Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Every dog has his (picnic) day

My eyes open at 8:21 AM.

"D, hurry!!" I shout and spring out of bed. "We've got nine minutes!" By hustling we manage to make it downstairs by 8:35 AM. Waiting for us is Lydia, the building вахта who has taken us under her wing from day one. "There you are!" she chirps. She's adorned with her usual armament of pink frosted lipstick, rouge, and black mascara. In true Ukrainian picnic style, she's wearing navy blue track pants and black heels. With a quick point toward the grocery bags and a "let's go!", we're off on the first picnic adventure of the year!

D and I haven't the slightest idea where we're headed, so Lydia leads the way. Being the kind of conversationalist who doesn't need much fuel to keep the fire going, we can barely keep up with her. So, I tried to get my grandson to come with us. He's 19 years old. I got up at 5 AM and prepared some pelmeni for his breakfast and reminded him about the picnic....Oh, watch out! Don't walk between those telephone poles- it'll give you a headache! Anyways, my grandson said 'Why would I go with you? I don't know those foreigners at all.' But me, I'm just delighted, it's so important to meet new people, you know... 

We catch the 272e marshrutka and travel down Shevchenko street. At some point things start to look familiar and we figure out our destination- the Zhuravlevsky Hydropark! Lots of people are outdoors today, cleaning up the city. Some groups appear to be sponsored by the Party of Regions, a political group whose blue and yellow flags flap gently in the background. "It's субботник, Saturday labor", says Lydia. "I remember doing that myself before, on Lenin's birthday (April 22nd) or on the first of May (beginning of the May holidays)." A city-wide cleaning will take place today and throughout the country, reports this news article.
I see young women in track suits halfheartedly raking up dead leaves. Gloved children follow parents around, helping collect trash. Dump truck drivers manuever their filled vehicles over curbs and drive off. Burning piles of sticks and debris complete the scene, sending smoke signals up into the sky.
If you're wondering why the city is so smoky these days.... :p
As it's early morning, the park is empty. It's only us, the субботник volunteers, and a few old folks.
Three old men are standing near the river, one fully clad in a worn suit, the others in skimpy speedos. About twenty feet away two old women are lying on towels. "Look, there they are!" Lydia nudges me. She's been telling me about these dedicated river-goers all morning. "See how dark their skin is? They're out here all winter, I'm telling you! It's wild!"
Because we arrive so early, we score the prime picnic spot- nestled in a grove of trees is this improvised picnic table. Later, as more people drive and walk into the area, I catch some envious glances. Sometimes it pays to be the early bird.
D, who didn't have time for a cup of black tea earlier, has been a bit sleepy and sullen throughout the journey to the park. But now the manly task of setting up the fire stirs his blood and he begins to show some signs of life :P Meanwhile, Lydia and I are distracted by a pack of dogs, circling half-heartedly and barking in our direction.
Lydia knows these dogs. As she slips off her heels, she mentions being a friend of their caretaker.

The dogs live in the woods. During the winter they shelter in this small hut.
And where there are dogs, there are bound to be puppies!
After such a cuteness overload, it's time to scout around for firewood. I'm very happy to report that after 4 months of winter's monochromatic hues, color has returned to the world.

A sudden outburst of barking alerts us to the arrival of Lydia Vladimirovna, the caretaker of the dogs, and soon the four of us- D, myself, and the two Lydias- are standing around the coals, getting ready to grill the chicken that Lydia the вахта has marinated.
I was a bit dubious about this mayonnaise & onion marinade, but it turned out quite tasty!
Lydia Vladimirovna explains that she was a chemist during the USSR and now, as a pensioner, she devotes her days to caring for these stray dogs. I'm majorly impressed! She's probably in her 70s and, winter or summer, rain or shine, she's out here in the woods for six to eight hours every single day. I kneel next to her as she brushes the fur of a small black dog named Toy with a cheap oversized hair comb. Lydia Vladimirovna studied English years ago and she's eager to use what she remembers. When English fails, we switch to Russian. She shares tidbits about the dogs- who had 9 puppies last year, who recently got neutered, etc.
Meet Toy, a two-year-old stray dog.
In fact, getting these dogs spayed and neutered is one of her major concerns. Because pensioners in Ukraine get about 800 uah a month and the cost to fix a dog is around 120 uah, Lydia Vladimirovna understandably looks for sponsors. She tells me how she just found a new sponsor- a girl with a boyfriend kind enough to take one of the dogs to the vet and wealthy enough to pay for the process.

As for the inevitable occasional new batch of puppies, she pays a woman to take the puppies one by one to the market and find them good homes. The woman even places a follow-up phone call to make sure the new owners are a good match for the puppy.

By the time all the snarls have been worked out of Toy's coat, it's time to eat. We sit down to fresh and marinated cucumbers, white wine, grilled chicken, and an apricot pie. The dogs crowd around us, their eyes greedily following our every move.
It's noon by now and other picnic-goers appear. This particular area has been blocked off to traffic- there's a concrete barrier and a large pit to prevent people from driving their vehicles down the lane... but instead of recognizing this, cars merely drive around the barrier and the pit. Lydia the вахта is not amused. "If I had a car I'd drive outside of town. What nonsense to drive here if you have a car!" Not everyone comes by car, though. This large group of preschoolers and mothers suddenly appear and begin a noisy picnic next to us. The moms give a toast and I overhear one of them call out- "Is this cognac homemade? It's so good!"
Soon it's time to pack up and bid farewell to Lydia Vladimirovna. "Come back!" she reminds us, "I'm here every day!"

It's about 1:30 PM and the park is filled with people. We even catch a Zumba demo on the way out (video can be found here if you don't see it below). Zumba and pole dancing are very popular right now in Ukraine, but I guess it's hard to do a pole dancing demo in the middle of a park!
The brick building, by the way, is the Hotel Britain, a popular wedding spot.

And with that, the first picnic of 2013 concludes.... hopefully to be followed by many, many more!


  1. I don't know if I would've been able to leave without a puppy....

  2. Я живу недалеко от этого парка. Ехать на машине 5 минут. Но согласен, если есть машина - надо ехать за город. Мы в тот день, после бадминтона, тоже были на пикнике, прямо возле дома. Мы живем рядом с лесом, ехать ни куда и не надо! :) Но мы любим ездить за город, есть много красивых, удивительных мест. Обязательно приглашу вас с D как только соберемся!