Saturday, July 25, 2015

Interview with an American blogger in Ukraine

Chernivtsy, Ukraine.

In Ukraine I worked with all kinds of American teachers. 

Young teachers and old teachers. Trained teachers, newbies, and aspiring teacherpreneurs. Teachers who left their homeland because of politics. Teachers who came to the edge of Europe to look for adventure. Or love. To preach. To drink. Teachers with Ukrainian blood running through their veins and teachers who had randomly picked the country from a job ad. Teachers who... well, you get the point ;) Lots of teachers. 
Out of all of them, Brendan is one of my favorite people- and a kickass writer to boot! He's the wordmaster behind all the travel tales at My Life in Transit. But before you read his stories of life in Italy, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and Finland, take a few minutes to catch up with the author first...

Brendan, tell us a little about yourself and your life before Ukraine.

First off, thanks for having me, Katherine. It's great to be here! 

In 2007 I studied abroad for the summer in Prague. Absolutely one of the high points of my life. I had never even left the U.S. before that, and this experience ignited something inside of me. That entire summer was like a film, probably directed by Richard Linklater. It was pure magic. I knew then that I would never be able to stop traveling. There's a great word in German for this, "fernweh", which literally means "a longing for the distance." After graduating from college in 2011 I decided to get a TEFL certificate and teach English abroad, as that seemed like the easiest way to live overseas. After spending a bit of time in Berlin, Prague, and Morocco, I made the move to Ukraine.
Chernivtsi University, founded in 1875. Chernivtsi, Ukraine.

What originally brought you to Kharkiv?

The fact that not a single one of my friends had ever been to Ukraine really enticed me. Most all travelers have done the London-Paris-Rome route at some point, and while that's great, I wanted to go somewhere that most people hadn't been. I knew two things about Ukraine before coming here: 1. The Chernobyl Nuclear disaster, and, 2. That Ukraine was rumored to have beautiful women. Were the two events connected? I decided to go and do some firsthand research. Kharkiv itself was entirely unplanned. I actually wanted to work in Kiev or Odessa, but the school I had come to Ukraine for placed me in this far off city near the Eastern border with Russia. That ended up being quite fateful.
Downtown Kharkiv.

Tell us about an average day in The Life of Brendan :)

An average weekday sees me up at around 8, breakfast at home, then a 15-minute walk  to the video game company I've been working at for 7 months now. My girlfriend of three years (yes, she's Ukrainian... such a cliche, I know) usually has dinner ready when I get home, around 7ish, so we eat and watch whatever TV show we happen to be on at the moment (we just finished Sex and the City). Then it's a bit of reading and, hopefully, writing before finally going to bed. The weekend's a bit more exciting, with a cafe and a long walk usually thrown in.
A visual ode to Alexander Pushkin in Kharkiv.

Three years ago, you wrote one of my favorite stories of teaching English abroad. What are your thoughts now on this kind of employment?

I'm a huge advocate of teaching English abroad, and since I've been out of teaching for several months now, I can honestly say that I miss it more than I expected to. The social interaction, the ability to learn from your students as much if not more than they learn from you, the new faces and places you see... Teaching is one of the best jobs I've ever had! Sure, there are long days and classes, as well as odd experiences like the one I wrote about in my blog post above, but the good days and worthwhile moments more than make up for those.
Teacher's Day fun and games!

Do you find it easy to earn a living in Ukraine?

To earn a living actually living in Ukraine is extremely easy as a native English speaker. There are IT firms and schools constantly looking to hire qualified, or unqualified, native speakers. Since the war broke out in Ukraine, this is only more true because so many foreigners have left. Native English speakers in Ukraine make a significant amount more than their Ukrainian counterparts, though they also make a significant amount less than your average native English speaker in just about every other European country. Ukraine being as cheap as it however, you can live better here on a $2,000 a month salary than you could almost anywhere else on 2 or 3 times that.
The Kamianets Podilskyi castle.

Let's play a quick round of "In Ukraine". I'll give you a topic (food, relationships, etc) and you write down the first word or phrase that comes to mind:
metro - The metro lady in her blue uniform and hat who sits behind that little desk looking miserable all day.

borsch - Different, but always delicious!

salo - Not my thing, but you can get it dipped in chocolate in Kiev!

English teachers - Mostly teaching for the first time, mostly here for the women.

plastic bags - They charge you for them here!

marshrutka - Satan's preferred method of transport. Horrible.

government - Corrupt. 

favorite nightspot - The Golden Ducat (cafe).

worst restaurant in town - Any place that sells sushi, pasta, and pizza under the same roof.

the police - Corrupt.

summer - As hot as winter is cold.

women - Beautiful... but deadly. 

men - Friendly but prone to alcohol.

customer service - Non-existent.

babushki - Just think of all they've lived through!

market - Authentic. A true experience.

watermelons - Summer!

style - Some women have it, most men don't.

safety - Walking the streets at night is dangerous... Not because someone might come up and try to rob you, but because you might trip over a pothole!

tea and coffee - I've had more tea here than I've had everywhere else, combined!

the grivna - Worthless.

Kharkiv - Back in the U.S.S.R.

How has living in Ukraine changed you? Have you picked up any superstitions (like whistling indoors = no money)? 

I don't take good customer service for granted anymore... I went back home to Florida last Christmas and had completely forgotten how wonderful waitstaff and other customer service people in America are. Best in the world. 
I grip the seat harder when I'm in a car here... I've become used to taking my shoes off at the front door. I still whistle though because, diminishing money or no, the rhythm is gonna get you.

On a more serious note, what's it like to be in Kharkiv these days? Would you caution other foreigners from visiting Ukraine at this point?

The atmosphere in Kharkiv is much more tense than it used to be. Everyone is waiting for something to happen. Otherwise, the only visible difference I've noticed is that the huge Lenin statue in Freedom Square has been torn down... that and there are far more Ukrainian flags around. As for visiting, I'm not sure why anyone would be looking to come to Kharkiv anyway... Go to Lviv. It's beautiful and has been little affected by recent events.
It's been almost 1 year since Lenin came down in Kharkiv's main square.

Looking back at all of your world travels so far, can you describe your best off-the-beaten-track discovery?

Just one?? Iceland is still remarkably underrated and is so beautiful it renders heaven entirely inadequate. The Puglia region of Italy.
 Essaouira, Morocco. Everything in Lviv. Cafe Regatta in Helsinki. Hot chocolate from Chokladkoppen in Stockholm. The writer Italo Calvino. Norwegian train travel. Polish Pierogis. Ukrainian Varenyky. Piti in Sheki, Azerbaijan. Italian Spritz. Every used bookstore I've stumbled across...

Any words of advice for aspiring writers and world travelers?

Work somewhere that will benefit your writing - teaching is perfect for this! Read a lot, and read everything. And, of course, become a traveler. Once you're a traveler, don't stop traveling. You'll inevitably arrive at a place you fall in love/become comfortable with. If you stay more than a year, you'll get stuck. Leave. You can always come back after you've seen what else the world has to offer. Oh, and read this: The 11 Rules of Traveling.

Brendan, thank you so much for giving us a peek into your world : ) Long live your spirit of "fernweh"!

Extra credit:
Get more Brendan @ My Life in Transit
Get more Ukraine interviews here.