Fear is a funny thing. It has you thinking things you normally don’t think and thus behaving in ways you normally wouldn’t behave. I arrived in Kiev (or Kyiv City), Ukraine with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. Higher than average for a new travel destination.
I know from experience to be careful when traveling. I’ve been robbed in Argentina and near robbed in Brazil and Ecuador. The word on Ukraine was that it was a gangster’s paradise, not the 2 bit steal your camera hustler type, but the kind that could get you killed. Where did I get this information? Why the media and rumors from others of course. So it must be true I figured.
I decided in advance to be on my best behavior and do things by the book, the Lonely Planet Guidebook that is (every time someone had tried to rob me it turned out I had disobeyed an edict from the trusty guidebook). Not wanting to piss off the travel gods again with my blatant disobedience, I brushed up on the “do’s and don’ts” before I landed.
And just for good measure, I would not so much as even glance at a pretty girl (I did NOT realize how impossible that would be) for fear she was said gangster’s wife, girlfriend or misstress.
It was with this naively fearful attitude that I approached the Docker’s ABC Irish Pub, my first real night out in Kiev to take in show by local band “Mad Head” a veteran Ukranian rock-n-roll band with psychobilly roots (formerly Mad Heads XL) founded by Vadym Krasnooky and currently playing with a more decidedly ska influence. After reaching out to Vadym on facebook he invited me on down to check out the band.
Why did I come all the way to Ukraine to visit an Irish pub you ask? Good question. Dockers ABC pub puts on live bands regularly including some rockabilly and ska acts. Also it is right on the main drag in Kiev on a street called Kreshchatyk (say that 3 times rapidly after a few brews, I dare you!), but that meant nothing to me.
I couldn’t read the street names or much less ask for directions to a street I couldn’t even pronounce. I didn’t realize how rusty my actual map reading reading skills were (no i-phone service for me here, so 2008!), especially when you can’t read the words. I felt illiterate. I was good and lost before I finally broke down and asked someone and realized Dockers ABC pub was down an alley just off of Kreshchatyk and I had been circling within 50 feet or so for the last 45 minutes.
My initial and partially formed view at this point in my journey was that there were two main types of men in Kiev:
1) NON THREATENING – Small or normal sized ones who dress quiet well and may or may not carry what we would call a man bag (it’s like a really small briefcase or shoulder bag for men and they are everywhere) and
2) THREATENING – Big, manly, over-sized meat and potato fed men, bursting out of their too tight t-shirts that look like they’d eat a man for breakfast and the bag for dessert.
This security guard, as you probably guessed, was of the latter variety. And he looked like he had maybe had a bad day.
I squeaked out a weak sounding “spasiba” (thank you) after he took my $ and shoved me through the door of the club. “Ugggh”was his only reply. I assumed he didn’t speak English and pledged myself to start working on my “spasiba” pronunciation skills.
So far Ukraine was really earning that nickname I had read on very real souvenir magnet earlier in the day that said “Welcome to Ukraine, Not Smiling Country” (yup, I bought it, spasibo you very much). After making my way downstairs I explained to the bar manager in REALLY LOUD and for some reason slightly tarzanish English (I hear that helps foreigners understand better), “HELLO! I AM FROM USA. I COME IN PEACE. I AM HERE TO COVER BAND FOR BLOG PLEASE…. OH AND SPASIBA”.
He answered back in perfect, almost completely accent free English that it was good to meet me and to please follow him. He marched me right down the bar to a seat in front of the stage where there was a chair reserved for me already. Right between two of the surliest, baldest, thuggish, gold chain wearing, top 3 shirt buttons open, cigar chomping (alleged) criminals I had ever seen. And they too looked like they had perhaps had a bad day.
My chair was so tight between them that I couldn’t quiet get it out, without disturbing at least one of them. I briefly thought about crawling over the back of the chair but considered what might happen if my foot slipped and I spilled one of their drinks.
Realizing I wasn’t due back in the U.S. for another 6 days and that my body would be decomposing and smelling by the time anyone realized I was missing, I tapped the one on the left ever so gently on the shoulder and gave my best, PLEASE, MAY I SCOOT IN AND I PROMISE NEVER TO GET UP TO GO TO THE BATHROOM OR GET A BEER OR ANYTHING look and tentatively made my way in.
But oh man, did I need a beer at this point. That’s where Ukrainian design genius comes in. Luckily for me the stage WAS the bar extended really, so I was at the bar and the stage at the same time. I’d be looking up as the band played above me. I hadn’t seen a set up like this since I’d visited the old “Pussy Cat Lounge” in downtown NYC years ago (those who’ve been know what kind of club that was and those who haven’t, well, I’m sure you can guess). This was a perfect set up for me to get some pics and video and a beer from time to time without disturbing my surly neighbors.
Now as I said, I was being super careful so I decided not to bring out the big Cannon camera my 1st night in Kiev. I wanted to be free of worry about the expensive thing, so I decided to kick it old school with my little digital camera and my flip cam video cam. Both fit in my front jeans pockets so I was traveling light and not looking so obvious like a sucker…I mean tourist.
All through Madhead’s sound check I was doing my best not to disturb either (alleged) crime boss on either side. I stared straight ahead and pretended to be pecking on my old blackberry that didn’t even have Ukraine’s cell service turned on yet. I typed a few fictitious emails and texts to fictitious friends back home and yet another collection-demand email to Rich Vreede/Black Cat Entertainment for the money he still owes us (that “robbery” occurred in the U.S.A. by the way, which just goes to show you) and finally it was time. Madhead hit the stage.
Then, as if someone had pushed a button, with the first official strum of Madhead’s guitar, the first official blare of the trumpet and the first beat of the drum something amazing happened. My two seat mates became completely different, dare I say friendly and mellow people.
They went from surly and mean to the smilingnest, happiest people I think I’ve ever seen. And it wasn’t just them, the whole bar’s vibe changed. Immediately people were floating on air, dancing with strangers and on tables and chairs along to Madhead’s infectious reggae and ska inspired Ukranian ditties.
I saw one girl who had earlier been moping in the corner by herself like she had just lost her best friend and she now looked like she might be speaking in tongues soon. She was smiling, dancing, eyes in a far off place, having a joyous almost religious like experience. If we’d had some snakes, I think she could have handled them (I regret to say, I did not get her on video).
It was infectious. Madhead’s music had done something to the room and the room had done something to me. I was no longer paranoid. I suddenly felt safe, normal. I felt happy. I felt joy and I felt ashamed I had judged my two gregarious seatmates so harshly.
These guys were no (alleged) crime bosses at all. As far as I know, they were just some (alleged) hard working Ukrainians out to let off a little (or a lot) of steam on a beautiful Friday night in a beautiful, and I mean stunningly beautiful city.
This bar, this band, this town rocked and I was part of it. I wished I had brought my big camera. I didn’t, but I did get a few decent pics off and a nice little video of Madhead in action (and their enthusiastically vibing crowd).
I’ve been hanging in Kiev, Ukriane for almost a week now and let me tell you I feel quite ridiculous when I look back at my attitude the first couple of days here. First of all Ukranians most definitely smile and laugh and trust me when I say they know how to have a good time. What they’re not so good at possibly (nor am I so I can so relate) is faking a good time just to be polite.
Like their brash and dour counterparts back in the U.S. (New Yorkers), they both do and don’t deserve the “rude” rap. They are both brusque and friendly at the same time. It’s hard to explain but that’s truly how I felt. I like ’em, a lot (bad news for them as I hope to return soon).
And while I’m sure a fair share of criminal activity does go on (my paranoid bank refused my ATM or credit card service here), it was way above my head and pay grade. There was not one moment where I felt any danger from anyone, day or middle of the wee hours of night, carrying around the expensive Cannon camera.
And that big, grouchy security guard at Dockers ABC? On the way out he actually smiled and said, in perfect English “Have a good night”.
And you know what? I did.. six of them as a matter of fact.