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.