Sunday, November 17, 2013

Images of America: Our visit from Ukraine

Yulia and I have been living in Ukraine since the summer of 2011. About a year ago (November of 2012), we decided to go back to America to spend the winter and spring there. We decided to work on several farms while in the States in order to get more experience with gardening and to spend the winter in a warmer place than Ukraine. We wanted to get this experience before moving into our own home, which we planned to do in the spring of 2013.

I'd like to devote this post to discussing our experience of America during those months. As you may already know, I was born in America, and Yulia lived there for 11 years. We intimately know what life is like in the US. We went to school there, worked there, and got married there. But after spending a year and a half in Ukraine, we visited America and saw it with new eyes.

We'd like to reflect on this experience before our memories become too distant. Seeing America from a Ukrainian's perspective was enlightening for us. Most people in Ukraine have an unrealistically positive image of the US. They think that life there is better, that everything is just easier. We came to Ukraine with an image of America that we had developed from first hand experience. But after living in Ukraine for over a year, the life is so much better "over there" mantra of Ukrainians started to seep into our psyche. We began to question ourselves: Did we actually make the right decision in moving to Ukraine?

Our trip to America gave us our answer. We realized that we had made the right decision in moving to Ukraine.

That does not mean that we totally hate America. In fact, there are some aspects of America that we want to bring to Ukraine.We'll write about that and our trip to the US in general through a series of textual snapshots or images. These are our reflections on America:

"Hi, how are you?" a cashier at a small organic grocery store asked me.

I hesitated for a second as I walked into the store.  "Is he actually curious as to how I am feeling?" I wondered. I then remembered that "How are you?" means "Hello" in America. I said, "Great," and smiled. That also means "Hello." At this moment I realized that I was seeing America from the eyes of an outsider. What was once commonplace had become foreign.

The first shock Yulia and I experienced after arriving in the US was the grass. Instead of gardens of flowers and vegetables and fruit bearing trees planted everywhere, we saw grass. It encompassed all the land around people's houses in some cases. The grass was neat, shortly trimmed and green, but it seemed to be merely a filler. No one used the grass for any purpose. We didn't see families having picnics on it or children playing American football here. It is just the next best thing to bare earth.

This is saddening. It shows a total lack of imagination and care for outdoor space. Each household has a plethora of space between it and the road-- and between it and other houses. However, this space is void of anything at all (besides grass) so that the effect is that each house is plainly visible from just about everywhere. The ample setback from the street accomplishes nothing. The noise of cars speeding by is not softened by anything. The neighbor's house a quarter of a mile away is clearly visible. Nothing to fill the empty space here either. So why the setbacks and enormous lawns?

In Ukraine, if there is a field of grass, either cows graze on it or children play soccer here. Empty space by the roadside is dedicated to rosehips, hawthorn, and fruit trees. The land around someone's house is planted with fruits and vegetables. At its worst it is planted with monocultures of potatoes and corn, but it is not left idle. 

We spent several months on the west coast, in California and Oregon. Here we were overwhelmed by a plethora of another kind of grass--the kind you smoke. Pot seemed to permeate the very culture there. We had not heard so much talk about pot since high school. Yulia and I do not smoke, and we don't feel we have the right to tell others what to do (just as we dislike others telling us what to do), so we won't prate on the reasons not to smoke.

Our main question is (and this is for the establishment as much as it is for the pot counter culture); why is growing medical marijuana legal while the growing of industrial hemp is illegal? Industrial hemp is not a drug. It will only give you a headache if you smoke it. It is sort of a wonder plant though. It is easy to grow. The seeds are really nutritious--and tasty too! They can be eaten whole or made into an oil. Hemp can also be used as a fiber for textile purposes or used to make paper. It doesn't destroy the soil like cotton and it doesn't take as long as a tree to grow to maturity.

One thing Americans can learn from Ukrainians is how to dress in public. One does not need to wear a top hat and cane, but some sense of decorum should be established while in public in America.

The first store we went to was Wal Mart. It was a complete shock. Here we are back in the richest country in the world. The roads, even in the countryside, might as well be made of glass they are so smooth. Most houses must have running water by law. Horses and wagons can only be found in Amish country.

One would think that in such a highly "developed" society (as Americans like to describe it), people would be immaculately dressed too. This is not the case. As Yulia describes it, people go to the store dressed like Ukrainians do when they dig potatoes.

I have my theories on this. Poor dress may be a misplaced way of displaying how modest and humble people are. The reasoning goes, they must wear sweatpants in public to show that they are just "average Joes." Putting on a clean pair of trousers would unnecessarily elevate them in the eyes of others.

It may also be a product of Americans' extreme reliance on cars to transport them from place to place. You do not have to walk through mud puddles in a car. You do not have to brave the weather in a car. Therefore, the clothes you wear do not matter. You are eternally in a climate controlled environment.

It must be said, this is specific to location. We found that the best dressed people were in New York City. They were not Wall Street bankers, but "average" people on the subway. The well dressed people were of all ages and races. In New York City one usually does not use a car. One has to walk on muddy sidewalks and through the rain and snow to get from place to place. It wouldn't make sense to wear pajama pants while waiting for the bus because those pajama pants would be completely infused with automobile fumes by the end of the day. Best to have a separate outfit for going outdoors.

Yulia and I were very excited to go to New York City's "Green Market." The Green Market is a very large farmers market located at Union Square. I first learned about the Green Market through John McPhee's piece, "Giving Good Weight." The article, written in the 1970s, describes the market as a place where farmers come to the city to people watch. He makes the social dynamic seem very interesting. The farmers seem to be self assured and full of common sense while the city slicker customers come off as naive and inexperienced in the ways of the world. Having fallen in love with Ukrainian bazaars I wanted to see this famous market and what it had to offer.

Yulia doublefisting smoothies at the Green Market

It was a rather large market with lots of fresh vegetables even in November, which was nice! But it became a bit odd when Yulia had bagged up some sweet potatoes and was looking for the seller. He or she was nowhere to be seen. She meandered around the tables, looking for someone with a scale and cash box. No one presented themselves. She said a man surreptitiously took some pictures of her. She didn't know what to think of that. When she finally found a seller, he informed us that those veggies were not his. He sent us over to a man sitting off to the side. He was the man taking the pictures! He didn't say anything, but weighed the potatoes and that was it.

It was very odd. It was as if he was trying to catch Yulia shoplifting. Wouldn't it have made more sense to just say, "You can pay for that over here." These were not the folksy and down to earth farmers that McPhee portrays. I realized that they were just smug.

The rest of the market was like this too--with mystery produce sellers. One would think that at such a large and famous market the sellers would have a better system down for payment. Yulia and I have been to farmers markets all across the country and we didn't see anything else so confusing.

We met a lot of people in America who had a close connection to the land around them. My parents and their friends have serious gardens, orchards, and apiaries at their homes in Pennsylvania. They live in an old Ukrainian community where wild strawberries and mulberries grow by the roadside and where houses once occupied by old Ukrainian immigrants have orchards. We also met and lived with many farmers who have a similar connection to the land. In South Carolina we saw a culture that was seriously into hunting. Before we left for Ukraine (the first time) we took a course at the Cob Cottage Company in Oregon. They use local materials like clay, sand, and wood in their architecture.

The inside of the library at the Cob Cottage Company. I don't think the lumber used for the ceiling was purchased at Lowe's!

But many other times we felt completely disconnected from the land (that is, nature) around us. On more than a few occasions we went to a beautiful place only to be greeted by the dreaded sign: "Fee Area." While driving in Arizona, bored by monotony, we were thrilled to find that we were near Meteor Crater. After driving off the highway for fifteen minutes we arrived in the parking lot to learn that we had to pay $18 to see the crater.

The visitors center that blocks the view of Meteor Crater

The vast emptiness that drove us to exit the freeway and see something interesting
On occasion we did pay the fee whenever we planned a trip somewhere, but this eliminates spontaneity. It makes it difficult to just come across something and discover it. If we did "discover" someplace it usually turned out to be private property where we were not supposed to be. To us, making nature into a fee area or private property creates a sense of separation from the world around us. Nature becomes something apart from everyday life, compartmentalized in an invisible box.

Boxes seem to be a major theme in the American imagination. The big boxes, in fact, have taken over the American landscape. To anybody who has not seen America, this is what it looks like regardless of the state you are in:

Notice the "Best Buy" electronics store. That is what a big box store looks like. Although it is on the horizon, it is actually only two doors down from the hotel we were staying at (where the picture was taken from).

This was not a new discovery for us, but we have noticed that this pattern of building is being adopted in Ukraine too. There are now places in Lviv that look just like this American moonscape.

So this is my message to those living in America: please, please, please think about the kind of places you are creating. They are not only being replicated across the country, but across the world. Other countries, like Ukraine, unquestioningly use all things American as an example to follow. That goes from mundane strip malls to the corrupt banking practices of the "too big to fail" banks. Make sure the American example you create is a good one. It has worldwide ramifications.


We saw some wonderful things in America too.

A few days after arriving back in Ukraine and moving into our new home, our friend Taras brought his family and some new friends to see our house. They were interested in the experience we had working on small farms in the States and inquired about the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) business model. A CSA, for those who are unfamiliar, is a practice whereby customers buy products directly from the farm. The customers usually pay a sum of money before the season starts to help the farmer with start up costs. Then, during the growing season, the customer receives a box of fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs--I've even heard of fish CSAs in Massachusetts--every week.

Our friends wondered if this was true. Do customers in America really trust farmers enough to pay them up front for vegetables? We assured them that this was true. It was wonderful to realize that this system of trust exists in the States. It is something that we take for granted. We hope that this mentality is eventually exported and adopted by skeptical Ukrainians.

American friendliness is, in our opinion, one of the treasures of the country. We also would like to see this American export in Ukraine.

The best example of American amiability that we saw was in South Carolina. Descending from the Smoky Mountains into the hills of Upcountry South Carolina, we stopped by a roadside produce stand by the highway. Here we bought ourselves some wonderful local pecans and fudge (candy is a rare purchase for us) that were the epitome of real ingredients and authenticity. The shopkeeper was an older man with suspenders. "Come on back now," was the only thing he said after we made our purchase.

We worked on a small farm near Greenville, South Carolina. The city itself is making wonderful renovations to the city. It has revitalized its main street, making it super pedestrian friendly. Traditional American main streets, though a bit of a nostalgic cliche, are one of the best inventions of American city planning. We were heartened to see one thriving so well.

How Greenville is rehabilitating bad city planning. They have created a garden space free of automobiles under the elevated highway that cuts through the heart of the city.
The character of the people in Greenville matches the warmth of the city's revitalization. I was in a grocery store there where a man needed to get by me. "Excuse me, sir. Thank you, sir," is what he said. He was twice my age. The "sirs" were not a sign that he thought I was old, but simply a gesture of respect towards a stranger.

Ukrainians remain very closed off towards strangers until they know who they are. This is bad if you are a stranger, but good if you are not. Once a Ukrainian knows that you are a friend or family--watch out! Expect a table full of a family's finest foods and plenty of cheerful conversation. Ukrainian hospitality rivals that of Southerners, though it is not meted out as freely.

We met many new and interesting people during our trip to America. To write about them all would be too much for this post. One person, however, stood out to us as an inspiration for the kind of people Yulia and I want to be.

We only spent a few hours with this man, but we were able to see the good life he was trying to lead despite his limitations. His name is Eugene, and he worked for a date farmer in the desert of southern California. We met him while working on this farm.

We were rather isolated where we were in Imperial County, the poorest county in California. We were a two hour drive from the affluence (and natural grocery stores) of Palm Springs. Although he did not have a car and had little income, Eugene was able to live a remarkably healthy lifestyle. He had much experience as a raw food chef and knew what he was doing. He was quite the resourceful person, in fact. Eugene used the supply of dates he had access to in order to make a fermented beverage similar to kombucha. He had a mini fridge full of these drinks. Although the soil here was too sandy and the climate too harsh for a conventional vegetable garden, he grew his own micro greens. He sprouted sunflower seeds and made wonderful salads with them. He made up his own salad dressing too using the limited ingredients he had access to (like oranges and flax seeds (see post script)).

It was wonderful to see someone who did not have access to easy money or resources able to make such fine foods. In America, healthy eaters are often stigmatized as overly privileged, disconnected, and fussy people. Eugene was nothing of the sort. He had a warm heart and shared much of what he made with us although he had little for even himself. He wrote up several of his recipes for us so that we could make similar food for ourselves.

Too often, Ukrainians think that life is better "over there," meaning in the US or other rich countries. What Yulia and I want to adopt and show through example is Eugene's perspective--that you create the kind of life you want to live despite external circumstances.

When Ukrainians ask me if life is better "over there"--just as Myron, a seventeen year old boy from our village, asked me a few days ago--I say that sometimes I think it is and sometimes I think it is not. It's an honest answer. Understanding both cultures (and others as well) will only help create the kind of world we want to live in--regardless of where we are.

PS: Eugene's Orange Flax Dressing

  • 3 peeled oranges
  • 2 cups of water
  • 1.5 cups olive oil (1 cup is enough)
  • 0.5 cup gold flax soaked in 1 cup water (do not drain)
  • 0.5 cup blanched almonds
  • 0.5 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 4 cloves garlic (unpeeled)
  • 1 tablespoon Celtic salt
  • Handful of fresh herbs--parsley/dill or parsley/tarragon
  • Black pepper to taste medium grind
Blend all ingredients holding back the oil, herbs, and black pepper. Drizzle in the olive oil--turn off blender. Add herbs and pepper--pulse in. Do not over blend. Bottle and refrigerate.


  1. Nice story, it's great to read about the contradictions. Sure, Ukrainians have fixed ideas about the so called rich countries, as we has that kind of ideas about Ukraine... or other countries. Travel to learn...

  2. Traveling is learning, that's for sure!