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.