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Why Kiev will be special for me forever

19 октября 2011, 12:41

I recently learned I needed to go to Kiev on business – and like every trip I take to Ukraine’s capital, this one put a smile on my face.

That’s because this trip, like all the rest, made me remember the Pumpkin story.

A few years ago I was teaching at Lvov National University under a professor-exchange program.

The organizers asked me and 30 other American professors strung across Ukraine to attend a three-day conference in Kiev to share our experiences. 

My girlfriend Irina loved Kiev, so I called her at her home in Odessa and asked her to meet me there.

I don’t know why I had taken to calling her Pumpkin because Irina is a sophisticated woman in looks, fashion, manners and every other way.

To start with, she looks like Penelope Cruz – the result of having a handsome Slavic father and a Greek mother.

And she is a former television personality who once had her own twice-a-week movie-review show. 

But when she learned that “Pumpkin” is something like the Russian term of endearment “Galupka,” she at first accepted it and then began liking it.

The professor-exchange program put us Americans at the Kozatsky Hotel on Independence Square right in the heart of Kiev.

It would be a perfect base for Irina to shop and look around the city while I was attending the conference sessions.  I sent her money for a train ticket.

I arrived by train from Lvov about two hours before she did, and got the key to my room at the Kozatsky. About 45 minutes later she called on her mobile.

“I’m in the central train station,” she said.  “I’ll be at the hotel in about 15 minutes.”

Feeling grungy from the overnight train trip, I decided to take a shower before she arrived. The steaming-hot water was heavenly. 

Suddenly there was a knock at the door.  It had been only three minutes since Irina called me on her mobile, not the 15 that she said it would take to get to the Kozatsky by taxi .  “Man, that taxi driver must have flown,” I was thinking.

“Come on in, Pumpkin – the door’s open!” I yelled from the bathroom. “I’m taking a shower.”

There was a moment of silence. Then the door creaked opened slowly – but only halfway.

A deep male voice said:  “Uh, hi, I’m your roommate. But I’m not Pumpkin.”

That was when I learned that, to save money, the professor-exchange program had booked two professors to a room.  But they hadn’t told most of us.

My roommate turned out to be a graduate student in his late 20s who was doing research in Ukraine.

He was a nice guy, and he and I were equally embarrassed as I stood in front of him clad only in a towel discussing what we should do about the mix-up.

“Well,” I said, “it looks like I’ll have to rent an apartment for my girlfriend and me.  You’ll have a room to yourself.”

A call to my realtor friend Viktor saved the day.  He found Pumpkin and me a rent-by-the-night apartment a few minutes’ walk from Independence Square.

Although I ended up spending a lot more money than I’d expected, I was glad Irina and I weren’t going to be staying at the Kozatsky.

I don’t know if it’s been upgraded since then, but in those days it was an old Soviet-style hotel, with beat-up rooms and furnishings. The only thing it had going for it was its center-of-the-action location.

I’m not kidding when I say that the cloth on the seats of the chairs in my room hadn’t been changed in 50 years. They were so grimy that my tan-colored pants became dirty sitting on them.

So Pumpkin and I ended up spending our three days in Kiev in a nice, clean, modern place instead of a grubby, crumbling one.

The day after my towel-clad encounter with the graduate student, I walked into the Kozatsky’s dining room to grab breakfast before the conference started.

Several of the professors there looked up from their breakfast plates and smiled.

Finally one chirped:  “How’s Pumpkin?”

And the room erupted in laughter.

You will understand, then, why I’m always in a good mood when I go to Kiev.

The Pumpkin story is one of my fondest memories – and always will be.

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