Apologies for not posting as frequently as I would have liked this month. Despite the end of the European Football Championship, there is still plenty to see and do in and around Kyiv. As such, I have been busy both with work, visiting different places, and all other things random…speaking of random, please enjoy this random assortment of thoughts and information that have built up in my mind since the last entry.
Poltava: Earlier this month I ventured on a day trip to the city of Poltava. Admittedly, I spent most of the day in marshrutkas traveling back and forth and normally eight hours in a van would not be worth 5 hours in a town-but this little gem in Eastern Ukraine was. Before I came to Ukraine, the cities in the East I had heard of were Donetsk, Kharkiv and one place that becomes easier pronounce when drunk and slurring your speech: Dnepropetrovsk. I wanted to go to one of those places and see if I could really see a difference between Eastern and Western Ukraine.
Instead, I ventured to a place I hadn’t previously heard of. First, it was closer and I only had time for a day trip. Moreover, I learned the area was sort of the literature Mecca of Ukraine (and a bit for Russia). For example: native son Nikolai Gogol’s stories took place in and around the region, Pushkin wrote a poem about the place, and a very important Ukrainian writer, Ivan Kotlyarevsky, was from there. Literature!
Poltava also is home to “halushky” which is a type of Ukrainian dish that is similar to another type of Ukrainian dish-Varenyky…which is best described as being similar to a type of Polish dish-pierogi….Which is best described as “dumplings.” Anyway, in Poltava they are very proud of their type of ‘dumplings,’ as you can see below.
Also, the place truly is a beautiful little town with its center modeled as a mini-St. Petersburg. This is due to the fact that Peter the Great won a very important battle here in 1709 crushing some Swedes and Ukrainians. This destroyed legitimate Ukrainian independence hopes until 1991. Moving on…There is also a nearby monastery, plenty of really interesting architecture, some great views, and a rotunda!
Also, I was shown around by two friendly locals who I had merely asked directions from. Generally they proved excellent guides and offered welcome companionship with their strange and quirky sense of humor (I kept thinking Boris & Natasha from Bullwinkle though I’m not sure why). Though our time ended on a bit of a sour note due to an issue of me paying for people’s meals who weren’t even with us, they were generally good people. More importantly: Poltava is easily the most enjoyably quaint town I’ve been to in Ukraine.
U must Kraine Neck: I know I talked about the metro but it has taught me another thing: I’m a good deal taller than most Ukrainians. Yes, I am tall generally, but rare is the ride that I can’t see above the sea of heads from one side to the other.
However, this is no reason to gloat as I provide entertainment for all the Lilliputians riding with me by usually having to crouch down (or hitting my head) on my way out. In fact, I’ve hit my head many places around town: different door frames (home, at work), overhangs on ATM machines, entrances to restaurants…I’m pretty sure the list doesn’t go too much further. Maybe it does and for some reason I forgot…
Romantic Fireworks: I haven’t been to any weddings here even though I know it’d be a helluva party. However, I’ve heard quite a few interesting factoids about the traditions connected with marriage/weddings from students. My favorite: the best (and I’m guessing more old fashioned) way to say no to a man proposing in Ukraine? A pumpkin. That’s right-a woman gives a man a pumpkin after he proposes. While Charlie Brown may have waited for the Great Pumpkin, boys and men in love in Ukraine are desperate to never come across such a thing after asking for a woman’s hand here. Beware of daughter’s whose father’s are pumpkin farmers-I imagine they can be picky.
While on the subject of the fairer sex, a few quick things I’ve started to think I think:
1. On a few occasions, a response for what I should see/do in Ukraine includes seeing/meeting/**ahem-ing**/dating/marrying Ukrainian women. This both from men and women. I have tried to explain to people that if you went to America, it would be very, very strange for an American man-or woman-to say, “Oh, you must go to Colorado and see the women there” or something like that. Yet, both men and women have said statements similar to this to me many times.
2. Ukrainian women are born in high-heels. In the summer they dress like they are going on the catwalk. No complaints. Also, whatever the fashion-whether it is babushkas in scarves covering their heads in the heat of summer, or platinum blondes in stilettos and skirts-it’s very individualistic. Maybe I’m not so inclined to really pay detailed attention, but I do feel like when I’ve thought about it, there is an extreme uniqueness and pride to every female’s sense of fashion here.
3. The entire topic of “country with the most beautiful women” is of course chauvinistic, degrading, etc. etc. I have safely started saying that Estonia has the most beautiful women because there are only 10 women in the country and they are all beautiful. After people figure out if I’m serious, the topic has passed and I never offend anyone. That all said, the women here are beautiful.
4. There exists a stronger and different sense of feminism in Ukraine than traditional feminism in America. I have no numbers or anything to back this up, but however much my first three points may grate against what I would imagine to be traditional Western feminism, women in powerful positions seem quite common in this society (Tymoshenko, my boss, the former boss of my company, etc.). Yet, the women in power here also seem to play into the above points as well (maybe not always #1 as much). Thus, Ukrainian women possess the capability to definitely become empowered-though it’s in a sense that people from some places may view in some ways demeaning. I suppose just another reason to beware of applying cross-cultural norms.
A River Runs Through It: Remember Gogol (if not, google him…yep I went there)? He wrote that the Dniper river is so wide that birds fall before reaching the middle. This behemoth seems and feels wider than the Mississippi (I am using the scientific method of closing my eyes and imagining both rivers and crossing over them). Waste of time to judge beauty as both are impressive but it’s undeniable that the lifeblood of Kyiv is this river. Citizens flock to the river for the weekend and along the different paths nearby like the really pleasant Obolon embankment or either of the main islands. What blows my mind though is that people swim in it (toss up: What’s dirtier? the political environment or the actual one). Anyway, the symbolic energy and general option for an escape that the river provides in the heat of the summer is a treat.
Accidental Tourism vs. Accident Tourism: One of my favorite things to do remains walking around parts of town and getting lost-it’s quite an enjoyable feeling when you see something no guidebook would mention (i.e. two old ladies sitting outside a block of flats sharing a beer and-as I imagined-discussing the pigeons in front of them). Let’s call this Accidental Tourism.
Then there is Accident Tourism which I am not a fan of. For instance: one of the questions that has occasionally come up is if I’m going to/or have been to Chernobyl. Before I came, I considered it, but part of me was always hesitant. Not because of a risk of radiation-it is about the same as a transatlantic fight. Not because of ridiculous costs (even in a large group you are paying more than $120) and not because the entire tour is just a bunch of abandoned buildings etc. Instead-and the more time I have spent here the more convinced I have become this is the right decision-I was hesitant against going and chose not to go because I don’t need to glorify an accident.
People understandably travel to Auschwitz, Ground Zero, Nanking etc. (I don’t want to make this list too long though sadly I could). I myself plan to go to Babi Yar before I leave Kyiv. Such places evoke the wrong and depravity of humanity and provide an opportunity to learn. Moreover, going to these places lets one pay respect as one can honor the deceased with something as simple, yet meaningful, as a visit.
Chernobyl was a mistake and there were victims. The museum in Podil does an excellent job of honoring them and deserves to be visited (as it is more of a memorial than a real ‘museum’). However, most people will not gain anything by going on a tour of Chernobyl-unless perhaps they are a nuclear engineer or some kind of scientist-other than to say they went to Chernobyl. That does not seem to be the right way to remember a catastrophic accident to me. I don’t know of any Americans who eagerly plan visits to the site of the Exxon Valdez or Three Mile Island.
Why this is treated differently by foreigners is beyond me. I don’t need to go to Chernobyl and can summarily respond in the future why I didn’t go: no Ukrainians see a reason to visit Chernobyl, so I don’t see why I should.*
*I was told that they occasionally go to Chernobyl for extreme marriages-but that still isn’t as interesting as the pumpkin.