Category Archives: Transportation

Train Stations and Supermarkets in Ukraine

First published in the Ukrainian Weekly, July 1, 2012:

L’viv-born economist, Ludwig Von Mises made the case that capitalism forces people, even enemies, to cooperate and serve one another. This is so evident, we often fail to see it.

Consider buying something at a store. It is typical for both customer and cashier to say “thank you.” This mutual expression of gratitude reflects how both parties benefit. The customer receives his product, and the cashier, on behalf of the owner, the customer’s money. They are both happier and the world becomes a better place.

The mutual benefit only occurs for businesses relying on voluntary patronage. It doesn’t exist where people profit from tax dollars — for example, at the train station. This brings me to my personal experience buying tickets in Kyiv’s “Vokzal.”

I was been told you can buy tickets online in Ukraine, but the website looks confusing. You must register. Also, after you buy them online, you go to the train station and cut in front of the many exhausted travelers waiting on long lines just to receive online-purchased train ticket. I can’t imagine doing that. So, for my stay in Ukraine, I’ve resorted to standing on lines at train stations to purchase tickets.

For my non-Ukrainian readers, let me clarify how horrible this experience is: The station is perpetually crowded and smells like body odor. By my estimate, the average wait in Kyiv is thirty minutes. You have to demonstrate your capitulation to the system by stooping to speak through a little portal to the impatient clerk. You have no idea what train tickets are available or how much they cost until you get there. A decision must be made the instant you get the information and there doesn’t seem to be any way to get an overview of what’s available.

You ask for Thursday night, they tell you, very rapidly what’s leaving on Thursday night, which types of cabins, times of travel and cost. It’s an awfully large amount of information to process quickly, especially for non-native speakers and especially if you’re a nice person sensitive to the impatience of the people behind you.

It gets worse.

On a recent visit to the train station a young man asked to cut in front of me, just as I reached the front of the line. Perhaps he had bought a ticket online. “Thirty seconds,” he said. I nodded. Good manners are only a weakness in a bureaucratically managed enterprise.

He was indeed finished in thirty seconds, but a lady sensed her opportunity and asserted her place behind the young man. I told her she couldn’t cut, and even posted my arm, but she snuck around my other side as soon as he finished.

She jumped straight into a heated argument with the clerk. The clerk refused something but she wouldn’t accept it and kept arguing. Eventually, the clerk put a cardboard sign in the window that read “Technical break,” dropped the venetian blinds, and left her booth, switching off the light.

This shouldn’t have caught me by surprise.

Various times are printed on the glass of the booth. Though they weren’t labeled, I’ve since learned these were the technical breaks. Each booth has five or six technical breaks during the day and they range from ten to sixty minutes in duration. This one was supposed to be twenty minutes long, and I decided to wait it out rather than move to a different line. She returned on time, but then spent five minutes counting money with another lady. When I finally had her attention, she told me that nothing was available on the day I wanted to travel, or the day after that. I couldn’t make an immediate decision about what to do, so I left empty handed.

Most Ukrainians would probably think: “Of course, that it how it works at the train station. That is how it always worked, and that is how it will always be until the end of time. There is no alternative.”

One must be able to imagine progress before achieving it. Imagine a supermarket. I shop at the Mega Market near Olympiski Stadium metro station. In fact, I went there just to cheer myself up after my failure at the train station. I like choices. I like polite people.

At Mega Market, I don’t have to ask which products are available. They are advertised with beautiful pictures and sometimes, attractive people hand me leaflets as I wander the aisles at my own leisurely pace. I get free samples. I can touch, hold and even smell things before I buy them. The biggest miracle of all, however, may be the checkout.

There is no glass between me and clerk. I don’t have to stoop. They smile and demonstrate good manners. They never take technical breaks. A girl only leaves her station when her replacement arrives. Even if they did take breaks, it wouldn’t matter because the lines are always short. Do train station bureaucrats stumble through supermarkets in utter awe? Do they consider the managers there to be super-human geniuses?

Economist Frederick Hayek distinguished between two economies in every society. There is the voluntary economy, where exchanges rely on voluntary patronage, and there is the coercive economy — so called because it runs on taxes which are collected coercively. For the sake of good manners, peace, and making the most of the little time each of has on this Earth, we should remember how we are treated by each.

Luhansk-Lviv train for Easter

I bought a bag of “warm, fresh” vareneky for 12 uah ($1.50) from a lady who boarded during a brief stop. On this trip, I spoke with my fellow kupe passengers. Ivan had been traveling all the way from Luhansk and was already reclined comfortably on his bedroll when I boarded &entered the kupe in Kyiv. He said they make better vareneky here in the west, that their dough isnt right out east, that he was traveling home for Easter, and that the mentality in the east leaves young people asking for free education, a pension, free heathcare from the government, while in the west they ask only to be left alone. Interesting to me that its noticed, though Id heard almost the exact opposite before.

The kid in my kupe was so noisy & unruly that a lady came from another kupe to argue with his mom. I’m told we were delayed near Broviv when a passenger fell down between the cars and was killed. I was sleeping the whole time we were halted. A second official said “they’re not telling us what happened… maybe its Spring repairs that caused the delay.”

From Kyiv with Love

Missed my train to L’viv. Afer a brief search for the proper platform, I arrived just as my trai departed.

Partial refund on the ticket. Next train at 1:20am.

I’m now sitting in McDonalds browsing via Kinde.

When I get back, I plan to write and work like my life depends on it.

Peculiarities

I like discovering foreign details of day-to-day life, different approaches to similar things. After two weeks, I’m already ceasing to notice them, perhaps a sign of my increasing comfort & assimilation into Kyiv life, so I thought I’d detail them before they’re entirely forgotten.

Peculiar:

1. Light switches are in strange places. It’s like a big Easter egg hunt, except the reward is being able to see.

2. There are many “Solon’s of Beauty,” which struck me as an adorable turn of language.

3. Groceries are usually marked with big signs that say “продукти” or “Products.”

4. Lots of women walk around on impossibly high heels, especially when scaling steep, cobblestone streets.

5. There are lots and lots of Sushi restaurants, including at least two different franchises. Even some coffee shops serve sushi. When I visited Kyiv for the first time I stared, and stared at a sign that read “суші.” I sounded it out, “su-shi,” but could not believe it. It’s a word I never expected to see in Cyrillic letters. I crept closer, crossing a street and peering into the window, confirming it was, in fact, a sushi restaurant. As much as I like sushi, I told myself, you’d have to be crazy to consume raw fish in Ukraine. That was then.

6. In one products store, I only saw 15, 20 and 25% milk. (The box of 15% makes a cameo appearance in an earlier post.) I thought that was the standard, but I’ve since discovered bottles of 0%, 1%, 2%, and the like. So this really doesn’t count.

6-again (since the last one didn’t count). Ads very frequently appear on my cell phone. My phone doesn’t vibrate or ring, and the ads aren’t stored as text messages, though they look like them. The ads are in Russian, which I struggle with, but I can understand enough to know that some of them are for ring tones.

7. Metro tokens are plastic.

8. In many places, cars park diagonally on the sidewalk. Occasionally, where they can’t pull directly from the street onto the sidewalk, they drive amid pedestrians for a bit.

9. The cost of food is surprisingly high. I usually pay the equivalent of $4-$7 per meal for eating out when it’s nothing fancy, $15 for sushi. For a country whose average annual income is usually reported as between $4,000 and $7,000, this is very high. Several possibilities: Kyivian are a lot wealthier than other Ukrainians. Kyiv restaurants benefit from massive tourism. Statistics about income are artificially low because much of it goes unreported.

Regardless of the cause, there doesn’t seem to be as much of an eating out culture here. When, after yesterday’s music show (which I’ll write about soon), I asked a Ukrainian guy to recommend a place where a few of us U.S. expats to eat, he immediately joked: the best place to eat is home.

10. Ukrainians seem to love stamping thing. In the restaurant we ate at last night, all the pages of the menu were stamped and signed. On almost every street you see a “нотаріус” or notary.

11. Ukrainian, or, at least, Kyivans, also love fireworks. They’ve happened at least two or three times at week since I’ve been here. I usually startle, just a little, and for a split second wonder what is exploding.

12. You often have to go underground to cross big streets. The underground passages are usually filled with retail shops. Some are nicer than others. Around Maidan, the underground area sprawls beneath several complex intersections, and I can never get to the corner I want on the first try. I have to surface like a ground hog, reorient myself, and continue closing in my desired destination.

Surprisingly Familiar:

1. Break dancers, live mimes, and other street performers.

2. McDonalds.

3. People on the street in the city’s center handing out various coupons.

4. During my 2004, a restaurant named Domashna Kukhna (home kitchen) charged a nominal price for packets of salt and sugar, napkins, plastic ware, toothpicks, etc. I found this rather annoying and the market seems to have agreed. They no longer do this. (Side note: Domashna Kukhna is both the name of a franchise and the name used by many individually-owned restaurants. There doesn’t seem to be any problem distinguishing, though. Take THAT intellectual property advocates!)

EDIT: 5. Television commercials — for cat food, skin cream, movies, cell phone service, and a whole lot more.