Basements, Snow Storms, Expensive Pigeons, & Grand Cathedrals

Early in my semester abroad I heard about an opportunity to go on a trip to Kiev, Ukraine with a group of journalism students from the Communication department. I immediately jumped on it because of how inexpensive it was and of how unique the trip was. When students study abroad, I don’t think this country is on the top of their list to travel to, but I signed up immediately.

The trip was definitely an adventure. Of course, the day before we leave, Ukraine declared a state of emergency because of a giant snow storm that hit that day. Maybe you remember seeing that in the news. Yeah, I was there the next day. It was really a miracle our flight wasn’t canceled. We left late enough on Sunday that it ended up being okay. We went through Riga, Latvia first then landed in Kiev pretty late in the evening. Everything was still in chaos however. No certified taxis or buses were available, only what they called ‘black cabs’. We ended up having to take a not so good deal with 2 different sketchy vehicles with no seat belts. “Don’t worry,” said the man who drove our car. “I good driver.”

Compared to Finland, we really weren’t all that impressed with the snow, but we had to realize that this all hit the city in one day, not over a period of weeks or months. Kiev was not prepared to deal with this sort of weather and they definitely didn’t have the kind of equipment or plan that Finland has.

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It was quite an adventure trying to get to our hostel from the airport. The other car had some real problems and got stuck in the snow and had to get out and push. The hostel was a very unique place and so was the owner (a Brazilian girl with dreadlocks who wore mickey mouse shirts). We settled in, but we hadn’t had dinner yet and we were starving even though it was almost 10pm. The hostel owner suggested a restaurant close by. The directions she gave us were priceless….down this street, take a right, behind the ATM, down some stairs….sounds promising. Yes, the restaurant was in a basement. Despite the questionable location and the staff dressed as nurses and doctors, the food was quite delicious.

The next day we had free to ourselves and we ended up breaking off into groups and doing our own thing. The group I was in decided to just walk around and explore the city.

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The city of Kiev is full of historical buildings, as well as modern sky scrapers. You could definitely tell there was Russian influence in many of the structures, but many had their own uniqueness that could not be categorized. The city was very different from any place in Finland for sure.

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One huge difference between Kiev, Ukraine and anywhere in Finland was that it was very difficult to communicate in English with people there. In Finland, you can hardly find anyone who doesn’t speak English, but here it was difficult to find people who did speak English. Many people were very surprised that we came to Ukraine for our trip. They didn’t know what was so special about their country. Despite this, the locals were very excited that we were there to visit their country, but they were disappointed that we came at that time when the snow storm had hit.

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The currency of Ukraine is the Hryvnia (гривня). 1 hryvnia is approximately 0.12 cents USD. 1 hryvnia is approximately 9/10 of a Euro cent. This was very strange to walk around with hundreds of hryvnia in your wallet and not feel like you are carrying hundreds of dollars. The coins barely had any value at all but they still used even 5 cent coins. It made it all really strange when a few of us would go out to eat and end up paying 500 hryvnia. Kiev was actually really inexpensive, especially for the capital city.

On our first full day when we were out exploring the city, we came out onto Independence Square where two men came up to us who were holding some pigeons. One man came up to me and asked if I would like to hold the pigeon. Sure, why not. They began handing pigeons to several of us and even putting one on one girl’s head. They made a huge deal out of it and said: “Go ahead! Take photos!” So we did, naturally. But by the time we gave the pigeons back they were demanding money from us. “You must pay. 50 hryvnia per person.” One girl in our group was appalled and refused. They said they had to feed their birds. I offered them 20 (about 2 euros), but he wouldn’t take it, demanding more. We ended up just walking away from them and they were absolutely furious, but there was nothing they could do, and we avoided eye contact with men with pigeons from thereafter…

During our visit we also got to visit the Kiev Post to talk with the editor-in-chief there. It is one of the few newspapers in Kiev that is printed in English. The EIC is actually from the states. He came to live in Ukraine just after the collapse of the Soviet Union and he told us what it was like working in journalism at that time and all the way up to the present. There was a time that he was fired from his job for printing certain articles that the owner of the newspaper didn’t want to be printed, but after his staff went on strike, he was re-hired once again.

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We saw many cathedrals and churches that were absolutely gorgeous. My favorite was Saint Sophia’s Cathedral. One of the buildings on was absolutely breathtaking inside. I’ve never been so amazed by architecture in my life. We also climbed up all the stairs into the bell tower to see the view from the top. The stairs were icy and full of snow and it was kind of nerve wracking going up and down them.

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We also visited a gigantic monastery in Kiev called the Kiev Pechersk Lavra. It was a very big place, but many parts were not open to visitors because of the snow. In fact, the Ukrainian military was there shoveling snow.

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By the time we left at the end of the week, the city finally began to come to life and we realized how many people actually lived in Kiev (almost 3 million). More people were out driving and way more people were out honking and screaming at each other. It was very interesting to compare and contrast both Ukraine and Finland. It made me realize how safe I feel in Finland, whereas once we landed in Kiev, I felt on edge. Ukraine was very unique in its architecture and style along with the deep subway tunnels and underground shops and restaurants. It will definitely be a trip I never forget.