Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Friendly city where Lenin still leads in little things

There are things that are obvious when I come to think about them, but I only come to think about them when I actually experience them.

For instance, in my mind Asia is the East and Europe is the West. For the most part that’s true. But there are bits of Europe quite a long way East of bits of Asia – most of Turkey, say, and even a sliver of Syria and Lebanon – and I’m in one of them right now.

Kharkov is the usual English name for this place, which is revealing since it’s the Russian name for a city called Kharkiv in Ukrainian, and though it's right up against the border with Russia, the city’s in Ukraine.

Note that I wrote ‘Ukraine’ not ‘the Ukraine’. I’m told that it’s now viewed as faintly offensive to use the definite article with names of countries like Sudan or Ukraine. Odd, given that the last such country I visited, the Gambia, is terribly keen on its article, insisting that it always be used.
In Europe but east of bits of Asia
It’s a bit like the pronoun ‘she’. In England you can still be ticked off for referring to someone present as ‘she’. Now I’m sure none of us like being talked about extensively in the third person when we’re actually there, but only in English do we regard using the feminine form as particularly reprehensible. Or is it only the English?

Of course, the Japanese don’t like pronouns at all. Someone wanting to ask me directly whether I wanted tea would say ‘Does David San want tea?’ My inclination would be to say ‘you’d better ask him’ but they’d be unlikely to appreciate the joke and would simply reply ‘I just have.’

Anyway, what of Kharkov? I’ve just been out running along tree lined boulevards and through parks beginning to fill with warm June sun, so I approve. Whether I would have felt the same if I had been here in January, when the temperature was down to -20, is difficult to say.

Why was I out running? Because I've been met by some of the kindest and friendliest people you could hope to have welcome you to a new city. And they’ve taken me to some remarkable restaurants. I’ve run about as far as I can manage but I’m still left with the feeling that I could have gone twice as far without making much of a dent in the effects of their hospitality.

Photographer photographed, in the courtyard of a Jewish Institute.
It also contained the first fine restaurant I enjoyed.
The most curious aspect of the run was the statue dominating one of the squares I crossed: none other than Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin, not a stone’s throw from a boulevard full of shops offering 30% – even in one case 70% – sales discounts on luxury goods and designer clothes. A salutary reminder that contradictions from the still recent past have yet to be resolved in the former territories of the Soviet Union.

Lenin shows the way to relief in Kharkov
Lenin as always bestrides the scene, showing the way forward. Or at least, if you follow the direction of his right hand, the way to the toilets in the park.

He always wanted to be the champion of the masses. It may be appropriate that he continues to serve the convenience of the public by guiding them towards the nearest public conveniences.

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