Small talk for Ukrainians

The English are very upset that their polite and a bit cool “how do you do?” is already out of fashion, and now they have to be creative when they meet someone: it is difficult for them to guess who to hug, who to kiss, which cheek first, and how many kisses are needed. With the death of “how do you do” came the difficulties of the first introduction. At least the weather is an eternal and inexhaustible subject. Whether it is raining or the sun is shining – there is always something to discuss and fill an awkward pause with.

My friend Gilbert, an Englishman by birth, but a citizen of the world by vocation, says that he has ready “starters” for all occasions and for all nationalities that he might meet, for example, on the plane or in the line of a trendy restaurant. Thus, with the French, you can always talk about the grape harvest or the last revolution, with the Australians – about fires and shark attacks. To put it shortly, nothing can go wrong.

“What about the Ukrainians?” I asked him once while watching with amazement how deftly he makes small talk about the price of one barrel of oil. “What would you talk about with a Ukrainian?”

“Chornobyl, of course,” he said without hesitation.

Saying I was outraged is a huge understatement. We may not have sharks and our grape harvest this year turned out not very fruitful, but our revolutions are worth being recalled!

I’ll note at once that our verbal battles took place long before the series Chernobyl went on air. And as soon as the first episode was released, I recalled that beautiful summer evening and the words that were very painful to me, “Forgive me the pun, but making such a global boom and not being able to talk about it is foolish!»

And he’s right. The world has imagined itself the things we didn’t tell them. I was asked so many questions about Chornobyl by foreigners: whether we were all evacuated to the steppes of Mongolia after the explosion (deep knowledge of geography, right? Recall it, when you complain that secondary schools in Ukraine are weak), whether we can collect and eat mushrooms (I did not want to disappoint them that, most likely, in European restaurants they eat our chanterelles and porcini mushrooms), whether the state provides free iodine (I recall last time I got it from the school nurse, or maybe it was even calcium, or an anthelmintic, who knows).

I was also often asked about “ChErnobyl case” – stubbornly changing our “o” to the alien “e” – that I even started to say jokingly that it is our, Ukrainian, “how do you do?” and the weather starter in one bottle. There was not a single foreigner – and this is not an exaggeration – who wouldn’t ask me about Chornobyl – boldly and curiously, or even with the fear to offend me or to bring up an unpleasant subject. Some knew more, some knew less, but everyone knew for sure – this is the largest man-made disaster of mankind and, as written in some yellow press, “worse than a hundred Hiroshima in one”. Some people found out about Kyiv and somehow scaled the map of the still unknown and exotic Eastern European country in their minds and imagined a local color matching the headlines in the tabloids: somewhere in between Europe and Russia, somewhere near Belarus, the people there are mostly good, although they glow with radiation, and everyone is treated with vodka and cabbage leaves. They drink the former, and apply the latter on their skin.

They were very surprised that we do not have two-headed people (sometimes you can stumble upon headless people, but there are no two-headed ones) and that we live, roughly, the same way as everybody does – not starting our morning from checking the level of radiation in the air. Those timid ones sighed with relief and kept the carefully brought from home dosimeter and respirator in their bags, and those bolder ones even planned to go on a tour. And some even went! I will never forget a gentleman from Canada, I can’t remember his name, who shouted into the phone with severity: “Honey, I’m in Chornobyl! Can you imagine!? The air here is even better than in Ottawa!”

An oceanographer from Vanuatu (it is an island in the Pacific Ocean), who I interpreted a few years ago, impressed me with his knowledge about “the case of Chornobyl”: he knew all the names and all the details of the disaster, knew everything about timing and places, read (with the help of Google-translate) all interviews and materials available on the network. He even said something about the isotopes of iodine and caesium, which can be found in the Pacific corals that grow peacefully hundreds of thousands of kilometers away from Prypiat, where no one has ever heard about Chornobyl, but its tentacles reached out that far. He was very surprised that there is still not enough information in English and everything should be learned from “third hands”.

After the TV series Chernobyl went on the air, I received an email from him with the following words, “Have you watched it? I recommend you to! And I’m sorry that your story was told by someone else.” As always, I thought to myself.

Marta Hosovska

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