I Understand Ukranian

Originally a Restroom Reflection, first published on November 16, 2014.

I’m pretty sure I’m on the same SPAM lists you are. Weekly I’m awarded national lottery prizes, monthly I’m offered Robert Mugabe’s millions, found in his cupboard by a housekeeper. They just need a few details from me. I haven’t enjoyed being on those lists, but it has been interesting to register the changes in the communication over time. For example, when we started getting emails from Chinese as well as Nigerians alerting us to the money they are willing to release into our accounts, we moved from lengthy heart-string-pulling epistles to a cursory “I’ve got a deal worth $7M to talk to you about. Reply me.”

I hate those emails as much as I hate the ones inviting me to be a delegate at a petrochemical or aviation conference. I hate them slightly less than the unsolicited newsletters I end up reading against my better judgment and then respond to in order both to unsubscribe and to correct their spelling and grammar.

There’s one list I’ve been really glad to be on, though: the Ukrainian one. The address and the subject line are always in Cyrillic, and since they are identified as SPAM by my mail program, the words there are in tan rather than black. While this color makes an English junk subject look junky, somehow it makes the Cyrillic look golden. At least, now that I’ve started really studying them, it does. Because they’re lovely.

Nobody else writes to me with the same visual charm. The emails are never very long, and they’re always a pleasant balance of images and words. They don’t fool around with background colors, but they vary the font colors for impact. There’s never more than one exclamation point at the end of any sentence as they endeavor to sell me a truck, encourage me to build on some attractive pastureland, invite me to a small seaside hotel, or suggest a teambuilding course on a sailboat.

The word ‘teambuilding’ was in English on that last one, and I recognize only enough of the Cyrillic alphabet to have understood that flights to New York were being offered for a mere $327. Everything else should have been completely foreign to me. And yet I’m able to understand the fundamental message of all these emails. And I am motivated by them – much, much more motivated than I am by the info-heavy advertisements that I get from companies at home, in my own language.

Somehow the Ukrainian emails come across as more authentic, less overblown. The photos generally look as if they were taken by someone who works in the little hotel itself, or is proud of the trucks in their yard. They seem to have chosen their words carefully, so that a few are enough. When pictures are taken so they look not only attractive but also realistic, and therefore trustworthy, I find I look at them for longer. I can imagine myself in them, walking through that pasture, standing on that beach, deciding why I should buy that truck.

Even if it’s been a long time since I saw one of those emails, I still remember it. I remember the wildflowers. I remember imagining the smell of the place. I’ve never had that experience with a stock photo.

I can’t tell the senders of these emails how much I appreciate their communication style, so I’m telling you. And now I’m turning back to a short story I’m working on, to take another look at its authenticity.