KIEV, Ukraine – When the BBC aired its much-discussed documentary that showed racism and violence in Ukraine ahead of the European Championships, I didn’t think much of it. I’ll admit a big reason was because I was in France covering tennis and didn’t see "Panorama" when it was initially broadcast.
In the days between arriving from Paris and leaving for Ukraine, my mother-in-law was more worried.
The night before my departure to Kiev, she called to wish me a successful trip but added: “Do you really have to go?” I could tell it was coming because she sounded different.
My wife told me that days earlier, she was yelling at her and telling her to persuade me not to make the journey. My own parents didn’t catch wind of the program, which was just as well, since my mom would have been going nuts. Dad is the cool one. Isn’t that always the case?
But my mother-in-law’s concern, truthfully, got me thinking.
Hate when that happens.
I’d traveled around Europe without any problems before but had never ventured this far east, and yes, in the cab to Heathrow my mind started to race. A friend joked that I should wear long sleeves and use as much sunscreen as possible.
It was a joke. In a more serious tone, he said, “I’d love to be going. You’re covering the Euros!” That’s indeed what I thought more about. Plus, I'd had all sorts of jabs! Wouldn't want to put them to waste.
Now, there’s no disputing what the BBC uncovered, but with a half-day remaining in Ukraine and looking solely at my experiences, there have been no issues for me.
Upon my arrival I was put at ease straight away by the young concierge at my first hotel in Kharkiv, the ever helpful Stan, who spoke of the hospitality of people in Ukraine. I still remember his words: “You won’t have a problem here.” At that precise moment a small part of me thought of a horror movie, where such as a phrase would inevitably lead the viewer to think, “This guy’s a goner.” Alas, Stan was right. I’ve found Ukrainians to be warm, hospitable and friendly.
Only yesterday after pulling in to Kiev’s main train station, a man about my age helped translate when I wanted to buy a specific bottle of water at a convenience store in the station. This took about five minutes and it was 11:20 p.m., but he stuck around to make sure I got what I wanted.
On another occasion, a younger woman tried to help me sort out an issue with my laptop plug on a long train ride.
I’ll remember the giggle from a bakery owner when I bought a couple of croissants and asked her whether she made them herself. She didn’t understand but laughed, laughed and laughed some more. We both laughed. The croissants were good.
I’ll remember the time a cab driver and I caught eyes when a truck driver going through road rage started jawing at a man who cut him off. We smiled.
I’ll remember talking to Igor, another driver who praised Kharkiv and Ukraine, on the way back from Germany’s win against the Netherlands.
I’ll remember Christina, the receptionist at my hotel in Kiev who made sure to get me the best rate on a ride to Olympic Stadium. “He wanted 100 hryvnias, but I told him it was a rip-off!” she said, rolling her eyes.
And I’ll remember the food. Everyone has different tastes, but I know I’m going to miss the potato pancakes, chicken Kiev and pierogi. Note to self: Try to find a good Ukrainian/Russian restaurant in London.
When I walked into a store in Donetsk to buy water last week, no one batted an eyelash. When I walked into a store in Kiev to buy soap, the same thing happened. When I was simply walking down the street, people minded their own business. Like me. Oh, sure, I’ve heard stories of colleagues whose luggage didn’t arrive at airports and those who’ve had their internal flights delayed. I’ve been ripped off by a few cabbies. That’s all unfortunate.
But where doesn’t that happen? Everything was pretty normal.
And that’s the point.