For as long as I can remember, I have dreamed of travelling to Ukraine and Poland. My Grandmother was Ukrainian and my Grandfather was Polish, so when I started to think about travelling around the world, I knew I really wanted to visit these two countries. However, in all of my daydreaming about arriving in Ukraine I hadn’t imagined what it would be like to arrive after spending months in Asia. I stepped off the plane onto to tarmac in Kiev at 10am in my warmest clothes (not all that warm) and my sandals and suddenly remembered what it feels like to be cold. Luckily, I had a warm flat and kind people to welcome me and quickly got over the lack of feeling in my toes. I quickly changed into my sneakers and headed out to lunch with Manuel, my host from Mexico, and his friends Tim from Germany, Aldo from Mexico, Bogdan from Ukraine, and Alejandro from Argentina. We gorged at a local Ukrainian restaurant then headed out for a tour of the city. What a beautiful city it is! Looming over us on the hill was a stunning blue and gold church that turned out to be even more impressive on the inside than it was on the outside. We took our multicultural group on a walking tour of the city centre and I was able to get my first sim card for my new cell phone. I quickly made a call to my parents and realized that this was the first non-Skype call to them since I left home. It felt surreal to be in a city where there were no cows in the streets, no blasting of horns, no fear when crossing the street, no street vendors yelling at me to buy things from them, and finally talking to my parents on a real phone. I hadn’t realized just how much I had missed these things until they were staring me in the face. It was a little like having a taste of home and I felt relaxed in a way that was completely unexpected. It also helped that I was surrounded by friendly people who instantly took me under their wings. As we walked around, they mentioned that they had to stop at the stadium to pick up tickets to the next football (soccer) game. My plan had been to stay in Kiev only 2 nights, but I was easily persuaded to adjust that so that I could also go to the game. I am so glad that I did. The next few days included more touring around this beautiful city, buying some essentials like jeans and shoes, and eating more cheese than one person should ever think about consuming (I had really missed it!). Before I knew it, 4 days had passed and game day was upon us.
We had a few beers in preparation for the game and headed to the stadium. What a surprise it was to arrive there and find out that in order to keep order, no beer was sold in the stadium. I tried to imagine how this would go over at a hockey game at home and had a pretty good laugh. The game started and I quickly learned the important words to be able to shout (very few of which are fit to be written). It was a great experience! The next day, the guys decided I needed to experience a Ukrainian night out, so we got dressed and headed to Vodka Bar. They had spent days explaining the dating system in Kiev, which basically consists of very young girls putting a lot of effort into looking good so that they can attract older men to take care of them. I had seen a few examples of this as we roamed around the city, but it became very obvious during our big night out. As much as I tried to understand this approach to coupling, I just couldn’t fully wrap my head around what I perceived to be the business-like way of recruiting a spouse. I had a million questions about it and thankfully, everyone was very patient in trying to answer them. However, the most common answer to my questions about why things were the way they explained was “Because it’s Ukraine”. It seems like I wasn’t the only one having some trouble understanding! Hahaha. Finally, the time came to leave Kiev and my new found group of great friends and hop on the night train to L’viv. I arrived on a bit of a gloomy fall morning, dropped my stuff off and headed out to explore this remarkable city. Even under a blanket of grey clouds, it was stunning. I had downloaded an audio guide onto my iPod and hit the town. This was my first audio guide experience and it turns out I am not very good at following directions. I got lost a few times, but each time, stumbled upon a quiet church, a cozy cafe or a little market where people helped get me back on track. The afternoon brought much better weather so I climbed up to the top of the clock tower at city hall for a full view of the city. As beautiful as it is from the ground, it is even more impressive from above. In the evening, I was invited to go to a local movie group. We got together and ended up watching ‘You don’t mess with the Zohan’. Afterwards, we were meant to have a discussion in English about the movie, but it ended up being more about our perceptions of others as we travel. One of the guys there also told us his plans to move to Canada to become a Physical Education teacher. It is almost impossible to make a living doing a job like this in Ukraine (he would make 100 gryvnas per month, which is about $12.50 and even in rural Ukraine is not an amount you could survive on) and it is something that he is very excited about, but he has met with some very strong opposition to his decision. He has a Law degree and has been told that he should stay and use his education to help improve his country. This was surprising to me. I came to understand that many people feel that a person like him has a duty to his country to use his skills to help bring down the rampant corruption and economic problems facing this country. As he defended his choice, I realized how much courage it takes to be able to go after the one thing you really want regardless of how many people tell you it is wrong or irresponsible. I also came to appreciate just how easy it has been for me to always go after the things I want and to be supported in those decisions completely and mostly without question.
The next day, I was fortunate enough to share accommodations with a couple from Germany and Russia. We headed into town and explored some of the cafes and bars that had been recommended to them. At one dark and very cool pub, there were no prices in the menu, instead we were told that when the bill came, we could work something out. We ended up trading my ticket from the Karma Sutra temples in India and Japanese stick on tattoos for a discount and some leather key chains. This was a pretty good deal! That night, while in another funky pub with sofas and gravel floors I met Aneta from Poland. It turns out that she was planning on headed into Poland the next day so we decided to go together. We met in the rain at the train station and headed to the border. All told, I was only in Ukraine for 10 days. It was definitely a culture (and temperature) shock after Asia, but I had an incredible time. It continues to amaze me how easy it is to meet good, kind, warm people as I travel. The generosity I have experienced continually blows my mind. I feel so lucky to be able to have these experiences and to be exposed to so many other lifestyles and ways of thinking.