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Ukrainian Exceptionalism Part II – The Reason

The day after I posted my first story about Ukrainian Exceptionalism, I received a message from Misha Dyrda informing me that he was not the only one responsible for the event I attended.  The jazz concert was his idea but a lot of other good people invested their time and effort to make it possible, too.

How Misha became involved with Cerebral Palsy and people with special needs is heartwarming.  It began with a visit to a friend who was taking a course to help build leadership and self confidence in all areas of his life at the Emotional Center

Misha was surprised because his friend lived a normal life and now he was a part of a team of volunteers who were finding sponsors and raising money to help rebuild a boarding school for orphans  in Vorzel that was destroyed in a fire during the cold of winter.

I asked Misha to write about his experience going through the program.  Here is his touching unedited story.

So, let’s start from the very beginning… In the beginning was training – “Program of developing emotional leadership” – a set of strange and ambiguous words as for me. But if I try to describe it using plain common language I would say the following. NOTE: This is my interpretation.

Each of us was a baby and I am not an exception. And as a baby I was free, honest, joyful, and I gave my love and joy to everyone who appeared in my world. I didn’t think whether he/she/it deserves my love or not…just give it. When I was a baby I didn’t need to prove anything since I knew that I am fine and everyone is fine. But as I grew up I met some people that told me “You are not fine” – skinny, fat, stupid, tall, short, ugly etc. And as time went by that dirt accumulated inside of me and I believed that I am not ok. Sprouts of diffidence fear and stinginess in feelings came up.  During the training I managed to go through that dirt to the core of me and find out what is important for me personally. It was like an insight. I felt power and desire to influence on world; I am responsible to what is going on around me.


Then one lady our group mate told that there is a CP-center and she would like to do anything for these people. We went to that center and found very strong, cheerful, but very lonely people. No one cares about these people in this country. “Normal” people try to not notice them. This a community of lonely people united by the grief. They impressed me a lot, especially Anton, he is the most strong person I have ever met in my life. When we did an event in dolphin-house, I was responsible to the cp-people from Troeschina. Anton lives there. I talked to him all the way back to his home. He knows that he has not much time to live and he lives with all of his might. After that I don’t have a question should I do it or not. Someone, even some of my friends, told me that I am an idiot and I am wasting my time…I don’t care. I know if I am able to make life to someone like Anton a bit brighter then my life wasn’t useless.


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Authentic traditions on the up-to-date holiday Ivana Kupala

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)

Ivana Kupala celebration in Pyrogovo
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Ukrainian Exceptionalism – Part 1

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 ( 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.

EPAM Employees

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

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Living Green and Loving it in Ukraine

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.

Vegetable Market in Kiev

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.

Selling fish at the market

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.

Seasonal fruits and vegetables from private gardens

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.

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The Fantasy Birds from Petrykivka – Pyrogove Spring Fair

Petrykivka Ukrainian Wooden Decor

Throughout Ukraine there are many different fields of dreams with thousand of players.  A vast majority of these players go through life without much fanfare.  The players I speak are folk artisans that come from every nook and cranny of Ukraine.  They are an interesting breed.  Often time they appear to lack any enthusiasm whatsoever when selling their hand made products.

Nonetheless, there are artisans that are very talkative and like the idea of having their products for sale in America.  One such folk artist is from the village of Petrykivka which is in the heartland of Ukraine.  Lyubov Artyomenko carries on the tradition of Petrykivka Folk Art that was started around 1772 (four years before the United States gained its independence), in the Cossack settlement of Petrykivka.

Petrykivka Folk Artist Lyubov Artyomenko at Pyrogove Spring Fair

She explained how the style was first developed by the women of the village. After they had whitewashed the outside of their homes, the women would paint bold beautiful colorful floral designs on the outside walls.  It became a contest to see which woman could come up with the most beautiful patterns.  Later these same styles were being used on all kinds of items like household goods (spoons, trays, chests, plates). Decorating-With-Ukrainian-Folk-Art-Collectibles

Lyubov said all Petrykivka Folk Art is about nature – mostly flowers, berries and birds.  However, the birds she paints are different from other folk artists.  Her birds are like seeing a painted dream. She uses her fingers to paint flowers and berries. In order to paint the very delicate and detailed feathers and bodies of her birds she uses special kitty fur brushes  made from the hair under the front legs of her cat (no her cat doesn’t suffer during this procedure because her cat’s hair grows back, rendering her Petrykivka Folk Art sustainable and ultra Green!).

You can see her works on sale at Ukrainian Petrykivka Art.  Her extraordinary Petrykivka home accents will give any kitchen a bright beautiful and bold organic natural lifestyle look.

Lyubov told us an interesting story about the symbolism of the painted Petrykivka mortar and pestle she had on sale.  It represents a happy family life and the two have to be kept together because they symbolize the nature of husband and wife. These two pieces are now a keepsake of ours.

The Fantasy Birds from Petrykivka at Pyrogovo Spring Artisans Fair
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Bee Cowboy – Encampment. Part 3

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

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It was a night to remember. Hotel California Ukraine Style

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.

Hizhina Spa Hotel

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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Thank God for McDonalds

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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