Thursday, August 28, 2014

Images from western Ukraine in August

August: So many different things seemed to have happened this month! I am writing this while a cold rain falls during an especially dark night, yet the pictures from earlier in the month depict an abundance of warmth. Can those really be from the same season?? We also started bringing new furniture into our home as we are finishing renovating certain rooms in our house. It feels absolutely amazing to walk around in socks on a clean floor! Yulia and I took a trip to the city together, so this series of pictures will include both the country and the city.

Me admiring our Cherokee White Eagle corn. This is one of our "three sisters" plots, which consist of corn, beans, and squash. I've never grown corn from start to finish before, so I'm especially excited that it seems to be doing well so far.

What happens when the power goes out :)

Toma's favorite spot

Patty pan squash...

...stuffed with goodies

Was that food on the veranda in the last picture?
Yup. Thanks to our new wicker furniture!

"Light weight" is definitely a theme for us as the bamboo dresser and cardboard hanging light show. The house still isn't done yet, which is why there are clothes in baskets and bags. They are waiting for us to make a closet in what will be the bedroom. And you heard correctly--that is a cardboard light. It's from the "I love Karton" (cardboard) people. It's amazing what they can do with this material. If you are interested, see some photos of their work here: Love Karton.

Some neat stuff they were selling at the art and urban exploration fest in Lviv. 

Still can't get enough of the great work that was on display there

There is inspiration everywhere. We'd like to install similar shutters on the windows of our house when the time comes.

Who says you can't grow trees if you don't have any land? A second floor balcony is all you need!

And the grapes are beginning to ripen. Definitely August!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Somewhere between America and Ukraine

The parking lot at "Epicenter" hypermarket

Yulia and I like to refer to this as the most American part of Lviv. It is the collection of big box stores at the edge of the city, and, if you ignore the Cyrillic letters on the sign and the flags, this could be a scene from anywhere in the United States--from Fort Wayne, Indiana to Palm Desert, California.

What you see here is a young big box hardware store (often referred to as a hypermarket in Ukraine). The trees are still rather small, just transplanted after construction. The landscaping is pretty, but it is merely decorative, not functional.  The trees could have been planted around the bus shelter in order to shade and cool the area from the hot asphalt in the summer or lined up along the roadway to keep drifting snow at bay in the winter.

There is also ample parking here. The parking lot is only filled to a third of its capacity on a Friday evening, another common feature in America.

There is a hotel, the Ramada, strategically placed next to Epicenter in case visitors to the city need to buy some plywood while they are here.

What's not American about it? The Ukrainian and European Union flags, of course. They are flying at half mast to honor the most recent deaths from the war in Donbas. Although Ukraine is not part of the EU, the EU flag is flown--and this is rather common in Ukraine--to show where people's alliances lie. Ukraine is obviously a part of Europe geographically, and despite manipulation from the Russian government, many people feel part of the European Union culturally as well.

Before moving to Ukraine, Yulia and I poo-pooed big box stores as many Americans do. There are whole towns and cities made up of them. They seem to have taken over the landscape and erased the local identities of the spaces they occupy. Palm Desert, California, for example, seems to be composed entirely of Taco Bells and La-Z-Boy furniture stores. We had to search hard to find good quality dates from the palm trees mentioned in the name of the city (although this area of California is a major producer of the fruits).

However, after having lived in Ukraine for several years, our opinions about these stores are shifting. In Ukraine there are many kiosks and very small stores at the bazaar. In many cases they can only fit a few people at once. This means that you are forced to talk to sellers in these places. They often expect you to know what you are looking for, and this makes it difficult to simply browse. If you are like Yulia and me and are apt to read the ingredients labels on food, it can be difficult to do so as a cashier watches.

Big box stores are also standardized, which can be unexciting if, say, an entire city is composed of them, but it becomes important if you are interested in things like order, cleanliness, and sanitation. Maybe Yulia and I used to take these things for granted, but we do appreciate it when stores and shopping centers have toilets and they are regularly cleaned. While traveling by bus we've encountered restrooms at what seem to be rest stops that were just plain horrific. That's all I will say about that.

We don't think the solution is to make Ukraine an eastern European version of America though. We simply hope that the good business practices of these big box stores become normal and are adopted by small business.

We feel this way about a lot of things when comparing Ukraine and America. The United States tends to take things too far in one direction, while Ukraine goes too far in the other. For instance, the US is a virtual police state, while Ukraine suffers from a disorganized, inept law enforcement system. Even as an experienced, law abiding driver it can be frightening to drive through certain small towns and boroughs in America. Many small municipalities make a significant portion of their income from traffic tickets given out for rolling through stop signs and driving slightly too fast. Small towns and villages in Ukraine, on the other hand, rarely, if ever, have any kind of law enforcement presence. In many of these places even one police officer giving out speeding tickets to people grossly violating the speed limit would be a help.

We can't say that we prefer one extreme to the other, but for both countries, it might make sense to find a solution somewhere between America and Ukraine.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

An Art and Urban Exploration Festival in Lviv

Yesterday, Yulia and I, along with our fried, Rick, attended an art festival in Lviv--"Urban Exploration Lviv Fest." It was an art exhibition combined with workshops which was held at an old (a three hundred year old!) jam factory. 

This festival was about hosting many of the arts under one roof. There was painting, photography, live theater, music, and cooking all taking place here. And the setting itself--the old jam factory--played a big part. 

As you walk through the rooms and corridors of the building to experience the art, you also explore a forgotten building of Lviv. We noticed a "for sale" sign on the building. Maybe the event was also meant to get the attention of any prospective buyers as well.

We appreciate this approach to art and remembering forgotten places. We like the arts for the different perspective they shine on life and for the experience of encountering something that is beautiful. Yulia and I also appreciate old architecture and think that there are many places with character that are worth saving. 

We were very excited to go to this festival because the arts and old architecture are right up our alley. Unfortunately, we were a little put off right from the start. Upon entering the jam factory a security guard wearing a black Right Sektor uniform stopped us and asked what we were there for. Considering all the fliers posted on the front of the building and the entrance, we were confused. It's not like we had just traipsed onto a military base. We told him we were there for the festival. He directed us to a woman with dreadlocks who pointed us in the direction of the art gallery. 

The experience killed the mood to a small extent, but the artwork there truly was fascinating, if not beautiful. 

The space around the artwork was as interesting as the artwork itself in many cases. 

We decided to skip the workshops and leave early because we came there hungry. The fliers and website advertised that there would be food there, but we didn't see any. The presence of the Right Sektor guards did not help either. Their constant cursing as they talked among each other created a negative atmosphere.

We left with mixed feelings. The artwork was of high quality. The mural in one of the main rooms is probably one of the best I've ever seen. Whereas many murals seem to just be paint on top of a facade, this one seemed to fit the wall as if it was always a part of it. 

Many pieces and installations seemed to have involved a lot of hard work--but the results were fantastic. 

The photography especially stood out to me. It seemed like something I've seen before, but innovative at the same time.

On the other hand, Yulia and I are starting to lose faith in festivals and events. In many cases we feel like we are crashing a private party. Many festivals are very well advertised, but it seems that when we go to them, something is amiss. Maybe this festival was supposed to be more about the workshops. Maybe we were supposed to know through our friends that the food was only supposed to be served at a certain time. It just feels like something is missing when we attend such events. 

Later in the day we went to Ploshcha Rynok, Lviv's main square. Ploshcha Rynok is always bustling with activity, but I realized something interesting about it. At the center of the square is Lviv's city hall, the home of politicians and bureaucrats. Despite the building's seeming conservative, buttoned down quality, it felt freer there than at the abandoned building occupied by art and artists we were at earlier.

What am I missing here? Is it me or is the art movement not quite what it should be? Or should I be focusing on something completely different? Perhaps the difference between public and private spaces (the city square versus an abandoned building in this case)? I'm left feeling confused by this quirk in the culture, but all in all am glad that we went to this event.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Reflections on hired workers and installing a new roof


The old concrete slate roof

The new roof

After about a week of work, Yulia and I are done with changing our roof. We just finished cleaning up the remainder of the shingle packages, old pieces of roof, and a stray baggie from bacon flavored snack chips thrown off to the side.

You may be wondering, "Hey, Michael and Yulia, I thought you don't eat bacon flavored snack chips. And why would you just throw the wrapper on the ground instead of a proper trash receptacle? That seems unlike you. What's going on over there?"

If you are thinking this, then you are correct. Even though it feels like we just got through a long ordeal, we actually hired three men to come and change our roof for us. We learned some things after going through this experience. Here are our thoughts and reflections.

Culture clash

Whenever we have locals come over to our little sanctuary, there is inevitably some culture clash. This usually stems from the same sources: bossiness, smoking, littering, and not answering questions. We are getting fed up with these same problems arising every time we invite somebody to our place, so this may be the last time we hire people to help us with our house.

Just before the workers arrived on the first day, Yulia and I were joking that the roofers wouldn't even bring their own ladder. When they arrived, their very first question was, where is your ladder? It turned out that they didn't have their own car, so bringing a ladder by bus would be impossible. That's fine I guess, but this is something that we should have talked about when the boss came out for the consultation. He could have easily explained that they don't have a vehicle and asked if we had a ladder. Isn't that the point of a consultation?

We've become used to people coming here and expecting just what they need to be here waiting for them. When surveyors came--unannounced--to measure our land for the bureaucracy, they demanded that I bring some stakes to put at the corners of the property--no, not those size stakes, but those size stakes. Make sense? No? Good. Quick hurry up. You can't be busy with your own things right now.

These same bossy men smoked cigarettes and threw the butts on our property when we weren't looking. I can't imagine going to a stranger's house unannounced and then throwing trash on the ground for them to pick up. This mentality represents the epitome of Ukrainian male culture that we have absolutely no respect or patience for.

The roofers were a little better than this. Only one of them smoked. When he lit up on the first day I gave him a bowl for the butts and asked that he smoke on the street and not near our house. He seemed to comply, but Yulia then saw him smoking by the house about an hour later. "We already asked you nicely to not smoke here," she said. He got the point. Almost.

We suspected that he snuck cigarettes in while working on the far side of the house on a couple of occasions. Yulia said she though she smelled smoke a number of times. We found an empty pack of cigarettes on the ground on the neighbor's side after they left.

It's not so much that he was smoking, but that he was going behind our backs. Yulia says this made here feel like the principal at a middle school with kids sneaking cigarettes when the adults weren't looking. It is kind of pathetic. What's worse than this man's addiction or his smelling up our house is the idea that he was trying to do something against the rules without getting caught. It makes us wonder what else the workers were doing while we weren't looking. Even though this man is much older than us, his maturity level is still that of a boy's. As I said earlier, it's a part of Ukrainian male culture, but it's not a culture of men.

I've already mentioned the bacon flavored snack chips and the pack of cigarettes on the ground, but there were more instances of the workers leaving garbage behind without cleaning up after themselves. The workers would eat lunch on the patio and then leave behind their refuse when they were done. I found a peeled onion in the bucket I use to mix lacquer in.

It's not so much that these men left their trash at our place, but that they didn't even ask where to put it. A simple, "Do you guys have a place we could throw out our garbage?" would have sufficed.

But the workers weren't adept at asking or answering questions. About half way through the job I began to ask them if there were enough materials to finish the job (Yulia and I were providing all the material). I explained that we didn't have a car, so if we needed to buy anything else, we would have to know ahead of time so that we could make arrangements. They repeatedly assured us that, yes, there were enough materials.

On the second to last day one of the guys tells me that there would not be enough tar paper to finish: "There's not enough, so think of something," he told me and then walked away.

I spent the rest of the day on the phone with Yulia and Yulia's dad trying to figure out how to get the materials out to our house by the next day. In the end we brought them here. We had to buy shingles from a different brand, and they didn't quite match the original ones.

Because of this we asked if they could take the shingles from our outdoor shower and use them on the roof (they only needed five pieces). They said that it would not be possible to do that and used the new ones. The new shingles didn't look quite right with the old ones, so the next morning after they finished I took a few shingles from the shower and put them on our roof and was satisfied. If you want something done right, you've got to do it yourself--even if you're not a specialist.

This is why this was the last time we will hire someone to work on our house.

The positive side

To be positive, it was good that we changed our roof for several reasons.

The old roof was leaking in several places. There were many buckets in the attic to remedy these leaks. But the wooden frame was rotten in several places, so it was obviously time to change the roof and fix these problems. Asphalt shingle roofs have several layers and are much warmer than the concrete slabs that were up there before. We hope that this will translate to a warmer, drier house in the winter, which hopefully leads to a prolonged life for the house itself.

We also wanted to get rid of the old concrete slab roof because, as Yulia put it, it is the rural analog to the grey apartment blocks of the city. We want to bring a new energy to the village and think that ridding the physical environment of reminders of the Soviet past is a big part of this.

I was talking with Yulia's grandmother recently, and she gave me an example of just how pervasive corruption was even during the late Soviet period. A lot of the materials for houses from the late 1970s, for example, were sold by men from larger towns where major construction was happening. The men would "skim" bricks, concrete, metal, and roofing from these construction projects and sell them to villagers building houses, pocketing the cash they made from this for themselves.

This happened on a large scale. There are literally thousands of such houses around these towns. To think that they were all built this way is appalling. What kind of values did this teach to the buyers and sellers? What kind of relationship did it teach them to have with stealing? What did that teach buyers to think of sellers? That someone selling something is always suspect?

When I first came to Ukraine several years ago I tried to be open minded about the Soviet past. I hoped that the horrors of the Soviet Union were inflated and exaggerated because of Stalinist times. As an American, I thought it right to be open minded and aware that a lot of what I heard about the USSR might be distorted. Unfortunately, the more I learn about it, the more I realize just how nefarious the whole Soviet project was and how it traumatized the people and culture here. I understand that to pro-Soviets the USSR meant jobs, modernization, and pride, but there are other places in the world that have these things without resorting to what the Soviet Union resorted to.

Even though changing our roof is a drop in the ocean, we'd like to be a part of change in Ukraine's countryside--no matter how small that part is. We want to create new practices, norms, and traditions while holding on to those that make sense to us.

We've never done something like change a roof in the States, so we don't know how similar our experience would have been to one in America. Even if our experience is typical in America, we want something better for Ukraine. Yulia and I think that selfishness, cynicism, laziness, and inaccuracy are traits of a dying culture and that something needs to replace those traits. With the war in the east and a new political culture, maybe these old ways will begin to melt away even faster.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

What is cob?

It was originally our plan to buy a piece of land and build a house on it. We wanted to build a house that had a low cost, was made out of natural materials, and that would be possible to build ourselves.  Because of these reasons we were set on building what is known as a cob house.
A cob house with a live roof

In short, a cob house is made out of sand, clay, and straw. The materials are all mixed together when wet and then put together in a desired form (wall, fireplace, etc.) to dry and harden. It is a natural analog to concrete. Whereas concrete is made with sand, cement, and steel; cob is made with sand, clay, and straw. The sand makes up most of the mass in both cob and concrete, the clay/cement acts to bind the sand together, and the straw/steel  provides tensile strength. The upside to concrete is that it is waterproof. If you made a sidewalk out of cob it would turn to mud after the first rain. The upside to cob is that it circumvents the need for cement factories which are one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. A good roof is all that is needed to protect a cob wall--even in the temperate rain forest of Oregon.

We wanted to build out of cob not only because it is natural, but because we think cob houses can be very beautiful. Cob walls can be curved and sculpted into many different non standard forms.
Yulia standing by a garden wall

The foundation for a cob house is quite simple. The kind Yulia and I learned about during a seminar at the Cob Cottage company is known as a rubble trench foundation. It’s pretty much what the name implies--a trench with rubble in it.
A rubble trench. The pipe is for drainage.

A stem wall is then placed on top of the rubble trench foundation. It can be made out of brick, stone, or even broken pieces of sidewalk.
A stem wall made out of old concrete slabs

You then mix up the sand, clay, and straw and put it on top of the stem wall. 
An unplastered cob wall in the making

One way of doing this is to make balls out of the wet materials and then make a monolithic wall ball by ball. The balls are also known as cobs (from Old English meaning a lump or rounded mass (according to The Hand Sculpted House)) and should ideally be about the size of a cobblestone.
The "Laughing House" at the Cob Cottage Company in Oregon

One of cob’s more well known cousins is adobe. To make adobe you mix sand, clay, and straw and put it into forms to make bricks. You then sun dry those bricks, stack them to make a wall, and add plaster.
A centuries old adobe building in Taos, New Mexico

This blog post just scratches the surface when it comes to cob. There are many nuances, skills and tricks to know when building with cob. Many books and websites can be found on the topic. Probably the most comprehensive text on cobbing is The Hand Sculpted House. I say this because it is not only a good how-to book, but also because of the authors’ personal philosophy which comes out in the writing:
Congruent with developing an essentially new construction system and a gentler approach to creating buildings, we have attempted to manage our individual and collective lives in a manner consistent with our values. All of this needed to be reflected in this book, otherwise none of us would feel honorable. In committing to publication we must take responsibility for every tree that was cut to make this paper, the fuel for transport, chemicals in printing, and the seemingly inevitable toll of tiny lives that are extinguished by commerce and industry. We hope this book is valuable enough to more than offset these costs. The dividends in changes of attitude, creation of more opportunities for ecological buildings, and diminution of environmental damage all need to be great, or we have merely contributed to the problem. So, borrow a copy if you can (ask your local public library to order it) or if you can’t, buy a copy for your library to lend out, knowing that this way you can read the book whenever you want. [quoted from the introduction]

I quote at length here because I feel this is one of the most important passages from the book, and, if you haven’t noticed, it hardly addresses the topic of cobbing at all. The authors include themselves in the text as whole people, not just as experts in cob. They outline their personal philosophy which supports their promotion of cob and the writing of the book. Although Yulia and I are not as eloquent as the authors of The Hand Sculpted House, we feel similar about our blog and our little project of moving to a small village in Ukraine.  

We realize that our blog is not ecological in the strictest of terms. Our laptop was made by exploited workers using plastics and rare earth minerals mined by people who also suffer from appalling working conditions. We use non renewable energy just to write and store our blog of the internet. Also, you could look at a picture of me mixing cob and criticize me for wearing a bathing suit made out of synthetic fabric. We just had an asphalt shingle roof installed on our house.

Yulia and I hope that you can see past the compromises that we make and notice that we are doing our best to move in a certain direction. We make no claims be at the end point and have "all the answers." We write this blog to share what we think is valuable information and a valuable philosophy. Use your mind as a filter. We hope that you find at least some use to the things we talk about so that the compromises that we have made have been worth it. The cement industry is one of the largest producers of greenhouse gas. Even if we have convinced you to use clay in lieu of one sack full of cement, it's a move in a positive direction.