Economics, Cognitive Dissonance, and Being an American in Ukraine

Ukraine recently surpassed Moldova to be named the poorest country in Europe by the IMF. That economic pain is palpable here, where the local currency has lost 70% of its value against the US dollar since the war against Russian-backed separatists began in Donbas in 2014. Purchasing power has declined, and prices have risen. There are  rich people here–the high-end boutiques of Kyiv tell that story–but times are tough for average Ukrainians.

St. Volodymyr, in June

The currency crisis that has made life difficult for Ukrainians has also made Ukraine an incredibly cheap destination for western tourists. I’ve traveled a lot in Eastern Europe, and I naively expected my US dollars to go as far here as they do in Romania, Hungary, or Latvia. What I found was something very different.

Even in the capital, Kyiv, it’s difficult to go to a fairly hip restaurant and spend more than $50 for dinner for 3 people. Including mixology, or a bottle of good Georgian wine. Including dessert, coffee, and an Uber to get there. Latte art is available everywhere, for less than $1. In Kharkiv, you can stay in a 4-star hotel for $50 per night. Outside of a major city, make that $30. A high speed train ticket halfway across the country will cost $8 (and the trains are frequent and punctual, to be distinguished from American abominations such as the South Shore Line in Northwest Indiana). You can get a really good seat for a show by the national ballet company for about $14 (multiply by 10 for anything comparable in Chicago).

Extreme latte art at Takava Coffee-Buffet in Kyiv

Part of my tourist-mind–the part that’s constantly making calculations back to my home currency when I travel, weighing what I spend now versus paying my mortgage and vet bills and saving for the future–is almost giddy in Ukraine. You can’t be serious, this voice says, when I buy a kilo of organic, local apples for 20 US cents. I feel the lingering price-trauma from a trip to London as a graduate student–at a moment when the exchange rate was almost 2 USD to 1 GBP–begin to ease.

But then almost immediately another part of my brain starts to imagine all the implications of this for Ukrainians. How staggeringly deep the economic inequality is here. How poor you must be when these prices are high for you. How utterly impossible it must be to travel to the US or western Europe or even Poland if these are the prices you can afford. How vulnerable and desperate this situation could make Ukrainians who can’t find good jobs at home. How many talented young people will want to go abroad to work because their salary at home won’t be enough.

An $8 spread at Lviv Homemade Chocolate in June 2016

I have to admit that I don’t know how to deal with this cognitive dissonance. The longer I stay in Ukraine, and the more Ukrainians I get to know, the more extreme it gets. The only practical response is to try to shut up about prices; to take my Ukrainian friends out to dinner whenever possible; and to keep trying to put myself in their shoes to understand this situation. I don’t know what else to do, other than to try to learn.

Vegetarian Kyiv Part I: Simple Everyday Cafes

Kyiv is an awesome city for vegetarians: it’s true, at least in 2018. The same cannot be said for the rest of Ukraine, in my experience, but in Kyiv it’s possible to do really well. Let’s start with the standouts for everyday lunches.

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Green 13, in the Bessarabian Market on Kreshatyk, is my absolute fave. They’ve got a tofu burger that’s to die for. It’s just a slab of seared tofu on a bun, but they top it with pesto, vegan mayo, pickled onions, really fresh wonderful cucumber pickles, sauteed mushrooms, lettuce, and tomato. The result is really stunning, especially if you’ve been eating Ukrainian food for weeks and would kill for tofu.

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I love this burger, but I should warn you that this is a burger for people who love toppings and don’t want the taste of the burger to overwhelm. (This is my beef with black-bean patties: the taste of black-beaniness inevitably dominates.) Of course, there are other items on the menu, but I have to admit that I’ve never had anything else although I’ve been there like 15 times. If it ain’t broke… They’ve also got charging stations and free water. There’s some seating, but mostly at benches without tables–it’s not a super comfortable place. But it’s cheap–around 60 UAH ($2) for a burger that would cost $12 in Chicago.

Literaturne Kafe Imbyr near the Olimpiska metro station is another top favorite. They’ve got a small but powerful all-veg menu, including an awesome soba noodle dish with vegetables and tofu and, for breakfast, a tofu scramble with avocado toast. (Their English menu refers to this latter dish as an omelet, so I was expecting eggs, but it’s definitely a tofu scramble.) Their drink selection is vast and interesting. Once I had a lovely almond milk cappuccino; another time I had a strangely delicious drink that appeared to be ginger tea mixed with pureed pear. This cafe is significantly more expensive than Green 13, but it’s got a cozy atmosphere with comfortable chairs–a good place to hang out for an hour.

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Lunch at my university’s canteen. Go to the cafes in this post if you have had too many meals in Ukraine that look like this.

If you’re in Kyiv and dying for a salad that is not made of mayonnaise and cabbage, try the chain Salateria. They have a nice build-your-own salad option and they have tofu (though no avocado, at least at the locations I’ve visited). The ingredients are fresh and the serving sizes approach American levels. Pro-tip: they plop a giant spoonful of dressing on the salad but they don’t mix it in. The dressings also don’t quite match up with their titles for an American audience. So ask for the dressing on the side if you’re a little iffy or want to control your own dressing quantity. Salateria isn’t quite to the level of Sweetgreen, but they do have actual bowls and glasses, and they are located in Ukraine. They’ve got a water station as well–with glasses, lemon, and mint. The ambience is total fast food–not a place to hang out.

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Despite this sentiment, expressed here at Andriyivsky Descent in summer 2017, vegetarians can do well in Kyiv.

Next time: fancier spots for dinner and drinks.