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

An Expatriate Guide: Travel

When I first moved to Europe, having only made three trips here previously, I was full of wonder and excitement. I was READY TO TRAVEL. And why not? It’s okay. I’d even say it’s expected. I’ve always considered myself to be adventurous. But, I was also a wee bit naive (like my Why aren’t those eggs in refrigerators? moment). And that’s okay too. There was, and still is, so much to learn, discover and explore.

Since our move seven months ago, I have racked up visits to 10 countries. Not too shabby. That is absolutely, without a doubt, hands down (or up, waving wildly) the biggest perk about being an American living in Europe. The possibilities for travel are endless. After planning that many trips in a short amount of time, I’ve learned some stuff. Here are my top three revelations:

  1. Living “like a local” is unique and cheap. We realized early on that we want to have a local experience while also looking for deals. Whether it’s risking our life in a tin can taking advantage of the discount airlines, finding a reliable hotel bargain, or shopping for meals rather than eating out, there are plenty of ways to save cash. Saving cash = more money for more trips. For housing, we started using rental sites like Housetrip and Airbnb to book our accommodations and finding that we very much prefer it to hotels. It’s never quite the Four Seasons, but that’s not a priority for us. We want to be OUT of the room as much as possible. If that’s your jam, go you. For us, staying in a home, we can make our own coffee and meals to save a bit of cash (bonus: you get to poke around local grocery stores which I love). Every property has pictures, so you know exactly what you are getting. And, I don’t know, there’s something nice about coming back to a home rather than a hotel room. So you can have this for dinner without a shred of guilt:For meals, same thing. While it’s always lovely to dine in Michelin-star restaurants, why not try the street food from the cart in the square? We have had some of our most memorable meals that way. In a good way! It also scores you points with the locals when they see you are willing to give them a chance. So go ahead, try the snails! (Whether you survive or not is your problem.)
  2. Try off season travel. I stress try. This has good and bad qualities. When it comes to traveling during the winter, it’s just not my fave. I don’t prefer to sight-see when everything is dead.Because you know what I always say? Ooh, I need to come back when the weather is nicer. I don’t like being completely bundled a la Randy from A Christmas Story when walking around a new city. Does this mean I won’t travel when the weather is less than perfect? Of course not. A cold trip is still better than no trip. Depending on where you go, this could work to your advantage. Sometimes this means that hotels and airlines have reduced rates, or maybe you get attention from local restaurant and shops owners and end up getting some great personal advice about what to do and see (it’s happened to me and was great). Then again, hotels might be closed up altogether or restaurants are annoyed to have to wait on you, the only patron in the restaurant, when there is a soccer match on tv (it’s happened to me and was depressing). You might as well try.
  3. Be open to unexpected destinations. While it’s natural gravitate toward famous cities (such as Barcelona Paris) or famous natural wonders (like the Cliffs of Moher or the Sahara Desert), I’m convinced that every place on earth has its charm and deserves a chance. This is what is so great about being an expat, everything is new and exciting. Even little towns around the Netherlands like Haarlem, Delft or Zandvoort are lovely. It’s important to be open to places you may never have paid attention to before expat life. Like in my case, Moscow. Moscow wasn’t high on my list of places to visit. But since Jaro had some meetings there, I jumped on the free hotel room and spent my days wandering around. Why not? There is beauty everywhere and living over here affords you so many opportunities to see it. And sometimes it’s in places where you least expect it. Like Moscow’s metro stations:

So, what do you think? Are there other expats out there that share this joy in discovering a new place and general love of travel? I feel like I could write a book about my ramblings on this subject (maybe I should!) or at least continue to expand upon it in future posts. To be continued…

xxx

Our Dam Life

Hi loyal readers! I’m sorry it has been awhile since my last entry. We have been in our new home for two weeks (already!) and a lot of my time has been devoted to building, painting and organizing everything in this wonderful apartment! After four TOO MANY trips to Ikea and lots of frustrating fun hours spent on making all this furniture, we now have a fully liveable and comfortable home. Yay! We have had a great time designing it and, no doubt, you would all think the style suits us perfectly. Unfortunately, we still have a few hurdles… from our cable not working (yet) to the dresser I painted that looks like a 5th 1st grader’s handiwork. Both of these things will be taken care of in due time. Overall, we are so happy with our loft and so excited to start hosting guests! 

Other than getting the place set up, things around here are starting to fall into a routine. Jaro goes off to work in the morning and I have a little schedule of my own. So you may be asking yourselves, what exactly does Jaro do? How did we get this sweet deal living in (both western and eastern) Europe? Well, I’ll tell you. 

Back in April, Jaro was approached by his manager about an opportunity over here with Nike. Since we had been talking about needing a change (read: getting out of Chicago), it was the perfect timing! When Jaro started at Nike a few years ago, one of the higher-ups never forgot that he mentioned wanting to work on the Euro Championship of 2012. Why this specific event? Well, Jaro is a full-blooded Ukrainian, fluent in the language, and they are co-hosting the tournament with Poland. To make a long story short (ahem, Stacy), they ended up needing someone and his name was brought up! So, Jaro is now the Nike Brand Manager for Ukraine, specifically for the Euro Champs 2012. At first, we thought we would be living in Ukraine full-time, but due to some difficult work visa issues, that got nixed and here we are: Splitting our time between Kyiv and Amsterdam. Why Amsterdam? The Nike Euro Headquarters are located in Hilversum, a town just outside Amsterdam. This arrangement is actually better for us as Amsterdam is a comfortable place for me to live while Jaro is taking care of business. I’m so proud of him for everything he has accomplished and for bringing us here. Such a great experience to kick off our marriage!

So… what do I do? Going from workaholic to workaphobic… I mean, workallergic… I mean, simply NOT working… has been great. Once we knew this was happening (is this really happening?), I decided to not work for a full year. Now that we are settling in to this Euro life, I’m really enjoying my daily schedule of exercising, market-browsing, and cooking! Things I never had time to do before! Cooking has become a real treat (pun intended) and I’ll find a way to start sharing delicious meals that I exhaustively effortlessly throw together. Real housewife of Amsterdam? You bet.

About pictures: I finally delivered, yeah? I have posted albums on Facebook and Flickr of our Amsterdam trip in August, and our Barcelona and Kyiv trips in September. For those of you out of the loop that want to get in, look me up on Flickr so I can add you as a contact. More Euro stories (hopefully interesting & funny ones) coming soon!

Our Dam Life

After looking through my posts, I realized that I haven’t written much about the city where we spend the most time- our new home of Amsterdam! Duh Julie! Obviously, this will be a recurring post as we continue to share our lives with all four three of you that actually read my ramblings.

As for the ‘hood we now reside in, De Pijp, we are within a 5 minute walk of the famous Albert Cuyp Market, Sarphatipark, canals and the almighty Heineken Brewery, where we will send you when we need a break- Kidding!. Sort of… Traveler Tip: The Heineken Experience (as it’s called) is alright, but one of those ‘you only need to do it once’ kinda things. You learn about the history of the Heinie (barley+hops+water=beer) and see some interesting (read: old) beer tanks and stuff. Also, the entire tour is in English! They sure know their audience. After you go for a 3-D, interactive ride as a bottle of beer (which was actually pretty hilarious), and take a lesson on how to properly pour a beer (the more foam the better – who knew?), you’re freed. The bar at the end of the tour is supposed to be awesome, but it’s just awkward. Lots of “I think I’m cool” types, which hopefully, we did not get categorized with. Although we were both wearing dark-rimmed glasses… Anyway, you get two beers for free with the tour and I think they hope you have enough buzz when you leave to say, “Wow! What a cool… experience!” …

We also have a bread shop down the street and tons of cute little cafes, pubs and restaurants nearby. Very much fits our lifestyle and taste. There are also several coffeeshops (no, haven’t tried any of these neighborhood ones yet) and a teeny little red light area (haven’t tried that either, thanks), which we heard is called ‘the seven lost hookers’. If you are curious enough, I’ll just have to show you and you’ll understand immediately.

Have I mentioned how awesome the Cuyp market is? Well let me go ahead and do that. It’s awesome. I stroll through it during the day to pick out things for dinner, like the giant bundle of fresh asparagus I bought the other day. For only a euro! Been cooking a lot and really enjoying it. Jaro enjoys it too. 🙂 Traveler Tip: The market has way more than food though. Tons of fresh flowers, all kinds of toiletries, clothing, jewelry, etc. It’s a great way to spend a little time outside on a nice day. And bring small bills to make it easier on the vendors, would ya? When Jaro and I visited in July, we had a great afternoon walking through here, buying a hunk of cheese and bottle of wine, then sitting at a park to enjoy it. We also tried an authentic herring sandwich, which is raw herring (skin and all), onions and pickles. It was … interesting. Now I walk through it on the reg and I’m hoping to get ‘in’ with a few of the vendors. Specifically any of the cheese or flower vendors.

Can’t wait to share more adventuring with you! Have a great weekend. xo

Amsterdam House Hunt, part twee

Time to revisit that little piece o’ news I mentioned a couple of weeks ago and give you guys a little more information about it. We have a spacious, beautiful loft in the heart of De Pijp (roughly pronounced ‘Pipe’ for us Americans). This hip, little neighborhood is located in the Amsterdam-Zuid borough, so we are just south of the canal district. Now for all of you whining about us not having a canal view, I don’t want to hear it. As a visitor you would have had to sleep on the floor since there is no way we could have found a place with all our must-haves like a second bedroom. So really, this arrangement works out better for you, our guests. You all are visiting, right?

We are almost finished furnishing the place and let me tell you, it is no small undertaking. Our initial expectations were pretty low (by that I mean, teeny tiny), so we didn’t ship a lot of our furniture. Boy, were we off! We be shoppin’ up a storm to make this house a home. Last night we bough a beautiful dining room table and, for some reason, that purchase made me feel like a real adult. I mean, it’s teak. Fancy. We still don’t have chairs yet, but hey, we’re getting there. While it will still look pretty bare in here, it’s all intentional as we plan on filling it up with personal items that we will collect as we travel. You all know how impatient I am so this will be a challenge for me. As soon as we are all initially set up, I will post some before and after pictures to get that ‘Oooh’ and ‘Ahh’ effect from all of you. I know, I know, I have been making empty promises talking about pictures for quite awhile, but now that we have our home computer, I can start uploading! Yay!

While we are thrilled with our loft, moving into a new place abroad has had its challenges. Like…

– we have a convection oven. I always saw the instructions on food packaging, but didn’t think they actually exist. You know, like the Lock Ness Monster. Anyway, it’s the size of a large toaster. I made some mean stuffed portabellos in there last night though, I will dominate it soon enough.

– we have huge, 2-story windows. How on earth are we supposed to clean those things? #firstworldproblems

-our TV and computer are from the States and I grumpily happily went to four places before I found a shop with 3-prong converters.

-the metric system. Liters. Meters. Celsius. All things I know embarrassingly little about. I do know that 82 Fahrenheit is the one temperature that can be flipped to 28 Celsius exactly. #nerdalert

That’s it for now.

xxx

Amsterdam House Hunt, part een

Well, hallo there. I have some exciting news. Jaro and I had our apartment search with the relocation agency last week and it was a success!

We looked at seven places around the city and I could not believe the range of sizes and amenities we saw. Some teeny tiny, others colossal. Some about to cave in, others fully renovated. I am so surprised at what we can afford. And where we can afford it. At the end of the day, (can’t believe we were ready to commit after only a day), we were torn between two places and you won’t believe what we picked. We went with a 2-story, 2-bed, 2-bath, design dream for Jaro …. a LOFT!! It is huge, beautiful, spacious and sunny. We could have brought all our furniture from the States. Oh well, it will be fun to buy new things and decorate this place.

It’s the type of apartment we will not be able to have once we’re older with pets and/or children, so we are very excited to enjoy it while we can. Who are we? We even have our very own (enormous) rooftop. I hear it’s the best way to watch the NYE fireworks that explode literally all over the city. It is in the heart of the neighborhood we wanted on a quiet street between a beautiful park and a bumpin’ outdoor market. I cannot even explain to you guys how cool and how “us” this area is. Not that I think I’m cool… Anyway, we move in on October 1st, once our shipping container clears customs and we finally have all our own things.

Hooray for living abroad!

xxx