Saturday, August 17, 2013

Vegetarian Warsaw

Thursday, August 15, 2013
By Michael
            On our way back to Ukraine from the States, Yulia and I stopped in Warsaw for a few days. We were in Warsaw from June 27th until July 1st, and I should probably write about the experience before it becomes a distant memory. As is tradition with us, Yulia and I seek out any vegetarian restaurants we can while we are traveling. Warsaw was a pleasant surprise. There are quite a few vegetarian restaurants—and they serve pretty good food too!
            We first went to a vegan burger place Krowarzywa that was a few blocks away from our hotel. It was a cozy spot, with limited seating. We got our food to go anyway, so finding a place to sit was not an issue for us. There were a variety of burgers to choose from. Yulia ordered a chickpea based burger with creamy dill sauce, and I got a seitan burger with mayo and mustard. We were very hungry from traveling, so this junk vegan food was a welcome indulgence to us. We also ordered two smufis (smoothies). While we were tickled by the cute Polish name for the drink, they weren’t very good. The restaurant seems to have a not so powerful blender which left the smufi with large chunks in it.
            For breakfast the next day we went to a place called “Green Peas.” They had an English menu there, but we refused to take it and made due with the Polish one. We understand enough Polish to get by thanks to our knowledge of Ukrainian. The restaurant was simply and cleanly decorated. Just the right blend of casual and elegant.

Yulia at Green Peas
Yulia got the nalysnyky (blintzes) and I got pierogies.

Yulia’s dish at Green Pea
For dinner that day we went to “Veg Deli,” an amazing restaurant despite its humble name. Veg Deli is a fancy sit down restaurant with thoughtful dishes. We ate up in the loft section of the restaurant. The environment inside was tasteful, simple, creative, and fun—the kind of design we want to mimic in our new home.

View from the loft at Veg Deli

Another view
 We had some truly novel stuff there. Our raw desert was especially interesting. It was made out of parsnip—that’s right, a desert made out of parsnip! It was shaved into ribbons and soaked in plum jam to make it red. The end result was something that looked like strips of red velvet with chocolate syrup drizzled over it.
            The restaurants we went to in Warsaw were a pleasant welcome. We felt right at home there. For me the Polish language is understandable enough. The use of Latin letters makes it easy for me to figure out the sounds of most letters, and I can recognize other words because of their similarity to Ukrainian. I grew up speaking Ukrainian, and the particular dialect that my grandparents brought with them was infused with Polish terms. We called the store a sklep, for example, instead of the more Ukrainian mahazyn. I also simply like how the Polish language looks written down. If I ever get the chance, I would consider learning it properly. We live very close to the Polish border here, so I’m sure it would come in handy every now and then. All in all, the familiar food and language in Warsaw made for a gradual transition back to Ukraine.

Summer kitchen: done

Wednesday, August 14, 2013
By Michael
            Yulia and I are pooped. Our bodies and minds just sort of shut down yesterday. We had hopes of doing just a few simple things like slicing up apples to be dried and doing laundry, but even those activities seemed to be too much. The weather’s been really hot the past week or so, so we think that has something to do with our lethargy. Yesterday was sort of a climax—both in terms of the weather and our moods. In the evening a really strong wind blew through accompanied by some clouds. We thought we might get hit with some rain, but nothing. …Until it got dark, that is. We had quite the downpour last night, and the rain went on through the morning. The shift in the weather seemed to trigger a shift in ourselves. Yulia and I slept for about ten hours last night. The rain in the morning kept us from doing any heavy duty work. We figure the rain and abundance of sleep are nature’s way of telling us to slow down a little bit.
            We’ve been busy at work for the past week or so renovating our summer kitchen. What is a summer kitchen? A summer kitchen is a kitchen located in a building other than the main house. If you only have a pichka to cook on (like the people who used to live here did), it makes no sense to cook on it during the summer since it is designed to serve as a source of heat as well as a place to cook. Because we have a gas range, cooking in our house when it is warm out is not so much of a problem with us. We figured, therefore, that the summer kitchen would make an excellent place for a guest bedroom. It is a summer kitchen in name only now.
            Here are some before and after photos of the summer kitchen. I’d like to go into more detail about the process of fixing it up, but, like I said, I’m pooped.

Summer kitchen before any repairs (The flat surface made up of metal plates is where one can heat up a kettle of water, for example (the fire burns in the chamber beneath it); while the big metal door on the left is a compartment for baking.).

We scraped off the plaster from the pichka

We then plastered the pichka, filled in cracks in the wall with clay and made a stem wall out of brick to protect the bottoms of the clay walls from moisture. The metal plates from the pichka are out for cleaning.

We then painted the walls with a clay based store bought paint. We added turmeric powder to color it yellow and painted the window frame. And we made a clay based paint ourselves and painted the pichka with it. Now the summer kitchen is ready to be furnished.

What Ukrainian villages are and what we want them to be

Thursday, August 8, 2013
By Michael
            When I first came to Ukraine two years ago, the Ukrainian village was a kind of place I had never seen before in the whole twenty-some years I had lived in the US. There is no American analogy I can think of to help explain this living arrangement. Maybe America was once like this in the days of the colonists and pioneers. But even the depictions I’ve read, paintings I’ve seen, and historical reenactments I’ve witnessed are not quite what one finds here.
Basically, a Ukrainian village is a community of people who all homestead. Villages are densely settled communities. Houses are built close to the street and close to one another. Simultaneously, each home owner has a lot of land. This usually manifests in properties being long and narrow.
In contrast to residential property in America, Ukrainians devote the majority of their land to food production for themselves. They plough their land and plant annual crops like potatoes.

Yulia’s grandparents’ village
They also plant more permanent things like berry bushes and fruit and nut trees. Most people also keep livestock. I’ve noticed that the residents of some villages tend to keep one kind of livestock over another. Yulia’s grandparents’ village is a cow village. Ours is a horse and goose village. All villages are chicken villages.
In addition to houses and barns, a village will usually have a school, post office, village hall, store, cemetery, and church. In fact, villages always have churches in Ukrainian. And if there is space, a random cross or statue of the Virgin Mary. If there is a spring like our village has, Ukrainians will never fail to pop a chapel on top of it. Ours has a Virgin Mary statue in it (There’s also a random roadside cross a few doors down from us. I think this superfluity of religious items is due to the large proportion of elderly residents, something I’ll discuss below.). Most villages I’ve been to have either a sand or clay pit, sometimes both. They’re usually just dug right out of a knoll or hillside. It’s convenient actually—a handy source of building material.

A fairly large sandpit in the village of Kuzubatytsya
On the other hand, many villages also have trash pits hidden away somewhere (Ours is an especially clean village. I have not found our trash pit yet.). They do not have municipal trash collection, so people are left to their own devices to dispose of refuse. The one good aspect of this is that the trash pit is an eyesore. It may make people think twice about buying into the modern day “throw-away culture” of disposable plastic. The roads are either dirt, macadam, or heavily potholed asphalt, but despite this lack of investment every village is serviced by public transportation. It’s quite impressive actually—something I have never seen in the States. Since most people don’t have their own cars, it creates a lifeline to the cities which usually have more goods and services. While some lucky villages may have train stations, minibuses do the bulk of the transporting. They are called marshrutkas—literally, “routers.” They are used by bands of grannies who insist that sweaty younger riders close their windows on hot summer days. In Ukraine it is believed that a draft of any sort will lead to certain illness and death.
As I mentioned, people keep homesteads, not farms. They have a source of financial income that isn’t tied to food production. While some villagers are farmers, others work as shopkeepers, teachers, bus drivers, etc. However, the reality in Ukrainian villages is that most residents get their money from the state. They are retirees. While I have been describing the spatial aspects of Ukrainian villages, I should mention the temporal aspects, as well. Villages are the retirement communities of Ukraine. They are places visited by adult children and grandchildren. The houses themselves seem to have been last decorated in the 1980s. Sadly, it is hard for these senior citizens to maintain their property, and many places are in disrepair. The jobs that once employed them have all closed down and moved to the city. And their children went with them. Our village is, again, a little more tidy than others. The landscaping is well maintained and the houses are freshly painted (if not a little retro). But we are simply lucky that the few people left here are handymen. There are many empty houses. There is a two storey school house that is now abandoned.
Yulia and I see that this place was once thriving. The school here was large for such a small cluster of houses. We can tell by the quality of the craftsmanship that the original residents of this village put a lot of effort and good energy into their houses. I am impressed by the quality of the building materials that I see around here. But this reality is fading quickly. Most of the adult children will not be moving into their parents’ old houses. They have adapted to an urban lifestyle and are tied to their lives in the city. There are no traditional jobs that will bring new people to this place. The story is the same all over Ukraine.
However, we see potential in all of this, and we want to put ourselves in a place to take advantage of this potential. First of all, land is cheap here. Yulia and I wanted to buy a place that was affordable not only for us, but for potential neighbors as well. As I mentioned before, there are many abandoned houses in this village. This should provide ample opportunity for anyone who may also want to move here. We also want young people and young families to move here. It is not because we do not like old people. We simply want the village to be diverse in its age range, and we would like to have at least a few other people who share the same interests as us. For example, we have been using the clay, sand, straw, water mixture to build things and make renovations on our property. Yesterday I made a clay based paint and pigmented it with turmeric. Yulia dyed a pillow using local berries.

Yulia’s pillow
We have planted a whole variety of interesting plants—gumis, ginger, turmeric, banana passionfruit, cedars, and kale, for example. In short, we want to live a life that is both ecologically clean and artistic (though we are so much more than that—our blog entries here should reveal a more consummate picture of who we are). Right now the reality is that most people are not interested in these things. We want people who share our interests to move here. We could then share our knowledge with our new neighbors, and they, in turn, could teach us a thing or two.
We think this is one of the possible futures of Ukrainian villages. We do see a negative trend forming. Many villagers refuse to sell their land even if they do not use it. They hold on to it just in case they or their families may ever want to use it. Others are not privatizing (that is, getting documentation for) their land. We’ve met younger people who did not know that they lost their land to the local government when their grandfather died. All this abandoned land makes it easy for local governments to sell land to large farmers. The large farmers, in turn, plant in monocultures, mimicking the failing industrial agricultural system Yulia and I have seen in America.
The future we want to create is an extension of the past. Ukrainians have always been a rural culture. Homesteading has deep roots. We took a permaculture course last year and did a project at an old homestead. We were looking to implement the methods of permaculture here when we realized that these methods had already been used by the original owners. They planted their gardens in terraces. Trees were planted into swales. Ukrainians take pride in their gardens. Many heirloom varieties and landraces come from Ukraine. Ukrainians are also passionate beekeepers. They prefer to do things themselves. We want to take up this tradition and breathe fresh life into it. For example, last year there was a very large harvest of potatoes. People were complaining that they could not make any money from selling potatoes at the bazaar for 1 hryvnia a kilogram. Our response is that people need to be growing a larger variety of crops. Rare foods sell for higher prices. Why not try growing something else? Yulia and I are interested in growing more than the usual potatoes and apples. We are also interested in traditional Ukrainian arts—poetry, wood carving, embroidery, painting, and singing. We want to continue with these traditions, but add our own experiences to them.
We realize that the method to create change in the world needs to come from average people. And the best thing average people can do is change their lifestyles. When Yulia and I are in the city we create much more trash than we do while at our home in the village. It is more difficult to dispose of trash here, while the ugly sight of a trash pile is an additional discouragement. We are forced to adapt and make less trash and we see this as a positive thing. This goes for many different aspects of our life. We are not special or gifted in any way, and we hope to show others how they can also make positive change. In this way we hope to revive not only the environment, but our health, history, culture, and, of course, our village too.

American farmers markets and Ukrainian bazaars

Sunday, July 28, 2013
By Michael
            If Yulia and I can’t grow our own produce (which we haven’t been in a position to do prior to moving here), we always seek out the best quality food we can. We like organic food, but realize that the processed, industrial-organic products sold in the store and supermarket are not the last word in good quality. We also prefer food grown on a small scale, which usually means a few things. A small scale operation usually doesn’t grow its food in monocultures. Monocultures tend to deplete the top soil (which crop rotation helps). The healthy environment that variety creates also means that less or no chemicals may be needed to grow the food. This means that the produce from these places is organic regardless if it is certified or not. There are many more reasons why we choose to buy from these people if we can help it, but that is not the purpose of this blog entry.
            Our interest in buying from the small guys leads us to the farmers market if we are in the States and the bazaar if we are in Ukraine. To me they are pretty much the same thing with different names, but there are some differences. First I will discuss what they share in common and why Yulia and I like shopping there. Next I will discuss their differences and the ways in which the farmers market is better than the bazaar and vice versa. I will also focus on my favorite markets in the States—those of Sacramento, California—and Pryvoksalnyi bazaar in Lviv, Ukraine. My interest in doing this is analytical, yes. I’d like to get at the core of what makes a market-bazaar worth shopping at compared to other venues. For those of us interested in shopping at or working a market-bazaar, it’s important to realize what works and what doesn’t (and copy and perpetuate the things that make them work). Yulia and I have both shopped and worked at these venues and we know them intimately from both perspectives. We also realize that the readers of this blog may also shop at and work at these places and may benefit from our analysis. In addition to this, writing about (and going to) the market-bazaar is a great source of joy for Yulia and me, and we want to write about it and share some of our happiness with everybody else.
            We go to the market-bazaar because we enjoy being outside, talking with growers, and getting fresh, good quality produce. Being at the market-bazaar gives one a sense of place. The menu is constantly changing here according to what is in season. The location, climate, weather, and time of year are revealed by the produce. Chanterelle mushrooms mean that it is autumn, that it rained not too long ago, and that there is probably a coniferous forest nearby. It is a simple way of buying something. I give you money; you give me food. You grow food; I eat food. In Ukraine and America it’s hard to find food at the store that wasn’t shipped from afar, grown without chemicals, and planted and harvested by unhappy workers who curse their jobs. I feel like food manufacturers will process their food whenever they get a chance. If one does come across something fresh, local, and cleanly grown then it usually costs an arm and a leg. I’ve seen heirloom tomatoes at Whole Foods, for example, but the price was outrageous. The market-bazaar is also a social space. This is a place to practice good manners and talk with other average people. If a vendor is being a brute, then one can always take their business to the next vendor. It is an outlet for the customer to talk to the grower about their products and how they were grown or made. Again, it is the joy of simplicity that draws us here. I realize that the market-bazaar is not always like this. There are, of course, exceptions to my description. But I have developed these impressions a posteriori (excuse my Latin). That is, I have observed these things in the real world and made sense of why they are good or bad after making these observations. Also, there are other ways of buying food that interest us. We appreciate co-ops, for instance. A co-op, as I understand it, is a company owned by many people. These people usually have to pay a fee to be owners (a small investment of sorts), but they can then reap the benefits of ownership. If the co-op makes a profit in a given year, the owners all split the money. They also have the privilege of getting special owner sale prices that regular shoppers don’t get.
            Farmers markets in the States, it seems to me, are like mini fairs. Vendors’ tents are like game booths at the carnival. Someone is almost always selling sweets of some sort, and certain markets even have live music. The vendors at farmers markets care about cleanliness and appearance. They have signs saying the name of their farm and list prices for their products.

Yulia at the Ashland farmers market
This creates a cheery atmosphere and draws many different kinds of customers, not just the ones that want to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. Customers treat local farmers like rock stars, praising them for their good work. Choosing to shop here is a statement of one’s values. Even if the prices are higher compared to the supermarket, many people insist on giving their money to small farmers for philosophical reasons. More upscale farmers markets are like a fashion show. People get dressed up to go walk among people, showing themselves off. I saw one man at the Ashland, Oregon farmers market who wore all purple Renaissance style garb every week.

The farmers market in Ashland, Oregon
            I like farmers markets for all these reasons, but there are some aspects that I think could be improved upon. Because Americans perceive farmers markets as mini fairs, they are given “special event” status. Many times farmers markets occur only once a week. Unlike, say, a supermarket, one cannot just swing by a farmers market whenever it is convenient for them. They are a destination outside the proceedings of everyday life for people. This makes them seem extraneous rather than a necessity for people. People can survive without farmers markets. They cannot survive without supermarkets, the thinking goes. This makes farmers markets places for people who have a little extra money set aside for them (Though things are getting better. Many farmers markets now accept food stamps.). People therefore conceive of farmers markets as places for wealthy people. Instead of thinking of arugula as a nourishing plant to eat grown by average, hard working people, arugula is transformed by American culture into food for prissy urbanites grown by greedy, price gouging farmers cashing in on a trend.
            During our first visit to a Ukrainian bazaar, Yulia and I were shocked by the seeming overcrowding and chaos of the place. We went with Yulia’s aunt to get cucumbers for pickling. We followed her as she zipped down the sidewalk. As vendors began to appear around the periphery of the bazaar, she rattled off questions in a rapid staccato, “How much are the cucumbers? How much is that?” We could barely keep up with her. After a while of roaming up and down the aisles, Yulia’s aunt had us stand in a doorway alcove off to the side of the bazaar while she tracked down some adequate cucumbers. Yulia said she felt like she was at a Turkish market. The experience was dizzying. How could anyone go shopping in such harried environment?

Pryvoksalnyi bazaar in Lviv
            That was how we got to know Pryvoksalnyi bazaar in Lviv. Our first impression of the bazaar kept us at bay and in the supermarkets for a few weeks. We eventually gathered the courage to go back. When we did we approached with caution. I was constantly afraid of revealing myself as an American by my accent. I had heard too many stories of pickpockets and unfair pricing. However, I settled into a much different reality and began to see the structure of the place. The citrus people and other fruits from abroad were in one section. Local fruits and vegetables were in the middle. Cabbages and potatoes from larger farms were on one side while grannies selling milk poured into old Coca-Cola bottles were scattered about the periphery like the asteroid belt around the sun. I realized the method to the madness soon enough.
The grannies selling milk were not from small farms. They simply had a family cow that they or their husbands milked. Usually the milk from one cow is even too much for an older couple to drink themselves. So they end up selling it at the bazaar. They’re not really a business, so that’s why they simply reuse old plastic bottles. It’s good with respect to the fact that they are reusing something that would otherwise be thrown away, but one must trust that the granny peddling milk has properly washed out the old bottle. Also, a few liters of milk is hardly enough product to justify selling from a booth, so standing on the sidewalk until customers buy the two bottles of milk they bring is enough for their circumstances. I never bought much milk, but focused on things like heirloom tomatoes. I would look for things like zippering and cracks. That’s how they always come out of gardens. Perfectly smooth tomatoes are a sign of hydroponic mass production. In general, I was impressed by the quality of food at the bazaar. I never felt like I was ripped off or taken advantage of. I got to know what a reasonable price was for most things and never bought anything from a seller that was asking for too high a price. All of these elements create a tacit organization in the superficial chaos.
            The Ukrainian bazaar is a place of great diversity. There are products from backyard gardeners, small farmers, and industrial scale farms. The bazaar has a greater amount of choices compared to their American analogs as well. Cherries and sour cherries (vyshni) are common there (I almost never hear of the existence of sour cherries in the States.). The first fresh produce starts to appear in late March. I learned about wild garlic (cheremsha in Ukrainian) for the first time at the bazaar. After the winter it is delightful to see locally grown, fresh green leaves for sale. The bazaar is also open every day of the week and, most surprisingly to me, it functions year round. We’re at the 49th parallel here in Lviv. That is the border between the US and Canada. The climate is very similar to what one might find in Minnesota or Wisconsin. Ukrainians know how to keep bringing local produce to the market even through the dead of winter. Once fall rolls around, people start bringing storage fruits and vegetables. Carrots, potatoes, beets, cabbages, sunchokes, beans, apples, and pears can be brought to the market during the cold months. I met a cute old lady selling off the last of her apples. When she had given me the last of her fruit she shook my hand, thanked me for being her last customer of the season, crossed herself, looked up and said, “Thank you lord for watching over me this season. May I live to next year’s harvest.” I was impressed not only with her droll personality, but by the fact that I was able to buy fresh fruit grown at the 49th parallel all winter long. If Americans really wanted to, they could also have year round farmers markets. Root cellars are not a complicated technology after all.
            And neither are signs. That is one thing that Ukrainians might want to start using. Although it could be argued that having no signs forces more social interaction by forcing conversation between customer and seller, this is a generous defense. I think the reason for no signs at the Ukrainian bazaar is cultural convention most likely. I once saw a man with a handwritten sign at the bazaar that said, “Apples. Ecologically clean [Ukrainian for organic].” It also listed the county in which they were grown and the seller’s phone number. Although this would be a typical sight at a farmers market in the US, I was a bit suspicious of the man. I am embarrassed to say it, but it seemed like a bit of a gimmick. I suppose some Ukrainian skepticism has seeped into my psyche. This national skepticism is not a good thing. I would like to see people being more generous at the bazaar, not whining to pay a bit extra for ecologically clean produce. This is something Ukrainians care about. They ask if something is organic by asking, “Do you use chemicals or spray your crops at all?” However, when it comes to paying extra for that, they are hesitant to do so.
             From what I’ve seen as a seller and customer at market-bazaars in both Ukraine and the US, Sacramento and its suburbs take the prize for the best markets or bazaars that I’ve seen anywhere. They are similar to Ukrainian bazaars in that they are year round (though Sacramento’s warmer climate may explain why). There are also enough farmers markets spread around the city and the suburbs to provide a market for nearly every day of the week. Sacramento’s immigrant population provides for an experience very similar to that of the Ukrainian bazaar—in both good ways and bad. Their being accustomed to buying produce that is rare in the States has led to greater variety at the farmers market. For example, there was Chinese and Italian broccoli being sold alongside “traditional” broccoli, and flowering bok choi along with plain greens. They bring a more down to earth atmosphere to the markets. It would be difficult to accuse them of being prissy urbanites. Customers in Sacramento would often approach the vendors directly and ask for the price for a certain item, especially in immigrant neighborhoods. But they would often complain about prices being too high (even if they weren’t). No matter what country they were from, I noticed that they brought some of that old country skepticism with them. Still, I have to give Sacramento praise. Its residents have fostered an environment of year round, nearly daily markets with good prices and a down to earth atmosphere. These markets combine the best of the Ukrainian bazaar and the American farmers market in my eyes. I do not think it is a remarkable city otherwise, but Sacramento’s farmers markets make the city stand out to me for these reasons.  

The Florin Road market in south Sacramento

“Under the freeway” market in downtown Sacramento