I get asked a lot about what my favourite place in the world is. The truth is there are many places I love, all for different reasons. But one favourite country or city, somewhere that sits atop everywhere else? There have always been too many for me to say: this place; here is my favourite spot in the world. Until now.
We came to Ukraine for the first time last year. We had no idea what to expect. Some people told us privately to be very careful. They were not unfamiliar with this region, and they were not super keen on our being here for a month. Turns out Ukraine is a beautiful country and a warm, fascinating culture. We really loved it. But part of me wondered whether I enjoyed it so much because we’d been living outside in England for several weeks in the cold and rain. Kyiv was sunny and warm and our expectations were also pretty low. But we felt a special connection to Ukraine and we left vowing to return.
While planning our schedule for 2018, we decided we would come back to Ukraine to conduct two more ten-day meditation courses. We planned our year of service, work, and travel around the timing of courses here in the Fall. As the time came for us to return to Kyiv, I wondered how it would stand up to the fond memory I had from last time. Unlike our first visit, this time we were coming here having been to several spectacular places, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Armenia and Georgia, Israel and Palestine.
Now, having spent another month in Ukraine, I know how I would answer the original question.
If I had the opportunity to travel or live anywhere for an extended period, it would be Kyiv (maybe other places in Ukraine too). And here’s why.
Unique and unpretentious Kyiv doesn’t try to be something it isn’t. Ukraine is Ukraine. A little bit Russian, a little bit Western European, a little Central Asian. Ukraine is also a distinct culture, language and history.
A former youth hotel for the Soviet Pioneers (sort of a communist Scouts). Now it’s an expensive hotel where everything is kid-sized.
I dislike ambiguity and struggle in cultures where everything is left vague. I much prefer directness. Ukrainian culture is direct and I love it. I feel normal here. None of that passive aggressive North American or British way of beating around the bush instead of just getting to the point. People here are incredibly polite, but they also just state what they mean, exactly. And the language is designed for it. “You pay now” instead of hinting at the idea that there’s a bill with an amount that should be paid in exchange for a service.”
North Americans can wear huge smiles for strangers all the while harbouring ill will. It’s the very definition of passive aggressive. Here, you encounter fewer smiles but almost no ill will from anybody. Spend a little time getting to know someone here? They’ll give you the shirt off their back. We spend a lot of time being ‘polite’ in Canada when we don’t really mean anything by it. There’s no generosity in the external display. Here generosity seems built in, it doesn’t need to wear a smile. It’s taken for granted. The cashier at the grocery store speaks no English. We speak no Russian. They have their own peculiar ways of doing things in grocery stores here. We usually end up violating some norm. We don’t get a bag in advance, or we don’t weigh our own fruits and veggies, or get a sticker for our bread. The cashiers never get annoyed, people waiting in line behind us never get angry. Instead, despite a grim expression, they’ll go out of their way to help us. They are very soft and generous inside. Big hearts. You could easily mistake the flat affect for rudeness, but there’s none of that. People care and are glad to help, but you have to get past your own way of seeing things to notice it.
We wrote about this in previous posts about Ukraine. Food matters here. A lot. Good quality cheese, produce, meat, dairy in general is a thing here. Makes eating out or at home easy and enjoyable.
The Churches, Cathedrals and Monuments
Some of the most beautiful Cathedrals, religious complexes, and national monuments we’ve seen anywhere are right here in Kyiv. Lviv is also supposed to be very beautiful, but much more Western European. We hope to visit Lviv next time.
Just one of several Soviet-era statues throughout Kyiv. This one overlooks the Dniepr River at the metro station.
Let me clear, I’m not trying to convince anyone to come to Ukraine. In fact, I’ll be honest. I don’t want any of you to come to Ukraine. Because you’ll ruin the place with tourism. Right now, Ukraine is its own thing. You don’t see many tourists here, although there are a few. But we haven’t drowned the place yet. Hopefully it stays that way. Tourism never benefits real people anyway. Just look at Tbilisi, Barcelona or Paris or Venice. Yuck.
We love it here, but we don’t think you’ll love it here. Please don’t come to Ukraine.
There’s not much in the way of exciting sights or sensual entertainment, anyway. There’s no beaches. It’s a tough place. A bit gritty. Really authentic. The art scene is thriving. This is Berlin Jr. We spent an entire day with some Vipassana students, one of them is an artist. She and her husband took us on a tour of Soviet constructionist architecture, including a visit to their studio. The studio is now home to many artists, but once it was a Soviet art factory where many of the most beautiful and most famous monuments in Kyiv were manufactured. It was a spectacular and interesting day. Our favourite part was exploring their own studio.
There’s lots of political unrest and government corruption. The country is at war with a very powerful and bullying neighbour. But Ukrainians stoically get up every day, go to work, raise their families, get on with their life.
We just finished conducting two ten-day meditation retreats here. The people who come are from all parts of Ukraine. Rich and poor, young and old, the usual yoga-type suspects, but also uneducated labourers, mothers with their children (young adults), small business owners, soldiers and officers, doctors and the unemployed. They come and they stay in the most basic accommodations and try to learn meditation. The difference between the people here and the people we see sitting courses in North America is pretty stark. It’s an illustration of the difference between life in the West and life here.
We meet people here facing very hard struggles: veterans facing the demons of war, sisters who lose brothers to radiation sickness from Chernobyl. Twice we’ve had to tell students a family member has suddenly died at home. People here sit in very cold conditions. The campsite rented for the courses has no heat in the dormitories, dining or meditation halls. There are no cushions provided to students. If they don’t bring them, they don’t get them. Instead, they roll up clothing or bend up a yoga mat to sit on. The floor here is old, warped and very hard. The only thing that lies between the floor and their bums is a thin yoga mat. Yet nobody complains. Not about the cold, not about the pain, not about the food. No one has ever come to us to say they have a gluten intolerance or scent allergy.
We’ve had students complain in Europe that the air system was too loud for them to concentrate in the carpeted, climate-controlled meditation hall. Here, the whole place creaks, bangs, and slams constantly. The only climate control is the collective heat of 160 people sitting together. They share dormitories with eight other people in a single room. No one has ever asked to be moved. Sometimes you couldn’t pay someone to use a chair here for meditation. In North America you have to store them away for the students’ own benefit.
If you sit and watch people here you get a sense of the difference in relative determination. It’s a metaphor for life. We have respect for Ukrainians. Instead of wasting time in the futile attempt to remove all inconveniences, they just get on with life. We suffer a serious affluenza in the West. We’ve all become so soft and radically sensitive, demanding immediate relief from every discomfort. Ukraine helps us to remember what really matters. So as we help Ukrainians learn to meditate, they help us learn to live.
We sincerely hope that we have the good fortune to come back to Ukraine next year and that we we’ll have more opportunities to volunteer in different places. For now, we fly to Thailand. It has been quiet a year and we’ll take some time to reflect on it before we head off for our retreat.
We will write once more when we get to Bangkok.