Monday, October 29, 2007


Several weeks ago, we received generous offers from Viktor and Walter for a ride to visit Olesko Castle, a gorgeous landmark in the "Golden Horseshoe" of castles around L'viv. The castle functioned from the 14th-19th centuries and was restored in the 20th century. Since the weather is turning from fall toward winter, and the castle is a fair distance away, this weekend was likely our last chance.

Walter picked us up for the trip and we headed out to Olesko. We traveled across the byways of rural Ukraine (largely due to construction closing the main road) and meandered through rutted, pot-hole-filled roads along with many 18-wheelers hauling supplies across the borders with Poland and Slovakia. On the left you can see Lea, Carter, and Walter with an autumn landscape at Olesko.

Olesko Castle was quite magnificent. While it had some of the hallmarks of a defensive fortress (narrow slits for archers, for example), it also felt like a large estate or mansion. Most of the interior rooms were set up like a museum, displaying icons and other religious artifacts from the monastery below, as well as furniture and objects from the castle itself. The castle's history reflected the changing fortunes of Western Ukraine; it was held by the Poles and Lithuanians, sacked several times by the Tatars, and occupied by the Nazis who turned the monastery into an internment camp for Jews. Finally, it was reconstructed in Soviet times. We strolled through the gardens outside the castle, and happened upon lion statues that Carter wanted to ride (see below). After our visit to the castle, we returned to L'viv, cold and hungry, for a spectacular meal prepared by Walter's wife: borshch, beet and cabbage salad, mushrooms in sour cream, beef Stroganoff, and potato latkes. It was a wonderful ending to a lovely Sunday drive.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Kyiv Adventure, Part 5: Postscript

While reflecting back on our travels to the capital city, we realized that we skipped some culturally-relevant details about our journey. Most importantly, we did not describe the last stage of our trip - the train ride home. Or, more importantly, the wait for the train ride in the station.

We extended our apartment reservation so that we could use the flat until 6 p.m. But, the train was not scheduled to depart until 10:20 p.m. We could not really take all of our luggage to a restaurant, and we did not want to drag it all over town. Absent another option, we grabbed our bags and headed toward the station.

Erik has visited Kyiv regularly for the last seven or eight years. During that time - especially during the last five years - he has noticed a steady growth in the crowds of people in mass transit, cars on the narrow streets, and construction cranes building new apartments. Kyiv is an expanding city, and has pushed itself to, or beyond, its current capacity. The metro was packed full of people; perhaps not to the level of a L'viv marshrutka, but jammed nevertheless. Kyiv is not a city for claustrophobics. We had to transfer lines at one of the busiest stations of all and waited for a second train to find a place for us and our bags. We pushed and shoved our way out of the metro at the train station.

The train station has been expanded and remodeled, and it is quite lovely. We settled into a second floor waiting room until our train was ready to board. The room was massive, shaped like a zeppelin hangar, with a sea-blue arched ceiling adorned with painted medallions representing many of Ukraine's major cities. We immediately picked out the lion crest and church-filled skyline of L'viv. The marble floors were spotless, and so shiny that you could see your reflection. Erik noted that he felt like he was spoiling the floor when changing Carter's diaper on it! [A side note: there are no changing tables to be found in Ukraine. You change your child's diaper wherever necessary. Also, as we have noted before, toddlers just drop their pants and relieve themselves in city parks].

As we waited, we soaked up the sights and sounds of travelers. Ukrainian tradition provides for food - large quantities of various sorts - to be packed for train trips. You not only feed yourself, but offer food to your neighbors. Across from us, a tired, middle-aged couple had dipped into their stock, chewing whole greasy sausages, and consuming handfuls of parsley. As we walked around the waiting room, we smelled the sharp odor of fish; a man had a pile of smoked, whole mackerel (or some other similar catch) on his lap, picking the flesh and sucking it down. Other common train menus include large numbers of hard boiled eggs, whole tomatoes, bread, beer, and a lot of vodka. Our neighbors on the train were hunting for vodka to go with their feast (whole plates of cheese, meat, bread and tomatoes) and were disappointed when no one around had brought a bottle.

As we waited for the train, we chatted with Vladimir. Our conversation was interrupted by a loud, gruff fellow from the U.K. He was drunk - and getting drunker by the minute - just sitting in the station. He explained that he and his pals, clearly aged hooligans, were in Kyiv for the Manchester United match against Kyiv Dinamo. His friends had disappeared, he did not know where he was going, could not speak the language, so he decided to tip back a few in the station. At first, we thought this was some kind of scam. Either he was distracting us, or he was planning to ask for money after his tale of woe. But, in fact, he was just a drunk fan. He explained that he had followed the team since 1967, and that he and his buddies were something like Man United deadheads, following the team abroad for its matches. He was a fan's fan, spending thousands of dollars to buy some kind of stock in the team (to be an official member), on merchandise, and also on travel and tickets. The conversation was amusing at first, but eventually we wanted to ditch him. We tried to help him find his hotel, but he had no idea where he was going. So, we just wanted to be free of him. Lea kept repeating that he could have much more fun on the main drag, where there were pretty girls to watch and lots of beer to drink. Finally, he took our directions and headed off.

A couple hours later, we did the same. We all made our beds, and settled in for the smooth overnight ride. In Ukraine, a smooth overnight ride is actually bumpy, but punctual.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

VlaMidir's Here!

Despite what you may think, the title of this entry is not misspelled. Rather, Carter decided to name Vladimir Vlamidir, which is not too bad for a 2-3 year-old who is just working on his English. We spent the last week catching up on eight years' worth of news from our dear friend from the Arctic North, his wife Natasha, sons Anton and Timofei, and good friend Yos (we also know Yos well). Vladimir currently works for the main tourism bureau of the Yamal Nenets Autonomous Okrug, YamalTour. The region is particularly promoting itself as a place for hunting and fishing, as well as eco-tourism and encounters with indigenous peoples. If you want to go to Salekhard, drop Vladimir a line!

Vladimir's mother and other close family members live in Ukraine, many near his hometown of Trostyanets in the northeast. Vladimir's childhood chum, Roman, also stopped by our house on a few occasions. Roman works in the same institute where Phil (Thomas' father) is a trainer for the British Council. Roman showed us lots of interesting photos, especially of his deployment to Iraq where he was part of the modestly-sized Ukrainian force. We were surprised to discover that there was a great competition to become eligible for this deployment; we anticipated that most Ukrainian troops would want to avoid Iraq at all costs. Over the last few days, we walked all over town, showing Vladimir the highlights, including our favorite tsukernya (the Cake Place). Today, he left on the overnight train for his hometown. We hope to see him and his family again, and sooner than eight years in the future!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Kyiv Adventure, Part 4: Old Friends

Our Kyiv trip afforded us an opportunity to catch up with some old friends. On Sunday, we strolled around the alleyways of old Kyiv with Val. Erik met Val last year in Crimea when he participated in a conference on elections. The conference's first session was for advanced students and graduates who planned careers in politics. The second session included politicians and members of the Central Electoral Commission. Val was Erik's Ukrainian translator, and they became friends over the week, indulging in trips to Crimean wine country and to the beach in between and after sessions. Val grew up in Kyiv and showed us places we had never seen. We had been down the streets many times, but Val knew interesting places to visit "off the beaten path." He showed us the area where he spent his youth, in a ravaged post-WWII city, and many other fascinating historic sites.

We also picked up a good friend for a visit to L'viv - Vladimir from Salekhard, Russia. Back when Erik was a graduate student at Michigan State, he received an email about his website from Vladimir, asking him to include a link to the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Republic on the site. An email-based conversation followed for several months. When Erik conducted his dissertation research in Russia and Ukraine in 1999, Vladimir invited us to visit. During Lea's trip to Russia in November 1999, we bundled up and headed north.

Vladimir's town is located on the Arctic Circle and is home to about 30,000 people. Because it is so far north, there is limited daylight in the fall and winter months. During our stay, the temperature often dropped below -30°. This is around the point where Celsius and Fahrenheit scales cross, so the temperature was about the same in both metrics. On the right you see us and our friends Vladimir and Igor at about 4:00 PM in front of a sign welcoming visitors to "Salekhard - The City on the Arctic Circle."

Salekhard is the capital of the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Region. The primary employer in the region is Russia's main natural gas company, Gazprom. Although the city's history extends back to 1595, it is perhaps most famous for its stint as the local hub for labor camps during the Stalin era. Stalin decided to build a Trans-Polar Railway as a northern complement to the Trans-Siberian Railway. Thousands of people were forced to work in brutal conditions to build the railroad. The project was abandoned after Stalin's death and was never completed. Some of the homes in contemporary Salekhard were used as living quarters for camp guards.

Many nomadic reindeer herders live in the area and we met some on the road to the village of Aksarka. They graciously agreed to take photos with us and give us a ride on their sled. As you can see in the photo on the left, one of the reindeer is an albino. White reindeer are considered to bring good luck to the Khanty people. The local cuisine was quite interesting and surprisingly delicious. We sampled reindeer meat as well as the tastiest salmonid we have ever encountered. Muksun is a delicious, fatty, white-fleshed fish that lives in the upper Ob river. It is traditionally eaten raw (frozen and dipped in salt), but we also ate it smoked, cooked in aspic, and fried. It was simply the best fish that we have ever eaten (in all of its forms).

Eight years have passed since that visit. When Vladimir found out that we would be in L'viv, he made plans to come down south. He is originally from Ukraine and his family still lives in a small town in the northeast of the country. On top of this, his best friend from childhood works in L'viv, so Vladimir could visit with him as well. He made his way to our Kyiv rental apartment on Monday and we all boarded the train for the overnight trip to L'viv. We have been showing him some of the sights (see Vladimir at the Armenian Church in the photo to the left) and he has been giving us lessons in Ukrainian! Vladimir will visit for a few days, then head off to spend more time with his mother in his hometown.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Kyiv Adventure, Part 3: Something for Everyone!

During her previous visit to Kyiv in 2001, Lea was unable to visit Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) because it was under construction. The timing of that construction seemed a bit peculiar as it occurred in conjunction with growing protests against then-President Leonid Kuchma. The square gained international fame when it served as the central gathering point for the Orange Revolution. Erik watched the peaceful, almost giddy protesters and rousing speeches by the opposition after the flawed presidential election in 2004. Ukrainian citizens occupied the square and streets for weeks, culminating in new elections and the ascent of Viktor Yushchenko to the highest office in the land.

We traveled on the metro from our rented apartment to Maidan and emerged from underground at the perfect time for all of us. While the weather was cloudy and chilly, the rain held off so that Lea could gaze across the expanse and see all of the (terrible) renovations that had prevented her from visiting years ago. Erik heard the siren song of political protest and was drawn to red flags and banners. The Communist Party was staging a counter-protest opposing the elevation of UPA (WWII partisans) to the status of heroes of Ukraine. We have seen the pro-partisan viewpoint in L'viv, with figures like Stepan Bandera held in high regard. Many Ukrainian citizens interpret the history of this movement differently, focusing on its connections to the Nazis and its fight against Soviet soldiers. Since the protesters were mostly old, and many were WWII veterans, their antipathy to UPA was not surprising. Erik listened to the speeches for a while and had a brief chat with an elderly woman who thought he was a journalist ("Young man, take my photo! Yushchenko is a criminal!" After the photo was taken, she asked "what newspaper are you from?" When Erik explained he was not a journalist, she asked "well, do you love fascists?" Satisfied with the answer "No" she returned to her anti-Yushchenko rant.).

Carter was not left out; he too loved Maidan. In addition to feeding birds, Carter has become enamored of fountains. Or, as he calls them, "waterfalls." Maidan has many waterfalls, including a series of steps that double as a fountain. Carter was also incredibly excited to visit the Kyiv zoo. On another day he went with a group of Fulbright spouses and kids who did not want to attend orientation events. While the zoo did not have koalas - one of the two animals that he likes because they "are happy" - the zoo had a hippopotamus - the other animal that is happy.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Kyiv Adventure, Part 2: Erik at Work

It has been some time since we have written about Erik's primary reason for being in Ukraine - his Fulbright Fellowship for teaching and research. In part this is because a blog entry noting that "he worked on Chapter 4 today for several hours" or "he taught a class about election rules" is not terribly enthralling. But, Erik has made progress on his book manuscript as well as research related to this year's parliamentary election. He has also continued teaching his course, although the time, place, and consequently the number of students, has changed.

Our primary purpose for visiting Kyiv was to attend the Fulbright Orientation and Conference. The orientation was a nice opportunity to catch up with other scholars who are scattered about the country, but was not terribly useful in a substantive sense since we have been here for over two months (and Erik has visited Ukraine several times in the last few years). After the orientation sessions, the organization held a conference for Ukrainian alumni. Erik attended a bit of this, but also missed sessions to visit some of Kyiv's sights with Lea and Carter. On Monday (10/22), Erik gave two lectures about his research, one at the Ukrainian Academy of International Trade and one at the Kyiv School of Economics. Around 80 students of law and economics attended his first talk, around 8 graduate students attended his second talk.

Kyiv Adventure, Part 1: Introduction

Our travels continue, this time taking us to Ukraine's capital city for a conference, some speaking engagements for Erik at local universities, a bit of sightseeing, and to meet some good friends from the past. We'll post more about our trip over the next couple of days.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Krakow Adventure, Part 5: Getting Here and There

Our time was short in Krakow, so we tried to see as much as possible. Fortunately, Krakow's tremendous tram system made that possible. Whereas our beloved L'viv tramvais are mostly old and decrepit, running on cobblestone roads, and prone to break down, Krakow's system is new, slick, and smooth. Electronic kiosks sell tickets at most stops, and a ride costs a bit under $1. Of course, that is no bargain compared to L'viv's $0.10. But, Krakow seems to have more extensive lines and simply more trams.

One of Krakow's most marvelous places is the main square, pictured above. Turning the corner and seeing Market Square for the first time is awe-inspiring. The space is wide, the buildings majestic, and the feeling is reminiscent of the one we had when entering Red Square. You marvel at the expanse in front of you, and the history that has taken place there. The picture does not capture how the space envelopes you as you enter it. It is also a marvelous spot to soak up the sights and sounds of the city. Erik enjoyed these bayan players on the right so much that he bought their CDs (classical music on three button accordions). Carter chased many birds here, so he enjoyed the square as well (on the left).The square is also ready for the 21st century - it is a WiFi zone!

We also spent time at Krakow's palace of kings - Wawel Castle. Many of the most important rulers of Polish lands are buried in the cathedral, along with a saint or two. To the left you see Erik and Carter in front of the cathedral - John Paul's parish when he was archbishop. Below and to the right you see Carter running back and forth across an expansive courtyard on the castle's grounds.

Unfortunately, our time in Krakow ended quickly and it was time to return to the realities of work in Ukraine. Our return trip on the train shook us back to reality. When we bought tickets for the trip to Krakow, we could not purchase a return seat because they were not sold in L'viv. We did not think of this as odd, just a part of the idiosyncrasies of life here. But, in Krakow, everything seemed to make sense. We bought our return ticket - Krakow to L'viv - and all was well with the world. Or so we thought.

Part of the way along the rails, packed into an uncomfortable train car full enough that some people sat in the aisle, and separated from each other due to the crowd, we discovered that we did not have tickets to L'viv. Yes, our ticket said that L'viv was the final destination, but we did not have a spot allocated to us on the train cars that were going into Ukraine. Erik tried to figure everything out with the conductor, but he only spoke Polish. After his conversation, he chatted with a nice young Polish woman in his room who offered to help. She explained that it was payback for all of the kindness of the citizens of Milwaukee who helped her during her visit (a tip of the hat to Milwaukee). Between her English and Polish, and Erik's modest understanding of the conversation, they struck a deal with the conductor who took pity on us. He would check with the conductors of the other train cars. If there was a spot available, he would make arrangements for us to transfer. Thankfully, there were four places (Carter did not need a ticket). We trudged through four wagons, with all of our luggage, to our new seats. We paid an additional $80 in cash to the conductor (we suspect that this payment went to the conductors on some kind of deal/kickback and that officially our compartments were empty. We did not receive our tickets back as receipts - a standard on all trains). After all of the confusion, we settled in and relaxed.

The train ride was about 10 hours. It only took around 5 hours to actually travel; border control and changing the wheels took the other half. Soviet rails run on a wider gauge than the rest of Europe, so the train cars are lifted and the wheels and axles are swapped out for larger/smaller ones (depending on the direction you are heading). We arrived home, exhausted, around midnight and quickly fell into our beds.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Krakow Adventure, Part 4: The Dark Side

Underneath the majesty of Krakow lies a dark past. We rented an apartment in Kazimierz, the historic Jewish quarter. During WWII, 65,000 of Krakow's Jews were killed in the camps of Auschwitz located near the city. Oscar Schindler, made world-famous by the Steven Spielberg film, operated his factory in Krakow and saved many of the city's Jewish citizens. We visited Auschwitz and no words can adequately capture the feeling of visiting the place where over a million men, women, and children were brutalized and put to death.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Krakow Adventure, Part 3: Churches of Krakow

Pope John Paul II was archbishop of Krakow prior to his selection as pope, and his image is all over the city. Like L'viv, Krakow is a church-filled town. The Dominican Church, featured in the first photo below, was filled with ornate wood carvings. The Franciscan Church was our favorite, largely due to the artwork of Stanislaw Wyspianski. His art deco style graces the massive windows. The Basilica of the Virgin Mary features a massive carved altar, shown in the last photo.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Krakow Adventure, Part 2: A City that Works

According to several sources, Krakow is the "new Prague" and L'viv is the "new Krakow." Prague long ago passed from the scene as the hip European outpost for young (non-native) Bohemians. The fact that Krakow is on the radar, and was full of tourists, suggests that it is also passing from semi-exotic status to passe. But, we adored this charming, friendly city.

We are still L'viv patriots, but the comment of a Ukrainian colleague sums up Krakow: "it is like L'viv, only clean and organized." That native L'vivite will remain anonymous for fear that he would be subject to fierce ridicule for such a pro-Polish assessment, but it was an apt characterization. Upon our arrival in Krakow, we were surprised and impressed with several amenities: clear signage in Polish and English, and with pictographs, a tourist information center with multilingual support staff in the rail station, and a simple process to buy return tickets (or so we thought - more about this in a future post).

By contrast, upon arrival in L'viv at the international airport, you find no multilingual support, no place to change money, and no information about how to get to the city center. When he picked up the Bistaks, Erik helped a lost Canadian whose ride did not show up. The Canadian had no local currency, and no sense of how to get to his hotel. Erik got him a ticket for the trolleybus, explained to the conductor where he was going and asked the conductor to tap him on the shoulder at the right stop, and drew him a map. He would have encountered no such trouble upon arrival in Krakow.

Another contrast struck Erik on an early morning stroll. In L'viv, Erik has often jogged around 6 a.m. In Krakow, he went for a walk. On his early morning L'viv jaunts, Erik shared the streets with a handful of unfortunate souls: drunks stumbling home, municipal workers cleaning up city streets, cabbies, and a handful of people waiting for marshrutkas to take them to work. L'viv does not rise early; it takes a few more hours for things to get moving. Krakow was abuzz with activity well before dawn. Many small grocery stores were open for business. Bakeries and sweet shops - as plentiful in Krakow as money exchanges in L'viv or pawn shops in Detroit - were piping the sweet smells of hot bread and buns into the streets, tempting passers-by. The tramvais were full of well-dressed professionals on the way to work. Krakow is a city on the go.

A few other observations: while Krakow has beautiful buildings like L'viv, L'viv's ornamentation is superior to Krakow's (we'll post about this later). The prices in Krakow also reflect its move into Europe; hotels, food, and other items were much more costly than in L'viv.

The city has made incredible progress in the last 18 years since communism's collapse. It provides a road map for L'viv; the bone structures of both cities are quite similar, but Krakow is healthier.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Krakow Adventure, Part 1: Introduction

We spent the last few days in Krakow, an enchanting city in southern Poland. Over the next few blog entries, we will provide our observations about the region, its people, and history.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Over the River and Through the Woods

After a long series of shuttles and flights, Lea's parents, Leo and Nancy Bistak, arrived in L'viv on Thursday. They have been adjusting to the time difference, as well as some of the quirks of life in Ukraine. Their first full day in L'viv included an "orientation" walk around the center of town, and a trip to the big market by the main train station. Lea had traveled there with Jani and found wonderful things - delicious dried fruits and nuts, and all sorts of other foodstuffs. Today, Lea, Erik, and Leo went to the market while Nancy watched Carter during his nap time. After a return visit to the Tajik vendor to resupply our pantry with roasted cashews, hazelnuts, and Carter's favorite "big raisins" (super-sweet, dime-sized golden raisins), we picked up several meals' worth of sausage, dried fish, pastries, bread, and fresh vegetables. Today's mission prepares us well for the full itinerary ahead during the next 10 days.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Everyone to the Elections! Part 6: Aftermath

The results are still being counted, with claims of falsification being cast about on all sides. A few major questions have not been officially put to rest, but with only 2% left to count, here are some observations.

1) Despite some evidence of misdeeds on the behalf of the Socialist Party, it appears that the party will not gain seats in parliament. This is a great defeat for Oleksandr Moroz, calling into question his decision to defect from the Orange coalition last summer and partner with the Party of Regions. The only way that the SPU is likely to pass the 3% barrier now is through fraud.

2) The Party of Regions will get the most votes, but the Orange coalition is likely to have a majority of seats. If the Orange forces can come to terms with one another, they should be able to form a government. But, the last one was torn apart after a few months, so stability is not guaranteed.

3) This election does not resolve Ukraine's political problems and conflicts, but is the beginning of another stage. The greatest accomplishment is that, unlike in many of Ukraine's neighboring countries, the election results were not pre-ordained. Ukraine experienced another truly competitive election.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Everyone to the Elections! Part 5: Election Day

Erik woke up around 5:00 a.m. on Sunday to get ready for election observation. Over the past few days, he traveled to various polling sites, stopping in and checking on preparations for the elections. He planned to visit 10-12 sites on election day, finishing up the vote count at a precinct near the apartment.

[A disclaimer: Erik only observed a few precincts in the center of L'viv for about 1 hour each. His observations and conclusions do not constitute an assessment of the overall quality of the election, just a snapshot of a few precincts in one part of Ukraine.]

Overall, the entire day of observation went smoothly. Most of the commissions were professional and prepared, and they handled issues quickly and within the parameters of the law. The worst precincts were less organized, but not chaotic. Here are some examples of more serious problems:

1) In one precinct, a defaced portrait of Yuliya Tymoshenko was hanging on the entryway. When Erik asked the director about it, she quickly removed it and seemed embarrassed that he found it. It is likely that the commission did not know about the image, especially since one of the officers represented Tymoshenko's party.

2) In one precinct, an intoxicated voter gave his ballot to a young woman in a booth, saying loudly "vote for whomever you want!" The commission should have heard it (Erik was sitting near them and he heard it) and intervened, but they did not.

3) During the vote count, the commission had a heated dispute about how to handle some questionably marked ballots. Both sides of the debate had reasonable points; the losing side was unhappy and loudly argued that the decision violated the rights of voters.

The overnight vote count was long and deliberate. The precinct chairman was methodical and responsible, following the law very closely. But, his unwillingness to cut corners made the night last long and caused tensions to rise on the committee (which wanted to count the ballots and go home. Plus, some observers received phone calls from their comrades who were already home by 3:00 a.m.). In fact, Erik finally left the precinct around 6:30 a.m. before everything was completed. He wanted to get his data to Kyiv to be included in the final report about the election.

Erik had nice, long chats with several observers - one for Tymoshenko who lived for a while in the US as a traveling salesman; one for the Communists who extolled the virtues of the USSR and denied any of its faults; and one for Svoboda who was a young, recent convert to the Ukrainian national cause. But, fatigue precludes a more detailed account of these encounters.

The exit polls and preliminary results are split at the moment. Exit polls predict that the Party of Regions will have the most votes, followed by Tymoshenko, Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense, the Communist Party, and the Lytvyn Bloc. With nearly 60% counted, the official results have Tymoshenko in first, followed by Regions, OU-PS, CPU, Lytvyn, and the Socialists narrowly scraping by. Tymoshenko has already held a triumphant news conference; Yanukovych has held a more subdued one with a claim of victory. It is likely that the announcement of the results will mark the beginning of more drama.