William Matheson (nova_one) wrote,
William Matheson

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journey of the mind

Keeping one’s sense of humour in Ukraine can be a test of will, especially after four months. (Wow, has it really been four months already? It seems like only fourteen.) Still, despite the cultural idiosyncrasies and other difficulties, I’m still finding the value of each new day. The cynic inside me says that I could be doing that on a beach in Cancún, but I suppose the challenges here will help me appreciate the bounties that can be enjoyed daily there and elsewhere.

In my thoughts and dreams, I’m often returning to Canada. However, I must be careful not to idealize my life at home. If it was perfect, why would I have come on this program? Also, I know that I’ll go back to taking everything for granted within a week or two of my arrival, as it always goes. Therefore, I’m trying to limit what I officially miss about Canada to my friends. The funny thing is, though, I’m sure I miss them more than they miss me. This isn’t a reflection of character – when I get home, I’ll feel like I’ve been away for an eternity; to them, it’ll be, “Oh, yeah, Will hasn’t been around for the last twenty weeks or so! But he’s back now.” A long time, but hardly an eternity. In fact, hardly even a long time. A year is a long time. Half a year isn’t.

There’ll be trois cours aujourd'hui, and I apologize in advance for the deluge of semi-organized thoughts following the long sequence of vacation entries.

Last weekend I met up with Anya and her friends at the café, and this was followed by some time at Karo, our usual disco. We had a great evening, but I don’t know what it was I was drinking (was it three beers and five shots?), and the long and the short of it is that I had a killer hangover. I hadn’t felt so sick since those times in Canada I decided to be a cheap bastard and start with a Colt 45 (never, never, never do this – it’s not worth the savings, whereas good beer is worth every penny, and expensive liquor in general is better for your health the following day, or so I’ve heard). I was quite out of it, and in my drowsy dehydration I dreamt I was drinking red wine in bed since I was too sick to get up for water. (Alarm bells, anyone?) Even when I did get up for water, I became so dizzy that I almost hurled on the journeys to and fro (oh, more on that later on!). The up side to all this is that I had some very vivid dreams while I slept that morning.

None of the dreams really make sense anymore, but here goes. First I was with Aunt Shirley, and we were driving a truck and trailer to Ontario, almost paralleling a real experience I had in first grade. (In the real life experience, we took a detour across the Hartland Bridge, the world’s longest covered bridge. My foster brother Carl had been asleep for a while when we entered it, and woke up to see us surrounded by wood in all directions, rumbling off to who knows where – he was a bit startled.)

In another segment, I met my mother in Cape Breton, and after a long journey we met our relatives. I was overjoyed to see my grandparents Johnston and what's more, there were excellent pastoral scenes everywhere I looked and I took some great pictures after fiddling with the settings on my camera. Somehow I was whisked back to Sherbrooke when it came time to lie down for the night, and when I was getting into bed, I realized, “Wait a second, this isn’t real, because I was just in Cape Breton.”

Blink. Blink.

Ugh, I’m still in Ukraine?!”


“Okay, where’s my camera? I want to see those pictures!”

I went to the washroom and came back with an overwhelming desire to get back into that dream again, and so I did. I came “downstairs” (my dreams don’t really have any spatial logic to them; even when I look at maps, the locations are usually idealized and unreal, as are the depicted roads) and met “Geneva,” who had apparently been in our group the whole time, I’d just never thought about it before. We bitched about Lee, who had injured her tongue somehow (now it forked).

It became apparent that we were engaging in espionage. Our task was to somehow sneak down to a secured area only accessible by elevator and steal or destroy a device belonging to the Ukrainian government. We were in a large lobby, being closely watched by our “guide.” I made an elevator gesture to Geneva by moving my arm up and down, meaning, “Should we go for it now?”

The guide noticed and asked why I made that gesture. I told him that I wanted to teach Geneva the new Juggle Dance, although I didn’t have the Juggle song with me at the moment. You know, it’s all the rage back in North America right now, and I wanted to make sure we knew it.

We were given some official Soviet guidebooks. Geneva needed to pay off this guy somehow so he’d leave us alone. If we failed, we could have been jailed or worse. I remember thinking, “This is definitely a new thing for CWY participants to be doing…”

And, before I knew it, I was back in PEI, in the unreal southwest part of Charlottetown, again taking pictures, but my camera batteries were dying. (This is quite common, my camera rarely works the way it’s supposed to when I’m dreaming, and all manner of complications always come up to vex me out of getting good pictures. I’ve also heard it said that it’s not possible to read in dreams, but I’ve gotten entire paragraphs clearly rendered here and there.)

Anyway, you get the idea. I was kind of out of it that morning, and I didn’t stir from the house all day.

Some days later, I started working on two letters: one to my friend’s family in Halifax, and another to my penpal from China who is studying at University of Westminster. Here are some excerpts in which I think I ventured as far as to say things I haven’t said a million times already:

… For a while I entertained the notion of working in Britain for a while after this program, but the costs of setting myself up and changing my transportation arrangements looked prohibitive. It’s actually cheaper for me to go all the way back to Halifax and then go to London from scratch from there. … I love Halifax, but I don’t have a life in Halifax, and it’s just oh too easy to set myself up somewhere else temporarily and pretend to have one.

As for the present, I’m grappling with the issue of it being okay or not to want to go home. I am lucky beyond words to even be here. To even
think of wanting to be home should be blasphemous. Is it? I guess it’s a question I need to look inside myself and ask.

[As for interactions with others,] you rarely hear the casual comments or banter that are crucial in developing an understanding of one another’s person (not in English, anyway). And if it’s not language, it’s culture. They have expectations that I’m not meeting, and I (try not to, but do nonetheless) have expectations that they’re not meeting. How can we meet them? Most of the time, we don’t even know what they are!

… I tore my shirt sleeve on the jagged edge of a bookshelf at work today. So now I’ve learned two things: how to watch the corners and how to sew with a needle and thread. Well, actually, I now remember that I sewed together an apron in seventh-grade (age 11), but I’d forgotten how since. Interesting thing: all the guys here in Ukraine know how to sew. As for my guy friends in Canada… ha ha ha ha ha ha ha, no, they’re probably not very accomplished sewers. I think some of my handiwork will need a touch-up, though. Ah, what wonders each new day brings!

While I was writing parts of the latter letter, I got into a bit of a spiel about girls, as I had been asked for comment in the letter that originated in China. I told Roma that I really didn’t understand how to talk to the girls here, and how I was frustrated that everyone was so busy studying all the time. (I know, I know! Who’da thunk?)

Roma looked up from his knitting and said, “Yes, for me, it was the same.” He’s making a woollen hat for his sister Olya.

“You know,” I explained, “and this is very embarrassing for me to admit, but I thought that the girls here would be like, ‘Ooooh, a Canadian!’” Olya turned from her graduate paper, smiled, and shook her head.

“I know now,” I laughed, “but the funny thing is that all my relatives (who didn’t really know anything about Ukraine, but why would they?) thought that I’d end up meeting or marrying a girl here.” Well, maybe I still will, but first I need to eat a serious serving of humble pie.

(So, as is increasingly common, nobody really cares if you’re from the West or not. Either this opportunity passed away, or it never existed to begin with. It’s just as well, because I didn’t want to take advantage of it in the first place – it always seemed like a cop-out to me. It’s also a relief because I was convinced there was some obscure cultural thing that I wasn’t doing properly (there certainly are many things, but they’re irrelevant in this case), and I was pressuring myself beyond reason. It’s better to just be at ease and take these things as they come. I’ve learned this lesson a thousand times in Canada, but evidently I had to re-learn it in Ukraine. Fair enough.)

And if I don’t meet a girl, I’m okay with that, because this experience actually makes me want to try new methods in my Canadian socializing, where everything is a thousand times easier, thanks to the language and culture I share with my Canadian counterparts. When I got back from my two months in Poland (which isn’t really that much different from Canada these days – at least not in the ways that truly matter), I somehow gained a new sense of confidence. Sure, I still had room for improvement (an understatement; anyone remember the premiere of The Living Impaired?), but I really felt like I was getting somewhere. Can I hope for the same thing after six months in Ukraine? If I work at it, why not?

This past week, we had a meeting to organize an NGO fair, where we’ll invite representatives from various NGOs in the area to participate in seminars, presentations, and contests that will be held over a few days in the beginning of December. Right now it’s by far our group’s biggest project, but we’re also organizing a Canada World Youth participant reunion for (tentatively) December 1st, and we hope to have a Canada-theme night at Karo sometime before then. The NetCorps team will be getting here at the end of November – I can’t wait to see them! I wonder if there’ll be someone from Halifax on the team?

So, at long last, we’re beginning to feel like we’re actually doing something. Remember how I used to chastise my previous program for its apparent aimlessness and general disorganization? Well, this program takes those concepts and pushes them to a whole other level. Essentially, this program is what we do, and nothing else. Sure, there are work placements involving “graphic design,” it’s just up to you to invent them. Fortunately, my NetCorps program taught me how to deal with ambiguity (I shrug my shoulders deeply and emit a Cedrick-style “Meh.”), so it hasn’t really affected me very much. Given our various handicaps (the biggest one being the lack of counterparts, although this is also a liberty), I don’t think we’re expected to move mountains or anything – how can we? Let’s just do what we can, I figure. If someone were to criticize me for laziness, though, I couldn’t easily debate them. What about taking initiative? Why don’t we care enough to invent additional purposes for ourselves? Why aren’t I running twenty laps around the track every morning at five-thirty? I’m not sure I want to answer this question. But we’ve recently achieved an important milestone: our program has a website! (http://www.chabab.ca/ukraine2005) Big thanks go out to Lindsay, the brains of the operation (I merely assisted), and to all my fellow participants who answered the call for documentation.

On Friday afternoon I was busy at work and I noticed that Ira was reading Catcher in the Rye. If I remember correctly, she really liked Holden Caulfield’s style of telling it like it is as opposed to more taciturn types who are harder to get information from. Yes, she really used the word taciturn, and only having a vague recollection at the time of what the word meant, I consulted the nearest dictionary. This had us in stitches (well, as much as you can get into stitches in a library), because she told me that the English teachers are trying to teach students words that they’ll need to use in daily speech, and if my assertion that I’d never used this word nor heard it in casual conversation in my entire life was correct, she’d have something worth mentioning to her teacher!

I asked her out for coffee when she finished for the day. We decided on Saturday.

When I finished for the day, I hung around for a bit doing research on the 'net while I chatted with Lee, who then took me out for a few beers. He shared his stories about working in Jasper with me, and going to the Rockies is still a possibility for me. We talked about politics, hockey, and a few things in between. It was great fun.

I went home for supper, but on the way I dropped in to that café next to Oasis on a tip from another Tanya that Anya and Luda and Tanya and the gang were there. So I said hello and promised I’d be back after supper. I went home, had a huge supper, and returned to the café. Anya and I chatted about various things for a while, like our mutual friends on the NetCorps team in Regina, and how things would be when they got back, when we were interrupted by various indignancies from an adjacent table.

You know that Far Side cartoon, “What we say to dogs. / What they hear?” Well, this is what I heard:

“blah blah blah blah Canada! blah blah blah blah blah Canadian! blah blah blah Canada!

I asked Anya for a translation, but she was way ahead of me: “He says you should be speaking in Ukrainian.”

“Tell him I’ll speak Ukrainian when he starts speaking Spanish,” I bitterly joked.

At first Anya shook her head and held her tounge, but the man wanted to know what I said. Oh, boy. So he learned. I quickly added, sincerely, «Я лублю Український, і Я ні знаю Український!» (“I love Ukrainian, and I don’t know Ukrainian!” … actually, not even the word for ‘but,’ and I should get on that ASAP.)

I was rewarded for this by an “invitation” to drink vodka with them. (Really, when someone in Ukraine invites you to drink vodka, there’s no polite way out of it. You’re doomed, plain and simple.) So we had our revelry, and one of the guys at the table spoke English – he told me he worked with the interior ministry. OMG. Anyway, all things considered, I got off pretty easily: only two shots of vodka and an invitation to come to the first guy’s house tomorrow morning to try his mother’s pirogues. They were just about to leave the café, anyway.

Soon afterwards, we left the café, and I was strong-armed into going to Karo to dance away what was left of the night. When we got there, though, the music was off and they were shutting down for the night, having given up on getting a lot of customers. I was secretly delighted. We left, and Anya dismissed any further apprehensions I might have had: they weren’t going to try to go to Marseilles. “It’s a sign,” Anya said, “that we should go home and sleep.”

So I did.

On Saturday, I went to the academy to pick up this laptop from Lindsay. (I’m really starting to dream of having my own modern computer; imagine having the convenience to write, compose, publish, or just listen to music at any time! And to have this in a small, portable package – well!)

Time came for our coffee outing, but we ended up just walking around Ostroh for a long time. Ira had a lot of fascinating stories – I had no idea she’d already been to the United States for a year. She actually completed Grade 12 in Wisconsin. She’s also lived in practically every major city in Ukraine, as her father was a military man. We shared our thoughts on Lviv, Odessa, and many other places.

One of the funniest things about her American experience was her vocabulary gap – but not in the way you might think. She knows any five-dollar word you could name, but some basic words, especially in the kitchen, were more difficult for her at first. This is an idealization, but imagine an exchange like this:

“Excuse me, ma’am, but I don’t have a conception as to the nomenclature of this pronged consumption implement.”

“That’s a fork.”

Well, she knew what a fork was, but you get the idea. I was trying to tell her that I missed ordinary peas and carrots, and we couldn’t each be sure that we were talking about the same peas, as she first thought I was talking about olives.

But the main idea is that she’s astonishingly literate, and, relevant to my ideas expressed earlier in the week (and detailed above), she has no problem coming up with spontaneous things to mention. It’s a dream to talk to her.

While we walked along the meteor-impacted (but lit!) sidewalk, I happened to be stuck on a rather loud few English syllables, and this didn’t escape the notice of a group of girls we were passing by. They had two friends from Ternopil in tow – a regular Ukrainian girl and a boy named Shan from Pakistan! He’s twenty-three and studying medicine in Ternopil. So we were invited to come along with them, and so we did.

Shan was particularly glad to make my acquaintance, as he told me he didn’t have a lot of guy friends in Ukraine. Most guys he met distrusted foreigners. I told him that even I encounter my share of distrust and dislike (though usually not comparable to his) – and that Ostroh’s only become benign to Canadians because Canadians have been here for years now. If more Pakistanis came to Ukraine, then they’d change their opinion, but then they’d still distrust the Indians and the Chinese, if you follow me – kind of like when a gay man saves Homer Simpson’s life and he says that if every gay man could save his life, then he wouldn’t have a problem with every gay man.

Shan’s English was, of course, great (one of the “nice” side-effects of British colonialism, methinks – pretty much every educated person speaks English in those countries), and with the two of us there, the Ukrainian girls would even speak to each other in English. This is a very rare treat, although I have a few friends who are so gracious as to assume I’d expect them to do that, and I have needed to tell them that it wouldn’t be right of me to expect that – sometimes they’ll even apologize for having to speak in Ukrainian, and of course it really wouldn’t be right for me to presume to accept such an apology as normal or warranted. However tempting such expectations or allowances may be, they must be steadfastly refused.

We had some cake to celebrate the end of Ramadan, and if you told me that I’d ever have occasion to do this in Ostroh, I’d have said you were out of your tree. Who knew Ostroh would bring the world to me! Heck, this isn’t the end of it – on the way home, I stopped into a store for some snacks and the shopkeeper asked me if I was from Canada and told me he was from Portugal! He spoke Portuguese, Russian, and even a little bit of Ukrainian. He was very friendly and helped me discover some excellent chocolates (which I think I’ll save to use as a gift in the coming days) and poppy-seed sweet bread. He even taught me a few Portuguese words, such as 'cinqüênta,' which is too, too similar to the French 'cinquante.' Sheesh, next program I'm going on, I'm just sticking to Romantic or Germanic languages, k thanks. Wir gehen nach Deutschland, ja?

Shan invited me to come to Ternopil sometime in the weekends ahead, and I believe I’ll take him up on it. He’s a good guy, and he seems to have a fairly interesting circle of friends up there. There seems to be a community of international medical students there – there are people from India as well – and this is possible because all the medical courses are taught in English. (Shan knows some basic Russian, of course - to talk to patients, order his groceries, etc..) I had no idea such a thing was possible in Ukraine. At Ostroh Academy, most academic business is conducted in Ukrainian, but English also has status. If you wanted to, you could write your Political Science or History papers in English, but hardly anyone ever does, of course. Russian is depreciated and not acceptable for lectures or papers.

Part of the problem Mr. Igor was having in that last entry was that he was really recruiting students from Russian-speaking universities, even though he said he wasn’t. Sure, many schools in Ukraine are de jure Ukranian-language (outside of Crimea, they’re all supposed to be!), but they’re de facto Russian-speaking. Ostroh Academy is one of the few schools that are Ukrainian both in rule and in fact. He was expressing indignance, perhaps rightly. But it’s like expecting someone like me to speak French just because I’m from a bilingual country, and then lambasting me for my lack of French. As it is, there’s a clear political divide in the way CUPP conducts their recruitments – they hold their final selection session for students from Lviv, Ostroh, Rivne, and a few other Western Ukrainian universities one day, and the whole rest of Ukraine the next! I think this is bull-headed; if it were me, I’d give the students from the east equal status (but with some encouragement to try and speak Ukrainian). This program seems like it’s designed for ultra-nationalists; students with Russian backgrounds who are just learning to speak Ukrainian need not apply. Ugh.

Given this lack of gentle encouragement, no wonder there’s so much hostility towards the Ukrainian language in the east. Ira told me she once went to Kharkiv (Ukraine’s eastern megalopolis, somewhat comparable to Kyiv), and forgetting herself after so much time in the west, spoke to some people in Ukrainian. She was angrily reproached.

Like I said, Quebec is nothing compared to this.

After 3,900 words I’m keen for a break, and I’ve installed the latest Snes9x on this laptop, along with some quality SNES roms (ahem). With just a few settings tweaks, games are easier than ever to play. There was a dark period there when the computers were less than 1ghz and most of the sound cards were Windows-only – the sound cards (if you even have a separate card) still are; but now there are Windows (not just DOS) versions/ports of all the best emulators, and roms are easier than ever to get, and all the gamepads are USB plug-and-play. (I don’t have a USB gamepad, but I’m tempted to get one if the price is right – it would certainly make Star Fox 2 easier to play. By the way, Star Fox 2 kicks ass – why didn’t Nintendo release it?) I almost didn’t expect to be able to run Final Fantasy VI (US: III) or Chrono Trigger on a budget notebook without severe quality drawbacks. Instead, the experience is near perfect. In fact, it’s more than perfect thanks to headphones, savestates, and not having to jam your cartridge into the console in just the right way so that your game will come on. You can even get USB dongles on the internet that will let you plug in your old SNES controllers! I know this stuff has been around for a while and so it seems that I've been living under a rock, but... well, I have been living under a rock.

Alas, there’ll be not much of a break, as I just promised Lee I’d meet him at six. Darn. =) But since he wants me along because he’s meeting some hot girls who live on their own and he needs an alibi for his girlfriend, I guess I can… maybe… spare the time… and then there’s that radio-dance thing at Karo tonight. So I guess this blog will be the pinnacle of my computer achievement, sad to say.

Next update: Wednesday morning
Tags: best of ukraine, cwy, family life, friends, games, ostroh, travel, ukraine

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