Saturday, April 18, 2009

Public, Private and Personal Space

In my life in the US, my personal space is pretty well-defined. I live in a largish house, I get from place to place in my own car, and the lines at the grocery store usually aren't that long. The areas between public space--such as a park--and private space--my yard--are clearly defined as well. Here in Kyiv, both as a result of the big cityness of my life here--and I think as a result of Soviet times--and then a new, mostly undefined system of use, space and property, those demarcations are much less clear.

What do I mean?

Ukrainians have mastered the art of having very little personal space in certain situations, but almost total avoidance of eye contact. As five more people squeeze into the subway car when I thought it was full already or when you share a tiny train compartment with three total strangers, you're together with all those people, but not really. But at the same time, a shared interest holds. On the mashrutkas, the small private buses that run everywhere, the standard system is to just pass your fare forward. It's a funny sight to see bills from the back of the bus make their way forward, with a gentle tap on each shoulder, and then, if change is needed, it makes its way slowly back. Seats are always offered to older people and women with children on the bus or metro and gratefully accepted. Kiev--and all of Ukraine--are exceptionally difficult--if not almost impossible--to navigate with strollers, wheelchairs or canes.

Because Easter is tomorrow, there has been a great deal of sprucing up going on. And that's made me notice the unusual nature of private and public space in park-like areas. At one public park, I saw a number of small, homemade bird feeders hung on trees. My building faces a courtyard with trees, playground and what seemed, all winter long, like a no-man's land. But with warmer weather, it's far from it. One day, it looked like women working for the city (wearing city work vests) were out digging around trees, but I think most of the work in this shared courtyard area is done by those who live here--particularly older women. I now see plants in newly white-washed planters, a simply constructed arbor, and a carefully fenced off and planted garden. There are all sorts of new little trees planted in the courtyard.

It's a bit funny, because the common area in my apartment building, like almost every apartment building I've been in, is dingy and unattractive. So what makes my neighbors care about the outside public spaces but not the interior ones? And how does this connect to the crowded subway? My students' final project assignment was to develop an exhibition about some aspect of Soviet life. Their presentations have been fascinating and provide some clues...more in future posts!

No comments: