Impressions from my first trip to Eastern Europe.
These opinions were recorded in my journal during my March 2002 trip to Ukraine when I lived with a lovely upper-middle-class family in Odessa for three weeks. In October 2002 and April 2004, I spent three weeks each living with two different families in Vladimir, Russia, about 130 miles east of Moscow. I found my Russian experiences to mimic my time in Ukraine.
Top Ten Good Things About Ukraine
10. They have coffee bars. I saw them around, and I wish I could have gone to one.
9. These people take their chocolate seriously. In the one large grocery store I visited in Odessa, there was an entire aisle dedicated to chocolate.
8. They love plants. Houseplants are everywhere: homes, schools, offices, shops. Public gardens are tended by old women.
7. They love animals. Every family seems to have a pet. There are a lot of stray dogs; people feed them their leftovers.
6. There are diverse shopping opportunities. I visited stores, bazaars (outdoor markets), and kiosks (stands) along the road and on trails (unpaved walking routes).
5. They attempt to dress nice. I almost always felt underdressed. Women wear high heels everywhere and in every type of weather.
4. They have close personal relationships. Their inner circle of trusted friends is like family.
3. Families are close. They have tight-knit families, strong family values, and obedient children.
2. The older parts of town are gorgeous. There is beautiful 18th and 19th century architecture. French, Austrian, and Italian architects were recruited, and the results are amazing. In Lviv, I saw buildings dating back to the 1300s.
1. Ukraine has a fascinating history with a monument to everything. Due to Soviet repression of the truth, on many topics I knew the details of their history better than they did.
Top Ten Worst Things About Ukraine
10. The Ukrainian/Soviet mentality of superiority. They are always right, and their way is always best.
9. There are a lot of unhappy and unfriendly people. Most all adults have a reserved and uptight demeanor if they don’t know you. People rarely smile, and they never smile on the street. If a man smiles in public, he is considered mentally deficient. If a woman smiles at a man in public, it can be perceived as an invitation to follow her home.
8. Bad dental hygiene. By age 40, nearly everyone is missing teeth or has numerous gold teeth. The father in the family I lived with was a dentist. Still, I went through more toothpaste than their entire family. I know this because we all shared the same bathroom. There was no evidence of dental floss or mouthwash in their house. I encountered a few people with really foul breath. In addition, many adults have facial warts. I prayed that I didn’t catch that virus.
7. The bathroom situation. Most homes have two bathrooms: one for the toilet and the other for the sink, tub, and washing machine. I like having a sink to wash my hands in after using the toilet. Public bathrooms are hideously filthy. You must squat over the the toilet seat, which is always covered with urine – that is if there is a toilet seat. Many toilets were designed for squatting. In some cases, there is just a hole in the ground. You must always bring your own toilet paper, even at hotels. Most public toilets that do have seats do not have water in them. You pee into a dry basin and push a knob to flush it down with water. It usually works, but you always need to check.
6. There is no concept of food sanitation or cross contamination. There are usually no serving utensils; you use your fork or your fingers. Leftovers are rarely refrigerated; they are left out on the countertop until they are finished.
5. House guests are basically force-fed. No thank you (net spaciba) is not accepted. The first Russian term a newcomer needs to know is choot-choot (a little bit) to avoid getting a huge serving. Some food you will like and some you will hate, but there is no getting out of eating it. As someone who prefers a vegetarian diet, I was particularly turned off by the fatty meat that was routinely served. (I snuck what I could to the family dog when possible.) Another challenge was fish soup that still had small, needle-size bones in the fish. After I separated the bones from the flesh using my tongue, I got them to my lips, and as delicately as I could, I removed them to the rim of the soup bowl. Also, napkins are not routinely used in the home, which is why I had to leave the fish bones on the rim of the soup bowl.
4. The driving conditions are terrible. The roads are horrible – full of potholes. The concept of staying in your own lane is completely absent. Red lights are merely a suggestion. People pass you on the left and on the right. Drinking and driving are commonplace. No one uses seatbelts; I was told not to wear one when I asked. I actually had nightmares that I was driving my Toyota Avalon on those roads.
3. There is a total lack of aesthetic consideration. Everything built during the Soviet era is butt-ugly. So, unless you are in an older part of town, ugly is all you see. In addition, people leave their garbage everywhere. There is little sense of community pride.
2. Male chauvinism is real. Women are expected to work full time, come home and prepare dinner, and do all the housework. Most men come home from work and watch TV while they drink vodka.
1. Soviet Realism. I mean more than just the shitty artistic style. My reality was one of constantly being monitored, like Big Brother was watching me. I suspected my emails were read. I was constantly mindful of my speech and always on guard to say the right thing, as I did not want to piss anyone off. Still, I unintentionally made some major faux pas by violating superstitions: entering through the wrong door, giving toasts in the wrong order, and my worst offense – wishing someone happy birthday the day before their actual birthday. I knew I had done wrong when the entire table went quiet. One superstition our family adopted is waiting to change the sheets until our houseguests are safely home. While I genuinely loved the Ukrainian and Russian people – I was treated in a generous and honorable manner in both nations – outside of my hosts’ homes, I felt oppression in the air. Spending time in Ukraine and Russia made me appreciate being an American.
My husband was more than a little jealous of these foreign trips, (FOMO), especially since his high school girlfriend was a first-generation Russian and he had picked up a bit of the language while dating her for two years. In 2016, we spent a day in St. Petersburg as part of a Baltic Cruise. I warned him that he would get the “Russian vibe” while we were there. Sure enough, he felt it by the second or third stop on our tour bus, when he saw a Russian police officer harassing a man outside the Hermitage Museum. Before the cruise, we had spent a lovely week in Finland, where the atmosphere was the polar opposite of Russia; hence, the difference was startling.