Friday, July 17, 2009

Life in Starobelsk

Some favorite Kiev photos (I love the domed churches), plus Luba's house, where I am staying, and the road more travelled. I'll try adding others.

The people who live in Starobelsk take pride in their village. The sidewalks and streets are swept; there's hardly any litter (and lots of trash containers); the gardens are bountiful and beautiful; Lenin park is raked daily, spotless and shady, a nice place to sit especially in this hot weather; and the city buildings are well worn but well maintained. The unpaved roads are rough, but then this is a rural community. People walk or ride bikes; some have cars. There aren't any buses or those famous overcrowded Marshrukas that are the main modes of transportation in cities like Chernigov. Nope. It's walk or bike. Good for the legs, good for the soul.

Actually, I've discovered that the streets of Starobelsk are the main meeting places in town. I walk from Luba's house on Panfelova, down Karl Marx and over to Lenin Park pretty much daily, or to a store or shop or the bazaar, and invaribly meet someone I know. I've met teachers, city workers, people from the Cultural Center, the librarian, shopkeeprs this way, and we always stop and talk. No rush. No hurry. Today a trio of teenaged boys ran after me, gave me big smiles and asked, in English, "Are you from America?" Sure am, how did you know? We could tell! One wanted to practice his English, which was a heck of a lot better than my Russian. So we chatted all the way home. One of the boys was from Russia, just over the culturally porous border. He mentioned that America and Russia "no get along." Yes, that's true sometimes, but I hope it will be better now. "Da, politics separate the peoples," we all agreed.

This is the best thing about the Peace Corps. I think. It's not so much the work we do, or the projects, as it is meeting people and in the process shredding those old sterotypes. Good guys and bad guys. Cowboys and Indians. Commies vs. Americans. It's just people, trying to get along.

There is great curiosity about America. Great appreciation and some misgivings. The music, like hip hop, is big, and so are movies and sports. Luba woke me with great excitment, arms waving, the morning she heard the news on TV about Michael Jackson. The rest of the news, well, they mostly ignore it. They do know Obama!

Life's not easy here. The economy is bad, farms are suffering, the land issue is huge (who owns the land now that collective farms are no more), and unemployment is high. It often feels a lot like America in the 1950s, in terms of styles, technology, transportation, infrastructure, modern equipment. Today I marveled at an old, rickety tractor that was pulling a big old wagon, which street sweepers (older men and women usually) were using to dump the trash in as they cleaned along the curbs with handmade brooms and old shovels. On the other hand, more people have computers and cel phones, and more and more are going online. The demand is actually pushing city governments to respond by upgrading telecommunications systems.

And there are lots of stores that carry the products and services this technology needs. Small enterprises are growing in cities and in rural communities like Starobilsk, and perhaps this bodes well for the economic future of Ukraine and other former Soviet republics. The transformation is rough but inevitable. Young people are more optimistic than their parents and grandparents. The wave of the future.

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