Kiev, Ukraine Report of what it's like to live there - 11/25/15

Personal Experiences from Kiev, Ukraine

Kiev, Ukraine 11/25/15

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

No. Nuevo Laredo, Mexico; Vancouver, Canada

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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?

Washington, D.C. It takes about 13-16 hours, with a stop in Amsterdam or Paris.

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3. How long have you lived here?

1 year out of a 2-year tour.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Spouse of government employee.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Embassy housing is a mix of large apartments in the city (for singles, couples, and small families) and large houses with yards near the NEC (for larger families). Commute for us (near the city center) is anywhere from 15-45 minutes, depending on traffic, but some people who live relatively close to us have a longer commute because of local traffic patterns.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

It hasn't been hard to find most things. You can even find marshmallows and peanut butter (admittedly, not all the time, and for a price!). Find local things that you like! We love the "orange" cookies (about as sweet as animal crackers, but with an orange flavor; you can also get ones with a nut flavor).

Things you can't find: there is no such thing as whole wheat flour or even all purpose, apparently. It's all bleached, as far as I can tell. Sometimes I buy flour from the embassy commissary or Amazon, but mostly I just use the local stuff, which runs about 60-75 cents for a 2 kg bag. You can also buy rye flour. I would bring hot sauces and Mexican spices, peanut butter, refried beans, chocolate chips, brown sugar, canned pumpkin, baking powder, vanilla extract, stuffing/dressing, etc., unless you want to pay commissary prices or ship from Amazon (can't do that for liquids). You can find flour tortillas, but they are pretty awful. We order tortillas from Amazon and refried beans through bulk shipment through the US embassy commissary. Last year, after buying a turkey at the commissary, we discovered we could have bought one at one of the local markets ("Zhytny Rynok" in Podil). They have some US brands of shampoo, toothpaste, etc. It all seems fine and not too expensive. Have not found bleach anywhere, though.

Local rynoks (markets) are great for cheap and high quality produce, as well as spices, meats, fish, etc. One of our house guests bought saffron for an amazingly low price at a rynok. The least expensive hypermarket is a French chain called Auchan. There are also Megamarket, Cilpo, Furshet, and Billa. There is a Billa within walking distance of our apartment that does in a pinch, but if we have a lot to get, we go to the Auchan at Sky Mall. If you want shampoo, laundry detergent, cleaners, toothpaste, etc., you can find it at the hypermarkets like Auchan, but otherwise, you need to go to an "Apteka" like Watson's or Eva for that stuff (similar to CVS). You also see people selling produce on the street with little stands they set up, but this is seasonal (parts of summer and fall).

Produce tends to be seasonal; in winter, there is not a lot of fruit available besides oranges, apples, and bananas, for example. You sometimes have better luck at the rynok than in the grocery stores, though.

As a side note, electronics cost more like 1.5-2 times what they do in the US. You can buy something like a stand mixer for a little more than the price you'd pay in the States, but the quality is lower.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

I would bring hot sauces and Mexican spices, peanut butter, refried beans, chocolate chips, brown sugar, powdered sugar, canned pumpkin, baking powder, vanilla extract, stuffing/dressing, unless you want to pay commissary prices or ship from Amazon (can't do that for liquids, though). Toys and clothes are more expensive here, so I buy those online.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Domino's, McDonald's. Really cheap. Restaurants in general are cheap, but sometimes for three people to eat at McD's only costs US$10. A decent restaurant outing will cost maybe US$20-30 for a really nice meal for three.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

None. Have hardly seen any insects.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Diplomatic pouch through the Embassy.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

We pay our half-time housekeeper US$5 an hour.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Embassy has a gym, but otherwise I'm not sure; we brought our own elliptical.

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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?

We use the ATM at the Embassy or cash checks there. Otherwise, we have used CC in lots of places with no problems. Auchan, restaurants, electronics stores. It's all fine, though we were initially concerned. We keep a close eye on things, but no fraud so far.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

There are some, but I don't know from personal experience.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

You need to know either Russian or Ukrainian, preferably Russian. We learned Ukrainian, but Russian is more useful here by far; I regret that I didn't learn Russian, actually. Although for political reasons there is talk that people speak more Ukrainian now, my experience in Kyiv has been that people will speak back to me in Russian, and the languages are not that similar, so I have to ask them to speak Ukrainian in order to understand them. Most people assume that if I speak a little Ukrainian, I also speak Russian, so it's been a struggle. Almost all the TV programming is in Russian, though you sometimes get a show that has Ukrainian subtitles, so you can't immerse yourself in the local language if you studied Ukrainian. And people will speak a mix on TV talk shows and news programs, so even if the interviewer speaks in Ukrainian often everyone else speaks back in Russian. Ukrainian is really looked down on by some as the language of the villages ("peasants," some people say), in contrast to urban (and urbane) Russian. My spouse says he meets a lot of people who speak English, but, except in Lviv, where there are lots of tourists (and they also speak Ukrainian!), I have not found that to be the case.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

It would be hard. No elevators for metro stations; broken sidewalks are common.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Don't know about buses, but metro and taxis are safe and affordable. Metro is about 20 cents a ride.

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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?

All-wheel drive is invaluable in the winter. We were able to get out of a sticky situation where we would have been hit by a sliding car on a hill by driving up onto the sidewalk in a snowstorm (and we just have regular, all-weather tires).

Service is okay and available for most types of cars, but one family we know had their car catch on fire because they used a part made for a European model of their car instead of one for the American model (we're not talking an American car, though).

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Yes; great and cheap. The wireless router they provide isn't so great, though. Lots of dropped signal problems. You might want to buy your own.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

We brought an unlocked phone and got a pay-as-you-go plan. Works great.

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Pets:

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?

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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?

Teaching in international schools. Don't know of others.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Similar to eastern US (I say this as someone originally from the more casual western US). There's talk about how the women wear high heels even in the winter on icy sidewalks, but I have found that to be a myth. I stand outside downtown waiting for my daughter's bus every day, and I see maybe 1 woman in 20 wearing moderately high heels. I have hardly ever seen anyone dressed up in the stereotypical clothes you hear about. You see more of that at the airport than on city streets, for some reason. That said, you will see more fur coats. People do wear jeans, though maybe less than in the US.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

In Kyiv, not really. There are occasional protests. Have heard about some break ins, but haven't had any problems. Keep in mind there are still travel warnings for some parts of the country, and the conflict with Russia is ongoing. Sometimes there is concern about availability of gas or electricity, but so far it hasn't been an issue in Kyiv.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Well, some of us have class 2 clearance, and we're still able to be here. I had emergency eye surgery for a detached retina, and the only place they do that here is at the state hospital; no private facility. Not an experience you want, but everything turned out okay. That said, no soap or toilet paper in the bathrooms was a bit of a shock (you have to bring your own), no consulting rooms (talk about your case in the hallway), and antiquated equipment and facilities. The private eye clinic where I did my follow-up is fine, but you do need to watch out and be proactive (educate yourself, get a second opinion, whatever), for they love to recommend procedures or treatments whose efficacy is not always evidence based. For example, they wanted my daughter to start patching her eye again for amblyopia (lazy eye), but her surgeon in Virginia recommended against this, because her eyes need to learn to work together, and she is not likely to get any significant improvement in vision in that eye from patching at this point.

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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?

It's fine. On two occasions in the past year, we had warnings to stay inside because of high levels of pollutants. One was due to a forest fire outside the city. But in general, it's normal for a big city.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

Seasonal allergies in spring and fall for some people.

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5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

It's cold in the winter (with temps in the 20s and 30s F), but it's hard to predict how much snow you'll get. We had only three significant snow storms last winter, and this winter, none so far (nearing the end of November). The locals say every year is different, so some years you might get a lot of snow, and other years, hardly any. Supposedly most snowfall is in February and March. It's no worse than US cities like Buffalo, NY, but with less snow. Summers are moderately hot (mostly 80s, with some 90s F); it was hot enough to use the AC in our apartment for several months. Spring and fall are quite pleasant.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

Our daughter goes to Kyiv International School, and we love it (she is in elementary school). Pluses include smaller class sizes than PSI (15 is the limit at KIS), and kids have swimming lessons weekly (they have an indoor pool), and a number of choices for second-language learning (starting in grade 1, they can take French, Spanish, German, Ukrainian, or Russian). Also, she has had fabulous teachers, who are really responsive to any concerns and work with students to help them learn to overcome problems. Our only gripe is that we think the homework assigned is too much for grade 1.

Pechersk School International is also supposed to be really good; lots of people are very happy with it. PSI class sizes are larger, but some people think it is better academically. My daughter's classes have had 11 and 13 students, respectively, for the school years she has attended (with a teacher and an assistant teacher); at PSI, she would have been in a class of 20. In addition, for elementary school, I have found that KIS is quite academic. The teachers are excellent, and my daughter is not bored, even though she's ahead in some subjects. For example, my daughter reads above grade level, and she is allowed to read books at her level. The teacher did an excellent evaluation to establish her level and then they make sure she has books available at her level. She also has been given more difficult homework in math when she was able to understand concepts that her classmates couldn't.

Another consideration is commute: from downtown, commute times for the bus to PSI are longer. Our daughter spends about 25 minutes on the bus each way (sometimes 30 in the afternoon). That said, it depends where you live downtown, because some of her friends have a 45 minute commute to KIS.

Overall, we have heard good things about both schools. Some people have had trouble with bullying at KIS; we personally know someone whose older children experienced bullying there and moved the kids to PSI, where they are happier. There is a new director for KIS, and he seems quite responsive, so this is being addressed. It does not appear to be a problem in elementary grades, and we haven't had any issues.

Some people send their kids to the British school. I haven't heard much about it, but one family finds that they don't communicate very well with parents.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

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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 have known people who sent their kids to local preschools so they could learn Russian (or because they already know Russian). Some use nannies.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

As far as I know, only in school. Various sports for middle and high school students through school. Also, soccer on weekends for elementary and MS kids run by the school.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Pretty large; morale seems good. Lots of people extend. It's a hardship post, but a fairly easy one.

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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?

Eat at fabulous restaurants. Movies are all in either Russian or Ukrainian. Kids will love the malls. The malls have everything: skiing, bowling, small amusement park rides, arcades, ice skating rinks, indoor playgrounds. And more!

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

All.

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Probably not. There are efforts underway to change this, but it is a pretty homophobic society.

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5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

I have heard there are racial prejudices but I can't speak from personal experience. As for gender, yes; both men and women are biased. Ideas such as "women can't drive," "men can't do housework," etc., are prevalent among both men and women.

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6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Visiting Lviv; an amazing and beautiful European city with a medieval city center. People actually speak Ukrainian there as well, unlike Kyiv.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Go to Lviv! Just do it! It's an hour's inexpensive flight away, and you can get some amazing food there, as well as climb to the top of city hall for a panoramic view of the whole city! There are always things to do in Kyiv as well, such as the botanical gardens, various parks, etc.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Matryoshka dolls, chocolate from the Lviv Chocolate Factory, traditional shirts (vyshyvankas).

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9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

You can easily save money. Inexpensive and delicious local food. Amazing Georgian restaurants, as well as other regional cuisine. Lots to see and do in the city. Groceries are not expensive if you buy local or sometimes European brands. Inexpensive regional wines. I'm told some are quite good, but I am not a wine-drinker, so I can't speak from personal experience.

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10. Can you save money?

Yes, absolutely.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

That everyone in Kyiv speaks Russian, and they prefer not to switch to Ukrainian.

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yes.

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3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Dog dazers; ours has never come out of the box. We read about all the stray dogs before we came, but we have seen hardly any - far fewer than in Mexico.

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4. But don't forget your:

Love of sour cream and dill! Winter clothing/boots, yaktrax, snow suits.

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

Orange Revolution (documentary, 2007).

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6. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Anything by Taras Shevchenko.

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