Friday, April 1, 2011

Meat Jello and Fairy Tales

My fiancée's daughter came home from a week of vacation with her grandparents today and brought with her a volume of Ukrainian folk tales in English. I enjoy folk tales because they speak to fundamental differences in values and attitudes between cultures, so I was excited to read some. And, I realized, my fiancee's daughter will know some of these tales. So we sqt down together--her with a book of folk tales in Russian and me with the same stories in English--and began to read to each other.

I learned some new words, as did Nika, and we had a great time sharing this story in two languages. I missed her this week. Her joy, energy, and pleasure in sharing with me is always refreshing. It's not so different from spending time with my own kids, even though they're much older.

But that wasn't the only cultural experience of the evening.

Next was dinner, and Nika was excited to share with me a traditional Ukrainian dish called holodnya, or cold. Tis didn't go so well. What exactly is holodnya? The best I can explain it, this is meat jello. Apparently it is very difficult to make--you have to extract the gelatin from a chicken and then congealed it with beef to form a gelatinous mass, eaten cold.

I took one bite and almost threw up three times. It is a special dish here, a treat, but it is so beyond my palate that I couldn't eat more than a single bite. And that made me feel bad--Nika helped her grandmother cook this special meal, and I truly couldn't eat it.

The saving grace was Nika's spirit. She laughed at me and then went on to do a show for me and Olya...Michael Jackson, complete with a moonwalk, a teacher, an actress, and an angry woman. It was funny and sweet. And then they both went on to beat me in Yahtzee.

All in all, a good night. But I'm a little hungry.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Suffering Through Winter

It is so cold here right now that five minutes outside will freeze your cheeks and lips and make you wish you were back inside. Sure, you say, this is normal for Ukraine or in Wisconsin, my most recent American domicile. But I still don't like it much!

I have said for a long time that people who knew better never would live in the Midwest--cold winters, hot, humid summers, and oh-so-short spring and fall. But I moved halfway around the world just so I could experience the same thing in Eastern Europe. So who's the idiot now?

And thus, we know why people live in climates which are below optimal for habitat. Family. Friends. Love. Companionship. So I sit inside on a cold February day, waiting for my love to come home, thinking of my kids in the cold of Wisconsin, and hoping for a day when we are all together, basking in the sun.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Top 10 Places I Visited in America

I've been back in Wisconsin now for almost three weeks, and besides my time with the family, I have been trying to visit everyplace I missed over the past year. Here are the top 10:

10. La Fuente, a good Mexican restaurant with great margaritas. I was there last night with my friend Annie.
9. Great Steak Escape. At the mall, but they make a great turkey club sandwich.
8. The Apple Store. Love that place. My toy store.
7. Victoria's Secret. It's fun to buy presents for my girlfriend there because they're really gifts for me!
6. My mom's kitchen. Okay, This isn't exactly a store or anything, but it has been great to have some of mom's cooking....chocolate cupcakes, enchiladas, flank steak, and pork tenderloin roast.
5. Solly's. I haven't actually been there just yet, but this Milwaukee burger institution will see me before the visit is over.
4. Culver's. Double cheeseburgers, crinkle-cut fries, and amazing custard.
3. Steak-N-Shake. Another great burger chain, only higher on the list because it is harder to get to. And it was the first American food I had after landing in Chicago.
2. Cheeseburger in Paradise....a good burger but even better because I went with my daughter. And then we saw "True Grit" .... in English!
1. Señor Sol's. The best Mexican food in Milwaukee, and I went there with my dear friend Dee.

I don't know exactly what that says about me, or about America. That's something you can decide for yourself. There's a lot here, but not a lot I miss. Mostly just cheeseburgers and Mexican food. And, of course, my kids, my friends, and the rest of my family. They are the reason I came back and don't need to be on a list. It's obvious.

Back in my self-created prison

Last night and tonight I'm staying at my condo in Milwaukee. It is a very nice place, full of my books and my furniture and feels like my place. Of course, because it is my place.

But being here really reinforces why I live in Kharkov. I am not with my kids here, and my friends are few and far between. I miss so much about my life in Ukraine. First and foremost, I miss Olya. In the past six months, she has become my human credential....she makes me realize why I continue to slog away at this thing we all life, why life felt empty in Milwaukee and why it feels okay in Ukraine. It isn't even close to perfect....but life is full of choices that force you to give up good things to get good things.

It is difficult to make these choices in life. Any ex-pat misses certain things, and most miss a few people every day. For me, it is my two wonderful kids. They don't understand why I felt the need to leave, and I can see why. It is very hard to be away from them, but here is the hard truth: I couldn't be a decent father if I couldn't make anything else in life work. And when I left, I had no job, few friends, and a life in which each day was a challenge. Hard to get out of bed. Hard to get from one hour to the next. Hard to imagine why anyone would keep going in my situation.

What I take out of this is that sometimes a person must choose to do things that hurt to get to a better place. I'm sad about many things in my life, but for the first time in a long time, maybe ever, I'm also happy about some things. That might be as good as it gets.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving in Ukraine

The magic Turkey Day has come and gone here, and I missed out on the turkey, mashed potatoes, and the gravy. And my mom's great dinner rolls. Instead, I got treated to a night of teaching business English and then some homemade sausage pizza with Hankey Bannister whiskey & cola. Not too bad, all things considered. At least I didn't have to cook my own meal :)

Thanksgiving is a bittersweet holiday for me--great to see all my family, but also the site of many of the worst fights I have had with other family members. Of course, I miss them all, and Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that can't be too screwed up by excessive commercialization. Sure, you've got your turduckens and football, but that's really a sideshow. I have plenty to be thankful for--great parents, great children, and a great girlfriend. And I'm very lucky to be experiencing a foreign culture at the ground level.

But I'm anxious to get home for a while, and that will happen in a few weeks. I'm sure it will be strange after nearly a year here. What will it feel like to go into a restaurant and know exactly what I'm doing and what I'm ordering? What will it feel like to get behind the wheel of my car again? Or just to walk down the street and be able to read the signs and understand the people around me?

So, I'm also thankful for the chance to come back to the states for a while. I miss my kids. I miss my parents. I even miss my brother a little bit...and I also miss good pizza, enchiladas, and a great steak. I miss Culver's cheeseburgers. I miss being able to go into Kohl's and pick up a few pairs of Levi's (on sale, of course), and to know what I'm doing most of the time. Here's to strange, good times....

Monday, November 8, 2010

Enough politics...tune in to Marc Moran

I have found recently that I am looking for interesting, comedic podcasts to combat the general depression I usually feel, and to bring the English language more regularly to me. I sit with my girlfriend and her daughter every evening and watch Ukrainian TV, but I understand about 15% of it. And to listen to podcasts helps me connect to my own culture.

And the best are these: This American Life, a great news program about offbeat and interesting human stories; WTF with Marc Moran, a comic with heart who interviews other comedians and sheds some light on life; and Planet Money, another NPR show (along with TAL) that is the most interesting discussion of economics online today.

I would welcome anyone to tune into any of them. Great, thoughtful, stuff.

And I ought to give appropriate thanks to my girlfriend, Olya, who makes my life easier every day.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Electoral Fairness

Well, the election is over, Republicans took over control of the House while Democrats barely held onto the Senate. It's no big surprise -- incumbents rarely do well in periods of economic distress, and America is still in some serious economic distress. But I had to laugh a little when the US issued a statement condemning Ukraine's elections as not meeting "standards for openness and fairness." Why? Certainly, there were voting irregularities, intimidation, and fraud in the actual election in Ukraine. No one here expects less. 

But, what is "fairness" in elections? Is it candidates running advertisements that are either blatantly untrue and inflammatory? Is it telling voters that a candidate didn't support a program (like the stimulus plan) when he did (like Charlie Crist did in the Florida gubernatorial race)? Is it Rick Scott, in the same race, claiming that the stimulus didn't create a single job, even though one of his OWN companies issued a press release praising the 1,300 jobs it created through a stimulus grant? Or claiming that Dem. Rep. Ed Perlmutter somehow voted for a law giving federal funding to pay for rapists' Viagra, even though the health care reform specifically refuses such funding? IF we lived in an informed society, then people would be smart enough to check out the facts. But facts are much more difficult to ferret out than the lies that get spewed during every election cycle. So who wins in this very American scenario? The people who create the most outrageous lies. And why? Because people are stupid enough to believe them. 

I'm not arguing that there shouldn't be freedom of expression. But the American media does such a poor job in general of confronting people with actual facts that today's political debate is completely shaped by the intentional distortions of various interest groups -- both liberal and conservative -- that takes some effort to dispel. And Americans these days -- maybe ever -- aren't much for effort. 

Which brings me back to the central question: Were the US midterm elections fair? In some ways, probably -- there seems little evidence of intentional intimidation or ballot fraud. But in a society unwilling or unable to think critically about the garbage spewed by politicians and their lobbies, it only takes the most crass and manipulative individuals to create the outcomes it wants. And the only good solution is knowledge, something Americans increasingly shun in favor of comfortable, reaffirming emotions. But there are places to find facts, like politifact: and even places like snopes:

Yes, I'm sad that Americans voted out of office a great senator like my own Russ Feingold to tea party activist and millionaire businessman Ron Johnson. It appalls me that a guy like Johnson does not have the self-reflection to understand how the social programs and tax structure that enabled his success (he was a child of the 70s, when college was still affordable to average people) are central to the success of people like him in the future. He becomes the 71st millionaire senator in the Senate. And he talks like he represents the "working people," 98% of whom are poorer than him and now, thanks to so many years of tax cutting and elimination of public support of things like education, will have an even harder time rising to success. 

It is a sad day for America, but one they could have avoided if they had taken their responsibility as citizens seriously and dug hard for the truth.