Friday, January 16, 2015

Ukrainians and their gardens

Yulia and I like to write about our own garden here on our blog, but in doing so we realize that we may take the focus off other Ukrainians who are just as passionate about their gardens. So here are some pictures of people's gardens we've seen around Ukraine.

This is a view from Yulia's parents' kitchen window. Their neighbors have a very diverse garden, and it creates a beautiful view for us!

Here is another view of the same garden. A small paradise in the midst of the big city. The neighbor is quite the morning person. We often hear splashing water at 6 am. It is the neighbor who starts every day by pouring a bucket of cold water over his head!

When I first arrived at Yulia's grandparents' house, I was greeted by a bush of luscious red berries by the front gate. I found out they are called red currants, something I rarely, if ever, saw in America. I liked that I could grab a handful for myself whenever I walked past them--such easy access to food!

Here is a garden path by their house. There is a grape growing on the trellis on the left and a cherry plum tree on the right. I had never tried cherry plums before moving to Ukraine. They are delicious! 

I went on a walk on my second day in Ukraine and was amazed by a landscape totally different than that of the United States. People had gardens all around their houses. In the photo above, you can see potatoes, beans, and corn.  "If Americans lived like this," I thought," they would be considered hippies, back-to-the-landers, or homesteaders." 

The outskirts of many villages are made up of private garden plots. Yulia's grandfather grows hay for his cow on his. In July Yulia and I helped him make haystacks.

And even father away from the village farmers grow crops on a large scale. 
If you look over the crest of the hill in the last photo, you can see the tops of high rise apartment buildings. When he was middle aged, Yulia's grandfather had the opportunity to move into one of those apartments for free because of his job in town. Many people in Ukraine do not see much value in a village lifestyle. They jump at such opportunities to be closer to "civilization." 

This was not the case with Yulia's grandfather. "I'm not moving there just so I can stand in line for bread everyday," he argued. He is the kind of person that you cannot separate from his land.While I do not want to paint an overly rosy picture of gardening or village life, it does not mean that they are a misery for everybody either. There are people like Yulia's grandfather and grandmother who would not trade their garden and their animals for anything.

And that kind of love shows.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A new doorway

Last fall we shared pictures of a home made door we made for our kitchen.

Well, this past fall we changed the doorway once again. The result isn't so much a new door, but a new entryway into the kitchen.

Along with the doorway, you may also have noticed that we changed the light switch. I point it out not only to open up the opportunity for me to brag about all the work it took (it took a day or two of digging and boring through the wall), but also to show how high up in the air the old light switches used to be. Yulia and I often wonder why all the light switches were placed level with an adult's forehead. To keep them out of reach of small children? To use less wire? If any readers know why, please let us know.

Although we are unsure about the old light switches, let us explain about why we made the old door and why we changed it.

We made the old doors using available materials. We have a lot of scrap wood here, so instead of buying wood and dealing with the difficulty of transporting it to our house, I thought I would recycle what we had. Our house was in much rougher shape back then, and we didn't have many places to store things like cat food and cucumbers (strangely enough, our cat, Laska, is crazy about them). We needed a door to keep the cats out whenever necessary.

I enjoyed making the door, and I learned a few things along the way (you can see some rudimentary trimming, a new concept to me at the time, on the bottom half). But since the door was very heavy and imprecisely made, it was not a long term feature for our house (if you would like to read about it, we actually wrote a blog entry at the time we made the door).

We made the arch by first making a wooden frame. We fixed two 1x2 centimeter planks at a 45 degree angle on each corner of the doorway. Then we hung two pieces of chipboard to these planks to create a mold for the clay to dry on.

We put plastic bags under the chipboard, so that it would separate easily from the clay after it dried.

After we removed the chipboard, we smoothed everything out with a layer of clay plaster and painted everything white.

Looking back on them, the pictures of the archway in progress are rough. When you're doing a project like this, it takes a bit of faith that the result will turn out alright. We've learned that this all comes with the territory. When you do it yourself, you have to learn to trust yourself and know when a job requires a little muscle and when it requires accuracy and finesse.

Yulia and I like the hand sculpted look of the archway. It helps soften the harder edges that the other materials of our house have. It's also a nod to the arched window of the old door. It only lasted us a year, but we'll always remember it!

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Postcolonialism and Ukrainian identity

Right now, in the midst of war and annexation in our country, I see a lot of confusion about the very definition of Ukraine. The video below addresses certain aspects of this confusion coming from Russia, which in turn prompts me to consider other ways in which I see outsiders completely misunderstanding  the identity of Ukraine. In this post, I not only want to share some sharp thinking coming from Ukraine, but also want to address some of the duller thoughts on Ukraine that I hear coming from the United States. I'd like to suggest that right now may be a good time for pro-Russian commentators (American, Russian, European) to think about postcolonialism in the Ukrainian context. They should consider their own colonial biases as they grapple with trying to understand the national awakening of a formerly colonized people.

In this video, Zoya Zvynyats'ivs'ka from the citizen's organization "Parental Control" talks about a couple of things that often get overlooked in the national conversation: childhood education and Ukrainian identity.

She takes on the myth of the vyshyvanka (a traditional embroidered shirt) wearing villager depicted in her children's school books and argues that modern children can't relate to the people depicted in these books because, basically, this is not the Ukraine they see in the world around them:

"What bothers me about the school book is the image of the world that it portrays to children. Ukraine is a paradise where there are white houses with cherry orchards. Ideal families live there. Father is in a vyshyvanka. Mother is in a vyshyvanka. The children are in vyshyvankas. Mother is always cooking food or washing the dishes. Modern notions about a woman's role in society are not there...It portrays a world that is not the world they know, and that is why it does not interest them."

From experience I can attest to the importance of children's books reflecting a student's personal reality. As an undergraduate doing field work at an inner city school in the city of Boston, I saw the dramatic difference that appropriate teaching material can make. Most of the time I watched and attempted to help as the teacher struggled to get her students to sit still and take standardized tests.

If you are unfamiliar with public schools in America, you may not know that teachers and schools are evaluated and allotted money according to how well they perform with regard to standardized tests. The schools in the most impoverished areas--like the school I was at--suffer the most from this system. The students are at a disadvantage to begin with (because of their race and poverty) and are punished with a lack of funding because they continue to do poorly on these standardized tests. The tests don't reflect their everyday lives, and, as a result, the students do not engage with the tests on any meaningful level.

On the other hand, when it came time to read, we had more freedom with what to do. The students would completely transform whenever I would read a book that dealt with the subject of being black in America. They would sit on the carpet in the reading area with rapt attention as I read to them. They were naturally eager learners with a strong, curious spirit! All they needed was something that related to their own reality.

This parallels Zvynyats'ivs'ka's point about school books not reflecting the modern Ukraine that children know. She argues that her child's school books not only portray a rural lifestyle to urban children, but that children are being taught as if they are living in the invented world of the Soviet imagination:

"This is an imperial image of an ideal Ukraine. This is how they understood Ukraine from Moscow. People who live in Ukraine knew the whole time that this was not so. But if you live in Moscow you know that there is a warm country known as Ukraine. Pumpkins grow on the trees there. The people are beautiful. They wear vyshyvankas. The women and girls are beautiful. Ruddy faced children live there. That's how Ukraine was portrayed in the imperial imagination."

She wants the school system to turn its focus to reflecting the post industrial information age that we currently live in. While the image of the idealized villager portrays a fictional Ukraine to students, so does romanticized industrialism. Zvynyats'ivs'ka contends that romanticized industrialism (which she also sees in school books) is just as foreign to most students. Math problems that ask students to count how many refrigerators a factory produces a day further depict a fictional and one dimensional Ukraine:

"The heroes of Soviet labor are no longer relevant. There are workers who work in production. I understand this. But they are no longer the norm in today's society."

Here is an example that she says better depicts today's reality for children:

"A laptop's battery lasts four and a half hours. How many children will be able to write a term paper on Taras Shevchenko's paintings, if, for each essay, a child needs one and a half hours?"

Simple enough. However, she says that when she proposes her thoughts to the Ministry of Education, they understand maybe 50%  of what she is saying. Furthermore, they come up with lame excuses that exemplify just how antiquated their thinking is:

"'What kind of example is this setting? Children cannot look at the screen of a laptop for more than twenty minutes because their eyes will start to hurt.' I respond, 'The cathode ray tube is long gone. Right now there is something called liquid crystals.' They just look at me and say, 'Huh??'"
Zvynyats'ivs'ka has some great thoughts on how to transform Ukraine starting with children's books. Children's books, after all, are written by adults and reflect the mindset of those adults. Sadly, they've internalized the biases of Russian colonialism. Many of the people in power in Ukraine have succumbed to the subaltern status of all things Ukrainian and continue to conceive of Ukrainian identity as trivial and inferior.

Unfortunately, the Russian imperial imagination is not the only distorted view of Ukraine that outsiders have. Since the crisis in Ukraine started, uninformed Americans have been coming out of the woodwork with their opinions on why the United States should not help Ukrainians.

They don't realize it, but they see the wider world from the point of view of a colonizer. They use terms such as sphere of influence (as in "Ukraine is within Russia's sphere of influence") and proclaim that Ukraine shall be a buffer zone. The latter is particularly troubling and illustrates the colonial mindset of those Americans. To say a country is a buffer zone is to say that it is an empty space of no consequence. To an octopus, for example, the American continent is a buffer zone between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. An octopus need not bother with all the facts and nuances of the terrestrial world in between. The same is true for these skeptics.They see the world as a collection of colonizers like themselves. On the radio last week, I heard a caller open his comment with the remark, "We need to look at this from Russia's point of view." Excuse me? This is all happening in Ukraine. What about trying to look at it through Ukraine's point of view? When it comes to understanding the world from the point of view of a colonized people, they are like fish out of water.

Ukraine is home to 44 million people. It is the largest country entirely in Europe. Dismissing the thoughts and opinions of all those people is insulting. I centered this blog post on Zvynyats'ivs'ka's interview to show that Ukrainians have (surprise!) their own thoughts on how they want to live. But even more interestingly, people like Zvynyats'ivs'ka are beginning to define an emerging academic discipline focused on postcolonialism in Ukraine. The idea that the conflict here is a struggle between the United States and Russia is misguided, antiquated, and--honestly--creepy in this day and age.

Fortunately, most journalists who write about Ukraine have actually been here and understand what is happening. They know Ukraine's history, and they know Ukraine's society. Unfortunately, since they report the same facts about what they see here, skeptical outsiders believe that their thoughts and opinions are part of some sort of media conspiracy controlled by the American government. It's difficult to deal with people so out of touch with reality, but we need to be honest with them and urge these people to deal with their bigotry, racism, and control issues before continuing to contribute to the larger conversation about Ukraine.

Post script:

Literally moments after I finished writing this post, I came across this article on Facebook. It is called "Orientalism reanimated: Colonial thinking in Western analysts' comments on Ukraine." While I approach the subject in a roundabout way, the author, Fabio Belafatti, makes an even more explicit argument about Ukraine and colonialism. It's worth a read.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

З Новим Роком! Happy New Year!

Our Year in Pictures

We spent the last day of 2014 by going on a long walk. The weather was gorgeous. It was cold, but very sunny. 

Our cats, Levko and Laska, also enjoyed being outside

And there is Toma. She always enjoys a good walk. We've been seeing a lot of grey partridges (similar to quails) out in the fields during our walks and Toma likes to play a huntress with them.

We spent the evening eating tasty foods and watching our favorite shows.

Our 2014 was full of renovations:

Our kitchen (before)

Our kitchen (after)
Although, it's not completely finished yet, it's starting to feel like a real kitchen

We added another pichka (wood burning stove) to our house. It made a big difference to have it in our living room. It keeps our house warm and cozy. And the cats love laying around it, pretending they are on the beach.

Ah, yes - we also got a new roof installed on our house.You can read about it here


So many choices!

Fava beans in bloom. Michael's favorite bean!

These tiny green pods are freshly harvested young black chickpeas. They taste amazing and we'll definitely be growing them again. 
Our first tomatoes of the season. We had about 15 different varieties!  We are looking forward to trying out new kinds next season.
I used to dream of being able to make fresh green salads every day. I am so grateful for our garden.
Coriander (cilantro seeds) drying
Our first gooseberries
No-till garden bed full of lettuce, spinach and fava beans.

Beets were planted in early March. The spring arrived early in 2014.

Preparing foods:
In the fall we did a lot of juicing. We used our garden-grown carrots, beets, apples and different greens such as parsley, kale and collard greens. A liter of freshly made juice became our breakfast staple for  some time.
Freshly picked black currents and a green smoothy topped with bee pollen.

Vegan pizza (made from scratch) with home-grown tomatoes, basil, arugula and borage flowers.

Sweet potato vegan brownies (oil-free/refined sugar free).
We found a person in Kharkiv who grows an amazing variety of organic sweet potatoes. Naturally, we had to order some. We're happy to report that his sweet potatoes were some of the tastiest we've had. We'll be buying some from him in the spring to grow in our own garden.
3 patty pans + 1 gill's golden pippin squashes stuffed with quinoa and herbs (vegan/oil-free).

Spending time with our families and friends:

Michael' and his parents meeting their relatives in Lopatyn.
A reunion in Berezhany. 

Michael and Rick discussing  the artwork. Thank you, Rick, for always making a great companion!

And our most favorite things:

Oh, Spring! You make me swoon...
Going on walks ...
... with Toma
Spending time together
Having access to fresh, clean drinking water is very important. We are grateful to have a spring in our village. It is our only drinking and cooking water.
Living on our land makes us HAPPY!

May we all be the creators of a happy new year!

Бажаю всім нам бути творцями щасливого нового року!