Friday, December 23, 2011

Adapting to a New Country: Part 2 — Language

(This is a continuation of the previous post)

In the past I have recommended that people learn as much of the language before their arrival as possible. I would like to revise that. If you can set up language lessons immediately after arrival, then it is probably a better use of your time and energy to just come a few days or weeks earlier and fill that extra time with language study with a tutor, rather than trying (usually unsuccessfully) to find time for independent study while you are busy preparing for your trip. Learning in advance takes more self-discipline than learning on location, and is typically less effective.

My goal for learning Ukrainian or Russian would be very concrete. You need to get over the initial learning hump as quickly as possible so that your knowledge of the language can carry you from there without too much additional effort. Once you are already speaking in the language and understand a large amount of what is being said, moving onward from there is much easier and doesn't require a lot of willpower and study. All that is needed is simply to have people to talk to in the language for a minimum of half an hour to an hour a day and to have a good dictionary (more on this below).

It can take 2 months or less to reach this threshold of somewhere between 1000 and 2000 words (I'd say roughly 1600), or it can take years or even forever if the right conditions or willpower are lacking. If your approach is effective (more on this below), you can assimilate these 1600 or so most useful and oft-repeated words — which I call the "communicative core" of a language — with 150-200 hours of work, which can be compressed into as little as 1.5-3 months. If the process is too drawn out and you keep getting distracted, you may end up taking much longer to get there in terms of hours of effort invested.

If at all possible, I would try to find an independent Russian/Ukrainian tutor in advance or sign up for beginning group classes with a reputable school of Russian/Ukrainian. I would also get some kind of beginning-to-intermediate audiocourse and an electronic dictionary for personal use to complement classwork (more on this below). I would arrange for classes on a near-daily basis. If you're meeting fewer than 3 times a week, it will be easy to lose momentum between lessons.

The order in which you learn things is very important. It is important to focus on what is relevant to your life right now unless you are a bookworm who gets carried away learning the structural nuances of a language. Here is the order I would attack Ukrainian or Russian.

1. The most basic phrases (days 1-2). Things like "hello," "thank you," "please," "excuse me," "do you speak English?", "I don't speak Russian/Ukrainian," "I don't understand," "my name is…", etc., plus very basic grammar associated with these phrases — i.e. conjugating the verbs "to speak" and "to understand," pronouns, and a brief introduction to the most basic grammar principles of Russian/Ukrainian.

2. Cyrillic alphabet + pronunciation (days 2-3). Alphabet and pronunciation go together. Learn all the letters and their best approximate pronunciation. Learn how to write and pronounce your own name. Practice reading some of the signs you'll see all over town ("ресторан," "гастроном," "банк," etc.) and learn what they mean. From here on you can practice reading signs around town and look up or ask your teacher what they mean. Practice repeating words slowly after your teacher to try to grasp the proper pronunciation. Your teacher needs to be sufficiently patient and to be able to explain and demonstrate some of the difficult sounds now and in the future as necessary. It is important to introduce good pronunciation habits from the outset because it will make speaking easier after an initial "break-in" period. Note: all words learned should have accent marks above accented syllables, and nouns should be noted as masculine, feminine, or neuter.

3. An additional complication for Ukraine is that in many mostly Russian-speaking cities almost all the signs are in Ukrainian. This will cost you a bit of time early on, but if you're learning Russian you'll need to learn the Russian equivalents of the words on the signs you're seeing around town (weeks 1-2). Usually the words are very similar, so it shouldn't be terribly difficult. At some point later on (weeks 5-8?) you will also need to learn the fairly short list of differences in pronunciation of Cyrillic letters in Ukrainian vs. Russian, and if you are in a city where much Ukrainian is spoken (Kiev), near the end of the course (weeks 7-8?) it will be very useful to be introduced to the most basic Ukrainian vocabulary (same stuff you learned in the first couple days of Russian classes).

4. Basic vocabulary for specific everyday needs. About 150-200 words at first (weeks 1-2), growing to 2 or 3 times that number by the time you've assimilated the full "communicative core" of 1600 or so words, including names of things you need to buy (groceries, milk, water, beer, banana, ticket, phone card, etc.) or often need to refer to (mobile phone, computer, Internet, wi-fi, apartment, city center, metro, train station, marshrutka, bus stop, office, school, organization, etc.), basic professions and roles (teacher, student, programmer, volunteer, father, mother, children, etc. depending on your activities), countries, nationalities, and languages (America, English, German, Ukrainian, Ukraine, Kiev, France, French, Russia, etc. depending on where you're from), and the "connective vocabulary" necessary to use them ("I am a ___," "I speak ___," "I am from ___," "Do you have ___," "where is ___?", etc., to go, to buy, to want, to be able, to need, etc.), as well as just enough grammar to understand why you say these things the way you do in Russian/Ukrainian. All this new vocabulary should be written in Cyrillic. This will slow things down compared to using transliteration, but it will be much more effective in the long run because you will learn to read, write, and pronounce better in the process.

5. Remaining basic general vocabulary for general communication (1000+ words). The most basic all-purpose vocabulary (my, your, me, him, her, it, that, who, what, when, where, why, because, here, there, today, now, again, at, in, on, etc., as well as numbers) should be introduced in weeks 1-2 with subsequent general vocabulary building upon previous words in order of usage and importance. For instance, "to forget" is appropriate for weeks 5-6 of an 8-week course designed to teach you the communicative core, but not for weeks 1-2. Months, days of the week, and telling time are appropriate for weeks 3-4, but talking about years ("in 1998," etc.) is for weeks 5-8. Grammar principles should be introduced as needed to create and explain dialogues appropriate to your level and current needs. Under no circumstances should your course commence with charts of endings and conjugations. You risk becoming discouraged and delaying your attainment of the communicative threshold by months or years. Introduced bit by bit in the context of things you have heard Ukrainians say or things you need to say yourself, Ukrainian or Russian grammar will be much more accessible and easy to grasp. Vocabulary and grammar that is timely is assimilated much better than untimely vocabulary and grammar. Remember that the connections between words are just as important as the words themselves; if you just know words and no constructions, then you will not be able to guess how to say things as simple as, "I need more time" or "I have a son." General vocabulary should be introduced along with common constructions for using it.
6. Along the way from the beginning to the end, it is necessary to have considerable amounts of unstructured exposure to the language outside of class. This is necessary so that your audial memory can engage in the language learning process by telling you things like "hey, I've heard that word before" and "what does «давай!» mean?" as well as gaining an intuitive feeling for how the language is spoken. Much of this can be achieved by walking around town and going about your daily activities (going to the store, restaurants, cafes, work, parties, people's houses, etc.), but the process can be sped up if you also spend time listening to special dialogues designed for the beginner or intermediate level. These dialogues will be spoken more clearly and slowly and will contain more of the words you have learned or will learn soon in class, so you will be able to get more out of them more quickly. I find it best when the dialogues are exclusively in the foreign language. If they are a complement to studies with a teacher or tutor, then an accompanying textbook is not necessary. If you find you are curious about grammar "ahead of schedule," then look for a grammar textbook to peruse on your own. But don't overdo it and get stressed out by all the things you don't understand. Just use it to satisfy your curiosity and get a second explanation of things in addition to what your teacher has told you, nothing more. Grammar study should assist speaking and comprehension, not vice versa.

7. You will also need a good dictionary — paper or electronic — to be able to look up words on your own. But you shouldn't get too carried away with this process. If you start writing down lots of words that you have not yet heard spoken (i.e. your audial memory is not yet engaged), chances are you will not be able to incorporate them into your active vocabulary until you actually start hearing them spoken around you. Therefore, focus on words you have heard or keep seeing around you, or on words you need right now to be able to say something important ("eggs," "the Internet doesn't work," "I have a cold," etc.). Ideally, the dictionary needs to show accent marks, any shifting accents, case requirements (e.g. "сказáть что кому, о чём" or "через что, кого"), and word morphology: declensions (changing endings) for nouns, conjugations and aspect (perfective or imperfective) for verbs. This way you will be able to obtain answers to most questions you will have about words and their proper usage. These days good electronic dictionaries for portable electronic devices make this easier than ever. For instance, the excellent and voluminous Oxford English-Russian dictionary is now available as an application for the iPhone/iPod/iPad. There is also a decent "Slovoed" dictionary app including other major European languages as well.

If you follow these recommendations, making minor adjustments for your individual needs and learning style, I can guarantee that you will get over that initial learning hump within a few months, making your life in Ukraine that much easier and more multidimensional.

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 ideas are a lot clearer and more evolved than what I've written here. 

Adapting to a New Country: Part 1

I am currently residing in Tbilisi, Georgia, setting up a second "base" with a new circle of friends and activities. This is a creative response to Ukraine's visa and registration regulations, which make it difficult to stay in the country for more than 90 days out of a 180-day period. I have chosen not to fight the system for the time being and will not attempt to do any complex paperwork to try to stay in Ukraine longer than 90 days at one stretch. In the spring I plan to return to Kiev and Crimea for another 3 months before coming back here or traveling somewhere else. If I choose, I can stay in Georgia for up to a year visa-free, but I can only stay in Ukraine for 90 days at a time.

No one likes having established activities, plans, and relationships in a place and yet not knowing whether they will even be allowed to stay there. This sense of insecurity and unsettledness is a fact of life not only for countless foreign citizens residing in Ukraine, but also for many Ukrainians who live in a system with constantly changing rules that often threaten their livelihoods. Of course, insecurity is not unique to Ukraine or to the former Soviet Union.

Moving to Georgia has given me a new perspective on the process of adapting to a new country and language. I had almost forgotten what it was like to not understand Russian or Ukrainian, to not be able to read signs on the street, to feel awkward addressing people in a foreign language (e.g. Russian or English) not knowing if they'll understand you, to feel slightly tense and disoriented because of your unfamiliarity with my surroundings and with the cultural norms of a place.

For me, the formula for overcoming these initial challenges is to 1) learn as much of the language as possible, 2) make friends with whom I can relax and talk about what's on my mind, based on common interests, and 3) familiarize myself with the place by walking around a lot and seeing what's going on, by studying maps and by reading about the place.

I have tackled all three of these areas at once by 1) arranging in advance for private Georgian lessons 5 days a week starting 3 days after my arrival, 2) staying with couchsurfers (see for the first few days until I found an apartment (through them, by the way), getting involved with Spanish club activities, and taking guitar lessons with a Russian-speaking teacher I found through street advertisements, and 3) picking up maps at the tourist information office and walking around the city center and outlying hills a lot to get to know the place. It has not been painless, but it's been immensely better than starting out with none of the above. Admittedly, my fluency in Russian has given me a big advantage because about half of Georgians are fairly fluent in Russian.

Georgia is like Ukraine in that it has a strange alphabet that creates significant obstacles to learning the language and understanding your surroundings. It takes quite a while to be able to read signs with a speed even remotely approaching your familiarity with your own alphabet.

Based on my experience so far adapting to Georgia, I would like to give some specific recommendations for foreigners who visit Ukraine under similar circumstances (for several months, knowing nobody or almost nobody before arrival). My insight comes from having gone through this multiple times in different countries where different languages are spoken. Georgian will be the ninth language I have studied (counting English) and the fifth country I've lived in for an extended period of time.

Watch for the next post!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Two Months in Sevastopol, Crimea

In a recent post I mentioned that I had just moved to Sevastopol. Here's a report on my two months there.

1. House

Several thousand dollars was spent on completing basic construction of the house, making it liveable for year-round use. Almost all this money went to a work brigade that we have been very satisfied with. The workers don't drink and do their job well, and the foreman accounts for all money spent and comes around periodically to take a look, give instructions to the workers, and collect money.

Conditions in the house are still very spartan, but there is now a functional kitchen (small water tank, sink with drain into bucket, electric stove, samovar, fridge, countertop) and shower/bath (80 liter washbin behind a curtain where you can pour water over yourself). One does have to carry water around a lot, but the inconvenience is relatively minor. It's liveable. There are two electrical heaters that provide adequate heating for winter.

It is refreshing to live on your own land after being in the city for so long. And it's not decorative landscaping like modern suburban dwellings, but an actual plot of land with natural soil where useful things grow or can be grown. It's nice to walk out at night and see the pitch black sky, to sleep in total silence, and to wake up in the morning and walk around the lot to see what's going on.

2. City

Transportation to the city from the dacha turned out to be adequate and even somewhat better than expected. On the way into town you can just hail down a car and get in for the same price as a bus. On average it takes about 35 minutes to get to the center. This is better than most places around Kiev. Buses are not as full and I almost always get a seat. Buses run from 6:30 to 20:30 and have a semi-predictable schedule. Many evenings I end up returning on the last bus, which is convenient because it leaves at a set time. On rare instances I have taken a taxi to get home.

Interestingly, Sevastopol is the only place I know in Ukraine where they say "topik" instead of "marshrutka" (minibus) and passengers pay the fare as they exit. In fact, people often get off through the back door and walk up to the front door to pass fare to the driver as they leave.

Sevastopol has a lot less going on than Kiev, but I have met a number of interesting people and am looking forward to meeting more. Our Spanish club has also been successful, with 5 regulars.

3. Other benefits

How about fresh goat's milk and homemade dairy products? Some berries can be collected in the vicinity. For the first time in a long time I've been eating quite a bit of local produce.

4. Beach

The local beach is awesome. Predictably, I ended up not getting out there as often as predicted — only about once a week. But still... The water is now quite cold (10 C), but there are people who swim in it year-round, which supposedly boosts the immune system and provides other benefits. The 170-meter drop down to the beach provides an excellent workout.

There is also an archaeological dig 10 minutes away that I still haven't gotten around to looking at.

5. Hiking

With the "5th Kilometer" bus station nearby, there are a lot of options for getting into the hills and doing some hiking. I've been on 4 day hikes in 2 months, which isn't much, but I was tied down by the ongoing construction for much of the period. Here are some pictures.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Stray Dogs and Cats in Ukraine

Many visitors to Ukraine will notice the fairly large numbers of stray cats and dogs in population centers, both in central areas and parks and around the outskirts of towns. I think there are four reasons why this may be the case.

  1. Perhaps the main reason is that there are large amounts of edible waste around. This is what probably first attracted wolves to human settlements where they began to get used to humans and eventually became domesticated. In Ukraine as in other countries large amounts of food are thrown away, and garbage collection is often slow and/or incomplete. This readily available source of food will end up feeding somebody, whether it's rats, cats, or dogs. I don't recall ever seeing rats in Ukraine. Perhaps that's because of the large numbers of stray cats and dogs. I saw rats in Oslo, but no stray dogs. Rats are much harder to liquidate.

  2. Many Ukrainians are lenient with their pets. They like to let them off their leashes during walks so that they can run around freely. People who own private homes often let their dogs off their leash, perhaps for improved home security or perhaps to allow the dog to forage for itself, saving them some food expense. People in rural areas or dachas often never put their dogs on leashes in the first place, and they roam around freely and do "who knows what" during their nightly patrols around the neighborhood. The same goes for cats in districts with private homes or dachas. This behavior on the part of pet owners ensures a steady stream of escaped animals or animals born in the wild that then become part of the stray animal community. Occasionally owners may consciously release their pets because they are unable or unwilling to care for them, but I believe this happens less frequently.

  3. By not becoming official caretakers of pets, property owners can enjoy all the benefits of having a pet without the responsibility. For instance, a lumberyard or similar industrial lot can simply allow some local stray dogs to hang around on their lot and occasionally give them something to eat, and they will effectively enjoy all the benefits of canine security without feeling obligated to do anything for the dogs (take care of their health, etc.). People in a dacha cooperative might see a cute kitten playing in their yard one day and start offering it food so that they can pet it, play with it, and watch it grow. If they leave for the week, they don't have to leave food for the kitten, knowing that it has other sources and isn't limited to their plot alone and that it will visit them the following weekend when they come back.

  4. For whatever reasons, local governments usually do not do much to enforce official regulations regarding pet ownership or deal with the stray animal situation until someone is seriously mauled or even bitten to death or catches rabies. When something like this happens, temporary solutions are usually pursued, such as rounding up a particular pack of stray dogs (usually only part of the pack, as the rest escape).

Friday, October 21, 2011

Ease of Doing Business in Former Soviet Union Countries

The countries of the Former Soviet Union (FSU) share a common legacy but have taken very different economic paths during the past 20 years. This report on the ease of doing business may be of interest to many readers. 183 countries were ranked, including all FSU countries except Turkmenistan.

Below are FSU countries listed by number in the ranking with their change in position from 2010 to 2011, annual GNI (gross national income, which fails to account for the shadow economy) per capita, and population in millions. Follow the links to get more information about each country's rating.

16. Georgia (+1) / $2690 / 4.6 million
21. Latvia (+10) / $11620 / 2.2
24. Estonia (-6) / $14360 / 1.3
27. Lithuania (-2) / $11400 / 3.2
47. Kazakhstan (+11) / $7440 / 16.6
55. Armenia (+6) / $3060 / 3.3
66. Azerbaijan (+3) / $5180 / 9.2
69. Belarus (+22) / $6030 / 9.5
70. Kyrgyzstan (-3) / $880 / 5.5
81. Moldova (+18) / $1810 / 3.6
120. Russia (+4) / $9910 / 142.9
147. Tajikistan (+5) / $780 / 8.0
152. Ukraine (-3) / $3010 / 45.9 (download full report here)
166. Uzbekistan (-2) / $1280 / 27.6

Average change in rating from 2010 to 2011 for FSU countries: +4.6
Average GNI: $5675, or $3824 not including Baltic states, which are the three wealthiest per capita with an average GNI of $12460

  • Georgia is the lowest-GNI country in the top 44.
  • Belarus and Kazakhstan are both substantially higher-income and easier for doing business than Ukraine.
  • Ukraine is ranked lowest in Europe in terms of ease of doing business.
  • Russia is three times wealthier per capita but nearly as hard to do business in as Ukraine.
  • The 3 Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) are at nearly the same level of income and ease of doing business, as are the 3 Transcaucasian states (Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan).
  • Of the Central Asian republics, Kazakhstan is both by far the wealthiest and the easiest for doing business.
  • Among the bottom 35 countries, Ukraine is 3rd in terms of income per capita. Only Venezuela and Angola are "better off."
  • Most of the most populous FSU countries (Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan) are in the bottom half of the ranking, while all of the least populous (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Armenia, Moldova, and Georgia) are in the top half.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Visa Requirements for Ukrainians to Travel to Countries Around the World

Many of you may find this article at Wikipedia useful.

As you can see, many countries in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the former USSR are accessible to Ukrainians for visa-free or visa-upon-arrival travel. Naturally, these are not the countries most Ukrainians are interested in visiting. А зря! Latin America offers quite a nice lifestyle with a culture more compatible with Ukrainian/Russian culture than most western nations. Turkey, Iran, Kenya, Namibia, Nepal, and Thailand are fantastic travel destinations. And Russia and the 'Stans cover an enormous portion of the Earth's land surface.

Compare Ukrainians' opportunities with those of Russian citizens. The latter have some advantages, particularly with regards to South America, most of which offers Russian citizens visa-free travel. Otherwise, the maps are quite similar.

Moving to Sevastopol

Who would've thought that after 9 years in Kiev I would move to another city in Ukraine? I like Kiev and have a myriad of activities, friends, and contacts there to keep my busy. But for the past several years I have felt that Kiev is not a place I would like to settle long term. It is too big, too polluted, too far from any mountains or other areas of outstanding natural beauty, and the real estate is too costly for me to realistically buy anything decent in the foreseeable future.

The realization that I would not be able to stay in Ukraine long-term anyway because of the immigration restrictions led me to begin thinking about spending more time elsewhere. Just a week later, I began planning my move to Sevastopol, Crimea. Here I will also be subject to the 90/180 rule, but there are big advantages here for me. I can live at my own dacha, carefully chosen in a convenient location just outside the city.

Dacha plots are not available for purchase by foreign citizens unless they have been privatized. Privatized plots cost quite a bit more. 6 or 7 years ago a Ukrainian friend and I bought an unprivatized plot together on her name and began the privatization process, which is standard and can be arranged for a set fee so that the owners just pay and forget about it. A year or so later, the process was completed.

I am a geographer (by nature, if not yet by profession), and I understand that location is everything. Here are the criteria we considered when choosing the plot:
  • close to bus stops where city buses run
  • walking distance to an awesome beach (arguably the most scenic in the region)
  • at least a few neighbors live at their dacha year-round
  • some investment in construction is taking place in the vicinity
  • electricity and water
  • not too close to the water that seaspray would suppress plant growth
Furthermore, because Crimean cities are small, it is realistic to live at a dacha just outside the city and enjoy the benefits of city life while living in a more tranquil location. In Kiev this is basically impossible due to the large size of the city.

Crimea has tons of scenic variety — sea, mountains, cities, historical sites, etc. — plus great numbers of tourists from all over Ukraine and the former USSR. Many places in Crimea attract interesting types of people — artists, scientists, wanderers, adherents of various teachings, etc.

I have long felt that this might be the best place for me within Ukraine in terms of lifestyle. Until a few years ago I was basically tied down to Kiev because of work, but now I can work from anywhere if I have Internet.

In the past year a modest house has been built on the dacha plot, and at the moment some relatives of my friend are installing the electrical wiring. Within a month this place will be quite liveable, albeit with primitive "facilities."

Now I am beginning to establish a social life in Sevastopol and Crimea. I already have some acquaintances here, and I've established a Spanish conversation club in town. All Spanish speakers are invited, particularly natives. My daily routine includes a hike down to the spectacular "Jasper Beach," with nearly 800 steps leading down a 170 m high slope to the secluded beach below (see some photos here). It's just a short bus ride away to a kind of avtovokzal (bus station) where one can take buses to destinations in the hills to the east where all the good hiking begins. From the dacha to the center of Sevastopol it's typically about a 40 minute trip, which is average for living in Kiev. But here I breathe fresh air and live in my own house.

The plot cost $4500 USD, as much as $12-15k will be invested total in the house and landscaping, the rent is nonexistent, and utilities amount to about $10 a month.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

New Visa Regulations in Ukraine as of September 10, 2011

Ukraine has been steadily bringing its immigration control in accordance with European standards. This has meant a gradual decline in the numbers of expats getting away with long-term unofficial residency in Ukraine. More and more, the 90/180 rule is being enforced, just like the Schengen zone countries, the U.K., and many others worldwide.

The latest development is that previous visa categories are going to be abolished and replaced with a simpler system with just three visa types: transit, short-term, and long-term. The first two will be of no use to nationals of countries enjoying visa-free visits to Ukraine (within the 90/180 day rule).

It is not yet clear whom long-term visas will be issued to, besides those with work permits. Presumably students and those with family ties will be included in the list. There is a small chance that there will be other groups as well (I have my fingers crossed).

Currently valid visas will NOT lose their validity after these changes are made, and their terms and conditions will remain valid through expiration. Any new visas issued after Sept. 10 will naturally belong to one of the new categories.

We also very much hope for a simplification of the registration process which is almost always quite a bit more difficult than getting the visa itself. A tightening of the visa procedures should be accompanied by simplification of related paperwork, i.e. registration, work permit issuing, and obtaining temporary and permanent residency papers. There is no good reason to keep native English (and other language) teachers from teaching their languages in Ukraine legally. So work permit regulations should be simplified to make it possible for more schools to comply. Now, in order for that to happen, many aspects of government relations with small business might need to be changed...

Back to Ukraine after a 3 month absence

After over three months backpacking around Europe, I'm back in Kiev. It's great to be back in the only place where I feel like a local. Things are quite cheap here compared to much of western Europe (my last stop was Oslo — my goodness!).

This time things are a bit different than during my previous stays in Ukraine, which were mostly long-term and continuous. This time I entered without a visa using the visa-free regime and plan to spend no more than 90 days here. Then I'll leave and move somewhere for a while before coming back to Ukraine. It is extremely annoying, but there appears to be no reasonable way that I can live here year-round even with 9 years in Ukraine under my belt and an independent source of income coming from outside Ukraine.

If I wanted to legally stay here year-round, probably the only options I have are to find a cheap university that could get me a student visa even if I don't actually attend or only do so occasionally, or to find an employer who would get me a work permit even if my work there is nominal. However, last years' experience with work permits and registration was a nightmare I would rather not repeat.

It's just not worth all the effort right now. I will use this situation to get to know some other countries, too, spending no more than half my time in Ukraine. That's the silver lining on this cloud. I'm particularly interested in Georgia and the more liberal Stans where Russian is a prevalent second language. Georgia, by the way, allows 1-year visa-free entry...

I'm crossing my fingers that upcoming changes in Ukraine's visa regime will allow for more categories of people to apply for residency. For instance, those that have >n years of experience in the country, or those that do not work in Ukraine but have an external source of income (that would be me).

Friday, May 27, 2011

Registration Checks at Ukrainian Border Crossings

I would like to tell about my two most recent border crossing experiences, both of which involved a careful check of my duration of stay in the country and whether or not I had registered with the OVIR.

1. Borypsil Airport, August 2010

I had a new visa from the Krakow Ukrainian Consulate on the heels of a [in hindsight rather pointless] 3-month visa. After asking around online and talking to the Kiev central OVIR, I had concluded that the new visa would probably allow me to have 90 days in the country before being required to register. At the border checkpoint at the airport I was told that this was not the case and that the new visa had no bearing on the 90/180 rule. In essence, this means that under their interpretation if you stay in Ukraine 80-90 days without a visa and leave to get a visa, after reentering the country on visa you will have to register promptly before being allowed to leave the country without paying a fine, even if you only spent 0-10 days in the country with your new visa. However, the central city OVIR may have a different interpretation and may decline to register you until closer to 90 days have passed since your most recent entrance to Ukraine.

Basically, the border guard told me I was in violation and had his boss come out to talk to me. The boss say I would have to pay a fine, emphasizing that the procedure took several hours to write up properly and that I could "take a later flight." I was already almost late to my flight because of issues with my carry-on baggage, which included some metal backpacking gear, and the guard new this because he had requested my ticket along with my passport. I told them there was no "later flight" and that I would not take my trip after all, but would remain in Kiev. At this point I honestly thought my chances of leaving the country were about nil, and I didn't care anymore because of all the problems and the fact that I hadn't slept at all the previous night.

After some hemming and hawing back and forth between the guards, the boss muttered something and left. The guard gave me back my passport and told me I was "incredibly lucky." I couldn't believe it.

I have never paid a bribe in over 8 years of living in Ukraine, and I'm happy that I didn't break with that tradition. I am almost certain that the border guards were setting me up to bribe them in the back room in order to make my flight.

2. Zhuliany airport, May 2011

WizzAir now flies out of Zhuliany, not Boryspil. This is good news, because Zhuliany is actually within city boundaries. I got there by bus for 2.50 UAH (31 US cents). At the border crossing, the guard entered my information into the computer and looked carefully at my visas, stamps, and registration. The registration covered my current stay in Ukraine beyond my exit date, so there was no problem there. But he noticed that there was a problem before the registration -- the same "problem" that the previous border guards had noticed. He spent several minutes talking to his colleague in the booth about the situation, then went out into the back room to talk to the boss. As he was returning down the hall, I heard (in Russian) -- "if he's got that mark [i.e. OVIR registration], that means he's already paid [a fine]." I gathered that the border guard was inquiring about the possibility of fining me for a past infringement. Finally, he came back, apologized for the delay, smiled, and gave me my passport.

Moral of the story: airport border guards are looking at your residency information very carefully these days.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

May in Ukraine: Beware of Ticks!

It's May in Ukraine — arguably the prettiest time of year for travel, sightseeing, and enjoying the outdoors. The weather is mild, the trees are covered in unbelievably bright green leaves, and flowering plants are in bloom. Flies are just beginning to appear, but there are few, if any, mosquitos.

This is the time to visit botanical gardens (there are two in Kyiv — a small one next to Universitetska metro station and a large one near Arsenalna station), begin sunbathing, travel to Crimea (not in the summer when it's often intolerably hot), and take road trips to all those obscure destinations you've always wanted to see around Ukraine.

One of the few things you'll need to worry about during this blissful but brief period is ticks ("клещи"). May seems to be their busiest month, and they tend to taper off through the summer. Ticks around Ukraine have been known to carry encephalitis, though cases seem to be very rare.

After spending time outside (on the grass, at botanical gardens, in the forest, etc.), you should check your body over for ticks. They can be a bit hard to see, and prefer areas where the skin is soft — behind the knees, around the tops of thighs and in the groin area, around the armpits, etc. It usually takes them quite a while to crawl up to a good spot, so you often have a good half hour or so to nab them.

Ticks can be removed with tweezers (taking care to grab it as close to the skin as possible), by applying oil and gently rolling the tick over and over with a circular motion (may take 5 seconds to 5 minutes), or by using special "tick tweezers" which one can find in the U.K. and some other places.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Old Soviet Film Festival at Zhovten Cinema in Kiev

Many people in the former USSR have a soft spot for Soviet movies. You can find out why every Wednesday at 10 am at the "Zhovten" (October) movie theater in Kiev (Podil district), just a 5 minute walk from m. Kontraktova Ploscha.

A schedule of the movies can be found on the theater's website. The festival started last week with a showing of Белорусский вокзал and will continue till the end of August. Admission is free! Be prepared for an elderly audience, though, and there are no subtitles, so you'll need to know some Russian to enjoy the movies.

On the first day of the festival there were some addresses by the people who run the cinema and by a well-known singer and performer. All the old people were given flowers, and there was a small TV crew there that filmed parts of the pre-film presentation, focusing in on some of the whitest heads and most stooping backs. I was one of a small handful of young people.

Soviet cinema is a sentimental subject for these older people. It was a different era with different values and different social institutions. Many of them still feel lost in today's society. For these people, the Soviet times were a period with some sacrifices and difficulties, but all in all it was a kinder society with much more solidarity and security. Soviet-era films are like a glimpse into that bygone world. I usually find these movies refreshing and starkly different from modern, high-tech cinema. Белорусский вокзал (Belorussian Train Station), for instance, is a very minimalist, but moving film about the bonds of friendship and how they can be rekindled many years later.

Finding a Gym in Ukraine

Gyms are all over the place in Ukraine, usually a short walk from nearly any residential neighborhood. In my experience, Ukrainian gyms can be divided into three categories:
  1. Inexpensive, Soviet-era "proletariat" gyms with old equipment, and semi-commercial gyms at local schools. A single visit may cost up to $2, and monthly passes may or may not exist. Classes like aerobics, shaping, yoga, and martial arts may or may not be available. Usually no Internet presence.
  2. Middle-to-upper-class gyms with prices from $30 to $80/mo. (Kiev) depending on how often you intend. Good, modern equipment, ventilation, music, protein drinks, lockers, shower, etc. Some have fitness rooms for aerobics, pilates, yoga, etc. etc. Easy to find online.
  3. Upper-crust fitness clubs with high prices and a wide variety of fitness and wellness activities. Not hard to find online.
My experience is with categories #1 and #2. Currently I visit Stimul Gym in Podol. It has a lot of equipment, in places a bit too tightly packed. The TVs in the rooms show fashion models, and the music is usually electronic and energetic, but not masculine enough. This is a bit annoying.

To find gyms in your city, do a search on "спортзал" ("gym") and the name of the city in Ukrainian or Russian. The registration procedure is very straightforward, and you do not have to commit to months at a time. You can come in, register, and immediately do a workout. Most gyms expect you to bring a second pair of shoes for wearing in the gym.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Garbage Scenes Around Kiev

Taking pictures of garbage is one of my favorite pastimes. I do it when I go hiking in Crimea or the Carpathians (where garbage is most out of place) and recently have been pulling out my camera more and more often in Kiev.

Garbage has its own aesthetics. It can be strikingly dramatic, colorful, grotesque. It tells a story about the side of things we don't always see.

Here are some recent shots from Kiev:

This is a view of the artists' market on Andreevsky Spusk that so many foreigners know so well. Paintings are put up in makeshift sheds covered with plastic on an empty plot of bare ground. Behind the impromptu market is a communal waste heap of plastic, glass, food scraps and waste (left by homeless people). Right next to these heaps there is a nice old building with expensive apartments. With little vegetation to stabilize it, the slope is gradually eroding.

Here's a lake near Petrovka metro station.

A closer look at the garbage reveals the usual plastic and glass bottles, drink cartons, and a bit of furniture.

Ukraine National Clean-up Day: April 16, 2011

Want to help Ukrainians get out and clean up their own parks, streets, and squares? Check out the website (Ukrainian only). All over the country, on April 16 at 10:45 pm groups of people will be given garbage bags and tools (if necessary) and will spend 3 hours cleaning up.

To participate, you'll need to sign up at, call their phone number 099 24-54-838 or write to the e-mail given on the website. They'll give you your location for the day to make sure that volunteers (they're calling them "activists") will be evenly spread out around the city.

Credit Card Fraud in Ukraine: "It Can't Happen to Me"

All of us know that credit card fraud happens, but many believe that "it can't happen to me." Here's a story I recently learned of first-hand from an expat who makes frequent trips to Ukraine for periods of several weeks or months at a time.

This man experienced bank card fraud twice in one year in Ukraine. The first time the bank figured something was amiss and gave him a call to notify they were cancelling a suspicious transaction. The second time no action was taken by the bank. The expat printed out withdrawal statements and was preparing to scan them and send them to his bank to contest withdrawals amounting to many thousands of dollars.

These withdrawals were all performed in St. Petersburg, Russia over a span of a week or more. One was on the same day that he withdrew money in China (an obvious sign of fraud). He hopes his bank will cancel the withdrawals and he will not lose the money.

I asked how he might have prevented this situation. He said he used his bank card (a debit card) to get cash out of ATMs and to pay at restaurants and stores. He didn't know where his information might have been stolen. Since this happened to him twice in one year, he suspects it might be fairly common among expats in Ukraine. (That's why I'm writing this post.)

I have spent a total of 10 years in Ukraine and Russia and have not had any experiences like this, but I have only used my debit cards to withdraw money from ATMs. I have never used them to pay for things in Ukraine/Russia. I have also not been particularly discriminate in which ATMs I use; usually I just use whatever ATM is handiest. So far so good... But other expats have recommended using only ATMs located inside banks. This is probably sound advice.

Perhaps the most important thing one can to do protect against fraud is to use a debit card rather than a credit card, and to keep the balance in the account reasonably low so that if fraud occurs you will not lose very much money. The expat I talked to was preparing to set up another account from which he will transfer money to his checking account as necessary rather than storing funds in the checking account that is tied to the debit card.

This is something worth thinking about and preparing for. Have you taken steps to protect yourself from bank fraud?

Friday, April 8, 2011

Bila Tserkva: a Quick Getaway Trip from Kiev

I don't know about you, but I'm always on the lookout for places to take outings around Kiev to unwind and get work done at the same time. The best destinations can be reached efficiently with a minimum of waiting around or trying to find what you're looking for.

Bila Tserkva definitely falls into that category. Below is my description of how to get there and have an enjoyable and unusually efficient trip. It's not exactly how we did it (with a lot of trial and error), but it's definitely how we'll do it when we go again in 2 or 3 weeks to enjoy the springtime flowers and budding trees.


Sometime in the morning or afternoon (depending on when you can get off work and other obligations) head down to Lybedska metro station and ask around for the minibuses ("marshrutki") to Bila Tserkva ("Belaya Tserkov" in Russian). Buses leave every 30 minutes, and the trip takes 70 to 80 minutes total. Cost: 20 UAH ($2.50 USD).

The end stop in Bila Tserkva is right in front of the hotel where I recommend staying. It's called "Klark" but is commonly known by its former name — "Dom priezzhikh" (Дом приезжих in Russian). If you arrive after 14.00 you can check in immediately, otherwise you'll need to come back later after you've done some sightseeing (another reason to pack as light as possible and wear a comfortable backpack!).

A simple double room at Klark costs 220 UAH ($28 USD) and comes with its own bathroom with hot and cold water, a TV, and — if you're lucky — Wi-Fi. If the wireless signal does not reach your room, it is available in the halls and lounges and the restaurant. There are outlets in the lounges and the network is not password protected. Internet seems to be reliable and fast.

The main attraction in Bila Tserkva is famous Aleksandria Park. If you get tired of large landscape parks, there are more usual sights in the center of town — i.e. churches, shopping centers, a central square with a Lenin statue, and other characteristic Soviet buildings and infrastructure.

It's easy to get to Aleksandria Park. If you're looking out from the entrance of Klark hotel, walk right about 100 yards to the nearest bus stop and take any one of several buses. #22 seems to run the most often. Fare is 1.50 UAH and you'll need to get off in about 4 stops. If you're uncertain, ask for Aleksandria Park. When you get out, look across the street diagonally and you'll see the park entrance with busts of Pushkin and Taras Shevchenko on either side (these famous Russian and Ukrainian poets and writers visited Bila Tserkva).

An entrance ticket costs 8 UAH ($1 USD) unless you're a student or pensioner. The park is really nice — one of my all-time favorites. Up there with Pavlovskiy Park outside of St. Petersburg, and certainly more interesting than Kiev's Pirohovo Museum from a purely landscape design perspective. There are a number of cascading lakes, and the river Ros forms one of the boundaries of the park.

The best time of year to visit the park is probably between April 10th to the end of October. Spring and fall are particularly spectacular.

Personally, I am happy to spend 3-4 hours in a park like this exploring its perimeter. It is a large park — you've been warned. You can walk 12-15 km here without repeating any routes. Note that working hours are 8 am to 4:45 pm, so you'll need to be careful to get out in time.

After visiting the park, you can head back to the hotel and work online (my option), have dinner, etc. Taking your own food from home is a good way to save time and money, but there are also inexpensive dining options right next to the hotel.

The restaurant on the first floor of Klark hotel seems pretty decent, and you get a 10% discount if you tell the hotel administrator you're going to be going to the restaurant. A full dinner for two will probably cost between 120 and 240 UAH ($15-30 USD) depending on your appetite and taste for expensive drinks. The restaurant has a distinctly Soviet interior, as does the hotel — not necessarily a bad thing, but actually strangely nostalgic.

Another option is "Mirage" cafe located about 100 meters further down the street from the above mentioned bus stop. The cafe offers a rather staggering array of meat dishes and is quite busy, which is a good sign. Here two people can have a full meal for about 120 UAH ($15 USD).


Sleep in or work online or whatever till no later than noon, when you'll need to check out of the hotel. Head to Aleksandria Park for round 2 and leave for Kiev in the later afternoon. Minibuses leave from right in front of Klark hotel and take you to Lybedska metro station for 20 UAH.


(shot with a simple iPod camera)

Entrance to the park, with busts of Alexander Pushkin and Taras Shevchenko on either side.

Church in the center of Bila Tserkva.

"Klark" hotel and restaurant.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Seeing a Dentist in Ukraine

During the past year I developed a tooth cavity that needed filling. Never having set up a dentist visit on my own, I didn't know how to go about doing it. I talked to a couple friends and asked for recommendations, but didn't get any specific advice. So, after waffling for a few weeks I finally just went to the state dental clinic on the corner.

It was a lot like any Ukrainian state clinic or hospital. The interior was dilapidated, with rickety seat rows in the open areas for people to wait. Middle-aged women walked around in white robes, and information was posted near the entrance behind a glass screen. I looked at the prices for various dental procedures, and it seemed too low to be true (15 UAH for a filling, for example — that's just $2 USD). It turns out the actual prices are higher.

I asked the administrator (in Russian) how to go about seeing a dentist to get a filling (поставить пломбу) and have plaque removed (снятие налёта). I was worried that I would only be able to obtain services if I was a registered resident of the local district. The lady asked me when I wanted to see the dentist — "now" or "later." I said, "how about tomorrow?" "What time?" she asked. (This is a typical situation in Ukraine. You ask a general question, and they respond by asking you a specific question. Most people don't like to answer general questions.)

Apparently my registration, or lack thereof, made no difference. The lady took down my last name and gave me a scrap of paper with the appointment time, room number, and dentist's last name on it. The next day I came in for a filling and was in and out of the clinic in just under 20 minutes, paying 195 UAH ($24 USD) for the procedure.

The dentist was working in a large room with 4 dentists total and 4 dental chairs that appeared adequately equipped. She took a look at the cavity and told me it would cost about 200 UAH for a "good filling" and that the price could be lower for a lower-quality filling substance. I opted for the better filling.

The procedure didn't require anaesthesia, and she worked quickly and seemed to do a good job. In less than 15 minutes it was over. She told me to go to the administrator to pay, then bring her back the pay slip. I did so and arranged for a teeth cleaning directly with the dentist, and she wrote me out a note with the time and place. And that was that.

A few days later, I returned for the teeth cleaning (plaque removal), which took under 10 minutes and cost 70 UAH ($9 USD). This time I paid the dentist directly. Don't quite understand how that works.

The really interesting part was when I shocked our house guest from the U.S. by returning home in just 20 minutes after leaving to get my filling. Apparently getting a filling is a far more complicated procedure where she is from in the U.S. and takes no less than an hour. After telling her what my visit was like and how much it cost, she began to wonder whether all the procedures performed at her clinic were really justified and whether they might have been making things more complicated than necessary to jack up the cost.

I don't know the answer to that question, but I do know that getting a filling in Kiev involved about 1 minute of paperwork (giving my name and signing up), almost no wait, and a bare-bones, but efficient procedure that took about 10 minutes.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Learn Russian/Ukrainian Now or Forever Hold Your Peace

With each passing year more and more Ukrainians are becoming conversational in English. Among ambitious young Ukrainians ages 18 to 30, an intermediate level of English is pretty much a given. Sure, people complain about not getting enough practice and we all know that language instruction in Ukrainian schools and colleges leaves much to be desired, but still... процесс пошел (things have started rolling). One thing that is helping bring this change is access to online courses and programs that allow students to communicate with instructors in other countries.

Ukraine is in the middle of an English language boom, and one often gets the sense that there is a frenzied race to learn English for career advancement and to grow closer to the "real" Europe, make new friends, date foreigners, emigrate, etc.

While this may be good news for the country's economy, it's often bad news for Amero-European expats who wish to stay in Ukraine for a longer period of time, perfect their language skills, and integrate into the culture — in short, to feel at home.

Very often, the people expats typically would be most interested in making friends with happen to be those who are most involved in the English language craze: young, well-educated, upwardly mobile and cosmopolitan city dwellers. Most of these Ukrainians have a goal of improving their English and tend to see foreigners through this lens.

To get people to speak a foreign language with you, you generally have to speak their language better than they speak yours. As Ukrainians' average English level rises, the bar for expats' Russian and Ukrainian rises along with it, and it becomes more difficult to get language practice. It used to be that you could practice Russian/Ukrainian with anybody. Now, you're pretty much left with schoolchildren, the less educated, and the elderly (okay, maybe more like those over 45).

Fat chance making Russian or Ukrainian speaking friends among the "young and ambitious" group. You'll literally have to demoralize them into speaking their language with you with your superior Russian or Ukrainian skills. And even then many will hope that some day their English will be good enough to turn the tables in their own favor. But how is an expat to reach that level in the first place if the only people to practice with are uneducated store workers, ticket ladies, pensioners, and language teachers whose services cost 10-20 Euros an hour?

To extrapolate where this trend is going, try integrating into the local culture in the Netherlands or Scandinavia. You might as well forget about it. You're in luck if you're from Latin America, Africa, or Asia: you can always claim that you don't know English. If you're white, that will be pretty difficult.

Ukraine will obviously take many years to reach this point, but given Ukrainians' degree of personal ambition and disillusionment with their own country, it could be as little as 10 years down the road. The time to learn Ukrainian and/or Russian is now, before it's too late! Ukraine is fast becoming a place where you have to pay (or trick) people into speaking Russian or Ukrainian with you.

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. 

Friday, February 25, 2011

Teach Yourself Russian / Ukrainian

Let's say you've planned a trip to Ukraine (or anywhere else, for that matter) and are leaving in 3 months' time. You have 1 hour a day to devote to learning a foreign language (2 if you're particularly dedicated). What do you do?

Here's what I do. First, one needs to recognize that to the following must all be acquired if you want to gain and retain for the long run a truly useful set of language skills:
  • reading skills: being able to read signs, basic instructions, etc.
  • listening comprehension: understanding much of what natives say when talking at normal speed
  • speaking skills, including decent pronunciation (even if you speak very slowly)
  • familiarity with all the basic grammar concepts
A basic, sustainable vocabulary allowing one to convey and understand most information consists of roughly 1500 words (see sample core vocabulary list for Russian). I believe it is possible to become familiar with 1500 words, how they sound, and how they are used, in 90 days while spending 1-2 hours a day. That's just 17 words a day. Here's how.

Most importantly, you'll need a high-quality language course that includes the following:
  • lessons incorporating not much less or much more than 1500 words, including the most commonly used and useful words of the language
  • explanations of all basic grammar principles of the language that don't go into excessive detail
  • at least 1 hour of audio material including complete sentences, preferably conversations and texts, spoken at near-normal speed by natives and including all vocabulary words in the course
My favorite series is the series of basic language courses for self-learners from Langenscheidt. It has all the traits mentioned and is perfectly sufficient for attaining an "advanced beginner" (without real-life speaking practice) or "lower-intermediate" (with speaking practice) level in 3 months before a trip to a foreign country. It's the standard course you want -- not the "30-day" crash course which simply doesn't contain enough vocabulary, repetition, or grammar info to provide a sustainable level of language mastery. The course has 30 lessons and comes with about 2 hours of audio exclusively in the foreign language and consisting of complete sentences and conversations or texts. There is no need to buy a dictionary or other materials along with the course.

Unfortunately, Langenscheidt's Russian course is available only in German! In Ukraine you can find many Langenscheidt course books translated into Russian or Ukrainian -- German, Spanish, French, Polish, and others. I've used a couple of these with great success and recommend them highly.

If you don't speak German, you'll need to find something similar to the Langenscheidt course with all the features I've mentioned. It shouldn't have to cost much more than $30 USD. Surely there must be some similarly structured courses out there.

How to use a language course for self-learners

If you know how to utilize courses like Langenscheidt's to your advantage, there is simply no need to pay for expensive, high-tech, newfangled language learning methodologies (I won't name names). My opinion is that such courses are for people with learning difficulties or for those who simply don't know any better. Sorry if I offended anyone!

When I use a Langenscheidt course, I start by working through the texts of the first several lessons and figuring out what they are saying. (With Russian/Ukrainian there will be the initial difficulty of learning the alphabet first, which will slow you down for a while.) I pay attention to the grammar notes and use them to help figure out the text. I don't try to memorize anything, but sometimes I make lists of conjugations or important word sets -- for instance, "I - my - mine, you - your - yours, he - his - his, she - her - hers, it - its - its, we - our - ours, you - your - yours, they - their - theirs." I basically skip the exercises till a later date when I've built up my familiarity with the sounds and the forms. Some people like exercises and are comfortable doing them from the outset.

Then, I start listening to the audio. It's important to spend at least as much time listening to the audio recordings as you do working with the textbook. Your brain needs time to digest the new sounds and learn to differentiate words from the stream of sounds. I might go through 3 lessons of the textbook, then listen to the audio for the lessons one time through without looking at the book, to see what I am able to recognize from the text. Then I might listen to the recordings a few more times while looking at the text, to see if I can pick up more of it. Finally, I'll listen to the recordings again without looking at the texts. The goal is in the end to be able to listen to all the audio for the course and understand all of it without consulting the textbook. Too often, language learners fail to focus on listening comprehension. But if you don't, you'll never get the pronunciation right and you won't understand it when people use the words that you have supposedly already learned.

The nice thing about listening is that you can do it while doing other things -- driving, jogging, walking, cleaning, etc. You don't have to understand everything for it to be useful. Generally, each time you listen to a recording you'll pick up a bit of new information whether you realize it or not.

It's important to avoid stressing while learning a foreign language (or anything else, for that matter). Stress means that much of your mental energy is being wasted as "heat" instead of being used for a useful purpose. If learning a foreign language is stressing you, there might be something more basic that you don't understand that is preventing you from understanding the new material. For this reason it is useful to study a very simple language such as Esperanto before attacking real foreign languages. Studies show that students who spent a year learning Esperanto before subsequently learning French did a lot better than those who spent the whole time learning just French (see link). Learning Esperanto first familiarized them with the basic structure of languages in general, and after that it was easier to apply what they had learned to a natural and more difficult language.

As an example of avoiding stress, I personally don't like doing exercises -- conjugating verbs, practicing declensions, translating texts, etc. So I just skip them! My focus is on learning how to say the important things I need to say. Exercises are nothing more than a tool to help achieve this, and they don't work for everyone.

Find a native -- if you can

At some point in your language learning, it can be very beneficial to meet with a native speaker to ask if you're saying things correctly and to learn some additional phrases and vocabulary that you expect to need. Language clubs -- if they exist in your city or town -- are a great way to get this added exposure.


Feel free to post questions regarding learning Russian and Ukrainian effectively on your own. Also, if anyone knows of do-it-yourself language courses like what I've described here, please post information so that others can find them.

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.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Downhill Skiing in Kiev (Protasov Yar)

Did you know it was possible to go downhill skiing in Kiev? Yes, right in the middle of the city. Today I went skiing at Protasov Yar, just an 8-minute ride on trolleybus #40 from Respublikanskyy metro station.

The hill has two lifts with an elevation gain of 50 and 70 m, respectively. One is beginner-intermediate, the other intermediate-advanced. The slopes are on the north side of a hill and are fed by snow cannons and groomed daily. There is a ski rental place, snacks and restaurants, and a usable restroom. The hills use tow lifts — one single and one double tow. Snowboarders are allowed on both slopes, and snowboards can be rented on location.

Best time to go

Weekday mornings between 10:00 and 15:00 outside the holiday season. During these hours lift tickets are the cheapest (3 UAH per ascent, or $0.38 USD) and crowds are thinnest. I rarely waited more than 2 minutes in line.

The snow will be best during periods of cold weather when they can build up the snowpack using artificial snow, and following snowfalls.

If you go on the weekends or when everyone in the city is on holiday, expect big crowds.

The slopes are open every day of the week 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. except Monday (2 p.m. to 10 p.m.). There is night skiing on Saturdays.


You can rent equipment for a whole day or part day. Prices are generally around $8-15 USD. Ski tickets cost between 3 and 6 UAH depending on the date and time of day.

For more information, visit Check the events calendar on the site to make sure there won't be a competition on the day you were thinking of visiting Protasov Yar.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Using Wireless Internet (Wi-Fi) around Kiev

It is possible to get by in Kiev without installing Internet at home. This is my current preference. Here I'll share my experience that will hopefully save readers some time that they would otherwise waste running around town in search of wi-fi.

There are now quite a few places in town with wireless Internet, but still very many restaurants and cafes that do not have wi-fi. The following chains have wi-fi in practically every restaurant. You'll need to buy something to use it.

- McDonald's, which are all over the city, but the further from the center, the more likely there are to be wi-fi problems. Wi-fi always works in McD's on Kreschatyk and at Petrovka and almost always at m. Lva Tolstoho. Most other places usually work, but are far from 100% reliable, even when you ask the staff to reboot their wireless device. Beware: few outlets!
- McFoxy (a cheaper McDonald's knock-off, but with worse food). Wi-fi seems to be dependable everywhere, but is often slow. Usually there are several outlets available.
- Coffee House has many cafes around Kiev with reliable wi-fi, but too much smoke for some people. Best deals: lunch (8-12:00) and dinner (12-16:00) specials; everything else is a bit pricey. Usually there are several outlets available.
- Mafia restaurants have good wi-fi and a decent deal on breakfasts (< 12:00). The smoking section in the restaurant I was in was on the second floor and did not bother me on the first. There were two outlets available in the non-smoking section.

Other places around town where I like to use wi-fi:

- Chitay-gorod bookstore next to Minskaya metro station (has coffee shop); however, in recent months the wi-fi has stopped working for me. One outlet. Very nice atmosphere.
- Karavan mall food court on Lugovaya street (near Obolonskaya and Minskaya metro stations); however, there is only one outlet for the entire food court, so you'll have to look out for it. There are a couple unprotected connections, but all are slow. You can use the connection for free just by sitting down on a bench.
- Kaffove zerno cafe on Mezhihorska street near m. Kontraktova Ploscha. Best time to visit is 12-16:00 when they have their business lunch, which is a great deal for 29 UAH. Wi-fi works over 90% of the time, but there is only one outlet in the non-smoking area of the cafe...
- Beer Point restaurant and pub, Verkhniy Val street near m. Kontraktova Ploscha. Reliable and fairly high-speed wi-fi signal with numerous outlets. Best deal: business lunch 12-16:00, 45 UAH.

If any readers can recommend other places, please post responses to this post.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Future of English Language

As more and more of the world gets on the English language bandwagon, the average English speaker's mastery of the language continues to fall. More and more, English is being used for international business needs among non-native speakers who have learned English in school, from private teachers, and during brief trips abroad.

The language that is evolving among users of international business English is not quite "real English." Its lexicon includes phrases like "implementation," "conduct negotiations," and "according to" but lacks common English phrases such as "stuff," "get mad," or "for fun." In addition, grammar structure is increasingly simplified, with articles and complex tenses disappearing. The pronunciation is also changing. Complex sounds like the A in "last" or "bath" are being replaced with an O sound as in "lost" or "bother," or sometimes with a short E as in "lest" or "best."

The resulting language, consisting of a simplified English vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation and almost completely devoid of idioms or even phrasal verbs ("enter" instead of "get in," "surrender" instead of "give up," etc.), is rapidly becoming the dominant world language and lingua franca. Since it's derived from English and spoken among non-native English speakers, I'll call it "International Pidgin English." (For reference: a Pidgin language is a simplified language that develops as a means of communication between two or more groups that do not have a language in common. — Wikipedia)

Most Englishmen, Americans, Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders are still under the impression that their English is the world's dominant language, but this is increasingly not the case. Any Kiwi, Brit, or Yankee can travel to countries like Ukraine and meet with English speaking businesspeople and test his hypothesis. In most cases you will find that misunderstandings result when you speak your native tongue, but as soon as you switch to International Pidgin English, the difficulties disappear.

The problem is, few native English speakers concern themselves with learning International Pidgin English, failing to recognize the opportunities that it brings. Viewing their own variety of indigenous English as the "standard," they see little point in learning a "dialect" filled with a variety of systematic "errors."

What is in fact happening is that a new language is emerging that will have much in common with traditional standard English, but will be more accessible, easy to learn, and have fewer idiosyncracies. As the number of international speakers of this language comes to dwarf the number of native speakers of indigenous English, the balance of power will switch to the international community, which may at some point choose to officially incorporate into the new language the changes that are already de facto in force. Spelling may once again become phonetic. The rules governing the use of articles will be decreased to just a handful, or articles will be abolished altogether. The number of tenses will be reduced.

The English language is entering an exciting period of development. Eventually, the new language will have diverged so much from indigenous English that Americans and Brits will have to study Pidgin English in order to communicate with the rest of the world.

Let me translate that last paragraph into International Pidgin English just so you get an idea of the changes:

English language now enters phase of rapid development and slowly becomes new language. In future, this new language will differ much from original English of American and British people, and they will must study it in order to communicate effectively with people from other countries.

You see, there is hardly any thought or sentiment from indigenous English that cannot be expressed just as well in International Pidgin English!

This whole problem of inventing a new version of English out of an existing one, then codifying the changes could have been avoided if people had just had the foresight to learn Esperanto. Indeed, International Pidgin English is evolving to become more and more like Esperanto — an easy-to-learn artificial language with a simple grammatical structure and vocabulary taken from the most common roots of the dominant Indoeuropean languages.

Esperanto takes a far smaller energy investment to learn than any indigenous language. That means less GDP lost from citizens spending years of their lives trying to learn a language they will never master anyway, because they don't live where it is spoken. Switching to Esperanto would also mean depriving the global Anglo-American economic hegemony of one of its key advantages — an effortless mastery of their own language, a position of linguistic dominance in international interactions, and a worldwide obsession with all things Anglo-American, which serves to artificially increase the market value of schooling and cultural artifacts from these countries.

In addition, abandoning English in favor of Esperanto would alleviate much suffering in the world. Failing to master the baffling complexities and assimilate the staggering vocabulary of indigenous English despite years of concerted effort causes incalculable grief and loss of self-esteem to hundreds of millions of otherwise happy and successful individuals around the globe. Switch to Esperanto, and the elusive goal of fluency becomes attainable for almost everyone.

Despite having failed to adopt Esperanto in time, the global community will still "get back" eventually by overwhelming indigenous English speakers with their sheer numbers, allowing them to push their own, more robust variety of English on the few countries where English is currently spoken as a native language.

Native English teachers, beware! Your days of employability are numbered!

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. 

Monday, February 7, 2011

Are Ukrainians Incapable of Establishing Good Rules?

Anyone who's spent a significant amount of time in Ukraine is at some point struck by the mind-boggling quantity of rules governing one's behavior in public places and in all official dealings.

When you get on the bus you see a long list of rules in Ukrainian legalese taped to one of the windows with the title "Excerpt from the Terms and Conditions of Use of Means of Public Transportation" or something like it. The document continues: "Article 1. General Provisions." When you get on the subway you see another long list of rules on the window outlining passengers' duties and responsibilities. If you look for them, you'll see these lists of rules that nobody ever reads in virtually any public or commercial facility.

Also on the bus, you'll often see prominent signs saying, "Driver is obligated to give passengers a ticket stub after payment" or "Passengers, please demand a ticket stub from the driver following payment!" And yet very few drivers pass out ticket stubs, and in all my years riding buses I have never seen a passenger demand a ticket stub from a bus driver.

On occasion I actually read the rules, only to find that I have already inadvertently broken half of them! To illustrate, the other day I visited a geology museum. When I came back later and happened to see the list of rules next to the door, I saw that during my previous visit I had broken four of them. I had 1) failed to leave my outer clothing at the cloakroom downstairs, 2) failed to sign in at the register which is mandatory for all visitors, 3) carried in a backpack that was too large by museum standards, and 4) touched a couple of the exhibits, which is against the rules.

If the rules were important, I thought, why had no one made an effort to bring them to visitors' attention? Particularly the rule about not touching exhibits. All it takes is posting a sign above the open exhibits that says, "Please do not touch." Of course, given that this is Ukraine, the sign would probably say, "Touching exhibits is categorically forbidden!" But even this is lacking. That means it is up to the museum staff to personally monitor visitors. Then these staff are constantly in a bad mood because people keep breaking the rules, and the staff has to spend their time monitoring them instead of doing something more productive and interesting. And yet all it would take is to put a bit of thought into the rules, put up some more visible signs and get rid of the unnecessary rules, and everything would be okay.

The same is true in the Kiev subway (metro). I have 1) dared to sit down on the steps, 2) brought objects longer or larger than are permitted on trains, and 3) ran down the steps of the moving escalator. As it turns out, all these things are against the rules, but you see people do it all the time. And those elderly and poor people who take carts on the metro? That's also "strictly forbidden."

Have you noticed how many people work in the subway system? You have the woman behind the class box watching people pass through the turnstyles, who frequently comes out and shouts at people who aren't using them correctly or has to let people through whose social security or student status allows them to use the metro for free or at a discount. Then you have the young policeman standing nearby who makes sure everyone is on good behavior and occasionally nabs the most obviously drunk passengers. If the metro station has a long escalator, there's another worker in a booth at the bottom watching passengers on the escalator to make sure nothing goes wrong. It's actually nice to have such a human presence in the subway as opposed to, say, the completely mechanized Paris subway where half the passengers just jump over the turnstyles to avoid paying. What I find funny is that the Kiev subway workers let so many rules slide. They let through old people with carts, people carrying skis, teenagers with bikes, and turn a blind eye to people running down the escalator steps and disobedient youths who sit down on the steps. It's as if subway workers have an internal set of rules to enforce that differs quite radically from the official list.

To answer the question contained in the title of this post, I think we must answer two more specific questions: 1) Why do Ukrainians make so many rules? and 2) Why do they make rules that nobody follows?

Before I give my answers to these questions in a full-length article, I'm interested in hearing readers' opinions.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Beach Sand Needed for Geology Museum in Kiev

A geologist I know who works at the geology museum in Kiev is gathering a collection of sands from "beaches of the world" for use in a later display. If there's anyone out there who is coming to Kiev in the foreseeable future and lives near a beach (sea or ocean beach), please contact me!

Roughly 1 kg of sand is needed (2.2 lbs) from each beach on display, and it must be collected from a certain point along the waterline. Contact me for precise information if you are willing to help us out with this.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"Kyiv. The City to Come Back."

This is a letter to the editor of Korrespondent magazine (kind of a Ukrainian Newsweek) that I sent last month. Unfortunately, it wasn't published. My letter comments on a new branding campaign for the city of Kiev that includes the slogan — "Kyiv. The city to come back." Hmm... is there something wrong with that?

Here's my letter in the Russian original:

"Город, которому вернуться"

Как Вам такой лозунг города? Звучит странно, не правда ли? А ведь именно так переводится лозунг, предложенный в рамках нового бренда города Киева — "Kyiv. The city to come back". В статье "Что в городе твоем", Корреспондент № 45 от 26.11.2010 написано — "концепцию бренда Киева его компания [Superheroes] апробировала на иностранцах — экспертах из США, Германии, Италии и Франции". Если это действительно так, то почему никто не исправил вопиющую грамматическую ошибку, ведь правильно будет "The city to come back to" или "A city to come back to" ("Город, куда стоит вернуться"). Подобная ошибка будет вызывать недоумение и смех у тех самых иностранцев (в первую очередь носителей английского языка), на которых и направлен бренд, и лишь укрепит образ Киева как столицы отсталого государства и "города, который однажды вернётся".

(link to article in Korrespondent magazine)


There's good news! I recently stopped by the new Tourist Information Office in Kiev on Kreschatyk Street and saw that the logo discussed in Korrespondent was actively in use. The motto, however, had been changed to "Kyiv. You will come back." Much better!

Dominos Pizza Comes to Kiev

Ah, the benefits of globalization! Real American pizza (Dominos Pizza) is now available in Kiev. And judging by the popularity of the first joint to open, others will be coming soon enough, and eventually in other cities across Ukraine. Pizzerias are particularly popular in western Ukraine, but they could still use a Dominos!

I've studied the Dominos at Kontraktova Ploscha, 2/1 very thoroughly and would like to share what I've learned.

Prices are quite low, and if you figure out their specials you can get extremely good deals:
  • On Tuesdays there's a "buy one get one free" deal on pizzas. You can get a large pizza for as little as 68 UAH (for instance, a Hawaiian pizza) and get another one of equal or lesser cost free. That's just over $4 USD per large pizza and enough to feed three people.
  • There are 3 combos on their menu. #2 is the best deal, costing 99 UAH ($12.50 USD) for 2 medium-sized pizzas, a salad, and breadsticks. That's a savings of 69 UAH and, once again, food enough for 3 people.
Furthermore, delivery is free throughout Podil (a historical district of the city where the author happens to live).

The restaurant itself has a great atmosphere, seems very efficient, and has a nice, large bathroom. I think they'll be very successful.

I should mention that the pizza is very tasty, too.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

TryUkraine is on Facebook!

Reasons to follow TryUkraine on Facebook:
  • find out about jobs and other opportunities in Ukraine for foreigners
  • receive notification of updates at and the TryUkraine blog
Check out our Facebook page now to see what's been posted there recently.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Back in the USSR... You Don't Know How Lucky You Are

My relationship with Eastern Europe goes way back to 1994, when I was an exchange student in Slovakia, which had recently separated from the Czech Republic (the so-called "Velvet Revolution"). The country was in the early stages of developing a market economy and a European-style political culture and was widely considered poor and underdeveloped.

Actually, it seemed perfectly fine. People seemed as happy as they can be at this latitude, the culture was a healthy, middle-of-the-road mixture of individualism and collectivism, people could travel freely and engage in many kinds of activities, and one did not sense the presence of a ubiquitous suppressive government machine. Perhaps I was too young to pick up on some adult things like politics and societal structure. I believe there was some suppression of freedom of speech regarding political matters, but I am not aware of any other ways that the Slovaks were not free.

Next stop was Russia in 1996-98. Going there, I knew it would be "Slovakia times 2" relative to my country of birth (USA). That turned out to be exactly the case. Things were more run-down than in Slovakia, people were more helpless and desperate, the economic hardships were greater, there were fewer opportunities and less sense of personal freedom of movement, speech, and opportunity.

At the same time, Russia was an interesting place. I didn't fully realize what this meant at the time, but Russia had just suffered a monumental collapse of society. Production had fallen by 50%, everyone had lost their life savings, and many societal institutions had ceased to function. At the same time, almost everyone was living in their own apartment and had no debt and, essentially, no taxes to pay. Many basic services were provided free by what remained of the state machine.

Few people at the time knew English or were interested in it. I had full Russian language immersion for nearly 2 years. There was little motivation yet to learn English, since it was nearly impossible for most people to leave the country, and the modern corporate juggernaut of Russian pseudocapitalism had barely begun to grow out of the rubble of the collapsed economy.

The Russians were tangibly dissatisfied with life. Their education and profession, once important social assets, now meant almost nothing. The system they had grown up in had ceased to function. One often had to do demeaning things to get by. The American ethos of "making a difference in the world" seemed laughably inadequate when transplanted to Russian soil. You can only "make a difference" by creating a system or transforming a system, which itself can function only by integrating with existing foundational systems of society. People were busy simply trying to get by and make the best of their situation.

Then came Ukraine, which I first visited in 2000. By then the "rambunctious 90s" had basically ended, thugs and mafia had either died off or institutionalized, and a semblance of law and order had returned to most of the former Soviet Union. My young Ukrainian friends were earning under $150 a month except for rare exceptions. People received their salaries in envelopes, and US dollars were the main currency in use for "anything serious."

Ukrainians were tangibly lacking freedom of speech and access to government. People talked of the "regime" and of the difficulties of getting by in the shadow economy. Everyone was outside the law in some way or another. Government was either avoided (by individuals) or bribed (by businesses).

In the 2000s, the economy started to pick up after years of contraction. More and more consumer goods were making their way into the country, and real salaries were rising faster than expenses. People started investing money in real estate (banks were still not trusted), and prices rose by leaps and bounds. Cell phones became popular, dial-up Internet was replaced by cable, flat-screen monitors appeared, and rumors of wireless Internet began to seep in.

The mood of the country had changed perceptibly. A sense of optimism had appeared that had formerly been absent. People sensed that their life was actually improving and that stable economic growth was occurring. They began to plan for the future. Banks accommodated them by offering loans and mortgages, first for just a few years, then eventually up to 10 years. 10 years of predictable economic conditions in Ukraine! -- the thought seemed almost believable for the first time in decades.

In the middle of the 2000s, there was a blip called the Orange Revolution. Widespread economic optimism about the future demanded a more accommodating government with more modern ideals. The new leaders made optimistic statements in the spirit of the time and enjoyed widespread support from a little over half of the population.

Despite the new government's incompetency, basic economic fundamentals pushed the economy forward and contributed to a rising standard of living. I discontinued my internship program because it just seemed too expensive now to come to Ukraine and work without pay at some organization for a period of time. It used to be that one could get by on $400-500 a month, which is not too much for students and young professionals from the West, but now living expenses were pushing $1000 in Kiev and other big cities.

Within just a year or two of the Orange Revolution, the new government was deemed a failure by a vast majority of the population. Legislation and development projects were at a standstill, and campaign rhetoric had not translated into actual deeds and government policies. At the same time, government offices were as corrupt as ever or even worse.

Then came the financial crisis of 2008. Real estate prices fell by half, credit dried up almost overnight, and the Hryvnia lost 40% of its value against other currencies. Construction projects in Kiev were shut down, and large numbers of labor migrants had to leave the city and return home for lack of work. Suddenly, people who had taken out dollar loans were barely making their debt payments, and people began to go bankrupt.

The mirage of economic stability disappeared once more. Even after the semi-recovery of 2010, national debt payments hang over the country's head, and there are persistent rumors of a coming wave of economic difficulties and further declines in real estate prices. The mood is cautiously optimistic to overtly pessimistic.

The new government leaders have proved to be more organized and coordinated in their actions, and infrastructure projects have been boldly resumed, but government decisions are making life harder for people, not easier. Procedures are becoming more difficult to perform, the tax burden is growing, and doing business is becoming more and more difficult, particularly for small and medium-sized business.

But Ukrainians are now better acquainted with the rest of the world. People have been to Egypt, Turkey, Vienna, Poland... Ukraine even got its first low-cost airline. Ukrainian "gastarbeiter" know the ropes in Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Russia. Everyone is either using their English, trying to learn English, or self-flagellating over not being active enough about learning English. Internet use is widespread and ubiquitous for the under-30 crowd (at least in cities).

Awareness about how things could be in Ukraine is growing continuously. The older generation only knows how things are now and how they were in Soviet Union times. The consumer culture has become more and more internationalized and cosmopolitan, while politics is still dominated by people who began their careers in the Soviet Union and continue to gravitate to time-tested authoritarian and Soviet models of governance.

My experience with government bodies of late has convinced me that very little has changed in the operations of the government machine in the past 20 years. Dealing with these offices is like stepping back in time several generations. No one with any power has, as of yet, taken any decisive steps to transform the actual workings of the government machine.

After 15 years of visiting the former USSR, I can say that what is holding Ukrainians back most from a happy life is not a lack of money or economic development, but things like a lack of solidarity and community, a lack of trusting relations with their own government (the phrase even sounds comical), a sense of helplessness due to corruption in the law enforcement and justice systems, the difficulty of legalizing one's activities and residence, etc.

No amount of iPads and personal automobiles can compensate for the underlying sensation of oppression and helplessness permeating Ukrainian society. By working hard and having the right connections one can jump up the corporate ladder, rise above the hardships of the common man, and physically separate oneself from the unpleasant elements of Ukrainian society and the innumerable "tragedies of the commons," but an enduring sense of security is always unattainable.