Monday, April 18, 2016

Ukraine adventure

If you read my last blog post, you know that I was recently in Ukraine. I arrived in Kyiv on March 21st and was in the country until April 4th, visiting Kyiv (Київ), Lviv (Львів), Ternopil (Тернопіль), and Berezhany (Бережани). I went there because my sister Katie is a Peace Corps volunteer there and is about to finish up her service this coming June.

Berezhany Castle

Katie and me in Lviv

First things first, while many in the US and English-speaking world still refer to Ukraine (Україна) as "the Ukraine", that's an archaic and outdated phrase. Ukrainians dislike the phrase because it makes it sound like Ukraine is still some kind of region or a part of another country (Russia or the former Soviet Union), rather than an independent country. So yeah, just say Ukraine and leave "the" out.

Hotel Ukraine in Kyiv

In Ukraine, they speak Ukrainian, which is similar, but not identical, to Russian. Ukrainian uses a Cyrillic alphabet, so cities and places have transliterations into Latin-based letters for use in media and maps. Because Russian and Ukrainian aren't identical, many of the transliterations are outdated, still using the Russian pronunciation from the Soviet era. The most obvious one is the capital of Ukraine, most often spelled and pronounced as Kiev (KEY ev). In Ukrainian, it is Kyiv (Київ; pronounced KEY eev, sometimes said fast enough to sound like KEEV). I encourage you to find the Ukrainian transliteration of cities and places in Ukraine and use it instead of the Russian one!

Київ visible in the seats of Dynamo Stadium
Berezhany bus terminal

Ukraine uses the hryvnia (HER eev nya) as their currency, abbreviated as "UAH" in English or "грн." ("hrn.") in Ukrainian. They have a symbol (₴) similar to the dollar sign ($), but I never saw it used on any signs or publications. Signs always just used "грн." The only reason I found out the symbol was from looking it up online. For the duration of my visit, the exchange rate between the hryvnia and the US dollar was around 26грн to $1. That resulted in things being incredibly inexpensive for me, especially food. I marveled every time I checked my bank statement to see exactly how much I had spent on something like a meal for both Katie and myself. It was not uncommon for us to go out to eat and have a wonderful, filing meal complete with drinks and appetizers, and spend maybe $7 total. Bus and tram tickets cost 2-4грн. each, so about $0.06-$0.12. Subway tokens in Kyiv cost 20грн. for 5, so just $0.12 each.

Lunch in Kyiv during my first visit. 

Total was 154 UAH, which converted to around $5.92 for all that food

The flag of Ukraine is known as the "blue and yellow" or "yellow and blue". It's a simple flag with the top half azure blue and the bottom half yellow, symbolizing the blue sky and the yellow grain fields. I saw the flag frequently, but in different ways than we typically display the US flag here. Rather than have the flag fly on their homes, many Ukrainians have a small Ukrainian flag in their car. Every bus I rode had at least one small Ukrainian flag near the driver, sometimes more than one, and many cars did as well. Of course all government buildings fly the flag as do many businesses. Anyone who knows me knows I love flags, so was happy to see it displayed so frequently. I learned in studying a bit about the flag that during the Soviet era, display of the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag was banned, so that adds another emotional element to the display of the flag now. Interestingly enough, the flag of the former Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic is now banned due to its association with Russian separatists.

Ukraine flag on Castle Hill in Lviv

The other symbol you see everywhere is the "tryzub" (Тризуб), which translates to trident. Officially it is the State Emblem of Ukraine (Державний Герб України). It's also found on every government building and is easy to find on clothing and souvenir items. Like the bald eagle in the US, it is also seen on the top of flagpoles. I made sure to get a good number of items with the tryzub as I find it a classy, simple, and elegant symbol, on top of being unique and easily identifiable.

Ukraine flag at center in Lviv City Hall with the tryzub visible above and at the top of the flagpole

Tryzub on a government building in Kyiv

This is actually Katie's second tour of duty in Ukraine. She was first there from March 2013 to February 2014, but had to return home after violence broke out in the capital (known as the Euromaindan protests), followed by political instability and then open warfare with Russia in the east. Katie was never under any real threat because of that (Kyiv is nearly 8 hours from where she was working), but Peace Corps evacuated all volunteers in February 2014 and closed the program. At the time, it was believed "pigs would fly" before Peace Corps would re-open its Ukraine office. Well, it happened in early 2015 and Katie took the opportunity to not only return to Ukraine, but to the same school she had been at before. To commemorate that statement of pigs flying, there's a little picture of a pig with wings at the entrance to Peace Corps offices in Kyiv. The main difference now is Peace Corps Ukraine has three zones in the country. The east and south of Ukraine (including Crimea) closest to the Russian border is a "red zone" meaning it is completely off limits because of open violence by Russian separatists. A little further west of there and in the south is a "yellow zone" that requires significant permission for volunteers to travel to, mostly do to increased risk of instability and potential violence. Where Katie is in western Ukraine has no visible issues of that regard, nor did Kyiv.

Berezhany Market Square

Berezhany Lake

Katie planned my visit in segments. She said she did that to kind of "transition" me to where she was in Berezhany, going from modern Kyiv (Київ) to a slightly smaller city in Lviv (Львів), then a little smaller city in Ternopil (Тернопіль), and finally to Berezhany (Бережани), a town of about 18,000. Before heading back home, we spent a few more days in Kyiv, since my initial visit there upon arriving was only Sunday evening and part of Monday before we took the train to Lviv. We were in Kyiv on March 21 and 22, Lviv from March 22-25, Ternopil from March 25-27, Berezhany from March 27-April 1, and back to Kyiv April 1-4, wkith me leaving Kyiv early on the 4th (flight left at 5:45am, so I had to take a cab from our hotel at 3am!).  

Lviv Market Square
Ternopil Lake

As I said in my last post, when Katie first went to Ukraine back in 2013, I thought it would be really neat if I would be able to go visit her there, but figured it would never happen. Thanks for some fortuitous circumstances on my part and the generosity of family members (particularly my grandmother), it was able to happen. Not only was I able to spend time with my sister and see some incredible sights, but I was also able to meet some incredible people, Ukrainians and others! And surprise, surprise, everyone who knows Katie absolutely loves her! How shocking! HA!

Train ride from Ternopil to Kyiv

We did so much in each place, I'm going to do separate blog posts for each city. There were things I loved about every place. It's an experience I will never forget and am grateful I was able to have. Слава Україні! героям Слава!

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