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Tina Cintron, an American artist shares her impressions of living in a provincial Ukrainian town
I’m an American, not affiliated with any group or governmental agency. I just live here. To both Ukrainians and Americans I am a curiosity. They wonder why I choose to live in Ukraine in the first place, why I chose to live in a provincial town and not in Kyiv. This article bounces back and forth between what is and what was. In fact, this is a second article I am writing for Welcome to Ukraine Magazine. The first one was published over a year ago — and I’m still here.
In sub-zero cold
I am now very settled in Khmelnytsky, population 260,000, located six hours by train from Kyiv to the southwest. Many people in this city were surprised by my return after my first trip. They were shocked at my third time here and are pretty much flabbergasted that I came back AGAIN to LIVE. Not to mention my now ex-husband and my two grown children. My son is the one who chose my e-mail address : “krazietina”. It clearly states his opinion of his mom’s exploits.
My reason is simple. I came to stay still. Why Khmelnytsky? That takes longer to explain. Backing up a bit; my first visit was official, hosted by the Sister Cities program, Khmelnytsky being one of the Sister Cities to Modesto, California, my last place of residence. I had been teaching my own art program in the public schools and ran my private art school. The officials in Modesto had hosted a ceramist and an iconographer from Khmelnytsky to Modesto in October 1999. At that time I was asked to participate in an artist exchange. My part of the exchange took place in January 2000.
It was sub-zero cold, very snowy and very exciting for me. I was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii and my fascination with snow hasn’t diminished after four years of living in it here. (It snows one inch once every 15 years or so in Modesto and never on the island of Oahu, Hawaii.) Here I saw a world so different than what I was used to, a world of snih (snow), shuba (fur coat) and mekhova shapka (fur hat), minus 20 degree Celsius temperatures, buildings twice older than my country and, women that have a striking resemblance to me. (I am of Korean and Puerto Rican ancestry.) I didn’t stand out at all. I was a zebra in a herd of zebras! I was amazed by just about everything I saw. The lousy toilet facilities, missing manhole covers and rubble-littered sidewalks were absolutely diminished by the beauty of the trees and icicles, the remarkable artwork of children and fine artists, the hospitality and cuisine, and more horilka (vodka) than I’d ever had in my life. The missing manhole covers only added to the excitement and sharpened my skills of survival and observation.
Hawaiians and Ukrainians
From the start so many little things here wrapped around my heart and flooded me with pleasant childhood memories of Hawaii. Sub-zero weather and Hawaii, you ask? I noticed strange similarities between Ukraine and Hawaii. Hawaiians love to eat! We love oliviye — mayonnaise and potato salad. We love shashlik — barbeque, Ukrainian style. Many other dishes are very similar to Hawaiian/Asian cuisine — pot stickers, pelmeni — won ton (No poi or shaved ice, though.) We love music and singing songs that reflect history, we love flowers, and nature. We have royalty in our history. We love jokes and good stories and take time to listen to them. Everyone here takes their shoes off and wears house slippers like in Hawaii. The sunsets are almost as spectacular as the sunsets in Hawaii. Here, one doesn’t usually visit a friend with empty hands, perhaps just a few apples or a box of chocolates or pastry for two. This is very Asian and Hawaiian to me. It makes me feel very comfortable. And Ukraine used to be under the ocean, too (it does not matter it was so many millions of years ago, really).
“Do you miss the States?”
Many friendships made on that brief trip of 14 days four years ago are still in existence and I value them immensely.
The next most common question out of every new person I meet is inevitably, “What do you do here?” “I’m an artist,” I answer. That seems to satisfy everyone because it is assumed all artists everywhere in the world are “nuts” anyway. In the past two uninterrupted years here I’ve caught up on at least six years of missed reading, I finally have time to study a foreign language and use it. I came to scratch the surface of myself and see what is underneath. I came to paint, draw, sculpt, breathe. I like the wildness of life here. Many fruit trees are left to their natural form instead of the neatly trimmed orchards of California. I love to listen to different languages and see how things are done in ways different than what I am used to. I observe the level of cleverness which is used to survive and make things work, rather than just replace whatever it is with something new.
People still ask if I miss the States. “If I did, I’d be there,” I say using my politest tone of voice. The best question was, “Who is making you stay here?” asked by a cleaning lady; as if we were all in prison, I was set free — and I chose to stay.
When the economics of Ukraine was explained to me I was dumbfounded. How can a family of four survive on so little? No one is wearing rags. Yes, there are beggars, but they seem well organized and probably make more money than a shop vendor. I still do not know how it is done. Admittedly, I have the advantage of American dollars against hryvnyas. With no doubt some folks were licking their chops to get close to me. Luckily I had and have good people watching out for me.
On my second trip in June of 2000 I brought along three of my art students. They stayed a scheduled two weeks. I remained for a planned six months in which I studied Religious Iconography (an amazing artistic experience) here in Khmelnytsky at Studio Nikosh, run by Mykola and Natasha Benedyshchuk. It is located near the Eternal Flame War Memorial if you want to visit the studio or inquire about classes. There is a gallery of icons which are available for purchase or if you’d like to commission something special.
My students were amazed and amused by the same things that I had seen on my first trip, with the added astonishment of the fashions Khmelnytsky women sport during hot weather. Lots of transparent and netted-see-through things. The women in Khmelnytsky have a very, very positive body image and this isn’t limited to women under thirty. I liked that immensely. They had such stylish, albeit bizarre, clothing and a particular attitude that I envied. There was an incongruity between the people and the city itself. How did these women manage to walk in spiked heels on the rubble and uneven sidewalks and dirt or mud when I was afraid I’d twist my ankle wearing hiking boots? How did they look so terrific when the water in their apartments was shut off half the time? How did they afford those clothes in the latest fashions? My envy turned to fascination. Could I learn how to be more feminine here? We wear farm-hand’s clothing in Modesto; jeans and T-shirts, not stylish skirts and heels. And their make-up! The electric orange hair I still find a bit odd, especially on sixty-year-old women. It’s just my personal taste.
Languages and changes
I asked my students to note that every Ukrainian speaks more than one language to begin with: Ukrainian and Russian; in school they are taught English or German, sometimes French. Most people under the age of 35 are computer literate; their math and science knowledge is at least two grade levels above the average American student of the same age. 100 percent of the populace is literate. As an educator I could not help but be impressed. My students were, too.
I had warned them on the 2000 trip it would be rather like camping out, “so be sure you carry your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer and be sure to have the card that tells the driver where to take you to if you get separated from me and mind where your passport is at all times.” After one outing they never questioned my instructions again.
Things have changed ever so much since then. In four short years the slow pace that had attracted me has sped up more than I ever imagined it could. The sidewalks are now paved with brickwork, both colorful and easy to walk on. There are now ramps for wheel chairs and baby buggies on most of the Centre’s street crossings. Unfortunately, we don’t see this extended to apartment blocks or public buildings as we do in the States. Where makeshift kiosks once made a crowded bazaar, there now stands a multi-storied glass department store with more buildings like it appearing throughout the city at an alarming rate. Now most places have pay toilets with seats, toilet paper, hand soap and paper towels! And the water rarely goes off in my district and I really cannot recall when the power last went off. Things have really improved.
The prices as well as the buildings have shot up. Bread has increased from 80 kopecks to 1.60 hryvnyas. Prices haven’t hurt me, but I feel anxiety for the residence working for low pay and having to spend far more than they make just to stay alive.
Speaking of bread as a metaphor… to keep the speed of my life in low gear I do things to slow down. I have just finished kneading the dough, by hand, for my bread supply for the next two days. I have managed to meld some of the fluffiness of American bread with the wholesomeness and fabulous flavor of Ukrainian ingredients. The same holds true with my life here in Khmelnytsky. I have made adjustments to life and environment, and have been fortunate enough to also furnish my habits of American creature comforts. I feel as if I have the best of both worlds. I am surrounded with history and foreign exoticness, Soviet and Slavonic humor (that took me a while to grab on to), and live with most of the things I have been used to as an American.
I had always considered myself a “technophobe”. It is a total lie. The realization hit one morning as I thought about what to write in this article. Okay — I’m not a whiz kid on the computer, but I have more electronic gadgets around me I use everyday than most Ukrainians my age will ever have in their lifetime. (That may change — credit is being advertised on TV). And I obtained them all here in Ukraine. I sit here at my computer with DVD capability, hooked up to the Internet through my telephone (one of two, one being cordless — no cell phone, I loathe them) after I put coffee on in my coffee maker and switch on either my radio/CD/cassette player or remote control television which has cable access, which sits next to the VCR — also with remote control. I have a refrigerator. Not everyone does. Uh-huh. Piece by piece, I have inadvertently and/or consciously recreated my cosy life I took for granted in the States. I have a small flat compared to US standards; average by Ukraine’s standards, and (this is a biggie) I live ALONE, not with three other adults and one or more kids. As one young friend said to me, “You live like a queen!” “Queen of what country?” I thought as I bit my tongue.
About health care. This is definitely frightening for anyone in any country, even our own. Medical care by competent physicians takes a little asking and looking around, some investigation as to how they work and what the medical facilities are like. I have to say I have experienced both ends of the spectrum, literally. The worst was a hair-raising experience with the gynaecological specialist… I never want to see him again! That was three years ago.
Things have improved greatly in this sphere too. Availability of a wide variety of pharmaceutical drugs has increased hugely. Hospital facilities are being revamped, new technological equipment is in place and operational. The ultra-sound facility is the latest and handles many cases a day. Ordinary people, not just the privileged, are being treated with the best available equipment and provided with all the necessary information. They can get any drugs they need. I have seen this myself.
I have age catching up with me in the way of aches and pains. Heel spurs. I have been x-rayed, diagnosed and fitted with the most amazing insoles I’ve ever worn. We have orthopaedic specialists in this town that are connected with The Center of Rehabilitation of Disabled Children in Kyiv. The center here in Khmelnytsky is managed by Oleksandr Delikatny. I was fitted by Oksana Dooz, she carefully made sure all my foot needs were met. I’m walking miles and miles again because of the wonderful care given to me by my doctors and these technicians.
Changing tracks… On my first visit I was overwhelmed, and still am, by the quality of art works in every medium here in Khmelnytsky, as well as the galleries, museums and art schools. I had been amazed to see such beauty created in poverty with inferior materials. Unsuitable paper held marvellous works by young art students and professional artists. Everything in the way of art materials was either wildly expensive or unavailable. I had brought my essential painting and drawing materials with me each trip. Paper weighs a lot. I had to choose carefully what I should bring with me. I had experienced “culture shock” on my second visit and knew I had to bring the sanity of familiarity with me in the form of reading materials as well as the supplies to create with. No staplers, hence no staples, rubber bands were hard to find, pens were lousy and scarce, envelopes with greeting cards were non-existent.
Now, in 2004 the whole scene has changed. We have two stores (maybe more and I haven’t discovered them yet) full of high quality art supplies; numerous well-stocked stationary stores; an enormous well-stocked grocery store, typical of the States; a large, very peculiar shopping “mall” with ugly electric light-up palm trees in front of it; at least two casinos (one also has an electric palm tree in front) and one more hotel has opened. I can go to Kyiv to purchase DVDs, CDs, videos and books, limited in choice but they are in English.
The paradox is I came here to slow down and escape the too-fast world of California and here I sit with all this electronic stuff surrounding me by choice and can go to the SUPER market to do one-stop shopping and buy an avocado. Ha! Three years ago I never would have believed it. Change is inevitable.
One of my most colorful visual memories is of an old, old Babushka (granny) carrying her “parachute” (a huge fabric-tied bundle filled with anything and perhaps everything she owns) on her back, old felt boots (humorously called “farewell-to-youth”) with rubber slip-on soles, her hair hidden from view by the two scarves tied snugly beneath her chin, hand knitted shawl over her two layers of sweaters, hunched over from the load she bore, shuffling slowly, step-by-step in my direction. And there, around her neck swung an electric pink cellular-phone. Gotta keep track of Babushka! To me this was an image that captured Ukraine in one glance.
Having spoken to other Americans that are here with Peace Corps, all women, their opinion is as high of Khmelnytsky as is mine. The youngest volunteer in their group has returned home to finish her Masters Degree and was weeping inconsolably when it was time to say goodbye. One is contemplating retiring here and another is extending her stay for another year. My dearest and closest friend, Twila Dorr, came for her second visit over the Easter holidays and is retuning in June for a longer stay. It will be her third trip here. Evidence to the appeal of Khmelnytsky is not mine alone.
Satisfying and relaxing
At times I do miss my studio. I had neither the means, nor space to recreate my pottery/art studio I once had, so I thought about what was around me. Plastic bottles… Lots of plastic water bottles. I had unintentionally placed one a little too close to the gas stove flame and it sagged interestingly. My trail of strange thoughts took their usual weird course and I have now created dragons from recyclables (plastic soda bottles, newspaper, plastic bags, lightweight cardboard) and French plaster tape (used to encase broken limbs). I bought recycled copper wire from here and there at the metal bazaar to create the armature for legs, horns and such. Thus, I now have what my son has jokingly christened, “Mom’s Garbage Dragons”. “Why dragons?” I’m asked. Because they are fantastic. My friends who have learned to make them, agree. We relax and enjoy the time creating what we feel, not what has to be correct for others. Sculpting builds confidence. One takes an idea in one’s head and brings that vision into reality. It is very satisfying and relaxing. I am happy to help nurture that process in others. Now I am working on another project to add to my other educational videos distributed by Crystal Productions in the United States. I am as busy as I want to be.
To me Khmelnytsky is like chocolate ice cream — it was love at first sight, love at first bite.
There is little I can complain about here. Life is good. I can even purchase water bez hazu — without bubbles. Now, if I could just get it through to folks that I want my pizza WITHOUT mayonnaise…