Thursday, May 31, 2007

Western Ukraine

So my most recent trip to Ukraine, though brief, had a bit of personal significance for me as it is where part of my family hails from. I am only a quarter Ukrainian, but as I don't look so Italian and I don't identify with the Irish/I am a slavophile my Ukrainian roots are pretty important to me. In general I think Americans struggle with identity issues a lot more than other nationalities. Yes, America has a strong tradition and such, but at the end of the day it is just a citizenship and there is always the question of where your family is from, something which comes up both as a result of weirdo last names and the strange dishes your family eats on special occasions. I am sort of jealous of the people who have very strong ethnic identities rooted in America (African Americans, Native Americans, Cajuns, Russian Alaskans, German Texans so and so forth), but for most white Americans their roots are in Europe and at some point you try and (re)connect with those.

The reconnecting is a bit weird if only because they places you are looking for don't really exist. The stories I heard in my family about the old country were from my great grandparents generation (i.e. about a hundred years ago). As a result what it means to be Swedish, Italian, or German in the US gets frozen where it continues to evolve in those countries. Old hatreds also tend to get frozen. An English professor of mine (i.e. from England) told me the Irish with the strongest negative feeling towards the UK she had met were Irish-Americans. I can't really compare with Irish Irish, but I know that with my dad and grandfather dislike the UK as if they were the Irish forced to leave Northern Ireland, and even I am quick to mention that my family were catholics from Northern Ireland and that my name is anglicized Celtic.

But I digress.

I actually heard very little about Ukraine from my grandma, which is a little weird as she probably had the most direct connection to the old country of all my grandparents (she speaks fluent Ukrainian). She was always quick to mention that Ukrainian wasn't Russian and that the Russians had done horrible things to the Ukrainians, but other than that she was pretty quiet on the issue. My grandmother basically wanted to be American, so despite being born Stephenia Matwijkow, she started be called Sally is school and eventually married an Italian and became Sally Mezzatesta. Anyway, I think the fact that she rarely spoke about it made me all the more curious and hence the interest in the trip.

So here are a few quick reasons why western Ukraine is special: it is the center of Ukrainian nationalism, it was part of Austria-Hungary, and not the Russian Empire, and the people are Greek Catholic and not Russian or Ukrainian orthodox. Interestingly, at this point I am much more familiar with the former Russian Empire and Russian orthodoxy so western Ukraine felt much more western European than I expected it to. The people didn't look especially Slavic to me, the churches didn't have onion domes, and they were far fewer icons in the churches than you would find even in other part of Ukraine (though people did pray to them in a way you wouldn't in a catholic church).

People were really nice and happy to speak to me in Russian, the food was good and cheap, and there were a lot of lovely churches (ah more baroque, the sign of Austrian domination). I suppose it was just interesting because I really had no understanding for the place. Certainly there was a strong Polish influence, but it seems simplistic to reduce it to that (i.e. Western Ukraine = Poland, even if it was part of Poland for a while). It was just weird because part of L'viv felt like part of Cleveland (a place with a strong Polish influence) , parts felt like Central Europe, but hardly any of it felt like Russia/eastern Ukraine (i.e. east Slavic).

Essentially, L'viv surprised me as it wasn't what I expected it to be. Interestingly while I was there I had one person tell me they thought I was Polish and another tell me I looked like I was ethnically Cossack (both identities linked to the region). I am not really sure where L'viv fits in with me, but I do feel challenged to develop a better understanding of the place. In many ways it was similiar to what I know and that surprised me.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Poland and Ukraine

Analysis to come, but first my favorite picks from the weekend's trip.


Excerpt form an article on BBC news about different (crazy) reality tv shows:


They thought they had blasted off into space from a cosmonaut training camp in Russia - but in fact, they were stuck in a fake spaceship in a warehouse in Suffolk.

Space Cadets contestants
The contestants believed they were Britain's first "space tourists"
Contestants on Channel 4's show were strung along for two weeks in 2005, with the original line-up of 10 whittled down to three "winners".

Each of them received £25,000 for their efforts, although they did admit to being disappointed that they had been fooled.

They became suspicious after being asked to hold a ceremony on their "spaceship" for a celebrity Russian dog called Mr Bimby.

So cruel. I would so do it to people. Stupid contestant,"Well it was really emotionaly draining, but we pulled together, and in the end we did get to spend time in space." No, no you didn't. You spent some quality time in warehouse in a rather undesirable part of the UK.

Not necessarily bad entertainment though, I would pay good money to see them celebrating gospodiin Bimby's birthday.


Sooo sick. I had pretty much recovered before my trip, which then preceded to trip me and bang my head repeatedly in the wall. It was a really good trip though. Ugh. I have three tests this week. At least I just gave my presentation on Law and the War on Terror, which went pretty well. Anyway, here is a music video from French rapper Kamini that we watched in class today. The song is called 'I'm White!' Enjoy!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Keep on Truckin

I feel like I have spent more of this weekend on the train than in real places. After a solid 15 hours of train travel on Friday, I made it to L'viv in Ukraine (where my Grandma's family hails from!) 5:00 in the morning. After a solid day and a half there (pictures and analysis to come when I am back in Vienna), it was time for another solid 8 hours of train travel to make it back to Cracow (fortunately to be able to get off the train and spend the night). Cracow is very nice. I can sort of understand Polish from Russian and constantly debate whether it is better or worse to use Russian or just act like every other tourist and use English (I tend to go with English and try and avoid the language of the former opressor). Also, there must be Easy Jet or Ryan Air flight to here, because there are loads of Brits. I think low cost air travel in single handedly destroying the image of the British as a civilized cultured people.

Friday, May 25, 2007

What can I say, crackheadedness runs in the family

Got this video from my darlining brother. The guy is French. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 24, 2007


After my last trip to Turkey in 2000 I became a big Turkish advocate. I had been very impressed by Istanbul, and by the fact that not all women wore headscarves like the Turkish women in my German textbooks. Particularly when it came to the question of Turkey joining the EU I argued that Turkey was a true and vibrant democracy with an elite comparable in values to that of Europe.

On my second trip this year I became more aware of the differences. I still love Turkey, but Turkish society is quite different from most European society: most Turkish women are very limited in terms of the opportunities they have (it is not normal for young women to live alone, certainly not with a man before they are married), Turkish society is rather authoritarian compared to 'Western' society (things like it being a crime to insult Ata-Turk, the founder of modern Turkey, or to claim that Turkey committed genocide towards the Armenians), and despite recent progress minorities in Turkey are stigmatized in a way I can only compare with Russia (the recent murder of a Turkish-Armenian journalist for example).

The issue with Turkey, though, is that these issues tear at the very political fabric of Turkey. Take the head-scarf for example. Since the time of Ata-Turk it has been a crime to wear a head-scarf in public spaces like government buildings or universities. Recently that has been relaxed, but it still prohibited in the books. The current party in power in Turkey (the AKP) has Islamic roots, and is seeking a larger role for Islam in public life (for example women being allowed to wear head-scarves at university). In Turkey that sort of a stance is highly controversial not only because the cornerstone of the Turkish state is its being secular, but because a symbol like the head-scarf is seen to show the direction Turkey is going in (with the head-scarf, for many, away from modernity).

In Turkey today, there is generally perceived to be a battle for the country's soul. Turkey has a very 'European' elite and middle class, but as a poor country it also had a very large essentially peasant class who have much more in common with Syrians or Iraqis than the French or Germans. The difference between Turkey and countries of similar development and geographic position, is that Turkey has been unrelentingly Western and European oriented over the past eighty or so years. Educated Turks see their country as Western and their country's future to be in the West. The question is whether the West equals Europe, and if Turkey can continue to be Western if it is not in the EU.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Uh Oh....

I am jealous of all of you still in New York! Your should go see this show at the UCB Theatre:

Thurs, May 24 at 9:30 pm
UCB Theatre
307 W 26th St, Just west of 8th Ave

Check out the promotional video (the second one, though you should watch the first one too since it is what it is parodying).


A big part of my trip to Istanbul was to say goodbye to Birsen (above), a family friend who died this year. For me it is a bit weird just to call her a family friend because although she wasn't a blood relative, she was the closest of family (i.e. family friend just doesn't seem nearly strong enough). I really loved Birsen and still do. Though I know she has passed, I still feel the need to talk of my love for her in the present, if only because every time I think about her I am still filled with love.

Birsen lived a pretty amazing life. She was born to a Turkish family in a small village in Bulgaria. Her family owned a broom factory, but lost everything after the war when the communists took over. An interesting early example of how much people liked Birsen comes from her childhood. In the village Birsen's mother had an older sister who was married, but had been unable to have any children. Birsen's mom agreed to let her sister raise Birsen (though they still saw each other everyday since it was a small village) so as to give her a child to rear. That sister then ended up having a son and Birsen's mother then asked her sister to give Birsen back. Birsen, however, had won her heart and despite having a son, she wouldn't give Birsen up.

In any case, in the 50s Birsen's family was able to emigrate and go to Istanbul. That is pretty rare, a lot of Bulgarian Turks immigrated to Turkey in the 70s, but in the 50s it was pretty much unheard of with Bulgaria being in heyday of its communist repression. Anyway, they managed and made it out, though of course they had nothing. The whole family, however, stuck together, living in a poor section of Istanbul, but all working together to improve things for the whole family. The opportunities abroad, however, were much better and Birsen through luck and connections was able to get a visa to go and work in the US (later I would ask Brisen why she went to the US when all the other Turks were going to Germany and she just said that didn't want to do what everyone else was doing and wanted something different).

After working first for one other family, Birsen then ended up working for my mother's family out on on Long Island. She lived with my mom's family for twenty years. Birsen cooked and cleaned, but she was smart, got American citizenship, and laid the framework for her later import/export business (at the time buying jeans in bulk at cheap American prices, and then taking them back with her to sell in Turkey). Birsen and my grandmother would cook Italian, Ukrainian, and Turkish dishes (I am pretty jealousy of the culinary world my mother grew up in), and Birsen became became part of the family as she was there and took part in all the major events of my mom's family (graduations, weddings, retirements). In that time Birsen also learned to speak English like a Brooklynite, though ironically not from my Brooklynite Grandfather.

After that time, Birsen got married and went back to live in Turkey, having saved enough money to live comfortably and start her business of importing bath and kitchen items for the luxury department stores of Istanbul. She came back to visit fequently, and always seemed to be there for the major events like my high school graduation. A lot of what I know about Birsen's time with my mother's family is from stories (I was not yet in existance at the time), but one of the most wonderful memories I have of her is when I went to visit her five years ago in Istanbul. She was a horrible tour guide (she had no interest in the old stuff) and would send me off to do things on trips, but she taught me a lot about Turkey and almost killed me with her overly generous if deliscious Turkish breakfasts. Bisren was really Turkey for me, something that made it very important for me to go back after she had passed so I would have some new memories in Istanbul (fortunately with members of Birsen's family).

A few years later Birsen was diagnosed with breast cancer and started coming to visit, as my mom coordinated her doctor's visits. Though conditions weren't the best, it was nice to have her around as she would always laugh and joke (giving my father a run for his money, something he needs), while at the same time taking a genuine interest and pride in what my brother and I were doing (she was always very supportive of my going to Kazakhstan and wanted to visit me). It was really in this time that Birsen became like a second mother to me.

Early this year Birsen passed and it hit me pretty hard. She had such tremendous energy and really fought to the end and it was somehow impossible for me to imagine that her energy was gone. It was made all the harder by the fact that when she passed I was here in Vienna, without anyway who really understood how wonderful she was. It was great to then be able to go to Turkey and spend time with Birsen's niece Evren, and talk about Birsen and all her quirks.

While I was in Turkey I had wanted to visit Birsen's grave. I wasn't able to because she had been burried on a small family plot near where her family had lived when they first came to Turkey and the whole area is being redeveloped (read: knocked down, except for the graveyard of course). The fact that the place where Birsen had spent her formative years doesn't exist anymore somehow seemed appropriate to me. Birsen had been an incredible woman. She was an independent woman who came from a society that doesn't encourage women to be independent, a successful immigrant in a country where natives have a hard enough time making ends meet, and person who despite growing up in great hardship was full of humor and positive energy. They don't make them like her anymore. I suppose that is why it seemed appropriate to me that the place where she had spent her formative years doesn't exist anymore either. It was a mold meant to be used only once.

You were one of a kind Birsen and I miss you.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Will Post Soon...

So I am not being so good about posting, but only because my two actual posts on Istanbul will be longish and I need time to write them. For now here are four of my favorite pictures from my trip:

Friday, May 18, 2007

Oh You Can't Go Back to Constantinople...

I am in Istanbul. There will be two bigger entries on Istanbul when I come back (one about my general observations, and another about the very good Turkish friend my family lost this year), but for now I can only say that Istanbul is amazing! There are the little things like the fact that I love Turkish spelling (taxi is spelt taksi, amazing!), but then also the bigger stuff like the hulking architectural remnants of the Roman and Ottoman Empires. The Bosphorus is certainly a beautiful backdrop for it all, but the most intriguing part of the city and the country are the Turkish people themselves. As a Westerner it seems almost obligatory to ask the question whether Turkey is European or Asian? The truth as far as I can see is that it is both. Just here on the street you see woman dressed just liked women in most fashionable parts of New York or Paris, or as covered as women on the streets of Tehran or Cairo. It is a complicated picture.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Oh Baby

Okay so I am trying not to get carried away and say that this is exactly what I will do with my life, but how awesome does this sound: NUCLEAR LAW! Even cooler if it's nuclear weapons law right? And it would involve Russia. I love nukes!

The Meme God!

All fear the meme god for he is a jealous god! Well it has been a few days now since the blog got screwed u, but it is all my own fault! I tried to remove the ad part of meme code I posted and the meme god spited me for it and sent my blog into a dark age. Wow for me and for barbarossa, had we not, but not just respected the the meme god.

I am in the mood for Turkey, I think I'll go to Turkey tomorrow.

My mom went to Brooklyn Law today, she liked it. Apparently most of the building are pretty ugly from the inside, but nicely renovated inside. Already I am planing ways to incorporate Russia and the former Soviet Union into every part of my legal studies (i.e. making it like any other part of life).

Also here is a song from eurovision that I am completely addicted to:

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Human Rights

Sometimes I have an entry with a purpose and I have a clear idea of what I want to say, this isn't one of those, feel free to skim (all three of you out there). I have my final for my class on human rights tomorrow. I took the class because I don't really believe in human rights, and well people are talking about them all the time and I thought I should figure out what all the fuss was about. I don't mean I didn't believe in them as in I was against them (i.e. yeah torture), just for me I only though of human rights as natural rights (i.e. rights everyone was born with and that have to be respected). I though they were a good idea, just also always thought, 'hey guys, look around, I think they forget to pass out the human rights in the rather large chunk of the planet." So then I learned in class that via UN conventions there are some universal legal human rights. Good to know and also amusing since when it comes to international law states both try to play up whatever declaration to the nth degree (i.e. look! we're passing the 'make the world an amazing place decree,' man, the world is going to be so much more amazing after that thing is passed), and then simultaneously try to limit the extent it can be applied as much as possible (i.e. no, no, we don't need a monitoring mechanism for the anti-torture convention, we'll all just look out for our own people. What that thing over there? No its not a a high chair with straps for my good friend Mr., yes his name is Bob). Also it is fun because whenever you learn international law it is like 'the entire world does things this way, except for the US, which clothes its eyes and yells loudly whenever the convention is mentioned.' Morale: we have human rights, they were just put in a very safe place and nobody remembers where that place is.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Too Much

I had seven hours of human rights class today and am completely exhausted. The material was interesting (we were looking at the former Yugoslavia), but we started at 9 and went till 6. It was just way too long, certainly too long to stay focused. The Diplomatic Academy continues to irritate me as their reserve system has no way of making sure reserve books are returned (i.e. not allowing you to do the reading), and because they scheduled an extra class for one of my courses on a day I won't be here. I have been exercising a lot the past week, and despite the added energy it is supposed to bring me, I have been completely exhausted Grumble. Remarkably, with my plans for next year in place I am just very content and calm. I am really hoping it last for a while (if the lovely weather we had a few weeks ago makes a return chances are likely it will). Things aren't perfect, but I am doing well and well it is pretty nice.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Day of Victory

Yesterday was the Day of Victory (over Nazi Germany) in Russia and the other post-Soviet states. It is celebrated one day later in the former Soviet republics than in the rest of Europe because they celebrate they day on which the German surrender entered into force rather than the day it was signed. It is a weird holiday. It is perhaps most weird in its contemporary context as you have countries that have worked very hard in most ways to distance themselves from their Soviet past (from intentionally painting government buildings bright colors you never would have seen in Soviet days to renaming every Soviet associated street in town) suddenly break out the Soviet military paraphernalia to parade about. It is odd because the Day of Victory was constructed as the creation mythos of the Soviet Union, if not its trial by fire, yet Soviet Union has disappeared into nothingness, but the holiday is still going strong. Essentially you have a holiday full of military parades (in Soviet and not modern military uniforms) and fighter jets flying overhead, flaunting the grandeur and military might of the former USSR. It seems more like mourning than anything else.

I don't mean to be cynical, certainly the Soviet Union lost the most lives of any country in World War II. The destruction on the territory of the Soviet Union was horrible, and million of Soviet soldiers fought valiantly. There is much to be celebrated in that, and the Soviet Union used the holiday to arouse patriotism on a yearly basis. I am just confused as towards what significance the holiday should have today, and I am not the only one. When I was in Odessa I watched a number of news reports where they tried different ways of arguing that the holiday is important for the post-Soviet generation, and in deed, the slogan for the Day of Victory in Odessa was "Day of Victory: A Holiday for all Generations!" I think finding relevance for the holiday is very tricky today, especially as the younger generation associates the symbols of the Soviet Union less with pride or heroism, but with the cheap souvenirs you can buy at the market or you see in counter culture.

It is also interesting because in Russian you have two names for World War II, you can either call it the second World War, or you can call it the Great Fatherland War. The second was the term of choice in the Soviet Union and politically charged as a result. Yet, it is that term that gets used in the media leading up to the Day of Victory. I suppose I am just surprised by the continued commitment to Soviet view of its involvement in World War II. The Soviet Union is still seen as a liberator that valiantly defeated evil Nazi Germany. I have two problems with that: 1. Yes the Soviet Union liberated, but it then took control of the countries and did not allow free elections so how a country can be considered to have been liberated when it is granted neither political independence nor allowed to hold free elections 2. There seems to be a complete lack of acknowledgement that at the time the Soviet Union was quite happy to carve up Eastern Europe with Nazi Germany and only went to war after it was attacked. There is also the issue of how horribly the Soviet Union treated its own soldiers, I don't even mean the horrible conditions, but the killing or deporting to gulags of returned prisoners of war as if the fact that they had not be killed proved they were German spies. I do think it is worth celebrating the sacrifice of the individual soldiers, but not of the Soviet leadership which showed a complete disregard for human life and not the grandeur of the bygone Soviet state.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Portrait of a Day

Stumbled out of bed five minutes before German started.

Had to argue something or other about tourism, my head hurt, don't really remember but apparently I mixed up the future tense.

Should have showered, went back to bed instead.

Ate some cheese.

Went back to sleeping.

Ran to Russian at the university.

Argued something about bilingualism (it is important each parent only speak one language with the child).

Learned that long form Russian adjectives describe general tendencies where the short form ones describe the immediate situation.

Felt bad I wasn't one of the ones singled out for writing well (I make a lot of mistakes).

Turkish woman at the trave agency, who spoke German with a very strong Austrian accent, was really nice and told me some nice places to go outside of Istanbul. She talked on the phone a lot in Turkish, I tried to figure out what she was saying using my Kazakh, didn't get very far.

Studied human rights law.

Got back in touch with an old good friend now living in London.

Discussed satanists in my other Russian class. My Russian teacher told us she was pretty sure she found some on the subway after read the daVinci Code.

She kept calling me the boy from Odessa.

Did a random google search for a picture for this post ('day' in Russian turned up the above picture from the City Day in Sochi (official winter Olympics candidate city).

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Nationalism vs. Patriotism

This entry is mainly to make me feel a little less crazy, at the very least about my use of words. My general feeling about the meaning of 'nationalism' vs. 'patriotism' is that the one has a negative connotation where the the other one has a negative connotation. Nationalist is usually used for someone who feels the need to kill lots of (innocent) people for his country, where patriot is more likely to be used for someone who ate apple pie, saved a cat from a tree, and fought for our countries valour. I mean both basically mean that you have a strong love for your country and want to do things for it right? Well, in my Russian classes and God knows why only in my Russian classes, this issue comes up a lot (as in I bring it up a lot). Basically I have been told by various teachers that the two terms are completely different (the classes were in Russian, but the words are the same as in English, just pronounced a la Boris in Rocky and Bullwinkle). I am pretty sure I am right in English (I have checked since), but in Russian since the meaning of nationality is ethnicity I guess nationalist may mean ethnic-nationalist, which wouldn't be the same thing. Funky.

Sunday, May 06, 2007


So here is a map of countries I have been to.

I think most people put these up on their blogs over a year ago, and in keeping with my tradition of being on the cutting edge I am putting it up now.

Admittedly it is pretty lopsided as I haven't been anywhere in Africa or Latin America. You could probably make an argument that I only like white countries or something except that still wouldn't explain why I've never been to say...Canada.

While in Europe I am still hoping to pick up Poland and Belarus before I leave.

Next year I would like to see some more of the Americas. For those who have been reading my blog from the very start it will probably come as no surprise that I really want to go to Suriname, also Canada. Also, for spring break I would really like to make it to Morocco and Algeria, any takers?

[note: I don't know why the map is all messed up on my blog and not other people's, but I don't know how to fix it so I am leaving it. The only country missing it Taiwan]

Odessa - The Return

Odessa is awesome! That being said, it has to be said it is also pretty crappy. The crapitude is mainly in terms of the roads being in bad shape, side walks being none-existent to life threatening, and there being loads of (very well behaved) stray dogs about. The thing is, I find all of that stuff really rather endearing especially as it both reminds me that I am in the former Soviet Union and reminds me of the good old times in Kazakhstan and St. Petersburg. Even for being rough around edges there are just things I love about the former Soviet Union (over say Western Europe): 1. stores are open! You don't know how I hate Europe's stores (especially supermarkets) being closed on Sundays, open for half a day on Saturday, and closed by six on weekdays, even if the 24 hour magazins lie and aren't open 24 hours in Ukraine or Russia, they are still open a whole lot later than their counterparts in say Austria 2. Soft serve ice cream for less than fifty-cents at McDonald's, it is a small thing, but oh so wonderful 3. Cyrillic and Slavic languages! I may know that when I see an 'i' in Cyrillic it isn't Russian I am looking at, but it doesn't make me any less happy 4. I like that I can pass for Slavic at the very least until I open my mouth, it makes up for the fact that nobody believes I am Italian.

So Odessa is really just pretty cool. Granted it isn't as big or as culturally rich as say St. Petersburg, but it still has a lot of cool architecture and historical significance. The fact that it is also sort of a post-Soviet Florida is sort of amusing. What is cool about Odessa is that it has a good chunk of tourism, but it is also Ukraine main port and as a result can't quite be pigeon holed as a tourist town. It is very much Russian speaking (even if McDonald's only seems to use one language per country so the menu was all in Ukrainian), but it isn't really ethnically Russian either (the natives are a mix of Jewish, Russian, Ukrainian, Romanian, Greek, Kurdish and Tatar heritage). Odessa is experiencing many of the same problems as the rest of the former Soviet Union (population drop, poverty), but at the same time there is a vibrance to it, both with the bustling new economy and the cultural venues.

I had a good time. I had a really good Russian teacher who taught me a lot about Ukrainian politics and also convinced me that I will work for the US State Department in the future. And I had Ukrainian TV! I got to watch both the Russian and Ukrainian news. The news bit was interesting since the Ukrainian news in Russian wouldn't dub the Ukrainian politicians when they spoke in Ukrainian (where the Russian language news from Russian would) and with Prime Minister who speaks Ukrainian with a very thick Russian accent I only new he hadn't been speaking Russian when I watched the Russian news later and he was dubber. Also I got to watch a Russian remake of married with children, and notice how the only channel that black Ukrainians seemed to pop up on was the music video channel. All and all a very successful trip.