Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Lviving On A Jet Plane

A final guest post from Caleb Zigas, traveling companion for our October Conversations. 

So after four conversations, three train rides, at least 2 pounds of salo consumed and countless liters of vodka (the best was the homemade kind) what are the takeaways?

In writing about travel, and writing about it in the first person no less, and in a format like a blog even more, I think it’s important to recognize that one most likely learns far more about one’s self through travel than one possibly can about one place. Place is too nebulous. Too large. Too all-consuming. I didn’t eat enough, or from everywhere. I didn’t eat in anyone’s home, share a meal with a person who cooked it, or stumble into an expected delight enough times to give a sense of place. But I did eat wonderful food, much of it home-cooked, and I did listen and talk quite a bit about not only the food but also the act of cooking and consuming it.

When I left the States I felt, as I often feel, conflicted about the work that I do. Without boring you too much with insights into my own personal struggles, it’s enough to know that I do what I do because I believe the world can be a better place. I often think that one of the main factors in preventing such betterment is the dominance of capitalism, yet what I do simply aspires to make poor people better capitalists. But what of this thought in a post-Communist society?
The irony, or really it’s not irony but the realization, is that small business can be powerful. In the many conversations we had, meals we shared and foods we tried, the idea of small business was rarely on the forefront of anyone’s minds. The questions I ended my discussion with (What foods do you think you could sell, for instance) often led to blank stares and boring conversation. The explanations provided were often that government regulation, corruption and taxation were too daunting of tasks for small business to have any traction in this place. And so small business begins to feel powerful.

I imagine a group of piroshky selling women banding together with a solid brand and making a living for themselves. Or the subsistence farmers creating value-added products with regional variations in order to maintain the life style that their sons and daughters are abandoning. While their sons and daughters work in cities and earn money in order to purchase the foods they miss from the village. And while our conversations seemed to state that this was not, yet, a reality, some part of me feels that we simply didn’t find the right places to have that conversation.
If there was no belief in that kind of opportunity there would be no Pizzata Hata and no Kompot. There would be no informal vending, no funnel-cake hot dogs, no coffee shops and no tandoori-like fired breads. By the end of this trip I’ve come to believe, again, in the power of small business, or at least the ideal of it, the notion, to provide some kind of opportunity for economic freedom. It’s a concept that is utterly complicated by the rippling impact of collectivism plus oligarchy, but, perhaps for the first time in a long time, it often feels like a solution.

Given the pace of capitalism that we experienced, I’m not sure that Ukrainian capitalism currently looks any different than the malicious brand of American capitalism, rife with income inequality and lack of opportunity, that we are so quick to export. But I’m also not sure that has to be the case.

In our last conversation in Lviv, a young woman was asked if she still cooked, and she answered (like nearly everyone else we asked in the time I was there) that she did. But, she was quick to point out, instead of spending Sunday making vareniki all day long, she cooked something quick and delicious. If she were to spend an entire day, she said, she’d have friends over and they would make something they wanted… sushi.
In Lviv we ate one meal at the Salo Museum. A high-concept restaurant bar that chooses not to examine the history of this national dish but instead to focus on its future, draping models with small bits of it in artsy-soft-porn poses and offering a menu of salo based concoctions. One of which we tried—salo sushi. Like so many other things, it was imperfect, but emblematic. There is no such thing as tradition. No such taste as authentic. There is only what we are, and that is constantly changing. So salo sushi is no less Ukrainian than borscht, no matter how much we miss the borscht our grandmother’s made.

What can be more powerful than the memory of that borscht, or the taste of any other number of foods, is the power to choose the foods that we make and eat. Ukraine, like so many of us, is in a struggle to define that future for themselves, and it’s one you can see, hear and taste on the streets and in the markets every day. I will remember, for a long time, the taste of that borscht and the taste of that sushi, and I will wonder, for a long time, what it will taste like the next time I go.
Photos by Rueben Nilsson, our fellow traveler.  From top:  borscht;   cheese seller at Bessarabka market, Kyiv; salo sushi (no kidding); and Sarah, Linda and Caleb in L'viv.

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