Oleksandr Bogomazov, Cityscape Kiev
August 2009. I am by myself, standing in front of a tall Soviet-style apartment building in the Borschagovka neighborhood in Kiev, Ukraine. I don’t have a visual memory, but I know it’s the right one because Google Maps says so.
It has been over twenty years since the day in March 1989 when I left this building as a four-year-old with my parents, traveling via Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Italy, eventually reaching NYC. I look towards a balcony on the 4th floor and imagine it was ours.
Of the few memories I have from that apartment, I remember the sweet taste of the peas my mother grew in planters hanging over the edge of the balcony and that one day when I ran inside to escape a giant bumblebee.
I don’t remember learning English. It just seemed to happen over the course of a few months of preschool. I never really liked the other Russian-speaking kids; they had accents or were too focused on school. Maybe they were too much like me and I wanted to be American.
The teachers never could pronounce my last name. It was written phonetically, but it was still thirteen letters long. I listened in dread as they read the first three letters, the last three letters and performed an artistic improvisation of the seven letters in the middle. Then, in front of the class, they would ask me to rate their performance.
Going to college in upstate New York shifted my perspective of being an American. Suddenly, I shared rooms with farmers’ kids and suburbanites, people who had never met a Russian before, not even a Jew. Their mouths would gape as the fluent English speaker standing before them seamlessly shifted to Russian over the phone with his parents. We got along well enough, we shared a lot of cultural references, but I was not from this America.
Traveling to Europe the summer of 2009 as a musician, I got to try out many answers to the question, “Where are you from?” Brooklyn, the U.S., New York, Kiev, America, Ukraine but I grew up in the US. Each response was tailored to end or prolong a particular line of inquiry. All of these answers were true.
When I finished my travels in Poland that summer, I made a decision to add a stop to Kiev. It was the city where my parents were born and married, the city I’d been hearing about my whole life, my constant banking security answer to the question, “In which city were you born?”
Here I am standing in front of this building in the Borschagovka neighborhood in Kiev, Ukraine. My ears understand every conversation around me, but I haven’t spent the last 20 years here. I’ve been here before, but I don’t remember. I feel like a spy. I’m able to blend in, able to converse, but I’m ultimately concealing my true nature. I had felt this way in New York as well. Just to the side of the building stands a vendor selling kvas out of a giant yellow and blue barrel on wheels. I buy a cup and raise a toast to the building.