Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Independence!- for Kharkov, Ukraine, and Belgium

Kharkov's mirror stream fountain. Opera House in the background.
Vacation time has rolled around again. And more than that- it's three days until my one-year-in-Ukraine anniversary! Now that's a weird feeling. One year ago I showed up here with no idea what the future would hold, with no idea whether I'd still be here after my 8 month teaching contract or how D would re-adapt to living in his former homeland. Now twelve months have sped by and all those issues seem so long ago, replaced (of course) by new issues like cat ownership, expired visa, etc, etc. But issues will always be there no matter where one lives or what one does. I still maintain that this has been an amazing experience and led to some deep and hopefully lifelong friendships.
The whole family- to vacation!
Vacation! Doesn't that word just sound glorious? ... Well, that's not what I'm taking. Instead, I'm taking a staycation. Three leisurely weeks to catch up on the little things and enjoy summer's final days of triumph and light. The leaves are starting to curl up into crumbly little orange husks and while people say it's because they've gotten burned from the heat, I smell fall in the air, especially at night. In the mornings I like to get outside and accompany D as he walks to work, then meander back on my own. The days are beautiful. If the kitten gets too crazy I take him outside; I read a book in the sunshine while he expends his energy by cowering next to me on the bench :p If I'm inside I'm usually working on a project or organizing some long-neglected matter. I've began studying Russian a lot too. And thus the day passes. Sometimes clouds gather in the afternoon and by nightfall a storm will have broken. We eat dinner on the balcony, watching the lightning, or just open the windows and stick our hands out to catch the raindrops.

Let me rewind to a couple of past events. First, Happy Independence Day to Ukraine! What happened here in Kharkov on that day? Well... not much. In fact the streets downtown looked like this by 11 PM:

Earlier in the evening we rushed through Shevchenko Park looking for beer. The semester had just ended the previous night and I wanted to celebrate! We stood briefly at the fringes of several small crowds (live music, arcade games) and traveled from kiosk to kiosk like a connect-the-dots before finally settling on some cheap marginally-alcoholic flavored beer. I had my heart set on buying it at another stand but surprise, surprise, the cashier didn't have any change. When that happens you simply get dismissed, sent away. This happen SO often here! Anyways, I was trying to decide whether to put my little aluminum can in a paper bag or not. It seemed like most people did, swigging beer (or something else?) out of a crumpled bag while walking with their families or dates, and the cashier actually gave us a bag when we bought the beer. But then again, others just blatantly gripped the long glass neck of their beer bottles and laughed. Of course, I ended up with my can in the bag. I keep hearing rumors that it's illegal to drink in public but the police ignore the drinkers and only pick on groups of African students without their IDs, as I saw happen several times that night.

(Meanwhile, other cities wasted no time in celebrating- check out this cute Kiev blog for details!)

The night before that, though, was different. August 23rd, 1943 was the day that the Red Army liberated Kharkov from the Germans back in WWII. There had been several previous attempts to do so; none had succeeded until this final battle. By that point the city was in ruins and the number of dead was staggering. To give you an idea of the chaos, there's a local story about several monkeys escaping the zoo's destruction and living in Freedom Square during these years, kept alive by handouts from kind-hearted locals. Remember the 23rd of August metro stop and the giant statue of a soldier with a rifle raised to the heavens? Yep, that's in honor of this, so it's a pretty big day for the city.

August 23rd, 2012 was the final day of the semester at my school. I was in class from almost 9 AM to 9 PM, missing a lot of the day's festivities. During one of my classes a student looked curiously to the window: "Is that thunder?" I assumed it was until I got outside and saw colorful fireworks in the distance. D and I quickly made our way to the crowded sidewalks and cobblestones of Sumskaya street, which had been closed to vehicles. There were fire dancers, a drunk foreigner shouting out один два три! repeatedly, groups of teenagers, beer bottles underfoot everywhere. Freedom Square was filled with giant TV screens and an eager audience for these guys- Дискотека Авария!!!!!!!!! I was SO THRILLED to join the audience- these guys have been on my playlist for the last 6 years. Here's one of the songs they played that night:
Дискотека Авария feat. Батишта - Лабиринт. If you like their style, here's another song to listen to. Tragically, according to the official Kharkov city website, Verka Serdyuchka (only the coolest cross-dressing nationalist ever) and Boney M were also on stage that day. Let my desperation be heard across the world: NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!! I would do manual labor on Mars for the rest of my life just to see those performances!!!! Psst- don't know Boney M? Watch this video and now you do. And I guarantee you won't soon forget them.
Yes, you may be asking yourself- what year is it? Well, I don't know about in Ukraine but in every Russian's heart there is a special corner dedicated to 1978 and to this song. You hear it on the radio and in the clubs so I'm not shocked to see these guys performing here on City Day. By the way, yes, I would pay to have a time machine and make the real Rasputin watch this video. One more national holiday to mention, this one taking place about 2,000 km away. Belgian Independence Day! This holiday showed up on the radar because the friend of a friend visited town, he happened to be Belgian, and we happened to all find ourselves at a picnic together on July 21st. There was fire-building, swimming, shashlik, and lots of toasting to international themes.
I can't get enough of the nature by this river! This is the same place we've visited several times before and it's always full of beauty.

Not long after we'd settled in, two men appeared and spread out a picnic blanket nearby. One of them was carrying this gorgeous cat in a shopping bag. The cat hopped out and started nibbling delicately on the grass. I worked up my courage and went over to complement the owner on his cat. I said, "You have an extraordinary cat." "Hey, I've seen you! You're that reporter on TV!" he replied. I stuttered, in my marginally acceptable Russian, "Um, nope, probably not."  He didn't appear convinced but he told me more about his housecat, such as how she could swim. "No way!" I replied in awe. "Oh yes, no doubt. She's a swimmer." he answered reassuringly. Tanya, I'm sorry, I know you think this is animal cruelty, but the rest of us just had to see if he was telling the truth. Sure enough, a short while later he stripped down to his speedo, picked up his cat, and waded into the water. When he reached deep water he let go of the cat which, true to his word, started swimming bravely..... toward the shore. The cat didn't look that upset and not a single meow escaped from her mouth but surely she couldn't have been a happy cat. Or could she? He repeated the swim one more time, telling us how he'd trained her to do this. And- this is a direct quote- "I might drink but I don't abuse animals." The cat got back to dry land, shook herself off, and haughtily stalked back to the picnic blanket.

And that- Ukrainian Independence Day, Kharkov City Day, and Belgian Independence Day- brings us up to now, vacation time and its possibilities. This week I want to explore a new part of town with an English student, organize a Scrabble game, meet a Texan for tea, and welcome my penpal Lena to town. There's a lot to do and only a limited amount of vacation to do it in, so I'd better get started!

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