The reason to schedule this journey was quite simple: to put together meetings in Singapore, lectures in Kiev, the Ukraine, and a conference in London. Without a trip that connected all the dots in an ongoing line, it would have meant coming back to the US between each event, more time spent in airports, and a much higher chance of jet lag and exhaustion. As it was, there was no jet lag, and other than feeling tired last night after dinner, no sense of being exhausted. Part of the trick of avoiding these travel pitfalls is to journey west rather than east and to take as many night flights as possible when one can get a good night’s sleep.
The trip started in Chicago. There was a change of planes in San Francisco, another plane to go to Singapore for some meetings and a series of wonderful Chinese buffets, followed by a short stop in a relaxing guesthouse in Bangkok. There, I was happy to stay put and avoid the bustling markets and tourist traps. Then it was on to the central part of the trip, a five-day stay in the capital of the Ukraine, the ancient, fabled and golden-domed city of Kiev.
To me this was the most important stop because I was invited to present some lectures to the First Annual Meeting of the Ukrainian Perinatal Association, on the occasions of its becoming a member of the European Association of Perinatal medicine and the World Association of Perinatal Medicine.
Two things made the trip special. First, the Ukraine is the land of my mother’s birth, and although I traveled to the Crimea last fall, the thought of visiting the country’s beautiful capital enthralled me. Second, my identical twin brother planned to meet me and we were going to celebrate our birthdays together. As this is something of a rarity for us because he lives in Washington, DC, we both looked forward to the trip and the chance to share a birthday cake once again.
As much as we anticipated being well received, neither of us were prepared for the hospitality that was showered upon us. We were informed this warmth was normal but we both doubted it.
A pair of young doctors (husband and wife) was deputized to meet us at the airport and guide us through the city and its world class traffic jams. Some of the other guests were from Istanbul which has its own variety of congestion, but all of us were impressed by the quantity of cars that choked the streets, built centuries ago and meant for horses, sledges and troikas, but not for cars and normal buses.
In fact, most public transport is by small yellow buses not much larger than a medium sized U-haul van, which can negotiate better than the trolleys on the rail beds, and the electric buses.
The idea of writing about the Ukrainian eating habits came to me at what was termed the speaker’s dinner. This was held on the evening of the first day, after the sessions had ended. We had spent an hour in traffic to get back to the hotel only to be told to get ready in five minutes to go to the restaurant which was another 40 minutes away. When we arrived, we were ushered into a private dining room with a table set for 25 persons. The room itself was beautiful with hand-painted walls, local decorations and photographs of people in traditional dress along with various animals. All of this gave a pleasant impression of a rural community, which, I am sure, this area once was. Aside from the main table, there was a service table for the extra dishes and on it a seven branch candelabra with glowing candles. The walls were adorned with various local crafts and the entire effect was most pleasing to the eye.
However, the reason to come to this restaurant was to eat and it was quite apparent that this was going to be a feast, not a dinner. The table was laden with a variety of cold dishes called the zakuski in Ukrainian and, for that matter, in the Russian language as well. All in all there must have been 12 different dishes of “appetizers.” Having been at such a feast before, I cautioned some of the other guests who had not, that this was only the beginning. They scoffed and were somewhat baffled but to be sure, after about an hour, the wait staff came with three kinds of cold fish dishes and three hot appetizers, all of which preceded the main courses. One was not enough and they served us roast duck, roast pig, and potatoes and vegetables, if you can believe it. Amazingly, guests and hosts just kept on eating, although the portions seemed to be diminishing. Vodka, wine, brandy, and water flowed easily as did the toasts. My role was to make the first to thank our host. Then the host began a series of toasts for which we all rose in our places, listened to the speaker, clinked glasses and sat back down to eat once again. No fooling.
When the dessert came, we finished it off too and the evening quickly ended as we rose to ready ourselves for the return to the hotels. During dinner, a small group of folk musicians entertained us with lovely local folk songs so that we truly felt the Ukrainian presence in every sense of the word.
In case the reader is wondering if we were left on our own for the other nights, fear not. There were similar dinners with more entertainment and more tables laden with food. My main concern about all this eating was what it would do it my waistline. The truth is, nothing. I did not gain an ounce. How is that possible? I have no idea, but when I got on the scale back home, it was less than when I had started.
We also had the opportunity to see the wonderful churches, some of which date back almost 1000 years, the justly famous “Great Gate of Kiev” that inspired Mussorgsky to write this section of Pictures at an Exhibition, as well as to spend nights at the opera and ballet and visit two of the three functioning Synagogues, all that are left of the 17 before World War II.
Overall, Kiev was the centerpiece of a great trip around the world, and, of all the attractions, the dinners were most memorable.
NOTE: Each of the photographs in this article were taken by Donald Keith, MBA.