Kiev, Ukraine Report of what it's like to live there - 06/15/15
Personal Experiences from Kiev, Ukraine
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
Niamey, Niger; Moscow, Russia; Bucharest, Romania. This is our 4th overseas post.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
We are from California, it's a long trip home. Kyiv to St. Paul or Chicago to San Francisco. Twenty hours travel time plus or minus. East coast is of course a quicker trip.
3. How long have you lived here?
Have been here for one school year. Two more to go.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Husband is a State Department employee.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
You have to decide between a city apartment and a suburban house. The Embassy is about five miles away from the city center. City apartment means it feels like you live in Europe with an efficient metro, cafes and museums out your door. Suburban house means a shorter commute and you live in a neighborhood of dachas where all the houses have established fruit trees in the yard. Dacha life is great for kids and pets, but you will feel isolated and out of touch with the city.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Lots of grocery stores with everything you could need. Produce is pretty much whatever is in season. Coming from California I miss year round melons and berries, but when they are in season here, they are gorgeous and more flavorful than what you would get at Trader Joe's. Of course there aren't the prepared foods that we have in the U.S. You will be washing lettuce and cutting up your own fruit and veggies. Some people hire cooks. The beef isn't so great, but the pork, turkey and chicken are. Lots of dairy (however no Greek yogurt or many non-fat options). Even good tofu. Prices are maybe half what are in the U.S. We spend about US$100 a week at the grocery store for a family of three, and that's with meat and wine.
Manicure, pedicure US$20. One hour massage: US$20
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Since there isn't a DPO, send a small amount of your favorite liquids in your UAB. When you are home buy perfume, nail polish and hair coloring since regardless of size, they can't be mailed via pouch. (Hair color will sometimes come through the pouch.) Of course they have it all here, but maybe not exactly what you would buy if you were home.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Lots of restaurants with good food, from brew pubs to pizza to lovely Italian and French. Many set up terraces once the weather is nice. And you won't have to miss Dominoes or McDonald's. My son gets a Big Mac, fries, a drink, a side of chicken nuggets and an apple pie and it's about US$4 for all.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
None to speak of.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Pouch mail to the Embassy. No DPO.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
We pay US$7 an hour, which is probably high, but she's nice, trustworthy and good. Most everyone who works has some kind of household help.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There is a gym and classes at the Embassy and lots of clubs. People are sportive and you can play soccer or go running -- you will find a group.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
My ATM card doesn't work here. Lots of people just use cash, and so do I. My husband's card works fine (Chase Bank, no explaination) in the grocery store, at most shops downtown, at most ATMs,and he's yet to be hacked. Most people are more paranoid than we are, but we've never had a problem.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
I can count to five, say hello and good bye and point really well and I get by just fine. But my husband speaks Russian so he deals wtih the landlord when he comes by and he calls the dog groomer to make an appointment. It certainly helps if someone in the house can order pizza on the phone in either Russian or Ukrainian. People try to speak English now and then, but it's evident they haven't had a big push to learn English here. President Proshenko says 2016 is going to be "The Year of English." Hopefully then the theaters will start playing English-language movies in English with Ukrainian subtitles, rather than dubbing.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Never see people in wheelchairs. At work, if you are at the Embassy, it would be fine. Out and about, not many accomadations are made in terms of structures. However, the people are nice and would help you cross a street or manouver around a problem if you have visual or motor disablities. I do see handicapped parking spaces.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Taxis are everywhere but I OFTEN have a hard time getting one to come out to my house in the suburbs. The people who lived in our house before said that a second car was going to be a necessity and now I see their point. However, I hate to drive here, so I stick to walking and taking taxis when I can get them. If you live in town the metro is safe and affordable and everyone takes it to work at the Embassy. If you live in a stand alone house by the Embassy, your commute will be no more than ten minutes. I often walk or jog home.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
We have an indestructable Toyota Land Cruiser; sometimes it's hard to find a parking spot, but otherwise it's fine. Any car would be fine here--sedan or SUV.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Fast and cheap, maybe US$15 a month for DSL. This was the first post we ever got to that the internet was up and running in the house when we got here! What a treat!
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Sim card for my iPhone with unlimited texts, as many phone calls as I've ever wanted to make and all the data I can use cost US$4 a month. Of course, every few months it won't work at all and I have to take it the phone place and have them change the settings, but normally, it's fine and very cheap.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
Have your pet passport up to date. It's not Europe, so a little more complicated. Good vets and groomers though.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
A well-eduated work force makes that seem unlikely, but they do need English teachers. The schools hire Americans for sure. It looks to me that everyone who wants to work is working.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
With million or more Internally Displaced Persons due to the war, if you can't find something to rally around, you can't blame Ukraine.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
It's Europe: people dress up.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
There is a war going on. You can't travel to the East. You can maybe still go to Odessa but you have to let RSO know and keep up with the latest.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Medicine isn't to Western standards but the med unit at the Embassy is awesome. The dentistry is good though, especially for routine care.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Sometimes it seems terrible--I open the windows and it smells like exhaust. Most of the time fine though.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Lots of trees and greenery means lots of pollen in the spring.
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Four seasons. Winter was long and gray, but in the spring the city is transformed to green!
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There is KIS, the Christian school, the Bristish School and PSI. There is also a French school. Our son started 8th grade at KIS which has a super nice campus, near our house. He hated it. It's hard to tell if it was the transfer talking (he was super happy at our previous post) or a real problem, but he was called names daily and even the teachers were tough on him. (In the first week he was sent to detention twice. It hadn't happened any time in his entire life, and hasn't happened since, he's not that kind of kid. He said the teacher assistant who watches the kids in dentention was one of the nicest people he met at the school though, so there's that.) We transferred him to the smaller, further away and less posh PSI (although the former president's girlfriend's daughter is in his class). He's happy at PSI despite of the long bus ride. LOTS of people send their kids to KIS and absolutely love it. PSI has been a better fit for our kid.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
I think KIS is the most accomodating.
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
I don't have a preschooler, but people seem happy. Ask CLO for a list.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
All the normal after-school activies are available.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
American morale is fine, especially once the winter is over.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Walk in the botanical gardens, museums, art exhibits, music, ballet, dinner at friends, street fairs.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Good for families for sure. Everyone can enjoy the exciting times at work, the restaurants, ability to save money and affordable travel to Europe. People working at the Embassy will be consumed by work, it's interesting and hard to look away. If I were not working, I would look into doing one of the English-language advanced degree program available. It would take some searching to find a fit, but it would be interesting.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Sadly, the LGBT pride parade had to be held in an undisclosed location this year. However, there is a feeling that "gay-bashing" = "Putin" so the culture feels like they are making a gear-grinding shift to a more Western vibe in terms of LGBT acceptance. Young people are young people and seem accepting of everything. It isn't San Francisco but it's certainly not Moscow.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Men hold open the doors, women wear heels. I'm white and not really religious so I can't speak to this. I don't hear about problems though.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
The incredible lilacs in the botanical garden, our favorite restaurant Citronelle that makes great French food, has a guy playing the piano most nights, and serves amazing home-made teas. And for Americans, everything is so inexpensive.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Visit the world heritage sites, botanical gardens and restaurants. We recently discovered the Admiral Club, a really nice place to spend the day a few miles out of town. Three swimming pools, cafes and restaurants in a gorgeous wooded setting make the warm summer days feel like you are on vacation, even though you are only a few miles from Kyiv.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Art and textiles, and if you don't like fur yet, you won't be able to get enough of it after your first winter. You'll need more than one pair of boots because you'll wear them every day for months. Maybe you'll pick up some fake Channel or Prada so you can blend in.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Well, it's the nicest war zone you'd ever want to live in.
We'd heard it described as "Moscow Lite" but having lived in Moscow, where we extended, and having been posted previously in Bucharest, I'd call it more, "Ultra Eastern Europe."
The differentials (currently 20% hardship) make it the first place we've EVER saved money. Flights to other countries are reasonable and even the locals travel to Cyprus, Tel Aviv, Prague and Vienna. Travel within Europe is do-able.
The winter was long and grey, slushy and wet. But it was never what I thought of when I think, "Winter in Ukraine." Moscow was MUCH colder and darker.
Nearly every Ukrainian has a friend or family member fighting in the east, and the Embassy has employees who have been drafted. The war never stops and it keeps Ukraine on the map in Washington--employees at the Embassy are very busy and there are a ton of TDYers. Lots of VIP visits to the Embassy. History is made daily.
10. Can you save money?
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes, we even extended.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Wish to see Chekhov's house in Yalta, the Swallowsnest Castle and other sites in gorgeous Crimea that you won't be able to visit due to Russia's illegal annexation of the area and the conflict in the east.
3. But don't forget your:
Patience while standing in the dip line behind non-dip locals who like the shorter line.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
The Economist, which named it "Books of the Year" says:
"How Stalin and Hitler enabled each other's crimes and killed 14m people between the Baltic and the Black Sea. A lifetime's work by a Yale University historian who deserves to be read and reread. Bloodlands is not a fun read, but it explains the region like no other book can. It's very dark, but brings to light crucial information and ties it all together in a way that makes current events make "sense," if that's possible.