Lviv Me Do

After a long night of tossing and turning sleep on the train from Kiev, we made it to L’viv at around 6:30 in the morning. Walking to the cabbies, we heard something familiar – Ukrainian! Being spoken! Not Russian! Now we’re talkin’ (literally, haha). Now Jaro and his family could actually communicate with the locals without problems. A short (and cheap) cab ride later and we were at our apartment. Or so we thought. Turns out, the address provided was incorrect and our actual apartment was across town. Really… this wasn’t a big deal. Although the landlord admitted people show up at the wrong place all the time. Probably a good sign that they should be clearer in their directions.

Anywho, we got to the apartment. It was on a lovely boulevard called pr Schevchenka, right in the center of town. This was our view:

pr Schevchenka

Such a pretty street! Not a Soviet-style, project-looking building in sight. Lovely!

On that first day, Jaro and I did a Lonely Planet walking tour of the city, which was pretty decent and helped us get oriented. It included a nice long climb up Castle Hill, which had great views of the city. We just so happened to run into his family up there too, so they snapped this pic of us. 🙂

Jaro & I on Castle Hill, Lviv

We continued our tour and passed several beautiful cathedrals and charming streets. Just look at the cute town square (A UNESCO World Heritage Site):

pl Rynok

Ended up at Pid Synoyu Plyashkoyu or “Under the Blue Bottle” for some mud coffee and sandwiches at lunchtime. Both were just okay. It was a cool, little place though, tucked away in the back of an alley. After more moseying, we stopped at a quaint cafe called Fresca and cuddled up under a blanket on their patio to savor some hot beer with coffee(delicious), hot tea with brandy (also delicious) and chocolate-covered salo. Do you know what salo is? Well if you clicked the link, you do now. I thought it was going to have a bacon-y taste and texture, getting that whole mix of salty n’ sweet, but it really just felt like I was chewing on rubber. Not the biggest fan, but I was happy to have tried it anyway. Later that evening, we all gathered for a birthday dinner at Amadeus (happy birthday, Marta!), a small Italian/Ukrainian bistro in the heart of town with a menu the size of the Bible. Service was friendly, atmosphere was cozy and food was good. Yes, yes, yes.

Day #2 took four of us (the parents and us) to Lvivske Brewery, the oldest still-functioning brewery in Ukraine. While I wouldn’t recommend the museum, it’s worth it to pay for the entrance anyway because two (big!) beers are included. There is also Robert Doms Beer House (underground cave, which becomes a theme on this trip as you’ll see) on site where we got some snacks and had more beers. This brewery is an easy walk from city center! Good place to watch a game as the cave had monstrous tv’s. After the long walk home, we were pretty much ready for dinner (who’s surprised), and after a quick drink at Four Friends (English style pub), we went to the most memorable meal of the trip – at Kryjivka.

This guy…

Kryjivka doorman

…met us at the door, handed us each a shot out of that canteen and let us in. Another underground (see?) Ukrainian-themed restaurant; such a fun experience. Here’s our whole group enjoying!

Cheers to L'viv!

Stuffed my face full of varenykyj, potato pancakes, sausage, beer and vodka and woke up the next morning thinking I was dead. And in hell. Alas, I just had a nasty hangover.

Day #3 took Jaro and I to Dzyga cafe (pronounced “Jigga”) for beers (pre-noon, we’re crazy like that), Livy Bereh for lunch (underneath {again with the caves!} the opera house), a pick up football game for his job, Lychakivske Cemetery, and finally dinner at Veronica’s (you guessed it, underground), which had the same Bible-length menu as Amadeus. No complaints here. Phew, long day.

Day #4 was Orthodox Easter. Jaro and I had every intention of making the last 30 minutes of mass, but these Ukes have things way more stream-lined than the ones in Chicago. Mass was over in an astoundingly short 2.5 hours. So, dressed in our Sunday Finest, we joined his parents for Easter Brunch at Dim Lehend. And by “Easter Brunch”, I mean we made it one by all ordering the same egg dish and having champagne next to our OJ. Niiice. Very weird decor in there, but that is just keeping things par for the course interesting, right?

After that, we thought it’d be a good idea to burn it off by climbing the tower in the middle of Rynok Square. Here’s a cute one of Jaro with his parents:

Happy Easter from Lviv!

This tower had the best views of the city. See?

Naturally, a climb such as this required re-fueling at another bar, Smachna Plitka (underground, but don’t bother), a sweet stop at Veronica’s (heavenly pastries in there) and a late dinner at Cafe 1.

Day #5 was lazy. Jaro and I spent much of the day working/reading in a coffee shop and wandering around some more. It was starting to feel like enough. We then had a little romantic date night at Centaur, a restaurant on the square where we tried rabbit baked in sour cream and I may be definitely am dreaming about it. It was that heavenly.

Day #6 was more wandering, more sitting in cafes. Definitely enough. But we didn’t depart on the train back to Kiev until we had one last family dinner at Kryjivka! No shots for me this time. Just loads of potato varenykyj.

I was so amazed at the difference between this city and Kiev. It was like two totally different worlds. Did many people in L’viv speak English? Not really. But when ordering off a menu (almost all had English translations), a point and a smile speaks volumes.

Despite my language constraints, I really enjoyed being there. In a place where we didn’t stick out like sore thumbs. Just thumbs. And that’s okay, because a regular old thumb is normal. Would I go back? Sure. Might not be on the top of my list, but I will say this – Anyone traveling to Ukraine should try to get out to L’viv. Such a great, relaxed cafe culture. Where women (gasp!) wear flats. Where people smile. Where prices are reasonable. Where buildings are charming. Where people speak the language of the country they inhabit.

Then compare it to Kiev and tell me what you think. Over Lviv coffee a Lvivske 1715.

xxx

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Kiev: Take Two

Well hello there! It has been quite awhile since I have written to you guys and I have so much to tell! Just got back from several weeks away with time spent in Ukraine and Turkey. It was an exhausting coupla weeks, but really fun and interesting. Let’s get after it, shall we?

In order of cities I visited, we start with Kiev (or K’yiv or Київ). As the title suggests, this was not my first visit to this city (you can read about that eye-opening experience here and here). As Kiev gears up to co-host the European Championship 2012 this summer, I was curious to see what progress they had made to improve the city and make it more accessible/appealing to tourists. It’s their time to shine! Right? The Euro Cup is the THIRD largest sporting event in the world after the Olympics and World Cup. This is probably a little known fact to many Americans.

Why did I expect a change? Well, when I had visited in September, I did not exactly feel comfortable as a foreigner there. I think I made that pretty obvious in those previous posts. And to put it bluntly, I still don’t! In some respects, there was a hint of effort. The Kiev Metro has maps in English (rather than just Cyrillic). Streets signs also have English translations (beware, most names are still tongue-twisters). As do restaurant menus (but usually not the staff). But that’s about it. The city is no more friendly or welcoming than what I remember from September. Hey I just rhymed.

The one thing that saved me this trip? Well, two? They both start with F.

Us at Pervak

Family and Food!

Jaro’s parents and aunt & uncle from Chicago shared this trip with us. Our first night there, we had a family dinner at Pervak (sorry, the website is only in Ukie), a theme-y Ukrainian restaurant. The food was good (hellooo varenykyj, hellooo borscht), the waitstaff was amusingly unamused (see: above photo), and the decor was tacky (think barnyard… complete with flying pigs), but it was fun. There was even live music. Oh, and a free shot on the way out:

Honey pepper vodka shots. On a horse's dupa.

Only in Ukraine.

The next day (Day #2), we headed to a craft fair at the Kiev expo center and picked up some goodies. But first we stopped at a Kyiv institution: Kyivska Perepichka where we enjoyed this classic:

A MUST in Kyiv.

Burned that off Followed that up with a walk down Andriyivsky usviz (good Wikipedia article here). Well, an attempted walk. It is almost completely under construction and I doubt it will be done in time for the tournament. At 5pm, we realized we forgot to eat lunch so we faced this plate beast at Sunduk Pub on Mykhaylivska:

Big Bavarian Beer Plate

Aptly named, no? Caution: Combining the above with liter-sized beers may cause a serious food coma. I inhaled so much beer and onion rings that I think I lost my vision for a few minutes.

Once we all strolled rolled home, it was a quiet evening. We ended up ordering late night Italian from Oliva‘s since they delivered (in the rain, God bless them!), and that was okay. I hear dining in is way better.

Monday (Day #3), Jaro was in the office, so his family and I headed to St. Sophia, arguably the most famous cathedral in Ukraine. Here she is:

St. Sophia Cathedral

Not very engaging for the non-Ukrainian-speaking set (aka: me), but the views from the bell tower were expansive (wouldn’t say nice, as the Kiev skyline is not much to look at IMO). At least it was good for some landscape photos. A quick bite at Golden Gate Pub (popular with British/Irish expats) made for a friendly pit stop. A smiling server goes a long way in Kiev. Dinner that night (did we only eat on this trip??) was at an awesomely delicious Georgian restaurant called Kazbek (here is the English homepage for the chain). Ever since we tried it in Moscow, I’ve been obsessed with Georgian food. Order the khachapuri. You won’t regret it.

Tuesday (Day #4), I attempted a solo excursion (hey, if I could do it in Moscow, I could do it here). Walked up Taras Schevchenka boulevard, and headed north to eatery Bulochnaya Yaroslavna for their tasty meat pies (note: 99% of my excursions revolve around food, the other 1% is doing something that makes me hungry). Well worth the 45 degree angle climb up Ivana Franka street. That night, Jaro & I had a date night (these rules still apply when we are in Ukraine!) at a surprisingly nice French bistro called Under Wonder. It’s rated as the #3 restaurant in Kiev on Tripadvisor. Not sure if that’s saying much, but it was decent. Just look at Jaros’ meal!

Fish in a Salt Brick - A flame!

Coming from Chicago where we were spoiled with tons of fabulous restaurants, this wasn’t perfect, but it felt very western (as in western European, which is a compliment) and the waitstaff was refreshingly friendly. We definitely had our fill of enjoyable dining experiences on this trip! Like I said, a smiling server goes a long way. I certainly realized how that impacts a meal.

Day #5 was our last day in Kiev, so I opted to stay in and get myself ready for the second leg of our adventure – L’viv! Before departure, we did all enjoy a last meal together at Arena Beer House across the street from our apartment. Though Russian-speaking, our server was friendly and the food was similar to American bar food! Not bad! Then, the whole family boarded the train (train website – in Russian… that takes some patience to navigate) from Kiev to L’viv (an 8 hour overnighter). We had extremely low expectations for this train ride, but were pleasantly surprised.  It was a new-ish train in good condition, rooms were clean and we even had our own bar car room:

Private bar

…And the clanking train gently violently rocked me to sleep (okay, the vodka helped). Goodbye, Kiev!

Compared to my last visit, when I didn’t have a guidebook or much common sense, I was impressed with Kiev’s dining scene. That’s a tremendously important part of travel for me. I love experiencing culture through food and I think I’m still full from all the varenykyj (dumplings filled with various ingredients, my fave are the cabbage or the potato) and borscht (beet soup, preferably with dill and sour cream) that I ate there. So, so good. So, so bad for me. Oh well. That’s what exercise is for, right? While you can find a good meal in Kiev, I’m not sure what else the tourist can expect during, say, their visit for the European Championship. From my point of view, it’s a difficult city to visit and enjoy. Having a Ukrainian-speaking husband and family did help some, but even then a lot of Kiev residents speak Russian. It’s really weird. And no matter what, we Americans stick out like sore thumbs. We’re targets for pan handlers and scheming con artists. Nothing scary or dangerous, just sad. So we did the only thing we could do – We made the best of it. Lots of laughing, lots of food and lots of beer helped. It’ll be interesting to see what gets written up about it this summer as the city hosts more tourists than it has capacity to hold. …Very interesting.

See you on the other side (of the country that is) – My next post takes us to L’viv!

xxx

An Expatriate Guide: Hosting

Aside from all the travel, another tremendous change in our lives as expats is the amount of hosting that we now do. We’ve been fortunate to have quite the number of excited guests come see us in Amsterdam. It truly does make us feel loved and not so detached from the life we left behind. HOWEVER, we have learned a lot about the do’s and don’ts of hosting. Yes, there are don’ts. Let’s dig in.

  1. Do feel the love. Isn’t this a great thought to start with? People love us! They want to see us! We love them! We want to see them! We have allowed ourselves to reflect on this wonderful feeling and consciously make the best out of each visit. It makes us happy. It cheers us up on a glum day. Just feel the love, people. Feel the love. Don’t forget that while this is your normal life, it is a vacation for your visitors. They are spending time and money to be with you. Enjoy these visits. Your guests will undoubtedly enjoy it too, if you have this attitude. So memories like this are created:

    J+J with M&M, our first visitors from home.

  2. Don’t rush. It feels great to have visitors wanting to knock down your (brand new) door that you may or may not know the exact location of. …I think this is my street? It truly does. Before we even moved, we had a list of people waiting for us to give them the go ahead to book their tickets. But we rudely forced politely asked that everybody wait. We needed some time (months actually) to get ourselves situated here and I think that made for more successful visits with our guests. We were already comfortable in our home and had gotten over all the new-ness (well, maybe not all) of life abroad, but we had figured out important things like grocery shopping and other daily routine-ish things, so that we didn’t have to waste time figuring it all out while guests were here. Not to mention the fact that we had only been married two months when we moved. Let’s just say, we really didn’t mind the alone time. Speaking of alone time…
  3. Do prioritize alone time. Jaro and I came to this realization rather slowly, but it might be the most important. Although our guests want to spend every waking moment time with us (which, trust me, is a great feeling), we have to remember that we are married to each other and need to make time to keep our relationship healthy, connected and “ours”. Meaning, we need time to talk, privately, about our own shit. That which is nobody else’s business. Whether that means we go for walks, head out for a drink or send off our guests so we can chill at home, we need that time. We are still newly-weds after all! How long can I call us newly-weds anyway? The thing we also needed some time to realize was that our guests would not be insulted by this. In fact, they, very likely, would completely understand. <Insert large exhale.>
  4. Don’t over-commit yourself. This is one area we are still working on. Hosting is tiring. There I said it. As much as guests say “no pressure” we are still hosting. I like to have a clean house. I like to make nice meals.  Julie, let it go. What? Yeah, we have also realized that not every single day has to be completely planned out, not every meal needs to take three hours to prepare, and not every corner of the house needs to be spotless (okay, well maybe it does, I can’t stand dust). So far, all of our visitors have been adults, which means all of them can figure some stuff our on their own. But this is a two-part don’t. While over-committing within a visit is one thing, it’s another to over-commit in the sense of over-book. We have realized that having back-to-back-to-back visitors, while fun, is draining. It’s hard to be out of our routine, however mundane, for weeks on end. Sometimes this stresses us out. And we need to forgive ourselves for it. At the end of the day, we never regret having our friends and family staying with us. It’s good to fill our home with life and laughs, because so often it’s empty.
  5. Do understand when people can’t come. This is a sad reality. Not every single person that loves us from home is able to come visit. Whether there are schedule conflicts, financial concerns, or just “oops, I have other things to worry about”, we need to accept that some people just won’t make it. It’s important not to demote these people in our minds just because we haven’t been face-to-face in awhile. Skype, email and instant chats have worked wonders in keeping us connected to folks back home.

Is this way off base? It has worked for us.

xxx

Weekend Wrap Up

Hello! Another busy weekend here in Amsterdam. We are hosting some fabulous guests from the States and it has been the perfect excuse for us to take them around the city to our favorite places and, duh, eat our favorite foods.

We had a lovely dinner at home, evidenced by picture #1:

Dinner party

Those Nambe S&P shakers make the setting, don’t they?

We also, duh, strolled through some of our favorite street markets, Noordermarkt and Lindengrachtmarkt, like we do most weekends and indulged in some a dis (#2):

Hot Meat

How great does that sandwich look? More importantly, how great does that photo look? Jaro surprised me with a new camera lens (!!) and we’re having a blast taking some sweet (and savory?) shots with it.

We also tried out a cafe that we have been meaning to get to forever, Cafe Winkel. They are known for their gluttonous glorious apple tart. Can you see why? (#3):

Cafe Winkel's famous apple tart

We were also celebrating a special birthday for one of our guests (that’s you, Seweryn!) and even though he may not have wanted us to acknowledge his birthday in public, it still gave us a good reason to go to one of our favorite restaurants, Balthazar’s Keuken (#4):

Balthazar's. The decor is just as awesome as the food.

Our pictures of the food just didn’t do it justice in the low lighting, so you get this artsy shot of the cool bulbs in there instead. Where can I get these?

Chalk that up to another great weekend here in the ‘Dam. Now if only the temps would get back to where they were last weekend. …Actually, scratch that. We are about to head out this weekend for some exciting travel! Ukraine & Turkey, here we come!

xxx