Kiev, Ukraine Report of what it's like to live there - 11/15/16

Personal Experiences from Kiev, Ukraine

Kiev, Ukraine 11/15/16

Background:

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

No, this was my third overseas posting with the US State Department.

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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?

US (New York area). There is a direct flight on a Ukrainian airline to NY that is not expensive and takes about 10 hours. For official travel to the U.S., you need to change in Amsterdam, Munich, Frankfurt, or Paris. Total travel time ends up being about 18 hrs with layovers.

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3. How long have you lived here?

I was in Kyiv for two years (June 2014-June 2016).

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

Work at the U.S. Embassy.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

Our housing was a nice, sunny three-bedroom apartment in the city center. Commute to work was 15-20 mins driving, though after work that could stretch to an hour in bad traffic (about 30-40 mins was typical). Most U.S. Embassy housing is in three areas: city center; old Embassy area (still considered the center by locals, but in a quieter area further away from the metro, but offering a faster car commute to the Embassy); and standalone houses scattered on the outskirts of the city (including some right by the Embassy, an increasingly popular option).


Housing varied - we loved our apartment, and lots of new places being added to the pool are very modern, stylish, and comfortable. Some older buildings are a bit tired, however.

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

Best availability of products we wanted of any of our three posts - and everything is very affordable. Because European products aren't traveling a large distance, high-end French and Italian goods were much, much cheaper than in the U.S. If you are looking for certain items of super-processed American food products, it might be tough - but the produce was lovely, nicer supermarkets had fantastic butcher and seafood counters, and Italian pastas, German cookies, French wines, etc. abound.

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

Selection for Asian cooking ingredients was limited. We also ordered some spices that were not available, or available only sporadically.

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

Restaurants are quite good and very cheap by US standards. For a classic Ukrainian feast, my favorites are Shynok and Hutorets. Another wonderful option not widely available in the U.S. is Georgian food - tons and tons of great options exist, but Shoti, Mama Manana, and Gogi were some of my favorites. There are tons of restaurants serving French, Italian, modern European, and American food. It is harder to find Asian food (though sushi is very popular, but the only place that aims at authenticity is Fujiwara Yoshi) and Mexican food.



We didn't order much takeout, but our favorite delivery options were Vesuvio or Il Molino for pizza, Chachapuri for Georgian, and Varennychnaya Katyusha for Ukrainian.

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Daily Life:

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

We used diplomatic pouch. For domestic packages (when we bought from Ukrainian craftspeople, for instance), Nova Poshta is the way to go. Unfortunately, the local postal service has a bad reputation, with packages often getting stolen or lost.

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

Household help is quite affordable. As a couple without children, we had a cleaning lady come for a half-day once a week, which was plenty (and typical for those without children). Families usually hired full-time nannies and full- or part-time cleaning help.

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

I didn't join a local gym, but there were many. Prices ranged widely but seemed to be bit cheaper than in U.S. cities. Locations outside the center of town are cheaper than in the center.

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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?

Some expats refuse to use credit cards at all due to fears of fraud. We used ours frequently, in restaurants, supermarkets, and hotels, and never had a single problem. For ATMs, it is better to use one off the street, especially in a venue like an international hotel where the machines are well guarded.

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

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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?

Every bit helps. Some young people speak good English, but to run ordinary errands, you'll need language. Here is the complicated part: to really get by, you need both Ukrainian and Russian. I arrived with strong Ukrainian but didn't feel fully confident until I got my Russian to a decent level as well. Most shop attendants, taxi drivers, and waitstaff in Kyiv will speak Russian, but many more signs, menus, and all food labels will be written in Ukrainian. If you're working, all official and semi-official functions will be in Ukrainian. It is a tough call, and if you have the time and energy to learn some of both languages, it is worth it.

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

Yes, unfortunately. Many streets have no crosswalks, just underpasses accessed only by stairs. Same for metro access. No curb cuts. I once saw a sign for a handicapped bathroom

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Transportation:

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

Yes. We didn't have a car and took taxis multiple times a day. Each ride was only a few dollars. The most popular taxi services offer low prices but cars in poor condition without seat belts. We paid more to use a higher-end service, mainly for the seat belts. Short rides were still only $2-3, and from the Embassy to home was $4-5.



I also used metro and buses a fair amount. They are super affordable (a metro ride costs only about $0.15). They work well, though the station density on the metro is not that great, meaning it can be a significant walk to or from the station. The U.S. Embassy is a solid 15-20-minute walk from the metro (people who claim it's a 10-min walk are lying or walk at superhuman speeds).

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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?

We did not have a car and were completely fine without it, given that public transportation and taxis were so easy to use and affordable. If you want to spend time at a dacha or something else outside of town but not in another city (in which case train is easier), then it could be really useful. You really can have any type of car, though some people prefer something with higher clearance given poor roads and large potholes. Snow tires are key for winter.

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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, it is available and affordable. We got ours installed quite quickly, within a couple days. The Embassy employees' association (AEEA) can help set up installation (though their service seemed a bit overpriced at $40).

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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 kept our home-country plan for our personal phones, but had local mobile phones from work. It is cheap and easy to get a local sim card, though sadly data is pretty slow (it was a huge deal when we got 3G!).

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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?

Many U.S. Embassy spouses worked at the Embassy. Local salaries are very, very low. Some spouses worked at international NGOs's Kyiv offices or one of the international schools.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

Some people volunteered in orphanages or in shelters for the many people displaced by the conflict in the east.

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

U.S. Embassy is typical business attire. Ukrainians tend to be less constrained by U.S. ideas of business attire, though Ukrainian women always look stylish, whether wearing a day dress or jeans. Ukrainian men often wear suits, sometimes without ties. Outside of work, Ukrainian women often dress to the nines for weekend nights out. On the other hand, at least in Kyiv, the look is getting away from club-wear, and more young hipsters dress like they're in Brooklyn, with women eschewing heels for lace-up brogues or stylish sneakers. For expats, formal wear is sometimes required for balls or galas.

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Health & Safety:

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

We were never concerned, and street crime was far lower than in most U.S. cities. The conflict in the East really has no tangible effect on daily life in Kyiv, though sometimes there are signs of chaos creeping in, like bomb threats at the popular malls.

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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?

Medical care is not fantastic, and people were medically evacuated to London for anything serious. That being said, I got some routine tests done at local clinics and had a fine experience.

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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?

After a previous posting in Beijing, we were thrilled to not worry about air quality in Kyiv. The worst it ever got was a few smoky days when there was a peat fire of some sort outside the city.

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

It is important to know how to identify allergens in both Ukrainian and Russian, since restaurant menus can be in either one (though not both). Food in supermarket must, by law, be labeled in Ukrainian.

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5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?

Some people found the winters tough and used lamps to help their mood. But the winters are not as severe as in, say, Moscow.

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

Overall climate is relatively temperate, though fall and spring are colder than in Washington, DC by quite a bit. The winters are not as severe as in, say, Moscow. Winter is long but not too harsh (though locals kept telling me I was there for two very mild winters!). The toughest thing I found is how slippery the sidewalks get, since no one sands or salts. After one snowstorm, sidewalks were fully iced over for a week afterwards, and most people fell down at least a few times.

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Schools & Children:

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

I don't have kids, but Embassy families generally used two schools: Pechersk or the Kyiv International School.

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2. 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?

Yes. Again, don't have kids, but there seem to be a variety of options.

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Expat Life:

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

I don't have a sense of the overall size, but it's not small but also not huge. Expats generally really love it, and many of the non-Embassy expats have stayed around for a while, often much longer than they originally intended.

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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?

There are various expat Facebook groups that can facilitate interactions; Kiev Expats and Kids in Kyiv seem popular. There are tons of cultural events: concerts, dance performances, festivals, art openings, etc. Going to Dynamo Kyiv soccer matches is fun. Going to a sauna with a group of friends is a fun winter activity.

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

As a couple, we absolutely loved the city. I think we were best poised to take advantage of what the city offers. Most families also had great experiences - Kyiv is a very kid-friendly city, and small children go basically everywhere. However, some families placed in city-center apartments found that limited access to outdoor space was a problem. Single men also love Kyiv; single Western women seem to have the roughest time if they are interested in dating, sadly.

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

I have many LGBT friends who love it, but objectively it is not great. Pride parades get attacked every year, hate crimes have been reported, and a movie theater that was hosting films on LGBT issues got burned down. However, many urban, young Ukrainians are very open-minded. Gay clubs do exist though I don't have firsthand experience with how good they are.

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

African-Americans and other people of color sometimes have issues with street harassment. While Ukrainians look more diverse than I expected (there are many Jewish Ukrainians as well as those from the Caucasus or Central Asia who moved to Ukraine during the Soviet period; there are even African-Ukrainians who immigrated after studying in Ukraine, or the children of those immigrants), it is still a relatively homogeneous country.

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

The best trip we took in Ukraine was a tour with Karpaty Travel to witness traditional Christmas celebrations among the Hutsuls in the Carpathian mountains, in the far west of the country. It was incredible and I feel so lucky to have gotten the chance to see a part of the country that feels foreign even to most Ukrainians. I also loved trips to Lviv and Odesa, both vibrant and beautiful cities (though very different in look and feel).



My mother and I also did a heritage tour in Western Ukraine to visit my grandmother and great-grandmother's home villages, which was deeply meaningful. We used West Ukraine Tours, and Andriy, the owner-operator, is very knowledgeable about genealogical research.

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

There is so much to do in Kyiv. Some favorites:


-Visit St. Sophia's, which is truly stunning. But so are many smaller churches. St. Volodymyr's is amazing, and I always enjoyed the singing in St. Andrew's.


-Opera and ballet performances are super cheap.
-Go to big cultural events and festivals in places like VDNK, a revitalized Soviet exhibition center, or Platforma, in old industrial space.


-Check out IZOLYATSIA, an art space in exile from Donetsk, in their new space, an old shipyard.

-Art openings at Art Arsenal, a stunning space.


-Organ concerts in St. Nicholas's


-Find a sauna on the outskirts of town that's in a real log cabin.


-Walk through the Maidan and see where history was made.


-Visit the surreal pleasure palace constructed by the last president at Mezhyhirya

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

Yes, there are tons of handicrafts and souvenirs out for sale each weekend on Andriyivskyy Uzviz. More modern design items can be purchased from small designers, who come out for big fairs like Made in Ukraine or Vsi Svoyi. We loved the furniture from Woodwerk. I also bought jewelry, artwork, ceramics, and table linens. Antiques cannot be exported.

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

Great people, great cultural scene, low cost of living, a sense of vibrancy and improvisation lacking in cities that haven't just been through a major upheaval. Also, good travel connections to Europe and the Middle East.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

How much I was going to love it!

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

YES. I would move back.

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

European wine and food products - it is all here but cheaper and often better quality.

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4. But don't forget your:

Asian spices, warm clothing, good boots/coats.

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

History: Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder. Contemporary Ukrainian literature in translation - I read Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov in English before I arrived, which I enjoyed. Some of Serhiy Zhadan's poems are translated into English. You can also find translations of Ukraine's national poet, Taras Shevchenko.


For movies - I loved the recent documentary Babushkas of Chernobyl. I haven't seen it, but The Tribe got a lot of international attention.

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6. Do you have any other comments?

Our favorite post - highly recommended!

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