Ten Ways Ukraine is Different

by Brendan Monroe

1. It’s Europe Without The Tourists.

“France, Germany, Italy. Been there, done that … Ukraine?”

“Ummm, isn’t that part of Russia?”

St. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery, Ukraine.
St. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery, Ukraine. Photo courtesy World Wide Gifts

It’s a common conversation for anyone with plans to volunteer, study, travel, or teach abroad in Ukraine. For the record, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, no, Ukraine is not part of Russia. The reason this perception exists is in large part because a significant number of people know exactly the following about Ukraine, if anything at all: a) Chernobyl, and b) something about beautiful women. For the record, yes, Ukraine does indeed have both; it’s even possible to take a tour of the former; and as for the latter — well, if you’re into that kind of thing, one of them might agree to accompany you.

2. Get To Live Amidst The Beauty ... And The Grime.

Those looking for fairylands full of galloping unicorns and gallivanting knights should look elsewhere. The closest thing to a unicorn you’ll get here is a stray dog, and as for the knights, well ... there are stray dogs. Ukraine is a country divided on many fronts: political, lingual, and cultural; the E.U.-craving West vs. the Russian-aligned East. It isn’t all pretty, but it’s certainly interesting to have a front-row seat to it all.

3. Learn Russian ... Or Ukrainian.

While everyone more or less speaks and understands Russian throughout Ukraine, you’ll hear it predominantly, if not entirely, in the Eastern half. if in the Western half? Well, better to play up your American/ European ties there. But either way, it’s a great way to learn Russian or, if you really want to get local, Ukrainian. English is so rarely spoken in most places you’ll be forced to learn some basic words, in any case.

4. The People.

Despite the corruption that exists at the governmental level, the people you’ll meet are, for the most part, warm and friendly. Come from the West anywhere and you are treated like a kind of celebrity; those teaching abroad in Ukraine do get their fair share of attention.. Speak English in public and people will flock to you ... or simply look at you like you're crazy. But they’ll invite you to their house for tea, in any case.

5. The Food.

Ukraine has some of the most diverse cuisine one can find on the planet. Most of the dishes widely considered Russian or Eastern European are, in fact, Ukrainian. Borsch, chicken Kiev, and varenyky are three such examples, but the list of delectable cuisine doesn’t stop there. Varenyky (a kind of dumpling) can be filled with anything from meat to cherries to cottage cheese. Okroshka, a spicy soup served cold, is another area specialty. Pancakes, savory or sweet, are also plentiful and are excellent with sgushenka (condensed milk). On top of all that, restaurants are bargain-priced compared with Western countries!

6. Not A Recommended Site For Your Next A.A. Meeting.

Alcohol in Ukraine is even cheaper than water. The beer here is just as good as Czech beer, which is widely considered the best, and a pint runs you around a euro. A bottle of good-quality vodka, the national drink, can be had for less than two. It’s a gift and a curse all at the same time so the best thing is just remember, when teaching abroad in the Ukraine, drink in moderation or prepare to face your students with a wicked hangover.

7. Travel For Cheap!

Ukraine is where one can get things at rock-bottom prices. The same applies to train and bus travel around the country. The cities are all very well connected by rail lines, and teaching abroad in Kiev allows for weekend trips to virtually anyplace in the country. Whether you choose to visit Lviv, Kharkiv, Donetsk, or Crimea, the total transport price will run you less than $10 or, if you want to cut the travel time in half, about $30 on the fast train. Though, beware. After being in Ukraine for a while, you'll think everyplace else is outrageously expensive.

8. Incredibly Diverse Sights.

From the bustling central modern city of Kiev to the spellbinding Carpathian mountains in the West and the warm, sunny beaches of Crimea and Odessa in the south, Ukraine is as diverse a country as any. Places absolutely worth visiting include the marvelous city of Lviv with the most charming and lovable old town of perhaps any in Europe, and the majestic colors and beaches of Crimean cities Sevastopol and neighboring Balaclava.

9. A History Lesson That Will Never Be Forgotten.

In just the last 75 years, Ukrainians have experienced more ups and downs than a roller coaster driven by Lindsay Lohan. Okay, mostly downs. From the rise and fall of the Soviet Union to the Stalin-orchestrated famine and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the last century hasn’t been particularly good for Ukraine. However, the country has started to rebound, entering the new century strong. Just last year Ukraine co-hosted the Euro Cup, the European Soccer Championship, along with Poland. The event proved a rousing success and the multitude of visitors to the country came away with a largely positive impression. Ukraine appears poised to take this success and build on it for the future.

10. A World Far Away From Your Own.

Winston Churchill once said that Russia “is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” and the same could be said for Ukraine. Only those who have experienced living in Ukraine can truly speak on its many mysteries and complexities. It isn’t Lonely Planet-friendly, and moms everywhere will demand daily Skype sessions just to soothe their preconceptions of this place. And maybe they are right. Ukraine isn’t a romantic destination for honeymooners or a place appealing directly to any casual tourist, really. It’s simply Ukraine — and while it’s not for the weak of heart, by living and teaching abroad in Ukraine you might find it will reveal its heart to you.