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.

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