Wednesday, November 13, 2013

What is Ukraine?: an odd collection of quotes

Ukrainian FAQ: all the questions Ukrainians are undoubtedly sick of answering
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There's one question that people always ask you more than any other when you're a foreigner living in Ukraine.

Not "Where are you from?"
Not "Why did you come here?"
Not even "Do you like our country?"

The #1 question of all time (other than, of course, "Have you tried salo yet?") "What are the biggest differences between our country and your country?". To which I always sputter and wave my hands and try desperately to think of something honest. Or at least clever. It's really hard to come up with this stuff on the spot, even if just 2 hours earlier I'd been thinking "Whoa, now that's interesting!" in regards to some previously-undiscovered Ukrainian custom or food.

In general, pinpointing the differences between "us" and "them" is not such a hot idea. It closes us off, builds walls between people, makes locals less tolerant of outsiders, and adds to the 'culture shock' burden that all travelers face. On the other hand, if everything and everyone were the same, why would we travel? Why not just stay home? There's a fine line to be walked between the thrill and excitement of discovering something new against the kind of black/white thinking that starts wars.

In my daily life I try to just accept Ukraine unconditionally. Someone says "Eat this traditional fbgfnh", I say "okay, yum!". Someone says "It's bad luck to give someone 12 roses", I buy 13. A friend gets pregnant? I know that there will be no gifts or baby shower until after the baby is born. In fact there's a whole part of me now that simply sees the world through different eyes. Yes, air conditioners might indeed be bad for health. Cold watermelon too. Yes, there might be a domovonok sneaking around the house. Yes, I've stopped sitting at the corner of the table for fearing of never getting married. Yes, there's nothing unusual about mayonnaise, ketchup, salad dressing being sold in a bag instead of a jar. There's another part of me, the old part, that always remembers the old ways. I used to whistle indoors (this will cause you to lose money). Used to keep empty bottles on the table (no one does this). It's still hard to remember not to take the garbage out at night (bad luck). Celebrating New Years instead of Christmas, that one always feels a little strange.
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I've been slowly constructing a list, kind of like this one, but it's divided into things that no longer faze me vs things that will probably never become second nature. Luckily, the first list is a lot longer than the second : ) Anyway, that list is still a work in progress but in the meantime I have been carrying around a little notebook and jotting down fragments of conversations with Ukrainians. For one reason or another, these quotes/conversations really stood out.

A friend talking about the remodelling in Ukraine and how it never, ever ends:
"I lived there [in that apartment] for 6 years and every fucking day someone was drilling. Then, one day, it was me. I hired a bunch of guys and remodelled the apartment. Then I moved abroad. Now I came back and some asshole is still drilling."

During a conversation about the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and all of its scientific follow-up:
"We had Chernobyl way back when and still nobody knows what's going on."

After viewing an article on British mathematician Alan Turin (b. 1912, d. 1954), considered to be the father of computer science:
Me: "Did you know he was homosexual?"
Friend: "I didn't know people like that were around back then!" 

After a massive storm caused lots of damage in the US:
"Why are your buildings so flimsy? Why don't you build all your houses out of something sturdier, like brick?"

While waiting 20 minutes for a taxi, outside, at midnight:
Me: "Hey Natasha, want to go sit down [on that concrete ledge]?"
Natasha: "No, we can't sit there. It's too cold, it's not a good thing to do if you want to be able to have kids someday."

It's an odd collection of quotes to be sure, but they all stuck with me. In some small way, they define part of the complexity that is Ukraine.


  1. I am from Ukraine.
    I don't like Russian.
    I think Ukraine should join the EU, not Russia.
    There are many smart people here, but it seems that the govermnent is not interested in smart people, so they immigrate to Europe or the US.

    .... nowadays I feel sorry for Ukraine's future.

    1. Hi Lena! There's been a lot of anti-EU advertisements popping up here and I want to share them in a future post. Are you seeing the same ads around Kyiv?