Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Images from a Ukrainian village in July

Despite the bad news of the steadily escalating war in Ukraine, Yulia and I would like to share some images from life at our home this month. Even if only briefly, we hope they bring some normalcy and sanity to you, our dear readers. The evil puppeteers would prefer people to be despondent and would encourage a mass exodus and brain drain in our society. We are consciously resisting that.

If it was by birthday, then why I am shelling fava beans with our friend Rick in this picture?

Because it's fun and they are delicious, of course!

What would Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko look like with Albert Einstein's hair? Pretty darn good! (Picture taken while in Lviv)

Speaking of Shevchenko, I've been meaning to share this video of a concert titled, "Taras Shevchenko," by the band New Order. It takes place at the Ukrainian National Home in New York City in 1981. It doesn't have much to do with Shevchenko (though his portrait hangs above the stage during the performance), but I do enjoy the music. If it's your kind of thing, you may enjoy it too. I find something new every time I watch this video. For example, one of the band members scratches his guitar against a piece of stereo equipment about 19 minutes in. It creates a surprisingly interesting sound!

July is a good month to mix cob. In general, Yulia and I have been enjoying "beachy" living. We wear our bathing suits when it is hot out and wash with cold well water before lunch. It is refreshing and makes us feel like we are at the beach.

A raw beet

Our jujube is flowering! Keeping our fingers crossed for some fruit this season!

A marigold wreath that Yulia made drying on our pichka

Our cat, Laska, resting by the highly prolific nasturtiums. I like to taste a few flowers a day. They're quite spicy. If you try this, remember to blow out any ants that may be hiding inside the blooms!

Our dog, Toma, spying on me and our other cat, Levko, as he sleeps

Monday, July 21, 2014

Is the world going crazy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Reading material--just can't get enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 3, 2014

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

One year is up

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

On blogging

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

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

"Something interesting"

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

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

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

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

Get out of your head

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

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

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

Our spring in winter

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

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

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

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

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

Struggles we had along the way

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

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

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

Summing it up

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

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

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

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