My friend and colleague Olga likes to remind me that Ukraine is the land of potatoes and stairs. The potatoes here are fortunately tasty; I’m not quite as fond of all the stairs. I curbed my complaints about needing to walk up to the fourth floor, where our English department is located, when I found out that one of my fellow English Language Fellows has his English department on the ninth floor. No elevators.
Well, there needs to be an addition to this duo: Ukraine is also the land of themes. I am sure I have heard the word ‘theme’ uttered more times since I arrived in September than all other years of my life combined. I feel quite acclimated to it now, but at first it caused me a good bit of confusion.
When I asked for the outline of the class I was to teach at the university, I received a list of themes to be covered. Things like “My Working Day” or “British Houses” or “American Food” (which, by the way, I had quite a good time with). It’s a bit like what we would call content-based learning; students learn how to talk about each topic by means of thematic texts and vocabulary. Of course, different teachers create their own activities to work with the material as well. But the theme is all-important. It was a puzzlement for me at first, not to have the skills-based student learning outcomes that are all-important in my system back home. I looked at the list and thought, “But what are they learning to do?” Ah, I wish I could go back to poor naive September-me and give her a little insight.
But the themes don’t stop there. I decided to start up a conversation club for the students at the university, since I was told that people here rarely have a chance to talk to native speakers and put their knowledge into practice. I pictured my club much like the conversation clubs I have visited or led in the States: happy faces sitting at a cafe, coffee in hand, leaning forward, eager to chat with a native speaker in English. A lovely and inspiring scene. My idea was warmly received at the university, but just before our first club meeting I was asked to provide a list of the themes we would cover each week for the rest of the year. Uh…what? I explained that this was going to be a conversation club, where students could simply practice their English with me. I received a look of confusion that likely mirrored my own. “But what will you be teaching them about? What themes are you going to cover?” These are the times when cultural norms and expectations really come into play, and you realize they don’t always play well together.
The theme for each week’s conversation club was posted to drum up student interest. And here I had thought that students would be happy to practice their English with me, period. I tried to hide my irritation each time I got asked, “What will the next theme be?” But that is what they are accustomed to. It’s been a challenge trying to pull the club away from the idea of being a class, of giving them information, when what I think they need most of all is to see that English is something that exists outside the classroom as a true mode of communication.
But the themes don’t stop there. I know what you’re thinking: this must just be an academic expectation. No, no. Allow me to bring you into the world of theme-based restaurants and cafes. Sure, we have a few such places in the States, like perhaps the Route 66 Diner or The Rainforest Cafe, but ha! – we are absolute novices compared to the Ukrainians.
The location where I now hold my Conversation Club is a restaurant across the street from the university, called Cosa Nostra. “Cosa Nostra” is an insider’s term for the Mob, and this restaurant is decked out with mafia decor. The servers all wear uniforms meant to imitate the Chicago police. The items on the menu have names like “Cop Spree”, “Al Capone,” or”Gangster Bandit.”
You can see some pictures here of last week’s Conversation Club, when my cousin’s daughter Abi was visiting me. These places do provide an interesting atmosphere, and are great to show visitors.
I took both Abi and my friend Patti, who visited in March, to a number of these themed restaurants and cafes. They both enjoyed the “Bulgakov” cafe, named after a famous Russian writer.The inside is lined with books and items from his stories, such as the devil disguised as a man with his big black cat. On the evening I went there with Patti, we had the good fortune of being serenaded by a gentleman on the piano, even though we were the only ones there. We made sure to give him some nice tips.
One of the things I really enjoy is the creativity in how the bills are delivered. They always come in some cute little box or basket or who knows what. At Bulgakov, they come in a hollowed-out book.
The Lviv Coffee and Chocolate Shop, one of my favorite places in town, decorates Lviv-European style and liberally applies their emblem to the tableware, including the wooden box for the bill.
At a restaurant Abi and I went to in Kyiv, the theme was Crimean, and we sat on a raised platform, cross-legged.
The bill there came in a small coffee bean chest.
There are a number of places that try to look like traditional Ukrainian houses. One of those is Varenychna, the varenyky restaurant with numerous varenyky-shaped items: the napkin holder, the leather on the front of the wooden menu, the giant varenyky in a spoon over the door. You can see the real thing (dumplings filled with vegetables, cheese, or meat) on the table from the time I took my parents there.
And I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. This is a land that loves themes. In fact, I’d say it’s a definite theme here.