Man, it’s been too long. I’ve been blogging some lately, but most of it has been contributions to group posts on Kiva Stories from the Field – and most of it hasn’t been published yet, alas. I also wrote a long post called “War Zone Microfinance,” about my trip to the Nagorno-Karabakh frontlines to observe Komak Credit Union’s work with Azeris forced to flee their homes due to war, but had a bit of a setback when Kiva expressed concerns that the subject matter could be politically provocative. (I strongly disagree.) That post is in limbo now – disappointing, because I consider it one of my best pieces of writing all year – but if it doesn’t make it to the Kiva Fellows blog, I plan to post it here after my fellowship ends in May. Feel free to leave a comment if you’d like me to email you the draft now.
Anyway, so what’s up with me? Right now, I’m based in the small city of Uzhhorod in far western Ukraine, about 17 hours from Kiev by train. If I were to climb the hill to Sobranetska Street and follow it west, I could walk to Slovakia. Hungary, too, is just down the road.
I’ve been working here with an MFI called HOPE Ukraine, one of Kiva’s oldest partners and an affiliate of the evangelical Christian NGO HOPE International. I was frankly a little worried about that second part; other fellows working at evangelical Kiva partners, including some HOPE affiliates, have reported an overwhelmingly religious corporate environment, mandatory 8 AM masses every day, and constant needling about why they don’t share the company’s religious beliefs. Thankfully, I’ve instead found a wonderfully friendly group of coworkers who are respectful of the fact that I’m not a Christian. Everyone tossed me a few feeler questions to start with (“Do you go to church?”), but beyond that, nothing has been brought up; the weekly prayer meeting is optional, and so I don’t go. I feel happy with the way things have worked out.
The region I’m in is called Zakarpattya, or Transcarpathia – pretty, remote, cut off from the rest of Ukraine by the crest of the Carpathian Mountains. If Ukraine itself is a borderland between empires, then Transcarpathia is its epitome, having spent the past few centuries being punted between the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and independent Ukraine. The only local empire that never ruled it was, interestingly, Russia; it was annexed by the USSR only in 1945, one of the last pieces of land the Soviets ever acquired. And you can tell. With its Baroque church towers, its Belgian-block pedestrian streets, its dominant Catholicism, its relative lack of the USSR’s Brezhnevian concrete apartment buildings, and the pizzerias and Viennese coffeeshops that sit on every block (*), Uzhhorod feels a world apart from Ukraine.
A few months ago, I reflected on how strange it was that I’d jumped into Kiva eager to be cast into hitherto unimagined parts of the world, but that my placements had instead taken me farther and farther west, closer and closer to my comfort zone. Until finally, now, I’ve arrived. This is it. I am sitting in a coffeeshop in the middle of my Central European comfort zone, and many of my favorite aspects of Uzhhorod are the same that brought me such happiness during my studies in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. New experience fail.
I’ve been ruminating lately on the artificiality of boundaries in this, my most beloved region. Very few people dispute that there are cultural differences between Europe and Asia, but what happens if we try to draw a boundary dividing Europeans from Asians? Russians from Europeans? Ukrainians from Russians? Drill down far enough and every boundary here becomes meaningless: geographical barriers are almost nonexistent, political entities are artificial constructs, religions intermingle with abandon, centuries of intermarriage have smoothed out most genetic distinctions, and even the languages all blur into one another, with Czech slowly turning into Slovak, Rusyn, Ukrainian, and finally Russian the farther east you go. There are no boundaries, only smooth continua. There are no borders, only borderlands. And here in Ukraine, the more closely you observe your surroundings, the less sure you become of where you are.
I’m going to need to work on that some more. But this is part of why I’m so fascinated by this part of the world.
(*) No, really. Pizzerias on every single block in the center – sometimes two or three on the same block staring each other down. It’s almost the only culinary option in Uzhhorod, far more common than, say, Ukrainian or Transcarpathian food. Geographically, culturally, I have no idea how this happened. There is more pizza here than any reasonable city should have.