Expat Story: Ukraine
This month’s expat story is coming from eastern Ukraine, which seems like an incredibly fascinating place to be living at the moment.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
We’re coming up now on our third Ukrainian spring. I can’t believe the time has flown by so quickly, that we’ve already spent over 2 years here in eastern Ukraine! A couple of years ago D and I were living in Alaska, recent college grads, both working a 9 to 5 job and dreaming of distant places. Mainly, distant warm places like Costa Rica, that is. But because of our skill sets (D: computers, Russian and Ukrainian language. Me: halting Russian, lots of enthusiasm) we ended up moving to Ukraine.
I was offered a teaching job in Kharkiv, the second largest city in the country. D, who grew up in southern Ukraine but had never been to Kharkiv, soon joined me and found work as a programmer. Kharkiv is a cosmopolitan city full of international students, IT companies, and tourists, and we feel quite at home here. We even have a new addition: a grumpy grey kitten named “Whale” joined our family in 2012.
Sadly, Ukraine has become a permanent international headline over the past few months. At first, events happened mainly in the capital. Then the president fled the country and serious unrest hit our part of the country. Daily life hasn’t changed much, but there are frequent rallies downtown by both the pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine sides… and sometimes violent clashes between them. Many foreigners have left the country but we remain here for now.
What has surprised you about living abroad?
Probably no big surprise, but it’s always a bummer to miss out on the usual hustle, bustle, friends, and family that surround American holidays. Recently I find myself missing it more and more. This is balanced out, of course, by getting to celebrate new holidays- for example, the New Year and Christmas celebrations in Ukraine last from Dec 31st to January 15th, two weeks where many businesses shut down as Orthodox Christmas is celebrated on January 7th, or there’s the eagerly-anticipated International Women’s Day on March 8th (hello, flowers and chocolate!)… but doing things like taking university finals on December 25th or trying unsuccessfully to get the day off work for Thanksgiving make for a long, lonely (holi)day that you spend mostly down memory lane. This is all compounded by the fact that we haven’t been able to travel back yet to the US for a visit.
What new tradition or habit do you want to take away from your present home?
Where to start? There are lots of new ideas and habits I’d like to take with me: wearing high heels, having people drop by more often, making cucumber/garlic/salt/sunflower oil salads, walking or using public transportation instead of driving, being able to create endless variations of potato-based dishes, the list goes on and on. The #1 thing I’d like to keep doing, though, is speaking Russian and Ukrainian. Life has so much more color when viewed through a brand new vocabulary.
If a friend came to visit you in your current city for one day, what would you take them to see?
One brave soul (my brother) did actually venture all the way out here to visit. Luckily he had 4 days to spend in Kharkiv… which still felt too short!
If a friend came to visit for just a single day, we would (unless it were a bitter January day in the heart of a Ukrainian winter) definitely ride the rickety old cable carts from the glamorous, remodelled Gorky Park to the more humble but community-oriented Sarzhin Ravine. No, scratch that- we’d probably travel the other direction because it’s always fun to attempt to down a beer in the 16 minutes it takes to travel between the parks and Gorky Park has the most sacred of all Ukrainian attractions: a completely free, completely clean restroom! After riding the Ferris wheel, the roller coaster, or maybe just renting a Segway, we could hop on a marshrutka (minivan taxi) and visit the somber WWII monument down the road or head the opposite way and stroll through the heart of the city. And finally, barring snowdrifts and blizzards, we’d travel to the outskirts of town for a picnic and some delicious shashlik (shish kebab).
What advice would you give to someone who is hoping to live abroad one day?
My advice is this: the timing is never going to be perfect.
Maybe you’re dreaming of living abroad but you’re not quite ready. There’s something you need to do, some money you need to save, some reason that’s holding you back and you think “Just a little longer in the daily grind and then the stars will be aligned, everything will be just right, and I’ll follow my dreams overseas.” That ideal moment?- it never comes. Ninety nine times out of one hundred, you’ll have to sacrifice something.
And you know what? It’ll be worth it. You’ll be able to deal with it. Just go!