I moved to Ukraine in August 2013. I wasn’t planning to stay for very long, maybe just a year or so, and then move on somewhere else. I’d previously lived in Italy for a year, teaching English, and suddenly I was at Boryspil Airport, just outside Kyiv, about to enter a country that was totally unknown to me.
This was one of the reasons why I moved to Ukraine in the first place. I had lived in Italy, which is a marvellous country, but not so great if you’re as poor as I was. I wanted to live somewhere about which I knew nothing. Ukraine was an alien land to me at this point. I knew nothing of the people, the language, the culture, the identity. I wanted an adventure.
I spent the first couple of days in Kyiv undergoing orientation for my new job. We stayed and were trained at the Huts Medical and Rehabilitation Centre, which was a rehabilitation centre for victims of the Chornobyl disaster.
Two days later, my fellow inductees and I got the overnight “Choronomorets” train to Odesa. This was my first journey on a night train. The attendant on the train was more than happy to provide us with beers, despite the language barrier, and so we sat drinking long into the night.
The next morning, as I exited the train about 6:30 in the morning, I experienced one of those sensations in my life that will never repeat. Stepping onto the platform was almost like a religious awakening. The city was still sleeping, but the warmth of the sunrise brought with it the promise of a new day. The sights and smells of the new city overloaded my senses. I experienced for the first time the magic of an Odesa morning, with a mixed sense of bewilderment, excitement, and a slight sense of panic.
What were these strange symbols and these strange sounds? How was I going to make sense of all of this? I had done no preparation before coming to Ukraine, but I had bought a Ukrainian phrasebook so that I could at least point at things and hope that people understood.
I got it out on my first day at work and was laughed at. One colleague told me that I wouldn’t need it in Odesa and it was offensive to speak Ukrainian because the city is Russian-speaking.
The only place I heard Ukrainian was in McDonald’s. Everywhere else, the conversations, signs, menus - everything was in Russian. As a result, I forgot about Ukrainian and spent four years studying Russian (a language which I am now trying to forget).
I had a rather unforgettable teacher of Russian known as “Mad Svitlana”. Her method of teaching was to have two pens, representing Tina Turner and Mikhail Gorbachev. The two pens would then have dialogues with each other, which I would then need to repeat.
In the spring of 2014, I visited Lviv for the first time. This was my first experience of encountering the attitude of some Ukrainians towards my hesitant production of Russian sentences. I went to a restaurant and greeted the waiter in Russian. He peered at me and said “No, my friend. This is Lviv. Here you speak Ukrainian, or you speak English.” I chose English. Although I didn’t realise this was my first brush with the “language question”, as it is phrased.
In February 2017, I moved to Kyiv, and suddenly, my world was turned upside down. Here, I heard Ukrainian being spoken on the streets. Signs and billboards were written in Ukrainian. I felt acutely embarrassed. I had lived in Ukraine for three and a half years by this point, and yet I was unable to communicate or even understand the official languages of the state.
As a result of this embarrassment, and also a certain sense of curiosity, I decided to switch from studying Russian to studying Ukrainian. This was not an easy process. When I first started studying Ukrainian, I discovered that those who had told me that “If you can understand Russian, you can understand Ukrainian” weren’t being accurate.
This was a strange new world. Why did some words have apostrophes in the middle? Why did the alphabet have the letter “i”? Speaking Ukrainian as a foreigner was an eye-opener. When I spoke Russian, reactions ranged from mild curiosity, to no reaction whatsoever. Speaking Ukrainian, I suddenly found that people were far more interested. When you speak to someone in their native language, you speak to their soul. It doesn’t matter if you make mistakes, or if you use the wrong form of address. The very fact that you are trying to communicate with the person in the way which is most natural to them, is a hugely gratifying experience. I’ve met people who refused to believe that I was British. People thought that I was Canadian; a member of the diaspora.
Having a knowledge of Ukrainian has allowed me to get much closer to the soul of Ukraine. I can understand the works of Shevchenko, Kotlyarevsky, Ukrainka, Kotsiubinsky, Franko, and Antonych in the way the authors wanted them to be understood. Ukrainian films, songs, and history are all accessible.
But the true heart of the country does not lie in its poetry, music, TV programmes or any of its art forms. The heart of the country lies in its people. People of this great nation who are once again fighting for their freedom.
Words have the power to both destroy and heal, but language itself is the one thing that unites us all. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to study Ukrainian, and whilst my knowledge of the language still is not perfect, I am able to communicate my ideas.
The Russians bomb, but cannot kill an idea. You cannot kill a language while people choose to keep it alive.
I am proud to be able to say that I am playing a very small part in doing so. Glory to Ukraine.