Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Problems which lead to solutions which lead to problems

By Michael

In two and a half years of living here in our Ukrainian village, we've had more than enough of our fair share of electronics that have broken. I could go through the list, but that would just be too depressing--for me. To give you an idea of the kinds of things I'm talking about though, we've had vacuum cleaners and blenders break or stop working seemingly out of nowhere.

As I frequently admit on this blog, I am not a handyman, but my knowledge of all things home repair is growing. When we first arrived here I at least had some experience from wood and metal shop in junior high school. I am naturally interested in building things with my hands, and when I was younger I enjoyed sawing wood and creating things in my parents' basement.

Unfortunately, I didn't know the first thing about electronics from a practical standpoint. I went to a "Blue Ribbon School of Excellence" in the US of A and could fill out all sorts of worksheets about complicated circuitry in my high school physics class. However, when I arrived at our house I couldn't even hook up an outlet.

I first got the idea that I better learn about electricity when we moved in. A friend of ours--a local from Lviv--said that if the lights flicker, then that mean the electricity is not that good. I asked him what he meant, but he wasn't able to expound on that statement. It turned out that our lights did flicker, but I didn't know what to do about it.

Then, last December, there was an "electricity emergency" in Ukraine because a major power plant was having some problems (I wrote about it here and here). We read on the internet that there was a risk of power surges and to not use electronic appliances during peak hours in the morning and night. I think there were one or two weeks when we didn't have power for a period of time every day.

And this past September I was talking with my brother and sister-in-law, who just bought a small voltage stabilizer for their laptops and tablets. They explained that a stabilizer helps protect the batteries and the equipment itself. They let me know that Yulia and I could get a small one like that or a big one for the entire house. Thanks for the tip, guys! :)

Yulia and I talked about it and planned to get one before installing a washing machine sometime in the future--until our vacuum cleaner just stopped working out of nowhere last Saturday. We hadn't even owned the thing for a year, so we suspected a power surge messed up the motor. Yulia was vacuuming on a Saturday night, which is a peak usage time.

This twisted our arm, and we bought a voltage stabilizer for the whole house earlier than planned. My father-in-law helped us connect it a few days ago. Luckily it was very straightforward.

Bam! Problem solved!


Not so fast, Michael and Yulia!

It works the way it is supposed to. I don't think we'll have problems with power surges anymore. It cuts off all the electricity if there is a really dangerous power surge. This has already happened several times. It cuts the power for six seconds and then turns back on.

However, the new problem is that it hums and make a loud clicking sound. It mainly clicks during peak usage times (mostly in the evenings), but it also sporadically clicks in the middle of the night. We had to hang the stabilizer in our dining room, which is right next to the bedroom, and the clicking is loud enough to wake us up.

To get a good night's sleep we turn off the power to the whole house using the circuit breaker, though I'm not sure if that is a long term solution. I'd like to hide it in a wooden cabinet like the one I built for the circuit breaker. It will hide the stabilizer, breaker, and electric meter and hopefully muffle the humming and clicking sounds.

When I'll find the time to build a cabinet for the voltage stabilizer is another question. My father-in-law and I have been digging a trench for sewage pipes. Our septic tank was just delivered and it's been waiting in the city for me to take for several days now.

I managed to dig a descent sized pit this week--a particularly drizzly week and mostly by lamplight after dark. I just don't have any other time to get it done.

So here we are in our never ending cycle! Problems lead to solutions...which lead to problems again.

Unstable voltage? Get a voltage stabilizer!
Got a voltage stabilizer? It's gonna make some noise...build a cabinet to muffle the sound.

Want to build a cabinet? Try finding time between teaching English on Skype and digging trenches and holes in the November mud. And do it in the dark!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The autumn is here (or I couldn't think of another title)

By Yulia

It seems just yesterday the spring was upon us and we were impatiently waiting for the warm season to come. And it came. It came suddenly, full of greenery and flowers, endless sunshine and refreshing breezes, chirping, humming and buzzing. It offered us its abundance of food. Speaking of food, here are some snapshots of our fall harvest. 
These are Thelma Sander's Sweet Potato squashes. A good producer here. Its mellow taste reminds one of a potato and can be used like any other acorn squash, although I found it to be less sweet. We mainly used this squash for making so-called "lazy varenyky" ("lazy pierogy") or "palchyky" (aka "little fingers"). This variety ended up being my mom's favorite, because she doesn't like a strong pumpkinny flavor. I saved some seeds and we'll be growing these again next year.

Some smaller specimens of squash. Most of these didn't reach maturity, but make for a good fall decor on our windows on the veranda. 

Boston Marrows on the other windowsill of our veranda. These were best made into creamy, spicy soups with ginger, rosemary and cinnamon. 

This is Galeus D'Eysines squash. We haven't tried it yet, so no feedback yet. 

And this is green turban squash. 

Upper Ground Sweet Potato squashes. Not our favorite variety this year. They are supposed to get sweeter with storage, so we'll see--perhaps the taste will improve. 
Our last flowers of the year. Something for our little bees and other insects to rejoice about this late in the season.
I once faintly heard one of our neighbors refer to himself as a craftsman behind one of the baskets at another neighbor's house. So...a few weeks ago while looking at our one and only wicker basket, I thought perhaps that neighbor  wouldn't mind making a few more for us. I asked his wife and voila -- we receive these two lovely baskets! I wanted to pay the man for his work, but he found my sum of money way too high and didn't want to accept it. Instead, we settled on a barter. I gave his wife a few pumpkins and squashes, plus a bag full of pears. (Pictured above is the New England Sugar Pie pumpkin, which we used to make, you guessed it right -- pumpkin pie! Also, apples and some of the last elderberries from our orchard/garden.)

        More apples than we know what to do with. (These are obviously not all of them. We have over 20 apple trees, although we are/will be getting rid of some of the old and sick ones.)
 While all the other apple tress are completely bare at this point, this one is still full of fruit. I slowly pick them off the tree and make apple/kale juice from them.
These clusters of edible mushrooms (we consulted my parents to confirm this, since we're not fungi experts) have sprouted all over our lawn in front of the house next to our evergreens.
    Our corn wasn't the best this year. And the mice decided to feast on the little corn that we did have.

 Our cauliflower was tiny this year. It didn't get enough water during our drought period.

Also, more grapes than we know what to do with. These are wine grapes. They are sweet, but also have a lot of acidity in them. You can't really eat more than a handful. The previous owner used to make wine every year, so he had planted more than a few of these grape vines on the property. We're gradually getting rid of them, since we're not big on wine making. Instead, we've planted a few of our own sweet varieties. My grandpa shared some of his own grape creations with us. He breeds his own varieties. A grape enthusiast of a sort.
Here's the grandpa himself. He's 83. One of the best guys I know. And the best dresser ever -- "Grandpakins, I love your style!"

There is still some food available in our garden. These are late fall radishes and borage leaves. We also have turnips, rutabagas, collard greens, cauliflower, sprouting broccoli, mache or corn salad, kale, plus other greens and salads.

A few weeks ago, while my parents were visiting us, we took a quick trip up the hill to collect some rose hips. It's very pretty and incredibly quiet up there. The whole area is a green vastness of forests, agri-fields and long hedges in-between. It is in those hedges that we find our rose hips, sloe, hawthorn, wild flowers and herbs. 
The bushes are full of thorns, getting nipped by them is inevitable. 

My dad walking with his bag full of rose hips to the car and Toma's butt, because she's always nearby. 
My mama 
The harvesters.
Our loot. 
Aside from harvesting food, our lives here are also full of other experiences. Michael says that animals really like us, because all kinds of creatures keep congregating at our house. This adolescent domestic pigeon spent a few hours sitting on the roof of our mudroom.  
Our Laska was a bad cat so I had to lock her -- temporarily -- in the mudroom. There was a weasel (also called laska in Ukrainian) running around our patio and Laska wanted to go after it. We already have experience with one of our cats, Levko, killing one of those weasels and I didn't want to let it happen again. Laska didn't seem to mind being in there. She just plopped her butt on top of the apple and stared out the window looking pretty.
 Turns out we have another spring in our tiny village. It's hidden among trees and doesn't have much of a set up. Some villagers have told us that the water here is great for making spirits.

Things we find on our walks out in the back fields: Chemical trails. Naturally, the local agribusinesses are all about protecting and maximizing their crops. Their choice is now clear to us -- a crop protection product from South Africa -- not natural. Oh, where would we all be without our precious chemicals!? I'm giving this both of my thumbs down. 
Levko makes a bed out of a lot of different things. I wish I could sleep that easily.
On another walk up on the hill from our village. This time we were on a hunt for hawthorn (it's the red hued tree in the picture) and sloe. 

We assume there was a natural pond here at some point.
We found Toma in our apple orchard two years ago on Halloween. She's our little ghost child who appeared out of nowhere. And she surely scared us. We were terrified, not knowing what to do with this little pup. We didn't want a dog, at least not yet. There were so many other things to think about and to take care of, and having a dog was not on our list. But, we had no choice, or rather -- there was only one decent thing we could do -- to invite her to be part of our family. Today, we can't imagine our lives without Toma. 
!Adios, amigos!

Friday, October 30, 2015

This week's big news about meat and cancer

Big news this week--the World Health Organization announced that, after reviewing the data, processed meat is a Type 1 carcinogen. This is the highest level of classification for cancer causing substances. Tobacco, arsenic, alcohol, and asbestos are also Type 1 carcinogens (a carcinogen is a substance that can cause cancer).

They also included red meat in the next category below this, Type 2a. This means that the WHO thinks that red meat "probably" causes cancer.

Hot dogs, ham, sausages, corned beef, and canned meat are all processed meats. A processed meat is a meat that has been preserved by salting, curing, smoking, drying, or canning. Red meats include pork, beef, lamb, and other meats from mammals.

These results are consistent with what I wrote about in an earlier blog post--"A Whole Foods, Plant Based Diet." It's great to hear that such a large, influential group like the World Health Organization broke the news because they've made quite a splash and turned a lot of heads.

When I first saw the news, I almost glossed right over it. "Yeah, I've known this for years," I thought. "What else is new?" But when I began to see it plastered everywhere--all over mainstream websites and news outlets, I became interested.

Unfortunately, the response to this really important news has been disheartening. Many people's knee jerk reaction is to look for ways to continue doing what they've been doing despite the facts. They are now pushing the message of moderation, which, honestly, sounds crazy to me (See this video from the YouTube channel "Happy Healthy Vegan." They have also noticed the lack of seriousness in the response to the important news).

Remember, processed meat is a Type 1 carcinogen. What person in their right mind recommends smoking in moderation? Who says to breathe in asbestos in moderation? What about using arsenic in moderation??? Back when I still lived in the States I remember old schools and other old buildings being completely demolished because they had asbestos in them. That's less of a hassle than not eating salami??

If you live in the United States especially, be careful who you listen to: 
"The $95 billion U.S. beef industry has been preparing for months to mount a response, and some scientists, including some unaffiliated with the meat industry, have questioned whether the evidence is substantial enough to draw the strong conclusions that the WHO panel did." (source)
To be clear, the WHO panel based their conclusion on about 800 studies. This is not just another single study based on a handful of people. The beef industry has deep pockets, and you can be sure they're not going to go down without a fight. As is made clear in Dr. Michael Greger's video about eggs (below), it's not below these groups to pay scientists and bloggers to promote their products as a health food.

As I was washing the dishes last night, I listened to an episode of the radio show "On Point with Tom Ashbrook," which discussed the WHO announcement. The panel of guests seemed blindsided by the news. Most of them were stuttering and unprepared to answer many questions (Aside from Marion Nestle--a professor of nutrition at New York University, who basically said, "Ya, we've known about this for a long time--what's the surprise all about?" You can find her written statement to CNN here.).

One man called in and asked about nitrate free lunch meats, wondering if he would be safe if he continued to buy them. When I heard this, my initial reaction was disbelief as to why someone would continue eating processed meat after hearing the news. But after thinking about myself as a former meat eater, I can understand. When I ate meat, I mostly ate processed meat. It was so much easier to buy a few slices of ham than to buy meat in its original, raw form. In fact, when I lived on my own I don't remember buying raw, unprocessed meat even once. I've worked at a couple of delis, and, now that I think about it, we only sold processed meat to people. People eat the stuff daily--it is called "lunch meat," after all. And when something is so pervasive in a culture and you see everyone doing it, it's hard to believe that it is actually dangerous.

This is understandable. Wasn't the response to the dangers of tobacco similar? Doctors and celebrities were paid to endorse the products and gave the general public a false sense of security. People took half measures like smoking light cigarettes and cigarettes with filters, which actually turn out to be more detrimental to health.

The same thing is happening now. People are grasping at straws, hoping that nitrate free or organic lunch meat will not be as harmful to them. Many people misinterpret the news, reasoning that, since processed meat doesn't instantly kill you, the news has been over hyped. People also claim that since meat has vitamins and minerals, it is still alright to eat it sometimes. As one YouTube news reporter puts it, "Vegetarians, don't rejoice too much, though. Meat is still a great source of B vitamins, minerals, iron, and zinc."

This reminds me of wine advocates who point out the fact that wine has antioxidants--as if other foods don't have them. In a similar vein, meat advocates still highlight the fact that meats have nutrients as if plant foods don't have B vitamins, minerals, iron, and zinc.

I understand that if you've been eating meat everyday for fifty years or if you depend on ham and bologna to feed your children at lunch, this may be a lot to take in at once. It may be more comfortable to react in disbelief along with millions of other people. While I was initially surprised and a little angry at the public reaction, I am left feeling compassionate because I know what it is like to live and eat that way.

However, Yulia and I want you to know that it is possible to change for the better. We are encouraged to see that even non vegetarians are taking interest in the mounting reasons to not eat meat. The same people from "DNews" in the video above link to another video about the meat industry in the United States. They acknowledge that meat production produces more greenhouse gases than all forms of transportation combined.

So eating a plant based diet is not only better for your health, it is also better for the health of the planet. If you are at all interested in environmentalism, you might want to consider a plant based diet. But this is a topic for another post...

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Kyiv and Lviv: A Comparison

Yulia and I just got back from a quick trip to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. This was our second trip to the city, and we only spent a few days there on each trip, so we are by no means experts. Still, we've been able to make some observations while traveling there. This post will be about the differences and similarities between Kyiv and Lviv.

The differences:

Kyiv is huge

Yulia and I live in a tiny village of less than one hundred people. It's in a tucked away area well off the beaten path. When it rains, our road remains muddy for weeks. The houses here are small, modest one story buildings.

Our village. The only two story building is the big white Національний Дiм ("National Home"--only used during elections) lit up by the sun in the background.

We live 30 miles (50 km) from Lviv. It is a city of just under a million people. There is a height limit to the buildings there, so there is no skyline in the modern sense of the word. Lviv's downtown is dominated by architecture from Austrian times--it's quaint and charming, but relatively small in scale.
The heart of downtown Lviv

In comparison, Kyiv is huge. It reminds us of the American city of Chicago. The buildings are tall and the streets are wide--especially in comparison to the medieval alleyways of Lviv. The volume of traffic is intense. At night, the sound never ceases. We had a particularly stuffy hotel room, so we had to keep the window open all night. We had a hard time sleeping because of the constant roar of the street fourteen stories below. The architecture of downtown Kyiv is a combination of beautiful, historic buildings (but unlike Lviv, they are enormous!) and modern high rises.

A view from our hotel during our trip in 2011.

Kyiv has a Metro

We love love love the Kyiv Metro! It's by far better than any subway system we have used anywhere. The trains come every two minutes or so. You never have to wait long for a train. The Metro stations are also beautiful!

Inside the subway cars

We really like the "University" stop. It's right by the botanical garden, and there are many beautiful potted plants by the escalator. The lighting didn't lend itself to a good picture, but you get the idea! :) 

Lviv doesn't have a subway system, but it does have pretty good public transportation. There are buses, mini-buses (маршрутки), trolleybuses, and trams. The video below is about the designers of the new trams in Lviv. They were designed, constructed and, now, used in Lviv. While Lviv may not be as big and wealthy as Kyiv, there are many people here who care about their city and who try to make a difference. We think their care and love shows! (The video is in Ukrainian, though we'd recommend watching it just for the images, which are lovely).


On our first day in Kyiv I went to a currency exchange. After I gave the lady at the booth dollars, she asked for something in Russian. I didn't understand and looked to Yulia for help. She told me that the lady wanted hryvnias so that she could return large bills to me. I gave her some hryvnias, and she asked for more because Yulia misunderstood her the first time. I obliged and apologized in Ukrainian, saying, "Sorry, I don't speak Russian."

I guess this set her off because she went into a long speech and shook her head as she counted my money. I had no idea what she was saying because, as I made clear earlier, I don't speak Russian. I stared at her blankly and took my money.

I guess she was saying something rude (I later found out that she said, "All kinds of foreigners come here, from England and all over the world, and they all understand Russian."). Yulia was listening to everything as she stood off to the side. She went up to the window after I left and said, "So you think that everyone understands Russian?"

"Well, I'm not obligated to speak to anyone in Ukrainian."

"What country do you think you live in? This is Ukraine."

"Girl, why are you yelling at me?"

At this point we left in disbelief. I just want to reiterate what happened. I was speaking Ukrainian. In the Ukrainian capital. And a woman became upset with me because I didn't understand Russian.

Aside from this incident, most other people we spoke to in Kyiv were quite friendly. Many of them switched to Ukrainian when they spoke with us, but it was unnerving that we had some friction with that lady on our first day in Kyiv.

We went to restaurants with some trepidation. When we went to one place for dinner, we received only Russian language menus. I explained that I don't understand Russian and asked for a Ukrainian menu. They let me know that they didn't have a Ukrainian menu, but an English one.

Also, we had some business to attend to at the American Embassy, and again, surprisingly, Russian. When we were moving through security a lady was saying what kinds of things to take out of our bags and pockets before going through the metal detector. Yulia saw me struggling to understand and started explaining what she was saying. The embassy worker saw and had to get one of her coworkers to translate into English. Again, this was the American embassy in Ukraine, and Russian was spoken there. Some employees knew English. No Ukrainian (I don't want to paint an overly grim picture, either. The people inside were quite friendly and professional and spoke English fluently).

We've only spent about seven days total between our two trips to Kyiv, and we already met some resistance to our speaking Ukrainian. It makes us wonder how difficult it would be to live there and try to continue speaking Ukrainian long term.

We hear many people call Kyiv a bilingual city, but Yulia and I think Lviv might actually be a better example. True, Lviv is an overwhelmingly Ukrainian speaking city, but there are locals who speak Russian as well. We encounter many of them in Франківський Район (Frankivs'kyi Rayon), a beautiful, well-to-do neighborhood of the city. They speak Russian and most people speak to them in Ukrainian. We've lived here for four years without seeing any conflicts.

Communist Monuments and Symbols

Long before the decommunization laws that were passed earlier this year, Lviv got rid of its Soviet monuments and symbols. You'd be hard pressed to find a hammer and sickle around here.

It's different in Kyiv. Despite the decommunization laws, we still saw communist stars on lamp posts and a statue of a guy on a horse with a hammer and sickle on it (I also noticed that someone had spray painted Слава Україні  (Glory to Ukraine) on it, but the paint has since been washed off. The hammer and sickle remain).

What was outside of the currency exchange where I got yelled at the first night? A gigantic pedestal holding up the communist star.

Kyiv seems more "American" to us

Despite a few old symbols from Soviet times, Kyiv has the feel of a modern American city to us. The streets are wide and the economy seems to be bustling. We saw few, if any, Ladas or old junkers. Most cars are new and shiny compared to Lviv. We also noticed that the people were finely dressed. I've almost forgotten what it's like to see a grown man with neatly combed hair wearing a collared shirt and sweater.

The wide, yet empty streets of Chicago--I mean, Kyiv

You'll see nicely dressed people in Lviv as well, but not to the same extent. Lviv is much smaller and has many residents who are recent transplants from the surrounding countryside. It has much fewer native urbanites.

And while Kyiv seems very American to us, the urban fabric of Lviv is more "European." Lviv's historic buildings are from Austrian times, so it's no wonder why it has the feel of any other northern European city.

The similarities:

Despite these superficial and not-so-superficial differences, we think Kyiv and Lviv have more in common than not.

Living in a small village, we forget what it's like to go to a city--whether it be Kyiv or Lviv--and have to constantly walk through other people's cigarette smoke on the sidewalk.

Like all big cities in Ukraine, Kyiv and Lviv have pretty good economies (that is, jobs) which vacuum up people from surrounding villages and towns where, sometimes, there is no economy to speak of. The only difference is that Kyiv, being the capital, gets people from all across the country.

Recently, however, Lviv is giving Kyiv a run for its money. It's becoming very attractive to investors, professionals, inventors, creative types, and all sorts of people. As this recent RFE/RL article says: "The country's GDP is set to contract by 9 percent this year, but you wouldn't guess it by walking around Lviv. New restaurants open every month, and posters advertise new residential developments." Like Kyiv, Lviv's IT sector is really taking off. One Israeli IT entrepreneur, who moved to Kyiv before relocating to Lviv, cites the locals as the reason why he set up business here:
"Lviv today is in effect not only the most comfortable place for living, but the least problematic in terms of the mind-set of people," he says, stressing that it's not "just because of the closeness of a [European] border."
He explains that the city differs from others in Ukraine because it has no oligarchs, and boasts a healthy middle class unified by a singular goal.
While Yulia and I are thrilled that Kyiv and Lviv are doing so well, we get the feeling that they are virtual islands isolated from the ocean of Ukrainian land around them. They vacuum up not only people from the surrounding countryside, but also talent and resources. Ukraine just had local elections, which made us consider who in our surrounding area we should vote for. We wonder who is actually qualified to be elected into office. Who has the leadership skills? Who can take on such a responsibility and who understands how to manage money for a village or town?

Whoever is in charge now is doing a pitiful job. We see little evidence that they know how to organize a group of workers to fix a road or manage money. We've seen a policeman on our street once in the 2+ years we've been living at our home. Old buildings from the former колгосп (collective farm) are crumbling, and no one is even thinking about demolishing or reusing them.

A local road near our village
Since the quality of life has now improved in cities like Kyiv and Lviv, it may be time for the much touted talent in those cities to begin to think about the rest of the country. Why do the roads suddenly fall apart when you drive beyond the city limits? Why are there good paying jobs only in the biggest cities? During the electricity emergency last year, we had daily blackouts in our village. However, when I drove to Lviv, the soccer stadium had its lights on full blast, lighting up the sky for miles around. Why is everybody who is not a city resident treated as a second class citizen?

Don't get us wrong, if you're a visitor or an expat in Ukraine, we think Kyiv and Lviv are wonderful places to visit or live. They have all the amenities and infrastructure you expect and need. Also, you'll be able to find all the Ukrainian history and culture you're looking for. Enough people speak English for an outsider to get around. The cost of visiting Ukraine is much less than the cost of going to most other European cities, but your experience will probably be the same as, if not better than, going somewhere else. Definitely give them a try!