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F
OCUS ON
FS R
EFLECT IONS
G
ETTING TO
K
NOW
Y
OU
28
F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / J A N U A R Y 2 0 1 2
y husband and I
recently completed a four-year tour in Ukraine, a country
whose culture was dauntingly difficult to break into. Hav-
ing grown up abroad in a variety of countries, I’ve always
considered myself a veritable chameleon, able to blend in
and adapt wherever I landed. But it didn’t take long for
me to realize that some cultures, like the post-
Soviet one I was now in, are more difficult to penetrate
than others.
History has taught Ukrainians to be cautious with
everyone, but particularly with foreigners. The years of a
merciless, free-booting brand of capitalism that followed
independence only deepened the wound. The average
person on the street is unsmiling, taciturn and inordinately
preoccupied with the ground as they walk — which, I
painfully discovered, has more to do with broken and un-
even sidewalks than history.
Once I had been there for a few months, I asked an
older lady, who had the unfortunate duty of teaching me
Russian, why my neighbors looked at me like I had three
heads when I smiled and greeted them.
“Because they know you’re American,” she responded.
Not quite getting the connection, I pressed the point.
“What do you mean, they know I’m American?”
“Because you Americans are always walking around
smiling at everything.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“What’s there to smile about? It makes you look stu-
pid!” This was not an insult, but just jarring, Eastern Eu-
ropean directness.
Winning the Neighbors Over
So perhaps I should not have been surprised that it took
three years just to get a wave from a neighbor I dubbed
“Bicycle Man,” let alone a greeting. Every morning dur-
ing my pre-dawn jog, I passed this septuagenarian riding
his equally old “velociped” up the square, then down the
square, in slow circles, for exercise. And each morning,
smiling stupidly, I waved and said “good morning” in Russ-
ian without eliciting any response whatsoever.
Then one morning during my final year in Kyiv, he
waved back! I was so startled I stopped and stared, think-
ing that he was perhaps swatting at a bug. He waved again.
I was so excited, I cut my run short and hurried home to
my apartment to tell my husband.
A
MISSING CAT FORGES CLOSER BONDS
BETWEEN A
F
OREIGN
S
ERVICE FAMILY
AND THEIR
K
YIV NEIGHBORS
.
B
Y
M
ARSHA
P
HILIPAK
-C
HAMBERS
Marsha Philipak-Chambers, an Office Management Spe-
cialist, entered the Foreign Service in 2005. She recently
completed a four-year tour as OMS to the deputy chief of
mission in Kyiv, and is now serving in Tallinn.