Friday, December 30, 2016

A video about our trip to L'viv to see the new Star Wars movie

Here's a video in which we go to L'viv and see the new Star Wars movie. Not much talk about the actual movie though--sorry, hard core Star Wars fans! :) More of a vlog about our day that day!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

MY trip to Bukovel Ski Resort

Here are some pics and clips from my trip to Bukovel, Ukraine. I show what skiing, restaurants, hotels, and roads are like.

I definitely recommend going there!

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Only REAL UKRAINIANS drink rosehip tea!

Only real Ukrainians drink rosehip tea!

Want to be true, authentic Ukrainians like Yulia and me?? Then you MUST brew tea from rosehips and drink it when winter comes 'round!!

Don't drink/like rosehips? Hmph! You're not Ukrainian!!! Ha! Yulia and I are going to put on our vyshyvankas and go eat all the varenyky ourselves!

*    *     *

OK. So I'm obviously just joking about the whole rosehip thing. It doesn't actually make you a real Ukrainian, so put down that cup of tea right now and read this!

'Tis the season in Ukraine to start posting about eating "salo" on social media. Salo, by the way is raw pig fat. Some people consider it one of the quintessential foods in Ukrainian cuisine. It's believed that eating it in winter is especially healthy. Other people will even go so far as to claim that you are not a "true" Ukrainian unless you eat the stuff.

And that makes Yulia and I raise our collective eyebrow.

You see, we have a particular kind of radar for bullsh*t. When people start creating arbitrary rules for membership in a tribe or begin hyping the more macho parts of their identity without actually changing their behavior, we become suspicious.

Yulia and I left what we were doing in America five years ago, not because we wanted to display how patriotic we are, but because we wanted to actually do something good for Ukraine. Similarly, we didn't start this blog just to broadcast cherry picked images and ideas about ourselves. We want to show what we're doing to inspire and network with other people who want to do similar things.

On the one hand, we do think there is some use for symbols--wearing vyshyvkas or flying Ukrainian flags can be great shorthand ways to display to yourself and others that you are a Ukrainian patriot. It says, "I spend my time caring for Ukraine, and this shirt is a symbol of that care I have."  It's like saying "please" and "thank you." These words signal to the other person that you respect them. You don't have to actually respect them to use these words, but that's at least what's supposed to be behind them. It's the same thing with national symbols. Vyshyvankas are not just embroidered shirts. They represent Ukrainian culture--color, care, creativity, beauty, and hard work. If you're wearing one it probably means that you care about at least some of these things.

Unfortunately, for many people, patriotic symbols often become ends in themselves. People will wear vyshyvankas on a holiday, go out for a picnic, and throw their garbage on the ground. This says, "My convenience matters to me more than actually caring for my homeland, and this shirt is an empty symbol that I wear to disguise the fact that I'm doing nothing for the good of Ukraine. I'm just trying to fit in, so leave me alone."

Which brings me to the question: How the hell does eating salo or drinking rosehip tea make you a real Ukrainian? It doesn't, does it? It's just a bullsh*t empty gesture people use to feel better about themselves.

Do us and Ukraine a favor. Save a pig's life and go plant a tree instead. And as you're walking home, pick up the empty bottle of vodka that a "real" Ukrainian threw on the side of the road.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Where were we??

We apologize for not posting on our blog for a long time. Yulia and I were on vacation during the first half of the month. ...And, boy, did we need it! We've been working so hard the past three years (since we moved into our house here) that we just needed the kind of vacation where you sit on a warm beach and do--nothing! And it was great! Just what the doctor ordered!

During our trip to Miami, we got to see my parents and experienced American culture again for the first time in--you guessed it--three years!

We made many observations during our time there. Americans are so friendly and easy to talk to! I forgot just how aware many people are when they are out in public. "I'm sorry. Did I get in your way just now? ... Were you waiting here? I didn't mean to get in front of you." America exports so many things around the world. I wish it could export its common courtesy. Some people--though not everyone by any means--could use it in Europe!

But what stuck out the most--and this isn't a positive reflection--is just how judgmental Americans are of each other. I get the sense that this is mostly among people who don't know one another--in the comments section of newspapers, in politics, social media, etc. It's hard to believe that a group of people can simultaneously be so friendly and so nasty.

Come on, guys! Don't like Trump supporters?? Get to know a few. They're not all walking stereotypes. Don't like people who are too politically correct? Get to know someone who advocates for women's rights or Black Lives Matter. They're not all out to get you. Maybe they just need to be listened to.

I could go on and on. People in America right now seem to really be out to get one another. It seems like every group has its own negative stereotype. Spoiled college students. Isolated country bumpkins. Haughty city slickers.

We think that the most important thing right now is unity. There seem to be a lot of forces working to keep people at odds against one another. But look at what Ukrainians were able to do when they all joined together in the winter of 2013-14 in what is now known as the Revolution of Dignity. They were able to radically change the course that the country was headed in. And Ukrainians did it together.

University students were some of the first people protesting in November of 2013. I didn't hear anyone putting them down for being lazy or feeling entitled. Instead I heard older people praising them for caring so much about the country's future. The protests brought together people from different political parties and persuasions. Different religions. Different ethnicities They didn't even all speak the same language! Ukrainian speakers joined with Russian speakers. Muslims joined with Christians. Right joined Left. East joined with West.

I hope to end on a positive note and hope you find it just as inspiring as I do. Let's see what we can do because of our diversity, not in spite of it!

*     *     *

If you're on Facebook, please be sure to "like" our new MY Pichka Facebook page! We'll post shorter updates there with lots of pictures and short videos:

Here's a video from Facebook that we just shot this afternoon! Enjoy!

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Friday, October 14, 2016

Harvesting Rosehips in the Ukrainian countryside

If you ever need to get out and be "in nature," we recommend picking rosehips. They're ripe this time of year. 

After you pick them, take them home and dry them for storage over the winter. When you want some tea, mash them up and soak them in water.

We've found that an infusion in cold water makes for a darker tea, interestingly enough. To make a cold infusion, put the rosehips in cold water, and place them on a windowsill for 24 hours. After you drink the tea, you can boil some water and make a hot infusion as well. 

If you just want a hot tea on a cold winter day, you can do that as well. 

Rosehips are loaded with vitamins and are great for those times when you don't have any fresh fruit!

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Changing the roof over the future laundry room

We learned that the roof over our future laundry room is leaking. Since we want to insulate that room before winter, we have to re-cover the roof so it doesn't get the insulation wet. The leaks are also causing a lot of rot--and no one wants that!

See our progress after two days in this video!

Sunday, October 9, 2016

First Frost--And hoping for life to slow down

When the temperature drops, the molecules that make up the world around us--the air, water, soil, et cetera--start to move more slowly. Well, this morning (October 6th) we woke up to our first frost of the season. Yulia and I are hoping that, along with the world around us, life manages to slow down as well!

Frosty clover
We've been busy busy busy for the past three years, doing crazy things like digging a pit for our septic tank by hand at night in November! We keep fantasizing about slowing our lives down and enjoying life a little.

Will we be able to pull ourselves out of this pit we've dug for ourselves?? We hope so!

Assessing the frosty morning
We just got through a three day stretch of continuous rain. It's been a while since we've had a soaker like this. My heart sank when, during the storm, I noticed a leak in the ceiling of our future laundry room--now the shed. I knew that the roof of our shed needed to be changed--there's all sort of holes and cracks in it--but I was hoping it would hold out at least until next summer. Unfortunately, one of the concrete shingles cracked in half, and the lower part of the shingle slid down the roof a couple inches, creating a fair sized hole. This leak bothers me because I just put some fiberglass insulation under the ceiling of the laundry room, and now it's getting wet.

These actually aren't the sources of the leak, but three other holes! The entire roof is more or less like this.
I was in the city yesterday, so I got some plywood and shingles to begin the process of re-covering the roof. I planned to attack the project head on this morning, jamming this job in between English classes on a busy day, but I thought to myself: "No. This is the old way of doing things...How about I patch the shingle with a handful of cement for now and start changing the roof when I actually have the time in the next couple of days?" The occasional drip up there is nothing new, and it can wait.

I have no self control! Immediately after writing this I went outside and started removing the old shingles. By the end of the next day the new plywood and roofing underlayment was up.
We hope to change our old pattern of thinking, but it'll take some practice. We need to learn to be OK with resting when we feel tired--even if it's a nice day and there is probably something productive we should be doing.

I was chopping wood for Yulia's grandparents last week during this beautiful sunset.
Sometimes you just gotta stop and look around.

Wish us luck!

Monday, October 3, 2016

Please don't set our things on fire anymore

All Yulia and I ever really wanted was to have a space of our own where we could be left alone. We wanted a piece of land so that we could shape the environment around us. We wanted our home to be a refuge for ourselves and our future children and grandchildren. We didn't expect much out of our neighbors when we first moved here. They didn't have to understand who we are or what we're doing. We just wanted a little peace and quiet on our own territory away from a world that's going mad.

For the most part, things are fine. Our village is mostly abandoned. Many people come here only on the weekends and at peak times during the growing season to tend their fields of potatoes. Most neighbors are very respectful to us--much to our surprise.

But despite this, we still have run ins with their chaotic, backward world. On our second day of living here, a man from the electric company came to our house to get a meter reading. He knocked on the door, waited for two seconds (literally), and then proceeded to walk inside our house. I (Michael) was home alone and was still not confident enough in my Ukrainian language skills to question him--e.g.: "What the hell are you doing walking into my house without permission? What if I was getting dressed? What if I was sitting on the toilet? What if I was sleeping?" You'll notice that people not thinking about the consequences of their actions will be a common theme here. Not taking responsibility for a wrong will be another.

In the summer of 2014 our neighbors across the street made a habit of being loud almost every single night. They blasted music from their car's stereo and screamed and shouted to each other. I spent the night in the city one time and came home in the morning to find Yulia in tears--"I couldn't sleep at all yesterday! They were drinking and playing music all night." It continued for a couple more days until I got up at 1 am one night and went across the street. I was as diplomatic as possible:

"Good evening, neighbors!" I said with a smile on my face. I shook hands with the man who lives there. "It's one in the morning and it's hard for us to sleep right now because of the noise. Can you please be a little quieter?" I attempted to be as polite and non-confrontational as possible.

"...Well...why don't you install plastic windows [what Ukrainian villagers called double pane glass] in your house?" We already had new wooden windows with double pane glass installed the winter before that, but the noise that made it into the bedroom was still our fault apparently. Our neighbor went back inside without much more of a fight and was actually pretty quiet the rest of the night.

The next morning I saw him on the street. "May God give you health!" I'm not religious, but this is a common greeting in Ukrainian villages, so I just go with the flow to show my good intentions.

"What was that all about last night?" he snapped at me. He wasn't interested in being cooperative anymore. "This is a village. I can do what I want. What gives you the right as a young man to question me, an older man with grey hair?" He has white hair, but is ten years younger than my father. Since we had been on good terms up until that point, I was upset, but tried to talk calmly and logically with him. Unfortunately, he was in mad dog mode and just wanted to continue making noise--this time during the day.

Other than people inviting themselves into our house and yelling at us because we would dare to try and sleep at night, our dog has been whipped on our own property by a horseman on the road, we have been scolded for unknowingly working in the garden on little known church holidays in August and October, and we've had to put out two fires on our land.

The first fire was set by our neighbor. He lit some dry grass in the back of his property. Because it was a very windy day, it spread onto our land. It burned a line of seedlings we had just planted and was making its way to a wooden electric pole and a big pile of straw covered by a plastic tarp. Yulia saw him outside: "Our land is on fire! Why did you do that??"

"Uhh, then go put it out," he muttered as he made his way into his house. We were able to put it out with a fire extinguisher and water. He went home to the city later that day without saying anything, but apologized the next time he was here.

The second time our land was set on fire was yesterday (Saturday), and our neighbor on the other side started it. He was burning dried potato plants after the harvest. There is an abandoned lot in between our properties, and, since no one lives there, it is covered by tall, dry grass and a few old trees. Yulia shouted at the neighbor for starting an unusually big fire that could easily spread onto the abandoned lot and on to our place.

Yulia: "That fire's going to spread onto our land!"

Neighbor: "No it won't!"

Yulia: "We'll see!"

She got me, and by the time we walked out back together to see what was happening the fire was raging. It had already devoured 90% of the abandoned lot and was threatening a line of beehives that were right on the edge of our property.

We frantically started running back and forth with buckets of water. I brought out a medium sized fire extinguisher, and it worked as well as sprinkling a few droplets of water on the fire.

It was hot. It was much hotter than any other brush fire we have seen. We couldn't get more than two or three feet from it because of the intense heat and smoke. Still, we had to do something because the fire was about to devour a row of wooden beehives full of hundreds, if not thousands of bees.

After a half hour of pouring water and smothering the fire with wet blankets, it was over. The two neighbors who started it (the man's wife lackadaisically came out to "help" in the midst of all this) spent another half hour putting out still burning trees in the abandoned lot.

The abandoned lot next door after the fire
Yulia and I were out of breath, exhausted, and covered in soot. We were in disbelief after what had just happened, but that actually wasn't the worst of it. What came next truly made me question the mental faculties and state of mind of our neighbors.

When we asked them how they could let this happen, the man snapped back, "You're younger than us. What right do you have to question us? [Again, this man is a few years younger than my parents. I'm 32. Yula's 31.]" His wife chimed in, "You're young. You can't talk that way to us!"

*     *     *

There are a lot of things we can reflect on after this. Firstly, the backward mentality that our neighbors exhibited after the fire is visible on a national level. It's not a matter of provincialism or parochialism.

There's a video from the Ukrainian parliament, for example, which perfectly displays this. In it, Oleh Lyashko, leader of the "Radical Party," questions how Prime Minister Mykola Azarov (who was in power at the time) can live such a lavish lifestyle while officially making so little money. The speaker of the parliament admonishes Lyashko, not by critiquing what he said, but by putting him "in his place" because of his age (Lyashko is in his forties); "When you're Prime Minister Azarov's age, you can answer those questions yourself." (Azarov is now a fugitive hiding in Russia, by the way.)

Similarly, our neighbors were certain that their age should absolve them of any wrongdoing. Instead of being apologetic, they were offended. Their feathers were ruffled because Yulia would dare show them her displeasure after they set fire to our land. How dare the youth speak up for themselves! Who cares that we burned down an entire row of newly planted seedlings! [That's right. Now a row of trees on each side of our property has been destroyed by fire!]

A little tree that was burned up in the fire
Who cares that five beehives almost went up in flames? Who cares that our fire burned half their pear tree? 
Notice that the left half of the pear tree is blackened
They spoke up for themselves at OUR expense! They should be ashamed of THEMselves!

*     *     *

So where do we go from here? It was immediately obvious that our neighbors were not interested in common sense or responsibility. Trying to reason with them was useless. Trying to argue with them only brought out their ire. Any mention of their culpability was shot down under the aegis of their age.

It is illegal to burn dry grass and brush, though we have never seen the local police stop anyone from doing so. The fire department's website says to call a hotline if you see a field on fire. Yulia called the hotline last winter when a field near us was on fire and the fire department did come and put it out. However, our faith in them was shaken last week. A house burned down in our neighboring village because the antique firetruck they were using had a water pump that was broken. They were stuck on a bridge over a stream in our village trying to pump the water into their truck--no fire hydrants around here. A few drunken men came out to watch the firefighters struggle with the pump, screaming that the government is pathetic and doesn't do anything. What did a couple of these concerned citizens do the next day? They set a field on fire in back of our property (As you can see, Yulia and I are surrounded!). This grass fire was burning at a much lower temperature than the one from yesterday, and we were able to put it out mostly by stamping on it.

Honestly, Yulia and I are feeling worn down by our neighbors. A lot of the problems around here aren't caused by corrupt politicians in Kyiv, but by the locals themselves. We feel terrorized by these gangs of fifty-somethings destroying the countryside with impunity. When we talk to them, worlds collide. Yulia and I focus on logic and cause and effect. If you do x, y will happen. You can be 200 years old and have purple hair--we don't care. We'd like you to not set fire to our things, please.

What are your thoughts? Have you ever experienced problematic neighbors? We read many blogs and know that people deal with very similar situations in other places as well. Portugal. The south of France. Italy. What about ageism? And burning dry grass? Do you have any tips on how we could protect ourselves and our things? Let us know!

Sunday, September 25, 2016


We had to say goodbye to the injured hawk we took in two days ago...

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Found a wounded hawk in our yard

We found a wounded hawk in our yard yesterday. We're doing all we can to help it recover as soon as possible. We built it a cage, we're keeping it away from our cats and dog (who tried to attack the bird), we're feeding it. 

We don't know who to take it to. There's no animal control or SPCA around here, so we are planning on nursing it back to health ourselves. If you have any tips or ideas, please let us know. We're doing all we can to help this beautiful animal.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Squash Harvest

Squash. One of our most favorite foods from the garden. We love how they look and taste, and we love the variety of shapes, sizes, and colors they come in. Join us for a review of our squash harvest!

Monday, September 19, 2016

8 positive things about the weather getting cooler

We had sunny, balmy weather during the first half of September. The days were indistinguishable from July or August, save for the cooler nights and shorter days. However, since getting some rain two days ago (much needed, by the way--we had a particularly bad late summer drought again this year), the sun has been obscured by clouds and the temperatures have dropped. I'm now typing this in my brown sweatpants and turtleneck--my go-to house clothes for cool weather.

Yulia and I prefer the heat. The hotter, the better. You'll rarely hear us complain that it's too hot. We can even handle the droughts that we've had the last two years. The most you'll hear from us is a murmur about how dry the soil in the garden is. On the other hand, I find myself sneering at wet, cold weather with ease. Our dirt road turns to mud in the wet months, and we need weeks of dry weather for it to dry. Good luck trying to work with lumber on the wet pavement and soggy lawn around our house. Even our kitties conspire to make me miserable. They'll  dart through our open front door whenever I'm exiting or entering the house, forcing me to wipe up their muddy paw prints after they've scurrying into the house.

With this said, there are some upsides to the colder weather. Here's a list of things that we like about cool weather:

1. The days are short, and you can't work outside for as long.

Although we like gardening and building stuff, nature forces us to call it quits much earlier during the dark months of winter. By 5 pm, you'll find us stoking the fire in our cast iron stove and settling in for the night. As people who are natural hard workers, we often need some kind of outside force to encourage us to slow down and rest.

2. Food doesn't spoil as quickly.

Yulia and I don't have a refrigerator in our house, so we have to be a lot more conscious about what needs to be eaten before it spoils and what can be left out a while. This summer, we were particularly aware of this because our root cellar was "out of order." We were redoing the building, and it had no kind of insulation keeping it at a constant, cool temperature.

Our house gets so cool in the winter, that we can often keep food out for days without spoiling.

3. There's an abundance of water in our wells.

While I often feel like mud is squirting out of my ears in the midst of February, there are some upsides to the abundance of water. Most importantly, it gives the wells in our area a chance to refill.

One of the most salient aspects of climate change around here is the fact that wells have been drying up left and right. The old timers say they've never seen anything like this in the decades they've been living here. When the water in your well dries up, you have no choice but to grab a bucket and go to the nearest spring, stream, or pond. Our neighbor across the street tells me that he only has a few centimeters of water left in his well. He's lucky because he has a spring-fed stream right in back of his property.

Yulia and I have suffered because of a shallow well as well ("well as well" lol!). Every summer the water would dwindle down to almost nothing. The little water there was would be cloudy and dirty. This summer we pulled the trigger and called someone who specializes in deepening wells. It was a simple process, and we should have hired someone to do it a long time ago. Basically, all they did was dig a deeper hole with shovels until they hit permeable rock. Once they got to this layer in the ground, the water flowed in immediately and started filling the well. They dropped in two narrow concrete cylinders, and that was that. The water rose to a level that we hadn't even seen during the wettest winters (less than 3 meters from ground level!).

4. You don't have to cut the grass.

Yulia and I don't just have a lawn around our house. We also have a sizable orchard and garden. We don't till our land. Instead, we have garden beds surrounded by grass. While this method of gardening is great (Yulia grew watermelons and squash like a boss using a method called "lasagna gardening"), you have to keep up with keeping the grass around the beds neatly trimmed.

Our squash harvest
In fact, saying that there is "grass" around the garden beds is a misnomer. It's more of an incipient jungle. Long vines and stalks shoot up in the garden and orchard before the string trimmer has had time to cool down. I prefer the cool months when I don't have to even think about cutting the grass on our huge property.

5. People stay inside.

This point is more about our trips to the city. We've noticed that during the summer everyone is out and about on the busy city streets of L'viv. Maybe we're just becoming village folk, but every year it seems that more and more people cram themselves into what used to be a small-medium sized city. There's always a traffic jam or car accident to slow us down on the way to Yulia's parents' house. Yesterday Yulia and I were in disbelief when we walked into a supermarket that had about fifteen registers open--all of them with long lines of customers. It was a scene more fitting of the day before Christmas rather than a random Sunday in September. In the winter, the throngs of people more or less disappear much to our delight.

6. Our village is quiet.

Call us antisocial, but Yulia and I need our peace and quiet. Our sleepy village is the perfect place for us in the winter. We'll go on long walks with our dog, Toma, and not see another soul (except for a few birds) out in the fields in back of our house.

Things are much different in the summer. Horsemen scream and holler while plowing gardens. Tractors and combines drone in the distance. Grandchildren visit their grandparents and worlds collide. "Get off that tablet of yours already!...I'm not going to buy you any ice cream until you do your chores!...Where did those kids go?? They've trampled the flowers!" Scrap metal collectors seek out older men anxious to sell some of their old stuff for a couple bucks.

While many people might get lonely without constant commotion, the silent colder months are much cherished by me and Yuila.

7. We get to eat special foods not available during the summer.

One of our favorite things about the weather getting colder is that our tastes change. Yulia will start making heartier dishes like spicy bean stews and sweet potato fries with home made ketchup and cream sauce. Some of our favorite fruits are also in season when the weather is cold. We eat persimmons with relish at this time of year.

Of course, summer has its own special foods that are not available at other times of year. We stock up on melons and watermelons during the second half of the summer and delight in all sorts of berries during the first half. Our garden fresh tomatoes are only available during a short window in the summertime as well. Have you ever had "lucid gem" tomatoes?? favorite!

The change in seasons brings about a change in the foods that are available. As they say, variety is the spice of life!

8. Things slow down, and it's a good time to travel.

As much as we feel an attachment to our home and our land, we're always interested in traveling as well. Because of all the work that has to be done during the warm months, it's just not practical to abandon our seedlings in the spring or our garden in the summer. However, with everything dormant in the winter, it's a perfect time to leave home and travel. Last winter we spent a week in Rome. This year we're planning on going someplace even warmer. We can't wait!

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Our Ukrainian summer in pics and clips

Well, it's that time of year again. It's the end of the summer. It makes us sad that August is done and our guests who stayed with us for two months are gone, but we're happy that we took these pictures and made these videos to remember those good times.

Ever since we were children we didn't like experiencing the end of things because it felt like we were losing something that we would never get back. We still feel that way, but we now know there's always something else to look forward to. Right now, we have the whole fall ahead of us. Along with the drop in temperatures we expect to relax and enjoy what we've built for ourselves in these past three years at our home.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Our house guests and poppy seed varenyky!

As you may have noticed, Yulia and I have not been so diligent in keeping up with videos and blogging this summer. That's because we had some special guests at our house for about two months! They are our lovely friends from the States, and we were SO happy to have someone finally come visit us! :)

We had a busy summer with them, tackling big jobs like building a front fence and not-so-intense jobs, like lounging on a blanket under the linden trees.

This video shows one of our trips to L'viv in July. Yulia and I took our friends out for poppy seed varenyky (aka Ukrainian dumplings!). Mmm!

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Yulia's birthday!

This is the video in which we finally show you the finished result of our new sun room. We had been working so hard on it so that it would be ready for our new guests to sleep in (they arrived later that day, in fact!).

More importantly, it was Yulia's birthday!! We go into town and have a beautiful lunch with Yulia's parents at Lviv's vegetarian restaurant.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Home Alone

Here's a video that Yulia recorded while Michael was away in the city for part of the day--full of some very interesting musings!

Friday, July 8, 2016

Is Ukraine actually an inland sea?

I sat down at our computer today and noticed that my slippers splashed in what seemed like a puddle of water.

"That's weird," I thought to myself. "It hasn't rained in days...And I'm inside, for that matter!" By the time I looked down at my feet I noticed a seahorse floating past my ankle. I rushed to look outside only to see our dog, Toma, crouched pathetically on the roof of her dog house, looking at the rising tide around her. Our cats balanced precariously on some flotsam while Yulia swam by doing a backstroke. 

"What's going on??" I thought. "What happened to our house and our beautiful garden? Why is our village's church steeple just barely poking out from the water? Why has every bus stop, restaurant, electronics store, and school in all of Ukraine been covered by water??" 

I dog paddled out to Yulia, and we found our laptop floating by on an overturned dresser. The internet still worked for some reason, so we went to YouTube and decided to watch a video from Vox Media about Brexit. As we were watching, we learned why our beloved country had been flooded. According to Vox, Ukraine is not part of the EU. Nor is it a land-based country at all. It is part of a vast inland sea, which borders Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Russia, Belarus, and Moldova! 

"Ohhh. That's why no one cares about the hopeful pro-democratic revolution we had or about all the horrible things that have happened as a result of the invasion of Ukraine. Our country's been underwater the whole time!" 

So Yulia and I rounded up our two cats and dog, made a makeshift raft from the broken pieces of our homestead, packed a few apples which had bobbed up from our decimated orchard, and sailed through the Bosphorus Strait, across the Mediterranean, past the Pillars of Hercules, and off in search of a land where people might actually notice if they've erased our entire culture out of existence!

PS - Since we watched the video, Vox has decided to put Ukraine back on the map of Europe. Our timely screenshot is our only physical proof of the flood.

Yulia and I are thankful to have our home back--although it's still a little waterlogged!

*     *     *

In all seriousness, when as many major geopolitical events have happened in a country as have happened in Ukraine (Ukrainians dying while waving the flag of the EU, the forceful annexation of a sovereign country's territory, a civilian airliner being shot down by a Russian surface to air missile on Ukrainian territory, war between two European countries), it speaks volumes when a big media company like Vox elides the entire country on a map during a video about the EU and geopolitics. It's no wonder why so many institutions--political, economic, military, academic--are in disarray.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Lviv Eco Fest (part 2)

The second part of our video from the Eco Festival in Lviv: meeting the permaculture speaker from England, eating raw vegan sweets and getting lost on our way to the urban garden! :) Enjoy!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

A day of work on our sunroom

In this video, we take you to work with us and show some of the steps of the building process that don't always get seen. It's all part of being a do it yourselfer though: figuring out a way to take down an old clay wall, varnishing wood, building a door from scratch.

If you're interested in any aspect of our lifestyle, Yuila and I have a philosophy that we want to share with you--just get out and do it! It's one thing to plan to do something "one day." But that day's got to come sooner or later. Planning and thinking are only the beginning. Once you know what you want, go out and give it a try! :)

Sunday, June 12, 2016

An update in one take

In this short, "one take" video, Yulia shows you the progress on our sun room and does a quick walk through our back garden. Enjoy! :)

Friday, June 10, 2016

Putting roof rafters onto the sun room

In this video Michael starts building the new roof for the sun room.

Also, we show you around our orchard a little. It's always interesting to see what's new there (for us, at least!). And, as always, our pets manage to video bomb us as we try to record!

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Taking down the summer kitchen roof

On to our next big project--turning the old summer kitchen (essentially, an old room we used for storage) into a sun room for drinking tea, reading, and relaxing.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Lviv Eco Fest (part 1)

This is part one of our video from the Eco Festival in Lviv. We hope you enjoy this video!

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A walk to the local pond and art district

Here's a video Michael made while on a walk to our village pond. After going to the pond he takes the long way back home through what we call the "art district"--a part of our village that has a different kind of feel to it.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

On eating whole foods: I've come a long way!

When I first met Yulia I would often react to how she ate with a raised eyebrow. The first time her odd eating habits hit me was when she described coming home late at night. She said she ate some sunflower sprouts and then passed out she was so tired.

“She ate sunflower spouts—whatever they are (like sunflower seeds??)—when she was tired late at night??” I was confused. I later learned that sunflower sprouts were microgreens. That didn’t help. So she ate some leaves when she was tired? Can you even do that?

She would also sometimes just eat fruit. Like, just fruit and nothing else. “Can you do that?” I thought. Whenever I was hungry, I’d go to a local café and get a Wisconsin Grilled Cheese—several different cheeses melted together with a mayonnaise based hot sauce on two thick slices of sourdough bread. And this was during a period in my life when I was consciously trying to become healthier.

Looking back on it, I feel like I was actually the weird one. I was eating what I thought were normal foods because, like most people, I looked around me to determine what normal was. If it was packaged and sold in a store, it must be fine. Otherwise, why would big companies make and sell that food? Why would the government let them? It's sad and naive that I thought that, but it’s true. If I was eating what I perceived to be a normal diet, how could it be bad for me?

What prompted me to write this was something I just read in the book, How Not to Die, by Dr. Michael Greger. In the chapter about high blood pressure he writes, “A single slice of pepperoni pizza can contain half your recommended sodium intake limit for the entire day” (128). I had to stop there and reflect for a second. I used to consider pizza a normal food. Healthy—maybe not. Unhealthy--no. But normal—absolutely. So I ate it regularly. Plus, it had, like, foods from different food groups on it. The dough was grains or carbohydrates or something. The cheese was dairy—I knew that had to be healthy. The sauce was made from tomatoes—a vegetable. And the pepperoni was meat. That’s like four of the food groups from the food pyramid! But only people who were on a boring diet would eat just one slice. I would pride myself on eating several slices at a time. By the time I was in my mid-twenties and just getting to know Yulia, I would eat an entire pizza as a meal without thinking twice about it.

Quite honestly, I wish I would have been exposed to some honest and clear information about diet and health a lot earlier. When I think back on it now, why didn’t anybody just tell me that a whole foods, plant based diet was the healthiest diet? I now feel like I was being patronized my whole life. “Sure, ice cream is OK to eat because it has milk in it,” is what I basically heard. After getting diet advice like that it was only natural to look at pizza and find the goodness it inherently had.

Instead, I needed to be told, “If you want to eat pepperoni pizza, limit it to once or twice a year, but you probably shouldn't eat it at all. Whole plant foods are all that you need to survive and thrive and be healthy. Yes, ice cream and pizza have some good things in them, and they're healthier than only eating candy bars and soda. But the good things don't cover for the bad things. That's not how nutrition works. If you eat a whole foods, plant based diet you will get all the same goodness that ice cream and pizza have without any of the badness."

Dr. Greger divides foods into three groups. Green light foods—unprocessed plant foods. Yellow light foods—processed plant foods and unprocessed animal foods. And red light foods—ultra-processed plant foods and processed animal foods. As he says, “Simply put, eat more green-light foods. Eat fewer yellow-light foods. And, especially, eat even fewer red-light foods. Just like running red lights in the real world, you may be able to get away with it once in a while, but I wouldn't recommend making a habit out of it” (259). 

I appreciate how he deals with people who may be frightened off by the purity of his recommendations: “I remember a man once telling me that he could never ‘go plant based’ because he could never give up his grandma’s chicken soup. Huh? Then don’t! After I asked him to say hello to his bubby for me, I told him that enjoying her soup shouldn’t keep him from making healthier choices the rest of the time. The problem with all-or-nothing thinking is that it keeps people from even taking the first steps” (265).

Similarly, Yulia and I desperately want the people we care about to be in good health. We want them to be around for as long as possible. “OK,” we figure, “They don’t agree with us when it comes to our belief in not being violent to animals.” Well, since we still care about them, we want them to at least know the newest and best information about diet there is based on the evidence that is out there. Yulia and I don’t let our beliefs cloud our vision. Sure, not all vegan foods are good for you. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is, in fact, pretty terrible for you. But the best information points to a whole foods plant based diet, which you can eat as a vegan or as a meat eater. 

*     *     *

So I’ve gone from a guy who had no idea what his girlfriend was eating ("sunflower germ or something?") to a guy who eats garden fresh greens picked by his darling wife every day. A few months after I started dating Yulia, we met each other at an outdoor café one fine afternoon. From down the block I could already see her carrying her carton of fresh cherries. I smiled to myself because, just a few minutes before her I had also popped into the same store and got my very own carton of cherries. I knew I had chosen the right woman!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Easter 2016

Here's a video that we made on Easter. If you're looking for footage of our actual traditional Ukrainian meal, we're sorry to tell you that we didn't film any! Ha! Instead we filmed everything else--driving to the grandparents, walking around the garden, etc.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Weeks in the life: Clips of our daily life in Ukraine

Hey guys! Here's a compilation of video clips that were too short to fit into one video. 

In this video Yulia will take you on a tour of our garden and small nursery (She has planted lots of trees from seed!). She will also show you some creamy sauce she made for sweet potatoes. Michael will take you on a random walk to the spring in our village. And, fifteen minutes in, there's a cool clip of some lightning that we caught on camera during a thunderstorm. Towards the end Yulia will show you some sweet potato slips that we ordered in the mail.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Building our root cellar roof

In this video we document what it was like to put of a roof on (part of) our root cellar. Things didn't always go our way, but that's why building's all about being creative! A few things got in our way during the process--not enough materials, rain, SNOW! What we've learned in almost three years of being here is to just roll with the punches. Nothing's ever the end of the world. 

We're slowly transforming the landscape on our little piece of land in western Ukraine, and this is a marathon. Pace yourself. Realize that bad weather and mistakes are part of the process and be cool! :)

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Small towns in Ukraine

Have you ever wondered what small towns in Ukraine are like? Even if you haven't, we're still gonna show you! ;) 

In this video, Michael makes a video during a trip to a small town in our area. He talks about what it's like there and what we like (and don't like) about small towns in Ukraine.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Lunch and a stroll through downtown L'viv

L'viv is a beautiful city--especially in the spring! 

In this video we take a walk through downtown L'viv starting at Ivan Franko Park. We walk past the university and then move on to Prospekt Svoboda (Freedom Boulevard). We show you Ploshcha Rynok (Market Square) and L'viv City Hall. We wander around the narrow, ancient streets and find an interesting map of Halychyna (Galicia). 

After lunch at a vegetarian restaurant called "Green," we go home and hang out in our garden for the rest of the evening.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

A drive to the Polish border

Here's a video we made during a drive to the Polish border from L'viv. It's only about an hour away from the city. During the drive we got lots of nice shots of the Ukrainian countryside. Also, we show you around Frankivs'kyi Rayon--the neighborhood that our friend lives in. It's one of our favorite areas of L'viv!

Road repair on the highway to L'viv

Another video about our trip to L'viv.

It's nice to see that the highway we use to get to the city is being fixed properly. They're putting in gutters, curbs, and guard rails--even two layers of asphalt! 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

An rainy evening at MY Pichka

Here's a video that we made during a rainy evening at our home. In this video we show just how funny our animals can be. We also talk about the philosophy of keeping or getting rid of old stuff around the house. 

Friday, April 15, 2016

A Sunday walk in the Ukrainian countryside

Here's a walk that we took in the back fields that we always talk about. It was a rather windy day, so that is why we didn't narrate much--the wind would have just interfered with the microphone. 

Still, it was a lovely day. The stork was out there with us. We also saw our local flock of sheep and captured some nice nature shots. 

As usual, our dog and two cats joined our video when we got back home! :)

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

MY Vegan Story

This is a video about how and why we went vegan. We have not always been this way, and we want you to know our reasons for changing our diet and lifestyle.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Veganism is expensive!

We've read and heard from many many people who say that veganism is expensive. We've found that when you actually compare the vegan foods that we eat the most of (rice, bananas, apples) to almost any animal derived food (meat, poultry, sausage, cheese), the plant foods are always cheaper. Michael has a little fun with this issue and feigns cognitive dissonance at the store.

Also in the video: It's a day in the life vlog! Michael tries to change the oil in our car with Yulia's dad. We also show you around our lovely garden and house. Enjoy! :)

Friday, April 8, 2016

A trip to MY grandparents

In this video we take a trip to Yulia's grandparents'. We show you the drive to their house and a walk we took around the old orchard from a Polish aristocrat's estate. We then go down to the Dnister River and through the village's park. 

It's a bit different than our small village. There's a big school there, newer houses, and four stores (a LOT for a Ukrainian village!!)--essentially, a few more touches of "civilization." Take a look! It's the best way we can show you!

Friday, April 1, 2016

Egg industry in the US and Canada to stop the barbaric practice of grinding male chicks alive

By Michael

Yulia and I just read some great news that we're really excited to share with you!! The egg farmers of the United States and Canada have made a joint announcement that they will stop the barbaric practice of suffocating and grinding all male chicks on the first day of their lives.

At one time, farmers felt that they needed to "discard" about 50% of all chicks because the males were useless for the purposes of their business. Roosters do not lay eggs, nor are they grown for meat, so the egg and poultry industry had no use for them. All male chicks were separated from the females on a conveyor belt by workers called "sexers." The males were then thrown into a plastic bag, which was tied tightly once the bag was full with the new borns. An alternative method consisted of putting the chicks onto another conveyor belt that would drop them into a grinder, turning them into a blood and bone pulp.

But, thankfully, this is ancient history. It's also expected that farms throughout the world will take the lead of the US and Canada and also halt this heinous practice.

Gomer Pile, a farmer from Egg Enterprises Incorporated of Vermont, had this to say:

"At one point, we stopped and thought about it and realized that this practice was utterly insane. I mean, we were tearing millions of delicate, defenseless creatures into pieces on the first day of their lives."
In even more positive news, Yulia just showed me a Facebook post which linked to a statement from the pork producers of the America. They have considered ceasing the common practice of castrating pigs without anesthetics and keeping sows in gestation crates where they cannot even turn around for the entirety of their lives.

"We've realized that we cannot justify forcing millions of animals to live a lifetime of misery just to save a few extra dollars. At one point we were actually unsure whether or not animals could feel pain in the same way that humans since they can't talk. Now we realize that when the pigs shrieked and struggled when we were cutting off their testicles, they were most definitely feeling excruciating pain. We understand that our former ways were brutal and unjustified. We promise to treat our pigs better from now on. We are even considering not breeding anymore livestock at all and looking for healthy, plant based alternatives to use in our diets instead. " 

Seems like a lot of people in the world are waking up! It's a good day! :)

***A happy belated April 1st to everyone! This "news" was entirely fabricated, but how wonderful would it be if it were true??

Thursday, March 31, 2016

A day in the life March 22nd

Here's another day in the life video from our small village in western Ukraine. In the video Michael ponders why time seems to be going by so quickly. Also, Yulia shows the progress of some pines she planted from seed.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

A spooky walk to the cemetery

Here is a video we made while on a walk to a cemetery near our house. It was a surprisingly cold day! Luckily, we warmed up with some apple turnovers in the evening!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Windy day video

Hey guys,

Here's a video we made during a particularly windy day. Yulia transplants a tree. Michael works on the bathroom. And we give a mini tour around parts of our house.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Another one of Michael's day trips to L'viv

Here's another video Michael made from one of his day trips to L'viv. As you can tell, our trips to the city are mostly for shopping, since we hardly buy anything at all when we're at home. We'll get around to showing more of L'viv--especially from a leisure point of view--sometime soon!

We hope these videos continue to give you a feel for what are lives are like as we bring you along with us!

PS--We're posting quite frequently now, so look around and make sure you haven't missed anything on our blog! We have another video edited and ready to go, and it will be up on YouTube very soon! Also, we haven't posted all of our YouTube videos on this blog, so make sure you look around our channel to see what else we have up there! If you click on the "MYPichka" link under our videos, it will take you to our channel.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Thursday, March 17, 2016

A sunny day in March [Vlog]

Here's a video we made the other day when it was beautiful and sunny outside. Later in the evening we show the progress we've made in the bathroom and some delicious apple turnovers that Yulia baked!!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Two more videos!

Here's a video of us finishing up the long job of installing running water in our house. 

And, more recently, we made this video. It is about our belief that what you do is more important than what you say. (We got silly at times, yes!) Enjoy!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Self-awareness in public--on setting fires and cutting in line

By Michael

I was at the hardware store the other day getting a faucet for our bathtub. I actually had a really nice salesperson help me! Like I said in my previous post about smiling and sincerity, the salesperson that I talked to was more focused on helping me get the right thing instead of making jokes and small talk. Because of the unique design of our bathroom, Yulia and I need a faucet that that could be mounted on a horizontal surface instead of on the wall (like 99% of faucets on sale at the store). Turns out there are special extensions that allow you to take any wall mounted faucet and use it on a horizontal surface. This woman even ran around the store with me and helped me get a hose and a cap to hook up the faucet. Nice!

After I got my things and went up to the cash registers, I was second in line behind a guy who was making a huge purchase. He had just handed over $555 in cash to the cashier and, considering the exchange rate, it amounted to roughly 15,000 hryvnias. The cashier obviously didn't want to make any mistakes (for her own sake, I assume, as well as the customers'). As she was counting, an older man walked into our aisle and asked something about the AA batteries that are sold near the resisters.

"Do I have to buy batteries in packs like this?"--meaning in packs of 2 or 4.

"Yes, that's how they're sold."

So the man took some batteries and proceeded to go in front of me and the guy making the big purchase. He went behind the cashier counting 15,000 hryvnias and stood there.

The cashier was not happy with him. "You are making me angry now. Go back to your spot in line and stand there. I'm counting a lot of money, and you're distracting me."

I could understand. The guy in front of me was paying in denominations of 200. I'm sure he wasn't interested in overpaying by 200 hryvnias, and I'm sure the cashier didn't want to be 200 hryvnias short at the end of her shift.

The older man went back to his spot behind me in line and said, "OK, I'm standing," as if the cashier just asked him to do something completely unreasonable.

*     *     *

This isn't the first time I've seen cashiers at that store have to keep customers in line. Another time I was at the outside register by the lumber yard. A man, who had had too much to drink, walked right past the cashier with a big cart full of insulation.

"What are you doing?? You haven't paid for that yet!"

"I'm waiting for my driver. How else am I supposed to see him??"

*     *     *

These stories are not isolated incidents. It's common--especially with the older generators--to be standing in line in a tiny shop and have someone go right in front of you as if you weren't there at all.

On more than one occasion I have been waiting in line and have watched someone walk in and go right in front of me. I usually just stare at them, confused. When they proceed to order what they want I speak up--"Um, excuse me, I was here before you."

"Oh! You were waiting in line?? I thought you were just standing there."

Or they'll say, "I thought you were with them," pointing to the person in front of me.

If it's not clear if someone is butting in front of you on purpose or not, that's one thing. But it's such a habit for some people that sometimes it's not clear if they're trying to steal batteries or entire rolls of insulation from the hardware store. In both cases it's beside the point if the person is aware of what they are doing or not. They need to be made aware of what they are doing and why they shouldn't do this.

*    *     *

I bring this up because of a recent conversation Yulia had with a friend about what to do when you see land near your house burning. It's common in Ukraine for people to set fire to tall grass. For some people it seems like a compulsion. They'll do it several times a year without any consideration of the consequences. Last spring, our neighbor set fire to a pile of grass on a windy day, and the fire spread onto to our property. Yulia and I had to run out to the back of our property to try and put the fire out before it destroyed all the young trees we had planted there. The fire also got within a few feet of a plastic tarp that was covering some straw.

A few days ago, the land near our village was on fire (To give you an idea of how often people burn, it was last set ablaze on a warm day in December). The fire was spreading to an area of land near some high tension power lines and a large, high-pressure natural gas line. Aside from that, large fires like this destroy the plants and animals living there. Honestly, Yulia and I would prefer to see trees, bushes and wildlife there instead of a field of weeds that gets burned whenever it is dry enough to do so.

Yulia called a number to a hotline and, unlike the time she called in December, the fire department actually came and put out the fire! We were thrilled and considered this a step in the right direction. We hope that it spared a few animals their lives and allowed some young trees to keep growing.

Enthralled, Yulia posted the good news on Facebook: "The land near our village was on fire, so I called the fire department and they actually put out the fire! A small victory!" Several people responded positively, and someone even shared a picture of a rabbit den with infant rabbits to show the kind of animals are killed in these fires. Maybe mama can outrun a fire, but what about her babies? What about baby birds, salamander, snakes, and frogs?

Unfortunately, one friend responded negatively. I won't quote the entire conversation here, but her point basically came down to the idea that the locals live this way and that outsiders like the young Ukrainians involved in the Facebook conversation shouldn't be "fighting" and telling older people what to do. She said that Yulia and her friends shouldn't expect people to change the way they do things just because of their beliefs.

Aside from the obvious fact that we weren't telling anybody what to do, we've talked to our neighbors about the burning and many of them are against it. They have similar concerns to Yulia and I. What will the storks eat when they come back in the spring? What about the wildlife that gets killed? What if our barn or house catches fire? What about the garbage that people carelessly throw out in the fields? Why do we all have to breathe in smoke from plastic because a couple people want to burn the grass?

Also, this isn't some kind of historic tradition in this culture. When Yulia lived here in the 80s and 90s, burning land wasn't something that people did. Our neighbors (also known as the locals) also don't remember this ever being customary. It's only started within the past 15 years or so.

Lastly, it's dangerous and illegal to burn land. Because of people burning last July, hundreds of acres of wheat were burned before one farmer in our area had the chance to harvest the grain! Around the same time, a woman's body was found in a field that had been burned. She had set fire to some grass, passed out from smoke inhalation, and was burned in the fire. The fire department's own website even says that burning is illegal. They encourage people to call the hotline that Yulia called when they see these fires.

*     *     *

Like setting fires, cutting in line for bread and walking out of stores with unpaid merchandise may just be something that older people do. It's in their culture and part of their way of life. Is it right for younger neighbors or cashiers to speak up when they see this behavior? Absolutely.

It's not about culture, and it's not about expecting people to change just because we have different beliefs. When something is destructive or illegal, it doesn't matter if the person is older or not. It also doesn't matter if they understand the consequences of what they're doing. It ruins things for other people, and that is enough reason to say something. The longer Ukrainians stay afraid to speak up, the longer things will stay bad for everyone.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Michael's day trip to the city

We've been wanting to document one of our regular trips to L'viv. Here it is! Filmed yesterday!

We have some old footage that we still want to put together and publish, so keep an eye out for that coming soon!

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Varnishing wood, propagating tulips...just another day in our life video

What do we do on an average day?? This video should help you see. In a sentence, we work around our house. There's always something to do...most of the time too much!

Today we varnished some wood, propagated tulips, and took down an old apple tree!

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Day in the life video from September!

Here is a video we shot in September. We filmed it then, but put off editing it until now. Now is better than never, we figure!

It was nice watching this! We forgot just how green everything is in the summer!

In the future we want to show you more of our house and garden, what we eat, and our trips to Lviv. Yulia's already been talking about a video where we contrast our village with Lviv--there is a big difference! Do you have any suggestions?

We enjoy watching vlogs that other people make--especially travel vlogs. It's very interesting for us to see what life is like for people in other countries. We realize that there are very few travel vlogs from Ukraine, so we hope to add to the small number that are out there.

On that note, if you know of any Ukrainian YouTubers, please let us know. We enjoy Olga Reznikova's videos. We first found her while searching for videos about village life in Ukraine. She's great!

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Tour of our kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom video!

We're trying something new here, so bear with us. We want to start uploading videos to help round out the writing and images on our blog here.

We're new to vlogging (that is, video blogging), so it may be bumpy at first, but we'll get the hang of it! We've already learned that if we're going to do this long term, we need a better camera. We're sure there will be much more to learn.

So without anymore delay, here's our first video!

Monday, February 15, 2016

Why don't people smile here?

By Michael

As expats*, I think it's partly our responsibility to try and understand the culture we are in instead of simply reacting to it. It's very easy to go to another country and say, "I like this, and I don't like that." Yulia and I certainly do that many times. But after a while, you start to think more deeply about the things you don't like. Why is it this way, and why do the locals accept it?

In this short post, I simply want to consider something that is not only unique to Ukraine, but something I hear many travelers and expats discuss when abroad--the lack of smiling in public. In our last post about traveling to Italy for a week, I mentioned how Italians do smile to strangers and that it wouldn't be a bad thing if Ukrainians started doing it. To be fair, many Ukrainians do smile to me, from the owner of the pet shop I went to yesterday to the wait staff at our local vegetarian restaurant. But as a general rule, yes, Ukrainians do smile less in public.

Instead of dismissing all Ukrainians as surly and rude, I want to look past the surface just a little bit. Does a lack of smiles really mean that everyone is unhappy?

To try and understand this, I first want to reflect on myself. As you know from this blog, Yulia and I spend much of our time renovating our house. Right now I am in the middle of building our bathroom. I spend a lot of time at the hardware store buying things I've never bought before like mosaic tiles and sinks. These items themselves cost a lot of money and, of course, I must remember to buy all the little odds and ends--screws, grout, caulk. If I forget something that means I can't do what I wanted to do until I drive back to the city to get what I need. If I make a big purchase and buy something the wrong size or color, I'm committed to that mistake--so it's better to just not make those mistakes in the first place.

Therefore, when I'm at the store, I'm concentrating on all the minutiae. Did I buy enough lumber? Is the plywood I got the right width or should it have been 2 millimeters thicker? Do I have enough money to get what I need? Can I even fit everything in my car??

As I'm running through all these details in my mind, I might not be thinking about smiling to the person helping me at the store. I say please and thank you of course, but I'm most focused on not making mistakes. I'm not going to grin at the guy who just got in a fork lift and brought down a sink from the top shelf at the big box hardware store and then say, "Oh I actually wanted that model or that color, sorry!"

On the other end, the seller has his or her own responsibilities. They need to make sure they're mixing the right color paint, for example, so they don't have to explain to their boss why they just wasted fifty dollars worth of paint.

In addition to concentrating so as not to make mistakes, I think that looking someone in the eye with a straight face is a display of sincerity. It shows you are taking the other person seriously and not trying to pull one over on the other person. Yulia and I have noticed, especially with the older generation here in Ukraine, that you do have to be careful at times so as to not get taken advantage of. A few weeks ago, a man that we had never seen before came up to our front gate and shouted for us to come over.

"Слава Ісусу Христу! [Glory to Jesus Christ!--a formal greeting to older people and the clergy in Ukraine]" he said with a wide grin on his face.

We soon found his formal greeting was just to butter us up.

"Can you lend me some money? Somebody is coming by to pick up a debt I owe them today. I live in the neighboring village, and I see you drive your car by my house from time to time."

"Sorry, but we don't even know you," we responded. "And why wouldn't you ask friends or family in your own village for help first?" We weren't trying to be hard on him on purpose, but when you think about it, it is kind of fishy that he wouldn't ask someone he knew before us. And if he did ask someone he knew and they refused, they probably had a good reason why. We know from experience that friends and family are not the best at paying back loans. Why, then, should we trust a stranger?

Even after we refused to give him money, he persisted. A conversation like this gets frustrating quickly. Once he realized that these Americans wouldn't be lending him any money that day, he gave us a rude look and moved on.

"Слава Ісусу Христу my ass," Yulia said as we walked away.

It's actually quite common for locals to ignore us until they need something--then the smiles and courtesy come out. The contrast is most stark in one older woman who lives down the street from us. If I see her outside as I'm walking to the spring, I'll always say hello. My greeting is usually met with silence--maybe a nod of the head if she's feeling particularly social that day. However, if she's interested in hearing the latest gossip, she'll be at the fence in a second with a smile on her face. She'll make small talk briefly and then move right on to the probing questions.

These, and other experiences, lead me to believe that a straight face may be a signal to other people that you can be trusted. I'm sure I'm not the only person here who has had such experiences, and I'd imagine that after a lifetime, one might begin to internalize these social gestures.

If you are used to smiling being equated to taking advantage of other people, maybe a straight face is just like straight talk. Maybe it doesn't mean that someone is unhappy. Perhaps, consciously or subconsciously, it means, "I'm focused on helping you. I'm sincere. You won't get any funny business from me."

What are your experiences? Do any of you live in places where people don't smile a lot in public? Why do you think they don't smile?

*Yes, Yulia is from Lviv and all of my grandparents were from Ukraine, but in many ways Yulia and I are just like many other American expats. Up until moving here, we had spent all of our adult lives in the United States and were well accustomed to living there. For Yulia and me, the culture of the US is what we consider "normal" or baseline--in short, it's all we know. Ever since we moved to Ukraine, we have been saying to each other, "Wow, that's different!" just like your average American might say.