Category Archives: Blogness

Just Expat Things – Day Four. Old Friends

day_4

04/09/2015

Worlds collided today.

Edinburgh, 2010.
“I’m from Ukraine!” [that was me] – Oh! Wow! *high-five* [that was him]

Kyiv, 2015.
Good morning from Ukraine! [that was him] – “Wow, so this is surreal.” [that was me]

Ukraine! I heard a rumor that people weren’t sure I was going to show up in Kiev. We are here. We are ready to rock. 

I heard no rumors, but wasn’t surprised for a second. I was expecting it to fall through. Safety, politics, whatnot. For x’s sake, the man was heading to Russia next.

Don’t miss it because I don’t know when I’ll be back. ❤

If I’m honest with myself, this show was the reason I flew back here. Were it not for him, I don’t know when I’d come here, myself.

A crowd of 500 or so in a venue meant for 3-4 thousand. Looking a bit lost. I’m at the back – which in a crowd this size, is not far away at all, laughing increasingly hysterically every time the frontman of the opening band refers to the headliner as “Mr. Way.” The man will never be a Mr. Way, he’ll stay Gee until he dies.

Disbelief. Through the opening act. Through the painfully long stage change. To the very last moment. To absurd. To the point of when the guitarists and drummer appear, I expect one of them to say that “Mr. Way” couldn’t make it.

Mr. Way made it. I was just hoping that the reception would not make him regret it.

It took a few songs for everyone to get into the swing of things. It was like a first date. Perfectly pleasant. Perfectly awkward. Both parties permanently out on a limb.

Then, a third of the way into the set, something happened. It also happened to happen with the start of my favorite song. Being a live punk rock  aficionado, I don’t use the words ‘the crowd went wild’ lightly. But boy, did it go wild.

After that, it only got better. Gone was the awkwardness. There was no room for pleasantries anymore, either. Just sheer passion. From audience to stage, from stage to audience, endless self-perpetuating cycle of energy, the kind that lifts you up, turns the air thin, and the world transparent and golden.

Last songs. Curtain call. Two more songs by way of encore. Another curtain call. I know the show protocol enough to know that one won’t get answered.

I was three steps away from the venue exit when a voice announced from the stage there was going to be an autograph session in a few minutes.

Impossible!

Don’t get me wrong, he’s a sweetheart who pleads with every venue to let the fans stay inside for long enough for him to meet everyone who wants a word or a hug, and when even cooperative venues call time, he’s known to hang outside until 3 am till everyone has had a chance to see him.

But surely, not here? Not in the capital of a country with an active war zone. Sure, Kyiv of all places is safe, yeah, except two days before he got here, a live grenade killed three people in the downtown.

Surely, there were explicit instructions from the music label to get in, perform, and get the hell out?

Maybe I’ll get to ask him one day.

The queue is long, and moves fast. Everyone gets five seconds, tops. He signs and offers high-fives. Looking very focused, but lighting up like a lightbulb whenever a fan says something to him.

My turn. I ask him to write ‘Keep running’ on a piece of paper for me. An old message, and one I intend to wear on my skin.

“You wouldn’t remember this…”
[he’s writing]
“…but I met you after a show in Edinburgh in 2010, and told you I came from Ukraine…”
[still writing]
“…and you traded me a pack of cigarettes for my yellow goggles.”
[he looks up. a spark of recognition] “Oh! Good to see you!”

Worlds collided today.

It was beautiful.

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Just Expat Things – Day Three. Controversial Accessories

(Day Two was essentially Day One minus the sprinklers. You’re not missing anything.)


 

day_3

03/09/2015

Today, the elephant in the room finally steps on me.

I was so close, though. Only one day from moving to a friend’s house, away from the constantly talking TV set, which is bad enough, and the constantly talking Russian TV channels, which is worse.

I’ve spent 90% of my awake time out of the house, and the remaining ten in my allocated bedroom. Leaving only for food and bathroom. Literally. Forced to listen to the living-room TV on those expeditions.  In the three days here, I’ve heard the TV talk about WW2 three times. One documentary. Two movies.

It’s 2015. It’s not even May. Not that I needed any proof that Russia has been bringing the 1950’s back, but. But.

Then again, whatcha gonna do, as a nation, when your last achievement was 70 years ago? (Yeah. Shots fired. Not that anyone will notice. Both sides busy firing rockets.)

My grandfather is 78 this year. He didn’t go to war, but he was alive during it. So I don’t begrudge him his memories, and the heroes of his lifetime.

I just wish he extended me the same courtesy. (Hah.)

Back to the elephant in the room. The one currently trampling around Donbas.

My grandfather is not exactly pro-Russian anymore. Not after people started seriously dying. But he will never be pro-Ukrainian.

Thing is, it’s easier when you’re pro-something. Things are more clear-cut. You can love some things and hate others. But when you’re forced to stop being actively pro-something, and don’t become actively pro-something-else, the logical outcome is to hate both sides.

The anger, it’s so real. So close beneath the surface. I kept quiet about everything and anything that could have brought it up. Stayed away from any dangerous topic. Was unaware that dangerous topics included the weather.

Kyiv was covered in smoke today. The same smoke I smelled on arrival, but more. Forest fires just outside of city, thanks to the super-dry summer.

“They said it might rain later today. Should clear the air, damp it all down.”
[vague agreement]
“I also read that they put the fire out fairly quickly, but there’s still lots of ash flying through the air.”
[instant expression of ridicule at my naivety to believe the media]
“…I mean…” [desperate backpedaling] “…obviously they’d write something like this…”  [not fast enough]

The rant about the lies in the Ukrainian media comes out of nowhere.

How you can’t believe anything they say.
(Okay, yes, it’s a good idea to take the media with a grain of salt.)

How if they say that the separatists fired artillery, that must mean that actually, the Ukrainian army did that.
(Where did that come from? I was talking about the weather, for Pete’s sake!)

How both sides are lying through their teeth about everything.
(Does that mean that when Russia says Ukraine fired, it actually was Russia?)

How everything is terrible and hopeless and everyone lies and…

I’m lacing up my boots, acutely aware of the blue and yellow bracelet on my wrist. Flag colors.

On my way to Ukraine, my mother asked me to take off my steampunk goggles if grandfather said anything bad about them. Why he would take issue with a piece of plastic on my head, I could not know. (And he didn’t.)

What I’m curious about is why she didn’t ask me to take off a much more controversial accessory. Did she forget about it? Or was she afraid of the response I would give?

I survive the rant by making several noncommittal grunts. (It’s a skill. You have to say ‘mmhm’ with the exact right intonation, neither rising nor lowering. Perfectly neutral acknowledgement, precariouly balanced on the edge between agreement and sarcasm.)

Then I escape the house, flag bracelet still unnoticed.

On my way to the bus stop (working from a downtown cafe today), I stop myself before I cry.

Look, I’m not stupid, okay? I’m pro-Ukraine. Not pro-media. Not pro-government. Pro-Ukraine. Pro people who are dying. Pro people who are trying to help them to not die. Pro people who were reporting on the war before the media did, who earned my trust back then and hold it still.

“I never claimed to be a saint.” ~Slipknot

I idealize. To survive.

I romanticize. To survive.

Am I too far outside the situation to see clearly? Maybe. I am privileged enough to be outside the situation. Privileged enough to idealize and romanticize.

But I’m not stupid. I know that life is more Game of Thrones than The Lord of the Rings. (One more reason to choose JRR over GRRM.) I know that life rarely has THE good guys and THE bad guys.

But I believe in the sliding scale. With very good on one end (which no one ever reaches), and very bad on the other (which is less populated than an idealizing mindset would prefer it to be).

And in this war, one that I am too far outside of to see clearly, I’m not assigning labels of perfect good and ultimate evil. But I will fight to defend my idea of the two sides’ positions on the sliding scale.

 

 

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Just Expat Things – Day One. Syrniki and Globalization

day_1

01/09/2015

Jet lag and exhaustion keep me unconscious until noon. Then it’s time to go find my base for the day – the nearest coffee shop that is air-conditioned (for weather reasons) and non-Russian-owned (for political ones). Google tells me that my favorite haunt a short walk away is still open.

I dig through my suitcase to find my best armor and the strongest reminder of home. A shirt with the name of an American band, purchased in Hungary three years ago at what turned out to be the last time I saw them. Around my neck is a necklace with a seven-legged spider. The eighth leg has been lost in its faithful service as a backpack decoration.

In the elevator, I spend a few seconds looking for floor zero. UK brain deformation, item two.

Outside. Same old yard, same old steps up the hill towards the street.  Those are stone steps with metal corners that have, at one point, drawn blood from everyone in the neighborhood. Annoying in dry weather, dangerous in the rain, lethal in the snow. When I was little, I remember one of corners was missing, the “naked” step gradually crumbling away into nothingness. Years later, it was fixed up. Last time I was here, all corners were in place. Today, on my way up, I count three of them gone.

There’s a small garden behind the cobbler’s booth at the top of the stairs. Twig fence with clay pots as decorations.

I make my first stop in a small supermarket, determined to keep hydrated in this heat. You can’t drink tap water here. My brain is not UK-deformed enough to forget that fact, but enough to grumble about it.

The prices are higher than I remember, which is to be expected, given that the local currency quartered in value. But the markups are uneven. At first glance, it looks like the more added value a product has, the less the price has increased. Food and veg prices are 3-4 times higher; cash register side products like chewing gum and condoms – maybe twice the old price. Water falls somewhere in the middle.

I get two .75l bottles of lightly carbonated Morshynska. The checkout clerk is surprisingly polite, all hello, and please, and thank you, and have a nice day. On my last visit, I got quite the culture shock when I smiled at a salesperson and had a pastry shoved at me with a scowl that made me wary of eating it.

Halfway to the coffee shop, a spinning sprinkler is watering a tiny lawn next to the fire department. I stop near the fence and let myself get sprinkled a few times.

I pass a young teenager in a vyshyvanka. A voice at the back of my head wonders if he’s being patriotic or fashionable. I silence it, because either option is equally valid.

Google has lied to me. My favorite outlet of Coffee Life, a decent Starbucks ripoff, has been rebranded into an oddly named C0ffee-Tea. The new place no longer has Hawaiian toast (served with the best honey mustard in the world).

I order syrniki, and get offered a choice of toppings. Sour cream, honey, jam. The idea of ‘toppings’ (used as a borrowed, transliterated word, not any local equivalent) on a painfully Slavic dish amuses me greatly.

(For an explanation of how the food itself isn’t wrong, but sounds jarring… Consider ‘fish and pomme frites,’ ‘bratwurst and mash,’ or ‘maize on the cob.’)

That said, globalized syrniki taste just as fine.

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Just Expat Things – Day Zero. Boryspil Smells of Smoke

day_0

31/08/2015

I’ve always thought that ‘expat’ is just a fancy word for ‘immigrant,’ and no amount of official persuasion that ‘it is about the type of stamp in your passport, not your race’ will persuade me otherwise. Plus, The Guardian agrees with me.

Regardless, my brain tends to interpret ‘expat’ to ‘expatriot’ rather than ‘expatriate,’ which is funny, because I’m far from a former patriot. Rather, a newly-minted one. Nothing like a revolution and an invasion to make one choose a side.

I wear on my wrist the colors of peace, the colors of war, and a Tolkien quote… The colors of peace are legitimately the Ukrainian flag. The colors of war are on a wristband bought at the Reading festival, UK, a year ago, and the only politics they may be related to take place in the year 2018 in post-apocalyptic New California. The Tolkien quote is “Not all those who wander are lost.”

It’s been two years since I visited my birth country, which, patriotism notwithstanding, I cannot in right conscience call my home country, because home is a difficult thing. Now I’m here for a couple of weeks.

Liverpool, train, London, underground, Gatwick, hotel, plane. Finally, KBP.

Dry grass over the fence from the tarmac. I realize this is the first time I’ve seen dry grass in two years. The UK is so wet that it’s green all year round.

Passport control, luggage, buying a burner phone sim while waiting for a taxi. The driver calls and tells us to walk some way from the entrance, along the road, because there’s no room for him to pull up. Terminal D, the fanciest one in KBP, has a tiny taxi rank, most of which is full of buses. We roll the luggage trolley until we run out of pavement, and leave it instead of making it jump a tall curb. Buses zoom past a few inches behind our backs while the driver helps lift the bags over a fence of knee-high concrete blocks.

The air is hot and smells of faraway smoke.

I ride in the front. I have to stop myself before I get in on the driver’s side. UK brain deformation, item one.

On the way to Kyiv, I keep an eye out for familiar landmarks. The Wild Bean cafe, a reminder of New Zealand which had sat at a gas station by the side of the Boryspil highway for years, has been replaced by something off-brand. A large piece of land behind a long black glass (noise reduction?) fence, which might have belonged to someone in the old government, has been turned into a resort.

My mother chats non-stop with the driver. I feel kinda bad for leaving the trolley so far from the terminal.

At the entrance to my apartment block, a new concierge nods at me when I say good evening, then, a moment later, asks me which apartment I’m headed to.

Childhood home of twenty years is stifling hot and just stifling. I’ve lived in one place between the ages of 7 and 27. Between the ages of 27 and 30, I’ve lived in two cities and five homes. Looks like those last three years were enough to become an easily-suffocated tumbleweed.

Too tired, distracted, and generally weirded out to do anything useful, I spend the last few hours before sleep playing a mobile game set after a nuclear apocalypse and watching a show about bureaucrats in the US state of Indiana.

Next day>>

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Life, Death, and Stories: a Blog of Survivor’s Guilt

This week’s post almost didn’t get written. After reading the title, you might think that, for whatever reasons, I was in too much danger this week to sit down and write a thousand-ish words about art, writing, the latest concert I went to, or another aspect of a freelance writer’s life. That is not the case. In fact, I’m safe and sound, sitting in one of the more comfortable corners of Europe, while back in my home country, 30 people died in one day and three times that number were wounded, when a peaceful city came under rocket fire. (Je Suis Mairupol, anyone? Je Suis Volnovakha? Or, for a closer-to-home situation, Je Suis MH17? Anyway. You’re free to je-suis whatever it is that upsets you, or nothing at all. I won’t tell you off. This is not a political blog.)

This week’s post was going to be about things we own, owning too much things, precious possessions, and the like. I couldn’t write it. I couldn’t write a post listing various people’s answers to the question “Which possessions would you take out of a burning house?” on the day when dozens of people didn’t get a chance to take THEMSELVES out of burning houses.

The truth is, I couldn’t write anything at all. I had no motivation to create, because my world (which consists of parts of The World that I’m aware of and care about) became a darker place than before (for the Nth time recently), and it was disheartening to think that the best I could contribute to the world (either of the two) was a silly little blog post about how we first-world humans like material possessions too much for our own good. Because writing that silly blog post, as if nothing happened, would mean pretending that everything was fine, that I was fine… Writing that post this week would mean lying. And there’s no room for lies in art. Except the ones we use to tell the truth.

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Then I was stuck. Writing about things that were bothering me would turn 100% of my art into a tantrum worthy of a five-year-old demanding to “make this not be happening”. Writing about anything else would mean lying, pretending that there, in fact, wasn’t a corner of my head forever occupied by a crying five-year-old demanding that bad things go away, pretending that there wasn’t a number of things wrong with my world that I could do nothing or next-to-nothing about.

Or would it?

Perhaps, in absence of this post, it would. Going on as usual, keeping the real world entirely separate from my art, putting up a cheerful front of an optimistic writer who lives in a bubble… God, would I love to be that person. But I’m not.

What does that mean for this blog, then? Is it going to become my vehicle for venting political frustration, or my personal chronicle of the war in my home country, or simply a place to grieve?

No. The Coffee Clef, and its Cried But Did The Thing Anyway series will continue as before. I will keep talking about art, writing, different aspects of a freelancer’s life, and, hell, maybe even the latest concert I went to. LIFE. That’s what I’m going to keep talking about. LIFE. Not in denial of the horrors of the world, but in a persistent refusal to believe that the horrors are all there is to it.

Living. Despite death. In the face of death. If you don't live, life means nothing. (by Tenny Boo)

Living. Despite death. In the face of death. If you don’t live, life means nothing.(by Tenny Boo)

If there’s one more thing I’d like to say this week, it’s this. As someone who had spent a large portion of her life pressured and self-pressured to be “successful”, I found a lot of inner peace in the saying that usually gets mis-attributed to the Dalai Lama, but was originally written by David W. Orr in his book Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World. Usually, only the first two sentences get quoted, but the full paragraph reads:

“The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.”
(To be fair, I think the Dalai Lama would be entirely on board with these ideas, too.)

david-orr_the-plain-fact-is-that-the-planet-does-not-need-more-successful-people

What makes me happy about this saying is that storytellers are included among the groups of people who have the potential to make our planet better. Maybe V got it right about using lies to tell the truth.

Thus, this blog will continue. Every week, or more often if I manage, I’ll be popping up in your news feed/dashboard/inbox, telling my stories, or chatting about different ways to tell stories, or, every now and again, sharing my thoughts on what each of us can do to try and be the best story we can be. I’ll be seeing you guys…

doctor_who_we_are_all_stories_in_the_end

 

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