Ukraine: A peaceful nation
2 Years of Amazing Memories in Ukraine
I spent two years among the people of Ukraine and came away with a better understanding for their culture and perspective on humanity. We are more alike that many give them credit for. Sure, we have different languages, foods, expressions and so forth, but there are more similarities than differences.
I was in the capitol city of Kiev for about a year and spent much of my time in the center of the city that boasts about 3 million residents. I walked the main Kreshatyk street and spent many days in Independence Square (Maidon) where much of the protesting and fighting was taking place.
The rest of my time was split between Chernigov and Odessa. Chernigov was a city a few hours north of Kiev and about 70 miles east of the Chernobyl plant (another story for another day).
Life felt a lot slower in Chernigov, as it does in smaller cities (although Chernigov has an estimated 200,000 people in its borders). I enjoyed quieter streets and less city drama while in Chernigov. The most common question I get asked since being back from Ukraine is if Chernigov was Siberia. Although I found Chernigov to be colder than Salt Lake City, it was only a few degrees (except for when the humid cold kicked in). In fact, the summers seemed to be hotter in Ukraine due to the humidity. So, no it is not even close to the tundra that Siberia area is known for.
My last area I resided in was Odessa, a southern port city. There was a definite tourist feel to Odessa and we happened to see more people from other cultures/countries than in other Ukrainian areas. The winter still got snow, but the Black Sea was a constant reminder that the warmth would soon be back. I would recommend spending time in Kiev, Odessa or the Crimea if traveling to Ukraine!
Political unrest because of EU/Western or Russia?
I've heard a lot of people say, "They want to be like us in America." Whereas I can see how some may think that, they just want to be free. They are protesting for rights they know they deserve.
They want to be free from the physical and non-physical barriers that have stood in their way from being free. It has taken multiple political shifts, multiple years, multiple government movements and many brave people to get to where they are. Although I don't believe that violence is necessary, it has been an important part of what has been accomplished.
I am proud to see a people that have long been silent and oppressed stand up for they think to be right. I saw inklings of political unrest when I was there, but nothing like the boiling point that is being experienced in Ukraine today.
We have had a transitional period in our own American history. In my opinion, there will be many more in the USA. The American people seem to be bubbling with controversial opinions that target current politics/politicians. So, are we close to a revolution in my own country? Will we be seeing the same issues and growing pains that Ukraine is seeing?
Greatest Takeaways While in Ukraine
Many visitors to the Ukraine note that the people of Ukraine do not smile or show happy emotions. Whereas this may be true on the outside, I found them to be with pleasant temperaments. It would usually only take a friendly nod, greeting or gesture and many were quick to engage.
I have several Ukrainian friends that have smoothly transitioned into American society since migrating here. However, I see some of the same changes in those that remain in the Ukraine. It has been fun to create connections on social media (Instagram, Facebook, Twiiter, etc.) and witness them getting married, having children, buying home décor, attending sporting events, vacationing on beaches and the like.
I found a Ukrainian population that were happy and content with their place in life. Most people live in a single apartment most their life and sometimes have access to summer cabins (dachas) that supply them with food throughout the winter. This was very different than I was used to. My family had moved from Utah to Tennessee to Florida and then back to Utah.
In my opinion, Westernized culture has been converting more people to an accumulation mindset. It will be interesting to see how a stronger Western influence will change the dynamics of the people of Ukraine (Especially the younger generations).
Traveling and Information Guides for Ukraine
I loved the food and have even considered starting an Eastern European blend restaurant in the USA. I think there are many dishes and preparation techniques that could fit with the pallet of current American tastes. Sure, I missed a few American classic foods that were not readily available when I was in Ukraine (Ranch dressing, pasteurized dairy, ), but my monthly McDonald's run fixed that.
The Ukrainian produce was fresh and organic. There was a sense of pride felt when you bought from people that worked hard to bring that produce to the market. I am not sure to this day, but much of the produce had a different taste than what I get in my local grocery store (some say it is the hormones or chemicals from US farms). That is an argument for a different day :).
We can learn a lot by the fresh food culture that still exists in Ukraine (except for the milk that has a 6+ month shelf life).
Although the 2014 Sochi Olympic Game journalism contained jabs at the Russian water (according to stereotypes), there was some definite truth to it. I experienced some pretty dirty filters when we would empty them every few months. It was mandated (of that I was grateful) that we could only consume bottled, filtered or boiled water while I was in the Ukraine.
There was little surprise that alcoholic drinks (beer and vodka) along with soda were widely consumed. If it was not for our filters then I would have consumed a lot more bottle drinks. If you travel to Ukraine, be prepared to request only bottled water.
Here is a photo of my filters. I am obviously not excited.
I envy the transportation system that is built in Ukraine. This envy may stem from the status of public transportation in my current residence in Salt Lake City, UT. Utah has yet to find a convenient public transportation system (similar to the subways, buses, etc. of living in a larger city) that will remove a substantial amount of vehicles from the road.
I enjoyed not worrying about a car, gas, licensing, registrations, insurance and parking. In a matter of minutes you could be across the city and within a short walking distance of a bus or other form of transportation. It was difficult to memorize the stops and areas where to switch transportation, but once you get used to it then it becomes fun!
Some people mention the stink of the public transportation, but let's be honest that most public transportation stinks. I have had plenty of bad spells on the San Francisco BART.
If traveling to Ukraine, use the subway (Metro) because it will get you close to most anywhere in Kiev. The taxi system is also very efficient. Simply stick your hand out and essentially any car will stop, negotiate a price and then take you to your destination! It was not too expensive most times. Also, you can get a great chat with a nice Ukrainian.
Cookbooks and Food from Ukraine
Scary Situations in Ukraine
Scary Situations as an American in a Foreign Country
Due to my status as an American citizen and religious missionary, we were afforded some situations that might not have transpired otherwise. I do not want people to think that I consider all these situations unique to the Ukraine. For, I have had many friends and relatives in all parts of the world that have encountered scary and life threatening situations.
The Three Day Escape
Like in most cities, countries or areas, you are going to encounter a few unstable folks. We just happened to stumble into one of them on a fall day. Through the next three days we were either locked in our apartment, on the phone with authorities or on the look out for a man that was set on killing us.
The drama ended when we went back to the man's apartment with two very large enforcers to make it very clear that he was not to chase or threaten us in any way. We never saw him again.
Arrested and Asked for Bribe Money
It is not every day that you are arrested at the hands of those carrying AK-47s. What makes it more interesting is that it was from a call from someone who saw us on the street after 9pm and they considered us a threat of some kind. We were strip searched, loaded into the back of police SUV.
The policemen kept telling us that if we just gave them the money we had that we could go free. I was not about to give in. After a long time of convincing them to call our US rep in the country, they finally called. After hearing that they would get in more trouble by booking us in the jail- they drove us a few miles out of town and dropped us off. Thanks for the memories!
I was able to speak with a few previous members of the KGB (badge and other memorabilia verified) and get a great perspective on the type of life they lived. There were several stories that stuck with me and confirm the stereotypes of the infamous organization! I have some stories that are very entertaining.
Teaching English in Ukraine
Serving was so great!
Teaching English (and Learning English)
We had an amazing opportunity to teach free English classes in the various cities I was stationed. I gained long term friendships from many individuals that wanted what we could offer. The funny thing is that I had to learn English to speak Russian... setting me up to effectively teach English when I got there. I never really did well in my English classes.
Learning Russian in my high school as well as language classes in the Missionary Training Center in Provo, UT gave me a leg up on speaking with and understanding the people. I could sympathize with those Ukrainians wanting to speak and learn English!
When you can speak their language then you gain more respect from those willing to listen to you (whether developing relationships or teaching English). I consider this opportunity one of the best while I was in Ukraine.