Australia was never high on my list because it’s one of the least different places from the US culturally but wow! Sydney is truly awesome, what a quality of life. Seems to combine the best of San Diego (weather, beaches), Portland (coffee, coffee, and more coffee) and San Francisco (vibrant downtown and cozy late-Victorian neighborhoods) in one, with friendliness, health, social welfare and a great attitude to life. It seems very prosperous here right now. Plus they are getting all the good immigrants due to sensible immigration policies. Only downside so far: strong currency, so very expensive for us.


How much English do Hindi speakers use!

OK this post is for those interested in languages.

I recently spent a month in India, where Hindi and English “compete” as national languages alongside state and local languages, ten of which have 30 million speakers or more.

Zapping through the tv channels, I joked to myself that there were not really Hindi or English-language channels in India. Rather, there seemed to be 80% Hindi/20% English and 80% English/20% Hindi.

The Hindi channels had so much English that most of the time I could actually tell what they were talking about. And the English channels had not only many Hindi words. Even numbers were expressed not in millions but in “lakh” (100,000) and “crore” (10 million). Also entire constructions of English words, but which were alien to English as used in the US/UK/etc. – a classic example being “kindly do the needful”. All this is of course, completely valid English… Indian English and it’s wonderful. English is the world language partly because it’s flexible and free, not controlled by any academy trying to hold it back.

This reminded me of my time in the Netherlands (1993-2004), when it was sometimes remarkable how much English would pepper the Dutch language. This was particularly the case at my work at a large international bank where the language of emails and documents was English, but my Dutch colleagues and I would usually converse in Dutch. The result was often a nominally Dutch sentence, but with all nouns in English. And sometimes even verbs such as “delete-n”, “outsource-n”, and “change-n”. That may have exceeded the 80/20 of Hindi. But in everyday conversation, it was less than 20%.

I have never known such intense use of English otherwise, though I suspect it may happen in Scandinavia. But it wasn’t the case in France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Spain, or Mexico. In fact in Spanish or French you can’t easily incorporate some English words, such as verbs, for grammar reasons. Unlike Dutch or German where you just add an “n”!

South Africans do something else. Rather than incorporate English into another language, they switch languages mid-sentence – English to Afrikaans and back again. However, Afrikaans has had to fight for its existence and so words are consciously created where they are needed. AS a result they are able to use “proper” Afrikaans words when speaking Afrikaans. And in the press the proper Afrikaans words are used.

I’ve heard New Yorkers switch from English to Spanish to English with lightning speed too. Presumably Puerto Rican or Dominican New Yorkers. In California you never heard the Mexicans or Mexican-Americans doing that. Spanish had a very low prestige there and people would use perfect English if they were able to.

So the award goes to… India!

Here is the Hindi and English text of my favorite Bollywood song. Look at how much English is in the Hindi (I’ve bolded the English in the text). Just about every word that is meant to be emphasized. You can watch the video at the bottom of the post.

Hindi English
Angdaaiyaan leti hoon main jabb zor-zor se
ufff! angdaaiyan leti hoon main jab zor-zor se
Uhh ahh ki avaaz hai aati har ore se
Main to chaloon is kadar
Ke mach jaae ye gadar
Hosh waale bhi madhosh aayein re nazar

Mere photo ko seene se yaar, chipkale saiyaan Fevicol se
Fevicol se.. Fevicol se..
Main to kab se hoon ready-taiyar
Pataale saiyan miss-call se
Merey photo ko seeney se yaar chipka le saiyyan Fevicol se

Jhhoom jhhoom jhum barabar.. jhoom jhoom jhoom..
Jhoom le jhum le.. maze mein jhom le..
Jhoom le jhum le.. Nashe mein jhom le..

Pyaar karle tu aaj angoor ki daughter se
Naseehat bhool jayega tu ek quarter se
Peene waale ko bhi jeene ka mazaa aayega
Yeh wo daaroo hai jo chadh jaae sirf water se

Aaja mere raaja, tujhe jannat dikhaun main
Barfeele paani mein fire lagaaun main

Saare India..
Saare India ko tune ghulam kiyaa re
Main to tandoori murgi hoon yaar
Gatkaa le saiyyan alcohol se.. Oh yeah!
Mere photo ko seene se yaar, chippka le saiyaan Fevicol se

Log kehte hain mujhe, main to hoon namkeen butter
Kaat doongi main dil ko, meri javaani hai cutter
Mera jalwaa jo dekh le, wo faint ho jaaye
Close karke too rakh le apne naino ka shutter

Public shehar ki kare hai teraa wait re..
Arrey thummke jo kamariyaa, hile jila kya state re..

Par kahani oh Raani puraani hai teri
Phir bhi photo ko
Tere photo ko seene mein yaar chipka loonga main Fevicol se

My Gypsy with siren taiyaar
Bhaga le ise petrol se..
Petrol se.. petrol se..
Mere photo ko seeney se yaar Chipka le saiyaan..
Chipka le saiyaan Fevicol se
Fevi.. Fevicol se.. Fevicol se..
Nayan ham ladaayenge baby-doll se
Londiyaa pataaenge miss-call se
Bat ball sey, Cinema-hall sey,
Arrey marriage-hall sey, Overall sey
Tere photo ko seeney mein yaar chipkaa loonga main
Fevicol sey

When I stretch mightily
When I stretch mightily
The sounds of ‘uhh’ and ‘ahh’ come from every side
The way I walk
That there is a hell of a noise
Conscious people also seem to be intoxicated

Oh my friend, stick my photo to your chest with Fevicol glue
With Fevicol, with Fevicol..
I’ve been ready for a long time
Persuade me by giving me a missed call.
Stick my photo to your chest using Fevicol

Swing swing swing continuously.. swing swing swing..
Swing swing.. Swing in fun..
Swing swing.. Swing in intoxication..

You, love the daughter of the grape
You will forget the lesson within a quarter-hour
The one drinking will also have fun of living
It is a drink, which intoxicates with water alone too..

Come my king, let me show you the heaven
I set fire to the cold water

All of India…
You have made all of India your slave
I am a barbecue hen
Swallow me with alcohol, oh my beloved
Stick my photo to your chest with fevicol

People tell me that I am salty butter
I will cut the heart, my youth is a cutter
The one who sees my talent, faints
Keep the shutter of your eyes closed

The public of the city awaits you
When your waist moves, not only the district, the whole state shivers..

But oh my queen, your story is old
But still your photo…
I will stick your photo to my chest with fevicol..

My gypsy is ready with siren
Make it run using petrol
Using petrol.. Using petrol..
Stick my photo with your chest, oh my friend
Stick it using fevicol, my beloved
Using fevicol.. Using fevicol..
We will meet our eyes with the baby-doll
We will persuade a girl by missed call
Using bat-ball, By going to cinema hall
Oh by taking her to marriage hall, overall..
I will stick your photo to my chest
using Fevicol.


Visiting India really makes you think.

The positive things from the visit:

– To see and experience the state of India today for myself – since it is such an important country and culture in the world, and something which I am drawn to a medium degree (fabrics, Bollywood, food, history/castles, Hindu religion, etc.). And Indians are one of the “great” immigrant groups in America today…
– food was very good
– hygiene has been surprisingly good inside the hotels and restaurants with a few exceptions
– colors and fabrics
– the historic forts and palaces
– the wide variety of people and daily life on the street every day
– some friendly people and in many cases “innocent” curiosity and friendliness

Video of our trip highlights:

It would have been nice to be in a situation where we really knew some middle class Indians, who travelled a lot or were interested in the same things, and seen a bit of their everyday life and some socializing, but alas…

I was surprised by the true state of things – the negatives

I have been reading too much about how quickly the Indian economy is progressing and how fast the middle class is being created. Although I have also read plenty about the negatives, I went into India expecting a country that was dynamically improving. My yardsticks to measure India against: Other developing countries such as Mexico, Brazil, China, Turkey, all of which have changed dramatically for the positive in the last 20 years before my eyes.

The reality of today’s India is, well, awful.

Garbage. Garbage is everywhere. In the towns in piles that cows disgustingly graze on; the piles are burned daily, plastic and all, creating noxious fumes. Garbage is strewn along virtually every foot of public road. It’s in every waterway. The exceptions: Udaipur (the city center and the clean lakes), and the upscale area of Bombay. But otherwise, garbage, garbage, garbage. The cows that wander in the towns leave their droppings. Sewers are open and clogged with plastic and other trash. Cities outside the city centers are strips along the road with wide patches of dirt between the road and buildings; these strips of dirt are covered with people, puddles of mud, piles of trash, cow droppings, etc.

“Indians… are oblivious to anything that is not of direct self-interest to them… filth… garbage… flies…the stench of sewage… stray dogs…” (Being Indian by Pavan Varma, p.101)

I find the dirtiness a big turnoff and I tend to immediately judge “the Indian people” for tolerating it. Of course nothing is that simple and one of our guides did discuss with us from his point of view the importance of educating people and the huge challenges in accomplishing that in India given its size and the fact that they don’t have a dictatorship in China which can ram through policies and changes.

Other negatives:

  • Мajority of the population still lacks electricity or running water
  • 626 million Indians do not even have TOILETS and must defecate in the open – 60% of the world’s open defecation is in India (See video below)
  • Many children still do not go to school
  • Some rural Indians still do not have enough nutritious food

It is noticeable when scanning the tv and from reading that, compared to America, Indians with money devote little attention to these problems. In fact, rich Indians seem quite spoiled with “disposable” servants whom they treat horribly and house in closets. Children and adolescents are especially egregious in their treatment of personnel and staff. This is compounded by the Indian tendency, when they first meet a person, to broadcast one’s position and connections, which comes off as arrogance and self-importance to Westerners.

“in the Indian tradition the powerful are not expected to be reticent or modest in the projection of their power” (Varma, p.18)

But it is easy to demonize. I have to say that I admire the American spirit of compassion more in this regard (and the Western European one even more!) – but, as individuals we all act individually. There are always a few true saints and everyone else just trying to get on with their own life in their own circumstances. Indians with money are no different.

The rich may not be very sympathetic with the plight of the poor, the government has been trying to improve the situation for the poor since independence, with some success. It has also greatly broken down the barriers of the caste system.

Other negatives:
– Even in our hotels, the electric went out several times a day until generators came on
– Lack of modern roads
– Polluted air everywhere
– No supermarkets only small stores
– Misogyny embedded in the traditional culture
– Racism i.e. elevation of light skin over dark skin. (There are two original races in India, light and dark and historically the light-skinned were the upper castes)

Dynamics of Indian society

So, compared to its fellow developing countries, what the hell is wrong with India?

Problem 1: Being passive. I have read books by local authors (e.g. Being Indian by Pavan Varma) and both refer to the Indian culture which is quite passive and doesn’t try to change things much. Again:

“Indians… are oblivious to anything that is not of direct self-interest to them” (Varma, p.101)

Bettering society is not really in the culture – they are more oriented to:
a) the thousands-year-old caste system where everyone has their place and
b) if you have a bad life it’s due to karma from a past life.

Problem 2: the government is not only slow but extremely corrupt. And, importantly, there is a sort of acceptance that that is how things are. Corruption is expected and there is not a huge push from the people to stamp it out.

“For all the condemnation that corruption publicly provokes, Indians are ambivalent about the practice… Their understanding of right and wrong is far more related to efficacy than to absolutist notions of morality” (Varma, p.76-7)

Problem 3: India after independence in the 1940s, quite understandably admired the Soviet model, which had created an industrial superpower out of a largely agricultural Russian Empire in a few short decades. India did very well at putting a stranglehold on the capitalist economy. But it did not manage to accomplish any of the good things from the Soviet model, such as building up industry, educating the poor, or bringing them electricity and running water. All the bad without the good. India slid backward from the 1940s all the way through the 1980s.

The shock at the garbage and pollution made me think – boy, it’s hard for even me to see anything positive in this place. It looks apocalyptic, and they’ve let their country go to hell. It was disappointing considering that for the past 10 years we’ve been hearing about all the positive changes – more jobs, more consumer goods, higher quality of life all round for Indians. And indeed, one night our driver was saying many of those positive things. He said 10 years ago, no jobs, nothing here in Rajasthan, wait 20 years for landline phone, wait 20 years for car. He said now life is very good.

So… it’s all relative.

Until the very end of the trip I thought I wouldn’t go back to India. But I think now maybe I would, to see Kashmir or the Himalayas. It is an interesting country and that’s a key criterion for me.

I think India will be food for thought as to how good we have it in the West with our clean sidewalks and functioning government, and lack of cows in the street eating plastic bags from heaps of garbage. It’s also a reminder of the past of our cities – I thought back to that great BBC show about the streets of London in medieval times.

Sanitation problems

Video of dead bodies in the Ganges (not for the faint-hearted)

Southwest US and California – 3 week car tour suggestions

The things not to miss are: SF, “Highway 1” SF-LA, Las Vegas, Zion & Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, San Diego. 

Yosemite is also spectacular BUT will add 2 full days driving to/from anywhere else, so skip it so you can really enjoy the other places. Also are you going in Winter? Because you cannot cross the eastern border of the park in Winter, too much snow. So then no point *at all* to try to drive from SF to Vegas that way.

I would plan: 

4 days SF (America’s best city – enjoy it! – don’t get a car for the city; Get your car on your 3rd or 4th day and do a day trip to Napa Valley wine country and/or see the Redwood Forest)

Drive to Monterey on the fast road (1 hr) – see aquarium, art village Carmel, drive “9 Mile Drive” and spend the night in Monterey

1 day Coast highway #1 Monterey-San Luis Obispo stopping at Hearst Castle (make a tour reservation). Lunch in Lucia.

San Luis Obispo-LA (3 hrs)

4 days LA & San Diego 

Fly San Diego to Las Vegas (it’s a 7 hour, boring drive) 

2 days Las Vegas – stay somewhere between Venetian and Aria hotels

1 week: from Las Vegas drive a loop: Vegas – Zion – Bryce – Grand Canyon – Vegas. Then fly out from Vegas.

As for LA some people like it, I do, but it’s not a walking city – some small walking areas and a car in between them. It’s so big I think of it as three cities: West, Middle and Downtown. In the west: Santa Monica, Venice (Abbott Kinney Blvd.). In the middle part, West Hollywood (gay-borhood) La Brea/Wilshire area, Hollywood/Vine, Silverlake (alternative gay-borhood) and Los Feliz. Downtown is very disappointing to most Europeans, it was completely run down and is actually a very busy Mexican/Central American downtown. A few “hip” places opened, but really not that many. I like visiting the great old buildings there – very faded glory.


San Diego has a big downtown which is mostly new but very enjoyable – shopping, restaurants, cafes, and a waterfront. San Diego has beautiful beaches and is just a great place to hang out and relax. There is also a great gay-borhood at Hillcrest (near University/Washington Boulevards around 6th Avenue.) Lots of “real people” and very easygoing compared to LA (which is full of “beautiful people”)

Georgia and Armenia

Georgia and Armenia are so forgotten really, probably as a result of being  part of the Russian Empire and USSR which was so isolated. Certainly I “discovered” or “remembered” them because I’ve spent so much time in Russia. They are in essence as European as Greece, but they are 1000 miles east of Istanbul. Amazing. Georgia was a fascinating place to visit. They seem to have renovated the entire country “yesterday” with many things still being renovated. But the facilities are still very simple and there are no crowds, except for perhaps one UNESCO sign you almost have the feeling you are still “discovering” someplace much as it must have been 100 years ago before mass tourism.

Georgia is so many things at once – a combination of:

  • charming architecture (half freshly renovated, half collapsing),
  • decrepit (even by Russian standards) Soviet tower blocks,
  • a sort of Mediterranean people, yet definitely different, incredible variety in faces and physical features, from the softest Western European to the most swarthy Arabic looking people
  • strong Orthodox religion with all these churches from the 11th c. – Georgia’s glory days,
  • better-than-Mediterranean food – lots of grilled food, “raviolis”, walnut and pomegranate sauces, some of the best bread in the world
  • an impenetrable language with its own ancient alphabet
  • Russian signs are hardly to be seen (formerly nearly everything was bilingual) but people 30 and older understand Russian
  • Efforts everywhere to promote English
  • Nation-building by Saakashvili – e.g. every town has its new police station (representing the visible break from the corrupt police of the past) and its new city hall – in the larger towns these are ALL round-ish geometric shapes (spheres, orbs, ovals, tubes!) with glass set into white metal.
  • Soft multi-colored lights adorning buildings, paths, etc. – a bit tacky and Christmas-y but actually an economical way to make the cities and towns less dreary.

Add to this Batumi which has some Las Vegas/Dubai style towers and faux renovations (e.g. an Italian “piazza” which is somewhere between a reconstruction of an actual piazza and the Las Vegas version…). There is a tower dedicated to the Georgian alphabet(!), brand-new dancing fountains, a Leaning Tower of Pisa, Acropolis, and upside-down White House, etc. etc.

And that’s not even starting on the politics. Fascinates me that Saakashvili took this place from total collapse to a functioning country, top 15 places in the world easiest to do business, little crime or petty corruption. And then he blew it all by trying to get South Ossetia “back” and poking the Russian bear. Really stupid. He thought the West and NATO would defend Georgia against Russia! Really really stupid. And Georgia paid.

Click here or on the picture for Georgia photo album or click here for YouTube movie of pictures set to Georgian music

Georgia composite

Deltalina proves it: English is the freest language

Here in the U.S. we are taught repeatedly that we live in a “free country”. That phrase has been twisted and misused so much by backward folks in my country who hate progress, or freedom for folks who are not like them. But take away that noise and yes – what a free country this is and how lucky am I to have been born here.

Other English-speaking countries are almost all free as well – the UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, even India somehow manages to stay free despite the need to organize 1+ billion people, mostly poor. When I was about 8, our history teacher told us “children, the United States is the only free country on Earth”. Having just visited British Columbia, I held up my hand: “but teacher, what about Canada”? “Oh yes, Brian, Canada is a free country too.” Whew.

And we’ve been free for a long time. Democracy in the US and British Empire while the French had Napoleon, the Germans had Hitler, let alone the Russians, Chinese, Arabs, Africans, and all the South American dictatorships…

So somehow in my subconscious, English was a free language.

Living in the Netherlands also gave me the feeling that English was more of a “free” language than others. Let me explain. Dutch is a language which very few people from other (developed) countries have a reason to learn. So I spoke Dutch, and I would make mistakes and sometimes get laughed at. Or sometimes people just wouldn’t know what to make of it. Or – before I was really fluent in Dutch – my efforts would be dismissed without discussion and the answer would come in English. This reaction had very little to do with malice — it simply was highly unusual for a foreigner to speak the language, except for immigrants from Turkey, Morocco, and so forth. Nevertheless, I felt frustrated. I remembered how in the United States, everyone just spoke English. (Spanish is a huge exception, but for the rest: People Just Communicate In English) Often people would speak with a heavy accent and quite incorrectly, and we *might* sometimes be curious about where they came from, but on an everyday basis, it wasn’t something we give a second thought to. First and foremost, English was just a means of communication. When I lived in the Netherlands trying to fit in as far as language, I was frustrated that I didn’t enjoy what I perceived as the freedom with the language that immigrants and visitors to the United States have. (Again NO criticism of the Dutch meant here – it’s just how the language situation was – and I felt *extremely* welcome there).

Plus, English stood on a pedestal there. It was the indisputable language of communication with the world, and sometimes even within the Netherlands (e.g. Emails between Dutch people at the HQ of the Dutch bank I worked for: English please! I might have to forward your message to Kazakhstan!) English represented openness to the world. Writing a Dutch email was sometimes chastized!

English was, and is increasingly, the language that the world communicated to each other in, regardless of their native language. If a young person from Germany talks to a young person from Holland on holiday in Greece, chances are it will be English. English belongs to everybody. And most of us don’t get upset at accents or bad grammar – it’s the free language of communication.

So there you go – English seems like a free language to me.

Now for Wikipedia.

Moving to Atlanta 3 years ago and knowing almost nothing about it except negative stereotypes about Southern backwardness and poverty, blistering summers and Atlanta traffic, I was surprised to fall in love with the inner, older neighborhoods of Atlanta such as the one where we live in our 1913 bungalow. Trees everywhere including old oaks; 100-year old architecture; neighborhoods each with a name and official border, an own story, an own “feel” and identifiable cores of restaurants and shops you can walk to. Real “places” — which my native Los Angeles lacked, with its sprawl and size. And then the friendliness and hospitality of the people.

I digress. I started to research the history of our house and neighborhood. Along the way, I read about many places in what was then the heart of Atlanta – Downtown. Downtown today is, sadly, a place with some old buildings, but dominated by 1970s architecture. It serves convention visitors with high-rise hotels and national chain steakhouses; houses government offices and Georgia State University, and is dotted with empty lots and parking garages. When I saw pictures of bustling crowds, in front of huge department stores and endless smaller stores, I couldn’t even imagine where that was… yet it was in that slightly unpleasant place, Five Points, that I had been. It felt like this bustling city of beautiful 100-year-old steel and brick buildings existed as a ghost — a Photoshop layer that hadn’t been saved — somehow still existing on this place which looked and felt completely different today.

So I researched more. More on all the major buildings (demolished and standing). More on the surreal everyday existence of a city racially segregated by law. Or on the African-American heroes before Civil Rights, who prospered despite segregation and hate. Or the 1906 Race Riot. Or the Great Fire. More on the streetcar network that once existed.

I knew how easy it was to “throw” my research into a new Wikipedia article so that others could benefit from it. I noticed that even minor articles had hundreds or thousands of viewers per month. I also noticed that if I looked up pretty much any topic, the first Google result was a Wikipedia entry. So I realized – this is how people will truly benefit. Much more than if I wrote a book about a topic. If I simply created a Wikipedia entry, that put that topic on the map. And people would learn about it.

So I become addicted to Wikipedia article creation.

One day, for fun, I wanted to add “Deltalina”. That is the nickname of a real Delta flight attendant who appeared in some funny Delta safety videos. She got quite a bit of press coverage and was a minor celebrity, certainly here in Delta’s hometown of Atlanta.

So I added her to Wikipedia. I added several reliable sources such as major newspapers, CNN, etc. And I added photos of her I took during Atlanta’s Pride festival when she appeared on a float. Mission accomplished. Deltalina was documented. Probably for all posterity.

But one day — just for fun — I decided to add articles in the other languages I know fluently or fairly well. So I added Deltalina in Dutch, Spanish, French, and got some translation help and added her in Russian. The reactions were unexpected but made me wonder if they reflect the societies which speak those languages.

The Spanish and French versions were immediately deleted. Without discussion. This was a shocker because on English Wikipedia, articles are virtually always tagged as “suggested for deletion” for a couple weeks, people can chime in, and a consensus is reached. Nope, not in Spanish or French. Administrator thinks it’s not encyclopedic or relevant. Immediate deletion on the whim of the Administrator. End of discussion.

My appeals to the French administrator were simply ignored.

French: Dictatorial and rude. Fits the stereotype.

My appeals to the Spanish administrator, heard, but denied.

Spanish: Dictatorial, yet chatty. Fits the stereotype!

The Russian version was the biggest surprise of all. A lively discussion and a conclusion that yes, this lady was a minor celebrity. So let’s keep her. Hard to fit *that* into any stereotype!

Discussion on Russian Wikipedia – keep Deltalina or delete her?

The Dutch version? Of course, a discussion, and a compromise. Put her in a section of the Delta Air Lines article.

Dutch: Long discussions and a compromise everyone is more or less happy with. Fits the stereotype!

And English?

In English Wikipedia there was *never* a discussion. As long as it’s legitimate with a couple of legitimate sources, any topic can go into English Wikipedia.

And that’s what I think is an interesting reflection of the English language – free and open, and open to everyone in the world.

And the *culture* of the English language is free and open. Not just the people of the English-speaking countries are free. But the language itself is free and open.

What do *you* think?

Ukraine trip

“Interesting” is such a blasé and overused word, but “interesting” is in fact how I would describe our trip to Ukraine, in addition to “beautiful” and in some cases “slightly difficult in a post-Soviet way”. Several European friends saw my photos and said they never realized how much there was to see in this country which is so close to them, yet still very seldom visited. Ukraine is not easily described. It is roughly the size of France or Texas and feels very much like separate countries:

  • (Far) Western Ukraine was part of Austria-Hungary until World War I, then part of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania until World War II. It was the heartland of Jewish Europe before the Holocaust and then emigration to Israel and the U.S. The city of Lviv was a capital of Polish culture comparable to Krakow. Czernowitz was  a Jewish cultural capital.
  • Kiev – the Orthodox Vatican *and* a mini-Moscow.
  • Odessa – formerly Russia’s Jewish and humor capital;  ethnic melting pot of Mediterranean peoples and Russians; half Russian, half Mediterranean in feeling
  • Crimea – originally populated by Turkic people (Tatars) who were expelled in the 1940s and replaced mostly by Russians
  • Eastern Ukraine – which we didn’t visit – the industrial, Russian-speaking, and highest-income part of the country.

Czernowitz (Chernivtsi)

Czernowitz (pop. 240,000) was the capital of the Austro-Hungarian province of Bukovina. If “Bukovinian” had been an ethnic group, Bukovina probably would be its own small European country of 1 million people today. But Bukovina was split between Romania and Ukraine, so Czernowitz has a ghostly feel of someplace that used to be somewhat important and is now forgotten – even by Ukrainian standards. It is the only city we visited without, for example, any Western rent-a-car agency. The airport has only 3x weekly flights to Kiev and to Timisoara, Romania, on the aspiring regional carrier Carpatair. Before World War I Czernowitz was ethnically Jewish, Romanian, Ukrainian, and German. Everyone spoke German plus their own language – which fascinates me – I mean we were as far east as Bucharest, and they spoke German here 100 years ago! I had a map from the Baedeker travel guide of 1900 or 1910 with all the German street names and landmarks and was fascinated to follow them.

Here were the forgotten synagogues, one now a cinema, the other empty. There was the Jewish hospital (empty). Here was the Rathaus on the Ringplatz, still a city hall but now the square was the “Centralna Plosha”.  The Volksgarten was still there, now the “Taras Shevchenko Central Park of Culture and Rest”. Siebenbürger Strasse (Transylvania Street!) was now Holovna vultisa, “Main Street”, and Austria-Platz and now Franz-Josef-Platz were now Cathedral Square, with its prominent Soviet war memorial. And there was the University, once the palace of the “Metropolitan” (like an archbishop) of the Orthodox Church – eclectic architecture if I ever saw some. Here were the old villas of the upper middle class in what was Gartenstrasse, now named Frunze street after a Soviet general. Czernowitz was a major center of Jewish culture and of the Yiddish language. (More about Jewish Czernowitz)

It was also the home of Sidi Tal, the designated “only major star” of the otherwise suppressed Yiddish-language theatre and song in the Soviet Union. Sidi Tal mentored Sofia Rotaru, one of the Soviet “pop divas” and still a major star today. Videos:

Click for pictures of Czernowitz (Chernivtsi)

Or watch as a video and enjoy the Barry Sisters’ “L’Chaim”

Kamyanets Podilsky

We took a daytrip to visit this castle 2 hours east of Czernowitz. This had been Russian territory (Bessarabia) even before WWI and WWII. On the way we stopped at Hotyn castle, which had been Polish before WWII! There were many Polish tourists here on bus tours. Our driver refused my tips.

Ivano-Frankivsk (Stanislau)

This was also a heavily Jewish city in Austrian Galicia, which passed to Poland after WWI.  It used to be called Stanisławów in Polish. Also interesting for its remnants of Austria-Hungary, but not as interesting as Czernowitz.

Drive through “Romanian” Ukraine and “gypsy king” mansions

The folks along the southern border of Ukraine with Romania are heavily Romanian-speaking, though you’ll find almost no sign in the language. In a seemingly random town we found the most bizarre collection of recently built mansions – think McMansion in the American suburbs but even bigger. Later we found out there was a border crossing to Romania in the town, so we can only assume this is money from gypsy kings (thus the large families) which needed to be invested outside of Romania for tax evasion reasons. We continued through the beautiful Carpathian mountains, well, more like hills, to the province of Carpatho-Ruthenia. It had been under Hungary in the Austro-Hungarian empire, and after WW I, it passed to Czechoslovakia.


Uzhgorod would probably qualify with Ivano-Frankivsk as “not really *that* interesting” except that it was the capital of the only province of Ukraine which had actually been part of Hungary. So we enjoyed one day exploring the architecture of this old small city. We also passed through Mukachevo, nearly as big, with its remarkable castle and city hall, on the way to Lviv.

Click for pictures of the Carpathians, including Ivano-Frankivsk, the Romanian border, Uzhgorod and Mukachevo


Lviv is really a destination in itself, a mini-Prague or perhaps Krakow (which I haven’t been to). Full of remarkable churches, utterly walkable. It is famous for its coffee houses and strudel, but we were impressed to what degree – this was the best coffee and strudel we’ve had anywhere – though I haven’t been to Vienna since I was 19 and don’t remember much. What a pleasant, relaxed place to hang out. Also many theme restaurants: literature, a Masonic lodge, Jewish Lviv, etc. Synagogue hunting wasn’t so successful here — the Nazis blew them up. Lviv is clearly the capital of “Ukrainian speaking Ukraine” and feels like the capital of a medium-sized European country (which it may well be, one day, if Ukraine splits up).

Click for pictures of Lviv


Kiev has two faces – (1) where the Russian/Ukrainian Orthodox religion began, full of churches and monasteries (2) mini-Moscow: Stalinist subway and wedding-cake architecture, relatively expensive, polluted, wealth (though nothing like Moscow), poverty, aspirations. It writes in Ukrainian but speaks Russian.

Click for pictures of Kiev


Odessa is in southwest Ukraine developed as the Russian Empire’s Black Sea port, mostly in the late 1800s. Many to most people here have darker hair and eyes, and indeed we read that this was not only the Russian Empire’s most Jewish city, but also a melting pot of Turks, Italians, Greeks, Arabs, etc. It feels like a cross between Russia and the Mediterranean with many outdoor restaurants and cafes. This may be the first place in Russia & Ukraine where people smiled on the streets. They were very relaxed. Odessa apparently deteriorated until well after the collapse of the USSR, but now most of its landmark buildings have been renovated. Together with Lviv it’s the place I would most recommend to my friends.

Click for Odessa pictures

Or watch as a video and enjoy the traditional Odessa Jewish song “Sem’ Sorok” by the Leir Sisters (Сёстры Лайр)

About 2 hours north of Odessa is Transnistria. When the USSR collapsed, the Moldavian SSR became an independent country. Moldavians are Romanians by a different name. The Russian speaking eastern sliver of Moldova – Transnistria – declared its own independence and fought a war with Moldova. It still controls this territory. We visited for the novelty. In fact the capital Tiraspol is similar to any smaller Russian city of its size (160,000). The streets are still named after Lenin, there are some renovated buildings and shops but mostly not, and the main attractions are war memorials, parks and statues. Only here there is a “national bank” printing Transnistrian rubles, and its own flag, stamps, etc.

Click for pictures of Transnistria


Before Catherine the Great acquired Crimea for the Russian Empire in the late 1700s, the Crimean Tatars ruled this peninsula. Their language is very close to Turkish. Russians poured in after 1800, and Stalin expelled the Tatars in the 1940s, making Crimea mostly Russian. This place looks like the American Southwest, along a beautiful Mediterranean coastline. We visited Sevastopol, still the home of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, with a compact core of Russian Imperial and grand Stalinist buildings. Yalta, a very nicely renovated, even upscale seaside resort. And we visited the palace of the Crimean Khans in the town of Bakhchysarai. Many Tatars have come back to Crimea since the 1990s and have set up B&Bs and restaurants in the town. A trail leads to a cave city on the top of a mountain, inhabited for over 1000 years, Juft Qale (Chufut-Kale).

Click for pictures of Crimea

Language – different everywhere

The Ukrainian language is not spoken across the Ukraine, far from it. Ukrainian is very close to Russian, something like Spanish and Portuguese. It has been a standardized written language only since the mid-1800’s. It is based on dialects of western and central Ukraine, which was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth before the 1800s. Central Ukraine incl. Kiev passed into Russian hands and Russian became the language of the cities. Western Ukraine incl. Lviv became Austrian, and German and/or Polish became the languages of the cities, while the countryside spoke dialects that resemble Ukrainian.

Other parts of Ukraine (eastern/southern) were populated by people who came from all over the Russian Empire and therefore these parts were always mostly Russian-speaking. This includes Odessa, the Crimea, and the southern third of the country,  and the eastern third including the cities of Kharkov, Dnepropetrovsk, and Donetsk.

Even in Kiev where 75% of people say they “feel Ukrainian” as a nationality, the language of the Empire dominated over any adoption of the Ukrainian language — 75% of people say they normally speak Russian for everyday use. Overlay onto this complex situation the imposition of Ukrainian as “the” national language across the whole country. So even in places where you never *hear* Ukrainian and you are in a completely Russian-speaking environment, you get Ukrainian on your government signs, road signs, on some national advertising campaigns, or for example, on the McDonald’s menu.

So what you get is shades of grey,  and different percentages of spoken vs. written Russian vs. Ukrainian, in each place in the country. There were also differences between “formal signs” (e.g. “ODESSA CHILDREN’S SHOE STORE”) and informal ones (lettering in a shop window, handwritten notes, chalkboards, etc.)

The formal sign on top (Tire Services) is in Ukrainian. The supplemental information stuck to the window below (opening hours etc.) is in Russian.

Lviv: thou shalt not speak Russian

Lviv is entirely Ukrainian and you never hear Russian and never see it. Even the welcome signs in ten languages at the airport explicitly exclude Russian! However, I spoke only Russian to service personnel there and never had a hint of their not liking it, even though one hears that Lviv is very anti-Russian. Of course, many Ukrainians cannot speak Ukrainian either – so they would be in the same situation as I was. The answers from the waiters and shop assistants there were always in Ukrainian, so I would only catch words, which was usually enough. Not unlike the situation when Spanish-speaking people go to Brazil, speak Spanish, and are answered in Portuguese.

A bit more Russian…

You heard a bit more Russian on the street in Chernivtsi and Uzhgorod – and perhaps 20% of informal signs would be in Russian.

Kiev: Russian is heard, Ukrainian is seen…

Kiev was similar visually – only maybe 20% of informal signs were in Russian, but almost everyone was speaking Russian.

Odessa: mostly Russian, but…

In Odessa, all informal signs were in Russian, but a surprising number of more formal private signs were in Ukrainian even though Odessa is known as Russian-speaking.

Crimea: just plain Russian

Finally the Crimea, which is officially Russian-speaking, virtually everything was in Russian, except for government signs and national chains. I understand this is also case in eastern Ukraine and its industrial powerhouse cities of Donetsk, Dnepropetrovsk and Kharkiv.