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!


  1. This is not a Ukrainian thing. This is a backwards, rural, uneducated thing. You can even find a similar mentality in many places in the good 'ol USA. Ever see the movie "Deliverance"?

    The age issue you raised is simply tribal. I have seen similar in other countries, especially in Africa and Asia, but also to some degree here where I live in Hungary. As if age gives absolute wisdom. Well, at some point in history -- maybe a millennium ago -- maybe this was true, but no longer today of course. Which is why the youth normally escape from the intimacy of village life that exposes such biases and prefer the anonymity of the larger cities. Or go abroad where such tribal mentalities died out decades ago. For example, our own village where I live is getting more and more geriatric with each passing year because of this. The youth just do not want to put up with the local crap and leave once they get old enough. Some to Budapest, but most go abroad (Austria or Germany).

    In short, you will not change the locals. They will live and die with the mentality they have.

    But you must also look inward. Your ideal of a quite life was of course based on a lot of assumptions. And those were some what naive and biased themselves in assuming that a village life was something it was not (this is not a harsh critique -- I made similar wrong assumptions moving to Hungary). That is just the local reality. You are two against many. You can not change the many alone. You will have to adapt. I know. I and my wife tried. She even ran for mayor, won, spent four years fighting to modernize the village, and then lost the next election to the "old crowd" who refused to change. And you have little recourse if the laws (including fire laws) are ignored by the local authorities -- which really, in a way, does come from the central government if it does not stress that local laws should be enforced. Kind of stinks overall of course. C'est la vie.

    All I can suggest is you build a fire proof fence. I had to relent myself at one point and build a fence that I did not want to build. I know you know since you commented on it at my blog.

    P.S. Be careful battling grass fires. They can be unpredictable, encircle you easily and lead to significant injury or death.

    1. It's very interesting to hear about your wife being mayor. Have you ever written about that on your blog? Just curious to hear more detail about those experiences.

    2. Hi , it is unfortunate that your neighbors are not more considerate of your presence and home there as well , perhaps if you tried to befriend them they would be a little more considerate ?
      ( probably not easy to do )
      As to putting fires like this out , only a small pond and a fire protection pump like a small factory would have would work well , then someone would have to be there to use it , or perhaps you could do a fire break like with a dozer all around your area ( both are unfortunately expensive solutions )
      I have empathy for you in this situation , I had neighbors in the past who were alcoholics and as well related to the local authorities , it was like calling the police on the police you don't get too far like that .
      Now a cell phone camera records all things though .
      I find your journey through life there interesting , best of luck

    3. We'll probably keep the grass around the edges cut a little better. I might extend the fire break onto the abandoned property next door so any fires get stopped before they get too close to anything.

  2. I did not directly blog about my wife being mayor. I did not want active politics to be part of my blog. But I did link and promote some regional festivals and events that she sponsored while being mayor. Such as:

    Now that she is no longer mayor, I have thought about post facto blogging about it.

  3. Michael and Yulia,
    I understand where you are coming from. My wife and I lived for a time (about 12 years) in a rural part of western NC. Like you we were looking for a quieter, simpler way of life. What we found was more akin to the melodrama of Peyton Place. stcoengen is right; backwardness and ignorance are a way of life in most rural areas. It is a fact of life there that is highly resistant to change. We eventually got tired of the drama, and, since our kids had interests (music and acting) that required frequent trips into town anyway, so we moved to a nearby town. Part of the problem was in our own unrealistic expectations. The idyllic concept of rural life is partly a thing of the past, and, partly made workable in the present only if one can join a backward and ignorant subculture. The other aspect of my empathy comes from experiencing the Ukrainian peasant culture in my parents' immigrant community. My father was from a rural village in western Ukraine (Ivano-Frankivsk oblast). He and most of his friends were a lot like the neighbors you describe. They were the major part of why I never had any notion of wanting to relocate back to the "old country" if this ever even became an option. (Though now that I'm getting close to retiring, I have some interest in at least visiting Ukraine.) I had a high school friend whose folks were from Lviv. It seemed like they had come from a different country. My friend's father was a chemistry professor at a very well known university and his mother had been a teacher before coming here. (They made the absolutely best cherry wine I have ever tasted anywhere.) They were a world apart from the ignorant collection of drunks, womanizers, and hot heads my father generally hung out with (birds of a feather flock together). My mother was from a small town in the Gomel district of Belarus, about 20 to 30 km. from the Ukrainian border near the Chernihiv oblast. She had been a nurse before coming to America. My father insisted she work in a shoe factory because it paid better than nursing (which was the case in the early 1950's). My folks were polar opposites in many ways. My mother was a kind, warm, caring person; my father was ignorant, abusive and brutish. I wish you two the very best fortune as you try to bring some positive change to rural Ukraine. This is a part of the world where tradition and custom take precedence over fact and logic. Progress will come slowly; be patient.

  4. Michael and Yulia,
    I think the fire break idea may be the most workable solution to the careless fires set by some of your neighbors. It can be as simple as regularly mowing an area about five to six meters wide around the perimeter of your property. And, don't put or plant anything you want to keep within twenty meters of your property line, if possible.
    I can understand and relate to your frustration with some of your neighbors from two perspectives. First, stcoemgen is correct in his observations about rural culture. Backwardness and ignorance are certainly part of it, but there is also a stogy kind of cultural conservativism that resists anything new or unfamiliar simply because it is new and different. Tradition and custom nearly always mean more to country folks than reason and logic. My wife and I lived in a rural part of western NC for about twelve years and encountered it all at various times. Newcomers are often viewed as intruders in many rural areas; it works that way in many places here in America as well. We too had hoped to find a quieter and simpler way of life in a rural area. This turned out to be an unrealistic expectation in more ways than one. In addition to the neighborhood drama, most of our children developed interests in things that required regular trips into town (music, acting, sports). We eventually got tired of the drama and the almost daily trips into town and moved to a nearby town.
    The other perspective comes from growing up in a Ukrainian immigrant community. My father grew up in a farming village in western Ukraine. Most of his friends, after he came to the U.S., were some combination of drunkard, womanizer, and hot head (people who are quick to get into quarrels and fights). My father was not a heavy consumer of alcohol, but he fit the other two categories fairly well. He was brutish and abusive at home, and, he had that sense of entitlement and callous disregard for others you describe in your post. My childhood experiences of Ukrainian culture (at least that aspect of it) left me with little to no desire to ever go back to the “old country” if the possibility were ever there. Unlike my father, my mother was a kind, warm and caring person. She had been a nurse prior to coming here, in Belarus before WW II and in Austria after the war. My father, whom she married after coming here, insisted she work in a shoe factory because it paid better than nursing (which was true here in the early 1950's). At the same time he felt entitled to cheat on her to satisfy his lust for other available women and replied to her objections to this behavior by beating her to put her in her place.
    However, I also had a high school friend whose parents were from Lviv. By then his father was a chemistry professor at a very well known university here and his mother had been a teacher in Ukraine before WW II. They were so different from my father and his friends that it seemed as though they had come from an entirely different country.

    1. Thank you for your comment and the fascinating story about you and your family.
      Yes, we find that people in the countryside tend to be more close minded and averse to logic. I'm sure a lot has changed since your father's times in Ukraine, but I'm sure that a lot of things have also stayed the same. You are correct about your observations about the differences between Lviv and the countryside. We also find the cultural differences to be very obvious.
      It is fair to say that, from our experience, not all villages are the same. For example, Yulia's grandparents' village, even though very close to us, has a different culture, and the longer we live here, the more apparent it is to us. Also, from our experiences traveling to other Ukrainian villages in (mostly) western Ukraine, we see that every village is unique. Some are actually very well off, while others are completely falling apart and deserted. We find that people in Yulia's grandparents' village are a lot more socially conscious. For example, complete strangers say hello to us whenever we are there, whereas SOME people around here will just silently stare at us--even if we know them. A lot of it has to do with the fact that our village is in an out of the way area away from population centers, jobs, etc.
      The good thing is that there a lot of young people who are starting to reimagine life in the countryside. We know a lot of people who have moved from big cities to the countryside and try to create positive changes and be new kinds of leaders in rural communities. Since, unfortunately, a lot of Ukrainian villages are dying out, we hope they will be replaced by people like this.