Creating Friendships as an Expat

I’ve been writing for wordly for about 2 years now and every month out of these 2 years I was thinking about writing this: a piece on friendship. Why was it so hard for me to write? I am not sure. Maybe I didn’t want to offend some people - maybe I was just scared of facing the reality. For now, I’ve decided that the importance of this is higher than my insecurities. Yay for personal liberation! It is a gift for myself and (hopefully) everyone else for wordly’s second birthday.

I always had friends but I felt alone a lot of times even when I was a kid. When I was bullied in my school I still wanted to be my tormentos’ friend. It was very hard for me to imagine being friendless even if it did come with tears brought on by my so-called ‘friends’. It is weird how the urge for remaining social overpowered basics like pride, and self-respect. When you live in a small town you are chained to the friendships you formed when you were a kid. Meeting new people is, of course, possible but when are you planning on hanging out with them if you are going to a different school?

Upon my move to the US I wasn’t really worried about creating friendships. I was just not thinking about it. I had a million things to be nervous about and finding someone to hang out with was far far down on my list. After all: I was about to join the love of my life. Why would I even think about other people?!

Ah, naive girl. Who would have thought that building a healthy life would entail creating friendships with other people, right? To make your fortress stronger you need to create allies. Unless it is a Fortress of Solitude. Then, you know, it’s optional.

Andrew’s friends became my friends. Or to put it better: my acquaintances. I was ‘cool’ for about a second in his friend group mostly because people were relieved (excited?) to see I was, in fact, real. I am assuming all the talking Andrew did before my move here led them to believe I might be fictional. You never know! Maybe it is all a lie and I don’t really exist. Maybe no one exists and we are just a part of some video game. Maybe...alright, that’s enough insanity for one paragraph.

My first Nashville friend found me. Or we found each other and never really let go. Whenever Andrew tried to say ‘B is my friend too’ I would flip since:
a) I was possessive
b) She was the only friend I had

We met at a Returned Peace Corps Volunteers event and even though I have never been a PCV - Andrew was. That means I belong, right? She had just moved to town and was looking for friends. She was waaaay more proactive than I was in forming friendships and I will be forever thankful that she was.

Right now our womance (there is bromance. I am fighting for womance. This has to be a thing) developed into being neighbors and life became exponentially easier. I don’t even know how NOT to live on the same street with my best friend. That’s just crazy talk!

Both of us make sure our friendship work. We put time and effort into us. I understand clearly that friendship, just like any other relationship, is hard work.

That’s probably where I went wrong in the beginning: believing that Sex and the City-type careless friendships stand a chance in the ‘real world’. HA!. Work, time, desire, and effort has to be put into a friendship in order for it to work. As soon as I realized this - it became so much easier to form friendships. Even in my not-so-teenage age.

As we continued to create a bond, one weird thought kept creeping in. Will I be able to have a fruitful and mutually stimulating friendship even when I am not speaking my own language? Of course this wasn’t the first time I had this thought. With Andrew it was different. He had spent 2 years in Ukraine and had an understanding of the Ukrainian soul so to say. My friends didn’t.

There is something about culture that sits deep inside of you and no matter how accepting or open you are - it will forever be a part of you. No matter how good your command of the foreign language is some things will remain unsaid, always. And that’s a big thing to hold on to especially when forming friendships. It is like you are unintentionally lying to everyone around you and feel a bit fraud-ish but you can’t really say anything.

If you ask me if it’s possible to create life-long, honest bonds with people while living in a new county - I will say yes, but nothing is ever 100%.

There are things I will forever crave and won’t stop reminiscing about. Things like sitting in a small soviet-style kitchen with a girlfriend and talking until the wee hours. Drinking wine and poking at cheese. Sneaking an occasional cigarette and opening all the windows so the other roommates won’t find out. Talking and talking and talking about life and sorrows and regrets… It might sound ‘depressing’ but it is like a free version of a shrink.

Maybe that’s why psychiatrists are so popular in the US. Americans tend to not ‘bother’ other people with their problems. Don’t get me wrong: I see both sides of the coin. However, I was also brought up in a different culture and seeing and understanding the other side of the coin doesn’t necessarily mean following it or choosing it as a favorite.

At the end of the day creating friendships as an expat is hard. Creating friendships when you are older is hard. Building bonds with people from a different culture is kind of a base for being an expat. Integration is crucial but how do you integrate without betraying yourself?

About a year ago I reached a point where friendships with Americans were just not completely ‘it’ for me. I needed those late-night kitchen talks. I needed to shed a tear about everything that is happening and I needed a friend to be there and to hear me. I needed a Ukrainian or Russian speaking friend. I needed a save. My attempts at finding someone to be friends with by going to the Nashville Eastern European store did not end up being a success. To this day (even though I shop at that store fairly frequently) they address me in English when I walk in. For them I am gone. I can’t be Ukrainian. I am an American now. However, I was determined to put all of that aside and find me a friend (gosh, the things you have to do when you live in a foreign country). I was ‘fishing’ (I know it sounds gross but that is what I was doing, trust me) for anyone who would be remotely right for the part. After awkward chats with new mommies and grandmas who don’t leave their house unless they are going to the Ukrainian store - I had to admit defeat.

The Universe is a mysterious lady. When you really need something or someone - she will put in a request for you. And so, my request was granted and one day I received a message from a girl named K, who had just moved to Nashville from Kyiv. She could have been a serial killer but I did not care: I needed a native friend. STAT. Full disclosure: she is not a serial killer. Or at least she hasn’t revealed her identity just yet.

Each time I lived in the States I had a couple Ukrainian or Russian speaking friends. I always called them my ‘circumstantial’ friends just because we were bound to communicate somehow because the thirst for the native tongue is real, y’all. Funny enough, my ‘circumstantial’ friends are still some of the closest people in my friend circle. Some of my ‘true’ friends are no longer interested in having a friendship with me. Funny how that worked out.

And here I am, twenty six and no cafeteria to make friends with during lunch hour. I should just create an app for expats looking for friends. Unfortunately, there is no one here to kid: that app will turn into a ‘date a foreigner’ shindig faster than the speed of sound. Or a free immigrant registry for the current administration.

If you live in Nashville I am looking for more friends! Here is what I have to offer:
  • My addiction to coffee
  • Occasional tears of desperation
  • My obsession with Harry Potter
  • Ukrainian chocolates on me
  • Sarcasm and eye rolls
  • Mimosas
  • Candles and notebooks
  • Free advice on any topic (please use this with caution and at your own risk. No responsibility will be taken from the actions that inevitably come out of that advice)
  • I can’t be the muscle of any operation just yet but I can turn on my Ukrainian face and verbally destroy any or all of your enemies
Beware: you will have to take pictures of me at random places ‘cause Instagram (insert eyeroll). But I am an ok human, I swear. And the best part is - I can talk to a tree if I have to in case you were nervous about potential awkward pauses.

Today I am very grateful to have the friends that I do here in Nashville. They are amazing humans who for some reason don’t hate my company. I try my best to be an equal partner in all of my friendships and put in work and time into nourishing something as fragile as human relationships. So, next time you can’t find a person to go do things with - shoot me a text. We will give this whole friendship thing a try.

Olia Hamolia for The Hello Series

Alisa's note: 

Ok, I am seriously excited about this one. I love The Hello Series so much. Thanks to my determination to share the stories of Ukrainian women in the US, I have met so many wonderful humans and Olia sure is one of them. No, we haven't met IRL just yet but I am sure the day will come when we'll sit in the most Instagramable coffee shop and think back to the time when I first sent her a message. Joking aside: this is one hell of a strong woman. I am proud to call her my virtual (for now) friend. Get yourself some ice tea and settle in - this one is a great one. 

 To be honest, this is probably my fourth attempt to write this😂 In fact, I'm so ashamed to admit that Alisa reached to me a couple of months ago with a request to share my story. I was thrilled by the idea and even asked about deadlines promising to send back my text within two weeks. Well, it's better later than never, right? (Great thanks for Alisa's patience😇)

So who am I and what's my story? My name is Olia that funnily rhymes with my last name HamOlia (at least, I think so😂). Mostly, people know me by my Instagram nickname @olka_gamolka. Three years ago I was super lucky to win in a green card lottery from the first attempt.

So a year ago I packed all my Ukrainian life into 4 bags, took my husband and my cat, and flew across the Atlantic. A year ago I saw America for the first time, I admired the beauty of Chicago and I cried a lot of tears cuz this city didn't seem to like me😂 I had endless paper issues (my ID was lost twice and my green card took 6 months to arrive instead of a month), plus unsurprisingly nobody wanted to hire such a hardworking Ukrainian so I was already planning my quiet death from hunger (exaggeration is def my thing😂). Then I felt disappointed by fake people from my native land many many times cuz everybody wanted to "teach" and tell you how little you deserve😑 In two months I left my husband and got divorced, then I finally found myself again and started building my life from the scratch. This spring I found my first apartment just for me and my cat, I bought myself my first bicycle and started living by the Michigan lake in my favorite neighborhood in Chi. Almost a month ago I even found courage to start my own tiny project in Instagram - since the moment I got to know I won in the lottery I've dreamt to promote Ukrainian designers in the USA. So now I hope step by step I can make my dream come true🙈

Being a one-year-old immigrant, what can I say? Life in the USA isn't a piece of cake as many people say and America isn't a place for the weak. I still cannot understand why so many bloggers try to paint a pretty picture of a trouble-free immigrant life in the USA where straight in the airport you get a bag with million bucks, a free Jeep, iPhone and many other things😂 Still, looking back at all the 💩 I went through, I am truly grateful for everything cuz it made me realize who I am and what I am capable of! In fact, only when I moved to the USA I managed to get myself together and understand my aims and life goals. I learnt how to appreciate what you have and simply enjoy life😂 Here I met my people and learnt to expect less from others (still working on that😂) So I can say that my story has just started and I hope you will hear about me with my Ukrainian shops nationwide in the USA😂 (I know I'm very shy)

*The Hello Series features stories in their original form written by Ukrainian expats living in the USA*

Tattoos: Ukraine vs. USA

If you know me, you know that I have a few tattoos I dearly love. I am also planning on a few more and don’t really set myself up with limits as to how many. I love having art on my body - I love having pieces that are meaningful and those that are just for fun. Tattoos are the way of expression and the more grown up you get - the less ways of that expression you get. For me personally - it is crucial to keep it alive.

Growing up in a small-town Ukraine tattoos were always a taboo so now, when I go back, I always need to sort of prepare people for the fact that I have ink on my body. You would think ‘my body - my choice’, but then I would know that you clearly did not grow up in a small town where your neighbors are waiting for your visit each year so that they can have something to gossip about. And trust me: I gave them plenty in the last couple of years. From becoming a flight attendant to getting yet another tattoo: I guess I am glad to be of service to our elderly.

Circling back to tattoos. First time I ever saw a large quantity of people who clearly did not all go to prison in order to get one (a constant misconception of the small-town folk) was at the Wet’n’Wild in Florida and I was 16. Whether it because we had to stand in line for what felt like hours or because that was what I needed to see at that moment - I will never know. What I do know is that normal people like you and me are totally ok with getting inked. And not all of them have been to prison otherwise my host family wouldn’t have brought me to this water park. Or so I hope.

I started thinking about my first tattoo back then. I couldn’t get it in the States, ‘cause I wasn’t 18 yet and I was a bit nervous about the quality of tattoo artists back home. In college I was already determined to get a tattoo sooner rather than later (so glad I didn’t. I thought about getting the most generic first-page-on-Google stuff I would have regretted later on). By the time I moved to Kyiv I was already researching tattoo artists.

I don’t know why I never got one in Kyiv. One of my tattoos will be done by a Ukrainian artist, I promise. The capital of Ukraine is getting less and less prejudiced about body art by the minute and a lot of my local friends have multiple tattoos. I am so happy to see that, ‘cause with each inked arm, leg, shoulder, or ankle people are getting more and more open to the fact that humans are all different. And different does not mean wrong.

I will probably never forget the first time I got a tattoo. It was a small thing - my wedding ring - but I was so nervous! It took what felt like 15 minutes (nothing compared to my longest one so far: an hour and 40 minutes). It was such a rush! Of course, I was getting something on my body that proclaimed my eternal love to my husband but it was also the thrill of stepping outside those invisible lines we sometimes put ourselves in. And, needless to say, after that I was hooked.

The common questions Ukrainians will ask me about my tattoos are: How bad did it hurt? How long did it take?
The common questions Americans will ask me about my tattoos are: What does this one mean? Who was the artist?

One of the things that I find very ironic is how socially acceptable it is for American people to have a bunch of tattoos but then if you want to work in a ‘professional’ environment you have to cover most of them up. I understand that I don’t speak for most of businesses but in general: yeah, you have to cover things up. I had to cover everything up when I was flying, including my wedding ring tattoo.

On the other hand, a country like Ukraine - where ink is just now starting to become acceptable is totally cool with you having your art out and about (again, for the most part).

My roommates were getting married a few years ago and I was lucky enough to be invited and present at the ceremony, The lady who was marrying them was tall, with a very slick updo, and wore this sky-blue colored dress, looking like World Peace herself. At some point during the ceremony she had to turn around and we saw that the dress was backless (gorg!). We also saw a giant tattoo of a snake that ran along her back! We all chuckled, just because of her literal business in the front - party in the back, but man-oh-man it was amazing.

All that to say: some countries are less accepting of some things. Ten years ago having a tattoo in Ukraine meant you most likely served some time. Now you can set people off to a happy live together without giving your tattoo a second thought. As long as your tattoo doesn’t offend anyone - why would you want to hide it? In the US I thought the year of 2016 was the year of being offended - maybe it is time to move forward?

Here are some inspo artists for ya!


^ Female artists are ROCKING Kyiv’s tattoo scene, by the way. #GirlPower


Go get inked if you want to. Or don’t. We live in a free country.

Valeriia for The Hello Series

Alisa's note: 

I am so happy to be the 'keeper' of yet another wonderful expat story. If you know me well you are familiar with my social media addiction. I accepted it. She is a good friend now. My addiction and I grab coffee together, we shop together - she never really leaves me. A few months ago she kind of got bored with me (I was stressed and no fun I guess) so she led me to the great world of the Instagram, where I discovered Valeriia. This universe is rather tiny so we instantly connected and realized we have a few friends in common even though we've never met! This kind, wonderful, talented, and hella smart lady is sharing her story with you today. Please show her a lot of love. 

James Schaffer @jmy.jam
Hey yo, let’s get to know each other! I was asked by wonderful wordly Alisa to share my little American story and I will gladly do this on this rainy Pennsylvania Sunday night (it sounds depressing but I have Ben & Jerry’s salted caramel blondie ice-cream, so I’m okay here, thanks for asking).

My name is Valeriia, or Valerie, or Lera, or LRK (coming from Lerka) – whichever one you can pronounce, I don’t care that much, Starbucks people prepared me for a lot in this life lol. I’m 23, coming from Zhovti Vody, Dnipropetrovska oblast in Ukraine. I came to the US when I was 21 for my Master’s degree in Law (LL.M.) at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. It is a one-year Masters program for international lawyers (I graduated with Bachelors in Law from Kyiv Polytechnic Institute the same summer I came to the States). 

My first year here was a stressful kaleidoscope of unwanted events – law school was hard, my legal English sucked so I had a feeling I’m learning this language all over again. I didn’t have much friends, it was hard to link with local people of my age, and my first attempt to start dating a guy resulted in a “I thought you wanted to hook up” type of conversation. I felt like the world is against me, I missed Kiev and my wonderful creative friends the most. The end of my law school year decided that I’m not having enough “fun” so my body gave me anxiety and panic attacks, which was quite a surprise. Of course, body, thanks a lot, that was fun.

So graduation was a great accomplishment for me, I was proud of myself going through that hard year almost as much as going through 6 hours tattoo session on my ribs (that hurt about the same as law school lol). Then I started an internship at a law firm, and they hired me as a paralegal. It was a beginner’s dream job – huge law firm with offices in over 8 major cities in the US, with an office on the 30th floor with beautiful downtown view – as Biggie Smalls said, “it was all a dream”. Or Drake with his “started from the bottom now we here”, haha. So now I’m here – starting my legal career, meeting amazing local creative people. And I feel blessed to be a social person who got to meet couple “right” people in the city. My great friend RB, an event manager, whose clothes brand I modeled for, hooked me up with a lot of great DJs, photographers, designers, producers, etc etc. It’s great going out and randomly meeting cool people you know everywhere, I love Pittsburgh for that. 

Right now I’m working on my visa extension, modeling during my free time, painting, riding my bike, blogging on my IG (it’s @chillbaby_babychill if you’re interested) and still getting used to American mentality. As they taught us to think during FLEX (btw, I’m 2010 FLEX alumna, so hi to the FLEX fam) – “not bad, not good, just different”. America is a great country with a huge variety of crazy opportunities that you do not even expect to happen to you. It’s important to stay strong and positive to go through hard times, because good times are not that far – you gotta be prepared for all the blessings.

*The Hello Series features stories in their original form written by Ukrainian expats living in the USA*

Birthdays: Ukraine vs. USA

Happy Birthday to me! Yep, it has indeed been another year of my life. It’s funny how my brain stopped registering my birthdays after my 18th one. It is almost like the one after that never happened. Maybe they didn’t - maybe this is a part of the TV Show where Netflix asks you Are You Still Watching? Existential crisis aside - we are all going to die one day so there is that.

Growing up I had the best birthdays on the street. No, I am serious: my birthday parties had scenarios and well thought out games and fun activities. Oh, you think I was that Type A person since the early age? Please! I was spoiled rotten from the very beginning, so the responsibility of kickass parties were on my mom’s todo list every year. I think, at some point, my grandma was the one helping me pick the right outfit. I am telling you: I had the whole team of highly skilled professionals in house and it was rather nice.

My usual birthday parties included guests (duh), a table filled with delicious home cooked food (by a masterful chef, aka my grandma), different generic games like ‘who can cut the gift from the string of gifts while wearing a blindfold’ (child safety 101: do not try to replicate in real life), and some more serious games like ‘can you draw Alisa without looking at her?’ Wow, my birthday parties were too much… #ThanksMom

The thing that bugged me the most about my amazing parties is that there was a lot of planning involved on our part, a lot of party favors for my guests, a ton of prepped food… All my guests had to do is to show up and ask their parents to pick up a gift. At the end of every party my family was exhausted, I was happy, my guests were waiting for the next one.

I believe around my 14th birthday we decided to stop with the whole party extravaganza and do something small just for us. It was a nice change for me and I think even a nicer one for my mom and grandma. My birthdays when I was in college were stressful: I always wanted to celebrate with people but since I had to organize everything, purchase and cook food, and pay for the entertainment - it was always a stressful day, followed by the next day where I counted up my expenses and slowly felt my hairs turning gray.

When I first came to the US and was introduced to the concept where on your birthday you are actually the one being attended to, I was thrilled. My first birthday in the States (I was turning 17) was not what I would have wanted but I enjoyed it nonetheless. You see, I was leaving the United States the next morning and was 99% sure I won’t ever be coming back (haha!). My high school friends were bringing me toys and cards, giving me sweets and telling me how awesome I am without me giving them anything in return. I didn’t have to cook for the whole school or share a birthday cake. It felt like I was celebrated. It felt like people were happy I was born that day and not just happy to have a three-course meal on me.

I think the idea of celebrating the person is so pure and so right. My last few years in Ukraine a lot of my friends understood and accepted this concept (hence, they were my friends). In the last three years I’ve been living here, I spent my birthdays by receiving love and care and not slaving away in the kitchen (ok- ok, ordering take out). I am still hinting at Andrew that I never had a surprise party thrown for me… He says that it is silly to ask for one and maybe he is right. I don’t know what ideal birthday looks like and I don’t think it exists. But as long as I am surrounded by the people I love it’s always gonna be a darn good day. 

Go hug your mothers today instead of commenting ‘Happy Birthday’ on this post. You can always come back and do that later.

8 Things About American Culture That Still Baffle Me
I have been living in the US for a little while now and I am sinking into the ‘routine’ of an average American. It remains a mystery to me whether I like it or not but life is moving and if I am not moving with it then what am I doing? Existential crisis aside, there are still some things in American culture that puzzle me and I hope this never goes away (once they do I believe I will be able to call myself ‘assimilated’). But for now, I am just confused by some of these things. So, if you know the answer to why these things are so hard to grasp - please let me know. I am all shades of confused over here and it is not a pretty color on me.

1. Sugar in Bread
Now, bread is life. Trust me when I say: I can give up chocolate but bread? NO WAY. #CarbsWontLetMeGo. If I am being completely honest - I can give up American bread in a heartbeat but not my perfect Ukrainian one. Why you ask? Well, sorry, but your bread is not tasty and SURPRISE! American bread has sugar in it. Hm… why? So that you can get addicted? If someone can explain to me why is it necessary to have sugar in your bread I will send you a postcard.

2. Free Water in Every Restaurant
I know, I know - it is just tap water. But it is a thought that counts, right? And the fact that you will stay hydrated and you won’t have to pay for it! I honestly am enjoying this ‘feature’ of the American life so so much. When go back to Ukraine and have to pay for my water it actually makes me a bit mad. Granted, you wouldn’t want to drink Ukrainian tap water so I guess it is understandable. I am sure if I ask politely for some tap water in a Ukrainian restaurant they wouldn’t mind bringing out that glass of cancer to me.

3. Consumerism/Choices
When I need to buy something out of the ordinary (like a new water bottle for example) I am petrified. You want to know why? Because I will spend hours on hours on end at the store or online because of the numerous choices I am offered: the water bottle where you can keep fruits at the bottom, the one with a cute design, the simple one, the plastic one, the glass one, the one with a handle, the one that screams out my name when I pick it up… The longer I live here the more it becomes clear to me why people have so much of the same stuff here: they just can’t make a damn choice because it is too difficult to settle on one.

4. The non- GMO Products Obsession
I can’t even talk about this one. Really, America? Ukraine has been on this topic for years now. Thank you for not being so proactive and realizing that GMO is bad for you until a couple of years ago. Makes this Ukrainian very proud of her country (I mean, I am always proud but this ‘extra’ doesn’t hurt).

5. The Throw Pillow Obsession
I don’t like throw pillows. There, I said it. I mean, they are cute and of course I have some in my house but they all serve a specific purpose: some are covering the parts of my couch I don’t want people to see and I have one in my guest room cause y’all are obsessed with throw pillows! Apparently, the more throw pillows you have on your bed in America - the fancier you are… Ok, so when I sleep over in the houses that have 25 thousand throw pillows on the beds you know what I do? I take them off and put them on the floor. They stay there for the duration of my stay, blocking my way to the bed. Tell me this: why? Why do Americans think that throw pillows are the stuff? Please tell me - maybe I am missing out?! Don’t want to catch any FOMO.

6. Insurance Craze
How many insurance packages does an average American have? Oh, I don’t know, let’s count:
a) Health Insurance
b) Dental
c) Vision
d) Car Insurance
e) Rental Insurance
f) Life Insurance
Am I missing something? COME ON. I can’t live in this country unless I have a Medical insurance. I can’t drive a vehicle unless I have car insurance. I can’t rent an apartment unless I have renter’s insurance… You can read more about my stand on American Healthcare here but oh, my goodness I sometimes feel like this country is a giant ICU. Not that it is bad to be protected and insured - it is the part where it is mandatory that bugs my free spirit.

7. Free Stuff
It is astonishing to me how far companies and organizations will go in order to keep their customers satisfied. I understand that this is all a great marketing strategy (when you go to a coffee shop and you take a sticker with their logo you are most likely going to place it on some surface. Someone will most likely ask you about it. ‘The word of mouth’ at its finest). There is an Art Crawl in Nashville happening every month. Some galleries provide free wine and hors d’oeuvres. For free. Just because. Just because you came. And also because you are going to remember that gallery over any other. ‘Cause food. We always buy in for food.

8. The Sense of Community
We had Andrew’s brother visiting us and my neighbor across the street waited on her front porch for me to come home so that she could tell me that there was a strange man on my property earlier that morning. She was rather disappointed that is was just Matt and not some juicy gossip but my point is: the neighborhood cares. There is a scene in the movie Footloose (2011) where they decided to do the dance and the whole community is decorating the barn? Yes, that is exactly how I feel about the community closeness of community in America. It maybe a little Hollywood-y but I think the heart is there and I think it is beautiful.

So there you go! Were you surprised by my list? Are there things that should be making me all puzzled and confused? Which aspects make you question culture? Let me know in the comments below!

Top 8 Ukrainian Artists You Need to Listen To Today
All opinions in this post are mine. I am no music critic but I sure love to talk about stuff. So, if you don’t agree with me or think that I missed out on some amazing Ukrainian artists - please leave me a comment below. Thanks!

The Ukrainian music scene has always been some sort of a Narnia to me. Let me explain: I haven’t had any friends growing up who were into Ukrainian music specifically - we kinda all listened to anything and everything. We called Britney Spears our queen and it all went downhill from there. However, there were some songs that stuck with me since childhood and I enjoyed them greatly. The Ukrainian language is just so melodic that given the right hands of a talented artist it can flourish even more. Plus Ukrainian traditional instruments are rad as well. You combine two and two together and voila! amazing product. Unfortunately, that did not seem to work in Ukrainian show biz. What people ended up hearing on the radio and on TV was rather basic and did not involve too much artistry. Yet, thanks to YouTube and the word of mouth (also thanks to being an expat cause when you miss home you have this need to listen to something familiar and you discover some awesome gems) I re-indulged into the Ukrainian music scene...and I was very pleasantly surprised with it. So, without rambling for too long, here are 8 artists I think you should definitely listen to.

8. Okean Elzy (an oldie but goodie)
One of the most successful Ukrainian bands, if I may say so myself. They have been around since 1994 and had been supplying the nation with some badass Ukrainian rock. Growing up I never really understood the obsession people had over Okean Elzy but that was only because I was young and carefree. Their lyrics are incredible and super touching. Here is an oldie from their 2005 album Gloria called Без Бою (Bez Boyu aka Without a Fight):

7. Pianoboy (aka Dmytro Shurov)
So, once upon a time Dmytro Shurov was a keyboard player for the one and only Okean Elzy. Then he went solo. While working at Kyiv Post one of my assignments was to interview Pianoboy. The aura of this human is so strong and pure - it was a pleasure talking to him. Plus we bonded over our foreign exchange past. If you are interested in the things I talked to Dmytro about - here is a link to our interview. He sure is charming and helluva talented musician.

6. The Hardkiss
This is a relatively new band (formed in 2011) with the lead singer Yuliya Sanina. I think the reason people are so mesmerized by The Hardkiss is because when they stepped onto the Ukrainian music scene they were loud, mildly aggressive, and very confident. They opened for Hurts and Solange Knowles in Kyiv (sadly, not the touring openers but still!). The style they are carrying is more of a progressive pop-ish but definitely something Ukraine lacked.

5. Dakhabrakha
The genre this amazing quartet is performing in is called Ethno-Chaos. Do you even need an explanation why I love them? ETHNO-CHAOS. That’s basically the title of my autobiography (not yet published but we are working on it). I am not even going to talk about them for long - here is the magic that they did for the famous NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert:

4. Boombox
It is like a Ukrainian funk/rock/pop band that everyone listens to but no one admits that they do, you know? The guilty pleasure. Wow, when these dudes appeared on the scene - they made a boom. However, before we go any further - they are terrible live. Well, their lead singer is. He makes it a point to not make too much effort during his shows I guess? I only saw them live once but have heard the same sentiments from my friends. Nevertheless, here is one of my favs (a collab with Pianoboy):

3. Fontaliza
How did I discover Fontaliza? Well, all of my cool friends were listening to them. Like, those friends who you can’t really believe you are friends with ‘cause they are waaay cooler than you are? Yeah, so I checked these guys out. Turns out: Ukraine can do alternative music! They are also from Eastern Ukraine which makes my love for them almost instantaneous. Check it for yourself!

2. Jamala (these are in no particular order - did I mention that?)
JAMALA. Oh boy - where do I start. I mean, one listen to her incredible voice gives me chills. As in right now Jamala became a strong voice for a generation. You see, she is Crimean-Tatar and if you are reading my blog you probably know what that means with Crimea being illegally annexed and all… But! This year Jamala won Eurovision with this song! Ukraine will be hosting the competition in Kyiv this May. Just have a listen:

1. Dakh Daughters
It is not even a band it is a freak-cabaret. Yep, you read that correctly. Listening to their recordings is cool but nothing (and I mean NOTHING) can beat seeing them live… These 7 girls have magic powers. I was very honored to meet them (they were headlining a festival I helped organize). All of them are super humble, super smart, and super talented. Honestly, a part of me was trying to get as much of the same air as them as possible on the odd chance I will get at least an atom of their awesomeness. So far it is not working. But I will keep you posted.

@I really do not remember who took this...

And there you go! Hopefully this lesson on Music Education - a Musication! - did not go to waste. If you want to read more pieces like this - let me know. If I left someone super important out - let me know as well. This is the Internet - you can be rude without much consequence. So don’t be shy. Love y’all!

Nevertheless, She Persisted

I did this interview at the end of January while visiting my hometown of Kostyantynivka, Ukraine. I discovered Natalka Sosnytska by the means of the almighty Instagram. Her enchanting photos, the fact that she lived in my hometown AND was a native Ukrainian speaker just kind of blew me away. I followed her stuff for a hot minute (fangirled a little too). One morning she posted something about opening up a Free Space in Kostyantynivka and how challenging but rewarding working on that project was. A free space is kind of like a university of nontraditional studies, a place where you can come and listen to a lecture on project management or enjoy a night of board games. Basically a Mecca of progressive-thinking humans that was missing from my little town.

Natalka grew up in a Ukrainian-speaking family, a rarity in Kostyantynivka. After graduating high school she packed up and decided to start her college adventure in Kyiv. At the end of 2012 she came back to our hometown to help out her parents with their businesses and her little sister that was just born. You see, both of her parents are entrepreneurs which led to Natalka opening up her own store as well. When 2014 rolled around and the war happened, things were gloomy, especially for the people who are Ukrainian speakers and are well-known around town. Threats kept piling in, their businesses were robbed. Two cars were stolen as well. Natalka’s parents had to move from Kostyantynivka. The businesses had to be divided between Kostyantynivka and Kyiv. Natalka had no choice but to stay here and take care of what was left.

“My whole life I wanted to build some sort of art school for children, not something soviet and strict but rather something modern, where kids can learn about modern art. Last year when I returned to Kostyantynivka I saw that there is a giant need for unity. The youth did not have access to any opportunities. When the road to Donetsk was closed [an occupied city about 30 miles from my hometown - edit] the alternative that our youth was left with was literally to do nothing. Unless your family could afford to take you to Kyiv or somewhere to travel there weren’t any opportunities here in this town”.

Last summer Natalka met another badass girl and their journey to opening up their own space started. Sofiya Pylypenko was no stranger to social work and community development. She singlehandedly wrote a project directed on beautifying one of the parks in our town. She successfully got funding. She was 14 at a time.

These two wonderful women, who didn’t seem to have much in common, were united by a selfless dream: creating a better place for the youth in their hometown. Even writing this is making me misty-eyed. In my small politically divided town creating something like this is not only difficult - it is flat out dangerous.

The first event they organized together was a salsa lesson in the park with a little dance at night. Instead of a ‘few strangers’ that the girls thought would show up - over 300 people participated. The town clearly was thirsty for young progressive energy and Natalka and Sofiya were ready to give it to them. They followed up the event with a movie in the park and again, hundreds showed up. After this people did not only hear about these ladies - they eagerly helped.

Having all of these ideas for events and trainings required something bigger than a park in the city. “We agreed on the same thing: we wanted to have some kind of space where we can implement all of our stupid, sometimes awesome, ideas, work on them, touch them up, polish those diamonds of ideas a bit and release them to the public”. Looking for a space to create all of this was not easy without any budget for leasing. However, that didn’t stop Natalka. This girl walked into our Deputy Mayor’s office and demanded he listen to her. This girl, who is naturally shy when she meets new people had guts to insist he listens to her. This girl, dagainst bureaucracy and all odds talked the Deputy Mayor into giving them a space for free. The groundwork was completed.

Then came sleepless nights of writing grant proposals and trying to figure out the budget, the concept, and the gist. The Lviv Education Foundation and USAID came to the rescue and granted Natalka the finances to open up a free space in Kostyantynivka, Ukraine.

The grand opening of ‘Druzi (Friends). Free Space’ happened in January and Andrew and I were lucky enough to witness it. Natalka and her team were excited, nervous, and hopeful. Judging by how many people showed up for the opening I knew that this is going to be a success. Students, moms and dads, teachers, social workers, poets, journalists - it seemed like everyone wanted to be a part of the opening and was eager to help in any way possible. Druzi did not get all the funding before their opening date and did so much more work after we left. When you are around those people you feel like there is nothing that you can’t do. Their laughs, their ideas, and their attitudes are infectious. They are the future.

I want to thank each and every volunteer who helped Druzi and Natalka. Some of them do not even know how big of a movement and change they are creating and how completely mesmerizing it is to watch them take their future by the horns. You can learn more about Druzi on their website You can follow them on Instagram and Facebook.
If you would like to drop by and write a couple of nice words to Natalka herself you can follow her Instagram here.

8 Reasons Why Nashville is a Good City for an Expat
There are a lot of sides to Music City USA that I continue to discover. It has been a little over two years and I have been slowly but surely warming up to this place. Not everything is great (point me to the place where everything is and I will pack my bags) but overall: Nashville is a rather nice place to be. Of course there are downsides like constantly rising rent/house prices, people who forgot the Civil War happened, drivers who get scared every time it barely rains but I have come to love it here. And I will tell you why.

1. The climate 
Although Nashville is technically The South it gets cold here too. And trust me: you feel it. The summers are excruciatingly hot but hey, your chances of wearing shorts and t-shirts for Christmas are very high. And I don’t know about you but I will take this over a lot of things.

2. There is a river 
Yeah it is a little dirty and unless you want to lose a limb you will be strong enough to swim in it. For this girl, however, water is everything. I know I can’t just jump in but it is so calming to look outside my work window and see the water glistening in the sun. Total Zen.

3. You can continue to be a snowflake
Although Nashville tries to be as international as it possibly can, this town has some growing up to do. Walking around the streets of downtown Nashville you will probably not hear Ukrainian or Russian. I didn’t. This one has a flip side too - sometimes you feel totally alone but people take interest in you! Well, those who know where Ukraine is.

4. The city is very ambitious
You are surrounded by talented artists (mostly musicians) who are trying to ‘make it’. It is infectious to be friends with someone who is invested in their dreams and are working hard to achieve them. Makes you kind of look at your life and get depressed. I mean, re-evaluate.

5. Transport
To start with: the transport system in the US sucks and we all know it. However, if choosing your place of living strategically you can actually get around on buses with minimal to no damage in Nashville. If worse comes to worst you can always spend 4 hours at the DMV and get your driver’s license. You know, it is up to you.

6. It is a party city aka welcome to Nashvegas
and all that this entails. There is no time to be down in this town - this is Music City USA and we mean it. Live music starts at 11am and goes into the night. You can find your country stuff on Broadway or go to East Nashville to enjoy a different music scene. I can’t stress it enough - if not in cultures Nashville is hella diverse in music.

7. The hidden gems 
I knew about a Ukrainian store (alright, alright, it is Russian and Eastern European market but I choose to call it a Ukrainian store ‘cause it is owed by a Ukrainian family. There you have it) and that was a nice bonus of moving here. However, I recently discovered a kickass Asian market (which sells Ukrainian chocolate…?) and I am sure there are other little spots I am not aware of as in now. Isn’t it exciting?

8. The city is a little blue dot in a red state Not to get political but it is nice to be surrounded by open-minded people who know that love is love is love is love. My own little island of sanity of like-minded people. Diversity is at this party as well. It is pretty rocking.

Expat Homecoming: Year #2

Andrew and I went back to Ukraine! After freezing our butts off for a little over two weeks we are back in the States and it is time to reflect. It was a good trip, filled with ‘You’ve gotten so fat’ and ‘When are you having kids’ moments I am trying to erase from my memory. You know, the usual.

I wanted to talk about something that has been on my mind for awhile. I will ambitiously call it ‘a pace of life’. It is true in every country - you don’t work you don’t eat. People work their asses off just to put food on the table: Ukrainians and Americans alike. I hear a lot from my US friends and colleagues about a work-life balance and how hard it sometimes is to maintain/find a job that allows you to have it. For the longest time I wasn’t entirely sure what they were talking about. Ukraine is more simple I guess in that department. You go to work 5 days a week, you come home, you do stuff on the weekend. Or at least this is what I was used to. Time after work on a weekday is the time to be home with your family, watch TV, read, do whatever. I guess Ukrainians do not have that need to constantly be moving - we know when to stop and reflect.

Andrew and I sometimes argue when I get into that Ukrainian state of mind. It is not that my people don’t do anything fun - this fun has a special time and this time can’t interfere with work or family/alone time. Granted, it might just be me. In the States it feels like if you come home after work and just relax - you are wasting time, you are considered lazy. A lot of my friends here devote time to their hobbies or side businesses after their main jobs. In Nashville especially - you are a musician, you worked on your day job now you are out to create music, write lyrics, or rehearse. I do think this is great - I just don’t want to be considered lazy if I don’t do something like this. This stigma just feels unfair when in reality, I do what I need to do: enjoy my life, put food on the table, pay rent, travel. Smaller things fulfill me. I have side gigs and go out whenever I have something to do and someone to do it with. However, time with myself to me is never wasted time. I am my own biggest investment.

There was a lot of eating, sleeping, and walking around involved when we were in Ukraine. Small town life is so much different from what we now are used to. It gets ‘boring’ sometimes but hey, so many people across the world do not have the luxury to just sit and read for a few hours. The thing is: I feel like Americans are running a marathon - Ukrainians are here for a stroll. And once again, I am here not knowing which one is better. Should there even be one to be ‘better’? As always I am sticking to my song: the magic of being an expat is to have a chance to see two cultures, nurture the things you like in them and let go of the things you don’t. Travel opens up your eyes to what there is in the world - expat living gives you a chance to dissect a culture.

It was a good trip. Hell, I got a new dress out of it! This time around it was almost impossible to leave. I don’t know if this is because Andrew was with me and I didn’t have to miss him or because I am getting older and more sentimental. Or just ‘cause we always want what we don’t have.

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