Ukraine Diaries

Having our pal James visiting us here in Kharkov is reminding me of all sorts of Ukrainian tidbits I haven’t shared yet in the Ukraine FAQ. So here are some of the more interesting, surprising, and funny aspects of life here. (Despite this post title, we haven’t seen Chernobyl Diaries yet, though we did roll our eyes at the trailer before leaving on our Chernobyl tour. Started going through our photos and will post on the experience soon.)


The water here isn’t drinkable, due not only to bacteria, but to heavy metals. The suggestions I’ve seen online range from boiling it from 5 to 15 minutes, and even then, there’s a bunch of mineral sediment that ends up settling at the bottom of your pan. Even locals boil it before using, or drink bottled water; we have a service that delivers big bottles once a week for our water cooler. (Every time I fill a glass of water at the cooler, I feel like I should be discussing a Dilbert cartoon with a coworker.) We go through water pretty quickly, when you consider that we not only drink it, but use it for cooking and–weirdest of all–to brush our teeth. Let me tell you, it feels downright luxurious when we visit the states and can brush our teeth with tapwater!


Attending ballets or opera, it’s fun at the end when the audience applauds. It may just be a Kharkov thing, but everyone’s always super-enthusiastic at performances, and after about 30 seconds of clapping, everyone starts to clap to the same rhythm, as though we’re at a camp sing-a-long.

What’s really funny is flying. When you’re taking off or landing in an airplane, any and all Ukrainians on board clap. In fact, lately we’ve heard actual whoops and hollers of approval, as though someone just scored a goal. This puzzled us to no end, until we asked a Ukrainian friend what it was all about. He said that for some reason, they thought this was something Americans did! He also expressed his disapproval of the timing of most people’s landing applause. Most people clap as soon as the plane touches down, but he says you should really wait until the plane’s slowed down and you’re sure the landing is a good one. Hey, that makes an odd sort of sense to me!

Stuff in Bags That Shouldn’t Come in Bags

You know how milk comes in cartons or jugs, mayonaise and other condiments come in jars, and sour cream comes in tubs? Well, you can sometimes find them packaged that way, but all of them come in bags more often. Yeah. Thin plastic baggies full of liquid or semi-liquid contents, thus making them quite squishy. I can’t get over how odd and amusing I find this. For one thing, if you only use a little of the stuff in the bag, it’s really hard to store it. These are non-re-sealable bags. I ended up folding over the top of the mayo, clipping it with a paper clip, and sticking it in a zipock for good measure, but I wonder how the locals manage it. Given the avid consumption of both mayo and sour cream, though, they might simply use up an entire bag each time.


I love the quaint old-fashioned quality of the overnight trains in particular. There are several classes of travel, indicating if you’ll sit up in a chair all night, versus multiple bunks per cabin, versus a cabin with only two beds. The trains usually have a narrow rug running down the hallway, outdated curtains on the windows, and bizarrely-upholstered bunks. The decor, added to the little “train ladies” (as Alex and I call the attendants for each train car, usually women) that offer you tea or coffee before bed, makes it feel like you’re staying overnight at someone’s grandmother’s house. (Only to be fair, most grandmothers’ bathrooms are much cleaner than the train bathrooms.) The train attendants even get you up in the morning before the train arrives, and sometimes play old Ukrainian or Russian songs through the intercom. The typical overnight journey from Kharkov to Kiev takes 8 hours.

It’s hard to get a more dramatic contrast than the new high-speed day trains. They’re a huge jump in price from the regular day-trains, but at least they’re significantly more comfortable. The best aspect are the power outlets at every row–and the wifi would be nice if it was more reliable. Everything’s shiny and clean and sleek and modern–no curtains on these big windows! These trains are even accessible, with wheelchair ramps, larger bathrooms, and spaces for the wheelchairs to be locked in.


I’ve shopped a fair amount in western Europe (my husband is groaning and nodding his head in agreement, but just ignore him)–but it’s completely different here. The most similar aspect is the variety of little stores, versus mega-conglomerate-department-empires like Target (how I miss thee!). But at most of these little stores, all the products are behind the counter. While this has the benefit of prodding me into using Russian more, it’s frustrating to this Gen-X consumer who likes to browse and find things herself. You can’t always even see all of the products available, so sometimes you have to ask, or even know if the store might carry a particular item. Heaven help you if you need medicine, because Ukrainian pharmacy attendants have a reputation for being, shall we say, gruff. They want a complete list of symptoms, how long you’ve had them, and what you’ve tried before they’ll let you buy anything remotely medicinal. (I stock up on over-the-counter pain meds when we’re in the states to avoid this when possible.)

What’s funny about grocery shopping in particular is that I’ve yet to see a conveyer belt at the cash register–so as items are rung up, you’re constantly moving back and forth to bag your purchases and move the un-purchased stuff closer to the checkout person. When exchanging money, either paying or taking back change, you place it on a little tray on the counter–people look at you super-strangely if you try to directly hand them money. I love that they ask if you want bags or not–they charge if you need them, so usually I bring a large tote for random errands and 2 – 4 large reusable plastic bags for groceries. I’m not sure if this started as an environmental measure or a cost-saving one, but in either case, I approve!


photo from the Jagran Post

Now, an aspect that several people have asked about recently: Ukrainian, or Russian? We’re in eastern Ukraine, which speaks primarily Russian (although most paperwork and lots of signs are in Ukrainian). In western Ukraine, it’s primarily Ukrainian, which is the official langage of the country overall, regardless of what people speak on this side! Kiev, being both the capital and in the center of the country, seems to use both frequently. The difference in city names/pronunciations that you might have noticed between what I use and EuroCup announcers is usually because they’re using the Ukrainian version. Kharkov (Ха́рьков) is Russian, and Kharkiv (Харків) is Ukrainian.

Recently there was a vote on this issue, making Russian a secondary official language (despite its wide use here in the east, it was never “official”). There’s a huge amount of controversy over this issue, because to some Ukrainians, speaking Ukrainian is a big part of reclaiming their cultural heritage. Even those who speak primarily Russian in Kharkov say that songs and poetry are better in Ukrainian, which is apparently more lyrical. Ukraine has a complicated relationship with Russia, as you might expect given soviet times, so speaking Russian is a proud tradition for some and a reminder of cultural oppression for others. Hence, when the vote came through, a huge fight broke out in the Ukrainian parliament–just watch this video!

in Ukraine, politics get positively gymnastic! (AFP photo from

We’re learning Russian, because that’s what most people speak in Kharkov. We can read some signs in Ukrainian, but the character set is slightly different, and although there are some shared words, there are many more that aren’t.

I’ll have to save more of my observations for another post. Until then, до свидания!

12 thoughts on “Ukraine Diaries

  1. Donna says:

    I loved this post! Though I have heard most of it, to see it explained like this was awesome and quite beneficial for the future. Love ya, Donna

  2. Jessica Phillips says:

    I have to wonder, Starr … would it not make sense to buy your own rubbermaid-type containers for the bizarrely bagged dairy items?

    • Starr Hoffman says:

      The problem I’ve had is that I’ve only been to one store that sells rubbermaid-type containers, and it’s not located where I can run over to it frequently. I bought about eight when we first moved into the apartment, but those are almost always in use for leftovers and spices–since most spices I’ve found are sold in small packets, and I have yet to find a spice jar/rack to put them in! 🙂

      I’ve got about 20 ziplock baggies that I’m using and reusing for these kinds of purposes–I found them in India and stocked up. 🙂 Some of these things are probably available here, but I’m never sure what I’ll find at any given store.

  3. Tigpan says:

    Ironically, clapping at the end of a flight is common for many cultures…but not the U.S. even though that many equate it back to U.S. culture as to why they use it. I’ve experienced on almost ever international flight I’ve taken, save for the UK to US flights as they are mostly filled with Western European and U.S. Americans who do not practice this.

    • Starr Hoffman says:

      How interesting, Amanda. I’ve never encountered it on international flights unless they’re in/out of Ukraine, but then most of my international flights have been in Western Europe. Didn’t notice it in India or Thailand either, though. Do you notice it more in specific areas?

  4. Sergiy Didenko says:

    Hehehe. I have to chime in here and explain some of this stuff on behalf of my ex-compatriots.
    1. Squishy plastic bags with dairy (feels gross, right?). You almost did it right, if you call right what locals do 🙂 They use the old fashioned wooden clothespins. Like this:

    Sometimes it gets even funnier, especially with really liquid things, like milk. You can often see one of those baggies with a cut and folded corner, sealed with a clothespin and placed into an empty 1-liter glass jar from pickles or something like that. Sometimes people just pour milk into those jars, but then you need a plastic lid to close it, and I’m not sure if they sell those anymore.

    I think they started using bags because they didn’t have a technology to produce cartons (in Ukraine they are called tetra-packs). The first company that started selling milk in “tetra-packs” about 20 years ago was using some serious preservatives that kept the milk “good” for a few months. Since then a lot of people believe that milk in baggies is much better and more organic, than milk in cartons 🙂 Kid you not.

    2. Placing money on a tray instead of handing them. It’s a superstition. As you probably already noticed, a lot of Ukrainian people are extremely superstitious. Black cat crossing your way is horrible, can’t wipe bread crumbs off the table with your bare hand, can’t leave an empty bottle on a table, yada yada yada… Handing money directly to a person *in the evening* is bad luck 🙂 But many people are so terrified, that prefer not to do it any time of the day.

    3. Charging for the plastic bags. Has nothing to do with the environment – purely financial reasons. Small bags cost less than the large bags. And you forgot to mention the lockers for your backpacks/purses/other carry-ons in supermarkets, where you have to leave your stuff before you can go shop. That’s my favorite Ukrainian grocery shopping perk. Or do they not do it anymore?

    • Starr Hoffman says:

      Awesome–thanks for the input, Sergiy! 🙂 I thought about mentioning the lockers, but I’ve only seen them at РОСТ, not in the little neighborhood stores or as Spar. Are they actually pretty common, then? Nastia and I got in trouble with the locker attendant once because we tried to leave a mop and hamper we’d just purchased at a store upstairs, just sitting next to the locker with our purses in it… and BOY the attendant mad! I’m not sure what all she yelled at us besides a lot of “Девушка,” heh heh.

      Yeah, it’s MILK in bags that weirds me out the most! I buy the cartons. I love that there’s the idea that it’s more organic in bags, that’s awesome. Those glass pickle jars really are super-handy, luckily we eat a lot of pickles.

      The money-tray thing makes MUCH more sense as a superstition. Particularly the weird looks I get when I forget to do it correctly! 😀

  5. Kathy says:

    What wonderful little details! Isn’t it great how many different ways there are in the world to do things?

  6. Alex Hoffman (@m_alex_h) says:

    Some tidbits:
    – I have seen conveyor belts in grocery stores, but they are generally only about 18″ long and wide enough for 1 bag of milk.
    – The tangled history of Ukraine & Russia dates back to the 1000AD range. In fact, the Russian empire started in Ukraine. (many Russians will punch you for saying this.)
    – I have always been under the belief that other cultures clapping on airplane takeoff/landing did come from the US — just a different time period. Back in the “jet-setter” era of the 30’s & 40’s, only the wealthy, high-class people could afford to fly, and arriving safely at the destination was greatly appreciated at the time in those newfangled contraptions.
    – One of my other favorite superstitions: no whistling inside which leads most people to believe all whistling is bad. It is equally strange to be at a local (European) football match here fully devoid of whistling fans, juxtaposed with all the foreigners here now for Euro 2012 whistling everywhere.
    – Clapping in rhythm happens not only at the theater, but most events. I’ve been to football matches where, after a Металист win, the stadium errupts into cheers & rhythmic clapping. It makes me wonder if they had to reinforce the stadium against harmonic vibrations.

    • Starr Hoffman says:

      Ladies and gents, my husband, who’s lived here a heck of a lot longer than I. 🙂

      Bahahaha, I’ll try to remember NOT to mention the Russian-Empire-started-in-Ukraine to a Russian. I’d rather not get punched. 😉

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