01 September 2008

Lost and Found

One of my most loyal readers declared yesterday (over email), "Your blog is strangely silent - are you too busy to write about all the things you see and do?" A fair enough question, and one that deserves an answer...

The fact of the matter is that yes, I've been quite busy, much more so than during my time in Russia last year. Not only did being forced to relocate to Ukraine swallow up a fair amount of time and attention (I spent most of June learning the ins and outs of the Kiev rental market. Not pleasant...), but Ukraine itself has taken up quite a lot of attention as well.

In fact, the last two months feel like a dizzying Ukrainian whirlwind - I've crossed this fascinating country from north to south, east to west. I've talked to nationalists in Lviv, miners in Donetsk, and farmers in the Ukrainian heartland of Podillia. I've seen Russian and Ukrainian sailors walking side by side in Sevastopol, gawked at crispy red sunbathers oozing onto the beaches in Yalta, and watched young children playfully skipping down the Odessa steps. At times it has been relaxing (10 days sailing the Dniepr and Crimea can do wonders for your soul) but mostly it's been exhausting as I ascend dark stairwells in run-down apartment blocks, ringing countless doorbells in search of interview subjects.

But despite the darkness, the exhaustion, the sore feet, and the frequent frustration of doors shut in my face, it has been nothing short of a truly enlightening experience. I won't try to sum up the Ukrainian people, nor will I even attempt to characterize those that I found in the West, the East, or the center. That, I'm afraid, will have to wait for the dissertation. But what I will say is that Ukraine's people make it a remarkably complex and multi-faceted country. While such diversity is one of Ukraine's most intriguing gifts, it is also one of her greatest dangers, as the divide across the country on even the most basic issues is immense. The future - dare I say the survival - of this country will depend on the ability of these diverse people to coexist in the same country, and it remains a monumental challenge.

And so, "I've been busy with research" is part of the explanation for my silence on this blog. But it is not the only reason. If one were to dig among the posts throughout the lifetime of this blog, you would quickly see that my best material - most of my material - comes from ordinary experiences I've had while traveling. Specifically, they are based on the gap between expectation and reality in a part of the world where reality is sometimes too bizarre to understand. Put another way, this blog has been about Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine through my eyes, an endeavor that has attempted to illuminate both the subjects that I view but also the lenses through which I view them. For absurdity is the eye of the beholder: to me it is amusing, to the girl wearing the shirt that proclaims, "Sexyrural world of promise" it's simply a pretty shirt.

I have a suspicion that my reticence on this blog during the last couple of months has been the result of a narrowing of the reality-expectations gap, leaving me with less "A" material to write about. I suppose it's entirely possible that Kiev is less absurd than Moscow, and that this is why there's less for me to comment on. But I doubt it. Rather, I think that after almost 12 months abroad during the last year and a half, my expectations more or less conform to reality here. The lenses through which I view my surroundings have changed their focus, redefining what I see and how I see it.

It is not that my surroundings - whether Ukrainian, Belarusian, or Russian - have become any less absurd. Rather, they've become normal in my eyes. And therein lies the problem for the blog - when "Just like a thousand pound football, I will challenge with my invincible power" starts to make sense as a catchy t-shirt slogan, you know that you've been here too long. And you know that you're probably starting to do absurd things that the new arrivals are making snarky comments about. Like the plastic grocery bag, now patched with duct tape, that I've been carrying around since Minsk...

In short, I fear that I've become somebody else's "A" material without realizing it.

So is this the end of the Darkness? Well, not quite. I still have a couple of tricks up my sleeve and I haven't gone so completely native that I can't shake my head in wonder at the man who was spitting water on his appreciative girlfriend in the sweltering heat of August. But there is a big bottle of kvas and a sack of potatoes in the kitchen serving as a subtle reminder that maybe I'm not quite right in the head anymore...

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