IAC #9 — Still in Odesa

“Official measures and targets can never quantify the messy reality of the world perfectly, but they have enough power to change it. Since the measurement isn’t perfect, the change may well be for the worse.”

— Tim Harford
Messy: How to Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World

Greetings from Odesa — again 🙂

Remember when i said in the last roundup that Nastia and i were planning to leave Odesa in a few days to continue our eastbound bicycle ride across Ukraine? Anyway — that didn’t happen — we came back to the city to meet an old friend from the US who was visiting the country on vacation, and i decided to stay longer.

a rough outline of our route from Stryi to Odesa, by means of Poland, then back to Ukraine through the administrative regions of L’viv, Ivano-Frankivs’k, Chernivtsi, Vinnytsia, and Odesa (image courtesy of Scribble Maps)

“In a Countrie” roundup

A feature of the Ukrainian language i find notable as a native Portuguese speaker is the absence of articles, definite or indefinite — they’re implied by the context, which seems to work great for them, native Ukrainian speakers. I can’t complain about a practical challenge that gives such artistic flexibility to my pun — as i traveled through the country and experienced a few of its multitudes, trials, and uncertainties, i decided to relax the article in my working-title for this project, and translate “у країні” as “in a countrie.”

Upon consolidating myself in Odesa a couple of weeks ago, the first order of business was to finish processing my essays on Vinnytsia’s location markers and the various languages used in Odesa — the second and third in the series that started when it happened to me to systematically capture bus stops along our way in Chernivtsi a couple of months before. I’ve also updated the summary gallery, where you may find condensed versions of those pieces, as well as links and short descriptions to everything else i shared during the tour.

That has been fun.

At the same time i settle on a name for this project, i’m putting it on hold. Unfortunately, i don’t have anything i could produce in the same format about our time in the L’viv and Ivano-Frankivs’k regions earlier in the tour. And because i plan to stay in Odesa at least until it’s warm again, i don’t expect to have anything to show about other regions of Ukraine any time soon either.

buildings “rising from the water” across the bay — traveling, cycle touring in particular, has provided me with a few opportunities to experience the non-flatness of Earth (Odesa, Summer/Autumn ’19)

Plans for Odesa

Having said that, there are a few more articles i’d like to write in reaction to my experience on the road these past three months — thoughts that don’t pertain specifically to Ukraine or the parts of it i visited on tour, but that arose as a result of my being on the road.

As i spend time in the city, i might share a note or another about Odesa itself, with a slight bias towards non-touristic places or anachronistic Soviet symbols.

hammer and sickle AND Lenin profile combo on a monument celebrating 20 years since “the victory of the Soviet people over the fascist occupiers” and giving the city the Order of Lenin and the Golden Star Medal for their heroism — i have no clue what they were staring at (Odesa, Summer/Autumn ’19)

Besides writing, i’ll keep playing with light, colors, and post-processing. I’m excited that some of that will be done together with my dear friend, star-winged artist, and supporter Fuji Hoffmann, with whom i’m running another creative challenge this season — i’ll say more about it in a separate dispatch in a couple of weeks — the first quest is already underway!

Finally, i want to bring my Ukrainian to the SAYWHAT level of fluency, and take the opportunity that i’ll be living in Odesa to pick up some Russian as well. Say what? Oh, sorry — that’s a recently introduced measure of proficiency — the acronym stands for Stop Asking Your Wife for Help All the Time!

OK — i think that’s enough public puns and commitments on the learning/creating front for now. You’ll be the first to hear if there are any new developments or dramatic turns of events — or puns.

All in all, i’m looking forward to spending six months at the same place — or more than three months, for that matter — i haven’t been for longer than that in the same country (let alone in the same location) since i was still employed in Denmark over three years ago. I could use the time to process some of what’s happened so far, and prepare for whatever comes next.

Featured photo: playing with light, colors, textures, and movement, and still not having bothered to invest in a tripod at the entrance to the bar Dvor 12 (Odesa, Summer/Autumn ’19)

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IAC #10 — Encore: Water

UPDATED October 25th, 2019 — this is a dispatch from my cycle tour of Ukraine and surroundings this past Summer with my partner Nastia, an open project on an Autumn/Winter hiatus — check out the project page more information, and sign up for my newsletter if you would like to be notified when it resumes 🙂

When i thought about documenting some of the languages used in Odesa, i was aware that i’d only start taking photos for the project about a week into our ride in the region, after we crossed the Dniester Estuary into the segment between that and the Danube Delta. I had no idea how that would turn out, so i decided to photograph our various sources of water as a backup.

outline of our route through the administrative region of Odesa (click to enlarge) — courtesy of © OpenStreetMap contributors and plotaroute.com

I like what came out of that process, and i decided to share it as an encore of sorts — i hope you’ll also enjoy, and find it . . . refreshing 😉

“ ‘But I have a penny.’ — ‘Water costs two pennies. (…) However, you can enjoy free access to any movie ever made, or pornography, or a simulation of a deceased family member for you to interact with as you die from dehydration. Your social networks will be automatically updated with the news of your death.’ ”

— Jaron Lanier, in Who Owns the Future?

From Spring to Tap

This time the photos are not organized chronologically or grouped by district — they’re loosely categorized by source. As a second counterpoint to my previous couple of lengthy posts, i tried to keep the text here to a minimum — just a handful of independent floating stories outlining the process.


. . . down the path and through the gate, you’ll find the generous spring flowing downstairs. That was a sad, sad day — the apple so purely gifted by a child the evening before radiated in contrast, flashing hope for a bright future — that’s why i kept the fruit in my handlebar bag for so many days before eating it — i enjoyed remembering the sweet kid’s spontaneous gesture every time i had to set the apple aside when reaching for something inside the bag . . .


. . . the first well in the region was great — bam! It appeared after 10 or 15 endless kilometers under smoldering sun along a trippy, straight, dry, dusty dirt road that felt like the purgatory. Besides cool water and a shade in which to enjoy it, we were further redeemed by a meal of corn on the cob, and enough raspberries for another meal later on that day (when we added cottage cheese and honey to them) — courtesy of some Ol‘a, whose smile might as well have been Mother Mary’s at the gates of heaven. Ol’a reminded me of my grandmother . . .


. . . our water collection was always mediated by locals. A few times, that meant handing out our empty bottles, watching them being taken out of our sight, then having them reappear full a minute or two later. In those cases, the secondary source was obscured by their kindness — more than once, we were offered cold water from their fridge . . .

Petrivka (Bilhorod-Dnistrovs’kyi district)


. . . i’m not particularly eager to pay for water, and Nastia doesn’t like to buy single-use plastic bottles. What can i say, i feel entitled to water — despite Grandpa’s lessons, i still subscribe to the notion that drinking water is (or at least should be) abundant — someone (else) just has to dig a deep enough hole on the ground and take good care of it before our arrival, right? People in Petrivka had done that, and didn’t mind sharing the result of their labor with us, but the water was heavy on sulfur — good for the skin, not as much for the uninitiated bowels. While most people eventually adapt to it without negative long-term consequences, i’d already had a fair share of relentless two-way purging from sulfurated water earlier on the tour, and didn’t want to risk — Nastia didn’t like the taste — we gave in . . .


. . . someone warned Nastia and i of the “Gypsies” a couple of villages down the road — déjà vu. I’m still not above being influenced by someone else’s prejudice, but the alarmist was alone even among his friends, who told us not to worry and just ignore him — we didn’t change our route. The irony — that wound up being where we next refilled our water bottles — from a cistern, which someone had not only to build and maintain but also keep full — although i don’t feel like we stole the water, i’m not sure how we paid for it either, at least not in that particular occasion . . .


. . . on what we thought would have been our way out of Odesa, we took water from a curious setting i hadn’t experienced before. I have no idea how this water comes to be, except that it, too, must cost somebody money — the treatment, the delivery, the salaries of the mysterious employees watching TV (or listening to the radio) the whole day behind the panels and curtains — the electricity to keep the TV (or radio) on. More than a month after that false start, that’s still where i collect my drinking water. Note to self: go there just before it opens one morning, and learn more about it . . .


. . . on occasion, taking photos of yet another spring, well, cistern, or tap felt dull. There were also a couple of times when the water source didn’t want to be documented. One strategy to cope with the numbing boredom or annoying restriction was to turn the camera away from the water, and see what else might be going on . . .

. . . and that’s a bit of how it went.

Now i did not attempt to account for every molecule of water we were given — the photos above refer essentially to the circumstances two or three times a day when we filled/topped up one or more of our water bottles for consumption on the road ahead. This leaves me without much of an opportunity to acknowledge equally generous hosts such as Viorica and her family, or the Old Believers.

Whether or not we should pay, or even say thanks for water in Ukraine (something Nastia kept chastising me for doing), i appreciate every sip of water people shared with us especially where drinking water supplies are not seamlessly built into the baseline infrastructure <3

This will be the last In a Countrie post for a while. As i explained in my a couple of dispatches ago, my cycle tour of Ukraine and surroundings is on an Autumn/Winter hiatus — i plan to be stationed in Odesa at least until it’s warm again.

This does not at all signal a break from the blog and newsletter though — on the contrary! Stay tuned — plenty is going on that i want to explore and give life.

Featured photo: sunflowers’ last stand under this year’s heat and drought (somewhere between Vyshneve and Zhovtey-Yar (Odesa Region, Tatarbunary district)

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IAC #8 — Some languages used in Odesa

UPDATED October 25th, 2019 — this is a dispatch from my cycle tour of Ukraine and surroundings this past Summer with my partner Nastia, an open project on an Autumn/Winter hiatus — check out the project page more information, and sign up for my newsletter if you would like to be notified when it resumes 🙂

After four days in the region of Vinnytsia, we spent four weeks in Odesa — we took our time riding the 900 kilometers or so from the administrative border to the city of Odesa proper, following the region’s perimeter along Transnistria, Moldova, the Danube River, and the Black Sea.

That was my second time in the region — my first time in Odesa was also my first time in Ukraine, two Summers ago during my 2017 cycle tour. Upon arriving in the city of Odesa on that trip, people who could speak English confirmed to me that they were talking to each other in Russian, and implied that that might have been the case in most places where i’d just traveled in the countryside as well. Confused about what language was Ukrainian, i eventually searched online for “languages spoken in Ukraine,” or something to that effect — i will never forget the first time i saw this map:

image courtesy of Tovel and Spesh531 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

There’s a lot in there that i won’t get into on this post (you’re welcome) — what i do want to draw your attention to is the colorful segment of the Odesa region between the Danube Delta and the Dniester Estuary, an area also known by some of its recent historical designations of Budzhak or Southern Bessarabia:

image courtesy of Tovel and Spesh531, cropped and annotated to indicate geographical locations and political borders (CC BY-SA 3.0)

I left Odesa in 2017 without experiencing and utterly unaware of that variation, and had been wanting to explore it a bit further ever since seeing the demographic map. It was built on data from a 2001 census though — would that diversity still be there? — how did that happen? I searched again for “languages spoken in Odesa” and such, and the same map (or coarser variations based on not much more recent data from less comprehensive surveys) kept coming up.

Getting there without going through Moldova would be a significant detour in space and time from our ambition to reach the East of Ukraine. But if that linguistic kaleidoscope still existed, Nastia and i wanted to experience what some of it looked and sounded like in real life — we agreed that taking the southwestward detour was worth the risk not to find anything, as well as the delay to eventually getting across the Dnieper River.

Here is a snapshot (or nine) of what developed 🙂

Some languages used in Odesa

” ‘I’ve got to paint,’ he repeated. “

W. Somerset Maugham, The Moon and Sixpence

This essay is the third one in a series on each of the administrative regions of Ukraine that Nastia and i have visited on our tour — if you missed the bus stops of Chernivtsi or the location markers of Vinnytsia, feel invited to check them out — the three pieces are independent, but reading them in order might help you understand my process better.

At first, i wasn’t sure how to approach this — i’m not a linguist, anthropologist, or a scholar of any other relevant discipline. My main concern and objective was to increase my awareness of people living in the region, and traveling there for a few weeks by bicycle seemed like a good framework for that.

I agree that shooting videos of people speaking in their languages and editing a mini-documentary of that would probably have made more sense. In hindsight, that might have also been less complicated than i first thought — except perhaps for the part where i’d have to edit people speaking half a dozen different languages into a coherent narrative!

Nastia did shoot some videos, and i’ll let you know if she eventually does something with them. Meanwhile, i’ll once again tell this brief story in a few photos — one per language (broadly construed) and, as it turns out, also one per district, in the order they were taken.

If you like to follow stories that unfold across a geographical area on a map, i hope these two will help — the left one highlights the administrative region of Odesa, and the right one names its districts (click to enlarge).

images courtesy of TUBS and AndrewRT (CC BY-SA 4.0)


My initial strategy when we crossed the Dniester into the Bilhorod-Dnistrovs’kyi district was to stop in each village, look for people with a few minutes to spare, and explain to them what we were doing.

Sasha and his wife Tania (who didn’t want to be on the photo) gave us much appreciated cold water from their fridge (Bilhorod-Dnistrovs’kyi district)

Consistent with what to statistically expect from the language distribution map, Sasha and his family spoke Ukrainian — “As your first language?” — “Yes” — “And do you know anybody here whose mother tongue is not Ukrainian or Russian?” — “Not really, we’re all Ukrainian around here.”

They did confirm that there were people from various nationalities in the region, and that we would most definitely run into them further down the road — can’t wait!


We kept riding, and we kept asking — people kept turning out Ukrainian, and continued to announce the region’s diversity further along — “There are people from 113 different nationalities in Odesa,” someone told me sounding as if they’d heard that precise number on last week’s Friday documentary on TV. Even if those figures were exaggerated by a factor of several, and took into account people carrying a foreign passport in their pockets on the streets of Odesa, we should be in for a treat.

I eventually heard about an Armenian, and the woman who knew him gave me directions to his home — “go back, turn left onto that street, then ride all the way up, it’s one, two, three, four — the fifth house on the left,” she said raising a finger to match each number uttered. Following directions and counting houses in a village as an outsider is a challenge i’d face a few more times — it wouldn’t get easier — is this where i’m supposed to start counting? — is that the next house already, or is it just a barn, or their Summer kitchen, or the next generation’s abode, but within the same property, so it doesn’t count?

After a couple of false positives, i finally found it — “hello, are you Alik,” i asked — “Yes,” he answered inquisitively, closing the gate behind him as he walked outside towards me — “I was told you are from Armenia?” — “Tajikistan — who are you?”

I would also have been suspicious.

It was soon clear enough that i was merely a curious nobody — “OK — would you like to have something to drink?” — “Oh, thank you so much for the invitation, but it’s a little early for that, and i still have a lot to ride today” — he interjected seemingly insulted, “I meant tea, or coffee!”

Alik let me photograph anything in his property except for himself — when i asked if he had any objects from Tajikistan, he reached inside a cabinet for the blue bowls and put them together with the teapot and honey bucket, implying they should also be on the photo (Sarata district)

Tajiks are not quite a national minority in Ukraine — especially not in the sense that you’d find Tajik communities here — you most certainly won’t. Like the occasional Belarussians, Kazakhs, Russians, and emigrants from other former Soviet republics you’ll see sprinkled across Ukraine, Alik arrived before 1991, and then stayed — his wife passed away, his children left home, and he now lives alone.

He asked me to call him now and then, and i said i would — i want to — i haven’t yet.

While i had coffee with Alik, who also offered me lunch (a chickpea soup with a piece of chicken — the only one he’d cooked that day, as i inferred from the absence of another one on his plate), Nastia gathered intelligence outside the mahazyn in the village center, where she’d stopped to wait for me — someone there knew the region very well, and left our map with glittering notes on where to find who.


This annotated map didn’t say anything about the district of Tarutyne, which was out of the way, and Nastia wanted to skip. The idea of how i might eventually put this together was gradually taking shape, and leaving a district out gave me spiritual unease — i guess we didn’t have to stop in every village, but i still wanted to meet people in each of the nine districts comprising Budzhak — we swang by Tarutyne.

We had just spent half the afternoon talking to the head of the village where we’d stopped for lunch and were looking for water to refill our bottles on our way out when we finally met not only one, but three Gagauzes who agreed to be on the camera — they even sang to us!

Maria, Anka, and Minka — the watermelon, the most delicious we’d eaten so far, is small because Anka doesn’t use nitrates (Tarutyne district)

That was also the day Nastia realized that some people in Ukraine don’t speak or understand Ukrainian at all — a couple of days later, we would learn that a few of them can barely deliver in Russian.

Nobody we met knew where the Gagauzes came from or how they got there — according to Wikipedia, a Bulgarian historian at the beginning of the 20th century counted 19 different theories, a number that increased to 21 by another historian a few decades later. Their language belongs to the same branch as Turkish and, if i understood it correctly, they’re somewhat mutually intelligible.


We went back to the leads on our annotated map — ethnic Bulgarians were who we met the most, which was consistent with what to expect based on that, as well as the language map in the preamble. Given how i eventually chose to put this together, i had to pick one of them.

F’odor expressed great enthusiasm about going cycle touring himself — he even has all the gear already, but isn’t sure how to make it happen — i think he didn’t believe our invitation to join us was sincere (Artsyz district)

Besides what i thought that it would be super cool to select a unique language from each district, i also believe it is valuable to include F’odor on this brief essay for a second reason — he explicitly wants his children to learn Ukrainian, and believes that promoting the language over Russian in the public sphere is a necessary step to establish a Ukrainian national identity.

While we met many people indifferent to the national government’s language policy, finding someone who defended it amidst so many who opposed it drew my attention.


When the Bulgarians came to Bessarabia, a few Albanians who had settled in eastern Bulgaria sometime before tagged along [1]. Their descendants in Odesa concentrate in Karakurt. We arrived there close to dark hoping not only to meet some of them, but perhaps also spend the night. The head of the village apologized — she was running late for an event and encouraged us to ask another resident.

Petro took us on a comprehensive tour of Bolhrad (the district center), interpolating stops with the history of Bessarabia, and only then back to Karakurt — “before i can tell you about the Albanians, you need to understand the history of the region as a whole.”

We learned the next day that the event had been the inauguration of a monument to Albanian hero Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg — the family who eventually hosted us wondered why on Earth the head of the village hadn’t invited us to join her! I can’t complain — as it is usually the case, it worked out great.

The highlight of what i learned on those one-and-a-half days was that, in a vast country like Ukraine, different people might look up to different historical figures — along our tour of Bolhrad, i counted four monuments to Ivan Inzov (including the mausoleum where his remains rest), a General of the Infantry in the Russian Empire in the early 1800s, and one statue of Taras Shevchenko, the celebrated poet and polymath whose literary legacy is considered the foundation of modern Ukrainian language — the monument was only recently inaugurated, to replace a fallen Lenin.


Moldovans were the second most prevalent minority throughout the region after the Bulgarians. It was particularly unsurprising to find them in the Reni district, which is wedged between Moldova and Romania — even back in 2017, though still oblivious to how colorful a demographic map of Ukraine might look like, i was already aware that languages reliably leak across political borders — my rudimentary Romanian was useful in asking for water or directions a couple of times along the Danube.

Oleksandr identified himself as Moldovan, and didn’t have much to say about the difference between Moldovans and Romanians — that was usually the case whether in Budzhak then or Bukovina earlier on the tour, though in the latter people were more likely to identify as Romanian (Reni district)

What was unexpected in our encounter with Oleksandr was his friend Ihor, from L’viv. I’ll do my best to be fair to the guy — Ihor was nice to us — he actually came to Nastia and i, and invited us to join him and Oleksandr at their table — he offered us something to eat, gave us his phone number, and asked us to look him up in L’viv when we came back.

That didn’t override our annoyance when he kept taking over, whenever we asked Oleksandr a question, to say things like, “He speaks Romanian — did you know the Constitutional Court of Moldova ruled that Moldovan and Romanian are the same language?” — what is that even supposed to mean? Ihor expected us to know Stepan Bandera‘s birthdate and patronymic — is that what Ukrainian nationalism is coming down to? — was he just jealous because we were far more interested in his Moldovan friend?

I regret not confronting him then and there with these questions — i wanted to write about Oleksandr, and have next to nothing about him in my memory or notes now. Oleksandr, in turn, displayed generous amounts of patience with his friend.


A guy behind me interrupted my process, wondering what i was doing while i crouched, kneeled, leaned, and laid awkwardly on the sidewalk, trying to compose an overlay of a monument and a trash can — i felt embarrassed, but the experiment was disastrous in the artistic dimension as well, so my intention could hardly be gleaned from the previews i showed him — i told him i had to join my wife, who was buying pastries across the road, and he let me go easily.

He caught up with me a little later that day, and i asked him if he knew where was the post office, where he gladly walked me — we started talking — “may i ask what is your nationality?”

After a brief pause, “I’m Ukrainian,” he said, still a bit hesitantly. “I was born in Russia — well, modern-day Russia — I’m Soviet.”


“Soviet. You asked what’s my nationality — that’s what i was taught — almost anybody about my age or older will give you a similar answer — that’s what we grew up with, it was all one country.”

Dmitriy’s answer reminded me of a friend from Serbia who once told me he’s Yugoslavian — i never got deeper into what he meant (Izmail district)

He didn’t sound nostalgic or resentful — i was probably startled by his answer more because i could clearly understand it — we were having this conversation in our mutual English rather than my broken Ukrainian or Nastia’s truncated mediation.

Dmitriy’s attitude resonated with what i’d intellectually gotten from some people we’d talked to along our way across Ukraine, not just in Odesa. Writing about this episode makes me wonder how resentment or nostalgia develop — i didn’t always recognize it in our encounters — does it come all from within, or does it require some tacit persuasion?


Nastia and i were now loosely retracing my cycles from two years before along the Danube Delta and the Black Sea shore — should we go to Vylkove or not?

The town of Vylkove, known as the Ukrainian Venice, is (to my cool long-term traveling attitude) a depressingly touristic place — you can’t go for longer than five minutes without having a teenager on a scooter ride by to interrupt whatever you’re doing and ask if you want a boat tour. They’ll take any opportunity — if you ask one of them for directions, they might pitch you a boat tour — i pictured myself falling off my bicycle, or whatever, only to have one of them approach and ask, “Hey, is everything alright? — you don’t seem very happy — looks like you could use a boat tour!”

Nastia and i had both been there already, and we didn’t care much to return — except that Vylkove is where we were told we would find Lipovans, of whose existence i was oblivious just a week or two before. After a few confusing leads from a scooter boy, what i judged to be a resentful former member of the community, the alcoholic he took us to, and two teenage girls whom i’d approached then thinking they might as well be the most reliable source of information around, an old lady who’d been observing some of that play out from across the street invited us inside — we soon found ourselves drinking sparkling water and eating something i don’t remember in what turned out to be the communal area behind the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin.

The Old Believers we met in Vylkove were hospitable and reserved — they didn’t want to be photographed or named, but allowed us to snap a couple of shots of a book they had in their communal room (Kiliya district)

When they read Nikon on my camera, they pointed at it and smiled — that’s the name of the patriarch who, in the 1600s, introduced the ecclesiastical reforms the Old Believers would oppose and resist. A period of persecutions began, and many of them fled Russia — some of them resettled along the Prut River and on the Danube Delta in what’s become the border region between present-day Moldova, Romania, and Ukraine, and came to be known as the Lipovans.

The origins of the denomination are uncertain, and legends abound — my favorite one was that, while they were on the run, they would hide in linden trees (in Russian, липа – lipa). They’re also known for a number of superficially small but nevertheless important distinctions in their rituals and symbols — it made unique sense to me that they bury their believers with a cross planted at their feet, not the head — “it will be handier when we get up from the grave on the day of our resurrection.”

The Lipovans speak Russian in their everyday lives, but their liturgy, prayers, and religious texts and instruction, in general, remain untranslated from the language they spoke nearly 400 years ago when the schism broke out.


Some of you who’ve been following me since 2017 might remember Uncle Goge and Aunt Luda — i learned on this tour that that’s how one may affectionately and respectfully refer to adults in the Ukrainian countryside.

Aunt Luda and Uncle Goge — and Mika? (Tatarbunary district)

I could communicate with them substantially better this time around, and was unsure if some of what i didn’t understand was just their local strand of Ukrainian, or influences from Russian — “what language do you speak with each other?” — They answered casually, “Ukrainian, or Russian — well, Surzhyk.”

Surzhyk, a Ukrainian word for flour made from a mixture of grains, or the bread made from such flour, denotes the vast spectrum of sociolects of Russian and Ukrainian in which about 5 million people in Ukraine and adjacent areas communicate — whether one is talking about Ukrainians who have historically Russified their speech to communicate with authorities or Russian-speaking Ukrainians (such as the clerk i interacted with at the post office last week) who’ve adapted to the recently affirmed public status of the state language, the number of people formally speaking neither Ukrainian nor Russian is bound to increase.

I saw it fitting to place myself in this last photo, with which i conclude this note by insinuating what i enjoy the most — watermelons (Goge doesn’t use nitrates either) — and, of course, some degree of conceptual deconstruction.

I want to clarify that the idea of this essay is not to highlight the predominant local language in each district, but rather illustrate the diversity of what people speak at home across the whole region. We wound up meeting (and documenting) enough representatives that, with some patience and a little creativity, it was possible to select a unique one from each of the nine districts of Odesa comprising Southern Bessarabia. I also wanted to show that, while Albanians, Bulgarians, Gagauzes, and Moldovans — who are (still) present in large enough numbers and somewhat organized in local communities — might offer the most notable and easy to find examples of this cultural variety, it doesn’t end there.

“The state language of Ukraine is the Ukrainian language,” declares Article 10 of the Constitution — it then adds that, “[t]he State ensures the comprehensive development and functioning of the Ukrainian language in all spheres of social life throughout the entire territory of Ukraine” (quotes from unofficial English translation). These constitutional principles underlie bill No. 5670-d“On the functioning of the Ukrainian language as the state language,” signed (also controversially) into law a couple of months before we traveled in Odesa.

The next two lines in Article 10 say that, “[i]n Ukraine, the free development, use and protection of Russian, and other languages of national minorities of Ukraine, is guaranteed,” and that “[t]he State promotes the learning of languages of international communication.”

While the law doesn’t restrict language usage in private communication, it seems to discourage the dissemination of Ukrainian content in languages that are used by significant proportions of Ukrainians — particularly in Russian. Article 24 of the bill stipulates that 90% (80% for local broadcasters) of daytime and early evening radio and television broadcasts must be in Ukrainian. Article 25 implicitly excludes Russian from the list of languages in which print media may be published without a corresponding version in Ukrainian, while wittily allowing that to be done in indigenous languages, English, as well as any official language of the European Union [2, 3].

At the Monument to the Founders of the City of Odesa, a faded Russian flag signaling the translation on the information panel (September ’19)

Interestingly, the president who pushed for and signed the legislation just before the end of his term is from the region — Poroshenko grew up in Bolhrad [4, 5].

The extent to which the law will be enforced, what exceptions might be granted by further legislation, and their long-term effects on Ukrainian society remain to be seen.

What do i care anyway? — don’t i come here from the outside? — does it make a difference whether i have to learn Ukrainian or Russian? Indeed, i don’t have to learn either, and i’m quite eager to learn both, and eventually be able to communicate with Ukrainians in whatever language they prefer — that’s how privileged i am.

Many Ukrainians can’t say the same.

I’ll wrap up with a few questions that came to me as i traveled through the region, talked to some of their residents, learned about the law, and worried about the future.

Russian was reported to be their first language by 29% of respondents in a 2012 countrywide poll by RATING — a more recent survey from 2015 found that 78% of the residents of the city of Odesa who are eligible to vote speak the foreign language at home — the official language of the defunct Soviet Union is still widely used as the language of interethnic communication in its former territories, especially among people who grew up in the Union and are now 40–50+ years old. Might the law make it too onerous to produce and disseminate content of Ukrainian interest in Russian? If so, where will Ukrainians who feel more comfortable in that language turn to for their news and entertainment? One can already see parabolic dishes in many (if not most) homes throughout the Odesa region — some (if not all) of them are already tuned to Russian channels — is that the kind of thing the legislators wanted to avoid?

Does it matter what language(s) people speak? — does that matter more than whether or not they understand each other? Is forcefully pushing the Ukrainian language across the country a fruitful narrative to pursue? — will that bring Ukrainians together or further divide them? — are there other strategies to affirm Ukrainian as the language of interethnic communication? — could the transition at least be smoother?

Denmark, which is repeatedly ranked among the top happiest nations and best functioning democracies on Earth, is a remarkably homogeneous country. Is diversity beneficial or detrimental to our individual and collective wellbeing? — does it even matter? — should we value it at all? Can a stable national identity be constructed without suppressing cultural differences? — can democracy work in a vast and pluralist society?

Whatever the answers to these questions, it’s increasingly clear that we’re quite far from the end of History. And Ukraine seems to be one of the best seats from where to watch its next act unfold.

Featured photo: outline of our route through the administrative region of Odesa (courtesy of plotaroute.com and © OpenStreetMap contributors)

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IAC #7 — Location markers in Vinnytsia

UPDATED October 25th, 2019 — this is a dispatch from my cycle tour of Ukraine and surroundings this past Summer with my partner Nastia, an open project on an Autumn/Winter hiatus — check out the project page more information, and sign up for my newsletter if you would like to be notified when it resumes 🙂

Shortly after leaving Novodnistrovs’k (Chernivtsi Region, Sokyriany district), we crossed the Dnister River at the Dnister Hydroelectric Power Station into the administrative region of Vinnytsia. We spent four gruesome days riding up and down the steep Podolian Uplands’ valleys along the River until inconspicuously passing into the Odesa Region via the village of Bashtankiv (Kodyma district).

the elevation profile of our route across the Vinnytsia Region, and Nastia’s plight out of the second valley — from a riding perspective, the hills of Vinnytsia were the most unforgettable aspect of our time in the region

A (not so) quick preamble

Leaving behind Chernivtsi and its bus stops, i started photographing the markers often found welcoming one’s arrival at a populated place — they’re sometimes monumental in the formerly Soviet world.

I noticed two during our first 24 hours in the region.

The first marker showed some promise, but the second one (and the absence of many others) disappointed.

That’s when i spotted the first hammer and sickle i’d ever seen on public display in Ukraine! I put down the bicycle, got out my camera, and mobilized Nastia to read and translate it to me — the annotations were in Russian.

Great Patriotic War” memorial in Nemiya (Vinnytsia Region, Mohiliv-Podil’s’kyi district)

It turned out to be a war memorial — the Great Patriotic War (of 1941–45), as the elsewhere called Eastern Front of World War II was known in the Soviet Union and still is in some of its former territories.


I realize now that i had seen a couple of those memorials before — in Ivano-Frankivsk, we passed by the “eternal” flame of victory, which was off — the night before we had camped right next to the one in Khon’kivtsi, where the “red star” was notably white — if their Soviet overtones were ever more explicit, enough people didn’t like them that they’ve been removed, or at least unmaintained to their disintegration. Even Nastia was confused, noting that she should look into what had been this Great “National” War, as she first translated what was written on the monument where we now stood before the unmistakable Soviet symbol.

Wondering whether i might spot other instances of the symbol, i started documenting them as well, keeping the location markers as a backup.

Kukuly (Pishchanka district) — some of you might find the dates curious

From the toppling of (thousands of) statues of Lenin (Leninopad) to the renaming of (tens of thousands of) streets, communist references from the quintessential to the obscurest have been (sometimes forcefully) disappearing from the face of Ukraine since the country’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The results of this process are most noticeable (or rather, unnoticeable) in the West, where i’ve spent most of my time in Ukraine so far. In 2015, the display of Soviet symbols in public spaces was rendered illegal the paradoxical and controversial Decommunization Laws:

  • Law No. 2558: “On the condemnation of the communist and national socialist (Nazi) regimes, and prohibition of propaganda of their symbols”
  • Law No. 2538-1: “On the legal status and honoring of fighters for Ukraine’s independence in the 20th century”
  • Law No. 2539: “On remembering the victory over Nazism in the Second World War”
  • Law No. 2540: “On access to the archives of repressive bodies of the communist totalitarian regime from 1917-1991”

Tourist and resident worlds collide

Here’s a bit of the paradox — my humble contribution as a mathematician (i didn’t know any of this when i took the photos). As a tourist, i usually make my best effort to stay away from politics — but Ukraine is now also where i live.

So, Law No. 2539 does away with Great Patriotic War, replacing it with World War II, (1939–45), “[a]ware that [it] (…) began as a result of the arrangements of the national-socialist (…) regime of Germany and the communist totalitarian regime of the USSR” (translation quoted from Nikolay Koposov; Memory Laws, Memory Wars, pp. 201–2).

On the other hand, Law No. 2558 (Article 3) exempts Great Patriotic War memorials — as i understand it, they’re allowed to preserve the denomination, dates, hammer and sickles, as well as any other Soviet references they were installed with.

I also said the laws are controversial — indeed several scholars and institutions (including the European Commission for Democracy through Law) have raised concerns that the laws are vague and susceptible to abuse that might curtail freedom of speech and association. If you’re interested, you may read more from historians, political scientists, graduate students, artists, and draw your own conclusions 🙂

Paradoxical or controversial, the laws are fascinating — they reflect a nation under hasty construction in real-time. I’m curious to see how these war monuments will be understood in the near future in light of the restrictions and historical stipulations mandated by the legislation — will Ukrainians feel encouraged to ask questions about their history? You might get different answers to this question depending on who you ask or which of the laws you read.

Anyway — legal and (still) relatively abundant, the memorials lost much of the appeal.

Back to plan A

This brought me back to the location markers — and eventually, as luck would have it, to a fairly monumental (and, as i understand, already illegal) hammer and sickle that hasn’t yet been removed!

I hope you’ll enjoy this brief photo essay. As before, i’ve laid the story out so the narrative develops linearly from the main text to image captions, then back to the text, and so on — to read the captions, just click on the first image, then flip through them 😉

Location Markers from Vinnytsia

As with the bus stops from Chernivtsi, it made the most sense to tell this story district by district. By the way, whether or not you have noticed or care at all, that’s the word in English i’ve adopted for raion (район), the next layer of administrative divisions in Ukraine below the Region — in turn, the translation i’ve followed for Oblast’ (Область).

We passed by four districts — Mohiliv-Podil’s’kyi, Yampil’, Kryzhopil’ and Pishchanka.

Mohiliv-Podil’s’kyi district

As i hinted above, the location markers in this district were the least eventful — where they’re still the responsibility of the district administration, they don’t seem to be maintained — where they’re under the auspices of the (newly established) local governments, keeping up with Soviet extravagance doesn’t seem to be a priority.

This is partially reflected on the border with the district of Yampil’:

Yampil’ district

The settlement entrances in this district were the most fun to photograph. They were each unique, but all followed a Cossack theme. A few of the location markers were sculpted in stone — reflexes of the area’s history and tradition [1, 2].

Kryzhopil’ district

If the next district border or the first settlement in it (Shumy) were marked in any way, i didn’t notice it — possibly because i was too focused on the steep downhill after Dovzhok? That’s where OpenStreetMap tells me the imaginary line must have been crossed.

Up yet another arduous slope, the next marker was impossible to miss though — it reveals itself gradually and momentously as you suffer the last pedal strokes of the climb from Shumy, ominously announcing its end letter by letter, and the next photo shooting break — В — І — Л — Ь — Ш — Н — К — А

I’m exhausted, where can i lean my bicycle? I’m looking up now — is that a hammer and sickle?

It is, and that’s not a war memorial — i don’t know why this makes me so excited, but it does.

It probably cost a lot to build it, and it will likely cost another bunch to go up there and remove the symbol — what will it be replaced with?

This climatic marker was the only we saw in our brief swing in and out of the Kryzhopil’ district.

Pishchanka district

I don’t have anything else to say — shortly after Vil’shanka, we were already crossing into the fourth and final district, where this exercise cooled down and wrapped up with the last two exemplars i noticed.

In the second one, i also made an attempt to capture what has been a reliable feature of Ukrainian countryside so far — dirt roads in parallel (and often preferred) to the old asphalt ones. I shot a video wondering about that on my 2017 cycle tour. We found out from the locals that these solutions emerge spontaneously — “Who builds these roads?” — “Nobody builds them, people simply start driving off-road to avoid the crumbling asphalt, and it eventually becomes a road” — go self-determination!

“Rule 1: Find a place you trust and then try trusting it for a while.”

10 Rules for Students and Teachers” by Sister Corita Kent (and John Cage)

Once again, i could have done more — one could have taken better photos, or gone a lot deeper into these markers — pieces of information, relics from the past, reflexes of power structures, expressions of identity and pride, objects of art, historical accounts of aesthetic preferences and local traditions — the list goes on.

This is only the second essay in this meta practice to notice and record a superficial feature of each administrative region of Ukraine we visit on our tour, and i’m already beginning to feel that it will eventually be my duty to handle at least one of them more thoroughly.

A reader pointed out that this has been done by photographer Christopher Herwig with the bus stops, although he seems to have approached them from their architecture and design.

Disappearing Soviet symbols in Ukraine have also been tackled in Looking for Lenin, by photographer Niels Ackermann and journalist Sébastien Golbert, who went on a quest to find out what happened to some of those statues after their removal.

There doesn’t seem to be much yet on Soviet location markers 😀

Not now though — and i won’t mind if someone else in a better position does it. For the moment, i’ve consciously chosen to carry out this project at this scale — one that i find compatible with my broad interests and current skills, not to mention my time frame and budget — perhaps most importantly, because i’m enjoying the play 🙂

I hope you’re enjoying it also, and please keep the feedback coming — i’ll be back soon with what i did in Odesa <3

Featured photo: outline of our route through the administrative region of Vinnytsia (courtesy of plotaroute.com and © OpenStreetMap contributors)

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IAC #6 — Greetings from (around) Odesa!

UPDATED October 25th, 2019 — this is a dispatch from my cycle tour of Ukraine and surroundings this past Summer with my partner Nastia, an open project on an Autumn/Winter hiatus — check out the project page more information, and sign up for my newsletter if you would like to be notified when it resumes 🙂

It took longer than five minutes — or a week — or two! And i ate the jam. It matters to me — i’m sorry to those of you for whom it also matters, for not managing to keep up.

Nastia encouraged me to share what i can, when i can — well, here i am — i want to tell you briefly about where we are, what we’ve been up to, and where we’re headed 🙂

After crossing the Dnister River, we continued our ride around Moldova through the regions of Vinnytsia and Odesa, then carried on outlining my 2017 route along the Danube Delta and the Black Sea from Izmail to the city of Odesa.

I missed my buddy Yuriy in Izmail (he was in Denmark, of all places), but managed to find and introduce Nastia to all my other hosts from that tour.

Tania, from Mahazyn Kasthan in Kiliya (Natasha and Valia were not there) — i didn’t cry upon leaving this time around — we’ll meet again (Odesa Region, Ukraine, Summer ’19)

It was invariably a blast — i feel grateful that my chance encounters on the road have so far turned out to be people i could come back to and, apparently, still offer something of value. I look forward to exploring the shape some of these relationships might eventually take.

I have honored the practice of picking something to document along our way in each administrative region, and i’m hungry to share the results on this newsletter. I hope those of you waiting for it will understand that it will take me longer than i estimated to put together what i’ve collected. I plan to keep up with the exercise going forward, and i wouldn’t mind getting some suggestions, by the way 😉

The region of Odesa has been socially intense — especially the “lump” West of the Dnister River — a few days at a friend’s place in the city of Odesa was not enough for us to recharge — we decided to stop again after just 20km, where we found some manageable short-term accommodation with minimal social obligations in the outskirts. We plan to be here for a few days to catch up with ourselves. I will set aside some of this time to catch up with my day job and work on this newsletter, and leave the rest to simply be — paradoxically, i don’t seem to have done enough of the latter since our journey started two-and-a-half months ago.

Here are a few more photos from the past few weeks since my last note — click on them to see them enlarged and read the captions.

Talk soon!

Featured photo: our route so far starting from the L’viv region, then going briefly into Poland, then back to L’viv, then across the Ivano-Frankivsk, Chernivtsi, Vinnytsia and Odesa regions around the Carpathians and Moldova

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