Uzhhorod, Ukraine In iPhone Photos

You might remember how we met up with Leah Raiffeisen and Kelly VanDevender of New Song International a few weeks ago when they were traveling through Budapest to drop off a missions team that had come to help with medical needs in Ukraine. We vlogged about it a little bit and posted on our Instagram about it because seriously... how cool is it to get to meet up with young missionaries who are like-minded and following a calling God placed in their lives? We'll answer for you: it's very cool. Like, the coolest.

Shortly after meeting up with them at a café, we got a Facebook message from them inviting us to come to Ukraine. Honestly, at first, we didn't know if they were serious. They had said at the café if we ever found ourselves in Ukraine that we would have a place to stay with them, but when would we happen to find ourselves in Ukraine? But then they said that they would love it if we could put together a video for them to go on their website. They couldn't pay us in money, but they would pay for transportation, food, and we could stay with them in their flat! We immediately began looking at times for trains that would get us to Uzhhorod, Ukraine. The original plan was to go for a few days over Thanksgiving week, but we already committed to go to Austria with the Shaw family for a few days that week, so instead we decided to go two days after telling them that we were game for it (we're super spontaneous if you couldn't tell already!).

We woke up around 6am, rushed to the Budapest - Nyugati train station, bought our tickets to Záhony, Hungary, and found the platform the train was at and loaded our bags about four minutes before it left the station. What we failed to realize was that the train ride was 4.5 hours long and we skipped breakfast in order to make the 7:22am train. Some trains have carts that come around with food, but this one didn't. Luckily, we had some water to keep us from getting thirsty, but we were so hungry. We were able to sleep for maybe 30 minutes of the ride, but we both kept watching out the window for our stop. We didn't know if we had to get off at a certain stop or if we had to take the train all the way to the end. This whole public transportation and crossing countries thing is hard, man, but we're learning so much and actually prefer it!

We got off the train at Záhony around 11:30ish (there was a time difference) and immediately booked our tickets to Chop, Ukraine (the station Leah & Kelly would be picking us up at). We weren't prepared for all of the people who would be coming up to us and asking us if we wanted to ride in their taxi. One guy came up to us thirteen times and he even had a woman come up to us and try to persuade us in English since our Hungarian is extremely limited. After the seventh or eighth time of him coming up to us, we just responded with nem ("no") each time he asked us a question. We felt like the rudest people there by telling him "no" to everything, avoiding eye contact, and turning our backs until we realized he kept coming up to us because we were the only English speakers there and he could probably charge us a lot more for the taxi ride. 

We were so hungry when we got to the train station! We quickly went over to the little in-station café that was advertising very photoshopped hotdogs and hamburgers. When we asked for some food, the lady at the counter just said "no" and then pointed to the counter with a few selections of chips and sweets to eat. We decided against it and Johnny instead got two cappuccinos since we were tired, which, at a train station, is basically a packet of chocolate-tasting powder, hot water, and whipped cream on top in a clear plastic cup... Definitely not the cappuccinos we've grown used to drinking almost daily in Budapest! The board said it was 170 forint (about $0.60ish), but she told Johnny 250 (about $1.00) forint each. We spoke English so she probably thought she could up-charge us a little bit. Johnny was already a little worn out from how the day had been and had realized that she didn't speak hardly any English so instead of arguing with her he paid the amount she told us. There are definitely many downsides to not knowing the native language of a country!

The train ride is only 18 minutes long since Záhony and Chop are right on the borders of Hungary and Ukraine, so the train was literally just to hop the border. We weren't able to make the train that left about 10 minutes after our train arrived because we had to buy our tickets and the line was long, so we had to wait for the next train in 3 hours. We found a corner of the station and played Monopoly Deal, talked about life, and slept on each other's shoulders until it was time to board. When 2:10 hit, we gathered our suitcases (which we realized most people travel to neighboring countries with only a carry-on and we were the only ones to take a full size suitcase + a carry-on...) and loaded into the train. Before taking our seats we had to present our passport to the passport control on the train and answer a few questions, which also was difficult because we didn't fully understand them and they didn't fully understand us. After everyone was checked and approved, we rode the train into Chop and got off to go through border control where they stamped our passports and asked us more questions. Honestly, it was a lot smoother than what people were preparing us for, but it still took us about 30 minutes to get through and be allowed into the country.

Honest-to-goodness, this may sound like a lot of complaining, but it really isn't. We weren't stressed, we weren't panicking, we weren't sitting in a corner complaining to each other and wishing we were somewhere else. This experience was awesome for us to have because it is one that many American's don't really get to experience unless they've lived and traveled in another country. It just is what it is and you roll with the punches. We've realized this is how people live, it's just different than what we are used to, but it doesn't mean it's bad, though. It's kind of what living in another culture is like... When you realize that people live in different ways but the world still spins, no one is freaking out about it, and life is still good + continues to go on is when you start getting used to it and begin to blend in a little bit. And we use the term "blend in" lightly. You'll still stick out like a sore thumb because of the language barrier, your clothes and how you look, the way you carry yourself, etc. but you become a mildly sore thumb rather than a swollen throbbing one. 😉

We got through border control and met Leah & Kelly around 4:30pm Uzhhorod time (two hours ahead of Budapest). They brought apples and cherry pastries for us to eat while we road in a van for the thirty minutes between Chop and Uzhhorod to their flat (which they had just moved into 40 minutes before they left to pick us up!). It was so weird to ride in a car after taking metros, trams, and buses for the past few months! We spent the evening going to the grocery store (which is always an experience in Europe!), eating an amazing dinner cooked by Leah, vlogging, and talking till around 1:30am about what God is doing in our lives, how we've changed since we all decided to pursue missions, and what the next steps for us are. It was so, so good.

We had an amazing time getting to know Leah & Kelly, their heart for their non-profit and for the children of Ukraine, and a bit of the Ukrainian culture! We ate borscht (beet soup with other vegetables and sour cream), potato pancakes, and varenyky (dumplings that you traditionally cover in jam and soft cheese), and we drank the most savory hot chocolate from a chocolate shop in town. We explored the town, taught them how to play Monopoly Deal (and it got savage after a few hands!), flew the drone over the city, and visited a toddler orphanage with a group that goes weekly to play with the children in a neighboring town. It was an amazing and jam-packed two days, and in between all of that we were able to sit down for a few hours and film a video for New Song International.


One of the most notable experiences, however, happened on our second night in Ukraine around 12:30am. Kelly was showering and Leah, Johnny, and I were on our laptops, editing photos, writing, and doing whatever else we needed to do. Leah might've been doing something artistic (because homegirls got talent, lemme tell you), but I remember she had gotten up to go make tea in the kitchen when we heard loud banging at the front door and lots of yelling from a muffled voice. It sounded like a woman, but we weren't really sure. Leah frantically ran to the front door and looked out the peep hole. More yelling, more banging. She couldn't make out who it was, and because it was so late, she decided not to answer it and we all tried to wait it out.

But she kept yelling and she kept banging on the door. It was kind of scary, just because we were all in the creative zone working and trying to get ready for bed when it happened. Leah was a little bit panicky, so she asked Johnny what to do. He ended up shoving me in the living room and closing the door "just in case" and went to the kitchen and grabbed a knife ("Just to scare them if they try anything, not to do anything with it" is what he told us) and Leah opened the door with Johnny standing right behind her. Except, Leah didn't actually open the door because the knob was turning before she put her hand on it. Somehow the woman had opened it and as soon as she saw their faces she began yelling even louder in Ukrainian. As soon as the door was opened she stepped into the flat, which is just culturally expected here, unlike in America where you keep your distance from people, especially in heated situations like this.

So there she was, standing in her bathrobe, yelling, hair flying everywhere, standing in the entryway with the door open letting in 30* air. By this time I walked out of the living room, but we ended up being no help since we didn't understand any Ukrainian. Leah has taken a years worth of Ukrainian, but guys, learning another language is hard and intimidating, so the she kept trying to ask the woman what was wrong but the woman continued to go off on her.

The lady kept yelling and yelling and yelling while Leah tried to explain that she couldn't understand her because her Ukrainian is very limited, and to please shhhhhhh. By this time Kelly (who has Ukrainian siblings so she knows a little bit more of the language) yelled from the bathroom "She said there's water leaking!". The woman was hysterical. She wouldn't lower her voice and wouldn't stop yelling.

Kelly got out of the shower quickly and began speaking to the woman. She tried to calm her down but she honestly just wasn't having it. She yelled at both Leah and Kelly to come downstairs to her flat to see the water leaking, and while Johnny and I stayed upstairs holding the door open for them, we saw all the doors swinging open with people in their nightgowns trying to figure out who was screaming so much. All three of them came back up and Kelly told us that her wallpaper was buckled a little bit, but there wasn't any actual water damage. The woman demanded that Kelly call the landlord, and Kelly, really having no other options, called her. Their landlord is an incredibly nice woman who was immensely sorry to us (um, no! We're sorry that this is happening and we can't fix it!) and immediately sent her husband over. The entire time Kelly was on the phone (about 10 minutes) the Ukrainian woman huffed and puffed, yelled some more (even though at this point she knew we couldn't understand her), and then demanded that Kelly give her the landlords number. Kelly kept telling her that you can ask her husband for her number, I won't give it to you, and after repeating that several times to her the woman demanded that Leah go downstairs to the ground floor to wait for the landlord's husband. Kelly got off the phone and said that their landlord told her that this wasn't the first time that their shower (which was the culprit) had leaked, but that the woman was notoriously known in the building for creating situations out of thin air, so she probably jumped at the opportunity to create havoc with this.

The landlord's husband came and took the woman out in the hall. The door was shut and we could hear her screaming at him, louder than what she had been screaming at us. He shushed her and tried to quiet her as much as he could, and I vividly remember him yelling right back at her for about five seconds before coming into the flat and saying she went downstairs. He figured out that the shower had leaked and he ended up having to take it apart completely.

Just another night in a culture that's different than the one you grew up in. Strangely, I don't think anyone felt unsafe, just kind of irritated and flustered that no one could fully communicate with her. Which, for Johnny and I, just encourages us to learn the culture and at least a bit of the language when we travel places. Even though our Hungarian is very limited (we couldn't hold a conversation at all), we are very proud of the Hungarian we have picked up and been able to use on a daily basis.


If you have a few moments, please go and check out New Song International's website! Leah & Kelly are two of the most genuine people you will ever meet with the desire to help children with special needs in Ukraine. Ukraine is heading towards more of a foster home system rather than an orphanage system in the coming years so they want to take advantage of that and open up a foster home that can house 10 - 20 children with nurses and doctors on staff that can help with the special needs they might encounter. They also have a passion for adoption and either reuniting the children with their biological families or, if rights have been terminated, a Ukrainian family that will love them and give them the care they need.

After two days in Ukraine, we woke up again around 6:30am Uzhhorod time (4:30am Budapest time) to catch a train back to the city we've grown to know and love. Filming for New Song International was an amazing opportunity and we can't wait to get the finished product to them!

// Johnny + Sam