“Look across the great divide, soon they’re gonna hear the sound, the sound, the sound, when we come running” ~ Youngblood Hawke: Southwestern America Road Trip, part 1.

Sometimes it’s hard to know where to even begin. I mean, on a road trip, it’s mile 0 aka home. But when people ask about a trip, the answer is curt. In the case of my recent excursion, I say “great” and bite my tongue to avoid launching into 8,000 more words.

Where to begin? Sheesh. Where to end?

Well how about this:

Two of my roommates, Jake & Reid, and myself went on a little trip earlier this month. We visited: the Grand Canyon, the Hoover Dam, Las Vegas, Claremont & Santa Monica & Los Angeles, Solana Beach (San Diego), White Sands National Park (NM), Carlsbad Caverns (NM), and Austin for South by Southwest before returning home. According to Google: 3,390 miles and 52 hours. We did that-and more-in roughly one week. It was incredible.

Was such a trip a bit hectic? Rash? Needed?

To answer those questions, I don’t connect it to all the work associated currently with school, or the pressing need to acquire it shortly after school is finished. I think of a book my parents sent me before the trip: John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charlie. I made a meaningful dent into it I’m happy to say. As is my wont, I found some passages I liked. When I think if this trip answers those questions, my answer sounds something like:

“Who doesn’t like to be a center for concern? A kind of second childhood falls on so many men. They trade their violence for the promise of a small increase of life span. In effect, the head of the house becomes the youngest child. And I have searched myself for this possibility with a kind of horror. For I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory, or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment. I did not want to surrender fierceness for a small gain in yardage.”

With that mindset, we set out on Thursday evening. Leaving at such a time might have been an inauspicious, if not downright dangerous beginning. Night driving for the whole night is a bit of an undertaking-even for three people. But time rapidly passed through music-related word games, enjoyable conversation, two stops to McDonalds in the same state with one missing straw and one extra straw at inopportune locations, and the sheer invigoration that can get from shouting/wondering aloud, while driving through Amarillo, if this is the way to Amarillo.

Yet, something strange happened as day broke and we got nearer and nearer to the Grand Canyon…

Spring Break in...Arizona...?

Spring Break in…Arizona…?

I think the three of us soon all had our Dumb & Dumber moment: but instead of expecting the Rockies to be a lot rockier, we just imagined that Arizona would be a lot sunnier. We quickly did research and found we were indeed in Arizona and near to Flagstaff, Arizona. That happens to be near Humphreys Peak which is at an elevation of 12,637 feet or, “high.” We soon made it over to the nearby Grand Canyon hoping it would be sunnier and clearer and well…

Oh yeah. It was perfect.

Oh yeah. It was perfect.

The weather was so bad that for a second Reid thought the whole trip was ruined and considered ending his trip/more than that…

NO!!!!!

NO!!!!!

But then we reminded him it wasn’t so bad, especially because our 4th traveling companion (not Bain) was enjoying her trip.

In case you need toast with a kitty toasted on to it at the Grand Canyon.

In case you need toast with a kitty toasted on to it at the Grand Canyon-we got you covered. Thanks GDB.

So we decided everything was more or less okay. Next step, setup our campsite and prepare for a night that may just be a little chillier than our expectations had been.

Prepare like you belong...with a coyote cap on your head.

Act like you belong…with a coyote cap on your head.

I don’t mean to brag, but the three of us are pretty ingenious and innovative. By that, I mean we stayed warm by starting a fire. As a note to any future campers, there is excellent ‘firewood’ in the local Grand Canyon village grocery store. It is found in the free magazine rack. Reid left with a stack of around 400 of them (we also bought real firewood). Keeping with the genius-ness, we ate some delicious hot dogs on the fire.

Mmmm...

Mmmm…

Now, some may say that the hot dogs tasted a bit like magazines or that out of a 12 pack, 8 or so ended up in the fire. Jake and Reid were not deterred and instead created a new specialty: the grilled peanut better sandwiches…The only problem with this whole thing (besides our clothes becoming smoke-drenched) was that while we were cooking, sharing stories and interesting facts (the center of the universe smells likes raspberries…I’m serious) is that it kept snowing & getting colder. In fact, even after we went to bed, it kept getting colder…so at one point…Yeah well this may have happened.

So warm inside the car...

So warm inside the car…

Funny story about this picture. Reid actually did tough the night out in his tent. He comes over in the morning and opens the door, takes this photo and then a minute or so later starts speaking. I, in my normal morning cheeriness, start yelling how I was awoken by the cold the moment he opened the door. He shows me the photo…Touche. I wasn’t too bothered when I looked out the door though.

Yeah. Didn't sleep in there the whole night. Not sorry.

Inside of a Toyota Camry > those tents

So, after that and still not being able to see the Grand Canyon in the morning, the trio + kitty decided it was time to head west. On the way, Reid lost his contact, but dam me if he didn’t keep his glasses on and see this:

Is that the Coolidge Dam...We are actually on the Hoover Dam and that's a smaller Dam...what?!

The Coolidge Dam…We are actually on the Hoover Dam…That’s not true.

Next stop & blog entry: Vegas Baby-Vegas.

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“As I was going over the Cork and Kerry mountains…” ~ Thin Lizzy: St. Patrick’s Day

Today is my favorite holiday of the year.

I cannot quantify why. Like the smell of peat burning or the taste of Jameson, you feel it’s good; you don’t measure it.  Of course, that’s not wholly satisfying for a blog entry. So, let this lad offer a whole host of competing explanations, though I feel like any Irish blessing, it’s what you make of it.

Maybe it’s because as a kid I remember spending at least one full morning traipsing around a park in Chicago looking for a four leaf clover; another chasing the end of a rainbow.

Maybe it’s because my mom made such a big deal of it when I was a kid. Dressed in green and bouncing around, she made Irish soda bread, potatoes, green dishes (including jello) and a whole bunch of other food I smiled at more than ate  🙂

Maybe it’s due to another great influence on me when I was a child: my ‘Aunt Mary.’ A woman who was more Irish than the Cliffs of Moher. My babysitter growing up, she was about the sweetest and kindest woman I can remember as a child. Of course, she also somehow was related to the entire country of Ireland and city Chicago. Her kindness and well, just general wonderfulness, epitomized the Irish spirit.

Were she wearing green and my eyes open, it'd be perfect.

Were she wearing green and my eyes open, it’d be perfect.

Maybe it’s because my family has always had connections to family friends in Ireland-something that made me feel like the country was never geographically far away.

Maybe it’s because my birthday is three days away and you know, I didn’t want to tell people “yeah my birthday is right next to the Ides of March.”

Maybe it’s because of Shamrock shakes.

Maybe it’s because one of my favorite stories associated with Poland is still connected with me leaving from Ireland. I was leaving from the Dublin airport and I saw two Polish carpenters a few spots ahead of me in the security checkpoint. I was not sure what was going on other than some commotion. Finally, I heard a very thick-accented Irish security guard saying, “I do not care if they are new, you cannot bring a drill on or any power tools onto the plane.”

Maybe it’s because every time I hear “On Raglan Road” by the Dubliners I lean back and smile. Something about Irish music moves you.

Maybe it’s because I couldn’t decide between green and blue as a favorite color as a child. The fact that this green was everywhere-including the Chicago river-seemed all that much better.

Maybe it’s because of the spirit. I already mentioned the song, but this truly is the spirit and the song.

Maybe it’s because wherever I travel in the world, I know a pub I find comfortable is waiting for me.

Maybe it’s because one of my first memories of traveling was flying to Ireland and seeing snowcapped peaks and thinking, “that’s pretty flipping cool.”

Maybe it’s because March Madness-the best sporting event in the world-is always going on right now.

Maybe it’s because on this day, I feel completely taken by my (majority) Irish heritage. The other days may be dominated by my Polish and Scottish making me a uniquely proud American, but today somehow exudes that Emerald-ness.

Maybe it’s because today, it doesn’t even matter about heritage: everyone is invited to use the gift of gab that the people of Ireland represent.

Maybe it’s because IanHappy and Guinness both have eight letters. And with that in mind, the pubs once more.

Maybe it’s because I too, do not like snakes.

Maybe it’s because my friend-from Northern Ireland originally-taught me how to count to 33 1/3 only by drawing a tree and some things next to it.

Maybe it’s because it seems like the luck.

Maybe it’s because deep down inside, it has nothing to do with alcohol: it has to do with an ability to express yourself as freely and willingly as James Joyce would have wanted.

I don’t know: maybe it’s all of the above or none of the above. But I know today’s my favorite holiday. Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

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“What am I? What am I in my own dear eyes? I say it so much what am I what am I what am I makes no sense no more” ~ Jamie T: Introspection & Distractions

I intend to keep my New Year’s resolution of at least one blog entry per month. However, at the moment I must admit that, cornered up against the end of February’s 28 days, it suddenly feels more of an onerous challenge than it should be. Certainly, I hadn’t hoped to be as prodigious in output as my good friend Andy. By the by, I recommend anyone with free time get to checking out his ever-evolving blog-including the most recent monkey riding a pig photo entry.

I have had far too little free time to ponder, let alone write, about things that aren’t related to Syria/nuclear reduction/Poland/Georgia/Ukraine/etc. Perhaps it’s the curse of work mixed with graduate school or perhaps it’s the blessing of visitors. In either case, February has been a month of distractions.

One distraction: The Maccabees (a night after Ra Ra Riot) in Houston. Good show, great energy from the lead guitarist/crazy man.

One distraction: The Maccabees (a night after Ra Ra Riot) in Houston. Good show, great energy from the lead guitarist/crazy man on the far left.

These distractions come in different shapes and sizes. I’d be overly optimistic if I ignored those that have been sheer pratfalls: simply, it feels a bit like my professional goals are being besieged this year after what felt like careful staging to get to them. I will skip the more tedious details but the gist is I do feel some of the applications I genuinely sought, worked extremely hard on, yada yada-well they ended with the standard, “Thank you,” form letters only to be once more out of reach. Oh, I wistfully wish to have grown up loving computer science, chemical engineering, and being a polyglot…Or something. Anyway, I suppose solace is that if things were easy, desire would not serve to motivate.

In any case, setbacks and the nearing of the completion of my time in Texas has forced some introspection. Not of the deeply personal sort (I’m content with a {young} friend’s recent description of my “heartless, hipster-emo music loving, old man”-self)…rather; what is to be done after graduation (part 2.0 in my case) becomes more prescient when the most aspired for options are, at the very least, temporarily delayed.

Introspection...now what.

Introspection/winning at cards face.

I do believe a neat, hermetic blog, built upon the traditional story model would have a nice conclusion right about here. Something like, “thankfully I’ve resolved to start an NGO in Macedonia saving seals that are about to be clubbed” or something…Unfortunately, I’ve got far too many more questions/ideas/know nothing about seals (if that weren’t clear by what I’ve said and and my enjoyment of this meme). So, the conclusion may have to wait until May…but…

Austin Botanical Gardens

Austin Botanical Gardens

I also must take a lot of joy from the other distractions this month. New nieces. Upcoming Belle & Sebastian concert. Great visits from friends led to-and this is an abbreviated rather than an extensive list-wonderful botanical gardens in less than beautiful weather, some fantastic concerts, some big Chess/regular sized cards, and some crucial water fountain fixing that seemed along Biblical proportions. Basically, distractions of hilarious and joyous memories that will serve to further strengthen future bonds.

In Big Chess, you must protect the King (or beer if they don't have that piece)...great times.

In Big Chess, you must protect the King (or beer if they don’t have that piece)…great times.

I think the importance of all these distractions-especially the positive ones-is to remember (as stolen from a new song I’m loving) how great the sinking sun is as opposed to only worrying what is next on the rise. It would be selfish to ignore the support that family and friends has immediately offered in light (horrible…pun…) of some of the negative setbacks. Next month I’ll be embarking on a trip with friends that covers the Grand Canyon, Vegas, LA and more. I will keep working hard for certainty to settle whatever is to come next-but looking in can remind you to embrace the distractions.

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“So I took what I wanted and put it out of my reach, I wanted to pay for my successes with all of my defeats” ~ Dawes: Abstemious living and the Lingua Franca of males

Two January thoughts:

  1. I decided, having been a drinker of alcohol for several years now, that taking a month off would be quite a good idea for a few reasons. As the month is winding down, I am quite glad with my challenge and the results. In a sense, the bottom line is I feel healthy and content. Also happy that I have quite easily accomplished this goal even though there were some certain moments and temptations to drink.  The disheartening news: College Station really is an even drier place (pun intended) without alcohol.

    Overall though, it seems this should be a yearly occurrence. To borrow from the bard of modern times (Homer Simpson): To alcohol, the cause of, and solution to, all life’s problems. For 11 months of the year that’ll suffice; for January the puritan American in me must find different problems and solutions.

  2. Here is a social experiment for a male: go to a party, bar, or even simply venture out on a taxi ride in a place you would not consider your normal stomping grounds. Start a conversation with a random stranger. Do not bring up sports, but see how long before the conversation goes that way-or goes silent. You have the weather, but how much can people talk about how windy it is in Chicago? How warm it is in Texas? How tornado-y it is in Kansas? Politics are a surefire way to cause problems or simply agitate. Talking about work is likely to either bore, confuse or remind others of their own work: not a pleasant experience.

    Thus, the comfort zone increasingly where one can bond, share memories, disagree, debate–whatever-is sports. The lingua franca of American males is sports because it allows a latitude of ease and comfort that other topics, or specialties, don’t.
    As to whether people end up talking about football, football (soccer), running after cheese down a hill, whatever: the bonding moment dually serves as a bit of a placebo where people avoid asking more eyebrow raising questions. The natural tendency is to fall back on familiarity.

    (A great example of this was part of the exchange between Missy Cummings, an MIT professor and aeronautics/UAV expert for the Navy, and Jon Stewart on the Daily Show. Stewart asked whether people always ask her hyper-technical questions at parties etc. and she said no because she usually just lies about her job, simplifying it to ‘teacher’).

    I don’t think this is a limb I’m standing on-and in fact I’m pretty certain I could extend that beyond American males. I guess the difference is maybe both what sport we scream about, and the decibel with which the screaming occurs.

    With decibel levels in mind, it’s important to keep our ears open to as much as possible. One of my more pleaseant random exchanges in the last month (or so) was with a cab driver from Algeria. Not everyone is going to-or want to-chat about the Arab Spring and various opinions. Yet, one of the gifts and richness of American society is generally finding the options to do such things. In essence, it seems everyone can discuss ‘da Bears with ease no matter their background or expertise; but the readiness to fall back on it keeps people from often learning about ‘da rest of what’s going on.

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“And you fell and you fell, through the dark blue waters where you cast your spell, like you were just a wish that could turn out well” ~ Airborne Toxic Event: New year’s resolutions

I find New year’s resolutions both sensible and inane. Sensible because January 1st represents as much as a new start one can have. You have to buy a new calendar*, you get a little break from school/work, everyone is aware of the new start no matter where in the world or whatever their faith. No matter how hard you try to deny it-the new year is a brand new series of months, and that’s a fairly big deal. More than an Obama campaign, change is all around. Time to get off the wagon (or get on the wagon? I still don’t know) and quit drinking. Or, lose that 15 lbs with a new gym membership! If not, quit smoking while climbing that mountain you’ve always said you would. Yada yada yada.

Resolutions do go quite a ways back with even the Babylonians promising to repay debts or borrowed objects at the start of a new year. Yet, citing tradition does not always signify righteousness. My problem with resolutions is that one full revolution around the sun seems a bit of an arbitrary occasion for a meaningful change in one’s behavior. Personally, it seems that if you want to truly change, ignore occasion: let it come via self-actualizing moments that are independently achieved. If a spur like the new year is needed to change one’s self, it seems all the more likely that come March or April, you are likely to be among the 78% of people who do not keep their resolutions.

That rant aside, I did make a few New year’s resolutions. I simply believe not to make them Herculean in nature. They are still important-and I am happy that I kept my resolution last year-and I intend to keep the ones I’ve made this year…Just none of them happen to be, say, biking across America on a unicycle.

One resolution is therefore to write at least once a month in this blog. This blog started for my time in Georgia, moved over to my experience in Ukraine in the summer of 2012, but now will further evolve. I have no immediate plans to travel back to Central or Eastern Europe {sadly}, but writing is often cathartic, helps clarify my own thinking, and may even provide some good for others. After all, a guaranteed twelve entries means at least 12 high-quality lyrics to kick them off.

Speaking of lyrics/bands/New years/this post: Airborne Toxic Event from their New Year's Eve Show. Excellent!

Speaking of lyrics/bands/New years/this post: Airborne Toxic Event from their New Year’s Eve Show. Excellent!

So, though it’ll be a bit more scatterbrained, get ready for at least 12 posts in 2013-hopefully including a few more this month covering the Lingua Franca of America and the bitter-sweetness of being home.

*I think calendars truly are among the few inedible objects that you really, really can’t buy used. Shoes? Sure, you shouldn’t buy them used, but you can. Books? Please, the underlined parts are like personal cliff notes.
Calendar? Not happening.

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“On the road again, I just feel blessed to roam this land and have this back. And it will all be gone so soon, so here’s a heart, a song and the moon-and we’ll be through. I am whole, I am whole again” ~ Paula i Karol: Personal reflections on a summer in Ukraine

I really hope people did not read my last entry and get the impression that Ukrainian society had broken my enthusiasm. The fact is, the pleasure pursuit rife in Ukrainian society and throughout Kyiv has yielded a summer unquestionably better and more informative than any in recent memory. Enjoy this entry for the explanation why.

Sun and time setting on the city...

Sun and time setting on the city…

First, as luck often has it with me, I was immediately spoiled with excellent and accommodating friends and acquaintances. You know who you are and I won’t dare try to list everyone who meant something as it’d be a futile endeavor. Yet, what fun are places without people and Kyiv was immeasurably joyful. I appreciate the chance that I got to know you all.

Two of the best that I met: Thomas & Roman

Two of the best that I met: Thomas & Roman

Second, I’ve written a bit about the Ukrainian spin on ‘carpe diem’ as a sort of ‘life is short so why not seize any and every moment with reckless abandon.’ This has really reinvigorated me with a sense that after a professionally-focused first year of graduate school, I must remember I am too young not to enjoy life. In other words, the hedonism that reverberates through the Kyiv nightlife probably does lead to what some may view as unhealthy bouts of all-night binging. But I am convinced this lifestyle is also a fantastic elixir for creating new friends, leaving indelible memories (generally) and staving off a later mid-life crisis founded upon “what if” questions.

Celebrate we will, because life is short but sweet for certain.

Celebrate we will, because life is short but sweet for certain.

This attitude is of course not just about the nights. This summer I’ve felt, much more often than in the past year, times where I was living in a consciousness of the moment: that feeling where bolts of adrenaline shoot through your body due to the sheer delight of being alive. For me, normally such moments normally happen spontaneously walking on a street forcing out a gargantuan smile or outstretched arms or even a small jump…basically something that scares nearby people. But sometimes they are less spontaneous-like when deciding to zip-line the Dnieper river.

Not me...but where I had previously been floating high on life and literally...

Not me…but where I had previously been floating high on life and literally…

Third, Kyiv afforded a great deal of laughs, amazing moments and previously unfathomable anecdotes in a rapidly short time. Some of those stories would make this blog blush, some are forever stuck in the moment. But-in a condensed form-I’ll always remember waking up in Goldiloch’s situation, being invited to a dacha by a street vendor’s instrument-playing friend after our random vodka party and picnic, arriving to a happening club at 4:45 am which prompted the guards to ask if we climbed the fence to get in, around the same time showing up at the ‘DRC’s Embassy’, getting a ride to an individual breakfast in a Lexus, learning the word resurrection in Russian thanks to Google Translate, and much more.

House of Chimeras...lot of stories on the walls there too.

House of Chimeras…lot of stories on the walls there too.

Finally, this summer was exceptionally informative in different ways. For instance, it was informative of how much I still don’t know. That’s nice because a proverb I put faith in is that ignorance is bliss. Certainly at times I’ve been the joyful fool unaware of what’s going on/being said. Only on my last day was the rare instance where I was able to help someone with directions-and I did that just by saying, “McDonalds” and outstretching my hand.

But it was also informative by blessing away ignorance-I know it forced me to see things differently about myself and of course Ukraine. Sure, that may not be as rosy as the whole ignorance is bliss theory, but knowing more about the world and how it works is a wonderful burden to have. After all, the knowledge and ability to share it is one way how the world improves itself (or so I humbly believe).

My ignorance about Kamyanets-Podolski is gone...and look, it made it into my blog!

My ignorance about Kamyanets-Podolski is gone…and look, it made it into my blog!

Earlier this summer, I was given a difficult choice and ended up foregoing an opportunity for a different internship that would have prolonged my stay in Kyiv by several months. The choice was perhaps made easier by the fact that I know I ought to come back.

As my friend Roman said, “this summer was my resurrection.” That’s a really loaded sentence that takes a lot to unpack-but it is just as true for him as it is for me and it hints at something larger.

Ukraine is a perfect place to return if I ever I need a vitamin for hedonism. Sure, like anywhere in the world, there are definitely things that can bother you. But, something in the air makes you feel truly alive. Something makes you want to seize the day in as spartan and unforgiving a fashion as you can.

In doing so, you leave an imprint on yourself that cannot help but teach you about what kind of person you are.

I’d been recommended to watch one film for a while and plan on finally doing so soon (I was a bit busy this summer). From what I know, it is the story of a boy trying to learn the history of his family, mixed with offbeat humor and some self-discovery in a quirky country (surprise surprise, it’s Ukraine). After my experience in Ukraine and how I feel now, the title makes perfect sense to me: Everything is Illuminated.

So long for now Kyiv

So long for now Kyiv

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“You would do anything for kicks ‘cos death is nasty-life’s a dick. Now I’m glad I know that this can only get much worse-but, you just wanna get happy” ~ Cosmo Jarvis: Odessa & a minor diatribe

This past week I took a three day trip to Ukraine’s summer southern getaway city-Odessa. Many people highly recommended Odessa as a place to go and research showed it to be both the seedy underworld (yes) and also capital of strange humor, wonderful nightlife, and a generally relaxing atmosphere (yes x 3).

My impressions of the city were mixed. I definitely had some highlights like seeing of some of the more impressive sites such as the Opera House & the famous Potemkin Steps.

Opera House

The Opera House…that’s my camera on a tilt, not the town.

Potemkin Stairs

The Potemkin Steps/Stairs

By the way, those steps are MUCH more impressive from the bottom looking up. I am not going to even put up a photo looking down-but when I walked up to them originally I had no idea these were connected to this uber-famous scene. FYI I did not see anyone pushing a baby in a carriage down the stairs to recreate the scene. . .the city may have a quirky sense of humor, but that would have been a bit of a stretch.

Anywho, one of my favorite moments came just relaxing in the central park trying to be cultural. I picked up a book of Pushkin (in English, of course) and read ‘The Queen of Spades’ while drinking a local beer. I suppose I could have picked up Mark Twain as he once  claimed he never felt so at home as he did in Odessa (not sure what that says about Hannibal, MO), but I decided to blend in more with the local laureate. And here, Pushkin, the prodigious-producing and oft-problem-causing author, lived and is celebrated along with others as the town is a bit of a Russian literary hub. Hmmm…writing this I’ve realized I’ve seemingly gone on a literary tour of Ukraine (Poltava…here). If only I had time to visit Taras Shevchenko’s grave….by the way I still believe the Economist > literature.

The City Garden-fine place for a beer and a read to look like you are cultural.

The City Garden-fine place for a beer and a bit of a read to look like you are more cultural than you actually are.

But of course, the thing about Odessa that students and friends had told me about before was the beaches and the nightlife. To put aside any lingering questions: there are definitely beaches, and there is definitely an energetic night scene.

Generally, it seems the beaches are about making a show and being seen. Wait, this is true everywhere…but it is really true in Odessa. The entire non-speaking African waterhole-like staring interaction between visiting tourists (I regret to say that an adjective probably belongs before “tourists” in a lot of cases) and the locals is rather perturbing.

Also, about the night life, I actually didn’t endeavor out as much as I normally would have. The reason is most of the time I felt paranoid that I did not have my passport and was repeatedly told from my guidebook, the owner of my hostel, and foreigners living in Odessa that the local police make a sport of hassling foreigners and are generally looking for a quick way to get a bribe. I did not encounter any problem, but it put quite a damper on my trip. I guess the positive is it’s a learning experience that I now know what it’s like to be profiled (kind of)…the bad side is it’s exactly what I thought-extremely upsetting.

Vul Derybasivska...it gets busy in the summer in Odessa

The main street is Vul Derybasivska…it gets busy in the summer in Odessa.

And that leads to my slight, albeit necessary, diatribe on Ukraine. After all, I would be doing myself, and any dedicated reader, a disservice to paint an illusory picture of the place. My sharpest critique thus is what has begun to wear on me more than anything else: the common need to say “Welcome to Ukraine.”

This explain-all phrase is used by foreigners and locals to give an answer to the troublesome quirkiness within the country. After a while, the routine ridiculousness is not so easily shrugged off however and it is difficult to maintain an optimistic and positive attitude. Let me give a few examples.

In Ukraine, I have a constant fear of being ripped off (see the Odessa police story). Shop workers, bartenders, the police-doesn’t matter. Maybe my fear is overstated as I feel like I have had relatively few problems. But others I have spoken to certainly agree there is an overwhelming prevalence that generally people are out for their own self-interest at the expense of others (this is also reflected blatantly in the politics though I didn’t include that in my formulation really).

Checking out Odessa's beach in the early morning and pondering all things Ukraine

Checking out Odessa’s beach in the early morning and pondering all things Ukraine

Hence a tip for anyone visiting Ukraine is to have exact change whenever you order something. Otherwise, you are likely not to see the waiter/bartender for some time as the change will be taken as theirs. In a shop sometimes, people may just shrug their shoulders and say no change. What makes it worse is the point of complaining seems trivial as it’s often something like 4 hryvnia or roughly 50 cents.

But, it really is damaging in principle when it happens again and again. In Odessa, I bought a bottle of water that was blatantly marked 7 hryvnia in the fridge. After he told me 10 hryvnia, I looked at him and said 7 in Russian and pointed at the sign. Flabbergasted still by his nerve, I handed him a 20 and I got 12 back. To me, there was no point demanding 1 hryvnia. But when I said to myself “Welcome to Ukraine” after, it certainly felt more like a sardonic affront than a welcome.

Continuing, the publisher of a local Kyiv magazine called “What’s On” hit more broadly what I am talking about in a recent article:

“The people are warm and accepting but can be self-centered and thoughtless; the women are beautiful but treat this as a commodity; it’s warm in the summer but cold in the winter; there are huge opportunities for business married with huge risks; there are beautiful sandy beaches but they’re stacked with litter; the country thrives and survives despite the greed and idiocy of those running it; there is interesting architecture sitting alongside Soviet slums and modern atrocities; there is excellent public transport but it’s overcrowded; there are those with too much and too many with too little.”

I think he particularly identifies the first two well. Ukrainians are undeniably warm and accepting-just never try and stand between them and something they need (e.g. tickets at a railway station). Moreover, the commodity issue is excellently stated. Take women who seem to dabble in the oldest profession-something that is quite common throughout Ukraine and strangely intermixed within normal nightclubs.

To be certain, I have no interest in this sort of activity and thus only know from third person anecdotal evidence. FYI, I’m in the habit of telling people that while I love playing basketball, the only person I’d have ever paid to play basketball with is Michael Jordan. Other than that, what’s the point? Similarly, I *might* pay to spend an evening with Heidi Klum-but if that was possible she wouldn’t be Heidi Klum anymore because her virtue and more would have changed in my eyes etc. Anyway, from what I’ve garnered many of the women of the night-and I should say not only they-are driven by commercial interests to a degree that suggests this culture is losing the battle of compassion versus capitalism.

I am not one to question how someone makes a living, nor even how one spends it. To each their own liberty. However, when such an endeavor like prostitution is undertaken not to put food on the table, but to remain on the cusp of fashion, I personally cannot help but raise an eyebrow.

Enough of my soapbox, you can hopefully appreciate my point that I fully agree the commodity degree of beauty is disappointing here. More than that though, you should still appreciate the publisher’s larger point which is to celebrate the demonstrable irony of Ukraine (or in his case, specifically Kyiv). After all, who wants something easy? Here, I agree.

Yes, the hedonism that leads to recklessness and selfishness can leave a bad taste in your mouth as you feel constantly ostracized for simply being outside the Ukrainian bubble-especially as you risk being taken advantage because of it. Moreover, that repeated feeling can wear you down and unfairly prejudice you against a lot of Ukrainians undeserving of any such stereotype.

But, at the same time you need to remember Kyiv really is a fantastic city and Ukraine a fantastic country with incredibly unique traditions. As gloomy as the above sounds, anyone who wants something easy shouldn’t come in the first place.

My next and final blog entry from Ukraine will give my final impressions of Ukraine from this summer and explain why I am quite convinced this has been the best summer of my life. In the mood of the Olympics, spoiler alert: I believe the sweet is never as sweet without the sour. Living in Ukraine demands that you appreciate the bountiful sweet, because the sour is as close as the next “Welcome to Ukraine.”

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