Ukraine is a poor country, but that’s not obvious if you’re lucky to land in the capital’s brand-spanking-new international terminal. What was once an old and decaying Soviet chunks of plastic and metal, Kiev’s Terminal D had been completely rebuilt from the ground up and now rivals even the most modern Western airports. Once you pass passport control, clear customs, and exit the international arrivals, the scenery immediately changes from new to old.
While you’re adjusting to the new environment, you can’t help but feel that you’re on a set of a cheap Eastern European movie. There are old Ladas circling outside the terminals, shady Eastern European guys smoking and spitting on the ground. Soon, one of them will approach and offer you an overpriced taxi ride to the center.
Kiev is like a delicious cookie with a tasty inner filling that’s surrounded by a hard outer shell. There are several charming neighborhoods with fantastic restaurants and great bars, but in order to get there, you must first go through, what seems like an unending array of grey, soulless and depressing neighborhoods that all look, smell and feel the same. These are the Western equivalent of suburbs, but they hardly resemble the typical American suburb with its neatly trimmed gardens, surrounded by white picket fences, and, of course, neighbors with permanent fake smiles plastered on their faces.
Cross the bridge over the mighty Dnieper river, and you’re now entering the main part of the city. As you approach the center from the east, buildings gradually transform from the ugly ten-story Soviet ones that all look the same to the more aesthetically-pleasing—and more desirable—pre-Soviet ones. This transformation doesn’t happen all at once, but slowly and sporadically; every now and then you see an imposing five-story building that was either built during Stalin’s rule (сталинка) or built before the Russian revolution that transformed the mighty Russian Empire into communist utopia known as the Soviet Union.
The first thing you must know about Ukraine is that it’s not a very tourist-friendly country. The unforgiving weather (except for few hot months in the summer), the unending mass of grey Soviet-era buildings, the locals who don’t smile, don’t speak any English and couldn’t give two shits about foreigners, actually, forget about the tourist aspect—it’s not a friendly country period. Nobody goes out of their way to please you. In fact, nobody really cares about you.
Over the years, as Ukraine became one of my main home bases, I’ve written a lot about the region, mostly praising it for the easy lifestyle and low cost of living. But what I neglected to talk about were the nuances of the region, the little things that one begins to deal with once the tourist visa expires and one transforms from a fly-by-night tourist to someone resembling a resident.
Unlike every other country that I’ve visited and lived in, where I was a foreigner and needed to familiarize with the local culture before immersing myself head first, in Ukraine I automatically felt like a local from the very first moment I stepped out of the train right after crossing the border from Poland a few years ago. After all, I was born here and spoke the language fluently. This entitlement was foolish. Not being there during my formative years meant that I was a complete foreigner in the country that I called my own.
When I first arrived and settled in the capital, I made good friends with Maksim, a local guy in his 30s. One of the things I liked about him was the fact that he was the complete opposite of me. He was extremely outgoing, brash, street-smart, and even a little in your face sometimes. Whereas I’ve always considered myself idealistic with a touch of romanticism, Maksim was direct and realistic. He didn’t have time for petty bullshit and always called things out for what they were. Hanging out with him was an eye-opening experience.
Maksim and I spent many evenings hanging out, usually drinking beer at his favorite bar, discussing various countries and their cultures. Part of the reason we connected so well was that, like myself, he was also fairly well-traveled, having lived and worked in places like Germany, the US, and Spain. Although he loved the West for the opportunities presented to him, he always felt at home in Ukraine and couldn’t dream of living elsewhere.
One of the stark differences between Ukraine (and most of Eastern Europe) and the West was how human relationships form and develop. Maksim harbored no illusions and viewed all relationships in Ukraine as mostly transactional in nature. “I do this for you and later on you do this for me” he explained, while making his trademark hand gestures in case I was confused. Regardless of the type of relationship, there was always an inherent element of barter.
In the West, people are generally well off, have jobs and can afford nice things. Everyone enjoys an acceptable standard of living, regardless of whether you’re working for minimum wage or an investment banker. As a result, friendships and connections with people are more casual. A friend is an interchangeable accessory that you can swap out depending on the function. You have your running buddy, your hiking buddy, your workout buddy, your poker buddy, your tennis buddy, your fuck buddy, your wingman, your colleague from work and an assortment of other people that occupy a very specific role in your life.
But in Ukraine, because the underlying infrastructure is broken and corrupt and a good-paying job that lets you easily afford an iPhone isn’t something you’re automatically entitled to, who you know matters much more than what you know. Although it was relatively easy to make friends, it was difficult to know who your true friends were until you declined to do something they asked. That was the real moment of truth. One of the guys whom I’ve known for several years and considered a good friend once asked me to loan him money (his business was losing money, so he needed some “help”). I refused because I knew I’d never see that money again. From that point on, our relationship steadily deteriorated and today we barely speak to each other. A lady who cleaned my apartment was super nice to me from day one, treating me like her son. I thought that was because I was a nice guy who kept the apartment clean and washed the dishes. But, one day, as I was heading out, she stopped me and asked if I knew anyone who was hiring an accountant. Her granddaughter had just graduated from college with top grades but couldn’t find a job. After telling her that I had zero connections with the local accounting industry, I noticed her mood suddenly deflate as though I had disappointed her in some major way. From then on, her attitude became much more businesslike.
Even my own relatives acted as though I was a rich American who was naturally obligated to shower them with money. When I stopped by my aunt's place for the first time in over 20 years to see how she was doing, she seemed both happy and reserved at the same time. Her mood dramatically improved when I opened my wallet and handed her a crisp $100 bill. Maybe it wasn’t enough because the next time I saw her, she told me that since I was living in America for so long, I’ve become too “Westernized” and lacked generosity. Her granddaughter, who was around my age, was friendly to me, but then one day told me out of the blue that I was cheapskate even though I never asked anything of her. I realized how naive I was for thinking my relationships were unconditional when in fact they were fully conditional on me giving them money.
But, nowhere was this transactional element more evident than in relationships with women.
According to Maksim, Ukrainian women were the world’s experts at getting what they wanted from men. What they truly excelled at is in reading men. Not only did they know how to expertly decipher what men wanted, their motivations and desires, but they also knew how to simultaneously provide them with what they wanted while getting what they wanted in return. In the West, the feminist movement lobbied governments to create laws that favored both sexes equally (sometimes even favoring women at the expense of men). In Eastern Europe, women's ability to artfully manipulate men to get what they wanted made things like feminism completely superfluous.
There’s a well-known stereotype that Ukrainian women are after Western guys because they’re a gateway to a new land with hard currency and a nice passport, preferably one that says “USA” on the front cover. Frankly, I’d be outright dishonest if I said that wasn't true. It is true. After all, from a woman’s point of view, there’s no greater transaction in the world than marrying a man from a higher socioeconomic background.
Indeed, I’ve heard lots of stories where a Ukrainian woman married a Western (or Westernized) man. Unfortunately, many of these marriages rarely lasted beyond the honeymoon. One of my good friends in New York had a colleague who met a girl in Ukraine (his home country) and, after a (mostly) online relationship that lasted few years, married her and brought her to America. My friend even helped her settle in by arranging simple part-time work. It didn't take long for her to show her true colors. Apparently working was never part of her plans: going shopping for expensive things with her newly made friends was. They were divorced a month later and she went back to Ukraine. Then, a few months later, I received an email from one of my readers who wanted to share a story about his experiences. It was almost the exact same story. He met a young woman in the center of Kiev. They Skyped for a year. After that, they got married and she moved to America. Six weeks later, she left him for a wealthier man.
This dilemma affected me personally. Although marriage wasn’t something I was specifically looking for, after many years of random and pointless dating, I was more than ready for something more serious and stable. After dating women all over the world, I also realized the advantages of having a relationship with a person from one’s own culture. The advice, however, that I've gotten was to be very careful. This came from pretty much everyone: family, good friends both in Ukraine and America, my dentist, random taxi drivers of all ages and even the doorman in my Kiev’s apartment had an interesting story or two to share. Marriage is risky as is, but the stakes are much higher when two people come from vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds.
Initially, I dismissed everyone's advice because I figured I was dealing with overly cynical people. I couldn’t imagine being surrounded by people who wanted to take advantage of me in some shape or form. I also took some precautions by hiding my past and never openly telling anyone I had been living in the West since my early teens and had a US passport. Although this made building relationships trickier, it enabled me to find out the person’s true intentions before committing. The absolute last thing I wanted was to commit myself to a girl that I really liked, only to eventually discover that the only reason she was with me because I was her “golden ticket” out of the country and onto a world with unlimited opportunities. And the entire time she was just putting up with me because of a bigger payday down the road.
Being on guard all the time was taxing on my psyche. It also forced me to abandon my idealistic side and become a bit more realistic and understand that people's motives can easily change when there's a specific incentive at stake. For better or worse, it made me reevaluate how I structure and manage relationships with others.
Whenever I needed a break from the capital, I always packed my bags with swimming trunks and headed to Odessa, a southern coastal city on the Black Sea that also happens to be my hometown.
Odessa is one of the most well-known cities in Eastern Europe. It’s one of Ukraine’s main cities and easily one of the most beautiful cities in the region, with its beautiful opera theater recognized all over the region. Ask anyone from Lithuania to Bulgaria to Belarus to Russia and there’s a good chance that they’d not only heard of it but know something about it (or someone who was from there). All over Ukraine, when people find out I’m from Odessa, their eyes immediately light up and they begin recounting warm memories of their trips to sea.
Since my return to Ukraine six years ago, I’ve made several trips there. Sadly, each subsequent trip was more disappointing than the last. My first time there, back in 2011, coincided with my first trip to Ukraine (and Eastern Europe), so I really had no clear frame of reference. Sure, it was typical Eastern Europe with the rusty city trains, potholed streets, and smoke-filled restaurants, but because of my limited experience in the region, I couldn’t really form an opinion.
But the more time I spent living in Eastern Europe (with stints in Romania, Bulgaria, and Lithuania, not to mention lots of time in the capital, Kiev), the more I realized that Odessa was really nothing more than another poor and undeveloped third world city (even more so than the rest).
First, the city is dirty and broken. There’s garbage on the streets and more dog shit on the sidewalks than I’ve seen in most other cities. (Buenos Aires has more). I haven’t seen much dog shit in other Eastern European cities, but in Odessa, you really have to walk carefully to not step into it. Maybe it’s a deterrent so people don’t get drunk in public.
There’s also the non-ending construction. A year ago, they closed off one of the main arteries of the city for reconstruction. The plan was to fix everything in two months, just in time for the summer season. A year later the work seems nowhere close to being finished. When they’re not ripping apart perfectly fine streets, they seem to be drilling in random spots all around the city. One day, I woke up and about five guys were drilling for something just outside my apartment right in the center of the city. Maybe they were looking for gold, I don’t know. After they finished for the day, I was left with a big ditch right outside my front window that blocked half of my view and remained so for the remainder of my stay.
The other main problem with Odessa is the people. Odessa had always had a reputation as a city of extremely friendly people. But, alas, I was wrong again because that wasn’t the case at all. Almost everyone that I met has been either plain inconsiderate, outright rude, or just didn’t give a shit about anything, a far cry from other Eastern European cities and Kiev especially. The service in cafes and restaurants, which I use as a barometer for the city’s general level of friendliness, was a complete joke. By comparison, in Kiev, the service has mostly been excellent. Everyone had always been helpful and understanding, and I genuinely felt welcomed everywhere. In Odessa, however, there was a general sense of apathy from the waiters and waitresses, so much so that you couldn't help to feel that they’re doing you a favor by taking your order in the first place. To be sure, there were a couple of places where the service was acceptable and bordering on friendly, but these were exceptions to the rule.
On a few occasions, I even doubted whether I was really in Europe and not in someplace in Africa or India. Earlier this summer, I saw a dead woman laying on a city beach, located a mere fifteen-minute walk from the downtown. She looked to be about 50 or 55. It was the first time in my life that I saw a dead woman lying in the middle of a public beach. I had no idea how’d she got there, whether she drowned an hour ago or it was a corpse that’s been rotting on the beach for a week or more. In fact, no one else seemed to care either. People walked around the dead body without paying much attention at all, as though seeing a dead body laying on the sand was an everyday sight. Several people, realizing a valuable piece of real estate was available right next to her, unfolded their beach blankets and began suntanning. Kids ran around, throwing frisbees over the dead woman’s body.
An intelligent-looking elderly man and a woman who were suntanning next to us must’ve gotten fed up and called the police. An hour or two later two young guys in uniforms showed up, looked around, snapped a couple of pictures and disappeared. I looked over and saw an ambulance parked in the parking lot. Ten minutes later, the ambulance was gone. About five hours later, as the sun was setting and people were getting ready to go home, five or six policemen showed up and snapped more pictures. Then, two more guys showed up, put the woman on the stretcher and carried her to a newly arrived ambulance.
At this point I realized something important: I was no longer in Europe. I was somewhere else. Although this country is geographically in Europe, and people look European, from a cultural standpoint, the country is easily 20-30 years behind, if not more. I mean, can you imagine seeing a dead woman laying on a beach in Barcelona for an entire day? A beach in France? A beach in Miami? A beach in San Diego? Of course, anything is possible, but I can guarantee you that people at those other cities would probably take notice and do something instead of blindly walking around the body as though nothing was wrong. Police would also show up immediately and remove the body.
I couldn’t remember the last time I felt so embarrassed. I felt sorry for all of those people who spilled their blood during all those revolutions. If the people fighting for a better life in Kiev’s central square (Maidan) knew how degenerate and backward the rest of the country was, they would’ve easily had second thoughts about the whole revolution thing.
To be sure, you do run into interesting and friendly people every now and then. The elderly lady who lived in my building treated me like her own son and offered to sew together my BJJ kimono’s torn sleeve after I asked her for the nearest atelier. I made good friends with one of the taxi drivers and he gave me solid advice about the city and even offered to show me around.
But the biggest problem I had was trying to understand how such a beautiful city by the sea can feel so cheap and low grade. Almost as though the city was built by a certain type of people but was now inhabited by a completely different type of people. It was a serious cognitive dissonance. In almost every city I’ve been, there’s been a connection between the city and its inhabitants. New York projects power and wealth and is inhabited by people like bankers and investors walking through a maze of skyscrapers that project power and wealth. Rio de Janeiro projects sun, beach, and relaxation and is inhabited by tanned, friendly people who embody those qualities. Not Odessa. It’s a beautiful city that projects cultural sophistication but is inhabited by people who wouldn’t know what culture was if it hit them over the head.
Ultimately, what consoled me was the fact that I was in southern Eastern Europe, which was the poorest region of all of Europe (Moldova, a mere few hours away, is Europe’s poorest country). And, while Odessa is certainly nicer than all of the surrounding cities, you’re still dealing with the same corrupt regional government, the same backward small city mindset and the same lack of sophistication and culture as the rest of the region. A good way to describe Odessa is it’s more of an overgrown village than a sophisticated city with a pedigreed culture. It’s too big to be a village but too culturally unsophisticated to be a proper city.
Having spent the majority of time in Kiev and Odessa (plus a quick trip to Lviv in the west), I’ve always wondered what the rest of the country was like. After all, Ukraine is the biggest country in Europe by territory (excluding Russia which is both in Europe and Asia). Do other cities feel similar to the capital? Are the people different? More or less friendly? So, I set out to find out. Earlier this year, as the snow was finally melting with the spring rapidly approaching, I packed my bag and grabbed a taxi to the train station. I boarded the train and headed east.
Kharkov is Ukraine’s second largest city. It’s also the country's former capital and its most easterly city. Being only 30 miles from Russia’s border, it’s an overwhelmingly Russian-speaking city, and during my stay there I didn’t hear a single Ukrainian word even once. The locals even have a slight Russian accent, with vowel intonations more reminiscent of how people talk in St. Petersburg than Kiev. It boasts huge squares and one of the largest parks I’ve seen in this part of the world.
People seek the meaning of life in different places. There are people that go to India, to places like Goa or Varanasi. Other people restart their lives in tropical Thailand. Some move to South America, where I spent over six years living and traveling. A good friend of mine is obsessed with everything Chinese and is traveling around southern China. Another friend moved to Japan, where he’s been living for more than ten years.
My search for the meaning of life was always associated with Eastern Europe. Sure, being born there had probably something to do with it. But, more than anything, I wanted to find a place with some sort of moral fabric, where family values still existed, where people kept their word and didn’t flake at the last minute, and where people actually spoke to each other instead of endlessly refreshing their Facebook feeds that’s so common in any Western city. Going to a place that had resisted capitalism and the corrosion of humanity that comes along with it so fiercely for so long didn’t seem like a bad idea. In a way, I viewed my trip to Kharkov as a sort of a spiritual crusade.
As I quickly learned, I went too far. While I did see couples and friends actually talking to each other instead of being glued to their smartphones and met people who were so direct that they made my easygoing nature feel like an obvious insecurity (if you were able to get close to them in the first place), the tradeoffs were too much to bear. Everything about the city felt barren, nondescript and, for a lack of a better word, excruciatingly boring. The center had a huge square, but it didn’t feel like I was actually in a vibrant city center and instead in a big open space with no beginning and no end. The service in the restaurants was bordering on arrogant. In fact, the entire city was strange and weird as though everyone hated themselves for being there perhaps because being there was their eternal punishment for not achieving better things in life.
For the first time in the country, I even felt like an outsider. Unlike elsewhere in the country where I’ve always managed to fit right in (and why shouldn’t I?), people somehow knew I was different. A couple of young guys in the supermarket checkout line nervously stared at me. A young girl who was walking her little dog gave me an unfriendly look while I waited outside a cafe. A well-to-do couple in a nice Italian restaurant would periodically look at me while I was flipping through the menu. An old lady, whom I helped cross the street, looked at me with scorn as though I was the enemy of the state before briskly walking away without thanking me. It was as though everyone was hinting that I didn’t belong and that I should go back where I came from.
If there’s a lesson here, it’s that spending time on the eastern edge of European civilization puts everything in perspective like nothing else out there. I’ve been to every single Eastern European country. I've been to dozens of Eastern European cities. I used to think that Vilnius or Kiev or Riga or Sofia or Bucharest or some other Eastern European capital had a backward feel to it, but, man, was I wrong.
Actually, this place was a potpourri of stereotypes that showcased everything that, for better or worse, represented authentic Eastern Europe that was frozen in time. It was the real deal, not some sanitized version. The badly shaved guys in their Adidas tracksuits and cheap sneakers driving souped-up Soviet-made cars or older BMWs. The poorly lit столовые (self-service restaurants) in the basements. The grannies who pushed and shoved you in line to buy bread in darkly lit Soviet-era grocery stores. The poor-to-almost-non-existent, “I don’t care what you want, but I’m not helping you” service. The complete absence of smiles or any sign friendliness. The perennial grey weather that only added to the overall gloomy mood of the city.
Whereas Odessa was an insecure city that was desperately trying to be something else, Kharkov was as secure as they come. It had a formidable “take it or leave it” approach. Either you liked it or you didn’t, but it wouldn’t go out of its way to please you. It really didn’t give a fuck about you or anyone else.
Generally speaking, Eastern Europe is pretty beat up. When you live there, you give up a lot of the comforts and conveniences that you take for granted in the super comfortable West in exchange for new experiences. As a result, you're forced to grow and become a better, more self-aware person. It has certainly impacted me in a million different ways, experiences that I certainly wouldn’t trade for anything. But there’s a limit to how far you can go before the cons begin to overtake the pros. It’s like moving to the middle of Africa and living in a hut without water, electricity, roads, supermarkets and much else. Sure, you can do it. But why would you want to?
Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that I had to be either crazy or desperate to live in a place like Kharkov. Most people already think I’m crazy for leaving America in the first place and, while there’s some truth to that, I still value a comfortable living. My needs are very modest. I need the basics like a roof over my head, water, electricity and nice supermarkets that sell fresh bread, but I also want a comfortable city where people smile and I feel welcomed. Culture is very important. I’m definitely not crazy enough to live on the edge of civilization where the latter is woefully missing.
The saddest thing was that I really wanted to like this city. I truly did. I came with an open mind expecting to find a city with a rich history that I would enjoy. In the end, I hated it. And I wasn't just displeased by it as though it was some dish at a restaurant that was poorly seasoned. I hated everything about it. I hated it with a burning passion. I hated the decaying architecture. I hated the poorly maintained roads. But most of all I hated the complete and utter apathy of the people. I thoroughly disliked the narrow-minded provincial mentality that was so prevalent in both cities.
After about a week in this strange and confusing city, I caught the express train back to the capital.
It was a sunny and warm day when I exited Kiev’s main railway station. After an unusually cold winter, spring was finally in the air. Being back in the capital never felt so good. More importantly, I was awash with gratefulness. It was one of the first times in my life that I realized that even though things can be far from ideal, they could be a lot worse: I could be living in Kharkov or some other degenerate shithole.
Ukraine disappointed me in ways I never imagined nor expected. But the capital lured me back in. Returning there had this feeling of comfort as though I was sitting on my parents comfortable couch and eating my mom's delicious home made food after sleeping in dirty hostels and random apartments all over the world. Most importantly, Kiev was everything the other cities were not. It was the perfect size, not too small that it felt like an oversized village and not too large that it felt an overcrowded megapolis. It felt sufficiently cosmopolitan and cultural that I never felt like I was in some old Soviet-era movie, but yet was also quintessentially Eastern European, providing that perfect cultural dose that made you stronger without outright killing you. The people were much friendlier and open-minded. I also discovered a nice neighborhood that was just perfect.
Later on, as I was boarding a flight in the capital's beautifully remodeled international terminal, I knew there was at least one place in this country I could potentially live long-term without going crazy.
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