Ever visit a city park in a typical American suburb? Chances are you'd find a vast field of crisply cut grass with a few widely spaced trees and a state-of-the-art playground set visited occasionally by a few Hispanic mothers and their kids whose income bracket is so low that they can't afford more prestigious pastimes such as computer and video games.
If the park contains a lake, chances are it's surrounded by more sterile lawns and smooth cement footpaths, as well as a sizeable parking lot so that people can drive there to take a walk. Once a week the parks are mowed by machinery so loud that everyone else in town must mow their own lawns to drown out the noise. Thus, Americans spend more time rapturously mowing their lawns than visiting and enjoying parks and outdoor areas.
Not so in Ukraine. Here parks are used intensively by all but the wealthy who can't risk being seen in public without their shiny black Mercedes-Benz.
During the summer, our lakeside park has an average of 100 visitors at a time in the mornings, several hundred during the day, and 100-200 in the evenings. Even in colder months its waters and shores are populated by Homo Sapiens.
Here you will see young mothers or grandmas with young children playing in the sand and shallow water, wizened fishermen harvesting the lake's remaining fish, old people standing around in their undies talking about health problems, politics, and grocery prices, and a few lone joggers struggling valiantly to defy the obesity epidemic.
The main community of elderly folks congregates daily by the deck chairs. Today I overheard, "And how did Akhmetov make his millions? Because he's a clever scoundrel, and we're all fools." Yesterday the conversation was about the olden days: "In the Soviet Union we may have lived modestly, but we were all brothers. There was no envy and divisions among people like today."
Solitary hobos wearing suits from the 70s are also known to frequent the lake. They like to find secluded spots among the reeds to wash their haggard bodies and shave their puffy faces. They try to keep away from the critical gaze of respectable citizens who give them the cold shoulder.
For a while a band of gypsies would walk past the lake several times a day, clearly camped somewhere in the vicinity. "You guys must be gypsies, right?" -- an old man callously asked one of the swarthy young girls. She didn't answer. Roma speak amongst themselves in their own language and tend not to mix much with other groups.
Sunbathing in Ukraine is a national pastime. But don't get your hopes up: you'll probably see far more heavy old women in bras unabashedly taking in the sun in forest clearings than svelte young supermodels. Apparently the supermodels are all busy toiling away in cubicles as managers of auxiliary corporation administration implementation. However, by midday some bikini-clad beauties do sneak out to the lake to damage their skin during peak UV hours.
Not surprisingly considering Ukrainians' conspicuous lack of prudishness, nudism here flourishes. During early morning hours people (mostly middle-aged and old) strip down to take a swim in the lake. This continues year-round; in winter the hardiest followers of Porfiriy Ivanov break a path through the ice to take their daily dip. This usually involves dunking oneself three times in the water and raising one's arms to the sky between each submersion.
The lake is not without its rules. For one, "bathing prohibited" signs line the shore. Along with other swimmers, I usually take my dips next to one of them -- after all, no one said swimming was not allowed (купаться запрещено, но плавать можно). Other signs warn visitors that walking dogs here is prohibited. So the local dogs run free, unhindered by leashes and owners.
Towards the late afternoon life at the lake enters a new phase. Groups of teenagers and adults young and old come here with their beer and cigarettes and create work for the lake's custodians by littering their bottles and myriad forms of plastic garbage. Clean-up ensues the following morning and typically lasts several hours, helping to ensure job security for the custodians.
Booze and open water are a hazardous mix. Not too long ago I saw some drunken youths drag the blue body of their drunken friend out of the water. Paramedics pronounced him dead on the scene some minutes later. The "friends," fearing repercussions once the police arrived, pretended not to know who the guy was, what he had been doing in the water, or how long he had been submerged.
Later in the evening, swallows and then erratically flying bats come out to feast on insects hovering over the water, muskrats criss-cross the lake, and a thunderous chorus of frogs commences. You see, our lake is no artificial reservoir, but a living aquatic ecosystem that, while strained by overfishing and shoreline erosion, continues to support a diverse food chain.
Quite a bit more interesting than your average American park, eh?