Before I returned to Ukraine, a American who’s lived here for almost a decade advised that it’s not for everyone. “The toilet paper is definitely softer in America,” he said.
He was talking about all the little things which are more difficult in Ukraine. These are no big deal in my opinion, but they are interesting.
First, some reasons I prefer Ukraine . . . for now:
All in all, I feel safer in Ukraine than in the US, especially from violent crime.
Toilets work. (The privately owned ones, that is.) For an expose on American toilets see Jeffrey Tucker’s, The Relentless Misery of 1.6 Gallons.
The markets are much less developed. Opportunities abound. I walk around everyday and imagine various enterprises. I think: “this could work. That could work.”
Although there are real, devoted advocates of economic Marxism here, everyone considers them ridiculous. I think they’re mostly devoted to the sacrificed their ancestors made to the red banner and hammer and sickle. As I’ve written before, when an endeavor is sprinkled with the blood of good people, it becomes its own justification, regardless of whether or not is a moral and economic abomination. In the U.S. Marxism is treated like a good idea that hasn’t yet been properly implemented.
There is less cultural Marxism here. It is okay for women to be beautiful and men to be manly and people to be successful.
There is less of a slave mentality (maybe). Although the U.S. still has the hottest entrepreneurial talent in the world, by far, I feel like most Americans now have a slave mentality. They want to be caged and taken care of by the state. Perhaps it’s because government in Ukraine is such an obvious and spectacular disappointment, that most people (excluding pensioners) don’t expect anything from them.
Now, the bad:
1. Opening a door. There seems to be a 50/50 chance that the door will bump into another door, or a closet, or a person standing by the sink of a restaurant’s bathroom. Things aren’t designed as well in Ukraine.
2. Turning on a light. In most apartments that majority of light switches are centrally located. It’s as if the home’s commissar, following in the great socialist tradition, wanted a commanding height from which to bestow the blessing of light upon his subjects who are obviously too stupid to do it themselves. The result — I spend frustrating seconds switching lights on and off until I see, through the cracks of a door at the end of the hallway, that the proper switch has been flipped.
In renovated apartments, the light switches are no longer centrally located, but they are poorly placed. You have to reach around a door, for example, to flip the switch.
3. Unplugging something. If you’re not careful, the plastic socket casing will come out of the wall pulling guts and wiring with it.
4. Browsing the internet. It has to do with how IP addresses are assigned. When I unplug one laptop and switch the ethernet cable to the other, I have to wait for 30 minutes before I can use it. (This was solved when I got WIFI.) Also, if you misspell your password just once on a Ukrainian website, you’re immediately confronted with a Captcha verification. No second chance.
5. Showering. Hot water is unreliable, even in my gym. It’s getting much more reliable, though! Some building have gigantic water heaters beside them — again the Soviet lust from centralized control — but little by little, people are installing private water heaters in their homes. Many bathrooms are small and crowded, and many showers are handheld, with the fixture for fastening the nozzle above you broken. I’m learning to wash single-handed.
6. Going to a restaurant. There is the generally poor customer service which I’ve written about before. There seems to be a common practice of labeling every table “reserved” on certain nights. A place will be half empty, but every seat and table will be marked “reserved,” and you’ll get scolded for sitting there. (What the fuck?) You’d think they’d welcome your money. They don’t even offer to sell you a reserved table. Perhaps it’s up to me to offer them money. I don’t understand this system.
7. Shopping. A store may be locked during normal business hours with no explanation. Or, the main door may be locked and you’ll never realize that only the side, alley-way door is open. When you point it out, the lady behind the counter will have no idea why you’re bothering her with such trivialities.
Also, in Soviet times, shops were run by the government. The clerk, much like the clerks Americans interact with at the Department of Motor Vehicles, is a government employee who enjoys a monopoly on the “service” they offer. They were rude as hell, and asserted their authority by abusing customers. The legacy of this is that some retail people assert their authority by being rude. This is changing slowly. The free market takes time. Businesses with bad customer service has to go bankrupt or change. The best ones will slowly increase their market share. The further a market is from free, the slower this process. Also, you have to pay for your bag and bag your items yourself.
8. Finding your way around. Street signs are not located at intersections. They are *sometimes* located on little placards on buildings. I’ve walked a quarter mile trying to figure out the name of the street I had turned onto.
Address numbering is weird. It can still be in the single digits on one side of the street, while on the other they’re reaching the thirties. Some addresses are inside courtyards accessible only by alleyways.
Also, major roads in Kyiv (and in some other cities) are crossed by going through underground passageways. They are often filled with shops and it’s impossible to go the direction you think you need to go.
9. Checking a movie listing. Once while walking through Kyiv, sounding out the names of stores, I noticed a ‘kinoteater,’ a theater. There was no brightly lit sign depicting movie listings as one may find in the US, so I went inside. I studied the various posters and announcements above the ticket booths, but found no listings until a crowd off to one side attracted my attention. They peered over each other’s shoulders to study an 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of paper taped to the wall below eye level on which the listings were printed in black & white. Hunger Games was not playing.
10. Water deliveries. Despite repeated promises, they don’t arrive. (Ukraine’s tap water is non-potable.)
11. Calling a cab. The operator of a cab company hung up on me suddenly and without explanation as soon as we began to have difficulty understanding each other. When I called back the first time, the same lady answered. She recognized my voice and hung up instantly. I called back a third time, got a different operator and ordered my cab. I still use them, because they’re inexpensive and tell you the price beforehand. When no cabs are available, sometimes you’ll get a text message telling you. Sometimes they just leave you waiting.
12. When it rains neither umbrellas nor taxis seems to be available.
13. Interpersonal space. Ukrainians sometimes have a strange sense of it. Example #1: When the metro leaves a station, it is not usual to be tapped on the shoulder immediately and asked whether you’re getting off at the next station, simply because you’re standing between another person and the door. They expect to switch spaces with you even if it’s too crowded to switch spaces, even if you’re the only person between them and the door, and even if you’re a nice person who always gets out of the way for people.
Example #2: I went to eat at an inexpensive local buffet style restaurant called Puzata Xata. There were many free tables, but beside the windows, there was only one. A small table. It had a blue folder on it. I didn’t see anyone nearby, so I sat there and began to eat. A middle aged woman put her tray down opposite me and sat down. She rummaged through her purse. “Was this table taken?” I asked in Ukrainian, ready to move elsewhere if it was. She seemed not to hear me. I asked again, a little louder. She didn’t react in the slightest, and I wondered if she was deaf. “Excuse me,” I said in English. Again, no reaction. She pulled a cell phone from her purse, and then I knew she wasn’t deaf. She was ignoring me. “Was this table taken?” I asked again in Ukrainian, determined to get an answer. She looked at me angrily and said “Well sit. It’s a common area. Sit and eat. What do you want?” We both ate our food, sitting just a few feet apart facing one another. Both of us took phone calls during our meal. I left when I finished.
14. Boorish behavior. The lady behind me in line at the supermarket kept tapping my bag, accidentally, I thought. I was in a good mood and felt more shocked and amused than irritated. She seemed to be with her husband or lover. He was whispering softly to her in Russian. I guess her tapping was supposed to be a hint that I didn’t grasp. Eventually, she shoved me from behind. I turned around, shocked. She raised her chin defiantly. The man immediately grabbed her and moved himself between us. He scolded in in the same gentle, lover’s voice. The line was unusually long and slow — late night rush. Eventually, she shoved me again. I think she felt frustrated that I wasn’t crowding the person in front of me. I turned around and again the man put himself between us, and lectured her. I did too. I told her I was a foreigner. That in America people don’t push each other. She waved her hand dismissively and said something like “move along America.” Her man continued to gently berate her in a lover’s voice. He said something like “this man came all the way from America to visit us and his is how you’re treating him.”
Pretty pathetic behavior from an adult. I was on my way home from Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and therefor in a good mood. I was more stunned than anything else.
15. Banking. This is related to the interpersonal space issue. When I go to a bank, to inquire about my account, withdraw money, or the like, the people behind me in line are right up in my shit. Their noses are on my shoulder. They watch closely as I fill out forms, count money. Sometimes they pretend I’m not there and begin conversations with the teller while she’s in the middle of helping me.
16. Leaving your apartment. You need a key, sometimes two. This is a fire hazard catastrophe waiting to happen.
17. Toilets in public places. You have to pay an attendant. Despite that, they are filthy. Often, they are squat toilet. Often, they are filthy squat toilets. Filthy, pay squat toilets.
18. Old ladies closing the windows on public transportation. Okay, so most public transportation is crowded, a little dirty, uncomfortable, etc. Ukraine’s public transport has the added feature of, old women who sincerely believe that drafts (as opposed to germs) cause disease. It’ll be miserably hot, steamy and smelly on a public bus, and some idiotic, sweater-clad babushka will insist that the windows be shut. She’ll insist as if her life depends on it, because she believes it does.
19. Removing a price tag, especially from a cup or dish. They don’t have the ones that come off smoothly like in America. These bastards are sticky and fall apart. Once you’re done picking off the paper — one torn bit at a time, you have to use a scouring pad to remove the glue from your new dishes.
(I’ll likely be expanding this post as more things occur to me.)
I like to describe Ukraine as not quite designed for humans . . . yet. Socialism is not designed for humans, and Ukraine, given the perversion and distortion that characterizes it’s two decades of lurching away from the Soviet system, is recovering slowly.