In Praise of Ukrainian Women’s Legs

In Praise of Ukrainian Women’s Legs

December 16, 2011

So far, December has been a remarkable month. In the decade or so that I have lived in or visited Ukraine I have never known a warmer December.

In November 2001, I arrived at the local airport in a fashionable cashmere overcoat, but within a few days I had bought a drab and inconspicuous, yet practical “dublenka,” a long sheepskin leather jacket lined with fur. And the excruciating pain in my ears – inadequately defended by a wool beanie – was relieved by the purchase of a “ushanka” (literally, an ear-hat): a leather garment thick with fur, but blessed with ear flaps that can be tied under the chin, or on the crown of the hat. If these garments had been grey in colour, rather than dark brown, I would have been indistinguishable from an average army recruit, and with bushier eyebrows I could have been mistaken for a young Leonid Brezhnev. When Gerald Ford wore a similar hat for a visit to the Soviet Union in 1974 it was taken a sign of détente, but in my case it was quite simply a sign of frostbitten ears.

The new outfit – yet to make its way to the catwalks of Paris or Milan – served to make me both inconspicuous to the local population, and to keep my vital organs functioning, albeit sub-optimally.

The air temperature that day in late November was -18 degree Celsius (a large gradusnik – the lovely colloquial Russian name for a thermometer – that stretched five stories in height on a Stalin-period building informed me) and by early December the mercury had receded to -25 degrees Celsius. Since then we have had several years (3 if I recall correctly) when December temperatures have dropped below that level, and nearly all the years have been below -10 degrees Celsius in December.

The natural consequence of this, of course, is that the locals wrap themselves up. Previously svelte forms of young women take on the plumpness of fattened geese destined for the Xmas table, and men assume the shape of Bibendum, colloquially known as the Michelin Man. Here, long-johns have never been either fashionable, or unfashionable, just simply necessary. Layer upon layer of cotton, felt, synthetics, and skin from every kind of animal – endangered or otherwise -are deployed in an attempt to keep the cold at bay. And for men, in particular, facial hair is trimmed.

The coldest I have experienced was about -35 degrees Celsius near to Lake Baikal in Central Siberia in 1980. Those in our party with moustaches and beards were preyed upon by the clean shaven, as the latter playfully tried to snap off frozen slivers of hair from the hirsute; air exhaled from nose and mouth froze facial hair within seconds. Bushy eyebrows were also prone to attack. Only later was I told that, in earlier decades, a Soviet with facial hair was a sign of the man’s status: he had access to good clothing and warm conditions in the depths of winter.

“Where is all this leading?” You may be asking.

Well, a consequence of the freezing conditions is that for months on end the only female legs a Ukrainian man might see are those of his beloved wife. So, this is, understandably, a difficult time for many men.

Not this year, however, with temperatures still hugging zero in the middle of December, withdrawal symptoms are still at bay and long, shapely legs – usually clad in stockings, but sometimes au naturel – are still sights on the city’s pavements.

In fact, according to my records – I’ve kept a record of the UWLI, “The Ukrainian Women’s Leg Index” (pronounced, “Yuli”) for nearly a decade (I know, sad but true) – no other year has provided a sighting so close to the end of the year. And during four particularly cold years I made no sightings at all in the month of December.

If I was a bird spotter (of a different kind), today’s pleasure would be like seeing a small flock of migrating birds blown off course by a freak weather event. Colourful but muted, they scuttle along the pavement briskly and with intent, for the temperature is still cold, stopping occasionally to gaze at a shoe shop or fashion shop, only to disappear moments later into the arms of an excited companion or those of a less excited manicurist.

It is a small pleasure at a grey time of year, but a welcome one. Please do not begrudge us this rare treat, faced, as we know we are, with months of concealment.

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