Happy Friday

Kiev, Ukraine

How is it Friday already? I swear, March hit and suddenly the weekends are sneaking up on me. Do you have any fun plans? We’re having friends over for dinner tonight (gotta show off our new kitchen while it’s still new!) and tomorrow, my sister is coming to visit! I can’t wait to show her around Portland and just hang out with her in real life. We’re so lucky to have technology like Skype and texts to keep us connected, but nothing beats a real hug. I might not let go.

xxx

{photo from happier times in Kiev’s Maidan. thinking about our friends in Ukraine. P.S. It’s not The Ukraine.}

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Monday Travel Memory: Kiev

Kiev, UkraineHard to believe it has been over seven months since we were in Ukraine. I still love this night shot showcasing the decayed glamour on Kreshchatyk.

And now, here I am in Portland. Heading to Oakland/San Francisco tomorrow to escape the rain and I see that I’m bringing the rain with me (hopefully just for one day).

Figures.

xxx

Kiev: Final Reflections

1st annual anniversary photo
Kiev, Ukraine

We are now finished with our brief stint in Kiev, Ukraine. <Insert choirs of angels singing “Hallelujah!” here> In the final weeks there, we celebrated our 1st wedding anniversary (picture is on our crappy apartment balcony… complete with chairs that stained your butt green, but we later went to a beautiful terrace dinner at Concord). I helped Jaro photograph The Chance final week. We feasted on varenyky at Pervak one last time. We got to enjoy a live concert from Elton John in the Fan Zone (fo free!). We found an incredibly chic and modern lounge/restaurant a few blocks from our place called Sad and went twice in three days. We went to the European Championship Final (and watched Spain embarrass Italy), any true football fan’s dream come true.

Espana vs. Italia

 

And now we’re home. When I sit down and think about it, living there on and off (more off for me than Jaro) was an interesting challenge…

Looking back on this year, not only did we have to adjust to a new life in Amsterdam, but we also had all this other incredible change: A new marriage, my decision to stop working, adjusting to occasional life Kiev… the list goes on. Out of all these big changes in our life, Kiev was our biggest challenge by far. I enjoyed our transition to Amsterdam and our Dutch life. Our new home. Our new friends. Hosting visitors. I have enjoyed not working. Instead, I’m working out. Learning to cook. Learning to take good photographs. Learning Dutch. So, what did I find so difficult about living in Ukraine?

1. Jaro worked all the time. All. The. Time. This was part of the deal though, right? I mean, someone has to pay the bills! Initially, I didn’t (couldn’t really) predict how lonely I would be.  After my first trip in September (which I wrote candidly about here and here), I avoided going back to Kiev until the April visit when his family would be there to keep me company. I couldn’t stand to be alone, in a tiny apartment and once you see #4, it will make even more sense. Avoiding it may not have been the best idea or most courageous, but I rationalized it by remembering how much milder the winter was in Amsterdam. (Kiev, according to Jaro, was like this) Jaro continued going there regularly, which meant I was home alone in Amsterdam for much of the year. Sad face. Remember this pathetic dinner? Yep. Did that more times than I care to admit. But, being apart taught me to be self-motivated, keep myself busy and stay optimistic.

2. No one speaks English. And I don’t speak Ukrainian. Or Russian. See a disconnect there? I realize that is my own fault. I wasn’t there enough to take consistent language lessons. Or make friends. Living there without knowing the language was next to impossible. Thankfully, Jaro’s Ukrainian and understanding of Russian is what carried us through. He handled all the communication really. Over time, I became more comfortable winging it. Admitting I didn’t understand when people were talking to me. Trying to communicate anyway. Lots of hand motions and nervous laughing. This was a challenge!

3. The food. I go back and forth on this one. But really, it made things difficult for me. I LOVE varenyky as much as the next warm-blooded Eastern Euro (I am 1/2 Polish after all), but you can’t eat that every day! And as much as I tried to embrace cooking there, our cheap (provided) apartment utensils made it all but impossible. So did not having a dishwasher. I managed to “make the best of it” toward the end and just suck it up with a sink full of dishes each day. Jaro would often chip in with that. What a guy.

4. Our constant internet problems. I can’t even really get into it; I’ll have a hysterical fit. In short, for the last two months we didn’t have a connection at all. After multiple phone calls and technician visits, we gave up. (Sidenote: What did people do before the internet? Watch TV?) Oh and CNN, our only English TV station, stopped working too. So what the heck would I do? Go for walks. Slow ones. Read. Sit outside and enjoy the sun.

5. The fashion. Women of Kiev, take note: There is NOTHING chic about wearing stilettos with exposed nails in the heels that make that horrible clicking sound as you wobble around. Also, there is nothing chic about you stepping on my foot with said exposed nail at a concert and causing it to bleed. I may hang onto that grudge for awhile… at least until this cut heels heals.

Again, the list goes on. For someone (i.e. me) used to western comforts, it’s just a tough place to live. I found myself sighing a lot. Taking deep breaths a lot. Crying a lot. However, as I reflect on my time there, I realized the impact it had on me.

I am so proud.

I’m proud, firstly, of my husband. He did some tremendous things over there, including this for an underprivileged community in Kiev. With the well-known corruption and other problems in Ukraine, I am just so proud that he made it happen along with everything else that he worked on this year. He made friends and bonded with a lot of talented, wonderful people. He is inspiring in so many ways. And to be a loving, thoughtful and romantic husband as well? As frustrated as I got with his demanding schedule, at the end of the day, I realize I’m quite lucky.

I’m proud also of myself. It’s not easy to give up a career, move abroad and spend so much time in a country where standards are not as high. It’s actually really hard. But you know what? The lessons I learned there will last me the rest of my life. To be more positive. To be more patient. To be more kind.

…To still laugh at some of the outrageous fashion. And cringe at the heels.

I’m thankful for my time in Ukraine. Now it’s time for the new challenge.

xxx

P.S. I might miss the mad scientist door across the hall from us. Just a little bit.

Weekend Wrap Up

The tournament has finally arrived and the European Championships 2012 are underway. In the worst timing that could be possible, the internet at our apartment is not working, despite all efforts. So, I’m not able to post as often as I would like. We are currently at a McDonald’s to get something scribbled out.

Everything is going surprisingly well so far. Our friends Barney and Yuri arrived yesterday, we had a wonderful yet quick meal with them and then they headed off to L’viv. After they were safely on the train, we walked back into the city from the train station. P.S. That is a hike. But anyway… The Fan Zone on Khreshchatyk is a nice space, albeit annoying to get in. Apparently when you have a camera bigger than a point and shoot, they require you to go through a special entrance, which naturally, is the one furthest from our apartment. Last night, we watched both the Poland vs. Greece and Russia vs. Czech on the huge screens that are set up in the Maidan. If we are able to get our internet going, I’ll post more frequently in the next two days. On Monday, we head to Poland and the adventures continue. I’m meeting up with my high school bud, Marisa, and we’re taking on Eastern Europe together – by train!

Here are some pics…

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Jaro with our new toy. 

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The big screen in Maidan.

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Russia scores. 

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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

In Exile

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Man found frozen on Ukrainian bus. Authorities say he wasn't drinking enough Vodka.

I arrived in Ukraine today…Or should I say I was exiled to Ukraine today? The weather is what I always imagined Siberia to be like so being here feels like I’m being punished.

The ice in Kiev does not have the same charm as it does in Amsterdam, or Chicago for that matter. Let’s be honest, the city isn’t all that pretty to begin with and do you think they really have a system for snow removal in a place where the parking meters have a pulse? Don’t think so. I almost killed myself on the sidewalk outside our apartment because they’re covered with ice. Imagine if I’d cracked a rib in this place! I will say crossing over the frozen Dnipro with the snow falling was pretty cool.

Fortunately, when I arrived at the apartment it was nice and warm and the smell from the bathroom was here to welcome me – one of the joys in Ukraine is the smells (My wife wrote extensively on the subject a while back). We have a lovely stench which our landlord refuses to admit exists coming from our bathroom. Hoping to finally get that taken care of this week.

It’s not all bad though. I’m excited to get some work done here and I’m hoping to meet some new people and see some new places. Fingers crossed that a few of them are winners. So long as I don’t freeze to death or slip on the ice and fall into a coma, I’ll consider this week a success. Wish me luck.