Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Kozatsky Hotel, Kiev

I look at my watch. It is 7:30 PM and time to go.

I slide my passport and all of my US dollars and credit cards into the inner sleeve in my suitcase. I count out 3000 hryvnia, about $240, and put it in my pocket. Most of the bills are brand new. The detailed portraits engraved on the front of each bill look like works from Durer himself. Their piercing eyes stare at me. Why does such a poor country have such beautiful money?

The “floor babushka” sitting behind her tall desk at the elevator takes my key without a change in her bored expression. I wonder how many hours a day she must sit behind that wooden counter just handing out and receiving keys. As I exit the elevator, the “elevator guard” sitting at his wooden desk with his omnipresent black phone looks at me without moving his head. He will remember what I am wearing and the exact time I am leaving. The two woman at the Kozatsky reception desk stand erect in their grey uniforms with their smart grey and red caps. A beautiful young girl with long blond hair sits in the lounge area negotiating with a tourist. The “inner door guard” in his grey fatigues with no markings sits by the inner door. The two brawny “front door guards” slouch in the small entry way between the steel outer and inner doors to the hotel.

The evening is just beginning as I cross the huge Maidan Square and walk down Khreschchatyk Boulevard to the cafes. I can’t help wondering how it would have been to be here on this very square during the Orange Revolution. What a turning point in history and it all happened right here.

People are now strolling down the wide boulevard and sitting in the outdoor cafes having a class of wine or vodka. Women are dressed beautifully, wearing large gold earrings and high heel shoes. They look like fashion models straight from the pages of Vogue magazine. Men sport crew cuts and wear worn leather jackets over dark tee shirts. They look like gangsters. Everyone is smoking. My throat feels like sandpaper. The kiosks selling ice cream cones have waiting lines. It is a warm summer evening on the famous Khreschchatyk and everyone is here.

I arrive at the café and choose the last available table next to the sidewalk with a good view of the passer-bys. At the next table two dark complexioned foreigners are awkwardly trying to converse with two young girls. I can’t help staring and one of the girls looks my way and smiles. I order a drink and watch with fascination the ever changing show in front of my eyes. As each new group of people passes by I try to image their story. The only stories that are obvious are the beautifully dressed single woman who glance and smile at each passing single man on the boulevard.

As I am finishing my second drink, a woman with bright red hair slows down and smiles at me. I smile back. She nods slightly to me and in a single effortless movement, slides into the seat next to me. Her English is almost perfect as she introduces herself and asks my name. And then the normal tourist type questions. "Are you here on business or vacation? How long you stay here? What hotel you stay at?" When I answer that I am staying at the Kozatsky, the first frown appears on her face. She knows it is the “KGB hotel” owned and run by the defense ministry into which she cannot enter. “Not good place. I not go there” she says. “You come my apartment. Very nice. I have soft music. Very relax for you. I give massage. We have good time. Very close. Not far. We go now?” I realize now that she is not the person I am supposed to meet.

“I can’t go”, I say. “Why not go?” she says and a black cloud comes across her face. “My wife is waiting for me in the hotel”. I realize what an obvious lie this is, but what else can I say? Her smile is gone now as she leans close to me and whispers in my ear. “Not nice to play games with Russian women. We have boyfriends - very big –very strong. They do bad things to people not nice to Russian women. You not make them mad.” She draws back from me and looks at the park bench on the sidewalk right across from us. I see two stocky men with crew cuts and leather jackets looking at us. They stare at us without moving. Their faces are not friendly.

She looks angrily at me, stands up, and walks off past the two men on the bench. They continue to stare at me. I realize now that it was a big mistake to have told her what hotel I am staying in. If I can just get back to the hotel, everything will be fine. They cannot enter the Kozatsky.

I sip my drink until the two men leave. The waiter is talking to his friends inside the restaurant so I hurry inside to the cashier and pay the bill. I take a last look around and begin walking back to the hotel. I walk fast and scan the people walking in the same direction on both sides of the boulevard. The boulevard is crowded now and the stocky men in their dark clothes and leather jackets all look the same. Are any of them also walking fast in the same direction? As I cross Maidan Square, the stark grey walls of the Kozatsky welcome me. I cannot see the guards inside the front doors, but I know they are always there. Tomorrow evening I will go to the café again.