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.


  1. Hi Michael and Yulia, greetings from Poland! It sounds like your roof project is completed and that must be a relief. I'd like to invite you to join our facebook group, Expat Bloggers - Europe.

  2. Another good reason for replacing the roof: Until recently, corrugated concrete roofing sheets usually contained asbestos. The asbestos fibers were added during manufacturing mainly to strengthen the concrete. The asbestos can not leech out, so these types of roofs are not usually hazardous, unless they are broken which can then release concrete/asbestos dust. You can not tell just by looking at intact sheets if they contain asbestos, but in older homes in central Europe just assume they might and treat the material appropriately.

    1. Yes, we have heard of the asbestos issue, but didn't know much about it. Thanks for the information!

      If the sheet was broken a long time ago is it still hazardous? Or does the dust literally have to be in the air for it to be harmful?