With Best Intentions


It’s not exactly New Year’s anymore, but I figure that since a) it was approximately New Year’s when last I wrote, and b) it’s a new school year, I get some leeway to throw around a few heartfelt resolutions about undertaking proper blog maintenance. Right?

Here’s what’s great:

Breezing through another Los Angeles summer with the family that’s got no DNA common to me (yeah, alright, it was more like sweltering through by the end)


Swimming (literally) through gainfully employed months with the sweetest kid that ever was, amusing ourselves at beaches and parks, waving flags at the 4th of July Parade, rooting for the athletes at the Special Olympics World Games, concocting in the kitchen, occasionally testing each other’s will to the max, and ultimately resolving every week, every day, spoken or not- “I really love you, Miss D” “I love you, too, bud”


Snuggling with my own honest- to- goodness cute- as- can- be bona fide blood related niece and nephew.


Not as great:

Leaving it all behind.

In California teaching days, I used to give a lift home to the same couple of kids every afternoon.  From the kids’ perspective, this was a great façon to glean some insight into the Secret World of the American Teacher.  A favorite question: “Miss D, when’s the last time you cried?” Some squinty horizon searching and mental backtracking usually produced an audience- disappointing, “I dunno, nothing upsetting has really happened… maybe a couple of months ago?” “Why?” Because sometimes ladies be sad, that’s why.

Were the same question posited now, I could shove aside vague lunar blues and pretty exactly say, “Well, it was on August 17th, when I said goodbye to my best friends and their little children who whimpered (melodramatically, granted, but still), ‘Aunty B, why do you love Ukraine more than us?’, and then again on August 23rd, when I said goodbye to my family, and to my own little niece who thankfully did not have the wherewithal to ask any heartbreaking question of her own.  Nah, she just cried and hid behind my brother- in- law.”

I am a crazy person.

The last year has been full of lessons.  Some have been amazing.  This one really sucked.

I look forward to the coming year- truly.  Working at this university is amazing- I love this job, the students I teach, and the friends I’ve made.

But here’s the truth: family, the one you were born to and the one you built, is it.

So here’s to another year of Skyping with my darlings, loving the place I live in, and writing about it all on a semi- regular basis… or at the very least, meaning to with the very best of intentions.


Travel Theme: Transformation

Over on the blog Where’s My Backpack?, there’s a weekly themed photo contribution post.  This week’s travel theme is “Transformation.”  I’m 100% new to this sort of thing, but anyway, here’s my take:

Church Dome

The photo of this dome, which will top the new St. Sofia chapel at Ukrainian Catholic University (where I work), obivously shows construction of a barren plot of land into a church, so there’s that kind of transformation.  But secondly, more importantly, this construction to me symbolizes the national reclaiming of Ukrainian culture and traditions from soviet oppression- free religious practice among them.  In the background, if you look, you can see the tax administration building, itself a functional relic of Soviet architecture.

For more takes on this theme, click here: Where’s My Backpack?  

Baby, It’s Cold Outside… and other reasons to stay in on New Year’s Eve (America, part 2)

Christmas in America came and went; babies were cuddled and fussed over, middles thickened, and some of us (me) started to uncomfortably resemble Reindeer Rudolph as the Christmas Zit- the semi-sentient, malevolent seasonal being that has haunted my family for decades- chose its yearly host (this is a real thing in my family and, to be fair, it was my turn).

New Year’s Eve followed swiftly after, as it does, and it had potential; I was with my dear friend M. in DC, and we knew from experience that we were each other’s best possible NYE date.   The evening was long and eagerly anticipated; we had planned everything down to the last detail- picked one of the coolest bars in Dupont Circle, set personal drink limits to maximize fun and minimize idiotic behavior and morning consequences, and planned outfits that just managed to strike the balance between comfort and glamour.  When the extremes are a) forlornly nursing drinks I’ve purchased myself vs. b) frostbite and crippling discomfort, I choose sweatpants.  But a compromise was found, and we were looking forward to the festivities.

At first.

The food and champagne in M.’s apartment were abundant, and we tucked in with little regard for the fit of our frocks or the danger of pasta- induced comas.  Well… that pasta we had for dinner was quite good, wasn’t it?  Maybe a bit too good, a bit too filling.  The champagne was nice, too.  Let’s lie down for a little while.  It’s only 7 pm- plenty of time for a nap.  In fact, we should take a nap. We’ve got to be our best.  Just a little one, then…


“Bridget, are we going to go out? I mean, if you want to, I want to.”

“Yeah, yeah! I want to. If you want to.”

“Yeah.  I mean, I’m totally ready to go.”

“Yeah.  Sure, me too… okay, yeah. ”

“Maybe let’s just sleep for a few more minutes.”


M., should we do this? Really do this?”

“Maybe we’ll regret it if we don’t go out for New Year’s Eve.”

“Yeah, probably.”


“Bridget, I’ve told my friend Sarah to come over. We should at least get up for when she gets here.”

“Maybe she wants a nap, too.”


“Girls?  Are you awake? What’s wrong with you?”

Nobody is that lame on New Year’s Eve, and definitely not two hip young things like us, so M. and I yawned into our dresses, brushed our hair and thought about putting on make- up.  Maybe we looked okay.  We put on the make- up.  We scraped a couple of desiccated jell-o shots, leftover from a Christmas party, out of their Dixie cups and squeezed them down, and, in anticipation of the upcoming Wild Night Out, snapped a few ‘before’ photos – you know, before we ruined our good looks from Partying Too Hard.

9:30: Out the door


By this time, we had:

A. walked to the bar,

B. waited in line for 45 minutes,

C. Admitted, in the most roundabout way possible, and seconds before paying a $25 cover charge, that neither of us wanted to be there, and

D. jumped out of line, into a taxi, and back onto the couch faster than you can sing “Auld Lang Syne.”

The evening was then spent (much more enjoyably, in my opinion) hashing over current dreams and future plans, interspersed with terrible reality tv, leftover pasta, and a warbly rendition of the aforementioned “Auld Lang Syne” just at midnight.  And it was exactly what we wanted, and wonderful- besides which, while the rest of the world blearily stumbled around in sunglasses on January 1, we were up, dressed, and ready to brunch at the break of day.


You know who never would have gone through that ridiculous rigamarole?  A Ukrainian.  Backtrack to 8:30 on December 31, and it would have gone something like this:

“Bridget, are we going to go out?  I don’t really feel like it.”

“Okay, that’s good- neither do I.”

Done.  The movies are already all queued up.

I later recounted this story to a Ukrainian friend, who rolled his eyes and laughed, “Oh, man. That’s such an American story.  Why can’t Americans just say what they really think?”

Let me know when you figure it out.

My Country, ‘Tis Of Thee

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Bonsai pomegranate tree at a botanical garden I visited with my family. Looks like a heart, doesn't it?

Bonsai pomegranate tree at a botanical garden I visited with my family. Looks like a heart, doesn’t it?

Though I was initially convinced that it’s been, at longest, a month since I’ve written a post, unfortunately accurate blog date- stamping puts my last entry at… November 23.

I think most of the people who read my blog are my friends in real life, or at least in Facebook life, and know that I’ve been traveling up and down and all around for over a month.  Now that things have settled down a little bit, and it’s Valentine’s Day- a day on which I have historically had and presently have very little to do- time for writing finally presents itself.

Home Sweet Delaware for Christmas!

American Flag Ornament

An incredible, unexpected, there-by-the-grace-of-my-generous-parents-go-I two weeks in America was balm to this anglophone’s bruised ego and homesick heart.  After months of admittedly little effort, lack of progress in the Ukrainian language had me questioning the honesty of every teacher, relative, and friend who has ever told me that I am an Intelligent Young Woman.  Besides the difficulty of communication when out and about, there is also the fact that I routinely get honestly, helplessly lost in this relatively small city (these stories alone warrant their own post- my friend N. begs me for a new one every time he sees me… knowing perfectly well that there IS a new one)- an activity which I do not associate with Intelligent Young Women.

Sometimes I sit in the back of the marshrutka, quietly panicking as I fail to recognize any of the passing scenery.  This one was mercifully empty.

Sometimes I panic quietly in the back of the marshrutka as the passing scenery becomes increasingly unrecognizable. This one was mercifully empty.

After a whirlwind of giving and grading finals on the same day (God bless Elizabeth for pitching in!), 4:30 am on Saturday, December 20th arrived- and so did my taxi driver, 25 minutes early.  Despite the pressure this added to an already foggily hectic morning (it doesn’t feel quite right, calling it that; but what are the alternatives?), I trotted down my hallway feeling pleased.  For one thing, when the driver called to let me know he had arrived, I had successfully communicated to him that I would be down soon.  For another, and far more importantly, I was going home.

I arrived to the airport far, far too early, and by this point had adopted enough of a Ukrainian mentality about pricing to be appalled that I should be expected to pay the equivalent of $5 for breakfast.  I bought some coffee, but resolutely munched on the withered tomatoes I had brought from my room for travel sustenance.  I can now tell you that this combination of acidic fodder does not sit well.  But no matter. I was going home!

The flight from Lviv to Kyiv was quick.  Once in Kyiv, surrounded by a significant amount of Russian language, I realized how much my understanding of Ukrainian really had advanced in the previous few months.  I do not understand any Russian. After wandering aimlessly for a bit in the airport, I asked the information desk guides if they could tell me where I should go to get in line, because I really had no idea where to go, please and thank you.  They directed me to the clearly, enormously labeled gate immediately behind me, where a long line of clearly international travelers were shuffling their feet and looking bored. Aha. 

The line through security was quick, but the line through border control was hell.  Waiting your turn in line is not, generally speaking, a particularly respected concept in Europe; the more pressing the circumstances, the worse it gets.  After at least three people slithered ahead in line, ranks closed, and we pressed ourselves against each other to ensure that nobody else could slide in between.  Individual travelers seemed to be taking a long time to get through, and when 40 minutes had passed, we had advanced approximately 5 feet.  A large group of children was pushed in line ahead of us, and angry muttering began.  The last straw came when a uniformed military guard pushed a well-to-do looking woman to the front of the line.  Loud scolding in multiple languages went hurtling towards the front from all down the line, and fortunately for both the woman and the by now extremely ill-tempered crowd behind her, she made it through quickly.  Do you know that line on the floor in official buildings, banks, and border controls?  The one that says something like, “Only one individual may approach the desk. Wait behind this line for your turn”? Well, nobody was waiting behind that line anymore.  And even I, not usually one to get particularly flustered or annoyed with line- jumpers, was angry, because what if I missed my flight?  I was going home!

Kyiv Border Control

This Portuguese dude was 100% not impressed.

Finally, we made it through, and without much time to spare. I cannot in good conscience recommend Ukrainian International Air to anyone except those who, like myself, need to save every last dollar.  It’s not their fault that I was sitting next to a particularly burly man- in fact, usually I enjoy large, burly men… but not when I’m on a nine hour flight.  Though the food was… not good… at least we were fed, and at no additional cost (I cannot say as much for Norwegian Air, with whom I’m flying home for the summer- must remember to pack sandwiches).  No, I’d say the real kicker was the lack of toilet paper.  It was there for the first couple of hours, but after that… well.  I’m glad I was fairly dehydrated.  But I honestly did not give one flying you- know- what, because I WAS GOING HOME!

And then I was home, in The Land of the Free and The Home of the Brave.  And I was double- checking my transportation options from New York to Delaware, tapping away on my phone which was cruising smoothly along on a beautifully functional 3G network.  And I wasn’t quite sure where I was going, but I wasn’t bothered, because I could (joy of joys!) ask anyone I met for help and directions.  I finally found my suitcase, and made it through customs.  Crowds of people were waiting with signs and smiles, and it seemed very nice and happy and wonderful, and I thought how nice and happy and wonderful it would be if I could just go home and didn’t have to deal with New York City for the next few hours.

But then, then.

A tall man walked by with a newspaper held in front of his face, and he turned toward me, and lowered his newspaper, and… it was my dear uncle! And my aunt was just behind him, and I was so happy and relieved and grateful that I think I quivered with joy (and exhaustion, admittedly).  They brought me food and they brought me home, and I was wrapped in my family’s love for the next two weeks.

And guess what else- I am not stupid.  No, really, this came as a shock to me, too.  No, I am not stupid- I just do not speak a particular language.  There are things I genuinely like about not understanding everything around me.  To observe the active world, alone with your thoughts, uninterrupted by those expressed in conversation of surrounding people is an unusual gift. You inevitably pay more attention to tone and gesture, and these in themselves present a whole new language.  Layer these new observational skills onto a conversation you do understand, and the results are revealing.  And this is all very cool and nice and deep, but…

Let’s get real for a second here.  Eavesdropping is also really, really fun.

Know what else is fun? Being at home. In America. Where cultural nuances come completely naturally and if you make an ass of yourself, well hey. At least you know why people think you’re an ass.  If you’re like me, and you generally try to avoid being an ass- guess what?  That’s easy, too- because you Just Get It.

But the best thing of all? Family. My beautiful, crazy, generous, warm, loving family. I could wax on forever, but I’ll leave it at this…

Hannah and the Christmas Tree

They fill my heart with joy.

Not Long Enough

The weekend, that is. This one has been so nice.



Loveliest class with the loveliest students.  Truly, this class never fails to make me smile- they take to every assignment with enthusiasm and humor, they’re smart, hardworking, and just… lovely. I gave them a one act play, Sure Thing by David Ives, to read in pairs, after which we watched a YouTube performance of the same, and they got to work writing their own “bell” dialogues.  Frankly, I think we were all tired of the book, so this was a nice break for everyone. I can’t wait to see what they perform on Monday!

There was also the second wine, chocolates, pastries, and fruit- filled faculty meeting of the week.  I posted about it on Facebook and I’m going to post about it again.  Why didn’t we ever do this at SMA? No joke, nitpicking over dress code minutiae would be a LOT more enjoyable (or at least bearable) over a glass of cab.

I did my Ukrainian homework- thoroughly, for once!  Apparently, because I have the mindset of a ten- year- old, I decided that I should make my teacher laugh.  Making an assignment outrageous is difficult when you’ve got the vocabulary of a two- year- old… but I tried.

Excerpt (and try not to be blown away):  ...Even though girls don't like his shirt, the student wears it frequently. He doesn't know what to read, and he doesn't know what girls like... he's very young...

Excerpt (and try not to be blown away):
…Even though girls don’t like his shirt, the student wears it frequently. He doesn’t know what to read, and he doesn’t know what girls like… he’s very young…

And I got a giggle! This might mean more to you if you knew how very, very proper my tutor is.  I once uttered a confused little “Щo?” when I didn’t understand something she said to me in Ukrainian. This prompted, “Oh, dear. Oh, no. Bridget, not ‘Щo’! You should say ‘Прошу?'”  This is something like the difference between saying “What’s that?” versus “I beg your pardon?”  I’m such a heathen.  But really, doing your homework does make such a difference (says the teacher like it’s some big surprise), and it was a very nice lesson.

Ana (my dear Welsh friend) and I then went to make some pysanky, because that’s how we party on Friday night.  For the uninitiated, these are the beautiful decorated Ukrainian Easter eggs that you make by layering dyes and melted wax through a small metal funnel.  It’s difficult to do it well.  This is my first, made a few weeks ago:


I won’t post a picture of Friday night’s effort, because it was awful- just really, really awful. Basically, I dripped huge blobs of wax all over my egg, tried to conceal it with various design variations, dripped more giant blobs, tried more cover- ups, a few more blobs… you get the idea.  That could have been the takeaway of the evening, but then Ana leaned over to commiserate with me and… set her hair on fire.  She was fine and her hair doesn’t even show the damage, but the smell in the kitchen was Not Very Nice.

We spent the rest of the evening talking with quite a nice Russian philosopher, who has lived in Ukraine since childhood and is in Lviv lecturing and researching for his PhD paper on liberal education.  He’s also probably the reason Ana is fine- while my brain went into panic overdrive- let me blow out the flame! Wait, no! Oxygen feeds fire and that will only make it bigger! Should I throw the egg dyes on her? Bare hands, that’s it. I’ll beat out the flames with my bare hands!- he dealt with the problem quickly and efficiently, calmly smothering the fire and then just as calmly returned to his seat to resume our conversation about Buddhist meditation.


Study, study, study… cappuccino, study, cappuccino…  justify watching clips from The Simpsons (Сімпсони) as more studying because they’re in Ukrainian…

Here’s a little one:

I need to get my hands on some full episodes- but that shouldn’t be too hard.

In the evening, Ana and I went out with some friends who are really good about speaking clearly, and mixing enough English into the conversation so that it was easy to keep up, and it was so nice and so… motivating!

Sunday, today

Another concert- Ana’s violin teacher will be playing with an orchestra at the Philharmonic. This one will feature music written during the Holodomor, literal translation death by hunger.  This isn’t much covered in Western education; the Holodomor was a man- made famine imposed on Ukraine by Stalin from 1932- 33, and has been recognized since 2006 by 25 countries as a genocide. The exact death toll is impossible to say, given difficulties with records, but the number is certainly in the millions. You can read more about it here, and you should: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holodomor  The tickets are long sold out, but Ana’s teacher had a couple of ‘non- reserved seating’ tickets, so we’ll bring a blanket and sit on the floor.

This is my weekend. I wish it were longer.

Please Don’t Stop the MUSIC

Here she is, posting about music again.   I’d like to see YOU resist posting about music in this city.  It’s one of the things that made me fall in love with this country in the first place.  Let me tell you…

I came to Ukraine for the first time last summer.  Having heard from experienced friends about an English Summer School volunteer opportunity, I decided to return to Europe for my yearly “I’m a teacher with all the time in the world and none of its money on my hands” summer trip.  The furthest east in Europe I had been previously was Prague, during my solo backpacking trip back in 2010; something there captured my attention, and I had been wanting to return to the general vicinity for a long time.  The perfect opportunity finally presented itself: a month in western Ukraine, living with and getting to know Ukrainians, all of whom HAD to speak my language.  Irresistible.

*English Summer School (ESS), I should mention, is one of a few three week language immersion programs for humanities students and seminarians at UCU, completion of which is required prior to graduation.

Somewhere between 2010 and 2013 I lost my will to travel solo, so after a few months of cajoling, I finally convinced my darling roommate, Vanessa, to go with me.  Away we went!

There were several interesting interludes between our arrival in Lviv and eventual departure for the remote village where we would teach, but eventually we did get on that train, and that’s where we met Ukrainian music for the first time. Recognizing the seminarians in the future would be easer than it was on this first day- they’d wear their cassocks to daily liturgy and on Sundays, and they were usually the students laughing the loudest and flirting the most (don’t get your knickers in a twist- Greek Catholic seminarians can get married if they want).  On this trip, however, they were showcasing the seemingly ubiquitous Ukrainian ability to sing and harmonize in at least three parts almost effortlessly, and the ease with which their voices blended manifested the deep comfort they had developed after years of eating, studying, living, and praying together.  Their voices, lifted in sung praise together every day (this, I think, is the chief difference, between Greek and Roman rite liturgy- theirs is necessarily almost entirely sung; ours may be accompanied by music), on that day lilted along in Ukrainian folk songs.

It’s unlike anything else I’ve ever heard.  Granted, I don’t understand the words of the songs until some kind soul translates for me, but that doesn’t really matter.  They’re about what you’d expect from folk songs: war, soldiers leaving, soldiers coming home, the countryside, love of fatherland, passionate love, faithless lovers, unrequited love, a little more love… but the music itself.  Joyful and bone- chilling by turns, it says what it must perfectly well without lyrics.

In any case, there we were, chugging out of the station on the slowest train you’ve ever seen, piled into compartments and sprawling over the aisles, enjoying the warm summer breeze through the open windows- this last a rare treat that certainly would not have been enjoyed had any babusyas (grannies) been present, dead certain that the slightest draft would certainly send them as well as these young, healthy creatures to an early grave.  The city slowly gave way to the countryside, where there are shades of green I’m sure I’ve never seen anywhere else- an artist’s dream.  The music kept on, and on, and on, and as the seminarians sang, everyone else in the compartment sang along- or at least mouthed the words.  If you drained the color from the picture and took just a few steps back, you’d be watching a mid- 20th century movie.  Asked in the UCU job interview a few months later my favorite memory of Ukraine, here it was.

I think that’s one of the most beautiful things about this folk music, that everyone knows all of the same songs, or at least most of them.  But how?  For one thing, Ukrainians, at least so far as I can tell, are culturally artistic, and inclined to appreciate poetry and music in any case.  For another, many of these songs are quite old- passed down from generation to generation, they’ve had time to take root.  But finally, these songs are a part of national identity.  During Russification, being Ukrainian was practically illegal; art, music, poetry, religion, really anything traditionally associated with Ukrainian culture was outlawed.  This is no joke- Ukrainian authors and musicians were murdered by the soviets for producing their craft, regular citizens for participating in it.  I have a friend who, as a young child in 1988 when independence was drawing near, drew a Ukrainian flag in school; his teacher looked askance.  If he had done the same thing only two or three years earlier, he told me, he could have been kicked out of school and his parents questioned by the police.

Knowing these songs now is a sign of the proud national resistance that was, is, and probably will be for a long time.  It isn’t just nice, like it is if you or I meet someone else who knows our favorite John Denver songs; it’s deeply cultural, and deeply personal. So at this concert, as I looked around at the old men and women in attendance, watching these young men and women freely singing in traditional national dress, I suddenly realized: this is special.  They didn’t- couldn’t- have this for years. And even more, I have a lot to learn here.

Here’s Choir Eteria singing a few folk songs; one of the members created some very nice slides to play behind the choir as they sang.

choir eteria

Glory to Ukraine!


This next was particularly haunting (and I love the slides):

Sacred Music in Sacred Spaces

In this brief entry, I shamelessly repost the videos that Elizabeth has already posted in her blog.  She’s in the Ukrainian Catholic University choir (Choir Eteria), and I’ve been fortunate enough to attend two of their concerts so far.  The first was a sacred music concert.  These are all well and good in America, where you’ll likely sit in a diocesan parish church or hall, or if you’re lucky, a music hall with good acoustics.  In some immense temple, however, hundreds of years old and full of stately pillars and cold stones and lovingly adorned icons, it’s quite a different experience.  A very good one.

This first concert was at the Домініканський костел і монастир (Dominican Church and Monastery).  The first monks are said to have arrived in the 13th century, and they built the first wooden church in 1234; this first was destroyed in war in 1340.  After several incarnations, nearly all of which were ravaged by fire, the present church was begun in 1749 by Józef Potocki, a Polish nobleman.

dominican church 2

After World War II, the church and monastery were occupied by the soviets and turned into a warehouse.  In the 1970s, it was turned into the Museum of Religion and Atheism.  After the collapse of the soviet union, the church was given to the Greek Catholics, and it presently serves as a Byzantine parish; the monastery, however, has not been reoccupied by any religious but remains a museum, now called the Museum of Religion.

Now, if you step inside…

dominican church interior

…you’ll be greeted by this. Stunning, no?

So here’s a bit of music from the concert .  Bear in mind that this recording was made with an iPod Touch- the real deal was richer by far- the sound hunted out and filled every distant corner in this grand old house of God.

1. царю небесний– Heavenly King, comforter, spirit of truth, you who are everywhere and pervade all things, treasure of good and giver of life, come and dwell with us, cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls.

2. Слава Отцю і Сину і Святому Духу– Glory to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

3. The Armenian Choir

I have to admit that, of the four choirs performing, this one was my favorite.  Ever wanted to know what you would get if you combined Middle Eastern and Western holy music?  Right here.  It is ancient, mysterious, and powerful.  Chills all up and down my arms the whole time.  I’ve been invited to attend Sunday Liturgy at the Armenian Church- that needs to happen.

And, for any interested parties, here’s the entirety of Choir Eteria’s set.

So there’s the sacred music.  This past Thursday, however, Choir Eteria performed some folk music at UCU… and I will post about that quite soon.

Lviv for the Anglophone

I’ve been put to shame by my fellow expats; they maintain their blogs while mine gathers dust, and though I’d like everyone to think that’s because I’m out living life to the glamorous fullest, my Netflix ‘Recently Watched’ list puts the lie to that. Truthfully, though, precious relaxation with the ‘flix aside, the last few weeks have been hectic; new students have enrolled in private tutoring sessions with me, I’ve been working as a stylistic English editor for a fashion magazine based in Kyiv, and as my university students have been putting together reports and presentations for a major Lviv inter- university English conference, I’ve been proofreading and editing their papers for publication.  When only two students of the many whose work I edited decided it was worth their while to put the final formatting touches on their papers necessary for publication, I began to wish that I had spent some of that time on the blog… well, not really. In reality, I probably would have spent it lengthening the old Netflix queue.

On the more productive, personally enriching and all around practical side of things, I have also spent some time improving my Ukrainian.  You’ve been there for nearly two and a half months, you say.  You must be pretty good by now! you say.


I frequently lose hope that I will ever speak this language reasonably well.  For starters, I do not spend nearly enough time studying.  I thought that because in the past I’ve been able to pick up romance languages and German pretty quickly that Ukrainian would be the same- but it’s really a different beast altogether.  If you’ve studied Latin to any extent, and I have, the grammar is not extraordinarily difficult- nouns have genders and cases (a lot of them) and verbs conjugate (here, also, sometimes by gender), but the rules seem to be consistent so far and they make sense.  Once you get Cyrillic down, reading isn’t too difficult and although pronunciation can be a little tricky because there aren’t really any rules about where to put syllable stress, it is phonetic.  No, it’s the vocabulary that kills me.  There are a few friendly little cognates here and there, especially where modern technology is concerned, but since I don’t spend my entire day talking about computers and internet, it really only goes so far.

I’ve been told that my accent is improving; I certainly don’t sound like a Ukrainian, but depending on who you ask, I sound like an Italian, Estonian or Lithuanian speaking Ukrainian- I guess that’s better than American, right? And I’m getting much, much better at that tricky little letter “Щ”- this makes a “shch” sound, very quickly, and it’s difficult for Americans.  Very difficult, but if you practice saying “fresh cheese, fresh cheese, freshcheese, freshcheesefreshcheesefreshcheese” enough, gradually it starts to come.

I understand approximately 2% of what I hear going on around me on a good day, which is an admitted improvement from the 0.00001% I understood upon arrival, but really.  My frustration is immense.

Here’s a little city sign:

You got all that?

You got all that?

Can I string together a few coherent thoughts and express them in reasonably grammatically correct speech? Maybe.  Can I emphatically say that I neither speak nor understand Ukrainian very well?  Absolutely- in at least four different ways!  If a native speaker is speaking as slowly and deliberately as they might to a very stupid, very drunk toddler, I may even be able to carry on a shallow conversation.  But ask me to understand natural native speech and offer any detailed response and I am far, far out of my depth- which is why I’ve chosen to present here the top most useful expressions for getting by in Ukraine pretty добре without speaking the language, well… at all добре.

Key Phrases in Ukrainian

1. Можна…? (Mozhna…?)

This is absolutely the most important word to know.  It literally means “is it possible”- but oh, what it can do! Say this word in line at the cafeteria while pointing to what you want, and it means, “Can I get this?”  Say it while pointing to anything, really, and it means “Can I get/use this?”  Follow it up with any verb (or, more reasonably for the Anglophone, the pantomime of some verb), and it means “Can I/we/you do this?”  For example:  I like to take the stairs rather than the elevator most of the time, and to walk rather than take the bus any freaking time it is ever freaking possible (more on this later), so if I’m with a friend who is not as enthused about movement as I, I may say, while pumping my arms back and forth and vaguely marching in place with an expectant look on my face, “Mozhna?”  To which the somewhat exasperated but ever gracious friend will respond, “Mozhna.”  Also say this with a pointing gesture and questioning inflection if you’d like someone on the bus to move their crap so you can sit down next to them, when you knock on an office door and have just poked your head in and would like permission to enter, or really absolutely any time you want anything at all.

I cannot live without this word.  It is, however, much more effective, because it’s ever so much more polite, if you use it with…

2. Буд-ласка (bud– laska)

This means “please.”  Use it.  I’ve heard people (inebriated people) stick a little extra word in the middle, so it goes something like “bude- freaking- laska” (you know… almost like that), but I don’t recommend this to the sober Anglophone hoping for a positive response.

Now, if you get the positive response, ie what it is you want, you should respond with…

3. Дякую (dyakuyu)

Thanks.  Say it often, with a smile on your face- not a big American smile, just a modest little curve of the lips- what we at home would probably consider a neutral expression.

You’ve politely asked for your meal.  You’ve said thank you.  If you want to tell your friends to enjoy their meal, you might say…

4. Смачного! (smachnoho!)

Bon apetit!

Once you’ve finished your meal, you may want to go out for little post- prandial stroll.  As you mosey about the park, you notice some children playing helter- skelter on a steep hill, roughing about, tumbling, falling, and maybe tripping down the hill, causing you to clutch your heart and go…

5. Woahwoahwoahwoahwoah

To be fair, this is not really Ukrainian language.  However, this is said in a way and with a frequency I’ve found rather particular to this country.  Typically heard from men, it is usually uttered in deeper tones, and sounds more like “waw waw waw waw waw” if you say the ‘a’ like the ‘a’ in ‘awful.’  It’s almost equivalent to the French “Oh la la la…” (please note that, contrary to popular belief, ‘Oh la la!’ is NOT an expression of delight); somewhat disapproving, it says without words, “Hold your horses, there.  Just slow down one ever- lovin’ minute.”

And, speaking of expressing disapproval without words, there’s always the unisex…

6. Yoyoyoy

Americans often prefer the Spanish influenced “Ayayay.”  Adjust your vowels just a smidgeon, however, and roll your eyes in exasperation ever so slightly, and you’ll delight your friends as you express annoyance just like a native.

I’ll get it one of these days.  Until then…


Home Sweet Home

My new home is unquestionably beautiful (go ahead- look at that top picture again).  Lviv has weathered the conquest of Poles and Hapsburgs, two World Wars, Nazi and subsequently Soviet occupation, cultural oppression, and dramatic, often tragic, demographic shifts- and somehow emerged, in the end, with grace and splendor intact.  In the city centre, the buildings, ranging in style from renaissance to baroque to art deco, serve as functional monuments to the many cultural influences that have touched the Lion City throughout the years.  Venture beyond the centre, and the reminders become more modern and significantly less beautiful.

Let’s stay in the centre for now then, shall we?

(note: I didn’t take these photos- I found them with a Google search- I would credit the photographers if I could find their info, but no luck.  I have stood where these photographers stood, but really… do you want to look at a bunch of my crappy iPhone photos?  Oh, I know you do.  They’ll come another time.)

Look- here’s my church!

Lviv Latin Cathedral

This is a view from the Town Hall tower.  There are about a million churches here, and most of them are Catholic, but Archcathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (we just call it the Latin Cathedral) is one of the few churches still functioning as a Roman Catholic Church (I say Roman Catholic, but here you’re more likely to be called “Polish Catholic”)- the rest are now functioning as Byzantine Catholic (also called “Greek Catholic” or even “Ukrainian Catholic”) churches.  Construction on the Latin Cathedral began in 1360, and she was finally finished in 1481.  It’s beautiful inside (I’ll have to take pictures myself soon).  On hectic days, and especially when I’m tired, I like going in and just being.

I greatly appreciate the Byzantine Divine Liturgy, and, as it is nearly all sung, especially when it is offered at the seminary- those seminarians can harmonize like nobody’s business.  However, when the slightly homesick American girl wants a little bit of home, the best place to be on Sunday is the Latin Cathedral at 4:30, where the Mass is offered in English by a Polish priest in a Ukrainian church and accompanied by an African choir.  The mixture of cultures is so complete that I am nearly back in my beautiful U.S. of A.  The African choir is really something special, particularly here.  I’m not sure which country (or countries) the members claim as their own, but they are here studying medicine.  Their melodies and harmonies are totally new and unfamiliar to me, and I love them.

Hey, here’s Rynok Square!  The Black building is a museum, and to the right you may be able to vaguely make out a statue in the center of a fountain- there are four of these, depicting different Greek gods, situated in each corner of the Square.   On the left, in the distance, is of course another Church (formerly Roman, now Byzantine).

Lviv Rynok Square 1

Here’s another one of the handsome fountain fellows, situated right in front of Town Hall, which sits in the center of the Square.  This girl in period costume is one of many who wanders the square, selling sweets and flowers.

    Lviv Rynok Square 2

And here’s a straight shot down some trolley tracks, leaving the Square.


In the middle of the streets are lots of these outdoor cafes and patios.  A lovely place to sip some kvass.  There, on the right and in the back, is another Church.

 Lviv Cafes

I love my new home.  Is it obvious yet?  That’s mostly why I’ve neglected this blog for the last two weekends- I’ve been too busy living in this wonderful place. Mea culpa, mea culpa.  

Next post (probably… unless I don’t feel like it anymore… which means I’ve come up with something EVEN BETTER): A dab of local culture

What We’ve Learned, part 1

1. There is an important difference between ‘guano’ and ‘guava’.  My student’s absolute insistence that guano is the tropical fruit that made his classmate sick in his imaginary doctor’s visit scenario resulted in me fluttering my hands in a futile attempt to mime a definition, quickly thinking better of it, then sputtering between helpless giggles, “Guano is… guano is… guano is bat poop!”  Maybe I shouldn’t have laughed so hard that I cried, but really.  I have been teaching 9- year- olds for the last several years, and the residual effect on my humor is distinctly puerile. Also I’m American.

Speaking of American…

Rocky Poster

2. Rocky is universal.  Elizabeth and I are both in charge of twice- weekly English clubs, and since I 1) brought an absolute load of movies with me, and 2) haven’t remotely got the brain stamina left to plan another real class during the week, I’ve decided to run what I generously call “English Film Club”.  It was a little tricky to get my DVDs to play on the computer, and I heard frequently from would- be troubleshooters, “Oh… you have legal copies? Hmm.”  In the end it worked out, and thank goodness for Closed Captioning because, between fuzzy speakers and the mumbly Italian Stallion, subtitles were highly necessary for all- even me.

I didn’t realize until I was watching with the students (because “English Film Club” is really mostly “Bridget’s Favorite Movies” Club) but Rocky actually is a great movie for ESL learners .  That beautiful moron repeats himself a lot– and so do the people talking to him.  If you tick off a Ukrainian and he shoots out “You’re a bum!”, you’ll know he was one of mine.

Lots of students came and, though in our hour- long club we only finished the first half (to be continued this week), they really liked the movie.  I hope that they’ll love it almost as much as I do.  In the end, though, I just really, really want that they should go around saying, “Yo, Adrian.  It’s me, Rocky.”  Or better yet, just “ADRIAAANNNN!!!”


3. Ukrainian rap can be pretty cool.  Let me clarify.  Rap performed in Russian by an Eastern Ukrainian with strong pro- Ukrainian nationalistic sentiment is awesome.

There it was, the dining hall on Friday evening, and I was waiting to meet my Ukrainian tutor and looking forward to an evening of bashing my head up against my language homework, when along came my friend Bobby (who is super Ukrainian despite a deceptively American name- self- chosen, it should be noted). A few pleasantries later and we had made plans to go to the Ярмак (Yarmak) concert (see what I mean when I said I wait to see what the cool kids are doing?). I was grateful for the diversion, but really had no idea what was in store.  I had never been to a rap concert before.  I had certainly not been to one in Ukraine.  There might be tracksuits, and given the generally homogenous makeup of the local residents, probably a different crowd than I’d expect in California, but other than that… no idea.

We arrived to an old indoor circus, with one ring in the center and the bleachers rising up around it in tired- looking primary colors.  After two uninspiring opening acts, we shifted around, bored, thinking that maybe that was as good as it would get.

It was not.

Go ahead- check this out:


Ярмак came out, and to quote Cake, “the fans got up and they got out of town.” He scooped them tightly into one portion of the arena, and immediately their energy multiplied. Bobby and I stayed where we were, happy to bust our moves and wave our cell phone flashlights from the back of the crowd in the top row. We had a great time. I didn’t understand much of what was said (my Ukrainian is bad, my Russian non- existent), but I know to when to laugh, I know when to clap, and I know when to cheer in any crowd.

This did not prevent me being picked out as the foreigner.

Between each set, Ярмак would say a few words (as performers do), and Bobby would translate a bit here and there. During one break, he looked straight in my direction, and started speaking conversationally. I was behind hundreds of people. He could not be talking to me. I picked up enough to know that he was talking about Ukraine to some female, and I stared down and forward at the girls in front who I was sure he must be addressing. After a minute or two of this, I finally turned to Bobby and asked, “Що… is he talking to me?” “Yes.”

Thanks, friend. Thanks a lot.

Bobby told me after the show that Ярмак had been noting to the crowd that I was a foreigner but still came to this concert, and asking where I was from, what brought me to this country, and “do you love Ukraine?” It’s probably better that Bobby didn’t tell me what was going on at the time, because I would have felt obliged to say something, which ultimately would have been much more embarrassing than my poker- faced stare (and much less Ukrainian). I asked him, “But how did he know? How did he know that I’m a foreigner?”

There are a lot of things he could have said.  He settled on this:

“Maybe it’s your face.”