Ukraine is a place I never, ever thought I’d go. In my Peace Corps series, I explain a bit about how I ended up in Ukraine, and that it was completely unexpected. Sure, my service did not end the way I thought it would. I even still have conflicted feelings about it. But I do know that everything happens for a reason, and I still have fond memories of my host country. Since I’m feeling all kinds of nostalgic, I decided to share my favorite things about Ukrainian culture. Saddle up, friends!
1 // babusyas
Usually, when we say babusya, we don’t necessarily mean our own grandmothers. Technically, the word translates to “grandma” in English. But when I say бабуся, I mean an older woman. Why are they on my favorites list? Because they are not only adorable, but also will go out of their way to take care of younger people. Maybe this wasn’t everyone’s experience. In fact, I’m sure it’s not. But in mine, the babusyas saved the day every single time.
I always felt more comfortable when I was near a babusya on the train, or on public transit. They would compliment my outfits, or my looks. (Face it, we could all benefit from a confidence boost here and there!) They always made sure I had more than enough to eat, and even would give me some of their own food. For example, when I was on a plane from Kyiv to Frankfurt, a babusya across the aisle from me handed me her breakfast pastry. She didn’t want it, and she didn’t want me to go hungry. My heart melted.
I could go on and on about the ladies that made my time in Ukraine so beautiful. I loved walking through the bazaar and hearing them gossip while they sold potatoes, beets, and any other root vegetable under the sun. So many of my sweet memories are tied to them, and I will be forever grateful for that.
2 // hospitality
This one goes hand-in-hand with my whole account about the babusyas, but it’s true about Ukrainian society at large. As a vegan, my diet and lifestyle were…interesting…to some of my counterparts and hosts. Sure, maybe they didn’t see it the same way I do. But the one thing they did was always, always make sure I had something to eat.
Some of my favorite food is from my time in Ukraine. I elaborate more on my experience as a vegan Peace Corps Volunteer in other posts if you’re curious about what that was like. At the very heart of my experience as a vegan in Ukraine was Ukrainian hospitality.
3 // all the food!
Зрази. Вариники. Борщ. Голубці. Yum, yum, YUM!
I’ve said it until I’m blue in the face, and will continue to do so until Americans stop sleeping on Ukrainian food. It is delicious! I know I didn’t experience the full scope of traditional Ukrainian food because quite a few dishes are meat-heavy, but what I did experience was life-changing.
One of the first things I did when I came home on a medevac was make Ukrainian food for my mom and friend. That dinner was partly for me to eat the foods I had grown accustomed to, but it was also for them to experience cuisine they had yet to try. Needless to say, everyone cleaned their plate!
4 // the marshrutka trust system
The first time I saw this, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It is common for people to get on a packed marshrutka (minibus used as public transit) and pass their fare up to the driver through a chain of other passengers. The person at the front gets change for the person if they’re owed any, and it gets passed back to them.
I would never trust other people enough to do something like that! At least, until I got used to this aspect of Ukrainian culture and began to do the same. In my experience, it worked. And until I accepted it as normal, it shocked me every single time in the best way.
5 // bazaars
In the States, most people get their food from the grocery store. You buy produce prepackaged, so there’s usually no weighing involved. Most Americans probably go to the U-Scan instead of waiting in line for a clerk to check them out. Oh, and it’s way more expensive than in Ukraine.
I loved going to the bazaar as a trainee. It’s like its very own sub-culture within the larger Ukrainian culture. Everything is happening all at once. You can peruse so many home-grown vegetables, clothes, shoes, vishyvankas, even pets. Depending on the size of the bazaar, you could spend hours at a time in there getting everything you wanted to buy.
One of my first stops on a return visit will be to a bazaar. Seriously. I love them that much.
6 // чай і кава
Ah, tea and coffee. Aren’t these two of the best things in life? In Ukraine, tea culture is huge. I lost count of how many times I was invited for tea during my service. How many cups I consumed is an even larger number, because rarely do you drink merely one cup during a чай visit.
Just as in tune as Ukrainian culture is with tea, its coffee culture is otherworldly. Despite the irony, Americans can’t do an americano like Ukrainians can. On a typical visit to Kyiv, I had to go to at least one of my favorite coffee shops. Otherwise, it would have been a waste.
As a daily coffee drinker, I usually have almond or some other plant-based milk in my morning brew. Not in Ukraine! It’s one of the few countries in the world where I can drink it with just a smidge of sugar and be a-okay. And that’s saying a lot!
If you’re ever in Kyiv, be sure to check out Paliturka Coffee and Books!
7 // no shoes in the house
Okay, I know Ukrainian culture is not the only one that mandates this. Spaniards and Japanese, among many other people groups around the globe, are the exact same way. I think Americans could learn so much from this common cultural practice around the world!
Not only would we have to clean our floors less often, but there’s just something so sacred about leaving the outside shoes at the door and acknowledging home as a place of comfort.
Part of the reason I feel this way is because I hate wearing shoes. I absolutely love being barefoot. But it’s also because we’d be forced to slow down our days, and accept more of a boundary between our labor and our leisure. I could definitely benefit from that, since I work from my laptop and my relaxation space often doubles as my workspace!
8 // gardening + composting
This is the crunchy granola vegan in me, but Americans waste a lot. We could learn so much from how Ukrainians garden and compost their leftovers. I know we’re catching on and zero waste is becoming more of a commonly practiced lifestyle, but in my personal experience, I could do more to adopt this in my own home.
My time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine was the first that I recycled and composted so much. I realized how easy it really is, and it became my normal. This was one of my favorite aspects of my service, that so many practices I never before experienced became normal in time.
9 // blankets in restaurants
I miss this so much! Because Ukraine has notoriously cold winters, many restaurants provide blankets for patrons. It is the coziest thing EVER. I would love for more businesses around the world to do the same. Even if it’s chilly outside, I would sit and chat with friends for hours over tea if I’m wrapped in a warm blanket and have a fire going nearby.
10 // train travel
I am a sucker for train travel. Luckily for me, Ukraine has an extensive train system that connects people to most places in the country. It is common for Volunteers to take overnight trains to help out friends, or participate with their counterparts in conferences that are far away.
Because it is so commonly used, the train system is pretty affordable. If you’re a traveler coming from a Western country, it should fit into your budget easily. That way, you can see even more of Ukraine!
The couple of times I took it, the bed I had was pretty comfortable. As with anywhere else, keep a close eye on your belongings and you should be fine traveling solo. If you’re with friends, consider renting out an entire room in second class (two sets of bunkbeds) or a first-class room (with just two single beds).
11 // sunflowers
Never-ending fields of tall sunflowers turn me into a human heart-eye emoji. Sure, technically this isn’t a cultural thing, but it’s definitely worth noting. My first couple of weeks in Ukraine, I had the pleasure of seeing them in-person. In the States, it usually costs money to enter these! In Ukraine, they are so abundant that you will find them everywhere. If you look closely enough, they resemble the Ukrainian flag.
12 // sweets! sweets everywhere!
I have five magic words for you: Roshen and Lviv Handmade Chocolate. I’m shocked that I didn’t gain 50 pounds while I was a Peace Corps Volunteer. Ukraine has the best, sweetest desserts on the planet.
My personal favorite is a Roshen bubble dark chocolate bar that just melts in your mouth in the lightest way. I also went crazy over dark chocolate truffles from Lviv Chocolates, and enjoyed their coffees with them.
Along with tea, a common practice in Ukrainian culture is to have cookies, cakes, or candy. Needless to say, my sweet tooth and I fit in just fine!
13 // gorgeous orthodox churches (among other amazing architecture)
Before traveling to and living in Ukraine, I had never seen an Orthodox church. Along with the theology differences, the architecture is characteristic and unique. My favorite church to visit is St. Volodymyr’s in Kyiv, with the yellow exterior and starry domes. The inside is just as magnificent. After seeing them for myself, I think a visit to churches like St. Volodymyr’s should be part of anyone’s well-rounded itinerary on a visit to Ukraine.
Ladies, if you plan to visit a Ukrainian Orthodox Church, please bring a scarf or a hooded jacket to cover your hair with! I never witnessed a woman being shamed for not doing so, but it’s better to be respectful. Also, don’t be tricked by tour websites into thinking you have to pay to enter. You don’t! Feel free to contribute if you see a donation box, but it’s free for the public to see the interior.
That’s it for this post, y’all! These are the lucky 13, my favorite things about Ukrainian culture after living there for a little bit. Would I go back to Ukraine as a traveler? Absolutely!
Furthermore, I think Ukraine is a destination that is severely underestimated in the travel sphere. Ryanair operates regular flights connecting Kyiv and Lviv to major European cities for great prices. You can also rent whole apartments on Airbnb that are high quality and won’t break the bank.
Moral of the story? If Ukraine isn’t already on your list, it should be. Now, get to planning!