Saturday, 10 August 2013

Friendly Faces

Being friendly with strangers is an important part of successful traveling. Unfamiliar places can be intimidating, so a warm smile, a generous handshake, and a few words can make for more memorable encounters. People can be amazingly kind, and honest in an instant, sharing tips and personal observations.

Summer is, of course, a time for family from the big city to travel to the family farm or dacha to help with gardening or harvesting. Workers stuck in tourist site jobs may yearn for vacation time with family but the big tourist season is short, and a pay cheque is a pay cheque. Guests from beyond, from lands to the west and north stand in line, expecting service in their own language, even from people who are essentially doing Mc-jobs. Not sure what they get paid, but is it any surprise some are uni-lingual? Being influenced, as it has for centuries, from the north, many people hope Ukraine gets a grip in its own unique identity, culture and language. So if my visit can be considered an experiment, here are some observations.

Each time I met someone, bus driver, clerk, grocery store worker, security guard, or professional, I would say добрий день. For the better part, most responded kindly, with a smile. Obviously not a local, I simply asked whether English or Ukrainian was best for them, and for the better part were rewarded with my business.

Having a chat with Taras Shevchenko 
at the Kyiv Shevchenko Museum
A couple of nice encounters underscored the power of a smile. In an airport lineup, a couple couldn't make themselves understood to the clerk. I heard and helped. Thanking me, they started in one language but heard me comment to my companion in Ukrainian. Broad smiles, and a hand shake later and they began commenting on how important their national language is, and how pleased they are to hear a foreigner speak Ukrainian. Check! A small act of kindness, and a contribution to a growing constituency of common minded thinkers. In another case, a young woman spoke in heavily accented English, telling me of her home city. With pride she told of the traditional lifestyle, the economy, and the thousand- plus year history of the village near Kyiv. She leaned in eagerly to share something important, and I realized we are of common mind, in an instant. Eagerly connecting, she made a special point to share her contact information before waving goodbye. It is as though people enjoy the opportunity to be their better selves, to be the person they want to be. And it is interesting to hear what it is they want of themselves, for their country, their opportunities.

In case after case, people really tried to connect on a personal level, effectively flip between languages, just as I and my companion do between English and Ukrainian. Friendly people, charmingly surprised with a fresh face, happy to find common ground! When I make mention of the 20 million people self identifying as Ukraine's diaspora, many are shocked at the number, but then nod with that smile of recognition. There are a lot of us!
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