Diving into a new culture is, no matter what, always a challenging experience. Being constantly mindful about how to react to a specific situation, about which words to use, and how a certain communication, verbal or not, will be perceived. And no matter how much attention you pay, you will always find yourself in situations of mutual incomprehension.
At first, while discovering a new environment, you can feel that it is very similar to your usual surroundings, especially in a place as Lviv, with such a european feeling. First, because you will look around for places you’re yourself accustomed to and you feel comfortable around. My first instinct coming here, after taking a superficial tour of the city, was to look for cafe places to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon reading a book, and of course I focused on looking for the ones that had similar vibes to the ones I was used to back in France.
Second, because, mostly, the people you will get acquainted with are the one with whom the communication is the easiest, meaning that globalish, english speaking community that remains relatively constant no matter where you go (Hey, G. Debord, I definitly agree about this society that is no longer a geographical place).
So of course, for the first times, you’ll find a lot of similarities with home, you won’t get evicted from your comfort bubble, because you will struggle to reinforce that bubble as much as possible, not because you don’t want, or don’t try, to get out, but because you will apply several layers of ‘home’ painting to your environment.
But as always with the paint, the older it gets, the more cracks start to appear.
What you first considered as peripherical differences start to appear as symptoms of more profund differences, and simple habits, on which you relied as comfortable anchors of stability, cannot be met anymore. You cannot be astonished by the surprisingly adequate yet unusual answer of a kid passing by to his mother, because you cannot understand what he said. Merely walking in the streets remind you everyday, every minute, that you are only a stranger here.
You cannot exchange with the homeless guy that comes to ask you a cigarette, it has become a simple yes or no situation. People will start exhibiting you as their foreign friend, simply because you are ‘so French’. You cannot have a cold coffee (Freddo esperessos I miss you very much my dears), because none sells some (also, it’s Ukraine in autumn, who the hell would like to have a cold coffee by -2°C?).
Going for shopping quickly becomes a nightmare, as you cannot read the labels, which are in cyrillic. If you want to get some vegetables and weight them, you have to go back and forth several times to remember the bare shape of the letters.
You want to understand your environment, and you can come up with the craziest theories to explain the most benign things. One perfect example would be doors. In France, bedrooms’ doors, or homes’, always open towards the interior. In Ukraine, they always open towards the exterior. As anecdotic as it can seem, I actually wondered (and still do) the reason behind that.
I remember the visit of a fortified castle, where they explained that the door was opening towards the exterior so that trespassers or attackers would actually be in a difficult situation when trying to enter, having to deal with the door being in the way of at least one of their hands. Does Ukraine doors opening every time towards the exterior reflect lancinating fear of intruders, a defiance towards people entering your house? If so, why? Because of successive invasions? Of an history of authoritarian political regimes? (A.k.a ‘the door theory’). It is incredibly interesting to be periodically spiraling into that kind of questions, as you are constantly challenged to question your environment and find solutions to problematics you would never have imagined having to face before, but also incredibly exhausting.
But in the end, I think I love having to question everything I thought I knew, or considered an inamovible constant of my reality.
cover credits: unsplash.com/Elena Kuchko