Kiev: a jaunt with a purpose

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Having something to do when you visit a foreign city can be a real anchor. Over the Easter vacation I went to Kiev for Russian language classes. I was there to learn Russian to boost my skills for looming exams, but the whole experience got me thinking about travelling abroad to learn languages, or participate in any kind of activity in another country.

For example, getting to lessons every day meant that I had to learn to navigate Kiev’s metro system. This was easy enough, as there are only three lines and my host family lived close to the school where I was studying. However, what I wasn’t prepared for was just how overcrowded the trains were – after battling to get into the carriage, it was always so full that although there was no railing close enough for me to hold on to, I didn’t even slip because everyone was as tightly packed together as the proverbial sardines. It was the same no matter what time of day it was. This was something I did not expect to find out about Kiev and, had I been there simply to see the sights, I would never have experienced this side of life – one that I can’t help but feel is closer to the experience of most locals.

That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy being a tourist as well. Kiev is a beautiful and endlessly thought-provoking city, but sightseeing can get tiring at the best of times. For that reason, having six hours of lessons to attend each day was actually ideal; wandering around the city was a relaxing way to spend the rest of the day afterwards. We even had two guided tours of the city organised by the school we were studying at, so we learned something about Kiev’s history and modern culture too. We visited our fair share of cathedrals and churches over the course of the trip, including the famous St Sophia’s Cathedral and the Kiev Pechersk Lavra, an underground monastery which has been in use since 1051. We also visited Maidan Nezalezhnosti, a square in the city centre which has been the centre of many political uprisings – for example, the 2004 Orange Revolution following a presidential election which was thought to be have been rigged by authorities in favour of the less popular candidate, and the 2014 revolution which led to the ousting of the prime minister at the time. Now there is a massive mural there saying “Freedom is our religion”, standing tall over stalls selling souvenirs (including loo roll with Vladimir Putin’s face on it). So we did spend some time being tourists, mixed in with our daily Russian classes.

Of course, going abroad to study a language is a perfect way to experience its modern culture. For one, you talk to locals – on one of the first days we had an interesting conversation with one of our Russian teachers about whether or not Belarus is a dictatorship (she thought the idea was ridiculous and a lie made up by the western media. Having looked it up, it appears that Belarus isn’t entirely a dictatorship, but it has only had one president since 1994, when elections were banned). I was also staying with a host family, who talked about their views on Russian being the language spoken by most people in Kiev, despite its being in Ukraine. Speaking to Ukrainians about these topics is an experience you just don’t get when you’re learning languages in Britain.

 Now, no article about going abroad would be complete without some mention of the local cuisine. As a vegetarian, I was nervous about what I would eat while in Kiev. Having Googled it beforehand, reports from other vegetarians about the meat-free offerings there were not overwhelmingly positive. Now that I have been there, though, I can’t understand why that is. Given that we were trying not to be completely stereotypical tourists, we made an effort to try traditional Ukrainian restaurants and they all had a range of vegetarian dishes. From pumpkin soup to mushroom dumplings to beetroot burgers, there were vegetables galore, and not even just as meat substitutes but as meals in their own right – the best kind of vegetarian food, as I’m sure many others would agree. In fact, being a vegetarian felt particularly good when the meat-eaters in the group were served an unidentified and unidentifiable “meat”, which appeared undercooked and consisted largely of fat. It’s true that most dishes we were served came blanketed in sour cream and oil, but nevertheless we enjoyed our Ukrainian culinary experiences. In one restaurant, they even gave us a free vodka cranberry each at the end of our meal, as it is traditional in Ukraine to give drinks to guests before they leave.

All this reminded me of how much fun it is to engage with the culture of a foreign city, not just as a tourist, but as someone living in the rhythm of life there. For me, being in Kiev to study made me feel much more connected with it, because like most residents of the city, I had something to do there, a particular area I spent most of my time in and got to know, and most importantly, I wasn’t just there to look in as an outsider. In my opinion, it’s the best way to travel abroad.

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