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Making Borsch on a Commune in Ukraine

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I took the train to Bakhmach and got off at the wrong stop. On the wrong side of the tracks, I walked around the back of the train and what I saw has been burned into my memory since then. To the right was a grey stone building. Two stories tall, it looked like an abandoned house for railway workers. Cutting in front of the house, parallel to the train tracks, was a dirt road. There were several people riding ancient bikes, and further down a handful of instantly recognizable, one story “Продукты”. This translate exactly as “Products” and if that draws comparison to the type of stores we had in the 1800’s, that’s a more apt analogy than a convenience store. They carry everything you’d expect, like Pepsi and beer, but they also sell meat, fresh bread, and whole frozen chickens.

The train gained speed and pulled away from me, while I stood motionless. It was the most vivid manifestation of time travel that I had ever experienced. Scanning the road I saw a young man riding a bike, with a beautiful girl in a fluorescent green dress sitting on the handle bars. It reminded me of a scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kidwhen Paul Newman shares the future with Butch’s girlfriend.

Recovering, I walked to the Продукты, my back sweating in protest of the overweight backpack. Facing the woman working there, I used my limited Russian to ask for two things. Cold water and the number of a taxi. I took the slip of paper from her hand, paid for the water, then staggered out of the store like a gawky teenager.

After a phone call and a fifteen minute wait, I’m sitting in the front seat of a taxi. Leaving the village behind, we drove down a road that cut massive green fields in half. Fields far larger than any I’ve ever seen in the eastern United States. My driver, Alexei, abused the throttle and we hurtled past horse drawn carts. Discordantly, this took place while Drake was rapping about bitches and success on the blown out speakers. The world outside the windows of the Russian made taxi suggested that the industrial revolution was just over the horizon. The music inside reminded me that places like T-O-R-O-N-T-O exist and that women are abundant there.

What’s Smaller Than a Village?

In English, short of saying “outpost” or “colony”, we don’t have a good word to describe anything smaller than a village. In Ukrainian and Russian they do. It’s called a “Хутор” (Hooter) and they look something like this. My hooter was a collection of about a dozen houses, arranged along a quarter mile of well paved road. The houses were all one story, built the same way that they’ve been built for hundreds of years. We passed by massive gardens, horse stables, free range children, pig pens, and pulled up in front of the place that I was going to stay.

The first thing I noticed was a fence running in front of the buildings. It abolished the view so that I could only see the top half of a barn and a home. As I was pulling my ignorantly packed bag from the trunk, a head popped over the fence. On top of head is cap, which didn’t seem to do much as the face had picked up a healthy tan from working outside.

“Hey” said the face, with a smile and Russian accent that you could stick a fork into.

“Привет” I replied . I had learned that if I wanted to practice my Russian, I needed to speak it even when people addressed me in English. I traded my taxi driver 200 Grivna for the twenty minute ride, then off he went. Back in the direction of relative civilization. A bustling city by comparison to my new home.

Meeting the Ukrainians

Two days later and I had met almost everyone living at the farm. Besides me there was one other volunteer, named Olga. She was several years older than me, Ukrainian, and spoke English to put my Russian to shame. Leonard, the head of the household, was a filmmaker and at a festival in Poland. He left behind his very pregnant wife and their two daughters. Finally, there was Mama Luda. Leonard’s mother and the senior member of the mismatched crew. Mama Luda was a lovely person and I spent a great deal of time helping her around the kitchen. For example, the water situation was interesting. While there was running water, it wasn’t a fully developed system yet. Water came out of a plastic spicket and my job was to fill up the five gallon pail of water for the kitchen. I also had the privilege of filling up the hand washing sink, and the large plastic containers that we used to wash dishes.

Another job was lighting the large wood burning stove in the morning, and keeping a fresh supply of firewood in the kitchen. Life at Obirek was traditional and fun. I’ve always enjoyed work that feels meaningful. Working as a cashier in a supermarket and bussing tables in a creperie never offered me any satisfaction, and I often felt like shit after my shift. On the other hand, when Mama Luda is cooking dinner and had to have water, that was satisfying job to see to. Especially when I knew the results would be delicious.

A lot of people are surprised when I tell them that I really enjoyed Russian food. Most assume that all Russian food is pickled, scaled, or somehow associated with Vodka. While there certainly is that subset, there’s more to it. Mama Luda consistently cooked delicious dishes that would convert any skeptic. Green borsch, red borsch, dumplings, potatoes, kasha, and shuba. I ate well every day, and enjoyed the experience of eating traditional food, prepared by a seasoned cook, made in the most antiqued kitchen that I’d ever lit a fire in.

Second Language Cooking Lessons

Despite my appreciation of the meaningful work, after ten days I was ready to leave Obirek. My feelings about gardening were mixing with a craving to start working online, and I knew it was time to get back to Kiev. However, before I left there was something that I really wanted to do. Using my limited abilities with the Russian language, I explained to Mama Luda that I would jump at the chance to cook Ukrainian borsch. Would she be generous enough to teach a young American how to prepare the best soup in the world?

I knew this would be an interesting experience because of the language barrier. My conversational Russian was decent, but I was lost like a tourist in New York when it came to verbs like cut, grate, slice, peel, boil, fry, and almost every other food related action. Determined to make the best of it, we gave it a try.

Every new word Mama Luda taught me pushed out an old one that I had learned five minutes ago. The whole thing would have been a mess if I hadn’t had a notebook with me. Writing half in Russian, half in English, I began to record the experience of cooking borsch. I wrote an entire post with the recipe and cooking instructions, so I won’t get into details. There I was, a twenty-three year old American, learning how to cook a famous Russian / Ukrainian dish, from a grandmother who grew up under the Soviet Union. Thankfully countries change and barriers are broken. Grudges are forgotten and swept under the rug of time. I spent thirteen months in Russia and Ukraine, and in that time I was never greeted by anything but warmth and good emotions. I learned how to cross country ski, curse in Russian, drink vodka with pickles, and cook borsch. And most of all, I learned that there’s a world out there and it’s quite a bit different than how the news makes it out to be.

5 Awesome Things to do in Kiev

I think that everyone should visit Kiev! It’s a beautiful city with a great history, and if you have Euros or Dollars, it’s all very affordable. One of the nicest perks of Kiev is that it’s a fairly centralized city. All of the things I’m about to list are within walking distance. Or if you prefer to hitch a ride, a taxi should never cost more than a couple of bucks. Finally, I love travelling in Ukraine, and I have lots of cool Kiev photos (Odessa and Lviv too) that I definitely think you’ll like. Alright though, let’s get to it!

1. Rodina Mat

Rodina Mat in KievIf you’re going to travel to Ukraine, this massive statue is a must see! At 102 meters, Rodina Mat is truly impressive, especially as she holds up her sword and shield to the river. In Russian, Родина Мать, is bit awkward to translate, but it comes out as something like “Mother of the Country” or “Mother of the Homeland”.

Under the base of the statue is a comprehensive World War II museum that’s filled with interesting relics from the war. You’ll also find some items from the significantly more modern struggle in Donbass. On top of helmets and pictures, there’s also a captured Russian tank. It’s parked out right out front and has been painted in Ukraine’s national colors (blue and yellow).

It’s also worth noting that if you take the metro to Rodina Mat, you’ll get off at Arsenalna Station, which is the deepest metro station in the world. Getting from the Metro car, up to the entrance of the station, takes more time then trying to pick a movie to watch on Netflix! If you visit Kiev, you can’t pass up this opportunity.

2. Maidan

Maidan in KievIf there was an award for most transformed public space, Maidan would surely take first place. This telling photograph illustrates how bad things got, and how nice it looks now. Maidan is one of Kiev’s main attractions, and the whole area is a wonderful place to hang out. The protesters are long gone, order has been returned, and there’s only hints of what took place there in 2013.

One of my favorite things to do in Kiev is take the metro to Maidan, then “гулять”. This is a Russian verb which doesn’t have a definite English translation. Strolling comes close, but it sounds a little bit too whimsical.

Regardless, at Maidan you can “stroll” around and discover a large, underground shopping mall or one of the many restaurants nearby. If you’re not sure where to go, I suggest Park Shevchenko, which is a 15 minute walk away, and directly next to Kiev’s elite National University (which happens to be painted bright red).

3. St. Andrew’s Church

St. Andre's Church in KievWhen it comes to Kiev sightseeing, you have to check out St. Andrew’s Church! I say that for two reasons. First, the church itself is beautiful. A magnificent work of art. The blue spires give way to gold, which is all complimented by the beautiful white body of the church. You can stand next to it and see far off into the distance (Kiev is a very hilly city).

The second reason that you’ll want to check out St. Andrew’s is the area. All around it is a large park which will offer you various opportunities to find some tranquility, or get your picture taken with a great background of the city. Those will be some some Kiev photos that you’re happy to have later on.

4. Kiev Opera

Another one of the Kiev’s attractions is the opera house. Situated less than ten minutes from Maidan, it’s right downtown. The building is old and it has a visually imposing appearance. It sits in a large, open square which defies the traffic and buildings all around it. The opera in Kiev is also nice because it’s affordable. Tickets can run somewhere around $15, although you will need to buy them in advance (and in person, I’ve heard their online system is nearly useless).

5. Petra Sahaidachnoho St.

Chilling at the Fiji LoungeThankfully, you don’t have to be able to pronounce the name of this street to find it. You can do a quick Google Maps search and find out right where it is. This street makes the list of top 5 awesome things to do in Kiev because it’s jammed with some of the best bars and restaurants in Kiev. There’s the Fiji Lounge Bar, which may be my favorite place in all of Kiev to hang out with friends. They have great food, cheap drinks, hookah, and there is a hidden club in the basement that can get crazy on Friday and Saturday nights.

Another good spot to check out is the Shooters in Kiev. They’re located a minute or two from the Fiji Lounge Bar, and it’s a popular place for tourists to visit. Good drink specials and lots of local party goers means that everyone ends up having fun. Regardless of your tastes, you’ll definitely find something interesting on Petra Sahaidachnoho St.

Where to Stay in Kiev

If you’re going to travel in Ukraine, you’ll want to find a good place to stay. As far as I can tell, there are four major hostels in Kiev, and I’ve stayed at three of them. The hostel that I always recommend to friends is The DREAM House hostel. This place is freaking sweet! It’s only a year or two old, they have a cafe / bar directly built in, the beds are super comfortable, there’s a big common area, the staff are nice, it’s only two minutes from Petra Sahaidachnoho St.

Some people prefer Kiev Central Station though. This hostel has a totally different feel. Staying here, I frequently felt like I was living in a college apartment. It’s laid back, it’s on a quite street, and there is a fridge full of beer in the common room. Whichever hostel you choose though, you’ll still only end up paying about $8 a night. Kiev is a very affordable destination, and one that I recommend everyone check out. To learn more about Ukraine, and see video reviews of the two hostels that I mentioned, be sure check out my YouTube page.

Pictures from Odessa

I really enjoyed Odessa. It’s one of those cities that is built around nature. There are some beautiful parks, and old growth trees are littered through the city. Of course the sea is fantastic too. I spent so much time in the sun I was the color of a tomato!

I’m definitely going to go back to Odessa, and I would really recommend you check it out if you haven’t been there yet. It’s definitely not the easiest city to get to in the world, but I think it’s really worth it.

Let’s take a look at what’s there.

This is the main street in Odessa. Never any cars, always a bustling crowd.

Main St

To me, this looks like the coolest place to eat ever!

Cool Restaurant

 

Odessa has this really terrific path running along a cliff, just before the sea.

Long Park

 

Lots of the parks in Odessa have awesome fountains like this one.

Cool Fountain

 

A close up of that buildings cool statue park, for lack of a better word.

Building

Of course, shipping is very important here.

Industry

 

Watching these yellow cranes work was really a blast.

Big Ship

 

Yes Odessa, I do love you <3

Odessa Love

 

Everyone was hot and tired in the 90 degree weather.

Hot Day

Kiev Almost Killed This Man

I’d like to introduce you to Benny. This is exactly how he looked as his flight home was taking of from Kiev’s international airport. You may notice several things, like the filthy shirt and the somewhat haphazard manner in which he’s sleeping.

What you can’t see are the lack of a wallet, telephone, and impressive facial reconstruction courtesy of several unknown fists. After a heavy night of partying Benny was mugged, and as Benny himself pointed out;

“This is going to be a good story to tell in a month or two.”

The Party Animal

Benny checked into our hostel on Monday night and as soon as it got dark outside he left. The next morning he came back sometime around 7, which set a pattern for the days to come.

After he woke up in the evening, I took him out for steak and then we ended up going to a few bars around Kiev. When we came back to the hostel at midnight I was ready to call it a night, but despite partying till past sunrise the night before, Benny wanted more.

So he went to the club and I went to sleep.

This story continued to repeat itself. Benny would party till sunrise then sleep till 6 pm. He would eat something and go out again. He never once actually woke up early enough to go see anything in the city nor did he ever allow his liver a chance to recover.

After the fourth day in a row of this he felt sick, couldn’t eat anything and looked pale.

“I ate some bad soup” he said to me. “Dammit, why do I always get bad food at restaurants?”

“Maybe it’s just that you’ve been getting drunk every night and your body hates you?” I asked pleasantly.

“No, I don’t think that’s it. I’m pretty sure it’s the soup..”

A Last Chance Resolution

Sunday afternoon, his last day in Kiev, Benny resolved to do something cultural and enlightening. He reserved a ticket to the opera and left sometime around four. Well the next day rolled around and at 7 am, his usual return time, he still wasn’t back.

8 came and went.

9 came and went.

The owner of our hostel suggested he just took off without paying. “Sometimes people just go and all we find is a crummy backpack with some bad clothes.”

Curse you Benny! I thought to myself, while secretly at least slightly pleased that I would get to keep his beat up copy of The FountainheadBut then we looked at his things and saw his British Passport. That was a clue something was amiss.

“He’s in jail!” I said in Russian to my friend.

Benny Returns from the Dead

10 was just about to come and go, when I walked down the stairs to the common area and there was Benny, stumbling drunk and looking like hell. His shirt was wrecked with dirt, his face had been worked on, and I had trouble imagine the amount of alcohol that this seasoned drinker must have taken in to be walking like Ernest Hemingway at an open bar wedding.

“Worst night of my life!” He said to me in his English accent. “Worst fucking night of my life!”

He got himself seated on the couch, then he broke it down.

“I went out and I was at the bar. Then after that I saw these homeless guys and I thought yeah, that’s cool you know. So I bought them three bottles of vodka and we all drank together. And it was all chill you know. But then one guy asked me for 50 Grivna and I said no. Then something happened and he punched me, and I punched him. And it was like crazy! But he had this really big friend and he came and punched me. And then there was like a million guys punching me and it just sucked! But I showed them though. When they were going for my phone I didn’t let them have it.”

At this point he mimed picking up his phone high in his hand..

“I took it up and smashed it on the concrete so they couldn’t use it, and then before they could take my wallet I bent up my ATM card so it’s useless. They still took all my money though, so I guess they did sort of win in a way.”

Minutes after this he went into a vodka induced coma from which we were physically unable to rouse him. I have a video of us trying to get him to wake up but I’ll keep that to myself.

Needless to say, Benny did not make his flight back home..

Curse you Kiev!

You can blame who or what you want, but I think the root of the problem here is clear..

What kind of city sells beer for a dollar at any bar anywhere in the city!

Obviously whoever created this policy didn’t take into account that some people come from places where alcohol is expensive. When they arrive in Kiev they simply don’t know how to conduct themselves.

What is for some of us a blessing is for others a curse. Benny was in Kiev for a week and I don’t think he ever saw anything besides the inside of bar. We have no idea if he ever made it to the opera or not.

How to Make Traditional Ukrainian Borsch

Earlier in life I wasn’t a soup guy. I liked the stuff my mom made but that was about it. Now though, I’ve found a dish I could eat every day for the rest of my life. Borsch is a fantastic blend of vegetables, spices, and magic.

This recipe came from Mama Luda, who grew up in Norther Ukraine and learned how to cook from her mother. She was nice enough to cook it with me one morning and allowed me to write down the recipe.

Remember though, if you decide to make it, you have to eat it with a dollop of sour cream. It’s tradition and it’s delicious.

Ukrainian Red Borsch

Ingredients 

-7 to 10 medium sized Potatoes
-2 Small green onions (regular onions will do too, one medium sized onion is sufficient)
-2 to 3 Carrots
-3 to 5 Beets (plus the leaves too if you can get them)
-1 to 2 Tomatoes (tomato sauce will also work)
-Half head of cabbage
-A teaspoon or so of sugar
-A little bit of fresh dill
-Salt and Pepper optional

Preparation

1) Cut up the carrots and beats into small pieces

2) Cup up potatoes, onions and beet leaves into small chunks and add them to a big soup pot with about 1.5 liters of water. Set this pan on a high heat to boil, and then when it does boil turn down the heat to low

3) Fry carrots in a bit of oil and after several minutes add the beets, tomatoes, and a touch of sugar. Fry the lot of it till the carrots and beets begin to brown then set aside

4) Consider what life must have been like under communist rule

5) Cut up or shred the cabbage into inch long pieces

6) When the potatoes in the pan are soft and ready, then add the cabbage to the mixture

7) Continue to cook on a low boil and add water as you see fit (perhaps another half liter or so, depending on how it looks)

8) If you don’t have tomatoes and are using sauce, you can add it to the boiling water after the cabbage

9) Wash your dill in cold water then warm water. After that, cut it up into very small pieces

10) Several minutes after adding the cabbage, add the beet, carrot and tomato mixture to the boiling water. Put a little bit of water into the pan you fried that all in then dump it into the soup pan, ensuring you don’t leave any delicious bits stuck in the pan

11) Stir, add salt and pepper if you so desire.

12) Once the cabbage, beets, and carrots are cooked and soft, then add your fresh cut dill. Stir it into the soup thoroughly then turn off the heat.

13) Make mental note to buy more vodka as you only have one bottle left and you may want to get drunk tonight

14) Let stand ten minutes and then serve with sour cream on the side (this step is incredibly important and must be obeyed at all costs)

 

You have now made traditional Ukrainian Borsch!

Why Ukrainians are Straight Up Hustlers

Being in Ukraine right now is incredibly good for my business spirit. I’m surrounded by people who are making do without a lot of money. However, it’s not a permanent state of mind.

One of the worst curses of poverty is the state of mind that goes with it. People in poverty often believe that they cannot change things. Even if there is an opportunity to better their situation and make a positive change, a person with a poverty mindset won’t see it.

Fixing Poverty

People toss around statistics sometimes.

“With X Billions of dollars we could get rid of poverty in the United States.”

I disagree. Even if you bought every person in poverty a new apartment, and gave them job training, and made sure they had enough food, it would do nothing to change their underlying mental thought patterns.

It can take years to radically change the way you view your environment. Most people don’t have the gumption to switch to a new way of thinking. Thus, most people either have it, or they don’t.

Ambition and Action

That’s why I freaking love it here in Kiev. Even though many people are surviving on a very small salary, they have exactly the opposite of a poverty mindset. Most of the Ukrainians I meet are hustling to make more money and improve their situation.

One guy I know has invested money in an online business and has started earning a return. Another is taking programming classes. I just met a guy my age who founded his own English language school with some friends, and they’re expanding the business right now.

This spirit is infectious!

I’m working towards developing a monthly income from online work at the moment, and I feel like a Ukrainian. I’m proud to say that too. Admittedly I haven’t really been that many places, but I definitely identify more with Ukrainians than Russians.

Living Carefully

Another thing I’ve noticed is that people here are careful with money. They don’t buy something new if they can fix the old thing. They don’t eat out when they can cook at home.

I think America should take lessons. We are so quick to throw out our stuff and buy something new that we have lost touch with our roots.

Almost a hundred years ago America was in a depression and people were hustling. Food was a question not a guarantee. Today, our waistlines prove that this is no longer the case.

As do our landfills.

We’ve lost touch with what it means to economize and hustle and jump for opportunities. That’s why I think everyone could benefit from some Ukrainian spirit. This is a fantastic country that’s on the rise. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for all the hard working Ukrainians I’ve had the pleasure to meet!

My Friends Got Their Heads Lit On Fire!

Another crazy night out in Kiev. At some point I’m actually going to have to adopt a more civilized lifestyle and stop being a Gatsby. For now though, that party continues.

At the moment I’m in an amazing position. I’m volunteering at a hostel in Kiev, which is turning out to be a fantastic way to meet new people. Every day some people leave, and some other people come in from all parts of the world. Yesterday some cool Canadians arrived, and they wanted to have a night out in Kiev.

The Local Kiev Bar

My boss suggested we all go to a local bar which sells $2 steaks and $1 beer. Obviously that’s where we went. The steak turned out to be delicious, and we got more than we bargained for in the way of entertainment.

The bartender grabbed a few of the Canadians. We had no idea what was happening, as he wrapped them in a large coat and put helmets on their heads. The mystery increased when he started putting alcohol soaked rags on the bar, and then a wrench, and that’s all I’ll say. You’ll just have to watch the video.

Cool right..

Another fun night partying in Kiev. I’m really glad I’m here right now and I have the chance to see cool stuff like this. Although I gotta say, the reason I’d go back to this place isn’t that they may light me on fire, it’s the sheer awesomeness of being able to eat a steak and drink a beer for a total of $3.

Ukraine is where it’s at!

14 Fantastic Pictures from Chernobyl, Ukraine

The Chernobyl disaster happened on April 26, 1986. In one day an entire city was forced to leave behind their lives. Now it’s a popular tourist destination in Ukraine, and there are a handful of companies that offer guided tours to the abandoned site. My friend Sergej (pronounced Sergei) went there a few days ago and based on everything he showed me, I think he spent more time taking pictures then he did breathing!

But that’s ok, because he got some really fantastic shots. He also narrated the story behind every picture before handing them over. So without anymore words, let’s check out some of the pictures he took. If you want to learn more about Chernobyl, click here for the Wiki entry.

Sergej (the man behind all these photos) chilling on top of an abandoned 16 story apartment building

An abandoned store. This used to be a thriving town until the accident

This MASSIVE radar array could detect a nuclear missile launch the second it happened in America

Really, you think this would be obvious

At one point all of these documents were classified, not anymore though

This guy looks like he had a lobotomy at a young age

An abandoned kindergarten, with dolls left on the beds by the children

A faded socialist mural

Sergej said that the floor on this court is still decent, and you could play here if you wanted

Bumper cars anyone? This is my personal favorite of the lot

The famous ferris wheel. Anyone else recognize this from Call of Duty 4?

Same thing with this diving board, I swear I’ve seen it in COD 4 before..

The view from 16 stories up. The apartment building forest

I think the background sky for this monument is so fantastic!

Well that’s all it. I have about a hundred pictures that Sergej gave me, but uploading more simply is not happening. If you want to learn more, you’ll just have to come to Ukraine and see the site for yourself.

Thanks Sergej for the pictures!

Partying in Kiev Till Sunrise

Last night I got back to my hostel somewhere in the vicinity of 7am. It was the first time I’ve ever gone on an all night party. And after that experience, you can be damn sure it won’t be my last time!

I’m going to actively try to make it happen more often. Experiencing both the sunset, and sunrise, without any sleep in between them is great. I really feel like I’m missing out, having never done it before.

For me, all of this is possible because of Kiev. This city really is amazing, as if I haven’t said that before. There is something here that is greater than the sum of it’s parts. The people are alive and interesting. The food and drinks are cheap. There is an overall feeling of forward progress. I can understand why Ukraine would consider joining the EU. Despite the fact that most people here speak Russian daily, the attitude is more Western than Russian. And I for one support the citizens of Ukraine who want to rid themselves of the Russian influence.

I’ve lived in Moscow, and I’ve lived in Kiev. I don’t want more of a Russian influence here, I like it just the way it is.

I’m Not Alone

It’s been interesting to find out that I’m not the only person who is impressed with the city. My two new German friends both feel the same way.

Yesterday we spoke entirely in Russian for about eight hours. Thanks Zhena, for being so awesome at enforcing the no English rule.

A topic that came up more than once is our mutual love of the city. And to that end, we all have future plans here. Next year Zhena wants to study Russian here for six months. Myself, I’m going to rent an apartment here next summer and live it up. By then I’ll be fluent in Russian, and fluent in my second language as well.

Sergej also wants to come back to Kiev next summer, and there’s a decent chance that if he does, we will rent an apartment together. I think that would be awesome because if I choose to study German as my next language, I’ll be able to practice with him. After I become fluent in German, me, Zhena and Sergej will all be tri-lingual in the same three languages. How freaking sweet is that!

The Secret Party

Our first bar last night was actually an underground pub. If you’re not familiar with Eastern Europe, I’ll be the first to tell you that underground bars and restaurants are really common in Kiev and Moscow. In fact, my favorite restaurant in Moscow, Papa’s Place, is only accessible by walking down a staircase into the basement.

Same with our first pub of the night.

After losing a few people, the three of us changed venues. Me, the American. Zhena, the German. Sergej, the German, Russian (he is very particular about this point).

We moved to a new bar and smoked hookah and drank for two hours. At one point, after speaking exclusively in Russian for 45 minutes, we broke into English for thirty seconds. The people at the table behind us started in surprise.

“Они говорять по-английски!” (“They speak English!).

Shortly afterwards, at 2am, our bar closed and we were back on the street. I don’t think we walked a block before we found a new spot. Maybe it wasn’t perfect, but it fit the main criterion, it was open.

We drank for a minute then I walked down into the basement to find the bathroom. I found it, and I also found the real party. Below the ostensibly boring above-ground of this bar, the real party was in the basement.

A DJ, lights, people dancing, and Russian karaoke.

I went back upstairs, grabbed my friends and we all went down to the basement. By the time we left, it was light out and the sun was near at hand.

The Long Walk

I don’t remember the reason, something about Zhena going home, but despite being five minutes from our hostel, we began to walk in the opposite direction. Kiev is a hilly city and I think we climbed all of them. It paid off.

After forty-five minutes we had an incredible view out over the entire Eastern part of the city. I wish I could have taken a picture but my phone had died hours ago. (Жена, исли ты читаешь это, у тебя есть фото?)

Six in the morning, partying all night, and ending it with an incredible view of Kiev.

Travelling in Ukraine, My Past and Future

The craziest thing for me is to think that I’ve only been travelling for 20 days! That’s it, it’s hard to believe. I’ve gotten to experience so much already that it really feels more like two months. My adventure started in Kiev (which I detailed in this post). My god was it an awesome time!

I met some cool people, talked for hours in Russian, drank wine in a park with a Ukrainian guy, German girl, and Brazilian guy. I walked all around Kiev with a guy from Miami, comparing the city (favorably) to America. Me and two friends rented out an entire movie theater and watched a Mel Gibson movie while drinking wine and making jokes in Russian. I met a French guy who had been to the front-lines of the Ukrainian conflict (war seems like such a harsh word).

In the end, I feel like Hemingway did in Paris (BTW, have you read A Moveable FeastIt’s really good).

The Middle of Nowhere Ukraine

Even though I was in love with Ukraine, I had made the promise to go to Obirok (population: ten houses). My aim in going there was to practice Russian and work outside.

I have a love hate relationship with working outside.

On one hand, I hate it and would just assume never, ever do it. But on the other hand, it’s spiritual work. The way I think about it, human beings lived off the land for thousands, tens of thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of years. Everyone lived and worked outside, it was a way of life. It’s only in the last two hundred years or so that we’ve started to live and work inside.

That’s what makes it appealing to me, it’s like connecting with an earlier life.

Also, let’s be honest here, you can get a killer tan!

So for two weeks I lived on a small piece of property in Ukraine and worked outside. I carried water to the kitchen, ripped weeds out of the garden, and punched a chicken.

Along the way I also spoke loads of Russian, learned a bit of Ukrainian, ate about a dozen traditional Ukrainian dishes, met some really cool people, completely abstained from alcohol, meditated twice a day, went totally vegetarian, read sixty or seventy hours, and came to grips with a rural lifestyle.

All things considered, it was a really fantastic experience. If you ever want to try it out for yourself, click this link to find out how you can.

Returning to Civilization

I’ve been back in Kiev for maybe twelve hours now, and it feels good to be back home. I don’t know if your allowed to claim an entire city just for yourself, but I’m going to stretch the rules and claim Kiev my own!

Everything is cheap as hell (I paid $2.50 for my breakfast this morning, I paid $1.50 for a liter of good beer last night at the bar), the people are amazing, I get to practice Russian, and my god everything is beautiful.

I’m staying at an amazing hostel and I’ve met some fantastic people already.

Also, I’ve got a business opportunity. I’ve met two people who do freelance translation. Between the two of them, they can translate anything between Russian, English, Ukrainian, and German. Could I create a website and offer lower prices than the competition?

It’s a thought. Ultimately though I don’t think I’ll do that. I’ve got some other ideas and I want to spend most of my time developing them.

The Next Couple of Weeks

I’m going to stay in Kiev for a while longer. But in keeping with my strict $2,500 budget, I can’t really afford to stay in a hostel the whole time. So I thought to myself, well how can I stay in Kiev for free?

I love hostels, I love the people I meet, and so on. So I need to find a way to stay at a hostel for free!

In ten minutes I drafted a nice little email offering my services as a volunteer. I sent it off to the three biggest hostels in Kiev and waited for a response.

It didn’t take long. The hostel I really wanted to work at said they had no vacancies, the hostel I didn’t want to work at never replied, and the hostel that landed somewhere in the middle accepted my offer. Tomorrow I’m going to take the metro a few stops and meet up with them. If the situation is good, I’ll stay there for a couple of weeks, free of charge.

I’ll be doing work that’s not the best, but I think it’s fair. They promised me three day weekends and only four hours of work every day. Not bad, all in all.

That’s it though. My life, my future, and the future of this blog. I think I’ll probably stop posting every day, as I simply can’t think of a new travel related topic every day. However, the average length of my posts is probably going to go up. So I hope it all balances out in the end.

Cheers from Ukraine, cheers from Kiev, the city of dreams.

Living on a Commune in Ukraine

Right now my life is interesting as hell. I’ve been living on a commune in Norther Ukraine, several hours by train from Kiev. How the hell did I get here?

It’s a question I ask myself often. I mean when you look at it, the amount of people who will do something like this has got to be less than 1%. Hell, if you look at it from the right perspective, I’m a one-percenter now! Don’t tell Occupy Wall Street..

Before I get into my life, I’d like to first offer a definition of the place I’m living. I previously called it a commune, but I don’t think that’s entirely correct. It’s the closest definition there is to this place, but it wouldn’t really be fair to call it a commune. Here’s what it’s all about.

The Founders

The life behind this place is a family. Leonid and Diana are the husband and wife. They have two girls, Magda and Patagonia (named after her birthplace) and Diana is eight and a half months pregnant at the moment. They live here during the summer and travel in the winter. Being social people who have traveled across the entire world, they have met literally thousands of people.

With that comes an open invitation to come their place. This is the place that I’ve come to. It’s about two acres of land in the middle of nowhere Ukraine. There is a 97 year old building that has been converted into a hostel with ten beds. Then there is also a standalone kitchen building, with a stove that runs on firewood and no running water.

Next to the kitchen is the main house. It’s the only place on the whole property with internet, and it’s where the family sleeps. Across from the house is a barn, and then further down are a few more assorted buildings.

My Work

All of the buildings sit up on a small hill. If you walk down that small decline you hit the garden. That’s where I’ve been getting my sunburn for the last week. I’ve turned a pasty gold (that will fade quickly) pulling weeds and doing other odd jobs.

In return for my work, I have the privilege of indulging in three amazing traditional Ukrainian meals everyday. I’ll tell you, I might not enjoy weeding the garden all that much, but coming up from it and sitting down to a big Ukrainian dinner, with an assortment of people speaking four different languages, it feels awfully swell!

So that’s why I don’t think commune is quite the correct definition. I’m basically staying with a family, who often host people, and have extra bed and extra work. In return I get to practice Russian all day, eat awesome food, play with some great kids, and I don’t pay for rent.

Langauges

I mentioned that it’s possible to hear four different languages at the dinner table. How the hell does that happen on a rural farm in Ukraine?

Well it breaks down like this.

Of course everyone can speak Ukrainian, that’s a given. As the farm is not that farm from the Russian border, everyone speaks fluent Russian as well. So that’s two languages.

Next is a language whose name I can never remember. It starts with a C and I think it’s Cashmish, or something like that. It’s a local dialect, a cross between Russian and Ukrainian. Then finally, since I’m here, I speak a bit of English with anyone who speaks it. Mostly I speak in Russian, but people here want to practice their English as well.

Hearing Russian every day is definitely helping me out. I’m not necessarily learning that much, but I am getting to practice everything I already know. I’m speaking quicker, more accurately, and my accent is decreasing. I still have exactly two months left in Ukraine, and I expect to be killing it with Russian by the time I leave.

How Long am I staying Here

I like it here, but I can’t say I love it. I miss Kiev. In the four days I spent there I had so much fun it shouldn’t even be legal. I also miss hanging out with people age, going to restaurants, and consistent internet.

The patchy internet here means that for the first time since I started this blog, I probably won’t be posting daily for the next week. In fact I may not post at all. I wish it wasn’t the case, but hey, where I’m living is pretty cool, and if there isn’t internet, well it’s a trade off.

That being said, I’ll probably only be here for another week or so. I don’t really feel a huge draw to stay. I like my life, but I liked my life in Kiev a little bit better. Even though I can live comfortably in the country, I think that in my heart I’m a city kid. Miami is my one true love, and I love New York and Kiev to death.

So another week probably.

P.S. – That’s Olga at the top. She’s another volunteer here with me. At that moment, she’s telling off a little crazy kid who bit her. Ukrainian kids, like Russian kids, are a riot..

11 Pictures from the Ukrainian Frontline

I wish I could claim credit for these awesome pictures, but I can’t. They were taken by my friend Théo Humming-Bouffier. He’s been in Ukraine for the last month, documenting the country and meeting all sorts of interesting people. I was lucky enough to meet him at my hostel and he was nice enough to share these photos with me.

I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!