Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A date with Yulia

Even after two and a half years of marriage, it is still hard for me to get a date with Yulia! Can you believe it? I thought I would have caught the attention of the most beautiful woman in Ukraine by now!

But persistence pays off, and we finally went out for dinner and a stroll in downtown Lviv. For dinner, we went to a place called Галицько-жидівська кнайпа "Під Золотою Розою" (Galician-Jewish restaurant "Under the Golden Rose"). As its name suggests, it is a Jewish restaurant. We went there because we wanted to see something different--there are not many Jewish restaurants in Lviv. We also got the impression that there were lots of healthy things to eat on the menu.

However, our impression about the food was wrong. We didn't find much in terms of vegetarian or vegan food. We had our hearts set on a hummus plate, but they were all out of it. We had to settle for green salads. Not that there is anything wrong with green salads. We eat as many of them as we can on a regular basis. But we came hungry and expected to gobble up lots of different good foods there.

The restaurant's atmosphere made up for the lack of food. Upon arrival, for example, we were greeted by our favorite kind of hostess--a cat! She had dreamy yellow eyes and a luxurious fut coat to match.

She must have known that we are cat people because she decided to join us for dinner!

It's a good thing that it is a Jewish custom to wash your hands before eating because the kitty settled on Yulia's lap. Kitty got lots of attention from Yulia and me.

The restaurant is very clever too. Their menus, though not in Hebrew, are bound on the right side and read back to front (or what we are used to seeing as back to front).

The menu is also curious because it does not list prices. As it says in the above photo, "It is the only restaurant in Ukraine that does not have prices. One can negotiate here! We'll find a common language." The message is only half true. When it came time for our bill, the waiter kindly asked us if we wanted to negotiate a price or if we just wanted the check. We just got the check. We were still hungry, after all!

It's nice to see a Jewish restaurant in Lviv for a number of reasons. Firstly, it serves as a reminder that there was once a synagogue where the restaurant now stands. It shows that there was once a sizable Jewish population here. It also is a reminder of the multicultural history of the city. The brief Nazi occupation of Lviv obviously had something to do with reducing the number of Jews in the city. The subsequent Soviet occupation of the area took care of what the Nazis didn't complete. They transformed Lviv and western Ukraine into a territory occupied mostly by ethnic Ukrainians.

Halychyna (or Galicia) is a territory that encompasses parts of present day western Ukraine and eastern Poland. Like most of Europe before World War Two, it was ethnically mixed.

What Yulia and I liked so much about the Golden Rose restaurant is that it embraces multiculturalism while featuring one group of people. It shows that the restaurant is not exclusive, but inclusive. As their menu states, "Rusyns, Poles, Jews, Germans, Austrians, Hungarians, Armenians, Roma people, Greeks and Tartars collectively created Halychyna over the centuries." This statement focuses on culture rather than the more arbitrary nationality. If you didn't notice, Ukrainians are not listed there, but Rusyns are. That is because Ukrainian is a term that slowly took the place of Rusyn during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as nationalism and nation-states grew in importance.

Admittedly, there are some aspects of this restaurant that may be a bit stereotypical or misplaced. I don't know much about Jewish restaurants, but I'm not sure if negotiating a price is traditional. I expect this is a vestige of the stereotypical Jewish merchant. I could be wrong, of course. The hummus plate is also something I don't expect is authentic among northern European Jews. Still, I'm willing to overlook these possible inaccuracies because of what I perceive as a sincere interest in promoting Jewish history. It means a lot that a restaurant (and not, say, a museum) of all places is taking on the role of an educational setting.

But back to our date. Yulia and I left the Golden Rose hungry, but were delighted to see an old hippy bus selling vegan cookies and sweets a few steps from the restaurant.

We strolled over to Lviv's main square by city hall and ate our cookies while enjoying the ambient aroma of coffee wafting through the air. We people watched.

We liked the funky types with dreadlocks...

But our favorites were classic: the old man chess players...

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Fall Tree Planting (for us, our grandparents, and our children)

A freshly transplanted apricot tree

Yulia and I did some transplanting today. For the past week or so we have been digging up plants from the grandparents' house and, in the case of the sea buckthorn, digging up some wild saplings by Lviv International Airport. We also purchased several plants at the annual fall gardening festival in Lviv.

This is what we planted today:

4 Early Sea Buckthorns
4 Late Sea Buckthorns
2 Male Sea Buckthorns
9 Hazelnuts
2 Walnuts
5 Chestnuts
7 Pine
1 Fir
2 Cornell Cherries
1 Plum
2 Mulberries
2 Cherry Plums
1 Kiwi
1 Apricot
1 Hibiscus
1 Wisteria
3 Cedars

48 Trees, bushes, and flowers planted today!

...And that is by no means everything. We will still be doing some transplanting tomorrow.

We really enjoyed transplanting today because it gave us a chance to do some landscape design. The trees and bushes we planted will really give our property some form once they start to mature and get big. Yulia had the brilliant idea of planting the wisteria by a gate. Wisterias are vines, and we will train this one to cover an arched gateway in our garden. It'll look beautiful. ...And the fragrance! Imagine walking through a gateway with hanging wisteria flowers caressing you as you pass by. Heavenly!

And we can't wait for the harvest. Just look at these sea buckthorn berries we snipped off the wild trees growing by the airport! We'll have quite the abundance of fruit once these trees mature.

We planted three cedar trees today. They are wee little seedlings right now. They will take several decades to fully mature. Maybe Yulia and I won't live to see it, but they will eventually start making cones. The seeds from these cones can be eaten whole or pressed into oil. Have you ever tried cedar oil? It is delicious and especially good for you. They can also be sold for a handsome price. Maybe our children will one day reap the rewards of these majestic trees.

Probably the most important thing we did today was plant a few trees for my deceased grandmothers and grandfather. Today happened to be my grandmother's birthday. She would have been 91 years old.

Right before Yulia and I left for Ukraine, we took some soil from the grave sites of each of my grandparents. Not much, about a hand full or two. We promised them we would use that soil to plant a tree in their honor once we found a place to live for ourselves. They were all born in Ukraine and were forced to leave their homes during World War Two. We thought that we could at least take some soil from their final resting place and return it to their homeland.

They had difficult lives. My grandmother's house was purposefully burned down. Her family had several horses that the loved very much. Tragically, her father died from burn wounds rescuing the horses. She would always break down in tears telling me and my sister that story. I am now doing the same as I retell it.

I can only hope to aspire to be as good as my grandparents. They set a good example. When I feel overwhelmed with how hard life is, I think of them. The least I can do is to try and leave this a better place than it was when I got here. They deserve that.

Two алича's "cherry plums" (they are the only plants with green leaves in the picture) for my lovely grandmother and grandfather.

The mulberry for my darling grandmother.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Shale gas drilling in western Ukraine (Part 2)

Here are some pictures from the protest. Yulia and I went there with her parents (who have been very ardent about the issue).

It was pretty well organized. When we got there, there was already a crowd and someone leading with a microphone. We got to work collecting signatures.

After a while one of the protest leaders got into a debate with a journalist. The leader asked the crowd what religions they were a part of. Everybody answered, and there were all sorts of people there.

We were confused until we found out later that the journalist was asking if we were representatives of a religious sect. Apparently, journalists have convinced themselves that the protest was only attended by members of this religious sect. Interestingly enough, after learning that this protest was attended by all sorts of people, the local news persisted with the story that only members of the sect attended the protest. I wouldn't be surprised if this were conspiratorial in nature (though it could also just be the result of sloppy journalism). If you are on the losing side of an issue and have no good arguments on your side, it is best to distract people from the issue itself. It's a good method. It's even got me talking about religion instead of shale gas.

Later in the protest, one of the leaders went to the Lviv legislature to talk with some representatives, but he was not allowed inside. He then ended the protest by encouraging everyone to spread the facts about shale gas because facts, as he put it, are our best weapon.

The protest when we first got there.

Bottles filled with water poisoned from shale gas drilling

Yulia's mom collecting signatures

Dead chickens being used as a prop at the protest.

Shale gas drilling in western Ukraine

Today Yulia and I attended a protest in Lviv against shale gas drilling in western Ukraine. Since the proposed drilling would affect Yulia and I where we live, we thought we'd talk a little about what shale gas drilling is and why we are against it.

Last year, the Lviv Oblast Rada (Lviv province's legislature) voted unanimously to not allow gas companies to drill for shale gas in this area. A year later, this was almost completely reversed. All of the representatives, save two members of the Svoboda party, voted to allow shale gas drilling. They have decided to allow the Shell and Chevron corporations to explore the Olenska Shale in western Ukraine, a deposit beneath a densely populated area. It covers a great deal of Lviv oblast, along with Ternopil and Ivano Frankivsk. Yulia and I live in the affected area.

Shale gas is a deposit of natural gas that is trapped within a shale formation underground. It is more difficult to extract than regular natural gas. Holes have to be drilled vertically and then horizontally into the shales. A chemical-water mix is pumped into these bores to fracture (or "frack") the ground. The natural gas that is locked in the shale in small pockets is released and, therefore, made extractable.

Shale gas drilling is much more capital intensive than regular natural gas extraction. It requires large amounts of water and chemicals to be trucked to the drilling site. The amount of gas retrieved from these shales is considerably less than the amount retrieved from conventional drilling. Until recently, shale gas was not profitable enough to justify investing in it. With rising prices and dwindling conventional reserves, it has now become profitable for gas companies to justify drilling shale gas.

Those are the facts as far as I understand them. This is why Yulia and I have come to the conclusion that the shale gas fracturing method is bad:

The drilling of shale gas near where we live means that the ground water we use for drinking will be poisoned by the chemicals used in the fracturing process. The irony is that we moved here for the abundance of clean drinking water. This area is dotted with a plethora of natural springs. But in places where shale gas drilling has occurred, locals have reported that pets and livestock have lost their hair. The water has a strong odor and is flammable in certain instances. The gas companies themselves have advised the locals not to drink their own well water. In short, the water itself is poisonous.

This is simple enough to understand, and it seems that our local legislature understood this last year. What happened since last year that made them change their minds? It seems fishy, to put it lightly.

Yulia and I attended the protest in Lviv today to remind our representatives that their constituency does not support shale gas drilling. Typically, Yulia and I do not attend protests, but this issue is simply too personal. We would also like to meet others who are interested in the issue. We have been collecting signatures to help show our representatives that their constituents do not support this issue.

 Let us be clear. This is not a political act. We do not care about political parties or individual politicians. This is not about them. It is about having clean drinking water.

Yulia and I are so interested in this issue because it is simple and straightforward. We do not want our drinking water to be poisoned. It is not a distant or theoretical issue.

We were bemused to read yesterday to read an editorial written by The Times of London. In their opinion piece, the newspaper claims that opponents of shale gas fracking do not understand the plight of poor people. Shale gas drilling will benefit them, they say. And this is what the authors have to say about water pollution: "Contamination of the water supply is not strictly impossible, in the sense that science does not rule absolutely preclude any scenario that meets the conditions of logic." Did you get that? Because we didn't. It seems that they got tripped up by their own poor use of language. Reading this sentence is like watching a figure skater attempt a tripple flip and seeing them fall on their butt. The sentence makes complete sense until the double negative in the introductory clause. So all we were able to understand is that "contamination of the ground water" is something, something. Curiously, that is the only statement the authors make about ground water poisoning.

If this statement says anything, it shows how rich people are hurting poor people for unclear reasons.They tell themselves that they are doing something that is good and necessary. They even delude themselves into thinking that they are helping poor people. But they are not, and they cannot explain why what they are doing is safe. The people making the important decisions are sitting in cities like London reading papers like The Times. These are cities that have made their fortunes by taking advantage of poor people in foreign countries. 

The Times's editorial is not related to shale gas drilling in western Ukraine. But the companies that will be doing the drilling here are foreign--Shell and Chevron. What do they have at stake in this process? Do they have friends that live here? Families that live here? Do the people that work for these companies live here? 

I didn't think so. Enough is enough. Let us care for our own land.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Cutting off their noses to spite their faces

Boris Danik's recent piece, "What matters for the EU in Association Agreement with Ukraine," got me thinking about what Yulia and I are doing here in a small Ukrainian village and how it connects with the bigger picture--Ukraine's future as a country.

For those who are not in the loop, Ukraine and the European Union (EU) are scheduled to sign an economic Association Agreement in Vilnius, Lithuania this November. The agreement is a big deal for many different stakeholders.

For the EU, it means adding forty-some million people and Europe's second biggest country (after Russia) to their economic sphere of influence. This will help create a stronger ally on the EU's eastern border, tempering the influence of Russia, Europe's other large economic entity.

For Ukraine, the Association Agreement creates a more formal path to future EU membership. It also gets exclusive trading rights to the EU, one of the world's largest economies.

Russia has been nerve wracked by the prospect of Ukraine signing the Association Agreement. It has created its own economic union called the Customs Union (Belarus and Kazakhstan are the other members of this trade union). Russia wants Ukraine to join the Customs Union. However, Ukraine cannot join if it signs the Association Agreement with the EU.

Danik explains why the EU is interested in signing an economic association agreement with Ukraine. He lists many reasons for their interest. However, the one that I want to discuss involves Ukraine's rich agricultural land. Danik discusses tacit concern in governments over climate change and the damage it will cause to agriculture. He speculates that many governments, including the EU, want access to agricultural land to feed rising populations in their countries. He goes on:
Food shortages are already entering into the calculations of economic planners. Not surprisingly, Ukraine’s fabulous grain-producing capacity changes everything important for Europe in the [next] hundred years or longer and, given some savvy in Kyiv, makes Ukraine a real player and a valuable member in any geopolitical configuration, in one format or another.
This makes me apprehensive. Ukraine's government has already shown that it may be willing to sign away huge portions of its land to foreign governments. Last week a Chinese newspaper claimed that Ukraine may be leasing 3 million hectares (that is, 5% of the entire country--or the size of Belgium or Massachusetts!) to the Chinese government. Other news outlets caught wind of the the story, and it spread like wildfire. It was later revealed that the story was inaccurate, though this may be questionable

Whatever the case with China, it has got me thinking. Foreign occupations, particularly ones that have exploited Ukrainian agriculture, have not turned out so well for Ukrainians themselves. Yulia and I have been watching videos from a project called "Share the Story," which commemorates the 80th anniversary of the Holodomor (also known as the Artificial Famine). In the early 1930s, the Soviet government purposefully starved up to 10 million Ukrainians. The Soviet government targeted ethnic Ukrainians in an attempt to exterminate as many of them as possible (this is also known as genocide). The irony is that the victims were starving while living on land that was producing grain feeding the rest of the world. The "Share the Story" website states that at the height of the Holodomor, 1.7 million tons of grain were dumped onto Western markets.

While I do not think the EU is capable of similarly monstrous actions, it does give me pause.Yulia and I are observing the evacuation of the Ukrainian countryside. Villagers tend to own a lot of farm land, and they are forfeiting this land to local governments when they leave. Yulia and I happen to be interested in buying the land that is being left behind, but it is all but impossible for ordinary people to buy it due to a byzantine bureaucracy. It seems that local governments only understand how to sell these properties to agribusiness.

We have tried buying land directly from villagers, but it has not been easy. Yulia and I were looking for land for two years before we moved into this house. With the rate at which villagers are fleeing to the cities and the plethora of available houses, one would think that buying real estate would be easy and inexpensive. That is not always the case. 

Many people we talked to to asked for exorbitantly high prices for their land. One lady was asking for $36,000 for a collapsed house in a remote area. We know the market to an extent, and similar places go for anywhere between $1,000-5,000. Another elderly man told a friend of ours that he would never sell his house so that a rich person could just "put up some kind of a villa on his land." 

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. We have seen this exact thing happen. In one area where young people such as Yulia and I were trying to buy land, there was a beautiful spot up on a hill above a natural spring with a run down house. It should have been a cinch to buy. The owner wasn't doing anything with the land and lived in the city. But this particular owner was an older man who refused to sell it to any of us. As I understand, he was quite the curmudgeon and staunchly refused anybody who talked to him. We had all but given up when we learned that he had died and that his surviving grandchildren wanted to sell the place. Yulia and I got in touch with them, and they were quite serious about selling it at a reasonable price. They were quite amiable, in fact. We met with them and were on track to buy the place. They told us they just had to do some paperwork with the village hall and that they would be in contact with us. When they did not call us back, we called them, and they explained that they had lost ownership of the land when their grandfather died. The grandfather did not do some kind of crucial paperwork, and the local government now owned the land. 

Yulia and I see this happening left and right. It seems that it is happening enough that the land is able to be consolidated and sold to agribusinesses for pennies and a flask of vodka to indifferent village mayors. This is troubling. We see what we are doing here at our home as a possible solution to this problem. We think the countryside should be repopulated by people with a fervent interest in the health of their land (and themselves). Firstly, it would be harder for foreign entities or agribusiness to take the land for themselves and potentially exploit ordinary Ukrainians as they do it. Second, if people took an interest in growing their own food, or even took an interest in eating healthier, it would negate the need for planting monocultures of grain in oceanic proportions. People who grow their own food do not need to heavily rely on buying food for themselves. Those who don't grow their own food, but eat healthfully would have no use for the monocultures of wheat, soy, rapeseed, and corn that would be harvested and processed into junk food. A healthy person may eat a little wheat or soy, but would presumably also eat a whole variety of other foods.

We think our recommendations are not only helpful for Ukrainians. People everywhere should be taking back ownership of their land. In this way, the EU (or Russia or China, for that matter) would not have to turn to Ukraine for its grain.

We do not think our recommendations are that hard to accomplish or far fetched. After all, Yulia and I are former urbanites who used to eat a diet based on exploitative agriculture.We made the change, and we think others could do it too.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

A pattern language

I just wanted to give a quick update on the progress of one of the many projects we have going on here. The kitchen/dining room door is just about complete. The fresh plaster around the door frame still needs to be painted, obviously. 

We chose to make a door that has a top half and a lower half--kind of a barnyard inspired door. Ideally, this kind of a door would be best to have between the inside of the house and the outside. The top half could be opened and used as an additional window. Why did we put such a door between two interior rooms? Because we wanted to, of course! To be honest, we just like the way that these doors look.

My favorite part of the door is the window. To make it we inserted a pane of glass in cob--a mixture of sand, clay, and straw. 

As our unique door suggests, we are doing our best to avoid using standardized building materials in our house. Rather, we want to be careful that the many features of our house create an interconnected ensemble. We want each part to work in relation to the whole. 

Take our door, for example. Everything was done for a reason. The window is there to let in light from the south facing kitchen even when the door is closed. This will help brighten the dark dining room. It will also help prevent anyone who is cooking in the kitchen from being hit by the door. The stove is right on the other side. Additionally, we wanted an arched window to help soften the rigid right angles of the lumber. Since rectangular panes of glass are all that we had to work with, we decided to embed the glass in cob. Cob is a material that lets one sculpt in many different forms. We could have made the window rectilinear, square, triangular, round, ovular, or star shaped. In short, it could be sculpted in virtually any way you want. Cob allows the architect (us!) to use their imagination--and you know we are all about that! Plus, cob is cheap. We paid nothing for the sand, clay, and straw. We used scrap wood from the workshop here on our property. The glass is from an old window that we found in the garage. In fact, we only had to buy screws and hinges to make this door. Since we are trying to save money in any way we can, this is a big help. 

As I said, we like this door. But we wouldn't like it so much if it were placed somewhere else. For example, it wouldn't be such a good thing if we were to transplant this door and make it the main entrance to the house. First of all, it has a hand made, wooden doorknob.

The door when opened

The door when closed

The doorknob is, admittedly, a little clumsy. But it serves its purpose. Basically, it is just meant to keep the cats out of the kitchen and to insulate any foul smells that may result from one of my failed attempts at cooking. An entryway to the house, on the other hand, requires a much more presentable doorknob and lock. It should be standardized because many different people will be using it. An immediately intelligible door knob is probably a good thing to have so that our guests will not have to figure out how to use an idiosyncratic doorknob. There is much less of a chance that visitors will have to use the kitchen door. Also, an exterior door needs to be sealed much better than this door is. It needs to be sealed so that rain, snow, and cold air do not blow through the cracks and into the house. That is why we will be sinking some money into purchasing a proper door and doorknob for the entrance.

Would this door be suitable to our bedroom? Probably not. Again, the cracks would let in too much sound from the adjoining room. Also, the window would let in light. This would probably unwelcome to somebody trying to get some shuteye on the other side.

I have been inspired by A Pattern Language, a book about architecture and the built environment. A Pattern Language is a book written by architects and urban planners that describes a model for building. It starts on the scale of towns and regions and gradually moves down to the smaller details of individual rooms. What guides the authors of the book is a concern that each aspect or "pattern" of the built environment relates to everything else around it. I think that our door is a good example of a pattern that the authors recommend. In fact, one of their recommendations is to build thick doors with windows (Some of their other patterns include making outdoor rooms. I described some of our outdoor rooms in an earlier post.).

There must be something deep down in our psychology that draws us to building in these patterns. I could understand what the authors of A Pattern Language were getting at right from the start. Yulia, without any prior knowledge of the book, once told me about her dissatisfaction with certain buildings during our first trip to Chicago, Illinois. She told me that aesthetically pleasing buildings seem to "match" the environment around them. The worst ones seem like they are just plopped onto the ground and have no relationship with anything around them.

We plan to continue building in this way in the future. We'd like to eventually build a one room cob hut farther back on our property. Although there are no buildings back there for our hut to "match," we still want it relate to the environment around it in some way. Since there will be natural things all around this hut, it makes sense for the building to be made out of natural, non-standardized things. We expect to use local materials--clay from the ground beneath us and straw from the nearby wheat fields, for example. It'll also have to relate to us in some way. Which means...it has to reflect me and Yulia! So expect extreme creativity and playfulness!

Yulia in front of a cob house situated in the temperate rain forest of Oregon, USA. What do you think? Does it match with the environment around it?