Having our pal James visiting us here in Kharkov is reminding me of all sorts of Ukrainian tidbits I haven’t shared yet in the Ukraine FAQ. So here are some of the more interesting, surprising, and funny aspects of life here. (Despite this post title, we haven’t seen Chernobyl Diaries yet, though we did roll our eyes at the trailer before leaving on our Chernobyl tour. Started going through our photos and will post on the experience soon.)
The water here isn’t drinkable, due not only to bacteria, but to heavy metals. The suggestions I’ve seen online range from boiling it from 5 to 15 minutes, and even then, there’s a bunch of mineral sediment that ends up settling at the bottom of your pan. Even locals boil it before using, or drink bottled water; we have a service that delivers big bottles once a week for our water cooler. (Every time I fill a glass of water at the cooler, I feel like I should be discussing a Dilbert cartoon with a coworker.) We go through water pretty quickly, when you consider that we not only drink it, but use it for cooking and–weirdest of all–to brush our teeth. Let me tell you, it feels downright luxurious when we visit the states and can brush our teeth with tapwater!
Attending ballets or opera, it’s fun at the end when the audience applauds. It may just be a Kharkov thing, but everyone’s always super-enthusiastic at performances, and after about 30 seconds of clapping, everyone starts to clap to the same rhythm, as though we’re at a camp sing-a-long.
What’s really funny is flying. When you’re taking off or landing in an airplane, any and all Ukrainians on board clap. In fact, lately we’ve heard actual whoops and hollers of approval, as though someone just scored a goal. This puzzled us to no end, until we asked a Ukrainian friend what it was all about. He said that for some reason, they thought this was something Americans did! He also expressed his disapproval of the timing of most people’s landing applause. Most people clap as soon as the plane touches down, but he says you should really wait until the plane’s slowed down and you’re sure the landing is a good one. Hey, that makes an odd sort of sense to me!
Stuff in Bags That Shouldn’t Come in Bags
You know how milk comes in cartons or jugs, mayonaise and other condiments come in jars, and sour cream comes in tubs? Well, you can sometimes find them packaged that way, but all of them come in bags more often. Yeah. Thin plastic baggies full of liquid or semi-liquid contents, thus making them quite squishy. I can’t get over how odd and amusing I find this. For one thing, if you only use a little of the stuff in the bag, it’s really hard to store it. These are non-re-sealable bags. I ended up folding over the top of the mayo, clipping it with a paper clip, and sticking it in a zipock for good measure, but I wonder how the locals manage it. Given the avid consumption of both mayo and sour cream, though, they might simply use up an entire bag each time.
I love the quaint old-fashioned quality of the overnight trains in particular. There are several classes of travel, indicating if you’ll sit up in a chair all night, versus multiple bunks per cabin, versus a cabin with only two beds. The trains usually have a narrow rug running down the hallway, outdated curtains on the windows, and bizarrely-upholstered bunks. The decor, added to the little “train ladies” (as Alex and I call the attendants for each train car, usually women) that offer you tea or coffee before bed, makes it feel like you’re staying overnight at someone’s grandmother’s house. (Only to be fair, most grandmothers’ bathrooms are much cleaner than the train bathrooms.) The train attendants even get you up in the morning before the train arrives, and sometimes play old Ukrainian or Russian songs through the intercom. The typical overnight journey from Kharkov to Kiev takes 8 hours.
It’s hard to get a more dramatic contrast than the new high-speed day trains. They’re a huge jump in price from the regular day-trains, but at least they’re significantly more comfortable. The best aspect are the power outlets at every row–and the wifi would be nice if it was more reliable. Everything’s shiny and clean and sleek and modern–no curtains on these big windows! These trains are even accessible, with wheelchair ramps, larger bathrooms, and spaces for the wheelchairs to be locked in.
I’ve shopped a fair amount in western Europe (my husband is groaning and nodding his head in agreement, but just ignore him)–but it’s completely different here. The most similar aspect is the variety of little stores, versus mega-conglomerate-department-empires like Target (how I miss thee!). But at most of these little stores, all the products are behind the counter. While this has the benefit of prodding me into using Russian more, it’s frustrating to this Gen-X consumer who likes to browse and find things herself. You can’t always even see all of the products available, so sometimes you have to ask, or even know if the store might carry a particular item. Heaven help you if you need medicine, because Ukrainian pharmacy attendants have a reputation for being, shall we say, gruff. They want a complete list of symptoms, how long you’ve had them, and what you’ve tried before they’ll let you buy anything remotely medicinal. (I stock up on over-the-counter pain meds when we’re in the states to avoid this when possible.)
What’s funny about grocery shopping in particular is that I’ve yet to see a conveyer belt at the cash register–so as items are rung up, you’re constantly moving back and forth to bag your purchases and move the un-purchased stuff closer to the checkout person. When exchanging money, either paying or taking back change, you place it on a little tray on the counter–people look at you super-strangely if you try to directly hand them money. I love that they ask if you want bags or not–they charge if you need them, so usually I bring a large tote for random errands and 2 – 4 large reusable plastic bags for groceries. I’m not sure if this started as an environmental measure or a cost-saving one, but in either case, I approve!
Now, an aspect that several people have asked about recently: Ukrainian, or Russian? We’re in eastern Ukraine, which speaks primarily Russian (although most paperwork and lots of signs are in Ukrainian). In western Ukraine, it’s primarily Ukrainian, which is the official langage of the country overall, regardless of what people speak on this side! Kiev, being both the capital and in the center of the country, seems to use both frequently. The difference in city names/pronunciations that you might have noticed between what I use and EuroCup announcers is usually because they’re using the Ukrainian version. Kharkov (Ха́рьков) is Russian, and Kharkiv (Харків) is Ukrainian.
Recently there was a vote on this issue, making Russian a secondary official language (despite its wide use here in the east, it was never “official”). There’s a huge amount of controversy over this issue, because to some Ukrainians, speaking Ukrainian is a big part of reclaiming their cultural heritage. Even those who speak primarily Russian in Kharkov say that songs and poetry are better in Ukrainian, which is apparently more lyrical. Ukraine has a complicated relationship with Russia, as you might expect given soviet times, so speaking Russian is a proud tradition for some and a reminder of cultural oppression for others. Hence, when the vote came through, a huge fight broke out in the Ukrainian parliament–just watch this video!
We’re learning Russian, because that’s what most people speak in Kharkov. We can read some signs in Ukrainian, but the character set is slightly different, and although there are some shared words, there are many more that aren’t.
I’ll have to save more of my observations for another post. Until then, до свидания!