As a native English speaker, I hit the traveling jackpot. Wherever I go anywhere in the world, I never have a problem communicating with people. English is the lingua franca of the world, and if anything is ever in a second language, it is always English. In hostels, people from around the world converse with each other in English, which means I can always find a conversation to join. I’m never limited by language.
And, even if people aren’t fluent in English, they most likely know enough where I can order water, or get the bill, or find my way to the train station without any problems. While there have been times where I’ve had to gotten creative with non-verbal communication, for the most part, communication is much easier for me as an English speaker than it is for my friends from Germany or Portugal.
At least, until I went and visited Ukraine this month.
Out of all the countries I have been to, Ukraine ranks number one on the list of places where no one seems to speak English.
Now, it may sound like hyperbole to say that. Surely some people must speak some English, right? A few do. Those who interact with tourists or work in international restaurants can understand a few words. But everyday Ukrainians? The ones I encountered couldn’t even understand words like “water,” “train,” “bill,” or “thank you.”
Now, I’m not one of those tourists that demands the local people know my language. I wouldn’t really except anyone to be fluent in English just as someone from another place wouldn’t expect me to be fluent in their language. But given how pervasive English is around the world, in major cities, most people can say something so I am always surprised and fascinated when people don’t speak English.
One night, I was recommended a nice Ukrainian restaurant by my hostel owner in Kiev, and I asked the guy if they spoke English there. His response? “You’re in the Ukraine, man. No one here speaks English here.”
But you know what? The lack of English didn’t turn me off of Ukraine.
In fact, faced with an incomprehensible script (Cyrillic) and no one around to speak English with, I was actually excited by Ukraine. While it was nearly impossible to get around and ask for help, I looked at it as a challenge. I spent 20 minutes staring at a train schedule to figure out which train was mine. I got creative when trying to speak with people. I pointed a lot at things I wanted.
I loved the challenge. Though I was only there for a week,, I think that is why I loved Ukraine so much. It was a challenge to travel around. It was an adventure. And for me, the bigger the adventure and the more the challenge, the more I feel like I’m traveling, discovering, and learning about the world.
Travel can be so easy these days, especially if you are fluent in English. We native speakers are really luckily and it takes some of the challenge out of travel. But here I was, dropped in a truly foreign place. I had to pantomime “choo choo” to get to a train station, write numbers down for prices, and overall, just be very confused.
But Ukraine had a lot more to offer than just a language barrier. I only saw Lviv and Kiev but they were very interesting cities. There was this mix of modernity, old Soviet architecture, and beautiful parks. If I can anything about the Communists is that they really love to make parks. (I liked Lviv more because of its old historical center.) Little babushka grandmothers walked next to girls wearing Prada. The Russian Orthodox churches that littered their with their gold plating and cone tops were both opulent yet symbolized a deep sense of faith. And, I really loved Ukrainian food. I was surprised at how flavorful it was. I was expecting a hearty bland cuisine of meat and potato. But the borscht, the potato dumplings, the blintzes, the meat were delicious. I especially liked the borscht. The sour cream they put in it adds a wonderful texture to the soup. (For cheap and good Ukrainian food, eat at Puzata Khata. They have locations all around the city.)
While I was in Kiev, I also met up with a bunch of Couchsurfers who took me to a Ukrainian university party. Other than my Couchsurfer guide and one of her friends, no one there spoke enough English to converse with. There was a lot of translating involved. And a lot of vodka toasts. The Ukrainians love their vodka. I think to avoid awkward silences caused by the language barrier, we simply just toasted to something. We toasted too much actually and when I begin to slow down, they begin to laugh and try to feed me more vodka. I cannot hold my vodka as good as a Ukrainian.
Next year, the European soccer championship is being held in Ukraine, and I am going to try to attend. It will be a great reason to go back to a country I never expected would be so amazing and thrilling. I have barely scratched the surface of this huge country, giving me plenty of new things to do when I get back there. A week wasn’t even close to being enough. I especially want to go to Odessa, visit the east near Russia, and head to Crimea.
But given language barrier, I think I might need to learn some Russian phrases first.
Na zdorovye (cheers) will only get me so far.