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18 May, 2011  ▪  Inna Zavhorodnya

Busting Stereotypes

Mark Spörrle, an editor with Die Zeit and author of several bestsellers, is taking down notes that can demolish European prejudices about various countries. In Kyiv, he got rid of some, but not all, stereotypical notions about Ukraine

A German-Italian journalist duo, Mark Spörrle and Beppe Severgnini, is traveling by train from Moscow to Lisbon across nine countries with stops in 11 European cities, including Kyiv, under the Va bene?! Project of the Goethe-Institut.

The two are hunting stereotypes. Unfortunately, due to family circumstances Severgnini had to urgently leave Kyiv for Italy to rejoin his colleague later in Krakow. The rest of the team – Mark Spörrle, the translators and the cameraman – absorbed Kyiv with relish. After a long day in the Ukrainian capital they got on a train to Krakow. Their trip will continue until May 14 and will end in Lisbon.

The two journalists are the true masters of the travelogue and have remarkable experience in capturing impressions from trips of this kind. Severgnini traveled by train from Moscow all the way to Beijing in 1986. Spörrle authored the long time best-seller Senk ju vor trawelling to describe the adventures of travelers who used the German railways. Moreover, last year the tandem traveled by train from Berlin to Palermo. Impressions from this trip were used for their reports and even a film. As they travel from Moscow to Lisbon, they are working on a blog, which is immediately translated into 10 languages, a video blog and more extensive reports for the leading European newspapers they work for – Die Zeit in Germany and Corriere della Sera in Italy.

It's hard to say whether a trip with short stops here and there can really dispel existing myths, even if the trains are exceedingly slow. To foreigners like Spörrle who come to Ukraine for the first time, stereotypes become guidelines and signposts in an unexplored terrain. So, as he spoke with The Ukrainian Week, the German journalist not only shared his impressions which he has been accumulating for his notes but also asked questions himself.

U.W.: Could you tell about the idea of the Moscow-Lisbon project? What is its goal?

“The Va bene?! Project was initiated by the Italian branch of Goethe-Institut. The idea was to the somehow fight the existing biases and clichés. All of us have them in our heads. We think we know people: Italians, Russians, Ukrainians and Spaniards. Of course, these clichés are of some help in sorting knowledge, but sometimes we hold onto them too much. So Goethe-Institut is trying to make a little contribution to eradicating these biases through the Va bene?! initiative which includes both this trip and the one we did last year. People may ask themselves as they read our observations: “Is what I'm thinking about people really true? Is what this German or this Italian is writing indeed what I expect from a German or an Italian?” Of course, we cannot confirm or debunk these prejudices in the three quarters of a day that we are in Kyiv. But we watch and jot down our thoughts in the blog or capture things on video. And this is something that can lead to certain conclusions.

“Our trip from Berlin to Palermo last year was widely publicized. During this trip we studied each another, so to speak: the clichés that a German has about an Italian and vice versa. We later noticed that the Italian was very German, in particular punctual, responsible and incredibly industrious. Meanwhile, as soon as he found himself in Italy, the German decided: “Now I can afford to be a little less punctual.” So we kind of switched roles. Finally, we agreed that Beppe had to behave as a true Italian and I as a typical German, but in the long run it didn't work out. To us, it was some success in learning ourselves, which we have tried to share.”

U.W.: Do you already feel a little Ukrainian on this trip?

“Yes, a bit. Today I looked around the city. Of course, I had a special post-holiday day, and the weather in Kyiv was great. Many people were out in the streets. I spoke to many tourists and a couple Ukrainians. I have to admit that what people shared with me were partly positive emotions and partly their fears. For example, some, mostly young, people are thinking about going abroad. I hope they will eventually find reasons to stay here. We asked ordinary pedestrians for directions and talked with young people whom we met near St. Michael's Church. They said: ‘We’re thinking right now that we have to go to study abroad and then stay there. But we're not completely sure. We’ll see first how these reforms will go and whether they will succeed this time.’ They’ve also told me that their parents are thinking about whether they should emigrate somewhere. They spoke about money being very important now and that it is depreciating. So, as I said, I hope that positive trends will prevail.”

From Mark’s blog: “Corruption is rampant complains a driver, who counts faster in dollars than in Hryvnia, the local currency. Even the dentist would not pull out a tooth without a little extra, he adds. Many leave to try their luck abroad to work as nurses in Italy or as construction workers in Portugal.”

U.W.: Impressions are at the heart of the project. In your opinion, can you trust the first impression?

“You just confirmed several of my first impressions, which is good. Will you trust them or not depend on how you are going to use them later. We can only express our passing impressions. We also try to speak to people. They are certainly better informed about the situation in their countries than we are. Of course, we have read things before the trip. Our task is to describe the experience in small stories. And we can do it in any case. But they should not be generalized. You will always find people who will think differently, which is quite normal.”

From Mark’s blog: “We meet Igor in Kyiv, a very friendly interpreter and translator who is passionate about the multi-faceted history of his city with its wonderful churches and princes like the riotous Vladimir who had an estimated 400 wives and needed his horse even at his bedside. Kyiv is in a holiday spirit, giggling tourists have their photographs taken in front of the many monuments. We also meet several gentlemen who offer to drive us better than the regular taxis. Large numbers of people sitting on battered chairs near parking spots and seeking a fee.”

U.W.: You posted your impressions of Kyiv in your blog before this interview. What made the greatest impression?

“We have been very fortunate with the translator and the guide who showed us around Kyiv. He is indeed keen on history of Kyiv. I always appreciate it when people are enthused about what they do. I also saw that people from other cities are eager to come to Kyiv, i.e., it is a great tourist attraction. Interestingly, even young people seem to be rooted in their traditions in a way. This is what catches your eye when you visit churches.”

U.W.: Did you see a lot of young people in churches?

“Yes. I have also noticed quite a few young priests. Churches are clearly not perceived here as institutions unlike in the West where it is sometimes problematic to even find a priest and where you don't see so many young people who want to come to precisely this church. It was a big surprise to me. It tells me that people have a desire to believe in something. At the same time, I saw young street musicians playing traditional music, and this is also very interesting. I saw three or four groups. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I didn't get the impression that they were not enjoying it.”

U.W.: I hope they enjoy it!

“Right, but they could be doing this differently. To me, this is linked with initiative, and this is very important.”

From Mark’s blog: “In my satirical user’s guide to train travel »Senk ju for träwelling« (translator’s note: published in German), there is a passage on sleeper coaches. There is something about people who wear neoprene suits against the cold in the berths.  I would have never thought how much truth satire can hold, and not just with the German Railways but also the Capital Express from Moscow to Kiev. …If only I were smaller! … If I stretch my legs, I bump both extremities. When I lie on my side, I catch a cramp in my calves. If I lie on my back, I risk slipping and crashing on the floor. So as the train gathers speed on the uneven tracks, I’m bouncing faster and faster on my mattress.”

U.W.: Ukrainians are typically sharply aware of the differences between Kyiv and Moscow and, respectively, between Ukraine and Russia and react painfully when the West still often fails to distinguish between the two.  Have you perceived this difference?

“This is a very good question. Believe it or not, I have been trying to notice this difference. But I have not been thinking about whether I would be able to indeed formulate it. It partly comes through in people's appearances and conduct, but it is very hard indeed. If we leave aside comparisons, my today’s impression of Ukrainians is in general very positive. If you ask an average person in Germany what stereotypes he has about the residents of the countries through which I am traveling, you will find that the clichés about Ukrainians and Russians are very similar: from hospitality among the positive traits to endurance when it comes to alcohol consumption. On the one hand, I have observed sadness and melancholy among the local people. On the other hand, I have seen a surprisingly confident positive attitude: We’ll see what comes out of it. I think it is good. I have also seen this special view of things in Russia but in a different proportion. In Ukraine, there is probably a greater share of young people who think about politics and the development of society and who seek internal reference points. It always depends on whether a person is more willing to go far away or make at least some contribution to steering the situation into a more acceptable direction.

“That is to say, I have a different feeling, and I have sincerely tried to formulate it. I'll probably have a brain storm in several days. What is your impression? This time I have tried to first answer your question.”

U.W.: I studied in Moscow for three years, so I was able to compare notions with realities. I noticed there that Russia was a totally different country which I knew little about. I can say about my generation (I went to school in 1990) that our ideas about our own countries are not the same. People in Russia have a notion which includes us, but ours excludes them. In the center of our world is Ukraine, while in Moscow people still have a picture in their mind with the outline of the Soviet Union.

“I’ve also met people in Russia who give no thought to borders. In their perception, large cities that seem interesting do exist. They are not thinking in these categories at all and call themselves citizens of the world. So I have gotten a fairly positive impression of these people. To an extent, this always depends on the social background and education level. In my opinion, these people should be taken as an example and strengthen it a bit. Perhaps then some differences will disappear on their own, and this will promote tolerance and respect.”

U.W.: Is there a difference in the quality of service as you move from the West to the East?

“Yes, there is. This is the kind of a cliché which I can confirm. Even in the sleeper I took from Moscow to Kyiv – this was a first-class carriage with each compartment having two rather than four berths – one toilet wasn't working, and the other one had no water. This is a bit similar to what can be imagined. Here is another story. We stayed in a nice hotel in Moscow and once dined in a restaurant there. It was nearly empty. The food tasted well. But it took us ages to have waiters come to our table and take our orders! The three of them stood nearby talking. We waved to them and one waiter said: “I’ll be right with you” and continued the conversation. Then Beppe waved again. After this the waiter first went to other guests which were far and few between and had not waived to him, i.e., to do first what he had in mind.

“I experienced this after the fall of the Berlin Wall when I went to the former GDR. It was great for us. The nature was beautiful, and I didn't know this before. There was also a restaurant there. If a client came on his own, he had to stay by the door and wait to be seated. If five people wanted to take a table for four, they had to be split between two tables.

“Nevertheless, I met a great many nice people, for example, the train stewardesses or border guards. I remember border guards from my school excursions, and they were always noisy. Tonight they were more polite than the stewardess. It was very nice.”

From Beppe’s blog: “Even after several years of travelling, it is still exciting to see "KYIV" written on an illuminated signboard. We get on and the train slips into the Moscow night. You can see our quarters in our video blog as well as our statuesque Ukrainian train stewardess who could have stopped a locomotive with a single look. I also liked the female border guards: well-built, blonde and equanimous as they checked the passports of the train travelers at four in the morning, sleepy and in their underclothes. These young ladies would have seen things that other people could not even begin to imagine. Nothing could rattle them.”

U.W.: How was the border crossing?

“Borders are always somewhat hard for me. I support having no travel limitations on the great European continent. Many people in Europe are already thinking this way. That you need visa is a complication.”

U.W.: But you need a visa to go to Russia, not to Ukraine anymore.

“Right, but these small papers remain. (Migration cards. – Ed.)

U.W.: They were also canceled last November.

“So we filled them out in vain on an incredibly shaky train, and the nice border guards looked at them and kept them. I was surprised that they did not give us half of them as they did in Russia.”

U.W.: You already had a certain notion of Ukraine and Russia before. Has it changed after this trip?

“I have never been to either Moscow or Kyiv before. When you're a journalist, you read what your colleagues write. There is a certain picture painted in newspapers and on television. Interestingly, I had a much worse notion of Moscow and Kyiv, particularity of road traffic and the danger of street crime. However, this is not true. I experienced here things I also experienced in Italy. This is, after all, a different picture. Both in Moscow and in Kyiv I felt much better and more confident than my stereotypes would lead me to expect.”

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