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Leigh Turner

Ambassador to Austria and UK Permanent Representative to the United Nations and other International Organisations in Vienna

Part of UK in Ukraine

20th January 2011

Swimming with icebergs

A guest blog from John Foreman, Defence Attache, British Embassy

19 January is Epiphany, an ancient Christian feast day which, in the Orthodox tradition, celebrates the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the River Jordan.  The people of Ukraine, as elsewhere in the region, celebrate this event by jumping into the cold waters of local rivers and lakes to cleanse their souls and wash away the sins of the last year.  A dip in cold water is also reputed to improve health and give a natural buzz.

On the morning of 19 January, the Defence Section in Kyiv, in need of similar moral renewal, decided to take the plunge at the Hydropark, situated on an island on the Dnipro river in the centre of the city.  On the way we discussed “do’s” and “don’ts” published in the morning Kyiv newspapers.  By the time we arrived, the event was in full swing.  The air temperature was a balmy 3 degrees and although, unlike last year the river was not frozen over, passing mini-icebergs showed that the water remained a touch nippy.  Young men stripped to their swimming costumes (or underwear) and ran together into the water before running out a few seconds later.  The faithful crossed themselves and dipped their heads three times below the water to mark the Holy Trinity.  The tough dived straight in off a small platform.  Some entrepreneurs had set up a mobile banya with hot drinks to allow repeat dips.  Most, including us, edged in gradually holding back yelps of pain, swam a few ragged strokes before exiting as quickly as possible.

So what did it feel like?  Well, we got very cold very quickly especially in our legs and arms and after 10 seconds we knew we had to get out.  Afterwards we were numb for a number of minutes and bright pink all over, due to blood flowing back to the surface of our skin from our body core to where it had sought refuge from the cold water.  But we also felt refreshed, alert, ready for a full day’s work and grateful to have been allowed to participate in and to learn about this part of Slavic culture.

About Leigh Turner

I hope you find this blog interesting and, where appropriate, entertaining. My role in Vienna covers the relationship between Austria and the UK as well as the diverse work of…

I hope you find this blog interesting and, where appropriate, entertaining. My role in Vienna covers the relationship between Austria and the UK as well as the diverse work of the UN and other organisations; stories here will reflect that.

About me: I arrived in Vienna in August 2016 for my second posting in this wonderful city, having first served here in the mid-1980s. My previous job was as HM Consul-General and Director-General for Trade and Investment for Turkey, Central Asia and South Caucasus based in Istanbul.

Further back: I grew up in Nigeria, Exeter, Lesotho, Swaziland and Manchester before attending Cambridge University 1976-79. I worked in several government departments before joining the Foreign Office in 1983.

Keen to go to Africa and South America, I’ve had postings in Vienna (twice), Moscow, Bonn, Berlin, Kyiv and Istanbul, plus jobs in London ranging from the EU Budget to the British Overseas Territories.

2002-6 I was lucky enough to spend four years in Berlin running the house, looking after the children (born 1992 and 1994) and doing some writing and journalism.

To return to Vienna as ambassador is a privilege and a pleasure. I hope this blog reflects that.