Peter Santenello is a Californian expat living in Kyiv since 2016. His passion for travelling, diving into local culture in every new destination and narrating the lives of those he meets along the way has led him to his most recent project: Beneath Kyiv. A conversation with Peter over coffee in one of his favourite breakfast spots shed light on his travels, his decision to move to Ukraine and the reasons that make his project so personally rewarding and valuable to foreigners and Ukrainians alike.
“They may just have something here that we don’t- it may not be tangible, it may not be a brand new iPhone. You have to spend some time here to see it.”
A pleasure to meet you, Peter! How long is it now that you have been living in Kyiv? Have you been back to the US since?
So, I moved here in November 2016, around a year and a couple of months ago. I have been back several times to the US- I have business there still so I’m not here all the time.
And you’re from the California, no?
I grew up in Vermont above New York City, on the East Coast of the US. I have lived my entire adult life on the West Coast though. I moved from one side of the country to the other.
Wow, a big change! Have you always been a traveller?
We never really travelled as a family whilst I grew up and we lived in a very insular place. I have travelled since I was 24 years old. I saved up $20,000 to travel around Europe for 7 months but it turned out to be a 2-year trip around the world! I then went back to the US and my life changed and I just couldn’t stop exploring.
What was the most amazing place you saw on your trip around the world?
On that particular trip, I would say that the places that stood out the most to me would be countries like Tajikistan and Georgia. They are places that before I had no idea existed. I spent 3 months in Central Asia and it was amazing.
Had you been to Ukraine before you moved here?
Yes, I came on that original around-the-world trip 15 years ago. I took a boat across the Black Sea from Istanbul to Odessa with a Georgian friend that invited me.
What was your first impression of Ukraine?
The first impressions aren’t always the best in many situations and Ukraine is no different. I mean if you fly into Boryspil, the first impression you get of the country are taxi drivers with smokers’ voices offering you a ride. There’s an abandoned building across from the parking lot. So, for those looking for that Disneyland, magical experience from the get-go, it is certainly not the place. Ukraine has the ability to filter those who are looking for a “light holiday” from those who are truly curious and want an authentic adventure. I have always been fascinated by Slavic culture and as I was growing up, I wanted to know more about the Soviet Union- I even had pen pals from this part of the world! People make their mind up about Ukraine just from the little window they see in the news, the trick is to get past that first impression!
Can you explain your project “Beneath Kyiv” to me?
Of course. My most recent project is about 5 people’s different stories. As a city dweller, you probably find yourself doing the same route through the streets every day. In a city like Kyiv, with a population of 4 million, every single person passes so close to so many others each and every day. So, I wanted to break down the silence between people and tell the story of the city through 5 completely different lives. We start with a TV star, with whom we go wakeboarding and race car driving and visit the best coffee shops. Then we document the life of a woman who lost three children and two husbands and discovered art as a way of coping with the loss. We also met a guy who got into drugs and violence, living in a closed off neighbourhood within Kyiv. This just shows the diversity of the personalities we have met, all living parallel lives in the same city. I thought it would be much better than coming as a tourist and showing people “this is Saint Sophia”.
Do you think that it is important to highlight the fact that this actually happens in many cities around the globe?
Definitely, I mean, if we scale this up to a city like NYC, people are brushing shoulders with one another without ever daring to speak. I think if you can entice those stories out into the open, it brings more awareness of the lives of ordinary citizens.
How do you publish these stories?
I use YouTube but it is in a war with Facebook right now so it works so better with Facebook. Whenever you share a YouTube video on Facebook, they put a terrible-looking thumbnail onto the post because they want to control video and stop social media users choosing YouTube. I wished I could use more YouTube but Facebook is way more effective. Also, Voice of America takes our content and publishes it all. Voice of America is a large organization all over the world, in 42 different languages, publishing stories from a US perspective. Much of the Ukrainian diaspora in the United States and in Canada access Voice of America. In Soviet times, VoA was working hard to get reliable information into this part of the world- getting this American message through.
Did you ever find it difficult to adapt to life here or build a project here?
Well, there’s challenges in building a team and a project in Ukraine of course. Yet these are problems that you can experience anywhere doing this, it may even be harder in countries like Italy or Spain! Living here, not at all. I think that the people are friendly, they open up to you as you get to know and the city is super easy to walk and navigate through. I’m not a super materialistic person at all, so I don’t miss that. I think that Ukraine is a very easy place to land in for someone like me.
Is this your first project in Ukraine?
No, our second. Our previous project was a little more difficult. It was called “Fish Out of Water” and followed a family in the countryside that had been displaced in war. This project made national news all over the place as it was just such a crazy story! The main reason that project was so challenging was that I was living near Donbas and it was 35 degrees in the house. I saw a very different side of Ukraine.
Have you ever been interested in expanding your project to other cities? Lviv, for example?
I would have to find a really interesting story if I am going to carbon copy the project in the West. I feel the West is gentler. If I could find something worthwhile to document out there, why not! I am open to new suggestions, I mean, the next few videos I will be making here will be on expats living in Kyiv- it’s diverse what I do.
I saw a video of you jumping into the ice-cold water on the Ukrainian Epiphany. Do you think it is important to experience and document such traditions as a foreigner?
Yes, of course. For me, that is living. If you want to stay completely in your comfort zone, then stay at home. I was invited to do it, and it was a really cool, social experience. If we compare Angloamerican culture with Ukraine, they connect much better here. There are more traditional values and the Soviet Union, for all of its poison, left a few great things and this collective, textures social fabric is one of them. Let’s put it this way, workers in London or San Francisco wouldn’t leave work for several hours to go for a swim just because of “tradition”.The Ukrainians don’t see it this way and would say that they are cold to each other, but I don’t believe it.
It’s extreme here, there’s not much in the middle, it’s way more alive.
And finally, what about “Beneath Kyiv” gives you so much satisfaction?
What gives me satisfaction is when people experience the project and say that before they would never have come here and now they think its a beautiful city and want to visit. I also have Ukrainians come to me and say “wow, you’ve shown me something cool here that I didn’t see here before- thank you for your perspective”. My whole aim is to be the bridge and show Westerners the other side, not through the political landscape or some glamorous tourist video. This gives me satisfaction in my work.
For more about “Beneath Kyiv’ and Peter Santenello, follow him on Instagram, visit his Facebook page or read more of his impressions on his blog www.petersantenello.com. Of course, all of his videos are available on his YouTube channel!