On the train to Warsaw, just now leaving Kiev, as I look out the window of my personal compartment, laptop hooked up to a power outlet and perched on top of a wooden fold-up table, I can’t help but feel disappointed to leave Ukraine. I’ve been close to 60 countries in my lifetime across 6 continents and I can honestly tell you that the people, the atmosphere, the food, the culture, the lifestyle throughout Ukraine is wonderful. There’s this misconception that Ukraine is this dangerous country with a lot of turmoil. It’s as if what is happening on the Eastern Coast (near the border of Russia) is happening everywhere, which certainly is not accurate. That’s like saying there’s political conflict in California but you shouldn’t go to the United States because of that. I know that most people know that Ukraine is in actuality, safe and fine, but for those who don’t, rest assured. Plus, if you don’t already know, Ukraine dates back to years and years of profound history. It was once dominated by Neanderthals dating back to 44,000 years ago, and has since emerged from its own civil war. The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922 became one of the founding republics of the Soviet Union. Between the years of 1932 and 1933, some 5 million Ukrainians died from hunger as a result of politically induced famine. During World War II, they fought for their independence against Germany and the Soviet Union. Flash forward to 1991, when Ukraine became independent again after the Soviet Union dissolved*.
Ukraine is one of my all-time favorite countries. I walked in with an open mind; open to everything and anything, the positive and the negative, and walked out in love with the place.
Let’s begin with the people. Or maybe let’s start with the fact that I don’t know any Russian. Thanks to my translator app, I would just type in what I needed to say and handed it to the person if I needed to ask a question or explain myself. For every person that I encountered, whether it were a ticket sales person, a taxi driver, or a train conductor, they all took the time to read my translation and try to respond in English (even though they didn’t have to). I found that the people who work at the train station or as taxi drivers, retail clerks and people in general (anyone I’d try to speak with on the streets) don’t know very much English, while servers at restaurants and obviously hotel receptionists do know English fairly well. I didn’t find this to be a problem for me, thanks to my app and the confidence knowing that I could just go to a hotel to find something out, if I were really in a pickle. They were very respectful people in Ukraine. As a woman, I didn’t experience any sort of harassment, bribing, or short answers from anyone. Many people would try to speak to me in Russian, I’m assuming because I didn’t stand out at all, but when I answered in English, they would just say, “Oh!” and then smile. When I said that I didn’t stand out, it’s because I noticed that Ukrainians in general, all look different from one another; blue eyes, green eyes, brown eyes, black hair, brown hair, blonde hair, tall, short, etc…. there’s no distinct physical trait. I felt like I could have been mistaken for being Ukrainian because I look like one… or rather I don’t, if that makes sense? My last name is Italian but I don’t really share the physical traits of a native Italian, that being; olive skin, brown eyes, dark hair, etc.
In sum, the people are so sweet here, they’re helpful and just lovely people in general. By the way, when they’d ask where I was from and I told them the States, they smiled and were very nice to me. You know, it’s just one of those little interesting things to notice how people around the world respond to someone being American. Albeit, everyone was nice to me despite my American citizenship.
Pirogies, sour cream, cheese pancakes, borshch (vegetable soup made of beets, cabbage, potatoes, carrots, etc.), holubtsi (cabbage leaves with rice, caramelized onions and meat filling, served with sour cream)… these were just a few of my favorites. I LOVE the food here. Man, first of all, pirogies are delicious, but topped with sour cream and olive oil just makes them that much better. Cheese pancakes with raisons, topped with sour cream… YUM. I could go on and on about Ukrainian food. In Odessa, I passed what looked like a delicious Mexican restaurant and Sushi restaurant but couldn’t think of anything other than pirogies and whatever other new Ukrainian food that I could get my hands on. I found my FAVORITE restaurant in Odessa. It’s called Kumanets in English, and KuMaHeLI, spelled on an English keyboard. The servers dress up in traditional folklore attire, which is lovely. The atmosphere has a fall feel with full on homestead decor that is so homey. The food is very reasonably priced and they of course serve only Ukranian dishes. Love Ukrainian food.
Odessa is on the water, it’s more of a port city, however with that said, it’s got this charming vibe to it. Cobblestone streets, expensive shopping, Christmas tree lights wrapped around the perfectly lined trees along the walking path near the harbor. Live tunes for passer-byers to listen to as they stroll through the park. This small city was perfect for me since I get overwhelmed in large cities. And, perks for being on the water. I was happy there. History, nature, and cobblestone streets. I really was dreading going to Kiev, just because of how big of a city it is. But one 11 hour train ride and day later, I was in Kiev.
I got off the train and immediately felt overwhelmed in this train station filled with people, energy, hustle and bustle. I just wanted to book my train ticket to Poland before I got too overwhelmed. I waited in line for an hour only for the ticket lady to tell me that the ticket was 2,229 Hryvnia (around $238 USD) and that they only took cash. They only had one type of bank ATM scattered throughout the building and of course none of them would take my card. I roamed around outside wearing a tank top while everyone else was bundled up in scarves and jackets (I was so overheated from the scorching overnight train ride – heating wasn’t turned off during the night and no open windows). I asked the taxi driver if he could kindly direct me to a bank, but he said (in Russian) that they were all closed since it was Sunday. I then decided to type in the most expensive hotel in Kiev to see if they could assist me in English. That hotel happened to be the Hyatt. The taxi driver knew exactly where the Hyatt was and gladly told me that it was right near St. Sophia’s Cathedral (“Yes!”, I thought. I really wanted to go there). Walking into the Hyatt, they were able to direct me to their ATM, where I was able to withdraw cash. They then gave me a 5% off card to this Ukrainian restaurant near the cathedral that was highly recommended, called Spotykach. I can’t even tell you how delicious, cozy and unique this restaurant was, not to mention the diverse menu that they had, with very fun dishes. You’ll just have to go there yourself to see. I decided to stay the night in Kiev. After visiting the cathedral, I was so inspired and calm. It really was a beautiful place. I wondered what else existed in Kiev that would make me want to stay longer, so I sought to find out.
To fill my nature void, I went to this place called Pyrohiv – “Pirogovo outdoor Museum”. It’s an outdoor museum depicting traditional Ukrainian farmsteads of the 1960’s-70’s that represent every region of Ukraine as well as farmsteads prior to the 60’s. It was like going through a time capsule walking from village to village. In wide open fields with beautifully changing fall trees, these little communities once were alive. I had a ball just wandering in and out of these old houses but my favorite one was the very last.
I was dying to go back to Spotykach for my last Ukrainian lunch before my 16 hour train ride, but I felt that I didn’t have the time. Sad puppy. I will just have to come back. I love Ukraine… so sad to leave. Until next time!
*See BBC outline of Ukraine Profile – Timeline here for a visual.