Thursday, October 27, 2005

Today was a normal day in Ukraine

My doctor prescribed rigorous and regular sexual activity, I bought bed linens by the kilogram, and was shown where I'd been living since my arrival, at least according to my papers, in case the police ever ask. "And if they do come," G. said, "the rector"--I forget the word he used--"she will show them to a room and say you live there but are not home right now.'" Oh yeah, one more thing: one of my colleagues at the university pursed his lips and nodded his head real slow, as he does when considering cultural differences, after I told him that in the University of California system, you're actually asked to never speak to a student with your office door closed, not to make sure you don't develop intellectual intimacy or say anything you wouldn't want every strange passerby to know, but to stave off a possible sexual harrasment lawsuit.

Read More......

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Return of the Return of Turkmenbashi

I first saw the link to this this several days ago over at Leopolis, but only now got around to reading it. Seems Turkmenbashi, my favorite authoritarian ruler, has banned recorded music at all public events, on TV and at weddings. He's already banned opera and ballet as "unnecessary," surely earning the respect and admiration of Miller High Life drinkers everywhere.

But listen, does anyone out there have a Turkmenistan connection? A Fulbrighter and I are considering a trip sometime in the New Year, as we're both fascinated by the world he's created and I would like to interview one of the women there who's trying to leave the country through an online marriage agency. But here's the thing: you need to be invited by someone to get a visa. Perhaps it's just a matter of "buying" an invitation, like you do in Russia. I still haven't sorted it all out for sure, but if there's someone out there who'd like a visitor, or knows someone who knows someone who does -- you get the idea -- drop me a line.

Read More......

Thursday, October 20, 2005

New digs

So I moved into a new apartment Sunday night, mere minutes after returning from Belgorod. G. helped me, a man who has already helped me a number of times in a number of ways before. This time, he ferried my boxes and bags between his car and my new apartment building's entryway, while I took them the rest of the way to my flat on the fourth floor. When the last batch of things was waiting for me at the bottom of the stairwell, he grabbed a few things and I grabbed a few things and we went up together. He set my things down at my door, and then poked his head inside, looking to me for my consent. "May I? I'd like to see how the New Russians live."
Of course I showed him in and around, and come Sunday night or Monday I'll show you as well, by posting some new photos to Flickr. For now, here's a photo that offers a view from the bedroom balcony.

An anecdote: When we were driving away from old place, located in a section of town called Cold Mountain, G. asked what street I'd be living on, and I said, like a lost little boy, "Uh, I don't know." Then I reached for something, saying, "But I think it's named after a famous female Russian poet." He pursed his lips, perhaps going through an index of a mental map he kept inside his head. But after I named some nearby landmarks, G. said, "Ah! But no, I think it's a military general, not a famous female poet." So there it is: Marshal Bazhanova Street, just a stone's throw from Pushinskaya and another stone's throw from Sumskaya, the main commercial corridor in town. Good coffee at the end of the street, a restaurant facing my French door, a French bakery just down the way, and lots of students and pedestrians and guys selling cards that program minutes into your mobile phone. A great place.

Read More......

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Eating Good

I understand that some of you have expressed a concern for how I'm eating, and so I'm glad to tell you it's getting better. I still eat my fair share of pirozhki and sloiky, but I've now mastered the art of buying a cooked chicken (and can even order one by the half, palavina). What's more, while in Belgorod this last weekend I ate better than I have in months thanks to my girlfriend's mother. From beginning to end it was homemade: Pirozhki filled with apple jam (yablochnoye varenye), cabbage pizza (something you'd only see in Russia), plov, a central Asian dish consisting of plump wild rice and sliced carrots and beef (lamb is more traditional), borsch and soup (there is a difference, I learned), and finally bliny, my absolute favorite, pancakes so thin and buttery I'd gladly eat them every day. Anastasia's mother piled them high on a plate, and then we all sat around them at the kitchen table, with first Anastasia's father reaching for one, and then her brother, and then me, and then my girlfriend and the cook. I'm used to eating them rolled up like a rug and filled with berries, but the method here was to fold the blin in half on the serving plate, then into a quarter, and then into an eighth, until at last you're left with only a small triangular wedge. This you'd lift and dip it into one of the bowls on the table: one with sugar-sweetened sour cream, another with honey and melted butter, a third with sour cream and gooseberries. I didn't think I'd like the sour cream servings (the color reminds me of mayonnaise, a condiment much-abused over here) but I found myself going back to that bowl again and again. At the end of my feasting, I wanted to express my thanks properly - and in Russian. I wanted to tell Anastasia's mother that my mother would thank her for how well I'd been fed. But the sentence was complicated. Part of it was in the past, another in the subjunctive, and then there were thanks going toward Anastasia's mother (dative case, right?) and her feeding me, which had to mean genitive, to say nothing of a direct object - wasn't a direct object in there somewhere? My tongue grew thick in my mouth, and after getting about halfway through it all I looked down as if to see my toes creeping out over the edge of a gangplank. At last, my perevodchika broke in. "Just say spasiba bol'shoy." It didn't quite reflect the depth of my gratitude, but after a quick laugh that's just what I did. "Spasiba bol'shoy." Thank you very much.

Read More......

Monday, October 17, 2005


I spent the weekend in Belgorod (after having trouble getting out of and back into Ukraine, while at the same time all but being offered a cup of tea and a plate of bliny from the kind and friendly Russian passport agents, two women I hope to see again and again).

I don't know what I expected of Belgorod, but I didn't get whatever it was. For a city that's maybe a thousand years old, and still emerging from a planned economy, as they say, Belgorod looks very modern. World War Two played a part in that. "Our city was bombed all to hell too, then," my girlfriend said, after hearing me use these words to summarize Kharkov's experience during the war. So yes, the Germans played a part in Belgorod's city planning (the German-launched Battle of Kursk, the largest tank battle in history, happened not far from here; Belgorod was one of the first two cities freed during the Soviet counter-offensive). And then in the last couple of years, a great number of new buildings have gone up too, while many of the older ones have gotten a face lift, including the Belgorod Department Store, a store that hasn't needed to change its communist-era name because it doesn't have a second department store with which it must compete (and with which it might be confused).

Then there are the stones that line the sidewalks and pave several of Belgorod's streets. Beautiful stones and colored bricks -- and they're everywhere, from one end of the city to the other. So is Belgorod a city dedicated to its beautification? Perhaps. But it's also one with a mayor who owns the brickworks factory. "At least it benefits the people," my tour guide said, and yes, she's right about that. In fact, the government in Belgorod Oblast seems to have its mind in the right place. The state university, a beautiful building I would've photographed if my mind hadn't been elsewhere, went up in a building abandoned mid-construction during the perestroika era, and it only got finished after the governor convinced all the area businesses to contribute to its completion. Not exactly a tax, I was told, but more of a civic duty. Political semantics, you could say, or as my dad might offer: it's just the cost of doing business.

Anyways, to see some pictures of Belgorod, visit the Flickr sidebar (because loading them here is too time-consuming and costly). There's more about the city's history, a picture of its now famous sidewalks, and a shot of one of the city's two Lenin statues (both seem wooden and flat-footed. Sorry, Belgorod. But I'll taking the Lenin who's striding out over Kharkov's Independence Square.)

Read More......

Staprius Club

Tonight I spoke with two people who may become central figures in my book: the owner-operators of a new marriage agency in Kharkov, Staprius Club. ("Staprius" doesn't translate well, though its meaning can be approximated with the phrase "stability, profit and success.") The Club got its business license on the thirteenth, if only because this is the owner's lucky number (and mine, since my first acceptance letter, for a piece of poetry if you'd believe it, came from Thirteen Magazine, which no, you haven't ever heard of. It's so unknown, it might actually be a cover through which the works of international espionage are passed). In a couple of days, I should be able to post the link to Staprius Club's website, and by the end of the month I expect to be writing about the first customers through the doors.

It looks like I'll have the coveted All Access Pass: steady interviews with the owners (one of whom is a lawyer), the men and the women, and even the staff psychologist they'll have to help Ukrainians and Americans work their way through any naturally arising cultural conflicts or confusion.

How'd I fluke into this, you say? Like a big dumb idiot. Just showed up. My first week here, while I was still gimping around town with my Mystery Illness, now on the mend, I believe, an employee from the university approached me in the hall looking like he'd just emerged from Gogol's overcoat. I heard you are American, he said, and I would like to ask if you would perhaps be of help. There is a lady in town who is starting a marriage agency, a lawyer, he said, and she would like some help with her website, and perhaps a letter seeking the advice of American-owned agencies? Would you be willing to speak to her?

Uh, I said. Do you know why I'm here?

No. I do not.

So I told him, and now we're wishing each other success, and I've perhaps got what a literary agent I contacted said was missing from my book proposal: a thrilling story at the center of it all. I don't know how thrilling a marriage agency's first year will be, but it certainly offers more glue to This Thing than a series of semi-related profiles. So -- something to look for.

Read More......

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Technical Difficulties (including Iraq)

It seems I bungled the Bloglet subscription service, but it should be working now. I'd forgotten to supply my website ID, apparently, and I gave the wrong user name. Something. Anyways, thanks to Ron for getting me to check into this, and if you subscribed ages ago and are only now seeing anything arrive in your mail box, this is why.

Spoke with a Ukrainian today, a man I've come to know pretty well in my short time here. Some days he's talkative, some days he's not. Today, he couldn't stop. But then our conversation turned to the war in Iraq, as it has once before, and so he went on and on about how Americans have no soul (a word that made my tutor smirk when I used it this summer -- dusha -- as if I'd never have a need for it) because their tanks blow up museums, they steal bread from the hands of children, and on and on, with a George Bush impersonation (slighty simian) thrown in to good effect. This conversation at home is one thing, but when you can only struggle to understand it's an entirely different thing. Needless to say, the passion is still there, but then again so is the war.

Read More......

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Four Men Carrying a Refrigerator

So I've added a photo feature to the sidebar (Flickr, for those familiar with it) and I've posted some pictures of Kharkov to start it off. Didn't get around to including the photo I've posted here, which my girlfriend says the locals call, in the great Socialist Realist tradition, "Four Men Carrying a Refrigerator."

The only other news for now is that I recently had a story accepted at The Portland Review, with that issue expected to be released in December. Strange but true, and I hope she won't mind my saying this, but the editor moved my story from the big slush pile to the little slush pile after seeing I'd mentioned Kharkiv in my cover letter. She then took the story with her to Kharkiv, that's right, to Kharkiv, where she went to visit relatives in September. If another literary magazine in America can produce an editor and writer who have visited Kharkiv in the same month, I challenge you to find it.

Read More......

Friday, October 07, 2005

Ignorance, a celebration

So I've been in town for more than three weeks now, and I feel like a snowflake caught in the wind, or a little boy so wide-eyed he doesn't even mind that he's lost in the woods. I have literally no idea what is going on. And I mean everywhere. This morning, I awoke to my usual cup of instant coffee (after almost a month, I can only be bothered with my French Press and coffee grinder on special ocassions, like a political coup) and while watching TV I saw that there was a vaccine developed, for cancer, but only 90 to 95 percent -- what? It's only that effective, or doesn't work on all of the cancers? And what's this, more than ten terrorists in New York's subway? On the loose? What's the mayor saying? Some silly Russian is talking over him, or is that Ukrainian? I couldn't figure it out. Only two or three of my channels speak Russian (the others are Ukrainian), and even if I'm watching one of them I understand just enough to know the Kharkiv football team lost again, or if I should fear for my life -- like, if the newscaster gets up halfway through her sentence and sprints off-screen, I get a little suspicious. Then I'll mosey out into the stairwell, coffee still in hand, and look around to the three doors circling away from my own. Anything wrong? An asteroid maybe? Is The Plague back? It's like I have undergone a lobotomy. In the states I was a political junkie, watching Chris Matthews enough to call him a friend; I had an opinion on everything. But here I know nothing -- about the United States, about Ukraine, about Russia and Europe (some kind of mix-up in Germany apparently? Haven't the foggiest). It is of course quite comforting, and refreshing, but then I visit the other blogs that focus on Ukraine and they're all a-buzz with word of the Post-Timoshenko Shake-Up, and I turn away from it all feeling like I should be fitted for a conical hat and shown to the nearest dark corner. Now sit there till you wise up. Thing is, this is probably how millions of Mexican-Americans live everyday in California, completely detached from the surrounding American culture -- perhaps even the four or five guys (their numbers changed, their faces too) who lived in the apartment next to mine in Davis. We spoke only once, when a Russian train ticket I'd ordered was mistakenly delivered to their door instead of my own. The guy I spoke with knew no English. His face was wild with fear. He wanted only for this transaction to be over with, to close the door and return to his comprehensible life. What's the Spanish word for train? I had forgotten -- I knew the Russian word, that's what I'd been studying, but now I couldn't recall the Spanish. There, I said. It's right behind you. Yes, the DHL package, that's it.

Anyways, you may have noticed I've said little to nothing about the mail-order bride scene here in Kharkiv. That's because I haven't even been bothering myself with it, what with my settling in and various physical set-backs, which seem to be on the mend. The internet cafe from which I now type (a place that always has on one of its computer's drop-down menus) attracts a number of tourists and foreigners, and I know I've seen a westerner or two in here looking through the mail-order bride sites. (I also felt dirty, as if I were touching myself in public, when I needed to research the history of Cherry Blossoms, the first really successful "mail-order bride agency." I felt like all the people around me were thinking: Another American, here for the women.) Anyways, I haven't approached any of these men at the internet cafe, but I plan to in the future. And I haven't heard any exchanges between them either, like another American in town has. His first day here, he heard two Americans swapping stories: this agency's good, that one's bad, have you communicated with this woman? One of these guys was in a wheelchair, and he was still in town, still slugging away at his computer, some 10 days later.

So, I promise more on all that later; for the time being, I'm just settling in. It's only this week that I've been walking around the city in any rambling sort of way, taking in the neighborhoods like you need to do. So, in many respects, it's like I've just left my apartment (the stairwell to which is pictured above).

Now I'm off to class, the end of my second week teaching. Everything's going great on that front. A wonderful group of students from A to Z. They're reading the materials, and talking in class, and for the most part showing up, and I've even found a couple of writers, young women who I think are really excited to be learning about the craft of fiction writing, something that otherwise might be unavailable to them. They're the ones who make teaching so worthwhile. And I think they'll produce some really interesting stories -- distinctly Russian stories too (I asked one class what they consider themselves, Russian or Ukrainian, and not a one said Ukrainian). Maybe I'll be able to post some of this writing here. I'm already excited about one of the stories, a first paragraph to which I've read. So -- more later.

Read More......

Thursday, October 06, 2005

How to Make Chicken Kharkiv

When you learn you’re going to Ukraine for a year, become less of a fundamentalist. Don’t insist on being a vegetarian. You already eat fish, but that isn’t enough. Go to the In ‘n’ Out Burger and order the #2, then sample the lamb when you find yourself at that Indian buffet your family really likes. Practice. Get used to it. Know that you’ll need to bend a little so you don’t break. You won’t be in California anymore. This will be Ukraine. And so you’ll eat the beef and the lamb and even the occasional piece of chicken, despite all the hidden camera footage you’ve seen on the PETA website. You will do this because you think it will keep you away from the national dish, salo. You don’t do pork. Never have. As for cured pork fat, you can’t believe an entire country could rally around this. So yes, eat everything, the beef, the lamb, even the chicken, hoping this will allow you to show your host the flat of your hand and say, “Actually, I don’t eat pork fat. I have an allergy. My doctor told me – or rather my priest said, I mean my rabbi – well, the long and short of it is the chicken’s so good I think I might just have some more.” Prepare for the day. You know it’s coming. Be polite but firm. Show you have limits. Tell yourself this. You have limits.

Eat pizza your first afternoon in town. Have it at the restaurant near the university, knowing you can’t eat here everyday. You didn’t travel halfway around the world to eat pizza everyday. If you did that you would be a failure, even in the eyes of your Italian friends. So yes, eat the pizza, but consider it a decompression chamber. It will take you from Marin County to Kharkiv. Remember to eat the crust.

At the market across the street from your flat, you will find six aisles. One is given over to hard alcohol, another is dominated by mayonnaise. Inspect the milk. Some is in a box, some a bag. Of course there’s no soy. Don’t even look, certainly don’t ask. Instead, decide which brand of milk to put in your basket. Choose like an American. Find the one with the best packaging. A grandmother, a cow grazing on a green pasture, a mountain in the background. Feel like more of a local. You already have a consumer preference.

Quickly learn to redefine “average daily requirements.” Eat muesli and milk for breakfast, maybe some yogurt if you remembered to check the “made on” date, then go out into the world and see what else you can drum up for lunch and dinner. Stop at a kiosk window. Get your money ready. Practice how to say, “I would like ...” Move forward in line. Do not act frightened when the lady’s face appears in the little window. You are not buying a Playboy. This is not your first time getting condoms. You are hungry, that is all. So speak calmly, as if it’s no big deal. Piroski s kapusta. Sloika s gribami. Say it again if she says anything. That probably means she didn’t understand. Be conscious of where you hold your tongue, how you move your lips. Speak as if the words are little boys on the diving board for the first time, unwilling to jump off. Push them if you must. And then marvel at how little it costs: fifteen cents, forty cents. Walk away with your bounty and try to make this your lunch. The sloika are like pastries, and the piroski donuts. Only both have something healthy inside. Potato, mushroom, cabbage. Eat these until you discover varenniki, which give you the same choices inside the shell of something you consider a ravioli. Do not cover these ravioli with that pasta sauce you bought at the best supermarket in town. It does not taste like pasta sauce. It tastes like ketchup, spicy ketchup, and not even good spicy ketchup. Wonder again if it’s gone bad, or if that’s just what goes for popular here. Tell yourself: No more pasta. This is not Italy. And forget the pizza. You're not here for that.

(To read the full short story, send me an email. It's an internet/copyright thing.)

Read More......

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Where I'm At

So I meant to post this picture shortly after I moved, when the shock of my apartment was full and fresh. I pulled up on this building from the other side on the morning of my arrival, and at first I thought there must have been some mistake. Dull brick exterior, broken asphalt and curbs, dirt lorded over by two, three, four stray dogs -- I was supposed to be downtown, in the city center, where the foreign dignitaries are put up, and what's this? I tried to hide the disappointment on my face as we got out, and pushed the security code on the green steel door that gave way to the stairwell, which is bare stone with walls painted two tones of seasick green, a good institutional design.

But you know, some two weeks later, three I guess, I'm almost reluctant to leave, and I believe I will be shortly, perhaps in a week or two -- some place nearer the university and downtown. It's amazing how things can quickly become like home. The inside of the apartment's very nice, in fact: independent hot water, redesigned kitchen (think Ikea, but not high-end Ikea), and wallpaper everywhere, including the ceiling (looking up on it from my bed, a sectional fold-down sofa my chiropractor would not approve of, I sometimes feel like a gift inside a box).

Anyways, that it's for now, a glimpse into my Brezhnev-era flat. More later, like how I now apparently bristle at paying six dollars for a can opener -- thirty-three Grivnas? Who do they think I am? Rockefeller?

Read More......

Saturday, October 01, 2005


A bit of a long absence, this. I'd intended to be much more prompt, very thorough; it is my way. But many things have happened, and as a result I've been driven under-ground, hence this posting's title. What can I say? Well, I have to rely on an internet cafe to post, and there was the stuff with the reading list ("About this Stalin story ..."), and then the fact that much of what I found myself writing involved people I'm around most every day. Perhaps that is why books will always survive blogs; you can reveal more in a book that you publish later, from the safe remove of time and place. Then there's also this, I've been in and out of doctor's offices since I got here, hacking, coffee, sometimes limping, and through it all I've been given a glimpse of a medical system far different than the one I've come to know (and hate) in America. My doctor asked that I not write about this, and to honor that request (after getting over the shock of the request itself, which is a weird validation of sorts) I've refrained from posting here. So: I'm actually writing a great deal, but when I got here I found that what I was writing about and what I'd expected to write about weren't exactly the same thing. Maybe this is evidence of a deeper work. I don't know. But for the time being, the press is in the garage, running through the night, and leaflets are being hidden in the linings of coats, handed out to only the members of the underground.

It's probably just temporary, while this first chapter is deatlh with, and after that I'll be able to open things up again. And now that I'm getting over this flu, which has kept me down much of the week, I'll at least be able to get out and about and see more of Kharkov, which is for the most part clothed in either tiger-print or Dolce and Gabbana, so far as I can tell. Then too I'll be visiting Belgorod, just across the Russian border, where a friend lives. I had hoped to do that sooner, but this last week I had my passport taken away -- for a week, I was first told, then two weeks, I was told -- so my presence here could be registered with the local police, who sound more sinister when you use the Ukrainian name: militia. No other Fulbrighters that I know of have had their papers -- and hell, I'll go ahead and call them that -- taken away for such a long time, and I only know of one other who has registered with anyone other than the US Embassy -- a fellow Kharkovite -- but then this is the Northeast of Ukraine, not flag-waving, chest-thumping L'viv in the west, not sunny Odesa or laid back Yalta to the south, and certainly not Kyiv, the country's most international city, right smack in the center. Kharkov, more than any other oblast, leans East, and it has been slow to change in some sectors, particularly those relating to security and a certain governmental agency that went by three letters, the first of which I'll spot you: K.

Read More......