Thursday, January 28, 2016

Do we actually LOVE Ukraine??

By Michael

A number of years ago, during a job interview for an English teaching position, I was asked, "What I'm trying to understand about you is, how does a person from a more prosperous country make the decision to move to a less prosperous country like Ukraine?" The question was blunt, and it took me by surprise. 

What was most surprising to me about this question was that it assumes that you only move to another country for your own sake. This makes sense, and I'm not questioning the motives of somebody who makes such a move. I'm pretty sure my grandparents, for example, made the decision to move from Ukraine to the United States partly for these reasons. I at least never heard them say they moved to the US because they wanted to help make it a better place.

As for Yulia and me, we also decided to move to Ukraine partly for self serving reasons. First and foremost, we wanted a certain kind of lifestyle, which involves getting a good chunk of land, avoiding many of the restrictions that are in place in many parts of the United States. We were interested in building a cob house, for example, and that is simply against code in many places. 

The price of living here is much less than that of the US. Food is less expensive, and our house cost about as much as our car (i.e. it was cheap). In some respects there is much less red tape here than in the States as well. We can make renovations to our house, for example, without much interference from the state. We can go to the hardware store here and find goods from many different markets--the EU, Turkey, China, North America, and Russia (although we boycott all Russian merchandise). My father-in-law, who has lived in both Ukraine and the US, confirms that Ukrainian stores have a much better selection than in America. 

We also just like a lot of things that are Ukrainian. We like the culture, and we like the traditions. The Christmas holidays just ended, and Yulia and I had the pleasure of watching a group sing traditional Christmas carols--known as колядки (kolyadky)--while we shopped at what is otherwise a standard Western shopping mall (Yulia found the group on YouTube. They're called Курбаси (Kurbasy)--simply beautiful! Their sound is both ancient and modern at the same time).

We like that Ukrainians are avid gardeners. We wrote about Ukrainians and their gardens in this blog post

We also enjoy the beauty of Yulia's hometown--Lviv. Yulia and I sometimes go to the city just to walk along the narrow cobblestone streets and randomly go into shops. 
"Sisters" Dress Gallery--stylish, Ukrainian-made clothing
This past week we went to Lviv and watched a blacksmith at work with a hammer and anvil. We never know what curious things we'll see when we're downtown. You may have noticed our love for Lviv in many of our blog posts. Yulia dotes on Lviv in this post and ends it, unambiguously, "Lviv--my dear hometown--I love you!!"

So if we supposedly love Lviv--and Ukraine--so much, why are we so harsh at times? Here are some examples:
  • "I noticed that there was something different about Ukrainian men. They seemed more sullen, cranky, and disrespectful than what I was used to. I began to despise their attitudes. They expect women to cook and clean, but never lift a finger to help with children or housework. I noticed these differences in attitude were accompanied by physical features as well—swollen bellies and grey skin from drinking too much and a body odor from not washing and smoking cigarettes." (source)
  • "These two chauffeurs represent a way of doing things that I hope is on it's way out the door in Ukraine. They show no respect for the people around them. They pester and they lie and their actions only make people more distrustful of those around them...These aren't corrupt, high ranking politicians in Kyiv. These are ordinary people from western Ukraine. People like these two men will only rot Ukrainian society from the inside out." (source)
  • "Many villagers are cutting off their noses to spite the faces. They want to show that they will not be taken advantage of by what they perceive as rich city people. In reality they will hold on to their land so tightly that they will never sell it. After they die their land will become government property at no cost to the government, and their families will remain a few thousand dollars poorer." (source
There are many aspects about Ukraine that really bother us. Yulia and I despise the male chauvinism and selfishness. We hate it when people litter. We don't like that people tend to stare at others in public. We wish "dressing up" for the winter holidays wasn't synonymous with wearing fur.

So if we hate it so much, why don't we just get out? Maybe go to a more "prosperous" place? Well, it's not so much a question of living or not living someplace because we either love it or hate it. Truthfully, we love some things about Ukraine, and we hate some things about it. 

Why the decision to move here then? To answer that question, I'll refer to someone known as "à-bas-le-ciel" on YouTube. In the video below he discusses vegans and their portrayal of Thailand in their own blogs:

"And what I fundamentally don't understand or don't relate to is this idea that because you like a place, because you care about a place, you're going to pretend that its problems don't exist--that' you're going to engage in a sort of cover up as if you yourself were a nationalist or a propagandist for that place. I think it's really useful to shift the verb from love to care about. If you care about Thailand, can't you also care about the oppression of its indigenous minorities?"

In a similar way, we are here in Ukraine because we care about it. We care about its beauty and traditions as much as we care about its problems.

There are wonderful things to see here. Come visit Lviv and drink some gourmet coffee and look at beautiful old world architecture. We'll happily put on the hat of tourism promoters. 

But we won't act like there aren't some things that are wrong with Ukraine. It's not alright with us that fur coats are fashionable (mainly with older people, but still). It's not alright that kids go to our village spring to eat ice cream and leave the wrappers there. We care enough about Ukraine to want to encourage other people not to wear fur and not to litter.

After police beat protesters and forcefully broke up the incipient "Euromaidan" uprising in Kyiv on December 1st, 2013, we were in Lviv a few hours later with thousands of other people. Ukrainians made it a point to occupy public spaces en masse 24/7 from that point on to make sure police wouldn't be able to do such a thing again.

We were responding to something that was deeply wrong with our country--but we were doing it with love and patriotism. We were waving flags and singing the national anthem, but questioning some of the deepest flaws in our society. 

Yulia and I moved to Ukraine despite not liking everything about it because we care about this place. We came here for the things we like as much for the things we dislike.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Being vegetarian and vegan in Ukraine

When Yulia and I first moved to Ukraine, we were ovo-lacto vegetarians. We ate this way for our first few months here and then slowly began to cut out dairy and eggs from our diet. In this post I want to discuss the ease--and lack of ease--we've had while being vegetarian and vegan in Ukraine.

When we first got here in 2011, we lived with Yulia's grandparents for a few months. They had a cow at the time and had milk three times a day. I had never tried raw milk from a pastured cow before, and I have to say that the difference is stark between that and store bought milk. Milk from a pastured cow in the summer is fragrant and sweet. It has a rich, dynamic flavor that changes with the seasons. Store bought milk, on the other hand, has a flat taste to it, which makes sense. That kind of milk comes from hundreds of different cows who were fed a steady diet of animal feed. It has also been cooked, destroying many of the nutrients that raw milk has.

The eggs were also good, but for some reason my memory of eating eggs is less vivid. The yolks were much richer in color for sure, though I can't describe the taste in any level of detail. Yulia's grandparents treat their chickens much better than the operators of agribusinesses treat their chickens, so we're alright with that--we just wish the chickens weren't killed. For that reason alone we can't bring ourselves to continue eating their eggs. It would be like us getting a pet puppy to play with and then killing it once it became too big and no longer of "use" to us.

That first winter I remember reading The China Study while still living with Yulia's grandparents. I remember sitting on their couch during the long nights, pouring over the information for the first time. "Hey, did you know that the countries with the highest milk consumption are also the countries with the highest levels of osteoporosis?" I'd ask Yulia. Study after study in that book confirms that eating animal products is not good for your health.

We then began to slowly transition to a purely plant based diet. What was most interesting about our transition was that we actually began to eat more of a variety of foods than ever before. Whereas I used to primarily eat only meat, dairy, eggs, wheat, corn, soy, and sugar in all their processed forms, after switching to a whole foods, plant based diet, I began to seek out the many, many foods that are actually available out there.

Ukrainian bazaars are full of lots of interesting foods. It's relatively easy to go out and find walnuts or hazelnuts. There are local fruits available pretty much year round, and the imported foods are also easily accessible. In the fall and winter Yulia and I indulge in persimmons grown in Spain, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. In a weird way, by eating from fewer of the food groups, we discovered the endless variety of plant foods for the first time. Don't take our word for it, Give it a try sometime! You'll find that you'll get bored with eating the same few foods over and over again if you simply continue eating what you've been eating minus animal products.

Want something hardy? That's how I discovered fava beans for the first time--easy to grow and delicious! I never ate plain fava beans as a meat eater. Want something sweet, but can't rely on the milk, eggs, flour, and sugar in baked goods anymore? There are LOTS and LOTS of great fruits out there waiting to be discovered. Yulia just made a wonderful jam from sloe she collected in the hedgerows near our village. She has also perfected really great apple and pumpkin pie recipes. What about something creamy?? Surely there are no plant foods that can substitute for dairy products. ...Actually, Yulia was craving a creamy sauce the other day when we made вареники (pierogies). She took some hemp seeds, blended them with water and then fried some onions and garlic with the "hemp milk" to make a savory sauce. It was a big hit, and we've been eating it all week!

Yulia and I have found that Ukraine is actually a great place to be vegan. Fresh produce is easy to get here, and, because of our location in the middle of Europe, we get imported foods from Europe, Africa, and Asia. If you're willing to pay American prices, there are also California pomegranates at the supermarket, and bananas cost about as much as they do in the US.

We don't go out to eat as frequently as other people we know, but the few vegetarian restaurants there are in Ukraine are pretty great. Our favorites are Green in L'viv and Nebos in Kyiv. We dedicated a whole blog post to Green when it opened, so I'll link to it here. In a nutshell, it serves really good, high quality vegetarian food and has a menu that changes with the seasons. The items on the menu are marked as either vegetarian, vegan, or raw, so it's easy to find what you're looking for. It's been our favorite place to go to in Lviv since we moved here.

Nebos is a raw foods restaurant in Kyiv. The chefs there know what they are doing because they have some really great creations on their menu.

Dessert at Nebos
The atmosphere there is really relaxed too. They had a film projector playing video from a coral reef, tasteful music, and some really creative artwork on the walls. Very inspiring! Go there!

For the amount of meat and animal products that average Ukrainians eat, the locals have been surprisingly non-confrontational whenever Yulia and I say we are vegetarian--even our neighbors who all raise their own livestock. Most of the time they'll just say something like, "Really? Well, you guys look great! Good for you!"

It's a little harder for us to sit down with family or go over to a neighbor's house because nearly every food they serve usually has animal products in it. If we get asked why we're not eating anything we let them know that we don't eat any animal products. We try and keep it positive saying we came over to see and talk with them, not to eat their food.

Unfortunately, we have to be really firm in our refusal to eat anything that we suspect may have animal products in it. Once or twice I've accepted dumplings or "vegetable soup" that I thought were vegan, but turned out not to be. I can tell right away if something has meat in it and have had to spit food out on one or two occasions. The taste of meat in my mouth revolts me. I don't consider muscle, bone or organs from a chicken to be any different than the liver from my cat or a broth made from the bones of my dog. It's doesn't reassure me that chickens and pigs are a different species. The concept of eating any of those things is still disgusting to me. To the person serving the food, it's a shame that I end up not eating the food, so it's socially awkward and unpleasant all around. In short, we've become very picky in what we accept from other people for good reason.

With regard to the preference of eating meat from happy animals who live in the fresh air of the idyllic countryside, our experience of living with homesteaders from the old world has taught us that the animals are not necessarily treated any better. It's easy to romanticize a traditional culture from a poorer country. People like this live on less money with fewer material goods than people in wealthy, Western countries. They are more self sufficient and have not lost the wisdom from generations past. This is true for many of our neighbors. It is normal to plow fields with horses and store food in root cellars. They live on a fraction of the money that people in wealthy countries live on and are much more self sufficient than modern Westerners. These are all admirable qualities.

But are the animals treated any better than those from feed lots and poultry houses? I've already described how pigs are slaughtered around here: a knife is shoved into their hearts. The pigs don't die instantly, but wail--loudly--in agony for a long time.

What about the milk cows? They are not killed, and live happily in grass filled pastures, right? First of all, they are killed once they stop producing a lot of milk. Secondly, cows don't just naturally produce milk all the time. Like humans, they must have a baby. The milk that a cow produces is meant for its calf. In order to get milk from a cow then, the calf is usually butchered or sold for meat and then butchered by other people. If the calf is female it might be raised to be a dairy cow as an adult, and the cycle continues.

What about shepherds tending a flock in the pasture? It must be a relaxing, stress-free job, sitting out there in the fresh air, watching the cows slowly graze on grass all day, right? In Ukrainian villages, people only keep one or two cows at home. During the day, they go out to pasture, and the villagers take turns tending the flock. These cows surely must be well taken care of in a neighborly way, right? Not at all. Yulia and I were driving through the pasture in our neighboring village one time and saw that some cows crossed the road and started grazing on the wrong side. We laughed at their innocent mistake. Then, to our horror, we saw a man bolt out in front of us as fast as he could and wail on the cows with a large tree branch. He repeatedly hit them like a baseball player swinging a bat. He hit one cow so hard that the branch broke in half. And he did all of this knowing well that we could see him. No care and no shame.

Yulia and I prefer to use the aspects of traditional culture that make sense to us. We'll take the root cellars. We learned how to build with straw, clay, and sand to make natural plaster. We'll reject the violence to animals. We don't care how traditional those things are. Like slavery and burning people at the stake, we think violence to animals is a tradition worth abandoning.

So after moving to Ukraine we've found that it's easier to be vegan and vegetarian in some respects and harder in others. For us the big pluses are easily accessible and cheap whole foods. The negatives are that we live in a culture of meat eating and animal abuse. As future oriented people, Yulia and I consciously want to keep the good traditions alive and let the bad ones fizzle out and die. We want to live in a Ukraine that we are proud of, and we want it to be a place that other people look to and want to emulate.