Making friends on a long term housesit
For a number of years now I have chosen to look after property and pets (as a cost saving way) to travel the world. I’ve found that being a short term single visitor to a new country it can be a challenge when making friends, and therein lies the choice: I can either meet my social needs by keeping already existing friendships on the internet, or I can take the challenging steps necessary to reach out locally, by joining activities and local facebook groups dedicated to expat needs, resource sharing, and social events. Coupled with language exchanges, where being a native English speaker is sought-after , I can begin to sew seeds for future friendships.
Initially, making friends can be a slow process when you don’t share a common language, although they form more easily when you share a common interest. An open outlook makes this easier. Aside from the local people I have met while shopping in the town where I am living, I wanted to paint a portrait of some of the people I’ve begun to know better from my various trips to Kiev. These are a warm people who are happy to share information about their lives and want to know more about mine.
With a combination of luck and pluck, I’ve been able to enjoy new networks of friends in nearly every country I’ve stayed in. But it takes effort. In my home country, I know that the degree of satisfaction I’m getting from my social life is linked to the efforts I put in to cultivate it, so why should this be any different?
Friendship, in it’s truest definition, doesn’t come with a recipe book. But being the foreigner can attract certain locals who are both curious and who wish to expand their world by knowing a foreigner better.
Basic language skills help when making friends
From my initial, limited interactions with the grocery sellers when I was first wrestling with basic Russian to the more involved conversations about life, meeting new friends has always helped me improve my language skills. Even though making friends in a new language can take some time, I consider it a worthy effort. And I’ve reaped the rewards: I have friends spread around Europe, the Americas, and the Mediterranean; and I interact regularly in five different languages with various friends.
Once I’ve arrived to my new host country, I never leave the house for those first encounters without having a simple card with basic requests written out in the local language – “Hello”, “One, please”, “May I have that”, “Thank you”, and “How much?” For me, it would be the equivalent of leaving the house without my shoes. With an attitude of graciousness, and these few sentences written out to read I have a lifeline into a completely new language and culture. At first, it’s good enough to have friendly encounters, and empathise with the panicked store clerk who might have studied English, but can’t remember any. When I empathise, I slow down and feel more centred as I get through those first nerve wracking moments of contact with strangers in a new language.
Here in my Ukrainian village, I first broke the ice with the repair people. Needing to fix the wifi, the stove and various other things around the house, drove me to ask for help in town and so I began to meet people. Sasha (the shortened version of Alexander) was my number one fix-it guy from day one, then as other things needed maintenance or repair I met new people – the printer people, and then the Ukrainian Telecom people to help sort out the modem. With this initial friendly contact, eventual friendships seemed easier.
To help, I put Google translate to the test. Google provides the translation and a phonetically spelled alternative, and, most importantly, a recording to hear the sentence being spoken. I could replay and compare with my pronunciation as many times as I needed. I could also write it out and practice reading it aloud. In the space of 20 minutes from zero Russian exposure, I could make a call to request the repairman to come, and literally read out loud from my phonetic translation. Although I was still shaky, with the original text and the translation in front of me, I made those first phone calls in Russian, less than a week after arrival. They understood me well enough make a repair call.
To prepare for the arrival of the workmen, I input the simplest versions of my requests into Google, and wrote-out what I could anticipate about these interactions — the broken washing machine, the door hinge, the printer, help with the gardening — all these were my first encounters with Sasha, who showed up on a motorcycle, and quickly figured the solutions. He was so adept at anything mechanical and electronic, that I saved up weekly lists for him, practicing requests to fix the various things, adding sentences like: “Thanks for coming”; “the first thing today is”; “if you can do that, it would be great”; “good job”; “this doesn’t work/it’s broken”; “see you next time”; as I got more confident from practice and being understood.
My other main contacts at first were the ladies at Telecom bureau when my modem stopped working. Then I returned once again a week later when a thunderstorm burned it up. While I waited for the technicians in the back, they politely brought out the cookies and coffee and asked me where I was from in a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian. And charmingly they seemed astounded by my answer. ‘But why would an American come to their town when most young people are trying to get out.’
What a curiosity I seemed to them! After a few cookies, and nervous attempts at communication with laughter, they began to explain how impossible travel seemed for them and how little they earned per month—approximately $200 US for full time jobs.
Then as we are making friends we somehow managed to talk about how you can survive on that—they made do with modest earnings and had houses, a family car, a bicycle for individual shopping trips, and clothing for themselves and their children. But that was only through creative economics. They have to shop locally, grow their own fruits and vegetables if they can, and sometimes make their own clothes. They barter with each other and help each other when they can. Travelling far was simply not part of the equation on $200/month. So it’s an incontrovertible fact that many workers live on starvation wages on the doorstep of Europe.
Even in this town there is a real mix between those who orient themselves to city life, and those who are tied to a local existence. Those who dress up for errands, and those who wear farmer’s clothing. Some travel by bike, even well dressed ladies, and others who come to town in horse and buggy carriages. Some people commute to Kiev every day for work, or use the hourly vans, while others treat their small town as if it were their whole world.
Ukraine is one of Russia’s most important trading partners, and Russian gas was kept artificially subsidised for decades in the Ukraine. With the political strain, the subsidies have been tabled and the gas prices have lept up in an alarmingly short period. Because of low wages, even under normal circumstances natural gas used for heating was a challenging expense for many.
For years under the previous Ukrainian government, small town public buildings didn’t use central heating in the Winter, except on the coldest of days and that was to prevent the pipes from freezing. Kiev has centralised heating, and often the main switch doesn’t go on until well after the cold period starts. For seven years, the schools in one particular district near Kiev remained unheated in Winter. Many of the students would write their lessons with mittens, wrapped up tightly as if they were outside. Just last week, the district extended the children’s vacation time by over a week and a half, because of the damp and cold buildings. The teachers can’t complain out loud—their salaries come from the State. The parents are also reluctant to complain.
Once I’ve been accepted into the confidence of the locals, these are the stories that I begin to hear. It sensitises me to their lives, and gives more form to my impressions. This, for me, is one of the invaluable differences from a tourist experience to someone who is living here long term.
Some of the people I know don’t complain to me at all, and we get on with our usual activities—like the piano instructor who plays four-handed with me to help me practice. We speak my beginner’s Russian with musical terms, and of course the language of the music itself.
I would like to rent a spare piano, if I can find one, and the music school might just have one. This would be like a contribution to the school itself, they probably need the cash more than a spare piano.
The cost of living
Despite the low cost of food, when I hear about the low salaries of public servants especially, I wonder how they and their families survive. Even for me I spend about $ 1,000 US/ month but then I am spending on occasional luxuries like AirBnB overnights in the capital, the occasional meal out and attending some of the excellent concerts.
Following a recent change in government, the gas company doubled its charges, the largest single monthly price spike in its history with my minimum setting on my burner, and with no other consumption for the month, my new bill was 2114 gr (£62 or $92 US). That’s nearly half the average monthly salary of school teachers and office workers. My neighbours advised that there would be little chance to challenge this price hike. But I felt I needed to try, this was a very big increase and I hadn’t budgeted for this.
Visiting the gas company to challenge my bill I found a parade of country folk, dressed from floral house frocks to their Sunday best, queued, waiting their turn to plead with the administrators and secretaries, who were only authorised to collect the money, or mark the bill as unpaid.
But after leaving the gas company office without a resolution I notice, incredibly, that the people on the streets of the capital don’t seem affected. They go on meeting in coffee houses, baking cakes, attending beautiful mass concerts, engaging in their work, facing the traffic jams in the capital and going to school. Oh well, I thought, I may as well join them and forget my gas bill for a while. I hope it’s going to be mild winter. Making friends in a new location one can only become empathetic with their situation. In the Ukraine I have also felt a great sympathy for my friends. It can be a hard existence.
Perhaps for my next housesit I’ll return to a warmer climate. Greek, French, Italian, or Spanish sound like nice languages to learn…