One of the most frequent questions I get asked here in Ukraine is why I left Latin America at all. This happens right after I explain how I spent 7 years living all over Latin America, how I felt at home in Mexico City, and how I think that Rio de Janeiro is the greatest city on earth.
I first ponder that question, but the answer is always the same: “I had to leave. I stayed as much as I could, but at one point I realized it was time to go home.”
The reason I left Brazil is probably a combination of many things, but, ultimately, it was because it was time to leave.
I had my fun. I learned my Portuguese. I had a long-term Brazilian girlfriend who wanted to marry me, but, in the end, I decided that I couldn’t stay in Brazil forever.
Ultimately, I didn’t “own” Rio de Janeiro. I didn’t own Brazil. Rio de Janeiro won’t miss me.
I’ve been location-independent since 2008, and when I look around all the digital nomads around me, I see the same pattern. People move around, live in one place for a while (from few months to few years) and then either move back home or spend the winter in Thailand or Bali.
They oscillate between love for their current country and absolute disdain. Either everything is excellent (low cost of living, super feminine women), or everything sucks (too many foreigners, the place is very Westernized).
I think the real issue is something else: the problem is that they don’t “own” the place where they’re at. They’re rootless cosmopolitans who treat locations as simply checkmarks; when one place gets old, they simply move to the next one.
There’s no commitment. There’s no laying down roots. There’s no responsibility. There’s nothing holding them in the country.
It’s crucial to feel that you “own” the city/country you’re in. And, in order to do that, many stars must align.
For instance, take a city like New York City. I grew up in Brooklyn and feel like I understand and know the city pretty well. I’m proud to have grown up in such a place instead of some little village in the middle of nowhere. NYC is heavy.
But, I don’t “own” it. I don’t feel like I belong here. I visit every now and again, but it’s not a city I feel comfortable staying long term. NYC and I don’t mix.
Kiev, on the other hand, is a city I “own.” I have lots of friends here, lots of contacts. I know a great real estate guy who can find me absolutely anything. I know a couple of business lawyers and a great accountant (an ex-girlfriend of mine). One of my BJJ training partners works in the police force as a captain. Next year, I will be looking to buy property in my favorite neighborhood.
One of my friends is planning to launch a restaurant soon, and I’m leveraging my Facebook/Google Ads expertise to help him spread the word out and bring people in when the place opens.
In fact, I will soon be working on lots of “local” projects to market and spread awareness about upcoming events and openings.
In Rio de Janeiro, I was just another gringo who learned Portuguese and had a hot girlfriend.
In Kiev, I’m local.
The difference is like night and day. Not only because in Brazil, I had to deal with lots of bureaucratic tape to keep renewing my tourist visa, but in Ukraine, I’m a fully legal resident—but, because, of the above, everything just clicks here without me needing to put forth lots of effort.
My mom returned to Ukraine last year for the first time after immigrating to the States many years ago. She was duly treated like a VIP guest as I hooked her up with all the best stuff: great hard-to-get-into restaurants, awesome plays, cool theater performances, etc. That’s not something you can do if you’re a mere tourist in the city.
American American vs Ukrainian Brazilian
One of my friends here in Kiev is an American guy who’s originally from New York. He’s been living in Kiev for about four years on and off. He often complains about the city and the country. He’s moody; one day he’s super happy, another day he’s pissed off at everything.
He often goes to the US for a few months and even spends winter months in Thailand. He barely speaks any Russian.
Compare that to another friend I have: a Brazilian guy who’s been living in Kiev for ten years and is married to a Ukrainian girl.
First of all, the Brazilian guy speaks fluent Russian. His Russian is so good that he barely makes any mistakes (that’s pretty difficult). Knows the owners of all the cool Latin bars. Teaches at a local BJJ academy every now and then.
He absolutely loves Ukraine. He looks as Brazilian as they come, but I consider him a local. In fact, one of my favorite activities is speaking street Portuguese in coffee shops or restaurants. It gets attention very quickly.
So, what’s the difference between the American guy and the Brazilian guy?
The American guy is just another tourist; the Brazilian guy is pretty much a local.
The Brazilian guy never complaints that something “doesn’t work in Ukraine.” He always has a smile on his face. Even though he’s used to Rio de Janeiro’s tropical summers, he never complains when the hot Eastern European summer quickly turns into freezing winter. He just puts on his warm coat, zips it up and goes outside.
The Brazilian guy doesn’t have the need to constantly switch places like the American guy.
The Brazilian guy is living at his new home; The American guy is a rootless cosmopolitan.
I admire the Brazilian guy, but I don’t feel sorry for the American guy. They both have the exact same opportunities, neither one had the critical advantage of being born in the country or, barring that, other special hookups.
Now, of course, not all places around the world have such strict divisions between what it means to be a local and a foreigner. Eastern Europe does. Latin America does (gringo). Japan does (gaijin). Thailand does (farang). The cities that don’t have such strong divisions are called Western cities.
The more Western is the city, the less is the division between a local and a foreigner.
Western world: where everyone is equal
New York City is the quintessential Western city where everyone is a New Yorker. Spend a couple of years living there and you’re a New Yorker. London is another. An Asian city that’s rapidly moving into that direction is Kuala Lumpur. It’s a rich, international city with lots of expats and an expat culture.
Rio de Janeiro is the quintessential city where you’re either a local or a foreigner; you’re either a Carioca or a gringo. I can never see myself “owning” Rio de Janeiro, for one simple reason: I can’t roll my “R’s” like a Carioca.
Of course, If I spend 20 years living in Rio, I can see myself becoming a sort of gringo-Carioca or something.
This is why people spend a few years living in Rio and then go home. This is why people spend a few years in Kiev and go home. This is why people spend a few years in Vilnius and go home. This is why people spend a few years in Mexico City and go home.
They don’t own the cities they inhabit.
All of their friends are other foreigners. They have no local friends, no local connections, no local hookups. They date random girls they meet online instead of being introduced to high-quality women from inside a powerful social circle.
Come to think of it, they don’t own shit.
Becoming a local isn’t easy, but, as you can tell, there’s a multitude of rewards. The main one is never feeling like a foreigner or an outsider. And not experiencing the psychological problems as a result of being a permanent outcast wherever you go.
The first thing you must do is master the language. This is not an optional step. Don’t pass go, don’t collect $200. Master the language. Speak like a local. While you don’t need to become entirely fluent (for some languages, that’s next to impossible), you should at least become conversational.
I have insane amounts of respect for someone who comes to Lithuania and masters Lithuanian or comes to Mexico and masters Spanish or comes to Ukraine and masters Russian/Ukrainian. This is a person’s way of saying, “I decided to come to a new country, and I’m ready to pay my dues. I’m ready to do what it takes.”
Following that, you have to make a certain commitment to a place where you’re living in order to feel that you fully “own it.”
When I lived in Brazil, I trained BJJ which connected me to all kinds of Brazilians, young or old. As a result, I had a certain level of connections whether it meant being invited to a cool Favela party or figuring out how to extend my tourist visa.
I also tried to limit the number of gringo friends I had. I knew plenty of expats, but I didn’t come all the way to Brazil to hang out with other foreigners.
Even after doing all that, I still didn’t feel I “owned” Rio de Janeiro. A couple of years just wasn’t enough time; perhaps after 5-10 years, I would’ve felt different. Thus, it’s no surprise that, one day, I bought a one-way ticket back to NYC.
Of course, there’s another option: live in a Western city where everyone is a local and you’re considered a foreigner if you arrived today or yesterday.
Or become a rootless cosmopolitan who’s always moving around without building anything meaningful and lasting in the country they reside.
I’ve done both for many years, and nothing beats knowing you have an actual home, with an awesome apartment in a beautiful neighborhood, and a security guard, a tough grandfatherly man who’s always dropping little nuggets of wisdom about what it means to have a meaningful life.
This is a guest post by my friend El Patrón, who’s originally from Mexico City. El Patrón was my roommate and partner-in-crime when I lived in Rio de Janeiro.
Take it away, El Patrón…
Look, I’m not going to beat around the bush. I’m Mexican, and I believe that my country is the best.
We have great weather, awesome food, friendly people who like gringos and sexy women.
Also awesome football players like Chicharito!
México es lo mejor!
I’m very proud of my country.
What else does a man need to be happy?
I’m pretty sure that God is Mexican.
But I don’t want to talk about myself in this article, I want to talk about why I think that Mexico is the best. There are many reasons, but the biggest reason is because the women are amazing.
They’re Latin, sexy, sensual and know how to have a great time. And, above all, they know how to take care of their men.
If you ask me, that’s pretty close to perfection…
Mexico is a country rich in history. Before the Spanish conquistadors came, it was ruled by the Aztecs. They built elaborate architecture and structures.
When the Spanish came, they razed it all to the ground and build their own cathedrals, churches and other buildings. In fact, you can see some of the ruins right in the center of Mexico City below the modern buildings the Spaniards built.
Nowadays, Mexico is ruled by Mexicans and is a democratic republic. Our president is elected every five years by a popular vote.
Mexico is one of the world’s largest countries with a population of 128 million inhabitants. The population is increasing rapidly; in 1990, the population was just 80 million.
Mexico is also part of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) a free trade block that consists of Mexico, USA, and Canada.
Mexico’s official language is Spanish. Just like most Spanish-speaking countries, our Spanish is infused with local slang and expressions that only exist in Mexico.
For instance, “Que pedo” can be roughly translated as “What fart” but we use it to greet each other, something like “What’s up?”
There are many other expressions that only exist in Mexico. However, they’re also understood in other Latin countries such as Colombia and Venezuela.
If you’re looking to learn Spanish, Mexico would be the perfect choice to do so. I have many gringo friends, and many of them remarked on how the lessons are cheap and the teachers are great. So, this is something you should consider.
Of course, I recommend you to speak Spanish over English. It will be much easier to express yourself to everyone, including cute women (see below).
Mexican women are typical Latinas. They’re fiery, compassionate, caring and sexy. Just like pretty much any other Latina woman out there.
Mexican women love it when a man pursues them to the end. In the beginning, they may play a bit hard to get, but that’s just part of the game, but in the end, they love a man who doesn’t let anything get in the way and finally conquers the woman he desires.
This element of desire and passion exists in pretty much every telenovela that is watched all over the Latin world.
That means you can expect some games along the way depending on the level of hotness of the girl. Obviously, the hotter she is, the more games she’s going to play.
I have dated lots of women around Latin America, and I definitely think Mexican women can be some of the most difficult to seduce. I’ve had girlfriends that would play endless games until they relented and allowed me to seduce them.
If you’re a weak man who is afraid to continuously pursue a woman because of various obstacles and even rejections, you will be in for a very difficult time.
Any high quality woman will make you work for it before she lets herself be conquered.
She has to; she has many men vying for her and she needs to choose the strongest one.
Mexican men understand this perfectly. That’s why they will not stop until they get what they want.
What kind of men do women like?
Honestly, any man that’s confident and aggressive. Latin women love men who’re passionate, strong and aren’t afraid to go for what they want.
No woman likes a weak man, and Mexican women especially hate men who’re weak and indecisive.
It’s not because these men act badly towards others, but because they exhibit confidence and aren’t deterred by setbacks, which is always a positive quality in life in general.
Of course, with quieter and shyer women, you need to exercise restraint and can’t be extremely aggressive. If you’re too aggressive, they might get turned off. It’s better to mix up the aggressiveness with a “nice guy” which should do the trick.
On the other side, if the woman herself is playing lots of games and is acting like a smart-ass, you should play a bit hard to get as well because that would signal that you aren’t needy and don’t really care if she likes you or not.
In my experience, nothing turns on a girl more than a man who isn’t really invested in the outcome. The one who’s thinking, “I don’t care if she rejects me — I’ll just go and pursue another woman.”
That’s how a lot of Latin guys are.
Latin guys are the greatest seducers in the world, but if the woman refuses, they smile, shrug it off and move on.
Plus, a lot of Latin guys typically date multiple women at the same time, giving them options to pursue a more serious relationship with a woman they like most.
Meeting women during the day
I read your other article about Brazilian women, and I have to say that meeting Mexican women during the day isn’t as easy as meeting Brazilian women.
In Brazil, the women are super approachable, but in Mexico, they’re a bit guarded.
Also, it will depend on your location in Mexico. Some places are a lot easier for meeting women than others.
For instance, Mexico City is easier for meeting women than a city such as Monterrey where the women are more conservative.
Oaxaca is also not a place to meet women. But, just so you know, in Southern Mexico, women are more “indigenous”; in the Northern part, they’re more European.
Where to meet women during the day
Anywhere. The street, coffee shops, cafes, restaurants, gyms, pretty much anywhere women exist.
In case you didn’t know, I love gringo women. One of my favorite places to meet them was the Central neighborhood (El Centro) in Mexico City.
I suppose it’s also a great place to meet Mexican women as well.
A couple of other neighborhoods in Mexico City that I wholeheartedly recommend: Condessa, Polanco, Park Chapultepec. If you’re looking for a more of a working-class vibe, then check out Balbuena. Just try not to go there at night.
If you see a cute woman, don’t hesitate—just approach her. You’ll definitely be glad you did.
Meeting women at night
Mexico is a place with great nightlife. In most large cities, you can find plenty of clubs, bars, lounges and just about anything to satisfy any interest and taste.
Whether you like American rock music, rap, reggaeton, salsa, cumbia, rock en Español, you will find it in cities like Mexico City, Monterrey, and others.
Mexican nightlife is the typical Latin nightlife. It’s not like the nightlife you experienced in Medellin where people are all sitting down and just talk with those they already know.
Especially in Mexico City, the nightlife venues resemble how nightlife is in American cities like New York or Chicago. There’s going to be a lot of mingling, so meeting people shouldn’t be very difficult.
Of course, some nightlife venues will be more conservative than others. There, you will find groups of friends and approaching a woman will be harder.
Don’t let any of that deter you: Mexican nightlife is a fantastic place to meet women.
Meeting women online
Although I don’t practice much online game, I know that Tinder is fairly popular plus a bunch of other online sites.
One thing I did when I traveled to other countries was “pipelining.” The way it works is that I would switch my location on one of these apps to the target city and start meeting women. Then, when I would arrive, there would be women waiting for me and ready to go out.
This cut down the time needed to go out and find these women. So, this is something that I recommend to gringos who want to visit Mexico.
If that fails, you’ll definitely meet them during the day or at night. It’s just too easy.
The gringo factor
I know you asked me to talk about whether Mexican women like gringos. I remember when we lived in Brazil we were both gringos, so the women interacted with us differently.
I think it’s the same in Mexico. Mexican guys can certainly get away with a more aggressive approach than gringos. I think foreigners everywhere have to deal with a stigma of being in the country just for the women.
I will say this, though, some guys I know are absolutely killing it with the local women. These are mostly other Latin guys like Argentinians or Brazilians who are good looking and have a great game (remember how difficult Argentinian women were in Brazil?).
Another type of guy that I see succeeding in Mexico is the quintessential Scandinavian guy: tall, slim, blonde. That sort of thing.
I know some women go crazy for these kinds of guys, but overall Mexican women can’t pass up a fellow Latin guy because of similar cultural issues and no language barriers.
Generally, the more traditional the woman, the more she’d want to date her own kind. If you’re a gringo, you should focus on women who somehow don’t fit into traditional Mexican culture. These are the outcasts that lived abroad, speak English, and are more liberal than what Mexican culture allows.
And before you tell me that non-traditional Mexican women aren’t attractive, I must stop you: there are many less traditional Mexican women that are just as amazing. In fact, I met one at an art expo and we dated for over a year.
Where to stay in Mexico
Mexico is a big country and greatly varies by the region you’re staying in. There are beach towns, valley regions, beautiful colonials towns in the mountains and everything in between. Northern Mexico is richer than Southern Mexico.
The recent violence in Mexico means it’s prudent to avoid some areas. It’s best to avoid border towns (there’s nothing much there anyway except for Tijuana, which a lot of fun).
I would say the big cities are safe and popular vacation resorts are completely safe. After all, the last thing the Mexican government would want is for other countries to boycott Mexico after a tourist gets killed in Cancun or Playa del Carmen.
OK, let’s talk about the major cities and areas. First of all, you can’t ignore Mexico City. In fact, I’m guessing that’s going to be the point of entry for many gringos.
I talked a lot about Mexico City before, but let me just reiterate: it’s awesome. It’s one of the largest cities in the world, so there are tons of things to do: from cultural stuff to restaurants to clubs to whatever else you want.
There are also tons of places to meet women. Because the city is so large, approaching women is easy since you have this anonymity feeling in the big city.
There are also tons of neighborhoods from bohemian (Condessa and Roma) to more working class such as Balbuena.
It’s a city that I wholeheartedly recommend (get an Airbnb in Condessa), meet women in the center or Park Chapultepec. Or, if you want rich women, go to Polanco.
Another city that’s worth a visit is Monterrey. It’s located in Northern Mexico. Although it’s not as exciting as Mexico City, it’s a different city with a different vibe.
The women there tend to be more conservative than in other parts of Mexico, so they require more face time before you seal the deal. But, I would say that there a lot of quality women there from good families that are looking for a great man to have a family.
When it comes to beach towns, I can recommend cities like Mazatlan and Acapulco on the Pacific Coast. Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Merida on the Caribbean coast are great for relaxing and taking it easy. I also like Oaxaca and San Cristobal de las Casas, which are beautiful historic towns.
Baja California is worth a visit, too. So, if you’re visiting Tijuana, head south and check out cities like Ensenada and Rosarita. They’re great little towns for cheap tacos and friendly people.
When to visit
Mexico’s southern location means there aren’t huge variances between seasons like in America. Mexico City has the same “spring” temperature year-round. If you want something warmer, make the one-hour trek to Cuernavaca. It’s a city located in lower altitude and is thus much warmer than the capital. That’s where a lot of rich people from Mexico City have their vacation homes.
Obviously, there are some hurricanes and what not on the Caribbean coast, but I’m not a meteorologist so I can’t really tell you when to avoid those areas.
All in all, I don’t think there’s a “preferred” time to visit Mexico. Any time is fine.
Mexican food doesn’t really need any introduction, does it? Everyone has heard of tacos, taquitos, quesadillas, and ensenadas. And, err, fish tacos.
But what most people don’t know is that Mexican cuisine is much richer than just tacos. In the North, we have amazing meat called “cecina.” It’s delicious and is similar to Spain’s “jamón serrano.” I also like “adobada” and “carnitas” which are both pork, just prepared differently.
The best part about Mexican food is that it’s spicy. It can be as spicy as you want. For instance, we have this sauce called “habanero” which can make your food extremely spicy. So, if you’re not used to spicy foods, you should be careful.
What can I say, Mexico is an amazing country and I recommend everyone to visit and see for themselves.
Women are beautiful, sexy, passionate and feminine. Plus, they know how to take care of their man like no other women in the world.
I have many gringo friends that visited Mexico, met a woman, and then decided to remain here. Some of them even have children. Others are planning on getting married.
The reason? They met a great woman, of course. And that woman convinced them to stay in Mexico.
One thing I can’t stress enough is the importance of speaking Spanish. You don’t need to be fluent; just being conversational is enough. If you speak Spanish, everything will be easier and simpler, and you’ll be able to connect with people on a much deeper level.
After you learn Spanish, feel free to contact me and I’ll teach you some cool Mexican slang.
I’ve now spent a combined 10 years living in both Latin America and Eastern Europe. I initially spent about five years living all over Latin America in countries like Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Argentina. Then, I arrived in Eastern Europe, where I lived for about six years now on and off. I started out in Lithuania, where I spent about two years, followed by Ukraine where I have spent the last four.
Eastern Europe is one of my favorite regions of the world. Obviously, I’m a bit biased because I’m an Eastern European myself, born in the beautiful Odessa, Ukraine.
But lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Latin America. I miss the region a lot. I miss its variety of music, its colorful food, the warm and super friendly people and even its great year-round weather.
Just the other day, in one of the big parks here in Kiev, Ukraine, they had a Latin night where people were dancing and enjoying Latin music such as salsa, bachata, merengue, and cumbia.
What both regions have in common is that they’re firmly outside the West. That makes them not only more affordable but much more enjoyable as well.
Nevertheless, there are crucial differences as well that you must take into account before making your decision.
The Pros of Eastern Europe
Eastern Europe is much safer
Latin America varies from being rather dangerous and unpredictable (Rio de Janeiro) to relatively safe and predictable (Medellin, Bogota). Rio de Janeiro is one of those cities where anything and everything can happen to you in an instant.
When I lived there, many of my friends were robbed in broad daylight while they were just minding their business and going about their day.
Even the relatively normal cities like Mexico City and Buenos Aires aren’t entirely safe. Mexico City isn’t as dangerous as Rio de Janeiro, but it’s nowhere near a completely safe city. Buenos Aires, on the other hand, has gotten much more dangerous over the last several years.
In Eastern Europe, you never experience this sort of unpredictability. Cities like Kiev, Moscow, Minsk, and Vilnius, just to name a few, are completely safe to walk around them during the day and night—provided you use common sense and stick to well-lit streets in good neighborhoods.
Eastern Europe is cheaper
When I initially moved to Latin America, I thought I had it good. I remember my $10 lunches and my $15 dinners in Rio de Janeiro. I also remember renting a decent apartment for $750/mo in the famous Copacabana neighborhood a few blocks away from the famous beach of the same name.
Little did I know that Latin America was still relatively expensive and that a much cheaper lifestyle awaited me years down the road.
When I moved to Lithuania, I rented a decent apartment in the capital of Vilnius for only $350/mo. Correspondingly, my expenses were also half of what they were in Latin America.
Here in Kiev, I rent a great apartment for a bit more than that, but still enjoy amazing $3-4 lunches and $8 dinners.
Of course, comparing Eastern European cities to a city like Rio de Janeiro, which is a relatively expensive city, isn’t exactly fair, but even when I lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina, my expenses were still higher there than what I’m currently spending here in Eastern Europe.
Eastern Europe is a little more organized
This is probably close, but Eastern Europe is still Europe, so it’s slightly easier to get things done when it comes to dealing with businesses and government. Things like residencies and various permits are easier and more straightforward than in places like Argentina and Brazil.
Brazil is a bureaucratic nightmare. There’s always a “jeito” or a specific way of getting things done and it’s never by the book or law. Other Latin American countries—Chile being the notable exception—work the same way.
Of course, Eastern Europe is far from having the efficiency of Denmark or Norway, but it’s still more organized than Latin America.
Eastern Europe is culturally and historically richer
Eastern Europe is home to such talented writers like Leo Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Bulgakov just to name a few. This region also endured several wars and close to a century of communism. Walking around central Kiev, Moscow or St. Petersburg and being surrounded by beautiful architecture, you can’t deny that you’re somewhere very special. There are tons of cultural stuff that one can do: visit world-class theaters, watch plays, enjoy a magnificent opera or ballet.
Of course, Latin America has its own history and the beauty of, say, Mexico City’s downtown gives any other city a run for its cultural money. Still, it’s hard to deny that cities like Moscow or St. Petersburg are “grander” than pretty much any Latin American city. They just can’t compare. (If you haven’t been to St. Petersburg, you haven’t been to Europe. That city makes all the other capitals seem like provincial villages).
The pros of Latin America
Latin America has better food
This is a big one. Eastern Europe—and I’m speaking for the entire region composed of many different countries—has very bland food. It’s all the same. There’s meat, potatoes, various soups consisting of meat and potatoes and a bunch of other meals consisting of meat and potatoes. Every country has its own combination of the above that it calls its “native cuisine.”
On the other hand, Latin America has an entire array of different and exotic foods. From Mexico to Colombia, from Argentina to Brazil, there’s never a dull moment when it comes to exciting every single one of your taste buds.
From Mexico’s tacos to Brazilian “churrascaria” to Buenos Aires’ amazing steaks, there’s bound to be a meal that will please just about anyone, even the pickiest eaters.
If you’re not gifted with languages or just want an easier language to pick up, you’re much better off going to Latin America.
Latin America has much better weather
When it comes to weather, Latin America simply rocks. You decide what kind of weather you want. Do you want hot tropical weather? Do you want eternal spring weather? Or do you want a mix of the two?
The only thing you can’t have is snow. Which, if you ask me, is perfectly fine.
When I lived in Medellin, I enjoyed spring weather year round, every single goddamn day. It was unreal to never have to worry about wearing the right clothes because it was always 25 degrees.
On the other hand, if you’re thinking about moving to Eastern Europe, you better enjoy the snow. You’re going to be seeing lots of it. While southern coastal cities don’t have unbearable freezing temperatures, once you go up to Kiev and above, things get very cold quick. Moreover, the winter days become super short and cloudy which explains why northern countries such as Lithuania lead the world in suicides. (I lived there for two years, and I still don’t know how I managed to get through the winters unscathed).
Latin America has much better beaches
I suppose this is a corollary to the previous point, but if you love to relax, there are no beaches like Brazil’s Atlantic Ocean shores or even better—the Caribbean coast of Colombia and Venezuela (and even the Caribbean islands), which I consider to be one of the best beaches in the world.
Geographically, Eastern Europe doesn’t really have many great beaches except those by the Black Sea, including the beautiful Odessa, Ukraine, as well as other beach destinations in Romania and Bulgaria.
Most Eastern Europeans choose to fly to places like Turkey and Egypt instead (plus, of course, Southern Europe).
Latin Americans are much friendlier
When I lived in Rio de Janeiro, I always had a feeling that I can pretty much stop anyone and begin a conversation with them. That was how friendly the culture was.
There’s no city in Eastern Europe where you could be walking on the street and readily strike a conversation with anyone else. Never. That’s just not going to happen. People will think you’re weird and strange. They might even take it the wrong way.
Generally, it’s much harder to connect with people and befriend them in Eastern Europe than in Latin America.
Latin American women are more sensual
I suppose this is up for debate, but I believe that Latin American women are more sensual than their Eastern European counterparts. Of course, this is nothing to take away from EE women, which are stunningly beautiful.
Latin American women are also friendlier and more open than their EE counterparts.
Latin America is closer to the USA
I know most of my readers hail from the great USA, and obviously living in a place like Medellin, Colombia with its several-hour-flight from Texas is ideal for someone with family or friends back home. Not to mention there’s not much of a time zone difference between the entire continent and USA/Canada.
Since I have family in New York City, I dread every time I have to fly back and endure a 10-hour flight from Ukraine. Moreover, there’s also an insidious pain of adjusting to the new time zone (it’s more difficult flying to Ukraine, though).
If you don’t need to be in the US often, then this is generally not a problem.
So, there you have it. While Latin America wins on points, both of these regions are so different from each other that deciding where to go depends on what’s more important to you and your lifestyle.
I vividly remember when I had just moved to Brazil and spent the first week or so walking around different buildings and asking the doormen in my broken Portuguese whether there were any vacancies.
Ah, the good old days.
Airbnb fixed that annoying problem for the most part. I’ve used it exclusively for booking short-term stays as well as long-term stays ranging anywhere from a weekend to several months all over the world.
One problem with Airbnb is that since it’s so widely accessible, the prices of the listings are typically higher than one can get by going straight to the owner or by booking through local sites. Plus, there’s the hefty Airbnb commission on top of that’s usually passed over to you.
The flip side is that because the prices on Airbnb are so inflated, that means there’s a lot of room discounts, especially for longer stays.
Here’s how you negotiate an even bigger Airbnb discount.
Contact the owner
Don’t book the accommodation from the get-go. First, contact the owner and ask them if the accommodation is available for a week on your desired dates.
If the owner responds to the affirmative, follow up by asking if they’re willing to give you a discount for a week’s stay.
Mention that you have an impeccable profile with excellent reviews and that there was never a problem with any of your previous stays (your profile should have great reviews from other hosts).
At this point, the owner can send you something that’s called a “Special offer.” This will include a special price for the specific dates you asked for. Once he sends you the special offer, the dates you selected become unavailable to others and you have 24 hours to accept this offer before the apartment goes back on the market.
Ask for an even bigger discount
It doesn’t really matter what kind of discount you received. But if the owner is comfortable offering you a small (10-15%) discount for a week-long stay, he or she should be able to offer you a higher discount for a longer stay.
Wait until the next day before replying and then send them another message. Tell them that circumstances have changed and that you’ll be able to stay up to a month (or longer). See if you’re willing to give you an even better discount for a month stay.
A month may not be a long time, but in Airbnb world, it’s indeed a very long time. You should typically expect to receive a minimum of 25% discount for a month-long stay.
Again, stress that you have an impeccable record and that there’s not going to be any problems in the apartment.
There are several issues with the strategy outlined above. First of all, you need to make sure you like the apartment in order to stay there an entire month. Sometimes it’s hard to book an apartment for an entire month sight unseen.
In that case, what I typically do is reserve for a week using normal rates (or with a slight discount). After I had a chance to live in the apartment for a week or so, I then ask for a special discount for an entire month.
At this point, the owner knows me, they know that I’m legit, and they know that I’m not going to trash the apartment. Thus, they’re going to be more open to giving me a discount.
Paying in cash
Airbnb charges a hefty fee for its service (12%). However, as soon as you book the apartment, you can access the owner directly and, if you’d like, negotiate rent in cash for future bookings.
First, doing this is against Airbnb’s terms. Moreover, I wouldn’t generally recommend doing it because once the apartment owner receives your money, they can do whatever they want, including evicting you from the apartment, especially in countries where the laws aren’t exactly strong like in Eastern Europe or even parts in Latin America.
Even with the discount, I would still pay through the Airbnb system for the peace of mind of knowing that at least you have some recourse if things don’t go according to plans.
Booking for longer than one month
If the owner isn’t flexible in giving you a discount, there’s the option of booking for stays longer than a month. That could be anywhere from 1.5 months (6 weeks) to 2 months or so.
Of course, this is provided that you’ve seen the apartment first and you’re comfortable staying there for a longer period of time.
However, if that’s not an option, only book for longer stays sight unseen if the apartment has many reviews and all of them are positive.
Examples of discounts I’ve received
In Ukraine, I inquired about a nice apartment that was listed for $25 per day. That comes out to roughly $750 per month for the apartment. I asked for a special rate for the month and the owner immediately quoted me a rate of $20/day ($600/month). I eventually talked him down to $500/mo.
In Odessa, during the high season, I was able to negotiate an apartment that was listed for $700/mo down to $550/mo by mentioned that I’m ready to book it for an entire month. The owner knew they would get all the money upfront so they readily agreed.
When I spent a week in Bangkok last year, I was able to negotiate a daily rate of $35 down to $25, giving me a savings of $70. Not much, but every buck adds up.
Basically, I always try to negotiate everywhere I stay.
Airbnb is certainly far from the cheapest way to book long-term accommodation. But because it’s so widespread pretty much around the world, you’d foolish to ignore it completely.
If there’s one point that I want to drive home, is the fact that you should always ask for a discount when booking on Airbnb. Even if you feel the price being offered is already justifiable. It’s in the owner’s best interest to rent out the whole thing for a month to a great tenant with great reviews because that means they’ll get money upfront and don’t need to check-in, clean up and then check-out many tenants over the period of the month.
Additionally, don’t be afraid to haggle a bit for a lower discount if you feel the discount (special offer) you received isn’t exactly fair for the period of time you’re proposing.
If you’d asked me five years ago, if I would move to some ex-Soviet Union country after living in some incredible and exotic countries (e.g., Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Thailand, Indonesia, just to name a few), I would’ve laughed in your face.
But, yet, here I am, writing this from Kiev, Ukraine, one of my favorite cities on the planet in a country that I’ve gradually made my home over the past several years.
Of course, I may be a bit biased because I was born here and speak Russian fluently. But I don’t think that’s the defining factor in my decision: I doubt I would live in a country like Lithuania, Moldova or Kazakhstan even if I was born in those countries and spoke their respective language. There’s something special about this country that goes beyond even that.
My return to the country was gradual, kind of like dipping toes in a pool before diving in. In 2011, I crossed the border from Poland into Ukraine for the first time after spending more than twenty years living abroad. I spent about three weeks in Kiev and Odessa before flying back to America.
Then, an interesting pattern emerged: I returned again in 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017, and have spent most of this year, 2018, living and traveling around this country.
At this point, Ukraine is easily the country where I’ve spent the most amount of time out of more than 85 countries that I visited in the last 15 years.
Today, I want to talk about what makes Ukraine special and whether it’s a place you should put on your radar as well.
When most people think about Ukraine, they think of crumbling architecture, unshaven Eastern European men wearing Adidas pants and drinking vodka, corrupt politicians and freezing winters.
There’s some truth to all of that (especially the part of about freezing winters), but the reality is that over the past several years, Ukraine has become a very livable country, so much so that I prefer it over any other in Europe and elsewhere.
If you’re flying in from abroad, chances are your first point of contact will be Kiev’s Boryspil International Airport. This is the main international airport and is located roughly 45 mins from the city center.
In order to get to the city center, you have two options. The first option is an airport bus ($2) that goes to either a metro station or the main train station or a taxi ($12-15) which goes straight to your destination.
If you are short on cash but still prefer the convenience of a taxi, a good option is to take the airport bus to the main train station and then take the taxi to your final destination.
Kiev has another airport: Zhulyani. It’s much closer to the city center; only about 20-25 mins by car. It’s also smaller and mostly serves domestic routes as well as select international routes.
Mobile SIM Cards
The first order of business after landing and going through passport control is buying a local SIM card. For that, you need an unlocked phone.
If you bought your phone outright from the manufacturer (without the carrier subsidy), chances are that it’s already unlocked. But to make sure, you should check with your carrier.
Having a Ukrainian SIM card will grant you a Ukrainian number, for easy communication with others throughout the country. Most importantly, however, you will have a cheap data plan everywhere you go.
There are three main providers in Ukraine: Kievstar, Vodaphone and Lifecell.
This is the largest provider and covers the majority of the country. It’s also the most expensive provider.
The next popular mobile company. Before the whole Russian/Ukrainian conflict, it was called MTS.
Finally, there’s Lifecell (formerly called “life;)”), a mobile company wholly owned by Turkcell, a Turkish mobile operator.
In the summer of 2018, Ukraine’s mobile providers finally unveiled the 4G/LTE network. This made it possible to get speeds up to 50-70Mbps in the major cities.
As of this writing, my current plan costs me 90 UAH ($3.25)/month, and I get unlimited 3G/4G connectivity.
My mobile plan
When I first began living in Ukraine, I signed up with Kievstar since it was the biggest operator with the best coverage in the country.
Several years later, I switched over to Vodaphone mainly because it’s slightly cheaper than Kievstar and provides enough coverage for my needs. (I mostly live in big cities and don’t need coverage in smaller towns and villages.)
Budget in Ukraine
Here’s a rough outline of how much certain things cost in Ukraine. Prices are based on an exchange rate of $1 to 28 UAH. (To get the prices in dollars, divide the prices below by 28.)
The following prices are for Kiev. They will be slightly lower in other cities and even lower in smaller towns and villages.
Decent Apartment not in the center: 10,000-13,000 UAH
Decent Apartment in the center: 15,000-16,000 UAH
Really nice apartment in the center: 17,000-20,000 UAH
Regular gym / daily pass: 100 UAH
Regular gym / monthly pass: 600 UAH
Nice gym / daily pass: 250 UAH
Nice gym / monthly pass: 1400 UAH
Lunch (Business; 2-3 courses): 80-150 UAH
Lunch (regular): 120-180 UAH
Fancy lunch: 250 UAH
Dinner (self-service restaurant): 80-150 UAH
Dinner (regular): 150-250 UAH
Dinner in a nice restaurant: 350-450 UAH
One glass of wine (150 ml): 60-80 UAH
Beer (0.3 L): 50 UAH
Beer (0.5 L): 75 UAH
Metro: 8 UAH
Bus: 8 UAH
Taxi (15 min): 80-100 UAH
Taxi (30 min): 200-250 UAH
Where to go
Ukraine is a huge country—the second largest in Europe by size (after Russia)—and is roughly divided into four parts: Central (including the capital, Kiev), Eastern Ukraine, Western Ukraine, and Southern Ukraine.
Each region is fairly different from the other. The people talk differently, they act differently and they even look different. The cities themselves are also fairly different ranging from Central European-inspired Lviv in the West to the more Soviet-style Dnipro and Donetsk in the East.
Below, I will cover each part in greater detail.
Central Ukraine / Kiev
Kiev is Ukraine’s capital and the biggest city. In my opinion, it’s also the best city in Ukraine to live and visit. It’s friendlier, has more culture and is more aesthetically pleasing than pretty much any other city in the country.
There are lots of things to do in Kiev. There’s a huge array of restaurants, coffee shops, supermarkets, gyms and whatever else you may need. There are also tons of cultural things to do such as theaters, opera houses replete with great performances to attend.
Eastern Ukraine includes the area of the country east of the Dnepr river. This includes the major cities such as Lugansk, Donetsk, Dnipro, and Zaporozhye.
After the Russian/Ukrainian conflict, both Lugansk and Donetsk (including part of their respective provinces) came under the rebel control and are, thus, difficult to access from Ukraine. At this point, travel it is not advised.
Recently, I spent two months living in Dnipro, Ukraine’s third largest city. Dnipro is a much more “raw” city than Kiev. While it has its share of restaurants and coffee shops, it lacks the “cultural touch” and sophistication of Kiev.
Just to the south of Dnipro, there’s Zaporozhye, an industrial city with reportedly one of the longest streets in Europe. It’s called “Lenin’s Street” and it basically runs across the entire city and then some. While it’s a nice landmark (sort of), one wide and long street decidedly gives the city an “uncozy” feeling that mostly characterizes the Eastern region.
Southern Ukraine is all about sun and sand, at least in the summer. That’s where you’ll find the only city you need to know: Odessa, the premier summer destination not only in Ukraine but across most of Eastern Europe.
Odessa isn’t only my hometown, but it’s also a fairly picturesque and beautiful city worthy of any postcard. There’s the famous opera theater, the cute downtown with cobblestone streets and great beaches.
The West of the country comprises of cities such as Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Chernivtsi.
In many ways, western Ukraine feels more similar to countries like Poland, Hungary, and Austria. Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk look like they belong in neighboring Poland or Slovakia instead of Ukraine. Part of that is because, before WWII, this region was part of the neighboring Austria-Hungary empire.
The largest city in the region, Lviv, is especially a great place to visit in the winter. It’s cozy, has great restaurants, cool coffee shops, and is much cheaper than other large Ukrainian cities.
When to go
Although Ukraine, like the rest of Europe, has four normal seasons, I like to think it’s mainly two seasons: hot summer and freezing winters.
Ukraine’s spring starts around the beginning of May. It’s not uncommon for it to get very hot in just a couple of weeks.
Summer lasts from the beginning of June to around the beginning of September. In the first or second week of September, temperatures start to gradually drop. By October, it’s already fairly cold. November may witness the first snowfall.
Since this is Eastern Europe, winters can get uncomfortably cold. It’s also not uncommon to have temperatures drop to as low as -25 C (-13 F) in January or February, the latter being the coldest month of the year.
It’s also very possible to see lots of snow even as late as in March.
In my opinion, the best time to visit Ukraine is either in the spring or fall. This is when the weather is the most comfortable and it’s not too hot or cold. Another option is to visit in the summer, which does get hot but not uncomfortably so.
Summers are a great time to visit the coastal city of Odessa, with its beaches and beach clubs.
Unless, for some strange reason, you like cold weather and want to walk around in the snow, avoid visiting the region from November to March.
Moreover, winters can be especially brutal because not only you have cloudy days and snow, but you’re also surrounded by crumbling Soviet architecture, making the whole experience super depressing.
How to rent accommodation
Depending on how long you’re visiting Ukraine, there are several ways of renting accommodation. In this section, I will cover the best ways to rent a pad depending on your needs.
If you’re a tourist who’s coming to Ukraine for a short visit (a week or so), the best way to rent accommodation is via Airbnb. Although the prices there are generally more expensive than sites tailored specifically to locals, the ease of use and reputation features of the site is worth it. I’ve used Airbnb many times to book accommodation in Ukraine and abroad.
Another way to rent short-term rentals is via local sites. This requires knowing Russian or Ukrainian and being able to trust the pictures displayed to be a true representation of the apartment. I would only advice this method if you have a local friend who can help you. Otherwise, it’s too easy to get burned when the apartment you reserve is the difference from the actual apartment.
For long-term bookings (a month or more), Airbnb is still a great option because many hosts offer steep discounts if you book for at least a month.
An even better way is to go directly to the source and rent an apartment from an owner instead. One of the biggest sites for doing just that is olx.ua, which is sort of a Ukrainian craigslist, where people buy/sell/rent anything from used jeans to luxury apartments.
Like I already mentioned, be careful with listings that show amazing pictures but have a relatively low price. These listings can be copied from other apartment rental sites around the web and are used to lure people to send a “deposit” to secure an apartment. Once the money is sent, it’s never seen again.
Beware of any third party services that promise you to “find” an apartment in exchange for money upfront. I’ve heard stories of people taking such money and never returning it.
Where to buy stuff
Gone are the days of dark and confusing Soviet Union-era “magazinchiki” (магазиньчики). Today, shopping in Ukraine is no different than shopping in any other Western country.
Ukraine is now graced with modern supermarkets that may easily rival your Western country.
I would categorize shopping to three levels of shopping stores in the country.
The street stores/kiosks
These are small shops that are located on the actual street. They typically sell things like water, cigarettes, various snacks, and even sometimes things like bread and cheese.
ATB, Furshet, Varus, Billa
At the next level of supermarkets, we have chains like ATB, Furshet, and Varus (popular in Eastern Ukraine).
These are mostly located in more “working class” neighborhoods and are cheaper than other stores.
These would be similar to stores such as Stop & Shop in New York City.
One of my first experience shopping in Ukraine was “Silpo” (written as Сильпо). It’s one of the biggest chains in Ukraine and is located across the country.
Silpo is a bit more expensive than the previous stores, but it carries higher quality goods, more selection and attracts a more upscale crowd.
It’s similar to something like Safeway in California.
Last but not least, there’s “Le Silpo,” Silpo’s luxury brand. There are only four Le Silpo’s around the country in the following cities: Kiev, Dnepr, Odessa, and Kharkov. Each city has only one Le Silpo, typically located in an upscale area of the city.
Not trying to sound like some snob, but there’s definitely a noticeable difference in the service that’s offered in “Le Silpo” vs regular Silpo, and the other stores.
Le Silpo can be compared to Whole Foods Market in America.
If this is your first time visiting Ukraine (or Eastern Europe), then get ready to experience a mild form of culture shock. Although Ukraine has changed drastically over the years (for better), Ukraine is still quintessentially Eastern Europe.
For starters, that means don’t expect much of hand-holding. That includes things like customer service in stores or restaurants. Don’t expect random smiles from people you may not know (e.g., in stores, restaurants, coffee shops).
For more information and examples, check out my article about living in Russia several years ago. I would characterize Ukrainian mentality very similar to Russian mentality described in that article.
I will admit, however, that Ukraine has come a long way over the years. In the eight years that I’ve been visiting and living in the country, customer service and general ambiance have gradually improved. I’ve noticed this mostly in Kiev, but other cities have picked up too.
Language in Ukraine
Ukraine has only one official language: Ukrainian. The reality, however, is a bit complicated. Most of the country actually speaks Russian. While Ukrainian is the official language everywhere (government offices, police, etc), Russian is the main language of communication in every city south and east of Kiev (including Kiev): Poltava, Dnipro, Odessa, Zaporozhye, Mariupol, Luhansk and Donetsk.
In the capital of Kiev, I hear Russian on the street about 80% of the time compared to 20% of Ukrainian. Almost all shop owners, restaurant waitresses and other service workers speak Russian. People who are originally from Kiev speak natively Russian; Ukrainian is mostly spoken in smaller towns/villages outside of Kiev.
Ukrainian is the dominant language of Western Ukraine. It’s spoken in Lviv, Ivano-Frankovisk, Chernitvski and the surrounding cities and towns.
Everyone in Ukraine understands both Russian and Ukrainian, so knowing one language would be sufficient. If you’re going to be predominately living/visiting Western Ukraine, then Ukrainian is the language to speak and understand. Otherwise, if you’re going to be spending time in Kiev and East / South of the capital—especially in the main cities—then the language to learn is Russian.
Since I’m a native of Odessa, my native language is Russian. I have no problem communicating in Kiev, but had to switch to Ukrainian when I went to Lviv last year.
Safety and precautions
All in all, Ukraine is a relatively safe country. It’s safer than North America, South America and even Western Europe.
Unlike places like Rio de Janeiro (and Brazil in general) which is fairly unpredictable or American cities like New York (where you can also get easily robbed), you generally won’t be robbed at knife- or gun-point in broad daylight or even at night if you stick to well-lit streets in good areas of the city.
Nevertheless, Ukraine is no Japan. It’s still a poor Eastern European country with its share of crime. However, this crime is more subtle. About a year ago, I had someone break into my apartment and steal my suitcase full of stuff. This was at an Airbnb which I rented in a nice neighborhood, so it seems like someone had copies of the keys and entered the apartment when I wasn’t there. They stole my entire suitcase and nothing else.
The best way to stay safe in Ukraine is to relax, but keep your eyes open for any strange and suspicious things. Street smarts go a long way.
For digital nomads
If you’re a location-independent professional, Ukraine can be a solid choice. Big cities like Kiev are replete with work-friendly coffee shops and tons of co-working places. Internet speeds have improved dramatically over the years as well. Plus, with the introduction of 4G/LTE in the summer of 2018—with speeds up to 50-70Mbps—you don’t even need to rely much on fast WiFi anymore.
Over the last couple of years, Ukraine with its cosmopolitan capital, Kiev, is witnessing a resurgence in various startups and other online businesses. There’s a nascent startup culture here, which is easily evident when you spend time in some of the bigger co-working spaces.
Visas and overstays
Most citizens of industrialized countries (e.g., USA, UK, and EU countries) get the automatic 90-day visa on arrival. After your 90 days is up, you must leave the country.
After leaving the country after your visa expires, you can’t immediately return to Ukraine; you must wait 90 days before coming back. That’s what the whole 90/180 days visa means. It means you can only stay for 90 days within any 180 day period.
Thus, it’s not possible to stay 90 days, leave the country and then come right back.
If you overstay, the fine ranges anywhere from 510 UAH ($20) to 850 UAH ($30). (There have been reports of it being as high as $200-300 for really severe overstays). There also have been reports of being banned from the country for three years.
After living in some very exotic countries such as Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico, as well as Bali, Indonesia and Thailand, it seems strange that I would more or less settle in an ex-Soviet Union country where people are so stoic to the point of indifference and where the winters can get unbearably freezing.
While I wrote a lot of nice things about the country, it’s important to understand that Ukraine is not USA or Thailand; it doesn’t have the “civility” of USA and it doesn’t have Thailand’s hospitality. It’s an Eastern European country through and through. For many years, trying to make sense of all that was the source of my frustrations in this country, something that I described in great deal here.
I eventually made peace with the fact that the only livable city (at least for me) in Ukraine is Kiev. The other cities are great for random trips, but making them home will be a challenge.
Nevertheless, even knowing that I can throw a dart and live anywhere in the world, something about the country lures me back in, and every time I open a map and think of a new place to live, picking any other country than Ukraine is becoming more and more difficult.
Ah Odessa, out of all the countries and cities I’ve visited and written about, I can’t believe I still haven’t written about my own hometown.
Actually, the reason I haven’t written much about Odessa is that I left my hometown in my early teens for a new life in New York. But just because you leave Odessa, doesn’t mean Odessa leaves you.
In the past seven years, I have returned to my former hometown no less than five times.
Here’s a local’s unique perspective to one of the most special and picturesque cities in the world.
Odessa is Ukraine’s 4th largest city by population, behind Kiev, Kharkov, and Dnipro with a population of around 1M inhabitants.
While Ukraine has a fairly large coastline of the Black Sea, Odessa is the premier city for getting sun and tan. That has become more so after Crimean peninsula switched over to the Russian side.
That event made Odessa as one of the only viable options for escaping the country’s oppressive summer’s heat. (There’s also Mariupol on Azov Sea to the east, but it’s yet another mediocre Ukrainian 3rd-tier city and can’t compare to Odessa.)
The entire former Soviet Union not only knows where Odessa is located, but they also have heard stories about the locals, Odessits (Одесситы).
Depending on who you ask in Ukraine (or other ex-Soviet Union countries), that person will have something to say about the locals, whether it’s positive or negative.
Generally speaking, Odessits share a particular humor, have their own colorful way of speaking Russian and even have a very specific accent that only exists in Odessa (I don’t have it, but my mom definitely does.)
Like most ex-Soviet Union cities, Odessa has greatly changed over the years. Many people immigrated to Odessa from nearby towns and cities and from other countries. So, it’s definitely not the same city as it once was.
Where to stay
Odessa is a relatively big city (over 1M), but, as a tourist, there are really two places to base yourself in the summer months. The first option is the beautiful center. The second option is closer to the action near the beach.
Out of all the Ukrainian cities, Odessa’s center is definitely the most picturesque and memorable. Kiev with its charming old town comes close, but there’s something that makes Odessa’s center truly special that visitors and locals alike can’t really put their finger and describe.
The second option is right near the beach and, thus, closer to the action. Although Odessa has several beaches along its generous coastline, most of the action takes place near two nightclubs Ithaca and Ibiza, located near a beach called Arcadia.
Back when I was a young kid growing up in the Soviet Union, Arcadia was a quiet area that was frequented mostly by families; there weren’t many fancy shops or noisy nightclubs.
That’s a far cry from today as the main strip leading from the city to the beach is filled with restaurants, stores, and coffee shops. There’s even a small amusement park for your enjoyment.
Both options are viable so it really depends on what you’re looking for.
How to rent accommodation
Odessa is a seasonal city so it’s pretty easy to rent apartments in the offseason, but that can be very challenging during the peak summer months.
There are several ways of renting apartments. The first is through Airbnb.com. Because Airbnb is typically targeted to foreigners instead of locals, the prices are typically higher than similar apartments that are rented to locals.
It’s not uncommon to find a decent apartment in the center for something like $1,000/mo, while the same type of apartment may be offered for like $600-700 on a rental site targeted at locals.
Nevertheless, negotiating on Airbnb is always an option. If you’re staying for at least a month, ask for a discount. It’s not uncommon to get anywhere from 10-30% off simply by asking.
Another good site for apartment rentals is doba.ua. This site lists apartment that is rented out by night and is aimed mostly at locals.
Most of the people advertising apartments don’t speak English, so it’s a good idea to have a local friend help you make reservations. This is the site I mostly use for booking accommodation.
Finally, there’s the king of all sites: OLX.com. This is sort of a Ukrainian craigslist where you can buy/rent/sell pretty much anything from used kitchenware to luxury apartments. This is the main site that Ukrainians use for pretty much anything. It’s a site where I found my last three Kiev apartments.
While you probably wouldn’t be using the site to find a long-term accommodation in Odessa (you could do that), the site also lists apartments that can be rented for short term, which is typically anywhere from 1-3 months. That’s super ideal for spending an entire summer in Odessa.
Although all three are solid options for finding an apartment in the city, if you’re not on a true shoestring budget, Airbnb is a great choice for securing a great pad in a great location. Assuming, of course, you book well in advance, especially if you’re looking for longer periods of at least a month.
How to get around
There are two ways to get around in Odessa: public transportation and taxis. Fortunately, with the arrival of Uber in 2016, it has gotten much easier to efficiently get from one place to another.
When I spent the summer in Odessa last year, I stayed in the center but enjoyed the sun and sand on one of the less populated beaches at the southern end of the city.
I generally took the public transportation (marshrutka, $0.25) which took about 25 minutes to get from downtown to the beach. I also took Uber a couple of times; the ride was about 7-10 minutes and cost around $3-4.
The best beaches
Odessa is graced with a generous coastline stretching from the northern area all the way to the south where it meets another city, Chernomorsk (Черноморск, formerly called Ильячевск).
Just as you’ve probably guessed, not all beaches are the same. There are three types of beaches in Odessa: public beaches, paid beaches (where you pay a fee for a beach chair or a tent, you can even order food and drinks which they’ll bring right to where you’re seated), and, finally, private beaches that are only accessible to the owners of the private land (and their friends).
When it comes to paid beaches, they vary from those without frills mostly frequented by families all the way to party beaches that rival to party destinations such as Ibiza or Miami.
The closest beach to the city is Langeron (Ланжерон). It’s a beach that everyone knows and, thus, one of the most popular beaches in the city. All you have to do is walk towards the sea from the center and you’ll end up on this beach.
The problem with this beach is that it gets overly crowded in the summer months (even worse on weekends) when the entire city descends on it. The result is that people end up being packed like sardines—lying right next to each other. That’s probably not an idea of a vacation that you had in mind.
A much better idea is to go to one of the paid beaches. It’s something that I resisted when I first visited—why do I have to pay to access a free resource?—but after trying it once, I became a convert and now exclusively go to paid beaches.
Paid beaches range from expensive to completely affordable. The more expensive paid “beach clubs” attract the typical “seen and be seen” clientele, while there are also plenty of “chill” beaches where, for a small fee, you can have a true piece of mind.
The great thing about paid beaches is that you rent a beach chair, an umbrella or even a huge tent for two or more people. You can also order all kinds of food and drinks which are brought directly to you. There are also restrooms and showers.
Thus, you can spend the entire an entire day at the beach instead of breaking up your day when you get hungry or thirsty.
One of my favorite beach clubs was called “Agarti.” It was a chill beach that’s more reminiscent of Goa, India than Ukraine. It was super affordable, had a chill music, and attracted a chill crowd. It was about a 25-minute bus ride from the center, so it was never packed. Thinking back, spending time at that beach club was probably the best part of my vacation.
In the famed Arcadia beach, you have two popular nightclubs that everyone in Odessa knows: Ithaca and Ibiza. These are party nightclubs that are frequented by the “seen and be seen” crowd.
The best time to come
Odessa’s summer season begins around the end of June when the water temperature gradually starts to rise; the water becomes truly warm by the end of July. This lasts up until around the middle of September. Towards the end of September and beginning of October, temperatures drop substantially and it becomes chilly so you need a jacket or sweater.
This is unlike coastal cities on the Mediterranean like Barcelona or Rome which are still very warm and pleasant that time of the year.
Actually, the best time to come to Odessa isn’t in July or August, but in the first half of September. By that time, most tourists have left (because it’s cold), few families are on the beaches (school season started), and prices for accommodation drop back down to normal levels after being in the stratosphere in the three months previously.
Visiting in the offseason
For such a beautiful city in the summer, Odessa is a completely different city in the offseason. Once the summer finally ends in the second or third week in September, temperatures drop quickly and the gorgeous blue sunny skies give way to rain and clouds (although the sun does make frequent appearances from time to time).
In the winter, while the city’s proximity to the sea guarantees that it doesn’t experience super cold -25 C (-5 F) temperatures like the rest of Ukraine, Odessa still gets its fair share of snow. Coupled with short days and not a particularly “cozy” center due to the city’s sizable blocks and few pedestrians, and what you get isn’t the most pleasant to spend the winter in.
In the last few years, I spent a couple of winters in Odessa (even celebrated the New Year there), and it’s definitely not my first choice of a city to spend the winter. Cities like Lviv with their cozy squares and narrow streets are much more suitable for cold, Ukrainian winters.
What language to speak
For a city located in Ukraine, Odessa is a predominantly Russian-speaking. It’s probably one of the more Russian-speaking cities in Ukraine.
My native language is Russian. Everyone in my family uses Russian as their native language. In fact, an easy way to tell that a person is not from Odessa is if they have a Ukrainian accent when speaking Russian.
While everyone understands and speaks Ukrainian, the only language you need to know in Odessa is Russian.
Safety and security
While Odessa, just like Ukraine, is fairly safe and secure, you still should watch out for petty scams. In Ukraine, Odessa has always been known as the city of swindlers (аферисты). While there’s a low chance you’ll experience any kind of serious harm, you should still keep your eyes open for minor stuff.
These include pickpocketing in tourist areas, short-changing you by taxi drivers and restaurant waiters. Some of the more serious issues that tourists have experienced were when apartment owners didn’t return the deposit back (partially or all of it).
Ever since returning to Ukraine back in 2011, I spent many summers in Odessa. Most of them were quick trips from Kiev, lasting around a week or two. Gradually, my sojourns in Odessa became longer; a year ago, I spent several months in Odessa.
Odessa has always been a special city in Ukraine (and the entire former Soviet Union). It was always a great summer destination for having fun and enjoying the sun.
Ever since Crimea became under Russian control, Odessa became the prime destination for summer tourists for the entire country. This resulted in extreme crowds, jacked up prices from restaurants to accommodation, and, generally, lots of hassle that comes with all of that. I solved this problem by visiting Odessa in September when the majority of the crowds are gone.
Still, have no illusions about it: Black Sea beaches aren’t exactly the Mediterranean, and definitely aren’t the Caribbean beaches I’m used when I was living in America and Latin America. The sand isn’t silky white and often times the Black Sea isn’t exactly clear enough to swim in.
Nevertheless, while there are plenty of cities around the world with better weather, beaches, food and even people, there’s only one Odessa.
Dnipro (or Dnepr/Днепр/Днипро/Днепропетровск) is a 2nd tier city in Southeastern Ukraine. Having traveled around Ukraine and decided that Kiev is the best city in Ukraine, I would’ve never visited this city had it not been for my friend’s constant nagging to visit him and check it out.
Finally, another friend of mine who had lived here before couldn’t stop praising this city and asked me to meet her there on the weekend that she would be there. I figured this would be a great opportunity to get to know a new city with a someone who’d lived there before. I accepted her offer and bought a ticket on a fast express train from Kiev.
For the first week, I rented an apartment in a very commercial (and expensive) part of the city that was supposed to be the center of everything (Мост Сити, “Bridge City”). Indeed, it was in the center of everything; there was a huge shopping center right in the same complex complete with a huge supermarket andWestern brands such as Zara, Diesel and Massimo Dutti.
Beyond the expensive department stores, everything about this “commercial center” screamed cheap and underdeveloped. There was nothing “exclusive” or “luxurious” about it, and it was a far cry from anything like Kiev’s “Maidan” (Independence Square) or even some of the more charming squares in other Eastern European cities. Its lack of tasteful architecture was also rather hard on my eyes. The only thing I noticed was lots of concrete.
Thinking that this “commercial center” was all there was to this city, I immediately regretted making this trip and started planning my return back to the capital.
Fortunately, the situation improved dramatically when I switched apartments and moved to a different area. Not only was the apartment itself newly remodeled and one of the most spacious I’ve ever stayed in Ukraine, but the neighborhood was awesome; it was very green and bohemian with plenty of great restaurants and a few cool bars. I enjoyed the area so much that instead of spending only a week, as I originally planned, I ended spending almost the entire summer here.
Awesome restaurants and coffee shops
For an Eastern European 2nd-tier city, there are surprisingly great food choices when it comes to restaurants and coffee shops. There are at least a dozen restaurants that I would easily call “world class” where I wouldn’t hesitate to invite a good friend or even my lovely Mom—my trusted litmus test for a place’s excellence—should she happened to visit me.
As a burger lover, I’ve had one of the best burgers and meat as long as I can remember. I’ve also had excellent Italian food and even pretty decent Mexican enchiladas.
While there are plenty of great restaurants, the coffee shop scene (mainly for getting lots of work done) isn’t terrible but could definitely be improved. After living here for a few months, I still didn’t have my “ideal” coffee shop, one that would be my default choice when I was tired of working at home and needed a change of scenery.
On the other hand, this is where a city like Kiev shines. I can easily name five coffee shops that I can go to and get some serious work done. As a location-independent entrepreneur, this is important.
The center: where all the action happens
One of my favorite things about Dnipro is the fact that the center is very compact. One can cover this part of the city in about ten to fifteen minutes. Since the center is where all the desirable attractions are, this makes it super easy to have dinner with a friend (who also happens to live in the center) without being stuck in traffic while taking a taxi or public transportation.
It’s not some tiny center either. There are plenty of great restaurants, coffee shops and bars bunched all pretty next to each other. There are also lots of great clothing stores, whether it’s from a local designer or from some famous Western brand.
I cannot overemphasize how convenient this is. Even in Kiev, which isn’t a huge city by any means, everything is so spread out and there isn’t a “true” center. That means meeting a friend in the “center” easily means either a 30-45-minute walk or a 15-30-minute ride by car (assuming both of you live at least close to center). Here, no such issues exist because you simply leave your apartment and ten minutes later you are outside your friend’s apartment or inside the restaurant.
Just to give you an idea, imagine New York City with only the Prince St. in Greenwich village or LA with a small chunk of Melrose Ave. That’s a hell of a lot more convenient than making the trek from South Brooklyn or Bushwick in NYC.
For a seemingly sleepy Eastern European city in the middle of nowhere, there are plenty of Western-style conveniences. There are tons of Western-style supermarkets where you can buy all kinds of products that your heart desires. There are the familiar Western clothing brands such as Diesel, Nike and Levi’s. There’s also Uber for easy trips within the city or even to some nearby destination.
One may argue that these Western-style companies and influences are making Eastern European cities such as this one more “Westernized,” but I’m all for it if it makes the city more convenient and pleasant to be in.
“A city in the valley”
Unlike Odessa, Ukraine, Dnipro doesn’t have access to beautiful beaches of the Black Sea, but it mostly makes up for it with access to a beautiful river, Dnipro, which runs along the middle of the country. The city’s main attraction is the wide riverfront area called набережная. In the summer, that’s where you’ll find all kinds of people walking, sitting and overall enjoying life. There are also tons of great restaurants overlooking the beautiful river.
In some strange way, Dnipro—unlike Kiev and other Ukrainian cities—even has an eery Latin American feel. My neighborhood reminds me of Mexico City’s Condesa or Colombia’s Cali. The fact that it has a Latin American feel was definitely one of the main things that drew me to this city and got me to stay longer.
But unlike Latin America, with its crime and unpredictability, Dnipro, like the rest of Eastern Europe, is fairly safe and predictable.
Dnipro is a “hard” city
It didn’t take me long to realize that it’s a rather “hard” city. When I say, “hard,” I’m referring to the people and their behavior. Unlike Kiev or St. Petersburg, two cities infused with great culture and friendly people, in Dnipro, people almost never say “Hello” when greeting you—unless you say it first—everyone is mostly just going about their business.
I’ve had plenty of situations where I interacted with someone and then shook my head in response to their behavior. Things like opening and holding doors for random strangers were rarely (or never) met with a “thank you.” Ask for something in a supermarket, and the person behind the register would simply ask, “What do you want” point blank without greeting you of any kind.
Generally speaking, Eastern Europe as a region is fairly “hard.” It’s not a region where people typically go out of their way to make sure you’re satisfied with anything. This is something I experienced first hand when I spent a few months living in Russia several years ago.
Nevertheless, over the past few years, the region has been undergoing great gentrification that cities like Kiev are actually becoming more or less pleasant cities to spent lots of time in, even for picky foreigners who’re used to Western handholding.
Dnipro is a bit behind in this regard. It’s quintessentially Eastern European in a sense that nobody really cares about whether you enjoyed the pasta dish in a restaurant or the fact that you don’t understand something in a supermarket. Customer service simply doesn’t exist.
Meeting people is surprisingly difficult here because, unlike in Kiev, where people are more cosmopolitan and are at least somewhat curious of people from other cities or countries, people here are more reserved and guarded.
Of course, it wasn’t like this with every person I met, there are plenty of friendly people who at least went out of their way to help you (mostly in department stores), but for the most part this city was decidedly unfriendlier than other Eastern European cities such as Kiev, St. Petersburg or even Bucharest.
The entire time I lived in the city, I spent a lot of time thinking about whether it’s a city I can make peace with and learn to love. And, indeed, if someone put a gun to my head and told me to live here or else, I would certainly find ways to adjust. It’s a city that has everything one would need for a comfortable life. There are great restaurants and coffee shops allowing you to have a great lifestyle for a fraction of the price elsewhere.
But, yet, even as I was writing the above paragraph, and even if I had a great job and a nice apartment, this city still would never be my first choice.
As someone who was born in Ukraine and speaks the language, I’ve had my share of challenges in the city but for the most part, I’m used to the Eastern European mindset and life, so the lack of “humanity” didn’t affect me all that much; it’s something I fully expect. However, I would never recommend this city to a foreigner. I can already see them complaining about how no one “gives a fuck” about their concerns.
Even the fact that this city is “hard,” can also be flipped on its head and become an advantage. I know many people who actually prefer Dnipro over the more cosmopolitan Kiev. It’s smaller, more navigable and the “hardness” of the city can be an advantage because people always keep their word and don’t flake on you in the last moment like they do in bigger cities.
Ultimately, I realized that regardless of what I thought and how much positive spin I can create around this city, I was still in a 2nd -tier city in Eastern Europe. And, in Eastern Europe, as my experience has proven again and again, the only livable places are really the 1st tier cities; everything else is too broken (both literally and metaphorically) to provide a decent quality of life.
Why live in a 2nd-tier city when I could just as easily be living in Kiev—a truly awesome city—where people and the architecture are much more friendlier and welcoming?
Thus, it seems that no matter where in Ukraine I travel to and live, all roads always lead back to Kiev.
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.
My last year’s sojourn in Thailand prompted me to view the world in a completely new way.
I spent a total of three months living in this amazing country. I started out by settling down in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s fifth largest city. Chiang Mai is one of those cities that’s just perfect for getting in, setting up camp and getting stuff done. The city’s major draw is that it’s not a huge and polluted megalopolis and also not some tiny and boring village. It’s super affordable (a nice apartment can be rented for only $250/month), very friendly, has tons of great restaurants (one of the best Mexican food I’ve ever had outside Mexico) and easy to get around. It’s also home to one of the most thriving digital nomad communities anywhere.
After spending a couple of months in Chiang Mai, I flew to a small tropical island in the southern part of the country near the Malaysian border. It was my reward for two months of hard work.
The island was so small that you can cross it from one shore to another in just thirty minutes. It’s probably one of the smallest islands in Thailand, a blip on the map compared to the more well-known islands such as Phuket (which has an international airport and shopping malls) or even the smaller Ko Samui (which also has an airport). In a way, it felt like living in a tiny village.
After sun tanning and eating delicious seafood on the island, I flew to the capital city of Bangkok. It was the perfect place to wrap up my three-month sojourn in this country. Bangkok was a big change from the calm village lifestyle of the past several weeks. The city is bigger than life and easily one of my favorite cities in the world. It’s a city that’s perpetually growing and changing; buildings are sprouting out like mushrooms, people are rushing from one place to another, everyone is trying to make money any way they can.
My rented apartment was a small condo in an area that was full of hotels. While I was walking around the area, I noticed that the people who worked in the hotels looked different from the affluent people who shopped in the fancy malls or dined in the nice restaurants. They seemed a lot friendlier too. My Thai friend explained to me that the people working in hotels were actually from a different part of Thailand, mostly from the improvised north. He also told me that most of the people in the services industry which mostly caters to tourists—from hotel front desk employees to the waiters in the restaurants—were also likely not from Bangkok but from the poorer parts of the country.
It was at that point that I realized something that had escaped me for a long time: big international cities are epicenters of globalization. In other words, what I saw wasn’t a city, at least an “organic” city like Chiang Mai. What I actually saw was a place where all kinds of different people mixed together, working at various jobs, jobs that didn’t exist back in the smaller city, jobs whose purpose was to serve a completely different class of people.
It was as though I had descended down on Earth from some distant planet and was witnessing an experiment unfolding before my own eyes. An artificial city of some sorts whose goal was to deliver the maximum value and returns to investors. Lots of money was being injected from inside Thailand as well as from the rest of the world. Lots of labor was imported from the rest of the country as well as from outside the country. And, coupled with technology and planning, many things were being built at breakneck speeds: hotels, office buildings, shopping centers, residential buildings, etc.
The most extreme example of this type of experiment is Dubai, a city I visited back in 2012. Dubai is extremely successful and prosperous. A big part of that is because of the oil, but also because of the productivity and openness to foreign trade, labor, and ideas. Almost all the services are run by foreigners. The police force is made up of Pakistanis. The teller who sold me tickets on the metro was Asian. The waiters in the restaurants were usually Filipinos. Not to mention the countless Western expats working for international oil companies.
My friend took me to a really nice restaurant in an affluent part of town. The restaurant had an Italian name and served Italian food. But apart from some Italian chef’s framed picture on the wall, there was nothing else Italian about the restaurant. The hostess was Filipino. The waiters were Indian. The chefs were Pakistanis. The security out in front was Egyptian. I suppose the food was Italian. In any case, it was pretty good.
Locals (Emiratis) don’t work. They’re wealthy and don’t need to work. In fact, I remember reading somewhere that the only place they work apart from government functions is the passport and customs control in the international airport. They’re usually out and about, eating at restaurants, shopping and socializing with friends.
Dubai works. It’s extremely safe. There are no income taxes. There’s minimal bureaucracy for things like forming your own company and getting a residence permit. The weather is warm year-round, great for those who hate cold weather like myself. (It gets pretty hot in the summer, though the strong and universal air-conditioning sort of makes up for it.)
The biggest problem with Dubai is that it sucks for those who aren’t going there for work. The city feels superficial. It sorely lacks a cultural aspect that defines cities like London or Paris. It’s also very expensive, about on the same level as New York City—if not more. And, if you’re a single man, brace yourself for a difficult time as it’s not exactly a great city for dating. (The latter seems to be a common theme in rich, capitalist cities.)
Dubai is certainly an extreme example of a city that’s meant to make money but sucks for everything else. Everything about it is designed for bringing in capital and labor and converting that into something great. In fact, most Western (and some non-Western) big cities around the world are very similar. They’re agents of capitalism, highly engineered for productivity and the maximization of investor returns while sorely lacking in the “quality of life” department.
The Russian meat grinder
New York City, San Francisco, and Moscow
There’s another wealthy capitalist city that immediately comes to mind: New York City. I spent over a decade living in NYC and it’s still my home base in America.
I’ve met tons of people around the world who’d kill to work and live in New York City. Obviously, one of the bigger reasons is the higher salary. But why is the salary higher? Because the cost of living is higher. Why is the cost of living so high? Because it’s a place with a massive confluence of money (i.e., Wall Street) and lots of people who’re feverishly working, trying to build something new. This cooperation of money being invested into productive labor leads to prosperity. That’s why everything is more expensive.
Then there’s San Francisco, a city where I spent eight years working for all kinds of companies, big and small. San Francisco always seems to be in the middle of some tech boom. Now is one of those times. There’s a lot of investment money that’s flooding the local economy. As a result of the influx of high tech workers from around the world, renting a small apartment in an average neighborhood would set you back anywhere from $3-4,000/month and up. New York City and many other big world cities are the same way. Expensive, chaotic, filled with opportunities for up-and-coming people fresh out of college, but also have their downsides such as increased crime and chaos.
San Francisco is a picturesque city with comfortable weather year-round, but there’s little reason to live there if you’re not building your own multi-million (or billion) dollar startup or investing in one. As the result of all the capital flowing into the city, it’s being priced out for everyone who isn’t in the tech space. In fact, even tech employees are having a hard time making ends meet.
Last but not least, there’s Moscow, a city that has been completely transformed from the central planning capital of the Soviet Union to a rich capitalistic city. Moscow is rich chiefly because Russia’s wealth is concentrated there. While I enjoy visiting Moscow, it’s definitely not a city I’d ever live in. It’s just another huge and unfriendly megapolis. Russians even have a nickname for it: мясорубка (meat grinder). It’s an apt nickname because meat grinder is what you go through when you live and work in Moscow. People work long hours and barely have enough to get by. It’s a place of great inequality: on one side, you have very rich people looking to even make more money and, on another hand, you have people who’re struggling just to survive.
Making the rich even richer
Great places for rich or up-and-coming
What all these cities have in common is that they’re great places for the super rich, super ambitious who want to become rich or die trying, or for those who have no other options but to slave away, trading their time for money aka the “9-5” lifestyle. New York City is expensive because there’s a lot of wealth in the form of productivity and lots of money being moved around. It’s home to Wall Street and the seemingly unlimited funding potential that comes with it. If you’re someone from a poorer country such as Afghanistan or Venezuela, you can do a lot worse than to move and live in New York City.
San Francisco is rich because it’s the world’s high tech hub. That’s the place where the greatest tech innovation happens. It’s home to almost all tech giants (e.g., Facebook, Airbnb, Twitter, eBay, Intel, Google, etc, etc) mostly because there are lots of tech employees and venture capitalists. Tech employees move there because there are lots of tech companies who want to hire them. This positive loop creates powerful effects that are hard to duplicate anywhere else.
But if you aren’t part of this economy, if your main source of income is from somewhere else (like worldwide clients), then you’re effectively inflicting a pay cut by choosing to live in such cities.
For example, let’s say you have an online business that’s generating $2,000 per month (a modest income, since most online businesses make a lot more). Here’s a trivia question: is $2,000/mo a lot of money or not? Answer: it depends on your purchasing power. Okay, but how is purchasing power determined? It’s determined by your productivity to others.
If you’re surrounded by more productive people whose skills are in higher demand than yours then your purchasing power will be lower. Conversely, if you’re surrounded by people whose skills are in lower demand than yours, then your purchasing power will be higher. Of course, that’s a massive oversimplification because I’m not accounting for many more variables.
A modest income of $2,000/mo is more than plenty in places like Chiang Mai, Buenos Aires or Bogotá. But if you’re planning to live in New York, San Francisco, or Moscow, you’ll have a very difficult time trying to make ends meet. Of course, you need to build out a modest passive income which, with the right tools, is actually pretty straightforward.
Don’t get me wrong. I like New York City. I think it’s truly a world-class city where you can have pretty much anything you want (for the right price). But as someone who makes almost all the money online and not from the local economy, my money is naturally worth less there than somewhere where the local economy isn’t as developed.
Since I’m not a hedge fund manager, a merger and acquisitions specialist, or a high-priced corporate attorney who needs to close multi-million (or multi-billion) dollar deals, living in NYC automatically devalues my income. There’s little reason for someone like me to pay the entry fee by residing in the city while getting little benefits in return. From a business standpoint, living in a city like NYC would be a very poor ROI (return on investment).
So, if I can have a much higher quality of life in places like Buenos Aires, Kiev or Chiang Mai, what’s the point of spending more somewhere else? To be sure, a city like Kiev might not match New York’s caliber of Broadway shows, but as the capital of a big country, there’s plenty of cultural things to see and experience.
What makes cities like Buenos Aires, Kiev and Chiang Mai (and many others) so alluring is the fact that they’re just normal cities without a huge influx of money that demolishes everyone else’s standard of living. They are desirable because they’re the exact opposite of cities like New York and San Francisco.
Power of globalization
All of this is happening because of a force called globalization. Regardless what you may think, globalization is unstoppable. As the world interconnects, capital goes where the returns are higher. If a company can make quality shoes cheaper in China than in America, it will make them in China. If a high tech startup needs to raise funding, it needs to go where the money is; most likely that will be San Francisco. It’s economics 101.
Globalization is the reason for the concentration of wealth in certain cities and not others. A city like Buenos Aires (a very picturesque, pleasant and livable city) will unlikely become super rich anytime soon. At this point, it doesn’t have much to offer to attract the world’s wealth. Although that may change in the future. Same for cities like Chiang Mai, Vilnius, Belgrade and Kiev. They’re just ordinary cities with an ordinary local economy. They’re beautiful and cultural. They provide a high quality of life without draining your bank account. And they don’t require you to toil 120-hour weeks for some overly ambitious startup in order to afford to rent a tiny apartment (or room).
So, unless you’re a super rich billionaire who’s looking to make more billions, or an ambitious entrepreneur who’s looking to make those billions or die trying, or someone whose mission in life is to slave for the previous two, you can do a lot worse than to live in a place where globalization has improved the quality of life without also destroying the moral fabric that furnishes the city with its beautiful soul.