An America without Walmart

Ukraine and Canada have had strong ties for most of our history. There are over 1.2 million Ukrainian immigrants in the prairies, I grew up around a lot of perogies in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

I don’t know if it goes both ways, are there Canadians over here too? I found an awesome flea market where just about everything is $1 (~20 hryvnia) and 9/10 items of clothing were Canadian made.

In fact I think the cardigan I bought is.. let me check..

Er, no it’s German. Fine then.

Like most countries in the world, the United States have a big presence here. There used to be an embassy building for government affairs, but the embassy itself has moved on to a swank upgrade.. and the building they left behind has been converted into an American cultural center.

It’s called America House. And it’s awesome.

They have fresh food being cooked all day in the kitchen for cheap (yes, perogies) and a café, there’s a co working space with fast wifi, and an art gallery. There are items you can take out for use like laptops, a hoverboard, one of those VR headset things, and devices to make music.

Best of all.. it’s all FREE. Well, after you factor in the cost of your dignity going through a metal detector and airport-like security any time you show your ID to enter the fortress.

America House

Check out my sweet ID card, I feel so.. American.. in Ukraine… from Canada. This is all so meta.

Oh I didn’t mention the best part of America House, there are several rooms where they host daily workshops and activities. People come to give talks, they screen documentaries, and from what I heard they throw a mean 4th of July party!

I saw that they were having a group movie night and showing ‘Planes, Trains, and Automobiles’ with Steve Martin and John Candy. Classic American meets Canadian comedy, there was no way I was going to miss it!

It felt way more dated than I thought it would. What year was it made anyway? The pace of the movie was so much slower than what we’re used to today. But a handful of the funniest scenes still hold up. So well.

We had a group convo after the movie. It was a packed house, I was one of the only 3 non Ukrainians there so I felt like I was obligated to raise my hand and speak up when people were off base, like when someone called John Candy a “famous American actor”.  I can’t just let that happen. RIP Johnny.

I shared with the group how John’s mom was Ukrainian. He was a fellow lover of perogies, so much so that a Ukrainian restaurant in Winnipeg’s North End called “Alycia’s” got him obsessively hooked.

Her perogies were SO GOOD that he had them flown to him to eat on set while filming movies abroad. Whaaaaat?! I need to try some of those, stat!

(If anyone goes looking for Alycia’s, her family reopened it further north in Gimli after Alycia passed away)

The convo was winding down with a conversation about Black Friday, what the holiday is all about, and what you might see in how it’s celebrated. LOL. I pointed out that you can search YouTube for crowds trampling each other at Walmart for a minor bargain on flat screen TVs.

More than one person gave me a puzzled look. A guy in front of me raised his hand and said “Until last week, I didn’t know what Walmart was. So I don’t think people know what you’re talking about.”

My eyes opened wide.

Didn’t know what Walmart was??

I had one of those moments where the camera zooms into an actor’s face as their jaw drops and the background accordions in towards the foreground to give a sense of the world radically changing in a single moment.

You mean.. this is untouched territory? Your cities haven’t been ‘Walmarted?’ and your local small businesses swallowed into the cold pit of future progress? You don’t even know what Walmart IS?

I hesitated. And made a choice. I backtracked.

“You aren’t missing much.” I added. And left it at that.

I looked around me, all of these young people excited to learn about the finer points of American culture. It’s really beautiful. Because as complicated as the US can be, the ideal version of itself that it aspires to be is fun and kind of magical.

And so here, in eastern Europe, as the battle of Black Friday raged on halfway around the world.. I got to visit a different United States. A kinder one. An America without Walmart.

Well, this isn’t the post I thought I’d be writing

Last time I wrote, I was totally on track to share my latest track on Oct. 31.

Promise! But life, especially life on the road, has a way of introducing plot twists just as everything is operating at its smoothest 🙂

The night I arrived in Lviv, Ukraine.. if there were a magic button to press that would have reset everything – to instantly warp me back home in Vancouver, to tap out and give up…

I would have pressed it.

I was maxed out. Stretched 150% past my available energy, 48 hours without sleep, after having been stuck in Budapest for several days trying to hitch a ride into Ukraine.

More on that later, but let me get to the music part first!

After a 9 days stint of Salmonella poisoning in Belgrade (Serbia is truly fantastic! Minus the sick part) I dragged myself out of bed to setup a makeshift mic stand and record the vocals for my latest song – “All I Need”

I had a plan. It was airtight.. I can do production and recording on my own, but the technical challenge of making music comes in the mixing stage.

Basically that’s when you take all of the ingredients of a song, stir them up in the same bowl and throw them into the oven.. trying to end up with a palatable dish on the other side. There are limits to what is possible when you only have what fits in your suitcase.

Solution? I hired a guy. Easy right? His work sounded great, checked all the boxes for me. So I’ll work on my songs in an AirBnb, then this guy will take them to the next level. What could go wrong?

Well… aparently a lot. I got the mix back.. and I wasn’t hoping for a miracle. In fact I resigned to the fact that it may only be one step better than what I can do on my own, and if I’m lucky, he’ll surprise me. Medium standards with room for greatness lol – I think that’s a fair deal.

When I listened back, it was like hearing my song in the Upside Down (Stranger Things reference, the world that’s like ours but everything is upside down and dark and wrong)… all the loud parts were quiet, and all the quiet parts I hoped would fade into the back – were LOUD lol. oiiii.. and the vocals are drenched in a weird reverb/delay effect that I wish I could just mute.

It’s like taking a photo you’re quite proud of.. and then someone throws the tackiest Instagram filter over it, and posts cat emojiis over everyone’s faces. Dude, stop!!!

It wasn’t one step better than my own rough mix. It was two steps worse. Of course better and worse are relative.. but the point is it sounds like the opposite of what I had in my head, and what I communicated to the mixing engineer.

And although I’m seriously disappointed and not keeping the mix for the future.. I’m forcing myself to share it here anyway.

The reason is a quote that I think is important.

“If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” — Reid Hoffman

Launch early, and launch often, as they say. Or something to that effect.

I’m embarrassed of the current state of this song, but whether in art or business or in relationships, we’ve got to take small steps forward as often as we can. Bigger breakthroughs come from the weight of enough tacked on small bits. Rough edges and loose ends can become greater than the sum of their parts..

So one day I’ll have a proper mix, but for now, here’s a song I wrote called “All I Need”. It’s one that I’ve been playing for years on guitar, but today it sounds a little different –

Click here to check it out…
https://drive.google.com/file/d/0Bxv8_jtCDGzrRTFXS3U0Wi13VkE/view?usp=sharing

The valuable lesson for me here is that mixing is still part of the creative process. And if I want to see that vision through, I may just have to take the extra time to do the mixing myself. That means a bit more learning and a bit more gear – but if at the end of the day I can be proud of what the result is.. it’s worth it 🙂

You know in the past few months in Czech and Serbia, I’ve made the most wonderful friends. They know who they are. They’ve been super helpful in this last little attempt to get to Ukraine by train.. but I made a miscalculation.

Sometimes the expensive flight (relative to the cheap Euro flights) to the next city is the better choice. But the lure of adventure and possibility of saving major travel cash is alluring.

For me it’s mostly the challenge I love. I like to see what I can get away with. If it’s $200 to fly to Ukraine.. I wonder if I can do it for only $25, enjoy a train ride across Hungary, make some new friends, and discover a bunch of hidden gems in the process.

Often the answer is; “the adventurey one please!” This time the answer was… OMG TIM JUST TAKE THE PLANE!!!!

I got stuck in Budapest for several days and my friends Fernando and Kati were saints to put me up and hang out with me as I calculated and tried to hitch the next ride.

It was exhausting, but doable. Everything was fine up until I got to Chop, the Ukrainian border town right after Hungary where a sleepless Tim had to wait almost 12 hours for the next train.. I figured I would just find a seat to crash on for a few hours.. but I got a text from my Ukranian friend Ruslana who said..

“Oh.. you’re staying in Chop? Be careful. That town is full of Gypsies. You’re going to get robbed.”

Ugghhh now you tell me LOL

Now I can’t tell the difference between a Gypsy or a Ukrainian, and I’m pretty sure Gypsy is a racist term of some kind. For who? From where? I don’t know. I don’t know enough to be politically correct. I just know she was right about the sketchy nature of this tiny town.

A dozen people in line for a single ATM, which took 8 minutes to process one person’s transactions. And a train station filled with uncommonly beautiful Ukrainian women soldiers in full army uniform. But equally filled with wandering people with sticky hands.

And a new cab driver that would approach me every 6-10 minutes hoping to score a tourist on their way out of town. It was exhausting trying to convince them I really didn’t need a cab, so I eventually resorted to saying “YES! Thank you, yes, I take taxi..to London. England. We can leave now?”

For some reason, none of them were eager to take me up on my request hehe.

I needed sleep so bad.. but I took refuge in Mayo Chix.

That’s right, Mayo Chix.. Your friendly neighborhood cafe where you can also buy women’s underwear – obviously. The barista was super kind.. and I sat there with her for 12 hours, getting a cheap and very good coffee from her every hour. A steady drip of caffeine to ensure I was “awake” and my luggage was still with me.

From Belgrade to Lviv, Ukraine.. I took a total of 6 trains.. and lost a total of 2 1/2 nights of sleep.

When I finally arrived to the Lviv trainstation, I was so tired. So ready to find my AirBnb and sleep the next 24 hours away. Only one problem…

Buses don’t really work the same way there.. when does the next bus come? I don’t know.. Neither does Google Maps. Or at least the times presented don’t actually relate to buses on the ground. You just kind of wait until it comes. And if it’s a good day – it does come.

Long story short.. no busses.. I texted my Ukrainian friends to ask them what’s up?

All I get in reply is the laughing face emojii plus “lol, welcome to Ukraine”

Then yesterday my Airbnb had no running water for the whole day..

“lol, welcome to Ukraine”

Then I had no power another day…

“lol, welcome to Ukraine”

..Ukraine is harsh, man! I came here actually because I found that inspiring. Ukraine and their history is really harsh. Lots of death. Lots of oppression. But the people flourish and are kind, and strong and courageous despite that. Maybe because of it.

My soft Canadian composure has been tested.. and as I said.. if there were a “go home” button, I would have pressed it. After a couple of days to get caught up on sleep and readjust.. I’m doing far better.

At the same time there’s sadness in the air. There’s poverty yes, but that’s not it. It’s that I see people in military outfits everywhere, in the city or in between cities.. they’re at war with Russia in the east. (The west here is fine fyi) And almost every day the death toll rises and they loose more of their friends and family.

It just makes me wonder what life would be like if that were the reality for me and everyone I care about at home. I can go home any time I want. But for these people – this is home. And the fight for an independent Ukraine, free from the crushing oppression of a not so distant soviet past, is not only at their front door, it’s in their living room.

This is a bummer to read and I don’t want to get political or talk about a war I know almost nothing about.. That’s not the point.

But I bring it up because for those of us who live in a country we’re proud of, that is stable and affords us a life as boring or exciting as we wish to live it; man.. we won a really important lottery.

Canada.. the US.. most places in the European Union… we’ve got a good thing going. And Ukraine is fighting and dying for the chance to be part of the EU. But for today, they don’t qualify.

Politics in this part of the world doesn’t pose the question “Who did you vote for? Let’s argue on Facebook about it” The question is.. “In 2018, will your country still exist, and what will you have to sacrifice today to give it the best chance?”

If you’re at all interested in learing more about Ukraine, there’s a Netflix documentary called “Winter on Fire” about the 2014 revolution. Yep, definitely didn’t hear anything about that on the news in Canada.

Coles Notes – The people successfully used non-violent (mostly, kinda) protest and blockades to force the resignation of their President after he refused to sign on for the application into the EU (meaning potential for a stable economy and opportunity for young people in Ukraine who want to work).. and instead pushed his agenda for a Russian future.

In it we can see on the ground footage, up close and personal, with protesters and police, as the President’s forces move in to attack, and eventually kill unarmed protesters with brutal beatings and eventually gunfire.

I’m not a fan of the violence, but I suggest the doc because the courage and unity demonstrated is breathtaking. The people from all around the country who came to Kiev to take a stand, and who wouldn’t back down for almost 2 months in the dead of winter. They formed a small resistance city behind barricades, occupying the Maidan in the capital city.

It was messy, and according to everyone I talk to here – it was tragic and too much was lost.. but the courage is undeniable. And it’s inspiring.

War can kill individuals, But nothing has been able to oppose the intensity with which these people have stood for independence and the freedom of their families in this country. Everything is on the line.And it still is.

Makes me sit back and wonder… what do I believe in that’s worth putting everything on the line for? Maybe higher ideals as expressed through music.. the connection I have to my firends and family.. one thing is for sure, I’m a lucky person to have the luxury of exploring that question – rather than having it thrust upon me on the wrong side of a gun.

And with absolutely no segway from topic to topic – here’s the link to my song again!

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0Bxv8_jtCDGzrRTFXS3U0Wi13VkE/view?usp=sharing

It is what it is, for now 🙂