Sunday, April 25, 2004

Soviet Reality

I tell you, USSR apologists can kiss my ass. 50 years of Soviet rule has decimated this country. Not just the economy or the infrastructure or the environment (oh sure, they are all shot to hell). But the very core of the national character. The people came up under such oppressive conditions that it is going to take generations to get back to normal. And to think when I was younger there were people who actually touted the Socialism as the future. How can anybody call themselves a humanist and in any way have condoned that regime? It is utterly indefensible. How could anybody have witnessed the conditions of this area or anywhere like it and not see the hell it was for the people?

And hey, I'm not even talking about the over 10 million Ukrainians that Stalin murdered. That's a whole other story.

I'm not looking for a fight, but if I ever run across anybody who wants to pull out that tired argument with me, I'm not sure that I will be able to keep my cool.

Saturday, April 24, 2004


Yesterday we traveled by train to Kiev. During the trip we had a visitor to our cabin. A drunk Ukrainian man, about 35 years old, stepped in and handed G a Lock blade knife with a blade about 5 inches or so long. And he continued down the aisle. G was standing in the cabin with this huge knife in his hand and no idea what to do with it. Meanwhile I was thinking this was some Ukrainian-train-knife-scam which involves Ukrainian Train Militia busting in and arresting us for having an illegal weapon so I tell G to put it on the floor outside the cabin.

About 3 minutes later the stranger reappears with 4 beers and plops down on our seat, grabs the knife off the floor and uses the blade to pop off the top. He was very aggressive and focused on G, slapping him on the back and asking him such inviting questions like "Are you afraid of me?" etc. The tension in the cabin was...tense.

After a few minutes of this guy speaking in loud Russian, laughing loudly and basically trying to intimidate us, I finally whipped out my newly issued Peace Corps Pink card and all the accompanying documents that basically tell whatever cop or militia that is bothering us to back off. And I begin to lie.

I tell him that we are special guests of the Ukraine Government, that the embassy placed us on the train and will be waiting for us in Kiev. That we are under constant surveilance by the militia. You know, the basic points that you want to get across to assure you don't disappear in transit on a train. This goes on for a while and I finally dragged the guy out of the car to have a cigarette just to get him away from the 2 girls in our cabin. Turned out he was an interesting guy who spoke great English. He is a UN Peacekeeper flying helicopters and has served in Liberia and Sierra Leone. It sounds like he's seen a lot of terrible things. Sure he was obnoxious but I was ultimately glad I met him.

He told me he expected to be in Iraq in about a month so you heard it here first folks.

Reading strangers is always tricky and when you are dealing with a new culture it is even more difficult. Given a choice I will always veer on the side of caution but sometimes you stumble across good, if drunk and overbearing people. And that can be a unexpected surprise.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

New Home

I am sitting on the bed of my new room in my soon-to-be new Host Family’s home. The home is 2 rooms plus a kitchen and bath. We have no hot water and the water only runs between 6:30 am and 10:30 pm. So I have had my first of many sponge baths. Sponge baths, at least as given by me to me are not as exotic or romantic as those seen on TV.

I am tempted to design and install a new technology I will call "The Ukrainian gravity shower". It will consist of a bucket with one end of a hose exiting the bottom and a shower head on the other end. I don’t know if I will incorporate pulleys etc. to lift the filled bucket or just a hook but I know I would enjoy the heck out of water actually falling on me for a change. I know this is a new technology so I will introduce it slowly.

I am now assigned to N. It is a port city just above the North Sea. It was the shipbuilding city for the USSR and also secretly built military airplanes. Because of this airplane factory hidden from the west, N was a closed city during Soviet rule. It has a population of about 500,000 and is, by my last city's standards, beautiful. There is a street closed to traffic and filled with outdoor cafes. Two rivers converge here so there are plenty of opportunities to see and walk along the heavy-metal infused water. And we are 30 minutes from the sea.

The story they tell is that when they started building this city and the ships about 200 or so years ago, there were no women, so Katherine sent Russian women and as a result N has the most beautiful women in all of Ukraine.

We also have the greatest Zoo in all of Ukraine.

And we have the Greatest Swimming pool in all of Ukraine, if not the world!

Odessa is 2 hours west and Crimea is about 5 hours to the east. Both are destination spots. Turkey is available by various means and Greece can’t be far away. I am very happy so far.

As I said before, I wasn't able to work with the animation studio for political reasons but now I find myself working with a college. And I think the political implications could be much greater. The goal of the college, as explained to me, is to transform journalism throughout Ukraine from the state-run model to a western style free press.

That means transforming or replacing the media that currently exists. That would be media that is 80% controlled by the state. I have a suspicion that the current government wouldn’t appreciate that. But this is where I am assigned and I will do what I can. My first step will be to contact a businessman I met at a conference last week who specializes in Business management consultation in Ukraine. He is a no-nonsense kind of guy and I want to run this school and their objectives by him to get his feedback. If it is valid, he may be interested in giving some advice. If it is a bunch of hooey, I think he’ll tell me.

The family here is very nice. It consists of a mother S, father A, and daughter L. I started getting a cold my first day and they smothered me with attention. Last night they insisted I drink heated wine. I’ve been taking my trusty ZICAM Zinc nasal gel and it is again cutting back the cold but for the family I attributed my quick recovery to the wine.

But what you really want to hear about are my living conditions don't you?

Well, I have a much nicer room than before. I have a bed, desk and wardrobe. There is a TV and boom box. And it is filled with plants. And the door locks. And the rest of the family sleeps in the living room.

I feel guilty taking their only bedroom but I have to assume that they need the money. What do I mean “assume”? Of course they need the money.

We live on the 7th floor with an elevator that has been broken for 5 years. The family was informed that the elevator is supposed to be repaired next week. They are convinced it is because of my arrival. As much as I would like to accept responsibility, it certainly wasn't because I made a telephone call. Maybe it was because the American moved in. Who knows.

was a rocket scientist in the soviet army. He had 3 stars and I still haven’t figured out if that is the rank of General or Colonel or since it seems stars are generously distributed, a captain but it definitely is an officer . Now he repairs lottery machines around the city. I can’t imagine the pride he has to swallow every day. But he seems to get through each day with good humor and is always smiling and laughing.

I’m constantly reminded of the loss the Ukrainians have suffered since the fall of the Soviets. I can’t say how many formerly successful businessmen I have met who lost everything during that period. Sure, maybe that success could have been retained with a responsible government except the former system was so corrupt already that when the opportunity came, a very few in the inner circles began the raping and pillaging.

This country is on the cusp of either a great advance or a possible slide. I hope the US is keeping in mind the value of this place in our strategic and economic interests. I know, I know, the humanitarian reasons alone are compelling enough but the others don't hurt.

But then the Peace Corps is a non-political, non-religious organization and I of course have no opinion in those matters.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004


Today we went to a soccer match. My first professional match outside the US.

We bought our 30 cent liters of beers and drank them before going in. Armed militia encircled the stadium and stood on the track keeping everybody in line. We watched a guy with a walky-talky about the size of a powerbook use it to block the wind while he lit a cigarette. I tell you that thing looked like it came out of a WW2 movie. Somebody set off a massive smoke bomb that cleared the stands in one section.

Our Team won!

During our walk to the game, I was carrying an empty coke bottle and a Ukraine Friend smiled and said to me "garbage". Thinking he was asking if I was looking for the garbage, I said "Garbage? Yes, I have garbage and I am looking for a garbage can to put my garbage." and everybody freaked out. Turns out he was referring to a passing militiaman. That is their version of "Pig".

My Host mom wants to introduce me to some friends. Maybe she's playing cupid? Probably not but I have to
have my fantasies. Hubba hubba.

Today I saw my first truly american style of doing things. I passed a road crew digging a hole. Three guys were digging while 5 supervised. Just like america.

Saw a TV ad tonight. First screen shows a woman working like a dog, scrubbing clothes by hand in a tub. The voiceover says something about an easier way and the screen slides over to show the same woman, much happier, much better looking
and in much better condition because she now has a better soap to scrub her clothes by hand in the tub. I was expecting an ad for a washing machine. Wouldn't you

I've been seeing TV ads for basketball. They evidently have semi-pro basketball here. And the net
seems like its 6 feet off the floor. In the spots, everybody is slam dunking the ball. They just kind of hop up and grab the rim as if they've really made some huge leap. Their feet are dragging the floor! Gary Coleman could slam dunk on these courts. They must have 400 point games. I've been assured these are regulations baskets so I guess they just jump real good here.

There is a game show I've watched a couple of times and I cannot get my mind around it. It is like wheel of fortune but everybody arrives with things like a 30 pound turnip they've grown in their garden for the host or whatever and they yammer
at length about the significance of the turnip, I guess, about the great trials of their lives or maybe the joys, I can't really tell.
The audience shots are classic East European stereotypes with everybody grimacing as they wildly celebrate with tepid and scattered applause. And the words they guess as part of the game are the most mundane things like "toaster" or today, I swear, "stepmother". One old guy today spinned the wheel and evidently won a car. I still don't know. They gave him some keys and it looked like a car was sitting over his shoulder and then he disappeared for the rest of the show. They just moved on to some other lucky contestant. Maybe they just took him in the back and beat him down.

Finally, there is a potboiler of a soap opera that I've caught. Don't know the story yet but the stud looks like Ernest Borgnine's younger brother and he trips from one beautiful Ukraine woman to an even more beautiful ukraine woman,
breaking each and every one's heart. Why can't I be Ernest Borgnine's younger brother?

Thursday, April 01, 2004

april 1, 2004

Just wanted to drop a line. This won't be as long as the last and by the way, thanks for the responses.

I've got a situation that developed over the past few days that is growing kind of worrisome. It is a little convoluted but hopefully I can tell you fairly quickly.

We were at an orphanage for an annual "Orphan's Day" celebration. It is something that was instituted about 8 years ago to elevate the awareness of homeless kids and to increase adoptions. They have a small parade with the kids on flatbeds, waving to what crowds show up. They have their names and ages posted on the trailer so the audience can see who each one is. Americans are invited to attend because it is a good chance to look at
all the kids in one sittings so to speak.

Anyway, after the parade, I was in the playground with some kids. They like to build miniature clown circuses with sticks and mud, so I was helping. Soon, a cat came into the yard and I was trying to call it over. I was calling "Here Kittie" but unfortunately I wasn't aware of what I was actually saying. It turns out that "Here" sounds much like the Ukrainian word for "I want". I'm studying russian and "I want" is Hochu in that language, so I had no idea of the difference. But then it gets worse. "Kittie" is very similar to a slang term Ukrainians use for a certain part of the female anatomy.

So here I am, calling out for this cat and inadvertantly shouting "I want..." I wasn't even aware of it but the kids withdrew and a small crowd gathered around me. People started yelling in Ukrainian but over here that is typical and I didn't think much of it. It was not until the Mayor's son, who I later found out is mentally retarded, busted into the circle and began yelling at the crowd and at me that I realized something might be wrong. He kept getting more and more upset until another man stepped in and tried to calm him down. They started pushing, shoving and finally it turned into a brawl. My Russian teacher Vlad ran in a pulled me from the crowd before I was caught up in it. They put me in
a car and whisked me away.

It was a nightmare. The militia was called. The mayor got involved. He started a secret police investigation of me. The peace corps main offices got involved. The embassy is involved. I spent hours at the police station and almost some in jail.

And now there is talk of my eviction from the country. If not the country, then surely from the city. They say that I am not safe here anymore. The mayor's son has started a papering campaign around town demanding my eviction. And evidently nobody can stop him because of who his father is. I have 7 state security officials watching me at the moment for my own safety.

It is all very strange and even unbelievable.

I knew I was going on an adventure. But I never realized what was in store for me.

I will find out soon enough how
this will end. Wish me luck.

April Fool’s.

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