My First Week in Kyiv: Expectations vs. Reality
Diving head first into the local cuisine, I attempted to stomach a dinner of pig’s fat and a hefty glass of beer. Makes you drool just thinking about it, right? Well, unsurprisingly, I will not be adding pig’s fat or salo to my list of favorite foods. However, the smoked version of the dish was not too different than a soft piece of bacon. My adventurous spirit has not been hindered, but for the next few days I played it slightly safer by ordering Chicken Kyiv as well as varenyky (stuffed dumplings). Both dishes proved to be quite tasty as well as more familiar to my American palate.
Proving to be less familiar are the sights around the city of Kyiv. Growing up on Maui, surrounded by more nature than buildings, I came to view cities as more of an eyesore than a spectacle. Although there are select sites which inspire awe as a visitor to such cities as New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, I always felt overwhelmed by the larger than life sights, sounds, and smells. Contrary to my experiences in American cities, the Ukrainian architecture, people, and abundant greenery have caused me to throw all manners aside as I stare at their beauty.
The softer colors and Ukrainian baroque style of the buildings are inviting as well as quaint. Even the metro is a sight to behold as the underground stations are decorated with mosaics and grand archways. There is quite a difference from the dark and dank tunnels of New York or Boston subway. Of course, as with any city, there are areas which are not as mesmerizing as the city center. A new concept I have been introduced to is “sleeping districts” –residential districts with high-rise buildings- where the city population lives rather than works. These districts tend to have a more industrial look. When I was first driven into Kyiv, I was taken to my apartment which is in a “sleeping district”. To be honest, my first impression of the area was not very favorable. The towering grey and brown concrete apartments were not the most welcoming of sights as I drove up to my flat.
After settling into my new apartment with the help of a friend, I started exploring other parts of the city on my own. With a Ukrainian and Russian vocabulary consisting of around five words, I was quite nervous about interacting with the townspeople. Unfortunately, my fear of difficulty with the language barrier quickly became a reality. While paying for my groceries at a local store, the cashier began speaking to me in Ukrainian. I responded by saying, “I’m sorry, I only speak English.” Well, for some reason, this made her very unhappy. With a scowl on her face she started angrily going off in Ukrainian. I just stayed quiet and thanked her while quickly bagging my groceries. Now even more hesitant, I dreaded the next time I had to go food shopping. Luckily, the angry cashier turned out to be an exception and I have since only been assisted with smiles and an understanding nature from shopkeepers.
In addition to the people I meet going to stores or eating at restaurants, the friends I have made here completely defy any preconceived notion of coldness. Warm and caring demeanors are common. The Ukrainian women, especially, seem to define the phrase “beautiful inside and out” as the streets of Kyiv sometimes resemble a catwalk. Many women are dressed in stilettos as well as fashionable outfits. It was at first an intimidating sight, as my wardrobe hardly compared to that of these well-dressed women. I would surely trip and fall in such heels. However, I now embrace it and appreciate the beauty. I can only hope that I will pick up some of their exceptional fashion sense while I am in Kyiv.
Even more impressive than the beautiful people has been discovering what Ukrainian hospitality truly means. It is one thing to hear about how sincerely Ukrainians welcome a guest into their home, while it is another to actually experience the lengths they go to in order to make someone feel comfortable. After stepping into one’s home, it feels as if you have become a part of their family. With a “what’s mine is yours” mindset, hosts will ensure visitors are well fed and have everything they need at their fingertips.
Overall, unpleasant stereotypes I heard about the Ukrainian culture have proven to be more of an anomaly than the norm in my first week in Kyiv. Thankfully, it has mainly been my positive expectations of Ukraine which have become a reality.