I’ve always been told there is a stark contrast between the western and eastern portions of Europe. During my first tour of Europe while on exchange in Milan, I visited Slovakia and Hungary naïvely expecting to see a region of the world heavily influenced by the old Soviet era. Much to my surprise, the countries were beautiful and my assumptions were completely wrong. Even on my recent trip through Krakow I harbored similar expectation that likewise proved unfounded. Geographically, I was on the eastern side of Europe, but where on earth is this “Eastern Europe” everyone keeps talking about? Well my friends, I just needed to go a little further east and cross into Ukraine.
I’ll admit, when I first considered the idea of traveling to Ukraine even I thought it was a little absurd. Why enter a country that all you ever hear about is war, revolt, protests, and rebels? Everyone I spoke with reassured me the vast majority of the country was perfectly safe for travelers. As long as I stayed away from the eastern boarder, Ukraine was no more dangerous than the rest of Europe. Still, I had my reservations about going into Ukraine, but my Schengen Zone visa was about to expire and I needed to leave the region quickly. Since Lviv is the closest city to Krakow outside the Schengen Zone I figured why not – at the very least it would make for an entertaining story.
And boy was I right; my arrival into Ukraine was an adventure in itself.
Even though Lviv fell under the jurisdiction of the USSR after WWII, due to the city's close proximity to the rest of Western Europe it is a wonderful hybrid of the two cultures. This cultural variation is most apparent in the city’s buildings where the intricate architecture associated with Western Europe commingles with the utilitarian design of the old Soviet Union. I derived a great deal of amusement seeing old stone apartments adorned with ornate French Mansard roofs standing next to disappointingly bland, boxy soviet office buildings.
As stark as the architecture was, every single structure in Lviv shared one common element – years of neglect. Even with all of the wonderful architecture, many of the sculptures I saw were worn down substantially and on many buildings the once beautiful plaster facades were falling apart exposing the underlying brickwork. The structures showed clear signs of wear and tear like most European cities, but it didn’t appear much renovation was going on. While Lviv is a vibrant, bustling city, the buildings here are only shadows of their former glory. Even with the obvious Western influences, it was readily apparent that this is where east meets west. Aside from the city’s architecture, there were three main aspects of life in Lviv that confirmed I’d finally found this elusive “Eastern Europe.”
The first aspect I noticed were the dilapidated old cars that coursed through the city streets. While the Soviets have long since left the region, their influence lives on in the automobiles residents drive in Lviv. This isn’t to say I didn’t see the occasional BMW or Audi, but the majority of cars in Lviv looked like they were designed using the standard car symbol/silhouette you see on road signs as a blueprint. These poor little cars were some of the most uncreative, unimaginative things I’ve ever seen and there was absolutely nothing luxurious about tthem: four wheels, an engine, steering wheel and seats – that’s it. Even though they looked like bland children’s toys, I can’t tell you the smiles these little vehicles brought me as I watched them struggle uphill and nearly fall apart as they scampered across the uneven cobblestones.
The second cultural aspect about Ukraine that I noticed was how absurdly religious the local population here is. The Ukrainians I saw during my visit were not your usual “Cafeteria Catholics” back home who pick and chose what they follow and simply goes to church on Sundays – these people took their Catholicism seriously. For example, one afternoon I stumbled upon St. George Cathedral while walking around town. From the exterior it seemed like a regular, run-of-the-mill church I’d seen a thousand times before, but when I went inside I was blown away by how many people there were intensely praying. There were easily 30+ people on their knees praying before the altar surrounded by various religious artifacts scattered around the room.
Mind you this was 2:00 in the afternoon on a Tuesday.
What fascinated me the most was how these intense displays of religious reverence were just a normal part of the locals’ daily routine. I watched in amazement as everyone mouthed the words to various prayers while they thumbed through their prayer books. Slowly each person made their way around the chamber stopping at each of the 12 religious artifacts to genuflect multiple times, kneel on the ground, recite their prayer, and finally kiss the item in question before moving to the next one. Hygiene aside, I was impressed; these people were genuinely praying and not just going through the motions. I’ve been to more churches than I care to count, but this was the first church I felt was really, truly being used. I was so moved by the experience that I couldn’t bring myself to even take a picture of the interior, I felt like I was intruding on a very personal, intimate moment in these peoples’ lives.
The final aspect of Ukrainian culture that surprised me was that nobody here smiles! When I walked around town, sat down at a restaurant, or even checked into my hostel, not a single person even attempted to cracked a smile at me. Much like the Spanish siesta, this particular cultural difference is something that can only be truly appreciated by experiencing it first hand. I knew, at least intellectually, that in Slavic cultures smiles are reserved only for good friends, but I still found it incredibly strange and a little unsettling. During my time in Lviv I felt like I was constantly doing something wrong and that my mere existence irritated everyone I came in contact with. Since I don’t speak Ukrainian or Russia I was trying to be as nice as possible, but I kept hoping the locals here would return the favor…anything... even just a smile!
Stop looking so depressed all the time!
It is incredible just how ingrained smiling is in Western culture. I had absolutely no idea how much it would affect me when people didn’t reciprocate my smiles. During my first few days in Lviv, I came to realize just how frequently I smiled and that I use it for every single kind of emotion. When I’m in public, I smile when I’m happy, sad, or even frustrated. It’s no wonder why people from this side of the world think the “American Smile” is just a hollow gesture - because it is! We use it for everything!
Even after a week in Lviv, I couldn’t stop smiling at people as I walked through the streets. My “condition” was particularly frustrating because the more awkward or out of place I felt, the more inclined I was to smile. From there either I’d catch myself smiling and become self-conscious or the person I was talking to would not reciprocate my smile and I’d get uncomfortable. Either way, my default response was to smile more and the whole process would repeat again. It was a vicious cycle, and the worst part was that it was all in my head! These people were never mad at me.
Although I’m sure they were wondering what’s wrong with this bumbling American who can’t seem to control his facial expressions.
Smiling aside, this interpersonal barrier Ukrainians put up between themselves and strangers resulted in another difficulty for me, I could never tell if people are angry at each other or if they are just speaking normally. Say what you will, but the Ukrainian language (or Russian for that matter) is not what I call a “beautiful” language to listen to. It’s likely a bias on my part, but it sounds very forceful, jagged, and abrupt unlike other languages, such as Italian, that many of us consider more elegant. Moreover, peoples’ body language here in Ukraine always made me feel like they were about to come to blows with each other whenever they spoke.
As an example, I went to the train station in Lviv to get a ticket for Kiev one afternoon when I noticed two ladies in front of me speaking very loudly to each other in front of the counter. I watched them intently for over two minutes as they exchanged unintelligible words back and forth wondering to myself if they were having a friendly conversation or arguing. It wasn’t until one of the women gave what appeared to be a profane gesture - the equivalent of “vaffanculo” in Italian - before I realized they were in fact not having a polite discussion.
I would like to say this was the only time I found myself in this kind of situation, but it happened another six times before I left Ukraine.
I’ve only been in Ukraine for a few days, and I’m thrilled by the amount of culture shock I’ve encountered so far. What excites me the most is that Lviv is the most westernized city in Ukraine; I wonder what it would be like to venture further into the country? Even though I’ve been on the road for months now, Ukraine is the first country where I feel I am truly backpacking. Very few travelers ever visit Ukraine (especially now) so it is off the beaten path, only a handful people speak decent English, and I get to experience a totally new culture very different from my own. While it may sound absurd, I’m exhilarated by the mere fact that I’m uncomfortable and forced to adapt to this new environment. I’ll admit, Ukraine may not be the best place for inexperienced vacationers just looking to kick back and relax, but for the more adventurous souls out there, Ukraine is a fantastic place to visit!
I can’t wait to explore more of this great country!