Archive for May, 2010

SIXTEEN ITINERARY NOTES OF A TRIP TO HOMETOWN

May 16, 2010

1.My wife and I are going by metro to the bus station. I’ve got a funny feeling.  It kind if unusual to go by metro to have a vacation.  Normally you go by metro to work or to perform some task – like to do some shopping downtown. Now you are going to have ten wonderful days ahead. To meet the town of your youth.

2.When my eyesight was stronger I used to fill in the travel time on public transport with reading. A useful undertaking, though I wouldn’t say it’s absolutely creative. But now the time is devoted to thinking. This pastime is fairly enjoyable. Every now and then you jerk out a pencil and a writing pad from your pocket and start jotting down some observation – visual or mental.

3.We crammed all our things which we will need on vacation into five middle-sized bags .My wife and I didn’t have “hands enough” to carry the bags. Five minutes before leaving our apartment it dawned on me that we could have used a big suitcase for our things. I had bought the suitcase a couple of years ago when I was on a business trip to Belgium. Why hadn’t the idea come into my head earlier – to save us the inconvenience of dragging the five bags? My answer: the reason is our standardized thinking – the accepted pattern is that bags are for a shorter trip, big suitcases are for longer journeys (like going to Amsterdam in Holland) and with a plastic back you may do shopping in a nearby grocery store.

4.The first announcement we heard at the bus station, which was a point of departure, was the warning that smoking on the territory of the station was forbidden. The announcement was spoken in Russian with a strong Ukrainian accent though all announcements until recently had been made in Ukrainian. The sign of the new times, I thought. Yanukovych, unlike his predecessor, favors Russian to the detriment of Ukrainian. The staff of the bus station are doing their best to demonstrate that they are in the swing of times.

5.About five years ago I was flying to Turkey. Among the passengers there was a group of Turkish schoolchildren. When the plane landed in Istanbul, they started cheering and clapping hands. I envied the pupils who were so joyful about returning home. What you experience from time to time in Ukraine is the wish to leave it and never to come back.

6.For all that… it’s my country – right or wrong. The bus is approaching your destination and you experience a kind of euphoria: familiar landscapes, signs with well-known place-names, the streets of the town which once you used to walk thousands of times. The past becomes the present. Usually taciturn, you start being talkative and open to people. You may initiate a talk with a person you don’t know at all. It’s like some hormones get into your blood – a state well known to long-distance runners when they come to the end of their run.

7.When we were leaving the bus station, all the seats in the bus were occupied and a middle-aged couple who hoped to buy tickets inside the bus were not let into the bus. They conversed with a driver and soon disappeared. I knew what would follow next. A bus driver has no right to take extra passengers in the bus station zone but is allowed to take them “on the road”. The “road” began a few meters beyond the station area, and that’s what the couple did: they started waiting for our bus at the point where the highway began. After they were picked up by the driver they had to ride standing for about half an hour until passengers started getting off. She was the first to be seated after a seat was vacated and then he sat down. He was taking care of her all the time. He rose from his seat, came to her, gave her a coat to protect her against draughts and then returned. They were pleasant to look at.

8.After five hours of the bus ride we arrived at the destination. My wife took her blood pressure. It was 120 over 80. Perfect. “You know why? I told her. It’s home…sweet home”

9.A “dacha” (summer-house) you own is almost never owned in isolation from other dachas. As a rule people unite to make a kind of cooperative. The annual fee you pay to the cooperative’s fund is used to arrange water-supply, to maintain roads, etc. There are some peculiarities about services provided. If you give the electrician, who is hired by the cooperative, a bottle of vodka, he will set the lantern on the post in the street at an angle which will make your summer-house flooded with light in the night-time, and you will not have to be afraid of a possible burglary. However, there’s always a chance that your neighbor will give the same electrician two bottles of vodka and one day you may find that the lantern has been re-adjusted to give more light to your neighbor’s house.

Once a dacha-dweller asked a local village boy to buy him a loaf of bread from the village shop a few kilometers away.  The boy did it, but he also discovered that there were more people in the dacha neighborhood who would like to have other victuals bought for them. Nowadays the boy rides a motorbike equipped with a side-car. He fulfils orders made by dacha-owners and his business by local standards is quite prosperous.

10.A big park started being rented by a local businessman. In the park the businessman set up a Big Wheel, several roller-coasters, merry-go-rounds, swings, dodgems. He had two ponds made and kids could take boat-rides on them. There were a few eateries and a bar. The prices were acceptable. The only thing people were grumbling about was a paid entry into what earlier had been a public park. It was unheard of to take money for entering the park. It looked very much as if a fee were taken for breathing the air.  Personally, I was glad that the entry was paid, because this way the park was out of bounds for vandals and the homeless who would turn it into a not quite enjoyable place. However, after some time the park ceased to be profitable, and the businessman was losing money. Finally, he set up more bars and made the entry free. The park became crowded. Beer tables were seen all over the place and they continued to be occupied late into night. When I jogged in the mornings before the tables were cleaned, I could smell the beer from scattered cans every time I ran past the tables.

For all that there was one thing which remained unchanged: the flowers. The flowers were in abundance and when you were walking along the alleys, the impression was that you were swimming through a palette of colors. Surprisingly, with so many people frequenting the park now everybody kept off the flowerbeds and not a single flower was plucked.  I don’t think that was because the visitors abode with the regulations or because they were afraid of big fines. They just did not dare. Because of the BEAUTY.

11.Again about burial places 🙂 We visited the graves of my wife’s parents at the cemetery. I was surprised to discover that a part of the cemetery is allotted for “honorary citizens” of the town. The gravestones look very expensive there. As far as I understood you are automatically entered into the category of the “honorary” if you are wealthy enough to pay for you future place of eternal rest, or you must be a recognized member of the local mafia. Quite a number of young men are buried next to each other – the result of recent altercations between criminal groups.

My wife was going to leave an offering at the church which is right here at the cemetery, but the church turned out to be closed. The door was sealed, which meant that the church would not be functioning for some longer time. Later we were told that different religious confessions were claiming the church their exclusive property. To avoid further conflicts the city administration decided to temporarily close the church. The feelings, which were running high, seemed to have subsided.

12.My mother has a document which identifies her as a “war participant”. Though she was only a teenager in the early 1940s, she worked at the Soviet collective farm and that is why she is considered to have contributed to the victory over the Nazis. Every year before Victory Day (May 9) she, as a war participant, is invited to the plant where she had worked during the last 20 years before she retired, and she is given a gift. This year in the gift package there was a can with condensed milk, some biscuits, a box of chocolates, some butter and cheese, a tin of sprats and an envelope with 150 hryvnias (about 20 USD). It should be noted, however, that the gifts are only for those who arrive at the plant personally. If a war participant is unwell and has to stay at home, or if he/she cannot come to the celebration for some other reason, the gift is annulled. Looks like an inspection of how able-bodied the war-veterans are, doesn’t it?

13.Classroom blackboards were indispensible. Later they were no longer black and started being called chalkboards or just “boards”. In elementary schools one part of the blackboard had permanent white lines for writing words “calligraphically”. The other part was checkered to fill in the squares with numbers and was mostly used for math lessons. Some blackboards were not fixed to the wall but stood on supports and could be moved to a place needed. Some of those blackboards were designed to rotate round their axis. The axis could be horizontal or vertical. Thanks to the axis the capacity of the blackboard was doubled if you rotated it to make use of the back side, which turned to be front after the rotation. A person on a classroom duty was responsible for the blackboard being in proper order for every lesson. This person had to take care of chalk pieces to write with and of a wet rag to clean off the written matter. The chalk had to be dry and the rag moderately wet. If the rag was too wet it left white stripes on the board and the board turned “dirty”. If the rag was too dry, the chalk just peeled off from the board and dusted the place all over (incidentally, the rag was named “duster” in the official classroom terminology used at lessons of English). The ability to monitor the blackboard demonstrated your maturity as a student. It was a display of your discipline, conscientiousness, industry, attention and, eventually, of your talent.

The chalkboard in the picture must have been thrown out into a garbage dump by one of the schools. The school may be using an interactive whiteboard now. Alas! with the “good old” chalkboard much of the school character goes away and becomes history. Teachers will no longer order that the students “come to the blackboard”, “go to the blackboard”, or “fetch a piece of chalk”. The pupils will not write “Happy Birthday to … (the name)” or draw funny faces on it. No longer will a pupil proudly tell his parents that he received the top mark for his oral answer “at the blackboard” and a first-grader will not stand on his tip-toes trying to write as high as possible on the board  and wishing he would grow faster.

14.There’s one sobering observation regarding the discarded blackboard which was emotionally described in the previous part of this blog. The board contains abusive words addressed to a girl who was dating a guy and that relationship was not approved by other girls who – for the reason of their disapproval – decided to make their dissatisfaction public. Moreover, among the messages on the board there is one which is a threat to the girl in case she would try and rub off her name or the messages. It’s a clear example of bullying – a sad phenomenon which, unfortunately, is rather frequent in youth culture. A mob, a gang, a multitude – they are united in their grayness and in their hatred of someone who is special in any way. In the way of happiness, better luck, better clothes, abilities, adroitness, or just the opposite way: because the person may have problems in life, may be poorly dressed, may be uncouth or less able. The bullying mob is strong in their unity and dangerous in cruelty. In the society in which I was growing bullying was often camouflaged by being called the “opinion of the collective”. The collective (roughly: the majority of a social unit) was the highest unofficial authority at a school or a plant (e.g. the workers’ collective) and the administration had to take heed of the collective’s opinion while making any decision of its own. Maybe that was the reason why bullying in the classical sense of the word was not particularly dealt with at school. Most teachers didn’t simply know how to cope with the problem. When I started going to school, my father bought me a new cap. It was not a usual black or dark-blue cap with a decorative button on top – those caps were traditionally worn by all of my classmates – but a light-gray cap with black dots all over it. Someone of the pupils  decided that mine was a “Jewish” cap and during a recess in the school yard I was being mocked at and abused by a dozen of kids. Slowly I was stepping backwards to the fence until I could step back no longer. I threw a glance at the school building and saw my teacher who all this time had been watching the scene from the classroom window.  I remember the moment when our eyes met. I remembered that moment for the rest of my life. The teacher’s non-interference was a good lesson for me. From that time I started to realize that no help was to be expected in such cases and you had to be several notches more courageous, intellectually and morally more powerful and … much kinder (yes, much kinder) than those who attack you – not to be bullied down to their level.

15.Before my wife makes up her mind to make a purchase, she wheedles the thing in her hands for a few minutes, reads all the captions and inscriptions on the wrapping, throws a look upwards then looks down, and finally drops the thing into her shopping cart. When I asked her why she does not take a decision quicker, she answered that when she has a choice she usually hesitates fearing lest she make a mistake. “Now I understand why I had to court you for four long years before you finally said “yes” to our marriage”, said I. We both laughed.

16.I thought the propagandistic hysteria launched annually in May would not reach me in a provincial town. It did. This year the ecstasy was particularly unrestrained. For the first time in the last twenty years I saw schoolchildren marching in columns to “lay flowers”.  “Congratulatory” billboards could be seen all over the city. When you got on the bus, a taped voice was telling you about the “great victory of the soviet people.” A monument to Stalin had been erected in the center of Ukraine by May 9, 2010. Yes, the fallen soldiers should be honored. My uncle died in the war and on this day I think of him and of his mother’s (my granny’s) grief. I think of his daughter (my cousin) whose mother married soon after she had received the fateful notification and the baby daughter was given over to the grandparents to be looked after. However, I do not understand why I should be jubilant about the victory of the red fascism over the brown fascism. This victory left no chance for independent democratic Ukraine. Ask those hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who were deported to Siberia from western Ukraine if they rejoice over the victory. Ask the Crimean Tatars, Ingushes, Chechens, Finns, etc. who were deported from their native places during and right after the war. In 1948 a law was passed that warranted 20 years of forced-labor camps for those who left the area of their new stay. At present Victory Day is being impudently exploited by the new pro-Russian authorities. All the hullabaloo is meant not for the veterans – few of them are alive. The target audience is other people – those in whose heads the authorities want to replace the pro-Ukrainian ideas (no matter how feeble those concepts may be) by the ideas that will keep Ukraine tied to the Russian chariot. The new president and his team have at least three reasons for launching this kind of campaign: 1/ history shows that those who acquired their first million (or billion) have no other interests except material. However, you cannot rule a country without any values, 2/ which is why they have chosen the ideology that is supposed to guarantee them the protection of Big Russian Brother (also by assuring the Brother that the anti-Russian project “Independent Ukraine” has been terminated), and 3/ (probably the most important): Yanukovych and Co will never persuade the Ukrainians that Ukrainian national values are something that is close to this clique. For this reason Ukrainian ideas are dangerous to them, and the Victory Day ideology is the ideal recipe to prove that they (the clique) are WITH the people. Especially of you take into account that the 95 per cent of the Ukrainians consider May 9 to be a feast, and  75 per cent say it is a great feast.What remains is to make it a very-very great feast.

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