Matthew Brooks wins this week’s travel writing competition, and £250, for his account of escaping the bitter cold of Kiev in winter to a warm welcome in a Ukrainian Orthodox church.
A block of ice the size of a microwave had just fallen off the adjacent roof, making a terrible thud on the bonnet of a parked Soviet banger.
“Let’s get inside,” said Lili.
For the first time that day, I agreed with her. Having just landed in Kiev, we had decided to walk off the post-flight bickering in the city’s backstreets; now, hugging the wall, clambering over piled-up snow studded with cigarettes, we joined a group heading inside.
The monotony of the trashed banger’s car alarm was replaced by the monotony of a human voice. We had entered a dark wooden hallway and followed the others towards the sound; the sudden warmth and absence of light created a different anxiety.
We had inadvertently joined a Ukrainian Orthodox church service. The sound was coming from a priest with an immaculate beard, who, in a longing baritone, was filling the room with prayer. I looked to my left and saw that Lili had already pulled her scarf up over her hair, and was now guessing how to make the sign of the cross correctly. We were staying.
I will revisit this church on more sentimental days, when I feel part of the world; or when I don’t feel part of it and the remembrance of such places and people helps carry me forward. It wasn’t the grandest of the many churches we saw that weekend: the gilded iconography and interior (as well as the interest from February tourists) had grown tarnished; looking up at the dome, Christ’s eyes offered less salvation than the one in St Sophia’s. It was just the right time to see it all, to smell the incense.
And so began the most sacred game of Simon Says. There was no escaping to the back pews – there were none. On the priest’s cue, everyone crossed, bowed and fell to their knees. We were losing our way – but it didn’t matter. These were forgiving people.
A hefty man in a blue tracksuit delicately wiped his kiss from the glass of St Jerome’s portrait with a tissue. I watched the tears form as he strode powerfully along a row of candlelit saints. Of all the icons, with their large eyes and small mouths, offering guidance and prosperity, this is the one to which I gave thanks.
When the priests disappeared behind a set of golden doors, there was silence. Hot tea was shared out; others waited thoughtfully by podiums to confess. I was given a candle and placed it, thinking of several people and a dog. I hadn’t done this in a while. A cleaner, oblivious to the ceremony, moved between us with a mop. Another Saturday morning in Kiev.
We walked back into the white light, the snow, the cold. Lili’s scarf was still up and I smiled. The car alarm had stopped now, and we were no longer afraid. We didn’t argue once for the rest of the day.
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What else to read about Ukraine
Thank you for your interest in Ukraine and we hope that you will love this country even more when you will visit it.
There are many exhibition centres and art galleries in the Kyiv city for lovers of contemporary art and modern style.
They are almost always open for tourists with sophisticated taste and are ready to share the bright impressions.
In Kyiv you can spend time with your family with fun and pleasure: hiking to museums, amusement and attractions park; participation in family festivals and events.