I try to be tough about the cold.
I grew up in Minnesota and spent the last ten years living in the Windy City. People may debate how Chicago got that name but I can certainly attest to the fact that it is indeed quite windy – especially in the winter. When listening to a weather forecast in Chicago, we rarely rely solely on the actual temperature – we have to ask, what is the wind chill?
But even I have my limits.
The last few weeks in Ukraine have been brutal. While the average high temperatures this time of year are in the 20s (Fahrenheit), last Thursday marked 25 straight days of below freezing temperatures in Kiev, dating back to two days after I first arrived in the city. Nice.
Let me give you an idea of my first week and a half in Kiev.
Even more snow.
It was snowing lightly when I arrived and alternated between flurries and heavier snow for the next nine days. Yes, nine straight days of snow.
We may have gotten two feet of snow during Snowmageddon in Chicago last year, but at least it stopped after two days (which reminds me, I wonder if Ukrainians name their crazy weather occurrences with Twitter hastags).
As soon as the snow finally let up and the sun came out, the deep freeze began.
It didn’t really faze me at first. I was thrilled it stopped snowing so I could finally get out, explore the city and take some pictures. I stocked up on long johns, wool socks and other winter gear in Russia so I certainly had the appropriate attire – especially compared to the Ukrainian girls donning short skirts and high heeled boots and the guys in leather jackets.
I spent one day following a self-guided walking tour through a couple of Kiev’s parks for about three hours and actually enjoyed it. The sun was shining bright and the brisk air felt refreshing. The only downside was my frozen fingers from taking so many pictures.
The next day, I headed to the Pecherska Lavra monastery not far from the river in Kiev. After two hours walking around the grounds there, I was feeling pretty cold.
By my last Friday in Kiev, I was struggling to make it more than a few blocks without seeking refuge from the frigid air. I made it to one museum and abandoned my hunt for another because I was chilled to the bone.
Oh, and did I mention it started snowing again?
As cold as I was feeling, I admit that I was a bit ignorant of the cold spell gripping much of Eastern Europe. It wasn’t until I saw the tweet of a Boston Globe article about 30 people dying from the cold in Kiev that I realized how serious the situation was – that this wasn’t any normal cold spell but instead was a quite unusual occurrence.
I left Kiev on a Saturday just as I arrived – trudging through the snow. And then I arrived in L’viv (in western Ukraine) ten hours later the exact same way.
The below freezing temperatures continued throughout my week in L’viv, but I tried to make the most of it, visiting the Lychakivs’ke Cemetery for a few hours, hiking through the Park Zamok and taking a walk around the city center to see some of L’viv’s historic churches.
I knew I was starting to lose perspective when I got excited to see a forecasted high of 15 degrees.
But after nearly four weeks of snow and freezing cold, I didn’t hit my limit until I reached the town of Ivano-Frankivsk on Friday afternoon.
After two and a half hours on a train so cold that I never removed my scarf or winter coat and sat bundled in a thick wool blanket for the entire journey, I got horribly lost trying to find my hostel. Then, with only a few hours to see the town, I barely let myself warm up before I headed out to see what I could before the sun went down. I didn’t last long.
Less than an hour into my walk around Ivano-Frankivsk, as I zoomed in to photograph a church, my camera froze. I tried to take a picture and nothing happened. I pushed the zoom switch and nothing happened. I pushed the power button and nothing happened.
My camera was clearly trying to tell me something.
With that, I headed back to the hostel to warm up – which would have been great if the hostel had actually been remotely warm.
Like most flats in the former Soviet Union, my hostel featured only radiator heat – it had no central heating system. In my eight-bed dorm, the radiator sat right underneath a large, drafty window which effectively cancelled out the little heat emanating from the radiator. Combining concrete walls, a concrete floor, a drafty window, and an outside temperature of -13F, my room felt like an icebox.
Indeed, when took a swig from my water bottle the next morning, it was as cold as if it had been in the refrigerator the whole night.
I piled on three blankets, including a gigantic wool thing I found on top of the lockers that may have actually been a rug. I put a fleece and socks on the radiator to warm them up before putting them on to go to bed. I tried to work on my laptop, but my hands were too cold to type.
I couldn’t recall ever feeling so cold for so long in my life.
That is, until the next morning when I took the bus from Ivano-Frankivsk to Kolomyya for an hour with no heat and temperatures hovering around -15F.
Luckily, this story has a happy ending, for once I arrived in Kolomyya, I found myself staying at the warm and cozy On the Corner Bed & Breakfast, in a large, well-heated room and adjoining bathroom with a heated floor. Heaven!
With just a few days left in Ukraine, I am almost drooling over the fact that the temperatures may get into the 20s F before I leave (there’s that perspective thing again). Regardless, I have already made up my mind that I need to return to this beautiful country in the very near future.
But I guarantee you, my next trip will be in the summer.