It seems that a lot of people are curious about what life is really like in Ukraine, especially as a foreigner. Call it what you like: expat, digital nomad, tourist, immigrant, token British girl who is destroying the Ukrainian language one word at a time… Ukraine isn’t the first destination for most British people, so here’s what you can expect from staying a while in this amazing country.
It’s cheap. So very, very cheap. My modest 20 something lifestyle in London (rented room, bus to work, bills, occasional dinner or night out) used to cost me around £1.2k per month. In Lviv, Ukraine, the same lifestyle (but better- with a whole flat instead of a room, regular meals out and frequent day trips), costs me around £300 per month. Our flat is hideously expensive by Ukrainian standards, but still only sets me back £125 per month for an incredible central apartment. You can eat out for between £1-3 per person including beer and pretty much anything you might wish to eat, even in really, really nice restaurants. Quite frankly, you won’t find anywhere cheaper to live as an expat or freelancer. You can live in Lviv cheaply for around £200 per month, or live the life of a king for well under £500. To put things into perspective, in London, a haircut (cut and blowdry) cost me around £60. In Ukraine it is £2. A pint in London would be around £4, whilst in Lviv it is normally under 50p for a half-liter, even in a fancy bar.
But, not everything in Ukraine is up to our standards. Girls,you might understand what I mean when I say some feminine products don’t really live up to expectations. At all. There are also some everyday products we take for granted that aren’t all that great in Ukraine. Toilet paper tends to be cheap and scratchy, washing up liquid is watery and useless, pasta can be starchy and sticky, jam is really liquidy and overpriced. And the infrastructure is also kind of lacking. Roads outside the cities are atrocious. I highly recommend you avoid driving in Ukraine as some roads are worse than non-existant and will probably damage your car. There is very little public illumination, even in the city center. Oh yes, and you can’t drink the water (although I do and it hasn’t done me any harm… I think). Our boiler in our flat works sporadically at best, so our shower is often freezing and sometimes the water is cut off completely. But other things generally work ok. Electricity and gas are reliable, there is a local rubbish collection point, and contrary to popular belief, there are police around.
You can get some pretty cool stuff in Ukraine that you can’t get elsewhere. My favourite thing is that you can buy just about any medication from the pharmacy for peanuts. In the UK, every time I have a minor illness I have to make an appointment, miss work, wait several days if not weeks, get a prescription and eventually pay £7 for a small packet of antibiotics. In Ukraine, I pop into the pharmacy, say the name of the medication and they simply hand it over (as many packets as you want, in case you want to stock up…) for about 70p per packet.
The language is tough, but once you learn the basics it starts to make sense. Once you can read cyrillic (Ukrainian is slightly different from Russian but not too much), you can start recognising shop names, food on menus, street signs and so on. Then, make sure you pick up absolute basics such as numbers (for haggling in the market), food and drink names and polite greetings such as dobry den (good day), vybachte (excuse me), djakuyu (thanks) and bud’laska (please). That’s enough to get you around day to day. Then it’s certainly advisable to have some lessons. I did a 5 day intensive course for 100 euro at the local university (Ukrainain for Foreigners) which taught me to greet people, introduce myself, buy products in a shop, get a table in a restaurant and so on, and gave me the basics of grammar. There are 6 cases in Ukrainian which are pretty shocking at first, but other things are quite easy, such as tenses, as there are only three and they’re all pretty simple.
A language map of Ukraine. Blue is predominantly Ukrainian, yellow is Russian.
Only around 20% of people (in Lviv at least) speak English, so if you can’t handle the basics you’ll be really lost. You can get around with Russian, but people will really prefer you to speak Ukrainian. (This is the case in the West but not elsewhere. In Kyiv people speak much more Russian). Some people may speak a few words of English but not much more. However there are a handful of people speaking really excellent English. If you want to meet other English speakers, try websites like Couchsurfing to meet people. There is also a weekly English meetup in Lviv.
The culture is really different in Ukraine. In some ways it’s good, in others it kind of sucks. Imagine how the rest of Europe might have been 50 years ago and you might get the idea. People are very homophobic and also quite racist. Clubs have a scary thing called ‘face control’ which is a euphemism for ‘if we don’t like your face, you can’t come in’. There are very, very few black or other minorities here, so please be warned that Ukranians can be somewhat unfriendly to non-whites. They also have a very backward view of gay and lesbian people. People here are still extremely traditional. If you’re not married by the age of 25, you’re officially on the shelf. I thought it was funny at first, but babushkas will often accost you and demand to know why you’re not married, or start lecturing any men you are with on the importance of marrying you. If you don’t want to be hassled by men or babushkas, I recommend wearing a ring on your wedding finger for an easy get-out clause. This leads to quite a strange attitude among many girls around my age. For a start, they all go everywhere dressed up to the nines. I get stared at in the supermarket because I go wearing jeans and pumps with no makeup, whereas they are all in 6-inch heels and 3-inch skirts with full makeup and blowdry. Girls are outrageously image obsessed and will openly stare and judge if you’re a more casual girl like me. Nowhere else will you see girls dressed like they’re going to the Ritz or Fabric just to go and buy some bread. They also have a very old-fashioned (or Eastern European) dating culture. Men are expected to pay for everything, and many girls are absolutely desperate to find someone to marry. So keep that in mind if you’re looking for good times in Ukraine!
Socially speaking, I generally find Ukrainians to be fun and easy going. If you find the English speaking ones (or you speak great Russian or Ukrainian), once you meet someone they will introduce you to their friends, show you around and generally welcome you into their social circle. I met some really cool people in Lviv, and it’s not too hard to make friends once you work out where and how to meet people. I found it best to meet people via websites like Couchsurfing and then hopefully they will introduce you around to other friends. As for social life and entertainment, I suppose it varies across Ukraine. Kyiv is a really fun city with plenty of cosmopolitan clubs and social places. Lviv is smaller and more limited in that respect. The clubs are quite fun and there are some nice restaurants and other bars etc, but you might begin to find them repetitive after a while if you’re used to a big city like London. You will also start to find yourself bumping into the same people over and over again. This can be really nice as you make friends easily. But people are gossipy and you can’t do anything without someone mentioning it to someone else. If you’re not behaving in a nice, traditional Ukrainian way, trust me, it will quickly get around! Also, keep in mind that Lviv is quite isolated. It’s a pain to cross the border to Poland, there are few if any links by plane to other places, and other major cities like Kyiv and Odessa are minimum 5 hours away by train. Around Lviv there is basically nothing except a very dirty lake (Vynnyky) and a much nicer one (although also full of litter) – Yannitsya. There are a couple of castles an hour or so away, but they’re not especially great compared to elsewhere in Europe.
Finally, food! Food in Ukraine is typically Eastern European – the food of a poor country. Everything is heavily based around cheap carbs – bread, potatoes, dumplings and buckwheat. You’ll find cabbage in almost everything. Some nice typical dishes include borsch (beetroot soup, often with a small chunk of pork meat and/or a dollop of sour cream), holubci (cabbage rolls), hrechka (buckwheat, which you can eat with just about everything), chicken kievs and varenyky (dumplings which resemble pierogies). Another peculiarity is ‘salo’ (lard) which comes on bread, with potatoes or maybe in borcsch. It’s nicer than it sounds. Actually, that’s about 80% of Ukrainian cuisine right there. I liked most of those things two months ago, but now to be honest I could live without ever seeing varenyky again. Almost everything is flavoured heavily with cumin, and you won’t find anything remotely hot or spicy anywhere. If you fancy something different from the Ukrainian stuff, your best best is Georgian food. There are a few excellent Georgian restaurants around serving amazing khachapuri (heavenly cheese bread), shashlik (grilled chunks of meat on a skewer), grilled vegetables and khinkhali (dumplingy things). Otherwise most ‘foreign’ restaurants are all Italian, which gets old quite quickly. If you’ve got a bit more money than the average Ukrainian, you can afford some of the really good grilled meat places such as ‘Trout, Bread and Wine’ (one of our faves) where you can order all sorts of barbequed meat. Beer, of course, is amazing and very cheap. In Lviv, the local brew (Lvivske) is delicious and costs very little. Wine is another matter. Almost all the cheap wine here comes from Crimea and is sickly sweet and terrible. You have to pay a few hryvnya more for foreign wine which is of course decent.
So, that’s about all I can think of that you might want to know about life in Ukraine. Feel free to ask me anything though!