Sunday, September 14, 2014

A slow learner

I must confess that out of the dozens--maybe hundreds--of pictures that I've taken of Yulia, this series always stands out in my mind. There's something about these photos that captures why Yulia is so special to me.

They are not particularly good pictures. Some of them are blurry. The weather is not great either.

After thinking about it, I've realized that I like them so much because they summarize, fairly accurately, why I love Yulia so much.

After getting married, but before moving to Ukraine, we took a trip to New England. Yulia had never been to this part of the country before, and she wanted to see it before we left.

After living for several years in the vast sprawl of the Midwest, the geographic intimacy of this place was a welcome change. The mountains of New England isolate towns and villages that appear to be neighbors on the map. It was curious to wind our way through the hilly roads and discover quaint farms and historic towns in the tucked away pockets of these small states.

I decided to take Yulia to a bed and breakfast that my parents and I stayed at the summer before I started kindergarten. Some of my earliest memories are from this hotel, and I can still remember things like walking down the narrow staircase to breakfast and seeing the natural rock formation known as the Old Man of the Mountain.

Unfortunately, by the time Yulia and I visited twenty years later, the rock formation had collapsed. The hotel was not as I remembered it either. Instead of putting us in the historic inn, the owners assigned us to an outbuilding that looked like it hadn't been remodeled since the 1970s. It was not part of the 200 year old original inn, but an addition that looked like a run down roadside motel.

After dropping our bags in the room we went back to ask the innkeepers if there were any available rooms in the original bed and breakfast. It seemed as if we were the only guests there. The receptionist asked us if we had already entered the room. We told her that we just put our bags in it. She informed us that since we had opened the door she couldn't give us another room without charging us for the one we already entered.

We went to a nearby lakeside park. The ski trails and swimming area were visible, but it was too warm for the former and too cold for the latter.

But Yulia didn't care that things were less than ideal. She got up on a rock by the lakeside and started to wobble around. She was having a ball even though it was so cold that she had to wear a knit hat in June.

This is Yulia's personality. If something doesn't happen the way we expect or want it to, she finds the bright side. She refuses to let her environment control how much she enjoys something. She believes in making her own fun.

That day Yulia did not care that I didn't provide her the experience of staying at an historic New England bed and breakfast. She was happy to be with me and to serve as a source of entertainment for us on a cold, cloudy day in an empty park.

Even though it was early in our marriage, I should have learned something from her, but I didn't. Several weeks later we were in Ukraine, and I was getting frustrated. We no longer had a car and sweated while standing for hours at a time on crowded, stuffy minibuses traveling from her grandparents village to Lviv on horrifically potholed roads.

We went to the Carpathian Mountains in search of property for sale. The buses there were so crowded one day that we couldn't even board them in order to get from town to our hotel. We took a walk on an abandoned railroad, and I yelled at Yulia. How could we possibly live here? The public transportation was inefficient. It wasn't possible to get around. But these complaints we just the trigger. I let everything pour out. The people around us smelled. People just threw garbage on the ground. Infrastructure, like the railroad, was crumbling. Men just sat around drinking and smoking, not bothering to notice the work that needed to be done all around them. "How could people live like this?" I demanded from her.

"What did you do to make America the way it is? Did you fix the roads there? Did you clean up garbage? Someone else always does these things for you in the United States." I feebly countered that I picked up trash for community service in high school and served for a year in the military when I was eighteen, but when all is said and done, that was just a drop in the ocean.

I did care about making the world a better place. As a graduate student I elaborated on lofty theories in academic essays. I wrote about concrete things like architecture and urban planning thinking that I was making a difference in the real world. I didn't realize at the time that I still had a lot to learn.

It was easy to be negative and to complain that day in the Carpathians. I was taking cheap shots at a disadvantaged country and culture. It was one of my low points.

I've learned that it takes a strong person to be like Yulia. She is much tougher than me in many ways, and her good attitude is misleading. It disguises her toughness. She was trying to teach me something by wobbling around on that rock in New Hampshire, but it took me a long time to learn what. I am, of course, a slow learner.

I'm trying to learn from my mistakes. I can't always put us in positive environments. The world can be dreary and the world can be depressing. Friends betray our trust. People can be cruel. There are some who lie and try to humiliate us. But it is my responsibility as her husband to create a positive atmosphere when that atmosphere is missing. Yulia has done it for me. Now I need to find out how to do it for her.

Right now is an especially trying time for us for many reasons. We're witnessing a lot of changes in the world. Negativity is coming from many places at once. We may be posting less frequently as we navigate through this and focus on taking care of each other. We will also be busy hosting my parents during their visit to Ukraine while juggling several other things. We are eagerly looking forward to welcoming them to our new home.

Until next time, warm regards!