Today’s interview with Al from Wisconsin, living in Kyiv, Ukraine. Al, once upon a time you were living in Wisconsin and dreaming of Ukraine. Now you’re sending out weekly adventurous emails from Kyiv! Tell us a little about your background and your life before the big move.
I had been a dairy farmer for most of my life. It was a smaller farm where you were committed to a 7-day-a-week job but at least you were your own boss. No longer farming, I worked a few other jobs, the last one being in retail. Not bad jobs but I was not the one in control and like many in this day and age, making a living but not getting ahead.
My 3 children are adults and living their own lives. I was divorced so I didn’t feel I had anything or anyone tying me down.
Back in 1976 and still a teenager, I had the opportunity to travel to Europe for 3 weeks on an agricultural tour. One of the countries we visited was the former Soviet Union. From Moscow we flew out to visit a huge farm (approximately 20,000 acres). The farm was in the direction of Ukraine but at that time we simply called it part of the Soviet Union. I fell in love with the few people we met and never forgot about it. I also vowed to never drink vodka shots again. Of course I enjoyed it, but assumed I’d probably never return to the area.
I’m no longer farming, going thru my divorce and working a manufacturing job. I start talking with one of the guys on the earlier shift and he tells me his wife is Ukrainian. He mentions that I should really go back there and see what it’s like now. It was the seed that was planted in my mind. I started to read about Ukraine and met some friends from there on the internet. I knew that I wanted to do some traveling and no matter what other place I thought about going to, my heart kept saying to go to Ukraine.
I ended up finding a tour that went to Ukraine since, like most Americans, I had no clue what to expect even with all the reading I had done. The country and the people I found interesting, fascinating, charming, historical, whatever you want to call it. Once I had been there, I realized I could travel on my own without taking a tour.
I also wanted to do some work to provide information to fight human trafficking (not only a large problem in the world but also Ukraine) with organizations that work with orphans. This is the area that I felt called to help with my connections as an officer with Lazarus International. I had met the founder on my first trip to Ukraine and we became friends when we both realized we had an interest in helping others.
I had hoped to be working full-time in this part of the world for Lazarus International, but the funding has never been enough to allow me to work and get paid a salary. Now I work strictly on a volunteer basis for Lazarus. I had hoped to live in Sumy, which is approximately 4 to 5 hours away. My friend who lives there calls it a “small town”- small town, it’s over 300,000 people! I’ve visited it 4 times now and while there’s not a whole lot to do when it comes to touristy things, the area reminds me of where I came from in Wisconsin. It’s considered to be the poorest income area of Ukraine. It’s also where Open Arms Ukraine is located. Some ladies from California work with orphans and prison ministry there. They have an awesome organization and it is one of the groups I want to work with and that I try to raise money to support.
Also, on a hot September day during my first trip, I took a break and sat on a bench with a drink… and the person next to me started talking in English! Dave was from Britain and had originally traveled to Ukraine on business. Britain being a short distance away, he said he came back frequently as he had made friends, enjoyed traveling, history and the country. Plus, it was an inexpensive trip for him with a short travel time. We became good friends and talked constantly on Skype. I visited him in England and spent a week with him on one of my trips to Ukraine. Dave has started a number of businesses and we eventually started to brainstorm on what we could do to start a business in Ukraine. We are setting up a dating site (think something like match.com) and another business that will bring tourists to Ukraine.
Please describe a recent day to us. Is that an average day for you now?
Well, my days here are not as exciting as many might think. Since we are setting up a business, most of my time is spent on the computer researching things we need and getting used to different software.
I don’t set an alarm but my day normally starts around 5 am! After all the years I spent getting up at this time on the farm, my body just wakes up at this time (unfortunately). I’ll then make myself some breakfast and hop on the computer and check emails and news. I also chat online with our manager once or twice a day to give her lists of things we need to have accomplished and to see what is done, answer questions and the like. I also normally will talk to Dave once or twice a day again to check on things for our business. The rest of my day is spent doing computer things for our business and making meals.
I have to walk to the supermarket to go shopping every few days. I only get a small amount of things at a time since it’s around a 2 mile round trip to the store that I like. If the weather is good, I like to get out and walk around the area for a bit. If I don’t feel like cooking, I like to try different cafes in my area. I also try to catch up on some reading and, if I find the time, put about 30 minutes to an hour in studying Russian. Some of my friends here say I should also learn Ukrainian….aack!
When Dave comes over then we will go and visit some of the tourist sites with friends and go over some of our business details in person. I enjoy getting out to see all that Kyiv has to offer and there is so much more to see but getting work done for me and an income set up is what’s important right now.
What do you hope to have accomplished by the end of 2015?
I don’t really have any set things I want accomplished by year’s end. We feel confident that the first phase of our business will be up and running by then. I hope to know a little more Russian but I understand that I won’t be fluent in it for a long time, if ever. I just take one day at a time.
Since many readers hope to someday live in / visit eastern Europe, could you share with us a few tips on adjusting to life in Ukraine?
1. First of all, try to know a little of the native language. Even if you are terrible at it (I am), the locals appreciate the fact that you are trying. I am fortunate since I live in the central area and many know at least a little English and can help me. Kyiv is a city of almost 5 million. If I lived farther out it would be less expensive housing for me, but no one would speak English.
2. Look around and find a place you can feel comfortable living at. I never lived in a city before so this is different for me (understatement). Fortunately, Dave had some contacts here who steered me in the direction of a real estate agent. The agent took me to areas where I’d feel safe and be able to get around in English without too much difficulty (I live in the central area of Kyiv).
3. Common sense. Kyiv is a fairly safe city. Being a larger city, naturally in some areas you need to watch out for pickpockets or the money drop scam. Overall, though, I feel much safer here than walking in parts of Madison, Wisconsin. I have some expat friends here who have told me they have no problem walking at night, even though there are few street lights where they live. It is mostly petty crimes and not violent crimes. Common sense is what you need.
4. Try to learn some of the history of the country/city. There are so many interesting things about the history of Ukraine and the cities. On my first visit I saw Poltava and in 1999 they celebrated their 1100 birthday! Do you know that Florence Nightingale and the Charge of the Light Brigade are from the Crimean war in Ukraine? Also, being a different country, learn the culture and superstitions.
- When walking into someone’s flat, it is expected that you take your shoes off so that you don’t bring dirt in from outside.
- Do not whistle inside of a building.
- If you give someone flowers such as roses, give an odd number. An even number like the dozen given in the USA is something that would be put out for funerals!
- Since this country’s religion is mainly Orthodox, you’ll see that many ladies wear their wedding ring on the right hand. This is the norm. Wearing on the left hand would mean that they are divorced.
Of course there are many more different cultural examples.
5. Learn the local foods and try them. I live where there are 3 McDonalds within easy walking distance. Why would I go there? I can try many other foods of different regions but especially Ukrainian and some of the neighboring countries (Georgian, Uzbekistan).
The Ukrainian borschtis superb (Russian beet soup) and everyone makes it a little different.
- I tried a sauerkraut salad the other night that was amazing with pickles, onions and carrots.
- Varenykyare traditional Ukrainian dumplings with options for different fillings.
- Don’t miss out on the drink, uzvar, made from an assortment of dried fruits and also kvass, a Slavic fermented beverage drink which is made traditionally from black or rye bread. You can find this for sale by street vendors in the summer.
Of course, there are many more foods and I urge you to research and try them. If you are really lucky, you will get invited to a local’s house for a meal or snack. You will find that when the locals invite you for a snack, in order to be hospitable there will be more food than you can possibly eat!!! Be adventuresome:)
6. Look into some sights you want to see before you come but be open. You may hear of something else that interests you more. Be flexible, ask locals what they recommend as they know the area and may know of places/things that are not in the guide books.
7. Remember that you are a guest in their country. Act accordingly.
You’ve been hitting the books pretty hard since you arrived in the capital. What’s it like to be learning a new language?
Russian is one of the hardest languages in the world to learn from what I’ve been told. I love listening to the sound of it, as it’s very rhythmic and poetic in my opinion. When it comes to learning it, it is:
- and pure misery at the same time.
I am slowly learning it but I need to find more time to study. Hopefully by the time I die of old age at 150, I’ll put a few sentences together!!!
Can you teach us your favorite word/phrase so far in Ukrainian or Russian?
The ones I use most often are: Pree-vét (Hi) and Kak dela? (How are you?). One that I really like is: Zdrást-vooy-te (Hello). Try saying it yourself with the 3 consonants that start the word. If you would like to see what the Cyrillic alphabet is like, here is one site that I use for my studies.
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