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!


  1. I must say that I very much enjoy your posts and news even though I don't comment all that often. Thank you, both, so much for the insight you so generously offer into your world.

    I came across this which I thought may be of interest, though you likely are already familiar with the content to some extent.

  2. Thanks for sharing this article. We certainly enjoy reading about Ukrainian ethnobotany. Some good information here!