Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Our first vacation

Yulia and I just got back from our first vacation since moving into our home in 2013. It was also our first trip to another European country (aside from Poland) since moving to Ukraine in 2011. We're very close to many destinations that once seemed so distant when we lived in the US, and it's about time we went somewhere!

We went to Rome, Italy for a week. We wanted to go someplace that is relatively warm. We also wanted to go to a European Union country because, living in Ukraine, we so often hear how Ukraine needs to become more like the EU in order to progress. Although we don't consider ourselves "city people" we wanted to go to a city this time 'round so that we could just arrive at an airport and, essentially, be at our destination. Lastly, we wanted to spend as little money as possible. After we found round trip tickets to Rome from Warsaw for 33 US dollars, we figured we had found our destination!

Our general impressions of Rome and Italy

We stayed in an apartment listed on Airbnb. It was our fist time using the website, and we had a good experience! The people who rented us the apartment were helpful and good communicators. The apartment itself had a "vintage" feel to it.

We LOVE how Romans make good use of shutters!
There were tile floors everywhere--a big contrast to the hardwood floors all over our house. The tiles were well taken care of, but old. We wonder if they are original to the building.

Cute kitchen!
We also appreciated the secluded courtyard that the building had. We were in a very busy location. Two heavily used train lines ran by the building, and a train yard bordered the other side. There was an elevated highway a block from the apartment as well. Despite all this, the courtyard was very tranquil.

See the train yard peeking over the wall in the upper right-hand corner??
The courtyard had palm trees, citrus, and a giant...magnolia?

The thing we enjoyed most about Rome was the nature. Even though it was January, there was still a lot of greenery. The trees there were magestic--especially the stone pines.

Stone Pines
It seems that they are purposefully pruned to be tall and have a wide canopy up top. They remind us of clouds or big public umbrellas.

Across the street from the Roman Forum
Stone pines in the Roman Forum
A park known as Villa Borghese. We went there and lazily basked in the sun for some time.
It wasn't only about the stone pines though. We delighted in other forms of vegetation as well.

Seeing a garden like this in January made our mouths water (and it made us green with envy!)
Yulia and some mandarins in the Roman Forum 
We spent most of our time just walking around and appreciating the beauty--both natural and man made. The architecture was lovely!

A posh pedestrian plaza near the Spanish Steps
The Spanish Steps--we guess they're being renovated
Sunset on the Tiber
In general, we're really happy we went to Rome. We knew it was a city of grand monuments and ancient history. We knew about the Pantheon and the Colosseum and that there are some other ancient Roman ruins there. But when you're actually there, the history surrounds you. It feels all encompassing. I didn't realize just how much there is to see there. That's one thing that's not overrated about Rome.

At this point we had walked for miles from our apartment and had seen lots of historic architecture. We got to this overlook and saw that it all just keeps going. I didn't realize the sheer scale of all there is to see in this city.
Another lovely vista
Inside the Pantheon
Aside from all the beautiful things there were to see there, we also enjoyed the people. Most people were very friendly, and they didn't hesitate to say hello and smile. The neighbors in our apartment building would always say ciao as we passed each other in the stairwell or courtyard.

Before going to Italy we knew about the loud Italian stereotype, but we always just thought it was a myth. In fact, we found that Italians really are loud! On our first night we went down the street to a fruit stand by our apartment building. The seller asked us where we were from. "Ukraine," I replied.

"France?" he asked.

"No, Ukraine."

"Ucraina," Yulia said.

"Ah! Ucraina!!!" he exclaimed with a big smile on his face.

Anything louder than a mutter from a fruit seller would be unheard of in Ucraina.

Another time we were in a cafe and I was paying for our bill at the cash register. After I got my change and turned around I heard the man who I just paid shout something. "Crap...did I just give him the wrong bill or something??" I turned around and realized he was just taking the order of the next person in line.

Italians also really do talk with their hands. When we first arrived, we were waiting in a big line for a shuttle bus from the airport to downtown Rome. After half an hour a bus came, and the ticket person got on to talk to the driver. We were wondering if this was the bus that would take us. Before hearing anything from the ticket person, I could see that this driver did not want to take us. He gestured wildly with his hands and made what I understood to be "no" motions. I was right. He wouldn't be our driver that day.

Italy and Ukraine--A Comparison

Yulia and I were also keen to travel to an EU country to see what life is actually like there. Living in Ukraine, we are bombarded with comparisons between our country and the European Union all the time. This makes sense considering the current situation. The Ukrainian government is trying to draw closer to the EU both politically and economically. Also, the mass protests in 2013-14 weren't called "Euromaidan" for no reason. There is popular demand for a more EU-like country (if not full EU integration). We read an article by journalist and, now, member of parliament Sergii Leshchenko while we were in Rome. In his piece, Leshchenko gives the example of how Italy largely cleaned up its corruption in the 1990s during something called the "Mani Pulite" or "Clean Hands" investigation. This constant comparing of backward Ukraine to the civilized European Union has had an impact on Yulia and me--especially since we have not traveled much around Europe since moving to Ukraine five years ago. "Is it true?" we wondered. "Is Ukraine really that much worse than other European countries?"

After actually seeing Italy, we think that Ukraine is the same, better, and worse in different ways. As I mentioned before, Italians really are friendly people, and we don't think it would be the worst thing in the world if Ukrainians would actually crack a smile in public every once in a while. Also, even though Rome is warmer than Lviv, it still has a winter. Despite the fact that many trees lose their leaves in the fall, the city was still very green because of the many evergreens (like stone pines) they have there. In our opinion, it would make sense for there to be more decorative evergreen street trees in Ukraine.

In other respects, Rome was just like Ukraine. We were surprised to see a tram driver light up a cigarette while driving through downtown traffic. In Ukraine this sometimes happens on village buses. Once the driver has dropped off most of the passengers and is well away from the city and, thus, any authorities, he might roll down the window and smoke. Our driver used to do this when he arrived in our village, the last stop.

In general, we were surprised how many Italians were smokers. We spent a lot of time walking the streets of Rome and, therefore, walking through seemingly endless plumes of smoke. Yulia and I assumed that Ukraine would have more smokers than Italy, but it didn't feel that way at all. Italy gives Ukraine a run for its money when it comes to smoking.

We were also surprised to ride public transportation and not see or hear any English (save for the "B line" on Rome's metro). In Ukraine, all announcements on the metro in Kyiv or the trams of Lviv are made in Ukrainian and English. All street signs in Lviv are also in Ukrainian and English. I went to use an ATM in Rome's Ciampino Airport, and there was no English option. The ATMs in the closest town to our out-of-the-way village in Ukraine even have English options.

We're alright with just Italian being used in Rome--we were in Italy, after all. But when you constantly hear how Ukraine needs to become more Western and more like the EU, we can't help but notice these inconsistencies. I can't even imagine what would happen if a tourist arrived in Ukraine and was met by an airport ATM with no English option! "Ukraine is sooo provincial ...Ukraine is stuck in Soviet times ...Travelers beware! "

Our defensiveness is not coming out of nowhere. Here's what David Sedaris, an American writer who--until now--I liked and respected, had to say about the litter problem in the UK:
"You have to go deep into eastern Europe to find it so bad. I have never seen anything like this in Japan or France. It’s obviously a cultural problem." (source)
Actually, Yulia and I beg to differ. We find that the litter problem is much worse in Rome than it is in Ukraine.

I'm aware that we discuss the litter problem in Ukraine right here on our blog, but it is mainly a problem in rural areas where there are no trashcans or dumpsters for miles around.

If you wake up early in the morning and take a walk through Lviv, you will see people in blue vests sweeping up debris on the streets. It's far from perfect, but it's a relatively clean city. If you walk around the corner from the apartment where Yulia and I stayed in Rome, you will see this:

I guess someone wanted to get rid of that suitcase fast!

And this:

What's not visible in these pictures is the line of dumpsters right across the street. Sure, you could come to our village and take unflattering pictures, but the nearest trash can or dumpster is tens of kilometers away. Also, how much more money does Rome have compared to any Ukrainian city?

I was walking behind one woman in Rome and saw her "throw out" a piece of plastic by generally tossing it in the direction of a dumpster as she walked by. Another time, we saw a police officer (I want to emphasis that--a police officer) surreptitiously drop a piece of garbage on the street and keep walking.

On our last day (or what we thought would be our last day) in Rome, we went to the airport, walked through security, and made sure to spend the last Euros we had on us. We were in line for our flight to Warsaw, which was scheduled to leave in ten minutes when, to our horror, we saw our departure time change from 11:10 to 19:00. There was no announcement, but the people in line started to disband. We stayed in place (we had a good spot in front), hoping to hear an announcement as to why our flight had been delayed for eight hours. That's a pretty significant delay, and it was a beautiful, sunny day. After a while, we lost hope, sat down, and started looking for someone to talk to. There was only one airport employee in the whole terminal, which served about ten different flights. After we sat down, we plugged in our laptop and learned that there were no functioning outlets in the whole area. After half an hour, somebody finally made a barely intelligible announcement that, because of a strike, the whole airport was closed until the evening.

Needless to say, we'll never use that airline or fly into Ciampino again. After several hours we found a relatively cheap hotel online and got tickets for a flight the next day.

Our last minute, cheap hotel. Not bad!!
The inside needs some renovations and TLC, which explains the price. Beggars can't be choosers though, right?
We don't live in Warsaw, so arriving at Modlin Airport and trying to get on a bus to Lviv at that hour of the night would have just been too much. We left the airport with headaches and as the only two passengers on a double decker shuttle bus to downtown Rome (remember--the airport was closed--so no arrivals and no people to take to the city).

What we learned from our trip

We don't want to give the wrong impression. We really liked Rome, and we really like Italians. We had a great time (except for a few inconveniences--like the entire airport shutting down the day we were supposed to leave). Yulia and I recommend that you go to Italy if you've never been there. But don't think, like David Sedaris does, that the farther east you go in Europe, the worse it gets. That's just not true. Yes, Ukraine might be poorer than the UK or Italy, but that doesn't mean it's not worth visiting. And being poor definitely doesn't mean that it deserves cheap shots from snarky American writers.

Yulia and I have now been in Ukraine for several years. We've experienced both the good and the bad, and we know what we're talking about when it comes to daily life here. We've been let down by many friends and family members who have promised to visit, but, for whatever reason, never came. It's a shame because. like Italy, Ukraine is a lovely place to visit. Who knows, maybe people experience the litter and pick pockets of Rome and just assume that Ukraine must be worse because it's poorer and farther east.

We've actually become very interested in Italian culture and have been reading some blogs that describe daily life in Italy. A blog post titled, "7 Things this Italian Hates about Italy" almost describes Ukraine word for word to us. Take a look at the following excerpts from this blog and tell us if it couldn't be used to describe the stereotypical image of Ukraine.

  • "On a daily basis politicians are accused of using public money to go on expensive vacations and buy presents for their wives, lovers and family, or to pay prostitutes, to give you an idea.."
  • "What’s more sad is that Italian’s [or Ukrainians] draw great satisfaction from being sly. If an Italian [or Ukrainian] can get ahead of you when standing in line or while driving, they will be happy to do so. Needless to say, this attitude has disastrous consequences for our society as a whole. Living in France made me realize how an alternative mentality can lead to huge differences in the quality of life in a nation."
  • "It’s not uncommon to wait for 1 hour before getting even a glimpse of a bus. You’ve been warned. Waiting for it to arrive is one problem, but then you’ll have to get on the bus. This can be a bigger challenge because the infrequency means they’re often full of people. But not just people ­ irritated people. They shout, push and complain."
After reading the comments section of this blog, Yulia and I found that we're not the only people who think this describes their country. People wrote in from France, Panama, Mexico, India, Brazil, Argentina, the Philippines, Russia, and, yes, Ukraine, saying how this could describe their own countries. We've realized that a lot of the problems we think are unique to our own country or culture are more widespread than we think. We'll stuff ourselves onto an overloaded, sweltering hot bus in Lviv and roll our eyes to each other. "Only in Ukraine," we complain to ourselves. 

Well, maybe not only in Ukraine. We've realized that maybe we should be a little less hard on our beloved Ukraine because the problems we see here don't only exist in Ukraine. It doesn't ameliorate or lessen the negative impacts of these problems, but it does put these problems into perspective. We hope that you can understand as well. 

Yes, Italy might have some problems. And, yes, Ukraine might have some problems. Sometimes Yulia and I feel like we need to compensate for Ukraine's image problem by focusing on the positives you'll find here (In all honesty, we don't think Italy gets it as bad as Ukraine does). We don't want to portray Ukraine to you through rose colored glasses, but considering all the bad press it gets, we want to show others--especially those who have never been here--what you won't see in the media. Where will you ever read about veganism and Ukraine? Where will you see the beauty of the Ukrainian countryside? Chances are, the only things outsiders know of Ukraine are Chernobyl, corrupt politicians, and snow.

Well, if you know Italy at all, Ukraine's also a lot like Italy. But Italy's also got a lot of its own wonderful quirks and wonders to see. We recommend you go and see both. 

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Do we actually LOVE Ukraine??

By Michael

A number of years ago, during a job interview for an English teaching position, I was asked, "What I'm trying to understand about you is, how does a person from a more prosperous country make the decision to move to a less prosperous country like Ukraine?" The question was blunt, and it took me by surprise. 

What was most surprising to me about this question was that it assumes that you only move to another country for your own sake. This makes sense, and I'm not questioning the motives of somebody who makes such a move. I'm pretty sure my grandparents, for example, made the decision to move from Ukraine to the United States partly for these reasons. I at least never heard them say they moved to the US because they wanted to help make it a better place.

As for Yulia and me, we also decided to move to Ukraine partly for self serving reasons. First and foremost, we wanted a certain kind of lifestyle, which involves getting a good chunk of land, avoiding many of the restrictions that are in place in many parts of the United States. We were interested in building a cob house, for example, and that is simply against code in many places. 

The price of living here is much less than that of the US. Food is less expensive, and our house cost about as much as our car (i.e. it was cheap). In some respects there is much less red tape here than in the States as well. We can make renovations to our house, for example, without much interference from the state. We can go to the hardware store here and find goods from many different markets--the EU, Turkey, China, North America, and Russia (although we boycott all Russian merchandise). My father-in-law, who has lived in both Ukraine and the US, confirms that Ukrainian stores have a much better selection than in America. 

We also just like a lot of things that are Ukrainian. We like the culture, and we like the traditions. The Christmas holidays just ended, and Yulia and I had the pleasure of watching a group sing traditional Christmas carols--known as колядки (kolyadky)--while we shopped at what is otherwise a standard Western shopping mall (Yulia found the group on YouTube. They're called Курбаси (Kurbasy)--simply beautiful! Their sound is both ancient and modern at the same time).

We like that Ukrainians are avid gardeners. We wrote about Ukrainians and their gardens in this blog post

We also enjoy the beauty of Yulia's hometown--Lviv. Yulia and I sometimes go to the city just to walk along the narrow cobblestone streets and randomly go into shops. 
"Sisters" Dress Gallery--stylish, Ukrainian-made clothing
This past week we went to Lviv and watched a blacksmith at work with a hammer and anvil. We never know what curious things we'll see when we're downtown. You may have noticed our love for Lviv in many of our blog posts. Yulia dotes on Lviv in this post and ends it, unambiguously, "Lviv--my dear hometown--I love you!!"

So if we supposedly love Lviv--and Ukraine--so much, why are we so harsh at times? Here are some examples:
  • "I noticed that there was something different about Ukrainian men. They seemed more sullen, cranky, and disrespectful than what I was used to. I began to despise their attitudes. They expect women to cook and clean, but never lift a finger to help with children or housework. I noticed these differences in attitude were accompanied by physical features as well—swollen bellies and grey skin from drinking too much and a body odor from not washing and smoking cigarettes." (source)
  • "These two chauffeurs represent a way of doing things that I hope is on it's way out the door in Ukraine. They show no respect for the people around them. They pester and they lie and their actions only make people more distrustful of those around them...These aren't corrupt, high ranking politicians in Kyiv. These are ordinary people from western Ukraine. People like these two men will only rot Ukrainian society from the inside out." (source)
  • "Many villagers are cutting off their noses to spite the faces. They want to show that they will not be taken advantage of by what they perceive as rich city people. In reality they will hold on to their land so tightly that they will never sell it. After they die their land will become government property at no cost to the government, and their families will remain a few thousand dollars poorer." (source
There are many aspects about Ukraine that really bother us. Yulia and I despise the male chauvinism and selfishness. We hate it when people litter. We don't like that people tend to stare at others in public. We wish "dressing up" for the winter holidays wasn't synonymous with wearing fur.

So if we hate it so much, why don't we just get out? Maybe go to a more "prosperous" place? Well, it's not so much a question of living or not living someplace because we either love it or hate it. Truthfully, we love some things about Ukraine, and we hate some things about it. 

Why the decision to move here then? To answer that question, I'll refer to someone known as "à-bas-le-ciel" on YouTube. In the video below he discusses vegans and their portrayal of Thailand in their own blogs:

"And what I fundamentally don't understand or don't relate to is this idea that because you like a place, because you care about a place, you're going to pretend that its problems don't exist--that' you're going to engage in a sort of cover up as if you yourself were a nationalist or a propagandist for that place. I think it's really useful to shift the verb from love to care about. If you care about Thailand, can't you also care about the oppression of its indigenous minorities?"

In a similar way, we are here in Ukraine because we care about it. We care about its beauty and traditions as much as we care about its problems.

There are wonderful things to see here. Come visit Lviv and drink some gourmet coffee and look at beautiful old world architecture. We'll happily put on the hat of tourism promoters. 

But we won't act like there aren't some things that are wrong with Ukraine. It's not alright with us that fur coats are fashionable (mainly with older people, but still). It's not alright that kids go to our village spring to eat ice cream and leave the wrappers there. We care enough about Ukraine to want to encourage other people not to wear fur and not to litter.

After police beat protesters and forcefully broke up the incipient "Euromaidan" uprising in Kyiv on December 1st, 2013, we were in Lviv a few hours later with thousands of other people. Ukrainians made it a point to occupy public spaces en masse 24/7 from that point on to make sure police wouldn't be able to do such a thing again.

We were responding to something that was deeply wrong with our country--but we were doing it with love and patriotism. We were waving flags and singing the national anthem, but questioning some of the deepest flaws in our society. 

Yulia and I moved to Ukraine despite not liking everything about it because we care about this place. We came here for the things we like as much for the things we dislike.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Being vegetarian and vegan in Ukraine

When Yulia and I first moved to Ukraine, we were ovo-lacto vegetarians. We ate this way for our first few months here and then slowly began to cut out dairy and eggs from our diet. In this post I want to discuss the ease--and lack of ease--we've had while being vegetarian and vegan in Ukraine.

When we first got here in 2011, we lived with Yulia's grandparents for a few months. They had a cow at the time and had milk three times a day. I had never tried raw milk from a pastured cow before, and I have to say that the difference is stark between that and store bought milk. Milk from a pastured cow in the summer is fragrant and sweet. It has a rich, dynamic flavor that changes with the seasons. Store bought milk, on the other hand, has a flat taste to it, which makes sense. That kind of milk comes from hundreds of different cows who were fed a steady diet of animal feed. It has also been cooked, destroying many of the nutrients that raw milk has.

The eggs were also good, but for some reason my memory of eating eggs is less vivid. The yolks were much richer in color for sure, though I can't describe the taste in any level of detail. Yulia's grandparents treat their chickens much better than the operators of agribusinesses treat their chickens, so we're alright with that--we just wish the chickens weren't killed. For that reason alone we can't bring ourselves to continue eating their eggs. It would be like us getting a pet puppy to play with and then killing it once it became too big and no longer of "use" to us.

That first winter I remember reading The China Study while still living with Yulia's grandparents. I remember sitting on their couch during the long nights, pouring over the information for the first time. "Hey, did you know that the countries with the highest milk consumption are also the countries with the highest levels of osteoporosis?" I'd ask Yulia. Study after study in that book confirms that eating animal products is not good for your health.

We then began to slowly transition to a purely plant based diet. What was most interesting about our transition was that we actually began to eat more of a variety of foods than ever before. Whereas I used to primarily eat only meat, dairy, eggs, wheat, corn, soy, and sugar in all their processed forms, after switching to a whole foods, plant based diet, I began to seek out the many, many foods that are actually available out there.

Ukrainian bazaars are full of lots of interesting foods. It's relatively easy to go out and find walnuts or hazelnuts. There are local fruits available pretty much year round, and the imported foods are also easily accessible. In the fall and winter Yulia and I indulge in persimmons grown in Spain, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. In a weird way, by eating from fewer of the food groups, we discovered the endless variety of plant foods for the first time. Don't take our word for it, Give it a try sometime! You'll find that you'll get bored with eating the same few foods over and over again if you simply continue eating what you've been eating minus animal products.

Want something hardy? That's how I discovered fava beans for the first time--easy to grow and delicious! I never ate plain fava beans as a meat eater. Want something sweet, but can't rely on the milk, eggs, flour, and sugar in baked goods anymore? There are LOTS and LOTS of great fruits out there waiting to be discovered. Yulia just made a wonderful jam from sloe she collected in the hedgerows near our village. She has also perfected really great apple and pumpkin pie recipes. What about something creamy?? Surely there are no plant foods that can substitute for dairy products. ...Actually, Yulia was craving a creamy sauce the other day when we made вареники (pierogies). She took some hemp seeds, blended them with water and then fried some onions and garlic with the "hemp milk" to make a savory sauce. It was a big hit, and we've been eating it all week!

Yulia and I have found that Ukraine is actually a great place to be vegan. Fresh produce is easy to get here, and, because of our location in the middle of Europe, we get imported foods from Europe, Africa, and Asia. If you're willing to pay American prices, there are also California pomegranates at the supermarket, and bananas cost about as much as they do in the US.

We don't go out to eat as frequently as other people we know, but the few vegetarian restaurants there are in Ukraine are pretty great. Our favorites are Green in L'viv and Nebos in Kyiv. We dedicated a whole blog post to Green when it opened, so I'll link to it here. In a nutshell, it serves really good, high quality vegetarian food and has a menu that changes with the seasons. The items on the menu are marked as either vegetarian, vegan, or raw, so it's easy to find what you're looking for. It's been our favorite place to go to in Lviv since we moved here.

Nebos is a raw foods restaurant in Kyiv. The chefs there know what they are doing because they have some really great creations on their menu.

Dessert at Nebos
The atmosphere there is really relaxed too. They had a film projector playing video from a coral reef, tasteful music, and some really creative artwork on the walls. Very inspiring! Go there!

For the amount of meat and animal products that average Ukrainians eat, the locals have been surprisingly non-confrontational whenever Yulia and I say we are vegetarian--even our neighbors who all raise their own livestock. Most of the time they'll just say something like, "Really? Well, you guys look great! Good for you!"

It's a little harder for us to sit down with family or go over to a neighbor's house because nearly every food they serve usually has animal products in it. If we get asked why we're not eating anything we let them know that we don't eat any animal products. We try and keep it positive saying we came over to see and talk with them, not to eat their food.

Unfortunately, we have to be really firm in our refusal to eat anything that we suspect may have animal products in it. Once or twice I've accepted dumplings or "vegetable soup" that I thought were vegan, but turned out not to be. I can tell right away if something has meat in it and have had to spit food out on one or two occasions. The taste of meat in my mouth revolts me. I don't consider muscle, bone or organs from a chicken to be any different than the liver from my cat or a broth made from the bones of my dog. It's doesn't reassure me that chickens and pigs are a different species. The concept of eating any of those things is still disgusting to me. To the person serving the food, it's a shame that I end up not eating the food, so it's socially awkward and unpleasant all around. In short, we've become very picky in what we accept from other people for good reason.

With regard to the preference of eating meat from happy animals who live in the fresh air of the idyllic countryside, our experience of living with homesteaders from the old world has taught us that the animals are not necessarily treated any better. It's easy to romanticize a traditional culture from a poorer country. People like this live on less money with fewer material goods than people in wealthy, Western countries. They are more self sufficient and have not lost the wisdom from generations past. This is true for many of our neighbors. It is normal to plow fields with horses and store food in root cellars. They live on a fraction of the money that people in wealthy countries live on and are much more self sufficient than modern Westerners. These are all admirable qualities.

But are the animals treated any better than those from feed lots and poultry houses? I've already described how pigs are slaughtered around here: a knife is shoved into their hearts. The pigs don't die instantly, but wail--loudly--in agony for a long time.

What about the milk cows? They are not killed, and live happily in grass filled pastures, right? First of all, they are killed once they stop producing a lot of milk. Secondly, cows don't just naturally produce milk all the time. Like humans, they must have a baby. The milk that a cow produces is meant for its calf. In order to get milk from a cow then, the calf is usually butchered or sold for meat and then butchered by other people. If the calf is female it might be raised to be a dairy cow as an adult, and the cycle continues.

What about shepherds tending a flock in the pasture? It must be a relaxing, stress-free job, sitting out there in the fresh air, watching the cows slowly graze on grass all day, right? In Ukrainian villages, people only keep one or two cows at home. During the day, they go out to pasture, and the villagers take turns tending the flock. These cows surely must be well taken care of in a neighborly way, right? Not at all. Yulia and I were driving through the pasture in our neighboring village one time and saw that some cows crossed the road and started grazing on the wrong side. We laughed at their innocent mistake. Then, to our horror, we saw a man bolt out in front of us as fast as he could and wail on the cows with a large tree branch. He repeatedly hit them like a baseball player swinging a bat. He hit one cow so hard that the branch broke in half. And he did all of this knowing well that we could see him. No care and no shame.

Yulia and I prefer to use the aspects of traditional culture that make sense to us. We'll take the root cellars. We learned how to build with straw, clay, and sand to make natural plaster. We'll reject the violence to animals. We don't care how traditional those things are. Like slavery and burning people at the stake, we think violence to animals is a tradition worth abandoning.

So after moving to Ukraine we've found that it's easier to be vegan and vegetarian in some respects and harder in others. For us the big pluses are easily accessible and cheap whole foods. The negatives are that we live in a culture of meat eating and animal abuse. As future oriented people, Yulia and I consciously want to keep the good traditions alive and let the bad ones fizzle out and die. We want to live in a Ukraine that we are proud of, and we want it to be a place that other people look to and want to emulate.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Old Lady Linden

At the end of our last post I mentioned a hundreds year old linden. It's a beautiful tree that stands next to a path going through the vast fields near our village. We don't know how old it is, but it must be important to someone other than us because there is a cross next to it. In Ukraine, this usually means that something is significant.

We have more questions than we do answers about it. How old is it? How did it get into the middle of such a wide open field? Why are there no other lindens around? Did there used to be a forest here? If so, is this all that remains? Why was just this one tree left behind? ...Or did someone plant the tree a long time ago? Why did they choose this spot?

Aside from its beauty and sheer size, the other thing that attracted us to this tree was an enormous fallen limb that we noticed while exploring the thicket from the last post. We're doing our best to collect all of our own firewood this year, and, after finding this linden, we're doing a pretty good job! The dirt path was too muddy the first day we drove out to try and collect some firewood, so we had to wait for drier weather.

That's our truck on the crest of the hill. We had a hard enough time making it that far through the mud, and since the last hill was the biggest and steepest, we decided to wait. That patch of bushes on the right is the thicket from our last post.
After a few days we gave it another go. I'm glad I made sure Yulia's dad helped because, in all, we got two truckloads of wood out this fallen branch, and it was a lot of work. When you look at it, it seems that the fallen branch is just sitting there waiting for you to take it, but in reality it takes hard work, forethought, and coordination to cut it up and haul it away. The branch was unstable in many places. We had to make sure that when we started cutting, the chainsaw wouldn't get caught in between the two branches as they settled under their own weight.

While we chopped and sawed, Yulia spent her time collecting sloe, which grows along the paths next to the linden. It's best to collect it after a few frosts--otherwise it will contain a lot of tannins and make your mouth feel sucked dry when you eat it. Similar to an unripe persimmon.

It's nice to travel here just for the view. When conditions are right and the air is clear, it's possible to see the Carpathian mountains from here. Not on this trip though, but still a great view!

Some of it was easy work--nice, fat pieces of wood waiting to be plucked and taken away.

Other times we needed to stop, think, and scratch our heads before making the next cut.

A random skull we found made for good photos.

The harvest was good...

...both fruit and wood!

We found this birch on another excursion. The wood is so beautiful that I don't think Yulia wants to actually use it as firewood! Makes a better prop!
The linden branch has had some time to cure, so it's good to burn right away--though a few pieces could still use some time to dry. To be sure, linden is a softwood, so it won't burn as hot as ash or oak, but we find it gets the job done. We basically followed what this firewood website says about linden (referred to as basswood on the site):

I would not turn down a free load of basswood firewood.  The real decision is how much effort should you put in to cutting, splitting and stacking the wood if it's not free and already processed.
I hate to see any tree just rot in the woods especially if I can find a use for it.  If the tree is already down, easy to get to and still in good shape I'll cut it up and burn it.  
That was our situation. The limb has been down for some time, and it's right next to the road.

I find that it burns well and produces a wonderful aroma. I can even smell it outside.

That's our woodpile (pre-linden). The linden filled in the remaining space here. On the left are some ash branches that we bought from a neighbor for five dollars in the spring. On the bottom right is the cherry we found in the thicket, and above that is an acacia that should be cured--just a little wet on top from rain. We have a whole other wood pile about the same size next to this made of freshly fallen wood. We'll let that cure for a little before using it. 

Thank you, old lady Linden! May you live for many more years to come!

Monday, November 30, 2015

A two minute drive into the vast, open fields near our village...

A two minute drive into the vast, open fields near our village...

brought us to this lonesome thicket.

Not much to see from the outside. We thought the most interesting treasures were the ones that we could first see. A great hawthorn...

...(here it is again)...

and this dried up old pond.

To the left--a field. To the right--a field.

But the inside was a world of its own!

Moss and ferns--in the middle of this place??

Yes. Even an old cherry cut down in years past. They wanted the trunk, but left the big branches. So we brought home the harvest.

There are worlds within worlds when you take the time to look.

On to the hundreds year old linden. Yes. Right there. Up top. The one you're looking at. That's it.

But that's a topic for another post...