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Saturday, 31 March 2012

After nipping out to change some money into dollars at a bank, i was told that my passport with the visa should be ready for collection on Monday. Encouraged by this turn of events, i rode back to the bus station on the metro, and then set about traversing the mighty Dnieper. Aptly for a river which usually features, even in outline representations of this vast country, it has a huge girth, which took the best part of an hour to cover, using a narrow pathway between traffic and tracks on a road and railway-bridge. Enchanting golden cupolas could be seen glinting in the evening sun on the bank i was leaving behind, making clear that i had unfinished cultural as well as procedural business to attend to on my return, Inshallah.

  In the course of scouting around for a suitable place to sleep in the prosperous eastern suburbs of Kiev i saw no less than four Kiev-dwelling hedgehogs. The place i found was ideal, below ground level under the balcony of a ground floor apartment in a tower block. On the morning of Holy Saturday, which was also St George’s Day, 23rd of April, i got up fairly early and made my way to Kiev’s far eastern fringe. The multi-lane highway heading east from there had a wide grassy verge, and once again the sunshine made walking quite pleasurable. At a petrol station, after saying a few things about the walk, i was awarded a complimentary carton of pineapple juice, then reached the satellite town of Borispil in mid afternoon. After visiting an Orthodox Church fronted with a large portrait of St George the Bringer of Victory i asked directions to and eventually found the Catholic Church, a new building dedicated to Our Lord’s Ascension. In the time available before the Easter Vigil it was good to pray, and make a fist of reading a Russian language book on the Divine Mercy. I also picked up some postcards of Pope John Paul II, with serviceable quotations, translated into various languages:

“Taking human life indicates that man has doubted the value of his existence”, and;

“You must demand of yourselves, even if others demand nothing of you.”

  The Church was in the charge of very youthful, mostly Polish Franciscan friars, who conducted the service in slightly halting Ukrainian (though Russian is usually the first language of people in this part of Ukraine). It is often noted that in eastern Churches, in contrast to many places in the west where it is eclipsed by Christmas, Easter takes its rightful place as the pre-eminent Christian festival of the year. Part of the tradition at Easter is to bring one’s painted eggs and other seasonal comestibles in little baskets to the Easter service, for blessing by the priest, in anticipation of the end of the ‘Great Fast’, as Lent is called. At around midnight when the service ended there was a little succession of members of the congregation wishing to give me some of these things, and a few questions in English were put to me by a girl of about 13. Soon she was joined by one of the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters attached to the parish; to my relief i was then offered a place to stay at their convent. That meant a short drive, in which we saw another hedgehog, and i was shown to a splendid sofa – though we all had to be up again at 5.30, to keep up with the busy Easter schedule. The nun who found me on the previous evening though, also Polish and a fluent English-speaker, had prepared a really lovely breakfast, and delicious sandwiches for me to take on the onward journey – and it turned out that she had lived for a while in Bristol!

  After the service and procession, at about 7.30am i said my farewells, assuring the sisters of my hope to send a postcard. At a larger Orthodox  Church on the edge of town it slipped my mind that the Rosary i was praying would mark me down as a Catholic, but after one lady told me testily to put it away, i was  glad to exchange the customary Easter greeting with her friend; “Christ is Risen!” – “He is Risen indeed!” The Resurrection of Christ is no fairy story, as Pope Benedict XVI has reminded us.

  In bright sunshine i pressed on, catching glimpses of the first lizards of my walk - beasts which, like ground-hogs, tend to lie in long enough to avoid the frosty projectiles of winter’s final throes. At a cafe-bar in a place called Ivankiv i was reminded that in the company of Armenians, it never goes amiss to mention that theirs was Sir Winston Churchill’s favourite cognac. The fellow also clarified the senior place of Armenia’s Church in the history of Christianity; it was the first country where Christianity became the state religion (301 AD), though not the first place where Christianity was tolerated. We also discussed the tragic deportations of his people in the last days of the Ottoman Empire, in which perhaps a million or more Armenians lost their lives. That Turkey has never been obliged to acknowledge the gravity of these events is arguably due to her importance within a certain western military alliance.  

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