Re-entering Ukraine from abroad is never a paradise-like moment for me. It usually takes me a few days to get back into the country mentally. During my last return from San Francisco, I endured some savage jet lag and thought about my life trajectory for about four days before I calibrated back in.
It was at the time of my 41st birthday and I had a mini midlife crisis the moment I woke up under a dark and cloudy sky. Ukraine’s heaviness brings out whatever I need to deal with and makes me look at my problems square in the face.
What I leave in the US is comfort, the pure comfort of having authority over simple things in my life like language and mobility. In America I can navigate my way through or out of most situations with the spoken word; I can travel great distances in a car with ease. My trips to the US are very active and I move around quite a bit. In Ukraine, my life becomes much more still and I spend almost all of my time in one place, Kyiv.
Ukraine is not about first impressions; even the word itself sounds harsh in English. The bleakness of winter doesn’t have its arms wide open either. The faded grey of apartment buildings on the periphery of Kyiv adds to the drab feel while driving in from the airport. Dark limo tint on black SUVs doesn’t allow people see what’s beyond the glass. There’s a coldness on many levels.
But there’s also a good in all of this. Ukraine has a filter… the filter is a test; it demands that what gets through the filter goes deeper in. And it usually takes time to get through the Ukrainian filter. This is where the beauty of the country lies: beyond first impressions, past the cracks in the road, far from the politics or the oligarchs, after the second door opens to an apartment….
Once the filter has been penetrated—days after my physical landing—I land mentally and flow with the place. I find substance in walking the detailed streets and observing the mixed up collection of architecture. I appreciate my simpler life here. I start to enjoy that I can’t understand everything spoken around me. I can get more work done here because I have far fewer distractions.
I start to think in awe about the history of Kyiv, I embrace and marvel the mystery of the place. I feel satisfied that I’m living in a foreign land. I enjoy the fact that the culture goes deeper into thought and into the philosophy of things. And then I start to comprehend Ukraine's greatest quality of all that can never be felt through first impressions: its genuine authenticity.
Yes, there are tradeoffs and I feel like everything Ukraine has America doesn’t have and vice versa. If life was only about comfort I wouldn’t have left the US—most people never do—it’s the land of abundance and material choice. But in an odd way—and a secret the marketing machine doesn’t project to the world—having less unimportant choices and moving parts in daily life often provides a saner life.
Re-entering Ukraine is always the test for me, it demands me to show my commitment. Because If I was just going for pleasure and first impressions I wouldn’t stay. Instead, I’d be living on some sun-drenched island with fresh fish and warm blue waters.
Ukraine isn’t a gentle fairytale, it’s a satisfaction that emerges days after landing… a satisfaction after I start marinating into it with time. Once I’m not distracted by external things and I make it through the filter… that’s when the deep feeling of what’s special here comes into being.