Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Snapshots of Ukrainian Life, Part 14

Having a slow day? Find some inspiration here!

 A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world. - John le Carré

Monday, April 29, 2013


It's an easy mistake to make, assuming that moving abroad means you'll quickly and painlessly become fluent in the local language. "The immersion method," they say, "it totally works." We all hear stories of people who were able to converse in Spanish like a pro after only a summer in Argentina. We all know someone who could speak impressive Norwegian after a semester studying abroad. And of course there's pop culture polyglottery and language hackers like Benny the Irish Polyglot, the man who claims that 3 months is enough to get conversational in languages like Mandarin.

I love Benny- he's an absolute inspiration in a world full of naysayers- but is it true? I doubt immersion is the absolute answer. If it were, there would be no Chinatowns. If it were, surely all expat wives would be fluent, as they are usually the ones dealing with shopping, education, doctors, and domestic engineering non-stop in the new language. Even 2 years of living with the locals as a Peace Corps Volunteer isn't always enough to get you there.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Spring in the kitchen! (весна на кухне!)

Technically it's dinner time right now and I really should get started... but first, a quick update from the kitchen. It's been so long since the last на кухне post, ой!

With the banishment of winter and the triumphant victory of spring, we're craving lighter, fresher fare. Mangoes, for example. They're bloody expensive at the market but they. are. perfect! Two days ago we had, I kid you not, the best mango ever! And the only one I've ever paid $10 for...

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Every dog has his (picnic) day

My eyes open at 8:21 AM.

"D, hurry!!" I shout and spring out of bed. "We've got nine minutes!" By hustling we manage to make it downstairs by 8:35 AM. Waiting for us is Lydia, the building вахта who has taken us under her wing from day one. "There you are!" she chirps. She's adorned with her usual armament of pink frosted lipstick, rouge, and black mascara. In true Ukrainian picnic style, she's wearing navy blue track pants and black heels. With a quick point toward the grocery bags and a "let's go!", we're off on the first picnic adventure of the year!

D and I haven't the slightest idea where we're headed, so Lydia leads the way. Being the kind of conversationalist who doesn't need much fuel to keep the fire going, we can barely keep up with her. So, I tried to get my grandson to come with us. He's 19 years old. I got up at 5 AM and prepared some pelmeni for his breakfast and reminded him about the picnic....Oh, watch out! Don't walk between those telephone poles- it'll give you a headache! Anyways, my grandson said 'Why would I go with you? I don't know those foreigners at all.' But me, I'm just delighted, it's so important to meet new people, you know... 

We catch the 272e marshrutka and travel down Shevchenko street. At some point things start to look familiar and we figure out our destination- the Zhuravlevsky Hydropark! Lots of people are outdoors today, cleaning up the city. Some groups appear to be sponsored by the Party of Regions, a political group whose blue and yellow flags flap gently in the background. "It's субботник, Saturday labor", says Lydia. "I remember doing that myself before, on Lenin's birthday (April 22nd) or on the first of May (beginning of the May holidays)." A city-wide cleaning will take place today and throughout the country, reports this news article.
I see young women in track suits halfheartedly raking up dead leaves. Gloved children follow parents around, helping collect trash. Dump truck drivers manuever their filled vehicles over curbs and drive off. Burning piles of sticks and debris complete the scene, sending smoke signals up into the sky.
If you're wondering why the city is so smoky these days.... :p
As it's early morning, the park is empty. It's only us, the субботник volunteers, and a few old folks.
Three old men are standing near the river, one fully clad in a worn suit, the others in skimpy speedos. About twenty feet away two old women are lying on towels. "Look, there they are!" Lydia nudges me. She's been telling me about these dedicated river-goers all morning. "See how dark their skin is? They're out here all winter, I'm telling you! It's wild!"
Because we arrive so early, we score the prime picnic spot- nestled in a grove of trees is this improvised picnic table. Later, as more people drive and walk into the area, I catch some envious glances. Sometimes it pays to be the early bird.
D, who didn't have time for a cup of black tea earlier, has been a bit sleepy and sullen throughout the journey to the park. But now the manly task of setting up the fire stirs his blood and he begins to show some signs of life :P Meanwhile, Lydia and I are distracted by a pack of dogs, circling half-heartedly and barking in our direction.
Lydia knows these dogs. As she slips off her heels, she mentions being a friend of their caretaker.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Sunday, April 21, 2013

6 signs of spring!

It's indisputable- spring!
Down in the metro, workers have removed the outermost set of doors. It's so nice to just breeze through instead of struggling past.
Trees have burst into bloom.
First picnic of the year = success!
The city smells of smoke. Piles of dead leaves are being raked and burned to clear green areas for summer.

Сырок, the perfect warm weather treat, is finally appealing again.

How will you celebrate? : )

Friday, April 19, 2013

More McDonalds

This is kind of embarrassing to write about. It's one of those cliches that Americans are known for- starting wars, wearing tacky shorts in cathedrals, and spreading fast food around the world like a venereal disease :p But I stumbled across the picture below in my Russian textbook last night and now I've got McDonalds on the brain.
This is an old textbook, rescued from a professor's giveaway pile several years ago. It was published in 1991, the year the USSR dissolved into the CIS, so everything had been written a year or two prior with the assumption that the USSR would still be around upon publication. It's full of model conversations about cooperative apartments and the exciting return of commercialism. The authors were very enthusiastic about the introduction of new words like маркетинг (marketing), words "so new that the stress has not yet been fixed" and мини-ЭВМ (electronic mini-computer).

Anyways, part of the textbook's overall storyline involves Bob McDonald, an exchange student from Columbia University who has (as of chapter 3) spent most of his time hanging around the office and looking scruffy. In the picture above, fur-hatted Boris asks: "Bob, if it's not a secret, are you related to the famous McDonald guy?" "No," replies Bob, "my father is a businessman". Hmmm... product placement, anyone?
In this second picture we see the first McDonalds cafe to open in Moscow in January 1990. You might think to yourself "Wow! It was like Black Friday for french fries back then!" but wrong! It still is! Here's a McDonalds news release from January 22, 2013: Kyiv McDonalds again becomes the 2nd most popular in the world. AGAINST 34,000 OTHER MCDONALDS, people!! Imagine!* And just a few weeks later, on Feb 4th, 2013, a new press release: 8 Ukrainian McDonalds entered in the world's top 100.

(*D and I actually went there once in 2007 and were lucky to escape with all our limbs intact.)

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Leaving Pripyat


27 years ago, in the month of April, our world changed. Thousands suffered, millions cried. Until Japan's recent tragedy, it was the only level 7 event on the International Nuclear Event Scale.

Pripyat is a small town 3 km away from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. I never imagined that one day I'd meet one of Pripyat's children, one of the 49,000 residents who had to leave his home forever on that April afternoon. Roman has agreed to share his experiences with readers of this blog. It's impossible to say how long the shadow of this nuclear disaster will continue to haunt the land, but it's clear it will be for much longer than the three days that Roman's family was told to pack for.

Here's Pripyat in 2009-
photo credit: Timm Suess via photopin cc 

Roman, please tell us, where were you born? Where did you live as a child?

I was born in the town of Pripyat (Припять) and lived there until the evacuation.

What are your most vivid memories of your hometown?

I remember lots of things: great nature around the town (pine forests that we walked in and vacationed in, spacious river marshes we roamed by motor boat and yacht), interesting spots near the town (a few villages), lots of fun within the town (playing with friends, the swimming pool, movie theater, parks and other amusements).

I recall once around the early kindergarten years I heard a siren so there must have been some accident related to the nuclear power plant (NPP). What I don't remember- any crime or unhappy faces around me.

photo credit: Timm Suess via photopin cc

Do you remember the day you found out about the disaster at Chernobyl?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

True Love 3

Back to the lovers' bridge for a third time, this time with our own lock and key!
Despite all the borsch and vodka consumed the previous evening, Sasha, Igor, D, and I still managed to roll out of bed (or off the couch, in Sasha and Igor's case) at a decent hour the next day. We set up camp on the balcony with 2 blank locks, an arsenal of nail polish, and a single red paint pen.
Not as easy as it looks! Glad that D could pull it off :p
Despite the fickle weather usually found in early March, that day was not bad- rather blustery and hopeful and warm enough for a little extra sightseeing on the way to the bridge.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Once (or twice) in a blue moon

Maybe a blue moon really did rise the previous night, because what else could explain us being able to wake up (and get out of bed!) at 5 AM? 5 AM!
This rare event first happened on a Monday several weeks ago. D decided to check out a very early Aikido class, which meant being out the door by 6 AM. I didn't want to be the lazy bum still in bed (well...maybe I did just a little) so we hit the sidewalk together. Pushkinska street was starkly lit by the rising sun- the colors leeched away by the intense whiteness of the light- and populated by older male joggers, huffing their way past closed storefronts. Eerie, let me tell you, eerie. Almost like our nighttime trip down Pushkinska. Where were the young guys in jeans? Where were the Arabic-speaking medical students? Where were the women tottering in 5 inch heels? Gone... just us and the stout old men in track pants.

It felt so cool to wake up before everyone else that we managed to do it one more time that week.
7 AM that Wednesday saw us back on the streets, this time headed toward the Lopan river.

Note how the paved street turns to cobblestone.
Count Dracula's home! jk
To the right, a pedestrian encountering a pack of cheerful stray dogs.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Кино, or You Ought to be Ashamed if You Haven't Heard of These Guys

You know what's been missing from my life lately? Music!

Music is a universal passion. It's a drug for your brain- it can make you feel invincible, make you laugh, make you cry, make you furious. It's at weddings and funerals, piped into elevators, played around campfires, found in prisons and playgrounds. We all share the common thread of music and I miss listening to it. All I listen to these days are the yowls of the cat demanding more food in his bowl.

So this is me, committing to listen more (to music, not to the greedy cat) and, of course, to share it with you!

This awesome song represents my mood today. As far as drugs go, it's a downer, a barbiturate. If you can't understand the lyrics, it sounds like a song for the end of the world. No hope, nothing left. If you can understand the lyrics, well, probably the same

As my friend played this song in his car the other week, we drove through slushy streets of the city.  Past mothers and children still bundled in winter jackets, fidgeting on the curb. Alongside ancient yellow-and-red city trams, the paint flaking off their sides in thick crusts. This song was the perfect backdrop to the scenes around us. My friend pointed out a building in the distance. The building looked new and habitable save for a construction crane still parked off the side. "A guy I know bought an apartment in that building", said my friend over the music. "He's got a family, you know, and decided it was time to move them all out of the grandparents' home. Paid the money, got all ready to move, and then the government said no one could live there after all. Everything just stopped."

Monday, April 1, 2013

Killer icicles

Исчезаю в весне, I disappear in spring,
в толпе,
in the crowd,
в лужах, 
in the puddles,
в синеве.
in the blue.
И не ищите. 
And don't look for me.
Мне так хорошо...
  I feel so good...

April 1st, hooray! This morning a warm breeze lifted the spirits of everyone I saw out on the streets. Yesterday we walked past a dozen burly men huddled on the staircase of a beauty shop, hurriedly puffing away on their cigarettes under an overhang while the rains poured down. Today people are standing around on the sidewalk like newly-replanted flowers, smoking, talking on cell phones, just enjoying the promise of spring.

Fortunately, this also means that soon your chances of death by icicle or roof ice will be reduced to zero.
melting away!
Immediately after last week's storm, citizens of the city went to work to reduce this danger. I saw men up on roofs, nothing but a bare rope tied around their waists, clearing snow by pushing it down onto the pavement below. Others leaned out their windows with long poles, smashing the heavy icicles that dangled precariously overhead. As the snow began to melt, even the fattest icicles whittled down into gnarled stalactites, dangerous ice knives that decorated all the buildings in town.