Archive for March, 2009

Entry for March 24, 2009

March 24, 2009


On March 23 a joint statement between the European Union and Ukraine was signed in Brussels. Generally, it was about the commitment of Western Europe to upgrade the Ukrainian gas pipeline and Ukraine’s promise to further the renovation – by meeting the international standards in transparency and openness of the borrower appointed to modernize the gas transport system, by providing the third parties with the access to the underground gas storage facilities at the transparent commercial conditions and under the control of the regulatory body.

The Russian delegation left the conference while the statement was being signed. The official explanation: the signing hadn’t been coordinated with Russia as a supplier. Among technical reasons the major one was: The Ukrainian gas transport system as part of the single system of gas supplies of the former Soviet Union, is technologically connected with the Russian gas transport system, and the trilateral agreement between Russia, the EU and Ukraine will enhance the security of the gas supply.

The real reason: Russia cannot put up with Ukraine’s independence – either the political or economic one. It views Ukraine as its own backyard and blackmails a jellyfish of the West (the EU is even more softened in the heat of the economic downturn) with the disruption of gas deliveries. “If Russia’s interests are ignored, we will have to begin revising the principles of our relations (with the West and Ukraine),” Putin said. Translating Russia’s bombastic political “speak” into a pragmatic language will actually signify: we want to own the Ukrainian gas pipeline network.

I wonder if Ukraine as a sovereign country does not have the inalienable right to decide by itself with whom to sign which agreement. The point Russia has made is profoundly arrogant. Well, Russia keeps living up to its image of a political bear.

Entry for March 20, 2009

March 20, 2009

A MAN CALLED VITALIY (continued from the previous blog entry)

If I faced a choice of what to keep from another culture (in my case it is English culture) and what to leave behind, I would retain everything and discard nothing. I’m English-greedy.

A few items of my most treasured possessions:

The language. What the Russian writer Ivan Turgenyev once said about his native tongue, I would repeat with a slight alteration – applying it to the language which is foreign: “On the days when doubts assail me, when thoughts about my motherland gnaw at me painfully, you are the only support and rest for me, oh my great and mighty… English tongue. But for you, wouldn’t I fall into despair at the sight of everything that is going on in my homeland…?”

With the language there come people with their present and past, their everyday interests… There come stories they tell, jokes they share, games and sports they play. There come their literature, music, painting. I remember the teacher’s room in Ecclesfield School, where during breaks snooker was usually practised. One of my colleagues shoots a coloured ball along a well-calculated zigzag line. Several reflections from the boards and the ball hammers another ball into the pocket. After the burst of applause the hero remarks in an unexcitable, unperturbed manner: “Newton’s law, you know”… Or how would you appreciate a mother’s playful warning she gives to her impish kid: “The bobby will take you!” … And have you ever enjoyed the sight of the “bobby” in the splendor of his complete outfit? Once I saw a police officer in a street of Leeds who was tugging a teenager telling him off for some minor offence. I approached the officer and asked for permission to take a picture of him. The officer nodded, released the boy’s arm, straightened in a dignified manner — knowing the full worth of his look — and stayed immovable for a few seconds before my camera clicked. The urchin – with his head bent low – remained at his side waiting for the end of the procedure.

How can I forget the gentlly curved skyline of the Yorkshire dales – so amazingly deserted in the country which is deemed to be the most populated in the world? Or the sheep grazing in their enclosures formed by dry stone walls?

I like every single framework house in city streets as well as village houses made of massive stones – to last for centuries (my wife collects such toy-houses and some of them are on the piano in our apartment now), I like names of streets and lanes: I even used to jot them down in my memo-pad to enjoy the enigma of their music. I like riding a bus and traveling by train (railway stations in Britain seem like palaces to me). I like the sea which is always felt to be very near. No point in England is farther from the sea that a couple of hours if you go by train, and when you get to the coast and the tide is low in summer, you may see people playing the ball on the wet sand among boats perched high on their supports.

I like jogging all round university football fields – with rabbits jumping from under your feet and with mighty oak-trees standing lonely afar.

And if yours truly were asked to pick up ONLY ONE object to take with him as a keepsake of England (like an umbrella in Tom’s case), I would probably choose the English tea – to sip it while surfing the websites of the newspapers from the Barnsley Chronicle to the Yorkshire Evening Post.

Entry for March 15, 2009

March 15, 2009


Some forty years ago, being still a student of English , I listened to a story “A Man Called Tom”. The story belonged to the series “BBC Short Story Competition” and had been recorded off-air by our language lab-assistant. Deluged with all kinds of tests, credits and other educational imperatives at that time, I did not see anything special in the story. Well, I liked it, but it was just another piece of learning material for me – until a teacher of whom I had a high esteem mentioned “en passant”: “A Man Called Tom” – isn’t it a wonderful thing!” I nodded my consent but remembered to go back to the story when time permitted. The “permission” came several decades later.

In the story by Durrel Bates, a South African author, a first-person narrator looking through his hostel window saw a man who was standing alone in a street of Oxford on a wet day. The man had an umbrella in his hand but he didn’t open it and the rain was in his hair. Then the man leaned the umbrella against the wall, looked back, opened his hands and held them up to the rain. The palms of his hands were pale but the backs of the hands were brown. When his hands were wet with the rain he rubbed them over his face.His face was brown too – a milky chocolate brown. His hair was close to his head and it was black. He stood there for a moment with his hands over his face, and when he took his hands away, his eyes were closed. Then he opened his eyes, reached for his umbrella and went on down the street.

The “rain-lover’s” name was Tom. He was studying law at one of the colleges at Oxford University. During his stay in Britain he integrated so much into English life that everybody took him for a native of the British Isles. After Tom got his degree he went back to Africa leaving his Englishness behind. He started possessing only a spear, a blanket, his cattle, and his wives. However, Tom kept one thing from England, one small thing: he kept his umbrella. He said it reminded him of the thing he truly missed – the rain. Probably, there was also something else that went with that kind of “very English” precipitation.


March 9, 2009


March 9, 2009


When I was five, our family moved from Western Ukraine to a village in Chernihiv oblast. We didn’t have much of personal property – just a few sackfuls, and one of the sacks was filled with books. There were two books which my father treasured most: a huge volume entitled “Hydroelectric Power Stations’ (as big as Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary) and Taras Shevchenko’s “Kobzar”. Much later in the Shevchenko Museum in Kyiv I saw the first edition of “Kobzar“ with a picture of a blind wandering minstrel (Ukr. “kobzar”) on the title page. The kobzar was playing a lute-like instrument (“kobza”) and there was a boy-guide and a dog near them. The picture was drawn by Shevchenko’s closest friend Vasyl Sternberg, also a student of arts. They were room-mates in a hostel. One morning they boiled some water to drink tea there, but it turned out that there was no sugar, so they used the hot water for shaving. Vasil immediately drew a jocular picture “Zamist’ chaju my pobrylys'” “We’ve had a shave — not tea”.

One of the eight poetic pieces contained in the first Kobzar was dedicated to Sternberg. By that time Vasil Sternberg had won the gold medal (first prize at the Russian Academy of Arts) for his picture “The Blessing of Easter-Bread in Malorossiya”. He received a stipend and was going to Italy to study classical painting there. Taras Shevchenko wrote four lines of farewell for Vasyl:

You’ll see much afar,

But with weariness overwhelmed,

Under an alien star

Recall me, my friend.

Vasyl Sternberg died five years later in Rome at the age of 27. There remains his picture of the young Taras, drawn in quick pencil (see also above) and a playful presentation of that morning when the two friend had a shave instead of having tea. If you visit the Shevchenko Museum in Kyiv and go about the exhibits carefully, you’ll be able to find that small glass-covered drawing.

Entry for March 07, 2009

March 7, 2009


I respect the man in the picture. He laughed and made others laugh when the times were most dark and murky. Metaphorically, I would call him a rapid-firing humour gun. Once he said that the quickness of his speech was intentional: die-hard party functionaries of the regime were not in time to grasp his irony, of which they were the main target. Before the message started percolating in their heads, Mikhail Zhvanetski was scintillating another burst of his jokes. Rumours go that after his public readings the bureaucrats used to sit down round a tape-recorder to listen (at a slower speed of the tape) to his presentation he made an hour before.

He remembers that in Western Ukraine there is an old village Zhvan. Of course, it would be better if the village was named after me, he says, but it’s not altogether bad if I’m named after the village. “So, who am I — besides being a Jew”, he asks, “certainly I’m a Ukrainian.”

Anyway, he’s from Odessa — the “city in our South and in somebody’s North.” He reads his humour all over the world, but he writes it only in Ukraine.

Here’s one of his witty observations which I like:

Have you ever tried to fling a gnat? To send it flying? It will not fly. Well, it WILL, of course, but it’ll fly ON ITS OWN –not caring a snap for you. The moral: one must be light-winged and independent.

That’s what he is — light-winged and independent. And kind.

Entry for March 07, 2009

March 6, 2009


The door to my office fits perfectly in the door-frame. It is massive, but moves easily on its hinges. And even a child can operate its well-lubricated lock. It is what the Ukrainians usually call “evro-door” (European style”) – a usual phrase to describe high quality. I opened this door many a time, but a few days ago I pushed the handle down and it went off. I immediately took it to our caretaker and he fixed the door-handle in its nest. When I met the caretaker later in the corridor, I thanked him for the job done and he (definitely, being encouraged by my gratitude) started explaining the mechanism of the handle, why it had flown off and how he had repaired it. I was listening to him out of mere politeness. My thoughts were far away from that door-handle.

Today I was working on a written translation all morning and when I went to the canteen during lunch-time and stood in a queue, I had all those cliches running in my head, and – unwittingly – I started humming the phrases from the translation. “What are you saying?”, heard I the caretaker’s voice from behind. He thought I was commenting on something. I turned round and – in a somewhat awkward way – began to speak about my translation I was doing a few minutes before, and about the the vocal cords which move even if only you think about something, But when the thought is particularly intensive, you start speaking aloud. Besides, making speech skills automatic is an indispensible thing for an interpreter,etc., etc.

The cartetaker was a polite listener.

Entry for March 05, 2009

March 5, 2009


Social advertising is finding its way into public places of Kyiv. On the monitors in metro-cars you may see announcements about physically handicapped children in orphanages, as well the information about children who ran away from their homes. For some reason I never stop wondering how many runaways have been found and how many kids have been adopted into new homes as a result of that advertising.

However, there’s an example that gives a true picture of what social advertising means for those who are involved in billboard business. Being forced by local authorities into putting up socially oriented boards, they, however, are making the boards rather inconspicuous. From the picture you may see that the billboard with the side “There’s nothing more horrid than the loneliness of your parents” is placed on the left side of the road, which makes it actually unnoticed to drivers. To say nothing of the rags and tatters hanging loose from the billboard.

Entry for March 04, 2009

March 4, 2009


A typical scene in a state policlinic: a long narrow corridor with doors left and right leading to doctors’ reception rooms. On both sides of each door there sit and stand people, the majority of whom are of advanced age. The air is stuffy, the people are nervous because they have to wait for long, another reason being that from time to time there appear war veterans or people in similar categories, who have the right to be received by doctors ahead of the queue. Should the doctor decide that a patient must undergo some examination, a new round of ordeal will follow, which may last several days and culminate into the same queuing up (either sitting or standing – depending on how lucky you are).

Earlier my wife and I used to go that kind of health center. This time we visited a center with paid medical services. We were sitting in a spacious waiting room. There were half-a-dozen receptionists in white gowns at the reception desk. A few minutes after we were registered, our registration number was lit on the light board – with the number of the room also indicated – and my wife was received by the doctor. To tell the truth, she spent about an hour being counseled by the doctor, but that was quite a different matter comparing to two hours of waiting and fifteen minutes of counseling in a state-owned polyclinic. All the medical analyses and test were taken right here – there was no waiting at all. From what I know about health service in other countries, this one is no worse at all.

One small remark: most of them who were sitting in the spacious reception room were young people. Those “over the hill” can hardly afford it

Entry for March 01, 2009

March 1, 2009


First I thought about writing a different story, but there was a heavy snowfall last night and I couldn’t but bring the moment to a stop by means of my mobile. The first day of calendar spring turned out to be more beautiful than any wintry day has been. However, amidst this white stillness I particularly liked the path trodden through the reeds by those who might have been swimmers or anglers last summer. It makes the picture more dynamic and … warmer. Doesn’t it?

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