Band of Brothers

Live Free or Die

My week began with the 66th anniversary of Victory Day in the Great Patriotic War and ended with the battle reenactment of the 67th anniversary of the liberation of Crimea from Nazi occupation. Roughly three thousand people, half of the six thousand announced by the press and event organizers, chose to spend a warm, beautiful Sunday afternoon watching grown men play with toy guns and pyrotechnics. I hopped on a bus headed “to Berlin” and got off near the village Partizanskoe, so re-named after the war in honor of the partisans who stood against the occupiers. Patriotville, if you will afford me the license to translate freely.

The reenactment began with the arrival of the Fascists in 1941. Survivors provided voiceover oral history, but it unfortunately turned out to be mostly indecipherable background noise. The bad acoustics and my bad Russian formed a wicked combination and left me with very little substantive back story. I understood/heard bits here and there: an old woman spoke about how Fascist troops ransacked her home, another survivor read the names of local civilians that perished in the war, and yet another recited solemn poetry.

A reenactment is like a real-life re-run of your favorite movie, the one you’ve seen a thousand times. You know how it ends, but yet you have to make your way through the entire buildup. Same here. The Red Army stood on the horizon awaiting 1944, while the Fascists made themselves at home in the village, terrorizing the helpless civilian populace with the iron fist of oppression. For a roughly half-hour time span symbolizing the four brutal years of occupation, the bad guys pointed guns at civilians, threatened to execute old ladies, chased village girls around the haystack, and massacred livestock. The most egregious war crimes on display were the merciless executions of two chickens in cold blood and the blowing up of a movie-set style shack with a bazooka, seemingly done for recreational enjoyment since the civilian structure held no intrinsic military value whatsoever. 

Band of Brothers

The old adage rang true. War is boring until a moment of intense madness abruptly sends the banal silence into abyss. The crowd remained patient, but precursors of restlessness came to foil. Everyone anxiously awaited the familiar ending, for the Red Army to heroically charge and free the villagers from their oppressive hell. The strike commenced with a thunderbolt. An artillery strike, made possibly with liberal application of pyrotechnic technology, hit the German position and sent them scattering. Soon, the sides began exchanging small arms and mortar fire, with the liberating Red Army slowly, but surely advancing on the Fascist position. With each passing moment, the battle intensified, bullets and shells being fired in quicker succession. The first Soviet charge was pushed back, but the second overwhelmed the Germans. Soviet mortars and snipers took the high ground, forcing the Germans into a last stand in the trenches. Then, on the appropriated date in the simulated calendar, the Red Army charged the German trench incurring heavy casualties in the process, but ultimately taking the trench – with the aid of their fists and the butts of their rifles. Over the next year, the Red Army would continue the westward charge, rapidly gaining territory along the way. The Germans unconditionally surrendered in a treaty on May 8th, but it was already the 9th on Moscow time by the time the treaty came into force, hence the holiday I blogged about in my previous entry.

The iconic red flag of the victorious Red Army

Afterwards, the reenactors mingled with the crowd, lending their props and themselves to posing for pictures. I snagged a few good photos-ops with the confiscated Nazi motorcycle, Red Army flag, and Red Army rifle, but missed out on the prized machine gun photo-op. The reenactors were in a jovial mood, elated with their moments in the spotlight and buoyed by the healthy dose of drink they must have taken prior to the reenactment. They let some observers shoot the prop guns in the air, but I wasn’t lucky enough on the day to be afforded that privilege. The gentlemanly soldiers reserved that honor for the girls in the crowd. Afterwards, a lunch consisting of military rations was to be served but I didn’t stay for this. I made my way back to town in time for the afternoon Tavriya football match, but ultimately decided against attending it. I had woken up early to attend the re-enactment and the lack of sleep caught up with me.

Now, without further ado, here is the video recording of the battle’s climax and its aftermath, just made availably by the political commissar and propaganda ministry censors.

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Enemy at the Gates

“Vasily Zaytsev killed 5 Germans today. How many have you killed?” – propaganda poster propelling the legend of WWII’s greatest sniper – from the film Enemy at the Gates (2001)

Sevastopol is a city steeped in military history; its streets and squares are filled to the brim with plaques, statues, and memorials commemorating the blood spilt by heroes who fought for the city in this war or the other. Literally every nook and cranny immortalizes the bravery of this soldier or that admiral, this ship or that brigade. Sevastopol has been contested, battered, razed, and held under siege in every war to reach these parts since its founding as a strategic naval base and home port for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Thus, there was only one place I could spend May 9th, Victory Day in the Great Patriotic War (known as WWII in the West.)

My new friends

I caught an early morning bus to Sevas (I’ve been here long enough to adopt local slang and shorthand) in order to be there in time for the 10am parade that was the highlight of the day’s festivities. I scoped out a good spot at the tail end of the parade route across the street from McDonald’s where I ate a hash brown for breakfast, but more about that later. I loat my “Jack Nicholson at a Lakers game” front row spot when schoolchildren bumped their way to the front. Armed with handmade thank-you notes and flowers, they were instructed by their commanding officers, I mean teachers, to present gifts to the parading veterans. It took twenty minutes for the parade to reach us and this didn’t sit well with the antsy gradeschoolers. I amused myself by observing the annoyed police officer who was forced to corral the circus and by practicing my Russian with the kids once they realized I was a foreigner.

Uncle Joe

The parade was a sight to behold – USSR flags, Stalin posters, singing veterans, drunk veterans, drunk singing veterans, veterans in jeeps, military bands playing war songs and etc. It is hard to describe the sights, sounds, and emotions of the spectacle as it is definitely something that must be experienced firsthand to be truly appreciated. As an outsider, I was left with one lasting impression – the genuine outcry of emotion expressed by the parade participants and watchers alike. The emotions were real, seemingly too real for an event that after all took place sixty-six years ago. Twenty million Soviet soldiers and civilians gave their lives defending the motherland from the onrushing Fascist blitzkrieg. Everyone here has a grandfather that lost a leg or did not return from the war. This is why on the 9th veterans wear their Soviet uniforms and display their medals with pride; why babushkas who can barely walk march stoutly with Stalin posters in hand; why people in the crowd wave the red hammer-and-sickle flag; and why patriotic songs are sung with elated joy. Sure, there is an element of myth on display accentuated by decades of propaganda – two days earlier, over drinks in the name of “international friendship,” a couple of my friends regaled me with tales of the Russian spirit that chased away Napoleon and Hitler. But, it would be too easy to dismiss this as mere nostalgia. No, the emotions I witnessed in Sevastopol were real, more real than the emotions at any July 4th or Memorial Day celebration that I had attended back home. String me up for treason. The day was rich in visual imagery; I posted what my camera captured on the day on my Facebook, but the pics below are the top picks of the bunch.

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The parade was just as much about staking claims about the future as it was about honoring sacrifices of the past. Khrushchev gifted Crimea to the Ukrainian SSR during the ’50s. The change from being a Russian oblast to a Ukrainian one didn’t matter much during the days of the Soviet Union, but it matters now.  There is no need for me to bore you with history lessons that you can readily read on Wikipedia, but suffice to say, the locals have been reluctant to embrace the geopolitical changes of recent times. The Black Sea fleet remains in Sevastopol, on a recently extended lease agreement that was the subject of much political debate between Ukraine and Russia. Public sentiment in Crimea and especially Sevastopol remains firmly orientated towards Russia. Youth groups and city residents were allowed to march in the parade and they expressed their views unmistakably through slogans such as “our future lies with Russia” and chants such as “Sevastopol, Krim, Rossiya.” Political parties also marched in the parade. Silna Ukraina’s passage (Strong Ukraine) was met with a “privyet gosti” (hello, guests) from a witty parade watcher. The crowd chuckled.

“I’m on a boat. I’m on a boat. Take a good hard look at the mothaf–kin’ boat.” – I’m on a Boat (2009), The Lonely Island feat. T-Pain

I'm on a boat. I'm on a mothaf--kin' Russian military boat.

Afterwards, I accompanied several friends including a couple of Fulbrighters from Odessa on a boat tour of the Sevastopol harbor. Well, actually, we just took the ferry to the other end of the bay and back. The real boat fun was to be found stationery in port. Several military ships were freshly painted and open for civilan tours for the occassion. The ships were in peak condition to the untrained eye. In reality, they’re Soviet antiques with very little military value. The Fleet’s presence in Sevastopol is symbolic and political, a glaring reminder to Ukraine and Europe to keep their hands honest in the next gas war. Regardless, it is not often that one is afforded the libery to tour a Russian military ship. I took full advantage of the opportunity to bring to life my suave secret agent personality. My charm was too much for one sailor from the adjacent boat who shot me a brazen wink. It’s nice to be noticed, but I shoot straight.

Vin Diesel selling out his cool guy image to appear in a big money ad sellin' cheeseburgers

I counterbalanced the communist nostalgia that was the order of the day with a dose of good old-fashioned American franchise capitalism – breakfast, lunch, dinner, and takeaway from McDonald’s. Uneasy stomach, the unwavering mark of excess at its finest. I had initially vowed to avoid the sinful ex-pat temptation of the Golden Arches until July 4th, but I’ve made a couple of infringements while traveling to other cities. Odessa, Kiev, and Sevastopol are bigger, more cosmopolitan, more vibrant, and consequently much more expensive than Simferopol. The 30 UAH ($4.25) meal deal at McDonald’s just can’t be passed up when everything else costs twice as much as I’m used to paying. The $5 Subway footlong was just a good piece of business when I lived in DC, much more so than it ever was in the reasonably affordable surroundings of Fort Wayne, Indiana. The McDonald’s in Simferopol is being remodeled for the summer tourist season, so it has not been too hard to avoid the inkling for crispy golden fries and a delicious beef patty snuck between a sesame seed bun. Unfortunately, the work seems to be way behind schedule. I’ve lost hope of being in attendance for the grand re-opening of the Simfer Mickey D’s. Rumors have it that it will be a two-story McDonald’s, bigger than any in Crimea. Maybe even bigger than any in Ukraine…or Europe! Yikes! But, alas, I will miss out. I bought some burgers for Steve who missed out on the parade due to commitments to clearing a work backlog, exasperated by weeklong bout with illness. Steve did his best impression of a heroin junkie by frying a cold hamburger on my stove and almost setting the apartment on fire. Luckily the smoke cleared before my landlord came to collect rent. Ex-pats will go to desperate lengths to fill a homesick craving. I just hope the marketing division for McDonald’s subscribes to my blog. Vin Diesel/Bruce Willis would make a great ad pitchman.

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The Fast and the Furious

It don’t matter if you drink by a pint or a shot…drinking is drinking” – Torreto, The Fast and the Furious (2001) – paraphrase

The Boss – Vodka Diplomacy

February 23rd is Defender of the Fatherland Day (Red Army Day in the Soviet Period.) The date commemorates the first mass draft into the Red Army 93 years ago (1918) on today’s date. Its secondary unofficial, though culturally widespread interpretation is Men’s Day – an opportunity for women to give small gifts to the men in their lives, a Father’s Day that doesn’t discriminate against bachelors. Commemorating Men’s Day today is rather appropriate considering all the manly things I’ve been doing in the past fortnight such as drinking and drinking. Parties and after-parties. VIP. Simferopol is not the most exciting or cultural city hence the constant complaints from the students I’ve met and utter disbelief when I say that I’ve grown somewhat fond of it. Apparently, there’s nothing to do, but that’s only true if you don’t know the right people. And, now I know the people. In an important watershed moment for my social life while abroad, I have surpassed the 50 mark on my friend count on VKontakte, the Russian language social network that looks and feels like Facebook with the addition of copyright-infringing music and video downloading features.

It took me a long time to build my social circle here. It proved to be a painstakingly slow process in the first few weeks, but I know a lot of people now and I’m back to doing baller things that match and hopefully surpass the awesomeness of Summer 2010: Korea, Vegas, and my month-long going away extravaganza back in the Fort. My game is global, but I still rep the 260. I’ve given local rappers airtime 5000 miles away, ’cause I do it like that.

My Simfer crew consists of a colleague known by the codename Vin Diesel and several other Americans teaching English and serving as Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs); my vodka-lovin’ Crimean “bratan” Sergey and his curly-haired friend codenamed Curly Hair who works at the club most often frequented by students and has been kind enough to get us VIP access there though I haven’t been yet; a British ex-pat aid worker codenamed Quid who works for NGOs and UNDP and went 8 months here without meeting ex-pats until learning there were foreigners here through a chance meeting with Marina and a Google search that revealed this very blog; and students I’ve met in various ways with impressive party talents that include amongst other things: playing the piano, opera singing, and photography. They have joined my first and best friend in Simferopol, Marina, who officially became my sister on Facebook during my housewarming party.

Speaking of my housewarming, Friday before last I threw a baller American dorm-style party featuring Turkish delights, Sri Lankan tea, Ukrainian blue-and-yellow napkins, French baguettes, and cheddar cheese. And, tons of booze. Two of my pianist friends gave the old, dusty piano in my living room a moment in the limelight. By the way, yes, I have a piano in my living room. Next question. Party highlights include my preparation of French cuisine by cutting cheese in haphazard shapes and my friends’ attempt to bribe the woman downstairs with cake after her noise complaint. The afterparty moved to Sila Kelta, Simfer’s Irish pub where waiters wear Scottish kilts and the after-afterparty went down at Pizzeria Neapolis, a local chain where one can get vodka & pizza and toast with local tough guys at 3am.

With a successful housewarming Тяпница (Russian slang version of TGIF combining the words for drinking and Friday) in the books, we decided to do it again at Vin Diesel’s riverside property since he had returned to the city after several months. A bigger place required a bigger guest list, but it was more of the same in terms of the dorm-style party fun on display. I missed the after-party and the after-after-party. I passed out on Vin Diesel’s couch at some point. Chasing a shot of vodka with a shot of cognac amongst other things will do that you. I woke up the next day with a plate of potato chips in my hair.

“Throw a little paper out if it’ like that. Like that.” – Like that, Memphis Bleek (“534” album, 2005)

After grooming myself, I joined the local PCVs at their music-themed English-learning weekend camp where I hung out with students, and taught them some essential hip hop slang: hustlin’, baller, ice, game, and ridin’ on 22s. At the end of the day, I joined the PCVs, Vin Diesel, and my British friend whom I had met earlier in the day at Proletersko Pivo, a Communist-themed bar that sells decent beer (a rarity here) at prices rather unfriendly to the proletariat. The conversations ranged from the “special relationship” to the purpose of the Peace Corps mission with random, intermittent tangents to discuss some of my eccentric habits, interests, and hilarious experiences. Though I’ve possibly already done it earlier, this evening without a shadow of a doubt adds Ukraine to the list of countries where I’ve been the loud American. Toasting “to America’s ^%%$$#$#$#*^# foreign policy interests” in a Communist-themed bar passes the bar quite easily. We initially assumed that we were made to pay for extra beers. Concerned that we’ve been had as tourists, we paid the bill to the nearest kopek. Tip was already included. On further examination, we realized that considering the size of our crew, we probably did drink the listed thirty beers amongst ourselves. I had only two, believe it or not. The party continued at a PCV’s apartment and, for me, consisted of a solid trifecta: pizza, screwdrivers, and hookah.

I spent some of the next day at camp, though I had to leave early in order to admit Marina as a couch surfer into my apartment which is, of course, her old place. She picked up a nasty cough while interviewing people in the cold and spent the past two days ill and immobile in bed. We reasoned that it would be better for her to sit the illness out at my place in order to risk passing the germs to her host babushka. We ended this weekend with comfort food at a new cafe in the center where I took the opportunity to order a caviar crepe. I had never tried caviar and I didn’t like it once I did, but where and when else am I going to be offered $2.50 caviar?

Occurring intermittently around these parties were two mid-day champagne campaigns featuring Marina and I. Our newest innovation is to drink champagne out of used honey jars that we don’t throw away, because we’re of immigrant stock. Jars provide much larger storage in comparison to the inefficient design of traditional wine or champagne glass. Champagne is classy and sophisticated which is antithetical to our immigrant roots. Drinking champagne out of re-used honey jars, on the other hand, is much more immigrant friendly.

The newest addition to my social circle is a troupe of professional footballers from the ex-Yu countries playing for Tavriya.  Two months ago, I tried contacting one of them through a fan website and that finally materialized this week. I met them at a bar in the center where peeps with the nicest cars in the city park them outside and go in. Hence, I haven’t been there before. They were kind enough to pick up the tab for my two beers and give me a ride home. Balkan hospitality. Enough said. This was a Monday night, so I had work the next day and they had training in the morning hence their penchant for juice and my self-imposed two-beer limit. Thus, a mild evening in comparison to the two that preceded it, but I was ecstatic for the opportunity to speak my mother tongue. I mean, seriously, who hangs out in oligarch hangouts with professional footballers on a Monday night? Hopefully, this becomes a Crimean Entourage where I’m VIP for knowing guys who are VIP, because they are good at kicking and dribbling soccer balls. Either way, it’s been a fortnight of baller thangs. My baller status is once-again certified and recognized. Crimea Love.

“I’m connected nationwide, but in the South I’m a king.” – King, T.I. (Hustle & Flow Soundtrack, 2005

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The (Ex) Patriot

“This is your chance to pay back your Uncle Sam for all the wonderful freedoms you’ve enjoyed.” – Arthur Gibbons, xXx (2001)

Uncle Sam has been a generous fella to me over the years. He gave me gruel and shelter in childhood, citizenship papers and scholarship dollars during my student years, and has been graciously sending checks so I can pay for my rent, borsch, and vodka. Well, two out of three. I’m passionately indifferent on borsch. Perhaps it is time I start making returns on Uncle Sam’s investment in me. With that in mind, I signed up for the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) during the February window and I convinced my Fulbright sister Marina and rap duo counterpart MC Krim Shady (Zach) to accompany me to the testathalon in The Thunderdome. Good fortune was bestowed upon us. The test was given during the same weekend as the spring Fulbright orientation for new arrivals. The rest of us were invited to attend the exhilarating, heart-pounding Fulbright orientation action a second time. Jokes aside, a free train trip to Kyiv to hang out with friends that are flung all across the country was exactly what the doctor ordered. Even the weather in Kyiv was good i.e. above zero centigrade. Good fortune indeed.

Marina and I got the trip going with another successful champagne campaign on the train. We were accompanied in our compartment by a pious, teetotatling pro-Belarussian dictatorship Ph.D candidate in economics from Kyiv-Mohyla. Only in Ukraine. It is technically illegal to drink on a train in Ukraine, but you wouldn’t know that aside from the ironic crossed-out bottle symbols. Honestly, what else are you going to do on a 15-hour train trip. Luckily, I’m fond of Ukrainian trains. I’ve already slept about a dozen nights on them. 

It is practically impossible to prepare for the FSOT. It tests job competency knowledge across thirteen realms deemed crucial to the work of a FSO Generalist during the last State Department internal review. The categories run the gamut from U.S. history, politics, and economics to management and computers (and everything in-between.) The FSOs I’ve met joke around that “no one passes the test the first time around.” After extensively preparing for the exam on wikipedia, Zach and I joined the local ex-pats for drinks where I turned out to be public enemy #1 for unilaterally insisting that we change drinking establishments at a split second’s notice without time or opportunity for debating the said executive order. Back story: The ex-pats though it would be peachy to sandwich their cultural outing between trips to two different ex-pat Irish pubs. I couldn’t stomach the $15 burgers on the menu literally and the upside-down Italian flag pretending to be an Irish flag figuratively so I put on my prickly Decider hat. We promptly moved to Trolleybus, a quaint place frequented by locals and featuring reasonable prices and decent bar food. Mission Accomplished.

The aftermath has been a PR nightmare. I’ve been forced to defend my actions from witch-hunting accusers. As readers of this blog, you know who you are. My character and patriotism have been questioned, but I’ve decided to adopt a full Bosnian inat (entrenchment) policy despite a surge of interest to abandon my position without clear benchmarks or an argument winding-down exit strategy.

Anyway, that was Friday. We took the test on Saturday afternoon and probably failed. Conclusive analysis of our failure will be noted in three to five weeks. Hopefully, with pie charts and Venn diagrams. I confused facts about Lake Baikal and the Caspian Sea on one question and was asked about the location of the “page setup” tab on Windows computers on another. Lame. The irrationality of the test was cured with a bottle of vodka, a rather appropriate pre-gaming transition to our evening reception with academicians.

We were invited to a catered dinner at the Fulbright program director’s apartment. Normally, this is a boring affair where current and future Ph.Ds discuss important controversies in their fields unknown to anyone living outside the Ivory Tower while eating cheese cubes and exchanging business cards. I decided to introduce a little flair to this gathering by parading around as my newest alter ego – Phillipe, an effete Frenchman fond of pink scarves, inappropriate humor, and baguettes. Pictures of Phillipe entertaining the guests are forthcoming.

I helped myself to three plates of food and enough wine and beer to enter the zone, the happy place that makes me enjoy drinking in the first place. The party continued at Andy Bar, a new gay club on Khreshatyk. In case you’re wondering, yes, there are gay clubs in Kyiv. There are at least three and I’ve been to two of them. And, no, I’m straight but I’m not sure about Phillipe. The skeptical ex-pat guys were persuasively convinced that gay bars are great places to meet women, nice girls who like to dance without constantly being hit on by straight men. I don’t wish to take credit for creating this illusion, but I’m not going to disassociate myself from the rumor, either. Congratulations to those who found girls to dance with despite the rough terrain. Anyway, my Fulbright peeps and I tore the club up, fo sho…until the moment when two weightlifting pretty boys took the stage in speedos. I don’t remember if that came before or after the drag queen told the American girls to step off stage. I haven’t had this much fun clubbing since the private party at the Hyundai Hotel during BIP, my study abroad trip to Korea this past summer. I don’t go to clubs often, but maybe I should.

Sunday was reserved for the actual orientation briefings, the primary purpose of our gathering. I promptly arrived an hour late. After lunch, we were led on a Kyiv city tour by a Fulbright scholar who did the same during the first orientation. He has learned much more about the city in the intervening time and was thus able to give us a more comprehensive tour of the Kyiv that tourists don’t normally see. We ate dinner at a restaurant combining pre-civilization caveman village/nature themes with a health food bent. The evening ended with a small get together and an impromptu birthday party for Raphi, our Fulbright colleague working on his Ph.D dissertation in migration. We took a good ten minutes to open a bottle of champagne, reinforcing my earlier point about Fulbright grants being awarded to current and future Ivory Tower academicians. It turns out that basic life skills are merely recommended and not required to be a Fulbrighter. 

I spent Monday at the Embassy where I finally got some good, though still incomplete advice about my visa and registration. Ukrainian laws are notoriously vague and open to multiple interpretations. It is in the gray of the law where bribes grease the cogs of the underground black market. On a side note, I spilled juice on my crotch during the coffee break so the need for dry cleaning my suit has shifted from orange to red on the “unprofessional look” level. 

I made it to the train headed back to Simferopol with three full minutes to spare.  I took the trip back to Crimea with Steve, a scholar in political science re-joining the Fulbright contingent in Simferopol on a grant renewal. My final destination was my new apartment (Marina’s old apartment). I had moved the last of my belongings on Thursday before getting on the train to Kyiv. Now it was time to actually start living in the place.

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Coal Miner’s Tenant

“Tonight, I’m cleaning out my closet.” – Eminem

My suitcases are packed and ready to be moved after daybreak. My oft-foreshadowed apartment change has been greenlit. I’m trading my current place for a slightly smaller, cozier apartment that will be a little cheaper and more hospitable for three simple reasons: clutter-free bedroom, mold-free bathroom, and problem-free washing machine. Good things in life tend to come in threes and this golden trifecta is bound to boost my Happiness Index scores into the Scandinavian stratosphere.

Stakhanov on the cover of Time magazine

If you’re contemplating sending care packages, please note that I’m trading Turgeneva for Stakhanova. I’m moving from a street named after one of Russia’s literary masters to a street named after the Soviet Union’s most famous worker. Communist regimes had a habit of using propaganda to promote larger-than-life representations of the common man. Real events and individuals often served as inspirations for the legends. Think of legendary sniper and hero of Stalingrad Vasily Zaytsev (portrayed by Jude Law in Enemy at the Gates) and ask yourself “How many Nazis have you killed today?” In the Soviet Union, the honor and glory of being the propaganda machine’s  ideal worker fell to Donbass coal miner Alexey Stakhanov after he broke a coal mining world record by mining a hundred metric tons in under six hours – a workload fourteen times his quota. Stakhanov became a role model to follow – a living, breathing representation of the ideal Soviet man. He even made the cover of Time magazine in the heathen West.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
– Juliet, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (Act II, Scene 2, lines 1-2)

Most Ukrainian cities have an undergone a significant post-independence facelift with removed statues, newly built memorials, re-named streets. The changes render a good riddance / under new management post-independence vibe , but not so much in Crimea where Soviet era iconography seems to have been retained in entirety. As far as I can tell, the only building named after Taras Shevchenko in Simferopol is a run-down movie theater near the center.

Karl Marx St. - Primary real estate in the city center

In  the Soviet period, the central streets and squares were named after Communism’s central figures. As such, the English faculty that I’m affiliated with at TNU works out of a former governmental building on Lenina and I do most of my shopping at Silpo, a supermarket located on the end of Karl Marksa. Silpo is the nearest equivalent to a Wa-Mart that I have found here. It is the only place where I have been able to purchase food, light bulbs, hygiene products, and school supplies in a single shopping run. Historical irony of such sheer magnitude occurs with the utmost normalcy here. Just last week I took a picture in Yalta of the resident Lenin statue on the principal square in town pointing towards McDonalds. Need I say more?

Lenin & McDonalds

Lenin pointing towards the Promised Land of Golden Arches

20,000 Dinars under the Earth

Stakhanov’s counterpart in Yugoslavia was Bosnia’s very own Alija Sirotanovic. The story goes that he defeated Stakhanov in what can only be described as a coal-off and broke the aforementioned world record during the height of the Tito-Stalin split that set Yugoslavia on its independnent non-aligned trajectory in foreign policy. For his troubles, Tito offered to grant Sirotanovic a wish, but the humble Alija only asked for a bigger shovel. And, so it was. The designed larger shovel became known as a sirotanovicka and it remains a familiar sight to this day to anyone who has been around a Bosnian construction site.

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A New Hope

Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in. – Michael Corleone

Epics began in media res. Homer did so with the titular character in The Odyssey and George Lucas re-introduced this concept of storytelling to a modern audience in Star Wars. I can’t help but to live my life within the constraints of chronology. I’m a mere mortal after all. Yet, If I could bend time and space to recount my Fulbright year in media res, now would be the right time to set the stage for the opening scene. I’m in the fourth month of my journey. I have just recently returned from a marvellous, but exhausting journey across Asia Minor and the Apennine Peninsula which had succintly followed an expedition to the folk life and ski slopes of the Carpathian mountainside. In the last few hours, in a country far, far away…I’ve stocked my empty fridge with groceries and my washing machine with dirty laundry. Work awaits but it will not reach full swing for another few days. It is a time for reflection and recollection.

Epics rely on flashbacks to recount past events. I shall do the same here. Eventually. Paradoxically, I haven’t spoken much of my experiences in Crimea. Its beautiful landscapes, lush vineyards, and serene seaside deserve more attention than I have allowed thus far. I haven’t written about my soccer pilgrimage to Donetsk nor have I written about my surreal experience in the service of justice and democracy as an international election observer in Ukrainian local elections in Odessa. It was literally the longest day of my life. During the past three weeks I have failed miserably at picking up the bourgeois sport of skiing, traversed continents by ferry, observed Mass at the Vatican, gazed upon the breathtaking glory of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, chillaxed to Italian covers of classic rock songs in a Florentine jazz club, submitted to the allure of Turkish coffee after two decades of vehement resistance, traced the Ottoman influence on my palate and heritage tongue, bartered for fine fabrics and spices in the bazaars and side streets of Istanbul, introduced scarves to my wardrobe, informed travelers of various nationalities about the centuries-long persecution of the left-handed minority, and, most importantly, cleared my mind of all manner of worry and burden and filled my belly with cuisines par excellence. There is much to write about.

A proper rest has done me a world of good. I am motivated and hopeful of undertaking a new approach with my ETA responsibilities and dwelling into language study with a much greater intensity. There is even hope of a “less is more” apartment switch. From here on out, I begin things anew with my Fulbright year. It’s going by fast and I’m determined to make the most of it. For I know not what lies behind the horizon. It’s time to update the old resume and register for the February FSO test window, which happenstance is  conveniently scheduled during the same weekend as the Fulbright orientation for the new arrivals. That means a free trip to Kyiv and a chance at redemption at the opera. Maybe I’ll stay awake for at least the first act this time around. Kyiv in February is not a tantalizing prospect from a meteorological perspective. I’m not overly fond of Star Wars though I recognize its staggering grasp on our pop culture hence the references in this entry. Hopefully the first film reference to cross my mind at the upcoming Fulbright gathering will not be the biting cold of the ice moon Hoth.  That would be most unfortunate, especially since my gloves and winter hat never made it back to Crimea after the filming of my Carpathian ski slapstick comedy.

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Iron Chef

“Today’s secret ingredient is…” – Iron Chef America

Around three months ago, I left the comforts of home behind for a year of adventure and soul-searching. I’ve done my best to immerse myself in a foreign culture; attempted to broach the secrets of a foreign tongue. I certainly could have been more diligent in my languages studies, but the requisite motivation is too often a bucket filled with drops (in a desert desperately thirsting for rainfall amidst a dust bowl). I read and understood a fair amount and I can say enough to participate in everyday commerce and transportation. For the most part, I have adjusted as well as I could have hoped. Most importantly, I’m not overly homesick, which is rather fortunate since I have no intention of braving the Atlantic while mid-stream in my Fulbright year.

Leaving the comforts of home has necessitated a Spiderman-style “with great power comes great responsibility” uptick in maturity levels. I am, after all, renting and living in my own apartment for the first time in my life. In other words, I’ve been entrapped by the full trappings of adulthood – cooking and cleaning! All too often I find myself sacrificing R&R for C&C.

Recently,I have developed a keen interest in the local real estate market. My rent seems to be market value for my apartment, but only as it exists on paper. In reality, the broken washing machine and clutter-filled bedroom that reduces my two-room apartment to a living room and a bed do not seem to be worth what I’m paying by any stretch of the imagination. My malfunctioning half-broken washing machine has already ruined a couple of shirts beyond recognition. My farewell with my favorite yellow-shirt will have to be of the closed-casket variety. I bough it in Korea this summer and it is already out of commission. Alas. Faulty appliances and my innate carelessness and ineptitude have proven to be a recipe for disaster.

Speaking of recipes, there is no one but myself & I to feed me. I spent the first month making sandwiches, spreading Nutella, and eating greasy street food. Two month later, I’ve added two new skills to my cooking repertoire: frying and boiling. I buy & fry eggs, sausages, and fries; I boil pasta, pelmeni, and varenyky. Pelmeni and varenyky are dumplings stuffed with various chicken, pork, cheese, potatoes, or cabbage. I prefer the chicken and cheese varieties. No one has conclusively explained to me the differences between pelmeni and varenyky and wikipedia is inaccessible at the moment. Per my experience and observation, verenyiky are bigger and Ukrainian, while pelmeni are smaller and Russian. That may or may not be true. Regardless, they are delicious and easy to make. I prefer the bite-size pelmeni.

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My diet consists almost exclusively of carbs, meat, diary, and sweets. I occasionally eat a fruit here and there, but it’s probably been a full month since I’ve eaten a vegetable. And best of all, I’ve shed 5 kilograms (11 lb.) during my time here. My car is 5000 miles away and the food here isn’t as processed or saturated with chemicals as the food back home. It’s great! I can eat absolutely anything as long as I walk around.

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