It’s nearly noon on a Friday, and the sun is shining too brightly to waste the afternoon inside.
I finish my latte, pack my laptop away, and pull my backpack onto my shoulders. Having just arrived in Mykolaiv on an overnight train from Kyiv a few hours earlier, the caffeine was a needed immediate boost, but the sunshine and fresh air will pull me through the rest of the day.
I never intended to travel to Mykolaiv. Just until a few days prior to arriving in the city, I’d never even heard of it.
Yet, when I received the notice I was going to observe the election in the Mykolaiv Oblast, I was eager to visit a Ukrainian city new to me.
My observation partner, O, and I walk along the sidewalk toward the waterfront. The buildings, square and official in stature, reflect the city’s role as the Oblast’s administrative center. They lack ornate window fronts and sculpted busts, their color a bit drab and faded.
The wide, quiet roads feel like they have room to breathe compared to Kyiv’s busy city center. Cars don’t jostle for room to park on the sidewalks. There is even a wide shoulder for anyone that needs to pull over — something Kyiv definitely lacks!
We trace our way through a park past a monument for some sort of military exercise (there isn’t a plaque) and the eternal flame. O, a Ukrainian by birth and a naturalized American citizen, grew up in Donetsk but had been to Mykolaiv for a summer theatre camp as a teenager. Back then, it felt like a summer resort, she remembers. Now, making our way down the hill toward the water, she says it feels more like a ghost town.
And it does feel like a ghost town.
Once known for its ship-building industry, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot for Mykolaiv to hang its hat on now.
On the bank of the Inhul River, we happen upon a strip of grass-turned-public meeting place wedged between a walkway bridge and a high wall punctuated by locked gates. A couple of girls sitting on an aged bench smoke cigarettes. Three teenage boys walk by on the sidewalk leading to the bridge, kicking an empty plastic bottle back and forth. When it bounces over the edge of the sidewalk and comes to rest in the weeds near the small park, they continue walking. The plastic settles in with the other discarded bottles, bags, and assorted garbage.
This tiny public meeting space is also a creative enclave with little pieces of art painted on the wall. O poses for a few photos. I snap a few of my own, then wander to the bank.
A few ships still sit in the harbor, abandoned and peeling paint. It looks like people have slowly stripped one of them for parts. O and I talk about new economic opportunities for the boats: A hotel. A couple of restaurants. A hub for several small, locally owned shops.
Crossing the bridge, we spot the pre-requisite love locks attached to the rusted railing. The overhead light is heavy with cobwebs. A few people pass us unhurried, heading in the opposite direction.
As we stroll, we point out curiosities in the distance and chat about the upcoming election. After the long winter, the sun is welcome, even if it isn’t especially warm.
On the other side of the river, we turn left into Peremohy Park. Trees line the uneven sidewalk. A child climbs over a random tanker parked in the shade. Coins swim in dirty water sitting in a bowl near a cathedral bell. Further into the park, a small bridge crosses an underpass. In the underpass, someone has painted colorful birds, flowers, and rainbows. Several others have spray painted graffiti over top the art.
Walking out of the park, we head back over the bridge. We’re in no rush. The day is long, and our free time stretches before us.
O decides to return to the hotel to do a bit more work, but I find a spot to sit near the eternal flame. I relax with my book open on my lap, but my eyes wander. I watch half a dozen boys skateboarding nearby. Two women walk by eating ice cream, and their unleashed dog sniffs my ankles. An older couple literally stops to smell the flowers.
I’m an outside observer curious about this unusual city. But to everyone else, It’s just another Friday in Mykolaiv, Ukraine.