Letters from Ukraine

January 17th, 2012

Hey you))) (Russian/Ukrainian smiley faces for some reason lack eyes. Regardless of whether or not they result from some Chernobyl induced pop culture or just laziness, they are wonderfully addictive)))

Sidenote: Quite amusing that spell check picks up on my misspelling the word Chernobyl yet it fails to recognize the spelling of a city of plus-two million people, Kharkiv… Such is the world in which we live; a world in which disasters, conflicts and invasions open up previously unknown places and cities to western computer programs.

That aside, how wonderful it was to get your last message! It feels like I haven’t talked to you in such a long time… much too long! As I write you now, I am actually at my new apartment in Kharkiv (that aforementioned Ukrainian city). It’s late and I do believe it is snowing outside. This is the first time I’ve ever seen it snowing outside of a Hollywood film. Can you believe that? It’s true! So to commemorate, I am messaging you while watching (listening really) to the Russian equivalent of VH1. Some of these songs are actually quite good. It’s funny how it seems, to me anyway, that I always hear better music when I’m in Europe than I do when I’m in America, even if a lot of that music is American to begin with. But anyway, where was I? Oh yes… where I am. I actually don’t have internet here, which is most unfortunate since it means you’re not going to get this message until at least tomorrow and I’ve already kept you waiting so long…

Sidenote 2: Have you ever seen the music video for this new (I guess) Jennifer Lopez song “Papi”? I don’t usually seek out her videos, or music, but it’s playing right now and is quite entertaining… She’s in a hotel, takes a bite of a cookie after the woman at the desk tells her that it’ll bring “her love back,” and is then pursued down the street by a gaggle of men who jump out of glass windows and take turns tackling one another to try and gain her affections. Really? I mean, maybe ‘Out of Sight’ Jennifer Lopez but that was 15 years ago already!

First things first, and first we go to London. This was the first stop on my post-U.S. itinerary (after a few hours spent perusing that stellar English bookshop, Shakespeare and Company during an especially long layover in Paris) and I stayed there with a very dear friend for nine days. So that was just lovely. Oh, and I did get to do some shopping for some desperately needed winter clothing to complement my one leather jacket and sweater. After watching the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (have you seen the new version yet? it’s actually quite good!) I was set on finding a wool coat similar to the one Daniel Craig sports in the film (if you need an example of why product placement in films works, look no further than me!) I got a rather good deal on a nice grey wool coat from Austin Reed, though it wasn’t the blue one that Mr. Craig so aptly models in the film, and managed to also pick up a scarf or two! I probably spent too much, yes, but I like to think of these items as very necessary expenses. Anyway, my friend who I was staying with had the unfortunate luck to have only two days off the entire time I was there, so for most of the day I was out on my own either shopping or hanging out in cafes, both of which sadly cost money. There was at least one particularly nice (and cost-free) evening spent on my own where I sat on a bench next to the Thames river and overlooked Big Ben and the British Parliament. I sat there a while, Big Ben chimed the hour twice if my memory serves me right, just thinking and reflecting on everything that’s happened in these last few months… it’s amazing to think, really… from Iceland to London to Berlin to Prague and then Morocco, home for the holidays in Orlando and then London again and now, finally, Ukraine! I was thinking the other day about when I first had arrived in Morocco, and how lost and alone I had felt in those first days. It seems like just yesterday that I was telling you all about it… venting after an especially frustrating day or event. And now, having just arrived in a new city in a new country where only tomorrow I’ll start teaching to a new group of students for a new term, in a new year, here you are… still. Thanks for that.

All of which to say, my nice little meditation on the Thames put me in the right state of mind. It was actually quite like one of those Mastercard commercials. I suppose you’ve seen them? Wool Coat from Austin Reed: 100 Pounds. Peppermint Hot Chocolate from a delightful little cafe off Regent street which I can’t remember the name of: 4 Pounds. Failed attempt at once again trying Breast Milk Ice Cream and, upon discovering they still didn’t have it and weary of appearing like a total infant, having to settle for Popcorn Ice Cream: 5 Pounds. Sitting alongside the Thames and contemplating the past and future? Priceless. There are some things money can’t buy, for everything there’s Mastercard… perhaps I shall send them my bill and see what they think…

Oh, before I forget, you MUST see “The Artist”! I know a lot of people who are turned off by the thought of a silent film but of everyone I know, you are the one who I think would most enjoy it! It’s not an easy thing for someone who fancies himself a writer to say, but perhaps words sometimes get in the way. Of what, I’m not sure… emotions, feelings, truth perhaps… but without words, the message of “The Artist” comes across, I think, so much more clearly than it otherwise would. You know how most great movies have great soundtracks, right? From “Gladiator” to “Lord of the Rings,” “The Lives of Others,” and, of course, “Moulin Rouge,” it seems to be the one thing, aside from a great script, that all these classic films have in common. “The Artist” also has a great soundtrack and even though it’s technically dubbed a “silent film,” it’s not at all silent! The music reflects the emotions going on throughout the film just perfectly! And, like all great stories, this one is about love. And since true “love” is often transmitted between two people in more than just those three famous, oft-spoken words, but in actions, in the way eyes and lips and hearts touch- then I suppose that in the end what’s real aren’t the “I love you’s”- this too carelessly tossed about collection of words that the speaker often doesn’t mean- but that which is unspoken… and which is better off that way.

Sidenote #3: Just saw this really cute, really clever video for this song I’d never heard before, Olly Murs “Dance With Me Tonight.” It starts with this guy in prison, getting photographed for his mug shots, and then goes back several hours earlier and tells the story of how he ended up there. You must YouTube this one!

So right, Ukraine… well, you are absolutely right about one thing: I am in love with Borsch! It was love at first, errr, taste really, though I have had it before (in Russia) but I do find this Ukrainian variant even more delectable! Not just that, but Verenyky (is that how one spells it?) is something I’ve rarely gone a meal without! And this is where things get interesting. Essentially these are exactly like what I had in Poland, only there they are dubbed Pierogies. Did the Ukrainians or the Polish invent them first I wonder? Hmmm…

Other than the food, the nice thing here (so far) is that it isn’t nearly as cold as I thought it would be. It’s been about +2, 3 or even 4 here, and while it snowed today, this isn’t nearly the -20 something degree weather they supposedly get at this time of year. I’m not complaining.

How strange it is that Christmas is over… I always get this weird sort of post New Year feeling, truly like all the accomplishments and endeavors (both good and bad) of the past year are gone and now I’m left to start over. Well, start over I shall, and there are certainly worse places to do it than in Ukraine in the dead of winter, for at least this makes for some interesting tales to tell!

I did spend one week in Kiev for the training which was basically just a rehash of some of the stuff I learned while I was in Prague doing the TEFL course. Apparently the school was founded by 7th Day Adventists (some kind of weird Christian like cult-thingy) and as a result they for some reason observe the Jewish Sabbath day so we have Fridays and Saturdays off instead of the more traditional Saturday/Sunday thing. I’ll decline to complain about this since I’m just happy to actually have two set days off, unlike the situation in Morocco where I had zero. I do miss my students there though, but I’m sure I’ll get some good ones here too. I didn’t get to see too much of Kiev unfortunately because we were doing that training until 10 pm every night so all there was really time for afterwards was a drink at a pub. There were 4 other people in the training with me and we didn’t even know where we were going to get placed until the final day, the day before we were to leave. There was only one opening at the Kiev school, so that got given to a girl who is married to a Ukrainian who lives in Kiev and thus she got preferential treatment. Two others were transferred to a city a bit more in the south called Dnipropetrovs’k (you should hear me try to pronounce this!) and then me and another guy got placed in Kharkiv. This is supposedly the second largest city in Ukraine after Kiev and is very close to the Russian border. I arrived here a bit over a week ago now but still haven’t seen much of anything yet, what little I have seen it appears quite nice though. My colleague and I, Rob, each have our own apartments here which means for me it’s unusually quiet at night. Something I’m not entirely used to having been brought up with five siblings. Rob (who trained with me in Kiev) requested his own apartment because his partner is going to be living with him while he’s teaching in the city.

Sidenote #4: Wow Beyonce is hot in this video!

That brief comment by the way may later be read as a thinly disguised attempt on my part to draw a distinction between what I’m about to say and my own sexuality, though the distinction is entirely unintentional. Oh right, so what I have to say is that Rob is gay, meaning his partner is of course a man. Well, more of a boy really. He resembles Lisbeth Salander in the oddest way… (You must read and/or watch Girl With the Dragon Tattoo!) So anyway, he is gay which is totally fine as I am quite open-minded and liberal when it comes to such matters, the funny thing is that the two of them are very, very open and public with their affection. Again, not a bad thing, more couples should be, but it certainly is an interesting thing to throw into an already slightly odd and very traditional (in the sexist kind of way) dinner with a longtime Kharkov resident English teacher. Right. So we get a call last night that we’re supposed to go to dinner with another English teacher who’s lived in the city for a while and wants to apparently welcome us. So Rob asks whether his “friend,” i.e. non-english speaking gay lover, can come along. The other teacher, we’ll call him Daniel, says yes, and we’re on our way! Once we get there, we’re shown in by an ultra-hippie looking Daniel and his girlfriend, mistress, lover, spy, Natasha. Actually, she’s one of his former students who is now also, I would presume, at least one of the above. We all sit on one side of the table while Daniel sits there observing us, picking lint from his beard, and Natasha stands at the stove cooking. She’s very Russian, though Ukrainian, and initially doesn’t speak or show much emotion at all beyond stirring the pot of Borsch quite ferociously.

So anyway, he’s picking lint from his beard and the flirtatious giggling between Rob and his boyfriend, not to mention their very open petting and caressing, has drawn Daniel’s attention. So we sit like that, Daniel pretending to be interested in answering my questions about Kharkov and the school while really being more interested in the way the two next to me are playing with each others’ hair. Finally, revealing himself as the very forward guy he no doubt is, he asks the two of them how they met. Rob tells the story, as Daniel doesn’t know Ukrainian or Russian, and Daniel begs them to resist kissing each other at the story’s conclusion when it looks like that inevitably will happen. Natasha has been very silent this whole time, stirring the borsch and only responds to my questions once Daniel has excused himself and gone into the other room for something (a rifle perhaps?). He returns not with a rifle but with a newfound affection for Natasha (this was, believe me, strange and unexpected). I’m the only one in the room now not locked in a passionate embrace and make a joke about it which makes Daniel laugh and return to the table to sit, once again, across from us. He pours us some of the champagne we brought but insists on toasting us with coca-cola instead. Oh god, I’m thinking, he must be terribly religious! (Or at least was. He told us he did mission work when he was younger) But seemingly he’s not put off too noticeably by the PDA going on next to me and instead starts talking about some ex-girlfriend and confusing which woman he was with when he watched a certain movie. It seems he does this to intentionally irritate Natasha, though based on her reaction she seems neither put off nor entirely new to this.

For the record, Rob and Daniel aren’t the only ones who have linked up with natives while here. Out of the other three American teachers at the school, the one girl is currently engaged to a Ukrainian guy, one guy is married to a Ukrainian with a baby on the way, and the other is dating a Ukrainian. Which, I think, makes me the only American in a city of two million who not only isn’t in a relationship with a Ukrainian, but who isn’t in a relationship at all. I think I shall have to start a club or something… one which will be guaranteed to get about ten fewer members than the film club I started at Uni and which had a roster of, ummm, let me check… oh yes, about ten.

Even Kate, our school director, told us during a meeting with her our second day that we will find that being in Kharkov is “very lucky for love.”

As for Ukrainian women, yes, by and large they do possess a certain physical attractiveness that separates them from their American counterparts (a bit classier than saying they’re all really damn hot, right?) but seriously, it does all feel a bit odd… the fact that every single American I’ve run into, both in Kiev and now here, in Kharkov, is either dating or is even more likely married to a Ukrainian. Of the 14 Americans I’ve met since arriving, not one is currently not in a relationship. And only one isn’t in a relationship with a Ukrainian. Four of them, all teachers who have been in the country for a month or more, are already married to “former” students. Another three are already engaged. Five are currently dating Ukrainians, all seriously (their words). One, though having arrived in the country on the same day as me, has already met a Ukrainian girl online who supposedly already wants to move in with him and, wild guess, get married?

Sidenote #5: Speaking of marriages…. Heidi Klum and Seal are getting a divorce! They were like the world’s happiest couple! What??! Phil Collins had it right when he asked, “Doesn’t anybody stay together anymore?” Nope Phil, I’m afraid not. Why even bother?

The only American who isn’t dating a Ukrainian is a young guy who has an American girlfriend back home. She just left after flying from the states to spend a couple weeks with him. If I were her, I’d make those trips a bit more often.

You can see my adverb of choice in the above few paragraphs is “already.” Perhaps it’s because I am not used to such startlingly high numbers. Science doesn’t back this up! Though if evolution has its way, there will be quite an increase over the coming years in the number of those able to apply for dual American/Ukrainian citizenship!

So, while these odds would suggest that the end of my eight month contract here will find me married with a possible, though currently (what’s in this water?) undesired, child on the way, I doubt this will be the case. I’m not exactly the kind of person to jump headlong into a serious relationship with someone I don’t know at all… or at least, this is not kind of person my first, second and third New Year’s Resolutions of the year would dictate that I be.  Furthermore, getting into a relationship here would be, at least according to the very unscientific (but compelling) data I’ve compiled, the most predictable and unoriginal thing I could possibly do. Am I predictable? Unoriginal? I like to think not… even when there are very attractive Ukrainian women stacking the odds against me. But then again, when was predictability ever a bad thing?

If I’m being honest I’d have to say the one thing that’s really important to me is passion; passion and communication. It seems to me based on my admittedly very limited time here so far, that these aren’t traits (huge generalization alert!) that most men here seem to have, and maybe most women here then aren’t even interested in such things. After all, I am the kind of person who can be, I’ll just come out and say it, a tad bit emotional. (Yes, this letter just took a very gushy turn) And, weird as it may sound, I would likely take loud, passionate arguments over a submissive partner who lacks any kind of individuality, or worse, keeps our differences bottled up on the inside. One of the reasons American men supposedly so like Ukrainian women, (according to comments several guys here have made to me, again unscientific) is that they find them to be so submissive, so willing to please. They’re not like these supposed “feminists” that America is full of, and I’d agree that this would in a way qualify as a very good thing, so long as individuality isn’t sacrificed. I have noticed though what an amazingly kind and giving heart Ukrainian women have. And I can confirm after two days teaching here (speaking from the future world of email modifications and corrections!) that they most certainly do have really good hearts, though the harsh living conditions most of the now older ladies grew up under during the Soviet Union has made them understandably a bit hard I think. Or I could be entirely wrong about all of this and, as Daniel said, they’re both using each other; him for sex and her for a chance at a Green Card. Who can say? And really, I suppose it doesn’t matter.

Well, what a roundabout and I’m sure you’ll agree, terribly tedious way to say what I’ve been getting toward this entire time which is… hmmm… something about the nature of love? I can’t remember…

Sidenote #6: Oh, what a good but also sad song (and video) by this band I’ve never heard of called Scouting for Girls, singing “Love How It Hurts.” You should look this one up too!

I can’t apologize enough for blabbing on and on like that. I feel like I may have lost you there. You’re probably comatose by this point anyway…

Anyway, taking my unearned Psychiatrist’s hat off, I think the school and the city both seem like a good fit for now. I may have mentioned it to you when we chatted last but it is really easy to transfer from city to city within the various branches of this language center I’m working for here, which is of course a nice plus but for now I quite like it here. For a city of two million people Kharkov (the Russian spelling) feels surprisingly quaint…

Sidenote #7: Watching the BBC now. Do you know Nigeria’s President is named Good Luck Jonathan? Yes, Good Luck Jonathan! I don’t know anything about the guy and already I like him! What a winning name. Certainly better than Mitt Romney which sounds like a glove used when giving a rich man a prostate exam… and god I hope that wasn’t a prediction!

Okay, present day now and up at the coffee shop here. I really ought to be getting ready for class now. We have these conversation clubs we have to lead where we are responsible for leading an hour-long discussion. Today’s topic? Men and Women. Shouldn’t be too difficult to get people to talk about that! And today I think I’ll just listen. Intently.

Lots of love from the snowy east,

Brendan

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4 comments

  1. Have I mentioned lately how much I miss you?! Reading this put me right there beside you in the coffee shop. Will definitely check out the song videos you suggested, and yes, I will go to the Enzian to see “The Artist.” I now feel I have missed something that may speak right to my heart!

  2. Hmm it appears like your website ate my first comment (it
    was super long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I submitted and say, I’m
    thoroughly enjoying your blog. I too am an aspiring blog blogger but I’m still new to everything. Do you have any suggestions for beginner blog writers? I’d definitely appreciate
    it.

    1. Uh oh, the website has a mind of its own sometimes 🙂 As far as any advice I might have, definitely pick a decent blog template, you can preview them all if you use a wordpress.com account, and then just write from the heart my friend!

  3. An impressive share! I have just forwarded this onto a colleague who had been conducting a little research on this.
    And he actually bought me lunch due to the fact that I discovered it for him…
    lol. So allow me to reword this…. Thank YOU for the meal!!
    But yeah, thanx for spending some time to discuss this issue here on your website.

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