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. 

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Election Daze

Today my fellow Americans will go to the polls in midterm elections. Just two days ago, Ukrainians also voted in their midterm elections, and early results suggest that the ruling party of President Yankovich handily consolidated its power. But, nearly every person I know in Ukraine will tell you that he's an idiot, a puppet to Moscow, and so far has been a terrible president. So why did his group win?

Here, it comes down to simple power. People here don't believe for a second that the government actually represents the people or that the promises politicians make have any meaning. Those who vote for the party in power seek to improve their personal relative position of power. That's it. And it doesn't work very well for the country, as anyone who has spent time in Ukraine can attest.

But is America any different? Yes, in very important but sad ways. It appears that conservatives are likely to gain significant numbers of seats in the house and senate today, but not because those voting are looking to curry favor with the authorities. Rather, they seem to believe the bullshit flowing out of the conservative crowd -- tea partiers in particular -- that somehow American government is out of control and we have only to reign in the wasteful spending to make government smaller, better, and more favorable to individual liberty. Any Ukrainian would laugh at this naivety.

Let's look at some hard facts. The federal budget for 2010 will spend about $3.7 billion. They will take in about $2.2 billion in taxes, leaving a gap of $1.5 billion to create a balanced budget. Is this irresponsible? I think that's not an easy question -- we have an historic recession and are fighting two wars overseas -- but conservatives have seized on eliminating the deficit as a key goal of responsible government. So let's look at how they want to do it.

Nobody will touch government payments to senior citizens in the form of social security or Medicare. This is $1.2 trillion a year right now. Neither will they compromise our "national security" but cutting defense spending, which is another $895 billion. And here's where the reality of governance gets difficult, something most politicians don't want to talk about until AFTER the election. Throw in the small amount of spending on police services, and you end up with $2.34 trillion in federal spending on the things that conservatives see as sacred cows.

So to balance the budget, we have to eliminate EVERYTHING else -- welfare programs for the poor, all funding for education, all funding for the government itself (yes, that means our president on down must work for free, without offices or staff or money to pay for photocopies and mailing). We can't repair our roads, or regulate any businesses, or pay the interest on the debt that has been accumulated during the long Iraq and Afghanistan wars. We can't fund any research outside of defense. We can't regulate pollution. We can't do a lot of things. And we still would need to cut $176 billion from those sacred cows just to make for a balanced budget.

Now, this approach is overly generous to conservatives, because they also want to reduce taxes as well, making the $2.2 billion in federal revenue even smaller.

But such realities of government don't concern the people these days. They want simple answers because the economy sucks and too many don't have jobs or don't make what they used to. Unfortunately, though, simple answers are not available in complex times. When America is most in need of pragmatists, people willing to do the hard work of democracy (i.e. compromise, balance priorities, and work together), we are going to elect a bunch of sound-bite-spewing ideologues who will only hasten America's ongoing decline.

At least Ukrainians know what's up with their politicians. Will Americans ever learn?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Good People

It has been some time since I've posted. And that's because I've been incredibly busy the past couple of months trying to open an English Language school here in Kharkov. It has been rewarding, frustrating, and educational.

The thing that strikes me most is how similar people are everywhere: They are happy to help when it is theoretical. They are happy to help when it isn't actually required. But when push comes to shove, as they say, you are alone to scrape the ugly green wallpaper off the walls, to find your clients, to fund your school. I expected nothing more. I do come from America, after all, the land of self-preservation and primacy of personal interests.

But I do admit to hoping for a bit more, now and then. Scratch the heart of a cynic, they say, and you'll find an idealist...that's me to a tee. Ah, well.... I am still surviving, still struggling, still trying to make something happen. But it can't last forever. If this doesn't work, I don't know what I'll do next.

I desperately want to believe that people are good in their hearts. It is just that times like these try my faith....

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Facebook and Dislocation

My 25th high school reunion will be in August, and this has sparked a flurry of new Facebook friends, some of whom I remember well and others who I am not sure who they even are! They change their names, their pictures look different (after all, 25 years is a long time), and so I am modestly reconnecting with a lot of people I haven't seen or heard from since graduation.

In many ways, it feels good to reconnect. I knew some very nice people in high school, and I'm proud to see how well so many have done over the years. Yet, at the same time, it really drives home a point that I have felt a lot: My life choices and maybe my priorities are quite different than most of my old peers.

I am living in a country where there is almost no rule of law, rampant corruption, a very foreign language that I don't speak very well, and a history and culture vastly divergent from the one in Waverly, Iowa, of my youth. My classmates are successful business people, artists, mothers, and fathers. They have full lives. I'm not jealous or anything like that, but I am happy for those who also seem to be happy. It's just that I can't imagine still living in Iowa, working for some software company or a manufacturer or owning a shop in the myriad towns of the state.

And I imagine they look at my life--if they even bother--and wonder what the hell I did to get exiled to someplace like Ukraine. Or maybe they imagine some kind of ex-pat utopia. Of course, Kharkov is neither Siberia or utopia. It is full of people struggling to get by, in difficult circumstances, just like everywhere else. There are really wonderful people here--more wonderful people than I have met in a long time--and of course the bastards and bitches and shallow, selfish individuals that are a part of any society. But one thing is sure: After six months, I feel that my life is more full here than it had been in the states for many years. I'm still trying to sort out why.

So if any of my former classmates read this, know that I miss a good pizza at the OP, I still mourn the loss of the Villager cheeseburgers (and Roy's Place, for that matter), but otherwise, it isn't really so different anywhere.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Travels in Eastern Europe

The strangeness began as soon as I exited the airport. I asked, in English, "Where is the bus to Krakow?" and the man responded in English. That was the strange part...someone who understood me in my native tongue. 

But it didn't end there. Everywhere I went in Poland, people spoke English! The travel agent at the bus depot, the clerk at the KFC, the hotel receptionist, the bar men, the taxi drivers, the shop clerks. And I could eat food that felt like home...particularly the ice-laden diet pepsis that I got at KFC from the fountain dispenser. Yes, Krakow felt like heaven for a day and a half. I breathed in the American-ness of it all, at cheeseburgers and drank ice-cold sodas from the fountain, and spoke to everybody in English. 

Not to mention that it was a beautiful city, full of history and charm and lovely, polite, and friendly locals interested in making sure I had a nice time in their city. I saw where the old Polish kings roamed around, imagined the royalty frolicking on the grass that was too precious today to even set foot on, and admired the tourist traps of bronzed or silver-colored human mannequins representing the history of this country. 

Of course, Poland was more than pleasant. It was a country which survived communist rule with its history intact, a country which has rebounded into a western-styled democracy and capitalist system bereft of the corruption of Ukraine, and a country which has real promise in achieving the kind of status that Ukraine can only dream of. 

But still, after 28 hours of travel when I arrived back in Kharkov, there was something comforting about the taxi driver who tried to cheat me out of 20 Hrivna and still couldn't speak a lick of English, the run-down apartments, the dirty streets, and the general confusion of a country which doesn't know whether it wants to be Eastern or Western in outlook. Somehow, for me, Ukraine is a kind of Motherland, one which I am happy to represent, almost as much as I am proud to represent America, despite all its flaws. 

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Neighbor Across the Hall

She leaned her stocky body against the door frame, blue eyes cold and fierce, cursing me in Russian for being a bad neighbor, a terrible American. She told me I should go home, that I don’t belong in Ukraine. She didn’t tell me her name. 

It wasn’t the first time my neighbors showed me just how much they didn’t want me in their building. I had misbehaved that weekend; a poker night with the guys had gotten a little rowdy too late in the evening. So, in retribution a few days later, my upstairs neighbor, Victor, had changed the code on the front door of my building so that I couldn’t get in. He wanted $100 as a “fine” before he would allow me back into my own apartment building. He wore his thinning, gray hair in the military style and had the stance of a boxer, always in perfect balance. After a brief argument that evening which began with me apologizing for being too loud that night and ended in him shoving me out of the doorway and slamming the heavy metal door in my face, I met him again in the morning, this time with a lawyer, interpreter, and a couple of friends. And he brought the neighbor across the hall from me. She was in her 60s, had short, frosted blonde hair, a nasty scowl, and had that authoritative babushka voice that demanded your attention. 

After several more apologies, I eventually made it back into my apartment that day, but ever since I have had the distinct feeling of not being wanted in my building. I’m still not quiet enough for them, or maybe just not Ukrainian or Russian enough. It’s hard to say exactly. Every night when I push the buttons to unlock the door outside my hallway, I get a little nervous that I might not be able to open the door. I shut the doors as quietly as possible, don’t play music or watch much TV, and I rarely have anyone over. 

Today, I returned from teaching to see something strange in the hall, a flower bouquet on a stand in the stairwell between my flat and my neighbor’s. I couldn’t quite make out the writing, but it sure looked to me like a funeral wreath. Was my evil bitch of a neighbor dead? I couldn’t say I minded the idea. 

I went to my balcony for some fresh air this afternoon and noticed some chairs and people gathering together in the alley behind my building. It was sunny but cool, and there were maybe 20 people out there, unusual in both their number and their appearance. I had no idea how the possible funeral could be associated with this, but I looked up the local traditions online and discovered that there are often one or two panachydy, or memorial services, held prior to the funeral. Maybe this was one? 

I haven’t seen a dead body in a long time. I don’t like funerals, and prefer to remember people who have died as they exist in my memory, alive and talking and moving around. But I looked out the window today and saw him on a platform covered in flowers in the middle of the alley, surrounded by fifty or sixty people. The man had the thin, gaunt look that every corpse has. His skin was yellow, his mouth frowning, and a white strip of cloth covered his forehead. And the fierce, mean neighbor woman, in a black dress and shawl, stood over him, crying. She stood there for fifteen minutes. Friends came up and put an arm around her shoulder. A large man in a pinstriped suit placed another bouquet of red roses at his feet. A young man, crying, kissed the deceased man’s cheek. Finally, my neighbor bent over the body, kissed him, and stepped back. The body was whisked into a waiting van, the top of the coffin was set over him, and the flowers were gently set on top of the coffin. 

I stopped by a Ukrainian cemetery recently on a break between teaching. It doesn’t look much like an American graveyard. Each family plot is fenced off, and the plots usually have not just the grave makers (with an etching or photo of the person buried beneath) but also a bench, or chairs, and a table. It was warm, the newly budding trees swayed in the breeze, and old women kneeled in the grass, planting flowers around the graves. I like cemeteries, somehow. They feel peaceful. They are usually quiet, solitary places where I can clear my head. It feels like history, thinking of all the people who have come before me, about how they lived and died in pretty much the same way I do--struggling with bills and relationships and careers and family--and they are all peacefully at rest now. But this cemetery felt different, more alive. I asked a Ukrainian friend about the benches and chairs and tables one day, and he explained that family members routinely visit the graves of their relatives, not just on holidays, not just on the anniversaries of their passing (which they do every year), but also the wives of these deceased men will come by any old afternoon just to sit.

“And on anniversaries, you can find his drinking buddies draining a few bottles of vodka with him,” my friend said. “It’s kind of a party.”

Within a few minutes of the funeral van driving off, the alley was empty again, except for a worker at the pizza place next door out on a cigarette break and a stray dog searching for food. I don’t know my neighbor, saw her husband only once, but I want to tell her something: I am sorry for your loss. As awful stares at me and spoke to me, I feel bad about disrupting her life by moving into this building. In forty days, she will visit the grave because this is the amount of time in Ukrainian folklore it takes for a person to truly pass on. I can imagine her planting flowers, pulling weeds, and wiping the granite tombstone on some sunny spring day, and I know she feels loss. I saw her face today, exhausted, pale, frowning, and I am ashamed of myself. 

Friday, May 21, 2010

The World of Ideas

I've been reading a collection of essays this week by the great New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell called "What the Dog Saw." What I love about these essays is how they spark my thinking. There are essays about the poetry of human motion, a profile of Ron Popeil, the phenomenon of late bloomers and the trouble of catastrophe thinking.

What it gives me is a renewed love of ideas and how they can be sparked through writing. I've already come up with a new idea for an essay and it has helped me work through some ideas on my still-unfinished novel.

It also makes me remember that even though I live abroad, I can't quit the habits that I love back home and I shouldn't use the confusion and difficulty of living in Unkraine as an excuse to quit trying. This essay about late bloomers--how some artists become successful late in life because of the way they approach their art rather than because of their lack of talent--gives me some faith that I shouldn't quit, either. Thanks, Malcolm.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Where did I go?

Yes, it has been more than a month since I last posted, and I thought I should at least explain why for anyone who has bothered to follow the blog. The simple answer is this: I've been too busy living.

For the past few years, it felt like my life was on hold, like I was waiting for something good to happen to me. Now, I did make efforts to achieve this, but my daily life was drudgery at best and torture at worst. But since I have arrived in Ukraine, I feel alive again. I am busy. I am meeting people every day. I am learning the culture and language of this strange country. And so, all I can say is, I've been busy.

A few weeks ago, I saw an amazing fusion jazz performance by a Georgian woman named Nino Katamadze and her band Insight. Energetic, beautiful, and totally satisfying. I went to midnight services for the Orthodox Easter, where you stand for up to four hours listening to the service in Old Slavonic and then wait for your basket of Easter bread and food to be blessed by the priests after the service. I can't say it felt particularly sanctified, what with the high heels and mini skirts, but the sheer numbers of people at the various churches we visited (there were six or seven...I lost count) was amazing. I rolled home at 4:30 in the morning, totally exhausted.

And the people....the amazing people. Shashlik and banya with my football fan friends on the outskirts of town (their version of barbecue); hanging with some amazing graphic artists late into the night; drinking vodka with a couple of great Iraqi guys, one of whom was actually shot during a firefight in the war and who still is as nice to me as my best friends back home.

I'll try to be better about finding time to update the blog. But in the meantime, know that I'm busy living.

Monday, March 8, 2010

International Women's Day

Today was one of the big holidays in Ukraine, paying tribute to the amazing women of this country. I walked to my Russian lessons and was surprised to find that not only was this important, but it also was a vacation day across the country--nobody was out at 9 a.m. as I strolled up Pushkinskaya St. toward my classes. Usually, the metro and buses are crowded with people heading to work.

Ukraine remains very traditional in many ways, particularly in the patriarchal nature of family relationships. Men should provide the money; women do everything else. They cook and clean and work and take care of the kids, all while trying to look as impressive as they can. But they are not saints. They have learned how to wrest control in many ways, despite this traditional culture, with cunning and often not-too-subtle manipulation. They take boyfriends; they are very demanding; they know their stunning looks and provocative clothing have an impact. I don't wish to judge; the easiest way to fail in understanding a culture is to spend too much time applying our values on their culture. I will first try harder to understand. It is interesting, for sure, and disturbing in many ways.

A friend told me this joke, which has some truth to it:

A man watches his neighbor sit on his balcony every day, strumming his guitar and drinking vodka. In the morning, his wife brings him breakfast, prepares the kids for school, and heads off to work. The neighbor spends the morning playing guitar. At lunchtime, his wife returns home to fix him lunch and clean up after him. And at night, the man sits on his balcony playing the guitar until dinner is served, by his wife, and he goes to bed.

The man watches his neighbor do this for several days. One day, he leans over and asks, "Don't you feel guilty?"

"About what?" the neighbor replies, still playing his guitar.

"You let your wife cook and clean and take care of the kids and work, and the only thing you do all day is to play guitar."

"Ah," said the neighbor. "No, I don't feel guilty. Is it my fault she can't play the guitar?"

So on March 8, the men cook and clean and buy their wives and girlfriends flowers, purses, shoes, phones and the like. Everywhere, I saw men and women with huge bundles of flowers of all sorts. The women seem to love this day. I think I understand why. For once, their many jobs become only one.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Where does all the dirt come from? I am wandering around the city on a daily basis and noticing all the dirt that covers the streets and sidewalks. The remaining spring ice is so covered in dirt that I can't tell the difference between ice and schmuck.

The sole English the Adidas store today, where I bought a new pair of shoes, didn't actually make shopping easier, but it sure made me feel more welcome that somebody (a clerk who spent two years studying English in London) would bother to speak to me in English.

Loneliness is easier to accept when you blame it on the barrier of language.

XXL in Ukraine is barely large enough to cover my personal friends here want me to wear tighter clothing even though such tightens would be ridiculed in the USA. We try to hide any indication of the beer/vodka gut, but in Ukraine, they seem to accept it and not to mind.

Why do clerks in every store give you a receipt only after they rip it slightly?

The Russian language has a whole other layer of complexity that I haven't even begun to delve into....the next month of language study will be freakin' difficult!!!

New shoes make me happy, especially when they keep my feet from hurting so much.

This American Life is truly the most interesting podcast/PBS program ever...I've listened to three in a row and it makes me feel like I'm doing something worthwhile...

Be well!


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Just What is Mine? And Yours?

In America, the concept of personal property is well established, really a fundamental belief system in the system. It extends to intellectual property as well, although this belief continues to be eroded by pervasive piracy, plagiarism and perhaps the moral corruption of American citizens.

But in Ukraine, the legacy of Communism means that the idea of personal ownership of property is vague at best, nonexistent at worst. I did a photoshoot last week for a friend of a friend. She needed some professional photographs for a new job, so I offered to shoot them for her, gratis. I told her up front that I would allow her to select 10 images that I would edit and deliver to her in both small and large resolution formats, for web use and for printing.

After the shoot, she was quite excited about how they turned out (I'm a fair photographer with 20 years of experience doing this as both an amateur and pro in America). She selected about a dozen images, and I even edited several more because I wasn't so busy and thought it would be nice.

But when she arrived to pick them up, she got upset with me that I wouldn't give her all 350 images (the unedited images that I didn't think were of sufficient quality to let other people see). I tried to explain to her that shooting hundreds of images was part of a process to produce the best ones for her use. She had no need for all of them for the job; she just wanted to print a bunch more up to show her family. I have never given out unedited images to my models; it's bad advertising for me, and really useless for any of the semi-pro and professional models I typically work with, anyway. Nobody actually ever asks in the USA.

I ended up giving her the 17 images, plus low-res photos of the rest for her own use on the computer, just to make her happy. But that wasn't enough. She wanted them all, in full resolution, so she could print them up and do who knows what with. I wouldn't go further than that, and even what I did was really a violation of my principles regarding having my work out in the world. But she wasn't happy at all, and she couldn't understand why I wouldn't give them all to her, or even why I had the right to deny her.

And from some perspectives, I understand. If you live in a country without intellectual property rights, then it is hard to argue that my time, experience, equipment, and talent give me the right to control the photos. After all, they are photos of her. But it sure makes me wary about doing trades of any sort in this country. Why use my $60,000 of equipment, 25 years of experience, and whatever "talent" I have just to see my worst photos out there in the world?

Lesson learned.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Taste of America

The mournful guitar of Mark Knoffler echoed in the marble hall as I strolled among the bundled up patrons and fake trees of the Caravan shopping center. It almost felt like home...McDonalds in the food court, plenty of jewelry shops, overpriced shops like Tommy Hilfiger, Nike, and Adidas, and teenagers laughing and generally screwing around (two young guys sat in the food court connecting about 30 straws into one long pipe for no apparent reason).

Today I finally tackled the metro, heading up six stops from my local station to two mega malls, at least they seem that way in Ukraine, on the north side of town. I needed clothes--three t-shirts, three button-downs, and a couple of sweaters don't really cover the needs of a modern American man--and I was trying to find the last pieces of the XBox puzzle so that I could play online with my son. I succeeded on both counts, finding several shirts, sweaters, and t-shirts at discount prices while also managing to spend way too much money on a wireless connector for my new XBox.

And it felt good to realize that Ukraine does offer frozen pizzas, more than one kind of white-ish cheese (although no cheddar, nor any kind of nacho chip), and even has a pseudo-Apple store (although without the headphones I am desperately missing, after losing mine sometime within the first few days of my arrival).

But it wasn't all familiar. Each mall was anchored by a super-Wal-Mart sort of grocery store, and while the aisles were huge, the selection sometimes baffled me. Here's a photo of one of the complete aisles dedicated to vodka!

But much of it felt very comfortable, like the esclators and marble and fountains.

I'll be back, I'm sure, if only to feel modestly like I am not in a completely foreign world.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Small Victory

Can I just tell everyone how accomplished I feel at this moment? I have been trying for weeks to set up a wireless network at home, and tonight, after six hours of fiddling with the settings, I have actually managed to make my internet connection work wirelessly. Woo Hoo!

This may seem like a small victory (because it is), but I still feel like a king tonight. I can connect to the internet on my computer as well as my iPhone....which means that soon I ought to be able to hook up an Xbox and my remote backup to the network as well. Good times....

Friday, February 19, 2010

Watch for Falling Daggers!

Today I was walking with some friends and they pulled me away from a building, pointed up and warned me about falling ice. After a big snow and some warmer weather, the icicles are huge and sometimes break free, falling three or four stories to the sidewalk. I've seen some monsters on the sidewalk already. And then I read this:

Woman Hit by Icicle

As if the slippery sidwalks weren't enough of a hazard.....but I prefer these risks to the kind of litigious society that requires warnings on coffee that it is very hot :)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Morning Snow

The snow had been falling softly all night. At one a.m., I looked out my window to se the most beautiful kind of winter wonders under the dim streetlights--dark, veiny trees with a coat of pure white, formerly dirty sidewalks seemingly washed soft and clean in a blanket of new snow, snow piling up softly on the smallest of surfaces.

So when I awoke near dawn, I knew I had to rise. The streets were nearly deserted as I trudged into the six-inch powder. A few early risers walked in the center of the street. Now and then, a taxi or truck would grumble down Pushkinskaya. It was still snowing hard, and the light was a diffuse blue. I started shooting. 

For two hours I watched the city wake. First came the shovelers (my experience with the sidewalks suggested there were none, but I was wrong!). Old men and women with dark clothes and homemade shovels scooped the sidewalks clear. I wandered downtown, wondering what the bustling center looked and sounded like when snow quieted the city. 

After about an hour, even the unshoveled parts of the main paths were carved by foot traffic, long lines of people bundled against the elements, all seemingly headed to the same two or three buildings for work. The bus terminals had lines of nearly 100 for some routes. No one seemed to speak. 

I have been shooting ditigal for eight years, and in that time I have noticed my eye has transformed into one that only paid attention to light and shadow and form has also begun to see color. For 20 years, I shot exclusively Tri-X in my M4-P's and M6's, but now, shooting with a digital M8, and after several years with other digital cameras, I notice color as much as I notice anything else. So even on a day like today, where the city was practically painted in black and white, I still found that converting my images to monochrome was disappointing. 

But I perservered and ended up with what I think are nine images that are fairly strong in B&W (some even better than the color versions). So here they are. A color gallery might be forthcoming....stay tuned. And then you can decide for yourself if I can see better in color, black and white, or not at all.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Ten Positive Surprises about Kharkov

This week has been more than a little tough....Margarita was sick most of the week so I didn't see her, and nobody called me back on my jobs, nor did I manage to get any of them on the phone, either. And with my VD plans ruined by Margarita's temperature and cough, I have spent some time wallowing in self pity. But I have learned a few things along the way about cheering myself up, so I thought I'd do one of the tried and true: A list of positives. So, here are the top ten positive surprises about living in Kharkov after one month:

1. House slippers. I knew I'd need to have house slippers over here, if only so I didn't look like some kind of clod who didn't have any manners. After traipsing around the city sidewalks for just a few minutes, your shoes are coated in ice and dirt and schmuck, so it stands to reason that nobody wears their shoes inside. So when I get home, I slide off my dirty boots and slip into a pair of $6 Belsta faux-alligator leather slippers. They keep my socks clean and my toes warm. 

2. Ukrainian catsup. Yes, it really is better (at least everyplace but McDonald's, where it is identical to every other McDonalds in the world). It is thick and rich and a little sweet--almost like home made! Of course, it comes, like everything here, in a bag rather than a bottle, but at least it has a screw-off top. This is what keeps my motivation up for making french fries...more on that later (this is the positive blog!). 

3. My apartment. I think this might be the nicest apartment I've ever rented, anywhere, and it costs less than a mediocre place in the suburbs. But my apartment has been recently renovated, with good heat, good windows, a security system, balcony, new stainless appliances (even though I can't quite figure out how to run the dishwasher!), and is located less than 10 steps from a good pizza place. Which brings me to...

4. Pizza. It's not quite like American pizza, but they always have "Pizza Margarita,"  (cheese pizza) two words which I can recognize in Russian and Ukrainian, and comes thin like NYC pizza. I smile every time, too, because my GF has the same name ;) 

5. My Red Oxx Chica (aka Chico). Yes, it really is a man purse...barely big enough to fit A4 sized books in it, but light and convenient and still big enough to carry a camera in when I need to be discreet. I still prefer to think of it is a miniature messenger bag, but regardless it's no embarrassment to carry one here because about half the guys do.

6. My French Bakery. It's just around the corner from my flat and has amazingly good breads of all sorts--cibatta, regular white bread, black bread, croissants (even chocolate....for just 50 cents), and even though I can't pronounce anything on the menu, the staff is always pleasant and gets me what I want. Oh, and a good loaf of bread costs $0.80. 

7. Tolerance for my Stupidity. Every day is an adventure here, and I make so many mistakes that I can't keep track of them all. For example, I bought some blini at the supermarket last week, not realizing that the clerk behind the meat counter had to weigh them and put a sticker on them before I could take them to the cashier. But when I went through, the cashier looks at me in that way that says, "You stupid American, don't you know these need prices?" and then she smiles and takes them back to the meat counter herself. 

8. iTunes. Okay, so technically this isn't even something in Kharkov, but after I got my internet working and realized that most of the free downloadable content I was expecting (I'm talking to you, Hulu!) wasn't available with a foreign IP address, I realized that if I wanted to watch ANYTHING in the English language besides BBC news and English Club TV, I had to get it from iTunes. It's been a lifesaver--I've watched every episode of The Wire at least twice (and a quick shout out to my old college dorm-mate Jim True-Frost, who has a great supporting role in the show)!

9. My fuzzy, leopard-print blanket. Sure, I'd never have even considering buying something like that in the US, but Margarita and I were at this giant outdoor market (on one of the coldest days of the year), and she pointed it out, so I said, cool. And it is the softest, fuzziest, snuggliest blanket I've ever had. 

10. Margarita. I'm not surprised by her in every way, but I have been positively surprised by her general helpfulness and patience with me. She laughs at my language screw ups, is tolerant when I can't stomach some traditionally wonderful Ukrainian food (pickled tomatoes and this disgusting cold salad come to mind), and has been integral to my getting anything much done. She sometimes takes me shopping, cooks for me, found this great apartment, found the slippers, the blanket, and, even though I don't see her as much as I'd like, she has made this first month bearable at worst and wonderful at times. 

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Tymoshenko won't quit

While not much a surprise, Tymoshenko ended her silence and declared that Yanokovych wasn't fairly elected:

Kiev Post

I spoke today with my friend Misha, who is an ardent Party of Regions member and supporter of Yanokovych. He called Tymoshenko a "bitch" who stole the election last time (the Orange Revolution) and who tries again to steal it now. I guess no matter where you go, ideology trumps reality. I can find no independent observer who argues that the election was anything other than fair, and I can understand why a plurality of people would want a different government than the one the Orange adherents have run the past few years.

Sure, I would have preferred Tymoshenko. She's at least intelligent. But this kind of political posturing makes me dislike her, makes me believe she's not really a democrat. Just another round of cynical posturing for her party's advantage (or, I think more likely, disadvantage).

It is too bad that the Orange Revolution failed so miserably to handle the things that Ukrainians care about, but that doesn't give Tymoshenko license to argue that the electorate was shut of out of this democratic process. I wasn't happy when Bush got the nod over Kerry by the Supreme Court (not that I really wanted Kerry either, but at least he had a brain). But the foundation of a democracy--regardless of whether anyone likes the results--is that voting, conducted fairly, is the rule of law.

Arches Two

This archway has a mural of Pushkin, depicting his deadly duel, on one side and a mixture of the Simpsons and Futurama on the other. I walk through it on my way to the grocery store. Sure, there are plenty of taggers here (there's one that says ", although I think it is more a sentiment here than an actual advertisement for some kind of web site), but I like the literary and artistic tone of much of the street art.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Arches One

One of my favorite subjects so far is the myriad archways that feel like some sort of portal to another dimension, branching out from every street. So I thought I'd start posting a new one every day (or so). Here's the first, Cafe Bamvyk:

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Kharkov at Night, part 2

I thought I'd try out my M8 and 50mm Lux under the streetlamps of the city and am pretty happy with a couple of these images from my neighborhood. I live in a mixed residential-commercial district about six blocks from the center of the city, and there are many bars, restaurants, and cafes that stay open until 11 or 12.

As a city goes, it is quite safe in my neighborhood, but I wouldn't want to be wandering around much after midnight...drunk hooligans are the same everywhere. I took these during a trip to the all-night market for a snack at about 10 p.m. It seems to snow about every other day here, making the sidewalks a constant mine field of slushy snow hiding underlying layers of very slippery ice. Maybe that's why the locals always are looking down when the walk!


Kharkov at Night, part Dva (2)

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Disappointing, but not Surprising

Yulia Tymoshenko, the loser in Sunday's election, plans to challenge the results in court despite all the independent observers calling the election free and fair. I admit, I would have preferred her over the Mechanic, but she lost. She and the Orange coalition had five years to do something with the country and they blew it. That's what happens when you screw up governance--you get booted. 

What's actually sad, though, is that moves like this make Ukraine even less of a democracy than ever. It's not as if observers found wide-spread irregularities, or even that the results were contrary to expectations, exit polling, or pre-polling. People are frustrated. So they booted the incumbent president in the first round of voting and the standard-bearer of the ruling government in the second round. 

Does it suck that the financial crisis happened on the Orange watch? Yes, most definitely. Can Yaunkovych fix the economy? Not likely. Are both candidates in the pocket of powerful oligarchs? Definitely. But it seems to me that when the candidates reject the results of an election because they lose (and I think Yaunkovych would have done the same thing had the shoe been on the other foot), then the legitimacy of the entire system is in doubt. 

I can't help but think this is just a ploy for some kind of leverage with the new administration. Maybe she wants to hang on to her prime minister post, or maybe she wants a voice in some other way in the new administration, but it looks to me like the only way she wins is if the appropriate judges are in her pocket rather than Yaunkovych's. And maybe that's the deal. Either way, it is a sad day for democracy in Ukraine. 

Monday, February 8, 2010

Yanukovich Wins...for now

It seems evident after 90% of the votes have been counted, with the election commissioner saying that most of the rest come from Yanukovych strongholds in the south and east, that Ukrainians elected the guy whose first victory in 2004 caused the Orange Revolution.

 CEC: With 89.13% of the vote counted, Yanukovych hangs on to 2.76% lead

This shouldn't come as much of a surprise. The financial crisis in 2008 crushed the Hryvina, causing people with savings to lose over half of it, and the economy contracted by something like 18 percent in 2009 while inflation remains in the double digits.

Yet, many Americans persist in their belief that simply having democratic elections will generate wealth and prosperity. It hasn't happened in Ukraine, and it generally doesn't happen that way. Sure, nobody wants to live under oppression, but nobody wants to go hungry, to work for wages that can't pay the bills, and see the value of their savings crushed under significant inflation. Most people, anywhere, just want some stability and personal prosperity. Whoever they think gives them a better chance of that will usually win.

Don't get me wrong. I'm no huge fan of Yanukovych. I would have preferred somebody with at least a modicum of general intelligence (he insists that Chekov, who spent much of his life in Crimea, was a poet). But I realized a few years ago during a trek across Russia that all the democracy in the world won't CREATE stability, and stability is crucial to the effective governance of a nation as well as a foundation for economic growth. People loved Putin not because he was a liberal democrat, but because he stabilized the Russian economy and society. This does not forgive the oppression of the people, by any means. It is just a tradeoff that Americans have never faced, never had to even consider.

Only when the USA has a better understanding of how the rest of the world lives can it make foreign policy that is a net benefit to the world.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

First Set of Photos

I finally got around to roaming the city with a camera for a's awfully cold here (15 F high today), so I hope you enjoy them. 

The neo-Tsarist Russian empire is an increasing security problem for the West

More division on the Russia-West front as well....
The neo-Tsarist Russian empire is an increasing security problem for the West


Okay, the black comedy here is in full swing. Witness, from the Christian Science Monitor:

A large group of crowbar-wielding men, accompanied by lawmakers loyal to Yanukovich, smashed their way into the Ukraina state printing house two weeks ago, claiming that millions of excess presidential ballots were being produced there to enable fraud by Tymoshenko's camp. Pro-Yanukovich parliamentarians have also tried in recent weeks to fire the national police chief, Yury Lutsenko, who is loyal to Prime Minister Tymoshenko, and to take over the Kiev Appeals Court, which is exactly where any forthcoming election challenges are likely to be heard.

And...there have been, I think two deaths related to the campaign. A representative of Tymoshenko was killed/died in Western Ukraine, in Ivano-Frankivsk:
Plus, another man from Yanukovich died at a polling station:

And....disappearing ink???

But it appears that Yanukovich will will, according to a western exit poll that is considered to be independent, by 48.7% to 45.5% (voters here can also vote for no one).

This is one crazy country. Maybe not more crazy than America, but certainly crazy in some unique ways....

Election Day

The children clambered back up the hill behind the opera hall and waited patiently for their next turn on the ice. One by one, or sometimes in pairs, they slid down a steep icy slope. Some went face first, others crouched on their feet, and few bothered with actual sleds. All around, parents and grandparents looked on, laughing as the kids spun and slipped down the embankment.

Across the park at Independence Square, Kharkov’s primary claim to fame as the largest public square in Europe or the World (depending on who you talk to), similar tension filled the air. The Lenin statue watched over the ice skaters twirling and falling on the outdoor rink. The shops that lined the square were quiet, as you would expect on any Sunday afternoon. I walked the streets of Kharkov for hours today, camera in hand, ready to catch some of the political tension that the newspapers said was rife in Ukraine these days, but what I found--indeed, what I really expected to find--was people enjoying a sunny day off. No people gathering for protests, no trouble at polling stations, no sign even that it was election day. 

Kharkov is the heart of Victor Yaunkovich country, the largest city in East Ukraine ,where people generally speak Russian, the economy is driven by heavy industry, and the city is only 40 kilometers from the border with Russia. There have been campaign signs and political booths set up in the few weeks since I arrived here on the eve of the primary elections, but otherwise, nobody is excited about this election. Yaunkovich handily won the primary, beating his challenger by 10 percentage points over one of the leaders of the Orange Revolution, which ousted him only six years ago after a fraudulent vote. 

But with one exception (the real estate agent who manages my apartment building), the prevailing attitude was of disgust. Vote for Yaunkovich and you are voting for a mafia-tied strong man whose educational credentials are suspect and who served time as a youth for criminal violence. Vote for Yulia Tymoshenko, the stunning blonde with trademark braid and the rhetorical skills of Reagan (or so I am told), and you are voting for a savvy, wealthy gas magnate whose bickering with former Orange compatriot and current President Viktor Yuschenko has kept the country in political gridlock as the global financial crisis has crippled Ukraine’s economy. And she has her own mafia chieftain backer, too. 

Nothing in this campaign has suggested politics will get smooth soon. For months, it seems the two main candidates, as well as the president, have simply thrown charges of vote manipulation while doing everything in their own powers to manipulate the vote for themselves. Yaunkovich pushed through several election law “reforms” in the days leading to the vote, and Tymoshenko charged that Yaunkovich people murdered one of her campaign staffers today, and her camp also has vowed to challenge the results of the election before any of the votes come in. The current president canned the governor of my district yesterday, but he refused to step down. And Yaunkovich muscle has also been brought into Kiev to make sure the election tabulating is fair. Kinda reminds me of the ’04 Bush-Kerry election, but with the usual Eastern violence and threats of violence thrown in. 

I guess they both have some kind of platform--Yaunkovich for law and order and a balanced policy between the West and Russia, Tymoshenko for good governance and more integration with the EU while maintaining a good relationship with Moscow. I’m not even sure how different their platforms actually are. But nobody seems to believe or care. They just want “a chicken in every pot,” something neither seem to be able to deliver or seems to even promise with concrete policy ideas. 

Reminds me a little bit of how politics works in America--candidates controlled or hamstrung by their financial backers (we call the mafia here corporations; at least the Ukrainians are a little more honest with the names), with only sidelong interest in what voters actually care about. Our Jeffersonian democracy died a long time ago; Ukraine’s never even got a chance to grow. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Free WiFi...just another thing to love about McDonalds

Yes, I am eating Chicken Mcnuggets, fries, and an ice-cold Coke while browsing the web on my iPhone. And yes, these are the ony 3 things I realy know how to order. And no, they don't have diet coke (at least not the good fountain kind), so I satisfy my desire for a cold drink with regular Coke.

I haven't been able to post much lately because I'm still struggling to get reliable Internet at my house. This is proving to be quite a problem for a guy who has had either wifi or 3G Internet 24/7 for many years. Bu I haven't given up! Tomorrow I will try to talk with someone else about the Ethernet network at my apartment and figure out what must do to get it working.

I'm excited to go out to the ballet this weekend with Margarita, and I'm waiting on a couple of calls from possible employers. Crossing my fingers, even though the prospect of creating esl lesson plans is pretty daunting!

Time for me to go to bed. Paka!

Friday, January 22, 2010

My Flat

A week into my sojourn, I must say I am becoming very comfortable at home. My flat is spacious, with five rooms (living, kitchen, 2 bedrooms, and bath), nice laminate flooring, high ceilings, great light in every room, and very quiet. I have set up my computer in the main bedroom and am sitting here wondering if it is about time for me to crawl into bed. But not yet.  Here's my kitchen and living room.

Juxtaposition is Striking

Today I read with interest the latest news from the US that the Supreme Court ruled for the right of corporations and unions to directly provide financing for political campaigns, just as I also read an editorial in the Kiev Times lamenting the ties that both presidential candidates had to big businesses. Of course, Westerners call big business in Ukraine and Russia the Mafia, while in the US, they are simply businesses promoting the American Way. But the truth is, they are the same--in business for their own short-term profits, at any expense. 

Sure, most American corporations don't resort to violence to get what they want, but I suspect that is only because they don't need to. The voice of Corporate America is heard more loudly and firmly in Washington than any other already, and the Court's ruling makes it so loud that it will inevitably drown out anyone else's....if it could be heard before. 

Ukrainians must choose between the lesser of two evils in their presidential candidates while the international community scoffs at the endemic corruption of this system. But why don't the same people scoff at the outrageous power and influence big business has on the American political and social system? Is it not essentially the same? At least Ukrainians understand they're voting either for the candidate who makes some pretensions to democracy (Tymoshenko) and another who does not (Yanukovych). Americans don't even seem to realize that their interests have been completely abandoned in favor of corporate chieftains who make more money than God himself and who can only see as far as next quarter's performance. Read for yourself:

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

So Many Questions

I am well into my first week in Kharkov, and progress is slow at best and non-existent at times. One of the great things about being abroad for me is seeing the many ways in which a culture solves its problems. To combat the cold at home, we install double- and triple-paned windows with high tech gases between the panes. Here, I have two heavy rolling shutters over the main windows that I close every night, making my living room feel like a bunker. Is one better than the other? I don't know, and I don't care. I went into this adventure trying to eradicate my expectations and predispositions so that I could experience the culture honestly, so I will save these kinds of judgements for others.

I'm still having plenty of trouble, of course. I needed to mend a button on my coat but had no scissors to cut away the old threads. Today, though, I picked up the thing I found I have missed most: A Swiss Army pocketknife. With a tiny pair of scissors, a sharp little blade, and tweezers, I realized that this was one thing I shouldn't have forgotten. Now I can fix the button on my coat, trim my beard a little (I have seen no sign of beard trimmers yet, but I am hopeful), and do all the little things I used my knife for every day.

Margarita told me about a good language school that I hadn't heard of, and I planned to go to them today and give them my resume. But by the time I finished editing and printing it, I decided it was too late in the day to begin the walk. So I will go tomorrow.

I still have not adjusted my body clock to local time. I can fall asleep by around midnight, but I wake up every day at 4 a.m., tired, bored, and unsure what to do. By about 8 or 9, I'm very tired again, so I go back to sleep and end up sleeping the rest of the morning away. I hope this goes away soon...I have few hours of daylight to get anything accomplished with this kind of schedule.

Monday, January 18, 2010


Maybe I'm starting to get th hang of Ukranian took m only a few minutes to find a shop selling stationary and other paper goods, so now I can print up my resume and hit the streets :) If only I could find another kind of paper--toilet paper--before the situation reaches a crisis...and I'm only a few sheets of Kleenex away!

Feeling Helpless...the first of many times

Today began the work of this venture. I have to secure a job, which means I probably should have brought some resumes with me...but of course, I didn't. Easy enough, right? Just print some more. Except for the fact that I didn't lug a printer with me to Ukraine, so that means one of two things: 1. Finding someplace who could print it, or 2. Getting a printer.

Since I expected I'd need a printer, both for drafts of my writing and for teaching materials, I chose, 2. Plus, they don't seem to have Kinko's (now Fed Ex Kinkos or Fed Ex Business Center), and I thought it might be harder to try to explain what I needed than it would be to purchase a printer. So off I went in the 10-degree afternoon air. I walked for about an hour before I saw something that looked like computers in the window of a store. I went in and found a cheap HP laser printer that I thought would probably work with my Mac. Fifteen minutes later (you pay first and then wait in line at a fulfillment area kind of like Circuit City used to do), I lugged my new printer home.

Smooth sailing...I finally got something accomplished. Except for one problem. Paper. I have none. I can't even figure out where they sell toilet paper (it was nowhere in the grocery stores), let alone office products. So, I will need help, once again, to get anything done here. The vast scope of culturally and linguistically specific things that you must undertake when entering a new country is just astounding. I'm sure I'll be learning this lesson over and over again....and I won't even tell you about my travails in getting good Internet!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Slum or Luxury Flat?

So here is the first building's entrance, between a bar and a pizza place. Nothing is quite as it seems, at least to my American eyes.

Soon you'll see photos of the actual apartment. :)

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Kharkov at Night

The street in front of my apartment was quiet as I stepped onto the snow- and ice-covered sidewalks. A frigid wind blew in my face and I began to walk. Up Pushkinskya Street and back. Past Internet cafes, a blues restaurant, and shuttered shops. It was just after nine o'clock and while the streets were not bustling as they had earlier in the day, many locals, bundled in fur coats and hats, shuffled by.

Without any doubt, I am a total outsider here. I can barely read the signs, order a meal, or engage in conversation. But for some reason, I feel comfortable in this very foreign place. I stopped into the closest bar, Pivobar, or Beer Bar, and sat at the counter to order a shot of Neimeroff Vodka, Ukraine's finest. I tried to order fifty ML but could only come up with the word for 100. So, "sto" ML of vodka later, I return to the street, to my gorgeous apartment on the second floor, on Furenze Street, still in need of basic things like toilet paper and soap, but having a kind of inner peace I have rarely found anywhere.

As soon as I have the energy, I'll start to post some photos of my neighborhood. Until then, I sleep.

My bartender, Dmitri, asked me where I was from and what I was doing in Kharkov, and we managed to communicate a few ideas before my lack of language skill stopped us.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Lugging 200 pounds of junk across the World

I have just arrived in Kharkov, just 32 hours after I said goodbye to the kids in Chicago, and I successfully lugged two full camera kits, two full strobe setups, my desktop computer, and, oh yeah, some clothes through four airports. I'm exhausted.

Margarita met me at the airport and shuttled me off to the apartment she'd just secured for me yesterday. I have to say, she's amazing! This place is affordable, beautiful, spacious, maybe even perfect! I love it. Wood laminate flooring, renovated kitchen and bath with stainless appliances--including a dishwasher (a rarity in Ukraine)--as well as a 42" plasma TV in the living room, a desk, and a small study/extra bedroom. Pictures will be forthcoming soon, but for now, I'm going to wash the grime off me and go to bed. A great way to end this part of the journey.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Michael and Alyssa stood on each side of me, both crying, as we said goodbye this morning in front of the security checkpoint at OHare. Michael's hair wa still a little wet from his shower at the hotel moments before and his his head was fresh and cool as I kept kissing it. Alyssa was heaving as she cried next to me. I kissed her head too, afraid to look them in the eyes.

I did not want to cry. They worry about me too much already, so I tried to be comforting and strong. Now, on a chair across from a hot dog stand, my heart aches for them.

This is the trade off of a journey like this. Always balancing my desire to explore, change, and seek love and professional fulfillment with the desire to simply be near my kids. I want to be a role model, showing them that people need to risk failure in order to succeed, but I also want them to feel that I have their interests at heart as well. I have always felt my job as a parent is to raise wonderful people, thoughtful, kind, and happy. But the choices necessary to make such kids are not at all obvious.

I take the next step realizing its costs, to my family and to me.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

About Kharkov

So why go to Kharkov, you might ask. Sure, Milwaukee sucked, but I could conceivably go anywhere. And in truth, there's really just one reason to go there, and her name is Margarita. She's charming, fun, and kind. She's beautiful. She's someone I love to spend time with. So that's a pretty good reason, I think. But there is more. 

I want to study Russian intensely, and Kharkov is a large (1.5 million population), non-touristy city right next to Russia that I can travel to without a visa. So I will be learning to swim in the deep end--hardly anyone there speaks English.  But I also loved my visit there last summer, and I think it will be an interesting place to be for a while. It has nice parks, good universities, and good people. And, perhaps, the woman of my dreams....

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Series of Lasts

This week has been scary and a little sad as I do all the "lasts" of Milwaukee. Last dinner at Stenys, last time at Dee's for American Idol & Leonardo's Pizza, last time at an English-speaking store, last time I write this blog in my home office. Tonight will be the last night in my condo. Tomorrow will be the last time I drive for months.

But soon, I will be experiencing a rush of firsts. In Kharkov. First apartment. First trip to the grocery store. First everything. It's nerve-wracking. It's exciting. It's time. Wish me luck!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

One Week Away

As the second big storm of the winter blankets Wisconsin in snow, I am at home surrounded by bags and clothes and camera gear, trying to figure out how to transport my life halfway across the world in two checked bags and carry ons. You'd think that after living in a 400-square-foot condo for three years, I wouldn't have much stuff. But it adds up.

Do I bring two winter coats? Or just wear the one I hope will keep me warm walking to the subway or waiting at the bus stop? Which clothes? Which lights? Which cameras (okay, I'm taking them all....a man must have priorities). Getting wrapped up in the minutiae of these questions helps me to forget about the bigger ones, so I pack and repack, I get travel insurance, I download apps for my iPhone that I hope will help me get along.

But today I'm trying to step back. In one week, I will be on a plane bound for Kharkov, Ukraine, flying on a one-way ticket. When I tell people about this move, they look at me with such a strange expression: Why would anyone want to move from the USA to Ukraine? In winter? With only limited employment prospects, and only the most rudimentary language skills? Why, indeed.

I have many answers, never too sure which are true and which are merely plausible. In the simplest sense, I have nothing to lose. This, I am told, is one of the biggest reasons a person becomes an Ex-Pat in the first place--down-on-their-luck Americans head overseas in search of something, anything, that might make a difference in their lives.

I am 43, divorced, unemployed, and can count my friends here on one hand. I spend days alone at home. And while solitude is grand, isolation breeds unhappiness. There's a huge emerging body of work which suggests that the biggest determinants of human happiness are closeness to friends, lovers, and family.  With no lover, few friends (none of whom I see often), and a family that is still hours away from me physically (and often much further away emotionally), I have been mired in deep depression for most of my stay here.

This is not to say my family isn't wonderful. In fact, they are. My parents, who live two and a half hours away, have been supportive of this move. I see them regularly. I couldn't even attempt this adventure if it weren't for them. And even more important are my two children, one in college and one in middle school. While I see my older daughter less often now, we are close. And I am even closer with my son. It is painful to leave him at all. But I feel I must leave, at least for a little while.

Which brings me to the second reason I feel the need to go. My life here has been on a downward spiral for some time. I have picked up some bad habits that must change. I have become lazy. I quit writing. I need to shake things up, and this certainly qualifies. I have always been a wanderer, a lover of adventure, so when things don't work, I tend to be ready to move on and try something new. Maybe I don't understand contentment. Maybe I am simply unsatisfied. Or maybe I am still looking for someplace, or someone, that feels like home.