Moving To Kyiv From San Francisco

March 11, 2018

Bridge in San Francisco

This is the start of a weekly column in New Time (Ukrainian newspaper)

The word “taxi” came to me in a low grumble, like the sound of an old truck gearing up to climb a mountain pass. Most of the men wore black from head to toe. I walked past families reuniting, lovers deep in romance, tapping sounds of high heels on polished floors, dulled florescent lights, and flowers everywhere.

I looked across the street at an incomplete building under a gray sky. The smell of burnt, cheaply refined gas evoked memories of parts of the world laced with adventure and discovery.

First impressions aren’t the best in Ukraine. And for those looking for a curated travel experience, it would be best to take the escalator back upstairs at the Borispol International Airport, and get on the next flight to Dubai or Prague, where there are more filters in place—where cities are curated for tourists.

With Ukraine, it felt like I stumbled upon something special.

Taras Shevchenko Park in Kyiv, Ukraine

I’ve always sought out genuine characteristics in things, so I liked Ukraine from the moment I arrived. The country’s personality: raw and filter-less; unique with its own identity that isn’t trying to change its ways for anybody else.

I arrived from Italy, where I had spent a week in the countryside, a couple of hours north of Rome. It was beautiful and everything one would imagine from the Italian countryside. My goal was to travel to Kyiv for three days to see some friends, journey back to Rome via train or bus for two weeks, and then fly home to San Francisco.

While Rome felt stale, dusty, and set in its ways, the streets of Kyiv felt alive and special. Even though I’m technically an Italian citizen too (although I’ve never lived there), I’ve always found Italy to be overrated.

What’s great about Italy is usually on the surface; what’s great about Ukraine is often behind closed doors…. Enjoying a deep conversation after breaking past the initial hardened look of a man, or passing through a decrepit stairway, a death-chamber elevator, three deadbolt locks on a bombproof door, eventually to discover a beautiful apartment on the other side. It’s not about packaging here—it’s about substance.

Street musicians near the funicular in Kyiv, Ukraine

I had been in Ukraine years before, but there were many tangible changes this time. The country and people felt more united, cars stopped at crosswalks (which I hadn’t experienced during my last visit), stunning art installations covered the sides of buildings, new cafes and restaurants lined the old city streets. There was more optimism in the air.

The young people were floating on a perpendicular wavelength—on a different frequency from the heavy historical and global geopolitical forces way beyond their control—happy about the summer warmth, moving forward with life, but strongly in the moment connecting with one another. The air was buzzing with something between excitement and apprehension of the unknown.

Musicians doused the streets with sounds. Kyiv had—and has—the power to stop me in my tracks: to make me sit for a while on a park bench, to look up at the sky, to stop fighting time. Not every city has this power.

One of the friends I had come to visit had established himself quite well during the two months that he’d lived in Kyiv. He had a social network, a girlfriend, and he was/is working on his startup and hiring web developers. While his appearance and behavior stuck out drastically in Ukraine, his obvious happiness showed he had found his place.

Peter Santenello, John Uke and their friend in Kyiv, Ukraine

My three days in Kyiv quickly became two weeks. Upon leaving my friend said to me, “You have the opportunity to live here that you might never have again. Why wouldn’t you try if you can?”

I knew that I was in the position to make such a drastic move. My business is one I can operate from anywhere. My urge for a more adventurous lifestyle had been getting stronger, and I thought I’d grow more as a person if I lived abroad again.

I wanted to challenge myself by leaving my comfort zone, and learn more about a different part of the world—and myself—in the process.

As I left Ukraine, I saw the country in a different way from when I arrived. That man with the terrible “taxi” sales pitch was probably like the guy that offered me to sit down and play chess with him in the park; that face I saw many times in my two weeks in Kyiv that could turn from stone into an authentic smile.

I started the long flight home. Somewhere over Greenland, as I crossed the many time zones between Ukraine and California, my friend’s voice echoed loudest in my head. I started daydreaming about how I could make the move to Ukraine a reality. By the time I landed in San Francisco, the decision had been made.

Beautiful church in Kyiv, Ukraine

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