This quote was my mantra for several months and helped me to get through my brief time in Ukraine. I had moved to Kharkov in the spring of 2005, almost 10 years ago to the day now. I went there to teach English and to continue my “Grand tour” of Europe. Kharkov is the second largest city in Ukraine, on the eastern side where they speak both Russian and Ukrainian. I went there knowing that at least I could get by with my ten years of Russian language study in school. I was looking forward to this adventure and living in Eastern Europe again. It was five of the hardest and most enlightening months of my life.
It was hard in that it was an entirely different world from my suburban Denver childhood. Although I had studied abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia during college, I hadn’t really immersed myself deeply in the local culture then. Instead I had clung to my fellow American students, drinking and laughing our way through the semester like typical college students when away from home all things familiar, getting their first taste of independence. So when I returned to Eastern Europe for the second time, I wanted to really live like a local. And I did.
This meant not only living in a flat in the city (three to be exact, as I kept trying to find just the right place). My flats were often quite rundown, by US standards and there were several weeks in the summer when the water was just shut off. Luckily there were water trucks that would come around the neighborhood so you could still buy water for cooking – not recommended for drinking though! And there were definitely some times in which I had to heat water on the stove to have a bath. Also, I had to wash my clothes by hand (and sadly realized that I actually kind of suck at that). All in all, daily living was as far from my convenient lifestyle in the US as possible.
I was also making a Ukrainian salary, which for me at the time was equivalent to USD 250 per month. That wasn’t enough to pay my credit card bills back home, let alone save any money to continue my travels around Europe. In the end, I didn’t even have enough money to eventually leave Ukraine and had to ask a friend from England to pay for a ticket out of the country. However, it was enough to live like a local. And live comparatively well in fact, though for me I felt I was eternally struggling. I discovered I was quite well off when I was told that many teachers and professors had to sell things in the market in addition to their school salaries just to get by. That was an eye-opening experience indeed. The money issues aside, that’s not only why life was so difficult for me.
When I had graduated from college I had planned to move to England and live there for several years, or failing that move slowly eastwards around the world until returning eventually back to the US and Colorado. Well, that grand dream ended very quickly when I couldn’t extend my visa in the UK and had to leave before I wanted. I had found the job in Kharkov easily enough but it was too far east for my plan, I skipped more for Europe than I wanted. Nothing was turning out as I had planned and I was frustrated and angry at the world for not following my plans.
Being a student of Russian language for half my school life, I knew quite a bit about the Slavic history culture. I always appreciated that no matter how bleak things are (and they can be very bleak), the Russians and Ukrainians I met were always able to find something good to appreciate. Whether that’s a picnic in the woods on a sunny day. Or just having tea and a chat with good friends. There was joking and laughter and camaraderie. And I was welcomed in to that camaraderie immediately and with great enthusiasm! I was shown how to enjoy life in the most basic ways possible. And came to see that gratitude is the greatest gift we humans often neglect.
I share these stories of Ukraine not to paint me as a spoiled American annoyed and unhappy with the ways others in the world experience their everyday lives. Living in Kharkov taught me that even in the hardest of times, we all have choices. I could continue to wallow in the seeming loss of control of my life or I could appreciate what was around me. One day I sat in Freedom Square, the largest square in the city and possible the country, and just watched children running around playing. Old people were sitting on the benches talking or reading the papers and young lovers were strolling along the flower strewn paths. Watching these scenes, I decided no more whining from me. I was going to find the good in everything and if I couldn’t find any good, accept that whatever situation I was in needed to happen anyways. After that, suddenly all the weight I had felt lifted. Maybe not entirely off my shoulders, but at least to the point that I could breathe again and see all the beauty that was all around me.
Was there a time you needed to be reminded of the beauty around you? How has taking time to be grateful changed your attitude or life? Leave a comment below and let me know!
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