Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Home buying and home repair TV shows

One way Yulia and I relax when we're not working is by watching TV. We watch a wide variety of TV shows, but one of our favorite kinds of shows is about home buying and home repair. Since we are in the process of fixing our own house, we are making many design decisions, and we find it enjoyable--even helpful--to see what other people are doing.

We rarely find anybody just like us on TV. But that is a good thing! It makes us think of things that we would not have thought of on our own. On the other hand, we have a hard time watching people who are completely different from us. We find the tastes of home buyers searching for mansions in, say, Beverly Hills to be just too different from our own.

One show that fits right into our "Goldilocks zone" is Buying Alaska. The show is about people searching for houses in the state of Alaska. Admittedly, the show can come off as gimmicky with almost every episode having some rendition of house hunters being startled by outhouses and excited by moose antlers. But we actually like many of the houses featured in the show. Buying Alaska tends to focus on cozy cabins in the woods. Since Yulia and I added a wood burning stove to our living room in November, it just feels right to get warm during the long, cold nights of winter and watch how other people deal with living in even more remote and colder places than we do.

In the above clip, for example, we think the home itself is beautiful. The show's host spends a minute talking about snow stops and catalytic stoves, two things we would have otherwise not known of if we had not watched the show.

In general, the house hunters are interested in living in the great outdoors and, due to the high cost of fresh food in the state, keeping their own gardens. We can relate to that, but we also know we are watching people from a different world when they start to talk about moose hunting and snow mobiles. But this is probably what makes the show interesting to us. It reflects our lives just enough without being an exact mirror of how we live.

Yulia and I are also fans of the British TV show Location location location. The show is filmed in urban and rural places all over Britain, and it documents what it is like to be a buyer and realtor in the country's real estate market. Location location location focuses more on buyer-seller negotiations and is a little less kitschy than Buying Alaska.

The show's hosts, Kirstie Allsopp and Phil Spencer, are playfully competitive with one another. They are each assigned separate home buyers and work hard to find the best house for their respective clients. Their on screen chemistry and pseudo rivalry is charming, and we watch the show as much for them as much as anything else!

Another British show we like is called Restoration Home. Unlike Location location location, Restoration Home is about people who buy and fix up old, historic houses. The show focuses on the trials people have while renovating their houses and follows historians as they research the stories of these forgotten buildings. There are many do-it-yourselfers that Yulia and I can relate to. It's amazing what people can do to a near ruined building when they put their minds to it.

The people on this show face unexpected obstacles, and it's good for Yulia and me to see what it is like to take on such a project in another country. We sometimes feel like we have more problems here in Ukraine than we would have had if we lived in another country. But Restoration Home shows us that this is not always the case. For example, we watched one episode in which building materials and part of a roof was stolen at night during a renovation! They lost hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds from the burglary. Thankfully, Yulia and I have never had anything stolen while living at our new house. It shows us that people have problems everywhere, even in the so called "developed" countries.

On a brighter note, fixing just one house in an otherwise dilapidated neighborhood can bring out the best in the community. Since fixing his home in an impoverished neighborhood in the city of Hull, the owner of the building featured in the episode below says that he feels more respect from his neighbors and a sense of community pride after restoring his house. We can see why. The finished result is beautiful!

Buying and fixing an old house has not only made Yulia and me more interested in watching people do similar things, but more forgiving as well. We've become less nit-picky when we encounter someone building or renovating a home and more interested in learning from their experiences. A house is obviously the most personal architectural space people inhabit, so it makes sense that the people living there decide how it should be. Yulia and I have experienced harsh criticism turned harassment with respect to our own home, and we never want anyone else to have to go through that themselves.

When we see other people's design decisions, from door color to building materials, we usually think about whether or not that would work for us. We often say to each other, "Those kinds of shutters would look good on our windows." Or, "We wouldn't insulate our house that way." But sometimes we don't judge at all. Home buying and repair shows are interesting and entertaining in and of themselves. What do you think? Do you watch this kind of TV? Are there any shows that you would recommend?

Saturday, December 20, 2014

A dark December

These are some of the longest nights of the year, and this winter we are certainly feeling the darkness of those long nights. On a normal day, the lights usually go out around 5pm and come back on around 7pm. Along with the sun, we prepare to say bye to the lights just after sunset.

As you may have already assumed, the power outages continue.

We've begun to rearrange our lives because of the constant power outages. We keep candles all around the house. There's no sense in putting them away because tomorrow will just bring another blackout. We try to finish dinner before five so that we can settle in and relax once the lights are turned off.

When the lights are on, whenever that is, I make it a priority to do lesson planning because you can never know when the lights will go out again.

We have been doing our best to conserve as much power as we can. At night we usually have two lights on, and each bulb takes five watts (10 total). Add that to the 60 watts that our laptop takes (along with the watt or so consumed by the modem) and we burn about 70-75 watts in the evenings.We do not use a refrigerator, and we heat our house using wood burning stoves.

While our power consumption is pretty modest, it turns out that Ukrainian homes consume about 30 percent of all power produced in Ukraine (compared to 22 percent in the United States). Hopefully this will be a wake up call for ordinary people to chip in and do their part to conserve the little energy there is to go around.

On the other hand, I do sympathize with one commenter in the article I cited above. He questions the piece and says that the comparison of domestic energy consumption to other sectors is not appropriate because other parts of the economy have been "decimated." He's also right that, in comparison to US houses, Ukrainian homes are much smaller and have old, thin cables running to them that cannot handle much power: "I want you to go into your house and put everything on a single 25 amp breaker!" Many people already use very little power because that is what they've always done, so it's hard to expect them to use less.

The answer will probably have to come from both personal responsibility and the energy producers' ability to generate power. These are difficult times, but Yulia and I are hoping for the best in the long run.

The war in Donas is distant, but its effects are still noticeable even here deep in western Ukraine. First we heard stories of boys being sent to the east to fight, never to come back. Then the currency plummeted. Now this. How much more can Ukraine take?

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Last week's electricity emergency in Ukraine

I'd like to spend a moment to talk about a national news story that had a big impact on our day to day lives here in our small village--the power outages in Ukraine. We had power outages at home every single day from Monday through Friday, and the one day that we went to Lviv, Yulia's appointment with the dentist was canceled because they had no electricity in that part of the city.

What happened was that a nuclear power plant in Zaporizhya was disconnected from the grid because one of its turbines malfunctioned. It is one of the largest plants in all of Europe, so it's understandable that it caused widespread problems in Ukraine. Thankfully, there was no chance of a radiation leak.

The problem was fixed on December 5th, though coal shortages at other power plants are still a nagging problem for Ukraine.

We've become accustomed to living with less since moving to our new home in the countryside, but these constant power outages were particularly problematic for us. First of all, Yulia and I have had electricity on our minds recently, as we've been rewiring a major chunk of our house, garage, and other outbuildings. On Monday morning the lights went out, but that was not really a problem because I had to switch off the power anyway to wire our bedroom, kitchen, and what will be our bathroom. The power was turned back on in the afternoon. However, after dark, just as I was hiding the wires back behind the wall in our corridor, the lights went out again. I was tired and dirty and there was a pile of dirt on the floor.

As I was cleaning up I noticed a fire raging in the fields behind our house. After looking closer, I could see a power line lit up by the red flames. Yulia and I took our fire extinguisher and cell phone and went to see what was happening. We thought that maybe the second outage was because of the fire. It was burning directly beneath the lines, but there was no damage that we could see. We reasoned that the dry grass caught fire after an irresponsible villager or farmer set their crop field on fire. The fire must have spread from there to the prairie grasses.

Later that evening, the lights came back on. We checked the internet to find out what  was going on. There were a couple mentions about possible power outages, but nothing that relayed the large scope of the problem originating in Zaporizhya, so we didn't think much of it (the articles I cite above were all published later in the week).

The next day the lights went out shortly after we woke up. Yulia and I went to the city for a dentist's appointment, but, as I mentioned, it was canceled because the lights were out there too.

On Wednesday the power went out yet again. I had a lesson with a new student on Skype in the evening and desperately didn't want to miss it so as not to turn off a new client. I work exclusively online now, so having power is essential for our income.

Yulia called the power company to find out what was going on. We were hoping they could give us a schedule of the now routine power outages. When she reached a representative and asked why the power was out and if there was any way to know when it would be turned off, they got disconnected.

When the lights came back on, we checked the internet and found out about the widespread electric grid problems and that the lights could be going off during peak hours (9-11am and 5-9pm).

Just after dark the lights went out again, and I had no choice but to hastily gather my things and drive the hour it takes to get to the city. I needed to be on Skype for my lesson at eight. There was no knowing when the power would come back on.

*     *     *

This problem was most hard on us because we work online and no lights means we can't work. We can deal with the inconvenience of the  lights being out, but the electricity powers much more than just our lights. It was hard on our household economy, and I wonder how hard it was on the national economy. Think of all the banks, internet based businesses, and communications that were affected. We at least know that Yulia's dentist also had problems (and I sure hope no one was in the middle of a painful procedure when the lights went out!).

I'm not writing this post to "complain" about what an inconvenience the power outages were to me. My problems pale in comparison to what Ukraine's energy ministry and our power company were dealing with. Rather, I bring up these problems exactly for the reason that we were not the only ones effected. The hit that the larger economy took because of these power outages is made up of these and many more stories.

Post Script:
The power outages are continuing this week, although for different reasons. The coal shortage in Ukraine is now to blame. The coal shortages were publicized ahead of time. When we got our electric bill, there was even a message on the back stating that power plants are producing 80 percent less energy because of this problem. The coal shortages are due to the disruption in mining and transportation of coal caused by the fighting taking place in Donbas. The news of war is nothing new to us at this point. Yulia and I understood long ago that this war will be negatively influencing our lives and are prepared for the consequences.

We sincerely hope for a swift end to the fighting. At times we think that Ukraine should cut its losses and give up on Crimea and Donbas, and at other times we think Ukraine should fight and retake the territories controlled (however sloppily) by Russian soldiers and pro-Russian terrorists. We are not war strategists and have no influence in the matter, so we won't talk at length about the matter here. We focus more on what is in our purview. We donate food and supplies to help the Ukrainian army, and we think it is our responsibility--and even duty--to be outspoken citizens. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Ukraine and its self defeating behaviors

I was recently told by the director of the English school I work at that I should not tell my students that I am of Ukrainian descent and that I speak Ukrainian. She explained to me that some students are less interested in being taught by ethnic Ukrainians and English teachers who speak Ukrainian. Although their reasoning was not made very clear, I gathered that they consider people like me to not be true native English speakers.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. When I was interviewing for jobs here in Ukraine I was asked by another school how I felt about "lying" to my students. They also found that many students were turned off by Ukrainian speaking English teachers and teachers of Ukrainian descent.

I was initially not bothered by this request. I assured the directors of these schools that I understood that the customer is always right (And I do believe this and generally leave my personal opinions at the door when working as a representative for a company such as a school). I didn't think that this would bother me either. After all, I speak English much better than I do Ukrainian, so it is easier for me to teach using only English anyway.

However, after having tried this out in practice, I have different thoughts on the issue. On my first day, the director walked me into the class to introduce me and said that I speak a little Ukrainian because I am married to a Ukrainian woman. It was harmless enough and, in truth, the class was fine. I didn't suffer trauma or anything like that.

But there's something that doesn't quite sit right with me after the experience, and I suspect that it might be a seemingly innocuous part of a deeper problem.

To start with, I'm not sure what the problem is with an English teacher who has relatives (in my case, grandparents) from Ukraine. I'm a white person from the United States, so it should be obvious that if you go back far enough, I must have family from Europe. Aside from prejudice, why is it preferable that I be of, say, German descent over Ukrainian?

I could understand why a student might want to have a teacher who is a native English speaker. Native speakers have a "feel" for their language that is hard to learn. Of course, there are minuses to native speakers as well. Their feel for correct language usage often makes them oblivious to certain language rules and norms. For example, why is it correct to say "drive in a car," but "fly on a plane?" Why isn't it correct to say, "drive on a car?" In both cases you are inside the vehicle. I listen to the radio show, A Way With Words, and a caller brought up this question to the show's hosts. He was teaching English in Japan, and his students asked him this very question, which he had no idea how to answer because he never noticed this inconsistency before.

And to be honest, I think that the idea that only native speakers can have a feel for a language can sometimes be wrong. Yulia, for example, grew up in Ukraine, but moved to the United States when she was fourteen and spent eleven years there. I consider her to be just as good a speaker of English as I am. She often even prefers to speak, write, or read in English because it is more comfortable for her. She lived most of her adult life in America, so naturally had to learn how to speak professionally in English at work, write complicated thoughts and opinions at the university, and read everything in English. Until she met me she only rarely spoke Ukrainian with friends.

In our everyday conversations with one another we mix Ukrainian and English liberally. We'll say something like, "The cats are sleeping near the pichka." Pichka, as you may or may not know, is the word for masonry heater. Although we both know the word, "masonry heater" we prefer the Ukrainian version. We like the sound of it--peechka--and we consider the things to be Ukrainian (probably because many more homes in Ukraine have them than in the US). Either way, we don't use the two languages as a crutch, but as a way to enhance the way we communicate to one another.

And that is the way I feel about an English teacher knowing a local language. When necessary they can translate something on a dime, but most of the time they naturally stick to teaching in English only. If anything, this should be an asset, not a drawback. Plus, an English teacher who is learning another language understands what it is like to learn a foreign language. They can use the strategies and methods they use for themselves to help mentor their students through their own learning processes.

These are the reasons for why I think it is positive for English teachers to speak the vernacular of the foreign country they live in. I think most people can understand this and probably already agree with me. However, I think the deeper issue involves Ukrainian society and its distrust of itself. Since Yulia and I moved to Ukraine in 2011 we have noticed this issue manifest itself in different places. The most obvious place I saw it was on food and other products. I have seen packaging written partially or sometimes entirely in English. I can only speculate as to why this is the case, but, like my experience in the classroom, I think it may be because of a perceived notion of anything Ukrainian (even the language) being a signal of inferior quality. Perhaps the term, "Premium Quality," is just enough to persuade a customer that they are not being swindled.

Yulia and I experience comments that confirm this as well. We've had neighbors see us on the street near where Yulia's family lives. Most of the time they talk and look exclusively at me. When we ask why they're not talking to Yulia they say that she's Ukrainian and not as interesting. The same goes for when we meet new people. The question we most frequently get asked is, "Life is much better abroad, isn't it?"

Most of this behavior is probably due to just not knowing better. One of my students, for example, just traveled to Poland for an academic conference. She doesn't speak Polish, but expected to use English as a common language while over there. She came back and was surprised that only a few people knew English. She had the impression that, as she put it, everybody in the European Union spoke English. This was very interesting to me. Here in Lviv, we are only an hour drive from the Polish border. This whole part of Ukraine was part of Poland before World War Two and, before the war, Poles and Ukrainians lived together here. Because of shared history and simple proximity I would think that most locals would know the ins and outs of Polish culture well.

I hope this is the beginning of a new learning experience for her. I hope she sees that many of her preconceptions about the fabled progressive EU are not true. I hope she understands that, if one considers English as a sign of worldliness and progress, that maybe she, and even Ukraine, can be more worldly and more progressive than other countries--even from the EU. I got the impression that this was the case during the Euromaidan protests of the past year, and I hope this awareness continues.

Before I conclude I should say that not all English teachers, schools, or students think this way. I have talked with many people who value teachers who know another language. I am also in the process of leaving the school I referenced earlier, so my hypersensitivity to being asked to lie about my heritage may have been triggered by other, more substantial problems I had with the school. Once a few things annoy you about something, it is easy to find other faults that you may not have noticed before. Still, I think this issue is important to write about here, even though I may never bring this up with the school. As someone who genuinely cares about Ukraine and its future I think that the suspicion of all things Ukrainian is ultimately self defeating and needs to be addressed in some way, and I'd like to be a part of that larger conversation.