Wednesday, 23 September

Teach them to smile

A year ago I was still not a huge fan of Ukrainian trains. These old animals, born in the USSR, tend to be dirty, smelly, and stuffy, and the sleepers feature the most godawful bedding on the planet, grey and damp. I am afraid I exaggerated my fear and disgust quite a bit. To be sure, I had my reasons: after all, it is Budapest that I fly to when I go to Ukraine, because, were I to fly to Kyiv, I would have to take the train from the capital city to my town, which is on the border with Hungary. The trip on that old post-Soviet train lasts eighteen hours… And from Budapest, I can take the air-conditioned shuttle which brings me home in five. However, this summer I learned to appreciate the trains in all the new ways. This summer I used Ukrainian Airlines, let’s call them the Any Airlines, and things I saw really made the trains look somewhat more attractive, and definitely much less intrusive. Well, I do realize that there is no need to be negative, perhaps, since there exist countries much poorer than Ukraine, with the airlines much worse than ours. But everything depends on one’s level of ambition, and Ukraine is one hell of an ambitious nation.

First things first: the airports. I used three of them, Kyiv-Boryspil and two more. Well, let’s just say that the idea of security check in some of them reaches the level of courtesy usually found in prisons; small wonder, as we do have a Gulag history still in our DNA. But airports are often this way in the “developed” countries as well. I read the statistics once, in particular, concerning the per cent of the population of the Earth that has an opportunity to fly. It was… eight per cent. Not twenty, not even fifteen, but eight, so I do realize that my concerns are the concerns of a person with privileges. Searches and abrupt commands, along with the K-9 units, happen everywhere these days, alas, due to the rise of international terrorism. As Zygmunt Bauman said, we build barriers after barriers for security, and security we may have: it is safety that we do not.

Yet airports help foreigners get the first impression of the country. This summer I had quite a field research into the subject. The thing is, Any Airlines of Ukraine are arbitrary with their own rules and enforce them intermittently. For example, at times they make everybody comply with the carry-on luggage requirements (unclear in their descriptions), and sometimes not. I was a witness to an interesting scene in this regard. While boarding, several foreigners were stopped by the agents and made re-pack or pay for (probably) already paid luggage. They were disciplined people and frequent flyers, so they were all absolutely sure they were in compliance with policies and procedures. After we all finally passed through the gate and were waiting to get on board, they started talking, and the glimpse of this conversation made me realize some things that were not completely obvious.

They were an elderly couple, two women, one of them with children, and a man with a violin (of course the violin had it the hardest: no matter payments or policies, the agents of Any Airlines, for some reason, decided that the poor instrument should stay behind, and only a collective fight of all these people, strangers to one another, saved the day). Now the group were talking, struggling to understand the logic behind the meanness of the airline people. They had no clue, actually, and one person finally suggested that it was all because… the Ukrainians do not smile! “Imagine, no smile at all! What kind of people they are?” “Yes, this will definitely make things harder for them!”

Despite my usual stand of an observer, I decided to intervene. “Well, it is not the absence of smile,” I said, “that aggravates so much, but more like, the absence of talking you through the whole process.” “Eureka!” the collective sigh of relief (finally, someone found the words) could probably be felt outside. They all started telling their stories – how they were not told anything, how nobody verbalized their actions the way they do in the west (e.g., “I am going to open your bag…”, “please turn around” etc.). Well, these are the kinds of things that originated in the Soviet Union, where one was continually deprived of information and made to look for it, suddenly turning a confident adult into a confused teenager.

I could also tell them that this is the kind of thing we deal with everywhere, not just at the airports. A few days ago in a Lviv coffeeshop, a rather, I must say, expensive establishment that features self-service, too (a strange combination, but this is my personal opinion), a server came by my table as soon as I put the tray with my tea down, and proceeded to get the tray from under my cup. Not a word was said, and as she was at it, I said that she should have verbalized something, and a simple “sorry we need the trays” could have worked. But she gave me a nasty look and left with my tray, never having said a word. I tried to look for her manager but was told that management is all out, as they were in Berlin at a convention. I am not sure what exactly they had to convene about, especially in Berlin, considering what a disorganized operation they are running in Lviv, but this is none of my business.

I remember how the absence of this particular kind of rudeness amazed me, then a very recent post-Soviet kind, in 1993, in the United States. I figured out, with great surprise, that all one needed to know how to do in that country was… to know how to read. Information wasn’t silenced, and one didn’t need to “scout” for it – in what room to enrol for school, in what room to see and which doctors, etc. I realized then that our habitual silencing of information is one of the ways to obtain power, just like whispering would be at a meeting with an opponent whom one wishes to bring down. Living in this kind of world means never to be sure of anything, never to know what will happen next, and to always feel threatened, and hence, prone to be easily controlled.

In the meantime, the foreigners in line wouldn’t stop talking. Well, they said, OK, post-Soviets do not verbalize the necessary text when dealing with the personal space of others, but still, why are they not smiling? Aren’t they glad to be alive? What makes them yell at people? Show their annoyance? Grimace? “Maybe it is due to severe climate?..” one woman asked. “Or, perhaps, Chernobyl,” shrugged the older man his shoulders. I could not continue to keep with the conversation, let alone participate, and started staring at my phone. I do like to analyze consequences and ramifications, but I don’t like it when instead of it, people opt for simplification.

…When we finally boarded, a couple of very smiley flight assistants greeted us. Their smiles, actually, were a little bit too much to pass for real. I suppose those were the compensatory strategies of the Any Airlines: attempts, unconscious, perhaps, to make it up to the harassed passengers. Kind like saying, it’s ok that you had to deal with our unpleasant stuff, because now, when the “beautiful Ukrainian women” (a stereotype that is exploited quite a bit, also, perhaps, unconsciously) will smile at you, you will immediately forget all the bad stuff, and we will make your troubles disappear and humiliation to be forgotten.

I write this not to complain about my own discomfort; I am sturdier than I seem, and I can handle this, but I do have a perspective of someone who knows two cultures. This adventure showed me something, namely, how the (relatively speaking) West sees us and to what extent they understand us. And the picture I saw was somewhat disappointing: some sort of a civilizational stoic but unadvanced people with a cargo-cult: the state and the airlines can serve as good expressions of said cult. But this stoic person has no idea about the codes of behaviour accepted in the club… no matter how artificial and unfair they may be. And no, objectively speaking, the club is not ideal either and lives by stereotypes, without a real understanding of a post-colonial condition. It ignores the fact that it is not possible to get free from the virus of totalitarianism in one generation. And those who come from the darker times truly cannot embrace “enjoying life” quite in the same way as those who had a less troubled beginning.

…So what about the smile? And the smile, just like anything else, works only in the right context. If the context is not the right one, it becomes detached and somewhat abstract, like the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. Or like the Any Airlines of Ukraine, an enigma for any traveller from abroad; the traveller who will then invent answers to the questions he cannot comprehend.

Oksana Lutsyshyna

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