Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas!

Erik arrived home in time for Christmas Eve, so we all enjoyed the traditional family foods and gift exchange along with Lea's parents, sister, and grandmother. The Christmas Eve meal was punctuated by Slovak delicacies, notably a soup of sauerkraut, prunes, and potatoes. Santa arrived overnight on schedule, bringing "balls and books" for Carter - the very things he wanted from Santa.

We wish everyone a peaceful and joyous holiday season!

Monday, December 24, 2007

L'viv Epilogue

Erik is not superstitious, but he cannot help but wonder if the confident proclamation in the last entry about the "end of an adventure" invoked some kind of karmic retribution that propelled him along 68 1/2 hour journey home. Indeed, the L'viv adventure continued for three more days.

On Friday morning, Viktor and Volodymyr took Erik to the airport early, through the quiet, dark, fog-covered streets of L'viv. The fog did not set off red flags in Erik's mind, but should have been a warning of trouble ahead. Since the L'viv airport is little more than a small building with three "terminals" and a long strip of bumpy concrete, it is not properly equipped to handle landings in dense fog. Flights could depart from L'viv, but nothing could land. Erik's flight originated in Kyiv and stopped in L'viv for passengers en route to Frankfurt. The L'viv-Frankfurt leg was canceled, leaving him two options according to Ukraine International employees: stay in L'viv until Tuesday when the next flight to Frankfurt would depart, or go to Kyiv and take the flight to Frankfurt today. He opted for the latter.

After retrieving his bags and making his way from the domestic to international terminal in Kyiv's Boryspil airport, he stood in line to check in. The agent told him that he would have to go to the Ukraine International Airlines (UIA) ticket office to discuss options as he would miss all of his connections.

The UIA ticket office was a small booth with thick glass separating passengers from the representatives, akin to banks in Erik's hometown of Flint. A small slot allowed the passenger to pass documents and money to the representatives, and a microphone that the representatives controlled dictated who could speak and be heard. Three young women worked in the booth, primarily selling tickets for UIA flights. After working for several minutes on his case - long enough for the Frankfurt flight to depart without him - Erik was told that there were no options today. He would have to spend the night in the airport hotel and fly on Saturday.

After finding his luggage, which was still with the gate agent, and receiving instructions on how to proceed with the hotel, he moved on with two suitcases, a rolling bag, and backpack in tow. The promised shuttle bus was nowhere to be seen, and he did not know where it stopped, so he walked - a quarter to a half mile - with all his bags in hand. On his way, he was splashed with mud by a passing car, coating his pants with street grime.

Erik checked in to the Boryspil Hotel, a reasonably refurbished old Soviet building, and went to lunch at the Olga Restaurant. He had been given two coupons for each meal, which were incorrectly labeled for the next day. True to form, the restaurant manager refused to take his coupons because they were not for that day. Moreover, she suspected him of some chicanery because he had two meal tickets. Erik thought that each ticket was for a particular sum of money - say 10 grivnyas - and he was given two so that he would have no out of pocket costs. Instead, each ticket provided a complete meal. Erik explained that the ticket was simply mislabeled. After a call to UIA, and a hushed conversation in which the assistant manager explained that they could get compensated for two meals but provide only one, the manager invited him to sit down. Erik would normally not collaborate on such a plan to defraud UIA of a couple of meals. But, at this point, he wanted to eat, so he handed over both meal tickets and signed off on the receipt for two meals. He was served hot dishes - borshch, fish with potatoes - that were reasonably satisfying. Since the hotel and restaurant are the only signs of civilization around, save the airport, he went to his room, emerging only to eat dinner later at the Olga.

Early in the morning, he headed out to the airport. Once again, he missed the shuttle. Other unfortunate hotel patrons had not walked with their bags in hand like Erik, instead absconding with airport carts that they abandoned in the lobby. He grabbed one, loaded up his things, and headed off to the airport. He checked in, had his passport stamped, passed through security, and settled in for the trip home.

Then came the announcement: "We are sorry for the inconvenience, but the flight to Frankfurt has been delayed." And the second announcement: "Will Frankfurt passenger Herron please come to the information desk." Passing back through security, he went to the Information Desk. An airport representative met him and explained that due to the delay, he had been re-booked on a flight to London. She went off to retrieve his bags and have them moved to the other plane. Upon her return 15 minutes later, she had a sour look on her face. "I am so sorry," she said, but she reported that Erik had been removed from the London flight and would have to spend the night in Kyiv. Erik explained that this was unacceptable as he had already spent the night in Kyiv. She was sympathetic, but had no control over the matter. She escorted him back through passport control to the UIA booth.

Two of the young women recognized him from the day before, but his demeanor had changed. Whereas he was patient and deferential on Friday, he was irate and determined on Saturday. His opening salvo, in Russian, was: "The option where you tell me that I must spend another night in the Boryspil hotel is unacceptable. You will get me on another flight today. Yesterday I had patience. Today I have no patience." The young women were flummoxed, as putting him in the hotel was the only option they considered. "And what happens when there are delays tomorrow," Erik asked, "will you make me stay here yet again?" Several calls to have the manager come down received a cool response - the manager would not come to speak with Erik. He would just have to stay in Kyiv. While the manager was being paged - three calls over the course of 15 minutes - Erik paced in front of the windows of the booth, casting increasingly angry glances inward. One of the mics was on during the third call, and he heard both sides of the conversation: the frustrated employee begging her manager to deal with him. At the same time he heard a boarding call - for a Delta flight to New York.

At this point, a slight digression is necessary. While the Ukrainian educational system has traditionally excelled at producing strong outcomes in math and science, creative problem solving and creative thinking have been lacking. Linear approaches to problems dominate the thought process. In Erik's case, it goes something like this: he can't make his connections, so we put him on the same ones tomorrow. No effort was expended on finding other routes to get him home, so he forced the issue.

Erik went up to the window and said politely: "I understand that your manager will not come to see me. I know that this is not your fault. But, we must find an alternative. I just heard an announcement for the Delta flight to New York. I am supposed to connect with Delta to go to the US - please just get me on that flight." The young woman fiddled with the computer and then passed Erik's case on to another representative who - after spending 10 minutes with another customer - turned to his case. She could get him on the flight, she explained, but he could not connect to Kansas City until Sunday. "Fine," Erik replied, "I will be closer to home." "But, what will you do in New York?" she asked. Erik had two options: contact his sister who lives on Long Island and hope that she could host him for a night, or sleep on the floor of JFK airport. Both options were infinitely better than remaining in Boryspil another day.

At this point, one of the UIA employees began to philosophize: "Maybe you are meant to stay in Kyiv. Maybe there is something you must do here still." Erik's reply: "I have been here almost five months; there is nothing left to do. Maybe I am just meant to be on the New York flight."

With strange handwritten documents in hand, Erik went to check in (after a brief stop in an Internet cafe to warn Lea and others in the US of the new change to his itinerary). The Delta agent couldn't find him in the computer. The manager was called. Minutes passed and Erik was increasingly nervous. He was taken back to the UIA ticket office, where the representative confirmed that yes - he was on the Delta flight. After some apologies from Delta for the mix up, he checked in, again went through passport control, and hoped that he would make this flight. He did.

Erik had a nice conversation with a seat-mate who works for an HIV prevention agency in the US that has offices in Kyiv and Moscow, and actually enjoyed the 10+ hour flight. Mark, his seat-mate, let Erik use his cellphone to call Lea and confirm that everything was okay upon arrival in New York. Erik's sister Kristin and her husband Scott saved the day, arranging to pick him up and have him stay overnight in their home. Erik enjoyed a relaxing evening with his niece and nephew, and headed out the next morning to the airport. Kristin and Scott again deserve Erik's eternal thanks as they dropped everything to take care of him.

After a few minor flight delays, and a stop in Cincinnati (ironically to board the same flight he would have been on had he stayed in Kyiv and made all his connections), Erik made it to Kansas City. With the drive home, the saga ended after three days.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The End of an Adventure

Erik begins his journey home tomorrow morning. He decided to hit some of his favorite spots today, walking around Prospekt Svobody and Rynok Square, strolling by the Halitskiy Market, and of course, visiting Tsukernya for one last piece of Viennese cheesecake with peaches, smothered in warm vanilla sauce. He "closed up shop," cleaning out the apartment, paying the final bills, and packing all of his bags.

The semester in L'viv has been enlightening, productive, frustrating, challenging, and a truly worthwhile experience personally and professionally.
Carter grew up into a little boy - showing tremendous physical, intellectual, and emotional maturation. L'viv became a second home as we graduated from neophytes to grizzled veterans, navigating the twisting and turning old cobblestone streets; riding the tramvais, trolleybuses, and marshrutkas all over town; figuring out which vendors in the markets had better prices and products; and generally managing daily life in an alien environment. Our many friends were a great help in this process, making sure that we were doing well every step of the way, and also showing us some of the sights.

We will continue to post about our adventures, though the locales may be less exotic and the updates less frequent. Thanks for sharing this semester's experience with us!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Jolly Old Saint Myk

St. Nicholas' Day (or St. Mykolai in Ukrainian) on December 19 launches the long winter holiday season. Good boys and girls are visited by St. Nick at night, and he places a gift under their pillow. During Soviet times, children were visited by the more secularly-oriented Дед Мороз (Grandfather Frost) on New Year's. On the eve of St. Nicholas' Day, the holiday tree erected in front of the Opera House was dedicated and fireworks lit up the night sky [No political correctness here as the tree is not a "Christmas tree" per se, but rather one that will mark several holidays]. We have already posted about the Ukrainian love for holidays, so it will not surprise you that over the course of the next month, at least five major holidays will be marked by many citizens of L'viv. After St. Nicholas Day, the Roman Catholic Latin Rite Christmas arrives. I have been told that even though Byzantine Rite Catholics celebrate Christmas on the Orthodox calendar in January, people often celebrate December 25th as well. Following Christmas is New Year's Day, then Byzantine Catholic/Orthodox Christmas, and finally Old New Year. Rather than completely adhering to the Gregorian calendar adopted by the Soviets, the New Year is celebrated according to both the Gregorian (January 1) and Julian (January 14) calendars. While officially many institutions remain open for most of this period, it is often treated as "down time."

Another Update from the Front

On Tuesday, Yuliya Tymoshenko finally received enough votes to become Prime Minister. Erik watched the proceedings on TV, while recovering from two consecutive nights on the train. You can see the photos of her triumph on Korrespondent's website. Tymoshenko received the bare minimum necessary - 226 votes. Members of parliament voted by raising their hands and recording a voice vote one by one because of suspicions raised about the electronic voting system. Also, having deputies record their vote publicly is an easier way to hold them to the party line. Ivan Pliushch, a dissenter from the president's party, voted to abstain. His voice vote was met with disapproval from other deputies in his party. While this is a short-term victory, it presages highly contentious votes on the horizon. Tymoshenko and her allies will have to work hard and fight for every initiative because she cannot rely on disciplined deputies in her coalition to vote along party lines. In addition to Yuliya's elevation to PM, the rector of Ivan Franko National University, Erik's host, was named Minister of Education. Two and a half months after the election, Ukraine now has a new government in place.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Chornobyl Adventure, Part 3: "The Health of the People is the Wealth of the Country"

Chornobyl workers lived in Pripyat, a cookie-cutter, model Soviet city. The ironic slogan, serving as the title of this entry, was proudly displayed on the roof of one of the hundreds of abandoned buildings. Well after the explosion and loss of radiation containment, residents received an almost matter-of-fact announcement, part of which you can hear below in the video of contemporary Pripyat that Erik shot from the bus.

"...It is recommended that you take with you documents, indispensable items, and also, in the first case, foodstuffs. Directors of businesses and other institutions should identify a group of workers to stay in their places to assure normal functioning. All homes under evacuation will be guarded by the militia. Comrades, temporarily leaving your home, don't forget, please, to close windows, turn off electrical and gas appliances, and close water pipes. You are asked to keep calm [unintelligible] ... and order during the course of the temporary evacuation."

The people of Pripyat left their apartments assuming they would be back soon, not knowing that most would never see their homes again (save for the lucky few Sasha has helped). Pripyat is now a real Ukrainian ghost town. Abandoned vehicles, too irradiated to leave the zone, are strewn about. The hottest vehicles are in grave sites outside the city. While looters and scavengers have ravaged the town, some evidence of daily life remains.

Pripyat was readying itself for the May Day holidays; a warehouse still houses large portraits of Party leaders for the celebration. Other evidence of the celebration-to-be is scattered about town. Some objects have been placed in unusual locations, like this musical instrument in a phone booth. Trees grow everywhere, from the pavement and even from the top floor of the local hotel. Climbing to the hotel's observation deck led us through debris-covered floors and stairwells, with peeling paint, broken furniture, wires, and other detritus. I have posted several Pripyat photos below.

post-apocalyptic landscape was dominated by the sounds of nothing. The eerie silence was broken only by our footsteps on shattered bits of glass and wood. It was also broken in a surreal moment when Erik's phone rang with a call from Victor. It is hard to believe, but in an abandoned city ravaged by a great catastrophe 21 years ago, Erik got a cell phone signal.

Pripyat was our last stop on the Chornobyl adventure. After eating a meal together in Chornobyl - with food imported from outside the Zone - we returned to Kyiv. Erik went
to the train station for his second consecutive night on the train, arriving in L'viv on Tuesday morning.

Chornobyl Adventure, Part 2: To Those Who Saved the World

We arrived at the Zone as a new shift was coming on duty. Dozens of workers filed single file through the gate, re-boarding their buses for the trip to their workplaces. Some work Monday through Thursday; others work two weeks in and two weeks out. All of these workers maintain the Zone and mitigate radiation effects, or provide services to the workers of the zone (like running cafeterias).

After our documents were checked, we passed through the first of several checkpoints. Our initial stop was the city of Chornobyl. Sergey delivered a briefing on the effects of radiation and the good fortune - amid tragedy - visited upon our final destination, the town of Pripyat. Pripyat was a company town of 40,000 residents, constructed specifically for the workers at the Chornobyl Atomic Energy Station. Planners assessed typical wind patterns and situated the city in the safest zone adjacent to the plant in the unlikely event of a meltdown. Their choice was fortuitous as the wind gusts on the day of the disaster sent particulate radiation west. Over the next few days the wind sent radiation to the north and east. Pripyat was placed in the wedge of lower radiation, preserving thousands of lives.

The Zone has several monuments dedicated to the disaster. The one above was not formally commissioned, but simply put together by workers in the Zone to commemorate the event. Its slogan is the title of this entry. Another memorial at the reactor site honors those who were the first workers on the scene, sacrificing themselves to save thousands of lives (to the right).

After the disaster, many of the locals who were evacuated returned to their village homes even though they were officially prohibited. Using routes blazed by WWII partisans, a few thousand moved back. Age has claimed many of them, and only a few hundred hearty souls remain. We visited one tiny spitfire who roughs it, relying on her well, garden, chickens, Zone workers, and occasional help from guests. She shared a bit of her tragic life story during our brief visit. Much like the elderly beekeepers we visited in Urich, she was quite hardy and self-sufficient. The difference was the hazards she faced and her solutions. Someone was supplying her wood; probably the lumberjacks maintaining the forests. Of course, the wood she burns for heat emits radiation. If something breaks, she can go to the abandoned homes to find a replacement. But, who will protect her from the wolves that killed and ate her dog?

Our next destination was the Chornobyl station itself. The great heroism of the first-responders, attacking the blaze and struggling to stop the radiation which was searing their bodies and dooming them to a painful death, is hard to imagine. While 9/11 first responders acted heroically, those who perished did not know that they would die trying to save others. Many Chornobyl first responders knew that doing their duty to save others was a death sentence.

The tragedy of Chornobyl stretches beyond emergency workers, to a great human and environmental toll. In this context, being a tourist at Chornobyl felt a bit uncomfortable. But, the event is an important moment in world history with long-lasting consequences. Recognizing this, the Ukrainian authorities have constructed a visitor's center at the site. A staff member delivered a fantastic, clear, and detailed presentation on the event and mitigation efforts. An interesting and disturbing fact is that the metal roof of the sarcophagus encompassing the reactor is not welded into place, but rather laid on top. This has allowed water to leach in, endangering containment. In addition, the roof was balanced on an unstable wall, a problem recently relieved by the construction of a steel buttress. The next step is to build a new containment shelter covering the current sarcophagus and extending the shelter's life for 100 years. But, this does not solve the potential problem of what is below.

Chornobyl Adventure, Part 1: "The Zone Wants to be Respected..."

"...otherwise it will punish." Like the Holodomor and many other tragedies before it, the Chornobyl [1] accident on April 26, 1986 and its aftermath has become a part of modern Ukrainian folklore. Not only have the real tragedies of the catastrophe scarred the landscape and people, but Chornobyl also infiltrates all areas of Ukraine's life.

Chornobyl means "wormwood" in Ukrainian. Wormwood is the name of an apocalyptic sign in the Book of Revelation, and years ago Erik read of Ukrainians who have made the link between the two. A major Ukrainian video game, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., features action in the Zone with strange mutated creatures. This video game is connected to a classic Soviet-era film by the highly regarded avante-garde director Andrey Tarkovsky. In his movie, Stalker, the eponymous character, leads two men into the mysterious Zone, a wasteland where physical rules do not apply, to seek a room where dreams are made real. The title of this blog entry is a quote from the movie. Even though the movie long predated the disaster, it is connected in many ways.

Sergey, our main guide, has a long association with Chornobyl. A chemist by training, he was also skilled in radiological, bacteriological, and chemical warfare reconnaissance and was assigned to Chornobyl duty a few months after the disaster in 1986. He ran a brigade investigating hot spots. Sergey is incredibly knowledgeable about the region, with experience as a liquidator and as a scholar. But, his approach sometimes seemed a bit revisionist, labeling the disaster a "victory" and explaining that he believes that future interpretations will refer to "Chornobyl glory." Why does he have a positive spin on the catastrophe? In his view, Chornobyl was a key event leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Moreover, it showcased the true heroism and altruism of humans, as well as the ability of the human organism and nature to recuperate.

Also joining us on the trip was Vasyl, a forestry expert.
He explained that a large forest fire today could approach the initial disaster in terms of radiation released. Many forestry workers are active in the Zone to reduce the likelihood of such a catastrophic conflagration.

Sasha was our third guide, a survivor of the disaster who now runs the NGO Pripyat.com. Ironically, his last name - Syrota - means "orphan" in Ukrainian. Much like the New Orleans diaspora attempted to retain community connections after Hurricane Katrina through websites and discussion groups, Pripyat.com is an NGO dedicated to preserving the traditions of the region. While we were exploring the town, Sasha visited the abandoned apartments of former residents who contacted him at the NGO to document their condition. This is one of the many services that the NGO provides to the Chornobyl diaspora population.

En route to Chornobyl, Sergey gave several warnings about the wild conditions in the Zone; the Zone is a place with different rules: we should not assume that floors will hold us, or that doors are attached to frames. The limited human prescence has barely mitigated nature's effects, and we were admonished to watch where we walk as open manholes, bare wires, broken glass, and other hazards litter the area.

Nature dominates in other ways as well. We saw a brood of massive wild boars, and we were warned about a wolf pack that had killed local dogs and was stalking the region. While there was no sign of Blinky, the three-eyed atomically enhanced fish from The Simpsons, the local bird populations have shown signs of mutation, with crossed beaks and other deformities. But, aside from some chickens raised by an old woman in a village, I saw and heard no birds.

What about radiation? While some areas are hotter than others, the group was not exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. Monitors are scattered about the Zone, and the data are reported in real time in many places. In addition, the group had detectors that reported elevated radiation areas, and we were tested before being released at the main checkpoint. Upon our departure from Chornobyl, Sergey checked his radiation level and found that it was equivalent to a transatlantic flight.

[1] Please note that I will use the Ukrainian spelling throughout. You may be more familiar with the Russian version of the name - Chernobyl.

Friday, December 14, 2007

There's No Place Like Home

Did we ever think we would be so happy to be in Kansas? Carter and Lea returned on December 7 after a challenging journey home. Their plane left L'viv late, apparently its standard operating procedure, and they missed the connection in Frankfurt. Lea's advocacy skills (and a little bit of begging) came into play as she secured them seats on another airline's flight through Chicago and then a third airline's flight from Chicago to Kansas City. Amazingly, they made it to Kansas City shortly after their original flight would have arrived. Completely exhausted, they came home to find a cat who was truly unhappy to see the toddler return to chase her. Carter's comment upon arrival in his room was "look at all these toys!"

For the last few days, they have been catching up on sleep, grocery shopping, and housework. Returning home was like a step forward in time. Of course, some things were obvious steps forward that they expected - a dishwasher, a clothes dryer [Yes - no climbing up and down off a chair to hang laundry, no stretched out, cardboard-like clothes], water you can drink straight from a tap, packaged food at the store, and decent roads with reasonable drivers.

But more interesting was the small step forward - about two weeks. When they left L'viv, a small number of modest Christmas decorations were going up around town. Arrival at O'Hare airport was a shock. Every inch of the place was seemingly covered in lights and other signals of the upcoming holiday. Christmas ads and catalogs abound in the newspaper and in the mail, and Christmas decorations are everywhere in the shops. While L'viv doesn't really celebrate Christmas until January, it will still not have these ostentatious displays. It was actually nice to miss a great deal of the commercial Christmas hype this year. Maybe leaving the country during Advent would be wise every year!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Smackdown, Ukrainian Style

As Erik has been working assiduously on his book, he has also been watching the Ukrainian parliament sessions on television. As you may recall, the election in September gave the Orange Revolution forces a bare majority in parliament (assuming that they could keep their deputies in line). The new parliament opened and began its work to set up committees, elect a speaker, and choose the prime minister. All of these decisions have been controversial, none more so than the selection of the prime minister.

Over the last few days, the debate has heated up and boiled over. In the initial vote on Yuliya Tymoshenko's candidacy as prime minister, she received only 225 votes - one short of the required majority. As the vote was taking place, the speaker of parliament's card for recording his vote was taken by another member of parliament, preventing him from voting. Tymoshenko's party also alleged that the electronic voting system was rigged. The parliament is now debating the appropriateness of a re-vote based on existing laws and regulations, and whether or not this may be done by voice rather than using the electronic voting equipment. The proposed re-vote was delayed by a blockade of the dais, preventing the speaker from taking his place yesterday. Today, while a member of parliament was charging the speaker with violations of the law and regulations, his time ran out and the mic turned off (the speaker has been cutting off long-winded people all morning, with a 1-minute time limit on speeches). The deputy refused to leave the podium without a chance to finish his speech, and almost came to blows with another member of parliament who tried to physically remove him. Some photos of the drama are available on the Korrespondent.net site.

While the goings-on are chaotic and sometimes childish, the debate over procedures is actually refreshing. The idea that proper procedure should be followed seems basic, but the rule of law is a concept that is slowly catching on

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Героям Слава!

With these words, you too can gain entry to the fairly new, hip underground cafe in L'viv - Kriyivka. The vice rector's son clued us in on the cafe's whereabouts, but it was full when we tried to go with Carter (or, we were rejected because Carter was in tow). Erik made plans to go with Ewa, another Fulbright scholar in L'viv, and they trekked out in the cold rain to check the place out today.

The entrance is unmarked, in a building on Rynok Square. As you approach the darkened doorway, a motion-sensor trips and a small floodlight turns on. You tap the door and a small hole opens, with a rifle-muzzle pointed through. The guard prompts you to deliver the password, and lets you in. After assuring the guards that there are no Russians with you, each visitor takes a complementary shot of vodka, then descends into the basement. The cafe is designed to look like a bunker used by UPA (the Ukrainian partisan army that we wrote about previously), complete with real decommissioned weapons (at least I hope they are decommissioned - the pistol had blank rounds in it). It also has many photos of UPA soldiers, like the one above. The cafe is controversial on both sides of the UPA debate. It glorifies a group that some Ukrainians think was villainous, and it trivializes an era that many locals think was a glorious, but doomed, fight for freedom.

We found a table in a room that was not too smoky (one of the hazards of being in a popular club) and sat down. As we got settled, some young men came in and asked us to move to an adjacent table so that they could accommodate their friends. We moved, but were then told by staff that our new table was reserved. So, we struck a few poses, chatted with some of the patrons (including the young men who evicted us from our table), and then eventually sauntered off without snacking.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

The More Things Change...

Erik has collected a few historic photos of our neighborhood that are prints developed from the original negatives (taken from 1900-1915). What is quite astonishing is how little the center of L'viv has changed in 100 years.

The first photo above features our apartment building in 1905, and the second photo shows it in 2007. Aside from having an extra floor on top and an alley where there was a storefront, the building has not changed much in over a century. The angle on the contemporary photo is different because a tree now blocks the view of the original photographer.

Taking a left out of our apartment entrance, and walking 2-3 blocks on Prospekt Svobody, leads you to the gem of our street: the L'viv Opera House. As you can see from the photos above, the Opera House has undergone some renovation over the last 100 years (note how smooth parts of the building are now), but the basic features of the facade remain the same. The tramvai line on our street is long gone, however, and smoke no longer billows out of the chimney (barely visible to the left and rear of the building).

If you were to turn right out of the apartment entrance, you would be heading in the direction of the market that we frequent: the Halitskiy Rynok. This market is the home of the Cheese Lady and the Ham Lady, and the Bread Lady has a kiosk nearby. The market is not visible in this photo, but it is just to the right as you approach the church. The large streetlight is gone, replaced by ugly overhead wiring, and modern autos (even a marshrutka) are visible in the contemporary photo. In many ways, though, L'viv is as it was at the turn of the last century.

Friday, December 7, 2007

One More Stroll Through Town

On the last day of Lea and Carter's visit to L'viv, we decided to do some of our favorite things one more time. We strolled through the old town, pausing on Rynok Square to feed the birds, and attended a puppet show. Appropriately, the show was a fantasy history of L'viv, starring the royal for whom the city was named and a real lion. The "Dva Levi [Two Lions]" duked it out, then united to beat a common foe. They decided to become friends and allies, with one serving as king of the humans and the other as king of the animals.

Also on the last day, Carter decided to learn the Ukrainian alphabet. Why he waited until the last day, we will never know. He spent time finding the letters in the dictionary, and writing out Ukrainian letters. He now knows several letters, comparing the "Ukrainian" letters with "our" letters.

Erik picked up some cheese for syrniki and made them for dinner. While they are typically a breakfast item, it was a perfect final meal in L'viv. This morning, we loaded everything up in the university van and headed to the airport. Lea and Carter are now on their long journey home.

What We Will Not Miss

While we have enjoyed our time in L'viv, certain inconveniences make daily life challenging. When reflecting back on our trip, we will not wax nostalgic about:

1. Marshrutkas
. We have described these run-down, jam-packed, privately-run buses in other posts. We try to avoid travel on them at all costs. Nothing has been more frustrating and uncomfortable than getting around town on a marshrutka. Erik's foot has been closed in the door, he has performed a sort of game of twister while careening through traffic in order to try to stand up, and a driver refused his calls to let us off, requiring all three of us to walk nearly a mile to get to our destination. Thankfully, living downtown, we have not used them as often as most L'viv residents must.

2. Crazy Products.
Imagine, if you will, lemon-scented, pre-yellowed toilet paper. Finding a plain white, non-scented variety has been a challenge. Or, perhaps Bobos -
you know what you have left when you have sucked the orange powder off a cheese puff (come on, you have all done it)? Add a sickly sweet flavor, and you have plain Bobos. If you prefer, try the bacon or chocolate flavors. How about prune yogurt? Another "favorite" was unsweetened cranberry spice pop (made by Schweppes). Finally, who could forget water-resistant paper towel?

3. Arbitrary Decisions. As we have noted before, everything is negotiable. This means that few if any decisions are firm, complicating planning and leading to head-spinning results (for an example, read our previous post about traveling back to Ukraine from Poland via the train). We have learned to just roll with this inconvenience, but it constantly invades daily life.

4. Outlandish Theories. Kansans with nightmare visions of a UN-led One World Government operating black helicopters for nefarious purposes have nothing on many of the locals. We have heard explanations of events - both big and small - that make the DaVinci Code seem like a documentary (for an example, read our previous post about our Tustan host's view of the world).

5. Unsolicited Parenting Advice. This usually comes from old ladies, not from the other responsible parents who are smoking in front of their kids and letting them ride in the front seat of cars unbelted (and are NOT subjected to criticism). We and Carter are regularly berated because he is not dressed warmly enough (where are his snow pants? where is his hat?), or he is sucking his thumb (accompanied by their efforts to physically remove his thumb from his mouth). Carter is by no means a constant thumb-sucker, but any time he even attempts to do it in public, he encounters the wrath of old women, who otherwise would likely be offering him candy. The other day, Lea and Carter fell while crossing the street and Erik scooped Carter up, held him on his lap crouching and was trying to console him (fortunately, he was crying to clean his hands, as they got dirt on them) when an old lady approached and started talking to Erik. No, she did not offer to call a doctor or otherwise help, rather, she loomed over Erik telling him that he was not properly consoling Carter.

6. Lack of Automation. Washing all dishes by hand and hanging all laundry in the shower makes us appreciate the great convenience of dishwashers and clothes dryers even more.

Despite the negative tone of this post, our time in L'viv has been quite nice, especially due to our good friends in town. But, we are also looking forward to the return home.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Attacked by Monsters

As Lea and Carter prepare to depart L'viv for home, we have been attempting to check off a few final tourist activities from our "to do" list. One of the last attractions is a mere two blocks from the apartment - the Palace of Arts, housing several collections of European and Ukrainian paintings. Carter has been amazingly tolerant of our efforts to introduce him to high culture. He especially enjoys discovering images of animals embedded in the artwork in the museums we have visited. Unfortunately for him, the bulk of art exhibited in this part of the world seems to be portraits. As we entered the Palace of Arts today, we saw a grand painting that captures the history of Ukraine on a huge canvas. The painting had sections dedicated to the triumphs and tragedies of Ukraine, with many recognizable politicians, as well as historic and cultural icons. While we intended to see art, we were drawn to another exhibition in the facility.

The poster for the "Giants of the Ice Age" exhibit beckoned us to stop in. Since Prehistoric Forest back in Irish Hills, Michigan is closed, we thought this might be a good substitute for Carter to see some kitschy animatronic beasts. And it was. At first, Carter thought that seeing the animals was a good idea.
But, confronted by the large, furry, moving, growling creatures, he reconsidered.

The exhibition had various activities for children: coloring, old-style movies, and an oversized jigsaw puzzle. The puzzle was a hit, as Carter liked finishing the picture of the Tyrannosaurus Rex. But when we started to look at the creatures, he was terrified. The animals were all furry - even the pleisiasaur (we have to check on the accuracy of that depiction with cousin George or our family's amateur cryptozoologist Uncle Brett) - and most of them made some kind of noise and moved their heads, necks, and mouths. After beating a hasty retreat from the monsters, we had lunch at a Milk Bar. We had been advised to go to one of these in Krakow - they are little cafes with a fixed menu. Whatever they have for the day they serve until it is gone. We had some nice soup, savory pancakes, and chicken. After lunch, we had a quick romp on the Taras Shevchenko monument until nap time.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Look Familiar?

Erik has an ongoing project - to be photographed in front of Lenin monuments while posing in the same manner as the statue. Today, we visited a new monument in L'viv, dedicated to
Stepan Bandera, the hero/villain of WWII/post-war era resistance fighters (whether he is hero or villain depends on your perspective). Erik immediately noticed that the pose was quite similar to a Lenin statue that he had seen on another trip - the one pictured to the left in Tsyurupinsk, Ukraine. The juxtaposition suggests similarities, but this cannot have gone unnoticed by the Ukrainian monument designers. Why create a reverential public space for a local hero that looks very much like the same spaces the Soviets designed for Lenin - especially when that local hero was vehemently anti-Soviet?

Monday, December 3, 2007

Foods We Love

Lea has repeatedly harassed Erik about studying an area of the world that lacks truly exotic cuisine (Malaysia, Thailand, and Italy have elections, do they not?). While Ukraine's food is not exotic, we have come to enjoy some local specialties (in no particular order):

1. Korona Intenza Extra Dark Chocolate with Orange Peel (Lea only). Lea claims that this stuff is awesome, despite Erik's protests. It is made by Kraft, so why can't it be found in the US?

2. Beer. L'viv is known for beer. Not only is the beer good, it is cheap. It is so cheap that people are out on the street chugging down Ukrainian 40s as early as 9:00 a.m. L'viv Premium and Chernihiv White are among our favorites.

3. Bread. Our love of local bread is as much about the price as about the quality. Carter likes the "lavash," which is akin to a Central Asian flatbread (lipeshka - like pizza dough and baked in a tandoor oven) rather than familiar lavash. He also likes what we have dubbed "sweet bread" which is a small braided bread similar to challah. A quirk in buying bread is that customers can buy partial loaves. One day, splurging on a
large 80-cent loaf, we were asked if we were sure that we wanted to buy the whole thing. Part of our adjustment to life back in the US will be the $3.00 bread!

4. Ham. When buying meat in the open air, with passers-by taking samples, and refrigeration nowhere to be found, smoked meat is safer than fresh. We have seen some sights that would make FDA inspectors shudder: raw, warm chicken visited by many flies, whole rabbits displayed with fur on one foot, butchers carving up carcasses with cigarettes dangling from their lips. Consequently, a large amount of ham has been consumed in the Herron household. Much of this has been bought from the woman we have dubbed "the ham lady." She is not far from the "bread lady," from whom most of our bread is bought, and the "cheese lady" who provides for most of our dairy needs.

5. Cheese. Cheese seems to be labeled by countries rather than by style or content. All of it is made in Ukraine, and we have no idea if the country labels have anything to do with cheese from those parts of the world. Estonian is by far our favorite, but close behind is Irish, which has something green in it, possibly dried parsley. Another kind we like, not named after a country, is marbled. Akin to a colby jack, the cheese is orange and white specked, and it satisfies Carter's desire for orange cheese. At home, he is a huge fan of extra sharp cheddar.

6. Kishmish Grapes. Long gone since winter is approaching, these tiny, light green, sweet grapes have a strong but thin skin that pops when you bite into them. According to several sources, they are the same as Thompson seedless grapes. But, they don't remind us of grapes in the US.

7. Syrniki Cheese. Ukrainians use farmer's cheese, similar to a dry cottage cheese, to make pancakes called syrniki. Erik has made these a few times on our trip. In the US, we have only found this cheese in Cleveland's fabulous West Side Market. Paired with the Siberian berry brusnika, they are a wonderful breakfast treat.

While we have enjoyed the food on our journey, we are craving some spicy Mexican food. Brian Silver's son Nate's blog on the subject has made us drool with envy at those in Chicago. One of our first restaurant stops in Lawrence will be either El Mezcal or Tortas Jalisco... or both. Even a jar of salsa and some corn chips sounds good right now!

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Carter's Top 10

The Herron blog has reached post #100! To celebrate this milestone, we bring you Carter's Top 10 things in L'viv.

Although Carter cannot articulate his favorite people, places, and things in an organized fashion, we thought we would create a list of the top ten things we suspect he will miss about L'viv. Looking at L'viv through a toddler's eyes is quite different than through an adult's eyes. He could not care less about the beautiful architecture or the museums, although we have pointed out all of these things to him as part of his early cultural education. But he has really enjoyed his time here. There are several items deserving of honorable mention - mostly the people, Walter, Ewa, Jani (aka Thomas' mommy), and others, whom he has grown close to - and some other favorite places, such as the Taras Shevchenko monument which he loves to climb, the puppet theater, the lions that were displayed on Rynok Square but have now gone to sleep for the winter, conkers, and more, but here are the finalists:

10. Mushroom Ravi Place, aka Puzata Khata. Carter has been tricked by his parents into thinking that cabbage vareniki are mushroom ravioli, one of his favorite foods, so he loves to go to this restaurant and eat the ravi. Puzata Khata also children's playroom which he enjoys immensely.
He even remembers that one of his bottlecaps - see #7 - is from the Mushroom Ravi Place. Every time we walk by it, he says"there's mushroom ravi place."

9. Balloons. For the first couple of weeks after our arrival in L'viv, Carter insisted that he wanted a balloon. We inexplicably could not find any. Then, suddenly, everywhere we turned, he could get a free balloon, usually from a political party or the local yogurt company. Balloons here are not knotted, but the ends are pulled around an odd piece of plastic which keeps the air from coming out (we just call these "plastics"), and these are attached to a plastic stick. These keep the balloons up in the air without helium. Carter loves playing with balloons and with the sticks. He has invented crazy games including how many balloons he can balance in the poor houseplant in our living room: "5 balloons in the plant (aka 3 balloons in the plant and 4 balloons in the plant depending on how many he has at the time)" and making letters and shapes out of the sticks.

8. Estonian Mac and Cheese. Finding toddler-friendly foods here is difficult. Children we have observed seem to be on a constant diet of cookies, candy, and chips. Carter's favorites from home were difficult to make here - no quesadillas, portabello mushroom ravioli, nutri-grain waffles. One thing we have made a lot here is macaroni and cheese on the stove (our oven does not work, as we have mentioned). Usually, this dish is synthesized with a Ukrainian-made cheese called "Estonian." Estonian cheese has been quite a staple of Carter's diet here, although the previously self-made vegetarian ("no meat") has started eating chicken and has turned into a huge sausage fan.

7. Bottlecaps. Carter has become an obsessive collector. Like Bert, Carter has discovered the joy of bottlecap collecting, and has been gathering them as fast as his parents can drink fluids. In fact, he does not like to wait until we are done, asking for them when our bottles are still half (or more) full. He likes to count them, sort them by color and size, and make the shapes of letters out of them. He also keeps close tabs on the total number: the count is now up to 62.

6. Waterfalls. Carter discovered "waterfalls" shortly after his arrival. This term is used broadly to include actual waterfalls, water from faucets, and fountains. He loves to go to the fountains on Rynok Square to determine whether or not they are on. Now, they are all off for the winter.

5. The Tramvai. He loves riding the trams, but more importantly, he loves counting every one he sees. Each day, he will assign the number one to the first tram he spies and continue to count them throughout the day.

4. The Parks. Carter and Lea spent much of their time in parks - Striisky, the duck park, Ivan Franko, and the small playground up the hill. Lea remembers spinning him around in a beautiful leaf-covered Ivan Franko Park. He has really enjoyed the playgrounds,
walking in the parks, feeding birds (of course), sledding, and attempting to empty every sandbox in town.

3. The Apartment. Yes, this sounds crazy, but we asked him several times what his favorite thing is about L'viv, and he always says "the apartment." Whenever he asks why, he says: "because we're here."

2. Feeding the Birds. He has mostly fattened the pigeons in town, but he has also helped out the ducks and swans. Feeding birds was definitely his favorite activity in L'viv. After his departure Friday, they may starve.

1. Thomas. Most of all, Carter will miss his best friend. But, Thomas just arrived in his new home in Tbilisi, Georgia, and we must move on to our home as well.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Georgia on Our Minds

Today we bid farewell to our good friends Jani, Phil, and Thomas. Last night, we celebrated our friendship at the Chicken Place, sharing good food and fun with the boys. Carter and Thomas devoured juicy bits of poultry and french fries (chips to Thomas) while Thomas entertained all of us with his renditions of "Wild Things," a la Sendak.

Today, the boys had one last chance for some afternoon play. Carter got to significantly delay his nap so that he could see Thomas a final time. Lea, Jani and the boys coincidentally met at the Mary statue, where they had met the first time. They fed the birds (of course), blew bubbles, climbed on the Taras Shevchenko statue, and ran around in the snow until it was time to come up to the apartment and say all of our goodbyes. Carter promptly went down for a nap, but just before he went to sleep, he told Lea "I had fun with Thomas."

Phil's new job takes the family to Tbilisi, and they depart for Kyiv tonight and to Georgia in a couple of days. We were incredibly fortunate to meet such a wonderful family with a son who has been such a good role model for Carter. Our sadness at their departure is eased a bit by our inevitable trip home - in one week for Carter and Lea. It is rare that you meet people and immediately become fast friends. We were quite lucky and hope to encounter them again somewhere in the world!