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Ordinary Things

November 7, 1998

Hello again,

Today's theme is "Ordinary Things". People always expect change when going somewhere new. For us, much of the change has been pretty obvious and completely to be expected. But we have adapted to some things that seem to fall outside the term "expected". Much of this has to do with ordinary, daily events that are quite different from back home.

Water for example. The fluid coming from the tap is not potable. It is generally a nice color, something in the yellow-to-brown spectrum. So we drink from bottles (which also sometimes contain colored fluid). Generally we've decided we can boil tap water for things like spaghetti and not run too high a risk of disease. Besides, maybe the radiation has killed the germs. (Just joking -- radioactive contamination has not reached Kyiv. Trust me.) This is our norm now.

And "hot water" has new meaning too. Every tap has a hot and a cold faucet, just like back home. Except the "hot" side seldom if ever gets warm enough to allow any blending with the cold. I don't think I've ever taken a shower here with the cold water valve open. Even the "hot" side has been too cool for showering - so we turn on the in-line electric heater to boost the temperature. However, now that winter is here, the hot water is generally warmer than it is in the summer. (We've been assured that in July and August there is no difference between the hot and cold water temperature. Both will be too cold for showers.) But the temperature of the hot water also depends on how much flow has been established between our taps and the heating source -- probably miles away. So we turn the hot water on when we get up and figure it will take from a few to 20 minutes to get it warm enough to use. All the running faucets would give a California water conservationist fits.

Speaking of heat, that's also provided by "the city". Nothing before October 15 and very little after that. Still, so far, our apartment is OK. (The first real test will be this weekend - snow and "below zero" --- teens and twenties for you Fahrenheit people.) The backup is electric heaters. Everyone has them. Some are small cubes about 10 inches on a side that are referred to as "furnaces" - I have one at work and it is noisy but seems to have an effect after an hour or so. If it doesn't catch fire. At home, we are going to get "oil heaters". These are really just electric heaters that look like hot water radiators. They are filled with oil and give off nice, quiet, even heat. So, our ordinary life has below zero that isn't, heating that doesn't (much), furnaces that aren't and oil heating that's electric.

Transportation. Now that's something that's very different. No more simple car trips to the store. No car. We can't even rely on the normal city service of taxis until we get more language under our belts. "Taxis"? Did I say "taxis"? What I meant was cars that stop when you stick your hand out. Three out of four times it will not be a taxi - but will be equally reliable in any event. Ordinary public transportation is even more novel. Subways. Trolleys. Trams. Buses. Anything you want for 30 kopecks. Less than one thin dime. For twice that you can ride a minibus along the same route as the trolley. But, overall, the system is so extensive, and so complicated, that we've only ventured on small parts of it. And of course all the signs are in a foreign language.

Speaking of signs. Of course we expected that the signs would not be in English. (Except some of them are. The other day, we saw a "STOP" sign. A regular, American, eight-sided Stop sign.) Everything is Russian. Or Ukrainian. They're different. To complicate matters, after the fall of the Soviet Union, many streets and Metro stops were renamed. Some of the signs were changed but many were not. Yet. But it doesn't really matter because the people still use the old names anyway - names that are not on the new maps nor on the new signs. For example, people say "Red Army Street" (in Russian) and don't really recognize the name of the Ukranian patriot whose name is now honored with that street's name. A further reason to avoid taxis to whom we'd need to give instructions.

"Instructions" reminds me of our fleet of new appliances. The regular ones like microwave, telephone, CD-player, etc. No problem, right? Well, sorta. Instruction manuals come in a variety of languages and the machines themselves are marked in strange ways. If you think VCRs are hard in regular English, try English buttons and Russian instructions. My personal favorite is the TV satellite system that has buttons in English but instructions in four Scandinavian languages. And it's complicated. I think that's why we mostly just leave it on CNN. The microwave is good too. Actually it's a microwave & convection oven but that just means there's more buttons and controls labeled only in Russian. Twelve buttons and a knob and the only one we've really figured out is the "quick cook" button that turns the microwave on for 30 seconds. A month after we started using it we realized we'd never cooked anything longer than 30 seconds at a time.

The Daewoo microwave does have some English instructions but they're not in simple English. I think it's the result of a Korean-to-Russian-to-English translation. Kinda fun but it increases the mystery of the device. We also have a Daewoo space heater. The English in this manual is hilarious. The best feature is the "Warm Wind Spitting Hole". The second best is the "Air inhaler". If you have to know, these are just the goes-out and the goes-in of the little fan. (We are also collecting good menu translations but the only remarkable one I can remember at the moment is the restaurant that offered "frog's paws". We passed.)

Some people have asked if we get mail - other than this electronic stuff that EVERYBODY on our list sends us. (What, YOU haven't? You're the ONLY one who hasn't supported this semi-public broadcasting service. But our pledge drive is coming up soon.) The paper mail question is difficult. Marianne can get and send simple letters via the school. (Marianne Trotter; Kyiv International School; US State Department-Kyiv; Washington, DC 20521). It works OK and is highly secure but it takes about 2 weeks and NO PACKAGES or magazines or anything unusual. In principle, we can get "regular" mail at her office, at my office or even at home but everyone says that's risky. We don't even do it for business. All packages get opened (officially) for Customs and rumors abound that anything valuable never gets returned to the package. Marianne got 1 package and it seemed OK but it was just a collection of simple things. This week, we finally got the key to our home mailbox and, lo and behold, there was actually a letter inside from our tax accountant. It had never occurred to us to look in our mailbox. Mostly we have to rely on visitors to carry small packages in and out so remember to sign up on our list before your next Ukraine visit. (What, you visited and didn't tell us? That's all right, I know you'll be back. Everybody visits Kyiv on their way somewhere.)

Well, gotta run. No pictures this time because pictures of Ordinary Things are pretty darn boring.. I tried but fell asleep editing them.

John and Marianne


ps: The first snow is forecast for this weekend. If it shows up, we'll send pictures. I may even add the exciting ones of the space heaters, spitting holes or frog's paws.

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Originally sent in September, 1998. Reformatted for the website on May 11, 2001

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