The phrase “A Weak American in Russia and Ukraine” I thought was a joke. How can anyone be weak traveling to Eastern Europe? That’s not possible! After reading these short stories by Walter Parchomenko of comical personal adventures, frightful current statistics and embarrassment reducing hints, I sadly concur that most Americans I know, including myself, may be classified as a weak and overly privileged American.
Parchomenko’s memoir is an almost unbelievable, yet invaluable, painfully honest guide for those interested in navigating minefields, also known as cities, adjusting to the customs of copious vodka consumption, lending itself to alcoholism or how to maneuver the supermarket in foot candy stilettos. He lends practical advice, wisdom and unabashedly laughable experiences that could be shared from any parent wanting to shield their child from being taken advantage of or travel agent attempting to protect themselves by informing the traveler to pack wisely because they really are going to visit a third world country.
He has a writing sense of humor like Bill Bryson and gives Rick Steves a howling stray dog avoiding, sidewalk leaping, non water resistant “Slovak lightweight thatched shoes with countless tiny holes” jaunt for his rubles. Reading of the “rootin-tootin, Poutin’s” and Ukraine’s culture of consistent stealing, cheating, bribing and poverty is appalling. A government that requires one to bring their own medical supplies to the hospital blows my mind. Living or traveling to these countries would certainly be an adjustment for the “average” American. The statistics Parchomenko provided are current and astonishing. 94%, yes, 94% of Ukraine’s mortality in 2009 was related to alcohol, smoking and traffic accidents. Turning down a cigarette with a friend is blasphemy and wearing a seatbelt is an insult to the Slavic Formula-1 drivers who think pedestrians are speed bumps. He explains why one should treasure a loaf of bread, learn to enjoy Salo and accept gifts of food as a guest. His true anecdotes about lack of hot water in the ticking time bomb apartments, common, yet appalling sex trade for a better life in America where “squat stalls” are a rarity, police corruption and atrocious government that values the World Cup more than their population growth is incredibly eye opening.
This book, I dare say, was better than a travel guide on attractions to visit, where to dine and the public transportation system. It is a survival guide. It is a truthful account of why Slavs live in the moment, even though they are chronically tardy. I know if I ate Borscht, my spoon would have kerplunked soup over the pages, countless times because of drollness and bleakness. Reading a collection of travel anecdotes about living in a country that is not mine is a reminder that I am fortunate to live in America. I have clean water available, a savings account and the option to say no to smokers. I am curious how Russia won the bid for the 2014 Olympics. I have speculations. Those will be tales to read another day.