Saturday, March 28, 2009

I'm squatting illegally in Paris in an art commune

The onion is a layered vegetable, best chopped from the side and into slices. As Francois quietly explained the commune life to us in the kitchen of his squat, he calmly pulled the sticky onion skin from the knife and rubbed it between his fingers into a pile. This place is illegal, he told us, but we do have an agreement with the landlord.
"yes, the government forbids it," he says. "But we do pay the landlord for this place. The judge told us we could stay till August."
Jaja, a Senegalese immigrant, lives elsewhere in Paris, but comes to the squat daily to hang out. No one ever really knows who is going to show up, which is how we came to live illegally in a Paris squat.
"This is your key," Clara, our host, says. "Make sure you only use the keyhole on the top, the bottom one doesn't work. Oh, and the shower, you have to use the screwdriver to turn it on, it's really broken. You can make coffee in the morning, the italian coffee maker is best since we never wash it."
Francois slices the last of the onion into a pile of finely chopped pieces.
"Maybe you will make us dinner tomorrow night," he says. "I hope you sleep well."

Thursday, March 26, 2009

France is C'est Bon!

Bonjour! France is great! We have rented a car and are driving from Marseilles to Paris, we're in Lyon today and will have to find a place to sleep in Orleans tonight(we don't know where!). In the meantime, enjoy this story:

The first night we spent in Aix-en-Provence, we stayed with Tim's friend Jenna from Rockford, Illinois. Being the great host that she is, she gave us her queen-size bed and some blankets for the floor. I think she was assuming that we would go two on the bed and one of the floor. But being the old friends that we are, we all slept in the bed together.

The next morning, Jenna's roommate Elaina asked Tim, who was walking around the apartment with his shirt off, "so, how'd everyone sleep? Who ended up on the bed?"
There was a long pause before Tim replied "Le Troix."

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

My sister's poetry team took 4th place in the nation!

My sister Carrie has been a slam poet for several years now, and just last week she went to the National competition in Philadelphia with her team of friends from Boston. They took fourth place in the nation! Congratulations!
You can listen to one of her poems here.
Here's Carrie on youtube:

Monday, March 23, 2009

Winter Just Won't Quit

Above: There was a complete whiteout in Lviv on Wednesday afternoon, as snow pummeled the western Ukrainian city with nearly four inches in a matter of hours on March 18, 2009.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Scrabble: it'll have 'em begging to learn

Above: Yura and Khrystyna play Scrabble against their teacher on Monday, March 16, 2009 at Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, Ukraine.
The head of our English Department recently introduced a Scrabble board to the office, spurring a fight to the death between teachers on who would get to use it first. It was so popular among students that we've already had one Scrabble tournament outside of class times, complete with prizes, scoreboards and refereeing. Scrabble, it turns out, is an excellent teaching tool.
I've discovered a couple of other good teaching tricks that have worked very well. I brought a Calvin and Hobbes book back to Ukraine with me after break, and it has been a phenomenal success with the classes. The combination of pictures, dialogue and new vocabulary lets me help them with pronunciation, but is far more interesting than reading the dialogue from the book aloud. I remember not understanding the intelligent vocabulary used in this popular comic when I was a kid, but I could understand the idea of the story from the pictures.
The last tool I've introduced is the weekly quiz and vocabulary list. Students have wanted more vocabulary for some time, and the best way to make them study is through a weekly quiz format, as far as I can see. They have responded well to the structure and their vocabulary has improved.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Schizophrenic Currency

I posted earlier this month about the erratic behavior of the Hryvnia, Ukraine's currency, and how dire things have gotten here. The currency continues to fluctuate every day. My landlord refused to take the online quote I had found for my apartment payment in Hryvnia, and called a friend to find the selling price. He then asked me to exchange my money to US dollars before the rent was due, because one could never tell what the exchange rate would be the next day.
My canadian friend, Bozena Hrycyna, considered running to the bank last month to exchange all of her money to either Canadian or US dollars. The Hryvnia has been predicted to rise as high as 15 to the US dollar, devaluing the currency to 1/3 of its September 2008 price.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Birthday Video, Part 2(Day 3)

The second party(a surprise) and third day of my birthday festivities. It was a blast. Please watch the last interview if you watch nothing else, it was one of the greatest compliments I've ever received. In order of birthday wish appearance: Bozena Hrycyna, a Canadian from Toronto and a fellow English teacher; Tania, who works for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and has recruited me to be a reporter and photographer for her; Olenka, an opera singer who regularly comes to our weekend salsa parties; Irene Danysh, a Seattle, Washington native who has been teaching and living abroad in twelve countries; and Petro Didula, the UCU photographer and videographer who has become a close friend of mine. I have Petro's son in my English class.
I haven't had a cake in a while, and this was my favorite: Kremowka! (Kreh-moov-kah) A polish original and the favorite cake of Pope John Paul II.

Monday, March 16, 2009

A Very Good Year, Part 1: My birthday party

Video from my birthday party and photos from this year in Ukraine. It's been an incredible 6 months. I have to say, I don't know if I want to go back, life is great!!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

My Talented Photo Class

Fog in the morning
depth of the street
a road to a church
a curve way
Above Credits: Photos 1, 3, 5 by Roman Fihas
Photo 2, 4 by Ira Patronyk

I recently started teaching a Beginning Photojournalism class here at UCU. Apparently, this is the first of its kind in the area, and my class became popular quickly. Everyone I talked to wanted to take it, even people who don't go to my university. Although only one student showed up today(not uncommon in Ukraine), I normally have 8-10 students and there are two friends coming next week.
This week we covered some camera basics and their next assignment, The Decisive Moment. They are fascinated by photography critique, as I was when I first started. Students bring their work on a flash drive, I put it up on a projector with a laptop, and then the one being critiqued has to remain silent while another student critiques the photos. Then the discussion opens to the class, and I finally add my own two cents. Some get more out of it than others, but they all seem to get the idea and some people have really blossomed quickly.
Some of my personal favorites from the first month are above, check out their group on flickr here:

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Most Ridiculous Show on Earth

Above, top to bottom: Young circus fans watch as a the trapeze artist balances atop a metal pole at the "Circ" in Lviv, Ukraine on February 27th, 2009; these pictures pretty much speak for themselves. I thought I might be saddened by dancing bears, but it was hilarious; an interesting cultural difference, these are the gymnasts who held aloft metal poles while the girl on the right performed on them. The gentleman on the far left is wearing a mock Yamaka, and they played yiddish-sounding music when he climbed up one of the poles, clearly meant to be Jew of the act, and thus the Ukrainian scapegoat. The other two men are dressed like Russian sailors, with the implication that all three are clowns and womanizers; the Poodle cha-cha.

Last week I had the privilege of attending the Ukrainian circus, commonly mistaken for the Ukrainian Parliament. The debacle was held inside a circular concrete structure that looked like the MetroDome, sans football and beer. The only public entertainment events I've attended so far have been operas, dances, and orchestras, which are dirt cheap and full of culture.
But then I saw the posters for the Ukrainian Circus, beckoning with dancing bears in clown costumes and a line of cha-cha-ing poodles waving their paws. It was catnip. I had to go.
I've always wanted kids and I have a special love for big families since my mother comes from a family of nine. But when I walked into a circus arena filled with 2000 screaming children, I realized I was not quite ready for the responsibility of cleaning a nacho-cheese covered toddler eating cotton candy. At least, I was not ready for the class of seven year olds that kept climbing over my knees during the performance.
The Ukrainian circus is a bit like real life in Ukraine, but with clown costumes and gymnastics.
It was mostly a normal circus, but I don't ever remember bears being a big part of Barnum & Bailey's routine. As I sat near the top row of circus, peering through my 200mm lens at the floor below, I was convinced the bear running out on stage on two legs and doing summersaults was a guy in a bear suit.
Almost certainly a bear from the Carpathians or from Russia, these brown bears were big, but closer to six feet when standing on their hind legs. The rode motorcycles, juggled fire on their feet while riding on the back of an All Terrain Vehicle, danced and walked a high beam.
Other crowd favorites were the cat that suicide-jumped off a 30-foot pole into a blanket, the clown that threw a fake rat into the audience and almost caused a stampede, mullet-sporting trapeze artists, and a muscle-man/gymnast who did an interpretive ballet version of the Iron Cross to the Eurythmics. Bravo.

One act I didn't get to see that day was Brett's personal favorite: the parachuting puppies. That's right, miniature "Benji" dogs climb a series of ladders to the top of the arena, and then run and jump off a ramp, seeming to fall some 200 feet to their death until a parachute opens. I laughed so hard I cried, but I would love to photograph it.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

New Website and Business Cards

It's time to put away childish things. I've upgraded my website to , and now my full online archive is available for purchase. Click on any image on the website and you can purchase prints, posters, digital copies and even coffee mugs!
My good friend John Tadelski told me I should make a "Best of Rudz 2008" album. This website is answer to that request. Happy shooting.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Death of a friend

"Camera?" I said, motioning to my bag and looking at Sasha with pleading eyes.
Sasha turned and translated my request to Brother Jaroslav, the 23-year old monk who was hosting us. After a brief exchange, Sasha turned to me and shook his head.
"He's almost dead, you know?"
I scuttled down the hall after Sasha and Jaroslav[Yaro-slav], as the smiling brother opened a door just 3 rooms down from where I had been sleeping. The silence of a universally recognized stench hit us as we entered the inner room. It was more than just urine or the familiar stink of sweat, this smell was unique to the dying.
Not once had Jaroslav's impervious smile left his face during our three days at Univ Monastery, not once had he frowned or winced with the frustration of our American ways or our terrible Ukrainian. But in that room, as the three of us stood around the bed of Ananina, we looked again into the eyes of this now dying monk and were speechless. Jaroslav's smile was gone.
I remember photographing this monk in September, shortly after I first arrived in Ukraine. During evening prayer, he had waddled into the sanctuary, oblivious to the chanting and the pairs of eyes following him, and sat next to the singers. I knew there weren't any photographs allowed in the sanctuary, but the intricate design of his robe and the black cusp of his hood captivated me. As he sat in a beam of sunlight, clothed in black and surrounded by the wail of Ukrainians worshipping, I saw him as a pillar, an aging foundation of something I was only beginning to understand.
I asked him after Vespers(evening prayer) if I could photograph him, and he agreed. After I snapped a few shots, he thanked me and then kissed my hand. If I had been in America, I would have awkwardly giggled. But I understood what he was communicating, something deeper than the clumsiness of language. Brett told me that in Ukraine, people only kiss the hands of a Bishop.
As Brett, Sasha, Jaroslav and myself stood with Ananina's caretakers last weekend, five months after I first visited Univ, we stared blankly into pale blue eyes that couldn't stare back. The cancer in his lung, they said, had left him so weak he was unable to stand or talk. He stared blankly at the ceiling. His chest rose and fell with short gasps from an open mouth, and it reminded me of the panting of the hamsters I had as a kid.
Jaroslav told me Ananina hadn't eaten anything all month, just water. We all bowed before we went out, and feeling out of place, I forced myself to touch his bed. I knew I couldn't offer him any comfort than what he already had, I knew he was tougher than me. I knew he had left the monastery in his 20s to fight in the war, and when there was no one left to fight, he married and had another life. When his wife died, he came back to the monastery and donated all of his possessions to the monks.
I knew I could offer him nothing as I touched his blanket, searching for his bony ankle in the sheets to show some shallow sense of compassion. I knew it didn't mean anything, and that's what disturbed me most of all. I knew I couldn't pay him the same respect and return the kiss.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The rumors are true: things are bad

Above: Joseph Sywenkyj for The New York Times in Kyiv, Ukraine.

I planned on the Decisive Moment, the photo story, light or something equally harmless as our assignment for my Beginning Photojournalism course at Ukrainian Catholic University. As with all classes in Ukraine, word-of-mouth is the best advertising, and students don't really show up till the third week. But today, the assignment was a surprise: in five pictures, explain the banking crisis of Ukraine.
I've received two emails thus far from friends asking about this article from the New York Times concerning the economic crisis in Ukraine. For those that don't know, Ukraine had the fastest depreciating currency in the world in 2008 next to Iceland, whose entire banking system collapsed. People want to know: is this just hype, or is Ukraine really this bad?
In short, it's true. It's worse than you think. I told my students today that I saw the perfect picture standing on the street the other day, looking at one of the money exchange signs. A woman in her 50s was staring at the exchange rates for the Ukrainian Hryvnia, US Dollar and the Euro, shook her head, and gave an exasperated sigh, her frozen rosy cheeks puffed out.
That's how everybody feels here. I hate to say it, but what you read is true. Ukraine is really in a crisis, far worse than Americans can imagine.
Although I can't confirm the speculations, several people I have spoken with expect riots within the next 2 months. People are very frustrated by the fall of the currency and feel powerless, and they are getting restless. My roommate has been approached by several coworkers asking to buy American Dollars off of him. They aren't looking to con anyone, they just want their hard-earned salary to be worth something by 2010.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

What they play on the bus

Just listen to this track and imagine riding in a small van, with seating for 20 people, packed with about 35 Ukrainians who haven't discovered deodorant. Everyone is either eating something or drinking beer. The road is full of potholes, so many that the driver swerves into oncoming traffic to avoid them, stopping every 20 minutes to push a babushka out the door.
That was my weekend ride to and from the monastery.