About Noon

10 May

Correction: I wrote this yesterday (which was Victory Day).

Today is Victory day in Ukraine, and the city is on holiday.  A parade went through the center of the city, and everyone donned the striped orange and black ribbon of victory.  I woke up later than usual and scratched any plans of going to the parade in lieu of playing dominoes on the porch with my roommate and Ivan.

Around noon I found the energy to get out of the apartment and walk to the center to meet my friend Anton.  The foliage on the trees were bursting along with everyone else who has been given the day off to celebrate the great victory.  Women were dressed in their lightest sarafans, and boys and girls chased each other among the crowds while haphazardly avoiding anyone who stepped in their way.

I met Anton in the main park with the statue of Taras Shevchenko.  Every city over 300,000 has a park dedicated to the poet; the only difference is the pose Taras assumes in each statue.  In Kiev, he’s looking downward, pensive.  In Chernigov, he’s relaxed and youthful.  In Lugansk, he’s looking forward stoically.  Traffic had resumed on the main street, and only a few people remained sitting on the benches lined in from of the World War II monument.

Anton and I found an outdoor café two blocks away, and a few tables stood empty, covered by the shade of the oversized patio umbrellas.  After coming back from vacation in Crimea, I swore that I would try my best to stick under the 50 UAH a day allotment by not buying beer or snacks.  However, beer is cheaper than juice, and as much as I want to be healthy, saving money always wins.

After an hour of sitting in the shade talking about Ukraine, Russia, and the people walking by, a table of older women began singing together in pre-planned harmonies, full and strong.  Their songs began quietly, and most people continued drinking and talking, not paying much attention to the women.  I found it hard to concentrate on the conversation with Anton, and the fact the women were right over his shoulder made it much more difficult to concentrate.  After trying to be nice and follow the conversation we were having, I abandoned our chat and concentrated on the singing women.  All four of them, from the one with dyed red hair to the one who rose slightly out of her chair clapping with a crooked smile, blazed through a repertoire celebrating the great victory without hesitation.  There was even a MC who whistled throughout the songs to keep everyone’s attention.

The people surrounding us soon shared my interest, and I noticed more people began focusing their attention to the singing women and the crowd of people gathered around their two tables pushed together.  The party next to us even provided harmonies to several of the songs, but without the gust and experience of the older women.

At that moment, I wished I had a camera.  Something nice and professional, something I could take a picture with that would be suitable for a National Geographic article.  I wanted to capture the woman singing with the open mouth, the red-haired woman whistling with two fingers in her mouth, and immortalize the woman clapping over a table scattered with vodka, juice, and chebureki.  I wanted to capture their energy in a photo that was crisp and accurate, leaving everything in the background blurred to compliment the brighter colors of their dress and makeup.

“There is a Ukrainian tradition of singing babas,” Anton said to me.  I had grown accustomed to Anton’s use of slang words more appropriate for English speakers, even when the word is used to describe his own culture.

“Does every babushka know how to sing?” I asked, already guessing the answer was probably yes.

“Most of them do.  I don’t know where they learn it, but most of them are able to sing.  The tradition is dying though, and soon there won’t be any babas left.”

His comment reminded me of a conversation I had with my roommate the day earlier.  He said he wouldn’t attend the victory day parade that morning.  The parade is the same every year, that is, excepting for the older people – less and less show up each year.

I then started thinking about when these women must have learned the songs they were singing.  They must have been girls when they fled Lugansk during the Second World War for the Urals or any other place offering solace.  Although the celebrations seemed the same this year: the fireworks, the parade, the classic Soviet cars lined up in front of the theatre, I did get to hear daughters of the war sing the songs they must have learned when they were first sung throughout the Soviet Union on the day ending the war 68 years ago.

С праздником.

Below are a few pictures of my recent trip to Crimea.

The first sight off the bus.

Night dancing in Simferopol.

The wharf of Balaklava.

The fog finally cleared by the Greek ruins.

The peak of Balaklava.

Kyle looking at the horizon behind a photo session.

The swimming rock.

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That’s the Way it is with Me

17 Feb

Since arriving to Lugansk, I’ve been interviewed two times: once in English, once in Russian, and both by a student for the school paper.

I’ve been interviewed four times in the past week.  There was the thirty-minute conversation in the local TV studio: a sleek room with modern orange and place fixtures, and rigid leather sofas, looking like a Ukrainian MTV.  There was the abrupt Russian interview with Lot, another local television company, which caught me off guard and had me repeating the same set phrase several times.  There was another Russian interview in front of a 200-watt bulb that I stopped as quickly as it began to collect my thoughts.  Then there were the several lines scribbled on a notepad in the hallway by the PR department of our academy.

Our youth center opened today: the product of almost a year of grant writing, price checking, ATM malfunctions, and last minute headaches.

Finally, after the rush of this afternoon, the rolling cameras, the moving furniture, the opening ceremonies, and the signing of certificates, I can breath a little bit and sit down in the office while our kids are in the adjacent room.

Last spring I met with Nataliya and Zhenya, two lovely women I work with, to discuss problems we see with the youth of our city.  The situation was particular and familiar.  Like American teenagers, our kids might be apathetic, unmotivated, and alienated to their surroundings.  That might even be the Wikipedia definition for teenager.  But unlike in America, there’s a lack of options.  There aren’t many after-school activities, there are few clubs, and the amount of places for youth to gather around the town to relax, converse, spend free time is next to nothing.

Some Ukrainians I’ve talked to believe that’s why it’s easy to become idle, stagnant, and content with staying at home and letting life happen to you.  This is part of the reason indifference lingers amongst the youth of our city.  Our students might open the door to their home, take a look around their community, observe a place filled with bias and inequality, and quietly shut the door again.

Students need to take those problems in their community, get upset about them, and join together to do something about it.  That’s what we hope happens by the end of April.  For the next three months twelve teenagers from out academy and surrounding schools will meet every Saturday for three main things.

First, they will work with a counselor to overcome the awkwardness that comes with group work.  Many of our students are hesitant to speak in class, so the freedom and power that comes with carrying yourself comfortably and confidently is something many of us take for granted.  Second, they will meet with local NGOs who will explain the situation in Lugansk.  What are the issues, who is affected, and why should they be concerned?  Finally, at the end of 10-weeks our students will use those skills to speak their mind, work together, and create something that changes their community.

They won’t be able to change the entire city, but they might be able to change a street.  They might not be able to change many minds, but at least they’ll be doing something with their own.

I can’t speak for the rest of the professors at my academy, but I’d be lying to say I know exactly what will happen in the next few months.  I’m sure we’ll have our problems in the next few weeks, but for now things are running to some plan.  I can honestly say that I am satisfied and proud of all the ladies I work with.  They’ve done a great job organizing the project, and I love to see their concern in the project; arguing about small details at the last minute, or running around to put last minute touches on the project.

The results might be hard to notice, but maybe if I look hard enough I’ll see them.  Just now, one of my students came into the office on her way out and spoke to me in a few scattered English phrases.  She is usually one of the more quiet girls in the class, but we all know she has great potential waiting to be released.  I don’t know exactly why she decided to talk to me just now.  It might be a fluke, it might be a good mood, or maybe, something she’s doing in that room seems to be helping.  Either way, we’ll have to wait three months to see how the first group develops.

 

All our kids signed this certificate to signify the opening of the center.

All our kids signed this certificate to signify the opening of the center.

The flyer announcing the opening ceremony.

The flyer announcing the opening ceremony.

All members together.

All members together.

Students signing the certificate.

Students signing the certificate.

A few opening words.

A few opening words.

The academy donated paint, artwork, and plants to help decorate the room.

The academy donated paint, artwork, and plants to help decorate the room.

The grant help purchase the screen, computer, projector, and a few other things not pictures.

The grant help purchase the screen, computer, projector, and a few other things not pictured.

You Don’t Miss Your Water

8 Jan

You don’t miss your water, till your well runs dry
William Bell
(Not the mayor of Birmingham)

This tune has been playing daily on my computer from the first rays of the sun until the last glow of my lamps in the evening.  If I had a wax copy, I’m sure the grooves would have been played out long ago.  And thus begins the beginning of a little theme in the titles of my posts.  I’ll see if anybody picks up on the theme, but I’m thinking they won’t.  Maybe I’ll give a prize to the first person that does.

So, although William Bell was talking about the love for a significant other, the saying is nonetheless just as appropriate for what’s going on in my world.  I left America almost a year and a half ago, and there are definitely things I didn’t think I would miss until my bucket came up empty.  In America, I loved going to shows or concerts every week, and as a teenager I even escaped the suburbs and my parents to the “dangerous” downtown Birmingham to see travelling and local artists.  In the last few years in Birmingham I rarely went to shows, many times only if I was playing, and that’s a regret I have.  Now, more than ever, I wish I were still drinking from that well.

But, let’s start talking about the future.  In my first post, I said I felt like a child in Ukraine.  I was always under the watch of a Ukrainian and felt like an idiot when I had to do something as simple as buying groceries from the store.  Now, I’m going to adopt a different simile and say that I’m a junior in college.  The flow of life makes sense, and I’ve gotten down to business a bit surer of what I’m doing here.

It’s as though I’ve picked my major, finished my core classes, and am getting down to business of hammering out my thesis.  Also, most volunteers will go through about four new groups while in country.  My group, 42, was once the freshmen sitting in solidarity at the cafeteria, but now we’ve got a good feel for the campus.  Group 43 came, and we became sophomores.  In the spring, group 45 will arrive and we’ll become the stolid and seasoned seniors.

Then we’ll leave.

Although I’ve got several months left in country, things are moving quickly to their end.  The other day Anya, the secretary at our office, told me I have to attend their faculty party next year.  To which I responded, “I’m not going to be here next year.”  That was the first time something like that has happened, but I’m sure it’s only the beginning.  So, I have to think about things that I’m going to miss when I leave here.  I don’t know it now, but I might be craving some of the things I take for granted now once I find my well empty.  They might be big things, like the 15-hour train ride to Kiev, or little things like the weight of meals printed on every menu.  How else are you going to know which dish is the best value?

The other day I visited a friend of mine at the market whom I play baseball with in the spring in summer, and he graciously gave me a pair of jeans.

“What for?” I asked him.

“Will, you are a stranger in this country.  You are far away from your family and friends during the holiday season.  I would want the same if I were in America.”

I can’t really argue with that.  And, the jeans fit pretty well.

I was a bit shocked at how dead the market looked.  Usually, the market is the biggest source of life in Lugansk.  Our city is known for diversity, but it’s specifically noticeable in the market – a 15 or 20 acre plot of Ukrainians, Arabs, Armenians, and people from every other post-soviet country selling first-hand, second-hand, name brand (sometimes) and knock-off imitations of batteries, boots, bread and much more in sheet metal cubicles or mismatched wooden slats.

The market is usually a source of life, but the snow in Ukraine covers more than just the sunflower fields and greenery on the trees.  The market also hibernates during the winter.  Some vendors pack up for a longer break, waiting for the snow to thaw, and others shorten their hours to the length of time when the sun is out, which isn’t saying much for working hours.

Once the ice melts away and people start their weekend routines of walking around the city and eating ice cream, I’d like to start visiting the market more.  I’m a sucker for high-pressure sales, and many times return from the market with a cluster of grapes or a pair of pomegranates, never intending to buy such fruits when making my list, but I’m a junior now, and I know how the game’s played (or I’d like to think so).

If anything, it’ll give me time to chat with Sasha, listen to hits from the 80s and 90s on the radio and watch him deal with his customers.  What are the little jokes he has with the vendors nearby, how far can people talk him down from a price, are any of his clothes really the name brands they claim to be?

I want to drink as much from this well as I can.

Sasha getting down to business.

Sasha getting down to business.

In the summer, these tables will be filled with garments sent from throughout eastern Europe.

In the summer, these tables will be filled with garments sent from all throughout eastern Europe.

Go Power at Christmas

3 Jan

The worst Christmas of my life was in 2006.

I don’t remember much about the actual holiday, but I remember sitting in front of the computer chatting with my friends about the gifts we got when a single news headline crushed the spirit of Christmas.  James Brown had died.  After reading the story of his passing on Yahoo, I called down to my dad to tell him the news.

I was 19, and my love for Mr. Brown’s music was nascent, but about to blossom into a full-time marriage.  At that time I was stealing CDs from my dad without his knowledge and keeping them hostage in my car to play and dance to in the parking lot at school.  Most suburban white kids in the south were probably listening to jam bands or rap music from Atlanta, but I was a slave to the shrieks of his rap, groove of his gait, and roll of his rhythm.  Today, if my dad looks at his CDs, he’ll probably find his 40th Anniversary James Brown CD2, the later years, scratched across the back and looking more like a scummy bathroom tile.  Sorry dad.

Music was the main thing for which I am indebted to my father.  I would probably be listening to the same southern rap and jam bands if it weren’t for the gracious gift my dad gave me.  He doesn’t know it, but the best memories I have are at age 12 being a passenger in his car on the way to basketball practice.  Usually, we would travel down the wicked curves of Rocky Ridge Road at 7pm, late for another scrimmage.  Besides the headlights of his car, the radiance of the car stereo was the only light visible, and the first grooves of my romance with music were birthed in that soft glow.  Mr. Brown aside, I remember two distinct pieces of music: first, Jimmy Page’s solo to “Heartbreaker,” and second, Jimi Hendrix’s bizarre intro to Electric Ladyland, “And the Gods Made Love…”  He would play the latter full blast, and I was a bit embarrassed by any cars that pulled up alongside us, but I guess that was his way of showing he could be a little weird, and I guess it explains a lot about how my personality developed through the years.

Mr. Brown left me for a while.  Since I’ve been to Ukraine, he’s been out of my mind.  And it’s true that I’ve strayed and been unfaithful to the godfather of soul, but Christmas brings me back to him.

And it’s exactly what I need now.  The sun goes down around 3 or 4pm just as I’m remembering to have a late lunch, and it’s easy to get down wondering when the snow will melt and some green will sneak out of the frost.  As I walk the streets of Lugansk trying not to slip on the petrified ice under my feet, I make Mr. Brown the soundtrack to my day.  Even though I might feel a bit out of place and strange in a foreign country, there’s one secret I’ve got going for me that many of these Ukrainians haven’t been clued in on, and that’s Mr. Brown coming into my earbuds.  Thanks dad.

Things to Remember About James Brown:
In order to get down, he has to get in D.
You should probably let him take it to the bridge.
“LA” means Lower Alabama.

How is this relevant?  Christmas in Ukraine is on January 7th, and James Brown is always relevant.

Go Power at Christmas Time

 

Pictured below are Two photos from my morning walk: the icy puddles leading to the center of the city, and a stern, but youthful, Lenin.

Image

Image

Sickness

30 Dec

I’m sick.

And it’s the holiday season in Ukraine, and this year I live down the street from the Christmas tree shining in the central square of the city.  While it’s pretty easy to forget about holidays that were so important in the US, it’s hard to miss a 40-plus foot tree standing outside your front door.  And the soviet carols I hear through my bedroom window will continue throughout the upcoming holidays: New Years, Christmas (January 7), Old New Year, and probably a mixed bag of other holidays I failed to notice last year.

The school semester is over, the second and one of three entire semesters I will teach in Ukraine, and it’s time for a vacation.  Aside from a brief trip to Moldova during the winter last year, I have never left the country.  Next month, I’ll take a tour of Budapest, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Germany, and finally a last minute trip to Lviv at the end of the month.  Airfare in Europe is less than most people have in their coin jar, and I’ll fight for the chance to take a flight from Kiev to Budapest for $25.

The New Year comes in a couple days.  Although there are the usual resolutions people make: exercise more, create more art, don’t procrastinate, I think I’m going to take the advice a Ukrainian gave me the other day at English Club.  People make resolutions on the because of tradition, but they don’t always mean it.  It just seems like something you have to do.

With that, I’m not making a resolution this year.  If I see the need to make a change, I’ll do it.  So many people make resolutions and don’t follow through.  If there’s something that needs to be done, just do it, and don’t worry about making some public announcement.

What has changed in Ukraine?

Although not a resolution, I did make a promise to myself earlier this month.  I have to make an idiot of myself every day.  This isn’t some sort of self-deprecating statement more so than a challenge I have for myself.  My biggest struggle in the country isn’t the weather, or the food, or the culture – it’s probably the language.  That, and the fact that I feel every Russian speaking person gets a newsletter every day with new rules for the language.

I don’t get this newsletter.

But I’ll only improve with my language, as long as I make an idiot of myself everyday.  I wouldn’t consider myself a great Russian speaker, but I’m certainly not going to improve unless I’m out there butchering the hell out of this ridiculously hard language.  So, little arguments with the bartender returning my money or confusing talks with the fish lady at the supermarket are what I want.  Bring it on.

Also, I’ve found a nice DIY venue here in my town that reminds me of home.  Artists come and play on the floor.  There aren’t (always) flashy lights that make performers look like rock stars.  Sometimes they even have movies on a big screen and people gather around in beanbag chairs to watch a Kurosawa film.  This dimly lit place down the street from my apartment is a nice venue, and I imagine I’ll be visiting it often for the next several months.

Finally, I’m proud to say one of my grants in Ukraine to open a youth center at my school was fully funded, but here is a link to another project I’m working on called Camp MAKE.  Below, you will find a link to the grant page (where you can make a donation) and also a link to the blog.

Camp MAKE Grant

Camp MAKE Blog

С Новым Годом

Lugansk tree, with Lenin in the background

Lugansk tree, with Lenin in the background

Forgotten Post

2 Dec

This post was written several months ago, but is just now getting to be posted.

 

When I was a kid I used to lay on my bed in my room with my ear to the pillow so I could hear everything in the house.  I felt like a cowboy putting his ear to the ground so he could hear the coming stampede.  I would hear footsteps throughout my house, doors shutting, hair dryers; but the thing I remember best is the sound our drawers made in the kitchen when they closed shut and the silverware rattled as the drawer came to a halt.  Now, sitting in my apartment in Ukraine, I’m amazed at how my memories flutter back.  I can still keep my ear to the pillow of my couch, but the sound of silverware has been replaced with the elevator door rattling open four floors below.

 

Things change, but they remain the same.  For the past few years I would spend every summer in a car driving to different cities on tour.  The trips became routine.  Drive in a van for seven hours, play a show for three hours, find a place to eat, sleep on a stranger’s floor, wake up in the morning disoriented and do the same thing over again.  The summers were restless, but I always felt accomplished when I came back home to Birmingham, showered and fell back into my bed.

 

And again, I’m doing the same thing.

 

Ride on a train for eight or 15 hours, sleep in a stuffy wagon filled with strangers, reach a city where I know hardly anyone and sleep on someone’s couch (or, in the case of a camp, sleep in a bed that rests like a hammock).  Once the camp ends, or the meeting is over, I make my way to another train and race to another city.

 

This summer I feel like I’ve mastered the rail system of eastern Ukraine, and the 150 hours I spent on trains this summer felt much like the idle times travelling in a cramped car waiting to get to the next city and play another show.

 

In sum, here’s a quick rundown of summer:

 

Antratsit:

Like many towns in the oblast, Antratsit is built around the mines and between the coal hills that border the city.  But the population of Antratsit (about 80,000) was just big enough to be considered a city.  I lucked out staying with a host family who treated me to an indulgent birthday party, giving me a chance to practice some Russian as I gave them an idea of what America is like away from the blockbuster movies and reality TV shows.  I had to play jukebox with my guitar, but it was a worthwhile price to pay for the free room and board.  After working with younger students at the camp, I have a newfound respect for the Peace Corps volunteers placed at grade schools.

 

Yevpatoria:

The Ukrainian city that probably triples in size during the summer with kids coming from throughout Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus to the camps sprinkled across the western coast of Crimea.  The camp was probably the biggest test of my patience in Ukraine, as the fixed and punctual schedule of an American-style camp is the polar opposite to the laid-back stagger of the Ukrainian camp I attended.  Bathing in the black sea and going on a midnight run to the city with a Russian friend made the idleness of the day-time much more bearable.

 

Donetsk:

While most of Donetsk was recovering from the past few years preparing for the football fans who came speaking English, teenagers throughout the oblast gathered in a school on the south side of Donetsk for the first Camp MAKE.  Usually, the hardest part of teaching is motivating students.  If anything, in Donetsk many times the counselors had to match the motivation of the students.

All the kids wanted to be there.  They wanted to learn.  And they found ways of working together that always surprised us.  Out of all the camps this summer, Camp MAKE was the best example of kids working together to learn about human rights, create projects, or dance in the hallway of the dorms before bed.

 

Kiev:

For the first time in my life, I got to parent my parents.  I guess there was always a time in my youth when I wished I could show my parents how things really are, and they couldn’t fall back on their “experience” to explain everything.  Having my parents as guests in a foreign country (where I live) was easily one of the most refreshing things that has happened recently.

 

Vinnitsa:

TOBE (Teaching Our Boys Excellence):  Since my first meeting with GAD (Gender and Development working group) I’ve been curious about this camp.  What are we going to do and why does everyone keep talking about it?  Plus, spending a week teaching gender issues to antsy teenage boys seemed pretty challenging.  Somehow, they got it, and I’m proud of them.  Our days of classes and workshops were sprinkled with baseball games, runs to the swimming holes and dodging cow droppings in the village, but these guys made the best of the week.

 

Dnipropetrovsk:

A big city with a bigger name, Dniproperovsk can’t decide if it’s a claustrophobic metropolis or a sprawling cluster of parks and high-rises.  I took a pit stop here on my way to Odessa to spend a few days with my friend Kathryn to prepare a packed of lesson plans against domestic violence to sent to all the country’s volunteers.

Dnipropetrovsk is a land of food.

There’s Sriracha at the market, health food by the bus stop and Reese’s hidden somewhere at the gourmet shop.  The pleasures seem small, but they’re akin to finding a geo cache without the aid of a GPS.  I never expected such treats were hiding only nine hours from my city.  But between the dreams of snacks dancing in my head, we took a trip to the parks and embankment.  We even had enough time to search for a woman’s NGO, that still eludes us to this day.

 

Odessa:

Finally got to mark a city off my “to-visit” list.  Odessa seemed like a fairy tale before I came to Ukraine.  Every so often, people would drop Odessa into conversation showing their savvy of the sights of Ukraine.  But I didn’t really know what to expect from the city save a bustling port and a decadent opera house.

What I got were backpackers, Jews, and overcrowded beaches.  Backpackers passed in and out of our hostel with the speed of moths on a light bulb.  The Jewish part of town was like a two-block segment of Brooklyn transplanted into Ukraine.  The beaches were complete with sunbathing grandfathers bounded in Speedos, flocks of hawkers selling corn on the cob and megaphone-clad teenagers selling rides on a “banana boat.”

Odessa is easily the best city to stroll in, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Ukrainian pastime of “walking” (гулять) originated on the cobblestone boulevards or the pristine sidewalks.

 

Success.  I made it back alive.

 

ticketsticketstickets

ticketsticketstickets

Silver Crosses and Summer Camp

15 Apr

The most important part of this post is the last paragraph.

Again, it’s been a while, and my consistency in writing is about as frequent a complete lunar cycle.  The snow is gone and the ice melted into the rivers a few weeks ago.  Finally, there is a bit of spring and people can shed a few layers of clothing when walking outside.  For me, that means jean jackets and tank tops.  I’m in good company.

Today I hopped the 231 bus to take me across the Lugansk, through a couple villages and into the small town of Aleksandrovsk.  There, I was honored in being the first PCV to visit my friend’s new apartment by her school.  Today is Easter in Ukraine, and before heading to church at midnight with her co-workers, my friend agreed to host me.

After having a drink on her balcony overlooking the homes and storefronts or her town, we decided to visit a nearby mansion that is now abandoned and once served as a tuberculosis hospital.  While this is the thing of legends to most PCVs, many Ukrainians in Lugansk are unaware of its existence.

On the way to the compound of crumbling buildings, we passed by groups of students from 8 to 18, all enjoying their Saturday in gangs of bikes or outside the four convenience stores that sprinkled Aleksandrovsk.  Some spoke an affirming “здравствуйте,” while others nervously said their best “hello” in English.  I’ve heard that everyone knows volunteers throughout villages, but this was my first time experiencing it.

Finally, we approached the mansion and found an entrance through the concrete wall that contained the quarters of aged buildings.  Our imagination was the best guide on what once housed them.  On turning around, I saw Meriden talking with a man.  She was working on her best to salvage an explanation with the best Russian she knew.

Briefly, we said who we were and what we were doing in this shrub-infested lot (a question we could just have well been asking him if we weren’t so nervous from speaking).  After a few minutes of awkward explanations, he asked us if we would like some tea, and took us to his makeshift home tucked into one of the more stable buildings.

There, everything looked neat and tucked into rows.  Even his pens and paper were set at 90-degree angles with his table.  After a few minutes, he was off for coffee.  Not knowing what to do in this awkward situation, I thought about what The Clash had said, and remembered the lyrics to the song that played over in my head.  Should we stay, or should we go?  Having two to one odds, we elected to stay, and within a few minutes, Volva was back with some coffee and was ready to chat and bear our poor Russian.

Our conversation waxed and waned from East vs. West Ukraine, family, and the wonders of Alexandrovsk (considered by some to be a big city).  The whole situation was a bit uneasy until I saw Volva trying to burn his necklace off with a lighter.  Then I knew that the Ukrainian hospitality doesn’t end with men who live on abandoned properties.

From his neck came two silver crosses, one male in decoration, and the other female.  He then gave us each one saying that they were expensive and not to be lost.  I stared at the cross in my hand and felt completely confident in the man who ten minutes earlier I held reservations of.

A few minutes later, we casually dropped the fact that we were from America.

He laughed, looked away, and caught our eyes again with a look of disbelief.  Only on TV had he seem Americans, and he couldn’t believe we had crossed paths with him and were sharing a drink at his home.  What would his wife say when he told her who he met?  What would his friends think?  He was sparkling, and we did our best to convince him that we were real, and human.  After all, if anyone, he is the generous one who welcomed us into his home and gave precious gifts to complete strangers.

That’s more human.

We took photographs with him, and he led us out and said a farewell.  We shook hands and promised to visit him again.  On walking down the graveled road past the cracked wall around the compound, I thought: what will our loved ones say, and what will our friends think when we tell them about this?

The last thing I want to mention is the request for a small donation for Camp GLOW, for young girls, and Camp TOBE, for young boys.  Both these camps promote a better understanding of gender equality for the youth of Ukraine.  Thirteen dollars can send a student to camp for one day.  Donating to our camp would go much further than any care package I could receive from home.

Please take the time to look at the link below and make a donation, or visit our website for pictures and videos from last year’s session.  Anything I can say in the blog could be said much better on the Camp GLOW/TOBE site.

GLOW/TOBE Site: http://globeukraine.blogspot.com/

GLOW/TOBE Donationhttps://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=343-313

at home

8 Mar

Suppose I would wait a while until some interesting things happened.

 

Starting with the bad.

 

Marshrutkas (buses) don’t run when I’d like them to.  Taxis are usually the best choice, but there is a grey area around 10:00pm when you can gamble and try to take the last few marshrutkas that straggle through the city.

After visiting my friend Amy’s place, I approached the nearest bus stop just in time to see my bus pulling away.  First test of patience.  Twenty minutes and two (of the wrong) buses later, I settle on a crowded bus that drops me off about a mile from my apartment.  Second test of patience.  A nighttime walk isn’t such a bad idea.  It’s probably better to exercise a bit in the cold, just as long as the bus I really needed doesn’t pass me.  And then, it does.  Third test of patience.

Not wanting local transportation to get the best of me, I decide to speed walk home to make up for lost time.  My block is in site, I hurry across the street, hit a spot of ice, and take a fall that knocks my hat off my head.

One week later, I’m still in pain and am pretty sure my rib is broken.

Worse things could happen.

 

The past few weeks have been busy, but so have the lives of most PCVs.  I could give a list of things I have done and places I have gone, etc. but let’s avoid anything approaching narcissism.  Teaching continued, as usual, and the week has been filled with fanfare in prelude of today, a holiday for women in Ukraine (whose virtues easily outweigh mine).

But there are some things on queue for the distant future.  Camps, clubs, and conferences will come and go, but I would like to start a project in response to domestic violence in Ukraine.  A quick note: the issue is not particular to Ukraine, and occurs all across the world in all types of societies.  Right now, my ideas are saplings, but maybe soon they will grow to immovable convictions.  Rather than outline any definite plans, I’d like to describe the environment I’ve noticed in Ukraine for Peace Corps Volunteers.

 

A perpetual motion machine – this is probably the best phrase to describe the Peace Corps Community in Ukraine, and this is why.  On coming to Ukraine, the idea of grant writing, community engagement, and networking with organizations seemed pretty intimidating.  But engagement happens in peculiar ways.

“Would you like to join my camp in the city this summer?”

“Sure, why not?”

“Could you teach our faculty about some different teaching methods?”

“I can probably swing that.”

“Our English club needs a lesson on multicultural communication.”

“I’m sure I can get something worked out.”

 

If somebody asked if I was being an exceptional volunteer, I probably wouldn’t take any notice to the comment.  I honestly don’t even think this sentiment is relevant.  There are so many projects happening, and they just fall into your hands like an ad in the paper.  Without realizing, the prospects or organizing, advocating, and educating are not as elusive as they once seemed: you just kind of get picked up by the machine.

This might not make much sense, but it’s just something I was thinking of.  And if it doesn’t make sense, let’s just leave it at this picture I took on the way to Chișinău, Moldova for a new Visa.

Этот Закир

17 Jan


Image

I first met Zakir at the pedagogical university in Lugansk where another volunteer lives and teaches.  Among all the large and small differences between the American and Ukrainian education system, student-teacher relationships are completely different.  Comparing the two is like looking at the negative of a photograph, all of the subjects are there, but they appear in completely different colors and with new shades of black and white. 

 

In America, amidst all of the red tape and litigation, the classroom environment is slowly becoming more progressive.  Teachers might laugh with students in the classroom, and the idea of scolding a student may be reason for termination, or a lawsuit, in some American classrooms.  But there are also unspoken rules in America, and communicating with students on social networking sites is usually inexcusable.  In the classroom we can facilitate a comfortable learning environment with our students, but outside the classroom there is a fear to move relations to any sort of a friendly level.

 

In Ukraine, many teachers view the matter differently.  The classroom is an environment with right and wrong answers, and students should be aware that the teacher retains full authority.  Rote learning is often the method of choice for teachers, and the students are expected to know their subject.  But on the streets and hallways, the interactions are different.  Teachers might visit the homes of other students or help students with errands and extra work.  And the same Facebook or Twitter pages that we try so hard the hide from our students in America are used to send notes, pictures and ideas to classes.  However, these interactions are through the Russian variant, Bkontakte. 

 

That said, I am still hesitant to spend extra time with students outside of class, even if they are another volunteer’s student, but I was immediately curious about Zakir because of his home in Turkmenistan.  Ukraine is wonderful, but I often wonder what would’ve been if our training group in Turkmenistan wasn’t cancelled.   

 

And this interest was what we shared when we sat on the padded mats on the floor of Zakir’s dorm with his other Turkmen friends.  I could practice the few Turkmen words I knew while Zakir could tell me more about the graceful Akhal-Teke horses of his country and the pleasures of Chal, or fermented camel milk, which can be prepared with some local supplies in Ukraine. 

 

Compared to most higher ed. students, Zakir is much older, but even at the age of 30 he has many accomplishments of those much older than he.  He came to Ukraine searching for a cheaper option to study and sacrificed his life with his wife and two daughters in Turkmenistan.  But his accomplishments are admirable, and he can converse in Turkmen, Turkish, Russian, Uzbek, Tajik and is studying English to add to his list. 

 

English is the hardest.

 

Or, that’s what Zakir tells me as we sat on the top tier of an arena in Lugansk waiting for the Moscow Circus to perform for local families.  On a free day, we decided to take a short walk to the circus close to the city center.  Walking through the crowds of children at the circus, I can tell Zakir enjoys the smiling faces of youngsters.  He can return a smile, or even make a goofy remark to a young girl holding a balloon.  And I think of his family back home and how he must have spent time with his two daughters celebrating Muslim holidays and preparing Turkmen dishes. 

 

In two more years he will finish his studies and hopefully become an interpreter.  That will give him the option of travelling to other countries and adding new experiences to his resume.  His university studies, which began in Tajikistan, will end in Lugansk and he will travel again to the home he left in Central Asia, seeing his family again and taking his own family to the circus.    

с дедом морозом

7 Jan

I have no more excuses.

Today is Christmas in Ukraine.  Work is cancelled, stores are closed and most Ukrainians are spending the day with families and friends.  I awoke promptly around midnight to a party of men trying to orchestrate a carol or two in the courtyard of my building.

That set the theme.

Today is a holiday, I have nothing to do, there are no more excuses.  It’s time to begin my blog.  I think the best advice I received from a Peace Corps volunteer was before I ever stepped foot into Ukraine, and it actually came from a returning Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) from Turkmenistan.  Most importantly, he said, don’t start a blog until you get in country.  Whatever I wrote would later seem embarrassing and I would become the butt of all jokes in the exclusive world of Peace Corps blogs.

I took his advice, and although I wrote some entries in America to post on my page, they will never be born into the world of blogs.  Because… they read a bit like a teenager’s diary.

But now I am at my permanent site in East Ukraine, Lugansk, and am finally getting to experience life as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  No, I haven’t started teaching yet; no, I haven’t started writing grants; no, I haven’t led any conferences for local teachers or NGOs.  It’s January, and Ukraine wants everyone to spend a few days eating starchy food and drinking cognac with family and friends, and the first weeks at-site are spent learning the bus routes, shopping at the bazaar and filling your phone with Ukrainian contacts.

Each day, I take a few more risks, but still retain some common sense.  A few months ago in Chernigov the idea of independence was a myth.  Every street and every district of the city was dangerous, and I had a Ukrainian constantly giving me advice of where to go, what to do, what to say.  I was seven years old again, and by the time I finished training and teaching in Chernigov I had rapidly matured to a rebellious teenager wanting to live on my own and to my own rules.

In Lugansk, I am probably back to a budding 13 years old.  I feel a bit anxious everywhere in the city and can’t always find the right words to express myself.  Each time I go to the store I am hesitant to talk to anyone and shy away from others who want to ask me a question, but whenever I am approached by an inquisitive Ukrainian, I am thankful for the words we share and I instantly become more comfortable.

Every day is something new, and that’s exactly what I want.