Wednesday, 4 July 2007
Ukrainians Don’t Ski
Alex Horne – 4th July 2007
I like the name Ukraine because it looks a bit like a weather forecast (UK – rain). I also like Oman because it sounds like a frustrated teenager (oh man…), Andorra because it doesn’t sound like it can make its mind up (and/or a…), Bahrain because once I genuinely thought someone was talking about a trendy weather themed pub (Bar Rain), Suriname because every time I see it I think it says Surname, and Bahamas, Cameroon and Congo just because they sound fun.
So, after tearing myself away from my hero Julio I raced down to Baker Street to meet Alina. Again, I was put in touch with her by a random reader of the blog (thank you JM). He said he liked the project and had a Ukrainian friend – would we like to meet her. We said yes, and that this was exactly the sort of thing we hoped would happen. But the meeting that followed turned out to be unique for three reasons:
1. She was the only person so far to have brought along her passport for proof.
2. She was the only person to bring her friend along too – very wise, I thought. I wouldn’t trust us.
3. She was the only person for whom I didn’t have enough paper to write down everything she said – she had a lot to say.
So bearing these things in mind I hope you don’t mind if a fair amount of this entry is hastily hammered out. ‘Hammered out’ in quite a professional way, obviously, but in a hasty way too. The way proper carpenters wield hammers. Not that artistically but hopefully effectively.
I’ll get the basic details out of the way first. Alina has been in London for eight years. She’s a student now but I think an eight year residence more than qualifies her for our project. Especially since she brought her passport along.
Her family sent her to the UK originally so she could do her A-Levels. The plan was to return soon after but she thought she needed further qualifications so is still here now. If all goes to plan she’ll be a qualified accountant this time next year. ‘I’m applying now to the Big Four’, she said. I didn’t know exactly what this meant but did understand that she’s therefore probably quite bright.
‘I actually want to stay here long-term now’, Alina told me. ‘I’m so used to being here. I’ve been here since I was seventeen. All my friends are here. All my life is here. And my mum comes here quite a lot to see me. It works out well. It’s so cold over there in the winter, -30 degrees or -20. Right now it’s fine – only about -10, but winters in UK are much nicer’. I said that it must be fun to have all that snow – sledging, skiing... ‘Ukrainians don’t ski’, she told me matter-of-factly. ‘It’s only sixteen years since we got independence so we’re not quite ready for things like skiing yet’.
Alina used to live in Kiev which meant that I was able to offer her my history of that particular chicken dish (see Armenia for details). ‘That’s right!’ she exclaimed, making me feel a whole lot better about the snow thing. ‘Borscht is the main dish. But they argue with the Russians over who came up with it first.’ She then described what for me is the perfect food – ‘salo’ – essentially, the fatty bits of bacon that my Rachel says I shouldn’t eat. ‘It’s smoked fat’, explained Alina, ‘it’s what the villagers used to eat with the vodka they made at home with sugar and beetroot. Sixty percent proof!’ I wolf-whistled with genuine admiration.
We’re a long way away from these happy (I would have thought) villages of Ukraine, sitting, appropriately enough, in The Globe pub near Baker Street Station, just down the road from her flat. ‘I’m living right opposite Regents Park’, she told me, ‘It’s amazing, I can hear the festivals at the weekend. I love it there.’ This, of course, leads me on to Owen’s Sunday Special Question; ‘so apart from listening to some free music, what would you do on your perfect London weekend?’ Alina leans forward excitedly (it really is a good question); ‘Well, I would go for a picnic with my friends in the park. I used to go to museums but now I’m into temporary exhibitions, things at the National Portrait Gallery or the Tate, then maybe into the West End. I love musicals. I used to go with my parents but now I’ve found one guy who likes them too! I’ve also been to Sotheby’s recently with a Ukrainian designer. And a polo match in Richmond. And the McDouglas gallery near Haymarket – do you know the place?’
I shake my head in answer to the question but also at my own laziness. It may well be an excellent question but it does sometimes make me feel a tiny bit ashamed about how little I use the capital city. Still, at least I’m meeting some of its inhabitants…
‘…and I went to Ascot too recently’, Alina continued, nowhere near the end of her perfect day. ‘I won £200. Well, £300 but I had to give some of it to my dad… in Ukraine people say that those who do things the first time have a lot of luck. I was lucky with poker when I tried that too…’
I eventually steered the conversation back to Kiev. ‘It’s a properly European city’, she told me. ‘We had Eurovision a couple of years ago and that gave us a real push. And of course we’ve got the football in 2012’. I told her it was refreshing to hear someone talk about both these things without the cynicism so common in Britain. She said she wasn’t entirely positive: ‘Unfortunately all the money is going to the capital so the rest of the country is still suffering. The population is actually going down – it was 52 million in 1991 and is now 48 million – because there’s so much emigration and the death-rates are now higher than the birth-rates. You get given money if you give birth now’.
Again it all seems so far away from this pub in London, where a lot of people are quite happily crammed into a room, drinking beer, watching cricket and not having to worry about mortality rates. She agrees it’s a different world and tells me about her own far-flung family; ‘everyone has relatives all over the Soviet Union nowadays. I have an uncle in Bratsk and one in Siberia. I’ve been there once, that was the best holiday ever – the air, the vegetables, so fresh. It was a five hour flight from Moscow but the people were so friendly, despite the cold weather’.
I realised a lot of our chat revolved around perceptions, generalisations and stereotypes. Siberians are nice even though it’s chilly. Londoners are cynical. That sort of thing. I asked her what people in Ukraine thought of the UK: ‘My friends think I see Robbie Williams and Elton John every day’, said Alina and we chuckled. It’s an odd stereotype for a city to have, and not necessarily one to be proud of.
Alina nodded, then shyly admitted, ‘I did see Elton John once. He came out of a shop in South Kensington with some magazines. He looks like he does on TV. And I saw Beckham when he was doing that Vodafone advert. But I didn’t recognise him’. Stereotypes, of course, can sometimes be true.
But people in Britain, according to Alina, have almost no perception of Ukraine whatsoever. ‘People always say ‘you’re from Russia!’, when I tell them I’m from Ukraine’, she said with just a hint of frustration. ‘Do you know Abramovich?’ they ask’ (she doesn’t this time, by the way).
Near the end of our chat she told me that because of Chernobyl and the revolution there is now a general awareness of her country, but again people’s views are broad and, largely, wrong. ‘They think it’s a dangerous country because they’ve seen it on the news’, she said. ‘The funny thing is the revolution was extremely peaceful. It started in November and ended in January. Ukrainians are very peaceful people. There’s a joke that on Russian TV there’s always war and on Ukrainian TV there’s always singing and dancing – but it’s true! That’s why I don’t have Ukrainian TV!’
I laughed, not so much at the joke but at Alina’s own pithy putdown of Ukrainian TV. And before I go, on the subjects of jokes, here’s one that seems vaguely relevant but again probably isn’t all that funny:
I met a guy from South Korea.
He was very short.
His name was Samsung.
Sorry, that’s a stereotype.
At least it’s well researched.