There are so many different styles of traveling. While I was dashing through the Baltics, I had an interesting conversation with a British guy staying in one of the hostels. Where I had been hopping between cities and making an effort to see the major sights, he was slowly making his way South spending a week or more in each city. He would stay in hostels and couch surf, spending time getting to know the people in each country. He told me that his couch surfing hosts would often hold little barbecues where they would invite their friends and he would get to know a big group of people. My focus, rather than meeting new people, was learning new things. I can be fairly prickly and anti-social, and for me this trip was more about taking the time to pursue my own interests and reclaim some independence rather than get to know a lot of different cultures in depth.
However, I love learning about the countries where I already have friends, and I have been so lucky to get to have the chance to see the homes of many of my friends. Christian and Berit have integrated me into their families in Germany, and Tara and her family invited me to stay with them for a month in Australia. I’ve also welcomed both Christian and Tara to my place and my family’s homes in the US. It can be kind of a strange feeling to bring a person you know from a particular time and place in your own life into another time and place. I met Christian in front of the Starbucks in Princeton where I used to hang out in high school, and six months later he walked me through the streets of the city that he used to frequent in high school.
Seeing Sasha was such an amazing feeling after a week of solo travel. It’s such a good feeling to be picked up somewhere rather than having to figure out where to go on your own. In Ukraine especially it’s great to have a host because for the first time in my life I am in an area where I can’t even attempt to read the signs because the alphabet is different. I visited Christian and Tara in countries that I already knew fairly well (Germany) or countries that aren’t so different from my own (Australia). Ukraine is different, and I love it.
Sasha and his mom live in a one-room apartment. During the day, the room has two couches, but at night the couches fold out into beds. Sasha’s mom has lived here since 1979. She was raised in Eastern Ukraine, but after completing university, the country assigned her a position in western Ukraine where she received the apartment where they currently live. After the fall of the USSR in 1991, Sasha’s mom had the opportunity to purchase the apartment for 10% of its value and own it herself. Sasha grew up without a telephone or microwave. It wasn’t until traveling abroad to the United States in college that he started to learn how different cultures lived and what he wanted for himself and his mom. In his different opportunities working and studying outside the Ukraine, he has saved his money to help his mom improve the apartment, adding a phone and refurbishing the entire kitchen. I did not grow up in a huge house, but my dad, my brother, and I all had our own rooms. We had a living room, dining room, den, and kitchen and 2.5 bathrooms. I think about American kids fighting over the toothpaste in their bathrooms and American families buying storage units to put their immense amounts of stuff and wonder at the difference in our expectations of home. Frankly, this is enough. (And it’s nice to be taken care of by someone’s mom!)
We got to Sasha’s house, and his mom had left us a nice lunch. It’s been funny for me all summer to be traveling and visiting because I forget the days of the week. Since it was midday on Tuesday, of course his mom was at work! (Work? What’s that?)
In addition to our homemade soup and bread with special Ukrainian cheese spread (and my desperately needed coffee!), we had french meat. French meat is a baked mixture of cheese, mayonnaise, pork, onions, potatoes, and mushrooms that Sasha used to make for me when we lived in the same apartment complex in Heidelberg. We used to drink wine and chop veggies for salad as the meat cooked away in his “penthouse” apartment.
I loved looking at the appliances with Cyrillic writing. I’ve been trying to sound out the letters as we’ve walked around the cities, so in addition to smiling at everyone, my awkwardly slow and sloppy pronunciation of even the most basic words is certainly substantiating my reputation as “special.”
Test your Ukrainian language skills. What are the ingredients in this juice?
Sasha and I spent the day lounging around, catching up, and watching movies on tv. Here in Ukraine, there is a channel called “English club” where people can watch subtitled movies and music videos to improve their English. After each music video, two hosts (one native English speaker, one native Ukrainian speaker) would explain some of the intricacies of the language in the video.
Of course, we snacked! I tried this awesome, caramel Ukrainian candy. The goal is to suck it and let the flavor melt slowly over your tongue. It was a delicious mixture of sugar and condensed milk.
After our lazy afternoon, we had a meal as a family. Since I don’t speak Russian or Ukrainian and Sasha’s mom doesn’t speak English, Sasha has to translate our conversations, but it’s amazing how much I understand of what she is saying—mom chastising son is apparently a universal language!
After dinner, Sasha showed me some old pictures and keepsakes from his life. Check out the pics of baby Sasha! It’s interesting to think that he spent his younger days in the USSR. We were both born during the Cold War, but because the USSR crumbled when we were still so young, we both have trouble conceptualizing its significance the way our parents might.
Look at the picture of Lenin hanging behind Sasha’s class photo!
In Sasha’s first school photo, he is holding a book of the alphabet, so check out the Cyrillic letters. A picture of his teacher is also displayed behind him—I guess so the students can remember their teachers as they get older.
We looked at his old report cards—all 5s and 4s (As and Bs)—what a smarty! Actually, most of his report cards were all 5s, but I had to find one with a few 4s so he wouldn’t get a big head.
We found an old award that Sasha’s grandfather had received from the government for being an extremely good worker and exceeding the planned expectations of production at the factory where he was working.
Stalin and Lenin are displayed prominently on the certificate.
And just in case you think only the Communists attempt to indoctrinate their people through awards and affirmations…
Sasha came to the USA through the Freedom Support Act, which promotes democracy and fosters cross-cultural understanding between Americans and citizens of the former USSR. Not that we’re trying to win them over to our way of life or anything…
We were so happy to be back together! Even though neither of us particularly liked our Masters program, we so appreciate the friendship that we were able to foster and the foursome we created with our friends Christian and Marina. It’s amazing to me that a random choice to flee the country after college for Germany has had such incredible results.
After a relaxing day at home, Sasha and I would venture to Lviv for some sight-seeing and the chance to pee in one of those old school bathrooms that don’t actually have a toilet—you just put your feet in the slots and squat, Asian-style. I wish I had had the nerve to take a picture (just of the facilities! not the squat!), but I’ll fill you in on the other cool stuff next time. For now, just enjoy this pick of Soviet Winnie the Pooh. Isn’t it just wrong?