Monday, December 6, 2010

Russian / Ukrainian vs. American Textbooks

What could be duller than comparing a bunch of textbooks? And yet that is precisely how I recently got some insight into basic cultural differences between the Slavic world and the English-speaking West.
Two months ago I began studying to prepare for a masters program in geography starting next fall. I plan to get my masters somewhere in Ukraine or Russia and have been studying Russian language textbooks on things like geology, geomorphology, ecology, etc.
One's first experience with a Soviet-era textbook can be daunting. You open what seems to be a fairly small and lightweight book only to find an unbroken wall of small-font text with nary an illustration to be found. Your eyes rest on the first sentence you see, perhaps something totally confounding like the following:
"С процессами медленной солифлюкции связаны такие формы рельефа, как солифлюкционные валы и гряды, приуроченные к основаниям увлажненных склонов, и сопряженные с ними "гофрированные" участки склонов -- солифлюкционные покровы с характерными формами полосной солифлюкции, а также делли". 
Most native Russian speakers wouldn't find this text out of the ordinary; it's just "academic language." They're used to it from school. But if I translate it into English while preserving the grammatical structure, you'll see just how complex the language is:
"With the processes of slow solifluction are connected such forms of relief as solifluction banks and ridges associated with the bases of moistened slopes, and coupled with them "corrugated" areas of slopes -- solifluction sheets with characteristic forms of strip solifluction, and also dellies."
With English sentence construction, you almost always know what the subject is from the very beginning. Structural nuances also don't depend on which endings happen to be on the end of words. I would argue that Russian and Ukrainian academic texts tend to be grammatical more challenging than their American counterparts.
Back to the visuals. If you flip through a few more pages of unbroken text, you may finally find a chart, diagram, or illustration. Instead of having arrows pointing to different parts of the illustration, Soviet-era and modern Russian/Ukrainian textbooks tend to fill in parts of the illustration with different markings. To find out what the markings mean, you look below the illustration to see the number of each marking type, then look below that for a list of what each number means. Two steps for something that could be identified with simple arrows!
In contrast, American textbooks are thick, have narrow columns which make the text easier to read, are printed on higher-quality paper, and are filled with visual differentiation -- charts, shaded side blocks, diagrams, and illustrations.
American textbooks also have a hefty price tag, costing 5-10 times more than their Ukrainian/Russian counterparts. Part of this is the result of corporate capitalism making things as overbuilt and expensive as possible in order to make more money, while forcing substitutes off the market.
But it's more than that. America's culture is deeply consumer-oriented, in stark contrast to most parts of the former USSR. Authors of everything from textbooks to refrigerator instructions try very hard to make it as easy and pleasant as possible for all readers to get the information they need. A side-effect is a certain "dumbing down" of inherently difficult subjects in order to reach a greater number of "consumers."
Making things easier to understand has its advantages and potential disadvantages. Many visuals in English language textbooks are elegantly informative and are truly worth a thousand words. On the other hand, when commercialization creeps into education some authors resort to entertainment in an effort to keep readers' limited attention, and some quality and accuracy is lost.
In contrast, Soviet and most post-Soviet textbooks typically lack any sort of entertaining elements and require significant effort to read. At first I was daunted by the lack of visual differentiation, but now I've come to see the books as something challenging to labor over, with satisfaction coming after you've taken the time to figure everything out. You can't just flip through them to look at the pretty pictures like you can many American textbooks.
Studying this kind of textbooks, I think, has contributed to Russians' and Ukrainians' strong abstract thinking, while American education prepares one for using applied knowledge with a weaker theoretical base.
In all Russian-language textbooks I've read, great attention is given to defining terms and laying out the central theoretical axioms and propositions of the field. In comparison English-language authors tend to give attention to definitions and theory in side columns rather in the main body of the text, which is devoted to descriptions of studies and methods.
On this subject Geert Hofstede, author of the excellent book Culture's Consequences, wrote the following:
"A country's UAI [uncertainty avoidance index] norm affects the type of intellectual activity in the country in an even more fundamental way. In high-UAI countries [these would include Russia and Ukraine], scholars look for certainties, for Theory with a capital T, for Truth. In low-UAI countries they take a more relativistic and pragmatic stand and look for usable knowledge.
The difference between the high-UAI and low-UAI approach is most pronounced in the social sciences. In low-UAI countries the scientific logic favors induction -- that is, the development of general principles from empirical facts. In high-UAI countries deduction -- that is, reasoning from general principles to specific situations -- is more popular. The great theoreticians and philosophers of the West tend to come from higher-UAI countries, especially Germany and Austria: Kant, Marx, Freud, Weber, and Popper, to mention but a few. Theories based on nonfalsifiable hypotheses, such as those developed by Freud and Marx, appeal most to scholars in high-UAI countries... In a society with a strong uncertainty avoidance norm scholars fear the risk of exposing their truths to experiments with unpredictable outcomes. On the other hand, in lower-UAI countries like the United States and Great Britain empirical studies dominate. The orthodox methodological justification of such studies is that the progress of scientific knowledge passes through the falsification of hypotheses in testing them on reality; actually attempting to falsify one's hypothesis requires that one have a large tolerance for uncertainty.
Of course, good hypotheses presuppose good theory. Social science research in the Anglo-American tradition often suffers from a lack of such theory. Empirical studies degenerate into fishing expeditions equipped with powerful computing tools that are doomed to find only trivialities because they do not know what to look for... A marriage between a high-UAI concern for theory and a low-UAI tolerance for empiricism represents the best of both worlds." (pg. 178)

Thursday, October 21, 2010

When's the Last Time You Heard the Words "No Problem" in a Government Office in Ukraine?

I heard these words today from the lawyer at the local ZHEK office where my wife has to get some documents for her post-work permit registration. After much experience visiting various Ukrainian government offices, I have to admit I was stunned to hear this from the mouth of a Ukrainian bureaucrat. After 4 previous visits to the ZHEK for a precious stamp, I had been dreading this visit and envisioning a list of additional requirements whose fulfillment would be close to impossible by our document deadline.

Far more typical is a long, tense silence while the officer scours your documents looking for problems, then presents you a list of reasons why they can't do what you need them to do.

- "What is this here? How do you expect us to accept a form that's been copied upside-down on the reverse side?"

- "The rental contract has to have the ZHEK's round stamp and the director's signature. This rectangular stamp won't do."

- "Where's the xerox of the passport page with the most recent entry stamp?"

- "How am I supposed to know how to spell your name in Ukrainian? There should be an official translation with your passport."

- "How can I be sure that the foreigner really wants to be registered if she isn't even here?"

- "This tax statement is only valid for 30 days. It was issued 35 days ago."

- "I need you to write a statement (zayava or zayavlenie) stating what you're asking us to do."

3 out of 4 Ukrainian bureaucrats scowl, look depressed or angry, and just want you to leave them alone as soon as possible. 1 in 4 is serious, but friendly and not interested in asserting power over you, the visitor.

Who benefits from the Ukrainian bureaucratic machine?

The dizzying paperwork required for just about any legal activity in Ukraine creates a situation that favors two types of business activity:

  1. Big business with budgets large enough to hire lawyers to solve all their legal issues using "all available means."
  2. Individuals who work completely under the table
Everything in between these two extremes is punished in the Ukrainian legal machine. Small business development is weak because of the great obstacles to managing a business legally without lawyers and extensive government contacts. Potential entrepreneurs choose instead to join existing organizations and work for a salary because it's easier and safer than trying to build a business alone. Or they go completely underground and pretend to be jobless, but are then unable to grow their business and hire employees.

I think this legal system is a holdover from communism, where individual activity was made extremely difficult, and only large, government sanctioned organizations were able to legally get things done.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

On Cafes and Culture

My wife and I visited Chernihiv this weekend, enjoyed the stately center, the ancient churches, autumn leaves, and peaceful atmosphere. It was chilly, so we dropped by a randomly selected cafe on the central street.

The cafe was called "Абажур" (Abazhur) and had a classy interior design, light colors, a high ceiling, a spacious feel despite the relatively small space, and classical music playing. The waitresses were wearing old-fashioned dresses reminiscent of the late 19th century, and the walls were lined with classic literature, mostly Russian and European.

Perhaps for the first time ever in Ukraine, we were in a cafe we truly enjoyed and felt comfortable in. In other cafes there's always something that bugs us -- tacky interiors, loud music, pop music, TV, crowded space, too dark, smoking allowed, etc. etc.

It occurred to me that I had never before heard classical music in a cafe in Ukraine. What a shame. Instead, music for public places in Ukraine is chosen based on the "least common denominator" principle. In other words, music is chosen that satisfies the tastes and expectations of the least sophisticated visitor.

Basically, nearly everywhere you go in Ukraine you must listen to music for young teenage girls -- unsophisticated, sexy, and pathetic pop. Baffingly, this is even what most minibus drivers turn on, and these are grown men who should be beyond girly teenage pop.

There are few places to go where you can enjoy more sophisticated tastes, aside from the local philharmonic hall. Older educated people say that the culture has degraded and that things used to be better. I wasn't around then, so I can't say for sure.

A few hours after leaving this unexpected cafe filled with sophisticated-looking people and reserved but charming waitresses, we took another break at a kiosk next to the park. We bought our MacCoffee and chocolate bar and sat down on plastic patio chairs underneath an open "Obolon Beer" cloth pavilion and sipped out of the plastic cup while trying to stay warm. A nearby speaker blared in-your-face teenage girl pop. We were back in the real Ukraine.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

An Evening at the Kyiv National Philharmonic Hall

Walking by the Philharmonic hall one day (it's at the end of Khreschatyk Street if you walk towards the Dnipro River), my wife and I looked at the schedule and saw a concert we were interested in. I wrote down the number and called a few days later:

(044) 278-16-97

The tickets were all out, but the lady told me to call towards the evening (same day as the concert). I did so, and sure enough, two tickets had shown up. I reserved them by giving my last name and said I'd pick them up at 6:50 pm, 10 minutes before the concert.

When I arrived at 6:51, the lady had just given my tickets to someone else. My wife and I were in despair. "Let's go," she said, "there's no point in standing around here." But having spent most of my adult life in Eastern Europe, I felt that all was not yet lost. Maybe an usher would let us stand at the back of the balcony and listen?? We'd probably have to wait till after the concert began.

Wondering what to do, we stood near the entrance to the philharmonic hall and just watched people. Some were standing around waiting for dates. I was getting ready to start walking up to people and offer to buy their tickets when I saw that people were congregating around a lady in front of the entrance.

Sure enough, she was holding a bunch of tickets in her hands and selling them, apparently at the normal price. I quickly ran up, found out which tickets were cheapest, and stuffed a bill in her hand. We were in!

It's for things like this that I love Ukraine. There are always "options" ("всегда есть варианты"), and it's almost certain that if you really need something, there is a way to get it.

Not to mention that each ticket cost 35 UAH, or $4.50, for a 2.5 hour concert of classical music that culminated in a large choral and orchestral rendition of a Stravinsky piece. I wonder how much that would have cost in New York?

Monday, September 13, 2010

WizzAir Flights to Scandinavia

Ukraine's becoming closer and closer to Europe. With discount airline WizzAir now flying to a number of destinations around Europe, you can take a low-priced getaway and escape the Ukraine blues for a while. With some caveats, of course:
  1. Buy your tickets well in advance for the best prices.
  2. Take note to follow all the residency rules to the letter (namely, the notorious 90/180 rule for those without permanent residency, a work visa, or a student visa). They are likely to nab you at Boryspil and make you pay a fine or tempt you to give them a [word that starts with "b"] to avoid being delayed from your flight.
  3. Do advance planning to avoid spending more money than you intend (this is western Europe, after all!). See my recommendations for Scandinavia below.
Flying to Norway or Sweden

Flights can be as little as 80-100 Euros if you buy them in advance. The Norway flight stops for the season on Sept. 12. You can take bikes for another 40 Euros.

For budget travel in Norway and Sweden -- two of the most expensive countries of the world --remember these key tips:
  1. Camping is allowed on open land not used for agriculture, provided you do no harm.
  2. Bring as much food from Ukraine as possible.
  3. Buy train tickets in advance with a credit card and look for the "miniprice." You can save as much as 85% off the cost of a ticket.
  4. Hitchhiking is possible and safe, outside of the major cities, particularly in the north.
In other words, if you go there as a shrewd backpacker, you can spend as little as 200 Euros on a 2 week trip, including plane tickets. Otherwise, get ready to shell out unheard-of sums for everything from accommodations to donuts and the right to pee in public facilities.

As a shrewd backpacker, I can recommend hiking the numerous mountain areas of southern and central Norway as well as hiking trails in the north, such as the famous "Kungsleden" in northern Sweden. I hiked the northernmost 180 km of it through the highest mountains of Sweden.

And here's what one might see while in Norway and Sweden (my pictures):

No More Immigration Cards at Ukraine Border Crossings?

I just returned from a trip to Norway and Sweden and was met with a surprise in the Boryspil airport, which is not surprising since it's always full of surprises. No more immigration cards to fill out upon entering the country!

The border official instead asked me where and with whom I would be staying. I could not tell if she was entering it into the computer or not. She confirmed that immigration cards were not being required here anymore, but wasn't sure it was a permanent change. I kind of suspect it is, since any decision to stop issuing immigration cards requires a corresponding decision to stop requesting them upon departure at every border crossing in Ukraine. This requires top-level planning and establishing a new procedure for entering information in the computer as opposed to storing torn-off scraps of paper somewhere.

At least I'd like to think this is the case and that this isn't something Boryspil airport started doing because their xerox stopped working and they ran out of immigration cards the day I flew in.

UPDATE SEPT. 20, 2010:

We just had a couchsurfer from Moscow at our home. He had to fill out an immigration card at the border. Oh well. So much for consistency of implementation!


From the news coming in from many different expats it seems that the scrap-paper immigration cards have finally been scrapped for good. Hooray! 

Monday, August 23, 2010

LDS (Mormon) Temple Opened in Kiev

For several years Kievites have been wondering, "what's that tall white building being built over there on the Okruzhnaya Road?" Well, now we know. It's a Mormon (LDS) temple, the first of its kind not only in Ukraine, but in all the former Soviet Union.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, claims 10,000 members in Ukraine after nearly 20 years of proselyting activity. There are some 13 million or so Mormons around the world with roughly 1 temple per 100,000 members (so ~130 temples). So now, instead of traveling to Germany (a little perk of membership) for temple service, LDS church members in the region will stay a bit closer to home.

The temple is highly visible right next to the Okruzhnaya Road on the southwest edge of Kiev. It had its public open house in August and from now on will only be accessible to church members with special passes. Regular Sunday worship meetings are held in chapels, which are open to the general public.

Other public activities held by Ukrainian Mormons include English conversation classes led by foreign missionaries, mostly from the U.S. Many students of English in Kiev have heard of or even attended these classes. They say they consist of general conversation by untrained teachers who tend to be replaced sooner than you can get to know them, followed by a brief proselytizing spiel. But they are free of cost.

I toured the temple during its open house along with hundreds or thousands of other Kievites and was impressed with the interior. I'm fairly sure it could be put in the top 100 buildings of Ukraine in terms of quality and neatness of interior design.

The landscaping was distinctly American / Western European, with a thick mat of uniformly trimmed bright green grass. "It's artificial," said someone who had never seen a proper lawn before. "No, it's real," I explained, a lawn expert by virtue of my U.S. citizenship.

Geography Lesson: Why Ukraine is Better than Russia

I spent nearly two years living in Russia and enjoy the culture, language, and geography. But I have recently come to realize that it has some drawbacks that put major limits on the quality of life. By far the greatest drawback is climate.

The vast majority of Russia is so cold that a huge percentage -- roughly one half -- of all energy expenditures is wasted on heating. Instead of using energy to produce goods and services to improve the quality of life, Russians use it just to keep warm.

With few exceptions, heat is generated through the combustion of fossil fuels. Before fossil fuels had become widely available, Russia was a miserable place to live for all but the 5% of society who were aristocracy and government workers. Russian peasants across most of Russia lived in abject poverty, barely able to scrape by in the harsh climate and poor agricultural conditions.

This was not because the country lacked democracy and a free market economy, but because the climate didn't allow people living on the land to build up surpluses and engage in trade and other nonessential activities.

Today, the cost of heating and maintaining infrastructure over enormous distances puts added costs onto many goods and services -- for instance, transportation. Train travel in Russia is 2 to 3 times more expensive than in Ukraine. And yet, except for a few cities in European Russia, people are just as poor as in Ukraine (or poorer).

Many people in the outskirts are effectively stuck where they are, unable to travel further than an occasional short trip by train to the nearest city. Some visas for international travel can only be obtained at consulates and embassies located in Moscow or St. Petersburg, which are a prohibitively expensive trip away. Flights are expensive, and train travel is expensive and takes forever.

Without fossil fuels and other natural resources to exploit, most of Russia would suffer a catastrophic loss in standard of living. As global temperatures rise, primarily affecting arctic regions, Russia stands to gain a lot of effective territory and be able to spend less energy trying to keep things warm and liveable for its inhabitants. Global Warming is good news for Russia.

In Ukraine life was never so hard. The comparatively cold, continental climate kept European-like urban development from occuring over much of the country. Most people lived as peasants with too little surplus to allow for the creation of large towns. But life in the countryside was rarely so difficult -- thanks to a warmer climate and better soils -- that people and livestock were constantly on the verge of starving to death and had no time to do anything other than subsistence agriculture.

With train travel comparatively inexpensive and southern lands quite close, Ukrainians can more easily take vacations to places like Crimea, Bulgaria, and Croatia, which are all a day's trip away. Europe with its culture and history is just a stone's throw away, and many Ukrainians have been to Poland at the very least, if not further west.

Ukraine is also dependent upon coal and gas for heating. But if these were taken away, people would have a place to go -- back to the countryside. Wood might soon be in short supply, but cold spells are shorter and less severe, and the warm growing season quite a bit longer, than in most of Russia.

From a climatic and geographical standpoint, the most favorable areas in Ukraine for living are probably Transcarpathia, Galicia, and Bukovina -- all in western Ukraine, which has a milder and somewhat moister climate. It's no surprise that these areas developed an urban culture similar to that of central Europe.

To these we might add the Crimean foothills and coast -- another area with quite a bit of development historically, though little connected with far western Ukraine.

Even sandy, chilly Kiev is in a better location with better climate specs than the Russian capital, Moscow, although still somewhat cut off from the civilized world.

By choosing Ukraine (if one has a choice at all), your putting your bets with a place that, for geographical and climatic reasons, historically has tended to have a better standard of living than Russia.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Is Getting a Work Permit in Ukraine Worth It?

Sometimes my wife and I ask ourselves this. By the time we finally get her temporary residency permit in a few weeks, it will have been a full six months since we sat down with her employer and discussed the steps we would take to get her legally employed at their company. Mind you, work permits are only issued for a year, so I guess that means 6 months out of each year will be spent moving documents from place to place and wondering what the outcome will be.

Her employer took on most of the work, but some things we had to do ourselves. I can't imagine a foreigner who is not fluent in Russian/Ukrainian being able to complete the process without breaking down and paying a lawyer upwards of 500 Euro to take care of [much of] the work.

But receiving a work permit is just the first -- albeit most critical -- part of a three-stage process:
  1. obtain work permit (no small feat)
  2. obtain visa (take trip to Ukrainian consulate abroad)
  3. obtain temporary residency in Ukraine
The third stage turned out to be surprisingly difficult. It's more than the usual visit to the ZHEK for an OVIR registration. You need to get statements from everyone registered at your address of registration, AIDS and tuberculosis medical tests, and a statement from the tax office on your employer that takes 10 working days to issue. I figure that by the time we get this all done I will have been to the Kiev OVIR 8 times.

Most landlords are understandably not interested in registering anyone at their apartment, even temporarily. It's more work for them, potential problems with the ZHEK, and increased utilities payments as well as taxes (there's a 15% income tax on rental income). Even if they agree to this, expect to foot the bill for taxes and utilities. This step can be so much of a problem that apartment rental agencies will take care of all this for you for a modest fee of... $1200 USD. That just goes to show how hard it is to get a landlord to go with you to the ZHEK.

Soon this process will finally be over... for the next 6 or 7 months, at least. I'm sure over 100 man hours will have been spent if you consider the time my wife's employer spent preparing and submitting documents, our trips to the Krakow consulate along with the innumerable trips here and there across Kiev to submit documents for police clearance certificates and then pick them up, getting a taxpayer's code, and all the rest.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Smoke and Wildfires in Ukraine

We've been hearing for a while about the terrible wildfires in Russia due to unprecedented hot and dry weather. This morning Kiev woke up to a smokey haze enshrouding the entire city. Reports say the smoke is from burning peat about 20 km from Kiev or from a fire near Irpen (to the northeast of Kiev) and is not from the much larger fires in Russia.

It is possible, even probable, that more fires will erupt in Ukraine in the coming week. Temperatures are expected to reach record levels at near 40 C (104 F) over much of the country on Wednesday and Thursday and remain high for many days after that, with no major precipitation in sight.

Much of Kiev is surrounded by pine forests that are frequented by picnickers who love to light fires and make shish-kabobs. Some of these people don't put out their fires completely before abandoning them (often with a few more bottles and plastic dishes spread around). All it takes is a hot wind to cause a wildfire. Right now the woods are dry, and fire danger levels will rise to "extreme" later this week.

Possible changes in Ukraine's landscape due to Global Warming

Climate scientists expect summers like this to become more common as the planet warms. Climate zones will shift northward, with Kiev becoming more like Kirovohrad (a city several hundred kilometers to the south), and Kirovohrad becoming more like Kherson (even further south).

This means that the boundary of steppe and forest will probably also shift north. How this will probably happen is that forests at the southern edge of the forested zone will become increasingly drier and susceptible to forest fires. They will start going up in flames and will simply not grow back. Instead, there will be grasses and shrubs with frequent fires in the hot and dry summer season leaving no chance for forests to develop.

UPDATE AUG. 13, 2010
The situation has not changed. There is still a light smokey haze above the city. Nothing like Moscow, but enough to make being outside less pleasant. Temperatures are forecasted to drop in a week, after many weeks of uncommon heat.

See: Current Weather around Ukraine at

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Cord Adaptors for Use in Ukraine

If you have any electronics from the United States, you'll need to pick up a cord / outlet adaptor for use in Ukraine. These are easy to find in many underground passageways adjacent to metro stations.

Here is a sampling of the adaptors available:

You'll want to get only the one on the left. The others all have smaller prong diameters and will wiggle around in the outlet, giving you an unstable power connection. You'll come to hate them (trust me). I don't know what they are for if they work so poorly.

The one on the left fits snugly in any outlet and costs approximately 12 UAH.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Tips for Learning Russian and Ukrainian

As I explained in my previous post, expats from English speaking or western European countries face a particular set of challenges when learning Russian or Ukrainian in Ukraine.

First of all, some observations about learning a foreign language from someone who has studied quite a few.

Language mastery seems to follow a curve like the one below. At first you put in a lot of time and effort just to learn the basics, then you reach a point where you now recognize many words and phrases and begin to have an intuitive feel for how things might be said in the language ("Getting the hang of it").

Now your progress starts to pick up, and not too much time passes before you can begin having simple conversations with natives ("Simple conversations"). At this point your progress accelerates further, because you can actively learn in the process of communication, not just during class or private study.

You now start a period of rapid language acquisition where you pick up commonly used words and phrases that you hear all around you. Eventually, you are able to hold pretty advanced conversations with people ("Advanced conversations").

Once you have learned the most essential, common vocabulary and phrases of a language, your progress begins to taper off. There is still a lot more to learn, but your progress will not be as visible as before, because the vast majority of conversation consists of the words and structures you have aready learned.

If you continue putting in time and effort, you may achieve writing proficiency and learn to read more and more fluently in the language; however, your speaking skills will improve less noticeably.


How long this process takes depends somewhat on your innate language abilities, but even more so on the amount of time and effort you are willing and able to put in. If you spend many hours a day studying the language, it may take as little as 2 months to reach "Getting the hang of it," 3 months to reach "Simple conversations," and 6 months to reach "Advanced conversations." More typical may be 6 months, 9 months, and 18 months, respectively.

However, people who don't make a concerted effort to learn the language can easily get stuck somewhere before the "Getting the hang of it" point. This doesn't mean you're unable to learn a foreign language, but simply that you have fallen into a rut where Russian and Ukrainian are basically irrelevant to your day-to-day life.

The hard part of learning a language is getting to the "Simple conversations" point. Beyond this level, your language knowledge evolves almost by itself. You can learn in the process of speaking and are amply rewarded for your progress. You can increasingly talk to people and get things done.

Reaching "Simple conversations" inevitably requires making some sacrifices. It might mean investing 100-200 hours of book and class study before getting results. It might mean foregoing possible friendships with English speakers in order to maintain your resolve to learn Russian or Ukrainian. It might mean feeling like a child again after two decades of success on the corporate ladder.

Language Goals and strategies

If you're planning a move to Ukraine, consider putting in effort in advance, before you find yourself surrounded by people and circumstances that encourage you to continue speaking English (or your other native language). Obviously, the further you can get in the language, the better off you'll be, but if you can at least get to "Getting the hang of it," you'll be much better off. You might be able to begin having simple conversations with people in Russian or Ukrainian before your life has settled into a rut. A general guideline is 100 hours of study to get to the "Getting the hang of it" level where your progress starts to accelerate.

Part of getting the hang of a language is getting used to the phonetics. Listening to language recordings over and over is a great way of doing this. Another part is becoming familiar with the main grammatical characteristics of the language. Neither of these two areas should be neglected.

If you've been in Ukraine for a while and still haven't reached "Simple conversations," consider signing up for language lessons with a language school or a tutor. This is probably the best way of getting over the hump and reaching a critical mass of language mastery. It doesn't matter if you're a recent college grad or a top-level USAID administrator -- you've still got to go through the same process.

Depending on your day-to-day schedule, you might discontinue lessons once you've reached "Simple conversations," or continue them all the way to "Advanced conversations." The more your work and social circle insulate you from Russian/Ukrainian, the longer you'll probably want to take lessons.

Dealing with frustration

Ukrainian and Russian have difficult grammar and pronunciation that is very foreign to native English speakers and people from western Europe. You will experience the most frustration early on, as you are trying to reach the "Getting the hang of it" point.

Frustration is basically a kind of mental tension that arises from trying to do something that is too hard for you at the moment. Experienced language learners avoid frustration and tension by not trying to understand or learn things that they are not yet ready for. If you encounter something that begins to cause frustration, simply make a mental note of the thing and move on to something else. Chances are it will eventually make sense or come more naturally when you return to the topic in the future. There is always something that you are ready to learn at this moment in time. These are the things to focus on.

As a teenager, I spent a year in Slovakia living with a host family. Over the year, I filled a few notebooks with "useful words" that I had copied from the dictionary. After the end of my year, I reviewed the notebooks a final time and realized that I had only incorporated about a quarter of the words into my active vocabulary. This is a typical symptom of not focusing on the material you are ready to learn at the moment.

Instead of deciding what you think you need to learn, try focusing instead on the things you hear around you that you get the gist of but do not understand 100%. These are the words and phrases that, if you look up in the dictionary, you will never forget. By choosing the correct moment to focus your conscious energy on learning a word or phrase, you can reduce the amount of effort it takes to incorporate it into your active vocabulary by 10 or 20 times.

The trick is to increase your exposure to the language, letting your subconscious absorb the sounds and structures, and focus your conscious efforts only on the things that are already familiar to you but that you would not yet be able to use yourself.

UPDATE 2016:

I have finally decided to teach others my method for learning and mastering foreign languages at Take a look and download or order my book and/or instruction manual. My views and methods have are clearer and more evolved than what I wrote here.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Curse of the Amero-European Expat

So you've come to Ukraine to travel, work, date, or just live or whatever. Like most other expats, one of your goals here is to learn the language. After all, how are you going to get around, interact with people, and feel safe?

"Strraff-st-phooey-tye!" you say to the border guard, proud of your progress after a few hours of language cramming the day before your flight. The guard doesn't answer. After scrutinizing your passport and checking something in the computer, he asks you, "Vatt is dee purpus ahv yore dzhurnee?"

For a good many American and European expats, with this interchange the pattern is set for the next X years of their life in Ukraine.

It is all too easy to be enveloped in a cocoon of English and be unable to break free of it after settling down in Ukraine. In this post we'll examine how this happens. In tomorrow's post we'll see what, if anything, can be done about it.

1. Your work. Chances are 100 to 1 that your work in Ukraine involves using your native language (or English). Though there may be Ukrainians around you at work speaking Ukrainian and/or Russian, chances are your work doesn't involve understanding what they are saying to each other or participating in their level of discussion. Everyone you really need to interact with at work speaks English and/or your other native language and is eager to improve their skills for professional and personal reasons.

Any Russian or Ukrainian you pick up generally will not be rewarded with additional professional opportunities. If you start inserting Russian or Ukrainian phrases at work, coworkers may find it endearing, amusing, or annoying, but it's unlikely they'll actually start speaking with you in their language. After all, part of the reason they hired you is so that they can practice English with you.

2. Your social circle. When you come to another country, you need to make new friends with whom to do things and share experiences and feelings. Generally, true friendship requires an advanced level of language mastery, so for the time being you start making friends with the people you work with or meet along the way who speak your language well enough to have real conversations.

You may think, "eventually I'll have more friends that I speak Russian/Ukrainian with," but this day might actually never come. First of all, are you just going to get rid of all your old English-speaking friends and find a crop of new ones when you reach a certain language threshold? Or do you expect that after years of speaking to each other in English you and your friends will just suddenly switch to Ukrainian or Russian (or Surzhyk)?

As you develop friendships with English (or German, or French, etc.) speaking locals, their language mastery will be improving month after month, making it harder and harder to ever catch up in Russian/Ukrainian to their level of English. After a year of friendship, chances are they've reached an advanced level of fluency. Meanwhile, you're still wondering why people sometimes say "девушка" and other times "девушку".

3. Prestige. The least prestigious languages in Ukraine are Ukrainian and Russian. They vie for last place, with Russian winning in the west and Ukrainian in the east and south. The most prestigious are English, German, French, and Italian. Therefore, by befriending you and speaking your language, your Ukrainian friends are increasing their prestige.

When you come to Ukraine and many other less wealthy countries, you receive an added degree of status simply by virtue of being from a wealthy country. If you go around speaking a prestigious language, you further secure your higher status.

You may think you're the fortunate one walking around with your trophy wife/girlfriend. The fact is, it's she that's got the trophy boyfriend/husband. By speaking to you in English, she's in a sense flaunting her trophy. If she's dressed to kill, then you're even.

If you try instead to speak Ukrainian or Russian with people, you may sense that your status actually drops. In fact, the better you speak it, the less different you appear, the more accessible and understandable, and hence the less prestigious. Splendid -- now that you can converse freely with babushki, your yuppy Ukrainian friends aren't as interested in you anymore.

Finally, no matter what your fluency in either language, you'll still get people addressing you in English who expect you not to speak anything else. Among acquaintances, even after you've established your total fluency in Ukrainian or Russian people will still occasionally start speaking to you in English hoping that you'll practice with them. I sometimes feel like I'm letting people down by speaking their language. I have probably sacrificed dozens of potential casual friendships with ambitious young Ukrainians simply because of the fact that I am already fluent in their language and don't wish to spend more time in Ukraine speaking English. On the other hand, I've gained many friendships with other categories of Ukrainians.

4. Adult time constraints. Even if, after all the above, you still wish to learn to speak Russian or Ukrainian, your work, social engagements, and domestic duties may leave you little time and energy to devote to language study.

It probably takes 100 hours or more of focused study to really get a grip on the basics of a language, especially one with grammar as difficult as Russian or Ukrainian. If you only have a couple hours a week available, you may feel like you just can't get far enough quickly enough to make it all worthwhile.

Furthermore, an adult lifestyle usually involves settling down to live alone or with one other person (most likely your English-speaking companion) and spending much of your waking time at work (where you're using English with a consistent circle of people).

As a student you have much more exposure to different groups of people, and your circle of friends and contacts is constantly changing. Such an environment is much more conducive to language learning because you are continually starting over again and have far fewer obligations and committed relationships. It's a lot easier to just start speaking Russian or Ukrainian with new acquaintances and to distance yourself from people you don't want to spend time with anymore.

As an adult, your life is defined by habits and routines. Once language habits are established and routines set, it can be very difficult to find room in your life for a new language that would shake everything up.

In the next post we'll discuss how one might go about learning Russian or Ukrainian despite all this.

UPDATE 2016:

I have finally decided to teach others my method for learning and mastering foreign languages at Take a look and download or order my book and/or instruction manual. My views and methods have are clearer and more evolved than what I wrote back in 2010.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Commentary on Ukraine's Immigration Policy

If I had had things my way, today I wouldn't be an expat with an English language website about Ukraine for foreigners. I would probably never have taught English in Ukraine, worried out visas and registrations, or had to worry about "border runs." I would just be living somewhere in Ukraine (maybe Russia) doing interesting work that had nothing to do with the English language or the fact that I was born and raised in another country.

But visa and immigration regulations make this nearly impossible. You can't just go to most countries of the world and become a local there and forget about your national passport. Even if you have become completely conversant in the language and the culture and are, for all practical purposes, a local.

When you think about it, these are the kind of people countries should receive with open arms, really. An immigrant with no adaptation issues, who can contribute immediately to the local economy and culture -- certainly this type of person should be Number One in the list of groups to attract for immigration.

But that's not the case. Ukraine's immigration policy is to bring in only relatives of Ukrainian nationals (no matter what their level of adaptation), an occasional rare businessman who has paid $100,000 to get permanent residency, and even rarer celebrities whose immigration is "in the national interests of Ukraine."

People like me (and I know there are not a few) who have been here for a long time, speak the language (or both) fluently, and are young enough and skilled enough to provide the country with years of productive activity can only "get in" if they marry a Ukrainian.

That might not seem like such a bad requirement for foreign men whose sole purpose in life is precisely this. However, what if you happen to marry another foreigner who is also well adapted to life in Ukraine?

Furthermore, experience shows that most foreigners who come here hoping to get married do not integrate into the language and culture and ultimately end up back in their home countries -- along with their Ukrainian spouses, thus robbing Ukraine of yet more young people who have just entered their adult years of maximum productivity.

When you think about it, it's in the economic interests of a country to attract people either right before college or right after college, have them spend their entire working lives in the country, then send them back home as soon as they retire. This way the receiving country gets all the economic benefits of immigration without having to provide many free services such as schooling and social security.

Conversely, the worst is when you invest money into your citizens' schooling and upbringing and they promptly leave upon reaching adulthood. This is Ukraine's situation. Many of the country's brightest and most industrious citizens have left, leaving behind those who are, on average, somewhat less productive and capable (not all, of course, but on average this would seem to be true).

To be fair, many elderly and working-age Ukrainians have also successfully emigrated to Europe to enjoy the retirement and jobless benefits.

Ukraine could partially offset its "brain drain" by making it attractive for bright, young, well-adapted foreigners to stay and work in Ukraine indefinitely. Not as come-and-go language teachers, under-the-table document editors, or under-the-bridge second-hand clothing vendors, but as full-fledged members of society.

I know an Iranian MBA student who speaks Russian fluently and cannot work in Ukraine legally during his studies. Other foreign students are in the same boat. Ukraine's policy is to get foreigners here to study (not without hoops, of course), prevent them from working while they study (but they usually must, so they work illegally), then get them out of here.

If regulations were changed, many of these same students would stay in Ukraine and work indefinitely as productive members of society. By the end of their studies most of these people are already well adapted to Ukraine and are fluent in one of its languages. They have Ukrainian friends and are no longer socially and culturally isolated from the rest of society. Ukraine should welcome these people in. For practical purposes, they're basically Ukrainians already.

Likewise expats like myself who see no compelling reason to leave Ukraine, but like it here and fit in. The reason this category of people sticks to English-related work is because that is the only work you can expect to get a work permit for, since part of the process is proving that a Ukrainian citizen cannot perform your work.

Thus, you have highly skilled professionals who limit themselves to teaching English because that's the only work they can hope to legally perform. Wouldn't Ukraine be better off trying to get these people working more productively in its economy?

After all, being a poorer country, Ukraine is not going to attract people who come to earn money to send home to their families in the U.S., Europe, or even Turkey. Economically, it doesn't matter if an expat comes and earns $5000 a month or $500, as long as the money is spent in Ukraine.

Of course, there are also plenty of expats who don't have intentions of staying here for a long time and who don't make much effort to learn a language. This is actually the category of people that should predominantly be teaching English and other foreign languages, which is generally unskilled labor (with a high burnout rate) consisting of generating conversation in one's native tongue and occasionally correcting errors.

Ukraine, like east Asian countries, should set up a policy of facilitating the legal temporary employment of foreign language teachers. Let them come here and work for a year, or two or three, and return home. Let Ukrainians learn foreign languages from natives, for heaven's sake.

Alas, Ukraine's national policies are often not aligned with its national interests. Furthermore, its de facto policies often differ significantly from its official regulations.

To be fair, this is true to some extent of every country. We Americans are xenophobic about hard-working Latinos who contribute immensely to our economy. Western European countries let in unqualified, poorly adapted Turks, Africans, and Arabs and yet have no route for highly qualified and adaptable Eastern Europeans just out of college.

If it were up to me, I would instate immigration routes for the categories of people a country is interested in economically and socially. The family member route would remain and is, I believe, dictated by international law. The businessman route and the celebrity route can remain, as almost no one uses them anyways.

But I would also add a route for contributing members of society who have adapted to Ukrainian culture and learned its language(s). A requirement of two or three years spent in the country plus advanced Ukrainian or Russian language skills and at least a low-intermediate knowledge of Ukrainian would be appropriate. Furthermore, the person should have at least 10 years left till retirement and should be easily employable in Ukraine.

This would give successful foreign students the possibility of continuing their lives legally in Ukraine, as well as expats who have a lot to contribute and have made an effort to fit in. The policy would be: "Want to live in Ukraine? Then learn the language(s), develop professional skills, and demonstrate that you are willing and capable of getting by here."

Finally, as mentioned above, I would establish routes for temporary legal employment of native teachers of foreign languages, as is done in China, Korea, and Japan. This is important in the long run if Ukraine seeks to expand its economic and cultural ties with the rest of the world.

Implementing these common-sense policies could be a lot of work in a country where private language schools aren't even allowed to declare "language instruction" as a business activity, but pretend to engage in "consulting services" because all commercial education services require accreditation by the uncooperative Ministry of Education.


A reader named Michael brought to my attention another group of foreigners who might want to emigrate to Ukraine and contribute to its economy: senior citizens who have assets to support them or who receive pensions from foreign governments. I can see no good reason to prevent these people from moving to Ukraine indefinitely, especially if they draw no additional money out of the Ukrainian government budget. 

Friday, July 16, 2010

Life at a Park in Kiev

Ever visit a city park in a typical American suburb? Chances are you'd find a vast field of crisply cut grass with a few widely spaced trees and a state-of-the-art playground set visited occasionally by a few Hispanic mothers and their kids whose income bracket is so low that they can't afford more prestigious pastimes such as computer and video games.

If the park contains a lake, chances are it's surrounded by more sterile lawns and smooth cement footpaths, as well as a sizeable parking lot so that people can drive there to take a walk. Once a week the parks are mowed by machinery so loud that everyone else in town must mow their own lawns to drown out the noise. Thus, Americans spend more time rapturously mowing their lawns than visiting and enjoying parks and outdoor areas.

Not so in Ukraine. Here parks are used intensively by all but the wealthy who can't risk being seen in public without their shiny black Mercedes-Benz.

During the summer, our lakeside park has an average of 100 visitors at a time in the mornings, several hundred during the day, and 100-200 in the evenings. Even in colder months its waters and shores are populated by Homo Sapiens.

Here you will see young mothers or grandmas with young children playing in the sand and shallow water, wizened fishermen harvesting the lake's remaining fish, old people standing around in their undies talking about health problems, politics, and grocery prices, and a few lone joggers struggling valiantly to defy the obesity epidemic.

The main community of elderly folks congregates daily by the deck chairs. Today I overheard, "And how did Akhmetov make his millions? Because he's a clever scoundrel, and we're all fools." Yesterday the conversation was about the olden days: "In the Soviet Union we may have lived modestly, but we were all brothers. There was no envy and divisions among people like today."

Solitary hobos wearing suits from the 70s are also known to frequent the lake. They like to find secluded spots among the reeds to wash their haggard bodies and shave their puffy faces. They try to keep away from the critical gaze of respectable citizens who give them the cold shoulder.

For a while a band of gypsies would walk past the lake several times a day, clearly camped somewhere in the vicinity. "You guys must be gypsies, right?" -- an old man callously asked one of the swarthy young girls. She didn't answer. Roma speak amongst themselves in their own language and tend not to mix much with other groups.

Sunbathing in Ukraine is a national pastime. But don't get your hopes up: you'll probably see far more heavy old women in bras unabashedly taking in the sun in forest clearings than svelte young supermodels. Apparently the supermodels are all busy toiling away in cubicles as managers of auxiliary corporation administration implementation. However, by midday some bikini-clad beauties do sneak out to the lake to damage their skin during peak UV hours.

Not surprisingly considering Ukrainians' conspicuous lack of prudishness, nudism here flourishes. During early morning hours people (mostly middle-aged and old) strip down to take a swim in the lake. This continues year-round; in winter the hardiest followers of Porfiriy Ivanov break a path through the ice to take their daily dip. This usually involves dunking oneself three times in the water and raising one's arms to the sky between each submersion.

The lake is not without its rules. For one, "bathing prohibited" signs line the shore. Along with other swimmers, I usually take my dips next to one of them -- after all, no one said swimming was not allowed (купаться запрещено, но плавать можно). Other signs warn visitors that walking dogs here is prohibited. So the local dogs run free, unhindered by leashes and owners.

Towards the late afternoon life at the lake enters a new phase. Groups of teenagers and adults young and old come here with their beer and cigarettes and create work for the lake's custodians by littering their bottles and myriad forms of plastic garbage. Clean-up ensues the following morning and typically lasts several hours, helping to ensure job security for the custodians.

Booze and open water are a hazardous mix. Not too long ago I saw some drunken youths drag the blue body of their drunken friend out of the water. Paramedics pronounced him dead on the scene some minutes later. The "friends," fearing repercussions once the police arrived, pretended not to know who the guy was, what he had been doing in the water, or how long he had been submerged.

Later in the evening, swallows and then erratically flying bats come out to feast on insects hovering over the water, muskrats criss-cross the lake, and a thunderous chorus of frogs commences. You see, our lake is no artificial reservoir, but a living aquatic ecosystem that, while strained by overfishing and shoreline erosion, continues to support a diverse food chain.

Quite a bit more interesting than your average American park, eh?


Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Hottest Summer

It's a blazing 32 C (90 F) in Kiev with many more hot days ahead and quite a few already behind us. The next few days will probably see quite a few records broken. Chances are high that 2010 will be the hottest summer in recorded history.

The head of Ukraine's meteorologic service stated in a press conference that the rest of the summer would continue to see above-average temps. Furthermore, during the past 20 years average summer temperatures have risen 1.3 to 1.7 C, while winter temperatures have risen 2 to 2.5 C.

If you talk to adults, they'll tell you of colder winters in the past with more stable snow cover over much of the country. Also, springs and autumns were supposedly longer.

The head weatherman attributes the warming trend to Global Warming (duh).

Tips for dealing with the hot weather
  1. Carry drinking water around with you. As you know, Ukraine is not exactly known for its plentiful drinking fountains.
  2. Take kupe (2nd class) instead of platzkart (3rd class) during train trips. Kupe is usually air-conditioned.
  3. Carry around a rag with you that you can use to wipe yourself off or dip in water to cool your skin.
  4. Wear less clothes (duh).
  5. Wear a straw hat or carry a sun umbrella.
  6. Walk slowly and allow yourself more time to get from place to place.
  7. Tape reflective wrap to windows that receive direct sunlight

Civic Attitudes in Ukraine and Poland

During my recent trips to Poland I've had a chance to compare the attitudes of Poles and Ukrainians to their society and government, as well as how society is governed in general. These attitudes pervade people's public behavior and public interaction in addition to their interaction with government structures.

Poles' attitudes towards government is much more like those of Americans and western Europeans. Many people I've met are basically policy wonks with opinions on how things could be run better in their neighborhood, city, and country. They believe that there is a chance of making these changes for the better, though they are often critical of how some things are managed.

Contrast that to Ukraine. Here, most people are fatalistic about government and society and, though they have general opinions on the state of affairs, believe that nothing can be done about it because all decisions are made by distant political and business leaders who they have no connection to. Most people are convinced that their government is corrupt, inept, and interested only in personal gain.

These attitudes are related to public behavior. In Poland people on the street are more polite, calm, and approachable. They do not have a pervasive fear of power structures like so many Ukrainians have. Why then fear one another?

Most Ukrainians avoid police officers and interaction with official government offices, where they tend to feel helpless and mistreated. To keep as far away from the government is most Ukrainians' strategy. In Ukraine, the more one tries to do things by the book, the more problems one has.

Poles generally feel a certain loyalty to their government. Most mourned over the loss of top national leaders in a recent plane crash. Many Ukrainians joke that if the same thing had happened in Ukraine, the people would have rejoiced.

The "Solidarity" movement arose in Poland, and Polish towns today have a tangible sense of community that is lacking in most of Ukraine, where there is a sense that people generally look out for themselves and their kin and ignore strangers.

This is felt everywhere, even in trivial acts of politeness or rudeness towards other such as walking your dog on a leash and muzzle. In Ukrainian cities dog owners are quick to unleash their dogs and almost never muzzle them. In Poland you don't see people toss trash out of the windows of moving buses or drop their plastic beer cups on the ground wherever they happen to finish them.

Poles feel more freedom to take initiative in creating community projects in events. In Ukraine organized projects and events often run into bureaucratic obstacles, so people tend to do things together only informally -- again, to avoid interaction with government.

Poland is essentially governed by the rule of law, whereas Ukraine is a semi-anarchic remnant of a collapsed state.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Trip to Przemysl, Poland

Sometimes it can be refreshing to take a trip across the border just to see what's on the other side. The town of Przemysl is just 5 km or so from the Ukrainian border crossing at Medyka/Schehyni, which in turn is an hour and a half from Lviv. For expats making the proverbial "border run," this border crossing may be a frequent destination anyways.

My preferred way of getting to Przemysl sounds complicated but is cheap and easy. Transportation to Przemysl and back from Kiev costs as little as $30 USD.

Take an overnight train to Lviv from wherever you are. Avoid "express" trains because sitting up for 6 hours is intolerable no matter what movies they show. Platzkart (3rd class) will be roughly 100 UAH ($13 USD) from Kiev, and kupe (2nd class) will be roughly 160 UAH ($20). Kupe typically has air conditioning, which can make a huge difference in summer.

Just outside the Lviv train station to the left of the main entrance is the bus to the border. If you don't dally getting out of the train, you'll probably get a seat. It's 15 UAH to the border ($2 USD) and just under an hour 40 minutes.

From the bus station at Schehyni (the final stop), retrace the last 100 meters the bus drove, turn right, and pass all the currency booths and insurance companies to reach the pedestrian border crossing. Procedures seem to have been streamlined in recent years, and it usually takes just half an hour to get to the Polish side.

There you'll find an ad hoc market area that looks pretty much like the Ukrainian side, with numerous locals holding up one bottle of vodka and two packs of cigarettes apiece. This is the maximum amount allowed, and they cross the border each day to sell inexpensive Ukrainian spirits and tabacco at a profit to Poles who drive by in cars looking for a good deal.

Next time I'll have to try it, too, for fun. You may end up waiting a few hours for a customer to show up, though, which can be a pain. You might also get a few elbow jabs as you crowd up to people's car windows trying to be the first to sell your goods.

With 2 zloty in hand ($0.60 USD) enter the bus that comes by every half hour or so taking people from the border to the nearby town of Przemysl. To get back, repeat all these steps in reverse.

Przemysl is an ancient Polish town of great historical importance, almost up there with Krakow and Lviv (wait, we all thought that was a Ukrainian city, right?) due to its strategic location at a natural geographic crossroads between Central and Eastern Europe. It's got a charming historical center with a bunch of old churches and museums, as well as the "only sloping market square in Europe." Well, every town's got to have its claim to fame.

Przemysl's got a few things going for it over Ukrainian towns, as well as a strike or two against it.

People muzzle their dogs when they take them for walks, and there are no stray dogs or dogs without leashes. No more random dog attacks with helpless owners standing by telling you, "don't worry, he doesn't bite" ("70 percent of the time," they always forget to add).

Automobile emissions standards are tangibly better than in Ukraine, and car exhaust, while present, is not chokingly toxic, but merely insidiously unhealthful.

Finally, the people are not as dour, and seem more relaxed, trustful, and open to outsiders. There is almost -- believe it or not -- a sense of community.

On the other hand, Przemysl and the rest of Poland have wholly embraced the automobile lifestyle to the detriment of public transportation and pedestrian-friendly development. Ukrainian towns are more pedestrian friendly and have more street activity per capita. Depending on your point of view, this could be seen as a pro or a con, but considering the high likelihood that world oil production peaked permanently in 2008, Poland's recent vast investments in automobile infrastructure will probably turn out to be a complete waste of resources.

Photos of Przemysl (from two separate trips)

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Getting to Know People through Language Exchange

In Ukraine and don't know how to meet people? An excellent way is by participating in language exchanges through the "Language Exchange Club," organized by U.S. expat John Carragee.

Here is the page for the Language Exchange Club Kyiv, and here is the page showing other cities where something similar is going on.

Basically, these are groups of people who get together somewhere (usually an inexpensive, cafeteria-style restaurant) and speak to each other in a certain language -- English, Russian, Ukrainian, German, French, etc. depending on the group. There is no set topic -- you just have a seat and talk about whatever you feel like.

There is almost always at least one native (often several) of the language being spoken who is present at each meeting. The others are people who have learned the language and need practice. Many have professional or personal ties to the language and the country where it is spoken.

There is a mixture of ages and genders, but perhaps a slight majority of attendees are women, and the most common age group is 20-28. Admittedly, it is somewhat rare to see people over 35 at the meetings.

You can get a bite to eat or a cup of tea or something to snack on while you're talking. In Kiev, most meetings are at the Puzata Khata restaurant near the Kontraktova Ploscha metro stop.

Meetings typically last about two hours, and sometimes people continue afterwards by going to a pub or going on a walk.

If you're learning Russian or Ukrainian, this is a great place to practice. If you're looking for a private language tutor, you might find one here (though not necessarily a professional).

Attendees are generally quite friendly and open to making new friends. You will also meet interesting people from other countries who have also come to Ukraine for some reason.

in my experience it seems this format is best for those who are already at an intermediate speaking level with a working vocabulary of 1000-1500 words and more. If you're a lower intermediate Russian speaker and go to the Russian club meeting, you might well end up talking in English with locals who are eager to practice their English. Or, you might get lucky and find someone who is patient enough to listen to your slow speech and have a conversation with you in Russian.

UPDATE 2016:

The Language Exchange Club is alive and well, though founder John Carragee died of cancer some years back. I actively attended a number of clubs in Kiev through 2011, then created the Tbilisi Language Exchange Club when I moved to Georgia in late 2011. We have the same thing going there now, with 10+ languages meeting weekly or monthly.

The Russian and Ukrainian clubs in Kiev were basically dead when I last visited in January 2016. Nobody goes and they are looking for new organizers. 

I have finally decided to teach others my method for learning and mastering foreign languages at Take a look and download or order my book and/or instruction manual.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Choosing a Place to Live in Kiev

Two months ago my wife and I needed to find a new place to live in Kiev. Here's how I approached the task of choosing a location and finding an apartment.

First, we considered the parts of the city where it would be reasonably practical to live based on where each of us works or spends much of their time. Not all of those places fit our expectations for clean air and open space, so we ultimately settled on Vinogradar, an area on the NW edge of Kiev next to a large forested area that extends to the north, west, and east.

Next, I spent some time at Vinogradar to identify the best area within that neighborhood. I considered such factors as bus stops along the routes that we would use frequently, proximity to outdoor markets, the forest, and the nearby lake. I put all the relevant information on a map that I created using Google Map and a graphics program and got the following (notes on the map are in Russian).

Yellow dots indicate key bus stops, green indicates supermarkets and outdoor markets, red indicates the lake, pedestrian bridges or crosswalks across the highway, and also important crosswalks within the most interesting zone. Blue dots mark apartments that we viewed. The white region I have called the "ideal zone" where we are close enough to the forest to enjoy it on a daily basis, very close to our most important bus stop, close to a supermarket and reasonably close to the other places we expect to visit on foot.

Then I went to and began searching for apartments along the street we had settled on. I started calling all the agencies that had something interesting to offer. Many of the recent offerings had already been taken, so I told them what we were looking for and gave them my number.

At there is a category for direct offerings from apartment owners, and I was hoping to find an apartment this way instead of having to pay a real estate agency a standard commission of 50% of the first month's rent.

However, because our search was so narrow, I ended up calling whatever I could find. Agents tended to want us to widen our range of streets and geography (to increase the chances that they'd earn money off us), but the logistics just did not seem good from the apartments that I considered outside of our ideal range.

It took us a little more than a week of looking to find something that finally satisfied us, where the apartment itself was in good enough shape, was not too cluttered with the owners' stuff, and within the "ideal zone" we had identified. It had taken a lot of phone calls and checking new offerings several times a day to be the first person to view the apartment.

Apartments often go in just a day or two, and if you arrange a viewing, there is no guarantee that it'll even be available when you get there. Once I was assured that I was the first viewer, only to find the apartment had been rented out through another agency. Apartment owners sometimes approach (or are approached by) multiple agents, when can lead to minor conflicts between the agencies.

Another time we arranged for a viewing of two apartments in the same building through two different agencies, only to discover that we were about to view the same apartment twice!

Some tips for choosing an apartment location

1. The main or one of the main factors should be proximity (in minutes, not distance!!) to your place of work or main activity.

2. Just because the apartment is close to a metro station or located in the center doesn't mean that it'll be quick to get to your work or main activity. If you're living in the center and have to walk 8 minutes to the metro station, ride one stop, transfer to another station, and ride one stop more, then exit and walk 4 minutes to work (also in the center), your total commute will end up being between 25 and 30 minutes.

3. Regarding the above situation, consider minibus ("marshrutka") lines as well. Perhaps there is a minibus that goes directly to your work from a location further out from the center that would provide the same commuting time?

4. Consider the advantage of living near the final bus stop along the line you need. This way you can be guaranteed a seat when leaving home. People who live closer to the center but in the middle of the bus line will always commute standing up. If you are sitting, you can pass the time productively (reading, etc.).

5. If there is an important place for you such as a forest, lake, gym, etc., consider trying to live just 2 or 3 minutes from that place. If it's a 5 minute walk to the forest from where you live, you will visit it significantly less often than if it's just a 2 minute walk.

6. Forests and parks aren't created equal. Some forests are hangouts for drunks and druggies, while others have wide trails through them and are used by joggers, mothers with baby strollers, cyclists, and people communing with nature. Likewise, not all lakes are swimmable, and not all recreation sites are actually pleasant to visit.

Location really is everything! It will end up determining much of your lifestyle and perhaps even how you feel about your city in general.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Getting Around in Ukraine When Traveling

I've done a ton of traveling around Ukraine and am pretty used to the transportation "system." It is so counter-intuitive and hard to master for Americans, and yet so beautifully effective at getting you where you need to go in the most efficient way possible.

Let me describe the transportation legs of a recent trip to Crimea.

1. Home to train station (in Kiev)

Took minibus ("marshrutka" or маршрутка) to a metro station, then took the metro (subway, underground, U-bahn...) to the train station. Total time: 40 min. from apartment door. Cost = 3.70 UAH, or nearly $0.50 USD.

2. Kiev to Bakhchisaray

Overnight train, 3rd class ("platzkart" or плацкарт). Time: 16 hours. Cost = roughly 120 UAH, or $15 USD.

3. Bakhchisaray to Sokolinoe

We hopped out of the train to see what transportation was available at 5 am. I was expecting a different bus, but we quickly altered our hiking route to take advantage of the bus that was there that was leaving soon. Time: ~ 30 min. Cost = 8 UAH, or $1 USD.

From here we hiked through the mountains, enjoying scenery like this:

4. Road near Foros to Yalta

After descending to the road, we asked to find out which direction the nearest bus stop was, walked there, and began stopping any public transportation heading to Yalta. 3 minibuses passed by that were full before a large bus stopped to pick us up. A local lady at the bus stop told us this bus was coming "around 1 pm." Before that I had just about decided to start hailing cars and get a hitch, which might have cost up to 50 UAH after some haggling. We had to stand in the aisle of the bus until some people got out and freed up their seats. Time: ~ 45 min. Cost = 12 UAH, or $1.50 USD.

5. Yalta to Luchistoe turn-off (near Angarskyy Pass)

First we went to the Trolleybus station, but I didn't like that they took so long to get to the pass, so we walked up to a nearby minibus that was filling up with people. I asked if it was going to Simferopol. The driver said no and pointed me across the street. There we waited a minute until a minibus backed in. It wasn't going where we wanted, but someone pointed us to the bus station where a bus was supposedly just about to leave. We ran 50 meters and got the last seats before it filled up and left. I asked the driver to stop at the turn-off to Luchistoe. He asked me to remind him when we got close. The price of 20 UAH ($2.50 USD) for this minibus was standard regardless of destination. Time: ~45 min.

From here we hiked through more mountains, enjoying scenery like this:

6. Generalskoe to Solnechnogorskoe

We got to the small settlement of Generalskoe 40 minutes after one of just 2 or 3 daily buses had left. We started walking down the road till we got to the place with taxis and jeeps for tourists who want to visit the nearby Dzhur-Dzhur waterfall. I waved my hand at the price of 50 UAH a driver offered to take us to Solnechnogorskoe, just 7 or 8 km away (I was prepared to pay 10-20 UAH for a ride with a car already going in that direction). So we walked it and enjoyed the views and the quiet road.

7. Solnechnogorskoe to Alushta

Here we stopped to hang out at the beach for a couple hours, then walked up the road to enjoy some tasty, but fatty Uzbek cuisine for 80 UAH ($10 USD) for two people. Along the way I enquired about buses to get that issue out of the way. They said they drove by every 20 minutes or so. After our dinner we went to the bus stop and ended up getting in a minibus to Alushta, although we really needed to get to Simferopol -- further down the road. Time: ~ 45 minutes. Cost: ~12 UAH ($1.50 USD).

8. Alushta to Simferopol

We were let out at the Alushta bus station. Somewhere nearby was the trolleybus station, but I decided to enquire about buses first. After waiting a few minutes in line, I found out that the next few buses were already all sold out, so we would miss our train if we didn't find another option. So I did what you do in Ukraine -- approach a bus driver directly. I asked him if he had "standing spots" available (стоячие места). He asked how many of us there were. "Two," I replied. Turns out he had one seat free, so one of us got to sit and hold the backpacks. Officially this bus had no seats left. I paid the bus driver directly. We left just a few minutes after getting on the bus. Time: ~ 1:15. Cost: 25 UAH ($3 USD).

9. Simferopol to Kiev

Overnight train. See above.

10. Kiev train station to apartment

Metro + minibus. See above.

Total cost: roughly $40 USD.

The Typical Ukrainian Man's Life

(I'll start out this blog with a depressing but accurate post on the health of Ukrainian men.)

It seems that 90% of Ukrainian men follow this scenario:

0-25 years: slim or skinny; by 25 a majority of Ukrainian men have picked up a smoking habit that will shorten their lifespan by several years

25 years: this is when Ukrainian men start to put on weight

30 years: this is the age when their gut has become clearly visible

35 years: this is the age when they realize they have gotten fat

60 years: this is the average life expectancy of a Ukrainian man

Men's health in Ukraine

After having learned quite a bit about healthy living and nutrition, I can say that the lifestyle of the average Ukrainian man is truly dreadful.

Two-thirds of adult men smoke -- one of the highest rates in the world and substantially more than a decade ago. Cigarette smoke plagues almost all public spaces.

Ukrainians typically eat a high-starch diet (noodles, potatoes, refined flour, rolls, etc.) with plenty of sugar, fried food, and saturated fats that often stimulates overeating and leads to diabetes in the absence of rigorous physical exercise. Add to that substantial alcohol consumption, smoking, and fairly high levels of stress.

Judging by my observations at the supermarket, one quarter of all food purchased is basically "party food" for get-togethers with friends: processed meats, cakes and other sweets, alcohol, etc. 

Most Ukrainian men don't make much effort to be physically active after university and quickly adopt a sedentary lifestyle. Among men who drive cars, slimness and fitness is almost nonexistent. Most Ukrainian men want cars for the status they afford.

This is the predominant cultural tradition. To remain fit after 25, a Ukrainian man must go against the flow and ignore peer pressure. Few do.

UPDATE 2016:

I'm pleased to report that health and fitness trends have made it to Ukraine. There are a lot of very fit young and middle-aged Ukrainians, men and women alike. Above a certain average socioeconomic level, it seems that everyone goes to the gym or tries to engage in some sort of physical activity. This is very nice to see!

Welcome to the Blog

I've been considering adding a blog to the popular website for a long time. There are a lot of things to write about that perhaps do not merit a separate article on the site. A blog will also provide a way of communicating with readers and addressing more common questions and concerns about traveling, living, and working in Ukraine.

What will this blog be about?

Expect a mixture of positive and negative observations about Ukraine with a bit more attitude than I allow myself in articles on Objectivity will still be the goal, of course.

I may also include language tips relating to practical aspects of living in Ukraine (I am fluent in Russian and Ukrainian).

About me

This is your friendly expat in Ukraine, Rick DeLong, author and designer of and a number of other websites. I've already written a bit about myself at I recently returned to Kiev in January 2010 after a year and a half in the U.S. This makes over 7 years total spent in Ukraine.

My lifestyle in Ukraine involves a lot of work on the computer (writing, doing website-related work, and translating) and substantial time pursuing personal interests and attending different activities and events. I am a serious backpacker and take frequent trips to Crimea and the Carpathians. I've seen a lot of the country and met a lot of people during my time in Ukraine.

I have many business and personal relationships with Ukrainians, so that rounds out my perceptions of what goes on here and why. Hopefully I can pass on some of this to my readers.