Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Great Experiment

Great? Yeah, it could mean super fantastically awesome. But let's also remember the other meaning-

ambitious, long-term, something requiring notable effort or dedication. Possibly catastrophic.

It's not unusual for generations of Ukrainians to live together in one household. Parents, children, grandparents, all coexisting in one small apartment. This tends to be out of necessity and habit rather than choice. Now we too get to try out this traditional lifestyle.

How's that?

D's parents have come from America to visit. For two weeks.

That's a long time, and we have tried this before. Let's just call it The Great Fiasco of 2009. D and I moved cities and stayed with them for two months while apartment and job hunting. It ended in D needing an antibiotics prescription. It ended with me fleeing the apartment and sobbing to a friend on my cell phone by the side of the road and some random stranger pulling over and asking if I was okay. It ended with a lot of drinking on everyone's part. And then, mainly just to get out of the apartment, it truly ended with all of us taking twenty two hundred mile roadtrip. Together in a small van. One way. And then another twenty two hundred miles back the other way. This all just confirmed my opinion that families and in-laws are best appreciated from a distance. A distance of at least several hundred miles, which is now no longer possible as merely 10 feet and a wall separate us.

It's not that I don't love them. I do. They're intelligent and strong and have survived everything that life has thrown at them. It's merely that combining them + us + an extended period of time has proved combustible many times in the past and that leaves little hope for the future.

They arrived at 8 AM yesterday by train. We met them on the grandiose steps of the station, gathered the luggage, and quickly descended into the metro. Gracias a Dios neither D nor I have ever been stopped by Kharkov police. Not so for his father now, oddly enough. We passed thru the turnstiles one by one and then watched in surprise as a police officer began to question his father, a distinguished-looking man in his early seventies.
Police: Where are you coming from?
Father: Simferopol.
Police: What's in your bag? (a small, totally normal duffel bag)
Father: Clothes, other stuff.
Police: Where do you live?
Father: The United States.
And with those magical words the police officer immediately waved him on. D's father got a huge kick out of this. We went on to breakfast at Puzata Hata, a Ukrainian-themed fast food buffet, and then brought them to our apartment. I'd made the executive decision to offer the bedroom to them. The previous night we'd moved our belongings (which are thankfully few) out of the drawers and closet and left it almost empty for them, chocolates and welcome card on the vanity, bed turned up just like in a B&B. This meant that as in Ukrainian tradition, the formerly empty spaces in the hall closet and living room are now filled with our clothes and belongings. This adds to the experiment's authenticity, for surely such a situation is being repeated all over the city. Mom and Dad's stuff in one room, Grandma's stuff in the other closet, the child's stuff scattered among any remaining available space. It's a new feeling to have to open a drawer in my own living room to get socks or make-up, but if we all lived here and I had married D and moved into his parents' place (a totally plausible scenario), this is what the rest of my life would look like. Socks in the living room.

Okay, yeah, that's not such a big deal. Honestly, the most difficult things are a) two women- connected by one man- trying to live together in peace, and b) the language barrier. More on this to come.

Last night I organized a little welcoming party. The incredible, marvelous, stupendous duo of Timur and Yulia accepted our invitation and came over in the evening with a bottle of vodka. The day had gone pretty well after Puzata Hata. D had left shortly later for work, leaving me alone with his parents as Friday is my lesson-planning day. Miraculously I managed to finished most of my lessons and keep his parents entertained, watered, and fed. I coordinated with everyone and arranged Timur and Yulia's 8 PM arrival. The greatest feat was convincing D's father to participate, since he tends to be more of a cynical homebody. "What? Timur? No. Why would he want to meet a 72-year-old man? No, let's not have a party, there's nothing to celebrate." But thank you, Tanya, for being so suspicious all the time and teaching me the word подозрительный, because he laughed when I said it and finally agreed to the idea. 

The night was great, great in the first sense of the word! We polished off a bottle of Crimean cognac that D's parents had brought. Yulia and I sipped at vodka. We went to Шоти, a local ethnic restaurant that I keep meaning to write about one of these days. By the end of the night we felt like a group of good friends.

Then, this morning. Day two. Today's mood wasn't quite as high as yesterday's, as some of the newness of the situation has worn off. His parents already seem a little dissatisfied, although his mom didn't bring up grandchildren, as she did about 5 separate times yesterday. Today I think that everyone is feeling the language barrier. Yes, I've lived in Ukraine for a year and it still pains me to speak Russian for long periods (more than just a couple of hours. I'm ashamed but, eh, what to do?). Yes, his parents have lived in the US for 8 years and it still pains them to speak even a word of English. Therefore, by default the language we use is Russian. Being a language enthusiast this should thrill me, but really it's an awkward chore. Why is it always me at a disadvantage in Russian? Why don't they ever reciprocate and use English? (In Ukraine, I understand. But seriously, when we're all at the grocery store in America, why not use English then?)

So that kind of irks me and tires out my brain. If I say something to them in English, his mom turns her shoulder and says in Russian "I don't understand". So it's going to be 2 weeks of Russian. But who knows, maybe I'll final make that final leap towards fluency!

The other thing? Fortunately (thank God! thank God! thank God!!!!) we have a decent-sized apartment but not-so-conveniently we live in it as minimalists. Like practically a cup and plate each, a towel each, a pillow each, and so on. So of course there isn't going to be a huge American-sized stack of dishes from a set on sale at Walmart for $29. A single plate here is freakin' expensive, let alone a whole set, so we just inherited the odds and ends that the landlady had left. For two of us it's great. For 4, it's a stretch. In fact, I'm not digging the whole 4-person set-up. I can't believe how quickly we go through food and water. It feels like an army is sneaking in the kitchen and eating large quantities of food! This is of course complicated by the fact that nothing is sold in bulk so I foresee daily shopping trips in order to avoid cannibalism.
the food is good

On the other hand, at least we won't have to buy a variety of foods. His father's main meal is mashed potatoes. Every single day. Add a henhouse's worth of eggs for his mom, and maybe we'll be okay. 

That's where the egos of two women come into play. His mom and I, in our funny dance of Russian and broken Russian, are usually extremely polite with each other but each of us definitely has our own way of running the household. I feel really awkward when she's in the kitchen. Do I let her cook because she wants to? Because it makes her feel useful? But what when she begins to take her role more seriously and appoints herself the boss? Here's the thing- his mom is crazy sharp and resourceful. Fate may have forced her into the situation that her life has become, but don't think for a minute that she's anything but a cunning and hungry lion, albeit a declawed one. This woman ran the show back in the day and made sure that her family got by, I've heard lots of stories about this. But the part that has always worried me is that now she has nowhere to dress up and go every day and she has no hobbies and so this energy and drive must come out in other ways. Sometimes just like a bored cat, she will toy with you for the entertainment. I've tried encouraging her to get a hobby but the most I've seen her do is flip through a book when the boredom gets bad enough. Her hobby is making conversation, which is frustrating for both of us because it takes us back to the language issue. It's probably good that in the US she still does a lot of crisis-solving for the relatives because she can truly shine in that situation. But here, with us, with me? I don't have any problems for her to solve, so the toying begins. It hasn't quite started yet, but I can sense the electricity in the air.

Now again, D (you traitor!), has gone off to a class and left me here with his parents. We went for a walk along the river, which was decent enough until they started talking about how they could never live in Kharkov because "there's just something not right about it." D is overdue by an hour, dinner is cooling on the table, and they're asking me where he is and when he'll be back. But seeing as how, ahem, he left his phone here, I don't know. And obviously this blog is providing a much-needed outlet for my sanity!

Somehow every week this fall has felt like the busiest week of my life. I keep thinking "oh, next week will surely be calmer" but things just keep accelerating. Despite having fought for- and temporarily won- a smaller teaching schedule, my work hours doubled as of last week. Doubled! How did that happen?! And there's another teacher wanting me to cover up to 13 hours for him next week. Ugh, please, just no. Say it isn't so! At least the Spanish classes are going well. At this pace there probably won't be time to take them next semester, but it's a nice break and a chance to finally be the student instead of the teacher. Sit back and let someone else do the work : )

Well, it's been decided to forgo the wait for the wayward son and begin to eat. I'll have to continue documentation of The Great Experiment at a further date. Stay tuned and please email me in-law advice or helpful hints for miming complicated phrases, haha.

*Update: Got through dinner. D showed up halfway through, which was convenient because then his father announced his Very Good Idea, which went roughly like move back to America, buy a house, and have a grandson so the family name will continue.

Have you ever seen the cops questioning a suspect on TV? You know how sometimes the conversation will wander around and then suddenly bam! the cops will focus back on the incriminating question? That's exactly what it's like when they ask us when we're returning to America. They appear to think that we're guarding the answer and if they catch us off guard we'll accidentally reveal the number :p


  1. You are a braver lady than me. Unfortunately I don't have much good in-law advice. You spoke the truth, they are better enjoyed with them living in AK, and us down here. :) They make it down this was quite often. Luckily, Eric's brother lives close, has kids, and Britni (my sister-in-law) is a stay at home mom, so they always stay over with them. Nice for me! I get along well with Mark, Eric's dad. His mom Dixie? Gah. We are destined to never be close. We are just too different, she is too different from my mom, and I sympathize with the language barrier...she is very Mormon, I am not, and sometimes I feel like we are speaking a totally different language. Plus, there is that nagging suspicion that I am a huge disappointment because I'm not Mormon, don't stay at home and take good care of my husband, and don't have at least 2 kids by now. My best advice is be can't make them like you, but it will kill ya to be something you're not for their sake. <3 E

    1. Hi Emily, thanks for your thoughts, I'm trying to stand strong :p It sounds like you and I have many things in common in this situation. Seriously, what is it about MILs? No matter how much trouble they had with their own MIL, they turn around and do it to you 30 years down the line.... that probably means that someday two 25-year-old girls will start bitching about how difficult we are! And of course we'll consider them completely inappropriate for our dear sons, haha.

  2. Until I got half way through, I was wondering why you weren't concerned about her reading this! Sorry about the frustrations. You can be polite but you have all the rights to establish right from the beginning that you are boss of your own home and they are (welcomed) guests.

    1. I don't know if I can be the boss right now.... working mornings & nights + cleaning after 4 adults + cooking for 4 adults is too much. In the past I tried cooking for them, planning meals, and so on which always ended in temper tantrums because his father has only eaten soup and mashed potatoes for the past 10 years and doesn't trust other foods. So we've kind of divided the responsibilities, which is nice but leads to situations, miscommunications... for example, after feeling sick I recently found out that she uses the city tap water for things (soup, etc). Then I think to myself "What the hell?! There's a huge bottle of safe drinking water next to the kitchen table." but bringing it up doesn't seem polite, because she really is trying in other ways. I'm just so grateful that this is not my everyday life!

  3. WOW!!!...
    I wish Julia could read it!!!! If only she could speak English!...If she could tell you about her "Great ExperiENCE" You have just described one day of your life but it perfectly matches 11 years of our life. You are asking for advice, I have one, the only one possible - love your parents and live separetely. There is no way to solve these problems, you can only try to
    avoid them.
    Btw, it was awesome night and it was very interesting to meet Denis' parents, to hear about their impressions of the States.
    And another WOW!!! Katherine, you are great writer!

    1. Timur, Julia is my role model! She handles everything with so much grace! There's definitely something to be learned from her.

  4. Actually, you're doing quite OK.
    1. Be patient, polite, and express your emotions somewhere - 100% DONE
    2. Make them tired - 50% DONE; TODO - long walks, parties, cafés, shopping, museums, art-house movies (I'd recommend Боммеръ & 'Paris' places)
    3. Criticizing is easier than doing. Relax and let them act & express themselves. 100% TODO - don't cook, don't buy food, let them do this (but help to bring bags :) )
    4. Let them enjoy Russian/Ukrainian TV, books.
    And let your mutual truce become real peace.

    1. Thanks, Roman :) We did hit up Paris already. Had a bit of an incident there which totally represents the situation. His mom only ordered a bowl of soup and then made a big deal out of saying "oh, I'm soooo stuffed now, couldn't possibly eat a morsel more" but of course she still snacked on the meals of others. The incident happened when we ordered a fondue... first time ever for all of us! :) We were slowly whittling away the cheese & shrimp fondue when she decided to blow out the candle keeping it warm. This came as a shock to the rest of us- we were just sitting, eating, talking, and bam! randomly she leans over and blows the candle out. We're stunned- "why did you just do that?!" "Oh, well, I think it's going to overheat the cheese. It's for the best." Um, no, the cheese will solidify without the heat of the candle. Because she sees the upset expressions on our faces (not just mine!), she tries to cover her tracks by quickly picking up a fork and scooping out cheese & shrimp onto people's plates so that we'll eat it faster. Unfortunately, this was a fork that she had earlier dropped on the floor. You should have seen Denis' face!! :p
      She does things like that for attention all the time. It usually ends up making people yell at her but at least she gets the attention she wants. My modus operandi is just to ignore all of it.

      #3 is happening, as for #4 they don't seem to be interested in those things.
      I don't know about real peace but hopefully a truce will get us through the next week.

  5. Replies
    1. Hi MCD! It's going, very slowly and poorly that is. I've come to Coffee Life to escape from the apartment and pay $2 for a little cup of regular black tea and a sporadic internet connection. [sigh]

      There are a lot of communication problems. We're trying to use an English / Russian суржик to get by. Today I was in the kitchen with his mom, getting tea. I said to her in English "My class was cancelled today." She replied to this in Russian with "Oh, so you like that tea?" Thus most of the time I try to speak with them in Russian just to be understood but I HATE it. At first I thought I was starting to hate Russian, but used it with other people yesterday and found it really exciting, so it turns out that it's just talking to them in Russian that I don't like.

      Yesterday I had classes and stuff from 9:30 AM to 9:30 PM, so was only at home for one hour. His mom came and confronted me and started crying, saying we should be like family and that I keep her at arm's length and that she feels like an idiot for not being able to speak English, and I felt really, really terrible. I want them to be happy but sometimes it feels like they don't want to be happy. Then she dried up her tears and went away and was in bed already when I got home from work that night. We always have periodic conversations like this and then things go back to normal until the next time she feels emotional.

      I think the happiness thing is a cultural issue. My parents are the same age (60s, 70s) and their life has really blossomed recently: volunteering at a low-income clinic, taking trips to the beach, bagpipe lessons, studying Spanish, attending steampunk conventions in costume. You know, the traditional American "rediscover yourself in retirement" thing. But the Ukrainian mentality towards old age is so different. I don't understand what they want. It seems like they only want to be around us 24/7 and eating food or drinking tea, nothing else. I can gladly do that for an afternoon but not a week. It's just not in me. They don't understand why D and I check email or work on projects while they're visiting. I know that's not very hospitable but if they're here for 2 weeks we still have to keep up some semblance of normal life.

      Plus there's the occasional weird things. For example, relatives here had given them a big bar of soap as a gift. Regular old soap. They brought the soap to Kharkov and gave it to us. As there was already a new bar of soap in the soap holder, I left it on the storage ledge in the bathroom. Shortly later I enter the bathroom to see that his mom unwrapped the big hunk of soap and put it in the soap holder with the other bar... meaning there was hardly space for either bar of soap. Why? Seriously, why? It's like she has to have her way no matter what.