Thursday, August 30, 2012

Tea with a Texan and the approach of fall

Despite the threat of rain, I set out this morning on a trek across town for the promise of real chai. See, the Russian word чай (chai) means tea but it's always just regular tea, not what we often think of a chai (spice) tea. Starr, however, had been to India recently and scored some real chai.... and then made the mistake of telling me about it :p Living in Ukraine there are only a couple American staples that I miss and chai tea is one of them.  The others- root beer, peanut butter, cheddar cheese- I can live without as long as I don't start eating them. One spoonful of peanut butter and I'd start having crazy cravings, so it's better to just abstain and Ukrainianize my diet. Borsch, anyone? But chai? That's irreplaceable.

It was a long walk to Starr's place. I went through downtown and through Freedom Square, where there was some kind of subdued demonstration going on with almost as many policeman as protesters. I passed the wedding palace and all the attendant dress shops with gowns modeled more after wedding cakes than actual fashion. Google maps (or my hand-sketched drawing) led me a bit astray at the end, but I got to see this awesome kvas advertisement while wandering the neighborhood.

Starr's apartment was like the featured article from a design magazine. It broke most of the typical Kharkov apartment commandments: it was in a new building, the building had more than 7 stories, it had a DISHWASHER (which I barely even recognized after all this time!), the elevators had a real digital display in the lobby, instead of a domofon there was a video screen, a stove you didn't have to light by hand, actual smoke detectors in the building.... need I go on? On top of that the place had a minimalist design that focused attention on the giant picture windows overlooking a nearby park. Even the refrigerator was subtly designed to look like a cabinet and had a freezer compartment on the bottom (oooooh!). No wonder one of the Metallist players lives in the same building! If Bruce Wayne had a penthouse it would probably look like this. And should I even mention the mini sauna in the bathroom??

Okay, Starr, have I sufficiently embarrassed you by awing over your place? :p

It was nice to sit and talk and not be scolded for speaking English or wondering what the heck a certain word meant. And the chai? World travel via teacup! We started off with a fragrant flowered tea from Dubai and enjoyed a more traditional spicy chai from India with our salads. Mmmm.... the first time I've had kalamati olives in ages!

Getting home was another circuitous adventure. The rather ornate top of this church appeared in the distance and, of course, curiosity demanded an investigation.
This is a new church, храм в честь иконы Божией Матери «Взыскание погибших», and in front of it is a memorial to those Kharkovians killed during the USSR's nine long years of war in Afghanistan.

Gospel of St. John 15:1
Right: There is no greater love than love of those who would sacrifice their soul for their friends.

Right: the names of those killed in action?

Then I ran across street art!
Rollana Street had a beautiful and lengthy mural with a French theme. Unfortunately it was a bit faded by the years and weather.
My rough translation: Napoleon called me one time and said "I miss Kharkov!" so of course I invited him to our place for a couple cups of tea. (D says this is a bit of play on words and references not only Napoleon the man, but also Napoleon cake.)

the Eiffel tower
Then, flags of the world on Danylevskogo Street. I only know how to spell this because I took a picture of the street sign (thank you Euro 2012, all the street signs have names written in the latin alphabet). A man passing by said to me "What, are you making sure you don't get lost?" I just gave kind of a noncommittal "mmmhuh".

The windmills and hot air balloons of Chichibabina Street.

At last I saw the concrete skyscrapers (небоскреб) of Derzhprom beckon! These are a) where the monkeys lived during WWII and b) some of the first and largest skyscrapers built during the USSR.
Tomorrow, September 1st, is the first day of school. Preparations were underway at the city's many universities.

Remember all that lovely tea I drank with Starr? Well, it had been at least an hour since I'd left her place... that means pee-or-die time! Those fancy new automatic porta-potties were nowhere to be seen, only the old-fashioned type staffed by a middle-aged woman. "Ahha, I understand", she said as I handed over 2 grivna, "you're a foreigner! Where are you from?" When I named America she smiled and immediately responded with a few words she had learned in English. She switched back to Russian as she showed me to a stall "for the ladies", opened the door, and pointed around inside like I didn't know what to do :P "And don't touch the toilet seat, it's not hygienic." This was probably the most exciting moment of her afternoon! Earlier I had stopped to buy Napoleon cake (a local fav) for Starr and had a similar experience. Trying quickly to think of how to say I wanted a large portion of cake and not just a slice, I told the cashier "Napoleon cake, please, a big box (большая коробка)." Something in there must have gone wrong, because she got the same look in her eyes, returned with the box of cake and the price tag from the shelf. She pointed at the price tag as she recited the price. It was kind of a cute courtesy, but it made me feel slightly pathetic too. On one hand it feels safe when people treat me like this- like a child- because at least they know I'm not a dumb adult, just a foreigner. On the other hand, this needing-people-to-know-I'm-a-foreigner is a crutch, stopping me from getting the courage it takes to really speak a new language well. *Sigh* You have to jump in and get your hands dirty or you'll always be stuck translating things back and forth in your head.

Two pictures from the way home. Go on, I dare you: just try to tell me it doesn't look like fall is approaching.

This is the sort of dismal grayness and bare trees that I expect of fall. And the air was scented with that heavy rot of autumn. It's here, I know it. I actually like fall, at least the cozy part where the leaves change color and you get to wear cute fall fashions for a couple of months.

More proof of the impending weather change? The language is changing. Three times, three times!, on the way home I heard "Ты замерзла?" People never say this in the summer (unless you're doing something dangerous like standing within 20 feet of an air conditioner or not wearing socks while on a wooden floor). The first time I (over)heard it was from a guy in the street, talking on a cell phone. The temperature, by the way, was 15 C / 59 F. Next, from the вахта, as I approached my building. And the third time again from the вахта, this time to a little girl coming back from a walk with her father. "She has a new baby brother", the вахта whispered to me, "her mother gave birth two days ago. At home! What a brave woman!" The collection of mothers/old men/вахта present, gathered on a bench to gossip, put on their doting faces and began to sympathetically question the little girl. "Sweetheart, tell us, what's your teeny baby brother's name?" {Note: this is the same face and tone of voice they use when they talk to me! Ack!} This happened when I'd gone back downstairs to invite the вахта to tea- and I wasn't alone.
Кит wants readers of this blog to know exactly how he prefers spending his day... (getting cat hair all over the pillows!)

... but sometimes I make him socialize. The вахта was holding him and fawning over his soft fur as she agreed to come for tea this weekend. I had mentioned the idea a long time ago, on an afternoon when we were moving in and she presented me with two houseplants. Then followed a long period of agonizing over the idea, because a social event that I think worthy of 30 - 60 minutes always ends up taking at least 3 hours here. Finally, after a frantic should-we-or-shouldn't-we phone call with D, I bit the bullet, grabbed Кит, and went downstairs. I promised her tea and Napoleon cake. She promised me a short 20 minute visit. Whose offer would you put your money on? ; )

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