Saturday, December 20, 2014

A dark December

These are some of the longest nights of the year, and this winter we are certainly feeling the darkness of those long nights. On a normal day, the lights usually go out around 5pm and come back on around 7pm. Along with the sun, we prepare to say bye to the lights just after sunset.

As you may have already assumed, the power outages continue.

We've begun to rearrange our lives because of the constant power outages. We keep candles all around the house. There's no sense in putting them away because tomorrow will just bring another blackout. We try to finish dinner before five so that we can settle in and relax once the lights are turned off.

When the lights are on, whenever that is, I make it a priority to do lesson planning because you can never know when the lights will go out again.

We have been doing our best to conserve as much power as we can. At night we usually have two lights on, and each bulb takes five watts (10 total). Add that to the 60 watts that our laptop takes (along with the watt or so consumed by the modem) and we burn about 70-75 watts in the evenings.We do not use a refrigerator, and we heat our house using wood burning stoves.

While our power consumption is pretty modest, it turns out that Ukrainian homes consume about 30 percent of all power produced in Ukraine (compared to 22 percent in the United States). Hopefully this will be a wake up call for ordinary people to chip in and do their part to conserve the little energy there is to go around.

On the other hand, I do sympathize with one commenter in the article I cited above. He questions the piece and says that the comparison of domestic energy consumption to other sectors is not appropriate because other parts of the economy have been "decimated." He's also right that, in comparison to US houses, Ukrainian homes are much smaller and have old, thin cables running to them that cannot handle much power: "I want you to go into your house and put everything on a single 25 amp breaker!" Many people already use very little power because that is what they've always done, so it's hard to expect them to use less.

The answer will probably have to come from both personal responsibility and the energy producers' ability to generate power. These are difficult times, but Yulia and I are hoping for the best in the long run.

The war in Donas is distant, but its effects are still noticeable even here deep in western Ukraine. First we heard stories of boys being sent to the east to fight, never to come back. Then the currency plummeted. Now this. How much more can Ukraine take?

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Last week's electricity emergency in Ukraine

I'd like to spend a moment to talk about a national news story that had a big impact on our day to day lives here in our small village--the power outages in Ukraine. We had power outages at home every single day from Monday through Friday, and the one day that we went to Lviv, Yulia's appointment with the dentist was canceled because they had no electricity in that part of the city.

What happened was that a nuclear power plant in Zaporizhya was disconnected from the grid because one of its turbines malfunctioned. It is one of the largest plants in all of Europe, so it's understandable that it caused widespread problems in Ukraine. Thankfully, there was no chance of a radiation leak.

The problem was fixed on December 5th, though coal shortages at other power plants are still a nagging problem for Ukraine.

We've become accustomed to living with less since moving to our new home in the countryside, but these constant power outages were particularly problematic for us. First of all, Yulia and I have had electricity on our minds recently, as we've been rewiring a major chunk of our house, garage, and other outbuildings. On Monday morning the lights went out, but that was not really a problem because I had to switch off the power anyway to wire our bedroom, kitchen, and what will be our bathroom. The power was turned back on in the afternoon. However, after dark, just as I was hiding the wires back behind the wall in our corridor, the lights went out again. I was tired and dirty and there was a pile of dirt on the floor.

As I was cleaning up I noticed a fire raging in the fields behind our house. After looking closer, I could see a power line lit up by the red flames. Yulia and I took our fire extinguisher and cell phone and went to see what was happening. We thought that maybe the second outage was because of the fire. It was burning directly beneath the lines, but there was no damage that we could see. We reasoned that the dry grass caught fire after an irresponsible villager or farmer set their crop field on fire. The fire must have spread from there to the prairie grasses.

Later that evening, the lights came back on. We checked the internet to find out what  was going on. There were a couple mentions about possible power outages, but nothing that relayed the large scope of the problem originating in Zaporizhya, so we didn't think much of it (the articles I cite above were all published later in the week).

The next day the lights went out shortly after we woke up. Yulia and I went to the city for a dentist's appointment, but, as I mentioned, it was canceled because the lights were out there too.

On Wednesday the power went out yet again. I had a lesson with a new student on Skype in the evening and desperately didn't want to miss it so as not to turn off a new client. I work exclusively online now, so having power is essential for our income.

Yulia called the power company to find out what was going on. We were hoping they could give us a schedule of the now routine power outages. When she reached a representative and asked why the power was out and if there was any way to know when it would be turned off, they got disconnected.

When the lights came back on, we checked the internet and found out about the widespread electric grid problems and that the lights could be going off during peak hours (9-11am and 5-9pm).

Just after dark the lights went out again, and I had no choice but to hastily gather my things and drive the hour it takes to get to the city. I needed to be on Skype for my lesson at eight. There was no knowing when the power would come back on.

*     *     *

This problem was most hard on us because we work online and no lights means we can't work. We can deal with the inconvenience of the  lights being out, but the electricity powers much more than just our lights. It was hard on our household economy, and I wonder how hard it was on the national economy. Think of all the banks, internet based businesses, and communications that were affected. We at least know that Yulia's dentist also had problems (and I sure hope no one was in the middle of a painful procedure when the lights went out!).

I'm not writing this post to "complain" about what an inconvenience the power outages were to me. My problems pale in comparison to what Ukraine's energy ministry and our power company were dealing with. Rather, I bring up these problems exactly for the reason that we were not the only ones effected. The hit that the larger economy took because of these power outages is made up of these and many more stories.

Post Script:
The power outages are continuing this week, although for different reasons. The coal shortage in Ukraine is now to blame. The coal shortages were publicized ahead of time. When we got our electric bill, there was even a message on the back stating that power plants are producing 80 percent less energy because of this problem. The coal shortages are due to the disruption in mining and transportation of coal caused by the fighting taking place in Donbas. The news of war is nothing new to us at this point. Yulia and I understood long ago that this war will be negatively influencing our lives and are prepared for the consequences.

We sincerely hope for a swift end to the fighting. At times we think that Ukraine should cut its losses and give up on Crimea and Donbas, and at other times we think Ukraine should fight and retake the territories controlled (however sloppily) by Russian soldiers and pro-Russian terrorists. We are not war strategists and have no influence in the matter, so we won't talk at length about the matter here. We focus more on what is in our purview. We donate food and supplies to help the Ukrainian army, and we think it is our responsibility--and even duty--to be outspoken citizens. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Ukraine and its self defeating behaviors

I was recently told by the director of the English school I work at that I should not tell my students that I am of Ukrainian descent and that I speak Ukrainian. She explained to me that some students are less interested in being taught by ethnic Ukrainians and English teachers who speak Ukrainian. Although their reasoning was not made very clear, I gathered that they consider people like me to not be true native English speakers.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. When I was interviewing for jobs here in Ukraine I was asked by another school how I felt about "lying" to my students. They also found that many students were turned off by Ukrainian speaking English teachers and teachers of Ukrainian descent.

I was initially not bothered by this request. I assured the directors of these schools that I understood that the customer is always right (And I do believe this and generally leave my personal opinions at the door when working as a representative for a company such as a school). I didn't think that this would bother me either. After all, I speak English much better than I do Ukrainian, so it is easier for me to teach using only English anyway.

However, after having tried this out in practice, I have different thoughts on the issue. On my first day, the director walked me into the class to introduce me and said that I speak a little Ukrainian because I am married to a Ukrainian woman. It was harmless enough and, in truth, the class was fine. I didn't suffer trauma or anything like that.

But there's something that doesn't quite sit right with me after the experience, and I suspect that it might be a seemingly innocuous part of a deeper problem.

To start with, I'm not sure what the problem is with an English teacher who has relatives (in my case, grandparents) from Ukraine. I'm a white person from the United States, so it should be obvious that if you go back far enough, I must have family from Europe. Aside from prejudice, why is it preferable that I be of, say, German descent over Ukrainian?

I could understand why a student might want to have a teacher who is a native English speaker. Native speakers have a "feel" for their language that is hard to learn. Of course, there are minuses to native speakers as well. Their feel for correct language usage often makes them oblivious to certain language rules and norms. For example, why is it correct to say "drive in a car," but "fly on a plane?" Why isn't it correct to say, "drive on a car?" In both cases you are inside the vehicle. I listen to the radio show, A Way With Words, and a caller brought up this question to the show's hosts. He was teaching English in Japan, and his students asked him this very question, which he had no idea how to answer because he never noticed this inconsistency before.

And to be honest, I think that the idea that only native speakers can have a feel for a language can sometimes be wrong. Yulia, for example, grew up in Ukraine, but moved to the United States when she was fourteen and spent eleven years there. I consider her to be just as good a speaker of English as I am. She often even prefers to speak, write, or read in English because it is more comfortable for her. She lived most of her adult life in America, so naturally had to learn how to speak professionally in English at work, write complicated thoughts and opinions at the university, and read everything in English. Until she met me she only rarely spoke Ukrainian with friends.

In our everyday conversations with one another we mix Ukrainian and English liberally. We'll say something like, "The cats are sleeping near the pichka." Pichka, as you may or may not know, is the word for masonry heater. Although we both know the word, "masonry heater" we prefer the Ukrainian version. We like the sound of it--peechka--and we consider the things to be Ukrainian (probably because many more homes in Ukraine have them than in the US). Either way, we don't use the two languages as a crutch, but as a way to enhance the way we communicate to one another.

And that is the way I feel about an English teacher knowing a local language. When necessary they can translate something on a dime, but most of the time they naturally stick to teaching in English only. If anything, this should be an asset, not a drawback. Plus, an English teacher who is learning another language understands what it is like to learn a foreign language. They can use the strategies and methods they use for themselves to help mentor their students through their own learning processes.

These are the reasons for why I think it is positive for English teachers to speak the vernacular of the foreign country they live in. I think most people can understand this and probably already agree with me. However, I think the deeper issue involves Ukrainian society and its distrust of itself. Since Yulia and I moved to Ukraine in 2011 we have noticed this issue manifest itself in different places. The most obvious place I saw it was on food and other products. I have seen packaging written partially or sometimes entirely in English. I can only speculate as to why this is the case, but, like my experience in the classroom, I think it may be because of a perceived notion of anything Ukrainian (even the language) being a signal of inferior quality. Perhaps the term, "Premium Quality," is just enough to persuade a customer that they are not being swindled.

Yulia and I experience comments that confirm this as well. We've had neighbors see us on the street near where Yulia's family lives. Most of the time they talk and look exclusively at me. When we ask why they're not talking to Yulia they say that she's Ukrainian and not as interesting. The same goes for when we meet new people. The question we most frequently get asked is, "Life is much better abroad, isn't it?"

Most of this behavior is probably due to just not knowing better. One of my students, for example, just traveled to Poland for an academic conference. She doesn't speak Polish, but expected to use English as a common language while over there. She came back and was surprised that only a few people knew English. She had the impression that, as she put it, everybody in the European Union spoke English. This was very interesting to me. Here in Lviv, we are only an hour drive from the Polish border. This whole part of Ukraine was part of Poland before World War Two and, before the war, Poles and Ukrainians lived together here. Because of shared history and simple proximity I would think that most locals would know the ins and outs of Polish culture well.

I hope this is the beginning of a new learning experience for her. I hope she sees that many of her preconceptions about the fabled progressive EU are not true. I hope she understands that, if one considers English as a sign of worldliness and progress, that maybe she, and even Ukraine, can be more worldly and more progressive than other countries--even from the EU. I got the impression that this was the case during the Euromaidan protests of the past year, and I hope this awareness continues.

Before I conclude I should say that not all English teachers, schools, or students think this way. I have talked with many people who value teachers who know another language. I am also in the process of leaving the school I referenced earlier, so my hypersensitivity to being asked to lie about my heritage may have been triggered by other, more substantial problems I had with the school. Once a few things annoy you about something, it is easy to find other faults that you may not have noticed before. Still, I think this issue is important to write about here, even though I may never bring this up with the school. As someone who genuinely cares about Ukraine and its future I think that the suspicion of all things Ukrainian is ultimately self defeating and needs to be addressed in some way, and I'd like to be a part of that larger conversation.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

A series of well put-together cats

Our two cats were born just two days after arriving in Ukraine in 2011 when Yulia's grandmother's cat had kittens. Ever since we started this blog I've been wanting to dedicate a post just to here it is.

Introducing Laska:

And Levko:

Their arrival in the world coincided with our arrival in Ukraine. Therefore, we cannot conceive of being here without them. They have been our companions ever since we moved here.

Their names are both Ukrainian. Yulia chose the name, Laska, and I chose Levko. Laska means both tenderness and affection and, interestingly enough, weasel. Levko is a man's name in Ukrainian, but it also translates to "little lion." I had a little lion stuffed animal when I was very young, and so I sort of named Levko after him.

Levko shortly after opening his eyes
He had such beautiful blue eyes as a kitten!
Laska was pretty darn cute too!

Levko and Laska are a never ending source of entertainment. Levko has no shortage of funny faces. From scary serial killer looks...

to affectionate hugs with his sister.

We didn't force them to pose like this. They did this naturally. We swear!
He is very expressive. We can look at him and know just what words are going through his head.

"Who put me in this oven???" (He crawled in there by himself)

"What is that apparatus in your hand?"

"What--you've never seen anyone sleep in an overturned hamper balanced on a pile of sand before??"

Laska is the relative vegetarian of the pair. Along with meat and cat food, she will steal cucumbers and persimmons from the table. 

Laska snacking on a persimmon

While Levko is the more rugged of the two (I found him sleeping on a pile of nails in the garage once), Laska cannot take such a beating. She's the one that will perch on our windowsill and look in at us staying warm by the fire on cold, rainy days. It's hard for us to resist letting her in...until she swipes a persimmon from the table. She would look particularly battered after I gave the cats flee baths when they were young. 

Sorry darling! We did it because we care about you!

Agile Laska also prefers stalking small flashy objects such as ribbon on a string or a wiggling finger.

She'll jump four feet in the air to catch it and then growl at Levko to stay away from her kill. As adults here in the countryside she goes for mice and salamanders. Levko prefers big game such as hamsters, rats, and, no kidding, small hares and weasels! One day Yulia informed her parents and me that, "Левко вбив ласку" ("Levko killed laska" [remember laska is both our cat's name and weasel). We had to pause for a second. 

"What? ... Seriously??" Yulia's dad asked. Either Laska the cat or a weasel were equally improbable to us. It ended up being a weasel and not our cat.

In conclusion, we think Levko and Laska have made us cat people. Take a look at this picture.

I woke up one morning and decide to make Yulia breakfast in bed. I was on a sourdough bread/pretzel kick at the time. So what did I decide to make Yulia? Something resembling a heart and two cat heads (Yulia had already eaten the "I" and "U" shaped pretzels by the time this picture was taken).

I think it's pretty safe to say that these furry little creatures have penetrated our psyche. They have made our lives so much more rich and interesting since their arrival. The good news for them is that, sometimes, all they have to do is just sit there to get the job done.

Laska and Levko's eye

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Health and sickness

Getting into the water at Rakovets Spring just outside of Lviv. People say that wading in the water here is healing.

Before I met Yulia in my mid twenties it was common for me to get sick. Most of the time I would just get colds, but I also experienced maladies like strep throat, the flu, and shingles. I considered getting sick several times a year normal.

I have always been interested in healthy eating, but I was usually a couple steps away from health. I knew eating fruits and vegetables was important, for example, and considered microwavable dinners and pasta sauce to be a good source of these foods. Microwavable meals usually have a section with vegetables (and a fruit cobbler for dessert), and pasta sauce is made out of blended tomatoes, peppers, and other healthy things (I thought). I was definitely consuming a proper balance of grains, fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, and eggs--just like the food pyramid taught us in school. Nonetheless, I didn't realize that I wasn't as healthy as I could be.

But an interesting thing happened after I met Yulia--I stopped getting sick. After we started living together, doing laundry together, traveling together, and doing pretty much everything together, it only followed that we ate together. I adopted some of Yulia's ways--eating wholes foods instead of packaged foods, and Yulia adopted some of my ways--going out to eat very often. This eventually blended into a new way of eating that made sense for the both of us. Even though I was eating a balance of foods before I met Yulia, there were many, many foods that I ate and Yulia didn't.

Yulia didn't drink alcohol much, for example, and she didn't like being around people who drank a lot. Although I was fond of drinking at the time, I figured that cutting down so that I could date the most beautiful and interesting women I had ever met was an acceptable trade off. Although Yulia would drink a little here and there when I first met her, we don't drink at all at this point in our lives.

Yulia didn't eat any processed foods and food additives. When we would go shopping together, and I would get something that had these things in it, she would point them out to me on the ingredients list. What she said made sense to me. What good do artificial flavors do to your body, anyway? People have lived for a long time without them. Surely it would be possible for me to survive, so I gave it a try.

I also stopped eating meat after Yulia and I started dating. This actually wasn't a big step for me. I had dabbled in vegetarianism a few times before that, so it was easy to make the transition. For about three years now, we have also almost stopped eating dairy and eggs and have continued feeling pretty good.

I'm not sure what, exactly, contributed to my better health after making these changes, but I know that there's something about taking these things out of my life that changed me for the better. In fact, Yulia has not seen me sick the whole time she has known me.

Unfortunately, I did come down with a really bad cold and sinus infection in September. I suspect two culprits--a severe lack of sleep and an increase in the amount of junk foods I was eating.

The lack of sleep was due to a trip to Poland to pick up my car from America at a port on the Baltic Sea. I only got three hours of sleep while resting my head on my rucksack on the seat next to me while on the overnight bus there. On the drive back to Lviv I got approximately one hour of sleep. I remember dozing off before driving through Warsaw. When I woke up I could still see the glow of the city lights on the horizon. Mix that with several spoon fulls of bureaucracy induced stress, and I think that sets up pretty good conditions for a weakened immune system.

But although I suspect a lack of sleep to be one of the reasons why I got sick, I don't think it's the main reason why. I've dealt with heaps of stress and no sleep in the period I've known Yulia and never came down with a cold as a result of that. It makes me think that the straw that broke the camel's back was the junk food that I was eating at the same time. I had to go to Poland in the middle of my parents' visit to Ukraine. For the two weeks they were here we treated everyday like a holiday. On holidays like Christmas and Easter I allow myself to eat food that I normally don't eat--things like cake, for example, that have sugar, milk, eggs, and, depending on the baker, food coloring. But I suppose that eating this way for an extended period was just too much. I should have known better, but I let myself go.

While I was sick, Yulia's parents took my parents, Yulia, and me to Rakovets Spring just outside of Lviv to enjoy some natural beauty and drink some spring water. People say that wading around the pool of spring water there is healing for all sorts of maladies. Yulia and I got in and walked around just for fun. I can't say that my sinus infection was healed, but I did feel a small sense of accomplishment after I got into the very cold water and toughed it out.  It does get easier to stay in the water after walking around the pool several times.

But what I really learned from this whole experience is that there are no quick fixes. I have found a way of living that has helped me stay healthy for long periods of time and that I should not compromise, especially when I am around people that I care about. Instead, I should probably use family get-togethers to show people how Yulia and I eat and live and to encourage them to try it out. If how we live works for other people, great. If not, they will hopefully be motivated to find a diet and lifestyle that work for them. I now think that it is possible for most people to make the common cold an uncommon event.

By writing this blog post I hope to reinforce my own commitment to staying on track. I hope that talking about my experience in a public way will make me less likely to slip up in the future. Secondly, this will serve as a heads up for friends and family who read this blog--so hold off on the cheesecake the next time I visit. OK? :) Lastly, I hope that all readers of this blog might take a moment and reflect on their own habits. I, by no means, am an exceptional person. I have plenty of flaws and have made plenty of mistakes in my past, but I think its worth embarrassing myself. I hope that by writing about this, others might notice similar patterns in their own lives and make some positive changes to fix their own unhealthy patterns, regardless if they are similar or different to my own.

Friday, October 24, 2014

First Frost, First Snow

We've been having a warm fall here in western Ukraine. Yulia and I have been wearing shorts while working and watching the bees fly around contently. Our garden looked like this two weeks ago:

But this morning we woke up to snow covered geraniums, nasturtiums, and marigolds. The blooms hadn't even been browned by winter's first frosts. This was both the first frost and first snow.

What month is it? October??

Our cat, Laska, figured out that the door to the pichka (pronounced, peechka) is also the door to warmth during these cold days.

Levko the copycat reasoned that it would be even warmer if he nuzzled right up against the metal door!

In the end they realized that it is even warmer when they are together.

Warm wishes where ever you are!

Our clematis, frozen in mid-bloom