Monday, July 30, 2012

Where is everyone?

D's cousin came to town on a business trip this weekend. "Where is everyone?" he questioned as we walked along the banks of the Lopan river. "The train station this morning- deserted. The metro- echoing. The streets- empty. Where are the people?" D and I shrugged. I hadn't really noticed fewer people out and about. "Probably in Crimea" D answered, "enjoying their summer vacations."

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Kharkov Tour I

Holodna Gora church. Construction began on June 24, 1892. Blessed on October 23, 1901.
One sunny afternoon in May we meet with Jack, a former student who had offered to take us on a tour of the city. We meet Jack at this church in Xolodna Gora. Dressed in white linen pants and a white polo shirt, this day he looks every inch the doctor that he's poised to become. It's a pleasant surprise to see not only him at the meeting point, but also his friend Yaroslav and his sister and brother-in-law, also doctors, visiting from Africa. (It's popular for Ukrainian doctors to work abroad in order to earn more money, as salaries for medical professionals here can be between $100 - $300 US a month. If Jack ends up going abroad for work I'll always remember all the effort and enthusiasm he put into this- and the next- tour!)

So, when this city tour was proposed I thought it would just be a casual thing, Jack pointing out whatever he noticed as we wandered the streets. Instead, after the introductions and nice-to-meet-yous, he pulls out two handmade and bound tour guides: Харьков- сегодня и сто лет назад. Kharkov today and a hundred years ago. 20 pages of old photographs and background info! With these in hand, we enter the church grounds and circle the building. There's a priest in black outside on a bench and women covering their heads with scarves as they approach the imposing front door. Children play nearby, girls skipping together, boys crouched under a tree. Passerby cross themselves on the street as they walk down the sidewalk. I still feel timid around Ukrainian churches.

Next we head to a stadium/field perched above the city. Xolodna Gora, cold mountain, is not quite a mountain but definitely a hill. My favorite version of the naming story involves a Russian tsarina passing through town and bestowing the name upon the hill. No idea if that's even remotely true :p Anyways, through a rather large hole in a concrete barrier and voilà, we arrive at the viewpoint.
Our group admiring beautiful Kharkov!
I could easily spend all day here. Several people appear to be doing this: couples chatting over picnic baskets, teenage boys drinking beer and kicking around a soccer ball. But soon enough it's time to leave to continue the tour.

We hop on a tram and for about 18 cents ride down the hill, over the train tracks, and along the highway until the tram stops at the Lopan river. Here we see citizens lazily rowing around in little rented boats, which ends up inspiring another adventure later on. The red-and-white-striped Annunciation Cathedral, one of Kharkov's main cathedrals, is a short walk away along the riverbank. I cannot stop photographing this amazing church!!!
Built in 1888, blessed in 1901.

Then back across the river to take a stroll through this open air market. It looks like a good place to get souvenirs and artwork. Not far from the vendors is Kharkov's eternal flame monument to "those who gave their lives in the October revolution."

Monday, July 23, 2012

Apartment Therapy, Part II

Without further ado, the new apartment!
(or click here for the whole story)

The entryway.
Lots of storage : )

The living room (it's a 2 bedroom apartment):

Like they say, it's all about the details-

1) chandelier 2) AIR CONDITIONER! 3) book collection left behind
There's a nice reading corner too. It's been a long, long time (try never) since we had one of those.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Neighbors

Story One

In the elevator, yesterday.
Mean lady, abruptly: Are you living on the #th floor?
D, shocked: Yes.
Mean lady, demanding: How much do you pay for rent?
D, shocked again: Uh, 3500 grivna.
Mean lady, snidely: Oh, I had clients who were willing to pay 4000 and the owner turned them down. I'm a realty agent myself.
And then the elevator stopped and she stomped off. 

Story Two

Our building has a вахта. The proper translation is probably desk attendant but if you've ever encountered one, you know they're more like stone gargoyles that have suddenly come to life and decided to fiercely guard their territory. I first encountered this strange race in Siberia as they religiously policed the entryway of our dorm. They shouted all day at the rambunctious 18 and 19-year-old students, made people wear little booties over their shoes, and rarely allowed anyone who looked over 25 in the building. They couldn't tell us apart (Gunhild, Anna, and me, the three blonde foreigners) but because of their advanced age I couldn't tell them apart either. If you had a late night (as in, any time after 11PM) you had to push a little buzzer and wait for them to wake up and let you in the building. There was a local legend about one student who froze to death a couple winters back because the вахта didn't let him in. I remember one particularly cold winter night (this was Siberia after all!) when we got back from a club at 3 AM and yes, thought we would freeze to death too before the вахта finally woke up, found her tapachki, and shuffled her way over to the front door.

The next time I met a вахта was in a hotel in 2007, vacationing in Crimea. She sat at a desk downstairs all day long. One day (several days after we arrived) we asked her for more toilet paper for the room and she refused, saying that the hotel was like a bureaucracy and the housekeeping department was closed for the weekend and we'd have to buy our own. Or wait until Monday. Her exact words! :p

And finally, there is a вахта crew at the school I teach now. Most are benign except for this one evil lady. When she's guarding the exit I have to slink against the wall to not attract her attention.

So, yeah. We were kind of surprised / horrified to walk up to our new apartment building, arms full of stuff, and suddenly be investigated by this sharp-eyed woman. When we first came to view the apartment it was nighttime and the вахта was off-duty. I didn't even notice the little glass office on the the ground floor. But there she was, questioning us in broad daylight like we were in a police line-up as we juggled bags from one hand to the other. Eventually she relaxed a little and another вахта came up. She'd noticed the plant I was carrying and asked if I like flowers, which led to where was I from, etc, etc. And since then both ladies have been quite nice (although there's a third I haven't met yet). The flower lady even gave me a jade plant (“the tree of love” she called it) and another leafy plant so that I would “have good impressions of Ukraine.” I'm just relieved to have passed the вахта test for once!

Story Three

We were leaving our old apartment building on the outskirts of town. As we each wheeled a duffel bag down the sidewalk, a man who looked vaguely like an off-duty Santa Claus asked “Going on vacation?” This man often spends his evenings sitting on the bench in front of the building, as most people do. Since it's so hot inside people like to spend their evenings gossiping outside on benches, spying on observing other people. This man was a regular attendee to these gossip sessions, along with his dog- the fattest dachshund I've ever seen in my life. I never know if it's proper to greet this group or not. Usually what happens is they fall silent as we walk by, watching us, and then resume their conversation as soon as we pass. Suspicious, right? Anyways, “Moving? Why?!” he bellowed, offended. “To be closer to her work” replied D, referencing my work but not exactly telling the truth. “Where's she work?” he returned. As soon as we revealed the name of the school I teach at, he simultaneously said “But you can't get any closer to it than living here!” and b) “I've been trying to enroll my daughter there! Wait, wait!” and he made a call on his cell, told his daughter to turn off the potatoes and come downstairs and meet this English teacher. (Pssst: Katusha is an endearing nickname for Katherine.) “Katusha!” he practically shouted, “you mean we've had a real English-speaking American living here all year and we don't get to meet you until you're leaving??!!!” His daughter was sweet and shy and excited to meet us and within a few minutes the mom had shown up too. We ended up exchanging phone numbers, although I'm not exactly sure for what purpose.

Apartment Therapy, Part I

The last sunset from this balcony
It only took a day to get a new apartment. The story is much longer than that, of course, but in the end we saw the apartment and paid a deposit for it the same afternoon. Now, a week later, we've almost moved everything in and are ready to finally spend our first night here.

We spent ten months in the little school-arranged apartment at the end of the metro line. It was fine: tiny, cozy, and orange. There was a broken couch/bed that functioned as a bed but refused to be a couch, a dilapidated armchair, and two kitchen chairs. Having a guest over meant that someone had to stand, so guests usually didn't come :p Still, that sparkly orange wallpaper made up for a lot! Around month eight though, after a long series of plumbing incidents finally culminating in the leaky ceiling of our downstairs neighbor, the place started to lose its charm. We wanted a fresh start and a change of scenery.
Goodbye, old apartment!
D had been involved in Kharkov apartment searches before. He acted as interpreter several times for T, one of my colleagues. T and D met one afternoon with Dima the realty agent, a very young guy in an oversize parka who was far less than thrilled to find out that T was a foreigner. “Why didn't you tell me this on the phone?!” he blew up. “Now I've got to make a phone call” he shouted as he stalked off around a corner.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Road repair

Last weekend D noticed some guys filling up holes in the road with leftover construction materials.
Hmmm.... a viable solution for fixing potholes?
You be the judge.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Meet the New Guy

I'd like to introduce you to this beautiful little kitten!
He's been running the show here for about two weeks, getting more rambunctious and daring by the hour. All day he plays with toy cars and cardboard tubes, slowing down occasionally to nap at our feet.

Any ideas for a name? Update: We've named him кит, which means whale in Russian. He is expanding at an enormous rate... it's like he gains a pound and grows an inch overnight!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Ukrainian housing

An average apartment building in Kharkov. Imagine rows and rows of similar buildings and you'll see why the premise of this famous Soviet movie is entirely believable!
 The fantastic article How To Decorate Like A Russian inspired me to jot down what I've noticed about Ukrainian apartments. Oh, and we're also (fingers crossed) moving soon or as I like to think, moving up!
  • A one-bedroom apartment is not a studio nor is it exactly a western one-bedroom. A one-bedroom in Ukraine means one sleeping/living/everything room plus a separate kitchen and corridor. People expect to open the front door and step into a corridor, never directly into a living space. 
  • Most apartments here are smaller than US apartments... and sometimes contain more people living in them (parents, grandparents, children). But to balance that situation out, nearly everyone has a дача (dacha, a summer house in the countryside) and people frequently escape to their dachas for fresh air on the weekends.
    • Built-in closets are rare; a stand-alone wardrobe or gigantic wall unit is the standard. On a related note, I remember helping resettle a Ukrainian family with 2 teenage daughters in an apartment in Alaska. When the girls saw the (regular old) closet in their room they started crying, saying they had always dreamed of having a closet like that. I didn't really get it until moving here. Now I dream of a built-in closet too. The gigantic and looming wall unit that takes up 1/3 of our room drives me nuts! But D says he remembers his family proudly getting one in the 1990s so I try to remember that it's just a part of the culture. (Check out the decorating article for a picture of said wall unit...and yes, there's always a tea set on display in there!)
    Behold, the wall unit. (Filled with the landlady's stuff.)
    • Wallpaper, wallpaper, wallpaper. Maybe paint was not available back in the day? But the things people can do with wallpaper in Ukraine...let me tell you! The old Soviet pre-remodel wallpaper = not so great (plus there's usually a big Persian carpet on at least one wall.) The remodeled apartments, though, tend to have really cool fancy wallpaper: textures and elegant designs even.  
    • Though you may see a big rug on the floor or on the wall, people don't have wall-to-wall carpeting. Паркет is popular instead of carpeting. Don't know what parquet is? It's flooring composed of wooden blocks arranged in a geometric pattern.
    •  Lace curtains, lace curtains, lace curtains. I still don't get it.
    • ALL BUILDINGS ARE BUILT OUT OF BRICK. As mentioned before, this often leads to locals asking you why your country uses inferior building materials ("Tsk tsk, it's no wonder hurricanes are always blowing down your houses!")
    So, be careful of crumbling and falling bricks... you'll see protective fencing like this to protect people's heads from dangerous debris.

    СушиЯ (SushiYa)

    It surprises me when Ukrainians say that they've never tried sushi. Practically every third restaurant here is a sushi restaurant (or random sushi/Italian venture) and I'd assumed that therefore eating sushi is a popular pastime. Turns out that is not the case. This is actually good news, because it's a lot of fun to introduce such a cuisine to the uninitiated!

    Case in point: while visiting Kiev this spring, we talked our friend Lena into trying lunch at the restaurant СушиЯ. The meal started with miso soup and then we had a blast trying different items from a sample platter. The restaurant looked shiny and new and had classy touches like bonsai trees, a small fountain, and a wall-size fish tank filled with lazy golden fish.

    Saturday, July 14, 2012

    Easy Russian 2 : the letters З and С

    (Click here if you missed Lesson 1: Р, П, and Н)
    (To hear the audio files, click on the title to view the entire post)

    Here's a very easy letter: З
    Yes, it looks an awful lot like the number three but it's actually a Z.
    З = Z

    You remember маркет , right? (market)
    If you have pets you'll need to shop here as well:

     зоомаркет = pet store

    On a beautiful summer day it's always nice to visit a парк (park).
    The more adventurous may spend an afternoon here!

    зоопарк = zoo

    Thursday, July 12, 2012

    Snapshots of Ukrainian Life, Part 10

    Free medicine and education for all! We will return the social guarantees that have been taken from the people. The Communist Party demands: return the country to the people! (For more explanation of this, keep reading...)

    Summer Picnic Supplies:
      • tablecloth
      • cutlery
      • food
      • disposable plastic shot glasses ✔ (complete with a very serious picture of two men and one woman at a business meeting!) 
    During a recent picnic I tried to explain why it would be weird to bring vodka to a picnic in America. Wine, maybe. But vodka? Although picnics would probably be a lot more fun that way...
    Movie theaters in Ukraine sell tickets by seat. When you pay for the tickets you also pick out the seat you want to sit in. A little color-coded screen shows you the seats still available. Cool idea, huh?

    Next to the tongues and hearts in the local butcher shop, there is a cow udder for sale. How exactly does one cook a cow udder? Or cow lungs? Please explain!

    Summer's hottest toothpaste flavor

    Sunday, July 8, 2012

    Break week

    Kharkov's famous thermometer @ the Історичний музей metro stop
    It's HOT.

    Yesterday it was 80 F... at 11 PM at night. Now it's 6 PM the following day and almost 88 F. I guess if there were ever a perfect time for the city to turn off the hot water for repairs, this would be it. No AC and no fans in the apartment so for the past four days it's been either cold-shower-induced hypothermia or dazed heatstroke. Ah, summer in Ukraine :p

    This is my week off from work. It was supposed to be super-productive but with the heat I can't work up enough energy to actually do much. I did manage to download about 200 book samples onto my Kindle (never too lazy too click!) and have been reading, reading, reading. To escape the heat momentarily we had another river picnic with Timur and his family.

    The evening was great: just the group of us, the river, frogs croaking, badminton. At one point a strange car/truck drove up and unloaded a very pregnant wife, an intoxicated and shirtless husband, a silent thin older woman, a young boy, and a quiet industrious man who washed the car while the drunk guy waded around in the river and the pregnant wife smoked cigarette after cigarette. As the sun set a vicious army of mosquitoes emerged and lay waste to our unprotected arms and legs. I have 18 bites on my left foot and ankle. D got a couple scary-looking bites by something much hungrier than a mosquito. But still, the picnic was worth it!!
    By the way, this keeps coming up and people can never seem to get enough of it-
    • what frogs say in English
    • what frogs say in Russian

    Friday, July 6, 2012


    Vendors selling their goods outside a metro station
    The first half of life consists of the capacity to enjoy without the chance; the last half consists of the chance without the capacity. - Mark Twain

    Wednesday, July 4, 2012

    Easy Russian 1 : the letters Р, П, Н

    (To hear the audio files, click on the title to view the entire post)

    It's true- the Russian alphabet has a whopping 33 letters. One for each tooth and one for the tongue : ) How many do you know? Can you read these words?

    Hint: the Russian letter Р = the r sound in English.

    That's right,
    • Тор = Thor
    • маркет = market
    • метро = metro
    • and марка = postage stamp, brand name