Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Notes from Kyiv

Before giving my presentation on American fiction workshops Monday at Kyiv-Mohylo, my Fulbright coordinator said other deans had learned of my talk and asked if I might bring it to their university as well. Then she told me the names of the two cities where these universities were located, and Vinnytsya I knew, but the second gave me pause, because surely there wasn't an administration building so near a concrete sarcophagus and the memories of 1986.

“Where is that?” I asked.


And here I brought in a breath and nodded -- yes, Ternopil -- as she went on to describe its position on the map, a non-irradiated point far from the imagined Chernobyl.


My presentation ended up being half a discussion of fiction and half a talk about how to run a writing workshop. It was attended not by post-graduates, but mostly professors from Kyiv-Mohylo and other area colleges. Many of them taught literature, at least one was in the sciences, a few were just English speakers interested in discussing the stories (see post below) and hearing a native speaker. There were even two budding writers, each of whom proved themselves to be writers in different ways. The first had very strong opinions, the second, after slipping me a note saying she’d like me to read a story, got up and left halfway through my talk.


I thought I’d have several hours to kill after the discussion ended at 5:30 (my train left at half past ten), but I was taken out to dinner by a cultural affairs officer from the US Embassy and her assistant, a native Ukrainian. We dined at a posh sushi restaurant on Shevchenko Street, if only because I didn't relent -- sushi, I thought, it has been months since I've had sushi. The food was good, and let's hope here that it was a product of globalization, as the fish from the Dnepro are closer to Chornobyl, just a short boat ride upstream, than than are to Ternopil.

But the menu, that was a little confusing. It had pictures of the sushi and sashimi and shasliki, and then alongside this three names: the bottom one in English, the middle, in parentheses, in Russian, and the one above it in Ukrainian. I asked the only Ukrainian at the table. “This is Ukrainian, isn’t it?” For while I hadn’t found any of the tell-tale umlauted i’s that give the language away, I had found myself unable to understand any of the words. Like here was salmon, (лосось), and that word on top was just gibberish. But no, it wasn’t Ukrainian, however much Ukrainian is gibberish to me. It was Japanese, transliterated into Russian. Just more confusion in a city that blends Russian and Ukrainian like those in Calexico blend English and Spanish.


I found it interesting that the cultural affairs officer, who wore a furry shapka that for some reason brought to mind Dan Akroyd and Spies Like Us, was persuaded by the State Department (okay, told) to learn Ukrainian rather than Russian. Learning the language is like many noble gestures: wasted. The latest example of this was shown to me when she was assured by her assistant that the waitress at our restaurant would no doubt understand Ukrainian, though she might answer in Russian. This Russian, she went on to say, has incorporated so many English words in the last decade that she wonders how people her parents' or grandparents’ age can still understand thelanguage.

Sometimes I wonder if we'd all just be better off acting like the least sophisticated of tourists, grunting and pointing, ocassionally thrusting the point of one finger into the glass.


The television at the restaurant was tuned to Fashion TV, not a rarity in Ukraine. It is one of four channels with English programming delivered by my cable provider (and when I say English, perhaps I'm being too particular; if you take away the music played over the images of the models strutting down the catwalk, Fashion TV is for the most part mute). The other English-friendly channels are BBC World (which cedes half the day to the German-language Deutsche Welle), the Discovery/History channels (which are two channels, but together offer a few hours of English TV a day) and then Extreme Sports (which is all-English, all skate-rad, all day). More often than not, and more frequently each day, I opt for Fashion TV. Want to talk about Fashion Week Portugal?