Kyiv, Kiev, Linguistic Chaos

July 28, 2011

Georgian khinkali, filled with meat and meaty juices that you suck out. Fab.Katya said that this is the obligatory photo that all kids who grew up in Kiev have taken at one point.

Disclaimer: I know that the true Ukrainian spelling for the city where I am currently located is Kyiv, please forgive. The other way is just easier for me.

So I’m now in Kiev. I have been here for several days and just haven’t had a chance to write.  I flew in on Sunday afternoon.  I was sad to leave Lviv.  I cried a little in the airport as I was waiting for my flight to leave but I didn’t allow myself to cry more because I would have cried off my makeup and my makeup bag was in my checked luggage.  So I stayed strong.

With ex’s sister, Katya on a lookout point over the city

In Kiev I’m staying with my ex-boyfriend’s parents.  The ex is currently living in America and they have wanted me to come stay with them for ages.  It was they who took care of me when I got sick in the horrible hospital here in Ukraine, so we’ve shared some fun memories.  It’s wonderful here.  I forgot how kind and fun they are.  And now ex’s sister has a three year old boy named Bogdan and it is a blast to hear him speak Russian.  He’s surprisingly talkative and friendly and kind of has a crush on me. I know I shouldn’t lead him on for one, because I’m married and for two, because I’m leaving on Saturday.  But he’s pretty irresistible.

So on Monday night Katya and Roma (Ex’s sister and husband) went out for Georgian food. It was fabulous of course.  I’m obsessed with Georgian food and it’s virtually impossible to find it in America.

On Tuesday I met up with my bestest(and pretty much only) American friend.  She is also a Russophile and was just traveling around Russia with her husband.  We arranged to meet up in Kiev.  She has always heard me talk about how much I love Kiev and how it’s so light and easy there compared to Moscow.  So she came down and I, with my Ukrainian friend, Anna took them around the city.

With Kristen and Blair near the WWII museum

We went to the WWII museum which is located inside of the giant defender of the motherland statue that sits on the hills above the Dniepr.  It was pretty depressing, but it’s important to know about how much people suffered in that war so that you can fully appreciate the depth of their strength and resilience.

Later on in the evening we met up with my friend Vova who is one of my best friends from Moscow.  When I was studying there back in 2004-2005 we were buds and are still buds to this day.  He was in Kiev on business and so we met up and walked around a little.  It was fun to have my best friends from two sides of the planet together.

With my buddy, Vova

On Wednesday Kristen (my besty) and her husband and I went to the Mormon temple (because we are mormons and that’s what we do) in Kiev.  It was beautiful and air-conditioned and even had a drinking fountain.  I know I should be saying that it was so inspiring and that I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit, which those things are true but the lasting impressions were about the air-conditioner and the drinking fountain.  Oh, and it’s really beautiful because the interior style is very simple, clean beauty just like in all Mormon temples, but they pulled in a little traditional Ukrainian motif which is a wheat shaft.  So that delighted me.

At the Kyiv Temple

After the temple we went and ate at Puzata Khata which is a cafeteria style chain restaurant that serves Ukrainian traditional food.  It’s really cheap and delicious.

With Blair, Kristen, Anna and Roma

Anna, who I previously mentioned, is one of the wonderful people I met on a language website.  All of the people that I met through the internet have just been the sweetest most wonderful people.  Then again, everyone on my trip so far has been sweet and wonderful. Wednesday was her husband’s birthday.  So we decided to do a little dinner for him for his birthday.  We got various little snacks and a Kyivskiy tort which is a to die for cake here.  I don’t even know how to describe it but it’s crunchy, chewy, creamy and nutty all at once.  We sang happy birthday for him and even harmonized on it.  He was impressed, said he had only ever heard that song in movies, but never live.  Anna and her husband, Roma’s native language is Ukrainian and they speak Ukrainian with each other.  But because my friend Kristen speaks Russian, they of course spoke Russian with her and tried to speak some English for Kristen’s husband who was feeling pretty left out.

The fabulous Kyivskiy tort that ex’s parents introduced to me years ago.


My Ukrainian is good enough now that it takes me a while to realize that they’re speaking Ukrainian and not Russian.  I mean, of course, inWestern Ukraine they only speak Ukrainian, but here you here mostly Russian and the occasional Ukrainian.  Not to mention all signs on the street as well as public announcements and such are in Ukrainian.

With Anna I was making the switch between Ukrainian and Russian a lot.  With me she would speak Ukrainian but when Kristen was around she would speak Russian.  Then I would start to answer in Ukrainian and it wasn’t until I looked at Kristen’s confused face that I realized I was probably speaking Ukrainian.

It has been so weird to switch to Russian. Ex’s family speaks Russian.  At first I was speaking a lot of Ukrainian with them because I had just been speaking Ukrainian 24/7 in Lviv, so it was really difficult for me to make the switch at first. Fortunately they understand the Ukrainian words.  Just like my friends in Lviv(predominantly Ukrrainian) could understand Russian but couldn’t necessarily carry on a conversation, my Russian friends here in Kiev(predominantly Russian) can understand Ukrainian but can’t carry on a conversation in it..

It has been so fascinating to spend time in the West of Ukraine and then come here to the East and just to hear all of the attitudes that the Russian/Ukrainian have about each other. My friends in Lviv would speak Russian mockingly and my friends here in Kiev do the same thing in Ukrainian.

The linguistic situation here is just fascinating. It’s so much more than just bilingualism.  There’s politics and culture and history and principle all caught up in it.  Is there any other place in the world where there is this kind of linguistic struggle going on?

Beautiful Kyiv

But anyway, the main thing here is that my head is spinning.  I can’t speak any language well right now.  It’s like when you try to open a whole bunch of programs on your PC right after you turn it on and it just freezes up (is our laptop the only one that does this?) And instead of the arrow pointer it just has that spinning circle.  Well that is what I feel is going on in my head right now, just the spinning circle that can’t open anything up.

Although I managed to have a very emotionally and linguistically draining conversation with ex’s parents last night about ex.  They were asking me for advice and I only threw in a handful of Ukrainian words. I was very proud of myself, especially considering I had spent the evening speaking Ukrainian with Anna and Roma.  Regardless, I’m loving every minute of the linguistic chaos.

3 Responses to “Kyiv, Kiev, Linguistic Chaos”

  1. This was a very interesting post. I am studying Russian and will be spending two weeks in Kiev starting August 21st. I will be studying Russian. How long have you been studying Russian? How comfortable do you feel speaking Russian? How long have you been studying Ukrainian? Is there a big difference between the two? What’s it like being Mormon in the Ukraine?

    • Janey said

      I’ve been studying Russian for 7 years and Ukrainian for about 8 months. The languages are pretty similar which can actually be kind of confusing. But I’d say that the vocabulary is about 40% the same with slight changes to vowels and such. It’s great being a Mormon anywhere but kind of a pain to explain to people why you don’t drink alcohol, tea of coffee, all of which are an important part of the culture here.

  2. K said

    What an interesting post! You made some good observations. It’s crazy how each group (the Ukrainian-speakers and the Russian-speakers) is slightly disparaging towards the other… yet they’re supposedly countrymen and they usually get along fine in person to boot! It’s more than a question of language- it’s a question of ethnic identity. My boyfriend was born in Simferopol and considers himself 100% Russian (I say “what about your Ukrainian passport, huh?”). My friends near Kiev consider themselves 100% Ukrainian and some think of Russian almost as an insult to their patriotism while others don’t mind it at all.

    What’s your take on Crimea? What do your friends in Lvov and Kiev think of it? Do they think it’s more or less Russian than ‘Russian’ cities like Kharkov?

    I always feel kind of bad for the Russian-speakers in Ukraine, because it’s like “Hey, you’re living in Ukraine, shouldn’t you speak Ukrainian?” and then I turn around and feel bad for the Ukrainian-speakers because their language took a beating during the USSR days. But it looks like they’re pretty evenly matched and no one language is going to be declared the winner. I guess I think about that in a very American way though. Why shouldn’t a country have two languages in equal standing? Does it ever work out or is there always resentment? (ie, English vs French in Canada)

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