Lectureship: Notes from Kyiv
Before we arrived, I was expecting to see drab, Soviet-style clothing, but when it comes to fashion Kyivites have thrown off their Soviet yoke with a vengeance. They love extravagant fashions and bright colors. As one guidebook put it, to Kyivites fashion is more important than variety, and most people wear the same outfit several days in a row.
I have come to think of Kyiv fashion as "extreme fashion," particularly in shoe styles and skirt lengths. The most distinctive features of fashion for young to middle-aged women are shoes with 4-inch stiletto heels and toes so pointy that some of them look like joke shoes, and, for the young women, mini-skirts shorter than any American would ever wear. Women also like to dye their hair in strong colors; a purplish red is very popular. Men's shoes are also pointy and slightly turned up, exactly in the shape of an alligator snout. I used to have to keep from laughing at them, but now they look almost normal to me. Women wear their stiletto heels even in snow and ice. Older women still dress in the old style and look exactly like the babushkas in Patricia Polacco's books for children: flowered scarves over their hair and tied under the chin, several layers of skirt, apron, and sweater, thick black knitted stockings, and lace-up boots. To keep warm, Ukrainians have no qualms about wearing fur, and they would probably consider "animal-rights" activism as a luxury of people who live in warmer climates or can afford high-tech factories to make synthetic fibers like Polartec and Thinsulate. In this regard, fabricating full-length fur coats is relatively easy on the environment. In addition to fur in the usual range of natural colors, dyed fur jackets and trim are worn here in almost every imaginable color: shades of pink, red, and burgundy, kiwi green, olive green, baby blue, lavender, orange (a newly fashionable color in the wake of the Orange Revolution), and black-and-white checks. The only color of fur I haven't seen is yellow, probably because it would be too reminiscent of baby chicks. Many people wear fur coats constructed with the fur on the inside and leather or suede on the outside, and large, adult-sized mittens of this type are available to wear over everyday gloves for extra warmth. At the flea market, people sell fur cut in the shape of different shoe sizes to use as sole linings. Another essential layer for both girls and boys, at least through elementary school, is footed cotton and wool tights under their slacks. Our boys love theirs, and they love to wear them around our apartment, looking like little Robin Hoods.
Vehicles and drivers
The streets of Kyiv are bursting with vehicles, which drive onto sidewalks when the streets become impassable. Any paved surface is a potential parking spot, and most cars driving on sidewalks are there in search of that elusive car-wide space. Crossing the street is a hair-raising experience, which we deal with as often as possible by crossing only with a crowd, but even walking down the sidewalk we must be on the alert for moving cars. We have read that in Soviet days there were not enough cars in Kyiv to cause a traffic jam, but, since independence in 1991, the number of cars on the road has proliferated well beyond the capacity of the existing streets. This means that many drivers are relatively inexperienced, and "Avtoshkola" (auto or driving school) advertisements are common. Nevertheless, most drivers that we encounter, including taxi drivers and the hired driver of the Fulbright program, are offended by any indication that we want to put on seatbelts.
While the drivers may be inexperienced, the cars they drive often look like they've been on the road since the 1970s. The most common is the Russian make Lada, which, according to a Ukrainian friend, can be repaired by almost any Ukrainian male over a certain age. Lots of newer Volkswagens, along with Skodas (a Czech make), low-end Mercedes Benz models, and Daewoos make up the bulk of the remainder. There's at least one Ford dealer in Kyiv. We've also seen a few exotic stand-outs, including a Hummer and a brand-new kiwi-and-purple Mistubishi with a Nevada license plate.
Every morning and evening, men and women sweep the sidewalks of leaves, debris, or snow using brooms made of twigs lashed onto a long handle, which look exactly like the kind ridden by the Wicked Witch of the West (or Harry Potter, for a different generation). These low-tech tools seem hopelessly out-of-date, but they are quite effective both as rakes and as light snow removers. Another very common sight is old women carrying snow shovels and performing manual labor.
There is no drinking age here, and alcohol of all sorts is available on every street corner. From street vendors, you can buy a half-liter of really good Ukrainian beer called Obolon for 50 cents. Public drinking (at all hours of the day) seems to be mostly a male activity. Young men, including young teenagers, usually drink beer, while older men drink vodka. At lunch time, small grocery stores sell bottles of vodka (less than $3) with a plastic cup to enable immediate consumption. In less public locations, such as academic conferences (!), vodka toasts are standard procedure for welcoming participants, and here the women drink with the men. Four shots of vodka are just a start: this is what you have when you're NOT drinking. Real drinking by Ukrainian standards goes well beyond this. Despite the steady flow of alcohol, visible drunkenness is less common than one might expect. One of the negative side-effects that is highly visible is broken glass everywhere, on sidewalks and in parks, even in playgrounds. This is one reason the street sweepers stay busy.
There is no such thing in Kyiv as a personal check. In a few places, you can pay with credit cards, but most places accept only cash. This means that when you're buying groceries you'd better not lose track of how much you are spending, because you can't whip out that debit card to make up for your failure to calculate, and you are in for an embarrassing scene with a grumpy cashier. It also means that to pay utility bills, you must stand in line at the bank every month and hand them the bills with your money. They give you paid receipts, and eventually word gets back to the utility companies that you've paid. We get several bills a month for satellite television, including one for the service itself, one for the modem, and one for the TV guide. Somehow I missed one of them last month, which was for the amount of 11 hryvnias or just over $2, and for this our satellite service was suspended for 10 days, including several days after I had paid the sum at the bank but before the paperwork traveled from the bank to the cable company. Cell phones and other services are on a pay-as-you-go basis: from street vendors you buy phone cards in whatever denomination you want, then you put the code for that card into your phone, and this allows you to make phone calls from your cell phone until your credits run out.
The grumpiness of cashiers, it turns out, is a given regardless of how much money you have to spend. At most of the shops where I do regular business, the clerks ignore me until I ask for help, and then they render their service without a smile. This is not just because I am a foreigner and don't speak their language. The concept of enjoying one's work, which has a Protestant history, is unknown here, as is that of "customer service." This is understandable given the decades of Soviet oppression here, where labor was practically enslavement. (An old Ukrainian dissident joke says of the Soviet system, "You pretend to work, and they pretend to pay you.") It seems almost that people resist smiling, as if they're afraid that if they do, someone might think they're enjoying their jobs, and the fact is that in most service jobs and even in many professional jobs people are making subsistence wages. To Americans, this apparently unfriendly attitude is a little unsettling, and certainly unpleasant, because we are used to quite the opposite: as a Ukrainian graduate student now living in the United States on a Fulbright grant recently observed, Americans smile all the time. In her experience, the only Americans who don't smile are the security guards at airports. Now that she's used to it, she wishes that more Ukrainians smiled, too.
The First Anniversary of the Orange Revolution
The anniversary celebration on November 22 was quite cold but exciting. I took Toby and Benjamin downtown at 3p.m. knowing that things were to kick off at 4, and we were hoping to see President Yushchenko, as well as his former revolutionary ally but now political rival, ex prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. We waited until 4:30 before it was clear that lots of bands and other "acts" were in the line-up first, and since it was 29 degrees and snowing hard, we were ready to come home. In the meantime, we had had a great time playing in the snow, watching the hundreds of colorful flags waving, and feeling the general excitement. Many people here are disappointed with Yushchenko but still were celebrating the fact that a revolution happened at all—that thousands of people had gotten up the gumption to protest and a) not been shot or imprisoned for doing so, and b) actually seen big changes as a result of their defiance. Reading about the way the Orange Revolution happened last year, with people camped out in tents in the middle of the main street (the Kyiv equivalent of Fifth Avenue in NYC) in the -10 Celsius cold (14 degrees F) for seventeen days, and insisting on no violence and even refusing to drink alcohol throughout the weeks of their protest (quite a statement in Ukraine!), made me want to cry with hope for the future of this country. Really good things do happen sometimes, and in the right way. Phil and I are very glad that the boys got to be here for this historic occasion.
Two days later was Thanksgiving, which of course is a non-event in most of the world. I've been working part-time in the Fulbright office while the Fulbright director is out of the country (I'm the resident native English speaker), and one of my duties was to organize a Thanksgiving party if I wanted one to happen, which of course I did because I did not want to wrestle with my own turkey! So, for the cooks that Fulbright usually employs for its gatherings, I wrote out a typical Thanksgiving menu, including "rice," "green beans," and "pumpkin pie." Pretty straightforward, I thought. The turkey stuffing mix, cranberry sauce, and bottled gravy we got from the American embassy, which stocks this stuff in a commissary for its employees. Thus this part of the meal came out looking like what we're all used to.
The rest of the meal was Thanksgiving Ukrainian-style: the rice was a cold rice salad with lots of colorful chopped vegetables mixed in, and the green beans were also a cold salad feature. The gravy was in a bowl, but not heated. The pumpkin pies did not happen at all, despite the fact that from the embassy we had also gotten three large cans of Libby's pumpkin pie filling, which need only eggs, evaporated milk, and a pie crust. The cooks apparently rejected the whole idea because they returned the unopened cans and supplied instead some unidentified-fruit tarts that looked the way date bars look: stiff squares with fruit in the middle and crumbly topping. And to start things off, after a blessing and some silence for individual thanksgiving, we had that all-American Thanksgiving tradition, a vodka toast! About 35 people were present, more Ukrainians than Americans, and it was great fun.
Reports surfaced this week that bird flu has been found in Ukraine in the Crimean Peninsula. The American embassy sends out regular updates to citizens living here, so we are well aware of any new developments. President Yushchenko called an emergency meeting with parliament and got them to declare a state of emergency while efforts to eradicate the virus here are underway. The Crimea is quite a distance from Kyiv, and most people here seem to be watching and waiting. If the strain mutates into something that can pass from human to human, we will not wait around for it to get to us, but unless or until that happens we are trying not to worry about it. We probably won't be eating turkey for Christmas, however.
The fall is a difficult time for Americans to be out of the States, because so many holidays and family-centered celebrations happen during this time. In Ukraine, there is no Halloween, no Thanksgiving, no Christmas until January 7, as the Eastern Orthodox calendar requires. Thus not only is Thanksgiving a non-event, the entire American "holiday season" is a non-event. We are starting to see Christmas decorations in stores, but elementary schools will not let out until December 23, and Phil's classes continue until December 29, not including exams. Mandy Monath in Salisbury sent us some paper Christmas decorations, which we put up immediately, and some ex-patriate friends here who now visit their grown children in the States every Christmas have graciously lent us their artificial tree, to tide us over until real trees go up for sale late this month, so we are making our own holiday season, but our Christmas Day here will not have that wonderful, everything-stops-moving feel, because in fact we'll be the only ones who stop moving on that day. However, this gives us more reasons to think about what and why we are celebrating, and less excuse or possibility for simply going with the flow. But feel free to send Christmas cards or e-mails! We love mail, especially the old-fashioned kind, and here's our address: Gor'kogo 8, No. 10, Kyiv 01001 Ukraine.