Tuesday, March 29, 2011

post 29 march: ooh la-hover-la-la!

This week brought a few miscellaneous items, one small story, and one big story.


- This morning, I saw a graffiti-ed message on a meat-selling kiosk/ trailer/ tiny shop. It wasn’t the fact that there was graffiti that surprised me, as this is sometimes the case. It was the fact that the message was in English and, more than that, used a word that most Ukrainians have never heard of. “Go vegan!” This is a country where vegetarians are often interrogated and also assumed to eat fish [which isn’t meat, as it’s explained], and I’ve found myself explaining what a vegan is and what a vegetarian is many times. Although this sign came in the form of graffiti, which is, of course, disrespectful and illegal, I couldn’t help but get a little thrill from seeing the message.

- Another new sign of the season is the appearance of lines of tiny multi-colored plastic cones, one in front of the university and one in the center. Upon long-term study, these lines turn out to be courses used by weaving kids on skates. Summer is coming!

- I love carrot-apple salad. My host mom used to make it, and now Kate makes it. Shred apples, shred carrots, and serve. Raisins [or, if you live in the land of supermarket bounty, craisins] are optional, as is a little oil. [This may be the land of milk and honey, but we don’t have everything else!]

One small story:

- Last week I had a sort-of lesson/ hang-out session with a 2 ½ -year old. Artemchik [i.e., little Artem] is on his way to learning English at a local language school. He knows the numbers from one to ten in English, Ukrainian, and Russian, can identify a watch versus a clock, and knows all kinds of other things to say, among others, “broken chair,” “fruit”, “vegetable”, “calculator”, “glitter”, various animal names, and my favorite, “not yet”, which is not yet used correctly in all situations, but which was pretty entertaining as an answer to a variety of queries. He’s picking up language quickly from his regular tutors/ hang-out crew, and they’re interested in having me spend some time with him so he can pick up some special native-speaker vibes. We’ll see. That’s pretty far out of my area of expertise, but of course I’m trying to be flexible and helpful. Really, though, he’s so small! Luckily, he’s really cute and well-mannered, and he’s even more fascinated than I am by the school’s old-fashioned green typewriter.

One big story:

- This weekend, I went on a big trip to Mount Hoverla, the highest point in all of Ukraine. Hoverla is located in the Carpathians, in the southern part of western Ukraine, almost at the border with Romania. This hike was coordinated by Eco Mercy, an NGO, and organized for Volunteers by Catherine Duchok, the PCV who works with Eco Mercy.

The adventure started with an afternoon bus ride to Lviv for a crew of four, then dinner and mingling in the city with lots of other spontaneously appearing PCVs. At the train station, I felt like almost every American I know in this country was gathered. It was like a strange dream in which you keep turning corners in a strange maze and seeing people you know. Catharine’s Mickey Mouse/ Ukrainian flag/ American flag combo-on-a-stick was the gathering point, and we all picked up our tickets and headed to our special train, reserved for this occasion. Two entire train cars were dedicated to the Peace Corps Volunteers taking part, as well as a few other international volunteers.

Our hotel on wheels arrived around 4:30 a.m., and we were allowed to sleep until about 6, when it was time to get ready and head out to buses and leave by 7. These crowded buses took us to the start of the park, where we got checked in and excited, then back onto the buses to the start of the on-foot portion of the trip. This was a single-lane road, more or less, and fairly easy going. The trees were tall and beautiful, the roadside stream carved its way through snow, and all seemed well. I had been told by friends that this would not be a difficult hike, and that the most difficult part would be waiting for all the people in front of me to move. A water break, some pictures, the appearance of snow, and progress, aided and entertained by my friend Rebecca, of the fair city of Frederick, Maryland.

Finally, as the road grew steeper, we arrived at a resort of sorts, where many people were gathered, souvenirs were being sold, and patient thumb-wrestling was going on. We were shuffled into groups, sort of, and then headed up by twos, sort of, onto the trail—at last! The trail was a somewhat invisible path through woods, helped by tree roots and hindered by ice and snow. This was somewhat difficult, but not unreasonable. Still, we mushed onward. Time passed. Eventually, we were almost out of the literal woods, but hardly out of the figurative woods. Above, we saw a steep expanse of snow and ice, punctuated by protrusions of low, scraggly bushes. Now, after a brief respite at the waiting area, we went marching one by one [hoorah! hoorah!] up the steep incline. I spent a long time looking at Jonathan’s shoes, marveling that he was wearing sneakers on such an expedition. Behind me, Ben was probably marveling that I was wearing totally the wrong boots for such an expedition. Truly, I did not pack my bags to Ukraine with this climb in mind [“Make sure you bring plenty of professional clothing; appearance counts!”].

Beside our single-file line, as we stuck our feet into the footholds planted by those before us, a random assortment of rushers [not Russian] hurried up at their own pace. This included a group of police cadets on some sort of training adventure. Good for them, fine, but really, we needed to keep our own morale up—couldn’t they do this somewhere else? Still, there it was: the ridge that marked our triumph! We were almost at the top! Burning legs threatened to cramp up, but still managed to crest to the flat landing… and then a sudden crestfallen realization… This seeming plateau was simply the lower summit, a foyer to the real summit, which lay ahead, swirling in snow and icy distance. Come on! So, we did the only thing we could do. We had a picnic.

After our picnic, it was decided—by our guide, and our semi-reluctant selves—that we would try to go up to the top. We crossed the comfortably semi-flat field that led to the base of this summit, and started the climb up the rocky, icy, pathless way. The wind was intense and the snow was hitting my face. At a certain point, it became clear that my shoes and my ski pole-less self were not adequately prepared for this situation. When those ahead in my group were turned back—the summit was too icy for anyone but professionals—I turned back, too, after a few oh-man-I’m-really-far-up-here pictures.

Then, suddenly, I was at the edge of the steep and snowy slope, with full realization of the challenge of descending this expanse suddenly descending on me. “Come on,” said Rebecca. “We can go with Abby and Margot—they have sticks! We’ll all go together.” “I don’t know,” I said. “I think I’ll just wait.” What? Wait for what? Summer?

Going down was really stressful, with a bunch of slips and two big falls. Suffice it to say that I was—and still am—extremely grateful to be helped by so many people. Our crew of four made it a good part of the way together, and Margot stuck by me until we finally got to the woods. I give her credit for stopping me from sitting and sliding when it seemed like we were soooo close to the bottom. “I’m not letting you do that,” she said. “We’ve seen how that worked out for you before.” Truly, it was an ugly sight. On the second big fall, with no way to stop myself, I was saved by Terry, who miraculously appeared from nowhere. I’m sure he would have done the same for anyone, but it was nice that it was someone I know well, from Lutsk, who rescued me. He’s from Colorado—as so many of my friends here seem to be—and has climbed many mountains that completely dwarf this one, and here, seemed very comfortable and able to think about things like taking pictures and rescuing tumbling climbers.

So, back into the woods—with a surprisingly delicious hardboiled egg reward [thanks, Rebecca!]—, down the mountain—with only one more fall—, past the hotel, and back on the road with Shannon and Rebecca. Pleasant conversation made the seemingly endless road and the somewhat unpleasant rain much more bearable. Back onto the bus at the bottom, back to the train to change into warm clothes, and then to dinner in a little café in town. I was so excited to have borscht without meat! Possibly this was simply due to the fact that it’s now Lent, and many people aren’t supposed to eat meat, but I took it as a personal reward for my efforts and survival. After dinner, we got back onto the train, chatted, wondered about how sore we would be in the morning, and fell asleep, exhausted, soon after the train took off.

After only a few hours of sleep, the lights came on and the conductor walked through the aisle to wake us up. I checked the time: it was 3:10. What? We were supposed to get into Lviv around 6. What? There must be some mistake. Let’s go back to sleep. Slowly, we collectively realized that: a) we were actually close to Lviv, and b) the time had changed. What a horrible time for us to spring forward! [The time change here was two weeks later than in the US.] We arrived at the train station in Lviv a little after 5, then waited for the city buses to start running so our sleepy crew could get on the first bus to Lutsk. Yawn.

Was it an adventure? Yes. Was it beautiful there? Yes. Did I fear for my life at times? Yes. Am I glad I went? Yes. Would I go again? Hmm…

I will say that one of the things I definitely took from the experience was the need to accept help from others, and to work together. So often I feel that I want to do something totally on my own, and that it’ll be better if I accomplish whatever it is independently. Still, it turns out that I am not an expert mountain climber [shocker!], and I really would have been foolish to go it alone at any stage of this trip. We can’t all be the best at everything all the time, and there’s no shame in asking for help. There’s no shame in accepting help, either, especially when it’s absolutely necessary for your survival. Will I be able to take this lesson to heart in other ventures? I hope so. Really, heartfelt thanks to everyone who helped me so much this weekend: Rebecca, Margot, Abby, Terry, Shannon… Thanks to them, I’m not still sitting on that way-high picnic ground waiting for summer!


Monday, March 21, 2011

post 21 march

The Volyn crew invites you to celebrate 5-0 years of Peace Corps. :)

It might not surprise you to know that the shockingly high temperatures I posted about last week--look, Mom: no gloves!--were replaced with more reasonable [?] seasonable [?] temperatures. This means that the promising spring mud froze up and that Thursday and Friday mornings offered new snow. Odd.

Now, though, since the vernal equinox was yesterday, spring is truly about to arrive. THIS IS AN ENGRAVED INVITATION TO DO SO. Really, spring. Was it something I said?

Last Sunday’s community English club found several PCVs at the Window on America library facilitating discussion on popular music. It’s great when we have the freedom to choose our own topics and activities, and this one seemed to go over very well. Talking about the differences between rap and hip-hop, bluegrass and pop country, and a request to identify an indie band that’s popular enough to be known in Ukraine prompted interesting discussions. Jonathan did an excellent job as DJ and facilitator of this meeting, and even Slavik—an older gentleman mainly interested in history, it usually seems— commented that he had learned something and enjoyed himself.

I had a sort-of breakthrough this week, too, in coming to terms with the adjective повний [povnee], which means full or complete. I generally knew this word already, but multiple appearances in rapid succession made me consider it more closely. The first was when I was buying a train ticket to Kyiv, with the cashier asking me if I’d like a student ticket or a full [povnee] ticket. I laughed, then told her I’d like a povnee ticket. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a povnee ticket, but I’ll take the I-don’t-know-how-old-you-might-be compliment anyway. The second appearance was while I was walking to yoga with a lady who often rides the same morning bus I do. We don’t really have very in-depth discussions, generally, for a variety of reasons (it’s 6:30 a.m., I don’t even know her name, etc.), but we were talking about shashlik [shish-kebab] and I said that I was a vegetarian. “Повна вегетеріанка?” Yes, a full vegetarian. Less than an hour later, I heard our teacher tell us to take three povnee breaths, and I suddenly realized that what he says at the beginning and the end meditation segments of every single session is “deep breathing.” This must be it, right? I mean, he says something like “po-indyhennya” and I always knew it was something about style of breathing, but now I think it’s povnee dehennya--deep breaths… right? Confirmation from an outside source has been sought, but not attained. “Maybe you’re right, Melissa, but maybe it’s…” So much for povnee understanding. :)

On Saturday I worked as the official announcer at spelling bees for each of two different age levels at a local language school. This may be the job that I was born to do. Reading aloud clearly in English, being asked for impromptu definitions and sentences, and having an audience hang on my every word… Maybe it’s too much of an ego trip, yes, but I enjoyed it. I was impressed by how many words both groups knew—from waist-high and up through elementary in the first group and middle/ high school or so in the second group. One memorable moment came in the second group when a girl was asked to spell “beach” and she quite innocently spelled another similar-sounding but never-before-seen-in-a-spelling-bee word. “Would you like to hear it in a sentence?” I asked. She did. And respelled the right word. And it was hilarious for everyone in the age group. It may be noted that the younger age group got past this word without a hitch. Overall, I enjoyed the chance to replace my last spelling bee memory with a positive one… L-E-P-O-A-R-D…

This weekend also brought another positive in the form of a goodie bag from Rokyni. Tatyana, my friend Katie’s former counterpart, sent her husband into the city to bring me a lot of potatoes, beets, carrots, onions, and a jar of jam, a jar of cherries, and a jar of her fabulous pickles. Katie’s back in America, but Tatyana and her family keep giving. I’m hoping I’ll be able to do something nice for them sometime soon, too. Those pickles are soo good. I’ve recently been informed that there’s a difference between pickles and marinated cucumbers and these may actually be marinated cucumbers, but anyway, they’re delicious. Recipe? Take cucumbers, add some water, some oil, some horseradish shavings, and some magic, as far as I can tell. I’ll try to get some more specifics, as pickles have been the most commented-upon subject I’ve written about recently.

Finally, last week was the oblast-level judging for the International Writing Olympics. In Volynska oblast, 11 schools and 235 students participated! For added publicity, here are our winners—all currently under review in the national judging stage.

- 6th- Ruslan Zhylovetz, School #4, Kivertsi
- 7th- Iryna Dmytruk, School #4, Kivertsi
- 8th- Andriy Baboryga, School #14, Lutsk
- 9th- Viktoria Hut, School #14, Lutsk
- 10th- Iryna Duka, Volyn Boarding Lyceum, Vyshkiv
- 11th- Olena Yermakova, School #18, Lutsk
- university 1- Sasha Borodych, Romance-Germanic Philology Dept, Volyn National Univ
- university 2- Natalia Jostuyk, International Relations Dept, Volyn National Univ
- university 3- Chrystyna Hubska, Romance-Germanic Philology Dept, Volyn National Univ
- university 4- Oksana Lytvyn, Romance-Germanic Philology Dept, Volyn National Univ

This week means spring break for many schools here, but not universities. Still, the upcoming weekend trip to Mount Hoverla, the highest mountain in the Carpathians, and in all of Ukraine, promises to be a good mini-break.

Hope spring has sprung where you are, and you’re catching some breaks, too.


Monday, March 14, 2011

post 14 march

Yesterday, it was 15 degrees! Can you believe it?!

Celsius, remember.

Believe it! :)

Although I’ve heard a few rumors about an upcoming chill, I’m choosing to believe that we’re done with winter. During Soviet times, the first of March was apparently a holiday to mark the official beginning of spring, no matter the weather. So, let’s just say it’s spring. I’ve been wearing my fall [now spring] coat and not the big black down one, and I didn’t even wear gloves today. Manalive!

Because of last week’s holiday, I had a very short working week. On Wednesday, my country studies class had a shortened lesson with a Women’s Day theme. Each group was instructed to choose a nominee for Ms. English-Speaking World. She should be 1) famous, 2) influential, and 3) someone you would like to meet. Nominees included Madonna, Marilyn Monroe, Pink, Janis Joplin, Margaret Thatcher, Princess Diana… and me. Speeches were given extolling the virtues of the candidates. And then the class [about 40 students] voted. And then I won. Sort of embarrassing, sort of hilarious, and totally unexpected.

Another unexpected moment occurred that same evening while I was having dinner with friends at a restaurant. I really like the vegetarian pizza there, and so that’s what I ordered. What I received, however, was a potato. A twice-baked potato, yes, but definitely not a pizza. I asked my friends, and was reassured that yes, I had indeed ordered a vegetarian pizza. When the waitress came by, I told her that I had ordered a vegetarian pizza, and asked, “But what is this?” “It’s a potato,” she told me. “A vegetarian potato.” Of course. A vegetarian potato. She had misheard me. Pitsa = kartoplya? I was prepared to eat this potato, but my friends (who were aware of both how much I had wanted the pizza and how tasty the cheese, green onion, and tomato-stuffed twice-baked potato looked) took the liberty of eating my potato and ordering me “another” vegetarian pizza. Odd.

I spent Friday in Kyiv getting my midservice medical exam, both at the Peace Corps doctors’ office and at the dentist. Sorry to say that I have one cavity, but it was nice to be in the city and navigate about successfully on my own. Plus I had the rare opportunity for falafel for lunch, plus a pre-train bonus treat of McDonalds fries [I think they’re better here than at home]. The strangest thing that happened on this trip was one that is fairly unlikely to be believed, but I’ll tell you anyway. While walking on the street after having my teeth cleaned [i.e., blasted with salt water or something like that], a man walking in the opposite direction headed straight toward me, abruptly asked “Mozhna vas ---?“ [May I --- you?], and before I could figure out what that unknown word meant, chomped his teeth together in a smiling bite, and then bit my shoulder lightly. I did the only appropriate thing possible in the situation: I laughed in a surprised manner, then walked confidently away, as if this sort of thing happened to me all the time. What? I can only imagine that he had caught some of the clean-teeth vibes I was clearly broadcasting. Anyway, it wasn’t scary, it wasn’t a hard bite at all, and it was just real enough to only ever happen to me.

Great Lent is going on now, with all kinds of people giving up all kinds of things. Although I’m not a religious person, I decided, albeit a day or two belatedly, to give up something, too. So, no sweets and no chips. That’s the plan. So, if you’d been hoping to send me a bag of Ghiradelli’s dark chocolate chips or a cream of tartar refill so I can make snickerdoodles, please hold off until the end of April.

Hope your days are sweet and warm!


Monday, March 7, 2011

post 7 march

A time of celebrations—

Pickle salad! It sounds sort of strange, and in fact may be, but it’s also sort of delicious. Pickle salad mainly contains, shockingly enough, pickles, usually cubed, although it may also feature small cubes of apples, too. [This next sentence, however hard I try, will not contain quite as many commas as that last one, so don’t worry, if, in fact, you were considering worrying, that is.] This ingredient/ combo is dressed with a bit of oil, and maybe salt, and that’s it! Vika’s friend Yulia, who works across the hall from us, sometimes makes this, and I’m always surprised by how good it is.

The 50th anniversary of Peace Corps! Maybe this item should have been listed before pickle salad, but hey, it’s going on all year. March 1st marked the official beginning of the celebration, with Peace Corps Volunteers and staff members around the world scrambling to show how stunningly their country or department can celebrate. In Ukraine—where this year also marks 20 years of Peace Corps involvement—celebrations include special projects, a photo contest, a PSA contest, an essay contest, and a documentary film, to name a few. Facebook profile pictures are switched for the month, plans for a summer celebration at the next Swearing-In ceremony are set, and Peace Corps will even be one of the featured cultures/ exhibits at this summer’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, DC.

I got to read two books this weekend! That’s pretty straightforward. These books were Salman Rushdie’s Fury and Anne Lamott’s All New People. Sort of opposite books, they are, which is fine. Two books in one weekend, though? Must be…

Several days off! Friday wasn’t a working day, as we had a Meet Your Neighbor meeting for all of the PCVs in Volynska oblast. Instead of teaching, then, I went to yoga, went out for breakfast, had a meeting, went out for pizza, hung out with friends, and went out for dinner! The rest of the weekend involved some fine houseguests, Bananagrams and other marvels, banana bread and other baked goods, and plenty of relaxation with friends.

International Women’s Day! is the reason for the rest of the long holiday weekend. Celebrated on March 8 in many countries around the world, this is a holiday taken seriously in Ukraine, if completely ignored in the US. In fact, this is the 100th birthday of International Women’s Day. Here, men give ladies of all ages flowers, chocolates, and other goodies, including greeting cards that wish the recipient “a sea of flowers” and other such sentiments. Since this official-day-off holiday is on a Tuesday this year, schools and many businesses are closed today [Monday], as well. Some schools—including my university— will likely reschedule the Monday classes for an upcoming Saturday.

Sunshine! There’s a lot of melting going on—resulting in big puddles and quite a bit of mud—but there’s still snow around, and icy conditions most mornings and evenings. Will the temperature continue to improve? Hard to say. Yesterday it was suddenly snowing two or three times during the day. The bright sunshine is really amazing, though, and I often feel compelled to take pictures of light, even though they never quite do justice to the real scenes I’ve seen. [a few of these on album 3 here, a few on FB]

IWO school-level judging is finished! Within my college [Romance-Germanic Philology] of Volyn National University, 140 students participated in the International Writing Olympics. As the judges read through the essays, we regularly shared aloud entertaining bits that we encountered, and in general, we were pretty pleased with the results. Now, our four winners [one per grade] will move on to oblast-level judging. I wish I could share some of the questions and responses with you, but I’ll have to wait. The contest is currently going on in eleven different Peace Corps countries, and each has its own schedule. Because our country is so large, I think we’ve been the first to hold our local-level competition. Still, I think we’ve got a good system in place to keep everything in order. The international organizer joked that in his country, Armenia, he would have no trouble contacting any participants through friends and relatives of his own host family. Not so in Ukraine, even if your host family is Peace Corps.

Random time! Because of the days off, I’ve had the chance to work on my taxes, spend more time looking for a literary agent, make and post a list of books I’ve read in Ukraine, do some good ol’ bucket laundry, and work on summer plans. I’ve been able to stare out my fabulous window and observe entertaining scenes, such as a group of teenage boys who are just now throwing what appears to be a cell phone up high into the air, back and forth among each other. I can only wonder whose phone it is, and why this is happening. I’ve had the chance to consider philosophical correspondence with a new practicing-English penpal and try to develop an answer about what it means to be a spiritual person but not a religious person, and how one ought to cultivate a soul that might or might not exist.

Overcoming! Over the past few days, two few different somewhat unpleasant situations have arisen, due to personality conflicts, over-reliance on bureaucracy, and unclear expectations. I can’t say that either of them has been resolved, unfortunately, but I can say that I’m not losing too much sleep, either. We can only do our best to offer help, and when it’s happily accepted, even with some necessary modifications, that’s when a volunteer—or anyone—feels useful. When unrealistic expectations or petty squabbles are thrown up as blocks that prevent productive work, though, it’s hard to remember that we’re all coming from different angles, and that change happens slowly. I’m working, as always, on patience and flexibility. It helps that I have such good…

Friends! They’re grrrrrrrreat!

-- Kate, always ready to sing you happier--

Happy Women’s Day!