Kyiv: Thoughts and Observations

“Let me show you a miracle.” said the beautiful Ukrainian woman. “Give me your hand.” Without a second thought I placed my hand in hers. Then, despite my immediate protestations, she pulls out a fancy 2-sided emery board and begins buffing and polishing my right index fingernail to a brilliant shine. “Really, that’s OK. I don’t need-” She interrupts, “You have girlfriend? Wife?” “Why, no but-” Oh right, she’s trying to sell me 2 of these. Thus I was introduced to Kyiv. I will say, the product worked and that fingernail was shiny for 2 weeks just like she said, but I never saw any Ukrainian men walking around with ultra-shiny fingernails. Just gullible Americans.

Kyiv is a city in Europe that wants to be a European city. It strives for cultural relevancy next to cities like Prague, Rome, Paris, etc. And at one point in its history, it was the cultural and economic capital of Europe. That’s evident today just by looking at the money. It’s adorned by people like Taras Schevchenko and Lesya Ukrainka – poets, artists, writers.1 Churches decorated with huge gold cupolas gleaming in the sunlight (who polishes them?), buildings with attractive facades (or graffiti and signs of neglect), and parks and squares with enormous statues and monuments. I hear the monuments were mostly erected by the Soviets,2 but it seems in keeping with the historical focus on art.

As I was warned by my Ukrainian friends, not a lot of people speak English. By not a lot, let’s say 5%. If we’re focusing on the young and college educated, maybe 20%. But still, not as bad as Tokyo. Pretty much every restaurant and coffee shop I visited had someone who spoke English and could take my order. The other big help was that I studied Russian before I came, and learned it much better than Japanese. Now, technically the official language is Ukrainian, and I was a bit concerned when I took a look at common Ukrainian phrases and discovered they looked nothing like the Russian ones I was learning. Let me be clear – it’s not even the same alphabet. It’s close, but there are some extra letters like “i”. Luckily, in Kyiv more people speak Russian than Ukrainian. It’s the capital, after all, and just achieved independence 20 years ago. Also, it is a vacation hot spot for Russians, who find it cheap and cool (especially compared to Moscow).

I wish I could talk more about the sites, but for once procrastination didn’t pay off. I attended a Java EE conference a week before I left, and this apparently kicked off my allergies. Well, that’s what I thought at first, but it turned out to be a light cold. Well, that was until the next evening, when I began shivering uncontrollably, coughing continually, and wondering if the fluid collecting in my lungs would drown me before monring. I realized a bit too late this was a) the flu, b) pneumonia, or c) bronchitis. I’m pretty sure it was the flu, but regardless, until I left, sleeping consisted of coughing until passing out from exhaustion, then waking up wondering if I was “sleep showering” in my nightclothes. It was Not Good.

That was a real bummer, but I did schedule a personal tour shortly after arriving, and quickly settled into a routine, so I’m not without observations on life in general:

  • To board the metro, you begin by stepping onto the longest escalator you have ever seen (and I was told there was a deeper one in a nearby station – 130 meters). You would think they would break it up, but no. If it breaks, you’ve got quite a hike. Metro tokens are made of cheap plastic, and I think the only thing that stops them from being counterfeited is that they only cost a quarter. Not only is it cheap, but unlike Tokyo and Bangkok, it doesn’t matter how long you ride. This leads to insanely packed trains, and I was told by my guide that at one point the city flirted with hiring men to pack people into the cars during rush hour. This idea was abandoned, but they never picked the obvious solution: raise the fare!
  • People do not seem happy with the status quo, which I suppose is how positive change is made. The two biggest complaints were a) corruption and b) roads and drivers. The latter was a real surprise, because I rode around in taxis and saw no real problem with the roads or drivers, compared with roads in America and drivers in cities like LA, NYC, and Boston. When you add Bangkok and Cebu to the comparison, where drivers regularly invent new lanes, Kyivites are truly blessed. And this is one of the first cities outside of LA where drivers stop when you look like you’re trying to – or even thinking about – crossing the street. It seems the good drivers are a very vocal majority.
  • Speaking of cars, I’ve never seen more variety than in Kyiv. I once walked down the street and counted 13 different makes (not models!) before I found a repeat.
  • Once again, I was in a city where you can’t drink the water. I am what you call a “super taster” and can tell by taste if water has been chemically treated even slightly. In Kyiv? I can smell the chemicals in the water. The chlorine levels rival a public fountain.
  • There are no department stores. None. The city is dominated by small to mid-size boutiques. Basically, imagine a mall with no anchor stores and you’ll get the picture. There was a “soviet style” department store, but it’s closed for renovations. Apparently taking the soviet out of the store is a lengthy process, like removing pee from a pool, since it’s not set to reopen until 2015.
  • I visited a lot of coffee shops and my regular one was Coffee Life, which I kept hearing be described as “like Starbucks” even though I didn’t think so. Now, part of this was probably due to the fact that this was the first city I’ve been to in about a decade that didn’t have a Starbucks, so the frame of reference wasn’t quite there. But the key similarity is that you order at the counter, whereas every other coffeehouse in Kyiv has wait staff. Yet many do not have a full menu, so you show up just wanting a cup of coffee and get a hard sell for dessert along with it. That said, they are of higher quality and they will brew you an individual cup of 100% Kona, Jamaica Blue Mountain, and even Kopi Luwak. I stuck with Kona.

Overall, it was a an interesting city and nice intro to Europe. But language was a barrier, so I don’t know that I’d return without an education visa to learn Russian.

  1. Yeah, they do have a somewhat controversial figure who basically turned Ukraine over to the Russian Tsars, but you can’t deny he had a big impact on their history. []
  2. They had to do something after blowing it up in WWII. []

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