Last weekend I travelled to Ukraine for the first time in my life. I had a business visit planned to Kiev almost three years ago, in March 2014, but at the time I decided to cancel my trip due to the Euromaidan – the Ukrainian revolution that was the beginning of the Ukrainian-Russian political war. I decided that in the sensitive situation like that it wasn’t appropriate for me to go and enjoy Fashion shows but not to stand side by side with Ukrainian people protesting for their freedom.
You might already know that I like to talk politics, as I truly believe fashion is a significant representation of current affairs (whether it’s Brexit, Ukrainian war, or, God forbid, Trumpland). And I believe it is healthy to understand the context people live and create in, so I wanted to share my first-person impressions from the country that doesn’t speak English. Please, don’t take my last sentence as an insult to Ukrainians – learning a new language might not be on everyone’s to-do list when there are different priorities. N.B. according to the survey of 2012 around just 9% of adult Brits were advanced in a second language (with other European countries averaging 42%).
Our people are not ready to see Europe. And I don’t even have in mind London or Paris
This year, when organisers of Dnepr Fashion Weekend invited me to come, meet Ukrainian designers and run a workshop about the international fashion business growth, I was more than interested – curious and happy to explore. The city of Dnipro (formerly known as Dnipropetrovsk), where the Fashion Weekend took place, is located in the South-Eastern part of the Ukraine (click here to see the map ). It is the fourth largest city in Ukraine with approximately 1mln inhabitants.
I arrived in Kiev with my family from London and had a 5,5-hour train trip to Dnipr the next morning. I was slightly intimidated by my poor Russian skills. Ukrainian and Russian languages are quite similar, not the same, and it is possible to converse in one and understand another. Coming from Lithuania (which was still a part of the Soviet Bloc when I was a child), I do understand and can communicate in Russian, to some level. When in Kiev, I realised straightaway that my English or any other language skills are useless and I better start recalling Cyrillic if I intend to read. More than half of the restaurants I went to didn’t have an English menu. On a bright side, a fine sirloin steak, the most expensive menu on the item, cost me around £6-£7.
Huge grey high-risers (similar to the council house developments in the UK) sitting on the ultra-wide streets of Ukrainian cities contrasting with beautiful giant public spaces, buildings and institutes, a noticeable disparity between rich and poor (think new Mercedes-Benz vs. Russian zhiguli) are the best representation of the country’s face I’ve seen – so close to the recent past of the Soviet regime. Spiritually, most of the people I met are aspiring Europeans (especially fashion and creative community I met at Dnepr Fashion Weekend). Mentally, however, they are still quite disconnected from the Western world. Fashion designers and fashion community, people who travel the world or at least follow international news, are aspiring global citizens, and then again, most of the young designers couldn’t speak and had difficulties understanding English.
“Our people are not ready to see new Europe. And I don’t even have in mind London or Paris; I mean other former Soviet states, like Latvia or Lithuania. If they go to let’s say Lithuania and will see how people live there, they will be shocked and wouldn’t know what to do with this information and obvious differences. We are still so far from Europe, even if we were in the same Soviet Union”, said my new friend Aleksej, who is looking forward to getting his new European passport, which should allow him to travel to the European Union without having to get a visa. Aleksej has friends in Latvia.
“When I went to Warsaw many years ago I didn’t want to come back. The roads were so good. But it was my son’s birthday, so I had to come back”, told me my friendly driver who took me to the Central Dnipr Train Station on my way back to Kiev.
Being so far from the westernisation (be it good or bad) their mentality is also quite different. Born and raised in Lithuania, I have developed immunity to cold faces in the public service industry and unwanted familiarity from male companions, but for someone who hasn’t witnessed Eastern Europe before, lost in translation is almost guaranteed, not just literally.
Saying that, familiarity has a positive side to it. People, men and women alike, are super welcoming and warm. Everyone I had a pleasure to meet at Dnepr Fashion Weekend was most friendly, helpful and tentative. The trick here is – when you get to know Ukrainian people, and they get to know you – you are almost their family. Have you ever received homemade (literally, made at home for you) national dish as a present at any of the fashion weeks (or whatever events)? I have, from people I met one day before.
Despite the language barrier, cultural differences and most often different views on the world, Ukraine is a fascinating destination to explore. I’m most sure; I will learn more the next time I come. More about my fashion related observations and Ukrainian designers at Dnepr Fashion Weekend – soon on Fashion Bloc. Stay tuned.