First impressions of a new place are often delusional. We usually focus on the good aspects of a foreign culture because everything is different and exciting.
The blessing or curse of being an outsider is that I see/hear things that Ukrainians can’t see and hear; and Ukrainians see/hear things that I can’t.
I wrote a piece about my first 3 months of living in Kyiv in 2017, describing these first impressions.
These initial observations have stayed true to me, and that’s why I continue to live here. Here are my additional observations since this first story.
It’s terrible or great. The level of trust for simple transactions—like renting a car—is abysmal. When I rented a car a few weeks back I felt like I was signing over the adoption papers for a 6-month-old-infant. “Yes, that’s my real passport, yes, I will return the car, yes it will be clean, etc.” The rental agent looked at me with skepticism throughout the whole process like I was doing something suspicious.
Notaries are almost as prevalent as pharmacies here, and pharmacies are everywhere. I know the bureaucracy is deep, but is there such little trust for simple agreements that justifies there being so many notaries?
Trust on the personal relationship level is much different. I’ve found people to be very trustworthy once a good bond has formed.
Overall I haven’t had problems with this. People are generally respectful. Of course, there’s the occasional magazine worker that’s pissed off at the universe when she slams down a 50-kopek coin. But the rudeness that stands out is on the occasions when people answer their phones no matter what.
This can happen in the middle of a dinner conversation when you’re about to make your point in an ongoing dialogue, and the person across from you reaches into their pocket to answer their ringing phone. I’m not talking about the expected phone call or even a number that’s recognized. It can be just a random call.
Or it can happen when volunteering to teach a class and the student answers their phone and starts talking during instruction like it’s normal.
Ukraine isn’t a place for mutual high-five success. A while back I did a video project where a musician let me use his music. Usually, the biggest challenge of video making is finding quality copyright free music that doesn’t cost a fortune.
I met up with the musician to show him my final video with his music in it. I was excited to share with him since we communicated a lot about the project and worked hard to make the music and video flow well together.
I showed him the video. When it ended, he looked blank, like the video never happened. He continued on with the conversation we had earlier about Kharkiv; nothing was ever spoken about the video. He might have loved it, he might have hated it (probably hated it), but there was zero acknowledgement of it.
Nobody in Ukraine is going to tell you that you did a good job unless they 100% mean it and it comes from the heart. Even at that level, they might not express anything.
The good side to this is the wonderful support I’ve received from my followers feels genuine and pure, and I’m very grateful for this.
Ukraine’s best attribute is its connectivity. Now that I’ve spent some warm months here I feel the specialness of the parks. No, people aren’t going out of their way to talk to strangers, but at the same time, it feels like we are all in it together—part of something bigger than the self.
Last night I sat with my girlfriend looking over the Dnipro River. There were all types of people in the park, and we all enjoyed the unspoken truth of each other’s company.
The other day I did an interview with a journalist in both English and Ukrainian, which meant there were long pauses for translation. The journalist and I did a powerful soul dance while staring into each other’s eyes for long periods of time without any words spoken.
The connectivity here is invigorating and rewarding; human and authentic…. Go to Las Vegas or Los Angeles to get this feeling and you’ll be sadly disappointed. Unfortunately, the world news can’t export Ukraine’s best attribute, it must be felt here to be understood.
To be continued next week with part two.
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