Ukrainians gathered in the open-air museum of Pirogovo on July 6 to celebrate Ivana Kupala, an ancient summer holiday. Guests jumped over the fires, sang and danced to folk tunes. Young gils made flower wreaths and floated them in the water hoping to find a soulmate. (Olga Novak)
In this post I will be taking a temporary detour Along the Back Roads of Ukraine to write about what I discovered on the roads in my own back yard.
This past week I enjoyed experiencing another of part of Ukrainian “Exceptionalism.” I witnessed how one man’s passion to help his fellow man personifies why life is good when real people care and accomplish a worthwhile project without having the government to have a hand in it.
It took an unusual chain of events with a strange twist for me to be in the audience on this particular evening. I had received an email announcing an event that was to take place later in the week. Since I don’t read or understand the two languages used in Ukraine well, the message found its way into the trash bin.
Thanks to Denys Osetrov, who was wearing a shirt with the words jazz and jazz news written all over it is how I learned the contents of the email I deleted. We were standing in front of the reception desk talking about his shirt and how it would make an excellent teaching tool for my English classes when he suddenly asked if I liked jazz because there was going to be a jazz concert later in the week and did I get the email inviting everyone to attend?.
I went back to my computer and logged in to check my messages and to retrieve the email from my trash bin. I noticed that the author of the email was on Skype. I sent him a message and he asked me if I was going to the Jazz Concert? I told him I heard about his concert, but I had jettisoned his email into my trash bin because it was written in a foreign language. He politely apologized because he hadn’t sent it to me in English.
I have known Misha Dyrda for nearly two years. We work together for an IT company in Kiev called EPAM (www.epam.com) whose slogan is: Delivering Excellence in Software Engineering. From time to time we have engaged in many interesting topics. One of the ironies in the twisted chain of events that day was I discovered a special passion of his, Delivering Excellence by Volunteering to help raise money to buy medical equipment for kids and adults with special needs who have Cerebral Palsy by negotiating with musicians and club owners to perform and use their facilities for free.
Last night my wife and I had the pleasure to be in the audience listening to the sounds of jazz with many of my fellow EPAM co-workers enjoying the fruits of Misha’s labor of love when he presented his first concert he had arranged to raise money for CP and special needs that brought in nearly 7000 UAH for this wonderful cause!
To be continued
My first visit to Ukraine in the fall of ’03 was a whirl wind of activity to see and experience as much as possible in 30 days. One of the major activities was going shopping for food. In America the environmental conscience prides themselves on all the farmer markets that are open in the summer time to sell fresh organic produce from peoples’ gardens.
Well, the farmer market concept I discovered operating in Kyiv was one doozey free enterprising outdoor marketplace that makes those weekend wonders back home in America seem pathetic in comparison. Here the outdoor markets are open year around.
There are hundreds of these markets operating throughout the capital city of Kyiv. The first one I visited was quite large where you could buy literally almost anything, except what you really needed. You quickly become a master of improvisation to make do with what is available. If they don’t have it, it is your problem not theirs. Ah, who doesn’t love a good mystery or challenge? Little things I took for granted were missing here. However, if you find the right person they probable can make anything you want at a reasonable price. This is a land where you still can have something that is broken fixed or repaired and I mean anything from the very simple to the most complex.
I am getting ahead of myself. I was anxious to see how the locals shopped and variety of foods that was available. We had to walk approximately 10 minute to get to the market. I had my trusty backpack on to carry the groceries we would be buying home. when we arrived the market was filled with thousands of people. I was astounded to see all the fruit and vegetables on sale. Certainly there wasn’t a shortage of food, as there was a shortage in variety. All the produce that’s sold anywhere in the city is controlled by one supplier. Not a bad business to control.
Being a foreigner from across the pond is wasn’t difficult to see that health standard or regulation didn’t exit. I didn’t mind because I grew up on a farm so I wasn’t shocked by what I was seeing. Many Americans would be quite disturbed how things are done over here. They probably would become squeamish seeing flies all over the fresh meat, as the sellers attempt to brush them away with a small tree cutting under a hot sunny sky. Then there were pesky little yellow jackets that have a fondness for ripe fruit were buzzing around everywhere. Americans would be running for cover, but the calm Ukrainian shoppers goes about their business without concern.
The Ukrainians haven’t a problem with living green. It was a way of life before globalization. The majority of population is not concerned about consequences of mass produced food or about political correctness of the western world. They are more concerned about more heady matters, like improving their day to day lives and enjoying the quantity and variety of food and goods the new market economy has provided.
However, Ukrainians are losing their organic lifestyle quite rapidly because naturally produced food is being replaced by large global agriculture conglomerates whose farming methods are far from being green.
When I first arrive to Ukraine farmers markets were filled with organic field tomatoes, vegetables, poultry, meat, and fresh fruit. In spite of lacking sanitary safeguards it was wonderful to eat food that actually had taste for a change. You don’t hear of people dying or becoming ill from the food they eat here. More than likely they have developed a tough constitution and have adapted quite well to their environment throughout the years.
Now when you buy vegetables at the outdoor markets from individual gardens that are grown in rural villages and pay twice as much for the pleasure, you don’t know if they are organic or they have been purchased at the local wholesale food market and resold as organic.
If that isn’t sobering enough, how about falsified products produced by greedy local businessmen who bribed officials that are responsible for insuring all products meet safety and health standards. When a TV channel recently done an investigation of local butter it found that 50% of all samples of butter on sale at major supermarket chains were falsified and really wasn’t butter.
Living in Ukraine may be a lot like playing the deadly game of chance, Russian roulette or eating a Forest Gump chocolate, you don’t ever know what you are going to get.
Seven years have passed since I first visited Pyrogovo. So much has changed in my life and at Pyrogovo. The lady I came to Kyiv to meet in 2003, we have been walking hand in hand as man and wife, living in Kyiv and enjoying our life’s second adventure for the past 6 years.
Over the Victory Day Weekend 2010 we visited Pyrogovo twice. To me the museum felt like it had lost its majestic spirit that left me spellbound and in awe of what a treasure Ukrainians possessed in Pyrogovo. I am enthralled every time I see a windmill. They too seemed lost. Perhaps it was the robbery and fire back in 2006 that caused the place to seem melancholy and all the historic buildings I first stop to admire were all closed.
Just to enter and leave the museum was quite chaotic because of the volume of cars and parking problems that weren’t there in 2003. Nonetheless, thousands of people came to attend the traditional Folk Artisans Spring Fair and many came to enjoy picnicking with family and friends.
On this particular weekend we came seeking new Ukrainian artisans’ products to buy and promote their talents on our E-Commerce website and discover unique items to sell during Christmas Markets in Denver and Philadelphia in America. We left with some wonderful treasures and possibilities to explore for the future.
Tapestry artisan Yevgen Pilyugin was one of our new acquaintances. He produces unique rugs inspired by Ukrainian landscapes, from his own imagination, or his customers’ designs. He told us he had created a rug for an Arabian sheikh who ordered it for his birthday and received excellent feedback. His rugs also decorate the Residences of Ukrainian Presidents, and one hangs in the Pope’s residence in the Vatican.
I was so impression with him and his work that I asked this uncommon man if I could have the honor to shake his hand.
My reason to visit Ukraine was personal back in the late fall of 2003. It was fitting that I ended my trip by visiting the outdoor museum of Pyrogovo in Kyiv to get a glimpse into Ukraine’s past and a vision into my future.
It was a cool overcast day. The night before a light dusting of snow fell and the roofs of the museum buildings glistened with their soft coats of white. There was a sense of sadness this particular morning because I would soon be flying back to my home in Montana, leaving the lady I had corresponded with on a daily basis for 4 years behind. We felt comfortable with each other and we both knew the 4 years getting to know each other was well spent. However, the lady was having doubts whether I would ever return.
We walked hand in hand and stopped frequently to take pictures. It was very peaceful as we strolled through the different historic buildings and she told me about the different trappings of eras gone by. It made me think about my parents, who had farmed using horses and similar tools before they could afforded to modernize.
The houses and other buildings reminded me of how life on the prairie may have been for the early settlers, who came from all over Europe, to put down roots in the new world.
As we walked I reminisced about taking my parents on their first vacation after 40 years of marriage back to the Midwest where they were born and raised. It was on this trip back in the late 1970’s I saw my first house made of sod. The house was build in the 19th Century and was still being lived in by a relative back in Western Nebraska.
There was something about the atmosphere of Pyrogovo that attached itself to my heart, mind, and soul. It was as though I was Don Quixote coming to joust with the windmills that dotted the beautiful pastoral landscape to win the hand of the maiden he came to see.
After we had unloaded all the hives from the old Soviet truck it was time to walk back home to have breakfast with our wives. Everyone was interested in knowing what my impressions were. My wife was kept very busy translating both ways as I recounted my experiences. In a few short hours that morning I was privileged to be a part of a roundup that very few Ukrainians have experienced, let alone foreigners. The final adventure would have to wait until noon the next day in order for the bees to have time to rest and adjust.
The morning of the Great Honey Harvest was filled with great expectations and bright sunny skies. It reminded me when I was a boy waiting for Christmas morning to arrive. Today was just as special because I was being allowed to be a part of the honey harvest!
My friend showed me step by step what he wanted me to do. I only understood bits and pieces what he was saying, nonetheless it was enough because I was aware of the danger. I knew that the bees were not going to give up their honey without a struggle.
I was given protective clothing to cover my head, neck, arms and hands. My moment in time had arrived to see if I would pass the final initiation of becoming an official Ukrainian Bee Cowboy.
The first hive was opened and the first frame of honey was removed. It was my job to take it to the two men in a protective room to be processed a short distance away. A blanket was hung in the doorway that allowed me to hand the honey frames to them and received the processed ones back to be returned to the hive.
I watched as the honeycombs were scrapped to expose the honey and then placed into the extractor with a handle. I was given the honor of turning the crank for the first 6 panels to allow me to experience the process for myself.
One by one the frames of honey were removed and I continue to deliver them to a waiting pair of hands behind the blanket and an empty frame was handed back to be returned to the hive.
As we continued the bees begin to resent what was happening in spite of the beekeepers repeated use of smoke to calm them down. After we finished removing the honey from the first hive we put the lid back on and moved on the second hive. In the meantime the colony of bees in the first hive sent out scouts to find their missing honey. They didn’t go far from their hive at first. All continued to go well without any problems. It wasn’t until we were half way through raiding the third hive that the war began. I was now the target of their anger. My friend had his smoke canister to protect him.
I had the evidence on my gloves and it was becoming more difficult every time I took a new panel to be processed. My protective gear was being tested and the bees were not to be deterred. They swarmed around my face trying to get at me under the netting. My protective gloves were covered with bees. I stood calmly without moving for a time as the buzzing of the bees grew louder and louder. It was amazing how I could stand there so calmly and not be frightened. I hadn’t ever experienced the likes of this before.
My friend seeing what was happening motioned with his hands for me to leave the area. He was concerned about my safety and didn’t want me to get stung. He too was under attack, but he had gone through this many times before.
As I left the area I was moving my hands wildly to keep them from following. Many turned back to the hive. However, there were a few that weren’t through with me and followed me everywhere I went. They were very persistent and wanted the honey I stole on my gloves.
I remained outside far from the action for some time before returning. I was replaced by one of the men behind the blanket. When I returned a few bees were still following me and I was met by more angry bees that were still defending their homeland. After the third hive was finally harvested it was decided to stop for the day and let the bees settle down. Today the bees stalled the inevitable, but tomorrow would be another day for the real bee wranglers without their foreign understudy.
As we drove out of the little city with jars of honey from my adventure we left with memories of Olena’s parents who took us in and made us feel like family. To the other Bee Cowboys I have nothing but respect for them. They allowed me the opportunity to share the magic of being a beekeeper and they accepted a complete stranger, an American traveler to come along for the ride!
Yes, I did leave with a few battle scars. A couple of bees did pierce my protective armor and left their mark on my neck just below my right ear.
The names of the individuals and places I have written about have been changed to protect their privacy
It seemed like an eternity before we eventually arrived at the place where the bees were encamped. Ah, it felt good to finally climb down out of the truck and feel the earth once again under my feet. After Olena’s father and I were out of the truck, the driver turned the big flatbed truck around and backed the rest of the way in. The way he skillfully maneuvered the truck in the darkness around the corners one could tell this wasn’t his first rodeo.
It was still quite dark and the bees were still in their slumber mode as all of us wranglers walked the short distance into the encampment by the light of cell phones to begin the batten down the hatches to protect the bees for their ride back home.
The bees had spent the past 90 days working hard collecting pollen and making honey from the grechka (buckwheat) fields. Their home was in a beautiful spot well protected from the elements by fruit trees that ringed the camp, creating a giant canopy. There was also an old building that was crumbling. It served as a place of storage for the beekeepers.
The men moved quickly to shutter the entry and exit holes the bees used. They had their smoke canisters handy to calm the bees when some of them found other ways out of the hive and the holes very plugged very quickly. It was remarkable how precise and orderly the bee wranglers went about their business. It took them less than 30 minutes to have the 27 hives ready to load on the truck.
Victor, who could speak English, was very helpful keeping me informed what was happening. It made him feel good that he could once again practice his English. When it came time for loading they felt like I was a guest that I shouldn’t help with the loading. I told Victor to tell them, I grew up working hard. What we were doing, carrying hives to the truck to be loaded was easy.
They had their system of doing things and didn’t want me getting in the way because every hive had to be arranged on the truck for easy unloading later. However, some of the older men didn’t mind my helping. This allowed them to clean up the area around the camp.
Before we left the wranglers wanted me to experience a man milking his cow in the field. I smiled to Victor and said, “I had milked a few cows in my day. I told them that not ever American lives in a city and has soft hands like a woman!”
Olena’s father must have been feeling guilty about having me ride in the big truck because he suggested that I ride back in the car. The trip back in the old Lada was as memorable as my experience ride in the soviet truck. I was asked to sit in the front seat with the driver and in the backseat were three others. Victor was very talkative and asked me about Montana, where I grew up. I told them that Montana was very similar to Ukraine.
But what stands out about my first trip in an old reliable Lada, was my first impression of seeing a car full of policemen in one of them in Kiev and how uncomfortable they looked. Nonetheless, the trip was enjoyable and the company was great. The driver was a pro at maneuvering his dependable old Lada over and around the ruts and holes in the dirt road on our way back without slowing down. What a fun filled morning of adventure I had and it wasn’t even 10 in the morning!
Story to be continued
The names of the individuals and places I have written about have been changed to protect their privacy
Rumbling through the early morning darkness in a vintage large Soviet era style military truck on the way to pick up 27 beehives before sunrise was a once in a lifetime experience for any red blooded American living in Ukraine.
The trip to round up bees was planned a month and a half earlier on the 4th of July when my wife and I were returning home from the Carpathians we stopped to meet the parents of one of my students for the first time.
It was 4 in the morning when I started to get ready for the Great Western Ukrainian Bee Roundup. I had often helped my father and brothers to round up the cattle on my parent’s ranch to be branded and vaccinated. It was an annual ritual and a chance for me to be a real live cowboy, as a boy.
My wife was sound asleep and was oblivious to my stirring. I got dressed and went outside to wait for the foreman of Bee Roundup, Olena’s father to return to give the orders to move out.
The weather was quite comfortable early in the morning as I waited outside in the quiet of the morning. My tranquility was soon broken when a couple of strangers entered the yard and started to ask me questions. In my best Russian I attempted to tell them that Olena’s father went to make arrangements for a truck. To my surprised a few questions later I heard a familiar language, “Do you speak English?” I love it when that happens! Life is so good! I now had someone to talk with who spoke a little English.
We are finally assembled and the order was given to move out. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the truck we were taking. It was huge and looked old. With a little help, I climbed into the cab and I mean it was a climb to get in. I sat in the middle of the big flat bed truck’s cab with sideboards as diesel fumes and smoke belching everywhere as we lumbered down the road tossing my body to and fro as my other two companions were smiling at my first experience riding in an old Soviet military truck and asked me if I was okay. I answered, “Horasho!” (Fine)
The truck sure wasn’t build for comfort or speed. After we left the pavement we travel at an even slower pace because the road was quite narrow with trees on both sides. There wasn’t a lot or room because the size of the truck and the poor condition of the dirt road. Nonetheless, the truck lumbered along like a well oiled machine going into battle. The other 5 members of our party followed in an old small Lada.
Story to be continued
The names of the individuals I have written about have been changed to protect their privacy
We begin our trip homeward from the Carpathians on the weekend of the 4th July. The marvelous thing about teaching English to professionals is, it allows my wife and I the opportunity meet and become friends with many of my students.
On our trip home we had made arrangements to stop and meet the parents of one of my former students, who had gone to America to do a year internship in New York City. While there, she met a very nice man, fell in love, and has since married.
I have been blessed to meet many wonderful students while teaching English as a second language. Olena is one of the most special. When she smiles her aura and personality radiates with warmth and kindness. You can’t help notice that she is an uncommon soul with a zest for living and adventure. When she speaks, you know instantly that she isn’t just another pretty face. She is a young lady, who is extremely positive with a lot of talent.
Unfortunately, when my wife and I flew to New York, we weren’t able see Olena and her new husband because of airport security. However, when she returned to Ukraine with her husband I greeted her with a hug and said, “Good job, life is good!” And turned to shake hands with her husband, Mark for the first time, I was beaming like a proud father and took an instant liking to Mark. We all met again this past Christmas season on our way back home to Kiev and stayed a few days with them in New York City.
Olena’s parents live in a small town in Western Ukraine. It is an interesting place with lots rich history that goes back many centuries. After a few cell phone calls and some misguided directions from a few of the locals we found Olena’s mother waiting for us near one of the city’s landmarks, a short distance from her home. She got into our car and we drove the short distance to her home.
Her husband arrived home a short time later after helping to move his friends and his beehives to a field of grechka (buckwheat).
The first thing I wanted my wife to translate to our guests was, “I was the one who encouraged your daughter to go to New York and do you like the young man she married?” They answered, “Very much so!”
Having met Olena’s parents I understood better what makes Olena so special. Her parents were great in every way. The four of us had a terrific first visit and we set a date to meet again when it was time to roundup the beehives and harvest their honey.
Story to be continued
It is not far from Truskavets to Skhidnitsa as the crow flies. However, we found the going somewhat more difficult than a crow due to the condition of the road. We had to pull over often to allow impatient drivers the chance to pass because they were in a big hurry and didn’t like to be inconvenient by having to slow down. Ukrainian drivers are always in a hurry and like to drive fast and dangerous.
Finally we got our first glimpse of Skhidnitsa as we came down a step grade filled with more potholes than pavement. Before descending the mountain into town we decided to go explore the forest park.
Once outside the park we moved our car to a safer place and decided to set out on foot to investigate a large hotel a short distance away. The road leading to the hotel was also filled with potholes and broken up quite badly in spots. As we round the last corner we could see the grand hotel standing tall overlooking the valley like a magnificent beacon for all to see. The property around the hotel was nicely landscaped with a large fenced paved parking lot with big expensive cars parked inside.
There was a rumor that the hotel was going to have one the football teams for Euro 2012 stay there. There were lots of rumors that echoed up and down the remote valleys and canyons during our stay. They all add to the charm of the area!
We had stopped at many places along our long journey by foot before we found a little place we liked, called “Рай” (Heaven in English). It was newly built, clean, comfortable, affordable, with a great view overlooking Skhidnitsa, served meals 3 times a day and was locally owned with wonderful hosts.
Our little piece of Heaven was an easy walk to go mushroom hunting and a 5 minute walk to a mineral spring that flowed slowly out of a small pipe that people came few times a day to collect its therapeutic elixir. You didn’t need a watch to know what time of day it was because tourist would make the long hike up and down the mountain like a stream of ants. The trip wasn’t without its peril. One had to be on the lookout for people in cars driving the narrow poorly paved road to collect water to and from the spring. There were other springs located around the valley that claimed to provide different health benefits that attracted visitors.
It was now late in the day and we had a long way to walk back to our car. In the morning we returned to Skhidnitsa to begin our adventure.
The first thing on our agenda was to go mushroom hunting. It is a hobby my wife and I enjoy very much. When we visited the local outdoor market the day before, we talked to several people that were selling mushrooms. They were pretty secretive about their mountains and where to go to find the tasty morsels. The sellers told us it was a little early to be looking for mushrooms. Nonetheless, we were going to take advantage of the possibility anyway.
After lunch we went to the nearby forest that our hostess told us about. We had to walk past the mineral spring before beginning our climb. We found the going difficult because of heavy brush. One thing for certain, the mountain side was full of huckleberries; so we stopped to enjoy some of the blue berries before moving on.
Once we got through the thick brush and found an open area to go hunting, we started to find mushrooms that looked familiar. However, we found one that was new to us, so we picked a couple to take back to ask our hostess. She told us we had found a variety of mushrooms called “Mad Bruisers.” They appear to be good mushrooms but aren’t. We learned a valuable lesson and continued to go out every morning and brought back only good mushrooms to dry and take home.
During our evening walks and while out mushroom hunting we discovered many parts of valley had been settled by wealthy Ukrainians. The locals lament that several years ago there weren’t many inhabitants living in the valley. Because of the land rush they are being trampled by the rich who have come to stake their claim to the land.
From the very first moment my wife and I stepped out of our car and looked out over the valley, as far as the eye could see, new construction projects were popping out of the ground everywhere, like Mad Bruiser mushrooms after a tempest. It is all too surreal what is taking place.
Mad Bruiser land rushes are happening all over Western Ukraine by a new breed of people, who don’t share or care about the generations of Highlanders who have a deep-rooted bond with nature.
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I feel at peace whenever I am in the mountains because I was raised in their shadows in a remote corner of Northwest Montana, not far from the Canadian border. The mountains surrounding my folk’s farm remind me of my father’s large weathered hands gently cupped into a shape of a bowl. Those mountains remain a part of me and a link that binds my indelible spirit.
My wife and I had returned to the mountains of Western Ukraine to relax and drink Naftusya (oil mineral water) once again before exploring the Carpathians by car for the first time. The previous year we stayed at one of the local sanatoria and promised ourselves when we returned to Truskavets again we would stay at a more modern place.
The skies were overcast and the smell of rain was in the air as we set out on our journey from Truskavets to Kosiv. It was early Friday morning and my wife was at the wheel. This allowed me the luxury of sitting back, taking it easy, and enjoying the beauty.
We had left early because we wanted to take our time to sightsee along the way. We had planned to stay overnight in Kolomya and get a good night’s sleep before heading out early the next morning to arrive at the Hutsul Craft Market in Kosiv by 6 AM to look for products to market in America.
Arriving in Kolomya our first task was to find a place to stay for the night. We didn’t see any sign of a hotel, so we parked and got out of the car to stretch our legs and to ask directions to find a place to stay. We got back into the car and using the directions we were given drove around downtown 3 or 4 times in a circle looking for a place to stay. Every time we stopped to ask for new directions, we got a different answer. Axiom, when traveling the back roads of Ukraine, be prepared to encounter a few dead ends, because as hard as we tried, we couldn’t get there from here with any of the directions we were given. Finally, a person told us if we continue to drive down the street 2 blocks there was a hotel to stay across from the bus station.
At last, we parked and went to investigate our new home for the night. It was a nondescript Soviet looking concrete building. The interior of lobby was bare except for a few signs with directions. We found the hotel office on second floor and were met by the cleaning lady, who was also the administrator of the hotel. We were lucky as they say. We had two large rooms with a refrigerator, a television that didn’t work and the last bathroom with hot running water.
We park our car in the secured parking lot behind the hotel and went sightseeing around Kolomya. We found all the nicer hotels we weren’t able to find situated in the walking area of the city. We had dinner, bought some fruit at the local farmer’s market and went to bed around 9 PM.
A few hours later we were awaken by loud music coming from the parking lot where we had parked our car. We look outside to our amazement a group of people were eating, drinking, toasting, dancing and having fun as the security guards looked on. The party went on all night and finally broke up around the time we were going to leave the hospitable city of Kolomya for Kosiv.
Reflecting back on that night, we now have a better understanding why the television didn’t work in our room. There isn’t any need to watch television when you have reserved bedside concert seats to a concert going on outside your window all night!
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Looking out the window of the airplane that brought me to Kyiv I was surprised how small its airport was as we taxied up to the terminal. It sure wasn’t built for the comfort of the passenger in mind because of all the steps you have to walk up and down after being off loaded at the terminal door to pass through border and custom control.
My first trip into the city of Kyiv from the airport has left many indelible impressions. I had traveled half way around the world and what I was seeing for the first time didn’t surprise me. I sense a little apprehension coming from the lady I had just met for the first time after all the years we had been corresponding. The cab pulled up in front of a sterile looking building and we got out. When she unlocked the door and I walked inside for the first time it was an entirely different world, a world where I felt at home, and a place where I belonged. Her home was so different from all the pictures my mind captured coming into the city.
Arriving in Ukraine was like taking a step back in time to my youth. I saw similarities that should have been out of place in a city of some 3 million plus people who live in the nation’s capital. However, one such fetish seemed to come up over and over again. I soon became fixated on its toilet culture. At first I didn’t give it much thought because the flat of my future wife was modern in every way, right down to its toilet.
I grew up on the farm without running water until I was 12. Behind our farmhouse we had a two seated out house where we used old Sears and Roebucks catalogues and newspapers as toilet paper. You might say I am a pioneer accustom to the old way of living and later discovered the joys of soft toilet paper when the folks drilled a well and modernity came to our large two story farmhouse.
During my first journey into the heart of the Kyiv’s underground mall I received my first introduction to the joys of a Ukrainian public toilet. What started out as a routine event quickly turned into an adventure without any equal. I noticed a familiar barnyard odor, an odor you don’t ever forget, however, this one was coming from a public toilet in a modern mall. As I walked down the passageway leading into the bathroom my eyes began to tear up and my nose began to run. To my utter amazement I saw four sets of steps leading to four separate stalls with doors.
This was something new, so I walked up steps to the nearest one and opened the door. I had found the source of the odor and looking down at my feet I saw a white basin with a hole in the floor. Wow, we didn’t have anything like this in Montana! Our out house was crude, but this was something else. I had seen pictures of such things, but I thought these were used only in Japan and China.
I continued to survey the situation and practiced the many ways to best use it. I could stand over it or turn around and squat over it like in the forest until my sense of smell and tearing of my eyes had reached a point of no return, as was my tummy. I was beginning to feel nauseated. I quickly balanced myself and squatted over the hole. Okay, so far so good. My joy was short lived when I couldn’t find any toilet paper. This was a major problem. What to do? Ah, the humiliation that comes from such an experience. I would have given anything to have had a Sears and Roebucks catalog at that moment. I was desperate and all I could think of was my shorts to use. I stood up and removed my pants to take off my shorts. After I deposited my underwear in a trash can I went outside to meet my friend in the hall to tell her my experience. Without so much as a smile she simply said, “We always carry some toilet paper with us.” It didn’t occur to me that I needed to.
It is amazing how you don’t ever take toilet paper for granted after an incident like this or for that matter having to use outdoor public facilities that people are forced to use in spite of their unsanitary conditions. Thanks to McDonalds many public restrooms are now more sanitary and have toilet paper.
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In my opening post I wrote about my arrival in Kyiv to begin my life’s second adventure. I am an uncommon farm boy from rural Montana where less than a million people live. As you might expect I had a few adjustments to make living in a city of a several million foreign speakers. However, language wasn’t one of them because my wife speaks English quite well. She shepherded me every where I need to go in the beginning.
How many people do you know that takes his wife to a job interview with him? Yep, you read correctly. She sits in on all my interviews and I tell them she is my agent and she gets 95 percent of my salary as her commission. When the question of salary comes up I turn the interview over to her to negotiate the terms because she speaks the same language as the interviewer. It is fun to watch her negotiate in spite of not knowing what is actually being said.
My wife is quite special. We are very much kindred spirits in our moment in time. We always joke that it feels like we have been married for 35 years. Yes, we have our problems from time to time because of the differences in culture of the two countries we were raised. It all makes for an interesting life.
Another joy I have not speaking my wife’s native tongue is dealing with my mother-in-law who lives with us. We are both talkers and neither have a clue what the other is saying. It is quite comical our daily three ring circus. You know life is good when you can’t understand what your mother-in-law is saying!
My wife’s father has remarried and is a retired former colonel in the Soviet army. It was hard for him when his only child was to marry of all things an American. If that wasn’t bad enough, I committed the cardinal sin of all sins when I didn’t drink vodka with him when he toasted me on our first meeting. His daughter graciously told him before that I didn’t drink alcohol and I wasn’t being disrespectful by refusing. I had a glass of juice and he had vodka. I wasn’t what he expected an American son-in-law should be. I should have been one of those two fisted Hollywood type drinkers.
I believe he has forgiven his daughter for her mistake of marrying an American. He likes it when we come to visit because he knows that I don’t mind working. He always has a lot of projects lined up for me to do. It was his way of testing me. The two of them liked to sit under a giant walnut tree on a bench talking and watching me work. From time to time my wife would bring me some water, wipes the dirt off my face and tells me not to get so dirty. Her father thought I worked too hard. It was then I realized he had accepted me into the family.
My father-in-law has a good sense of humor. I recall my first visit to his village. Prior to our coming he told his neighbors his daughter had married an American and I was coming to buy land in their little village. Shortly after our arrival it wasn’t long before people from the village were looking over the fence to get a glimpse of me.
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Ukraine is a land of endless possibilities waiting for its moment in
time to come. Six years ago I decided to put my life into two suitcases
and along with my trusty cat Pepper John flew across the pond from
America to Kyiv in early March 2004. This was my second trip to Kyiv in
6 months to meet my future bride at the airport. We had met on an
Internet web site and corresponded over a 4 year period before meeting.
We married 4 months later in July.
I didn’t take my wife back to America. We stayed in Ukraine to make our
home. Her friends are still mystified why I chose to stay and even more
surprised that I still can’t speak the language after 6 years. Hey, I am
an instructor of English at an IT company. All my students speak
English. I only know one other American here. I didn’t come to Ukraine
to be surrounded by other Americans. I came to enjoy my life’s second
I enjoy living here because of the opportunity to go wondering along
Ukraine’s back roads to discover and explore its many hidden treasures
and see the real Ukraine up close. I invite you to come along on my
life’s second adventure.