Wednesday, May 29, 2013

$400 of advice

This is the story of how we were conned out of over $400 by S. V. Kalinin (Калiнiн С.В.), a so-called "rental agency" here in Kharkov.

The players in this drama:
  • D and Katherine, a young and trusting expat couple
  • "Olga", the insidious rental agent working for S. V. Kalinin
  • "Mikhael"/"Dima", the accomplice who played both roles

The Short Story:

A local agency by the name of S. V. Kalinin claimed to offer apartments. We gave "Olga" and "Dima" 3500 uah ($430 USD) for first month's rent on an apartment. Although we showed up for 2 meetings with "Mikhael" (and wasted several hours waiting for him), by the end of the day there was no money, no apartment, only a text saying something along the lines of "Here are some phone numbers of landlords. This is what you paid the money for, suckers! Mwahahaha!"

Or, for my Russian readers: Мы ходили в агенство Калiнiн С.В. и там заплатили 3500 гр для первый месець арендная плата. Потом не было ни квартира, ни денег. Просто обман, шарлатанство.

The Long Story:

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Hungry 2

Well, we may have managed to visit most of Kharkov's landmarks, but there still is far to go when it comes to restaurants! Here's an update:

Capri Pizza

With the glorious arrival of sunshine and long days, the Shevchenko Park cafes and nightclubs have sprung to life. Capri Pizza opened their open air restaurant just off of Freedom Square and we recently met here with a friend to enjoy dinner in the fresh evening air. So fresh, actually, that it was a good thing blankets were available to ward off the chill!
Clockwise: service button, dessert, "Jamaica" pizza (45 uah), dolmades (39 uah)
There were a wide variety of pizzas available (40-75 uah) as well as pasta (42-55 uah), salads (23-70 uah), desserts (22-35 uah), and drinks. I've yet to try any of their other locations but really- what beats sitting in the park in summertime?!

Twenty Two pub & restaurant

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Been there, done that?

Yesterday marked the end of an era.
Since September 2011, all of Kharkov's memorials, monuments, and parks haven't stood a chance. We've photographed them, posed before them, examined them, Wikipedia-ed them, described them to friends, and toasted to them. It's been a weekend hobby, a treasure hunt, even a geocaching adventure! There's been just one holdout... Kharkov's Родина Мать (Motherland statue).
For months I passed by these photos in the school hallway, slowly checking them off the list until only one photo remained.
This war memorial seemed- and still seems- awfully remote, which is probably why it took so long to get out there. While it is within the city, it's a tremendously long walk from any metro station. If you hop off at the University station at Freedom Square, walk all the way to Gorky Park, and then continue walking down the same street, you'll eventually arrive at the memorial. I suppose this is where taking a marshrutka (public taxi/minibus) could come in handy!

But what's better than a marshrutka packed full of sharp, sweaty elbows and shopping bags?

A friend with a car!!! : ) This is, by the way, the same friend (Max) who likes to listen to Кино while driving, which we did again today. On the spur of the moment, he offered to cancel his work commitments and take us past Freedom Square, past Gorky Park, and down the road to the Memorial Complex of Glory. As I understand it, Max's wife had been "gently reminding" him to show me this place, so Max- a huge thank you to Ira as well!

It was 4:30 PM. Rush hour, or as they say here, час пик. Have you ever wondered what that looks like in Ukraine?
"During a fire/heat- ice cream"
All these pictures were taken while cruising down Sumskaya street.

Monday, May 20, 2013


The Ukrainian release is titled Star Trek: Retribution

We saw the new Star Trek film this weekend. Almost all incoming foreign films are dubbed into Ukrainian, not Russian, which means I usually spend 2 hours floundering along, trying to catch the odd word. This time, though, maybe because of our recent trip to Ukrainian-speaking Poltava?, it was comfortable to listen along. In fact, it felt pretty awesome... until the movie ended and my friends started talking about all these sub-plots I never caught :p At least I figured out who the bad guy was!

Every now and then I start feeling bad for not knowing much Ukrainian. Never mind the fact that any leftover non-teaching/non-blogging time is spent studying Russian or that most of my friends never use Ukrainian, there's something guilt-inducing about not learning a country's language. Locally the case could be made that Russian is just as much an "official" language as Ukrainian, but Russian is still seen as the-language-of-the-invaders in much of the country. And honestly, it's just awkward to be out of the loop when it comes to Ukrainian. The language on the street may be Russian around here, but the metro and street signs, movies, TV, advertising, and official documents are all in Ukrainian.

To those who scratch their heads and say- isn't it pretty much the same language??- you're kind of right.

And wrong.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Kharkov like a local

Kharkov's Lopan river, courtesy of my brother's HDR app : )
As a tourist it can be hard to scratch the surface of a city, so I was determined to show my brother how we actually live. No one visits monuments and goes out to restaurants all the time... if only!!*sigh*... but people do trek to outdoor markets and pillage supermarket shelves on a regular basis. Thus, our first must-see in Kharkov was the Central Market, a weekly pilgrimage in which we arrive with cash and leave laden with fresh fruits and veggies. (Ahem, or I should note, D leaves laden with the heavy stuff and I carry my sunglasses. Thank you, D!)

After months of dust and disorder, Central Market's remodel is finally complete and I think you'll agree that it's now the best-looking market in town!
Visiting our favorite vendor! She always remembers our names and greets us with a smile. If you find yourself shopping here, ask for Luba.
!Warning! If you're a vegetarian, you might want to close your eyes and keep scrolling!
Part of the meat market, lots of gory bits and pieces here.
On the way to Central Market, we wandered through Kharkov's open air book market, which offers more than just old musty romance novels and computer science manuals. Outside of the formal market (actual stalls), you'll find old men guarding tables of USSR pins, hats, warning signs, basically anything you can imagine!
Book market in Fall 2012.
Usually I'm not brave enough to get into a "how much?" conversation with the book vendors, but this time an old city guidebook caught my eye and I worked up the courage to ask about it.
Apparent rules of the book market: smoking is allowed, shirts are optional.
The vendor immediately got all worked up and insisted on showing other guidebooks that he had stashed away elsewhere. He beckoned impatiently for us to follow him down an alleyway.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Our Whirlwind trip to Kiev (or, A Relative Finally Visits!)

After 22 months, our entreaties to "come visit us!" finally got a response. My brother Nick has been racking up some serious travel time lately and I was thrilled when he agreed to stop in Ukraine for the weekend. We've only seen each other a handful of times over the past 12 years so this was a looong overdue meet-up!
Our time in Kiev was barely over 24 hours but like good travelers, we packed a ton of stuff into that short period. First, a quick note for anyone else traveling soon: try using the website In Ukraine, it's common to rent a room/apartment instead of checking into a hotel, but it can be a bit of a hassle to negotiate with the ladies at the train station who offer the apartments and to accept a place sight unseen. Airbnb is an international Craigslist of lodging- 192 countries and counting!- and makes it easy to find something more comfy than a sterile гостиница. We found a cute apartment in downtown Kiev for $100 a night. It was only 20 seconds away from the Lev Tolstoy metro stop, across the street from a vibrantly green park, and a very short walk from the main street of крещатик. There was even a microwave; pity we didn't get to use it, as it's the first time I've been around a microwave in the past 2 years and because it had a mysterious setting labeled "Russian chef", which may or may not have instantly replicated a delicious bowl of borsch, we'll never know.
View from the balcony of our rented apartment
The day Nick arrived fortuitously happened to be Victory Day, the last of the May holidays. Downtown Kiev was packed with people wringing every last drop of pleasure out of their final time off from work. Elderly war veterans wandered here and there in military uniforms dripping with medals. Posters on every street corner proclaimed "Happy Victory Day!" and orange-and-black ribbons were proudly pinned to shirts.
Independence Square on May 9th
My brother was amused by the macho street games. Drunken bicycle involved making a fool of yourself by trying to ride a messed-up bicycle in a straight line. Another game could only be won by hanging to a chin-up bar for two to five minutes but again, the bar had somehow been tampered with. Such bad odds didn't scare off men eager to prove themselves, though, and large crowds would gather to watch the often comical attempts.

Living statues, Segway riders, and costumed characters also performed for the passerby.
That evening was the perfect time for walking and watching the city come to life against the darkening skyscape.
The pricey Hotel Ukraine
The following morning found us gorging ourselves on the fifty (fifty!) baklava that Nick had brought from Turkey. We attempted to make up for this indulgence by exploring nearby Park Shevchenko and walking back to the train station with luggage in tow.
Taras Shevchenko statue
Taras Shevchenko university
For a nice write-up of this park, read Coffee, Kindle, Good Company and the Secrets of Shevchenko Park from Many Colored Days.
old apartment building next to the Hotel Express
We met up with a friend for lunch. Nick got to try vareniky (verdict: yum!) at our old favorite, Вареничная Победа. The restaurant had been renamed to Вареничная Катюша since our last trip to Kiev but the food was the same. This time we visited the train station location. Nick saw his first electrichka (slow, old passenger train used to cover short distances, usually uncomfortable and cheap). Even though it was barely 1 PM, one of the electrichka passengers was so drunk that he fell out of the train the first two times he tried to board. It was only with a strong push from the passengers behind him that he was at last able to get up the stairs and into the car.

Then we set off for one of my favorite spots in Kiev- Родина Мать. It was my second time here and the views were just as breathtaking and rewarding as they were on the first visit.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Victory Day

Leftover Victory Day signs in Kharkov's Freedom Square
For those of you living elsewhere, just a reminder that Ukraine and Russia (and a handful of other countries) recently celebrated Victory Day, a Soviet holiday marking the end of hostilities between the USSR and Germany in 1945. Coming at the tail end of several other holidays (Labor Day, Easter), it's a big deal... but don't just take my word for it! Check out the stories from these talented bloggers:
"Holiday Street" poem from an old Soviet kids' book
2013 Victory Day in Novosibirsk courtesy of From Russia with Love
2013 Victory Day Parade in Moscow from A Girl and Her Travels 
2013 Victory Day in Lugansk from Alabama in Ukraine
Victory Day from Russophilia (an amazing 2-part entry!)

And in case you missed it-
Orthodox Easter from Borscht and Babushkas (Ukraine)
The Day of Rejoicing from Many Colored Days (Kiev, Ukraine)
Day-long Victory Day concert in Kiev

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Day Tripping in Poltava: War Eagles and Watchtowers

"A healthy spirit in a healthy body". The buff guy pictured is a Cossack, one of the traditional warriors of Ukraine.
Visiting Poltava last week was the first time I'd left the city this entire year and it was a nice change of pace. I've been getting scolded a lot for not travelling around the country, so hopefully Poltava (and going to Kiev this week!) counts for something : ) Kharkov is such a lovely city that, as wonderful as other places may be, I find it difficult to leave!

After D and Zhenia reemerged from the beautiful gold-domed church, we retraced our steps past the battle museum, across the railroad tracks, around the chickens, and back on the marshrutkas into the city. Next stop? The city center, where our friend took us through the lusciously green park surrounding the Monument of Glory.
Green, green, green!
The Monument of Glory is one of Poltava's famous sites; a tall column topped with a gilded eagle of war. Women loitered nearby in lawn chairs, renting toy cars to children who then drove drunkenly and furiously around the area, aiming for the shins of pedestrians. A pair of pale, fluffy golden retrievers panted in the shade.
Another 10 minutes of walking brought us to a Ukrainian cafe. As customary, this Ukrainian cafe also served sushi and pizza (and, er, something labeled "tooth baked under cheese"), but we had our sights set on a dish that is decisively Poltavan- galushki. The galushki were incredible! The waitress carried out three plates with 6 fat galushki each, dumplings of meat and garlic rolled inside a buttery dough. Yum! It took us a while, but we eventually sawed our way through all those bundles of deliciousness and were back out in the blinding sunlight.
"Tasty, like in a fairy tale" reads this little hut.
The Poltava Museum of Local Lore
Little church on a side street
Next to a monument to Peter the Great, a weathered sign displayed the local coat of arms and proclaimed "Poltava- 1100 years!" That seems unbelievably ancient to me, coming from a place where surviving for 50 years makes any house a noteworthy relic.

Can I confess something? It's silly, but a long time ago I saw a picture of a galushki monument in Poltava (thanks for the tip, Chelsea!) and knew I was destined to go there. A giant bowl of stone dumplings and a humongous spoon?- say no more!!!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

С праздником Пасхи!

Wow, Easter time again! Last year I was out taking pictures of the cake sellers (and then home, stuffing my face with cake). This year we went out for pizza with a friend. The only пасха cakes consumed were these mini ones that the nice lady at the market slipped into a bag and handed to us with a smile. I'm happy to note that these days we're buying more veggies than sweets, progress!

Happy Orthodox Easter!

Update: These were a gift from one of the вахтаs : )

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Day Tripping in Poltava: The Battle Muesum

Poltava is one of Kharkov's closest big neighbors; it's only a 2-hour ride by marshrutka to reach this city of 300,000. As it's now a holiday week and everyone has free time, our friend Zhenia offered to show us around Poltava, his hometown and a city I knew nothing about (save for it being the birthplace of Andrei Danilko, the love-him-or-hate-him cross-dressing Ukrainian pop star).

Zhenia kindly reserved us a spot on an 8 AM marshrutka. His text read "look for a white Mercedes, license plate number 8334".

If you just read Mercedes and you're thinking wow, a private car! the luxury!... it's nothing like that. Marshrutka translates as route taxi, a common way to get around Ukraine. It's an oversize minivan that can accommodate anywhere from 9 people to 9 billion people, depending on whether people are wearing their winter coats or not :p The marshrutkas that travel between cities are smaller and offer sitting only, while the larger ones that travel within cities offer both seats and standing.

By 8 AM our driver had collected 50 uah from each passenger, smoked his last cigarette, shaken hands with all the other drivers (men always shake hands when arriving or departing in Ukraine) and we were on the road! D fussed briefly with the seatbelt, surprised there actually was a seatbelt, before realizing that it was impossible to fasten. They'd all been shortened as a matter of convenience, so as to not get in anyone's way. How thoughtful.

The road out of Kharkov is appropriately named полтавский шлях, or the Poltava Highway. We passed an almost surreal scene of men fishing from a river bank with the stacks of a power plant looming in the background before the Poltava Highway changed into a numbered highway. The road took us through small towns with names like Manchenky (full of little Ukrainian houses and flowering trees) and Sharivka (brick homes next to tilled garden plots). In Peremoga we passed Lenin's statue and stopped near a clothing store long enough for the driver to smoke another cigarette and the young couple in the back to run out in search of a restroom.

View Kharkov - Poltava in a larger map

Seen on the way to Poltava:
  • 33 people working in the fields, planting potatoes and other tasty treats
  • 27 bicyclists (only 1 serious roadside biker, most of the others out for a slow pedal through the town of Chutove, even saw one man transporting a 15-foot log on his bicycle!)
  • 13 tractors, most in action out in the fields or puttering down the highway
  • 12 goats
  • 8 roadside crosses/memorials
  • 2 refrigerated pelmeni trucks
  • 2 graveyards filled with colorful fake flowers
  • 1 roadside tank memorial
  • 1 church for sale
  • Cafe "Luck", home to a giant red-and-white dotted teacup
Zhenia met us a McDonalds, at, in fact, the only McDonalds in Poltava. Er, I feel like I mention McDonalds too much on this blog. Please believe me- I'm not an addict! :p We grabbed a bite to eat and talked about National Geographic's recent foray into the Ukrainian market and Zhenia's heady days as a high school exchange student in the great state of Texas. 
Leaving, we ran into Zhenia's roommate, another former TX exchange student. The four of us briefly conversed in a huddle. Behind us was McDonalds, and behind that, a tall, burned-out building that once openly produced umbrellas or secretly produced weapons, depending on who you ask.
Victory Day will be celebrated on May 9th. Note the billboard: We are proud of the great victory! 1941 - 1945.
Zhenia's first executive decision of the day (minus meeting at McDonalds) was to get us all to a war museum. Travelling again by marshrutka, this involved catching two of them to get to our slightly out-of-the-way destination. At our first stop, a man approached us with great excitement. 
"English! Where are you from? How long are you in Ukraine?" 
He pointed at his traveling companion, a woman sitting on a bench who acknowledged us with a raised hand and a shy smile. 
"We are... how you say...автостоп?"
 "Hitchhiking" Zhenia told him. 
"Oh, hitchhiking" he repeated back while pulling out his cell phone. "Please write for me."
Unfortunately the marshrutka pulled up at that exact moment and we were left calling out the letters to him as he quickly tried to memorize them. 
Ladies, if you ever catch yourself thinking hmmm, should I re-do my manicure now or later, DO IT NOW :p Don't let this be you!
I watched this potato seller do business outside the "Kiev market" while waiting for a marshrutka.