Photography

Exploring Ukraine

February 11, 2016

Ukraine? In winter? I think I spent two months explaining to everyone who heard about it just why I was going to Ukraine on vacation over the holidays. But I had a good reason. My wife Kathleen is stationed there as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer. Peace Corps Response recruits experienced professionals with specific technical skills to provide short term (6mos – 1 year) support to a community in need. Kathleen left for Ukraine in early September last year and is completing a nine month project at the Ternopil Regional Center on Education and Rehabilitation, a school for children with disabilities. She provides capacity building support to the school administrators and training to enhance the skills of the teachers. Of course, she also spends a lot of time with the children who attend school, many of whom live there during the week and travel home to their families in remote villages around the region on the weekend.

Amsterdam Street Art

I knew going in this trip would be one of the most disorienting travel experiences I’d had to date. There were significant language challenges (including the алфавіт …er, alphabet), a wildly unfamiliar culture, and a very different standard of living (squat toilets anyone?). Nevertheless, I flew out on Christmas Day feeling less prepared than I ever have for a trip. Fortunately I had a 7-hour layover in Amsterdam, a city I’d visited before. I spent a quiet day exploring the town and slowly adjusting to an environment where I couldn’t read most of the signs or speak the language. However, nothing really prepares you for the post-Soviet experience of Ukraine. I arrived in Kiev (“Kyiv” to the locals) late in the evening, following the crowd and searching for signs in English that would guide me toward the exit. I cleared customs and immigration without a problem, carrying all sorts of ‘exotic’ items for Kathleen and other volunteers, such as Sriracha chili sauce and cheddar cheese. Fortunately no one seemed too interested in my luggage.

Lviv Train Station

Airports are always hectic, and this one was no exception, even late at night. As I made my way outside I was inundated by cab drivers offering “clean car, very comfortable, very fast” in their limited English (prices quoted in Ukrainian), each one vying to land a paying customer. I worked my way through the crowd, and after a short wait happily found Kathleen and her friend Nataliya, who was kind enough to come along and help us navigate Kiev. We had just enough time for a car ride to the city center and a quick sandwich at the train station before hopping a night train for Ternopil, where Kathleen lives. Walking onto the train platform was like stepping into an old Cold War movie – one bare light bulb lighting the platform, and a train that had to be nearly as old as I am. We found our car and I climbed aboard, feeling well out of my element. We had space reserved in ‘second class’ which was a 4-bunk compartment, and already occupied by one person trying to sleep. We made up our beds as quietly as we could, and I hauled myself up to the top bunk, trying not to step on the person below, where I quickly fell asleep after 28 hours in transit.

Ternopil Street Vendors

The train conductor was supposed to wake us up half an hour before we arrived in Ternopil, but had fallen asleep himself, so we scrambled to pull our things together as the train approached our station. We arrived to a cold and snowy platform about 2:00 am on Sunday, caught a taxi to Kathleen’s apartment (with help from Nataliya), and thankfully were able to get a few more hours sleep before venturing out into town. Ternopil is a proper city of about 200,000 people, located in the western part of Ukraine. While many Peace Corps volunteers are placed in rural villages with far fewer creature comforts, Kathleen was lucky enough to be given a post with easy access to coffee shops, public transportation, and Wi-Fi. However, it’s not a city like any you find in the US, as evidenced by the string of old women selling raw chickens and homemade yoghurt on the streets around the city center. The city is surrounded by a seemingly endless stretch of large concrete apartment buildings built in the Soviet era, each in its own individual state of decay. Drinking water is purchased at a local filling station located near each apartment complex or from one of the many small shops that line the main streets. People walk with their heads down, carefully watching the broken sidewalks and side-stepping the worst of the debris.

We explored the local bazaar, a large open-air market where you can buy everything from fresh produce to tools to kittens to underwear. Even washing machines! I got a taste of Ukrainian culture when Kathleen explained that she needed help buying a new shower head for her apartment. Shopping at the bazaar by herself was challenging because in addition to not knowing the language well, the male vendors often ignored her, especially in the hardware section of the bazaar. Gender issues are still very evident there. Afterwards, while we waited for our lunch to arrive – a traditional Ukrainian lunch of borscht and varenyky (beet soup and potato dumplings), Kathleen did her best to teach me essential survival words in Ukrainian (please, thank you, yes, no, hello, etc.). For the next two weeks I would sound like a broken record, repeating thank you (“dya-ku-yu”) over and over as people were gracious and kind in helping me navigate in unfamiliar territory.

Kathleen & Friends at the school Christmas program

Monday and Tuesday were work days for Kathleen, so I tagged along and had a chance to meet her co-workers and many of the children. The school was winding down for the holidays, so both days were filled with Christmas programs; elementary-age children one day and the older kids the next. The Christmas programs would be familiar to any proud parent, with singing, dancing, and adorable costumes. The young children ended their program with a wonderful rendition of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” in English just for us, beaming with pride as they sang. It was incredibly touching, and highlights the generosity of spirit of every person at the school.

The holiday season in Ukraine seems to go on for ages. Ukraine is dominated by two primary religions – Ukrainian Greek Catholic and Ukrainian Christian Orthodox. As each follows a different calendar, Christmas is celebrated both on December 25th (Catholic celebration) and January 7th (Orthodox celebration). In addition, New Year’s is celebrated much like Christmas is in the US, with a decorated tree and gifts and family gatherings. There is also Orthodox New Year or “Old New Year”, and Epiphany and several other days of celebration thrown in for good measure. January feels like an endless party in Ukraine. To celebrate the traditional New Year’s Eve on December 31st, we headed west to the city of Lviv, where we rendezvoused with three other Peace Corps volunteers.

Lviv is a beautiful old city, just two hours from the border with Poland and a popular tourist destination for Eastern Europeans. It was quite crowded for the New Year, so we fought our way through the crowds as we explored the Christmas Markets, sipping warm spiced wine and bartering for trinkets from the local sellers. We also relished a whole new range of foods, including dishes from Georgia and Uzbekistan.

We returned to Ternopil in time for the Orthodox Christmas holiday, since we had been invited to a traditional Christmas Eve with Kathleen’s friend Nataliya and her extended family. Nataliya is a very generous woman and in addition to us, she invited another woman who recently came to Ternopil as an IDP – an Internally Displaced Person who had recently lost her husband to fighting in the east and had to flee her home village as a result of the ongoing conflict. Nataliya volunteers in her free time to teach Ukrainian to Russian-speaking IDPs who have come to Ternopil so that they are better integrated in the local community and have higher prospects for employment.

The meal for the celebration consisted of 12 meatless dishes, one for each month of the year. While dishes can vary from table to table, nearly all Christmas meals in Ukraine begin with Kutia, a lightly sweetened cold soup made with wheat berries and poppy seeds. This was followed by homemade dumplings filled with cabbage and onions, pickled beets with horseradish, pickled mushrooms, dried fruit compote, various warm vegetable dishes, cold salads, and several varieties of herring. It was quite a culinary adventure! The meal was broken up by frequent rounds of toasts led by Nataliya’s father, the family patriarch. As the only other adult male at the table, it fell to me to drink shots of homemade brandy with him, while most of the other guests sipped wine. It is considered impolite to drink only half of the pour, so I dutifully knocked them back in a single swallow focusing on the warm glow in my belly rather than the burn at the back of my throat. I stopped counting after my eighth shot, although my drinking partner showed no signs of slowing down. As the evening wound down, Nataliya’s father brought out his guitar and played traditional Ukrainian Christmas and folk songs while everyone joined in. It was such a heartfelt and welcoming celebration, and we left that evening full to the brim of generosity and good food (and a container of dessert, which we were too full to finish). It definitely reminded me of the traveling and home stays I enjoyed with Leadership Wisconsin.

St. Michael's Cathedral, Kiev

On Orthodox Christmas Day we took the train back to Kiev to spend a few days exploring the city before I flew for home. Kiev is the capital of Ukraine and has a much more modern feel to it. However, being located closer to the east, it was also full of reminders that Ukraine is a country still very much at war. There were soldiers everywhere – many on holiday leave, but just as many on patrol, and others begging on the street, having been injured in the war. We saw multiple memorials to the fallen, both military and civilian. We visited Maidan Square in central Kiev, the site of protests and violent clashes in 2013-2014 when the Ukrainian government was brought down by protesters.

Exploring Kiev was a treat for Kathleen as well. She had previously been prohibited by the Peace Corps from traveling to Kiev because of political instability and ongoing security concerns. Prior to the war with Russia, Ukraine had been home to more than 200 Peace Corps volunteers, all of whom were evacuated in early 2014 at the height of the conflict. Kathleen was part of the early returning volunteers in 2015, but the Peace Corps is still very careful about protecting volunteers and has restricted travel to the eastern half of the country. Thankfully things had settled down enough that the prohibition on travel to Kiev had been lifted just before my arrival, and we were able to visit the ancient churches and museums and stroll through the many city parks of the city.

We had a great time exploring new places and playing “tourist” while I was in Ukraine. But the best part of the trip was, of course, spending time with Kathleen and being able to share in her experience. She left her position as a tenured professor in the UW system and decided to spend a year volunteering with the Peace Corps before finding a ‘regular’ job again. She says it is scary to give up the comforts and security of home, but that the benefits far outweigh the costs. And seeing the looks on the children’s faces when she walks into school is proof enough that there are more important things in this world than comfort.

Cathedral in Ternopil

It was wonderful to get a chance to dip my toe into regular, day-to-day life in Ukraine. People are incredibly welcoming and generous. The kids at school light up and high-five Kathleen, eagerly playing with her even when they don’t share a language. Families open up their homes and welcome visitors as if they are old friends. Everywhere we went we saw people sharing everything they have, no matter how meager their means. The average school teacher in Ukraine earns just $150 US per month, which is barely enough to pay the rent. Still, there is a level of hospitality and caring that makes them seem far richer than those with an excess of material goods.

Ukraine is a country wracked by poverty and political strife, but it is also filled with people working hard to change that. One of these people is Kathleen’s colleague and mentor, Bohdan Yarema, who volunteers his time to support community development projects and promote youth leadership through international exchange. In fact, he visited Wisconsin in 2014 as part of leadership delegation to share ideas and talk about social justice. Peace Corps-Ukraine and organizations like Open World are making a difference in Ukraine and elsewhere, one visit at a time. Even a country struggling with war and poverty recognizes that the way forward requires an investment in the country’s future leaders. We as a society would do well to learn from their example.

You can see more pics in my online album here.

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It’s been quite a long summer, but we’ve survived and Kathleen has returned home from her long sojourn in Detroit. We decided a short break was in order before the fall semester starts, so we booked a last-minute deal to Washington, DC. Kathleen did her master’s degree at Gallaudet in DC, and I’ve worked there a lot, but we’d never been there together, so this trip was a good chance to share stories and favorite places.

We flew AirTran airlines out of Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, an airline neither of us had flown before. We fortunately had lightly-sold flights, so they were hawking business-class upgrades for a very cheap price. To get our vacation off to a good start we splurged and flew business class. Nice! On arrival in DC, one step outside of the terminal reminded us why Congress recesses for the month of August. We were greeted by the oppressive heat and humidity for which DC is famous, and which we’d have to survive for the next 4 days.

We arrived in DC on Thursday afternoon and took the Metro to our hotel – which turned out to be the same Holiday Inn I’d stayed at when I traveled to DC with the Wisconsin Rural Leadership Program. It was well-located, just a half-dozen blocks from the White House and close to DuPont Circle, the area where Kathleen lived when she was in DC. After a brief rest (our flight left MSP at 6:00 AM!), we headed out to explore the neighborhood around DuPont Circle. After some time in Kramer Books & Afterwords (my first DC bookstore experienced on a trip while in college), we headed to Union Station and across the street to the Dubliner for dinner and some pints while enjoying live Irish music. It was an evening of lots of memories of our times in Irish pubs for trad sessions, so we both ended the night feeling homesick for Ireland.

Friday morning we headed out to the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building. In all my trips to DC, I’d never managed to spend any time in this building. It was a visit that was long overdue – as Kathleen said, “I’ve found my happy place at the Library of Congress.” The building is simply amazing, to say nothing of the wonderful exhibits on display, including a great exhibit on the development of the Constitution. Also on display was Thomas Jefferson’s original library, which formed the basis for the Library of Congress after the original collection was burned in the War of 1812. As a collector and lover of books, I’m always intrigued to see what books other people read. Looking at Jefferson’s library it was clear that he was an amazing man of many diverse interests.

After too-short a time at the Library of Congress (for the record, all our stops on the trip were too short!), we headed to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. We had booked tickets for 1:15, and we not quite ready to leave when they closed the museum at 5:20. The museum’s exhibits are beautifully designed, and provide probably the most densely-packed collection of information either of us had seen in a museum. It’s an incredibly powerful place to visit. A special exhibition on Nazi propaganda left us both feeling like the propaganda on display wasn’t so much distant history as recent – sadly, fear and anger are still useful tools in selling bad ideas.

Next we headed for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, a long wander past the Washington Monument, World War II Memorial and Lincoln Memorial on the Mall. While making the trip down the Mall, we saw a number of tours passing by on Segways, which gave us an idea for something else to do. Arriving at the FDR Memorial just a couple of hours before sunset, we nearly had the place to ourselves. The Memorial is covered with sayings from Roosevelt that are so timely even today, as we seem to be fighting many of the same fights he did (health care, social safety net, war).

With a rainbow leading the way, we headed to the Jefferson Memorial, long a favorite of both Kathleen and I. We wandered a bit there, then scurried across the river just ahead of the incoming rain storm. We hailed a cab and headed to the Adams-Morgan neighborhood, a funky area that was a hangout of Kathleen’s in her DC days. We spent a bit of time in the local voodoo store, hit a book store, then went to Meskerem for Ethiopian food. It was my first experience with traditional Ethiopian food, served on a communal plate with bread and no utensils. The food and experience was just amazing.

Saturday morning we headed to Georgetown, an area I’d only visited once before. We wandered some of the shops, explored Georgetown University’s campus, and had a light breakfast overlooking the C & O Canal. We caught the shuttle back to DuPont Circle and spent some time exploring the area between DuPont and the White House (including a stop at the famous Mayflower Hotel for a soda). We made it back to our hotel early enough for a quick rest before heading out for a long evening. We met my old friend Naveed and went out for El Salvadoran food at another of Kathleen’s old haunts, El Tamarindo. The evening began with a pitcher of margaritas, and away we went! After a great dinner we wandered up the street further into Adams-Morgan until we found a bar with an empty outdoor table where we had some more refreshments while catching up with Naveed.

Sunday morning, like the good church-goers we are, we got up and headed to Washington National Cathedral just in time to catch a service. This was one spot in DC that neither Kathleen nor I had visited. It’s truly a beautiful building, and I was surprised to learn that the Cathedral had only been completed in 1990. We stayed for most of the service, which was full of all the pomp that you’d expect in an Episcopal Cathedral. We took some time to wander the Cathedral grounds and gardens before catching a cab to our next destination, the Politics & Prose bookstore.

We had seen Politics & Prose mentioned in one of the local free papers. It caught my eye because they had author readings nearly every day, and most of them were authors I’d be interested in meeting. It’s easily one of the best bookstores we’ve ever visited. In fact, on walking out of there with several signed books, I told Kathleen we probably couldn’t afford to live in the same town as this bookstore.

Late afternoon on Sunday we headed to the Capital Segway store for our very own Segway tour of DC. Though the Sunday tours were slightly more expensive than the Monday tours, I had opted to book for Sunday evening thinking that the streets would be less crowded and it would be a little easier to maneuver. That decision really paid off when we got to the store and learned that we were the only two people booked on our tour. So, after a few minutes tutorial in the store, our guide Aaron took us across the street to the park where we could practice for a few minutes before setting off on our tour. The Segway really is an amazing piece of hardware. After only a very few minutes’ practice it really does become quite easy to drive. You simply lean forward or backward to go forward or backward, and tilt the handlebars to turn. Once you get used to it, it really seems that if you think about moving forward, you do. I’ve included a couple of videos of us here, but be sure to check out Capital Segway’s YouTube account to get the full effect.

Den Practicing on the Segway

Kathleen Practicing on the Segway

Kathleen Buzzing the Capitol on the Segway

So, feeling like veteran riders already, we headed out on our 2-hour tour which would run a big loop around the White House, Washington Monument, most of the Smithsonian, the U.S. Capitol building, Supreme Court and Library of Congress. We had of course already covered a lot of that ground, but it was a whole lot easier on a Segway! I know there was a lot of hype when the Segway came out that they would change our cities. Having now ridden one, I think if they can get the price down on them they truly will revolutionize our cities. They’re a perfect way to move around a crowded city like DC, and a whole lot of fun! We’ll definitely take future opportunities to ride.

Monday was our last day in the city, but we had a late flight, so we had some time to cram a bit more into the trip. We headed for the National Museum of the American Indian. This was another new stop for both Kathleen and I, as the museum hasn’t been around DC all that long. It’s a really beautiful sandstone building surrounded by flora native to the DC area prior to white settlement. The interior of the building is equally beautiful. We had time to only dip our toes into the museum’s exhibits, but were very impressed with the graphic and instructional design of the entire museum. We’ll definitely be back for another visit. We topped off our visit with lunch in the museum’s Mitsitam Cafe, which serves indigenous foods from 5 different regions of the Americas.

Finally, for our last running stop on this trip, we hit the World Bank’s InfoShop bookstore, the perfect capstone to what was really a truly geeky getaway. Once again we found ourselves coveting far more books than we were able to buy (even though we’d found a 30% off coupon in one of the local papers!). At this point though we were having to consider the weight of our checked luggage for our return flight. We finally had to leave for the airport, but with a renewed sense of possibilities for future work in the third world.

We had a truly great trip to DC. It was a nice break from everyday life, which has been kind of overwhelming this summer. But more than that, it was a chance to get a peek at lives we’d lived separately in this city in the past, and a chance to get a peek at possible future lives. Not too bad for a last-minute getaway.

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Spring Getaway

April 9, 2009

This past weekend Kathleen and I headed up to Duluth, MN for a weekend getaway. It was a pretty low-key weekend, we just hung out in Duluth’s Canal Park neighborhood, wandered around a bit, caught an IMAX movie, ate out, walked along the lake. Check out some pics from the weekend. Click here for slideshow

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Malta, baby!

February 6, 2008

Well I guess I can admit it publicly – I celebrated my 40th birthday recently. Since this is supposed to be one of life’s big milestones (hasn’t felt like it!), we decided to celebrate in grand style. Kathleen planned a long-weekend trip to Malta for us. Kathleen had brought a group of students to Malta […]

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Thanksgiving in a Scottish Palace!

November 27, 2007

Our good friend Kat Lui is spending the fall semester teaching at the Wisconsin in Scotland program in Dalkeith, Scotland. This gave us the perfect chance to not only spend a second Thanksgiving in a row with Kat, but also to spend a few days and have Thanskgiving dinner in a palace. We flew from […]

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Dublin Festival of Lights 2007

November 27, 2007

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Floating Free in Space

July 19, 2007

Check out NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day web site for a very cool photo of an astronaut floating free in his manned-maneuvering unit (jetpack). He’s a long way from home!

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Head ‘Em Up, Move ‘Em Out!

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After nearly a year driving on Ireland’s roads, we’ve learned that you have to pay close attention all the time because you never know what you might see. It’s not at all unusual to see herds of various types of animals being herded down the middle of the road between fields. So, you plan extra […]

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Salvation’s Just a Ferris Wheel Ride Away

June 27, 2007

Tramore Beach – 9:45PM

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Cobh and Fota Wildlife Park

June 24, 2007

This past weekend we made a visit to County Cork to check out the little village of Cobh. Kathleen has a group of students visiting, so her helper on the trip, Dana, joined us for the day. We had been to Cobh for a brief visit shortly after we moved here, but decided it was […]

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