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|
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|
|Notice that the left half of the pear tree is blackened|
* * *
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!