A couple of years ago, I wrote an article called, “13 Things They Didn’t Tell You About Eastern Europe.” The article contained my observations about the region as an Eastern European guy who had traveled to every single country and also spent plenty of time living in many of them as well. I discuss things that your typical travel guidebook and your run-of-the-mill travel blogger never talk about.
The article generated a lot of criticism and upset a lot of people. I was accused of things like lying and deception and was even labeled as an ignorant British/American tourist.
So, to set the record straight, I decided to reply to all the criticism in a new video.
If you enjoyed this video, definitely make sure to subscribe to my new channel. This way you’ll be notified of new videos before they drop on the blog (I’m also creating many videos for YouTube only, so they won’t even appear here on the blog).
Two things happen when I return to America after an extended sojourn abroad: I experience a reverse culture shock, and I begin ordering lots of stuff online. The reverse culture shock was huge when I began traveling, but has diminished over the years as I’ve gotten used to quickly adjusting to American life. However, the urge to start buying lots of stuff has never diminished.
America has always been my “refueling station” during long living abroad stints. Back in 2011, I returned to The Land of The Free after living for a few years in Brazil. One of the first things I did was order a bunch of stuff online to replace worn out, lost or stolen items. A year later, I spent few months living in Miami Beach with a good friend who spends most of the year working abroad. Unsurprisingly, he spent most of his time also ordering packages on Amazon.
Buying things in America is extremely convenient. First, things like electronics are much cheaper here than abroad (electronics in countries like Brazil are 2-2.5x more expensive, but typically expect to pay 20-25% more in other countries because of higher customs fees and things like sales tax or VAT). Second, buying stuff is super easy. I don’t remember the last time I bought anything important at a brick and mortar store; everything I need is conveniently ordered online.
Thus, it’s no surprise that one of the first things I did after returning to New York after spending a year in Ukraine was to jump on Amazon and order a bunch of stuff.
At first, I bought only the stuff I really needed. I bought a new suitcase to replace one that was stolen in Ukraine last year. I bought new headphones to replace old ones that stopped working. I also bought some extra batteries for various accessories and a bunch of other miscellaneous items.
But then, something else happened: I began buying stuff that I didn’t truly really need and could live without. I bought audio equipment (including a nice microphone) and a bunch of random travel gadgets and tools. All of that was seamless thanks to something I thought I’d never sign up for in my lifetime: an Amazon Prime account.
Amazon Prime makes the process of buying anything you want magical. It’s like Uber for transportation. I put a bunch of stuff in my shopping basket, click checkout, and in two days or less, I’m unboxing the goods. Actually, many of my orders were in my possession in only one business day; few were even delivered the very same day.
This convenience makes it seductively easy to convince yourself into buying a bunch of things that you don’t generally need, things I’d never go to a physical store for. Ever dream of becoming a photographer? Forget about taking the bus or driving to your favorite camera store. Pick a nice DSLR/mirrorless camera, add a couple of nice lenses, a nice case or two, and in a day or two you’ve got the gear to become the best photographer.
Humans and products
There’s another reason why I’ve suddenly become addicted to consumption. This has less to do with conveniences like Amazon Prime and more to do with American culture as a whole.
When I lived in Brazil, I never had any desire to buy anything other than replacing underwear with holes in it. I had a cheap Nokia phone, no camera and no expensive gadgets of any kind. I might’ve had a TV in my apartment but because I was outside most of the time, I don’t remember watching it even once. I spent time walking around the city and meeting random people.
Looking back, it was actually one of the happiest and most fulfilled periods in my entire life.
The environment you inhabit influences you in a multitude of ways; as humans, we tend to mimic the people around us. When I lived in Lithuania or Ukraine, it was pretty rare to see people sporting the latest and greatest products. Most people either had old iPhones or cheap Chinese Androids. So, I didn’t have much of a desire to upgrade. From 2011 to 2016, I had an old iPhone 4S that was as slow as molasses with the battery lasting few hours. It made calls and sent texts, which was all that mattered.
Later, I returned to the US and noticed that my entire family (including my non-tech mother) were all sporting the very latest iPhones. I promptly picked up one as well. Money aside, it’s much easier to rationalize buying a new model when everyone around you has one.
Consumerism in America is so persuasive that products and service actually define people instead of the other way around. Recently, I was out with some friends in some Brooklyn bar. One guy mentioned that he noticed a cool new documentary on Netflix. A girl mentioned how she’s been enjoying Amazon Prime Video ever since subscribing to Amazon Prime. Amazon Prime seemed like a popular topic because someone else mentioned using Amazon Echo to order stuff by speaking to it.
That could be just people I know, but when everyone around you is discussing various products and touting their benefits and how they make their lives easier, it becomes much easier to pull trigger and order one yourself—especially when you have Amazon Prime account with its super quick delivery. Most of it happens subconsciously even without us being aware of it.
That kind of conversation would never take place in countries like Mexico, Brazil, Romania, Colombia or Ukraine.
However, the biggest reason I never have the urge to buy stuff when I’m living abroad is that I don’t crave new products. My life is satisfying without them. I vividly remember the reverse culture shock I experienced just after returning home from Brazil. I had just landed in Miami and my friend picked me up from the airport. We drove to a friend’s house and entered his apartment. There were about three guys inside watching some sports game on a huge 65” TV.
Maybe you don’t find anything strange, but I immediately felt out of place. The weather outside was perfect, a balmy 75F (25C). The pristine white sand beach—one of the best beaches in the world—was a mere ten-minute walk. It wasn’t even that late. Yet, judging by this guy’s investment in a large TV, he loved spending time indoors. I immediately remembered that merely 24 hours ago I was in Brazil—seemingly on another planet—and spending time indoors glued to the TV when you have gorgeous weather outside is nothing less than an act of self-punishment.
This is why people are so addicted to their products in America. It gives them the connection that they otherwise lack. In New York City, where I’ve grown up, people are always zooming from place to place, either glued to their phones or listening to headphones, isolated and disconnected from each other. It’s truly a sad sight. In Colombia or Romania, I could easily meet people on the streets, but if I did that in NYC, people would think I’m crazy.
Humans are social animals. We must be able to form connections with others. There’s nothing more fulfilling than meeting and forming connections with like-minded people.
It’s only when you’re unable to satisfy these basic human needs that you’re forced to compensate in some other way. So, you get a Netflix membership to watch the latest and greatest shows and documentaries that feature people you can relate with. Or, you buy the latest and greatest iPhone so you can take pictures and share them on Instagram for others to see and connect with you.
When I lived and worked in San Francisco, I went shopping for random stuff almost every single weekend, spending several hundred dollars on “stuff.” But I could never imagine buying random stuff every weekend if I was living Rio de Janeiro, Bali or Kiev. Having a Netflix subscription while living in Rio or Bali? Constantly buying stuff on Amazon while living in Lagos, Nigeria? Although you lack the convenience, the psychological cravings are gone because you’re able to obtain them via the environment.
Products—at least those we don’t require for survival—help to compensate the isolation and atomization we feel as a result of living in a Western society where everyone is out for themselves and traditional human bonds are weak to nonexistent. Coupled with heavy marketing and advertising that aims to position those products as salvation to a society that’s desperately searching for meaning, and you have the perfect recipe for a robust consumer class.
Consumerism is tightly woven into the fabric of American culture. Unlike countries like Japan or China, whose economies are based on production, America’s economy is based on consumption. Everything is structured around getting you to buy the latest and greatest product. Black Friday can be seen as a spiritual gathering. Instead of going to a church, the choice of worship becomes the nearby Walmart or Target.
The inherent isolation and atomization of American society mean that we seek a certain salvation by purchasing products and service. Since everyone is doing their own thing, it’s hard to connect with people directly, so you’re left with buying products and services in order to form connections indirectly.
America is my Thanksgiving: a once-a-year opportunity to pig out and order everything that I wanted during the year but couldn’t because I was living in a country where capitalism and consumerism are decidedly at a lower priority as compared to forming rich human connections. Getting my hands on the latest and greatest gadgets and tools when I’m in America, and still enjoying life to the fullest when I’m not is truly the best of both worlds.
For this podcast episode, I decided to invite my good friend and fellow traveler, Tim. I met Tim back in 2011 while living in Medellin, Colombia. We continued to stay in touch and have met up in different parts of the world throughout the years including Miami, Copenhagen and Estonia, just to name a few.
Tim used to have a rather unusual job with an unusual schedule: he worked for five weeks straight (16 hours per day) and then traveled for five weeks straight. The job paid extremely well (upwards of $1,500 per DAY and more). The money he made from working for five weeks allowed him to pretty much travel anywhere he wanted and do it in style, without a constraining budget. Some friends and I called him the “overpaid traveler.”
Nevertheless, the lucrative job came with many challenges that weren’t obvious at first.
Here’s what we discuss:
What made Tim get into this line of work
How he manages his relationships on this bizarre schedule (with friends/girlfriends)
How traveling changes you
What’s it like to work on an oil rig and live with a bunch of different dudes for 5 weeks straight
The craziest experiences he’s had abroad
How he plans his travels
Why Tim never documented his travels
Tim’s advice to his 22-year-old self
Why Tim no longer travels as much and what he’s doing instead
There’s nothing I enjoy more than comparing different countries and cultures. I live for it. And there’s nothing more interesting than comparing other countries to one of the most polarizing countries in the world: America.
After all, a person in Rio de Janeiro, Copenhagen or Bangkok may not care (or know) what’s happening in Kenya, Cambodia or Bolivia, but even if they haven’t met Americans, you can still be sure he or she has formed a certain opinion about the country as a whole. They know American movie stars. They follow American presidential elections.
While the rest of the world is vastly different, one thing the rest of the world has in common is how similar they’re to each other—when compared to America.
Here’s what makes America special:
1. Inauthentic human communication
On my first week in Brazil, I met a beautiful girl at a checkout line in a local supermarket. Later that evening, about thirty minutes into our date, she smiled and told me that she likes me and that she’s enjoying my company. I was flattered—and shocked. Her words hit me like a tractor trailer at full speed. I couldn’t remember the last time someone was so open and honest. In fact, her honesty and openness made me feel downright uncomfortable.
This brutal honesty wasn’t limited to just Brazil. It also wasn’t limited to romantic relationships. In Eastern Europe, where I’ve been living for the past several years, human relationships are less about talking random words and more about “feeling out” each other. Not in a literal sense, but via non-verbal communication. For instance, one of the first things that I noticed about Eastern Europeans was how they would just shut up during a conversion while pondering a thought or a response to a question. Initially, these silences made me uncomfortable. But then I realized that these silences are an import part of communication, sometimes even more important than what comes before or after.
Human communication in America is woefully indirect and confusing. After all, we’re talking about a place where men have no choice but to pay $5,000 to some “guru” for a weekend workshop where they can learn how to talk to women. This may sound crazy, but, in the rest of the world, a man can just approach and talk to a woman directly.
Since people can’t communicate honestly and authentically, a common way of projecting this indirectness is sarcasm. Sarcasm is used to diffuse and deflect a question or statement. If you’re asked a personal question that makes you uncomfortable, you can ignore it or respond with a sarcastic remark. In this way, any attempt at authentic communication is immediately rejected and deflected.
Sarcasm has its purpose. It lightens up the mood and even demonstrates that you’re not threatened by an overly inquisitive person. But, like with anything, the problem with sarcasm is when it’s employed extensively instead of sparingly. That’s when it loses its potency and coats all conversations with a thick layer of inauthenticity and insincerity. The end result is superficiality.
The overuse of sarcasm is a mark of weakness. Communication is authentic when you’re putting yourself on the line in the face of possible rejection. It means being vulnerable. Not the type of vulnerability where you spill your guts to someone like an offended puppy, but as a way of saying that you don’t really care about the outcome and just want to say what’s on your mind.
It takes guts to tell another person that you enjoy spending time with them, find them interesting and want to develop a quality relationship. Conversely, it’s a lot harder to put yourself on the line and be honest with that person and risk possible rejection; it’s a lot easier to respond with some “witty” sarcastic remark that presents your point while simultaneously absolving yourself of taking responsibility for being open in the first place.
Before I extensively lived abroad, I used to think constant sarcasm and ball-busting was normal and even viewed it as a sign of strength, but after living abroad for many years, I now find endless sarcasm and ball-busting tiresome and immature.
2. The constant “us vs. them” mentality
I was once sitting in a coffee shop in some small town in New Jersey. I looked to my right and noticed a small and unassuming girl. I assumed she was super shy and probably doesn’t have a strong opinion on anything except the font she was using to design the website.
I was wrong. Soon, the conversation among us at the table shifted into politics and some upcoming election. As soon as someone mentioned that some democratic candidate might win, she got up and told everyone how much she hated Republicans. As she said it, she was filled with such zeal and hate that her face turned beet red.
Her abrupt reaction shocked me. I would’ve never in my life expected such a petite girl to react so vehemently. But that wasn’t even it. The real reason I was taken aback was because I had just witnessed a person react so strongly to something that wasn’t affecting her in any direct, personal way. She had a stronger reaction to some political candidate in an ivory tower than if some ghetto kid ran through the coffee shop and stole her expensive MacBook Pro laptop.
It’s been very amusing to return to the US after spending most of the year in Eastern Europe and then discuss the pros and cons of the current Ukrainian government with a random 50-something guy who happened to join my table at a packed Starbucks. He hated Ukrainian government with a passion. He also hated Putin and loved Merkel. The most interesting thing is that he’s never even been abroad.
America is a country where people seem to care about everything—with the overwhelming majority of these things not affecting their personal well-being in any way. The fact that everyone thought we were bombing Iraq (or insert another country here) because we wanted to bring them freedom is also amusing. I still don’t know how deposing Syria’s Assad could ever interfere with my ability to put words on the Internet or make YouTube videos.
You can be walking on the street anywhere from a huge city like New York to a smallish village in the middle of Oklahoma, stop a random person, and they’ll readily have an opinion on most things that are happening in the world. They’ll tell why they love (or hate) the Democratic Party, why Vladimir Putin is a great leader (or a vicious dictator), why the government should (or shouldn’t) deal with guns, why abortion should be legal (or illegal) and a ton of other issues.
The rest of the world doesn’t care as much. People rarely even care what’s happening in the neighboring countries. Brazilians might be pissed off that Argentina won more soccer matches than them, but a guy in Rio de Janeiro isn’t going to let his beautiful beach day be ruined by political news from the capital. Ukrainians might be pissed off at Poroshenko, but I’m not going to make any lifelong enemies if I supported him.
In the rest of the world, strong political opinions are mostly a luxury.
That’s a very good thing. It means that people are concerned with things they control instead of projecting their helplessness and frustration at the world via politics, cultural wars or anything else that enables the toxic “us vs. them” mentality. And if that means that that beautiful Colombian girl sitting next to me at a coffee shop won’t suddenly treat me like the lowest of the low because I said something about a local election, I’ll take that too.
3. Everyone has a narrative
On the night of October 1, 2017, a gunman opened fire on a crowd of 22,000 concertgoers in Las Vegas Strip in Nevada, leaving 58 people dead and 546 injured.
Over the ensuing days and weeks, people stayed glued to the TV sets while the media did their best to explain the reasons behind such a heinous act.
As it turns out, explaining something so complex such as a mass shooting to the public was deceptively simple. The known players resorted to its proven technique that uses to explain anything and everything: a narrative.
The beautiful thing about narratives is that you never have to look hard to find one. Whenever there’s some mass killing in America, the same old pattern repeats. The feminists are eager to tell you the massacre occurred because of “toxic masculinity.” The gun control advocates are eager to tell you the massacre occurred because of lax gun control. If the shooter is white, the left-wing media is eager to label the massacre as “white nationalist.” If the killer is a minority but non-black, the right-wing media will frame the massacre as an immigration issue. If the killer is black, it will be framed as a racial issue. Then there’s the government which is always eager to label the massacre as a “terrorist act.”
All narratives have a single purpose: they take something very complex and simplify in a way that the public can understand. Narratives help people make sense of the world and their place in it.
However, what absolutely no one discussed at all were the personal motivations of the perpetrator. Maybe he had a bad day. Maybe he broke up with his girlfriend whom he loved. Maybe he was fired from a job. Maybe there was something else that happened completely unrelated to any of the explanations. Maybe he lost his entire life savings after playing in the casino.
(Obviously, if there were strong terrorist links, that would be different, but this was ruled out early on.)
Using simple narratives to explain a complex event is a symptom of a society that no longer views people as individuals with their own unique issues and problems, but as collective masses that all think and act the same.
Nobody can know for sure what the killer’s motivations were, but it’s easy to sit on your soapbox and rant how what happened is somehow related to the society as a whole. In this way, they’re using the killer’s actions to promote their own agenda.
It’s like riding a Q line in New York City and getting a weird look from another passenger sitting directly across from you. Although you have no way of knowing why that person gave you a weird look (maybe it wasn’t weird after all), different people will interpret it differently. The problem is regardless what they think, they won’t ever know for sure.
In the rest of the world, such things are perceived very differently. If a man goes on a killing rampage in Russia, people would think there’s something wrong with him—not launch into a tirade about gun control. If a gang of kids robbed a beach in Rio de Janeiro, people will think they did it for the money—not launch into a tirade about “toxic masculinity.” If a Chinese guy stabs a bunch of people in Shenzhen, the explanation is mental illness—not the fact that he just happened to be of some “different” ethnicity.
4. Everything is filtered through gender, race, ethnicity, and/or religion
In 1994, a former football player was arrested for killing his ex-wife and her boyfriend. Even though the evidence overwhelmingly pointed to a guilty verdict, one of his lawyers, Johnny Cochran, successfully convinced the jury to frame the case as a race issue, in terms of “whites vs. blacks.” The defendant was acquitted a year later.
When viewed from this racist perspective, the overwhelmingly black jury ultimately acquitted the black defendant. (It also didn’t help that prosecution completely fumbled the case, although even if their case was airtight, it was still far from certain that they’d win).
When society’s actions are filtered by race, everything that happens can be explained away by race. It’s the classic “us vs. them” construct.
OJ Simpson is arrested on suspicion of killing his white ex-wife and her white lover? It doesn’t matter that there were no other suspects and he probably did it. He was arrested because he was black.
Obama elected as the President of United States of America? It doesn’t matter that he was elected on his own merit. He was obviously elected because he was black.
This affects each one of us in ways far beyond race. It means that whatever you do or say, there will always be people who’ll view your actions and accomplishments through racial and/or ethnical biases. For instance, I’m a white guy. As I recently found out, apparently that means I’m somehow “privileged.” That could be used against me in the form of reverse discrimination.
Or, maybe not. Because I’m also an immigrant from a poor Eastern European country. Fortunately, that gives me points and leverage, something I wasn’t aware of before. That means that a non-white person (ie, who’s not “privileged”) can’t easily accuse me of racism because I can accuse them of some kind of discrimination against poor and pesky Eastern European immigrants.
Unless you were living under a rock for the past few decades or so, you know there’s a gender war in the US. It’s gotten so bad that, now, the mere fact that you’re a man can be used against you and obliterate all your arguments.
This is an extreme example of a logical fallacy known as character assassination. As a man, you could have the most logical argument in the world. You could be absolutely correct that even Einstein, Nelson Mandela, and Jesus Christ would nod their heads in agreement. But the fact that you were born with a penis means that everything that you say can be discounted as nonsense.
Of course, all of this is one enormous clusterfuck. It’s beyond ridiculous. I’m not “privileged” because I happened to be born white. I wasn’t born with a golden spoon in my mouth and have to hustle like the rest of the world. If you tell me that I’m privileged means that you’re admitting to be disfranchised in some way. This leads to a race to the bottom mentality as everyone is busy searching for ways to “out victimize” each other.
Unfortunately, getting rid of this divide and uniting people isn’t easy. There are people who built up their entire careers on making sure this division gets stronger over time. Entire institutions have sprung up who owe their entire existences to these cultural divisions and work hard on entrenching them further.
As you might’ve already guessed, this isn’t really a case overseas. The ridiculous “mansplaining” thing is mostly limited to England and her former colonies. No one in Colombia, Brazil, Russia or 150+ other countries is going to accuse you of something simply because you’re a man who’s trying to explain something to a woman. Or a woman who’s trying to explain something to a man. Or a woman who’s trying to explain something to a woman. Or a man who’s trying to explain something to a man.
5. Always needing to prove yourself to others
Last month, I went out to a nice bar with a good friend. My friend was with his girlfriend who invited one of her female friends. Her friend and I immediately hit it off. She was witty and intelligent, the two qualities I like in women.
Over the following weeks, we saw each other few times. While I enjoyed spending time with her, I immediately sensed something was off. Most of her conversations revolved around work; she loved to talk about her clients, especially those who are richer and more successful than to her. She also liked to talk about her friends or relatives who ran profitable businesses and did very well for themselves.
I found this perplexing. She was a very successful young woman and yet she seemed so insecure that she needed to constantly remind me (albeit, so subtly) that she was surrounded by people who made more money that both of us would probably see in our lifetimes.
One day, it finally hit me: she was trying to impress me by linking herself to people who’re more successful. The fact that she’s connected to so many successful people is her way of elevating her own status in my eyes.
This is also something I noticed mostly specific to America. It’s ingrained in the culture for people to outdo each other by comparing not only their own success but also the success of people they know, whether they’re close relatives, friends or even clients.
To be sure, I have met people like this overseas. This was prevalent in big cities like Moscow and São Paolo where people are slaving away long hours and their lives revolve around work with little time to play. But even in these super capitalistic metropolises, I’ve met people who had a certain zest for life and derived their self-worth internally instead of externally.
Now, you’re probably thinking that I hate America. I don’t. It has its problems just like any other country. Since it’s inhabited by people of such diverse backgrounds, different viewpoints and beliefs are to be expected.
It’s just it’s nice to be able to connect with a stranger, whether in a coffee shop, a bar or while riding the subway. It’s even better to do that by being authentic and be able to say what you think and feel instead of carefully monitoring your words and actions because you fear your mere thoughts may inadvertently turn your newfound friend into a sworn enemy.
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, 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 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 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 to 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 few occasions, I even doubted whether I was really in Europe and not in some place 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 a 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 the 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 a 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.