Sunday, April 11, 2010


My commute, from August to December.

Ukraine would not be Ukraine without my host sister, Lesya--beautiful, smart, and above all, so kind to an American girl far from home.

The New Center School (And Inhabitants)






Final days

Igor and Maxim, cousins


Last day of school Christmas program!

Katya's mom hand-sewed her a Christmas tree outfit, just for this.

German wouldn't get out of the picture of Nastya.

Nastya, Yesenya, German


Ukrainian Cultural Quirks

-Drinking in public: Disgusting, excessive, and more common than water.
-High heels: You're not a woman if you don't wear them. Even in the middle of the night for a trip to the mini-market
-Mullets: Everywhere. Even on men wearing business suits and Prada shoes.

-Bathrooms: Squat toilets are not my friend.
-Picture posing: The women are all so foxy, and love to pose for photos in front of everything.
-Health overreactions: Swine flu.
-Cold overreactions: The air-conditioner is not Satan's breath, nor is it going to eat your children. Especially in an 85 degree classroom.
-Supermarkets: All bags go in lockers.
-Exact change: The cashier's eyes will send out laser death rays if you do not produce exact change.
-Bus/metro seating: Surrender your seat for pregnant women and the elderly, or get yelled at by strangers. Or by the babushka who wants your seat.
-Babs and bags: The babushkas are a class of their own, and all seem to carry the same tarp-like plaid bag.
-Packs of stray dogs: It's what's for dinner.
-Talking to us even when we don't understand: When we say we only speak English, we mean it. But by all means, continue talking at me if it makes you happy.
-Smiling/eye-contact: Absolutely not allowed.
-Bathtubs: No shower curtains, no mounted shower heads. Sit down in the tub, and try not to spray the cat.
-Carbonated water: "Gas?" or "No Gas?" that is the question.
-Aversion to ice-cubes/cold water/wet hair: It'll kill you.
-House slippers/indoor shoes: Nobody goes barefoot (too cold), so you wear house slippers. If you don't carry a pair in your purse, you can use the guest pair.
-Superstitions: Many. See below.
-Freezing ovaries: Sitting on the ground or a cold bench will freeze your ovaries and render you infertile. You will get yelled at by strangers, especially babushkas, if you sit on something cold. Larisa, the native coordinator for our school, saw my Ukraine guidebook sitting on the table and asked to see it. She flipped to the section on superstitions, where it talked about freezing ovaries, and said, "I don't know why they put that in this section; superstitions are beliefs that aren't true. This one is. Even my son, Igor, has things he needs to protect from the cold if I ever want grandchildren from him. He shouldn't sit on cold benches either!"
-Hair dye: Women dye their hair red. Once their hair grays, they dye it purple.
-Staring: No eye-contact allowed, but everybody stares at everybody else. All. The. Time. Sometimes I catch their eye as they stare at my body, so they quickly look away from my eyes, back down at my body. So I stare directly back until it makes them uncomfortable.
-Dr. House: Ukraine loves him almost more than vodka. His face is on more souvenir tote bags, magnets, and t-shirts than the Ukrainian flag. Almost.
-Don't judge an apartment by its elevator: Our mantra.
-Metro surfing: Stand sideways, bend back leg, prepare for the train to start moving, leeeeean, stand back upright, ride normally using toes to balance, bend front leg as the train stops, leeeeean, resume upright position, repeat. Failure to do so will result in you falling over backwards with strangers catching your flailing body. Trust me, I know.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


We returned to an entirely different Kiev than we had left. Everything was quiet and deserted. People walked around with scarves or masks over their faces, spending as little time in public as possible. The entire city had gone into terrified hiding, right in time for Halloween. They don't celebrate Halloween in Ukraine, and after the night train from Lviv, I wasn't in the mood for it anyway. After a long afternoon at home with Lesya, I decided that something must be done. I met Camille at the school by her house (in the same apartment building, actually) and we made Halloween brownies for a sick friend.

Or tried to.

Friday 10/30

Friday was quiet. I spent some time at a huge market with Jess and Camille, but then went back to the vacant hostel to read and have some time to myself. The market was an incredible maze, aisles and aisles of basically the same products, narrow walkways and junk hanging down from the plastic-covered ceilings, knocking you on the head if you didn't duck in time. We wound up and down the rows, pausing to tell a Ukrainian guy that yes, he looked great in that jacket. He laughed and decided to buy it. We ran across the wedding section, where everything had puffy sleeves and plastic beads and hoop skirts and yards and yards of lace. All I could think of was the wedding dress from "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," where she looked like a frosted cake.

Ever since Mika gave us the key to the hostel, we rarely saw her. Miguel had been at the hostel for more than a month, so she trusted him with making sure that nobody wrecked the place. She stopped by in the morning with breakfast for us, if we were lucky. Miguel was not a huge fan of Ukraine. With his conspicuous Jewish attire, he became the target of unwanted attention: He was attacked ten times in Kiev, and four times in Lviv. He's had drunk mobs chase him, but the only weapon he uses to defend himself is his umbrella. He rarely leaves the hostel, except to grocery shop and for short escapes. I can't figure out why he didn't leave long ago. I don't know if he provokes people, but any way you slice it, he gets the short end of the, umbrella.

He and I got very angry with each other; I don't even remember exactly what it was about. I think he was trying to make us pay more than we owed. And he smelled very strongly of my body wash. Not okay, dude. I knew exactly how much we owed, and I showed all the math on a piece of paper, and explained it several times over to him and to Mika. She absolutely couldn't figure out the numbers, but was willing to trust me. Miguel was not.

Jessica, Camille, Del, and I left the hostel for the evening, and I was still fuming. When we came back to gather up our bags before the night train, I found a hand-written note from Miguel:

"Sorry for my angry whit you!!! I have BIG problem in Lviv and It make me angry, nothing to be whit you!! or Hostel, etc. I enjoy your company, you are nice ladys and you, the tree, teach me things, even you don't know. We have diferent windoe to see life, but I apreciate your company!! I like the three of you!!! Maybe aftre travell 7 years I am more madurate and serious person... Anyway I apreciate you and wellcome to Barcelona every time (his email address). Happiness only make happiness, bad moments make you growing up!!! take care, and enjoy each moment in life, like you doing, Because I think you pick up life with Both Hands...Miguel. Kisses and Hugs"

It broke my heart. Although we didn't see him before we left for the train station, I wrote him a note back, but my peace-offering on paper came nowhere close to the apology I felt rotting inside of me.

As we walked through the city for the last time, we noticed several people on the street wearing surgical-type masks. It wasn't until we got back to Kiev that we found out that swine flu (supposedly) hit western Ukraine like a ton of bricks, right as we were leaving. Lviv is the largest city in western Ukraine. That night when we saw those masks, we had no idea that it would thrust the country into utter chaos, closing all schools, businesses, and public places for three weeks. Our one-week vacation was extended to four, but without all the fun of a vacation, since everything was shut down, including the borders.

As we left the hostel, Mika hugged us, gave us each a Ukraine magnet, and said that she wished more people like us would stay at her hostel. I'm guessing she never got wind of our Deaf Karaoke night. My magnet count is up to two. Del had nothing to do and he needed to buy a train ticket, so all four of us went to the station. On the platform, Del hugged Camille and I goodbye, and then I watched in slow motion as he hugged Jessica and went in for a kiss, while Jessica gave him the cold-cheek. Whaaat!? In fact, I didn't fully comprehend what had happened until we pulled out of the station and Camille said, "JESSICA. Did Del just try to kiss you?!" I hate to be one of those girls who laughs at a guy when he fails at a kiss attempt, but we just roared with laughter. What made it so outrageous was that Del had spent the last 24 hours telling us all about this girl he had met in Germany or something and how they were in love and blahblahblah.

The train we took back to Kiev was exactly like the train we left on, except this time I snagged a bottom bunk so I would at least have a shot at getting comfortable. On the last train, I found mouse poo in my sheets. As I unrolled my bedding this time, I noticed that the pillow was covered with blood on one side. So I flipped it over. Because dried blood from a stranger just doesn't matter if you are tired enough. We played cards until the lights went out, and then went to sleep.

I woke up in the middle of the night from what I thought must be a streetlight shining directly into my eyes. Blinking, I sat up on my bunk and looked out the window. Ukraine's dark trees flew by the moving train, skeletal silhouettes against the night sky. Above the trees, I found the light that awoke me. At first I thought it must only be the cabin light bulbs, reflected in the dark glass. It was no streetlight, no cabin light, not even the moon. It was Orion, bigger and brighter than any stars I had ever seen before. I sat there on the narrow bunk, my legs tangled in the slightly-sour sheets, eyes wide in the starlight. I don't remember falling asleep.

We pulled into Kiev with the freezing dawn. I looked bad, but the city looked good:

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Thursday 10/29

We moseyed through Ivan Franko park, stopping to jump off tall tree stumps, bounce on the teeter-totter, and to take a lot of posed pictures like the foxy Ukrainian women love to do. In Kiev, we'd noticed girls our age riding the metro with bouquets of fall leaves, so we gathered our own and ran around the park with them.

I bought those wool mittens for about a buck and a half at one of the markets.

Camille scares children.

Puzata Hata!

We navigated our way through the Ukrainian postal service, and then made our way over to a national art gallery. Our guidebook got us to the right block, but we couldn't find the way in. Two Ukrainian men tried talking to us, and when we said that we only spoke English, one was so shocked that he whipped out his video camera. He explained that he and his wife got married basically right where we were standing, and that his daughter lives in New Jersey, "She's never going to believe that I met Americans in Ukraine! Will you say hi to her on my camera?" We awkwardly waved at the camera and said hi, the whole time guarding our purses very carefully.

We found an entrance to the building where our guidebook said the art gallery should be, so we went inside a crowded lobby and gestured our way through buying tickets, being careful to show our international student cards for a discount. The book said the gallery was on the second floor, so we marched right through the first-floor crowds to find the exhibit. Jessica pointed out a couple of massage chairs, but we told her we could check them out at the end. The second floor wasn't quite what we expected. It was packed with well-dressed people, with a lot of strange displays set up on counters and behind glass cabinets. Suddenly it all made sense: the "massage" chairs, the business people, the fake teeth. We'd bought ourselves tickets to a dental convention.

The woman who sold us our tickets must have thought we were crazy, so carefully getting student discounts for a dental exhibit. Instead of leaving immediately, we decided to get our money's worth and check out all the equipment, and take a few subtle photos as well. One good-looking young dentist approached us and asked if we were dentists. We laughed and explained that we were trying to find the art gallery. When he found out that we were living in Kiev, he handed us a business card and told us that if we ever needed any dental work done, his office was in Kiev too. I looked down at the card to read the office address: Lesi Ukrainky Blvd--the street where I live.

We did find an art gallery on the second floor, but it definitely wasn't the one the guidebook was raving about. It was tucked in a musty old room that reminded me of an elementary-school library, with that brown-and-orange 1970's decor. The gallery was entirely dedicated to Taras Shevchenko. The only person there was a babushka who greeted us with a smile, flipping on light switches and turning on some background music. She wanted to give us the guided tour, so she took us around the room, pointing at certain paintings and then gesturing and trying to explain in simple language, smiling the whole time. She finally gave up and took out a book, flipped to the short English section, and sat us down in some chairs to read the information. The rest of the book repeated the English portion in about 20 languages.

We left the dental convention/art gallery starving, and the first place we stumbled across was a tiny "Mr. Bean Snack Bar." The sign was as large as the restaurant. We can't figure out why Ukraine loves Mr. Bean so much.

We still had some daylight left, so we brought out the compass. I got the short end of the stick with the compass instructing me to buy Jessica and Camille each an ice-cream cone. It did the trick, though, because as we wandered around looking for ice-cream, we found a video store and bought a hilarious Ukrainian aerobic-workout video. Then, as we were strolling through downtown, we walked out of a store and right into a very lost-looking young man. We had no doubt that he was not Ukrainian, so we started talking to him. Del, from Canada, arrived in Lviv earlier that day and couldn't find a hostel. After about 30 seconds of talking, one of us offered, "Come home with us!" We knew that there were about a dozen vacant beds in the hostel, and he was grateful to find somewhere to sleep since it was getting late.

We went to Puzata Hata (of course) and after the borsch had enough time to warm up our chilled bodies, we headed back to the hostel. I suppose he needed to prove his strength, because he carried Jessica for about a block.

And then Jessica proved her strength and carried him.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Wednesday 10/28

On Wednesday morning, Mika gave us directions to the "Palace of Hot Cabbage" for the dancers' final performance. The directions basically consisted of "Just walk down Jksjhknzdfls Street for a while, and ask somebody for this theater." Great. It's difficult to ask for directions when you don't speak the language.

But, like always, our International Language of Charades came through and we hesitantly walked into a crowded theater packed with dancers and their teachers/coaches. We weren't sure if we had to pay admission, so we just wandered through the halls until one of our dancers spotted us and dragged us over to sit with their chaperons. I think that they didn't actually expect us to deliver on our promise of attending, because they were ecstatic to see us.

Most of the people in the audience were the dancers themselves, waiting for their turn to compete, and their families. We were definitely the only non-Ukrainians there. Sitting through three hours of dancing is survivable. What almost killed us was the hour-long awards ceremony immediately afterward.

In Ukrainian.

When everybody finally started to leave, our group of dancers excitedly dragged us onto the stage so we could take pictures with them.

After we said goodbye and promised to see them at the hostel before they caught the night train home, the three of us went off to Puzata Hata to recuperate. We stopped by a mini-market on the way home to pick up strawberry ice-cream. In Ukraine, ice-cream does not come in a cardboard box, but in a big plastic tube, like frozen ground beef.

We spent the evening packed into the living room with all the dancers, teaching each other card games and watching Ukraine's soccer team, Dynamo, on tv. They LOVED the game "Spoons," and Mika had to keep hushing us so the neighbors wouldn't complain of the noise. They tried to teach us a game that roughly translated to "Stupid Boy," but they had a really hard time explaining it. They wanted to show us their costumes that they hadn't worn at the recital, so they put them on, just for us. Their chaperons, who speak no English, were just beaming.

On the front row is the hostel owner Mika, me, Camille, and Jessica.

They took photos with us on their camera phones, and as they said goodbye, Olga and Jenya presented us each with a souvenir Lviv magnet. They invited us to visit them in their little town, and we made them promise to let us know if they were ever in Kiev or America. We hugged all the girls on their way out, and then hugged a very squirrely Vlad. The two boys in their group, Vladimir and Ivan, had stayed in the same dorm-room as us, and despite a total lack of language on either side, we had managed to tease them plenty. There is a certain thrill in giving 13-year-old boys a hard time. When he managed to get away from us, Vlad swaggered out the door and without turning around, shouted over his shoulder the only English we ever heard from him: "Goodbye America!"

Miguel and the three of us were the only guests left in the hostel, so Mika gave us a key to the hostel and went home. It was strange, but not uncomfortable, being alone in the hostel. Miguel stayed in the living room until late at night, so the three of us went into the dorm room and shut the door.

Jessica and Camille taught me the art of Deaf Karaoke: You put in earbuds, turn your iPod up until it's so loud that you can't hear your own voice, and then sing along at the top of your lungs. It's called Deaf Karaoke  for two reasons:
1) You can't hear anything but the song
2) To the rest of the people in the room who can only hear your singing, not the song itself, you sound like a howling deaf person.
The three of us sat on the top bunk and took turns rupturing each others' ear drums. My deaf rendition of "Come On, Eileen" was so loud and awful that Miguel came in to check on us and give us a hard time for sounding so bad while fully sober:
"I am thinking somebody kill you. You have one glass of vodka and the building fall down! I am thinking you are hiding bottles. Or maybe you take drugs or something?"

Please imagine that in a very thick Spanish accent, with Miguel fully decked out in his Jewish outfit, except with a wife-beater on instead of a shirt.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Tuesday 10/27

The first day went by in a tired blur, so on the second day we had more of a chance to take in our surroundings. The "Lemberg Hostel" is located on the top floor of a 100+ years old apartment building. Mika, a young Ukrainian woman in her twenties, runs the hostel simply because "she likes meeting people." Her father owns the space but let her turn it into a hostel, basically as a huge hobby-project. She speaks English well, but far from perfectly, and although her business skills are lacking, she is very kind. When we arrived in Lviv, the hostel was full of people: an older Canadian couple, the three of us, a troop of about 15 teenage Ukrainian dancers with their chaperons, and a Jewish man named Miguel, from Spain. The view from our dormitory window looked out across the city and over buildings as old as ours.

Miguel is easily one of the most interesting people I have ever met. He is 33 years old with a doctorate in Philosophy, and has spent the last seven years traveling and living in India, the Middle East, and Europe. When we met him in Lviv, he was on his way home to Spain. Although he dressed head to toe in traditional Jewish clothes, including the hat and full beard, he told me that he is not very religious, and that he doesn't even know if there is a god. He told me all about Pakistan and Germany, his favorite countries, and showed me pictures of his sister and 79-year-old mother in Spain. We discussed "cooltoorah" and "arkitektoorah" (culture and architecture), and he told me that the best way to make your hair soft is to put almond, avocado, and onion in your shampoo. Things with Miguel got more interesting as the week went on. Miguel's hat box had a postcard warning "Please!!! Don't touch the hat!!!!" written in several languages:

Jessica, Camille, and I decided to follow our guidebook's recommendation and check out the local cemetery. We were a little (ok, a lot) skeptical about it, but on Mika's insistence, decided to give it a try: "But don't get lost!" she warned. Nine tram stops later we said goodbye to some young Ukrainian girls we'd just met, and walked into Lviv's cemetery.

The word "cemetery" brings to mind neat rows of headstones, carefully mowed lawns, and little bundles of tired flowers with a uniformed man playing "Taps" somewhere in the background. This was not one of those cemeteries. This cemetery was a jungle of trees and vines consuming graves that barely peeked through. The most modest headstones were once-flat slabs of rock, now almost completely eaten away by time, hidden by ivy and overshadowed by the surrounding graves. The most elaborate were monuments with life sized portrait-carvings of the dead, marble angels lounging across the caskets, and huge ornate mausoleums. The graves were not laid out by rows, but simply stuffed wherever they could fit. Huge trees popped up everywhere, protecting everything with a muffling canopy. The cemetery went up and down hills, with paths twisting in and out and around and back. When Mika told us not to get lost, we realized that she wasn't talking about the tram trip, but the cemetery itself. The whole scene was blanketed by a thick bed of yellow leaves. We were left alone to explore the quiet, labyrinthine tangle of graves and overgrowth.

We took the tram partway back, but hopped off as soon as we saw something of interest. The first point of interest was warmth, the second was food, both of which we found at an Indian-themed (as in Native American) restaurant. Ironic, I know. With the English-translation menu, we ordered almond hot chocolate and sat down at a table in front of a giant mosaic of Che Guevara. Our almond hot chocolate arrived, and to our surprise, it was literally almond hot chocolate, that is, heated chocolate pudding with a single almond on top, to be eaten with a spoon. We just had to laugh.

We wandered through town, stopping in markets, churches, and art galleries. As it got dark, we stumbled across a loosely-organized outdoor market selling only used books and a few vinyl records. At the center of the book-sellers' stands was a statue of a man holding out a book. I walked slowly through the stands, picking up decaying books whose words I could not read, looking at photos of poets and dancers whose names I could barely sound out, and just holding the musky, brittle pages in my hands.

On the way back to the hostel, we decided it was about time to "Walk the Block," so we got out our paper compass. We ended up with "LLLRL," so we turned through the city blocks until, lo and behold, we ended up at a beauty salon! Since the compass led us directly to its doorstep, we knew it must be fate, and since we knew it was dangerous to mess with fate, Camille and I got manicures while Jessica got a haircut. Only one person in the place spoke English, but looking hot is a pretty universal concept so we had no problem communicating.

On the way back to the hostel Camille thought she saw a man "exposing" himself. Jessica and I didn't believe her, until we walked by and witnessed it for ourselves. We shrieked with laughter, and staggered home doubled over trying to hold our ribs together, but I don't think the guy noticed us as much as we noticed him.

At the hostel, the three of us played cards in the living room and listened to Miguel's flamenco music while he made himself dinner. We noticed three of the young dancers asking him questions in English until he got so annoyed with them that he gruffly told them "Practice your English on the Americans, it's not even my first language!" The three girls shyly turned their eyes toward us, but didn't dare say anything until we said hello and invited them over. Their initial shyness immediately disappeared after they asked us if they could practice speaking English with us. They sat next to us on the couch and we talked. Their English was far from great, but with their enthusiasm and our guesswork, we could almost always understand each other. Their group came from a small town in far eastern Ukraine, and we were not only the first Americans they had every met, but also the first native English speakers. I felt weirdly honored. The three girls were soon joined by the other dancers, all girls except two boys. Pretty soon the living room was so packed that we were all basically sitting on top of each other. The ice was broken. We taught them slang (which we wrote down on note paper for them), and they showed us videos from their dance competition. They had an impromptu flexibility contest to show off their best moves. We exchanged email addresses and phone numbers. When I told them I was from California, their eyes widened, "Have you met celebrities!?" We all played cards together until Mika enforced quiet-time. The dancers, who had traveled across the country to Lviv for a competition, invited us to their final performance the next day. When we accepted, they were so excited, and their chaperons were excited and shocked. We couldn't imagine passing up an invitation from a dozen Ukrainian dancers, and they were delighted to have American guests as souvenirs.
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