Kiev, Ukraine Report of what it's like to live there - 07/24/16
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?
No. Previously served in Dhaka, Bangladesh and Beijing, China.
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, DC. Connections are usually through Amsterdam or Munich these days. All told, time in the air is about 13 hours, with usually a longish (3-5 hours) layover.
3. How long have you lived here?
Two years, from June 2014 to June 2016.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Work at the U.S. Embassy.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
We loved our apartment! Gorgeous, updated, huge apartment in the dead center of the city, easy walking distance from all three metro lines. Housing tended to fall into three categories:
1) Apartments in the old Embassy area - this still counts as the center of the city, but it's sort of the edge of the center. Some people appreciate that it's relatively central but still quiet, but frankly I did not love this area...no metro right nearby, and it was a bit shabbier looking than the real center. But there were some good grocery stores in the area, and if you drive to work, the driving commute is shorter than from the true city center.
2) City center apartments - where I lived and loved it. If you like getting out to restaurants and bars and exploring cities by public transit, this is your best option. Traffic gets pretty bad though, so some drivers did not like it. Also, most of this housing was not near large green spaces, making it tough on families with kids. There are also a few Embassy apartments in Podil, which is a nice area that is central but not dead center that mixes quieter streets with lots of commercial activities and places to eat, go out, etc. But only a few people lived there.
3) Houses on the outskirts of town - this was a fairly new but growing (by popular demand) part of the housing pool during my two years at post. If you can get one of the new houses just around the corner from the Embassy (which is located quite far from the center of the city), you get a very short commute, and generally a very nice, large house with great backyard. Many people with kids and pets loved this options. But if you prefer urban living and don't want to have a car, this would not be for you.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Groceries and pretty much everything else was insanely cheap. I have been back in the U.S. a month and basically weep every time I go to the grocery store. Selection is very good if you go to one of the more high-end supermarkets, like Le Silpo or one of the newly renovated Silpos. I didn't have as much luck with the big hypermarkets - they were huge, but the quality of selection wasn't always that great. They won't have super American packaged/processed foods the same way as in the U.S., but the selection of European products is outstanding and so so much cheaper than in the U.S. So enjoy the artisan handmade Italian pastas, the French canned foie gras, the jamon from Spain... without the Whole Foods sticker shock.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
We are usually not big on shipping a lot of stuff - we definitely shipped a better brand of baking powder because the one at the commissary made our pancakes taste sour. I also shipped some toiletries (for which I am brand-picky) from the U.S. but not as many as at previous posts.
If you cook a lot of Mexican or Asian food (or anything else that isn't European) you may want to ship ingredients. Basic Tex-Mex supermarket stuff can be purchased at the Commissary, but more authentic items would be hard to find.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Depends what you like. We found the local restaurant scene to be fun to explore (especially given low prices) but there wasn't a wide selection of non-European foods. For delivery, we usually got pizza from Il Molino or Vesuvio, local Ukrainian food from Varenichnaya Katyusha, sushi from Sushi-ya, or Georgian food from Chachapuri. We tried Wok2Go for sort of pan-Asian but it wasn't that great.
I could list restaurants all day, but some of our faves: Shynok and Khutorets for Ukrainian, Kiflik for Carpathian, Lyubymy Dyadya for modern European/Israeli, Kosatka and Barbara Bar for great comfort food and a great bar by night, Citronelle and Graine de Moutarde for French, Vero Vero, Vino e Cucina, and Pizzeria Napuli for Italian, Arbequina for Spanish, Dogs & Tails, Syndicate, and Crab's Burger for various American-ish experiences, Himalaya for Indian, Fujiwara Yoshi for Japanese, and Bao for Chinese. Best desserts at Milk Bar, followed by Honey.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
We had some silverfish but nothing else.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Diplomatic pouch. For stuff ordered within the country, Nova Poshta. Do NOT trust local post.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Families with kids tended to hire full-time nannies and housekeepers. Most singles and couples without kids tended to hire someone to clean one day a week. We did the latter, paying $5/hour ($25/visit) for a full cleaning of our apartment, plus doing laundry and running errands.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Embassy has a gym. There are local gyms too as well as ones inside international hotels. Hotel ones are very expensive; local ones vary widely in price and quality. Also facilities for yoga, aerobic-dance-type classes, etc.
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?
Some people at the Embassy are very paranoid and don't use ATMs or credit cards outside of the Embassy. The Regional Security Office (RSO) also makes this recommendation. However, we used our credit cards constantly at (relatively upscale) supermarkets and restaurants without incident. We used ATMs a few times - with that, card skimmers are an issue, so if we ran out of money on the weekend and couldn't get to the Embassy cashier or ATM, we tried to use one inside an international hotel since the lobbies are monitored (we lived right by the Hyatt).
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
English levels vary widely, but I would say the more of the local language you know, the better. For daily interactions on the street in Kyiv, you'll get farther with Russian than Ukrainian (but if you're working, all official meetings will be in Ukrainian - so I found studying both to be important). Local language classes/tutors are readily available and not expensive - but note that it is far easier to find a teacher of Russian than Ukrainian in Kyiv (and some people will claim they can also teach Ukrainian, but if you're going beyond the basic level, you want someone who is really a Ukrainian speaker to teach you).
6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
YES. We had a Paralympic athlete visit as a speaker, and she pointed out the lack of curb cuts, ramps, and elevators on the street and entering/exiting underpasses and public transit. Note that, unlike in U.S. cities, many major arteries in the city cannot be crossed above ground, and the underpasses are not usually accessible at all.
Ukrainians are just starting to grapple with this issue, especially with many young wounded vets from the conflict in the East. A major TV news host traveled the city in a wheelchair one day in a filmed segment and found it nearly impossible to get around. But slightly increased awareness has not yet led to action.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Yes. We took taxis constantly - sometimes drivers are a bit crazy compared to the U.S. but not as bad as in some countries. Using the most expensive cab service (the only one that regularly had seat belts in the backseat), you would still rarely pay more than $4 for a trip. Metro, buses, and trams are safe and very affordable, but be watchful against pickpockets.
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 did not have a car at post and never regretted the decision. Taxis were so cheap that we basically calculated that we still saved money taking taxis everywhere we felt like going. And it was easy and reliable to call cabs. If you do have a car, winter tires are a must.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes, high-speed, high-quality, quick installation, not expensive.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
We had local mobile service on our work phones so we chose to keep U.S. T Mobile service. They had free international data so we could text and use internet on that without paying extra (and it already worked upon landing in other countries we visited while on vacation). Whether you use a local or U.S. provider, the fastest data you can get in Ukraine in 3G - and it's really slow 3G at that.
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?
Many U.S. Embassy spouses work inside the Mission. Some teach at international schools. A few worked at international NGOs or telecommuted. Salaries are so, so low at purely local entities... which is why most worked for international employers.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Lots of orphanages and facilities for those displaced by the war in the East. Working with veterans wounded in the war.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
We only wore black tie to Marine Ball. Work dress was business attire (though Ukrainian women weren't really into pant- or skirt-suits - they tended to wear stylish dresses or blouses and skirts/pants to work. Many Ukrainian workplaces are also more casual than the U.S. Embassy so a lot of Ukrainian women even go to work in jeans).
Ukrainians dress up a bit more for errands and such than Americans would, but truly the culture is changing - in the regions, there are still heels and clubbing clothes on the sidewalks, but in Kyiv, most women walk the sidewalks in flats and wear stylish clothes that would fit in anywhere. Men wear shorts when it's hot in the summer nowadays. However, they have not adopted the American habit of running all errands in exercise gear.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Not really... the conflict in the East is far away. I felt much safer on the streets in Kyiv than in DC.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Quality of medical care is not supposed to be that great, so major issues get you medevaced to London, including for prenatal checks. But I did a few tests at local medical facilities (private ones) and found the facilities to be up-to-date and comfortable to visit.
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?
Good, except for that week when there was some strange peat fire burning outside the city and everything smelled like smoke.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Seasonal allergy season in Ukraine is CRAZY. There is a local tree that gives off crazy fluff into the air for all of June. It was the first time I had truly bad seasonal allergies.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Some people did find SAD to be an issue - but keep in mind, Ukraine is way sunnier than Russia, for example, so it might not be as bad as you think. But winter is long, for sure.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Winter is cold but not as cold as you might think, though I was told that the last two years have been on the mild side. I would compare it to New York or Boston, perhaps. Summers do get hot but not DC hot.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Morale is very high. It is hard for me to judge the overall size, but it is a good-sized community with lots of organizations, things to do, etc. The Kiev Expats facebook group is very helpful to get local tips from other expats.
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?
Going out to eat, going to bars, parties at home, sauna parties, outdoor activities like bike rides on Trukhaniv Island, picnics in the many parks, even an excursion to the local river beach. I know the Kids in Kyiv group had regular mom nights out.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Great for everyone! Maybe with the exception of single women, who found it hard to date locally. But single men had no problem. We, as a couple without children, loved it and made great local and expat friends (and could afford to go out a lot without worrying about budgets!) Those with kids loved the inexpensive childcare and good preschools and schools.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
While I have LGBT friends who love the city, keep in mind that there are regular instances of violence against the LGBT community, sadly. So many people feel they have to be publicly closeted to feel safe.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Since Ukraine is pretty white overall, many non-white Americans have expressed a feeling of standing out. African-Americans, in particular, were often stared at and sometimes reported harassment on the street.
Gender issues in Ukraine are... complicated. In professional spheres, I did not find it to be a huge issue (at least not worse than it often is in the U.S.!), and you'll find yourself interacting with many professional Ukrainian women.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Orthodox Christmas Day in the Carpathians observing Hutsul caroling (Kolyada) was amazing. The beautiful city of Lviv. The fun, freewheeling and good-humored seaside city of Odessa. My grandmother was born to a Polish family in Western Ukraine, and the heritage tour my mom and I did (with West Ukraine Tours) was a deeply meaningful experience.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Hutsul culture tour (we did it with KARPATY TRAVEL company) - I am not one for group travel, but you'll get to places that would be hard to access otherwise.
Chernobyl - I don't know if fun is the right word, but it's eerie and fascinating, and great for photographers. It's about two hours' drive from Kyiv but you have to visit in a group tour.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Sure! We bought artwork, a thick Hutsul blanket, local table runners, local embroidered shirts, scarves, jewelry and housewares from local designers. Others bought rugs, pottery, sculpture, local designer clothing... list goes on and on. The Made in Ukraine and Vsi Svoyi fairs are good opportunities to buy local crafts and designer items. Be careful buying anything older than the 1970s since you aren't allowed to export it. More traditional souvenirs can be purchased on Andriyivsky Uzviz.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Great youth culture, amazing arts scene, you can eat out and go out anywhere you want for almost no money, inexpensive household help, lots to see and do, relatively inexpensive flight connections all over Europe and beyond. Whatever your hobby - horseback riding, yoga, photography, art classes, salsa dancing, etc. - you can probably find it and for way cheaper than anywhere else you've lived.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
I wish I had battled HR harder to extend! We loved it. Also, maybe this sounds strange, but if I had thought about how welcoming it is to families with small children and how inexpensive child care is, I might have thought about starting a family there (rather than in DC where those things are not true!).
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
? If you're used to life in a city with similar climate to Northeast U.S., then your current possessions will serve you well.
Oh, some people will tell you to buy those Yaktrax things to walk on ice in winter... if you plan to take metro every day and cross the park between the metro and the U.S. Embassy, they might help. But we bought them and never used them once.
4. But don't forget your:
Snow tires if you have a car. Any toiletries for which you are picky on brand. Ingredients for Mexican or Asian food.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Read local literature. For classics, look for translations of Taras Shevchenko, Lesya Ukrainka, Lina Kostenko... though Russia also claims him, Gogol wrote many classic stories of the Ukrainian countryside. For current literature - Try to find Serhiy Zhadan's poems in translation. Andrey Kurkov is a prominent contemporary novelist who is widely translated. Also, I enjoyed Jonathan Safran Foer's "Everything is Illuminated," set in Ukraine, but take his (often-hilarious) depictions with a grain of salt.
Non-fiction: Everyone will say Timothy Snyder's "Bloodlands," and everyone is right. Essential to understanding the brutal 20th century that has shaped the Ukrainian people today. If you're not ready to invest time in reading that tome, though, his writings for New York Review of Books and other publications are great too.
Movies: I haven't seen it yet, but The Tribe is an art house Ukrainian film that got lots of awards recently. I also enjoyed the documentary "The Babushkas of Chernobyl" - the director is American, but she does a brilliant job of presenting Ukraine's tough older generation with empathy and humor.
6. Do you have any other comments?
Our favorite post of our first three... great place to live, wonderful culture, awesome people, tasty good, excellent vodka. What more do you need?