I’ve been taking pictures on my iPhone, many of them rather grainy, but haven’t sat down and uploaded anything yet. So the next photo post is still in the future.
What I’d like to set down here are some general thoughts on what Lviv looks and feels like after spending a month here. Some good, some bad, some merely observational.
First, I’ve noticed that, compared to the Americans I’ve been surrounded by for my whole life, Ukrainians are a quiet bunch. I very rarely here anyone talking on the bus, and public spaces–even once the Hours of Beer have come–are typically very quiet, with most conversations held in a comparatively muted tone. People don’t quite call out to each other, or laugh raucously, the way Americans do.
Of course, that’s a generalization–people _do_ occasionally have public altercations, or a hoot of irrepressible laughter. But the whole feel of nearly any place I’ve been in Ukraine, from buses and supermarkets to a small-town festival, have been noticeably quieter than their US analogues.
When the silence is broken, it’s often by a busker. Sometimes they play guitar, sometimes they play massive stringed instruments I have no name for. One particularly talented gent was playing trumpet with a speaker providing backing tracks. Some of them are groups of teenagers singing soulful, off-tune English lyrics. Most of them (mainly barring some of those teenagers) are fantastic, at least to my tone-deaf senses. I’ve dropped a few hryvnia in their cases.
There are also gypsies. I went to mass at the University chapel this last Sunday, where I had to stand outside and listen to 80 minutes of Ukrainian liturgy though a bullhorn, and at some point a little gypsy girl started walking around, silently begging with her hands clasped in a praying position. She was quite theatrical, with dirt smeared on her cheeks and a filthy sweater over a clean dress, and didn’t say a word as she made her rounds, with her mother watching from just outside the church enclosure. The first time I shook my head no, she reached out and tapped the wallet bulging through my jeans. Point taken, little girl. Early in my stay I gave 10 hryvnia to a gypsy busker playing guitar, then had his son chase me down to pitifully recite the Ukrainian words for “eat” and “drink” while holding out his hands.
I hate that they use their children. I hate the idea of a whole lifestyle built around emotional manipulation. But it does make it hard to say no.
Lviv has supermarkets which aren’t too different from their equivalents in the US, but it also has open-air markets, where a warren of stalls offer everything from toys to organ meats spread out on tables and overseen by small dealers. Also the sidewalks, you can sometimes find old ladies who just have a sack or two of produce on offer. I’m told that a lot of the elderly are in serious plight here, abandoned by their children and with no social services to fall back on. Having seen some of them reduced to selling bruised apples on the street, I know I won’t have quite as much sympathy as I once might have for arguments against Social Security.
I think this is partly a Lviv thing, but Ukrainians love photo-shoots. It’s hard to wave your arms in the city center without hitting someone snapping a picture of their girlfriend/friend/daughter/bride, often using an iPad or something just as unwieldy. Apparently there’s a series of locations around Lviv where it’s traditional to get professional wedding photos done in full regalia, and it’s pretty common to see couples walking the streets together, the bride lifting her gown’s skirts above the cobblestones.
For some reason, every souvenir shop sells cheap wooden nunchucks (mostly sized for children). Either there’s something I’m missing, or there’s an untapped market here for a dojo teaching Okinawan kobudo.
A lot of things seem just slightly more haphazard. I’ve commented on the adventurous parking jobs people pull on the crowded streets, and the short buses (mashrutkas) are sometimes audibly groaning under the weight of their passengers. At a town festival, the only public restrooms were pit toilets in a cold basement, overseen by a lady taking one hryvnia per use–not exactly worse than Port-A-Johns, but certainly different. There’s a lot of variety in the style of sidewalks where there are any sidewalks at all, and a lot of infrastructure is visibly in need of repair. The city parks I’ve been in tend to have an overgrown feel, and schools look dismal (from the outside, at least).
That said, I have noticed that, even in the absence of a regular park cleaning crew, there’s hardly any litter. Ukrainians seem like public-minded folk who will almost always take their wrappers and bottles with them. This is generally true of the city streets as a whole. They’re cracked and full of potholes, but they’re incredibly clean.
A handful of buildings in my hometown of Madison date back to the city’s founding. For man-made structures older than that, you need to look at some Indian mounds. By contrast, Lviv has churches that were originally constructed in the 14th century, cannonballs from an Ottoman siege in the 16th, a section of the original city wall standing intact, and various reminders of occupation by the Polish, Austrians, and Nazis (who destroyed most of the city’s synagogues). It’s not as though older equals better, but it’s very interesting for me (particularly as an American) to have the chance to see things from the distant past.
Seeing how openly religious the Ukrainians are makes me realize how genuinely secular American life has become. Here, jewelry stores also do business in gold-plated icons, and all the bus drivers have various icons, holy cards, and rosaries scattered around their cabs. When I met with a development manager at a local software firm, she showed me a picture of the Greek Catholic arch-bishop holding a liturgy to bless their new office building. Some of the plazas have life-size crucifixes that, in the US, would long ago having been torn down by the Freedom From Religion Foundation or some similar crew. For Ukrainians, it seems like some small amount of religion–however sincere private belief might be–is simply part of the air they breathe.
Apparently, I look Ukrainian until I open my mouth. This means I can get through a lot of public interactions, such as one with a ranting grandma on the bus, by smiling and nodding, without revealing that I’m a foreigner.
There’s a different set of rules at work for restaurant service. The wait-staff will approach you exactly twice, unless you signal them: Once to give you a menu, again to take your order. They won’t come back to ask “How’s everything tasting?” or “Can I get you folks anything else?”. Partly, this is because tipping isn’t really common practice. They won’t even present the bill until you explicitly ask for it. Normally, I like it, but it can get a little annoying when you’re trying to leave, but all the staff have disappeared into the walls.
Anyway, that’s all for now! Photos to come soon.