Four Days In: Initial Impressions of Kyiv, Ukraine

080816 - StatueThis morning, for the first time in several weeks, the alarm went off. We rolled out of bed and brewed a fresh batch of coffee. Cory left for his first day of work, and I turned on my laptop to tackle client projects.

We’re back to living our normal lives, but in a very new and foreign place.

We arrived in Kyiv, Ukraine, last Thursday afternoon, and this is our fourth full day living in the city. We had a few hiccups during the actual move here (our cats were turned away in Minneapolis and one of our suitcases didn’t initially arrive), but we’re working on ironing out those wrinkles.

As for living here, so far, things have gone well. We’ve taken a few trips into downtown on the subway, unpacked our belongings, started turning our apartment into our apartment and, despite knowing absolutely no Russian, managed to buy produce at the market.

We arrived in this country with a little PTSD from living in Kenya, where we felt like foreigners until the day we left.

Already, I feel much more at ease here.

People aren’t gawking at me when I walk down the street. I feel comfortable wearing shorts, tank tops and jewelry in public. I don’t feel crowded or overwhelmed by other people. And, yes, I can definitely see us falling into a simple, daily routine enveloped in Kyiv as our new home.

In addition to my initial, personal gut feelings about living here, I also noticed a few things that caught my attention – things I doubt I’ll even notice in a couple of weeks:

Ukrainians are not particularly smiley people.

On the subway, anyone will stand up for an elderly person and everyone is quite polite, but few people smile, acknowledge others with a nod of the head or offer a greeting. Cashiers simply ring up items and state how much is owed. Now, granted, I can’t speak Russian, so I can’t understand anything that’s being said, but no spoken words and no smile is definitely not hello or thank you or excuse me.

That said, this doesn’t bother me. It’s just different, given that the U.S. is so focused on being a customer service-oriented culture.

Family time is important time.

This is an evening-oriented culture. Late into the night, there are kids crowded on the playground in front of our apartment building, and both mothers and fathers actively push their kids on the swings, help the little ones down the slide or visit with other parents from the sidelines.

One evening, we took a walk through Holosiivskyi National Nature Park, which is located less than half a mile from our home. It was absolutely packed with people of all ages out for walks, eating ice cream and enjoying each other’s company. Very few people had their smartphones out and were, instead, engaged in conversation and the present moment.

It is refreshing, to say the least.

Kyiv is “the next Prague” – or not.

I’ve heard a few people say this, and I hope it’s not true. I visited Prague a couple years ago but did not fall in love because it was cheapened by the introduction of Western commerce and hovering on the edge of Western European prices.

There are some similarities: There is a lot of tagging around Kyiv, but there is also an active movement to beautify the city with commissioned street art (I can’t wait to get out and discover all of these murals). There are minimal English translations except in the city center. The public transportation is clean and reliable. And there are beautiful historical buildings that deserve attention; hopefully they won’t be muddied up with pedal pubs and street hawkers as soon as Western tourists move in.

There are definitely differences too: Kyiv is undeniably inexpensive. It blows my mind how far one U.S. dollar stretches here. Also, it is a huge, sprawling city – in fact, it’s one of the largest cities in Europe. And it is uniquely Kyiv with its turbulent Ukrainian past, which I’m hoping to learn more about in the months and years to come.

Kyiv is caught on the edge of development. 

In line with the observations noted above, there are few other things I’ve noticed that seem to keep the city teetering between developing and developed.

For example, there is no emergency exit to our apartment building. We are stair climbers, so we noticed on our very first day that the exit to the stairs on the ground floor was locked (apparently to keep homeless people out of the stairwell, though I haven’t seen any homeless people in our neighborhood). Building owners would have to hire someone to watch the door to keep out non-tenants, so they’ve decided instead just to keep the door locked.

As a result, our stair-climbing routine involves taking the elevator to the second floor and then walking the other five floors up. And, our emergency plan involves going all the way down to the first floor and breaking the window to get out.

Don’t worry: We have a smoke detector, so we’ll definitely know if a fire breaks out – not likely given the fact we live in a massive piece of concrete.

Also, while the water is “okay” to drink, it’s not advisable as there are a lot of heavy metals in it. We’ve bought a water filter and use that for cooking and drinking. Of course, I’m not so sure it’s safe to drink the water in some American cities as well.

And yet, there is some dispensable income, and people don’t seem to hesitate to buy “extras” at the grocery store or other shops. We’ve seen very few homeless people. People own pets. There is recycling at our apartment building.

It is a hub of arts and culture.

There are festivals and events, theaters and opera houses – and I can’t wait to attend!

The cost of going to the opera here is very accessible, unlike in the United States where the experience is priced for the elite. Performances are in either Ukrainian or Russian, as are films at the movie theater. There’s no getting around the language barrier here except for doing my best to learn what I can.

There is lots of green.

Granted, we live on the edge of the city right near a national park with miles of trails and a handful of lakes, so I’ve only really gotten to see this part of the city.

However, even in the city center, there are plenty of parks with playgrounds and paths, sitting places and statues with ample light at night and lots of shade during the day.

So far, I do agree that the city is on the verge of becoming a “Western” destination as we know it, complete with English-language trimmings and Western prices, and I am excited to live here as an expat before that happens.

6 Responses to “Four Days In: Initial Impressions of Kyiv, Ukraine”

  1. Abbie

    I’m so glad you’re going to be writing about living in Kyiv! Can’t wait to read more 🙂

    • JoAnna

      Thanks Abbie! We’re so excited to dig into the city and get to know it well!

  2. Jill

    Sounds like you’re already getting a handle on the city. I know you’ll have a lot to explore.

    • JoAnna

      This city is HUGE! There is so much to explore!

  3. Alanna

    I love this first impressions post and can’t wait to see how it will compare with your feelings in a year.

    • JoAnna

      I agree – it will be interesting to see what the “first year impressions” round-up will look like!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *