The Year of Borshch

I’ve officially been in Ukraine for a year. In a way, it’s not hard to believe. Practically every time I met another volunteer the subject of time came up. “So how far along are you?” “How much longer do you have left?” It’s interesting how much our conversations mimic pregnancy jargon. We even speak about our service in terms of weeks for entirely too long. “Coming up on 10 weeks,” we’d say proudly, rubbing our stomachs in attempt to aid the digestion of a ridiculously large meal prepared by our overbearing host families. I should have been ready for this day to come. But alas, like an expectant mother who goes into shock when her water breaks, I honestly can’t believe it’s finally here.

It’s been a year of borshch and bucket baths, Ukrainian and Russian, snow, flowers, sun, and falling leaves. It’s been a year of independence, serious and often painful growth, increased confidence, and grit. It’s also been 365 days since I hugged my parents, ate an enchilada, drove a car, went shopping with my sister, or stepped foot on American soil. I know I’ve experienced a lot in the past year, but I’ve also missed so much, like the births of a new little cousin and Riley’s niece, my dad’s knee surgery, and my sister’s baptism. Although I’m thankful for the ways I can stay connected, there’s still a huge feeling of distance from my family, my friends, and my country. It’s almost like there are oceans between us. Oh wait….

Of course, I know it is inevitable that when I return to America I will find myself missing parts of Ukraine. My school, my neighbors, my friends, and my community are so much a part of my life now that it’s hard to imagine not seeing them everyday. Volunteers have a tendency to go one of two ways—they either love everything about Ukraine and are really critical of the US, or it’s the complete opposite. But there is no perfect country. America gets some things wrong, as does Ukraine. So in a nod to honesty and fairness, I made a Top 10 List of the “Best of Both Worlds” to commemorate this auspicious occasion.

1. Organic Food—in Ukraine this is just called “food.” Everybody has their own garden roughly the size of football field and after work as a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer, a hairdresser, or a grocer; they go home and harvest their crop. My friend Svitlana is always amused with my lack of farming knowledge. “Do you know what that plant is?” she asks, hoping I will come through for once. I go for a Ukrainian staple, “Beets?” I was wrong. “It’s potatoes!” she says laughing. That would’ve been my next guess.

I never learned what food looks like coming up out of the ground. Besides corn, I’m totally inept at identifying stalks. While I was initially skeptical of the wonder of natural food products, I’m officially a believer. You know that when you eat a slice of bread in America, it sticks together where you bit out of it, leaving a sort of seal? Bread’s not supposed to that. And it also shouldn’t last for weeks. We put a good deal of chemicals in the dough to make it do all those things. It’s kind of a hassle to buy bread every other day, but it’s a small sacrifice to make considering the difference in taste and texture. Don’t even get me started on organic eggs. The yolk is orange. It stains stuff. And it is amazing.

The list goes on, homemade juice from nothing more than apples, plums and a dash of sugar (which, by the way, could never be confused with salt here, as the granules are totally different in size and shape), milk that turns into sour cream and later butter, ketchup and mayonnaise that put our versions to shame—even their condiments taste better. I do miss the convenience of the American kitchen (and the American life, for the matter), but the quality and freshness of Ukrainian food is something we could—and should—take a cue from. No, we can’t all become farmers, but we can make more of an effort to know what’s in our food and where it came from.

2. Patience—This has definitely been one of the most painful lessons in Ukraine. Waiting. On practically everything. Nothing happens overnight here. Or at least nothing that you want to happen does. I wake up to the water or the gas turned off, but not to a repairman at the door. Although at first every unknown detail set my heart aflutter, I think with each uncertainty I’m becoming less anxious. After having no water in June, I keep about 80 liters of water stored in bottle and jars in my apartment now, a fifty percent increase from my previous reservoir. So when the water was switched off all last week, I was still able to wash dishes, clothes, and my own body. Getting anxious doesn’t make anything happen more quickly, however being prepared makes it more bearable.

Ukrainians have plenty of practice at being patient. But this virtue is not uniquely theirs. In “Three Cups of Tea,” co-author Greg Mortenson calls patience “the most important lesson I’ve ever learned.” Mortenson builds schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan to educate children, especially girls, in rural areas. “We Americans think you have to accomplish everything so quickly. We’re the country of thirty-minute power lunches and two-minute football drills. Our leaders thought their ‘shock and awe’ campaign could end the war in Iraq before it even started,” (p150). There’s no telling what calamities, personal or professional, we could avoid with a little more patience.

3. A Healthy Dependence on Family—What strikes me most about the difference between how Americans and Ukrainians relate to their families is the complete lack of stigma in Ukraine of being too attached to your mom. Case in point, a ring-tone that sings, “My mom is calling.” I am not even kidding. It says that in a tiny child’s voice. Loudly, over and over again. “Who’s calling? It’s your mom, your wonderful mom is calling, answer, answer, because your mom is calling.” Can you imagine this tone selling once in America? Yet it is a crowd favorite here. I’ve heard it on everyone ranging from 10 years old to 35. I couldn’t believe when I heard it go off in an 8th grade class and no one laughed.

They aren’t ashamed that their moms call them. And they call often. They announce it to the world, with pride. “Yeah, that’s right, Mom’s calling. Jealous?” they seem to say as the smugly take the call. It’s a running joke in America when someone gets a call that it’s probably just their mom. This is one of the many cases where American humor doesn’t translate to Ukraine. While I think the idea of everyone talking to their mom five or six times a day is a bit much, I do believe that Ukrainians understand more about what it means to be a family than Americans do sometimes. There shouldn’t be shame in taking care of each other, of knowing when you need any kind of help, and when you are in a position to give it to do so willingly and sacrificially. I think American families could stand to trust each other more, to depend on each other for more.

A key difference in Ukrainian culture is that children are raised to be dependent on their parents. A good child is one who returns home after college and takes care of the house, the garden, and the aging parents. I’m not suggesting that American society stop raising its children to be independent, but I do think there is a middle ground our lives would be richer for finding.

4. The European Workweek—OK, if I’m honest with myself and you, faithful reader, I must admit that I’d take the European Workweek over organic food for the rest of my life. The amount of free time you have while still working “fulltime” is nothing short of magical. Granted, life processes take a lot longer here. I can easily spend a whole day washing one load of laundry and cooking three square meals. But I can do that in my pajamas listening to Coldplay. A full schedule for a secondary school teacher in Ukraine is 18 hours, with one day a week completely free. You are also only at school for your lessons, if you don’t have a class until 3rd period, you stroll in the door at 10:30 a.m.

While I only have firsthand knowledge of an educator’s schedule, my friends here in other professions have a good bit of free time as well. Instead of a tipped scale, there’s an actual work-life balance. I still can’t get my mind around the fact that if you work 40 hours a week in America, that’s considered a really good schedule. And only two weeks for vacation? The whole year? Yikes. You get 31 days here, standard, and some professions get more. This doesn’t include the 25 national holidays.

5. Toasts—I don’t think I’ve ever shared just how different the drinking culture is in Ukraine. It’s quite the production. Like most aspects of life here, it’s a group activity. And merely being together doesn’t cut it. You have to drink every sip together, and with a toast no less. There are rules though, and it isn’t as arduous as it might seem.

The first toast is always to “the meeting” whether it’s friends meeting after work, or to celebrate a birthday or one of many holidays, the first toast goes to the occasion. The second toast is to “us” or to friends in general. It’s a play on words in Ukrainian and doesn’t translate in English. The third toast is always to women and love. There are several anecdotes shared the men usually stand while they are told and as they toast the women. I won’t translate the anecdotes here as I consider this a family show. The fourth toast is supposed to be to men, but by your fourth shot of vodka it become less important what the toasts are for exactly.From then on it’s pretty much a free-for-all of glass raising. I’ve heard toasts to America, to Borshch, and to vodka itself. The important thing is not to forget to make a toast, never mind the reason. And of course never to drink alone.

The fun part about this group mentality is that everyone gets the same amount of tipsy at the same time. There’s not the one guy who pounded the bottle and is making everyone else uncomfortable, nor is there the guy who doesn’t drink and is making everyone else a different kind of uncomfortable. Everyone’s in it together. While I don’t want to take the tradition back entirely, (I am looking forward to vacation from vodka) I do like the idea of making toasts to mark holidays and as a show of appreciation for friends.

6. Trust—No matter what isolated complaints you may have about government or law enforcement in the US, overall we trust them to do their jobs. Corruption, bribes, extortion, these are things we are shocked to discover, things that are publically shamed. In Ukraine, they are sadly still a way of doing business. To find an honest politician or police officer is the exception, not the rule.

One of my friends is in the process of “buying” her house. Even though they built it themselves and own it, they don’t technically have an address or official papers from the local government. In order to receive mail and have official standing in the community, they have to go through a process of forms and signatures. And bribes. Sitting on her kitchen table there was a pile of goodies including chocolates, cognac, vodka, gourmet coffee, and lace napkins. “Whoa,” I said smiling, “What’s all this for?” It was really an innocent question. I assumed she had a party or a friend’s birthday coming up. She pursed her lips. “What is it called when you give someone something for doing something for you?” she asked. “ A payment?” I offered. “No, no,” she said. “When it isn’t legal. Something below the table.” It hit me, “Oh, you mean a bribe,” I said a little embarrassed. “Yes! That’s it. How do you spell it,” she asked as she grabbed paper from the cabinet, and proceeded to label the stash in perfect cursive penmanship “Bribes.”

There is a recent advertising campaign with billboards proclaiming, “Don’t take bribes.” This moral directive goes without saying in America. It’s not that people don’t still use bribes. They most certainly do. But at least they are forced behind closed doors and live in fear of being caught. It’s not something you’d say, leave out labeled on the kitchen table.

7. Unnecessarily large beds—Yeah, I said it. They are unnecessary. That doesn’t mean they are any less enjoyable. Beds are like practically everything else in the former Soviet Union: space efficient and utilitarian. Low to the ground, slightly smaller than a regulation double bed, with no springboards or pillow-top mattresses. There aren’t even fitted sheets. The package with my T-shirt sheets remains my favorite and most-used.

While we’re on the topic of largess, how about the plate size in America? It is HUGE. My friend Natalya has family in New York and they mailed her some fancy paper plates that she brought to a summer picnic. We thought they were platters. We seriously started piling all the fruit on one and the bread on another until she told us they were our plates. It was bigger than my face, and none of my food touched. If you think our shock at the size is funny, you should have seen us when she tried to throw them away after the meal…

8. Chairs with backs—Oh, how I miss the back. Stools and benches reign supreme here, especially in the kitchen. If you are lucky enough to own chairs with backs, you only break them out for special occasions when you are eating in the living room. Daily furniture is almost always backless, and the few chairs that might have backs and are in regular use are often turned at an angle to fit in a small space, rendering the back useless. Maybe this and the bed thing contributed to my slipped disc…

9. Reliability—I think this is the ying to the patience yang. I am glad for the patience I have acquired here, but I miss the reliability of American life. Not just in running water or electricity, but in every sphere of life: business meetings, social gatherings and politics. If we set a date for an election, it will take place on that day. If you have a meeting that’s going to start at 10, it does. There’s a calming power in the predictable, one that allows you to plan for the future, to set goals and meet them, and to improve your quality of life. Flexibility is still important, even when you have the well-oiled wheels of America turning right on schedule, but having predictability will be a welcomed change of pace when I return home.

10. Individualism—I miss this most of all. Individualism exists in Ukraine, only it’s highly suspect and often shunned. Parents don’t question their children, “If your whole class jumps off a bridge, are you going to follow them?” The conversation is more likely to go, “Your class jumped off a bridge today, and just where were you?”

Doing what everyone else does was a survival mechanism in the Soviet Union. All being a creative artist, a critical writer, or an original thinker got you back then was a one-way ticket to Siberia. One of my older colleagues passed me a tattered English handbook of grammar during a meeting. It had been her father’s, before he was sent to Siberia under suspicion of being an intellectual. She wanted to share it with me, and tell me what kind of man he was. “He said the only place you can really be yourself is in your mind. They can take everything else away, they can hold everything else against you, but what you keep inside is really yours, it’s really free,” she said through teary eyes.

So this is the legacy of Ukraine, centuries of war and subjugation, leaving its citizenry understandably hesitant to stand out from the crowd. And here I am, the girl who for years wore clothes inside out, refused to comb the back of her hair, and carried bird bones in her pocket. I felt the need to be an individual in America, so you can only imagine how here I long to wear my tennis shoes to run errands, smile at strangers, and encourage my students to speak freely in class and help me pick topics for our lessons. All of these practices break the Soviet mold and make people nervous.

I go through spells where I get all gussied up before I leave the house even if I’m only running to the post office across the street, or I walk through town with a stone-cold expression that matches the stare of my peers. But more often than not, I hate myself for playing along. More than fitted sheets, large plates and chairs that aren’t stools, I miss the wealth of encouragement to be myself that is ingrained in the American psyche.