Kiev, Ukraine Report of what it's like to live there - 02/14/08

Personal Experiences from Kiev, Ukraine

Kiev, Ukraine 02/14/08

Background:

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

First expat experience.

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2. How long have you lived here?

10 months.

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3. Travel time and best routes to this city from Europe or the US:

Delta offers a direct flight from JFK to Kyiv that takes about 10 hours. Many people choose to break up the flight by flying through Munich, Paris, London, or Amsterdam.

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

I am a Foreign Service Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

Nearly all apartments in the heart of the city. The housing market is out of control here with rents tripling in a few months so securing housing is very tough. In general though, most apartments I've seen are nice, but with strange layouts. Often there isn't an elevator and the common stairwell aren't always kept in good condition as that is the responsibility of the landlord. Most people have commute times of less than 30 minutes by foot or public transportation. If you choose to drive, it could be much worse.

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

Most everything is available here, but you won't find American brands outside of the commissary. The cost is roughly the same as the States but rising all the time.

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

We would have bought and sent a treadmill for exercise during the winter. We bought a dog after arriving so sending some good quality dog food would have been helpful. If there are any special foods you must have then I'd send those, especially if they're liquid as that can't go through the pouch.

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

The only American fast food chain at the moment is McDonalds. TGI Fridays is also here. Most other ethnic cuisines (apart from Mexican) is present in Kyiv. This is a very fad-focused city so you'll see five sushi places quickly open and then close, then five Indian, then five French, etc. Nice restaurants tend to be extremely expensive, but the food quality doesn't match the price. It is often better to stick with the mid-level and cheaper places. The quality still isn't often great, but at least you're not paying as much. Ukrainian food is good and often affordable, but heavy and bland so it is nice to mix it up occasionally.

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Daily Life:

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

This is a pouch post.

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

Housekeepers and nannies are available but the costs are escalating. We have a part-time (12 hours) housekeeper and we pay US$4/hour. I think that is about average.

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3. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

I would avoid using credit cards and ATMs for the most part due to identify theft. At the nicer hotels and restaurants you would be fine though. I only use ATMs within the embassy buildings.

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

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5. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

Not much for newspapers. The Kyiv Post is in English and of decent quality. I think you can get the Financial Times and IHT here, but late. We have AFN for American television and we also have another satellite that picks up the international news channels (CNN, BBC, CCTV, etc.)

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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 a lot, I think. Without Russian or Ukrainian this would be a very challenging place to live. All signs are in Ukrainian (but you can figure most out with Russian) and very few people on the street will speak English. I think Russian is still more useful overall, but you would be fine with either. Ukraine is gradually heading to a Ukraine first language, but it is still years away.

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

It would probably be impossible if in a wheelchair. Almost no buildings are wheelchair accessible and the streets and sidewalks are very rough. You see very few physically handicapped people around Kyiv and I don't want to think about where they are and in what conditions they live.

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Transportation:

1. Do you drive on the right hand side of the road or the left?

On the right, but feel free to go into the left lane or on the sidewalk if more convenient.

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

The bus and metro system is pretty extensive, dirt cheap (US$.10 a trip), and easy to use. Most of the equipment is old, but I don't think any more dangerous than driving yourself or walking. You can also hail a taxi or any other car going down the street and negotiate a price. Don't be surprised if a taxi refuses to take you, they're very selective at times.

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3. 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?

There isn't really a need for a 4X4 but it might be helpful in the winter time as the streets can get clogged with snow. A smaller car would be more maneuverable on the narrow Kyiv streets and easier to park, but you'll be dwarfed by the giant SUVs the oligarchs/legitimate businessmen/government officials (all the same thing really). Cars are very much a status symbol here and people will spend everything they have to buy a nice one. If you see a large black SUV or Bentley or Lamborghini or Masserati coming, don't cross the street even if they have a red light because chances are they aren't stopping (traffic laws don't apply to them.)

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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?

It is available. Each building seems to have one provider that covers it so you probably won't have much choice for high speed. We may about US$60/month for 512k, but others pay half that price for the same speed. Ours is pretty reliable.

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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?

Embassy employees are issued one. Any other family members will want to get one. You can pay as you go and just by recharge cards on the street.

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3. What is the best way to make phone calls back home?

We use Skype and it costs $.03 a minute. Others use Vonage. I think some just call home directly or use a calling card.

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Pets:

1. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

There are several good vets locally and a few speak English. The quality is pretty good and cheap. We had our puppy spayed here and had no problems. Many people leave their pets with others when they travel, but there is at least one kennel here and it seems decent.

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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?

Not great, but some. The schools always need help. If you have the skills, some of the big international companies would probably hire you particularly in IT or finance. Most local companies would require language skills that few expats have.

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

Work is pretty formal for us. In public, it is hard to describe. Pretend it is 1987 America, but sponsored by European labels. For Ukrainian women: 4 inch stilletos, micromini skirts, and see through blouses, D&G bag required. For Ukrainian men: tight jeans, mullet, D&G shirt, little tiny leather manpurse.

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Health & Safety:

1. Pollution index (Good, Moderate, Unhealthy, or Very Unhealthy)?

Moderate to unhealthy. Most days I don't really notice the pollution but occasionally it really hits you. You don't realize how much you are breathing in until you see how filthy and coated in black sludge the cars are.

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

In general, very few. You must take the usual precautions of a big city and watch out for pickpockets. Another common scam is for someone to drop some money and when you pick it up to help, you are accused of stealing money. Don't pick anything up. There is a large increase in violence toward minorities though.

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

Vodka is the primary medicine for many. Most clinics and hospitals are sub-par.

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

Beautiful for spring, summer, fall with highs in the 80s and 90s (F) and lots of sunshine. The winter is dark with daylight from only about 9am to 3pm in the depths of winter. Heavy snow from time to time, and highs in the 20s and 30s (F), but expect a week or two of highs in the teens or lower.

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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 children, but there are two schools primarily used by the embassy community. Kyiv International School (KIS) and Perchersk School International. There is also Kyiv Christian School but I don't believe any embassy children use it at the moment. I haven't heard any serious complaints about the schools.

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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?

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Expat Life:

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

Large. Many countries have missions here and there is a large expat business community as well.

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2. Morale among expats:

Good, I think. The long, dark winter can wear you down as can the Soviet attitude still held by some of the people but things improve dramatically during the summer when the weather changes.

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3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

We often go out to eat with friends and meet at each others' houses for game and movie nights. There are a few fancy galas throughout the year as well.

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

I think it is good for all. It is a large post so singles should be able to meet a lot of people in the embassy as well as in the community. Couples will find plenty to do as well. Currently, this is a very family-focused post so many CLO-sponsored activities will be kid-friendly (even if it might be better if they weren't.)

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

I haven't noticed much of a community, but I'm sure it exists. I would guess the same skinheads who target minorities might also harass gays if given the chance.

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

While I don't think it is as bad as in Russia yet, attacks against non-whites is a growing problem here. There have been a few murders and lots of assaults. Diplomats have not been immune from this problem as the Egyptian DCM was recently beaten and left for dead. I haven't seen it myself, but you must keep your eyes open and be ready to get out of a bad situation quickly.

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

Being a former Soviet country there is a lot of cultural activity: opera, ballet, symphony, theater, circus, etc. There are a lot of movie theaters, but nearly everything is dubbed into Ukrainian or Russian. The center of the city is quite pretty and good for walking and sightseeing, with lots of parks to stroll about in (or sit on a bench and either drink or makeout with someone if you're Ukrainian.) The embassy organizes quite a few activities and we're often invited to Canadian and British events as well.

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

Painted eggs, nesting dolls, embroidered clothes, paintings, wooden carvings.

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9. Can you save money?

So far, with a 20% hardship differential and COLA pay, but as inflation increases and if we drop to 15% hardship (which I think we will eventually) it will be a bit harder.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

Probably. It's a pretty nice 20% post overall. The city is pretty and the country has a pretty high profile in Washington (especially as Russia becomes more of a thorn.) You definitely need to get out of here occasionally though to regain your sanity.

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

Expectation of customer service.

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3. But don't forget your:

Warm coat, hat, gloves, scarf...

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

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

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6. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

Everything is Illuminated.

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7. Do you have any other comments?

Kyiv is a hard place to live in ways that are hard to describe. I think if you just visited here or when you first arrive it would seem like a pretty cushy posting, but the longer you're here the more it starts to drain on you. Everything looks pretty modern and European, but soon the layers peel away and you realize this is not Europe. Things just tend to not work here. Traffic, government, restaurants, shops -- they just don't quite get it, but they're close. The problem is that far too many Ukrainians think they're living in a modern, developed city like Prague or Berlin when they're not. All in all, a decent place for two years and never boring, but be sure to get away on trips a few times a year.

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