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When time isn't money

In Ukraine, I wear a lot of hats. And not just in winter. I’m an English teacher, an American culture expert, a Mexican food chef, a basketball coach, a yoga instructor, a journalist, a travel agent, and a decent day laborer.  I’m also a novice economist.

As a writer, I admittedly have a limited knowledge of science, math, and business principles. But, as a writer, I get the benefit of everyone else’s knowledge. I love sitting across accomplished individuals in fields I could never begin to work in and taking away the gems of their experience. They may have spent the last twenty years working on a new theory but by the time I leave, I can explain it in 500 words or less. Journalists are full of little talking points about politics, natural disasters, scientific discoveries, and yes, even economics.

If I could pick any field to understand perfectly it would be economics.  This, by the way, was true before the whole global financial crisis. I’m not a bandwagon economist. I’ve always been curious.  And pretty much out of my league. Knowing my own weaknesses, I am always happy to consult greater minds. One of my favorite sources when I worked for The Baylor Lariat was an economics professor, a wiry man of about 95 lbs and infinite patience. I liked him so much I even used my last three hours of elective credit to take a class at the Business School: The Economics of Poverty and Discrimination. Really, I’m not that person who takes one psychology class and starts diagnosing people as passive aggressive or having issues with their mothers. I know my understanding of economics is limited but that doesn’t stop me from participating in the conversation.

“I’d like to bring a watermelon home to Nazar,” my friend Svitlana said on our vacation in Crimea. “He loves melons.”  While I personally have seen her son devour delicious fruit on a number of occasions, her statement shocked me.  We were about 500 km away from home, without a car. We were about to walk several kilometers with our luggage, get on a crowded bus for two hours, then walk some more and board a train for 30 hours. Adding a five-pound fruit to the equation didn’t add up to me. “But it’s so heavy.” I said. “And we can buy watermelons at home.” Her look of incredulity matched mine, “But they are cheaper here,” she said. “And it will be a present from Crimea.” Sound bytes of my college economics class came flooding back, the opportunity cost of not having to carry a watermelon for the next two days surely outweighs the five percent discount. By using her energy to carry that watermelon for 300 miles, she is forfeiting some pretty valuable rest time in my opinion. Ultimately she decided against it. It was a rare victory for the opportunity cost of time in Ukraine.

Buying notebooks in Ivano-Frankivsk, my friend smirked and pointed to the price, “6 UAH,” she said, “It’s 11 UAH in Tysmenytsya.” Ever the bargain hunter, I bought two. But as we were walking out of the store, a thought came to me. When you factor in the 5 UAH bus faire and the 30 minutes of traveling roundtrip, it’s at least the same price, if not more expensive.  I tried this thought on for size with my friend in a less matter-of-fact-way.

ME: It’s great that we got the notebooks so much cheaper here.

HER: Yes, it is great.

ME: But what about the bus faire? Doesn’t that even things out?

HER: But Frankivsk is prettier than Tymenytsya, and we can go the big bazaar here.

ME: True, it is more interesting in Frankivsk, and the time it takes us to get here is worth it.

HER: I never thought about the time.

Time isn’t money in Ukraine. The whole model of economics that assigns a monetary value to free time is irrelevant in Ukraine. It’s quite the luxury to see life that way.  This principle is center stage in the Ukrainian kitchen. It takes about three hours to make veriniky from scratch. This meal is a staple here, especially in winter. It’s akin to ravioli but has a taste and texture all its own. First, you mix ingredients for the dough, then you knead it for about five minutes. Then you flatten it with a rolling pan, tear it into little strips and stuff it with cheese, meat, potatoes, or fruit, all of which you have probably personally grown, seasoned, and grinded. Or, you can go to the store and buy a package of verinky for 8 UAH.

After cooking veriniky once on my own, I was completely surprised that I am the only one of my friends who buys it at the store. To them, it’s basically free to make it. Three hours is absolutely worth 8 UAH to me, despite the fact that I won’t make any money in that time spent reading, watching TV, or going for a jog.  I get paid in relaxation. I never thought of this idea as “American” or “Capitalist,” I just thought of it as economic common sense, the basic motivation behind all the decisions we make: What does it cost me? What do I lose when I chose one option over another? It’s not that Ukrainians don’t operate under the idea of opportunity cost; they do. Only time isn’t even in the equation.

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