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Friday, July 8, 2011


On the Dniper River
Happy belated birthday America!

I was riding back on the Ukranian Express; at least that’s what I call it, on July 4th . As I have written multiple times about the railroad and its ancient trains, I will not bore you with too many details.

However, I was celebrating on my own in the compartment and thinking about all the great barbecues taking place in the US of A. You can tell when you are missing the plethora of restaurant choices, when you get excited about going to McDonalds for dinner in Kiev. Hmmm, I’m sure I could smell the hamburgers and hotdogs you were cooking on the gas grill, while I was riding in the train. In my mind’s eye I could see the potato salads, jello salads and the dishes of salsa and Dorito chips everywhere. Iced tea and a slew of other choice cordials, with real ice, and Diet Coke set out on the table (sorry, I’m not a Pepsi drinker).

All these thoughts were traversing through my mind while I was eating “shoelace” string cheese, which is smoked and heavily salted. It could easily be sold as cheese jerky. I also had a Tupperware container with a few pieces of Ukranian ‘shishlek.’ This is commonly known in the west as ‘shish kabob.’ In Ukraine they skewer huge cubed pieces of pork, which is nicely marinated, and then it is cooked over red hot coals. This is their national barbecue. They love this stuff and heaven help you if you cook over gas. “Nee harrashaw,” or not good. It has to be real coals with perhaps a small green branch from a blackberry bush to give it a distinct flavor. I have to say, Ukraine knows how to cook pork. It was scrumchy and finger lick’n good! To finish my gourmet meal I had a couple of tomatoes to go with my ‘shishlek’ and some unbuttered bread. For desert I had a stash of genuine Werthers hard toffee, butterscotch candies, which I sucked arduously swirling them from one side to the other, savoring them to the last tiny morsel. And then you have to bite  and crunch them at the end. No one can just suck Werhers without crunching them. If you write and tell me you do, all I can say is that you are weird Charlie Brown!

A hammock tied to the old tree!
The car conductor does offer instant coffee or a hot glass cup of black tea. Your only choice on the tea is if you want lemon with it. It automatically comes with two small packets of sugar, made from beats and not cane. I chose the tea. And to the rocking movement of the train, with its rhythmic ‘clickity clack’ giving me the base chord to my own minstrel interpretation, I swayed back and forth singing, “America, America God shed His grace on you…” I must admit, I did this with a lump in my throat and my eyes were more than moist, in fact a tear glistened in the setting sun as it gently rolled down my cheek. In that moment I missed you all. My consolation was, we would soon be visiting our grandchildren in the States and would once again be able to indulge our taste buds with the great foods we know so well. We will be able to see many of you and simply hug on your neck. Thank you for being out there for us.

The next morning I caught a cab to a bus depot where Noline and I were to rendezvous at a grocery / furniture store. We needed to stock up on a few perishables, mainly for our wonderful German Shepherd. Actually, he is beginning to eat us out of house and home. I was fortunate enough to have been dropped off at a crucial time early in the morning. There was a break in the inclement weather we have been having over the last three weeks, as it has rained incessantly every day. We did not even get a glimpse of a rainbow giving us hope we weren’t going to be flooded out. In fact, today is the first real day of continuous sunshine  we have had. We are thankful for the rain though. Almost 100% of suburban living draws its water from dug wells. The water table was low and we were conserving our use of household water before the rains. Those measures could now be relaxed considerably with the rise in the table. The cooler weather has also been an added blessing.

Unbeknown to me, Noline had increased her shopping list of perishables to include a small complex, ‘you put it together yourself,’ computer desk. There was also a bookcase to be purchased, which it to needed assembling, and two sets of curtains with rods to be put up in the art studio. After spending eight days on the mountain in Ivano Frankivsk, where the glory of God was manifest in the revival meetings; all this projected work felt like a sudden descent into the valley of the demon possessed. I needed a rest not a ‘honey dew’ list.

How cool is Noline standing next to the old Pine tree.
Later that day, my grandson and I handled the computer table with relative ease. It looks great in the corner under the stairway leading up to the second floor. A perfect assembly and a perfect fit. I was feeling pretty good about myself at this point. I was ready to tackle the bookcase which was precut and machined in India. It has these funky nuts that you slide into the factory drilled holes. You put the shelves in alignment to the sides, slide the bolts into their assigned positions and whamo, it fits like a glove and in 10 minutes you have a professionally built bookcase. Noline and I were going to do this together. What better way to reconnect with each other after a weeks absence than to build a bookcase together. Right!

After 38 years of marriage, you would’ve thought we had learned that the best laid plans never turn out exactly the way they should. Actually, you begin to think in the opposite direction. Both of us being 58, we thought we had already past the test and now it's gravy all the way. It’ll be a piece of cake. So I take the lead and lay out all the pieces, making sure we have the shelves facing the right direction. Noline told me to call her when I had everything arranged. I instinctively knew that with her absence I would have to explain everything again to her. With all the little wooden dowel pegs tapped into place they would easily guide the shelves perfectly into position. This was going to be done in a jiffy.
Neil preaching at a youth camp on an island on the Dniper River
I called Noline, “Honey, I’m ready.  All you have to do sweetie is lift up each shelf just a tich, and push the dowels into the slots.” “No, don’t pull my side away. STOP!” “Now I will have to redo them all.” OK, so half an hour later we had those shelves precariously held together with those inchy wooden guides. All we have left to do is insert those funky metal nuts into the under part of each shelf. They should go in effortlessly. The bolts could then slide in to meet the nuts. Screw clockwise until tight. Easy! So I instructed softly and delicately, remembering we had been apart for a week and I needed to keep the ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ attitude going. “Hold the nut horizontally with the pre-marked line on the outside and slip it in.” “No! Don’t try to take it out now because you put it in the wrong way.” “Aghh.” The whole thing fell apart again. So we start the process one more time. I’m smiling, all the while keeping rising blood levels in check. Be kind, be nice and do not, under any circumstances, raise your voice one decibel above mono tone. The next attempt proved to be more successful. This time Noline was looking like the cat who got the cream,  because she was getting all the nuts and bolts put together before me. I did not know she had suddenly turned this into a race. I was the one now battling with two bolts which did not align correctly, and I could not get them to thread properly. The last thing I needed was stripped threads. There is no way I am going to be able to buy these kinds of funky nuts and bolts in any hardware store in Ukraine.

Youth camp - Dniper River in the background.
With her side of the bookcase finished, she calmly stood up and told me to call her when I was done, and she would help to lift and carry it into position. Something in the way she said that made me think she was bragging over Mr. Fix-it guy. One hour later, a hole drilled right through the two stubborn shelves and I was done. Now I had to fill in the new holes I had created in order to get the two to meet. Wood putty! That should do the trick. I would need to get to the hardware store and get a small can.

OK, OK, I ‘fessed up to the crime and acknowledged she had won the race I did not remember making. We would leave the holes and cover them with books. Now, all I had left to do was to hang the two curtain rods, with the curtains and I would be done. The romantic feelings were still intact. Yahoo!

The curtains did go up without too much hassle and at the end of the day, I had a very happy woman on my hands. She too was gracious enough not to bring up the badly scarred bookcase. All’s well that ends well. So let me say this, I would rather be frustrated with a project than with my wife. It is a choice you make. I am both happy and blessed to have her help, even if she ends up being better than me. I am glad I had the side with the incorrect drilled holes and the rest of the evening was simply wonderful.

Marriage will always take work regardless of how long you have been together. I secretly enjoyed seeing her triumphant, and the swagger, yes, it definitely was a swagger, when she walked away with her side complete, was simply awesome. I loved it and I love her.

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