Ukraine May Be At War, But I Like It Here
Vicki and I are in Kiev, Ukraine, where we finally got to meet Lyudmila.
I had been in Kiev once before, in May 2011. I remember clearly, because I was here on May 2, 2011, when Osama Bin Laden was killed. I was traveling back then with my Norwegian friend Dag. Dag had wanted to go to a birthday party in Sofia, Bulgaria, and I’d decided to meet him there.
Somehow we wound up on a six-week jaunt through Eastern Europe, including Kiev (Kyiv in Ukrainian) and Odessa, Ukraine’s second-largest city.
In 2011, Dag and I stayed at a fine old Soviet-style box hotel outside Kiev’s center city, near a close-in subway stop. With Vicki this time, I wanted to stay at the same box hotel but found it closed for renovation. I checked Google maps for a nearby hotel and settled on the Hotel Barbaris, closer to the subway station. I sent an email inquiring about prices, availability, WiFi, airport pickup, and so on.
Lyudmila from the hotel answered me, but in Russian. Oh, uh, we’d find only Russian and Ukrainian speakers at the Barbaris. Well, both Lyudmila and I knew our way around Google Translate. She answered all my questions clearly, directly. I in turn translated the answers.
And now we are in Kiev and staying in her hotel.
We arrived Monday mid-morning and went to the pub downstairs for a cafe. Almost as soon as we walked into the place a rowdy customer knocked a glass on the floor and broke it. No problem. The menu, after appetizers, soup, mains, desserts, and drinks, helpfully contained three pages of what you’ll have to pay for breaking a glass, plate, saucer, cup, whatever.
It was that kind of place.
Or not. Vicki and I are staying at Lyudmila’s hotel for three weeks. We visit the pub often and haven’t seen another rowdy customer or any more breakage.
I mentioned in my 2011 report from Kiev that the locals seemed to be a cut above. I still see it. Locals—Ukrainians or Russians, I’m never quite sure which—treat others with respect, move with alacrity, and know their way around. Ask for help finding a museum, and they’ll know where it is.
Second impressions of Kiev, this time around? War. Mother Russia has dominated much of Ukraine since the middle ages. Nearly 250 years ago Catherine the Great tossed out the Poles, Turks, Austrians, and a few others, and gathered all of Ukraine into the Russian Empire. In 1922 the Soviet Union replaced the empire. The Soviet Union fell in 1991, but pro-Russian leaders in Kiev remained firmly in charge when Dag and I arrived in 2011.
Then came the Euromaidan revolution in 2014. Riots broke out on the maidan, or central square. Vicki and I pass through there often.
Protesters died, politicians hid, and the president fled to Russia.
Ukrainians voted for a pro-European government. Freedom at last, after so many centuries.
Russia resented the move, as you might expect, and viewed Ukrainians as ingrates. Right away Russia took back the Crimea, which Khrushchev had assigned to Ukraine in the 1950s. And Russia invaded Ukraine from the east, even while officially denying it.
So Ukraine is at war. A ceasefire in the east is holding for now. But the economy has tanked, the inherited oligarchy rips off what’s left, and the currency has devalued from 8 to 27. With the currency decline, a pint of beer costs 75 cents, a three-course business lunch at most restaurants around US$2, a subway ride 15 cents. Lyudmila’s hotel costs US$17 a night.
During our visit we’ve been to museums, done some shopping, walked the maidan, and checked out surrounding areas. We’ve seen St. Sophia and the Lavra cave monastery. Both are a thousand years old, both are world heritage sites.
Everyone here over 45 is fat, everyone under 35 is beautiful. Everyone here over 45 speaks Russian. Many under 35 speak English. We’re here in winter, unusual for us. We’re perpetual travelers, we figure three or four weeks of winter every three or four years feels about right. But many locals must sit in the freezing cold to sell fish, vegetables, socks, underwear, or dishes. Life was always harsh in winter, I figure, but with the war and corruption, life becomes even harsher.
We discovered that the Google Translate app permits offline dictionaries. So in stores and restaurants our phones show what we want in Ukrainian, without a SIM or connection to the internet. Here’s a partial list of my translate history: shampoo, 100 grams, yoghurt, medium firm, water without gas, we want to stay until April 5, please change the sheets, wine, boiled ham, cotton, peanuts.
One morning we stopped at a cafeteria. Vicki pointed to what she thought was a potato-and-egg pancake. She later dug in and discovered she had a chicken cutlet dipped in egg. She’s a vegetarian. So I ate the cutlet while Vicki returned to the counter with her phone saying “potatoes please” in Ukrainian. The counter woman smiled broadly and served up the potatoes.
I’ve been to Ukraine three times. I like the place. Kiev offers world-class museums, stunning Orthodox churches and icons, classy people, a good subway, and outstanding local cognac.
All along with very low prices, at least for a while longer.
Ukraine Has Much To Offer For Travel And Lifestyle Despite The Current War
“Kathleen, I was in the Ukraine in April, 2014, for a short visit. It was a week after Russia took the Crimea. The cities I visited were Dnepropetrovsk and Zaporozhye. Both cities are bordering the eastern Ukraine where the fighting is going on, but I saw no evidence of it.
“I loved my time there, and the people are very friendly and helpful. It is far different than other places I’ve traveled, as Western culture and products have not made much impact there. The infrastructure in both cities is deteriorating and air and water polluted. Even locals drink bottled water that is carbonated. Farther west in Kiev and near the Carpathians the environment is much better.
“Nevertheless, I enjoyed the trip more than many places I’ve been. On my flight from Amsterdam to Kiev I talked with a Ukrainian woman who was married to a Canadian and was returning for a visit. In Kiev she helped me find my gate and information I needed to complete my trip then hugged me and went on her way. I thought: what American woman would do such for a stranger.
“The people there are a very good people. Very patriotic and proud of who they are. Highly educated but poorly paid. They have great potential if they can join the EU and deal with the corruption there remaining from the Soviet days.
“As to the war, one of our group stayed after I left and went farther east. One night he watched a live report on CNN that took place four blocks from his hotel. Going to his balcony he could see and hear nothing. He thought the reports were hyped and fighting was not as bad as reported.
“I am glad to see you doing a report on the Ukraine, as it is a place I think I could live and a hidden secret with great potential.”
–Mike S., United States