Sunday, April 6, 2008

Ukraine: Part One

In the winter of 2006, I took part in an exchange program that sent young Canadians to small communities in developing countries to participate in volunteer-work in hope of somehow improving the living-conditions of its citizens. How this worked was each Canadian participant got paired up with a local counterpart and the two of them lived together with a host-family unfamiliar to them both. This process was repeated during a second phase in Canada.

If nothing else, this program familiarized its participants with the virtues of cultural sensitivities. There was a strong emphasis on demonstrating the dangers of culture shock breeding misunderstanding and how any initial reaction from confronting the unfamiliar should be rigorously self-examined. I thought this could be a good idea.

I arrived in a small town called Ostroh in western Ukraine. Ukraine is a young country that has been in the process of extensive transition since its independence from the dissolved Soviet Union in 1991; this has not been easy and there are plenty more challenges yet to come.

My counterpart and I lived with a family consisting of an older couple who had two sons living in Kyiv. None of them spoke English so I had my counterpart to thank for his tireless translation. I was absorbed into the family for two months; nowhere near enough time to absorb the torrent of information that came my way, so I returned to Ukraine a year later. This time I traveled across the continent so I could meet all the neighbours I heard so much about. Many of these countries were pivotal in shaping Ukraine’s past and forming its future.

The more I learned the more I realized I was nowhere near coming to understand this fascinating country because the questions just kept mounting. There were so many facets of Ukrainian life: the people, culture, history, revolution, reformation, nationalism, comradeship, divisions, devotion, corruption, poverty, optimism, defeat, compassion, intolerance, Cossacks, funny hats, alcohol poisoning and public nudity.

Now, as I flip through two notebooks from both trips I read stories with very little context and realize that explaining what I’ve learned is going to be an arduous task, especially since I’m still in the process of figuring this out. My amalgamation of memories, full of many colourful people and illuminating situations, should be situated along some sort of discernable timeline, but at this point it resembles a tangled ball of Christmas lights. I suppose there’s no better time than now in trying to make sense of it all.

So I guess it all begins with… well… my host father’s insanely massive hands… and how I sat at the kitchen table and watched this aggressively animated man toss around these bulbous appendages hanging from each wrist. They were these gargantuan contraptions made of leathery flesh and jagged knuckles that seemed to dwarf his otherwise proportionate body. My eyes wouldn’t risk blinking as they watched these two monsters crush walnuts with the ease of a vice crushing eggshells and I felt like diving for cover when his hands began conducting his incessant shouting of unintelligible Ukrainian. This man made my nerves go bad even though I knew he wasn’t shouting out of anger, but just reinforcing the Ukrainian stereotype of speaking RIDICULOUSLY LOUD!

My host-father then grabbed a loaf of bread and began cutting it mid-air. After slicing several pieces proved to be too much of a struggle, he threw the knife down in frustration – understandable; the utensil must have seemed microscopic to him. His final resort was using his hands to tare off large chunks of bread and handing them to me. At this point I was ready to invite any peace offering, but this one came at a cost because his hands were perpetually filthy looking, as if his day entailed completing a series of tasks which might have included disassembling a diesel engine, disposing harmful chemicals, crushing whole trees into mulch and then taking time to unwind by playing in a sand box. It looks like he’s been doing this every day for the past 50 years.

I knew it unwise to decline this potentially soiled bread because I would have to continuously explain myself to my host-family. Bread was a common a side dish in Ukraine, particular in this house, so my refusal concerned my family to the point where I thought they were questioning my sanity. To better understand the severity of the scene I would be causing I tried paralleling this to another meal-time faux-pas I was familiar with. The only thing I could come up with was if I were to arrive at someone’s house for dinner, sit at their table, compliment them on the appetizing quality of the food in front of me and then proceed to slam my face into my plate repeatedly, until I eventually topple-over unconscious.

I always considered mealtime to be a delicate situation because it’s when hospitality lies in the delicate balance of a host trying to satisfy a desire to please and a guest trying to suppress the gag-reflex. It might even be the most opportune moment to offend anyone of a different culture — people can avoid discussing politics and religion but eventually most people have to sit down and eat. No matter how liberal an eater, no one is ever exempt from a real challenge; I kept this in mind as I chewed the bread and smiled even though I thought I could taste the sandcastle my host-father might have made earlier that day.

He suddenly turned towards me, rested his hands on the table and began speaking to me quietly. It was a needed calm in the chaos of his demeanor and through mere eye contact I was reassured that he found me just as much an anomaly as I found him. I smiled and listened to him but I become increasingly suspicious the longer he spoke because he was aware of the fact that I hardly understood a word of Ukrainian. Things became awkward once I realized he wasn’t talking to me, rather, he was talking about me to others at the table— You know you’re out of your element when you start envying the family dog for having a better grasp of the local language.

While I eventually came to know my host-father as a kind and generous man, his personal brand of erratic behavior seemed amplified because it was so novel to me and it initially drowned-out many of his milder qualities. I knew my fixation on his rougher-edges had been rash… but he was still one of the hardest looking bastards I’d ever known. I imagine it was years of working hard labor that left him so gruff and calloused. When Stalin propagandized the concept of the “perfect worker” to inspire higher productivity from masses, images of Hollywood-types were used to represent the working class heroes but if he really wanted to expose the outgrowth from living a life of toil then my host-father would be the more accurate poster-boy.

I didn’t know much about the man other than he had been driving trucks much of his life and he spent long periods of time away from home. Since the Ukraine’s independence he’d been driving within the confines of his own country but at one point he had to drive the extent of the Soviet empire; traveling as far as Georgia and Kazakhstan. He already spent long periods away from home as it was, so I couldn’t imagine how longer shifts would have affected his family life, especially with both sons living at home at the time.

With a career in maintaining a homestead that no longer housed any children, my host-mother had to come up with devices to stave off loneliness. One of these devises was adopting stray cats, so a swarm of mangy cats milled around us as we sat at the kitchen table, each watching for an opening to jump up and grab some fish. My host-father was continuously waving them away like he would a swarm of flies, but they must have been hungry because creatures of such size should have easily recognized those hands as a force not to be reckoned with.

My host-mother was a sweet woman and she did an outstanding job in assuring my comfort in a place devoid of certain luxuries I took for granted in Canada, but even she, with a mild stature of five-foot and a humane disposition, could completely transform into an omnipotent force on the drop of a dime.

Many a morning I’d usually be the first to enter the kitchen and find what seemed to be every neighbourhood cat that found their way into the house during the night. Approaching these skittish creatures I urgently whispered, “Get out. She’ll be in here any second. She’ll kill every last one of you when she—” before I could finish, what resembled Mr. Hyde in a kerchief burst into the room, shouting and waving her arms. Pandemonium ensued once she began diving for these animals that scattered in every possible direction and with lightening-fast speed she easily grabbed two fists full of cat. The older slower ones were the first to be hauled off by the scruff of the neck and tossed out the front door, but on the way out they cried warning to the younger ones who attempted to squeeze themselves into impossibly small crevices. I felt like diving behind the stove myself if it meant saving myself from her wrath.

I knew she cared for these cats like no one else and wouldn’t dream of harming them but this commotion seemed so overwhelming at the time I wouldn’t have been surprised if she suddenly adopted the booming cackle of James Earl Jones and began downing whole kittens by the handful as if they were in easy-to-swallow gel capsules. Once the dust settled the only thing left was me standing paralyzed in the centre of the room. She looked at me like she would look at a traumatized child: wanting to give me a hug for reassurance but holding off in expectation of that wet spot that could materialize on the front of my pants at any moment.

Eventually, she allowed the cats to remain in the kitchen because I insisted I liked her animals. This compromise came easy for her because it seemed she was grateful for my company, as if I were a valuable learning experience. Maybe she knew the world was becoming a smaller place and she thought the next step was getting to know someone on the other side of it. While she put plate after plate of food in front of me the mountain-of-a-man stared at me with his dead pan expression along with the legion of cats around him.

Oh, how the times must have seemed to be a-changin’ for my host-father. Communism had collapsed no more than fifteen years ago; the system he had known his entire life had been turned upside down in an effort to attain the advancements of the Western World. The immediate result for this country, already well-acquainted with poverty, was crippling inflation lasting throughout the 90s. This was surly not the kind of bounty that was promised to make life easier for my host-family.

I couldn’t imagine the struggle my host-family had to endure along the way. Most of all, I couldn’t imagine the kind of hostility that could arise from the seeming rhetoric and empty-promises coming from many reformists - reformists who were commonly accompanied by foreign figure-heads and organizations willing to voice their support for their platform. We, Canadian participants, were praised upon our arrival by the rector of the Ostroh University for simply being citizens of a country who sent members from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) to help facilitate reform during the Orange Revolution of 2004 (a non-violent social-uprising which lead to the election of “western friendly” president.) While most of the Canadian participants remembered the revolution on the news, most of us didn’t retain a single detail that would justify any intelligent opinion on the matter.

How has my host-father reacted to all this continuous change? Did he feel alienated or even disenfranchised by the optimism of a younger generation; those who still had a lifetime to wait for even more anticipated change? Was he set in his ways, like some other older post-soviet citizens I met?

How did he see me as a sojourning Canadian? Was I just another part of a larger advocacy group; someone straight from the source?

Another factor to consider was how my host-father had grown up on the other side of a major ideological war. I’ve seen the indoctrination of the baby boomers from my own continent, but what was my host-father taught about “our kind?” What were his preconceptions of the sinister capitalist? Were there any lingering impressions from those old political cartoons he’d seen during his life; ones depicting the soviet worker kicking the caricatures of either Uncle Sam or Monopoly’s Uncle Penny Bags off the greens fields of a collective-farm? Such powerful suggestion is a hard thing to shake. Hell, I might have easily been crass enough to have mistaken my host-father as strong-armed James Bond villain at first sight. Did he just see me as an unfortunate by-product of some world he resented?

There were far too many questions to ask before I had him pegged down. The only thing I was certain was the iron curtain lifted and he found some gangly Canada sitting at the end of his table, showing his big toothy grin like a halfwit, eating his food and having just enough language skill to contribute, “yes… tasty… yes” to every conversation. I hope he was able to have a laugh at my expense at some point because there’s no better way of making light of any misunderstandings about a person than by taking the time to ask, “What the hell was that guy on about?”

Maybe I was just considered another stray brought in by my host-mother? …The only real reason I tried to psychoanalyze my host-father was because I wanted to know if one of those meat-hooks of his was ever going to swing towards me like they swung past the begging cats.

Looking at my counterpart on the other side of the table I felt somewhat relieved in knowing that I wasn’t the only sign of change within this house.

When the time came for many throughout the Soviet Union to find a sustainable role to play in the volatile world of free-enterprise, a vigilant kind of entrepreneur came out of the woodwork. During times of scarce commodity goods and thriving black-markets, survival wasn’t certain for the working-class of old state enterprise but more likely for whoever was quick to embrace the basic instincts of the middleman — It wasn’t the machinist who had worked in the country’s once leading industry for the past thirty years with initiative to make real money in the future; it was the kid peddling foreign blue-jeans, or whatever happened to be in high demand. — Nobody embraced these instincts more enthusiastically than my own counterpart, an economics student at the local university and already a savvy hustler at the tender age of 19.

During the end of our second phase in Canada I sat on the end of my bed in our shared room and watched my counterpart packing four Teflon frying pans into his suitcase. He eagerly described the killing he could make if he were to sell these pans on the street back home. I didn’t doubt such intention for this undertaking because I already saw him make a sizable gain by selling cheap Ukrainian vodka and cigarettes for inflated prices while in Canada. When I had met his father in Ukraine he thought I was crazy because I declined to take his whole-sale back to Canada for myself.

My counterpart and I couldn’t have had more differing outlooks; I spent my life living off the fat of my land without a second thought while he saw life as a constant struggle in mastering the basic art of buying low and selling high… however, he had the rare exception of having absolutely no necessity for doing so because he was extremely well off. He would inherit his grandfather’s meat-processing plant one day and until then he was taken care of by his father who owned a successful business of his own. Did he feel that the real experience necessary for bigger things lied at the grass-roots level? Did he play the game just for sake of playing the game? I have no clue, but something was hard-wired in my counterpart early on. When he looked at his toy abacus as a child he must have envisioned limitless opportunity for tabulating net-profit. When I looked at mine the only thing I saw were deliciously colored beads that could be pried off their wires and swallowed.

I can easily imagine a scene from my counterpart’s childhood where his father walks away from Gorbachev on the TV discussing glasnost and perestroika, infamous policy that would bring about a new world order. He then bends down to my counterpart playing in his crib and whispers, “Remember, no opportunity will be too big or small. Keep this in mind and you’ll be assured what’s coming to you.”

Now my mind switches to a random scene from my childhood where my father walks away from the credits of Different Strokes rolling on the TV. He then bends down towards me sitting in my crib and says, “Remember the part when Arnold set Willis straight? ‘Whatcha talk’n bout?’ Ha! Now, that’s the kind of material that will never grow old… hey, why are there brightly colored beads everywhere? Where did you get those pliers?... Not again!”

My host-father and counterpart were on the opposite ends of a generational gap and it seemed both were living lives worlds apart. Ukraine had seen immense changes in an unbelievably short period of time and the aftereffects were distinct almost anywhere I turned. Hell, even a little kitchen table in rural Ukraine served as a perfect exhibit to this particular phenomena. Despite this divide between my host-father and counterpart, they hadn’t lost all commonality; they were still able to look across the table at me and see someone who was alien to them both.

I smiled at my host-father as he squinted at me and then I asked my counterpart, “What is he saying?”

“He just said how he doesn’t like George Bush.” My counterpart replies, “How he makes trouble in the world.”

“Yeah, ok… he knows I’m Canadian right?”

My counterpart began speaking Ukrainian to my host-father, making hand gestures that looked as if he were indicating where Canada was situated on a map and shaking his head whenever my host-father voiced a misconception. My counterpart turned back to me and said, “Yes, he knows.”

My host father shrugged at me and I shrugged back. I just wanted to dodge that bullet at all cost. I was glad to break the tension and turn my attention to the family dog, who had his head on my lap.

The dog’s name was Tarzan and he felt like my one true counterpart, my other half in this parallel universe. I loved this dog because we had one thing in common; we were both way-in over our heads in a world neither of us quite fully understood. Many times I sat at the edge of my bed and confided in Tarzan. I didn’t mind putting all the effort in our conversation and it never hurt my pride when he would suddenly cut things short to move on to more pressing matters, namely, licking his nuts. His easy going nature instilled strength in me and I knew I would get-by just fine if the both of us were to stick together.

Tarzan had the sweet life for a dog in Ukraine because most dogs I saw were either homeless or used to guard a two foot radius the chain around their neck allowed them to roam, but not everything was milk bones and belly-rubs for Tarzan. Just before I arrived in the country his leg was broken when he was hit by a car and either due to a lack of local veterinary service or because of its extortionate price, my host-mother took it upon herself to construct a new cast for Tarzan every night. If Tarzan wasn’t licking himself, he was chewing off his cast and no matter how many times I pushed his snout away from his efforts, he eventually succeeded and began chewing his bare leg. I knew his foolishness prevented the slightest chance of healing but at the same time I admired this dog for his ability to endure harder times.

There were points where I felt like Tarzan and I shared the same mind process when faced with daily absurdities. When the beast within my host-mother became frustrated with Tarzan’s loitering about the kitchen she grabbed a crudely constructed broom that was twice her size and had a mass of crooked sticks on the end of it. I admit, she didn’t seem as threatening with this weapon. She looked more adorable than anything else because the giant broom made it look as if she shared a similar proportion to a child wielding some oversized prop in a school play. I don't think the broom was harmful because Tarzan didn’t even blink when it came crashing down on his head. He just furrowed his brow at my host-mother’s song and dance and eventually became so perturbed he felt it necessary to leave the room.

After finishing up my meal I stepped outside the kitchen to meet Tarzan. We stood there looking at each other as if to ask the exact same question, “What the hell was that all about?”