(привіт = "prih-veet" = hello)
If I have one piece of advice to prospective travelers based on my last two weeks in Ukraine, it's this: fall in love with a local prior to departure. My girlfriend, Iryna, and her family welcomed me into their homes and guided me around Ukraine's two biggest cities, Київ (Kyiv) and Львів (Lviv). They showed me not only a beautiful hidden gem of a country, but also extreme generosity and comforting hospitality.
I arrived in Kyiv on my own and walked to a restaurant near my AirBnB. I awkwardly attempted some Ukrainian, which I had been studying via DuoLingo for the past two months, but we had to switch back and forth due to my terrible pronunciation. The quality of the food instantly amazed me - a smooth hummus with some distinctly fluffy pita bread. From here on out, I'd be constantly astonished with the Ukrainians' ability to prepare both traditional cuisine and foods from other cultures.
I went back to the AirBnB and fell into a long discussion with my host, Yan, about jazz, hip hop, music in Kyiv, and his pending public park project. Yan was both enterprising and down to earth, running several professional projects yet also devoting a significant amount of time to meditation and thoughtful discussions with his guests. The friendly conversation and cozy room instantly instilled a feeling of home.
At the train station the evening after, I hugged Iryna for the first time in over a month. We walked back to the apartment and began our adventures in the morning. As we walked around, she critiqued my Ukrainian and conversed with the locals while I nodded and pretended to understand.
Within the next week, I would meet many of her family members who live in Kyiv. We stayed at her aunt Dara and uncle Nick's apartment throughout the week, where we often had late night discussions about the history and current state of Ukraine, amongst other subjects. Her cousin Anya took us out for impressive Italian food and showed us the incredible new development in the area of Podil. We were also escorted to a modern art gallery by her cousin Oksana, who we had to convince to participate in Marina Abramoić's "Generator" Exhibit. Here, we walked around a room blindfolded and wearing soundproof headphones, with about thirty other people doing the same.
At the end of the week, we scrambled to buy a train ticket to Lviv, the city where Iryna was born. We arrived in the evening and were picked up by her uncle Vasyl, who drove us to their house where her aunt Natalya was preparing a delicious Ukrainian dinner of soup, salads, and (slightly less Ukrainian) shish kebab.
We spent much of the week in Lviv with Vasyl, Natalya, and their daughters Anya and Khrystia. The parents spoke English very well, and even though I could barely communicate directly with the children, we got along easily by playing games and watching cartoons together. One afternoon was spent at aunt Sofia and uncle Oles's, where we ate a home-cooked meal in the garden where much of it was grown.
We also explored the multicultural city of Lviv quite a bit, entering their impressive Armenian church, seeing Polish graves from the Polish-Ukrainian war, and of course eating a ton of Ukrainian food. The city was particularly lively because Thursday was Ukrainian Independence Day; there was a street performance on almost every corner, including a 16-piece French brass band, traditional Ukrainian instrumentalists, and a pyro dance group.
The endless sights and adventures I found made me wonder why Ukraine is not a bustling tourist destination. The cities have architecture comparable to that of Prague and Budapest, delicious local and international food, thriving traditional and modern arts, and millenia of intriguing history. Furthermore, prices are a fraction of those in popular European destinations like France and Spain. And don't forget, my experience was only a taste - I didn't even get to see the blue beaches of Odessa or the verdant Carpathian Mountains.
On our last night in Lviv, we climbed Високий Замок (Vysokyi Zamok = High Castle), a mountain that overlooks Lviv and the surrounding area. We shared the view with about fifty other locals and tourists, and pointed out all of the tiny specks of light that we wanted to visit below us. I felt calm, realizing that in the case of Ukraine, I don't have to worry that I will not return. I know that Iryna and I will one day walk along the cobblestone streets of Lviv again.