Sunday, February 21, 2010

"Kot. It's like Cat, but Kot."

Housing in Ukraine is ridiculously expensive, so people tend to live in one place for much longer than we do, and live at home through college and beyond. Because of this, all the kids in our apartment building grew up together, went to school together, and know each other really well. It takes the concept of "neighbors" to a new dimension. Lesya can take hours to get ready for the day, so it really surprised me when she let a guy into our apartment while she was still in her pajamas, hair unbrushed, with no makeup. He introduced himself to me as "Kot," and when I repeated "Kot?" back to him, just to make sure I was pronouncing it correctly, he replied, "Yes, Kot. It's like your English 'cat,' but 'Kot.'" Ok, got it. I get the feeling he's explained that a few times. Lesya explained that he lives in our building, and that they've gone to school together since..."How do you say it? That school that comes before Grade One?" "Uh...preschool? Kindergarten?" "Yes, kindergarten." At this point, Kot exploded into laughter, "Kindey-garden?! What kind of a word is that!?" Lucky for the English-speaking world, I was able to pin that one on the Germans.

The three of us sat in the worn velvet armchairs, wearing our ultra-Ukrainian house slippers. We timidly munched on the chocolate bar he brought, trying to show more restraint than the others, eating slowly even though Ukrainian chocolate is dark and irresistible. Kot questioned me with no shame, carrying out a full interrogation.

"What do you think of Ukraine? What have you learned?" I had been in the country long enough to know that if you immediately reply "I love this country, Ukraine is great," then they will look at you, honestly bewildered, and ask, "Why?" So although I do love Ukraine, I gave him a vague answer that I thought he wouldn't question, something about how people are the same but different wherever you go. I was wrong. He replied, "Ok, I give that answer a 6 out of 10." Joking around, I asked him,"What? That's like a D minus. Am I supposed to try again?" He nodded. This time I took a risk, telling two native Ukrainians my theory on their entire culture and country. I told him that the hardest thing to get used to is that nobody smiles in public, nobody makes eye contact, and that the whole culture is closed and cautious and even, at times, cold. I told him that in America we smile and even say hello to strangers we pass on the sidewalk, and that if I did that here, they would probably send me to the mental hospital. I told him that although I knew very little about the people of Ukraine, I thought that if I was the product of a country that had been bullied for thousands of years, I probably would be closed and distrustful too. Then I told him that once a person does get through the walls, into the homes and hearts of the people, that it seemed to me like Ukrainians were some of the most loyal and good-hearted people I have ever met.

Silence. I felt like I had gone too far, made too many presumptions, been too honest. I looked down, beginning to redden. Had I simply crossed the line? I don't normally make speeches like that, but it had been stewing inside me for weeks. After a quiet moment, Kot finally spoke up, "Ok. I give that one a 9 out of 10." I smiled with a huge sigh of relief.

Lesya sat busy at the computer while Kot and I talked. He speaks Russian, Ukrainian, English, and German, and wants to learn either Spanish or French. He told me about his weekly schedule, packed with an obscene amount of classes at the university, with kickboxing, swimming, and other classes on top of that. He plans on going to Alaska to work on a fishing vessel this summer for his uncle. I was struck by our different situations; he was going to Alaska to work one of the hardest, dirtiest jobs imaginable, while I had just gone to Alaska this past summer on an all-you-can-eat cruise. We talked economics, and I had to argue in America'ts defense that we too were suffering a severe recession, and not rolling in cars and soft carpets. Well, not as much as we normally are. Lesya excitedly told me to tell him about the clinical study I had done a few months before, where the medical company gave me more than two-thousand dollars just for taking their medicine for a few weeks. I began to explain about how medical companies have to do tons of tests before their product can be approved, but Kot interrupted, "Yes, yes, I know about that. I am not stupid. Tell me about what you had to do." "Well, I basically just had to take pills in the morning and pee in a cup for them every few days. Then they wrote me a check." Lesya was beaming, and Kot's eyes were bulging. He and Lesya muttered to each other, excited and amazed. I asked them how far that would get you in Ukraine. He said that if you continued to live at home, like normal, that you could survive on two-thousand American dollars for months and months.

He told me how lucky I was to be living with Lesya, that there are lots of dumb girls in Ukraine, and dumb boys too. He also informed me that we live in a "very cool neighborhood," not like most of the residential areas of Kiev. He asked me where I had visited, but I didn't know what kind of answer he was looking for, so I told him that I had been to some cathedrals. He rolled his eyes and demanded of Lesya, "Why do you not show her all the cool places?" He then went down the list of all the places he considered noteworthy. Fortunately, I was able to tell him I had been to almost all of them, avoiding his inquisitioner's axe. He continued to grill me about how I ended up in Ukraine--Why did you come here? How did you end up living with Lesya? How come not with me? Are you getting paid? Are there more Americans here with you? Are there any guys? When I told him we had one boy in our group, Austin, he got really excited and insisted that I get Austin to come over so Kot could meet, and probably interrogate, him as well. At this point, Kot and Lesya and I tried to find a good time for us to all get together with Austin. Kot insisted that it be on a Tuesday, since that was the only day he was free from school, kickboxing, swim lessons, etc. "Is Tuesday ok for Austin?" "Uh...I don't know." He decided that McDonald's down the street from our building would be the best place to meet, if that was okay with Austin. I am not totally in tune with Austin's culinary preferences, so I just told him that McDonald's would probably be fine. When I raised the question of how Austin would get home, since we would be out later than most buses run, Kot merely waved his hand, "Don't worry, I will get him home."

The last thing he wanted to know was the average age of Americans when they get married. I guessed 24, 25, or 26. Kot proceeded to tell me his theory on marriage: Your parents come first, then yourself, and then you can take care of another person. He wants to get married at 27, but live with girls before that. His opinions were so specific and thought-out, I asked him about his parents. "My parents? They divorced when I was eight."

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