Monday, July 21, 2014

Is the world going crazy?

Yulia and I have found ourselves asking recently--is the world going crazy?

There is, of course, the recent tragedy of the Malaysian Airlines plane being shot down. I don't know what more to say about it other than my first reaction upon learning the news: "What did Putin expect would happen after supplying such advanced weapons to what amounts to a group of ragtag wastrels?" This writer contends that the separatists were probably behind the attack and that they didn't even know what they were shooting at. Either way, it was really only a matter of time until something terrible happened.

This should be obvious. Why world leaders have been taking the invasion of Ukraine so lightly from the start is beyond me. The stakes here are high, and I think the US and EU especially share some of the responsibility for the downed airliner. It is in their purview to influence the situation, and they have not used their power wisely. I think the emergence of a strong leader is needed now more than ever. America was plagued with bad leadership before the Civil War. Let's be optimistic that our generation's Abraham Lincoln will show him or herself sometime soon.

Yulia and I are far from the war zones in Donbas, but the war has its effects even here in western Ukraine. The workers that were changing our roof last week told us that a young man from their village just died in the fighting. We have seen low flying attack helicopters while working in the garden in recent weeks too. There is a military airbase nearby, and we suspect they were flying to or from there.

We have also noticed an increase in people who seem "not right." Yulia was sitting near a man on the bus who was ranting about the Maidan. She paid little attention to him. When she yawned he accused her of being indifferent to the cause. Back in the winter I was traveling to Lviv and an intoxicated man got on the bus. When the driver pointed out that he did not pay, the man said, "Yes, I did. What are you, from the Party of Regions [disgraced ex-president Yanukovych's party]?" And there are many more stories like this.

On top of this we've had some very personal issues to deal with concerning our neighbors. Out of respect for them I don't want to go into too many details, but it can be very disheartening to encounter resistance when we already have so much going against us.

I want to keep this post short because I don't want to dwell on these negative topics. We are fortunate to live in a safe place with natural beauty all around us. We have many friends, family, and strangers who treat us well and even help us when we need it. I wanted to write this post in order to discuss the strange state of the world (on many different scales) around us right now.

Yulia and I often feel that people may misinterpret our positive attitude as naivete, indifference, or that life is easy for us. We assure you that we have struggles just like everyone else, but we do not feel it is right to deal with them with depression or despair (although it can be tempting to do so at times). Rather, we think hearing about the struggles of other people and how they overcome them can be very helpful.

Yulia and I have several coping mechanisms, and we are finding more everyday. Our very favorite thing to do is to go on walks. A change in scenery can help reframe your world and give you a reset psychologically. The exercise helps both our emotions and minds.

We also put our energy into creating things. As readers of this blog probably know, we spend most of our time gardening and fixing our house. In doing so we are literally building the world around us. It helps us feel that our lives are progressing and getting better. We have lived in many different places and have seen that pretty much each one has pluses and minuses in one form or another. In general,we think it's probably healthier to see the world as it could be (rather than looking for the "greener grass" on the other side).

When we are too tired for gardening and home repair we listen to music. There's something about music that can be very soothing. We listen to all sorts of music. Yulia listens to musicals like Phantom of the Opera when she works on the computer. I also hear songs like "Bolero" playing while she is working.

I like Reggie Watts, who combines comedy with his music. I tried to get Yulia into him. I think she is lukewarm about it. :)

We also like to hear other people's stories of struggle and success. Last week Yulia showed me a video of Oprah Winfrey talking about her life.

Among other things, she talks about how she deals with obstacles in life. It really helps to see her speak. I think her attitude is just as important as any information she gives.

What about you? What are some ways in which you deal with both everyday and extraordinary struggles in life?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Reading material--just can't get enough

Since Yulia and I moved to Ukraine, I have found myself with one deficit that I am constantly battling against--a lack of reading material. When we were still living in the States you could give me a library card, and I would be as happy as a pig in mud. I would check out stacks of books and travel to all sorts of library branches to get what I needed. For example, before leaving for our honeymoon to New Mexico, I went to the library and looked up books about the state. I found one excellent book called Farewell, My Subaru. It is an autobiography of a man who moves to New Mexico and embarks on a new lifestyle centered on ecological living and homesteading.

When we came back to Ukraine after our trip to the US last year, I came armed with a few books. I saved what I thought would be my favorite--Robert Kaplan's The Revenge of Geography--for the trip back and move into the house. It helped temper the shock of moving into a new house in an unfamiliar village. I think reading about geography in particular is very appropriate while traveling. It sharpens your senses about your physical location and helps you understand where you are in the world.

But a few books will only last me a few weeks. Then I come across the problem--What to read next? Here in Ukraine I've adapted in several ways.

I have tried replacing reading printed material (like books and newspapers) in English with Ukrainian texts. While printed material in Ukrainian is obviously prevalent here, I am still learning to read instead of reading to learn. I do not read Ukrainian with quite the ease that I read English, although it is one of my long term goals to change that. I look up to Ukrainian intellectuals and aspire to be like them one day (Along with women and artists, I think intellectuals are under appreciated in Ukraine today).

To get enough English language material to read I have turned to the internet. For a while I was reading e-books, but I realized the habit would become expensive quickly considering the quantity I would want to consume. During a trip to Kyiv I discovered the Kyiv Post in the lobby of our hotel and learned they also published their paper online. When we came back to Lviv I continued reading the newspaper and found that it really helped me understand the riddle of a  place I was living in--Ukraine.

It wasn't until Yulia and I started to consider writing our own blog that we realized that there must be other blogs out there that we may enjoy. Along with the news, I have realized that blogs are ideal for me because bloggers constantly update their sites with new reading material.

We met our new neighbors, Derek and Katya, through their blog. We found them through another blog called 8 Months in Ukraine. Aside from being a lovely read in its own right, there is a rather comprehensive list of blogs there that are all about Ukraine.

Yulia and I have a list of the blogs we read most frequently on the sidebar of this page in the section titled, "My blog list." Yulia got me hooked on Melodyfairitale, which is written by a young woman who writes about being a "strange teenage vegan" (as she puts it) and life in Latvia. I also eagerly look forward to updates from Lee Reich, who writes about gardening. He is a professor at Cornell University, and we learned about him through his book about no till gardening.

While our list of blogs may seem long, I am still looking for more to read. I am especially interested in finding more personal blogs about homesteading and life in different countries. I find personal blogs to be the most interesting because they are autobiographical. I enjoy connecting with people through their personal experiences. It makes me feel less "alone" when I read about their daily lives and their everyday triumphs and struggles.

Of course, if you have any recommendations, please let us know. :)

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Reflections on life and blogging after one year of living in our new home

One year is up

Yulia and I have been living in our new house for about a year now. We thought this might be a good time to stop and reflect on both our experience of living here and our experience of writing this blog. We started the two at about the same time, so they feel pretty well intertwined to us at this point.

On blogging

We started this blog upon moving in for several reasons. First of all, we simply wanted to chronicle, in journal form, what we do on a daily basis for ourselves and family and friends. We want our future selves to be able to go back and read about and see what our lives were like when we started out at our new house. We also have many relatives and friends who live far away, and we hope that writing this blog brings us closer to them. I find that, sometimes, after several years of not seeing or hearing from somebody it becomes difficult to understand them.

Yulia and I also want this blog to be a window to Ukraine. We want to share our experience of moving here from America because not many people do what we are doing. We moved to a country that many people know little about and live in the countryside, which gets even less attention. We do our best to focus our posts on themes that are about living in Ukraine through the lens of life at our home. Hopefully this provides an alternative way of seeing and understanding Ukraine.

"Something interesting"

We consider the major themes of this blog to be Ukraine, nature, and our domestic life (though we also like to think and write about things like food, culture, and art). We do our best to write posts that include one, two, or all three themes. Yulia and I consider this to be our blog even though I have written most of the entries. I  almost always ask Yulia to review, edit, proofread, and publish the posts, and many times we talk about the posts as we are writing them.

We try to stay positive in our writing, though we do our best to be candid about our emotions. For example, in writing "Dark forces at work in Ukraine" we were appalled at what was happening in Kyiv that horrible night. Watching the attempted dispersal of the Maidan felt like watching the end of the world. It was surreal.

A painting of the burning Maidan
I try not to get too cynical when writing blog entries that are argumentative, though I am not sure how successful I am at times. I found myself criticizing the Kyiv Post during a recent entry about shale gas despite the fact that I probably agree with that newspaper on nearly all other opinions they have. When it comes to fracking near our home, Yulia and I feel very exposed and vulnerable. Villagers in Ukraine are usually not well connected or politically active. Many locals know little about the issue and are not doing something to defend themselves. Yulia and I feel like we have a small voice in the debate even though fracking would directly affect us. We get our water by throwing a bucket into a well. The connection between our water and the cleanliness of the ground around us is direct and obvious. We feel that it is very important to defend this most valuable resource.

The Kyiv Post also elides the idea that regular people can't take part in helping Ukraine free itself from its reliance on Russian natural gas. Don't get me wrong. A publication as widely read and influential as the Kyiv Post should make recommendations to heads of state and business leaders. Some decisions really are in the hands of the big wigs. But I often worry that this is a symptom of a deeper problem in which ordinary people feel helpless to make any real change themselves. I feel like many people believe that only a select few control the way things work. Yulia and I disagree with this notion and think that we can make changes to our lifestyle that will help the causes we care about.

Get out of your head

"It's nice to visit this spring in July, but what's it going to be like in the winter?" This is a comment that an acquaintance of ours made when visiting us just after we moved in.

What was it going to be like? I couldn't tell him at the time. Yulia and I had only been living at our house for a couple of days.

After living here a year, I can tell you what it was like visiting the spring in the snow. It was lovely. How did we handle the harsh conditions? Well, we put on boots and a hats and walked the two to three minutes to the spring.

Our spring in winter

Yulia looks like she actually might be having fun

I use this example to illustrate a pattern of thinking that I see quite often--people living entirely in their heads. Yulia and I have noticed that many people live in a world of theory. I already discussed one aspect of this when discussing shale gas earlier. But we've also noticed that many people write off living the way we do without having any actual experience of living that way. I would like to note some of the preconceptions that we and other people had about this lifestyle and compare them to our experience.

A couple of years ago, after moving to Ukraine, but before buying a house, Yulia told me about an American Indian habit in which a person's age was determined by how many winters they had lived through. I became upset and questioned how we were going to stay warm living all by ourselves.

The winter seems to be an area of concern for many people, and I don't think it should be. It turned out to be one of my favorite times of the year. It's comforting to sit next to a wood burning stove and to drink lots of tea in the winter. The short days coax you into taking it easy  (if you happen to be working on home repairs during that time). If you don't have a bathroom inside your house (we don't) it's still possible to wash outside. If there was no wind, we washed outside in temperatures down to 10 degrees Fahrenheit (-12 C). We noticed that a light breeze would make it difficult to wash even if it was above freezing though.

Our new shower
We only had two warm rooms in our house--the kitchen and dining room. Since we spend most of our time in those two rooms anyway, there was rarely a need to heat those other rooms. When we went to sleep at night we would turn on an electric space heater for about an hour or so. It would still be cold in the room, but we stayed warm under lots of blankets. We didn't get sick once this winter, and I would often go to the city and be confused by all the sniffling and coughing I saw there. Their radiators and hot running water were obviously not keeping them healthy.

Many of our friends and relatives in Lviv ask us if it is "скучнo" (i.e. if we are homesick). We tell them not really, and that is more or less the truth. Having the internet helps, but we didn't even have the internet for the first two months we were here. To live without the internet, we spent a lot more time reading and simply resting in the shade or on the hammock.

Struggles we had along the way

I did write one entry titled, "The American Apparition," in which I write about a time when we weren't sure if we had just talked to a foreigner who had stumbled into our small village. It may initially seem that we were just homesick and having delusions about seeing an American in front of our house, but I'm not so sure. I conclude the entry this way:
"We want to see more people like this—regardless if they are American, Ukrainian or whatever. Although our little village is better taken care of than others, Yulia and I think this place (and Ukraine in general) needs more young and creative energy."
For us it was refreshing to see a young person with an artistic eye. If anything, this is what many Ukrainian villages are lacking. There are villages that do have young, creative people living in them. Take, for example, Obyrok Art Island.

But for us Obyrok is far away. We are left with the neighbors that we have. It has been difficult to deal with the skepticism. It seems like many neighbors have problems with anything Yulia and I try to do. We've learned to ignore it because being skeptical is like breathing to some of these people. But it is a social hurdle to know to anticipate. We often wonder what it is some of these people actually want for the future of this village. It should be a good thing that at least somebody wants to fix up these old buildings and tend gardens here when so many houses are simply being abandoned.

We've also learned that living without a vehicle can be challenging when taking on serious home and landscaping renovations. It's not impossible to do this without a car, but it takes a lot of extra time. The time lost waiting for buses that never arrive and the hassle of hiring a driver to haul building materials from the city adds up after a year.

Summing it up

Yulia and I are pleased with our decision to do what we are doing. We would rather be no place other than Ukraine. We see things changing for the better here, and we want to be a part of making that happen.

The news has certainly been negative lately, but I have been doing my best not to write about it. I feel like there are few new things that I could say from my end. It was an acute moment in history for Ukraine when the Maidan movement was at its height (from about November to March). Yulia and I didn't set out to write a political blog from the beginning, but we felt it was important to chime in at the time because we felt a certain connection with the energy of the movement. We came here with our own ideas to help change Ukraine for the better, and we were encouraged to see so many people sharing in that attitude.

"Do you give bribes? We died for a better Ukraine."
Now the mass street protests are over and we are back to focusing on the change we feel we can help make in Ukraine. We don't expect to reach some kind of end goal in which we can say, "OK. Mission accomplished. We did what we set out to do." Rather, we hope to constantly improve our lives and the world around us.

It's been one interesting year. We've learned quite a bit. Thanks for joining us in this process...can't wait to see what will be happening in years to come!

Monday, June 30, 2014

Images from a Ukrainian village in June

It's June 29th, and Yulia just happens to have turned 29 yesterday. Here are some pictures from her first full day as a 29 year old:

Some black currants (and one yellow raspberry) that I picked from the vacant house next door. Yulia made the smoothie. Ingredients: mango, banana, honey, nettle, basil, cilantro, borage, lettuce, and bee pollen
Another of Yulia's creations: Burmese tofu made with chickpeas. Turmeric gives it the yellow color. 
On a Sunday afternoon stroll
How fortunate we are to have access to wide open spaces right by our house!
"Come here, Toma...Good dog!"
Yulia planted these wild persimmons from South Carolina last fall. The seeds overwintered in the pot outside and are now emerging. One persimmon has fully popped out while you can still see the leaves holding on to the seeds on the other two.
There are definitely lots of peas right now :)
We will be picking our sour cherries any day now. Just waiting for them to turn the right shade of dark red...
Is that a scarecrow or man?
Even though we know that it is a scarecrow, the corners of our eyes repeatedly inform us that it is a man. We did many double takes.
Another fantastic sunset!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Euro Woodpiles

Yulia and I were pleased to read in the news that two counties in the Rogue Valley of Oregon have voted to ban the growth of GMO crops. We spent the spring of last year working on a farm in the Rogue Valley and met some really terrific people there. It's wonderful to hear that this corner of the United States is leading the way in the fight against GMO's.

While GMO's are a big issue in the States, we don't face that same problem here in Ukraine. There is already GMO labeling here, for example, while the US is still working on its GMO label laws. However, we have a different problem that concerns this corner of the world--shale gas. I wrote about the brewing shale gas fracking problem last fall. Since then there has been no fracking near where we live. But recently fracking has come up in a different context--as a way to circumvent Ukrainian and European reliance on Russian natural gas. Right now people are beginning to push the idea that shale gas fracking can create energy independence from Russian gas.

NATO says that Russia is funding anti-fracking groups. Shortly after this report came out, an article titled, "Fracking could free Europe from Putin," followed. The author of this article argues that, while there are some valid environmental concerns, "with good regulation [emphasis mine], shale gas will not only make Europe less dependent on Russian supplies, but that it is also this decade’s best solution in terms of cutting CO2 emissions and improving living standards."

This creates another layer to the already tricky fight against fracking in our area. Firstly, it frames the discussion as if being anti-Putin necessitates one's being pro-fracking (i.e. If you are against Putin you should support fracking). Secondly, what the argument in the above quotation hinges on is "good regulation." We see very little evidence of good regulation around us, so the suggestion that regulation will stave off environmental consequences is not reassuring. While the author of this article is writing in the context of the European Union (which is slightly reassuring since Ukraine is not part of the EU), other major publications do support fracking in Ukraine. The staff of the Kyiv Post, in an editorial called "Frack ahead," makes an almost identical argument: "[B]ased on the record in the United States and elsewhere, we think the environmental concerns are not serious enough to stop fracking." They conclude that Ukraine needs to move forward "even if it means accepting more risks." Like the article, "Fracking could free Europe from Putin," the Kyiv Post recommends that along with fracking, Ukraine should invest in renewable energy: 
Ukraine needs to move in all directions at once – more coal, more nuclear, more gas, more oil – and an even greater effort for more renewables, including solar and wind. These efforts have to be coupled with greater energy efficiency in apartments, factories and commercial buildings.
We happen to actually live on the Olesska shale gas deposit that this article mentions. When we hear that we must "accept risks" from people living in Kyiv, I understand that to mean that we deal with the environmental problems so that they can continue using cheap gas. After all, the environmental risks are local.

These writers treat the discussion as if it were entirely academic. They disconnect themselves from the discussion by focusing on statistics that they read about somewhere else. They propose using shale gas with renewables, which adds another layer of separation. Someone else must create those renewables first. They will not be developing them themselves.

This helps shift the responsibility from the writer to someone else. Someone else calculates the statistics. Someone else develops renewable energy. Someone else deals with the environmental risks.

Since all of us are users of energy in one way or another, it would be a lot more productive to focus on what people can do themselves to fix the problem. Energy use and economics are not self contained abstract ideas. They are fundamental to the way we live. After all, it does not make sense to come to the conclusion that, for example, eating processed foods is unhealthy and then continue on eating processed foods. Energy use is just as fundamental.

The Kyiv Post is on to something when they write that energy diversification needs "to be coupled with greater energy efficiency in apartments." Before starting the enormous project of hauling in tons of water and chemicals to remote fracking sites, maybe people should think about things like insulating their attics. This isn't to say that journalists shouldn't make recommendations to policymakers and the managers of large industries. But to only spend one part of one sentence discussing personal responsibility is not good enough.

One could argue that it is very difficult to change a system as complex, corrupt, and large as energy in Ukraine. I think that this shows a lack of imagination. I think it is possible to abstain from Russian energy without sacrificing the natural environment of Ukraine, but it will require a readjustment to the way we live. Take, for example, the Victory Gardens of the World Wars. Rather than relying on buying food at the store, people began to grow their own to support the war effort. This freed the few large farms that there were at the time to send food to the military. There are precedents, but we'll have to see if Euro Woodpiles catch on. It's a humble idea, though it just may help.

Yulia and I enjoy academic discussions and learning new information, but we came to a certain point where we realized, "Alright we've thought about this stuff, now what?" That is why we are living the way we are and why we write this blog. We felt we had to act on all the lofty ideas we were always talking about.

Next week marks our one year anniversary of living in our home, so maybe I should write a post reviewing everything we've learned about not only using energy, but also about gardening, home repair, living with new neighbors, staying happy in a new place, and blogging.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Pulled in different directions

As we've now moved into the warmest part of the year with the longest days, I--oddly enough--find myself with less and less time to do what I want to do. Should I make the dog some soup? Nah, no time. Feed her some Friskies along with the cats. Should I catch up on the news? I end up skimming the headlines and simply make sure Kyiv hasn't been turned into radioactive ash. No time for those things right now. I'm focusing on the basics.

What's got my attention? Providing food, water, and shelter, of course.

Before you get worried, let me assure you that Yulia and I are not starving, thirsty, nor cold. We are simply trying to improve the way we get food and water and make the shelter we already have better.

We've done our best to plant a diverse garden, and most of our attempts at growing food have been successful so far.

The tomatoes here seem to be doing fine.

The ones planted under the roof are OK (probably the best) too.

And then there are the tomatoes around the sea buckthorn trees, under trellises scattered around our property, and in pots. All in all we have over 200 tomatoes. ...Ya, I think we've got enough! But that's what happens when you wait years to move into a house and accumulate seeds as you impatiently wait to plant a fruitful garden.

We put up this trellis for squash and beans. It's on the site of the old compost pile, so we planted this area rather intensively to take advantage of the rich soil. This is an older picture. Most squash and beans are developing rather nicely, though some got chewed up and died before they ever had a chance. How sad!

Many of the fava beans have developed pods. I really like growing these. You can plant them early, and they get big quickly and out compete many weeds. They are sturdy, hardy plants.

You can also plant chickpeas early. I've never seen chickpea plants before. This is what they look like. I think they have cute flowers!

The sunflowers (green) and amaranth (purple) are turning into mighty plants.

And we might get half a handful of blueberries from the bush we just planted!

We also will have a few gooseberries. At the beginning of the spring they started out as two sticks about the size of your hand when you make a peace sign. I'm surprised they produced anything at all!

Aside from creating a system to get healthy food right from our own land, we are also in the process of installing running water in our home.

Here you can see the pipe running from the well to the building where the pump will be. Quite honestly, living without running water isn't that big of a deal, and doing all this hard work feels frivolous at times. But it's better to get this done before we start renovating the rooms where we want to put the taps.

Which brings me to home renovations. We are continuing to work on our house. Today, Yulia started lacquering our veranda (It looks wonderful so far--I'm so excited!), and I finished painting what will be the living room. Next I plan to install new windowsills in that room just like the one I put in the dining room recently:

Remember what this window looked like when it was installed in December?

I also finally got around to putting up a box to cover the hideous surge protector and electric meter (which are in the dining room for some reason):

So, yes, a lot going on. I feel like the more and more competent I get at growing and fixing things, the more work appears for me. I guess competence gives one an eye for all those things that still need work.

However, I should be clear. This is not a complaint. I'm so happy that I'm fortunate enough to even have this opportunity, and I would rather be no where else than here with Yulia creating a beautiful place for us to live. I titled this entry "Pulled in different directions." While I do feel like I am not devoting enough time to any one particular thing, these seemingly different directions really lead in one direction in the end: to what we will simply refer to as, home.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The June twilight

The setting of the sun brings out a certain aspect of enchantment that I rarely see during the day here on our homestead. It evokes a new cast of characters who are invisible during the day.

As I ready water to wash before bedtime I hear rustling in the bushes. I narrow my eyes to see who is spying on me and see our neighborhood hedgehog sniffing around in search of a nocturnal lunch.

Meanwhile, the owl eyes me dismissively and completes another silent flight around the clearing. I hear its lecture later. The lesson tumbles expertly into sleeping ears.

The garden gnomes form a line and dance and laugh at me. They are even more silent than the owl's wings. One of them had too much ale and tries to pull down my pants, but can't even reach my socks. I walk away unknowingly.

And the moles meet with hamsters under the potatoes. They drink yerba mate and play chess. The barrister suggests they try a scone with their beverages. Many of them are pleased with the combination.

This whole world unfolds as I put on my pajamas for bed. The transition period of evening lasts especially long in June. The sun slides into the horizon moving both north and west. The last hints of the sunset are still visible around 11 o'clock here at the 49th parallel. It gives me an extra bit of time to ponder and consider a world I know so little about.

Sweet dreams!