In 2017, I travelled to the glorious city of Kyiv with a group of British writers: Jonathan Coe, Kit de Waal, Stuart Maconie, Jonathan Davidson and Alan ‘Kurly’ McGeachie. Our trip was funded by the British Arts Council.
While we were there, we spoke at a fabulous book fair held in the city Arsenal and were taken on a tour of the city and invited to write a creative response. I wrote two pieces, Rose of Kyiv and The Sisterhood of Sewing.
I still have friends in the city: my children’s picture book Breathe is published in Kyiv. Given the situation out there right now, I felt moved to post these pieces in remembrance of former times. I cannot begin to imagine what they are going through right now.
Rose of Kyiv
Today, here in Kyiv, we were taken on a walking tour of the city and given an individual challenge: to experience Kyiv in an alternative way, with one sense heightened. Envelopes were offered, accepted and opened. Mine revealed a single word:
A perfect challenge for me, except this morning, when I dressed, I anointed the soft skin of my neck with amber oil, bought in Oman six weeks ago. It is a blend of tree resins: a glorious, heady scent that lingers like a lover. It is endlessly, unapologetically caressive.
In the pod-like bathroom of the Ibis Hotel, its scent instantly transported me back to Muscat, to that warm night when I bought it from the souq. I had daubed it behind my ears as I sat, luxuriously alone and free on the corniche, with the Arabian ocean shimmering before me and the date palms whispering behind.
And now I was here, on a street in Kyiv, trying to experience the city through my nose.
The streets smelled of amber, the chestnut blossom smelled of amber. A flaring cigarette, an explosion of car exhaust, a crumpled 50 hryvnia bill… All smelled of amber.
We rested awhile in a basement cafe and bookstore, a place of dark wood and enticing cookies. I ordered hot mulled wine, and buried my nose into the spice pot as the barrista prepared it for me. Now I smelled cloves, overwhelming the cinnamon and ginger in the mix. When the wine was ready, I inhaled its liquid aroma… and was transported back to snowy Copenhagen, December 2012, my cold fingers cradling a glass of gluhwein in the Tivoli Gardens.
I trailed behind the group as we walked on, trapped like a fly in the haze of my persistent perfume. Then we began the touristy St Andrew’s descent. And there, halfway down, in between the tee shirts, toys and trinkets, I found a table, placed against iron railings, and it was full of amber jewellery: strands of unpolished pieces, thrown upon Baltic beaches by stormy seas; finished necklaces, shaped and smoothed; delicate drop earrings; modernist rings.
I held a pendant necklace up to the sun to see the light filtered through its orange heart. And in that moment, I caught the pine notes in my perfume, and the sea and the forest came to that street in Kyiv.
But still, I wanted to find a scent that I could associate with the city and my visit. One that would, in future times, transport me back to the golden domes and tree-lined streets.
And so, on subsequent days, I stopped wearing the amber, to allow other fragrances to drift into my olfactory landscape. But nothing registered. Even the scent of white chestnut blossom proved elusive.
And then, on my final day, I went to the Monastery of the Caves. And there, in the souvenir shop on the lower Lava, I found perfume for sale. The glass bottles were tiny, with silver screw caps. There were thirty of them on a tray beneath a glass counter. I asked the assistant – a helpful heron of a woman, in a grey dress with a white headscarf – if I might smell the fragrance. I imagined, since they were all identical and unlabelled, they would be the same. But to my surprise, she pulled the tray towards her, brought out eight bottles and set them upon the counter.
I unscrewed the caps, one by one.
Citrus… musk… vanilla…
Now there was an elderly woman beside me, also looking to sample and buy. Her headscarf was a riot of roses, framing a weathered face with button-bright eyes and an exuberant slick of ruby lipstick. I held a bottle to her nose.
‘Sweet pea,’ I said.
She inhaled deeply but no expression came to her face. She said nothing.
I shared another. ‘Jasmine.’
‘Lily of the valley.’
She tilted her head like an owl, inhaled deeply… and smiled. ‘Rosa.’
She pointed to the bottle and, in Ukrainian, told the assistant she would have one.
‘I will have one too,’ I said, and we all smiled together.
Outside, I opened my bottle and dabbed it generously behind my ears. It was cheap eau the toilette; it had nothing of the potency of my precious amber oil. But it was lovely too.
I returned to the caves for a second look, this time focussing on the scents to be found.
The damp earthiness of the winding descent. The smokiness of my candle, held the Ukrainian way, in a cupped hand to catch the drips. The garlicky breath of the man following me. The heady punch of white lilies beside a child-sized coffin. The eternal mustiness of incense. The citrus decay of wilting chrysanthemums in brackish water.
And as I leaned closer to a coffin to study a pair of exquisitely embroidered velvet slippers, it was there, beyond the glow of my candle. A hint of rose, souvenir scent of Kyiv.