So what did we do in Ukraine?

In a previous post, I described the haphazard way we drove to Ukraine. What did we actually do when we actually got there? Well, Carolyn and I didn’t really “do” anything. We just hung around my entrepreneurial cousin who was “making the rounds.” He dropped someone off, picked someone else up, and then was off to the central hospital to pay a visit to his lumber supplier, who was admitted with pneumonia. (It wasn’t as sketchy as I make it sound, I swear).

Something to say about my entrepreneurial cousin: I have to give it to him. Business for him can’t be reduced to the bottom line, or to the latest cool AI or self-driving technology, or whatever else you think of when you think of “start-up” or “entrepreneur”. The guy buys lumber and turns it into siding more or less (as well as other wood-based products). For him, the most defining characteristic of his business is relationships. So when one of your main suppliers gets sick, you visit him in the hospital and have a three-hour conversation, no questions asked. Even if that means you have to cross a border to do it and it takes up an entire day. With a business strategy like this, my cousin is going to be big. One day he will either be the mayor or the crime boss (or both?). Just kidding. Seriously.

At the hospital, we witnessed what medical care looks like in Ukraine. Nothing in the room (furniture, beds, nurses) was younger than me. Those beds were well over 30 years old. And maybe I forgot to mention that the room held 6 beds – we weren’t able to see a private room. The old man on one of the beds was carrying around what looked like an empty 2 L bottle of coke with some water at the bottom. Upon closer inspection, it was his “catheter bag.” I won’t explain what that is, so if you don’t know, look it up. But not on a work computer.

We had one of the most engaging conversations of our trip. We’ll call the man with pneumonia “Oleksander.” By day, Olek cuts down trees and gets them across the border to my cousin. By night, he does the same thing, since that’s his livelihood. He occasionally stays in a cabin up in the mountains when work gets busy. His wife and son (who were visiting) said that he probably caught pneumonia from the cold and humidity in the mountains.

Side note: one of the great Evils of Eastern Europe, that trumps both Dracula and an under-performing gymnast, is “coldness.” Coldness can be found in water, the shade, a draft of wind, or even a park bench. It’s evil is embodied in the “ice cube” and it’s forever lurking in “air conditioners.” Coldness is the source of all maladies and infections, having a greater degree of virality that even viruses themselves. So naturally, his pneumonia was caused by the “coldness” of the mountain air.

But I digress. He was recovering naturally and was on a full course of antibiotics (which are known to fight coldness of course). He couldn’t be discharged for 10 days, until he finished taking his antibiotics. (Sidenote: his hospital stay in the US would probably cost as much as a compact car). We started chatting about his health, the lumber business, and life in general. A few interesting tidbits:

  • Oleg told us that Ukraine was just as democratic as the US, if not more so. In Ukraine, anyone has the privilege of offering a bribe, so it was indeed democratic! I laughed/cringed at the dark humor. Oleg was very upbeat and humorous. Indeed, you either learn to laugh or you enter an inner world of despair that mirrors your outer world. Oleg was that kind that chose to laugh.
  • He told us an interesting story of a local police chief calling him up and offering to sell him a semi-truck and trailer. He was confused as to why a police chief was selling such a specific vehicle. Apparently, it had been confiscated from another business who couldn’t make the monthly “payments.” Oleg described how the police/regulatory officials have their own bribe pyramid where there are quotas so that those at the top (in Kiev) get their fair share. He bought the truck.
  • Apparently, the Ukrainians and Russians have an age-old rivalry. Oleg told us that the Russians were aggressive, cruel, and degenerate. But fortunately, the Ukrainians were worse. Again, one of those situations where I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry or just stand there and look awkward. I did a muted combination of all three.

As we were leaving Carolyn made the classic Eastern European faux pas (yes, that’s how you spell it) of giving a “compliment.” Let’s say you compliment someone’s new purse – “Hi Emily, what a nice purse!” – It can be taken one of two ways. Either, you are my social/political superior and Emily must now give you her purse to preserve goodwill and prevent social anarchism. Or, you are a naive person with good intentions so Emily will give you her purse out of sheer kindness. Either way, you get the purse.

Carolyn complimented a little fur ball that was an accessory on Oleg’s wife’s coat (we’ll call her Yulia). It was an attachment to the zipper – quirky and fun. As we were leaving, Yulia quickly detached the furball and gave it as a parting gift to Carolyn. Carolyn had no idea that would happen, so now she must carry this fur ball to her grave as a token of the kindness of the Ukrainian lady with whom we chatted for three hours at the central hospital.