After my enlightening and mutually fascinating talk with Sasha (we agreed we’d have to do it again soon), I felt my way to the café next to Oasis, knowing that Anya would probably be there and be happy for a visit. I was right on both counts. We talked about the imminent arrival of the NetCorps team – if it seems like I mention this a lot, it’s because it’s like a ticking time-bomb for me (albeit in a less destructive way). Many things will change when they arrive. The month with them is going to be much different than the three months with the youth program since the NetCorps people will be much closer to us in terms of age and maturity. (This is a neutral statement; in general, and individually, they rocked! But most (yet not all) of them were at a whole different stage of their lives.)
In yet another edition of “Some Drunk Guy Overhears Me Speaking English and Suddenly Wants to be My Best Friend While I Want to be 5,000 Miles From Him,” some drunk guy overheard me speaking English… he and his buddy were so far gone that I initially politely declined to sit with them, but he eventually outwitted me by offering a handshake – I shook his hand, but he didn’t release his grip until he’d literally dragged me over the intervening feet to his empty seat. After it took five minutes to establish that my name was Will and his was Vitalik (even with Anya’s help), he asked me about John from the youth program who lives in Cape Breton. Specifically, he wanted to know if I knew John’s friend who was in the RCMP. (Of course, he didn’t say “RCMP,” he just mentioned a red coat and made the gesture of riding a horse.) I couldn’t manage to explain to him that just because John and I are from the same country and know each other, doesn’t mean that I know any of his friends (especially considering I’d met John in Ostroh) – and I tried explaining in both Ukrainian and English. After we exhausted that to his apparent unsatisfaction, he wanted to know if the RCMP just rode horses all the time, and what were they doing on horses, anyway? I shared my limited understanding of this until – thank God – it became time for them to go. His buddy was mildly gyrating against my shoulder with his no-spin zone*, which caused me to ignore social protocol and remove to my previous seat as soon as I had an opening; after that, his buddy finally dragged Vitalik out of the room, after the latter kissed Anya’s hand and said goodbye about a dozen times. The hazards of Ukraine.
* - Apologies to Renee.
While Anya was gone to the washroom, I noticed that a buddy of Roman’s (Serhi) was sitting at an adjacent table, so I (and then Anya) joined that group for a while, and we imbibed more beers. We got acquainted with Tolik, a fourth-year cultural student. This means he’d been studying English for four years (it’s mandatory at Ostroh Academy), yet my Ukrainian after four months was better than his English. I told him how sorry I was about the system of teaching English at the academy – they just dump all the students in an academic group into the same class that meets maybe twice a week, and they all start with intermediate-level textbooks. The system sucks because it bores the people who want to learn English and something else, so they’re wasting their time just as much as the people who don’t know a lick of English who have to fake their way through the classes year after year. (Let’s not mince words here – if you’re going to spend four years of your adult life learning a language and come out not being able to hold the simplest of conversations, you’ll have wasted your time.) Also, the selection criteria for the Foreign Languages department is almost as suspect as the NetCorps selection – I have a friend named Lena (I’ve mentioned her here before) whose English is just fine, yet she somehow failed the tests and had to study law instead, even though I can speak to her as easily as anyone who is actually in Foreign Languages (and much more easily than some people I could name). If she still wants to study English, she has to reapply for it next year (fair enough), and if she enters Foreign Languages, she must start again from zero. I mean zero, she’ll even have to attend the Inauguration Day all over again and repeat some of the same classes! The system at Ostroh isn’t quaint to me anymore, it just sucks. It’s like a glorified junior high! Sure, it’s the oldest university in Eastern Europe, but that sounds to me about as good as being the largest air-conditioning company in Yellowknife.
The general backwardness of Ostroh Academy isn’t limited to the classes themselves, though. You’ll remember that the Student’s Day celebrations went on well into the night, as they tend to do. My other friend Lena (this one actually in Foreign Languages - being ready to graduate, she’s got a pretty good handle on German and French as well as English) was telling me her story about coming home to their dorm room at three in the morning (remember, curfew is 11pm, even on the weekends). Since the doors were locked, they came in through a window, only to be stopped dead in their tracks by an irate babushka, who gave them a citation and told them to report to the director of student housing the following morning. And Lena thought they would make allowances, it being Student’s Day and everything. (They expected to be able to go home this night undetected, both from being under less scrutiny (it wasn’t a big night for going out like Thursday was), and because they’d learned from their previous mistakes.)
They skipped the meeting with the director, thank goodness, but they did have to report to the campus doctor to get a medical note so that they’d be able to miss the next morning’s classes without penalty. They talked about how they manage to exhibit the right mixture of debilitating but not-quite-worrisome “symptoms” – they usually go for headaches and/or fevers. “What an asinine waste of a doctor’s time!” I thought to myself. No wonder the poem from the second to the first year students began:
The path you’ve chosen won’t be easy
You will be hungry, tired, dizzy…
… and that’s the company line, apparently. Not that I’m saying that their studies aren’t difficult (they can be, but the few papers I’ve read have been rather mediocre and no danger to the West in terms of academic merit – Ostroh’s self-aggrandizing title of “Little Oxford” has yet to be manifested in reality, although it has rocketed upwards from last place to a respectable standing in the Ukrainian university rankings), but I wonder how much of the “dizziness” is self-sustaining manifest prophecy.
Do you want to hear about how Ostroh Academy has expelled three women this year for smoking, or should I leave that for another time? Like that’s not blatantly sexist. I’m against smoking in general, but it’s stupid that the men can smoke in broad daylight while the women have to sneak behind buildings. I feel terrible when I walk into the academy through one of the back paths and run into a woman smoking - she usually looks rather mortified that she’s been seen. (Not that I’d tell anyone, but how does she know I’m not buddies with the conservative religious nut of a [member of the administration]? Oh, you want to hear something - this guy goes around to the various offices and tells female employees to remove things like boy-band calendars from their walls or desks because they’re “too sexual.” He also says that the student radio station plays too much rock-and-roll (that’s the Devil’s music, that is!), and he’s generally an all-around ultra-conservative feared by students and junior teachers alike.)
When I tell my Ukrainian friends tales of Canadian universities – no babushkas, no curfews, no bells, no attendance sheets, no staying in the same group all day and every day… they often don’t believe me. “No bells?!” they exclaim. “How do you know when the class is over?” Well, usually there’s someone in the classroom with a watch, and usually the class is over when the professor’s finished his or her lecture, often a few minutes off schedule in either direction. But they can only vaguely grasp this idea. The concept of individual-centred education hasn’t hit Ukraine, and it’s not like the institutions are ready for it anyway – else all those poor babushkas would be out of work.
Enough babushka-bashing. They may be stubborn, belligerent, closed-minded and generally unpleasant (but sometimes they surprise you!), but at least they’re not rude. No, that title continues to belong to the kiddies at the cybercafé. Lately they’ve taken to watching everything I type and read at my station, often whispering the latest news of my typing or reading progress to their friends playing Counterstrike. I’m not exaggerating; these kids will actually stare at my typing as if gems and rupees will come out of the screen for their enrichment. I should learn the Ukrainian for, “Mind your own business, bozos,” and type that in next time they watch. (Better yet, I should keep it on the clipboard and paste it down at the appropriate moment since it takes me forever to type in Ukrainian. For instance, A is on the F key, B is on the D key (admittedly, that one is a false friend – B in Ukrainian makes a “v” sound), E is on the T key, and so on… I’m getting the hang of it, but their juvenile attention span certainly won’t sustain their gaze through the time it takes me to hammer out my message.) Or I could give them a gentle shove and say, in my best CPU-narrator voice, “The Canadian wins!” No, two wrongs don’t make a right.
Sure, I’ve stolen one or two glances at the screens of Pacific Asian students in the Saint Mary’s computer labs out of curiosity, but I didn’t stare. I mean, don’t these people have any sense of decorum at all?
Sometimes a little curiosity is almost welcome, though. (And back in July, before I started getting sick and tired of being a novelty item for everyone’s amusement, I didn’t mind it at all.) This morning when I set out to get the laptop from Lindsay, I ran into some deaf kids – yes, I really almost ran into them, probably because they didn’t notice me until I was on top of them, which I thought was odd until I noticed the sign language. The last kid I saw looked me in the eye, took on an expression of shock and awe, and then poked his friend and presumably told him about who I was and where I came from through his frantic yet finely-tuned hand gestures. It was too cute to get upset about.
I really feel for the deaf people in Ukraine, and for persons with disabilities in general. The deaf aren’t enabled to participate in the regular school system as in Canada – instead, they go to a special school for the deaf. This seems like a good idea until you notice that all their friends are deaf, that they spend their entire lives almost exclusively in the company of other deaf people, and that they don’t readily integrate into society at large. They don’t even seem to be able to speak or read lips, and they don’t appear to have hearing aids, either, so I guess that puts limits on your ability to integrate, I imagine. Remember in Kyiv when some people came up and picked a fight with the guys in the deaf social group?
As for persons with physical disabilities, Ukraine must represent some kind of hell. This is a country of many steps, narrow doorways, and scarce elevators. I haven’t seen any modified-for-wheelchairs vehicles since I came. If my stepfather lived here, he’d pretty much have to stay at home all day. There’d certainly be no taking him out in the Dodge Caravan to the grocery store or the malls, that’s for sure. Even the newest buildings have decidedly woeful facilities for wheelchairs. I thought Poland was hard to get around as a disabled person, but Ukraine trumps Poland tenfold in that regard. It’s funny; you’d think a socialist country ostensibly committed to absolute equality would have ensured that all members of society were able to live and work complete, normal lives. Ha-ha.
With all this cynicism, you might be led to think that I’m not having a very good time in Ukraine. This isn’t true; I try to find some good thing about every day that I’m here, and I always succeed. I’ve got everything I need; friends, food, shelter, things to do – the only thing I deeply miss about Canada, aside from specific people, is how ridiculously easy it is to do things there. Guys, we’re living in paradise.
Moreover, it’s possible that this cynicism can serve a greater purpose. The fact that I’m here and able to demonstrate alternative ideas to people (and most of these ideas are revenue-neutral, especially the ones concerning education) means that these progressive ideas have a chance of spreading. Without getting preachy, this is a developing country, and as soon as there’s much evidence otherwise, the funding will run out, and people like me won’t be able to slip across the Atlantic and celebrate Student’s Day at the Ostroh establishments, if you get my drift. Besides, these programs are more for the Ukrainians than they are for us, anyway. We’re just warm bodies that come with money attached. If we learn something along the way, good for us, but that’s only the de jure aim of the program, not the de facto aim.
Maybe I’m just noticing things that I didn’t before because I miss Canada. Maybe I’m at the low end of the culture shock cycle, but the fact that it’s a cycle means I’ll climb back up again, thank goodness. As for Ostroh Academy, I’ve had innumerable good experiences there – thank goodness I’m not a student there, but I appreciate a lot of things about it. My co-workers in the Resource Centre are some of the nicest people in Ukraine, and I also have a pretty good report going with the woman at the café where I buy my lunchtime snacks every day. (I’ve missed the last few; I guarantee she’ll ask me where I was when I see her next.)
So, that’s enough about Ukraine to last anyone for years. I hope my writing hasn’t burned itself onto your retinas by now.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’m going to do when this program is over (you mean it ends?), and now that I’ve been a free spirit for so long, I’m not anxious to return to my old life very quickly. In fact, I mean not to, except in small doses. I want to achieve independence as quickly as possible when I get back, and this may mean a geographic relocation – it’s just easier, somehow.
After the program ends, I’m going to spend a few weeks in Ontario, staying with relatives and visiting with friends. I plan to hit Kitchener first (on the 7th), then London, then Toronto (the 15th, maybe?), and go back to Halifax around the 25th. I have yet to verify the availability of accommodation, but I’m going to get on that very shortly. If anyone from Ontario reading this wants to hang out, just call my Canadian cell phone sometime after January 7: 902-877-9455 or e-mail me anytime at email@example.com.
While I’m in Toronto, I intend to look for educational opportunities – I suppose I can do Screen Arts closer to home, but if I can do it in Toronto for a similar price (not bloody likely, but worth a shot), I may just relocate when the time comes. I guess I can also stop by the Japanese consulate and pick up the J.E.T. application forms. Of course I can do all this stuff online, but there’s no substitute for going in person.
My most compelling reasons for relocation are for money and love. Actually, I really love Halifax. If I could, and all things being equal, I’d stay there forever (but in my own apartment, which is one of those things that’s just easier to achieve and justify with a total relocation as opposed to scrounging around for a McJob in a city with an artificial, service-and-government sustained economy).
So there’re the economic reasons, for one thing…
People may wonder who I think I am, presuming to have outgrown Halifax when I came from Prince Edward Island. How can an Islander outgrow anything? I remember a time not long ago when I considered Halifax to be a big city. When I was a child, going to Halifax was comparable to going abroad. (This was before the Confederation Bridge and the $50 Halifax-Charlottetown shuttle vans.) I think it’s a PEI thing. In fact, there are a lot of things about me that I can simply attribute to PEI. I even greet people in a different fashion than my native mainlander friends do. I love PEI, but after growing accustomed to Halifax, the idea of going back and setting up permanent shop seems prohibitive at best.
It would certainly be nice to be a middle-aged semi-retired financially independent scribe with a summer cottage somewhere on the Island, bringing along accessories such as satellite internet and a hyper-literate bohemian girlfriend from away (it’s a pity Charlotte Brontë is no longer alive…). But then there’s all that stuff you have to do first to get there. This is where Toronto comes in.
The other major issue is the whole dating thing. Now, there are plenty of eligible girls in Halifax, in fact tons. When I think of Grande Prairie, I thank my lucky stars for having the fortune to spend so much time in Halifax. Still, Halifax, although a great place spiritually speaking, has something to be desired in numerical terms. Compare the craigslist pages for Halifax and Toronto. For craigslist to really get going in Halifax, it would require absolutely every internet-literate young adult in the city to jump on board! Halifax would also be, again spiritually speaking, a great place for an NHL team. Unfortunately, that would require every single hockey fan in the city to purchase several tickets every season (to say nothing of season tickets), at a prohibitive expense no doubt. Halifax just doesn’t have the numbers for these sorts of things yet, and when it does, it’ll be mostly at the expense of the rest of Nova Scotia. Put your ear to the borders of Guysborough County or Industrial Cape Breton and you’ll hear a sucking sound – that’s the sound of all the young people moving to Halifax, who will get there and compete with me for all those McJobs I mentioned. No thanks.
So anyway, about the girls. There are lots of great girls in Halifax. However, Toronto is almost ten times bigger, therefore there are ten times as many great girls and ten times as many opportunities. They’ll be ten times easier to find in real life, and ten times easier to find on the internet (although this last thing is so difficult at present in Halifax that ten times might not be enough – ten times zero is still zero).
Says my friend Renee from California: “There is a temporary service for dating!* It’s called the Internet. Or at least it would be, if you didn’t live in Nova Scotia.” Ouch. It gets worse when you realize that she’s from Humboldt County, which suffers statistically in comparison to, say, Orange County in all things except wolverine count per square mile.
* - I was comparing the ease of getting my data entry job through a temp service to the difficulty of finding dates.
The “ten times” adage probably applies to screen arts jobs as well. If there’s one opening for a tech job that I want in Halifax, there’ll probably be ten in Toronto. (“Hey, Will, won’t there also be ten times as many applicants?” “Uh… shut up!”) On this note, one of my friends (whom I won’t name just now in case this doesn’t pan out; I don’t want it to reflect poorly on her) invited me to come up to Toronto with her group to rent some rooms at the University of Toronto (after regular classes are out for the summer) and scope out the local scene with them. I almost fell out of my chair in delight. I don’t know how such a thing would go with me (I’m just a poor boy with no qualifications… yet), but she, for sure, will find something to sink her teeth into. She’s so organized, articulate, and just all-around brilliant that it’ll look good just to be in her company, however briefly. I’m ready to create my own brilliance too, but I’m several steps behind many of my peers (she for one, and Mike Fox for another, to name but two) – I guess I kind of didn’t know which way was up back when it mattered. I’m like that sometimes. But I refuse to do anything but gain from my past mistakes. “So what if I majored in English and didn’t touch a camera until this year!” is what I say! I can do practically whatever I want now, I just have to get into things in creative, side-stepping ways, just like I’ve been doing for the past few years now.
And heck, even if I did have to settle for a McJob, at least I’d get to go to work on a subway – or, at the very least, not have to walk twenty-five minutes to the nearest bus stop. It’d be a McJob… in Toronto! (Anyone who thinks I’m bordering on dangerously deluded because I’ve been in Ukraine too long, please share your comments via the link below. I will listen and reply with care.)
Back to my little world here in Ostroh, it snowed today. Just flurries, but still: Red Alert! I spent most of today indoors writing and polishing these posts, interspersed with helping Olya with her English papers. Soon I’ll ask her to translate a letter to my Polish host family for me. She’s never translated from English to Polish before, so I’ll keep the phrases simple.
See you soon! Good luck with your lives!