Monday, June 22, 2009

Some final thoughts

I arrived back in the U.S. on Sunday and have spent the last day or so catching up on about 900 e-mails - mostly junk - and a few phone calls.

Last week in Ukraine went so fast and was so exhilarating, it seems like just a dream now ... a good one.

Here are a few thoughts and observations:

Training ground for NYC taxi drivers: I think that Ukraine is the official training school for potential New York City cab drivers. They dart in and out of traffic, squeezing in between vehicles of all sizes. They avoid potholes by getting in the oncoming lane of traffic only to get back in their lane a few moments before an imminent collision. I just learned to ride with my eyes closed.

Food: The quality of the food in Sumy was outstanding and affordable. Ukraine was referred to as the bread basket of Russia and is still an agricultural region. Lunch featuring a soup, salad and drink would run $4-6 USD and dinner would be about $10-12 USD depending on your order. The food in Kyiv was much more expensive - about two to three times Sumy - and not nearly as good.

Alcohol and smoking: I mentioned earlier that many Ukranians walk most everywhere they go or take public transportation. This keeps them skinny, more so in Sumy than Kyiv. But what they gain in their health in walking, they most certainly lose by smoking and drinking. Smoking is much more prevalent and public than the US. And there are no open container laws, so Ukrainians, especially on a Saturday in Kyiv, can buy beer just about everywhere and carry it with them.

American influence: There were just two American companies that seemed to be everywhere: Coca-Cola and McDonald's. Diet Coke is Coca-Cola Light and tastes a little different. Cold drinks are a little harder to find and Ukranians drink a lot of hot tea. At the newspaper, there were two electric water pitchers that constantly heated water to make tea.

A reunion thanks to Facebook: Just before I left Houston, I posted on my Facebook status that I was heading to Amsterdam. Within minutes, a high school friend of mine sent me a message asking how long my layover would be. "Five hours, " I said. "Great, I'll meet you at the airport at 9 a.m. at the red blocks called the "Meeting Point." She lives just 45 minutes from the airport and so thanks to Facebook, I had a reunion with someone I haven't seen in more than 25 years.

Bathrooms: We were warned by others who had done this type of exchange program that we might see bathrooms of all types. Traveling abroad makes you thankful for our "facilities." Most newer buildings have traditional bathroom accommodations. But a stop along the road on the way to Sumy was a little more than a hole in the ground. And the newspaper was in a very old building, so they didn't have the luxury of a commode. You were able to flush the "hole" at the newspaper, but for the most part, it was much easier for me to aim than .... well, you get my point.

But what don't you like: It was very interesting how often I was pressed by people who wanted to know what I didn't like about Ukraine. There wasn't much not too like (ok, maybe the bathrooms some times) and I didn't want to be critical, but they would keep pushing. I think, much like in Amarillo, the citizens want you to like their city and country and they keep asking. I finally gave up and opted for the taxi drivers as my least favorite part.

Friendships: What I'll value most are the friendships that have been made. Although we were there just a week, it was an intense week. It was like a team-building experience that bonds you quickly and forever. And for us and them, it was a week discussing a subject that is extremely important to everyone. The photo above was taken on our last night in Sumy at the publisher's home. There are newspaper staff members, translators and the program coordinator who made
the trip a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I will forever be appreciative.
Just to let you know, there will be two groups from the newspaper visiting Amarillo. The first group - which will consist of four staff members and two translators - will visit July 25-August 2. The second group will be here in the fall, probably October or November.

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