of a rural doctor braving the elements with his black bag:

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