Sunday, September 09, 2007

One of the real delights in spending time together here is seeing how different cultural values impact the behaviour of these rural Ukrainians. The way people live is a mix of the impact of the Patriotic war, prescribed Soviet thinking, expectations coming out of independence, and western materialism. Often our evenings are spent reflecting on all of this and the gatherings around the kitchen table in the Centre with the mix of Russian and Ukrainian staff gives opportunity check our observations and assumptions.

For example, one of the things we have noticed here is the unusual number of people who are described as “invalids”. One of our staff speaks of her invalid daughter, and another refers to all the invalid children in the internat (orphange) or the sanitorium. People requesting medical emergency funds or other means of support speak of being invalids or of having invalids to care for.

When we asked Lucy Romanenkova, Director of the Florence Centre in Zaporzhye, she said this is a broad category of people who may have had surgery or have been diagnosed with a debilitating illness which qualifies them for a small medical pension. It is a well intentioned policy going back to Soviet times, aiming to provide for the sick, which however may have the unintended consequence of labeling and building dependencies. “Invalid” is not limited to being physically disabled--it is a broad category of illness. We do not begrudge them getting support, in fact some people should get more, and for all it should encourage empowerment and move them to independent living. A most inspiring moment came the other morning when we saw a well dressed young man with only one leg, assertively moving about on the street with a cane attached to his arm. His extended arm has become his leg. More amazing than his mobility was his appearance, his resolve, his confidence. That evening we reflected on this scene and agreed that in Canada our approach of making accommodation to ensure that the disabled can live full lives is better than giving a paltry token to many, keeping them in institutions or at home where parents collect their pensions. Just another thing to be thankful for.

Another intriguing practice that apparently is quite common involves buying gas for our Lada. Our Ukrainian Director and our maintenance man insist that we buy no more that 22 liters at a time (100 grievna). When we Canadians say, “let’s fill up the gas tank,” they say, “no, no, just put in 22 litres.” We are told that many people decide ahead of time how much driving they will do for the week and then buy accordingly. It is not uncommon to only buy 5 litres at a time and make do with that and make do with that for the week. We suspect this practice is more common in rural areas and it has been suggested that going in and saying, “fill it up,” appears presumptuous, almost boastful.

It appears that even in Soviet times Ukrainian women, particularly young women, took great care in their personal appearance. With the availability of western cosmetics, and clothes as well as the barrage of ads everywhere showing off western fashion, many women appear “dressed to the 9’s”. Some are drop-dead gorgeous compared to us frumpy foreigners. We were reminded of this when we went out for our anniversary dinner Saturday night at a local restaurant. The lady working in the kitchen was obviously as concerned about her appearance as she was about making meals. For there she stood at the service bar getting ready for a night out, one hand on the blowing hair dryer and the other hand running through her billowing locks! Ah, she looked so much better than those clamped down helmet-like hair nets that the less adventuresome Canadian health inspectors insist on. As for the food – at first it looked pretty good! And for real, it was pretty good. But we are now more thankful for the regulated Canadian restaurants.

Ben and Linda


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