A year ago, Cory and I were driving from Nevada to Wisconsin by way of Washington State. We had four suitcases, a few boxes of books, one dog and two cats. We were one short month away from moving an ocean away to Kyiv, Ukraine.
And here we are, one year later, preparing to fly back to the United States for a short summer holiday.
Oh, how much can change in just twelve short months.
We still have our four suitcases though not nearly as many paper books as we would like. This past year our baby girl Abby passed away, and spunky little Rudy walked into our lives. Fingers are crossed we can successfully help Toby jump the pond this summer so he can complete our family, and Walden has found his version of paradise chasing Frisbees and balls in Eau Claire.
Cory and I didn’t really know what to expect when we gave up our conventional lives for the unknown of expatriatism. One year in, I can wholeheartedly say it has been incredibly rewarding, and we definitely made the right decision.
The past year hasn’t always been easy. Far from it, in fact. But by and large, our first year as expats in Ukraine has been one for the books.
Over the last few days, Cory and I have been recalling stories and memories about the past year (in addition to all of our amazing travels). These are 12 of the highlights from our first year living as expats in Kyiv.
1. STREET ART EXPLORATION
Cory came home from one of his first days of school and told me one of the IT guys was married to a woman who liked street art. A couple days later, A introduced herself to me at one of the many teacher mixers, and shortly after that, she took me on a street art tour of the city center.
This was my first introduction to both the city’s burgeoning street art scene and my new friend A.
We live in a developing nation with undeniably gritty edges. But Kyiv’s street art — and locals’ respect for it — demonstrate the care and pride people have for the city, despite its occasional shortcomings. I still keep my eyes open for street art as I walk the streets, and I still have so much to discover.
More than anything, though, is the appreciation I have that A invited me out for a street art walk. It rained almost all day, but that was okay. A has, unquestionably, become my closet friend in Kyiv. As you may know, making friends — real, true friends — is hard for me, and I feel very fortunate I can count A as one of them.
2. GEORGIAN FOOD
We had no idea Kyiv is a hot bed for Georgian food and how delicious Georgian food is. Double win!
3. ST. ANDREW’S DESCENT
Kyiv is not a tourist destination, so those of us who live here basically get it all to ourselves. When there are tourists, though, they head toward St. Andrew’s Descent. At the top of this steep street is St. Andrew’s Cathedral, a turquoise cathedral that is currently undergoing renovation. (I desperately want to go inside and have told Cory we can’t move until it reopens.)
Lining the street are little booths where local artisans sell their nesting dolls, wooden eggs and vyshyvankas (and magnets, key chains and fidget spinners). There are lots of little cafes along the street, and my favorite piece of street art is here too.
Though it’s busiest on Saturdays, it’s never mind-boggling busy. And because I just enjoy the area, I like to walk down St. Andrew’s Descent during the week, when it’s just me and my wandering thoughts. It’s just a really charming, nice part of town.
4. SCHOOL EXCURSIONS
Cory’s school is incredibly generous not only to its teachers but also their families. Over the course of the school year, there have been a few planned day trip excursions that have given us the opportunity to explore other parts of the country. Ukraine is a much bigger country than most people realize, so we’ve spent a lot of time on buses and biting our tongues from the frustrations of group travel.
However, with the forethought and planning on behalf of Cory’s colleagues, we had the opportunity to visit the Tunnel of Love, the Mezhyhirya Residence and Pochayiv Lavra. Additionally, his school hosted an American Thanksgiving and numerous happy hours and social gatherings throughout the year. As expats in a non-English-speaking country, his school community has, in many ways, become our community in general, so these efforts are particularly appreciated.
5. THANKSGIVING WITH OUR GLOBAL FAMILY
Living an ocean away from our biological families comes with one major advantage: We live much closer to our global family.
M, S and L spent Thanksgiving with us, and it was so awesome to have so much love in our apartment. It’s been amazing to watch our kids grow up from afar, and we were very fortunate to have face time with the three of them over their adopted American holiday. We ate lots of food, played lots of games, shared our new city with them and caught up late into the evenings.
A bonus to this highlight: B visited us this past spring, and I caught up with C over coffee in Munich.
Cory has worked at four different schools, and I think this is by and far the best group of colleagues he has ever had. Simply due to our life/work situation, everyone has more cultural experiences and a much broader worldview. Everyone is very motivated, interested in asking the hard questions and having complex conversations.
I think a lot about relationships and friendships. Making friends is one of the things that scares me most about being an expat, because this life is a constant revolving door. But in talking with Cory’s colleagues, I’ve discovered that the international school system is a lot like a school district: People move from school to school and often bump into each other again in another country.
Many of Cory’s colleagues have become our friends, and we go out for happy hour drinks or to events on the weekends. I’ve also fallen in with a book club, which gives me something to look forward to during the day at least once a month. And another trailing spouse and I are hoping to get together more often once school starts up again.
Shortly after the 2016 election, a group of American expats got together to commiserate, giving us the opportunity to meet even more people. I’ve become friends with one of the women in that group (another fellow RPCV!), and we grab lunch every few weeks and are in frequent touch by email or text.
Adulthood and making friends do not go together very well, but challenging lifestyle circumstances have revealed some really fantastic people who I imagine will be genuine friends for many years to come.
Our lives require a cat, and, unsurprisingly, Rudy walked into ours when we needed it most.
We love everything about this little Ukrainian fur ball, and I’m thankful every day for him.
8. MOMENTS OF SELF-EXPLORATION
Being a (horribly named) trailing spouse means there’s a lot of time for me to be on my own. I’ve traveled to the far reaches of our subway lines to see what I can discover, but more often than not, I’ve just slowed down and observed.
I’ve spent long amounts of time sitting in one of the city’s many orthodox cathedrals, thinking about spirituality and tradition. In the park, I’ve spent hours observing old men play game after game of chess. And, when the weather is decent, I love ordering a cup of coffee or lemonade and people watching from the comfort of an outdoor patio.
Earlier this year I spent three weeks in Germany on a self-driven creative retreat that didn’t go as planned. However, that creative retreat kicked off several months of self-motivated activity, and I have since started training to become a yoga instructor and I’ve even tried my hand at drawing and watercolor! Who knew I had to physically move out of my comfort zone to force my emotional and mental boundaries?
9. A CHANGE OF SEASONS
We lived so long in the desert that I forgot what seasons were like … and we love them!
Fall was so beautiful, with long days and stunning colors. People warned us winter would be miserable, but even though it got cold and snowed, it was totally manageable and actually kind of fun (minus that whole “we don’t shovel the sidewalks” part). In the spring, everyone poured into the park, and I loved the rainstorms.
And so far summer has been wonderful as well — the long days go on forever!
Eurovision sang and danced its way into my life in May, and it hasn’t left yet.
Everyone joked about it in the months leading up to this quirky song contest, but I am still playing the soundtrack. In fact, I may have held a dance party in the kitchen just last night.
Honestly, though, even though we bought tickets for one of the semi-final rounds, we almost didn’t go, and I am so glad we did. We had so much fun watching the performances as well as all the behind-the-scenes idiosyncrasies that come with a live-taped show.
Participating in the KyivPride march was, again, one of those things we questioned even in the hours leading up to the event. Should we go, or should we not? I always need to just go with my initial gut feeling and do it!
Knowing that the event has faced resistance in recent years, it was good to see so many people come out in support of gay rights in Ukraine. And it was especially good to see law enforcement officers support and protect the march from protesters. This is a major change in just the last couple years as Ukraine has fought its way out of a system laced with corruption.
12. EASTER EGGS
There was a Christmas market here, but it didn’t have anything on the Easter festivities. Easter is an important holiday in Ukraine, and for the few weeks on either side of the holiday, St. Sophia’s Square was filled with large, beautifully crafted Easter eggs (known locally as pysanky).
While some of the eggs were decorated with generic designs, many more were nods to the typical vyshyvanka pattern, folk culture and local traditions. Ukrainians are very proud of their cultural heritage, and these artfully decorated eggs highlighted that pride.
We spent several hours admiring each and every one of the eggs. I could have spent several hours more. Walking among the eggs along with hundreds of locals out enjoying the Easter holiday sent a swell of pride through me. How very lucky we are to live in such a special place.