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.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Our first vacation

Yulia and I just got back from our first vacation since moving into our home in 2013. It was also our first trip to another European country (aside from Poland) since moving to Ukraine in 2011. We're very close to many destinations that once seemed so distant when we lived in the US, and it's about time we went somewhere!

We went to Rome, Italy for a week. We wanted to go someplace that is relatively warm. We also wanted to go to a European Union country because, living in Ukraine, we so often hear how Ukraine needs to become more like the EU in order to progress. Although we don't consider ourselves "city people" we wanted to go to a city this time 'round so that we could just arrive at an airport and, essentially, be at our destination. Lastly, we wanted to spend as little money as possible. After we found round trip tickets to Rome from Warsaw for 33 US dollars, we figured we had found our destination!

Our general impressions of Rome and Italy

We stayed in an apartment listed on Airbnb. It was our fist time using the website, and we had a good experience! The people who rented us the apartment were helpful and good communicators. The apartment itself had a "vintage" feel to it.

We LOVE how Romans make good use of shutters!
There were tile floors everywhere--a big contrast to the hardwood floors all over our house. The tiles were well taken care of, but old. We wonder if they are original to the building.

Cute kitchen!
We also appreciated the secluded courtyard that the building had. We were in a very busy location. Two heavily used train lines ran by the building, and a train yard bordered the other side. There was an elevated highway a block from the apartment as well. Despite all this, the courtyard was very tranquil.

See the train yard peeking over the wall in the upper right-hand corner??
The courtyard had palm trees, citrus, and a giant...magnolia?

The thing we enjoyed most about Rome was the nature. Even though it was January, there was still a lot of greenery. The trees there were magestic--especially the stone pines.

Stone Pines
It seems that they are purposefully pruned to be tall and have a wide canopy up top. They remind us of clouds or big public umbrellas.

Across the street from the Roman Forum
Stone pines in the Roman Forum
A park known as Villa Borghese. We went there and lazily basked in the sun for some time.
It wasn't only about the stone pines though. We delighted in other forms of vegetation as well.

Seeing a garden like this in January made our mouths water (and it made us green with envy!)
Yulia and some mandarins in the Roman Forum 
We spent most of our time just walking around and appreciating the beauty--both natural and man made. The architecture was lovely!

A posh pedestrian plaza near the Spanish Steps
The Spanish Steps--we guess they're being renovated
Sunset on the Tiber
In general, we're really happy we went to Rome. We knew it was a city of grand monuments and ancient history. We knew about the Pantheon and the Colosseum and that there are some other ancient Roman ruins there. But when you're actually there, the history surrounds you. It feels all encompassing. I didn't realize just how much there is to see there. That's one thing that's not overrated about Rome.

At this point we had walked for miles from our apartment and had seen lots of historic architecture. We got to this overlook and saw that it all just keeps going. I didn't realize the sheer scale of all there is to see in this city.
Another lovely vista
Inside the Pantheon
Aside from all the beautiful things there were to see there, we also enjoyed the people. Most people were very friendly, and they didn't hesitate to say hello and smile. The neighbors in our apartment building would always say ciao as we passed each other in the stairwell or courtyard.

Before going to Italy we knew about the loud Italian stereotype, but we always just thought it was a myth. In fact, we found that Italians really are loud! On our first night we went down the street to a fruit stand by our apartment building. The seller asked us where we were from. "Ukraine," I replied.

"France?" he asked.

"No, Ukraine."

"Ucraina," Yulia said.

"Ah! Ucraina!!!" he exclaimed with a big smile on his face.

Anything louder than a mutter from a fruit seller would be unheard of in Ucraina.

Another time we were in a cafe and I was paying for our bill at the cash register. After I got my change and turned around I heard the man who I just paid shout something. "Crap...did I just give him the wrong bill or something??" I turned around and realized he was just taking the order of the next person in line.

Italians also really do talk with their hands. When we first arrived, we were waiting in a big line for a shuttle bus from the airport to downtown Rome. After half an hour a bus came, and the ticket person got on to talk to the driver. We were wondering if this was the bus that would take us. Before hearing anything from the ticket person, I could see that this driver did not want to take us. He gestured wildly with his hands and made what I understood to be "no" motions. I was right. He wouldn't be our driver that day.

Italy and Ukraine--A Comparison

Yulia and I were also keen to travel to an EU country to see what life is actually like there. Living in Ukraine, we are bombarded with comparisons between our country and the European Union all the time. This makes sense considering the current situation. The Ukrainian government is trying to draw closer to the EU both politically and economically. Also, the mass protests in 2013-14 weren't called "Euromaidan" for no reason. There is popular demand for a more EU-like country (if not full EU integration). We read an article by journalist and, now, member of parliament Sergii Leshchenko while we were in Rome. In his piece, Leshchenko gives the example of how Italy largely cleaned up its corruption in the 1990s during something called the "Mani Pulite" or "Clean Hands" investigation. This constant comparing of backward Ukraine to the civilized European Union has had an impact on Yulia and me--especially since we have not traveled much around Europe since moving to Ukraine five years ago. "Is it true?" we wondered. "Is Ukraine really that much worse than other European countries?"

After actually seeing Italy, we think that Ukraine is the same, better, and worse in different ways. As I mentioned before, Italians really are friendly people, and we don't think it would be the worst thing in the world if Ukrainians would actually crack a smile in public every once in a while. Also, even though Rome is warmer than Lviv, it still has a winter. Despite the fact that many trees lose their leaves in the fall, the city was still very green because of the many evergreens (like stone pines) they have there. In our opinion, it would make sense for there to be more decorative evergreen street trees in Ukraine.

In other respects, Rome was just like Ukraine. We were surprised to see a tram driver light up a cigarette while driving through downtown traffic. In Ukraine this sometimes happens on village buses. Once the driver has dropped off most of the passengers and is well away from the city and, thus, any authorities, he might roll down the window and smoke. Our driver used to do this when he arrived in our village, the last stop.

In general, we were surprised how many Italians were smokers. We spent a lot of time walking the streets of Rome and, therefore, walking through seemingly endless plumes of smoke. Yulia and I assumed that Ukraine would have more smokers than Italy, but it didn't feel that way at all. Italy gives Ukraine a run for its money when it comes to smoking.

We were also surprised to ride public transportation and not see or hear any English (save for the "B line" on Rome's metro). In Ukraine, all announcements on the metro in Kyiv or the trams of Lviv are made in Ukrainian and English. All street signs in Lviv are also in Ukrainian and English. I went to use an ATM in Rome's Ciampino Airport, and there was no English option. The ATMs in the closest town to our out-of-the-way village in Ukraine even have English options.

We're alright with just Italian being used in Rome--we were in Italy, after all. But when you constantly hear how Ukraine needs to become more Western and more like the EU, we can't help but notice these inconsistencies. I can't even imagine what would happen if a tourist arrived in Ukraine and was met by an airport ATM with no English option! "Ukraine is sooo provincial ...Ukraine is stuck in Soviet times ...Travelers beware! "

Our defensiveness is not coming out of nowhere. Here's what David Sedaris, an American writer who--until now--I liked and respected, had to say about the litter problem in the UK:
"You have to go deep into eastern Europe to find it so bad. I have never seen anything like this in Japan or France. It’s obviously a cultural problem." (source)
Actually, Yulia and I beg to differ. We find that the litter problem is much worse in Rome than it is in Ukraine.

I'm aware that we discuss the litter problem in Ukraine right here on our blog, but it is mainly a problem in rural areas where there are no trashcans or dumpsters for miles around.

If you wake up early in the morning and take a walk through Lviv, you will see people in blue vests sweeping up debris on the streets. It's far from perfect, but it's a relatively clean city. If you walk around the corner from the apartment where Yulia and I stayed in Rome, you will see this:

I guess someone wanted to get rid of that suitcase fast!

And this:

What's not visible in these pictures is the line of dumpsters right across the street. Sure, you could come to our village and take unflattering pictures, but the nearest trash can or dumpster is tens of kilometers away. Also, how much more money does Rome have compared to any Ukrainian city?

I was walking behind one woman in Rome and saw her "throw out" a piece of plastic by generally tossing it in the direction of a dumpster as she walked by. Another time, we saw a police officer (I want to emphasis that--a police officer) surreptitiously drop a piece of garbage on the street and keep walking.

On our last day (or what we thought would be our last day) in Rome, we went to the airport, walked through security, and made sure to spend the last Euros we had on us. We were in line for our flight to Warsaw, which was scheduled to leave in ten minutes when, to our horror, we saw our departure time change from 11:10 to 19:00. There was no announcement, but the people in line started to disband. We stayed in place (we had a good spot in front), hoping to hear an announcement as to why our flight had been delayed for eight hours. That's a pretty significant delay, and it was a beautiful, sunny day. After a while, we lost hope, sat down, and started looking for someone to talk to. There was only one airport employee in the whole terminal, which served about ten different flights. After we sat down, we plugged in our laptop and learned that there were no functioning outlets in the whole area. After half an hour, somebody finally made a barely intelligible announcement that, because of a strike, the whole airport was closed until the evening.

Needless to say, we'll never use that airline or fly into Ciampino again. After several hours we found a relatively cheap hotel online and got tickets for a flight the next day.

Our last minute, cheap hotel. Not bad!!
The inside needs some renovations and TLC, which explains the price. Beggars can't be choosers though, right?
We don't live in Warsaw, so arriving at Modlin Airport and trying to get on a bus to Lviv at that hour of the night would have just been too much. We left the airport with headaches and as the only two passengers on a double decker shuttle bus to downtown Rome (remember--the airport was closed--so no arrivals and no people to take to the city).

What we learned from our trip

We don't want to give the wrong impression. We really liked Rome, and we really like Italians. We had a great time (except for a few inconveniences--like the entire airport shutting down the day we were supposed to leave). Yulia and I recommend that you go to Italy if you've never been there. But don't think, like David Sedaris does, that the farther east you go in Europe, the worse it gets. That's just not true. Yes, Ukraine might be poorer than the UK or Italy, but that doesn't mean it's not worth visiting. And being poor definitely doesn't mean that it deserves cheap shots from snarky American writers.

Yulia and I have now been in Ukraine for several years. We've experienced both the good and the bad, and we know what we're talking about when it comes to daily life here. We've been let down by many friends and family members who have promised to visit, but, for whatever reason, never came. It's a shame because. like Italy, Ukraine is a lovely place to visit. Who knows, maybe people experience the litter and pick pockets of Rome and just assume that Ukraine must be worse because it's poorer and farther east.

We've actually become very interested in Italian culture and have been reading some blogs that describe daily life in Italy. A blog post titled, "7 Things this Italian Hates about Italy" almost describes Ukraine word for word to us. Take a look at the following excerpts from this blog and tell us if it couldn't be used to describe the stereotypical image of Ukraine.

  • "On a daily basis politicians are accused of using public money to go on expensive vacations and buy presents for their wives, lovers and family, or to pay prostitutes, to give you an idea.."
  • "What’s more sad is that Italian’s [or Ukrainians] draw great satisfaction from being sly. If an Italian [or Ukrainian] can get ahead of you when standing in line or while driving, they will be happy to do so. Needless to say, this attitude has disastrous consequences for our society as a whole. Living in France made me realize how an alternative mentality can lead to huge differences in the quality of life in a nation."
  • "It’s not uncommon to wait for 1 hour before getting even a glimpse of a bus. You’ve been warned. Waiting for it to arrive is one problem, but then you’ll have to get on the bus. This can be a bigger challenge because the infrequency means they’re often full of people. But not just people ­ irritated people. They shout, push and complain."
After reading the comments section of this blog, Yulia and I found that we're not the only people who think this describes their country. People wrote in from France, Panama, Mexico, India, Brazil, Argentina, the Philippines, Russia, and, yes, Ukraine, saying how this could describe their own countries. We've realized that a lot of the problems we think are unique to our own country or culture are more widespread than we think. We'll stuff ourselves onto an overloaded, sweltering hot bus in Lviv and roll our eyes to each other. "Only in Ukraine," we complain to ourselves. 

Well, maybe not only in Ukraine. We've realized that maybe we should be a little less hard on our beloved Ukraine because the problems we see here don't only exist in Ukraine. It doesn't ameliorate or lessen the negative impacts of these problems, but it does put these problems into perspective. We hope that you can understand as well. 

Yes, Italy might have some problems. And, yes, Ukraine might have some problems. Sometimes Yulia and I feel like we need to compensate for Ukraine's image problem by focusing on the positives you'll find here (In all honesty, we don't think Italy gets it as bad as Ukraine does). We don't want to portray Ukraine to you through rose colored glasses, but considering all the bad press it gets, we want to show others--especially those who have never been here--what you won't see in the media. Where will you ever read about veganism and Ukraine? Where will you see the beauty of the Ukrainian countryside? Chances are, the only things outsiders know of Ukraine are Chernobyl, corrupt politicians, and snow.

Well, if you know Italy at all, Ukraine's also a lot like Italy. But Italy's also got a lot of its own wonderful quirks and wonders to see. We recommend you go and see both.