And so after four months in Ukraine, I wanted to make my way back home for a cousin’s wedding to happen in July. After enduring yet another 23-hour train ride from Kharkiv to Lviv to visit my Ukrainian family, I took the bus from Lviv to Sheheni, on the Ukrainian-Poland border. I had overstayed my visa by a month and was anticipating some trouble at the border. I intended to renew it when I went to Lviv two months prior but I just never did.
The border guards were nice about it. “You overstayed, go see my boss.” So off I went to a little room where a mid-20s female border guard explained what I did wrong, scanned my passport, got me to sign a document stating that I knew what I was doing and under no duress, paid a fine ($65), and then walked across the border to Poland. Not so bad as I’d heard worse stories. In the grand scheme of things it didn’t really matter too much but next time I visit Ukraine I’ll be sure to renew my visa anyway.
Hopping an inter-city bus I made my way to Przemyśl.
Przemyśl is a nice little town. I saw some signs for ESL schools and seriously thought about posting up shop there, or at least coming back at some point. I spent the day wandering around the ornate streets and visited several churches.
I’d like to note the change between Ukraine and Poland is vast. First, it was difficult for me to switch back into Polish after speaking surzyk for the last four months. I tried to remember the Polish words I was taught but often Ukrainian or Russian came out instead. Further, life itself seemed different in Poland compared to Ukraine. As more than one ESL teacher I met told me, Ukraine offers more excitement compared to the Western world. In a word, Poland, Canada and other such Western countries were, simply “boring”. Both sets of women are extremely gorgeous, but the Polish seem to be a little more conservative in their manner of dress. Gone were the six-inch heels and visible underwear! The cost of things is noticeable as the Polish zloty is valued considerably more than the Ukrainian hryvnia. The cost difference is best realized by the Ukrainian babas (grandmothers) who offer Ukrainian horilka (vodka) and cigarettes on the Polish side of the border. Had I not been going back to Canada I would’ve bought a few bottles.
Speaking of bringing things across the border, the most notable difference between Ukraine and Poland – for me at least – was that there was no general distrust the law, unless you are breaking it. By way of contrast, in Ukraine, no one, absolutely no one would suggest you talk to a police officer unless there was no one else around. The cops in Poland, however, were very nice (which I can sadly tell you from experience.)
And with that, I hopped yet another late night bus back to Warsaw. The bus trip wouldn’t be without it’s uniqueness, such as a drunk man serenading another elderly lady. Four hours later I arrived in Warsaw. Again, the difference between Warsaw in winter and summer was huge. In winter Warsaw had such charm and colour. In summer? It looked like any other western city. I don’t hold it against Poland, however, as I had just come from a developing country. I was surprised to find myself agreeing with my former co-worker who had described the West as “boring”! It’s kinda shocking to go from a developed country into a developing country, especially when they’re right beside each other. How can it be that these things happen?
I took another walk around Warsaw to enjoy the last of my stay in my homelands. Another chapter, another trip, was closing. Although I was glad to leave Ukraine at the time, as time passes I miss the country more every day. I’m excited for the future for both Poland and Ukraine and truly hope that things will improve for both peoples.
So, after visiting my homelands I could only wonder, what next?
My second day in Poltava was also eventful. I had in mind to see a few museums and possibly seit in a cafe to wile away the day. I’d already seen the monuments dedicated to the soldiers, Kozaks, and city memorial the day before, including the ubiquitous statue of Taras Shevchenko. In a museum mood, I decided to pop by the Cosmonautics Museum.
Actually, I didn’t intend to go to the Cosmonautics Museum, but I ended up there because the Ivan Kotlyarevskyj’s museum was closed. The Cosmonautics museum is just across the street so I decided to pop by to see if someone knew what was going on. Long story short, the middle-aged woman running the desk didn’t speak a word of English so they decided to call on their daughter who knew English. Hello Ukrayeenka! In walked a typical, slender, well-put-together 24-year old Ukrainian university student who worked in the museum during the summer months when not at university.
She didn’t know why the Kotlyrarevskyj museum wasn’t open, she even asked her mom (the lady running the front desk) to call the owner. No answer. So I decided to take an hour-long tour of the Poltava Cosmonautics Museum. It’s here that I’d learn that Poltava was an alternate landing site for allied World War 2 planes? And that Yuri Vasilievich Kondratyuk (birth name was Olexandr Gnatovich Shargei), a local scientist, came up with several revolutionary ideas for space flight which would eventually be used in the Apollo program? (Though, apparently, NASA would come up with them on their own.) The museum, though small, housed quite a few authentic artifacts and some replicas from Poltava’s long history of space research.
Not wanting to walk around Poltava by myself, again, I asked her if she’d mind taking me around Poltava, like a tour guide. She could practice her English and I could practice my Ukrainian. Clearing it with her mother she finally agreed. Off we went.
We spent the day together and she told me all about the city, its history, its significance, and where it can go from here. I suggested we get a bottle of horilka for our journey, but she said she doesn’t drink that early in the day. Some folks have standards, I guess.
The city of Poltava is the location of a famous battle between the Ukrainians and the Swedes which decided the course of Ukrainian history for centuries to come. It was during this battle that Ivan Mazepa, praised by some as a hero but derided as a traitor by others, would lose the battle and leave Ukraine in the hands of the Russians. We visited part of the battle site and visited the museum where we attached ourselves to an English tour already in progress. I was surprised to learn that the tour group, although listening in English, was actually Swedish. Apparently lots of Swedes like to visit Poltava and its battle sites for its history.
Heading back to the city, we walked around downtown Poltava. My guide impressed me with the knowledge of her city’s history which made me kinda wonder what I knew about my hometown Winnipeg. Churches, buildings, monuments and Ivan Kotlyarevskyj’s house.
Steve, who is Ivan Kotyablahblahblah?
Ah, well, Mr. Ivan Kot-lyah-rev-ski is one of two famous writers to emerge from Poltava. In any event, Mr. K. is credited as being the first truly Ukrainian writer. He read Vergil’s Aeneid and was inspired to write his own version. The result was a story called Eneyida in which the characters of Vergil’s work are Ukrainian Cossacks but have Greek and Roman names. Not only that, following in the tradition of Homer and Vergil, Mr. K. wrote his book in half the space it took Misters H. and V. – the Eneyida is only 6 books long. He also wrote another famous work Natalka Poltavka which is often taught in Canadian-Ukrainian schools.
The other well-known writer from the Poltava region is Nicolai Gogol, though you might recognize his name as being Russian. Gogol is the creator of the legendary Kozak, Taras Bulba, a short story that would spawn a couple of adaptations both in Hollywood and Moscow. Although Gogol’s Ukrainian up-bringing permeates his works, he relocated to St. Petersburg and then Moscow seeking literary fame. So it is with writers, moving away from their home towns. Unlike Kotlyarevskyj, Gogol did not have a house in Poltava, but he watches over the city by way of a sitting statue.
I had promised one of my aunts in Canada that I’d bring back a rushnyk made in Poltava. A rushnyk is a traditional embroidered table cloth, typically given to newly-wed couples. However, since Ukraine is experiencing an influx of tourists, these traditional pieces are slowly giving way to machine-made, mass-produced copies. I was looking for a hand-made rushnyk and, after walking around for a bit, we found a Ukrainian souvenier store. $100 seemed to be the standard price of a rushnyk and I’m sad that I didn’t get two and a Ukrainian shirt. These pieces were amazing. I managed to snap a photo of the lady running the store and her current work in progress.
Of course, we ended the day at a bar and imbibed with a few “live” beers chatting about life. I told her about my time in Ukraine so far, and even mentioned the Ukrainian dating website. She went silent, I gasped as I knew all too well about that silence. Soon after she confessed she works for a dating website: she writes letters and gets paid $10 per letter… but she’s only done four to date. Upon hearing this, I start thinking about offering my own writing services to women. Hmmm, a quote about writing popped into mind:
“Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for the love of it, then you do it for a few friends, and finally you do it for money.” – Moliere
I gave her a few dollars for her efforts as a tour guide and then hurried back to my hotel to gather my stuff for the train that night, the idea of writing to women for money still in my mind.
I had one last stop to make before departing back to Canada and that would be back in Lviv to finally meet my Ukrainian cousins.
I had heard about Poltava from a few folks. It was the site of an important Ukrainian battle (the Battle of Poltava) and that it was one of the few remaining cities that still spoke and preserved the Ukrainian language and heritage. Not only that, the age-old pagan festival of Ivana Kupala would be held the night of July 7th which I was interested in seeing. Since I arrived early in the morning of Ivana Kupala and my train to Lviv wouldn’t be until the next night, I effectively had two days in Poltava.
My first day in Poltava was spent wandering the city on my own, seeing some of the monuments they have erected to the fallen soldiers, but the highlight of my day would be my conversation with a Poltava man… in Ukrainian and Russian. As luck would have it, I took a wrong turn and ended up somewhere behind one of the universities in Poltava. I needed assistance in locating the main road again and, thinking that the next man walking down the street would be a professor, I decided to him for directions. The first question, naturally, was “Do you speak English?” When he said “No,” I did my best to practice the Ukrainian I knew.
As I’ve written before, I studied Ukrainian in Winnipeg during dreaded Saturday morning classes (the morning after my Ukrainian dancing classes), so reading and writing Ukrainian (and Russian for that matter) aren’t so difficult, listening isn’t hard either. But thinking and then speaking in Ukrainian? That’s a little more difficult. Up until this point, I’d been studying Ukrainian and Russian in Kharkiv both on my own and with a very nice Ukrainian lady who acted as tutor and cook.
Now, in case you’re thinking that learning any language is hard, let me tell you a little secret: most folks who know multiple languages know the most common words, some verb conjugation, and the majority of the “100 most important words in any language.” The list consists of simple words, e.g. “A/an,” “after,” “much,” “please,” “thank you,” and a few common verbs like “find,” “go,” “love,” etc. You can find the full list and more language learning techniques on the Mind Tools website, written and maintained by Tony Buzan.
They say if you can learn those words all you gotta do next is add verbs and more nouns. Tim Ferris lays out a method of learning a language in three months on his website, a method that includes learning how to conjugate the past, present, and future tenses of verbs. It’s a neat method to learn. Learning a language sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it?
Well, it’s not that easy, but those methods do help. I’ve only ever had moderate success with the 100-word list and Tim Ferriss’s suggestions, but I can’t blame anybody but myself for not being fluent in any other language except English. I used the above techniques in Korea and Thailand when I went to those countries and, of course, Ukraine. The techniques won’t make you fluent, but they will help you become at least conversational. Of course, Louis L’Amour gives the best advice for learning a foreign language:
“When you go to a country, you must learn how to say two things: how to ask for food, and to tell a woman that you love her. Of these the second is more important, for if you tell a woman you love her she will certainly feed you.”
He was impressed by my Ukrainian and said I sounded like I was from Western Ukraine, kinda Polish. I told him my grandparents came from there. I wanted to practice my Ukrainian so I followed him back to the main road. And so as we walked along Lenin Street in Poltava, me and my interlocutor, Gregory, talked about our families, work, what I was doing in Poltava and where I was going. Lots of present and future tense, many adjectives and a lot of “yes’s”. The conversation was kinda probably much more awkward than I’d like to think, but somehow we walked and talked for 15 minutes. Mission accomplished: conversation conducted in Ukrainian.
Later that night, around 10 pm, I headed down to the banks of the Voskla River on which I was told the Ivana Kupala celebrations would take place. Ivana Kupala is an old pagan fertility festival, celebrated on the evening of July 7th. I was interested to see whether or not the Poltavians – Poltavans? – would host a traditional celebration or if it would be a little more modern, as in, a drinking festival.
Well, the drink was on and it really looked like any other modern celebration, “Liquor Fest.” There were groups of youths all over the beach, some in bikinis or speedos, some holding guitars, others playing volleyball and all of them were drinking. Some even threw vinoks (Ukrainian head pieces made of flowers) into the river and went skinny dipping. At the end of the beach one group had made a fire and were playing some Ukrainian songs that I didn’t recognize.
But I wanted more. Part of the legend of Ivana Kupala is that there is a special, magical fern that grows only on that night. If you find it, untold wealth and prosperity comes your way. Deciding that I needed some wealth and prosperity, I trudged off into the bush in search of treasure.
But you have to be careful, there’s another side to that search for treasure. Rusalky, or water nymphs, drowned girls from time’s past bearing a grudge against the living. They will call your name and try to convince you that life is better under water. You’re not supposed to listen to their voices, the equivalent of the Siren calls, nor look in their direction. I did hear one such voice but, heeding to my survival instincts and advice from my friend in Kharkiv, I pointed my camera in the direction of the voice and snapped a picture. This is what I saw.
Wow, I thought. How bad could it be to strike up a conversation with a ghost? Well, I guess the flash scared her away since, by the time I looked, she was gone. There goes practicing my Ukrainian again, I guess.
I headed back to the beach where all the normal, drinking folks were. The fire at the end of the beach was even larger now and folks were jumping over it. Crazy Ukrainians, I thought. The idea is that you have to jump over the fire for good luck. If you have a girl/boyfriend you’re supposed to hold hands while jumping over the fire. If you land still hand-in-hand, you future will be good together. If you don’t, you may as well break it off there because it ain’t gonna get any better. Lacking a partner, I jumped over the fire by myself.
With that, I had one more day in Poltava to discover more about its history and a famous Ukrainian writer.
Ukraine is a devoutly Christian country, mostly Orthodox but Catholic as well. Depending on your faith, you can attend any number of church services. Now, I’m not a very church-going guy on most occasions but, as curiosity would strike me, I wanted to see what a Ukrainian Easter service looked and felt like.
There was a church not far from my apartment which would host an Easter service on Saturday night. I’ve been to Easter services here in Canada and figured it couldn’t be much different. On Good Friday you have have the crucifixion, Saturday you bless baskets, and on Sunday you get up early and witness the resurrection of JC.
Ukraine was a little different.
Although I missed the Good Friday service because of work (how religious can this country be?) I was informed that the Easter service would begin at 11 pm on Saturday night. Strange time, I thought, maybe it’s one of those “welcome in the new day” services. Well, it kinda was. The service was going to be 5 hours long. Of course, I wasn’t alone. I had befriended a lovely woman (Файна Дівчина) who was living in my area and we attended the service together.
As with many other European churches, the church was ornate in its appearance with a massive chandelier suspended from the decorated roof. Wood carvings of the saints stood along the sides of the icons on the wall. The church itself, although seemingly large from the outside, wasn’t very big inside. I estimate that roughly 450 people crammed themselves, standing, into the length and width of two classrooms. More people stood outside. It was like a religious mosh pit. I’ve never seen that many people crowd around an alter before.
Not only that, the choir did all the singing and responses with the priest while the congregation stood silently and watched. No wonder one of my students was proud when she said that she sung in the choir. They are the designated church inter-actors. The crowd’s voice was eventually released toward the end of the liturgy when they belted out “Christos Voskres!” (“Christ is risen!”) Again, it reminded of a rock concert, except the crowd was older.
I made it through 3.5 hours of the service before I gave up and went back to my apartment. I made coffee for the both of us while we discussed religion and its traditions. We returned later for the blessing of the food. That part only took 15 seconds: Christos Voskres, Voyeestiny Voskres, (“Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen!”) two massive splashes of water (one on your food, the other in your face), and it’s done. Go home and eat.
With that, me and my partner went back to my apartment and enjoyed the blessed food, including, you guessed it, vodka and paska. If there’s one time you must go to Ukraine and enjoy the food it’s around Easter. Canadian Easter bread, called paska or babka, tastes like bread with a a lot of egg. In Ukraine, however, paska is a dessert served after the Easter meal. Eggy-bread pock-marked with raisins and topped with egg-white icing and sprinkles. Amazing, folks, just amazing. Ukraine can’t be that backward if they got this bread going for them. You don’t need to learn much Ukrainian to get this meal going for you: horilka, paska, bood laska! (trans.: vodka, paska, please!)
We made plans to get together later in the day to go horseback riding. Apparently she had never ridden a horse before, which I thought was strange.
We arrived at Gorky Park where we found the horse riding place. The horse trip lasted an hour and would take us through the whole park. I’ll admit I felt kinda out of place. Here I was, a grown man out with his pink-shoe wearing lady friend and some other kid and her parents. Not only that, I didn’t understand or speak much Russian. Who knew what these former communists were talking about, right?
The first half of the trip went pretty smoothly, parading our horses through the centre of the park, then along the river where we would see many parties going on around campfires, and then met a little dog that insisted at barking at the horses which scared the horses and nearly flung the little girl on the horse in front of us into the air. Then about half way through the trip, after graciously giving a baby a ride on the horse, my horse stops. In the middle of the field, surrounded by Russians and Ukrainians, all looking at me in wonder. I kinda felt like Mr. Orange in Reservoir Dogs during the commode story.
Since the rest of my group, including my lady friend, had continued on without noticing my broken down horse, one lady got up and approached the horse and found out I didn’t speak Russian or Ukrainian. I’m not entirely sure what she said but I’m sure the Russian word for “foreigner” came out at some point. That’s when I felt I was being laughed at.
But the horse just did not want to go. Prodding, clicking my tongue, pulling on its main, speaking broken Russian and making quiet death threats in English (“I can and will eat you if you don’t cooperate.”) Finally one of the trainers came back and helped me. It only took them five minutes to notice that I wasn’t with the group.
An hour later we got back to the starting point. Paying the folks and taking a few more pictures, we went for a walk through the massive park. She showed me an old train station and pointed in the direction of some war memorial (I forget which one.) We kept walking and talking, her ably practising her English, me stumbling along in my Ukrainian and, horror of horrors, Russian.
We took the park sky-trolly (10 UAH, or $1.25) to the other side of the park where I inquired if there was a place that served pizza and beer. In fact there was a pizzeria called “Buffet”, or, in Russian, Буфет. It’s probably best described as “slow fast-food.” Although they make the pizza in-house and it isn’t very greasy, they garnish it with mayonnaise. It’s relatively cheap, too. Half a pizza is 10 UAH while a full pizza is 20 UAH, though some toppings require another 2 UAH or so. Beer and other bevies were around 5 UAH. I found my new favourite place to eat, much healthier than the Kulynichi, grilled chicken, or even the kebabs I’d come to love on the streets of Kharkiv.
To say the least it was an eventful Easter in Kharkiv. After attending church, swigging horilka, riding horses and talking in Ukrainian and Russian, my brain was right proper hurting. It was time to get some rest.
After a couple of months teaching English in Ukraine, I learned a bit more about the country and its people. In general, teachers can tell within a few classes who their strong students are and those who need a little more encouragement.
Well, in one class I had three Natashas, three Katerinas (often spelt Yekaterina), two Annas and a few guys (who fortunately had different names). One of the Katerinas was typically quiet, but I knew she knew more than she let on. Despite numerous attempts to get her to talk she was more than happy to sit there quietly and watch me make an ass of myself in order to provoke class participation. So I finally called her out on it… And this one conversation would open me up to a whole new world of business in Ukraine.
“Katerina, how can you know English so well but sit there and let your English atrophy?… I mean, not use it.” (I’ve always found that compliments get students to smile and open up, but using strange words like “atrophy” or “nucking futs” confuse them.)
“Because I’m tired,” she says.
“Aha! Because you’ve had been up all night studying and at school all day! I knew it! Brilliant student!”
“No,” she says, politely smiling at my suggestion.
“So why do you come to class?” I ask.
“Because you’re funny.”
Oh how wonderful! She’s playing to my ego! I can’t wait for her to finally ask to come back to Canada with me (yes, some other students actually asked that question.) I smile, laugh, blush and revel in the moment. But I wasn’t satisfied.
“I don’t believe you,” I say. And that’s when the thought struck me that maybe, just maybe, she had an English boyfriend or something. But how do you ask such a question with tact? “Do you have an English speaking boyfriend… or husband?” I ask, thinking that was tactful enough.
She laughs and says “Five.”
Oooooooooooooooh. She’s one of THOSE girls. I knew Ukrainian women had a reputation for being flirty. Not only that, many of my students had two or three cell phones which, I could only imagine, was for perpetrating whatever scam they were working on that week, be it men, money, drugs, whatever. I wave those thoughts good-bye. I can see that she’s starting to blush and the other students are getting kinda weary of one student getting all the attention. So I decide to ask one last question, noting that it’s a sensitive subject.
“Are you a…,” I need to choose my words carefully as I don’t want my students having any more ammunition against me when they go talk to my boss as I already have a reputation for being an “impulsive” teacher and my classes “interesting”. I find the right word, “…A retailer…. on Symska?”
She laughs. I’m not sure if she understood “retailer” but she understood the reference to “Symska.”
Beet-red, students are laughing and I’m still like, I wish I was kidding but I kinda wanted to know. Before I get to the answer she gave me, maybe I should clarify what “Symska” is.
All cities have their red light districts and brothels regardless of whether you admit it or not. I was especially aware of Ukraine’s human trafficking problem and sensitive to the issue that maybe some of the folks in my class came from backgrounds that weren’t very stellar. Symska Street and it’s neighbouring Pushkinska Street have a few things in common: first, they both go through downtown Kharkiv; second, they are major shopping destinations lined with shops and cafes; third, and lastly, when darkness falls and just before the street lights go out (seriously, they shut them off at 12 midnight), some entrepreneurial folks (or forced labour?) hit the streets. If you get what I mean. Prostitutes, if you don’t.
I’ve never knowingly taught a prostitute before. To be fair, she didn’t appear to come from such a background and maybe she was legitimately employed on Symska Street. But I wanted to know the real reason why this lady knew English so well and kept on attending my classes but never participated.
Laughing again, she replies to my question with a simple, “No.” Since she’s laughing I can only believe that I can’t possibly be in that much trouble if things go to shit.
Cutting to the chase, I ask her what she does for work.
She resists and tells me that she doesn’t want to disclose that information.
Alright, I’ll throw a wild card, “A dating agency?!”
She confirms my question in Russian with the guy sitting beside her. Redder she goes.
“Yes,” she says.
My eyes bug out and my mouth drops in disbelief. I’d heard about those sites, though I’ve never used one myself.
The teacher gene in me truly wishes that my classes, my lessons, and my personal methodology for life can strike some sort of inspiration or imagination in all my students to strive to better themselves, to find good and respectable jobs, and to present themselves to the world as knowledgeable, caring and peaceful global citizens. Unfortunately, as an English teacher such noble ambitions are seldom, if ever, realized by the English teacher, and I assume teachers in general, until much much much later in life… if ever.
Aghast at the prospect that one of my students could be so employed I decide to take the pressure off this lady and her interrogation and open the question to the rest of the class. Who else works for, or has worked for, a dating agency?
Five other hands go up. All female.
Since this was a conversation class and not a regular class, I wanted to encourage my students to speak, to use their English voices and impress me with their vocabulary. I sit up and listen to what my students have to say.
And so it was explained to me the workings of such businesses. I hardly think that me mentioning anything will do anything to change the situation in Ukraine but, let’s just say, when you register and pay for those websites, you aren’t getting her undivided attention. She’s chatting with four other (American) guys too. There are the ladies who work the chat lines, the ladies who meet with men, and the ladies who do the interpretation. Guess which ladies know English best? The chat line and interpreters.
And so I learned all about the current work situation in Ukraine. I can’t fault them for it, it’s not like demand will ever really drop off, if ever. I even checked out her website, though never registered. I can’t justify such an expense in my life just yet, especially when I found out how rigged some of the “dates” are.
Oh, and the cell phone thing. If you ever go to Ukraine you’ll notice that many of your students or friends will have two or three cell phones. Why, Steve, why? Well, they’re not perpetrating money-laundering schemes or juggling multiple relationships (although I’m sure some do), calls between the same phone provider are FREE, calls between different providers are expensive. So, often when you call your friend they’ll ask you what provider you’re using and, depending on their provider, they’ll either call you back on their other phone or on one of their friends’ phones.
I took the lesson away with me and went out with my Ukrainian/Russian co-teachers that night. I brought up the conversation and three more ladies raised their hands. “It’s like working at McDonald’s,” one responded. I couldn’t help but laugh at the comparison between dating and fast food.
“It’s a job you do while in university or to make some cash on the side. It’s not a permanent job. That’s when you get married.” (1)
There you go, dating North American men is like working at McDonald’s. Everybody works a shitty job some time in their life, some get married to it.
(1) The person who responded to this question didn’t phrase it in the exact same way I have expressed it here, but the feeling is the same, and she was humourous with her response. To be fair, I have heard of several marriages with Ukrainian women that have been arranged through this sort of meeting. To say the least, it’s a common joke in Canada to buy a mail-order bride from Ukraine. Some have worked out, some have not. I have never tried these websites or agencies (yet?) but understand the demand for them. In the end, any sort of relationships always takes into account the agendas and intentions of both parties, for better and worse.