Overlanders: Going home

>> Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Our newsletter, still reporting from Ukraine :)

Sitting back, enjoying some Zhifchik now. (That?s a kind of pop here, more like a carbonated apple cider with Echinacea added. As much as I love the Ruby-red Squirt that I can apparently only find in Ames, Iowa, I like this stuff that much more. But of course, they don?t sell it anywhere in the States, even at Russian grocery stores)

I took Leilani out for a quick (one-hour) stroll this morning, ?round past the circus and back. I found a couple of interesting things I thought I?d write about? At the market, of which much can be written alone, there are these little old ladies that sit around with insulated boxes (read: coolers, but for hot foods) selling piroshki out of them. These are like hot, stuffed sandwiches, usually fried, sometimes baked. They contain either meat, potatoes, or cabbage and they?re actually incredibly tasty. Many people buy them, as you can tell seeing everyone walking around with one. What?s especially interesting is that they cost about 16 cents a piece. Add that to a glass of kvas (a non-alcoholic malt beverage) for about 18 cents, and you?ve got a pretty-filling meal for less than 50 cents. Take that, McDonalds!

They do have McDonald?s in all the major cities here, by the way. But except for the fact that the menus are all phonetically spelled out in Cyrillic writing, it?s pretty much the same stuff that makes you sick 10 minutes after eating it as we have in the US.

Jumping back to Yalta, in our vacation-within-a-vacation a while ago, I just wanted to mention that we did get to see the Swallow?s Nest (Google it if you don?t know what it is), but we only got to see it from a distance. Had I looked in any tourist book, I would have found out that it?s no longer available as a tourist destination; apparently sometime in the 70?s some Italian woman purchased it and turned it into a very expensive Italian restaurant, since it needed repairs and the country didn?t have enough money for it. Oh well, maybe next time (in about ten years from now?) we?ll make some reservations and try it out.


There?s a verse in Proverbs that goes something like, ?Don?t start building a wall if you don?t have the money to finish it.? Ukraine seems to have skipped over that verse. Construction methods or style in Ukraine is just wrong, I think. There?s some roadwork that?s going on near our friend Natasha?s house. When we first arrived in Ukraine, they?d dug two holes; one off the side of the road, and one in the middle of it. There weren?t any workers to be seen, nor were there for a couple of weeks thereafter. After we got back from the Crimea, I did see some machinery out there every other day or so. They dug another hole, I think, and called it quits for a while. Then they came back and expanded the first hole. Now it?s sitting there again, several holes in the road with piles of dirt sitting next to them, and people do their best to get around it all. Elena told me it?s because they don?t have the money to finish it ? whatever ?it? is, of course, because I can?t really tell what they think they?re doing.

At least living in Ukraine teaches you to be on your toes, because you don?t know when someone?s going to start a project like that, or when they?re going to finish, either. Just last night (the 7th) ?they? shut the water off for our building. No warning, no information about it, just foop! No water, have fun. Fortunately, it just came on as I started writing this, at 10am this morning (so we all rushed about washing, flushing, filling, and boiling.). Living over here is like camping out and you discover that your campsite has running water so you get all psyched up about it, but then you realize it doesn?t work after all.

These aren?t just isolated incidents, either. Here?s another example: When we first arrived in Ukraine, we tried calling a friend of ours, Inna, at her workplace since she doesn?t have a home phone. (She has a mobile phone, but if you call one from a landline, you get an extra bill sent to the landline.) At first, we were able to get through to some kind of general secretary, at least someone who was in charge of answering the telephone. We asked to be transferred to Inna, and the secretary said she?d do so, however we only wound up on eternal hold. Later (and by this we mean pretty much EVERY single day thereafter) when we tried, no one answered the phone at all. Personally, I just do NOT get it. If you?ve got a job, DO your job, make the customer happy, and keep your job. That?s usually how it goes. Here, it?s more like: you?ve got a job, so forget everything else.

Maybe it?s because living conditions are just that good over here. I notice they still do have incredibly long lines for things still, here ? it?s just that the lines have moved. Where once, I have heard, they waited in line for toilet paper, now they wait in line at the ATM. And I?m not talking about the small, maximum of 5-minute wait that we have over here. It?s more like a constant line of 20-50 people who have almost all crammed themselves into your personal space (particularly that personal space at an ATM that is universally understood in America, in which if someone stands it feels like they?re watching your bank transactions).

We went into a toy store to buy a present, yesterday. I stayed outside with the stroller while Elena and Inna (whom we ran into entirely by accident!) went inside. I?d never seen hardly a single person go into this toy store every time I walked past it, but for some reason at this time, I watched as (I counted) 20 people filed in almost without stop. This is a store about the size of a bedroom, already filled up with toys on the walls and floor. I tell you, it?s just unexpected chaos over here, everywhere you go.

I don?t feel it?s right to complain in such detail for so long about Ukraine, though; I mean, there are a lot of things that are good about the country, too. When you do find friendly people, they?ll go out of their way for you, to the end. Life does not ?rush by? even half as fast as it feels like it does in America. Television, cars, and commercialism in general just aren?t as much a core part of your life here as they are, there. It?s easy to be a neighbor here, just because everyone is out there, walking around.

Monday: This is interesting: First, I already knew that everyone had to have at least one passport. After talking with Elena I learned that people in Ukraine also must have a place of residence actually listed in this passport. I suppose it makes sense, since they?re required to carry these documents around anyway, but without that residence listed, they can?t get a job, go to the bathroom, request a house call (doctors still make house calls over here!) or what not. (Okay, I?m kidding about the bathroom part, if you hadn?t figured that out)

Tuesday: Remember how I said the handicap-friendliness of Ukraine is a little lacking? We were walking around the market today and I saw a store that I need to mention. We saw it earlier but I forgot to say anything then. It has three steps leading up to the door, which makes it non-accessible, although that really doesn?t matter because the roads, sidewalk and market are full with enough curbs and potholes to make navigation via wheelchair impossible to begin with. But at the top of the stairs? A handicap-access button for the door.

Absolutely. Hilarious.

Wednesday: Well, I start my trip home tonight, while Elena and the baby have decided to stay on for a few more weeks. Talk to you all again later, State-side!


Overlanders: Strollers and Clerks

>> Tuesday, October 04, 2005

We bought a combination stroller/tricycle for Leia?s birthday on the 30th. Not quite sure if they have them in the States, but I wouldn?t be surprised to find one; they?re pretty nifty. Of course, I like most any kind of toy/furniture/etc that has a dual purpose. It?s like a tricycle with safety bars and a parental-control handlebar, so at first the child just rides along as if it were a stroller. Later as she grows up, you can take the footguard/seatbelt/parent control off and it becomes a regular tricycle. Oh, and there?s also a fold-under bar so that you can turn it into a stationary rocker; another cool feature. There seems to be a wide variety of these kind of toys here in Ukraine. Either that, or we?re just under the effects of that ?you just bought something so you see it everywhere? feeling. They make them with many different themes; dogs, cats, teddy bears, and so forth. We bought what we felt was the best-quality one (there were some incredibly shaky-looking ones out there) that happened to have a cow theme. It has a battery-powered cow riding on the handlebars that, when you push it?s hoof, it sings a little ditty to the tune of ?Aloeutte?:

If all the raindrops were lemon drops and gum drops, oh what a rain that would be. Standing outside with my mouth open wide: Ah ah ahah ah ahah ah ahah If all the raindrops were lemon drops and gum drops, oh what a rain that would be.

It?s awesome how much Leilani enjoys this little cow. She does the infant-full-body-shake dance every single time it plays, and she even hums along with it sometimes. On the downside, it?s probably one of the more addicting little tunes you could ever imagine. You remember how it felt when you?d catch yourself singing the ?Barney? theme song (most everyone?s come across that at some point)? A few hours later when you?re still running it through your head, this song feels like that, too!

This little toy gave us another perspective into Ukrainian commerce again. In America we really take for granted just how courteous we are to one another, even though there are many times I?m sure it doesn?t feel that way. We looked through several stores while comparison shopping and decided to buy it at one store where we thought this particular one was cheapest. While looking through all the stores, I got the feeling that the clerks weren?t there to actually help us ? they?re there to make sure you don?t steal anything and/or the kids don?t play with/break/mess up the toys on display.

When it came time to buy, we asked if it came boxed up and with instructions, and the clerks argued with us, telling us that they don?t have room to store boxes (I think that?s what they said) and that we needed neither box nor instruction book. Eventually they found some instructions from another floor model (because, as they explained, there apparently is no storage; all their toys are out for purchase), so we paid for it at the register. They didn?t give us a receipt, and when we asked for one, they argued with us, again telling us that we didn?t need a receipt. The argument went something like, ?Why would you want to return it? You don?t need a receipt.?

Well, we stepped out of the store with it, turned around, and returned it. It just felt bad shopping with them, so they didn?t deserve our money. We found it at another store for about 5 dollars cheaper, where it came with a receipt and 3-month warranty. That felt normal. The clerks were much more friendly and helpful. It?s good to find at least some of that here.

One quick update from a few hours ago: We were riding in a "Marshutka" which is like a taxi except it's cheaper, more like a bus, and usually a lot more crowded (Dear Europe: Deodorant does not cost very much!). We were about to get off when Elena asked if the driver would be stopping also a short distance ahead, to which he said he would. So, Elena called me back on, I got back on and shut the door. For some unfathomable, crazy reason, the driver then decided that he wasn't going anywhere because I shut the door. He just parked the bus and told us we weren't going anywhere because of that. !?!?!?!? Maybe he thought I shut it too hard, or decided that I should have to pay again because I stepped off and back on, but whatever. Way to rack up points for your country's reputation, taximan.


Overlanders: Ukrainian Bakeries

>> Saturday, October 01, 2005

Russian/Ukrainian baked goods: Something of a mystery to me. You go into a bakery over here (By the way, this is also a very loose phrase here; ?going into a bakery? since for the most part a bakery consists of a couple of shelves here and there amongst other edibles, or any other goods for that matter, be it raw meat or whatnot. I will try to touch on that subject at a later time) and view the offering of cakes, pastries, and et cetera. They ALL look absolutely delicious, but looks can be very, very deceiving. Some very cakes appear moist and flavorful, but when you actually bite into them you find that they are as hard as biscotti and not quite as tasty. Even the frosting is hard and brittle. And it?s not because the cake has been sitting out for too long, either, (although I have no way of truly testing that theory) because I?ve tasted freshly-finished cakes that are nothing but crunchy shells. It baffles me.

On the other hand, you can find some here that are just ?get in my belly? scrumptious. Leilani?s cake last night was, for the most part, one of those. It was a basic, round, yellow-type cake with a center layer and frosting, with some kind of nuts on the outside edges. I could do away with the nuts, since they didn?t seem to taste much at all. The cake itself was standard (with the exception of the very bottom layer, which strangely enough tasted like FISH. I just didn?t eat that part from then on), but the filling and top frosting were the parts that I couldn?t get enough of. It was some kind of caramel-like frosting/filling made from sweetened/condensed milk and just makes you drool like Homer Simpson to think about it. MMMMmmmagllglglllllll.

And of course there is always the amazingly-common, ultimately-tantalizing wafer cookie that I mentioned before. It is inexplicable why in America there is nothing even relatively close to how excellent a cookie they have over here. In fact, the wafer-cookie offering presented in America verges on a level that can only be described as insulting when compared to that of Ukraine. In America the wafer cookies are like paste-filled cardboard, whereas here they are butter-cream chocolate- or vanilla- filled heavenly bars of supreme temptation. Can you have only a bite? Definitely not? Is one cookie enough? Hardly. If faced with a stack of these cookies, the only way to win the game is not to play.



It was Leia's first birthday yesterday :) The Tkachenko family came over for dinner last night; Elena and Grandma made a great chicken-basted-with-wine dinner and then we gave her the presents that Tkachenkos brought over. (We're still going to get her this tricycle/stroller we found, we were just shopping around for best prices/quality, etc since both can vary greatly over here) Leia enjoys all the gifts a lot; mostly musical-type instruments including one really, really, really LOUD toy piano that interestingly doesn't have an off switch! We then put her in front of the cake with her single candle lit, but she didn't really figure out what to do with it, even with coaching and two lightings. But she was probably just tired; she wasn't entirely interested in the cake for that matter, either.

Jumping back a few days to Feodosia, I wanted to touch on the dinners they had there in the pansionat. They don't give you too much food like they *always* do in America, which is a good thing because sometimes they pick a great menu while other times it leaves a bit to be desired. A couple of times the protein-of-choice for the dinner was either fish or liver. If I've witnessed enough good examples over here, I suppose that most Ukrainians enjoy that, but I could pass easily on both, pretty much every time. Liver is, I think most will agree, definitely an acquired taste. As I?ve found that my tastes change as the years go by, I?ll give everything a try once, but it still failed the test for me. (And they snuck it in a second day, too; the next day they made these meatball-things, but they ground up the liver & filled the meatballs with them. Herghk!)

Fish, on the other hand, is often (especially in restaurants) a much safer bet. But in Ukraine I?ve come to find that fish comes in only two varieties: Cold (meaning either dried & salted or preserved) and FISHY, or hot with all bones included. They just like picking out the bones every single time, and the way the fish is cut often tends to shatter the bones so you?re left with even tinier little pieces to pick out. Yay. (See, maybe I?m spoiled, but I prefer to do all my food preparation BEFORE the food comes to the table).

But enough complaining; there was a lot of good stuff on the menu, too, some things of which you just can?t prepare properly when not cooked in large batches (like this strange milk-soup/ pudding-like thing. I forget the name of it, but I could have just filled up only on it?) It?s kind of like the rice-pudding dessert at Bombay bistro (or insert your favorite Indian restaurant name)


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