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.