Saturday, February 28, 2009

Don't Hate Me Because I'm Polish

Above: My Polish teacher, Bartek, speaks English, Russian, Spanish, Ukrainian and, of course, Polish, fluently. He wants to expand his English vocabulary, which is how I barter for free lessons. When I suggested he pose for some portraits after he donned my Irish cap, Bartek said "bułka z masłem," or "piece of cake." He's a character.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Dale Ahlquist, where are you? We just started the first Ukrainian Chesterton Society

  1. "Religious liberty might be supposed to mean that everybody is free to discuss religion. In practice it means that hardly anybody is allowed to mention it." - Autobiography, 1937

Last night was the first meeting of the first Ukrainian Chesterton Society, as far as we know, that is. For those of you not in the know, Gilbert Keith Chesterton was a well-known British journalist and Catholic author who has amassed quite the following in the United States. Brett and I attended the 2005 summer Chesterton Society Conference at St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minnesota. We've been hooked since that weekend of heated theological debate and homemade beer, and since reading Dale Ahlquist's The Apostle of Common Sense.
You can find a few Chesterton quotes on my facebook profile, and although there's nothing documenting it, my college roommate, my friend Margaret and I helped start the Marquette University Chesterton Society in the spring of 2008. That learning experience made this first meeting easy and highly enjoyable. We read the following article(English for the Americans and Canadian, Russian for everyone else):

The Fallacy of Success was a huge hit and our 1 hour meeting turned into a 2 hour heated discussion with contributions from all 11 participants.

"I think the oddest thing about the advanced people is that, while they are always talking about things as problems, they have hardly any notion of what a real problem is." - Uses of Diversity

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Couchsurfing, a way of living and traveling for free

Well, almost free. "is a worldwide network for making connections between travelers and the local communities they visit." In short, it's facebook for people who want to sleep on your couch.
I joined this website while living in Rome in 2007, but never used it. I was not very keen on the idea of sleeping on some stranger's couch, no matter if it was in Turkey or Illinois. Nonetheless, I was talked into attending a Lviv Couchsurfing meeting this past Saturday, and I no wholeheartedly give the website my approval.
The goodwill of people is often underestimated. There are almost a million couchsurfers out there, from families in France looking to host traveling groups to college grads like myself looking for a safe, free place to say. Not surprisingly, there are a lot "open-minded" types in the network.
At the Saturday meeting alone, I met 10 Ukrainians, a mellow Belorussian, several chatty Poles, a wiry Romanian, an American who has lived all over the world and I somehow made it past the cover charge for the bar. I was surprised at how easy and generally nice the group was. In such a context, I would normally expect to find at least a few blonde bimbos and a couple of bachelors looking to host cute foreign girls. I'm sure they exist. 
The point is, this seems to be a reliable way to find people to stay with around the world. There are numerous people who have traveled all the way around and have only paid for food. 
You can find me on couchsurfing today.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Ukrainian Sauna

Above: The homemade Ukie sauna is a delight. We were disappointed we didn't get to hit ourselves with tree branches, but that's for wet saunas only.

"Mike, I have better idea," Petro, the university photographer, said in response to my proposal of a Friday night photo shoot. "We will go to sona!"
"Sona?" I said.
"Yes, the place where you get hot to sweat."
"Oh, sauna."
That night, Brett, Petro and myself made the journey to Petro's house on the outskirts of Lviv. There we went ice skating(my feet are too big for all of the skates in Ukraine), ate fresh honey and drank tea made from herbs Petro picked in the Carpathian Mountains, talked about GK Chesterton, and then slipped into our swimtrunks(or speedo depending on which country you were representing that evening) and ran into the subzero night. Petro had built the sauna himself, but waited until we were inside to tell us that the last one he built burnt down. I wasn't sure what to expect from a homemade, Ukrainian sauna, but it was phenomenal. I had always experience the sauna in a 'sweat, then get out' context. It's not a ritual and does not seem as serious in America.
We were serious about this process. After 15 minutes of sweating in 90 degree Celsius(190 degree Fahrenheit) dry heat, I began to drip. Petro jumped to his feet and charged out the door, jumping into his sandals in the process. We barreled out into the night and dove head first into a bank of snow.
After rolling around for a couple minutes, we came back inside and entered the sauna again, without drying off our bodies. We repeated the process, this time taking pictures, and then went back inside to eat dinner. 
Beer, Petro told us, is the best thing after the sauna. I managed to eat 10 meat cutlets, a heap of sauerkraut, and a pile of noodles in one sitting, before biting into a minnow for desert. While holding the tail and head between both hands, you bite into the abdomen and eat it, bones and all. We retired to a movie, more beer, and a cuban cigar. Life is great.
This was the best day of 2009 I've had in Ukraine. 

Friday, February 20, 2009

Depression Food

Above: mmm, mmm. Home Cheese. Goes well on bread and crackers.

As I was biting into a piece of bread the other day when my gag reflux suddenly kicked me in the gut and I dropped my meal on the plate, staring in horror. A slice of white bread, cut freshly from a loaf, had been smothered in butter, then covered in another layer of mayonnaise, topped with a slice of cheese and splattered with the logical choice of garnish: ketchup. 
"What the hell am I eating?" I said aloud to an empty room.
Sometimes in Second World countries like Ukraine, the foreigner encounters what my roommate has deemed "Depression Food." In places like Ukraine, and in First World countries in the midst of depressions, people often use everyday, sometimes strange, household condiments to add flavor to boring, repetitive meals. I never met my great grandfather, but I'll never forget the stories of ketchup in his cereal. 
Most cultures, if you search hard enough, have found ways to make the food around them into tasty, often original and delicious, dishes. But when you are eating potatoes for 50th night in a row(not uncommon here), and onions just are not doing it for you, the ketchup and mayo look pretty good.
The picture above shows something I was, literally, just eating minutes ago. This "Home Cheese" is a fat-free, dry cottage cheese variant with a very unique taste. It's a bit peculiar and bland by itself, but one quickly develops a taste for it. Here I added carrot and horseradish shavings, mayo, sour cream, hot sauce, salt, white and green onion and dill. I usually throw in a pickle, too. 
Every now and then my American sensibilities rush back to rescue my palette, and I feel as if I'm going to wretch as I pop an oily, yogurt-covered grape leaf in my mouth. But then I bite into the olive and the juices explode over my tongue and I go right back to what I was doing before: enjoying myself.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

When I started writing my own eulogy the other day, I quickly ran into a problem: I don't really know what to say. The second chapter and its respective habit had me stumped; I didn't know how I wanted my life to end yet when the beginning was so bittersweet. I admitted to my good friend Tim Malone that if this were all I was to get in, just shy of 24 years, then it would alright with me. For nearly 24, I have done pretty damn good, I think.
Epiphanies are few and far between in life, and perhaps that's why they are so precious. Sometimes literature, even when it's on the Self-Help shelf, can hold pages of printed paradigm-shifting revelations. As I read this book, I felt a bit like someone caught in a lethal quicksand trap while in the midst of a juicy novel: I couldn't turn the pages fast enough as the sand was giving out beneath my very feet. 
And yet there was this eulogy of mine. How did I want my life to end? What would people say? Where would I be by then? How many children would I be Godfather to(see below post, there's still time to sign up)? 
The author, Stephen Covey, reasoned that if one could determine how they wanted life to end, then they could start down that path. You need to see the light at the end of the tunnel before you walk to it. Once you had the ending down, the Mission Statement was the first building block to be laid, the first guiding candle to be lit. 
Sure, the 24-year run has been good, and I hope it goes on for many more. But Covey made me think twice about the life I've led when he wrote about what he calls "alternative centers" for one's life. The Mission Statement, your core values and beliefs you discover through exercises like imagining your own funeral, should ideally be the center of your life and the guiding light. But all too often we choose false centers for our lives: family, spouse, friends, money, possessions, self, work, etc. 
You'll have to actually read the book to learn more, but as I delved into chapter 2, it became apparent I've not been making life decisions based on what I value and believe in. For the majority of my life, I've been changing those centers, which made sense when I matched the roller coaster my life feels like to the 7 Habits. Does life feel like a rollercoaster for you? 
Do you ever feel like your not in control? Like you don't have any say over what happens to you? 
I did. Enough. I want to be in control. I want to determine the course of my life, not someone else, not the people around me or my job. I should decide where I want to go and what I want to do. 
If you don't already have a copy, find one in your local library or bookstore. This book is the most worthwhile thing I've done in years. 

Friday, February 13, 2009

They're lining up: get your dibs on my Godfather blessing soon, before I'm booked!

Above, top to bottom: This man could be the godfather of your next child! Hurry, offer expires soon; Mike attacks sister Julie at computer; Mike gives excellent and memorable Best Man speech; Mike and best friend/roommate Brett eating BBQ in St. Louis, Missouri; Mike and college roommate Nate Dog ride a carousel made for children 1/3 their size; c'mon, you know you love me.
My good friend Amanda has deemed me the Godfather of her first child in her Leeds Blog. This makes me a best man, a soon-to-be Godfather(whenever you wanna start, Amanda), college graduate, Eucharistic Minister, Eagle Scout, handsome, and humble to boot. I'm just missing pimp, father of 9, a t-shirt with 'world's greatest Grandpa' on it, Scoutmaster, Polish Citizenship(which I'm applying for, FYI), and a Medal of Honor. Thanks, Amanda!

From the backyard

Walked to the top of a tall hill behind my house the other morning at sunrise, around 7:30 am. I finally gave up waiting for the sun to come out from behind the clouds for the perfect light and walked down the mountain. Murphy's Law still applies in Ukraine, and the sun came out.
Still, I got something interesting out of it.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Today in Lviv

Above, top to bottom: Roman reaches for another block of wood to lacquer for an icon the Faith and Light center will eventually sell to raise money for activities, like going to the circus later this month; Roman, a member of Faith and Light, a Catholic community for the mentally disabled, shows the icon he is working on at the moment; Brett, standing second from right, is introduced to the finer side of wood working and icon making by Natalia, the coordinator of the Faith and Light Center in Sihiv(Sih-heev), a suburb of Lviv, Ukraine on the morning of February 11th, 2009. In the bottom photo, from left to right: Bogdan, who asked me if I was shopping for women, Petro, who is very quiet and was in charge of the stretching exercises today; Roman, whose best friend is also a Faith and Light member and who is inappropriately and gratifyingly loud, Brett, and Natalia.

"Are you ready for this?" I whisper over my shoulder.
"I guess," Brett says, shrugging. 
I gently push the door open to the Faith and Light Center and peek my head in. 
There are some 25 coordinators and members of Faith and Light, the university sponsored Catholic day program for the mentally disabled, gathered in a circle with chairs. Moments ago, I heard one of them, I guessed Anton or Roman, reading a book aloud in Ukrainian. Now everyone is looking at me.
Before Brett and I can find a seat, everyone breaks into the welcome song and soon the whole room is clapping. I don't really know what the song means, but I feel 6 years old again. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

FOUND: family in Poland HAPPY BIRTHDAY: To my sister, Carrie

This from my mother about their recent visit to Arizona to see friends and my great aunt and uncle, Janina and Julian, respectively: 
Janina in AZ is a big fan of your blog- pretty faithful reader and enjoys reading your updates. Here is some info from Julian and Janina:

Grandpa's hometown was Zagorz which is northeast of Krakow, and south of Kielce, and south of Pinczow where Janina's family is from. Matgorzata Cedro is a niece of hers(so related to Grandpa) in Pinczow (phone #). Anna and Beata Korecko are other cousins living in Opole (phone #). These cousins have come to visit almost every year- have even bought cars in the US and shipped back to Poland- Janina plans to return to Poland when she is alone.
The cousins in Opole speak fairly good English- she says some of her relatives teach English in Poland, but she said they are not very fluent- she figures she can make a living tutoring over there.

This is the area of Poland in question via Google Maps.
I need to confirm Zagorz is the city we are talking about(Janina, I hope you are reading this!). It fits the name, but does not fit with her description of northeast of Krakow. 
Here's the irony of it all: I studied in Krakow in the summer of 2005, I now live in Lviv(where my grandmother is from and just a few hours from the area in question), have friends in Katowice(where my grandfather studied), I have hiked in Zakopane(south of Krakow and similar in terrain to Zagorz) and in Turka, Ukraine(look at the map, just south east of Zagorz and very similar area), and I've been passing through Przemysl to go to Lviv since I arrived in September, 2008. I've been in this area the whole time and this has all been under my nose.
If Zagorz really is the place, then I am just a few hours from the hometown of my grandfather and my family history. I'd type more, but I need a stiff drink.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Proof we(the world) don't know anything about Ukraine: the gas never went off and I'm still warm

"Do you know what my American friends asked me?" I said to the history students in 2nd period English. "They asked me if I still had heat, if we could cook or if anyone had gas."
"Really?" said Lubomyr.
"Yes," I said, "they think you are all freezing."
The class burst into laughter and giggles at the ridiculous notion. When I arrived in the United States for Christmas in late December, Russian gas giant GazProm shut the natural gas lines going through Ukraine to Europe. Russia accused Ukraine of stealing gas, Ukraine fired back saying Russia was blackmailing the country in order to build a new pipeline around Ukraine. I began getting emails saying "are you going to have heat?"
Standing in front of my students last Thursday, I realized I had been thinking the same thing for a while and I felt embarrassed. The heat never went off. Ukraine, the largest country in Europe, also has the largest gas reserves. During the reign of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was the principal natural gas reserve holding for everything under the Iron Curtain. Those tanks didn't disappear when the wall fell, and Ukraine has made good use of them. 
According the Kyiv Post, Ukraine had enough gas reserves to supply the entire country for 9 months without relief. Businesses and some individuals did suffer from lack of gas, but as one editorialist in the Post pointed out, shutting off the gas was never a real threat against Ukraine. Kiev has enough gas already. 
So why did we(Americans, The West, the world) think Ukrainians were burning their furniture?
In a nutshell: we don't get our news from Ukraine, we get it from Russia.
Unbeknownst to me, and anyone who's never traveled to this part of the world, the west has adopted all sorts of fun Russified words and names for Soviet satellite countries like Ukraine, George, Bulgaria, etc. "Lviv," where I live, is the Ukrainian name. But type that into or United Airlines' website and it will draw a blank. You have to type in "LVO" or "Lvov," the Russian name in order to book a flight here.
It's the same for news. According to one of my students who is studying Journalism at Ivan Franko University in Lviv, her college is conducting a study on the western media and where they get their sources. According to Ivan Franko, most western journalists know Russian journalists or Russian news, so they call them first. Most of the coverage in the U.S. of the gas crisis came from Moscow, not from Kiev. 
As many Ukrainians will tell you, and as the Kyiv Post likes to point out on a weekly basis, Russia and Ukraine have strained relations to say the least. A very smart editorial from that online publication noted how countries surrounding Russia pay staggered prices for natural gas, depending on how loyal they have been to the Kremlin. Belarus(or Bielo-Russia meaning "White Russia") pays the least, less than $200 US. Ukraine pays closer to $500 US for the same type and quantity of gas.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Best Cure for Jet Lag: not Vicodin and a bottle of wine

The conspicuous lack of posts in the past week is probably killing all of you(since there's nothing better to do than read my blog, right?). The suspended animation of a dysfunctional circadian rhythm(your sleep cycle) has left me dazed, drained and unable to concentrate all week. I finally fixed my jet lag problem today with a most unusual remedy: I stopped eating.

The first day I fell asleep at 10 am and slept till 4 pm, and then I fell into a strange cycle that would have made sense if I had been on Tokyo time. I was crashing at 6 pm and fully awake at 4 am. I felt like hell.

I finally looked it up on the internet when my sleeping pills had no effect and discovered that much of the sleep cycle is dependent on when you eat. Your first meal sets your morning cycle, so changing when you eat will determine how you sleep and when you crash. Twelve hours of fasting should do the trick. For example, if you want to change your waking time to 4 am, then stop eating at 4 pm. When you wake up to your alarm at 4 am(or if you haven't slept at all), eat right away.

After a week of terrible sleep, a single meal changed my whole day. 

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Safely Back in Lviv

Above: Warsawians( Var-sha-vians) enjoy the ice rink outside the Galleria downtown near the Central Train station on January 31st, 2009 in Warsaw, Poland.
I arrived in Lviv this morning at 5:30 a.m. Ukrainian time, after a grueling trip that started in Chicago at 7:55 p.m. on Friday, January 30th. Twenty-seven hours later I was back in my old apartment, fixing something to eat. I found Brett still awake with the coffee pot and his computer, furiously typing away at grad school applications, and a strange flicker in the lights we still can't pinpoint. 
On the way I stopped in Warsaw to get on the bus, and snapped the above picture near the new Galleria mall. Winter is at it's best when there's ice skating and the snowfall is just enough to make the city almost silent and the air still.