The Utterly Amazing Ukraine

By Nomadic Matt | Published August 29th, 2011

statue of famous ukranian writer in lvivAs 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.)

kiev ukraine

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.

st sophia church in kiev ukraine

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.

comments 55 Comments

I don’t see your current “My Last Grand Trip Before I Settle Down” phase ending any time soon. Travel’s in your blood, Matt, and that’s a wonderful thing.

Great post.

NomadicMatt

I may yet surprise you!

Oh man I want to go to Ukraine so baddddd.

NomadicMatt

Let’s plan a big trip next year! You and Michael need to get beyond Asia!

Steven S

Great to see more posts about Ukrainian tourism and backpacking! I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed your stay in the country. How long were you there for?

NomadicMatt

I was only there for a week but I am looking forward to going back and spending more time there.

Miranda

Heheh I love countries where you still have to pantomime and try to get by… I had that same experience in Japan and in Slovakia, although admittedly I know the extreme basics of Japanese (water, train, ‘where is’, etc) and in Slovakia I did meet a few people who could manage German. Your pictures make me move the Ukraine up on my priority list of countries to visit. :)

Cyrillic is a script, not a language.

A simple yet effective thing would be to learn the basic Cyrillic symbols before coming to a country where it is primary. Seriously, don’t you research / prepare for your visit before coming some place?

And if you want a linguistic challenge, you should travel to the Middle East, not Eastern Europe.

NomadicMatt

I’m well aware which countries use Cyrillic. But that wasn’t the point of the article at all. It was about being somewhere completely different and challenging yourself. I actually don’t prepare for my trips. I just go. It’s more interesting that way and I don’t learn the local language before I go because I like to challenge myself while there and try to learn and communicate while in the country. It’s half the fun for me.

Romania, Estonia, Ukraine… I like the direction of your recent voyages.
I’ve visited Kiev, Odessa and Crimea this June and enjoyed them very much.

By the way, vodka in Ukrainian is also called “horilka” and is paronymous to “combustible” and “pungent” ;)

P.S. If need assistance in learning Russian phrases, you’re welcome.

NomadicMatt

I would definitely say the vodke was “horilka.” I gagged after every toast.

I agree with Artem, I love that you’ve covered the side of Europe that most tourists ignore. I spent 3 years traveling the region and feel in love with the region.

Matt, I thought you hired an editor. If so, tell him/her to fix these the 3 errors here:

“I wouldn’t really except anyone to be fluent in English just as someone from another wouldn’t expect me to be fluent in their language. But given how perverse 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.”

I had two editors for my book about Eastern Europe, so I know how easy it is to make mistakes! ;)

For further adventures of this kind, visit Russia. :) You probably will come around young people in Moscow and St. Petersburg who speak good English, but go to any other place and you’ll have plenty of language-based adventures.

I know this is not good news for those who want to visit Ukraine. But I think this problem is not enough to restrain your from going there. Most of us know that Ukraine or Russia is a big country and almost enough self sufficient. So they don’t have to depend on or rely on other countries. English language is not used much and the people also not much interested in learning English. I know the people of Ukraine are very good. So plan your trip to Ukraine without any hesitation. Happy journey.

Brian

For your next trip to Ukraine, learn some UKRAINIAN phrases, not Russian. Many people in Kyiv speak both, but in Lviv most people insist on using Ukrainian, which is the country’s official language. Soviet Russia spent decades trying to weaken Ukrainian culture and the Ukrainian language. Many Ukrainians are justifiably proud of the survival of their language. The assumption that Ukraine is “Little Russia,” as many Russian imperialists called the nation, can be insulting to Ukrainians.

Language Enthusiast

Maybe you’d like to speak UKRAINIAN in UKRAINE. Or just try looking it up on Wikipedia before you look very ignorant, both to the people whose country you are in and those who know better. Here, look: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ukrainian_language “It is the official state language of Ukraine.”

Please don’t be an ignorant American; we have enough to overcome without that.

NomadicMatt

Yes, you two are both right. Ukrainian is the official language of the country but I found that most people spoke Russian. In Kiev everyone spoke Russian to each other. In my hostel in Lviv? Russian. And that’s why I said I need to learn Russian because it was the language that I heard spoken the most.

I’m not being ignorant.

Scott

I’ve been to Ukraine twice and am leaving again on the 24th of May. I found language to be somewhat regional with Eastern Ukraine favoring Ukrainian while many other regions speaking Russian, but that varies too as other posts have mentioned. Once you learn the Cyrillic alphabet things get easier because you can read signs, maps, etc.

I’ve been to Kiev, Donetsk, Odessa and Berdyansk and can say that 99% of my interactions with the people of Ukraine has been very positive. I was often helped when I needed directions, or a good taxi, restaurant, money exchange, etc. I found a number of Ukrainians in Odessa speak good English and actually went on a date with a beautiful lady who not only knew American music history better than I did, but also spoke fluent English and understood slang as well.

My May trip to Berdyansk is to propose to my special Ukrainian gift of a lady whom I’ve communicated with for over 3 years and spent time with her and her family.

Wish me luck…????????? ??? ?????!

Scott

NomadicMatt

Good luck!

I love the photo of the statue. Terrific shot.

I can totally relate! I moved to Russia for 6 months in a more rual town and not very many people knew english but it really didn’t cause many problems. They were friendly and I managed to learn enough Russian to get me around town! Loving your blog!

NomadicMatt

I’ve always found that not knowing the language makes things way more interesting and fun.

kanuk

im really glad that you finally found a place that allowed you to rely on just yourself, it can be really fun and a great confidence booster! and i like your attitude of not expecting everything to conform to your beliefs too. the reason not many people in eastern europe, especially the real old school countries like russia and ukraine dont speak english, is because they have never needed to, and still dont to a large extent. its a whole different world over there, a world of its own which doesnt need anything western because it has plenty of things to call its own. and i dont mean to sound deushy but thats only because the world is not limited to america, its satellites, and other places wanting to be more western, like a lot of people tend to assume because they have never been to any radically different culture that has no need to imitate anything because it is basically strong enough on its own. not many countries can claim that, and even russia is taking a course of adopting western values and traditions (european too) in an effort to seem more “civilized”. which is a real shame i think, because the percepion of it being barbarian is just that, a perception. its just… different. i would assume a large asian power like china would be like that as well, why wold they need to fall under somebody elses influence, cultural or otherwise. correct me if im wrong there. although a lot of young people in russia for instance are starting to speak more and more english, you wouldntve had such a hard time in the major cities there.

Nice experience.. Literacy is a word which is relative to a place for me..Whenever I go to places where the signboards and other stuff are written in language I don’t know of, I always feel the scent of illiteracy:-)..Its also fun at times!

Never been, but it is pretty high on my list, and your post has nudged it to an even higher elevation. I am actually planning on doing Euro 2012 as part of my big RTW next year, so maybe we will run into each other.

NomadicMatt

For sure! Go Holland!

Your post is always inspiring, never thought Ukraine is like what you have described :P

NomadicMatt

Thank you! Flattery will get you everywhere!

I have a friend from Ukraine here, he got his green card in the lottery! I never thought of going there… Maybe I should go with him!

NomadicMatt

You should, you should.

NomadicMatt

You should bump it up a notch. It was amazing. I would recommend the place to anyone.

Tintin

I never realized Ukraine to be like how you described it. It seems very interesting!
Great post! This just made me wanna go! :)
Will include it for next year’s trip :)

Sofia - As We Travel

Great article Matt, we are heading to Ukraine in a few weeks, and really can’t wait – also will be exploring Moldova & Belarus – I think there is so much to love about Eastern Europe.

Really like the fourth photo with the cloud behind. Now at least you would understand CHEERS in other Slovan languages as it is very simila – na zdravie in Slovak :D

Hahaha, I struggled with the language too! They didn’t even understand me in McDonalds! I had to buy a pair of shoes in Kiev and it took me about an hour in one shop trying to communicate with them.

Went to Russia for the first time last month and I definitely know what you mean about the language barrier. Has been a while since I had to really make an effort to get around and do things in a city. I reckon Russia and the former Soviet countries are the next frontier in terms of pushing the envelope and getting a decent culture shock, at least in Europe.

NomadicMatt

“Ukraine, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship traveler!”

I totally agree with eating at Puzata Hata (http://www.puzatahata.com.ua/eng/). I ate there constantly and it has amazing food. I was just in Kiev a week ago and the English there is much better than were I am now which is Moscow, Russia. If you want a people that speak no English than come here.

Ukraine was a good time, I only got to spend a few days there before my Russia visa was set to begin and I had to hurry to Russia but I would highly recommend Kiev at least.

As far as Cyrillic it is indeed easy to learn, I haven’t mastered it yet but I only speak 1 language so I am new to this anything other than English thing. But once you know it, it can be fun decrypting Cyrillic to sometimes find a word that you actually know.

NomadicMatt

After awhile, you get used to knowing what symbols make what sounds. The fact there are some “Greek” characters in the mix really helps me out.

eleanore

PUZATA HATA – lived on that for 2 weeks – sooo good! I was lucky to be able to travel in Ukraine for 2 weeks in 2009, and will definately go back. The language barrier was a challenge, however, with a good dictionary (and a little study), I had no problems.

Ukraine is one place that I have to go to sooner or later – my grandfather is Ukrainian and I’ve got so much family over there that I have never me. Though I manage to keep in contact with them via Facebook, it’s not quite the same :)

I don’t know the language though, but at least I know quite a few members of my family have a good grasp of English, so they can teach me what I need to know. Otherwise, the only words I can remember were a few from attending Ukrainian churches for a short time when I was a kid!

Aleks

“But given how perverse English is around the world,” :)

I think you meant pervasive .

Nice report … is it true about the girls…that pretty?

NomadicMatt

I do mean pervasive. This is what happens when my editor goes on vacation.

Thanks for catching that!

Too bad I came across this post only now! We would have loved to show you around! And I am so thrilled that despite all the Cyrillic, you found it an exciting challenge and you enjoyed our country.
I second your next ‘Things to see in Ukraine’ list :) I’d also add more Western Ukraine to explore, especially the Carpathian Mountains region. They speak a completely weird dialect that’s hard to understand even for Ukrainians, and have a very distinctive rural culture. You’d really love it! And next time you go – let us know :) Oksana@ActiveUkraine P.S. For good ideas on Ukraine off-the-beaten track, go to our blog: blog.activeukraine.com

I don’t fully agree with the thesis that Ukrainians don’t learn English. Try speaking to any person from 23-30 – in the most of the cases you will get a reply you need. I know, because actually I tested. Ukraine, especially Western part is more close to Europe and more open for tourism. I agree that Carpathians are great – you can spend wonderful holidays there.

Tatjana

hi !
Nice article ! really glad to hear that you like our country !
I’m studying tourism in Belgium and truly think that Ukraine has a great tourist potential and will became a popular destination in some years .

cheers and welcome to Ukraine ;-)

Michael

I just came across your blog / website. I appreciate your post on Ukraine.

I have been wanting to visit Western Ukraine (Zakapattia, Muckachevo, Uzghorod, Lviv) for several years. I want to see the land of my ancestors, my Carpathian Rysyn roots. I want to experience the food, people, culture, churches etc. The only thing that stops me is the language barrier. I am 33, American, and I only read and write English. I do not know how to plan for such an adventure:-(.

Definitely try and get to Crimea. It was my favorite part of Ukraine. Bring a tent with you and just travel the coast; the buses are cheap as dirt and hitching is pretty easy as well. Be sure to include Chufut-Kale and Balaklava (for both it’s beaches and old Soviet nuclear submarine base) on your itinerary.
I spent a little over two weeks traveling the Southern coast of Crimea, and still wished I had more time there. For a number of reasons, it’s got a pretty special place in my heart. Feel like I first got my travel feet in under me on that peninsula.

Mike

I know that in southeastern Ukraine Russian, not Ukrainian is a predominant language after long subjugation of Ukraine by Russia. But in my view historical injustice done by Russian imperialism to Ukraine must be rectified in all respects, and the Ukrainian language must again be the major, not minor language on the whole territory of Ukraine. Of course Russian people in Ukraine can communicate in Russian between themselves, but they should also know and use Ukrainian in communication with Ukrainian people. I think Russians in Ukraine and the Russian authorities try to impose Russian as the main language in Ukraine even now, and to restrict the use of Ukrainian as much as possible by preserving the past Russification of Ukraine. It is long overdue to teach and learn more Ukrainian than Russian in Ukraine.

Yes, I think know its a bit better and different to the cities, but when I was in Kyiv (before the big soccer event) most of the ukrainians began to learn english, that was funny.

Ukraine is a very beautiful country, where you always get an adventure! I recommened you to visit westukraine for example lviv (-a typical old city, where the inhabitans speak only ukrainian – and for the tourists of course english!) and of course krim :)

See you there :)

Greetz from Berlin, Germany

jack2

400 million people speak English as mother tongue. And another 400 million speak it as second language. Like me.
That means that 6.2 billion don’t. And don’t means they dont know about train station, water, up and down, left and right, black and white.

Greg

Hey,

I managed to open a bank account with Unicredit bank in Nikolaev, Ukraine. No one, neither managers nor tellers could speak or understand English at all! They couldn’t understand a word! But… Finally, we managed to open an account. I even wired some cash to my Ukrainian account and was able to withdraw it in Kherson (another city in Ukraine, close to Nikolaev). Thanks God, a lady manager in Kherson spoke decent English. That was an awesome trip. People are welcoming, girls are pretty, food tasty, roads are terrible tho :( Anyway, Matt, you’re absolutely right about Ukraine. Next time, try South or East :)

Hey Matt! Great job, your blog post really helped me guiding my travel tour.

Thanks for info!

NomadicMatt

That’s great to hear!

Oh man…I’m sitting in my friend’s kitchen in a tiny village in Bulgaria and he’s telling me over and over again that I’d be crazy not to go back to the motherland since I’m so close…and after reading this article (and realizing I don’t need to apply for a separate visa), I’m getting pretty convinced that I need to go back.

Considering myself lucky that Ukrainian was my first language….considering myself stupid for forgetting so much of it! Oh well. At least I can read Cyrillic!

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