First Week Living In Ukraine

March 19, 2018

National Opera of Ukraine in Kyiv

Talk is cheap, dreaming is fun, but things become real very quickly once the landing gear comes down. No longer is that dream up in the clouds. No longer does it remain a fun talking point while looking at the red glow of a sunset over the Pacific Ocean from the comfort of home.

After crossing ten time zones, dreamy thoughts literally fell from the sky and crossed a line into reality, from the ordinary world to the unknown world.

There are two sounds that are more important than any others when out of your home country: the sound of your passport being stamped, and the sound of an ATM machine distributing a new currency. Hearing both of these sounds made Ukraine official.

While it might sound daunting to some, I’m the type of person who thrives on finding a way through the unknown. America’s skies became too clear and predictable for me, I wanted change, I wanted to make it in a new land, I wanted discovery.

That November in 2016 was a step into another dimension for my mind and new scenery for my eyes. Kyiv didn’t quite have that same charm as it did in the summer… grey skies fused into grey buildings, like one wide and long brushstroke of paint on canvas.

Playground in Kyiv, Ukraine

But I didn’t want everything to be great; I didn’t want the weather to be perfect. I wanted texture, depth, and grit… and Ukraine checks all of these boxes like a seasoned professional.

Every place evokes a feeling in the first twenty-four hours. Ireland, drinking. Bali, relaxation. Las Vegas, excess. New York, busyness. Ukraine… authenticity.

The country has an uncanny ability to keep things authentic. There are a whole set of factors that lead to this outcome, but where much of the modern world is trying to put on a show, Ukraine is one of those places that doesn’t. In a way, it’s very simple here; people only smile if they mean it. There are no “being nice” gestures, only gestures that come from authentic intentions whether for good or bad.

And while this might not sound that cozy—and it’s not—it’s actually quite refreshing.

Church in Kyiv, Ukraine

So I marched into my new reality with optimism eyes wide open, my mind churning on new cultural information. One of my greatest interests is comparing and contrasting cultural incongruities and behavior. In my first week living in Kyiv, here’s what I experienced:

-While the Ukrainians aren’t the most outgoing people at first, I found that like a fine wine, time makes them much better. My apartment building housed the “Babooshka Mafiosa” (older ladies) near the front door rotating as security. That first week, the looks were mostly hard and hawkish. By the end of the week, two of them started to smile. Now one of the ladies calls me her son.

-Safety precautions in America are in the extreme. There’s a warning or no sign for almost everything. Ukraine zags the other direction. There are no warnings and no, no signs. Everything seems to be free game for better or worse. There’s little hand holding to get one through their emotions of discomfort and inconvenience.

-In my first week I understood if I died in Ukraine it would most likely come from disappearing in a neglected Soviet-era elevator that would either cage me in, or drop me to my death. This is still my greatest fear in the country.

Beautiful Kyiv, Ukraine

-Simple things took effort and patience. I wanted to write down some things, so I needed to buy a notebook; it took me over half a day find one. The grocery stores didn’t have notebooks like at home, so after a long set of directions from a guy on the street, I ended up in a computer store asking for a notebook. The representative brought me over to the new laptop computers and said, “notebook.”

-While there’s much less, “hey how are you?” comments, there are deeper eye gazes that say the same thing in a non-verbal form.

-While not knowing a language is a serious challenge, it also has an upside. All of those marketing messages designed to steal our attention become ineffective.

-I felt the depth in the place immediately. This is a feeling that can never be explained and has to be journeyed through to be understood. America can only go so deep; it’s a child in many ways, three lifetimes old. Kyiv started in the 5th century.

-Idle time didn’t have to be filled with filler conversation. People as a whole think deeper here about things, and long silences were normal.

-The overall pace of life was much slower. That first Saturday and Sunday morning I was wondering if there was an emergency since nobody was on the streets of Kyiv.

-The Metro was clean, efficient, and way quicker than NYC, and leagues ahead of BART (SF metro) with much less time in-between trains.

-The first week I had a rough time at the grocery store. All of the produce needed to be weighed. The line stacked up behind me and I felt gripping pressure while I scrolled through my mind for the word “peppers” in Russian while looking for the right letters in the Cyrillic alphabet to type into the scale.

-The streets felt saner. There was a drastic reduction of crazy and homeless people comparing with San Francisco

Getting out of my comfort zone and taking a “risk” by moving to Ukraine proved to be one of the best experiences of my life, and now it is my life. It’s no longer a thought up in the sky, but instead my “ordinary world” reality on the ground.

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