Monday, 24 December 2012

Ukraine - A Hidden Gem in Europe

Since leaving Moscow I have reverted back to my role as tourist. And what more unlikely place to go next than to Ukraine, right? When you think about Ukraine what do you think of... is it more like Russia? Or Europe? Is it even in Europe? What's so special about it anyway???

These are questions I asked myself upon my arrival in Kiev. I literally had no ideas or opinions about this country and didn't know a single soul who had been there. And it's never in the news. During the Kiev walking tour when the guide began talking about the Chernobyl disaster, I stupidly interrupted, asking "but isn't Chernobyl in Russia?"

This is the ridiculous level at which I underestimated this country. It is also the ridiculous level at which it impressed and exceeded my expectations. I was lucky to meet many locals and was able to learn a lot about Ukraine. Some of them also kept me well fed, legitimizing a comment made by someone on my train from Moscow to Kiev: "in Ukraine you will never go hungry."
Maidan Nezelezhnosti - the main square in Kiev
Ukraine was there before Russia
Ukraine may have lived in Russia's shadow for much of the past century, but Ukraine was actually the birthplace of Russian culture. Moscow was founded by a Ukrainian, Yuri Dolgorukiy, who is now buried in the famous Lavra Monastery in Kiev. Much of Russia's culture also originated in Ukraine. Russian's famous food is borsch soup and they also have a famous candy called korovka. But both of these originated in Ukraine.

Today Ukraine's linguistics are split between Ukrainian, mainly in the west, and Russian, mainly in the east and in the south, in the Crimean Peninsula. The vocabularies differ by about 25%. Most native Ukrainian speakers know Russian but not the other way around. Kiev, the capital city consisting of about four million people, is also the most bilingual.
Kiev claims to be the most romantic city in the world. They also love cats. 

Recent History
Unfortunately, the past century has not been kind to Ukraine. WWII is called the Great Patriotic War by ex-USSR countries and only encompasses the time of Soviet conflict with Germany. Ukraine was a major battleground and was under Nazi occupation for several years. Most of Kiev was flattened, but not just by the Nazis. The Soviets destroyed Kiev's main street, Kreschatyk, to prevent the Nazis from having it.

Stalin, probably the worst dictator in history, targeted Ukrainians in order to squash potential uprisings. He stripped them of their lands, and starved them on three different occasions during his regime. During the Stalin era, famines killed up to 10 million people, mostly Ukrainian. He also outlawed religion and blew up many churches and cathedrals in Ukraine.
St. Michael's Cathedral. Blown up during Stalin era. Rebuilt in 1989. 
At 01:23 on April 6, 1986 (I think!) the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, not far from Kiev, experienced a meltdown, causing an explosion with the force of 100 of the atom bombs which hit Nagasaki. Many brave people have died or risked their lives in the following months and years, bringing the reactor under control, then contributing to the cleanup of radioactive contamination. This tragic event serves as a reminder not to let such a grave disaster ever be repeated.

Grab Bag
Ukrainians invented the art of painting eggs. But while they paint them during Easter, they don't hide them for children to find. That only happens in North America.

Rich and lonely men come here to find a bride (what are you looking at me for?). There was even an advertisement for a bride service on my tourist map. I heard stories about men paying for messaging services to would-be brides, then coming to Ukraine only for the woman to never show up. While this is not something to boast about, it at least shows that the world thinks its women are beautiful.

Bomb shelters were built in Kiev starting in the early years of the Cold War. Today they serve as one of the deepest subways in the world.

Single women occasionally get together and participate in fun and games to determine their future husband. One such ridiculous game is to carry water in your mouth from one house to another. Along the way, men try to make you laugh and spit out the water. Then you have to mix your water into some kind of porridge. A dog then chooses which porridge to eat, and if your porridge is eaten you will be the next to marry.


Ukraine may be overlooked in North America as a travel destination but definitely not by Europeans. It has a rich history, proud people, and is tucked away in truly eastern Europe sitting by the Black Sea, making it an awesome summer destination. For tourists, it is relatively easy to enter the country and everything is cheap.

If you visit Ukraine, come in the spring, when the hazelnut trees bloom in magnificent colours and fill the city with its aroma.

Flickr photos:

Monday, 10 December 2012

My Adventure Through the Moscow Metro

Despite the fact teaching English took up most of my time, there were many other things I managed to see and do in Moscow. To write about my entire experience would be silly, so I will focus on one specific goal: to visit as many Moscow Metro stations as possible and to photograph them.
Arbatskaya Station - beautiful design and decor 
This project meant a lot to me. For the reasons I stated above, and for whatever other reasons, I am still not sure exactly. But I pulled it off and did the best I could, all in one day in which I spent nearly 6 hours straight below ground, shuffling from station to station, packing and unpacking my tripod and camera, and finding the perfect photo opportunities.

There were many obstacles to overcome over the 6 hour period. I wanted to take all my photos with a tripod because lighting is not always good underground and indoors, and because I wanted to capture the beauty of each station as best I could. But I soon learned that noone is allowed taking pictures in the Metro with a tripod.
Shortly after I took this photo, guards approached me and told me I cannot take photos in the Metro. I continued to do it anyway and was told this at five different stations in all.
Aside from avoiding the guards I had to keep calm and composure among swarms of people flowing to and fro of me, some giving me the evil eye. In addition, these difficulties discouraged me from changing my lens, and using my tripod at all times. I also took more time at each station than I thought I would, thus, visiting less stations than I anticipated. However, one day of this adventure provided both enough excitement and stress, and I will not be photographing any more stations.

Statue in Ploschad Revolyutsii Station 
These photos aren't professional, nor are they meant to be, nor still are they anything special. But to me they are special because of the effort I put into it, and so I hope you will enjoy this album, learn some cyrillic, and, above all, appreciate the beauty of the Moscow Metro.

I have uploaded about one third of all my photos taken in the Moscow Metro:

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Learning, Languages and Laughter - An Alliterative Love Story

The train ride to Kiev was rather long, the window filled with monotonous, fleeting, snowy landscapes. I managed to get some shuteye in my four bed sleeper compartment but, aside from that, it was far from boring. As a forward looking person, I should have been excited about new adventures and about being on the road again. But my mind was still taking in the past month spent in Moscow teaching English. This was an experience, like all experiences on my trip, new and exciting. However, this past month was on a whole other level and probably, overall, the best and most unforgettable experience in my life.
The Kremlin in Moscow at night
 My situation could be described, as simply as possible, like this: on a help exchange website I found an opportunity to teach English. Despite some hiccups in obtaining a Russian Visa, I found myself in Moscow. I was given free accommodation and a Russian tutor, all for teaching English 5 days a week and requiring no training on my part.

Teaching English without experience is as challenging as it sounds, and this challenge threw at me just about all I can handle in one month. In fact, despite being fluent in English, I had to learn its rules from scratch, something which, on day one, the students had more knowledge of than me. It's shocking to realize how little you actually know about the language you've spoken all your life, especially when you are being corrected by your students! But once I familiarized myself with the rules, and got past the in-class embarrassments (and of course with the help of my charming sense of humour), I took charge, becoming the master my pupils were looking for, converting their contempt into admiration, and channeling my invaluable experience as a first language English speaker into their spongy, thirsty minds, while providing an entertaining learning environment.
Some chicken scratch about things the class wanted to learn 
Every class became more and more fun, and we grew closer day by day. It helped that it was a very informal teaching atmosphere, and that the students really enjoyed playing ESL games that encouraged conversation. I even adapted many popular ones from North America such as Taboo, Scattergories and Jeopardy. Overall, my time with my students transcended the classroom atmosphere, becoming not only a place to learn, but also a place to gather as human beings, to share cultures and to share laughs.

If any sore spot can be found in this experience it was in dealing with the managers of the institute that hired me, a mother-daughter combo. Despite the fact that they provided me a rare and invaluable opportunity, they were still, at their core, greedy, heartless people. They ran their registered non-profit organization like a shady business, perfecting the art of corruption, profiting excessively, neglecting their duties and, above all, treating us with no respect nor showing regard for our well-being. They constantly pushed us to conduct more classes or promote their organization, putting us in an awkward situation between them and the rest of our colleagues. The teachers became used to using words like "bitch" and "hate" when the subject of their bosses came up. Despite only staying one month, I got caught in the web of negativity and sent them a brutally honest e-mail condemning their business practices and also themselves as human beings.
One of my extra duties sprung on me was a doing a presentation at a language
festival. I spoke for 40 minutes in front of at least 100 people!
Their looming omnipresence in my daily affairs really polarized my perspective of the organization. However, in the bigger picture, their business model provided an ideal setting which both teachers and students thrived off of. It is a model that should be replicated in other language institutions, with the exception of the neglect of the volunteer teachers. (Who knows, maybe it's something I could venture into in the future.)

Besides the business of teaching, I was constantly stimulated in Moscow, acclimating to the big city, learning about Russia and its culture, and of course the language, meeting cool people and making new friends. However, the most valuable wisdom I gained from the past month was the power of languages to bring people together. Teaching English makes me want to teach everyone else who has the passion to learn it, and learning Russian makes me want to learn all the languages of the world. And the people you meet who share this passion also share an open mind to different people, cultures and new experiences.
Seven-twelfths of my class on the very last day 
Back on the train to Kiev, you could see how crowded my mind was with thoughts. One thing I reflected upon was many people's curiosity whether I spoke Chinese or any other languages. I shamefully had to answer regrettably no, just English. However, though it's now too far in the past to lament the loss of my native language, and not pursuing more French in high school, it's never too late to fill a clean slate, such as my mind is.

I hope I can continue to build upon my Russian, get back to learning other languages in which I have a basic understanding, such as French and Spanish. If my experience teaching English truly left a footprint on my memories, I will walk the fulfilling path of teaching and learning languages for a long time to come.

Special thanks to my roomies Anais, Katie and Mathieu. You guys were mature, kind, and just plain super awesome people! Best of luck in Moscow and I hope to see you guys again in the future.

Photos of Moscow:

Also - blog and photos of Moscow Metro: