Archive for October, 2010

ABOUT THE PUMPKIN

October 31, 2010

On the last day of October students of the school in the U.S.A. in which I was teaching turned into terrifying beings – they were sitting in classes dressed as ghosts, vampires, skeletons, witches, devils. As a teacher, I hardly knew which of my students was hiding behind this or that Halloween costume.

In the evening of the same day I carved a jack-o’-lantern together with my neighbors, and while hollowing the scary pumpkin and putting a candle in there I thought of a garden at my granny’s homestead where I had stayed as a child. In early autumn after most of the crops had been gathered, there remained only pumpkins all about the garden. They looked like huge orange balls on the soft earth.  The mornings were getting cold, and when you went to school you saw that the earth and the pumpkins were covered with the silvery gauzy cobweb.

When you came to school you read about a personified Pumpkin portrayed as the elderly head of a vegetable family. He was walking about the garden asking his progeny how they were feeling. Cucumbers, Beans, Potatoes, Watermelons, etc. answered that they were feeling quite well and were alive and kicking.

After a week or two pumpkins were brought from the garden into the cellar and in winter the taste of the pumpkin porridge was unsurpassed.

In old times the Ukrainian tradition was that if a young man wanted to marry a girl he used to send his representatives (elderly men, as a rule) to the girl and/or her parents entrusting them (the representatives) with the delicate task of negotiating the marriage. If the girl did not want to marry the man, she gave the representatives a pumpkin – the sign of her rejecting the young man’s proposal. The tradition does not keep any more but the Ukrainian phrase “to give a pumpkin” means “to reject somebody’s offer of marriage”. Funny, but today I read in the Internet that the people of Odessa handed in a real pumpkin to a politician who was going to run for a high position in their constituency. In Ukraine everything can be politicized – even pumpkins.

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BACK TO THE 1930’S WITH ONE HOUR OF SLEEP ADDED

October 30, 2010

There’s a striking similarity between the present-day ruling party in Ukraine (Party of the Regions, or the “Regions” for short), and the Communist Party in the form it had existed before it lost power in 1991. The same servility before Moscow, the same veneration of the Soviet history, and the same forthright and heavy-handed methods

A case in point: I was told that a local administrator (a member of the Regions) had gathered farmers in the town of Kirovograd and started telling them about his party’s decisions to nationalize all privately-owned lands. “It is universally recognized that consolidated agricultural complexes are more profitable than individual ones”, he said in Russian. Incidentally, the administrator’s Russian language which he preferred instead of Ukrainian (the Ukrainian language would have been more natural, since it was the farmers’ native language), was also symbolic. It was the sign that the Russian-language Donbas, the birthplace of the Regions, is now ruling Ukraine. Anyway, I can well understand the feelings of the farmers who had invested so much money in their businesses and who keep providing for their families from the lands owned by them. What they heard, sounded like the Soviet collectivization in 1930-1935 when individual plots of land, horses and bulls were taken away from the farmers and brought into one place, which acquired the name a “collective farm”. (of course, the intention of the administrator should be qualified differently: it was a sheer case of raiding a business. The Regions are now taking over the total control of small and medium businesses) It’s quite natural that after the administrator’s talk many farmers got angry and said they would defend their plots “even with weapons in hands”.

The case might have been hushed up but for the fact that the administrator’s speech was video-taped (with the administrator’s permission!) and copies of the disks started being shown all over the Kirovograd oblast. When the Regions’ higher-positioned officials heard what had happened, the administrator immediately got the sack. But it’s perfectly clear that the Region’s dismissed the loose-lipped comrade because they did not want to lose points before the elections. The administrator did not speak on his own: he only voiced what had been discussed.

The local elections will be held all over Ukraine tomorrow. I could write long pages of how the Regions have guaranteed their victory through dirty-campaign tactics. But at this moment I have run into a piece of news that is much more pleasant and no less important: tomorrow, October 31, clocks are moved one hour backwards to switch us into winter-time. We’ll sleep one hour longer 🙂

THE PRIME-MOVER

October 29, 2010

While rummaging on my book shelves I came across some German study materials which I was using when I began learning German as my first foreign language. The materials are really unique. There’s a grammar textbook with a preface containing Josef Stalin’s instructions about the importance of grammar in a language structure. The newspaper “Neues Leben” that used to be issued by the Soviet Germans who lived in Kazakhstan where they had been deported from all over the Soviet Union right after the start of the war with Hitler in June 1941. Some exercise books are focused on translation from Russian into German (the materialization of the so-called “grammar-translation method” of learning languages). The Dictionary of Foreign Words, for one, characterized  yoga as a charlatan sect in India, and emphasized that lend-lease deliveries during WWII had been profitable for large American monopolies – without mentioning that the deliveries had also been an essential element of the joint victory over fascism.

There’s another component in the photographic composition: a candle. While taking the picture I switched off the electric light and ignited the candle to re-create the environment and the lighting power of those winter nights when the eleven-year old boy (yours truly) read “Neues Leben” and consulted grammar books with Stalin’s input in the preface.

Looking back at the results I must say that the study materials and the home-grown methodology were not altogether bad. With my Ukrainian-tinted German I easily communicated with native speakers in Berlin, Frankfurt-am-Main, Cologne and even further to the south – in Bavaria. One of the three admission exams to my post-graduation course was German and I passed it with the top mark. I made good use of my German-language skills when I started working for an IT distribution company and helped the logistics department solve problems of their German drivers who expedited huge trucks from Western Europe into Ukraine.

So, if nowadays I hear complaints about poor English textbooks or an inadequate methodology of learning foreign languages, I say to myself: “Nonsense.” What is fundamental about mastering languages (and, probably, not only languages) is not a textbook or methods of learning. It’s some gnome inside you that through any “noise” possible hears and sees a different culture and gives you the thrill of experiencing it.

TRAPPED BY SELF

October 28, 2010

The advertisement hung up above the road reads “LOVE YOURSELF”. The motto is being rather popular in Ukraine. Every morning I get loads of spam, some messages of which promise to teach you how to feel “higher and above”. “It’s better to be a wire-puller than a puppet” says another advert in the metro. You may also hear from some people a kind of nursery rhyme in Russian: “L’ubi seb’a, chikhaj na vs’ekh, i bud’esh ty imet’ usp’ekh.” (“Love yourself, do not care a pin for others, and you’ll be a success”).  For the one who was brought up on the socialist principle “Man is a friend, a comrade and a brother to his fellow-man” that modern advertisement and suchlike rhymes sound hostile.

Once I tried to reason with an adherent of the present-day egotism. His objection was that even the Bible implies that you love yourself before you start loving anybody else when it says “Love your neighbor as you love yourself”.

I checked with the Bible. Mark 12:31 really says “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” However, my friend failed to mention that this verse is functioning in a somewhat broader context:

28 And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

The passage deals with the love of/for God. This love is opposed to what a person may feel towards other human beings. In the past there were quite a number of cases when people idolized other people (I remember at least three “personality cults” in the Soviet Union). On the other hand, “your neighbor” shouldn’t be denigrated: “Do unto others as you would have others done unto you.” Your love of yourself is a reflection of your love of God. It’s what we often call “dignity”, self-respect”, “sense of self-fulfillment”. And we must recognize the right of “our neighbor” to have the same dignity. We must also respect our neighbor and his self-realization.

The sad thing is that with the modern craze of “L’ubi Seb’a” one component of the triad (God) is discarded altogether, another component (“neighbor”) is minimized, while the element of SELF is made dominant. A sure way towards the collapse of a nation…

OLDIES

October 27, 2010

At my school we, foreign language students, used to watch original English films once a month. At the beginning of the academic year our institute usually signed a contract with a movie distribution center in Kyiv, and the films started arriving. The day before a film was to be shown, money for tickets was collected by group monitors. Since the films were rated as educational the price of a ticket was 10 kopecks: 5-6 times cheaper that any ticket for a Russian film shown in the evening.

They were good films. And quite new in those days. Thanks to Nikita Khrushchev’s cultural openness to the west, we managed to see the movies which have become classics by now. We saw There was a Crooked Man, To Kill a Mocking Bird, Postman’s Knock, Sitting Pretty, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, etc. Every film was audio-taped and big spools of movie tapes were stored in our language laboratory. Later the tapes were used for practical classes of English.

Nowadays YouTube is reported to have posted one-and-a-half thousand of movies for free downloading. Almost every evening I log on to http://www.youtube.com/movies , select a film, then go to the downloading program (the one at http://keepvid.com/ is not bad), paste the URL of the film in the keepvid box, choose the high-quality mode of downloading, click Run and Save on the KeepVid, and… on it goes! A Farewell to Arms, The Little Princess, Becky Sharp, Father of the Bride… However, I know that my happiest moments will arrive when I come across Spike Milligan, or Norman Wisdom, or Jane Fonda, or Gregory Pack, or Clifton Webb… The favorites of our student years.

GETTING UNSTUCK

October 26, 2010

The blog is a measuring device which indicates the “creative pressure” inside you. Having no time for blogging means that you are ceasing to notice things round you. You are becoming tired of and indifferent to life.

The blog measures the degree of your personal responsibility. Blogging keeps you in form and ready to act on the promises you give to yourself.

Blogging evokes interest of the things which otherwise may look uninteresting.

The weaker and older a person is getting, the more is their reliance on blogging as a source of strength.

Blogging is on the cutting edge of the third-millennium communication. People’s lives are getting more and more isolated and anonymous, and downloading one’s thoughts on the Web is the most rational way of regaining the status of a social being.

The blog sums up, looks round, orients to the future, helps to improve, keeps emotionally connected… It may be straight-forward and adaptable, tough and mild, angry and kind, demanding and forgiving… It invigorates and stimulates.

Can I say about myself “I’m a blogger”?  In a way, yes. If the title is understood as a jubilee medal given for something you have completed before  starting the final stretch of your life.


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