Advice to foreign tourists: Don’t expect English-language service
Foreigners coming for the Euro 2012 football championships had better make room in their suitcases for a Ukrainian or Russian language guidebook. They’re going to need it, judging from this Ukrainian’s attempt to get around the city with a friend, both of us pretending to know only English. We visited theaters and cinemas, book- stores and cafes in order to find out who could communicate with us, and ranked the experience. In general, it was a disappointing one.
Although English is widely taught in schools from early childhood, the world’s most widely spoken language still hasn’t sunk in enough for many Ukrainians to be able to have even an elementary conversation.
So if you can read this, thank a teacher.
First we went to Taras Shevchenko National Opera House, a logical stop for a foreign tourist, and bought a ticket. After 10 minutes of queuing, one man tried to cut in front of us. He made the booking clerk nervous. The man’s mood brightened considerably after he heard us speaking English, and he began to smile.
“Hello! Do you speak English? We would like to buy two tickets
for Iolanta on April 11,” I asked the clerk.
“On the 11th?” he asked in response.
Then he turned to the woman standing behind him. They started to point at the poster and asked us whether we want a ticket for April 11. We assured him that was the case and asked about the prices in the third row.
This time the man pointed at the list where all the prices based on seating are shown. He pointed to the most expensive price available – Hr 300.
Score on a 1 to 5 scale (5 the best): comprehension – 2; politeness – 4; result – 2.
Lesya Ukrainka Theater
The next stop in our experiment was Lesya Ukrainka National Academic Theater of Russian Drama. The venue is liked for its variety of classic and modern plays and also frequent Russian theater tours, where famous Russian actors play. Having studied the poster we decided to inquire about the price of “Vyshnevyi Sad” (Cherry Garden) by Russian writer Anton Chekhov. When we asked the cashier, she only said one word to us “No.” Then she pointed to another cashier. Luckily, an older man from the line helped us. He explained in English where it would be better to enjoy the play, the price ranges and wrote down information that we would need to give to the clerk to buy a ticket in the future. Finally, he wished us good luck and went away. We approached a young woman at the second cash desk. “Good morning! Can you help us?” “I don’t know English,” she said in Russian.
“We only want to ask about the prices for this play,” I said, giving her a piece of paper with information the man had written.
The woman looked over something on her computer, wrote it down and gave the piece of paper to us. On it, she scribbled: “2 x 25.”
“What does it mean ‘2 x 25’? Is it $50 for two tickets?” I asked.
“What do you want?” she said in Russian, losing her temper.
The price for “Cherry Garden” remained unknown.
Score: comprehension – 0; politeness – 2; result – 1.
The situation was almost the same in cinemas. Young women at the cash desks in Kyiv cinema and Butterfly Deluxe were unable to help us choose a ticket for a chosen screening time.
In search of maps
Chytai Gorod In another leg of our experiment, we tried to find a map of Kyiv in English. We went to one of the biggest bookstores in central Kyiv. Chytai Gorod (Reading Town), a store on Bohdana Khmelnytskoho Street, is part of a Russian chain of bookstores. When we entered, a shop assistant greeted us.
“Hello! Could you help us? Do you speak English?” I asked. “A little,” she said. “Do you have a map of Kyiv in English?”
The woman asked her colleague in Russian whether they have one. They looked over the shop and then gave us a traveler’s companion, which cost Hr 24. Another woman was leafing through guide books in front of us, showing how good they were, but they didn’t have maps.
“Will you have maps in English in a week or so? Before Euro 2012?” I asked. “Hope,” the shop assistant said. Score: comprehension – 3; politeness – 2; result – 2 Syaivo We trod down the street and went along Khreshchatyk to Kyiv’s oldest bookstore Syaivo (Glow), located on 6 Velyka Vasylkivska. It reopened last year after a series of scandals. As we asked for a map, the first the shop assistant shrugged her shoulders and asked another shop assistant to help us. The man asked what we wanted, and then pointed to a counter with some maps. He showed them to us one by one, giving the price. We thanked him and said goodbye.
Score: comprehension – 4; politeness – 4; result – 4. Litera Our last stop in search for maps was Litera bookstore, which has been around since 2000. Located by Taras Shevchenko University on 11/61 Lva Tolstoho St., it’s a three-storied building stacked with science, fiction and non-fiction literature. We walked the floors asking assistants along the way, but they didn’t understand English. At last, we ended up at the counter where two women were sitting.
“Hello! Could you help us? We cannot find a map of Kyiv in English. Do you have any?”
“I know English very bad,” she said, without a glance at us.
A couple of minutes later, she stood up and went downstairs indifferently. On her way, she laughed with a colleague about her poor grasp of English. At last she re-emerged with a map for Hr 10. The map was too big and inconvenient to use.
Score: comprehension – 2; politeness – 1; result – 1.
To eat or not to eat
After an exhausting morning, we went for lunch. We decided to visit Varenye ( Jam) Cafe located on 22 Petliury St. (former Kominterna Street). The waiter greeted us and offered the menu. It was in Ukrainian. We asked about an English one, and he immediately fetched it. We ordered a cappuccino and were enjoying the coffee a few minutes later. We asked for the check and got it promptly. The waiter answered in Russian, but understood what we said. When we left, he wished us good luck.
We decided to book a table for dinner in Azbuka Cafe (Alphabet) that is not only a restaurant, but a library. We addressed the manager, but she only smiled and shrugged her shoulders when she heard English. She called the waiter loudly: “Taras, help the girls!” Embarrassed as he was, Taras tried to help us the best he could. He showed us around and assured that we needn’t book in advance because they will have room for us. We were greeted with awkward smiles.
A stroll around cafes
Kyiv has some cafes that branched out from Lviv that are popular with the locals but are virtually unknown by the expats. One of them is Zolotyi Dukat (Golden Dukat), located on 48 Velyka Vasylkivska close to the Olympic Stadium. The cafe employs Ukrainianspeaking staff only. When we asked the waitress a question in English, she was so stunned that she suddenly answered in Russian: “I have no clue what you are talking about.”
The last hope rested on the Lviv Chocolate Factory, a place where hand-made chocolates and cakes from Lviv can be sampled. It’s located on 45 Horkoho (Antonovycha) St.
“Good afternoon! We want to book a table for five people for tonight,” I said. “At 5 o’clock?” the waiter asked. “No. A table for five people at 7 p.m.,” I replied.
“Yes, we can reserve the table, but we don’t know where you want. By the way, you needn’t reserve it because we have enough room for all visitors,” he said.
“But it’s usually too overcrowded in evening and hard to find a place,” I said.
“Just come and we’ll help you,” he said.
Here are our essential tips for foreigners:
Get a good English-ukrainian or English-russian phrasebook – you’ll need it.
Take a notebook to write figures and prices. It makes communication with non-english speakers much easier.
Don’t hope for a free map downtown. Get one from Boryspil International Airport or at the hotel. Alternatively, pull a Kyiv Post map out to take with you.
It will pay to learn some commonly used phrases in Ukrainian or Russian.
Why life is thus
“Ukrainian people have lived in isolation for a long time. That’s why they have such difficulties in communication. Even when your foreign language is perfect, if you don’t use it, you forget it,” says Olena Vynogradova, professor of communications and linguistic geography at Taras Shevchenko National University.
Kyiv Post staff writer Olena Goncharova can be reached at gon[email protected] com
Kyiv Post staff writer Olena Goncharova went around the city, pretending to know only English. (Kostyantyn Chernichkin)
Kyiv Post staff writer Denis Rafalsky checks out a pharmacy that claims its employees speak English. (Ganna Bernyk)