Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Three stories from Kharkiv

Late July: the days of packing.
It's been a month now since we've last had our own place. Nothing makes you feel college-age again like crashing with relatives ; ) I always forget how long it takes (and how awkward it is) to land somewhere and build up a new life. It is happening, though, and someday this will probably even seem like a brief intermission between completely different worlds. In the meantime, here are a few stories from the last world we inhabited.

By the way, if someone from the Ukrainian post office happens to read this, have you seen these boxes anywhere?

The New Tenant

Balcony/office corner. Hope the new tenant likes plants!
The landlady phoned a week before our move-out date. "Can you be around tonight?" she asked. "The realtor will come by with someone who wants to see the apartment." Sure enough, a few hours later came an eager knock and there stood the same eternally-excited estate agent who had shown us the place last year. Behind her was a willowy blonde in her early forties, the potential new tenant.

As they toured the place and peeked in cupboards and corners, the agent chattered on to all of us about one of her favorite topics- other foreigners. "Oh, and the neighbors are still Asians, right? They make such good neighbors, always so quiet. You know, when you two called me up last year I was rather relieved because the other party interested in this apartment was a black guy. Of course I didn't want to deal with him." Oh man. I'm sure not going to miss those kinds of statements!

Anyways, the blonde woman quickly said she'd take the place and everyone arranged themselves on the couch to do the paperwork. It was at about this point the blonde revealed she'd fled Lugansk in May and had been staying with relatives in Kharkiv. The agent paused after filling out a couple of blank lines on the new lease and looked up sharply. "Now, you understand that this isn't a short term rental, correct? It's at least six months, or better, a year." "Oh yes, let's go with a year", replied the blonde, then adding sadly (and prophetically), "there's nothing left for us to go back to."

After a few more minutes of silent scribbling, the agent raised her head again and asked what it was like to leave Lugansk. "I put the kids in the car and we left, started driving", answered the blonde. "But we got stopped later on the road at a checkpoint. They ordered us out of the car and took it from us."

"Bozhe moi!" exclaimed the agent. "Those separatists took your car?!"

But the blonde said nothing, just looking down at the floor. Later I heard that both sides had been rumored to commandeer vehicles. As for whatever actually happened that day, only the blonde knows- if she even does. In fact, the whole tale sounds far-fetched but a) that's what I heard, clear as a bell, as I sat there and b) inter arma leges silent, in times of war... and all that : (

Another knock on the door signaled the arrival of the landlady and that line of conversation then ended. The lease was filled out (by hand, in duplicate, of course) and passed around to be signed. The new tenant was scheduled to move in exactly 24 hours after we moved out, not wasting any time in her quest to resettle her children in a new home. Her last words as she was leaving the apartment: "I'd be grateful for anything- plates, cooking utensils, furniture- you could leave."

The Rug Maker

A few days before leaving, we saw an old woman sitting outside a small supermarket. Next to her was a beautiful knotted rug. Keep walking, I said to myself, now's not the time to be buying stuff. And we *almost* made it back home without that rug... but we decided to take a rest on a bench a little ways down the road and she came shuffling along about thirty minutes later. I could see the colorful fabric peeking out of her bag and took it as a buy-now-or-forever-hold-your-peace sign from the universe.

We approached her and she seemed to grow in age as we came closer. Hunched over a cane, holding a plastic bag with the rug in one hand and a bag of potatoes in the other, she was making incredibly slow progress towards a nearby looming block of apartments. When she saw us, however, she straightened up a few inches and started talking like we were old friends. "I made this rug with my own hands. No, it's not that difficult at all! My daughter, she brings me old clothes and I cut them into pieces and then turn them into this. But you have to have a good eye for design, of course, that's important. And a big table to work on."

I asked her how much, assuming it would be at least 50 uah for a handmade product of that size. "Ten rubles", she replied. (Yes, rubles. Occasionally older folks speak this way.) Reader, just imagine being in your eighties, making huge rugs by hand and selling them for 75¢ to supplement your pension. And forget about driving, you're carrying home sacks of potatoes to peel and cook.


"I've been working since I was 13. I worked in the same factory for a long, long time. For thirty years, all the way up to retirement, I was a crane operator. I can't sit still, I have to work." she told us as she leaned on her cane. It seems like every babushka in Ukraine has a similar story to tell, one of childhood among the days of the Second World War, years of labor, and now a life that revolves wholeheartedly around supporting the family's next generation. Lydia was like that. D's mom too. I can't say that it hasn't been an area of contention between her and I, her with those self-sacrificing beliefs confronting America's idea that these are supposed to be the golden years, the ones we wait for all our lives (retirement! travel! golf! motor homes! spoiling the grandkids!). That's not what it's like to be old in Ukraine and I understand that now. The groups of old women gossiping on benches outside apartment buildings, the ones who as a group fall silent and stare you down as you walk by, have become my heroes. They're survivors, outliving entire political systems and currencies. They're the mothers who saw their sons sent off to wars and stood in lines for hours to bring home food. They're the women who held families together through periods of turmoil.

I wish someone could sit down with every single one of them and record all their stories for the future to learn from.

PS: D's mom is rocking it nowadays, taking ESL classes at a local community college.

PPS: The rug was quite heavy so it was one of the many things we left for the new tenants to enjoy.

The Wild Goose Cat Chase

This last story is a little more lighthearted and fortunately, didn't turn out to be the kind of wild goose chase that leaves you empty-handed. I even have a pretty picture-
At the very least, the sky is pretty, right? Clinic #1 is in the distance here.
As you probably remember, Kит got his international pet passport back in March. Long story short, then it was pay-2000-uah-for-a-[dubious?]-blood-test time according to the vet, who assured us that everything was almost cleared for takeoff and that we'd just need to visit two clinics within 3 days of departure to get the final okay. One clinic would conduct the final check-up and the other would process the paperwork. Per Ukraine bureaucratic statue 5322.17.8459.bжa.42 and for maximum convenience, these clinics must be located across town from each other and both quite far from any possible metro stop. To be honest, it was sincerely remarkable and pleasant in that we managed to accomplish an entire government-y task in just a single day.

The ensuing timeline of events:
7:00 AM: Ride the metro to the end of the line.
7:50 AM: Walk past the Caravan shopping mall, catch a passing tram.
8:10 AM: Disembark, began searching for clinic #1. No luck. Consult with passerby: Oh, it's the opposite direction, way down the road. Better take the tram.
8:30 AM: No trams in sight. Begin walking down the tracks. Tram approaches, going opposite direction. Leave tracks, begin walking in mud puddles from the previous day's rain.
9:00 AM: Re-consult Google Maps. No details. Stop a mother and son (with a cat in a basket!) and ask. They point at a building in the distance.
9:30 AM: Walk through road construction zone. Arrive at clinic.
9:40 AM: Wait for vet. Family walks out with dog in basket. Enter office where vet is sitting at desk and assistant is drinking tea.
9:45 AM: Assistant is stone-faced. Why on Earth are you here? You don't live in this district. You need to go to the other clinic. 
9:50 AM: Between sips of her tea, the assistant spots Кит. Immediately softens and begins to coo at him: Aw, sweet guy. Does he want some water maybe?
10:00 AM: Outside the clinic, waiting for taxi.
10:20 AM: Taxi arrives. A cat?!! You've got to be kidding, I'm not taking it. The last one peed on the seat and it took forever to get the smell out. No way. Finally the driver agrees, with plenty of dirty looks in the rearview mirror.
11:10 AM: Make it to clinic #2. Big tip to the driver, who suddenly becomes very friendly: We've been taking our dog to this clinic for years! They'll take care of everything!
11:30 AM: Young woman in lab coat motions us into a large room with half a dozen exam tables. A dog is whimpering atop one as a vet with bloody gloves operates. Lab coat woman puts Кит on table, looks him over. She motions for us to pick him up and follow her.
11:50 AM: We follow her to another hallway where she opens a door and leads us into the dark. "The dark" turns out to be an extremely small room, pitch-black. She shines a black light over the cat's body. Satisfied, she clicks it off and orders us out.
11:51 AM: I exit, followed by D. A frowning cleaning lady walks by before Кит and lab coat lady emerge. And exactly what were you two doing in there, hmmm?? This is when I realize that tiny room was probably a bathroom. Кит's examiner then enters the hall and the cleaning lady breaks into a laugh.
12:00 PM: The woman in the lab coat gives us a slip of paper to take to the bank and pay for.
1:10 PM: Bank is pretty far on foot. By the time we get there, I figure Кит has done his duty for the day. See a tram coming so I hop on and take him home. D waits in line at the bank, pays, and walks back to the clinic.
1:20 PM: Lab coat woman is gone. D shows to receipt to another guy and is directed to room 3.
1:30 PM: Waits in line at room 3. Reaches front of line and is informed by the woman at desk to go upstairs to room 14.
1:40 PM: Room 14 is a success. They accept the vet's paperwork, lab coat woman's paperwork, and the receipt and hand D a new document to give to the airport officials at the airport exam. Mission completed!

As far as these kinds of affairs go, it was not as complicated as we'd feared or as perhaps others have had to experience. I'm glad it all worked out and we've been able to stay together as a family.
Kit visiting the home of his "grandparents".
He's even met Chili, my parents' loyal and mild-mannered "other daughter". (Their words, not mine :p)

Chili loved Kit- she hasn't met any cats and assumed he was no different than the small dogs she meets in the neighborhood. As you can guess, the love was not mutual though. Kit prefers to keep an eye on her from a great distance away.

I'm going to close with these 3 photos from our final week in Kharkiv that I never had the chance to share before. The first one, well, as an English teacher it just cracks me up. Hope you like it too. As for the other two, they're reminders that as everyday as some of my stories are, there's still a lot of not-normal in Ukraine these days.

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