It never ceases to amaze me how much there is to know in this world. Equally amazing, it seems that we have an almost realistic shot of getting a handle on all of it, thanks to globalization. In the future, cross-cultural communication will be routine. People will have a real understanding of the issues in other countries and civilizations, and openness and democracy will prevail, thanks in no small part to the neutrality in principle of the Internet, and the availability of inexpensive air travel*. People everywhere will develop a broad horizon, learn other languages, and cultivate positive attitudes. Distinctions between countries will blur, and a new global community united in diversity will be able to harness and protect the resources of our planet, and ultimately the stars.
* - Depending on how the dual crises of energy and climate change play out, this could turn out to be a time-limited opportunity. On the other hand, I suppose in the future it may be possible to cross the Atlantic on a fuel-cell powered catamaran, provided that we find a way to utilize this form of energy storage without resorting to oil or natural gas (which kind of defeats its purpose).
This is already happening. The end result won’t be anything close to my bleary-eyed idealistic vision, but it won’t be anything close to the status quo either. In any case, I think there’s hope that the collective vision of the world will grow as we do. I for one am growing, and if I can, there’s hope for anyone.
So let me tell you about my weekend.
I decided to accept Shan’s invitation and come to see him in Ternopil on Saturday. I got up at five that morning, got me and my flashlight ready, and set out on the rainy, puddle-strewn streets of Ostroh to find my marshutke.
Well, to be more accurate, I ought to call it a minibus. In Ukraine, this distinction is very important:
- Marshutke: An overcrowded van that takes forever to get anywhere with first-come, first-serve seating or standing room, with a flat floor, that stops anywhere along its route to pick up or drop off passengers.
- Minibus: An overcrowded van that takes forever to get anywhere with first-come, first-serve seating or standing room, with a demonstrable aisle and slightly longer wheelbase, that stops anywhere along its route to pick up or drop off passengers.
Practically speaking, there’s hardly any difference (they even have the same signage and rate schemes), but to Ukrainians the terms are not interchangeable. If I say I want to take a marshutke from Ostroh directly to Ternopil, the students in my English class will laugh and suggest that I fly. As it happened, I remembered that my boss mentioned a minibus, and at the mention of this they suddenly burst forth with all the routes, times and other information I needed. You should expect this sort of thing in a country with two verbs for “to go” – іти (ity, for walking) and їхати (yikhaty, for using a form of transport). If you mix them up, they won’t think you’re kidding, or laugh at the idea of walking to a distant city or driving to the kitchen – they just won’t understand. But after four months in Ukraine you get all too used to that.
Of course I missed the minibus, as I was too arrogant to ask anyone to elaborate on “bus stop,” and I wasn’t thinking clearly enough to go where my sense of geography would have correctly placed me. My face was long as a driver explained to me that 1) I was waiting at the wrong stop and 2) by then I’d missed the bus anyway. As the rain fell on the cold morning, I had two options: go home for two hours or go to a bigger city and try to catch a ride to Ternopil from there. Not wanting to waste getting up so early and needing to buy a bottle of champagne before meeting Shan, I grabbed the third consecutive marshutke to Rivne and stood for all 45km. (It also didn’t escape my recollection that I could have gotten on that earlier marshutke and had the comfort of a seat – again, I just wasn’t thinking clearly.)
The bus stop in Rivne was remarkably well-situated, almost defying the Ukrainian tradition that the bus station be in the worst part of town. I found everything I needed in a market, and got a ticket to Ternopil without difficulty – well, except for the agents’ understanding of English numbers. Always double check in Ukrainian, because these people cannot count, and one wonders why they even try. “Platform Eight,” they’ll say (after the first girl initially gives me the wrong number for the correct ticket booth), and I’ll hold up eight fingers and reply, “Платформ Вісім?” and they’ll say “Ні, ні – Сім!” and hold up seven fingers. They’ll see that I understand “Сорок” (forty), then try out their English again – I guess that’s what they’re doing, trying out their English, and why should I discourage that? Someday it’ll cause some hapless foreigner to miss an important bus, but I guess that’s not my problem.
After buying my ticket and perusing the market, I enjoyed a breakfast banana and waited for my bus*. I was looking at a system map ten minutes before departure when I suddenly decided that it might be a good idea to just get on the bus so as to avoid the confusion and chaos. It turned out to be the best decision I made that day. The door to my bus had just opened, and already ten people were ahead of me getting in. A babushka stalled in front of the driver to retrieve something, and I respectfully waited behind her while the Ukrainian men simply squeezed past the two of us. Well, if they could do it, so could I, and I surged into the aisle and arbitrarily chose a window seat.
* - A van, of course, but a bigger one than the ones called marshutkys. On the lighter side, most of the big ones are Mercedes-Benz, so if anyone asks you what the cars were like in Ukraine, you can just say that you rode in a Mercedes every day.
I had an inkling that the ticket specified my seat (and the seats were numbered), but I didn’t know to look for the Ukrainian word for place (місце) then, so I just sat and hoped no one would notice me. In fact, when the driver asked for a ticket (or your destination and the appropriate payment), he didn’t even look at it when I eased it from my shirt pocket. I suppose he didn’t have time, as he was very busy trying to get everyone situated. The van was extremely crowded, although he did have a few aisle-straddling benches to lay down for the benefit of the more fortunate latecomers. It helped that he was a comedian.
We crawled through the Ukrainian countryside, stopping at seemingly every dusty roadside accumulation of cottages to squeeze in more passengers or release a few short-range babushkas. My calculations of my arrival time, based on an 80 km/h cruising speed, were wildly optimistic. We had a fifteen-minute layover in Kremenets, but I decided to stay seated, for fear of losing my seat – standing for the forty-minute trip into Rivne was bad enough, what with the low ceiling and no scenery except for the lines on the asphalt. There was some amusement when we went to leave again – the driver tapped me on the shoulder and indicated that I should move back a few seats (at least it was into a seat!), but then he suddenly decided he should just send a girl forward to sit next to me. Laughter ensued, and the driver played to the crowd all the while. I sensed a kindred spirit.
We drove away, finally, but we soon pulled into an open-air repair lot for no apparent reason. Maybe it was just to say hello. (As Shan later said to me, “It’s Ukraine!”)
At length, we reached Ternopil, and Shan and Rohan found me on the platform. It turned out that Rohan (a fellow medical student, as are all of Shan’s male company) was Indian, but yet he and Shan were “like brothers.” They asked me if this surprised me – it sure did! But they told me that they’ve reached the conclusion that the politicians like to play up their national differences for personal gain. Their languages are similar enough that speakers of one can usually be understood in both countries, much in the manner of the Slavic tongues or a Portuguese-speaker in a Spanish country. The only significant difference is religion, and yet there are more Muslims in India than in Pakistan.
We went to a nearby mall and had some tea and salad while we chatted about various things. One topic that came up often was girls. (The Ukrainian friends of the Central Asian medical students in Ternopil are almost invariably girls – most typical working-class Ukrainian men are too xenophobic to make foreign friends, especially ones with different skin colour. In fact, they are even incapable of distinguishing between the various foreigners they claim to dislike – more on this in a few paragraphs.) We talked quite frankly. Were they misogynistic, though? Hardly. They were culturally and personally inclined to highly respect women, and the way some Ukrainian boys typically treated their girls offended them.
(There are of course as many different attitudes in Ukraine as there are Ukrainians. For every Ukrainian who distrusts anyone with long hair and makes fun of the way Canadian exchange students walk*, there’s an
* - At my workstation, I sit with my back facing the door. Somehow, I could always tell when a Canadian is coming in to speak to me, and a few days ago I discovered it was the sound of their footsteps. We just – well, we walk. Ukrainian boys swagger and Ukrainian girls strut (often in heels). Canadians walk.
Anyway, one of the nicest things was just to be able to make small talk again. When we were walking about, we could take notice of less significant things and just talk for the sake of talking – you really notice this when you’ve only done that with five individual people over the month before.
We took a walk, Rohan took his leave, and we visited Shan’s, walked around, purchased some goodies (including three necessities unavailable in Ostroh: Guinness, Axe, and Sensodyne) and then came back for supper. Shan cooked some chicken that he claimed was bland by Pakistani standards, but plenty spicy for me – and boy, was it good. By the way, I mean “good” in the sense of “breathing is good for you.” Actually that’s about the long and the short of it, because I inhaled the stuff in a manner not exhibited since the Odessa Falafel Experience. It’s a good thing he made all that spicy tomato and onion sauce because my immune system was still reeling from massive cigarette smoke exposure on Thursday night, and the spice-induced flushing did me good, I gather.
Alla and Oxana came to see us while I was eating, and after taking the time to make myself presentable, we all had a lovely chat in the living room. They’re among the most interesting girls I’ve met in Ukraine – not only is their English up to scratch, but they also have poise and attitudes, and they’re not afraid to be witty and/or sarcastic. (This, I must say, is a rare thing here, at least in my experience.) It was soon decided that we ought to get out of the apartment and do something, and they bandied about the names of various discos and cafés.
Oxana suggested that I should be taken to the authentic Ukrainian restaurant in town. I recoiled in horror, not wanting to be subjected to generous servings of potatoes and salo (pig fat) at a mythical Your Ukrainian Kitchen (YUK). Don’t get me wrong; I like Ukrainian food, and anyone who knows anything will tell you that, in culinary terms, the Ukrainians are surpassed only by the British. Nevertheless, I acquiesced, and as it turned out, it was a good thing I did – the restaurant was spectacular! The décor was assembled from the personal collection of the owner who had traveled across Ukraine during the sunset years of the Soviet era and bought many old things of value. As a restaurant, it could have been a folk museum, but this isn’t to say that the food was neglected. We were just there for desserts, but the cakes were among the best I’d ever had, and I’d not had honeyed tea before. We ordered off of wooden menus with burned-in Cyrillics and were served by a waitress in a traditional outfit (sorochka).
Soon the girls had to go their separate way, but Shan and I moved hither and yon about the centre of town, dropping in on various friends and acquaintances. We visited Harun and his cousin Nabil at their beautiful apartment and had one of the best cups of tea I’ve ever had (I think it’s a Pakistani thing – they know good tea.). We talked for a long time about various cultural things, and many things struck me as profound:
- They initially experienced many of the same difficulties I’m experiencing now, especially with language. Sure, they’ve been able to pick up Russian and Ukrainian out of the air without (or with scant) dedicated formal training, but it’s taken them nearly a year in each case to achieve any sort of practical competency. I could also detect the huge difference in Shan’s and Ali’s (we’d meet him tomorrow) Ukrussian, Shan having been in Ternopil for three years and Ali for almost seven. This was important for me, because now I feel proud of the Ukrainian I have managed to learn instead of feeling like a simpleton for not being fluent in Ukrainian by now.
- We agreed that Ukrainians are among the most beautiful people on the planet. Really, if you come to Ukraine, you should come for the people. I hope this brief statement doesn’t go unnoticed among my screenfuls of verbiage. Unfortunately, the least flattering items about a country often prove to be the most interesting, at least from a blogger’s standpoint.
- They missed home with a fervency, and they couldn’t wait to leave Ukraine – they expected Europe, and what they got was Ukraine. They didn’t like the attitudes, the Soviet-ish institutions, the half-hearted democracy and the general apathy, especially among the youth. This last in particular resonated with me: Many of my Ostroh friends frequently make statements like, “Life is awful… but it’s short.” [cue a shot of vodka]. And of course they all smoke, except for the excessively chaste…
- Mostly I just found it funny that people from Pakistan would share all of my misgivings about Ukraine. Pakistan! Pakistan!
Shan recovered an (English!!) copy of Troy from one of his friends, and we capped off the night watching it in his living room. What a movie! I was riveted from start to finish.
The next morning, we met up with Ali and toured some more, with the benefit of daylight. We walked around the large lake in the middle of the city and visited a small, verdant artificial island used by pedestrians and recreational fishermen alike. We took lots of pictures, accompanied by the usual ritual of me explaining that, although I take too many pictures, there’s no particular rhyme or reason about it.
At one point we came out onto a street corner that featured an incredibly photogenic Orthodox cathedral, so of course I leaned up and snapped off a couple, and to my consternation, several people walking behind me indicated to their peripatetic companions that I was an American, adding other phrases that I’m glad I couldn’t understand. Inside I turned red, and, back in the company of Shan and Ali, I released a few oaths that are better left untranscribed. (I said something like, “I’m a Canadian, you…” before trailing off into quieter mircosyllabic colloquialisms.) I explained to Shan and Ali that I had nothing against Americans or their country (of course not; far from it), I just didn’t appreciate being mistaken for one. Would they like being mistaken for Indians?
They understood in spades and it was probably unnecessary for me to express my own opinion except to demonstrate a modicum of sympathy for their situation, which is about a thousand times worse. My Pakistani friends have no shortage of stories about being called “black” or “n*****,” both of which offend them greatly since they’re clearly (at least to an educated person) not of that ethnicity, whether it be named bluntly (the former) or rudely (the latter). The few attempts they’ve made at explaining the mistaken ethno-geography apparently haven’t been met with much success. I am sorry to admit this, but among the general masses, racism is not unacceptable just yet.* Admittedly, it’s extremely rare to find people of colour outside Kyiv. Actually, it’s extremely rare to find any foreigners outside of Kyiv and Lviv, and my current advice to would-be tourists who can’t convincingly pull off being Rukrainian (at least in behaviour) is to confine your travel plans to those two cities. If this seems harsh, remember that this is a country where it is unadvisable (and practically unacceptable) for a Ukrainian to visit Kharkiv (Ukraine’s second largest city) and speak Ukrainian or openly support President Yushchenko.
* - This isn’t to say that there aren’t many racist people in, say, Canada, it’s just that they’re expected to keep such opinions to themselves. This, I believe, makes a huge difference – accepting something in principle is the first step towards accepting something in reality.
Anyway, enough of that for now. We stopped into a Foxtrot electronics supermarket to get some passport photos for Shan, who’d be going to Kyiv on the overnight train to renew his Pakistani passport the next day. (Globalization, definition ii: A Canadian in Ukraine overhears one Pakistani friend explaining to another how to get to the Pakistani Embassy in Kyiv, frequently mentioning McDonald’s in his street directions.) Shan got his photos faster than I got my own in Canada last year. Oh, no Polaroids here – these were taken with a modern digital rig hooked to a computer, and – you guessed it – the photos were retouched, in less time than it takes to order a Dabul Cheseburher Tsandvich in Kyiv. Not the tiniest cowlick nor flake there’ll be on Shan’s passport photo, no sir!
After that we went to the train station to purchase tickets, plural because by now Ali had decided to simply accompany Shan to Kyiv. In fact, I was even invited to come along, but I hesitantly declined (although in retrospect I could have easily “gotten away” with it). This being Ukraine, the purchasing of the train tickets followed a special ritual. Firstly, Ali and Shan had to buy their tickets from Ternopil to Kyiv, but they also needed tickets for Kyiv to Ternopil since the tickets are cheaper to buy in Ternopil even though they’re sold by the exact same company for the exact same train. (Naturally, my trip from Ternopil to Ostroh was a good deal cheaper than Rivne to Ternopil, even though the latter is a shorter-distance, higher-volume route.) Well, then, they could just buy their return tickets, right? Sure, after going all the way back to the end of the line and making their way up the queue again (at least their was a queue!). But they were weary of the idea of waiting some more, so they simply determined to buy their return tickets before they got on the train later that night, and we walked back to the apartment for refreshments and a chat.
I’ve just realized now that I’d had already “been to” Ternopil. I clearly remember looking out from the Lviv-Odessa train onto the platform while Shelley and I were playing cards with those Russian women – it strikes me as funny that I was standing only a few metres from where I’d been before, only before I might as well have been half a world away.
Before long it was time for me to go home, and so my hosts delivered me to the bus station in good time. At length, we took off in the darkness. It was my first experience driving in Ukraine after nightfall – I felt like I was removed from Ukraine somehow on the voyage, in a way I can’t readily explain, mostly because it might not be worth explaining to anyone else. You know how fascinated I am with roads and about my affection for night driving, though.
We stopped in Shumsk, and upon my return to the bus I was greeted by two of my students from Ostroh Academy, also headed back to the little fairytale town of its namesake. Among other things, they told me that I really hadn’t seen Dubno, nor Kremenets – it’s true, Ukrainian bus stations are located away from the historic and/or picturesque centres of major towns. Kremenets looked a lot better the second time; on my first approach, we didn’t get any further than a filthy, dusty market. The conversation closed with a new resolve to give these places a second chance, at least in spirit. Incidentally, the students were shocked to see me travelling alone, and it took a few demonstrations of my Ukrainian to let them know I wasn’t as helpless as when I first got off the plane so many, many months ago.
In Ostroh, I dropped in on an acquaintances’ birthday party at one disco and the departure of my friends from the other, and then I decided it was time for bed.
I’m really, really glad I went to Ternopil. To think that I almost didn’t take the invitation seriously! I never would have guessed that one of the most profound cross-cultural experiences of my exchange would be talking about cricket with a Pakistani friend in a city far from Ostroh. I broadened my horizons more in those two days than I have during two aggregate months of my “regular” life here. It’s also quite possible that this alternative experience has enabled me to see Ostroh with new eyes…