I’m typing this on September 25, but I wrote it down on September 17…
Okay! Now I’m getting caught up! I have eight and a half hours left on this train, and I’ve got no escape.
First, rewind to summer. When last we spoke, I had finished Ukrainian language refresher [right? I’ll just check…] and had officially registered for a race in Kyiv in far-off September [ie, tomorrow [ie, last week]].
This brings us to the beginning of August, as I’m barely making the train to Odesa on my way to MASCOT in Mykolaiv. I can easily say that this camp was one of the highlights of both my summer and my Peace Corps service. My rainbow-colored camp bracelet reads “MASCOT CAMP – A PARADISE FOR CREATIVITY AND TEAMWORK” and this is as good a description as any. My two weeks at this camp were an immersion experience in celebrating creativity, embracing the unusual, and exploring possibilities. Our staff—half Ukrainian and half American—spent a few days bonding and preparing (read: creating obstacle courses in a swimming pool, thwacking open watermelons with swords, clearing up curriculum, gettin’ rhythm, making posters, playing games, painstakingly bringing bead-animals to life (shout-out to SALLY!), and just generally getting excited. Finally, the campers arrived: the champions of a competitive application process, aged 14-22, from all over Ukraine, willing to risk all normalcy to have a good time, meet new people, and most likely learn something along the way.
Campers were organized into teams, like homeroom classes—the families of our camp. Along with always-positive Anya, I was lucky enough to be a leader of the splendidly named Mysterious Macho Moose team. And let me tell you—Moose team is red hot! Moose team is red hot! Moose team is R-E-D red H-O-T hot—we can’t help but what we’ve got—we’re red hot! We’re red hot! Ahem.
MASCOT was an exciting blur of team activities, classes (International Studies, Social Integrity, and Creative Dimensions, plus electives and a project-management track), theme days, challenges, bizarre costumes, eggs, and watermelon. Puppets, UNO, American slang [word], Harry Potter in 3-D, songs and cheers for every occasion…
Above all, the people. Campers and staff drawn to this oddly wonderful festival of energy and excitement continually proved themselves worthy of the opportunity. A few near and dear in particular appeared, inspiring and firing up as only kindred spirits can. To those fellow inhabitants of the newly discovered planet TACAH, greetings and thanks! This energy is with me today…
My next stop on the summer schedule was another long train trip [long is a relative descriptor] to Uzhgorod. Here, at the English Language Refresher Camp, PCVs worked with teachers for a week full of methodology, active skills, passive skills, and elective lessons. Although a higher turnout was hoped for, the participants were eager and active. In addition to teaching Methodology (a curriculum written by my friend Michelle and I), I had the chance to create and teach lessons on the writing process, common errors and pronunciation problems, and reading for pleasure, as well as facilitating daily roundtable cross-cultural discussions.
The bonus of this camp, too—in addition to the beauty of the area, Mrs. Greenwich’s pizza pie and coffee café—was the time spent with another fine crew. Those who eat endless cheese sandwiches and watermelon together, catch up on YouTube sharing with the benefit of highspeed WiFi together, and support each others’ knitting, ketchup, and unexpected singing habits together are bound to be happy together.
After a seemingly needlessly long trip back—although just long enough, I suppose—there were a few brief days to unpack before leaving again. However, the shape of those days changed abruptly when my friend Kate decided to go back home to the US early. She had a job offer in her field of choice in the university she graduated from, including a decent salary, room and board, and full tuition in the graduate program she’d been hoping to attend. Lucky girl! Still, we’d both been away and had only returned on Saturday—and her train to Kyiv left on Sunday at noon. Exhausted from travel, sad to see her go, and excited for her new opportunity, I joined her in Kivertsi after returning from Uzhgorod. I had intended to help, but mostly I just sat and chatted while she ran around doing things. I saw her off at the train station on Sunday along with a few of her friends, students, and colleagues. Kate! You’re missed!
Missing Kate was made even more poignant by the trip two days later to our group’s Close of Service Conference. Held in the Carpathians, this gathering is intended to be both a celebration of our service in Ukraine and an opportunity to prepare to return home and to move on. However, I’ve applied to extend my time in Ukraine until next summer, so this was a strange experience. Luckily, my friend Laura, who is also extending, was my roommate, so we had plenty of time to chat and reflect on the oddness of saying goodbye without leaving. This was the final official gathering for our group, but with so many people—now 98 members of Group 37 still in-country—I’m pretty sure I saw some people for the first time ever. I really enjoyed the chance to see many friends I hadn’t seen since Swearing-In. We all laughed at the absurdity of giving brief and meaningful answers to the question, “So, what’ve you been up to for the last two years?” I was asked to give a seminar on writing resumes and cover letters, which out to be pretty fun, and we had many other informative presentations—on possible future jobs, especially—as well as lots of opportunities for reflection. Mesh Night, Ukraine’s Next Top Runway Idol, and a celebration of Independence Day balanced out the serious aspects, as did the beautiful setting and lodging, the pool and bar, and, for some, the actual appearance of the rumored-to-exist bacon-wrapped steak at our final celebration dinner. I had some sort of veggie ragout, not bad… but we all had ice cream sundaes, with chocolate syrup and nuts on top! Maybe that doesn’t sound too amazing, but it was unexpectedly wonderful.
The trip back to Lviv from Slavske, although longer than expected, had the added bonus of offering extra time with a wildly large group of PCVs. We happily spoke English openly, opened almost every window in the train car [usually a no-no, due to the common Ukrainian aversion to drafts—or, as Americans call it, cross-ventilation] and played the dictionary game—where the joke that I had worked for a time writing dictionaries was taken to be true… maybe a clue to a future career path?
From Lviv, I headed to Komarno to spend the weekend with relatives. Unfortunately, it was the only time I got to see them all summer, but they were as welcoming and wonderful as ever. We ate watermelon, played in the playground, learned UNO (sort of), and had a late night picnic in the garden with fresh corn on the cob and other goodies. On Sunday, Bogdan and Hanna and I went to Sambir, where my dad’s cousin Ivan lives. We spent the day with Ivan and his wife Lesya, eating lots and strolling through the city. It was the perfect day to visit Sambir, as it was a holiday, and everyone was dressed up in finery, attending church, and/or just generally looking pleased.
[Still on the train, we’re stopped at a station now, and I’m watching a pair of women out the window struggling to pick up four big boxes full of apples that tumbled from a handcart—men wander by with strings of dried fish, grannies with baskets full of bags of apples, a man with a rolling rack of magazines, an elektrychka on its way away on one side and another arriving on the other—noticing how I’m not taking any pictures because everything seems normal--]
In an effort to meet up with my friend Matt, who’s a PCV in Sambir, I was suggested to tell him we could meet by the church. “Which one?” he wisely asked. “The blue one.” At the blue church, when we arrived, literally hundreds of people were thronged on the street, around the grounds, and inside. With Hanna taking my elbow, I was led around and through and inside and out, drank holy water, and took a few discreet pictures. One of my favorite scenes, however, went unphotographed. In a side courtyard of the church, about seven priests were arranged at various intervals to listen to confessions from lines of waiting faithful. No anonymous confessionals for these individuals, and I was led to wonder about the scene, but with little time to do so. Away we went again, more food, more visiting, and, finally, sleep in my own bed after several more hours on buses.
So, then school started! At our university, the start felt a little halting, as some difficulties led to us receiving a piecemeal schedule, a few days at a time, with regular changes up to the time of this writing [and this typing]. Still, start it did, with a colorful chalk welcome gracing the asphalt in front of the main university building. This was the first activity of the year for the newly named IN Project and I’m looking forward to more of them with these excellent students and teachers. We’ve since created a wall of dreams (I want to swim with dolphins… We want to be best friends forever… I want to surprise the whole world…) and held meet-and-greet sessions for students. We’ve just started English Club, too, with more activities already in the works.
And then, Vika got married!