The winters could be tough in Ukraine – long, cold and usually arriving suddenly. In Denmark there is sea all around, so seasonal change is gradual since the sea all around keeps temperatures even. But with an inland climate it can change from summer to winter almost at the drop of a hat.
It was beautiful when the snow came to cover all the grey, but it could also cover other things – like missing man-hole covers, where you could loose a wheel if you hit it just right. The winters were hard not only on people but on roads and equipment. Mechanics in Ukraine could earn a decent living repairing car suspensions.
All that to say that road conditions began taking their toll on our second van. Once I arrived at the border of Denmark with every single one of the back springs cracked. I hadn’t realize the back axle was actually resting on the chassis. The Danish police at the border said, “No way you are driving on our roads like that” and they promptly confiscated my license plates.
We had the car towed to our friend at the car spring factory and he kindly donated new springs for the back. He even put an extra layer on to give it more strength. We were riding high again now (as you might be able to see from the fuzzy picture), and the van passed inspection - but man... the constant hurdles and hoops we had to jump through!
As I said, every inch of progress was hard work. I remember when we had to move the caravan behind the fence at “the white wall house” - it was stuck, and we had to get everyone out pushing and shoving to get it into place. It was just a typical example of how every little inch of progress was like moving a mountain.
Daily living and existence was a drain. Going to the market for food. The half empty shelves in the government shops with limited choices. You had to be super nice to the sales clerk if you hoped to get any service at all – not like the West where the customer is king. Finding drinkable water, the list went on and on. But it made me understand and sympathize with our friends and neighbours who endured these conditions.
I did like the bread in Ukraine! Nice square whole wheat bricks that you picked up in the morning from a little iron shed up by the main road. It got delivered from the baking factory every day. Usually a Babuska would hand it to you through a small opening in the iron shed.
Still sometimes I wondered why we did it. Was it really worth the effort? I could have been nice and snug back home in comfy Scandinavia with its well organised society. I could have been an architect back in Denmark earning a decent living with normal working hours providing for my family and living an comfortable life. Instead we were roughing it out there in the Wild East under depressive conditions in a broken system ravaged by seventy years of communism.
In Ukraine the saying went something like, "you cannot operate without a roof over your head." - In the West they call it insurance, in other places they provide "protection."
The story goes that a couple of Olympic champion wrestlers in an East European country started out by offering their 'services'. "We will make sure nobody breaks your store front window"... kind of stuff. From there they expanded their business to eventually become a full fledged respectable 'insurance company' sponsoring the national football team.
Maybe I'm starting to sound like a broken record. I've been in places that were worse off than Ukraine. In reality Ukraine is a rich country in many ways, rich in resources, minerals, education, fertile soil and so on, but sadly it was poor in love, poor in hope, poor in compassion, poor in the things that matter! The poor in Asia where I have worked were more often happy, smiling and carefree! So rather than the physical conditions I think it was the oppressive atmosphere and general sadness that was eating at me.
They had "palaces of culture," grandiose looking buildings with Greek columns and marble looking stairs. One such "palace of culture" was painted in a horrible green colour that made it look like the fake facade it really was. At the same time amazing programs with classic music and beautiful ballet was being practised, but it somehow seemed out of proportion. I think it's fundamentally God's Spirit that inspires us to create harmony, beauty and purpose in art, music and design.
When you stepped through the door into private living spaces, things were usually much nicer and well cared for. There was a stark contrast between things public and things private.
The failure of that ideology and so-called central planning was obvious. Nobody cared about anything common. For all its attempts to create a socialist utopia, with their garish statues and now rusty amusement parks, it was sad and forlorn. I'm not criticizing communism in favour of capitalism - they are both materialistic ideologies. I believe Jesus was speaking about something entirely different!
When Spring finally arrived it could appear in a flash. I remember especially one year there was ice on the river one week and next week the trees were alive – like an explosion of green! A welcome boost of encouragement after a long cold winter.
One more little anecdote...
We got to know another "Sasha" - an English teacher. He persuaded me to join him down town, where his English club was meeting. After the meeting we got out to where I had parked the van - and the licence plates were gone – what on earth was going on?
Apparently I had parked in the wrong place so the police had unscrewed my plates! Sasha said, "we need to go up to the police station to see if we can work this out." When we came to the desk it was of course, “STRAF!” - a fine for having parked illegally, despite the fact that there was no sign at the place to indicate otherwise – you were just supposed to know that.
At that moment an impressive figure in a leather jacket came out from the back. When he found out that Sasha was teaching English he said, “my daughter is having a visitor come from America, would you mind coming by to help her brush up on her English?” That happened to be the top police chief of the city. He gave Sasha his card and told the officer at the desk to give me back my licence plates. - Once again, saved by the bell!
Sasha later told me that whenever he was stopped by the traffic police, all he had to do was flash the chief’s contact card and immediately the cops would let him go with a “chaz levas” (have a nice trip)! You see, it's not what you know that matters, but whom you know :-)
I really don't have any excuse, because after all, your own children are the only lasting legacy you have, and being there for them is more important than all the other "good works" you can muster.
I can only hope that the life we lived might also have given them something more than you can learn sitting in a class room. I imagine that meeting so many varied people and cultures, living and cooperating with different personalities in challenging conditions, provided them with special resilience, insight, experience and social skills.
Thankfully in spite of my shortcomings, and the hardships I put them through, they have all turned out to be authentic and productive human beings.
Before coming to Ukraine I was strong as an ox. Always busy busy busy, an early riser and late to bed. I remember turning 50 while we were renting our fifth house in Predniprovsk. That’s where I got hit with kidney stones – pretty painful! It must have been a combination of the poor water, the polluted environment, and the wear and tear of life.
One more anecdote in that connection….
While at the hospital with kidney stones I was given powerful pain killers regularly. I used to joke they were using my backside as a dart board. One night I was looking for a nurse to administer the shot. I was wandering the hallway of the ward when I heard strange noises behind a door. Upon entering I found a room full of doctors in high spirits – literally! They had finished the vodka and had now started on the hospital alcohol. I was invited to join the jolly party and was loudly introduced to the different surgeons who found it most amusing having a Scandinavian patient dropping by.
The party got more boisterous and the noise level grew until a phone rang. It was the superior who had gotten complaints about the commotion. He was threatening the doctors with expulsion if they did not immediately break up the party! Soon the grown men in gowns had scurried off to their respective departments. Next morning the usual inspection round was a very brief affair :-)
I was scheduled for an operation to remove the kidney stones, but just prior a scan showed they had disappeared. Could it have been in answer to prayer?
Regardless, since that time my kidneys started to deteriorate primarily due to an inherited genetic disposition to polycystic kidneys. After Ukraine my strength has pretty much been cut in half.
(Photo: With young street vendor in Kiev)