The past semester with SRAS’ Policy and Conflict program has been full of amazing adventures, a lot of Russian practice, travel throughout four countries (Georgia, Armenia, Moldova, and Ukraine), delicious food, and certainly several moments of pure culture shock. There were a few times I learned some lessons the hard way, but I ultimately survived just fine. Looking back, I couldn’t be more grateful for my experiences, and I’d do it all over again if I had the chance.
- Careful with the Tap Water. Of course, I should’ve read about the drinking water before I arrived in Kyiv, but after spending a few weeks in Georgia, where the tap water is safe to drink, I didn’t give it much thought. Luckily, I didn’t get sick from Kyiv’s tap water, but I almost gave my host mom a heart attack when she saw where I was getting my water from. Needless to say, I only drank bottled water from then on out. (Note: A 0.5L bottle of water in Kyiv can be found for 5 UAH $0.20)
- Direction is Subjective. The Dnieper River runs, from north to south, through Kyiv, creating the left and right banks. You might assume that West should be left… but the locals read the river not with north the natural starting point – but with the direction the river flows. Since the river flows south to the Black Sea, the two sides of the river bank are oriented opposite of a compass. The banks are often used in everyday discussion, so be careful.
- Public Transport is Awesome. Regardless of which side of the river you live on, you can easily get to any part of the city by either bus or the metro. In my opinion, the Kyiv Metro is amazingly efficient, especially during weekdays. The metro has three lines, and costs a standard price of 5 UAH (~$0.20) per ride. Although, be warned, since the metro is so efficient and reliable, it is packed at nearly all times.
- Municipal Heating is a Thing. Most buildings around the city receive centrally-produced heating. It comes from the super-heated water used to produce electricity at power plants. Instead of storing the water in cooling pools, it’s piped to homes for heating and hot water. The water is a usable, safe temperature when it arrives and the central heating, at least the year I was here, was turned on before the temperature dropped too low. Interior rooms in buildings have radiators and/or exposed pipes to provide heating. Further, this means that most families in Kyiv don’t own clothes dryers; my host mom taught me how to lay my clothes along the coils to dry. To my great surprise, this was just as efficient as my clothes dryer back in the US.
- Medicine Doesn’t Have to be Expensive. Coming from a country where antibiotics and prescriptions are highly regulated and sometimes difficult to obtain, I was utterly shocked to discover that prescriptions are not required for most medications in Ukraine (there are, of course, exceptions to this). You can essentially walk into any pharmacy, state your desired medication, and purchase it almost instantly. Before leaving the US, I stocked up on one of my medications that I would need for my year abroad, which ended up costing me quite a bit of money. Come to find out, the exact same medication could be purchased in Kyiv for almost a quarter of the price I paid in the US. Definitely check on local availability before doing this – not all medications are available, but if they are, they may well be cheaper. Ask your doctor or call the manufacturer of the medication.
- Hard Shells Often Cover Warm Centers. Be patient with locals; don’t get offended when they don’t open up to you easily. Many Ukrainians are very friendly and will gladly help you if you need assistance with directions or basic information, but there are some people who aren’t as warm and welcoming. However, once you “break the ice” a little bit with a local, you get to see how kind the Ukrainian people really are. Also, smiling at strangers on the streets isn’t common in Ukraine, and it’s actually viewed as quite strange, so don’t feel bad if your smile isn’t returned!
- Language Can Be Political. Kyiv is a language hub. Many people speak English, especially younger Ukrainians. Nearly the entire population can also converse in Russian. However, due to the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine, some people want to speak only Ukrainian, and not Russian. I only ran into this a few times during my stay in Kyiv, and most of the people understood that I was a student working on my language skills. However, I strongly recommend learning a few basic words in Ukrainian. This can be helpful as many signs and labels are in Ukrainian. It’s also interesting – as Russian and Ukrainian are similar, but do have significant differences. Most of all, though, any Ukrainian will take this as a sign of respect and endearment. Kyiv is a great place to learn and practice Russian. But you shouldn’t forget that it is a Ukrainian city.
Overall, my fall semester in Kyiv was beyond memorable. I was able to greatly expand my language skills, meet people from all over Eastern Europe, and come to fully grasp the dynamic of the Ukrainian society. I couldn’t have asked for a more enlightening semester, and the PCON program in Kyiv, Ukraine has my highest recommendation for anyone interested in studying the post-Soviet region.