One of the most interesting things I have heard from people since returning from Ukraine is how much their perception of the country differed from the reality I experienced.
I took about 800 photos during my trip, and many friends and relatives have been fascinated to browse the more than 100 images I shared online through Facebook. If you are interested, the link below allows anyone to take a look, whether you are a member of Facebook or not.
One of the most interesting reactions I have heard is that some people expected my pictures to reveal a mostly rural country, with worn-down cities that had not escaped their Soviet past. Especially when talking to people who grew up during the height of the Cold War, much of the "knowledge" of the area was based on outdated ideas from decades past.
It's not ignorance, and it is certainly not disrespect. It's a lack of exposure.
I consider myself to be a low-level student of world history. Working in news, I quickly learn about places all over the world that are in the news often. Two years ago, I never dreamed I would be able to rattle off the names of towns in Mali, or spot misspellings in the names of Libyan cities. Now I can.
But when I was asked if I would be interested in making the trip, I quickly realized how little I knew about Ukraine.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), Ukraine just isn't in the international spotlight very often. For many people, the disaster at Chernobyl might be the their greatest familiarity with the country. They might remember hearing about the Orange Revolution in 2004. Soccer fans probably know they co-hosted Euro 2012 with Poland.
But what else do you know? Here's a few things to consider:
I've mentioned before that Nikolayev, our host city, is one of the world's great shipbuilding centers.
In Kiev, I visited the Monastery of the Caves, one of the centers of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, with origins dating to 1051.
Odessa, on the Black Sea, is home to the Odessa Opera and Ballet Theater, which is known as one of the world's top performance venues. You'll see pictures in my gallery.
Kiev is home to the deepest subway station in the world.
One of the world's first known constitutions was written by a Ukrainian statesman.
The famous Christmas song "Carol of the Bells" has its roots in an Ukrainian folk song.
After the fall of the Soviets, Ukraine gave up a nuclear arsenal of more than 1,000 warheads in exchange for security assurances.
Mykola Syadrysty has a museum of miniatures in Kiev, which includes a gold shoe crafted to fit a flea. Really. I saw it.
From 1932-1933, between 3 and 4 million people lost their lives to starvation during the holodomor, a consequence of Soviet farm collectivization. Into the 1980s, the Soviets denied it ever happened in an effort to erase it from history.
Fans of the Olympics might have seen some of their champions on the medal stand. Despite only fielding their first independent Olympic team in 1994 (Lillehammer), in their 10th Olympic Games in 2012, Ukraine brought home 20 Olympic medals to increase their total to 120. That's more than Greece, Brazil, New Zealand or South Africa, and puts them in 32nd place in the world.