Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Myths and stereotypes about Ukraine that we hear OVER AND OVER

Yulia and I have heard many myths and stereotypes about Ukraine over the years. We've tried ignoring them because most of these myths and stereotypes tend to annoy us, but when you are constantly reminded of them anytime you hear an outsider talk about Ukraine, it's hard not to react. Here's our take on these myths and stereotypes.

1. The harsh Ukrainian winter

A lot of people refer to winter in Ukraine as the "harsh Ukrainian winter." I just watched a travel video about Ukraine, and the blogger recommends that you wear special rubber bands with wires around your shoes in winter so you don't slip on the ice.

I'm not really sure why the cold winter gets emphasized when we have pretty hot summers here too. Our last two winters have been milder than the winters they've been having back home in Pennsylvania (a mid-Atlantic state!), and I never heard of anybody wearing special rubber bands with wires in Pennsylvania. We had snow a few times last winter, but there were also many above freezing days in December, January, and February.

The truth is that this is a temperate climate. A lot of the country is even warmer than our city of Lviv. It's cold in the winter (below freezing) and hot in the summer (in the 80s and 90s (Fahrenheit) or 30s (Celcius)). Some winters are cold and snowy and some are mild, almost without any snow.

I understand though. If you come from a warmer area, winters like this will feel cold--obviously. And Ukraine seems far away, so a lot of people are tempted to make it sound exotic in one way or another. But there's no need to over hype it. Yes, it snows more here than it does in southern California. But it's somewhere between that and the North Pole.

2. There are no cities in Ukraine.

When Yulia lived in the States someone asked her if there were big cities like Milwaukee, Wisconsin in Ukraine. Yulia thought about downtown Milwaukee's empty streets and parking garages. The downtown in her hometown of Lviv is full of people all the time and has beautiful historic architecture.

A deserted backwater hamlet in Ukraine
Here's the same deserted village in the midst of the harsh Ukrainian winter. The cold weather and snow keeps everyone trapped in their primitive homes. Notice the lack of parking garages. Ukraine's a really backward place! Don't forget to pack your rubber bands with wires!

3. Be careful of the criminal element

Before I came to Ukraine I was very concerned about pick pockets, swindlers and the like. I was suspicious of every person I met and spoke as little as possible so as not to get involved with any potentially shady characters. Unfortunately, I made myself miss out on some good experiences because I was too busy being paranoid.

There are millions of people here. There are a few bad apples, but most people have been really helpful to me--especially if I come out of my shell and talk. If you are at a store and need help with something, don't try to hide your accent or foreignness. The person you are talking to will probably notice anyway. Just be direct about what you need and people are usually pretty good at helping you out. Yes, Ukraine is poorer than, say, America. But there are a lot of people here who just want to work and have a normal, stable life. Allow them to do so.

If you are on the street, most people are not pick pockets. If someone is visibly drunk, don't talk to them. Otherwise, use street smarts. Yulia and I speak English to each other most of the time in public. We'll speak quietly and switch to Ukrainian in the presence of others. We've never had any run ins with petty crime.

4. Farming technology is outdated here

We took this picture a few weeks ago.

Those one and a half story combines go for hundreds of thousands of US dollars used.

Of course, locals also use simpler, more antiquated forms of technology as well. Many of our neighbors till their land with a horse and plow. If it's cheaper for your neighbor or relative to do it with his horse, then people will choose that.

We've also seen some people ride around their gardens with small personal tractors. There's no one way to farm or garden here. The truth is, Ukrainians use a range of different technologies, but that does not mean the whole country is still in the 19th Century.

5. The Women are Beautiful

To people who think this, I have one question: Really??

This is, of course, a positive stereotype, but, even though it's positive, I have to question it. The general idea of it stinks of eugenics to me--that an entire nation of women is beautiful because of their genes.

Could this phenomenon perhaps be social? I'd be more willing to buy that. One thing Yulia and I have noticed is that men in Ukraine are less than desirable. They tend to have bad attitudes, swear, drink and smoke. Don't get us wrong, not every man is like this, but a lot are. Maybe a lot of women are just tired of seeing the same kind of men and have become open to foreigners who visit the country. Perhaps foreign men also like the way that Ukrainian women dress, do their hair, and do their makeup. Maybe a lot of them like Ukrainian gender roles. I think it's most likely a combination of factors.

But are they "naturally" more beautiful? Umm, does that mean some nations are smarter because of their genes? Are some nations morally superior? This can get dangerous quickly.

Unfortunately, I guess this is a "thing" now, so, as a man, I just want to ask that other men please respect Ukrainian women and not objectify them. When you objectify Ukrainian women, you are objectifying my wife, my friends, and my family. Treat them with the respect and humanity that you would want your wife and female friends and family treated.

If you really think they are the most beautiful women in the whole world, treat them as the goddesses you make them out to be. Learn to be a better man. Get rid of your cynical attitude. Lose your beer belly. Quit smoking. And then treat her as the goddess she is.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Water: We like it clean.

The weather last month was no less than tropical over here: hot and humid. And we loved it! In the morning we would fill a metal basin with well water and let it soak in the sun rays for a few hours.  Sometime before or after lunch, the tepid water from the basin was poured all over our bodies to cool and clean us. This simple ritual makes for a quick, refreshing break, much needed in hot weather. 

Washing outside, or rather in an outside shower cabin, has become our permanent place and way of washing here. Most people, when introduced to the idea of washing outside without any running water, find it bewildering. But how do you do it? Aren't you cold? You must not use soap and do it very quickly. These are some of the questions we are frequently asked. We also didn't think it was possible to wash outside year-round. Keep in mind, western Ukraine is no land of a wild parakeet. Here in the Lviv area during the winter time, although rare, the temperatures can drop as low as -20 C (- 4 F).

Last winter, during the Ukrainian Christmas we had the coldest night of the year -- it went as low as -22 C (- 7 F). By the time we came back from my grandparents' house, who we spent the holidays with, it was 10 o'clock at night. Our house greeted us with its cold stupor. We were exhausted (it takes about an hour to get to our house from the grandparents') and still needed to light the wood burning pichka, our only source of heat. By the time we had a chance to warm up the house and heat some water on the stove for washing, it was pushing 1 am. While waiting for my turn to go wash, I was dozing off on the coach. Making my way to the shower cabin outside I was half-asleep, already. The air was still and fresh, but I can't say that I was freezing or even cold. I washed quickly, since I was tiered and wanted to go to bed as quickly as possible. On the way back to the house, I glanced at the thermometer we have hanging on the patio. It read 22 below 0, Celsius that is. Wow...really? Yes, I expected it to be cold, but I have never expected to be outside washing in those freezing temps. This was the coldest temperature I've ever washed in under an open sky. During our first winter here, last year, there were a few occasions, when I said -- forget about it, I'm not washing outside. Although, Michael still did. This winter was different, I washed exclusively outside.

Actually, the main element that makes it too chilly to wash out is the wind. At times, the winds here can be quiet ferocious and make washing in the shower cabin less than an enjoyable experience. But, definitely, not impossible. A few times during the winter I even got the urge to rub snow on myself after washing. I know, to most people it sounds insane. But I simply felt like doing it and not only was it refreshing, but it was super energizing, as well. Michael and I have realized (this time, in practice) that we are capable of so much more than we're used to doing. And most of us may never even find out what our true potential as humans is, unless we let go of our dogmas. 

Even though our well water is clean and safe enough to drink or cook with (at least, we're still alive with no visible side effects), we opt for spring water as our everyday staple. We've mentioned our local spring on this blog more than a few times already, but it really deserves all this attention and more. We're extremely grateful to have this clean source of wild water so near home. It takes less than five minutes to get to our spring. And once we're there, this tiny sanctuary of nature amidst the village, feels truly serene. The majestic evergreens encircle the spring area with a green wall, summer and winter time alike. The air there always feels fresher and cooler; a perfect spot to sit down and relax. 
             The spring in our village. I'm not sure if we have ever mentioned this, but our dog Toma is very much afraid of water and will not get inside the spring water pool or even drink from it.
 We visited it on an especially hot day to take a dip. The water that comes out is chilly. 
 Very refreshing, indeed. On hot days, the spring is filled with kids coming to soak their feet. It's not apparent on this picture, but to the right there are two draining pipes, which bring the water to the stream below. 

This is another spring on the way to our home from Lviv. It's located right of off the highway and is rather popular with visitors. We call this spring "Virgin Mary Disco Star"! Wondering why?

If you look at this picture, you may notice a whole lot of decor. This photo was taken during Christmas. The community even set up a Xmas tree inside and added more flashing lights around the area. Of course the tree and all of the lights are not there year round, but everything else does stay: the plastic flowers, a single strain of lights and the neon pink concrete fence. Even when we don't stop at the spring to get water, we can clearly see it flashing on the side of the highway while driving. And, yes, the Virgin Mary. She is hiding in that white brick chapel. Either way, we're grateful to the local community for setting up and adorning this spring.

This is another spring set up in the village next to ours. We're actually part of the same village hall. Now, this decor we do admire. Recently we were told by one of the man from our village that because of the drought we're having, the water in the spring has dried up. It's probably temporarily, though.

The picture below depicts the spring in Bayview, Milwaukee (Wisconsin, USA) where we would go to get our water when we lived in the area. It is called the Iron Well, for it has a high iron content.

This covert spring was shown to us by Chris, the local farmer in South Carolina, when we volunteered at his organic farm.
   I love how it's situated in a woodland and is encircled with rocks. It looks magical.

This is at Mount Shasta, another spot we visited while traveling along the west coast of the U.S. I believe we were traveling north from California to our next farm in Oregon. The spring is surrounded by picturesque views.  

This little spring was found during our trip to central Ukraine a few years ago, in Cherkasy region, where my grandma is from. We think that it belongs to the monastery that we saw not too far away from the spring. Nevertheless, we were especially joyful to discover it on our long walk through the woods heading to a festival at a local eco village. 

I won't get into a long discussion about how important having clean water is. I trust that every conscience human being is well aware of all the benefits and is able to make his/her own choice therein. Clean water is important to us and we choose to act accordingly.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Neighborly relationships (and our dog)

By Michael

Our dog, Toma, is as sweet as pie to Yulia, me, and any friends or family that come to visit. She's never barked or bitten us the whole two years we've had her. If you are a neighbor or a stranger, on the other hand, you will hear her wrath.

Our neighbors hear it on a regular basis. Occasionally, they'll make a comment like, "He's so aggressive [Toma's a she]." Or sometimes they plead with her: "Why are you barking at me? It's alright. It's alright."

We've tried training her, and we've tried distracting her. Unless I'm petting or scratching her ear, she will be at the front gate barking as someone passes by our house. It's annoying, but most people deal with it.

Since Toma's pen is at the front of our property next to the road, I've always been concerned that someone might try to hurt her. I watch especially closely when men riding horses go by cracking their whips.

A couple weeks ago, Yulia and I were out back and just happened to be watching when a horse and cart went by. One of the boys (late teens, early twenties) sitting in back had some small apples in hand and actually tossed them at Toma as he went by.

"Did you see that??" I asked Yulia.


"What should we do about it?"

We talked about it a while and decided that we wouldn't say anything this time, but if it happened again, we would speak up. When I heard them returning a few minutes later I went up front to see if that boy would bother Toma again. This time he had the reigns and whip in hand. As he went by and Toma started barking, he flicked the whip in Toma's direction.

In return, I whipped open the front gate. "Зупиніть ! ... ЗУПИНІТЬ!! [Stop! ... STOP!!]"

He actually stopped. Never mess with Toma when I'm around.

"Що це за робота!? [loosely--What's this all about!?--a phrase I've heard older men use to reprimand kids when they're angry]"

"I didn't hit her." He knew he wasn't in the right.

"I don't care! She's a dog, not one of your horses!"

Our dialogue didn't continue for long. His older brother chimed in, "He's right. What did you do that for? ...We're sorry. It won't happen again. We're sorry."


A couple days ago their mom was walking by as I was working on the house up front.

"You're house looks like it's from a fairy tale. Very nice."

"Thank you. That's very nice of you to say."

"It's like a fairy tale. A lot of people go for a modern look, but this is much nicer."

I'm holding Toma at bay by scratching her floppy ears. She begins to walk away, but then turns around.

"Smart, isn't she?"

"Yeah, she understands what's going on."

"My older son told me that my younger son was tossing something at her. I told him if he did that again that I would throw something at him. I said that it was stupid to do that because that'll cause her to bark even more."

"Of course. I think she's mainly barking out of fear."

"She's being a good guard dog. It's not a bad thing."


I'm glad I stood my ground that day and defended Toma, but also glad I didn't go out and antagonize the whole family. They actually came in on our side. When you need to lecture adults...especially neighbors...especially when you're not as familiar with the language as they are, it's a tough line to walk.

If you ever find yourself moving into a tightly knit, small community and being the outsiders like Yulia and I, you may find this little anecdote helpful. Know that you are coming from different worlds. Exercise patience and restraint, but know when it is time to hold your ground.