Sunday, November 4, 2012

Kyiv Flashback...

Today, out of nowhere, I was hit by a memory of an experience I had in Kyiv on my last day there. That day, after a morning interview with the last of my research participants, I ventured out, determined to do some gift shopping and find my way to Babyn Yar, to pay my respects at this site where more than 100,00 Ukrainian Jews were murdered by Nazi forces, along with others targeted by this oppressive regime.

The day was long. I got off at the wrong Metro stop, and had to walk for nearly 90 minutes to find the Babyn Yar memorial. When I finally arrived, I was hot and tired, hungry and thirsty.

The path took me down a tree-lined promenade. This memorial stood at the end of it.


I walked further, and found a bench where I could sit and reflect and gather my strength. Babyn Yar is now a park, and many people were walking past me: young women with baby carriages, a man walking his dog, a pair of lovers who couldn't keep their hands off each other. As had become my habit during my time in Ukraine, I simply sat and observed, and wondered about each person's story. Where had they come from? Where were they going? Did they know about the park's significance, or was it merely a lovely, shady place to walk?

A flash of white caught my eye, and I saw an elderly woman in a white sweater walking in my direction. She looked to be in her eighties, and as I watched her, she glanced to her left and right, then stepped off the path and into the trees across the path from me. She stood in the trees, arms wrapped around herself, staring at the ground, and suddenly she bent down, picked something up, and gazed at the object as she held it in her hand. After several moments, she slipped the object in her pocket, and walked briskly away.

She was certainly old enough to have been a young woman at the time of the massacre here, and I was left with so many questions about her.

Somehow, I had forgotten about this experience until today, when a piece of music brought it to my mind. I wanted to share it so that I won't forget it again - Babyn Yar moved me profoundly, as did my entire experience in Ukraine.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Ukraine: Day Fourteen - Tears and Laughter.


Today was a long, hard day. Aleks and I were at the Center at 10am, and had five interviews scheduled. Each interview has been taking between 45 minutes and an hour, so we scheduled today’s appointments about an hour apart.

One of the interviews was scheduled to take place off-site, with a parent who works at a kindergarten (which are preschool-type centers that have children from ages 2 to about 6, I believe). Our plan was to go to the kindergarten and do this interview while the children were napping, but there was a problem: when we got there, we discovered I was not allowed to enter the school and do the interview.

The parent met us outside, and my colleague with the Ukrainian Down Syndrome Organisation called the school’s psychologist, who also works with the UDSO, to ask if we could use her office for the interview. The answer was no. Apparently the director of this school, which includes children with disabilities, had previously agreed to be interviewed by a television news crew about the work they were doing there, and then was reprimanded by government authorities for not obtaining permission to do so. As a result, the director and psychologist were apprehensive about letting me come in, even though I was there to do research, not a news story. It was a sobering reminder of how much control authorities can wield, even in a country that considers itself a democracy.

We went to a nearby cafĂ© to complete the interview, and it was the most emotionally difficult one yet. In each interview, after we have finished, I have asked participants if they have any questions for me, whether about Down syndrome in the United States, my daughter, my experiences, anything. This parent said to me, “You must be shocked by what you’re learning here.”

I replied that while much of what I was learning was consistent with things I’d either read or been told before I came, my heart hurts to hear these stories from the parents who had lived them. And then I cried. And this parent cried. And Aleks, my stoic translator and roommate, got teary-eyed.

At the end of the day, I couldn’t face cramming myself into a bus or Metro car full of people, so we called a taxi. It was a long wait, because the driver got lost, couldn’t find his way to the Center, and had to call Aleks several times to get directions. At long last he found us, and the moment we got in the car, he started yelling at Aleks and driving erratically. She began translating, and much of what he was saying was something like, “What is wrong with people? They go to crazy places in the middle of nowhere and expect taxi drivers to come and pick them up and take them home again.”

Silly me. I thought that was what taxi drivers are paid to do. When I said as much to Aleks, we both started laughing uncontrollably, and had to avoid looking at each other for the rest of the drive. Despite the yelling, it helped to end the day in laughter.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Ukraine, Day Thirteen

I've been home nearly a week, fighting jet lag and getting my daughter back to school, and I'm finally getting to the rest of the blog posts on my trip. Expect them to trickle in slowly over the next several days! Thank you so much for reading, and for the comments you've been leaving. The comments kept me connected throughout my trip, and I appreciate them more than you know.

Tuesday (August 28): Another morning, another taxi ride. With only two interviews to complete today, I felt like a bit of a slacker. Instead of taking a taxi home, we caught a marshrutka to the Metro station, then took the Metro to Khreshchatyk Street, which is Kyiv’s main street, lined with shops, food vendors, hotels, and several government buildings.




I needed to buy some gifts, so we stopped in at a little souvenir shop, filled with items that I’ve come to associate with Ukrainian folk art: pysanky (decorative eggs), embroidered textiles, painted and carved wood pieces, painted and enameled jewelry, horilka (vodka) serving sets, and the requisite magnets, pins, and t-shirts sold by every tourist souvenir shop I’ve ever been in. I found what I was looking for fairly quickly, and we moved on to the Besarabsky Market to buy ingredients for dinner.

This indoor market reminded me in many ways of Seattle’s Pike Place Market, or Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market. There were vendors selling everything: fruits and vegetables, spices, nuts, and dried fruit, smoked fish and caviar, a wide variety of fresh meats, flowers, and bread and other baked goods. Because Aleks had told me she missed getting Mexican food in the States, my plan was to make pork carnitas, guacamole, and attempt to make tortillas with the corn flour I was able to find.

Our first stop was the spice vendor. After smelling many of his offerings, I was able to identify the cumin and oregano I needed. Everything seemed incredibly fresh, and he had just about anything you could imagine. Beautiful saffron, fragrant paprika, cardamom, vanilla beans, cinnamon…

I didn't get a picture, but there's a great image of the same vendor's stall on Flickr.

We moved on and bought tomatoes, avocadoes, garlic, onions, limes, and peppers. Be warned, don’t ever pick up a produce seller’s avocadoes and squeeze them. You WILL get yelled at. Once we had our ingredients, we made our way back to the Metro, and back to the apartment. We ate a late lunch prepared by Aleks’s friend Peter, and later in the evening, I made dinner. The pork, guacamole, and pico de gallo turned out pretty decent, considering the substitutions I had to make. The tortillas, on the other hand, were a disaster. Fine corn flour and masa harina are not interchangeable.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Ukraine, Day Twelve

Monday (August 27): We had four interviews scheduled today. My roommate/landlady Aleks is also working as my translator, so the two of us were in a taxi by 9:30am. Although it was cloudy and cooler, the humidity was as strong as ever, and like most of my days here, I felt drenched with sweat.
Interviews were scheduled at the Ukrainian Down Syndrome Organisation's Early Development Center throughout the day. They're going extremely well. After the second interview, I realized that the recorder was about to die, and I hadn't brought the charger with me. The receptionist told us there was a technology store about a fifteen-minute walk away, and as we had 45 minutes until the next interview, we set out to find a charger that would work.
The store - Technopolis - was set in a mall nearby; I was struck by how new and clean and shiny everything was, more like an American mall than what I'd seen up to that point, but lacking much of the character I've come to appreciate about shopping here.
We walked in and at the information desk, Aleks asked the man and woman working there whether the store carried chargers that might fit the video camera. I opened the slot to show them the connection, they took a cursory look, and then waved us off towards the camera and phone section of the store as though they couldn't care less about what we were looking for.
It was a small store, so we browsed for just a moment, then saw what I might need inside a locked glass case. A salesman was talking to some customers a few feet away, and when he finished, Aleks went over and asked him if he could help us.
He said no.
It wasn't "I have to do such-and-such a thing first," there was no, "Let me find someone else to help you," it was a flat, "Nyet." Followed by, "Maybe in two minutes."
Aleks was speechless. So was I, when she told me what he said. We decided to wait for the two minutes and see what happened, and watched the salesman saunter down the aisle and chat with a female coworker. The two of them began walking our way, and then walked right past us without even a side glance.
At that point, I started to laugh. "Where are they going?" I asked. Aleks, sounding thoroughly frustrated, joked that they were heading for the back room for a romantic tryst. "I don't have time for that!" I replied.
We spotted another salesman two aisles over, and Aleks approached him for help. "That's not my department today," he said. "But let me see if I can find Anton. It's his area." He wandered aimlessly until he spotted Anton and his female coworker returning from their smoke break...private meeting...whatever it was. Salesman number two said a few quick words to Anton, who looked over his shoulder at us, shrugged, and went to work returning merchandise to the shelves.
We stood there, watching him about 15 feet away from us, scanning items and carrying them to their designated location. One. At. A. Time. By this time, I was suggesting we leave. We had been standing there for nearly ten of our 45 minutes, and I was thinking this guy should be pretty freaking happy I don't speak Russian. We decided to give it another minute or two.
About that time, a woman and a girl walked into Anton's area, straight over to the case where the e-readers were on display. You can probably guess what happened next.
Anton dropped what he was doing, and immediately began talking to them.
As we turned to walk out, both Aleks and I were glaring, and Aleks made a little hand gesture as if to say, "What the hell?" Anton shrugged his shoulders with an "I don't give a shit" look on his face, then turned back to his new - and likely more profitable - customers.
Fortunately, we found what I needed at a phone accessory store downstairs, and were quickly on our way back to the Center, laughing so hard we could barely breathe. We will be doing interviews at the Center the rest of the week. We're thinking of going back to Technopolis just to mess with Anton's head.

Ukraine, Day Eleven

Sunday (August 26): First interview. I was up early, prepping for it, both nervous and excited to really be getting to work. Aleks, my roommate and translator, and I caught took the Metro to the end of the line, then took the marshrutka (private bus) to the shopping center near the Malone's house. We went into the Megamarket there, and I went into optical overload. It was smaller than Target or Wal-Mart, but I've been shopping at the little Furshet market in our neighborhood, and I'm not sure if I've become unused to that level of outright consumerism, which is so American, or if I've become more used to buying from a small store, or individual vendors, that basic building block of capitalism.
We met up with our interview subject, met Chris and Mary, and they drove us to their home. Their house is pretty big compared to what I've seen in Kyiv. Half of it is a large open space that they use for their missionary worship services, and this is where we did the interview. I think it went really well, but it was quickly over, and rather than having time to talk to the Malones, we had to get our interview subject back. I hope to have a chance to talk more with them about their work here.
We took the long marshrutka and Metro ride back home, where Aleks's neighbor had dinner waiting for us. It was a lovely gesture, and nice to come home to. I did some laundry, I talked to my colleague at the UDSO and found out we needed to be at the Center by 10:30 on Monday, and I went to bed early in hopes of getting some sleep. It didn't go so well, I was keyed up, thinking about all of the things I've been learning, and it took me a long time to fall into a fitful sleep.

Ukraine, Day Ten

Saturday (August 25): After a very sleepy 6am conversation with my daughter, who really needed it due to a traumatic sliver incident, I actually fell back to sleep until 9:30. It felt terribly decadent, and I got up, made tea and did some reading, then texted my colleague at the UDSO. She called back quickly and told me the photographs would be done at 7pm. Once that conversation was over, I gathered my nerve and headed for Metrograd.
I easily found my way to the Metro, bought my tokens, found the right direction, and was on my way - exhilirated! Riding the Metro, by myself! I got off at the right place, and after a single wrong turn, got on the longest escalator I've ever been on, and made it to the Metrograd.
Unlike American malls, this was filled with small open stalls and occasional small stores, selling just about everything you could ever want, from fancy bras to souvenirs to books to furniture. I wandered around (I was looking for a bag to replace one that's falling apart), looked at some stores, wandered some more, found a cool toy car for a friend's son wandered some more, realized I needed to use the bathroom and was getting lightheaded from dehydration. I had hoped it would be cooler down there, but it was only cooler if you went into a shop. I spent 10 minutes picking out the toy car, because I was standing right under an air conditioning vent.
I finally found the toilets, and then the right one (for women, I initially almost walked into the men's!). There was a sign that said "2 hryvnia" and washroom attendant who spoke a little English was in a little collection booth as you came in. You paid your 2 hryvnia, took toilet paper from the dispenser on the wall, and went on into your stall, which contained a clean squat toilet. I tried to squat. I really did. My bladder wouldn't relent. Finally, I gave up. Clearly I didn't need to go as badly as I thought I did.
I was still feeling lightheaded, so I stopped at a cafe, ordered a Pepsi, and sat, letting the rest, caffeine, and sugar do their work. When I finished (16 hryvnia for a Pepsi! But I was desperate!), I slowly wound my way out through the maze, stopping to buy a bag I'd admired on the way in. I am incredibly grateful for the vendors I've encountered who humor me and my lack of Russian, and smile so broadly and respond graciously when I actually get something right.
I easily found my way back on the Metro. Returned to the apartment dripping with sweat and tired, but exultant with my success. I sat in front of the fan to cool off, until my colleague called and told me the pictures would be done, and asking me to join her for dinner. She called again around 7:30pm, said she was on her way, and we needed to fix something with the photos. I got a little worried at that point!
When she arrived, she told me that the pictures had been printed in one large batch, not sorted out by camera. We planned to separate them over dinner, and she took me to an Italian restaurant in Podil called Oliva. We talked for more than an hour, continuing my education on disability in Ukraine. She told me that in 1973, a Soviet law was passed that required medical personal to place newborns with disabilities in the baby house, hiding them away, because they were not representative of a strong society. We talked about social norm theory, and she was both fascinated and puzzled. She doesn't see the difficulties here as being the result of cultural norms, she believes that those in power - both the government and the medical community - must be educated, and that the rest of the population simply has no idea what disability is, because they have never had the opportunity to be exposed to it. We talked about it being both a top-down and bottom-up process, teaching medical workers and government ministries, while at the same time reaching out to everyday citizens so they understand what Down syndrome is, and why it's important to raise these children at home.
Our evening was cut short when my colleague was called home. It's a shame I have so little time left. I have so many questions, and could sit and talk for hours.

Ukraine, Day Nine

Friday (August 24): Quite likely my most boring day yet. Waiting, waiting, waiting - when research involves other people, you live by their schedule. I texted my colleague at the Ukrainian Down Syndrome Organisation at 10:30am to find out whether cameras had gone to the photo processing place. She called and told me she was dropping them off this morning, and that there were eight cameras delivered to the center. Also, a family from Zhytomyr wants to participate; they're going to take digital photos, and we'll do the interview via Skype. There is one mother who needs to do her interview before next week because her son is going into the hospital. She was hoping to schedule for this weekend, and it turns out she lives near some American acquaintances I know from Facebook, Chris and Mary Malone (they're living in Ukraine with their family - you should check out their blog here). I told my colleague I would call them and find a place to do the interview on Sunday.

I called Chris and Mary, and they generously offered to let me use their home Sunday afternoon to do the interview. Mary gave me their address, spelled it out, and off I went to look it up. I called my colleague at the UDSO to let her know we had an interview location, that I'd email her the address, and asked her to let me know if that would work for the mom. I had to call Mary back to have her RE-spell their street name, but even with the help of my roommate and her neighbor, couldn't find it. Fortunately, there is a large shopping center close by, and we planned to meet there, then proceed to the Malone's.

By the time this was all worked out, it was nearly 5pm, and I'd spent my whole day...waiting, on the phone, or waiting to be on the phone. I had hoped to go to the Metrograd underground mall, but decided it was late, I was tired, and it wasn't worth it.

Today was Ukrainian Independence Day, and as soon as it started to get dark, the fireworks began - along with (assumed) drunken cheering and singing from around the neighborhood. There were at least two large sets of fireworks, one around 9pm, the other around 11pm. The nightclub or whatever is down the street, from which I often hear an announcer or maybe karaoke, was in full loudspeaker form tonight. I finally gave up and grabbed my earplugs.

Despite the earplugs, I was awakened around 1am by the most extraordinary wind blowing through the trees outside my window. It was the strongest wind I've encountered here, and it ushered in a violent thunderstorm that lasted a couple of hours. At one point I dozed off, only to be awakened by a lightning strike very close by. All finally quieted down around 3am.