Planning: Ukraine & Germany this summer!

This summer, I’m excited to be volunteering as an English language teacher with GoCamps, part of a UN-funded NGO that aims to increase access to foreign-language learning for Ukrainian kids. I don’t know where I’ll be placed yet, but I’ll stay with a family for three weeks and work with a schoolteacher in a summer-camp format, teaching middle- and high-school aged kids. I’m so excited I can barely stand it. I’ve started to stock up on English-language stickers to bring to the kids and I’m taking a Ukrainian language course at Chicago’s wonderful language school, Language Loop. I’m no whiz at languages, but I hope that I’ll be able to read signs and at least make an attempt at communicating with people.

In preparation, I’m also reading. From a colleague I heard about a masterpiece of modern Yiddish literature, the Family Mashber, by the pseudonymous Ukrainian writer Der Nister. The story behind this book’s creation and publication is tragic and the novel itself sounds like an epic work. It’s next on my list as soon as I get out of my current Tom Sharpe phase. I’ve also just learned of the Kalyna Language Press, which publishes works of Ukrainian literature, both poetry and prose, in English translation. This is really exciting, because it’s certainly not easy to find much contemporary Eastern European writing in English translation at all, and if it weren’t for this press there would be next to nothing available from Ukrainian writers. I’ve got a bunch of these novels in my Amazon shopping cart.

My Lonely Planet Ukraine guidebook already arrived, and it’s seriously disappointing. I shouldn’t have bothered. I know these guidebooks get out of date, but wow–not only is there no mention of the Russian invasion of Ukraine but the book has happy-go-lucky tourist recommendations for Crimea and Donetsk.

After my work in Ukraine, I’m heading to Berlin for a week–because I love Berlin (Europe’s best destination for vegetarians on a budget, in my view) and because I’ve been studying German and I’m anxious to try out my new language skills. I’ve been trying to find an AirBnB on the Karl Marx Allee for maximum Cold War nostalgia, but no dice so far. I’ll post more about my Berlin plans as they unfold.

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The Karl Marx Allee, 2013

I do think I’ve figured out my Kyev-Berlin transport plan, though. The only direct flights seem to be available through Ukrainian Airlines for around 200USD. WizzAir and other budget airlines fly to Ukraine but do not seem to operate on this particular route. For whatever reason, Kyev-Hamburg or Munich or Cologne would be much cheaper. So I think I’m going to take the train, which will be massively exciting for me. I didn’t start traveling to Europe until after the budget airlines appeared, so I haven’t taken trains all that much, though I dream about how cool it would be to cross Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railroad.

Using the excellent resource Seat 61, I’ve learned that Kyev-Berlin is a pretty straightforward journey and can be accomplished without night trains. I can spend a bonus night in Krakow instead. The trains on these routes are pretty modern and air-conditioned, and you wait at the Ukraine-Poland border while the train is moved from Russian to European style wheels. Sounds fascinating to me. I can’t wait to see the whole of Poland–I think this will be a more pleasing option than just a flight, since I have a few spare days before I meet my husband in Berlin.

With all this planning, last night I had to watch one of the greatest European travel movies of all time (to this child of the 80s): National Lampoon’s European Vacation. I’ll leave you with one of its many classic scenes, recreated in my own family’s vacations more than once (in less exciting locales) when I was a kid.

 

 

The Infinite Variety of Global Capitalism: A Mall Tour of Muscat

It is either entirely natural, or in bad taste, that I spent a lot of my free time in malls, depending on how you look at it. Yes, these malls are chock full of American and “high street” stores, as the Brits say. But I spent my evenings and weekends trying to entertain myself without seeing terrible scenes involving cats, and the malls are the number one place where I could avoid the sight of dozens of poor creatures whom I could not help. There must be cats at the malls, but I bet they’re at the loading docks and garbage dumpsters in the back. At the malls all of that is hidden from sight, and that’s what I needed to cowardly assuage my conscience.

My favorite Muscat malls are Oman Avenues and the Grand Mall, which are adjacent to each other just off of Sultan Qaboos street. Frankly, the American and high street influence in these malls is not super deep. Yes, there’s a giant H&M in the Avenues, and there’s an Aeropostale in the Grand Mall. And both are anchored by a surprisingly large range of Anglo-American coffee joints (from the predictable Starbucks and Costa on down to Caribou, Gloria Jean, and Tim Horton for the Canadians) as well as the usual, extremely popular fast food places (McD’s, KFC—the crowd favorite, from what I hear—the ubiquitous Subway, Pizza Hut, and so on).

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The scene from the Tim Hortons in Seeb City Centre Mall

But these malls have a lived-in feeling. Though I have been to Oman only in the winter time, I imagine, with dread, what the summer must be like, and the industrial-strength AC of the malls, and the space they provide to walk in, must be deeply welcome. Each of these malls has a massive department store either in addition to or as part of a giant grocery store, too—a Walmart Super Store on steroids. People do not shop online much here (part of it must be that the street numbering system in Oman is seriously dodgy and delivery would be rough), so the stores stock an incredibly wide selection of things. You can seriously find just about anything in these malls, at just about every price point as well. I was really tempted by a 1.5 R.O. sports bra, but you can also buy your daughter’s dowry at the gold shops. The incredible, seething, insatiable variety of these malls makes them almost immune to the homogenizing impulse of American capitalism.

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Special abaya Tide!

This sense of infinite variation is really different from what happens at American malls (or, the outdoor shopping centers that have replaced the 80s-style enclosed mall, whose abandoned remains are now the setting for the squatters and drug dealers of Gone Girl). At an Omani mall you can go from the sari shop to the abaya shop to the date-and-honey store to the gold souk to the grocery store to H&M and Skechers. At a contemporary American shopping center you can go from Old Navy to the Gap to Banana Republic, all literally owned by the same company and offering almost indistinguishable versions of the same khaki pants.