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in the spotlight~Ukraine

Volume 15/Issue 23

Life in Lviv, Ukraine

by Brian Sands

If Prague, Vienna and Budapest leave you with a "Been there / Done that" feeling, then check out Lviv in Ukraine where babushkas outnumber back packers, the Gap is a hole in the ground and a circuit party is what you have after the (occasional) blackout.

Wanting to visit the little Ukrainian village that my grandparents came from, I based myself in Lviv in the western part of the country, about two hours from the Polish border. It turned out to be a good choice.Lviv was founded more than eight hundred years ago and over the centuries has been ruled by the Poles, the Habsburgs' Austro-Hungarian Empire and, of course, the Soviets. Now, its almost 1,000,000 inhabitants are pleased and proud to be part of their own country.

McDonald's has yet to invade Lviv and it retains the feel of a small central European city with its variety of architectural styles (Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassical) the legacy of its former rulers. Wisely, if perhaps out of economic necessity, Lviv is restoring and renovating many of these buildings rather than tearing them down for new ones.

As Lviv emerges from its Soviet era, one can almost see the gears shifting from Communism to Capitalism. Sleek casinos dot the main plaza yet women stand on the street well into the night selling packs of cigarettes to add to their meager income. People can protest outside City Hall, but the butcher still hands them their ribs in a piece of paper that barely covers the meat.

Nearly all the people I met were friendly and helpful even when the language barrier got in the way. Yet in an economy in which most people toil for little wages, some do become a bit surly. For example, in the post office, a young lady was helping me when a woman came up and asked her something. A gentleman translated for me that the reply was "What do I look like, an information booth?" So much for service with a smile.

I had been warned that crime, particularly against tourists, could be a problem. Nonsense! Perhaps after New Orleans no place seems too worrisome, but I felt perfectly safe walking around even into the evening hours.

For me, the biggest problem was the language, or rather the Cyrillic alphabet. It ain't easy trying to read, let alone understand, something when you can't even pronounce half the letters. For instance, once you realize that "PECTOPAH" is pronounced "restoran" the rest is simple and you can go in and get yourself something to eat. Unfortunately, just as I was beginning to recognize letters that look like the number three or a circle with a line through it, it was time to move on.

Brave New World

T o get a true sense of what life in post-Soviet Ukraine is like these days head to Halitsky Market across the street from the 17th century Bernadine Church. Flower sellers, some with gorgeous bouquets, others with merely a few daisies, line the perimeter of this open-air market. Women walk around with trays from which you can purchase a slice of cake. Carts brimming with fresh produce push their way past tables loaded with plastic junk that looks like leftovers from Woolworth's liquidation.

Past the entrance come rows of fine-looking vegetables (potatoes, carrots, onions, beets, etc.) grown in the surrounding verdant countryside. Tasty bananas, apples and oranges can also be found but expect to pay what you would at Schwegmann's. Fresh dill and other herbs, eggs, honey, even pickles are all there to entice the shoppers, including many business people on their way home from work.

And then there's the meat and poultry section where flies buzz around and body parts are offered that I never imagined could be consumed. As in much of Lviv, walk a few yards and the atmosphere goes from first world to second world to third world.

The vendors, too, convey the spectrum of attitudes of Ukrainian society. Many are grandmotherly types wearing babushkas and the history of their generation etched in the lines of their faces. But others are middle-aged men and women or teenagers or children helping their parents. While many just go about their business, some seem truly proud of their wares and their newly found ability to be their own boss. They beam with the ebullience of success.

Others, though, could break your heart. Babushkas who thought the state would take care of them in their old age now stand for hours trying to sell little jars of beans. A man with a grizzled face tries to arrange his pathetic looking herrings to make them as appealing as possible. Walking around Halitsky, this Darwinian paradigm is simultaneously disturbing and fascinating.

If Halitsky represents Ukrainians' new economic freedom, then an early evening visit to local churches revealed their new religious freedom. At the 14th century Roman Catholic Cathedral, a Gothic-styled structure from the Polish era, a fairly standard Mass was being held. Nearby, in the 400 year old Three Saints Chapel of the Uspensky (Assumption) Church, Russian Orthodox worshippers heard ethereally beautiful music as delicate icons looked down upon them.

Catholicism combines with Orthodox forms of worship at the ornately imposing Ukranian Catholic Church of St. Andrew, situated in the Bernadine monastery complex. Here priests come round to the elderly parishioners lined up on their knees awaiting Communion. As many of the aged congregants put their canes aside and bent their heads to the floor, though a part of me was pained to see what this religion asked of the no longer youthful bodies of its flock, I rejoiced at their recently acquired ability to practice their religion as they so chose.

Things to Do, Places to See

Of the many other churches in Lviv, St. Pyatnytsa's with its silver onion dome is the one not to miss. Arriving after a twenty minute walk from the city's center, you enter and are dazzled by the elaborately carved and gilded iconostasis portraying the Saints and the life of Jesus. With sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows, the effect of this masterpiece of Ukrainian Renaissance religious art is breathtaking.

Lviv boasts a variety of museums-fine arts, ethnography, design & crafts, historical, religious, even a functioning pharmacy museum where, since 1735, they have sold bottles of iron-fortified, medicinal "wine." But it's one with the unlikely name of the Museum of Popular Architecture and Life that's the hands down winner.

Located in the vast Shevchenkivsky Hai Park, this outdoor museum features a collection of about 100 old wooden buildings that were reassembled after having been brought here from all over western Ukraine. There are churches, schoolhouses, farm buildings, a smithy, a watermill, a dovecote and many more. Various ones house exhibits on plants and herbs, spinning and cloths, and medicinal plant drying, and the lady guards seem genuinely eager to answer any questions (though if your Ukrainian is rusty you may not get very far).

When I was there a young nun instructed young children outside a rustic church and art students sketched sites for a class project. Covering the entire area can take the better part of a day with certain sections requiring some serious hiking. Bring a picnic and enjoy.

Food and Lodging

There are basically three decent hotels in Lviv. The Grand is elegant but expensive. The Dnister is concretey and a bit away from the main plaza. I stayed at the centrally located Zhorzh ("George") which offers Old World charm at reasonable prices. In the travel agency off the lobby, bubbly Lidia goes out of her way to make a stay in Lviv a pleasant one.

As far as I'm concerned, Ukrainian cuisine can begin and end with vareniki, small boiled dumplings filled with meat, cottage cheese, potato, or, for dessert, cherries (pirogi are their slightly larger cousin); and borscht, properly served full of vegetables, small dumplings and chunks of beef in a beet-based stock seasoned with dill, garlic and bay leaves (think of a Slavic gumbo). Together with bread, these two can make a hearty, delicious meal.

Vareniki, borscht and many other offerings are on the menu at the charming Kafe Koople (vul. Chaykovskoho 37) and in the restaurant of the Grand Hotel where my waiter, originally from Ethiopia, spoke fluent English. At the Stari Royal, next to the Pharmacy Museum, good food mixed with live piano music. I got into a conversation here with a Ukrainian nationalist who would probably hit it off great with David Duke.

Kafe Ratusha, in the city hall's western side, is clearly a favorite with the lunchtime crowds. In this unpretentious cafeteria, a fine five-course meal ran about three dollars. I'm not sure, but when I went back for cherry vareniki, it seemed as though the cashier got confused between her pocket and the cash register. And we think we have problems.


As you might expect, there is a wacky side to life in Lviv (aka Lvov in Russian and Lwiw ("L'view") in Polish). When the hotel runs out of orange juice for breakfast, they substitute Sprite. Ancient Bugs Bunny cartoons are broadcast, dubbed into Ukranian, but you can still hear the English. Outside an elevator a small sign says "3 Person/3 Personnes/3 Persons." Whatever.

Prospekt Svobody is a wide, tree-lined boulevard in the center of the city. On either side are museums, shops and cafes. Men play chess at tables along the way. Kids rollerblade and skateboard in front of the large statue of Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine's most famous poet. A young hooker tries to pick up a guy but she's so drunk she falls off the bench.

Supposedly, along here is where gays go to cruise. But other than a few furtive glances, my gaydar registered little. I recently got an e-mail, however, which said, "The park above the Ukraine House, on Kreschatic, is a meeting place, as is a small 'bar' on Kreschatic close to the train station [about a mile from Svobody]. It was wild!" If you go, good luck trying to find this place.

As for me, my first night in Lviv was a warm summer night. As people danced along the prospekt to a jazz band, I pulled up a chair at a nearby cafe for coffee and cake. When the band launched into "When the Saints Go Marching In" I felt right at home.

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