In the heart of Kyiv Hostel brims with energy as guests sing songs, share stories of future dreams and wartime nightmares, and toast staying alive

KYIV — At first, when the German painter arrived at the hostel on the sun-dappled street in the heart of old Kyiv, the other people who lived there weren’t sure what to make of him. His name was Paul. He was lanky and soft-spoken, with a curious way of sliding into conversations; he spent his days in the city, capturing its tired beauty with watercolours on paper.

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Opinion

KYIV — At first, when the German painter arrived at the hostel on the sun-dappled street in the heart of old Kyiv, the other people who lived there weren’t sure what to make of him. His name was Paul. He was lanky and soft-spoken, with a curious way of sliding into conversations; he spent his days in the city, capturing its tired beauty with watercolours on paper.

So when word spread that he planned to paint portraits of all the hostel’s residents, the reactions were, at first, a little mixed. Some of the regulars were hesitant, but the more outgoing among them agreed; and as the sweltering last days of August slid away, they would gather around the patio tables attached to the hostel’s downstairs cafe just to watch him.

“Maybe I can just paint you here,” Paul would say as he spread his palette out on the table, taking stock of his subjects with cool, searching eyes. He’d ask them questions while he painted, probing for their thoughts about the war, about their work, about life. A painter is like a therapist, he told me once, and one by one, we all spilled out hearts out to him.

The hostel was, in a way, its own little village. It took up four floors of a stately, high-ceilinged building; during the day, its cafe was thronged by groups of chic, heavily-tattooed locals, who spent hours laughing over cigarettes and lattes. But they drifted away when the 11 p.m. wartime curfew fell over the city, and those who remained made a frayed sort of family.

MELISSA MARTIN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Taking up four floors of a stately Kyiv building, the hostel has become almost its own village in the midst of the capital, housing a frayed family of sorts.

They were a strange crew, the people Paul painted. A haphazard mix of foreigners and Ukrainians, some pulled — or pushed — to Kyiv by the war, others for more opaque reasons. The residents who’d been there longest remembered the panicky first days of the invasion, when gunfire and missiles shook Kyiv; others were more newly displaced from points south or east.

So: there was Sasha, a gregarious 25-year-old man from Kharkiv, who had the cheekbones of a model and a head filled with dreams of seeing all there is to see. There was Ali, a charismatic Uzbek with a smile like sunrise on mountains; at night, he’d preside over the hostel’s kitchen, crafting elaborate mocktails for his friends to try.

Then there was Echin, the hostel’s longest-serving resident. He’d come to Kyiv two years earlier from China; when the war began he wanted to fight for Ukraine, but had been turned away. Instead, he spent most nights in his room, working on his computer. When I asked how he was doing once, he pondered the question seriously, as if for the first time

“Doing good,” he replied. “I am still alive. I am not yet a ghost.”

So these were some of the characters the hostel had brought together, and within its walls, the war was at once far away and ever-present. The residents didn’t talk about it too much, but it asserted itself through lives that would never otherwise have intersected, and through harrowing stories that casually slipped into beer-soaked midnight conversations.

MELISSA MARTIN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Sasha, in the middle, blows smoke as he plays guitar outside a central Kyiv hostel, next to another young man displaced from Kharkiv.

For instance, that’s how we came to learn more about The Kid. He didn’t want me to use his name; we’ll use that instead.

He was just 16, and had landed in Kyiv alone a few days after I did. We met one night on the steps of the hostel, where he’d hang out smoking cigarettes and watching the world with bright ice-blue eyes. One night, he brought his guitar, pulled out his phone, Googled the hit Cranberries song Zombie and turned to me, tapping the title with his finger.

“You, sing this?” he asked, in hesitant English, and from there a friendship was born.

Over the days that followed, The Kid’s story came out in pieces. He was from a village just east of Kharkiv, only a handful of kilometres from the Russian border. He lived there with his mother and grandparents; when he was just 13, he’d started his own online business selling eyewear, and dreamed of expanding it further.

Then the war tore his world apart. He remembers the moment it started. He’d lain awake all that night, too anxious to sleep; suddenly, his town was rocked by a deafening explosion. His family prepared to leave, but when they went outside, they saw tanks and fighting vehicles and what felt like thousands of Russian soldiers coming towards them.

“They don’t care about children here who are dying here because of the war… They don’t care about women in Ukraine who are dying, losing husbands, losing children.”– The Kid

For more than two weeks, they lived under occupation and amidst ferocious fighting. They tried to flee to Ukrainian-held territory, but couldn’t find a safe route across the front line; they had to go to Russia. The two months they spent there were “terrible,” he said. He drank a lot to numb the stress, and the frustration he felt at the indifference of the people around him.

“They don’t care about children here who are dying here because of the war,” he said, hanging out in my room one night as Ali, the Uzbek, translated from Russian. “They don’t care about women in Ukraine who are dying, losing husbands, losing children. They don’t really care about that, because they all support Russian propaganda and Russian army.”

At last, he and his mother made their way to the Estonian border, and from there went on to Berlin. But The Kid didn’t like it in Germany. It was hard for him to find work at his age, hard to find all the things they needed. So in the summer, he decided to return alone to Ukraine, where at least he knew how to get by.

MELISSA MARTIN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Within the Kyiv hostel’s walls, the war is at once far away and ever-present.

The week before he arrived at the hostel, he’d gone back to Kharkiv, back to his hometown. There wasn’t much left, he said. Most of the houses there are gone, and there is still heavy shelling. And he’s seen things now that he can’t forget. One of his neighbours, a grandmother, was killed when a rocket landed near her, and her head…

The kid continued with this thought, but Ali suddenly trailed off. He turned his face to the window, and looked sick.

“I’m not even going to translate that, because it’s very scary,” Ali said. “Very, very scary.”

At the hostel, there was space for him to make better memories. We would pass his guitar around, strumming through tunes by the Beatles or Oasis; sometimes, he’d borrow a camera from one of the journalists and snap photos of hostel life. He told me how he dreams of coming to Canada, which he knows is very beautiful and has legal cannabis.

So there was something special about the hostel, and how it was, in a stubbornly insular sort of way, protected.

”I want that somebody maybe in Canada, maybe in America, who not believe in themselves, maybe hear this and think ‘maybe I can do something.'”–Sasha

That came into focus one night, shortly before I left Kyiv. It was just before curfew and Sasha and I were sitting on the steps, talking about his dream to explore the world, discovering all there is to see. I asked how the war had changed those dreams; Sasha shrugged. He tries not to think about the war, he said, or about what will happen to his hometown of Kharkiv.

Instead, he said, he just thinks about what he will do for his life. That’s all he can control: himself, right now, and also down the road. Not the war, not the propaganda, not the way that money seems to run the whole world. As he thinks about where that spirit comes from, he thinks of his mother. She was made of steely stuff, and she died when he was 13 years old.

“In Ukraine, I think, why Ukraine so strong?” he said, as wisps of cigarette smoke trailed over his shoulders. “Because our grandmother, grandfather, our parents was built the same strong. Don’t have feeling, just a little bit. And we’re the same: never give up. And so I like Ukraine. When I was in Europe, Moscow, China, nobody look like Ukraine. Nobody.”

He sighed. “I don’t know why I say you this everything. You can write this history if you want, it’s OK. I want that somebody maybe in Canada, maybe in America, who not believe in themselves, maybe hear this and think ‘maybe I can do something. I can, I can.’ Just like I fight for my better future. I say so: my dream, it will be to be free.”

With that he stood up, beamed a radiant smile, and wandered back inside. That night, he and some of hostel’s other regulars gathered in the lounge, sipping Jack Daniels from plastic cups. Sasha played dance music from his phone, while Ali glided in and out, presenting the revellers with plate after plate of tapas dishes he’d whipped up for the occasion.

Everyone laughed a lot then, connecting across cultures and across language, finding common ground in conversations that swayed from Ukrainian and Russian to English and Spanish. A vivid night in the heart of Kyiv, six months into the war, and burning bright enough to believe, for a few hours, that life can be simple: doing good. Still alive. Not yet a ghost.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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