·        Sunday, 29 April 2007

Probably my Last Post in April & Definitely my Last Post in Crimea!

I am at the Internet Center at the Children’s Library (one of the two Internet Centers Mark helped get up and running during his Peace Corps experience!).  Patrons can use the centers for free, so there are restrictions on how much stuff you can down load and up load. Since this is my last Sunday here, I hoped to splurge a bit and post a few rather random photos here…but too much is going on…lots of last minute requests, goodbyes, teabreaks….nice to be wanted… Sooooo, just a quick note…


We will hit the road Tuesday and our Internet access will be erratic for a few weeks at least.  I will continue to write offline and post when possible, so continue to check back for the details of Post-Peace Corps live and the challenges and joys of our transition back to the USA! 


Keep sending the e-mail! 8-)



·        Friday, 27 April 2007

Yesterday the patio outside our street-side window sprouted tables and chairs. Outdoor drinking officially began. 


During winter the “regulars” often hunker over illicit drinks, using our window sill as an impromptu bar.  More often, they would squat on their heels near the curb across the street and quickly share a few shots of vodka.  (They carry shot glasses in their pockets.)  During the cold months, they drink, but they do not loiter, even with a little anti-freeze in their systems, it is too cold.


Now that the tables and chairs are available, they have the luxury to linger longer. They are more effusive; talking, laughing and arguing for hours.  They are raucous, reminding me of a flock of large crows.  My Russian vocabulary expands as I overhear the colorful stories they share and the idle gossip and flirting too.  The rule is you must finish the bottle once it is opened.  New friends arrive, new bottles are opened. Hours later, they stagger home.


The discos, cafes and bars in the nearby, seaside park have been painting, planting and cleaning.  Many will try to open in May because there are many holidays; the potential for customers is big.  May is a tease though –the weather can be mild and inviting one day and chilling the next.


People are eager to be outdoors.    


·        Thursday, 26 April 2007 – Chernobyl Remembrance Day

Last night on our way home from the library, we stopped at the Chernobyl monument up the street from our flat. About a thousand other people were there too.


Many people carried candles and flowers for this annual vigil.  Solemn music poured out of a sound system while people passed by the statue, depositing their bouquets and burning candles. The mayor spoke, candlelight reflecting in his eyes.  There was a 21-gun salute. A pageant followed.


It has been 21 years since the heinous events of that day and the days following.  Though Chernobyl is a long ways north (near the Belarusian border), people from Kerch were part of the rescue and recovery events.  Many people lost their lives. (See my last year’s journal notes for more details).


Today there will be other events.  Official flags, with black streamers attached, are flying at half mast. 


Radiation is still a concern in areas near the city and where waste was improperly disposed of (ie: Kerch Strait).


(The photo of the monument, a daylight shot, does not depict the flowers and candles. The photos of the memorial service did not turn out – candlelight is tricky. The monument is a dramatic, modern sculpture – a powerful image of a woman holding a dying child.)


A Further Note about Ukrainian Monuments…

People here are quite proud of the monuments in their city.  No community is without monuments.  When they ask us about our hometown, invariably they ask about how many monuments we have.  (I invariably stifle an irreverent laugh and refrain from telling about the Floyd Monument, built on the site where a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition happened to die of appendicitis – an amusing and true tale, but not very respectful.)


In Ukraine, People frequently place flowers on public monuments to mark special days.  Of course wedding parties go from monument to monument, paying respects by leaving behind bouquets and having a champagne toast at each stop. (Could this reflect on the Communist era when religion was forbidden?  Honoring their fallen leaders and the Motherland…hmmmm.)


·        Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Sudden Changes at the Last Minute…

This has happened before. Why is it that people organize going-away functions and fail to invite or inform the people being honored?  I will not elaborate on this idea, but it has happened several times in the past. (Yes, perhaps they are actually celebrating our departure and do not really want us there. A possibility, but not likely.)


At 10 AM I am in the midst of an aggressive schedule of doing laundry, cleaning, and sorting. I eagerly anticipate some quiet time to plan a suitable English Club ”last act”.


The phone rings. Sometimes I simply do not answer the phone.  But I pick up the receiver.  “Hello, my beautiful bride,” I hear Mark say.  “You need to be at the library by 1130.  It may be business, or it may be a farewell luncheon.”


I quickly hang up the laundry, run a comb through my rather dirty hair and decide to just plain avoid looking in the mirror!  (What I don’t see won’t bother me!)  I quickly throw on some decent clothes, load my big, red tote-bag with a few mementos I plan to share and begin my hike cross-town in the bright Spring sunshine.


The Event Is, of Course, a Farewell Luncheon.

L. gives each of us a large, beautiful decorative decanter filled with premium Ukrainian horilka (vodka). Mark’s is a wonderful Cossack and mine is a delightful Ukrainian woman in folk dress.  She also presents Mark with a special certificate of appreciation from the Crimean Ministry of Culture.*  We linger around the table after much conversation, laughter, eating and toasting.  We sip tea and talk about everything under the sun. 


Finally at 1700 I just have time to slip away do a quick errand and then return to the library for my 1730 English Club farewell. The room is crowded with many familiar faces. We have lively conversations and more laughter and then sad goodbyes.   


So the whole day and evening are filled with many very kind words and tears and laughter and small gifts and flowers; lots of posing for cameras and exchanging addresses. 


Thursday is Mark’s last day at work. There will be students to say farewell to and there will be goodbyes with the staff at the Children’s Library.  Then it is on to see his Russian tutor one last time; more goodbye-ing.


More about Ukrainian Toasting Traditions…

In our final week in Kerch we learned that the third toast is traditionally for the sailors/seamen. In most places the third toast is to the women.


* L. says the recognition is posted on the US Embassy website.


·        Monday, 23 April 2007

I read in an article about a war correspondent’s experience with night-vision goggles (NVGs).   The man, Walter Rodgers, was caught up in the beauty of the star-filled heavens over the Afghan desert. A Marine Corps officer encouraged him to strap on the NGVs and have another look.  Rodgers was awed by what he saw.  “…stars beyond reckoning, a hundred times more than were visible to the naked eye…words like trillions and billions lost all meaning.”


Rodgers went on to say, that he viewed this experience “…as a metaphor for God’s infinite abundance.” The article goes on to discuss how the good we seek, the intelligence and resources we need are, like all those unseen stars, already there.  These infinite blessings are there, but we cannot humanly divine them.  We spiritualize our thinking…and see that what we need is available, always has been.


It is an inspiring article: Page 23, in the 23 April 2007 Christian Science Sentinel.


·        Saturday, 21 April 2007


Climbing up the rugged path to explore the deserted ruins of Yeni Kale (a wonderful Turkish Fort at northern edge of Kerch near the mouth of the Sea of Azov), we encounter an unlikely pair of hikers.  These elderly matrons look like they would be more comfortable strolling along the seaside park in the city central.  The women negotiate the uneven terrain and manage to keep up a lively stream of gossip as they climb.  They are dressed for less rigorous activities: stockings, dressy shoes, hair coiffed. 


 I am still amazed to find Ukrainian women wearing impractical shoes in the most unlikely places. 


There is a strong wind.  I feel uncomfortable standing on the precipice, imagining a sudden gust sending me sailing over the edge.  The panorama is wonderful though, so I stand my ground and gaze out at miles of grass (a sea of grass) and wildflowers dancing in the wind. There is a lighthouse in the distance.  The sea is alive with ships.  Russia’s coastline is so near.


The wind is fierce so we elect to postpone our picnic, but the sky is blue and bright and there are inviting places to linger.


As we stroll back through the near by sleepy village, I watch chickens scratching in the road and admire the tulips and garden greenery. 


I imagine buying a small dacha here by the sea and making it home.


I pick up my pace and move on quickly toward the marshrutka which will take us back to town.


Later, we lunch on blini at a student café in the central city. We see the two sturdy hikers there.  We laugh and wave. They laugh and wave.


·        Friday, 20 April 2007

I Feel Like a Movie Star…

I made a return visit to School #28 and worked with two other classes.  My goal: to get the students to speak and express ideas in English.


I am not sure who finds these activities more enjoyable, me or the students, but I use all my theatrical and dramatic talents, throw in the element of surprise and some gentle prodding and joking.  I am exhilarated by them.  I watch their eyes and know when to back off and when to prod and push a bit.  I throw in some philosophy and values and sometimes a bit of poetry or a song.   I build on their successes - confidence is important in everything, but especially in learning a language.


The second group I worked with surprised me with an elegantly wrapped bouquet of long stemmed red roses. Then the usual photo session started. Mobile phones pop out from many pockets and we strike various poses. 


When they tire of documenting the event, the students push pens and papers into my hand, asking for autographs!  I am surrounded by a bevy of fans.


This is as close to being a celebrity as I will ever come!


·        Thursday, 19 April 2007

The “AT” Symbol = @

In Russian, the term for this symbol (@) is the word they use for dog (coboka)!  So when I give my e-mail address, I say “v-j-p-u-l-v-e-r-dog-p-u-l-v-e-r-p-a-g-e-s.com.”


This makes me laugh.


The Kerch Library has a Red Hat Club!

I read something about Laughing Clubs, a funny form of Yoga which started in India. That prompted me to choose clubs as an English Club topic.  


Before I got around to telling Mark about the topic, he mentioned that L., the Library Director, has started a Red Hat Society right here in Kerch!


Now that makes me laugh a happy laugh!


I know they will have so much fun with this club…I am sorry I have to leave – I would love to join them! 


Current Events Outside our Cozy Life in Kerch:

·         The School Shootings in America

 The news school shooting rampage at VMI in America is starting to filter in. Without the BBC radio broadcast and Voice of America, we no longer have any immediate access to world news. The Ukrainian TV shares some details, but not much. And of course, since the national language is Ukrainian, the news broadcast is in Ukrainian – never mind that a huge percentage of the Ukrainian population speaks only Russian. So, we must simply guess at the details. 


Over 30 are dead and many more injured.


I imagine our media folks, like vipers, are pursuing the ugly path of placing blame, casting aspirations and pompously pointing fingers rather than dealing with this tragedy with dignity and respect. 


They spew venom, incite anger and fear. It is not proactive behavior, nor is it responsible behavior.  I do not like the way our culture responds to crisis. (As if anyone can foresee the future or really control events…)


·         The Ukrainian President May Be Impeached!

The political news here is not good. The word ”impeachment” is being used. This is all a fancy game of chess and very disheartening for the people of Ukraine. 


·         Meanwhile, in Russia, Our Neighbor to the East… 

News reports say Russia’s President Putin is responding with heavy hands to many civil issues -protestors, peaceful or otherwise, are being beaten, journalists are ”disappearing”… Mr. Putin does not want an “Orange Revolution” (like Ukraine had in autumn 2004) on his (bloody) hands. 


·        Wednesday, 18 April 2007

There are Baby Kittens in our Courtyard!

The store cat has taken to visiting us each morning lately. She is hugely pregnant, consequently always hungry, and wary of the 4 puppy-hoodlums who make life at the store doorway impossible for a slow-moving, soon-to-be mom. I have seen her scrambling to escape the playful pups.  Climbing a tree is not easy when you are pregnant.


So the easy life cadging food outside the store is not so easy these days.


Today she arrives just as Mark leaves for work.  I can see she has delivered her kittens!  I slip back into the flat and return with a box of cat chow and give her a generous serving.


I hope we will see the kittens before we leave.  I hope the two terrorist dogs in our courtyard will not savage them.


Last spring one of the cats moved her two newborns to a precarious perch on the roof of the lean-to next door.  It was amusing to watch them mewing and playing but it was also alarming.  Like little birds, they eventually had to leave their nest.  It is quite a leap.  I turned my head when they bravely took to the air. 


Those two kittens were my little circus performers. Sadly they were among those poisoned.


I miss the cat-gang that used to entertain me with their antics and amaze me with their grace and simple joy in living.  Since Cat-Woman died last Fall, our courtyard cat population has dwindled down to only two, Dusty and Petunia. 


But now the store cat (and crew) has arrived, at least temporarily.


The rest, were victims of deliberate poisoning – a well-intentioned attempt to  keep the cats from starving or otherwise suffering since Cat-Woman would no longer be there to feed them three times a day and to shoo away predators and find shelter for them…she was their patron-saint. 


Most every courtyard has a benefactor like this; someone who provides for the cats and dogs that roam freely.


My Regulars…

Dustinovsky, one of my two regulars, is a compact, gentle, affectionate cat, but a fighter. He has only a stump of a tail now and always sports bloody, raw spots on his neck.  He arrives each morning and perches on our windowsill, catching the morning sunlight (and my attention). 


I open the window a crack and wiggle my fingers.  He stretches his lean body and reaches a paw out to me and meows a greeting.  Dusty rubs against the windowpane and bats at the glass. 


Petunia, Dusty’s sister, is a bit more sedate. She stares at me through the window, but will have none of the conversation or interaction.  She looks past me, no doubt remembering the time when I (inadvertently) placed the parakeet cage on that very windowsill. She had a ringside seat.  The poor parakeets were no doubt terrorized, but Petunia was delighted!  She sat mesmerized by the two birds, just inches away, a thin pane of glass separating her from a delicious delicacy. 


Now Water all Day Today…

I want to shower, need to shower…I sponge bathe with bottled water.  The dirty dishes can wait…


·        Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Pre-Packing and Dealing with the Post Office…

Gotta register for Space-A travel today and I also plan to pack my bags and see what else I need to leave behind.  Sigh…


We have mailed 15 packages.  This is a huge ordeal here since you can not just box stuff up, tape it shut, drive to the post office and give them cash.   Nooooo.  They have to weigh the box and the each item sooooo everyone in the post office sees that you are paying big bucks to mail home cheesy beach towels or other odd stuff. And there is always an ”audience” for every performance by the crazy Americans!


There’s a limit to how much stuff can go in each box or envelope, so you have to make spur of the moment decisions about what to remove.  Meanwhile, the clerk looks up values in an official book and fills out several official forms, uses official tape to seal the box in an official way.  Then the clerk stamps an un-official piece of paper, uses scissors (I presume the scissors are also official) to cut out each official stamp.  She applies glue and sticks these odd stamps on the package. We watched her put 27 such stickers on one small box.


Then she must use an adding machine, a pad of paper and a pencil and a computer to tally the damage.  But first, she tidies up her desk a bit, so she can concentrate. 


Throughout the entire process, the phone rings. She does not answer it.   She keeps her mind on the job at hand. People enter the office and presume the clerk will stop to help them, but she tells them point blank: ”Go away.  I am busy.”  People here often presume they can go to the front of the line and there is no pretense of asking first.  Clerks learn to cope with assertive customers.  It can be an interesting dance.  Only the most tenacious (and experienced) babushkas can shame the clerk into pausing to sell a stamp. 


Our last post office adventure, we mailed 6 packages and not counting waiting in line (I did not time that part of the adventure, but a half-hour wait is not unusual) the transaction took 1 hour and 16minutes.


Frankly  I think our clerk (there is only one) took some pleasure in making some pushy patrons wait while she completed our transaction – kind of a power trip for her.  Post office patrons are rather abrupt and demanding here. 


Well, I hope my cheesy beach towels make it back to the USA.  And I hope I do not have to make a return trip to the local post office to mail more stuff home. 


·        Monday, 16 April 2007

Impromptu School Visit…

I spent the morning arranging logistics for obtaining needed items for a local foundation that supports an orphanage and assists with rehabilitating alcoholics and drug abusers.  The foundation hosts English and culture classes to help support their other projects. 


The director (N.) is very resourceful and despite initial appearances she does get things done.  I came away from her office with a to-do list and a smile.  The smile, because the to-do list had several new items, unrelated to my original agenda.


This woman knows how to network and organize!  As I left, N. walked with me.  We crossed the street to the school to visit the toilets (it is not uncommon for offices to NOT have toilet facilities) and before I knew it, she Had me in front of a classroom filled with eager 7-8yearolds, making an impromptu visit!


What a delightful group of students they were!  I introduced myself in Russian and then switched to English, asking them “How are you?”  They stood and gave me the standard choral reply, the whole group responding in sing-songy voice: “We are very fine, thank you!”


I asked if they could sing me a song in English and they did.  I joined in and made animal sounds and appropriate gestures and was rewarded with many giggles and smiles.  Then I suggested ”Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” which they recognized. So we all sang very loudly and did the motions too. Each verse we went faster and faster… 


The children are charming - little blond girls in braids and pullover sweaters, little boys in ties and jackets; they are so confident and comfortable with themselves at this age.


This school building, just off the city center, is older than the USA by about 300 years – and still in operation.  It is clean and neat, and the walls have beautiful murals.   The hallways are dark (people in homes, businesses and schools do not turn on the lights until sunset).   The stone stairways are worn down beyond belief.  The desks each hold two students. They resemble those used in old rural schools in the USA back in pioneer days, though these are enameled with bright paint to make them fresh.



·        Sunday,15 April 2007

Brrrrr…it is Wintry Again!

The prognosticators say temperatures are going to drop below freezing (at night) this week and it feels like they maybe right! 


The city heat has been off for weeks now, so we all have to bundle up indoors to be comfortable.  I try not to use the electric space heater until evening, but is is quite chilly indoors this time of year.  


Today at the library, employees are wearing their coats indoors and hunching over their work.   Mark seldom thinks it is cold, and is likely to mention the idea of poor circulation when I mention being cold, but he is muttering under his breath about the cold.  


I can see his breath!


Rain is in the forecast too.  Cold rain.


We have had mild weather this winter and spring I guess.  When the snow flies I deal with the cold better than this time of year when everything is green and flowers bloom, birds sing, and the sky is so blue.   


And just when warm weather stabilizes here in Kerch, we head north.  We are spending the first half of May in colder zones.


When I get really cold, I head for the shower and use up all the hot water (in a matter of minutes) – I get clean and warmed to the bone. Then I bundle up and then I hover over the electric heater for a while.


·        Saturday,14 April 2007

A Short, Insightful Tale on Business Practices in Ukraine …

The foundation N. directs has offices and classrooms in a local hotel near the stadium. The space is donated to them and provides a wonderful setting for her operations. 


They may have to move soon.


Business interests from Western Ukraine showed up recently with documents showing that they own the facility. The local owners contested this surprising news and showed documents demonstrating their rights to the building.   There was a standoff and then the events escalated, and it became ugly fast!


The businessmen from Western Ukraine somehow “high jacked” the facility; have turned off the water; and made toilets off limits to all. Let me remind you, this is a hotel!  There are also other tenants including the foundation and a variety of hairdressers, banks and insurance companies who operate out of this hotel too.  This inconvenience is designed to get tenants out of the facility. The businessmen are said to have also used other tactics, such as using toxic paints in closed areas.  Don’t like the noxious fumes?  Well just move out!


Ambulances came, police are involved and there is a court case pending, but this is a country where there is really no law.  (May I remind you, the President recently disbanded the Parliament and the whole government is being contested!)  This is an ugly situation, intolerable really, but agents have far bigger fish to fry, so it is likely nothing will happen.


People learned their business practices under the Soviet regime.  Bribes, corruption and other unsavory practices are the norm. The lack of transparency and money makes being a person of integrity and a business owner more of a challenge than we can even imagine in the USA.


·        Thursday, 12 April 2007 – Day of the Cosmonaut

Some Details of my Day…School #28 

Today, I woke to the alarm clock (usually I simply awaken at will) because I had an 0830 commitment miles south of our flat.  By 0800, Mark and I were at the marshrutka stop and soon we were bouncing down the rutted, dusty road to School #28. 


On such a fine Spring day, it is a pleasant ride – the dachas (tiny farm cottages) on the hillside are lost among the white and pink blossoms.  Cows and calves are tied to trees along the road.  They graze contentedly. 


A babushka boards the van, a spade in one hand and a plastic bag overflowing with day lilies in her other hand.  I spent my commute thinking about what a lovely day she had ahead of her – working in the rich, black Crimean earth,  later sipping tea in a sunny spot, watching cats, chickens, and children enjoying life. 


At the last stop, our English teaching friend met us and escorted us to her school.  Mark turned me over to her and headed off to the Children’s Library to handle his Internet Center work and to teach, coach and motivate his young aspiring newsletter crew. 


School #28 is very old.  This school serves outlying (rural) areas so pupils take the bus in from small villages.  Declining populations leave many classrooms empty.  The neighborhood is shabby. Trash and graffiti are evident.  Inside the building, corridors are dark and musty, but the classrooms have large windows and the sun shines in today. 


My day was spent in various classrooms.  I do not ever profess to “teach” English, but I do enjoy offering students of English an opportunity to practice their skills in a non-threatening, playful setting. 


Today I worked with two groups of secondary school students, one younger group (14-15 years old) and an older group in their last year of school l-  they will finish school (they say “leave”, we say “graduate”) at Last Bell ceremonies in May.


I throw my energies into this kind of work – my theater experience and sense of drama surfaces.  I improvise, play-act and keep the students on their toes. I surprise them, challenge them, but leap in to support them.  I allow them (encourage them) to laugh at themselves, but never put anyone in the hot seat for long.  I look in their eyes and tease them…I love it.


American teachers have a different approach to many of the tasks involved in teaching. Our approaches are different, not better or worse, but different.  We ask why and discuss things…there may be more than one answer. There is room for opinion, discourse.  Here, answers seem more about right or wrong.


These students are not exposed to this American style and so they stay engaged and alert as I work with them.  I am successful at keeping them thinking and getting them to take small risks, to guess or to find another way to answer.  The idea is to communicate.  


I always come away from these sessions with more confidence in my own humble Russian communication skills.  I channel my limited skills, using self-disclosure and citing my own problems and experiences as a novice speaker of another language to help the students.  If nothing else, the students may see that making mistakes is not fatal.


A bevy of English teachers meets me after my first session.  I am ”booked” for a return visit with several other classes. 


The English teachers amuse me a bit; they are almost as shy as their students about speaking in English.  Some are actually quite fluent and articulate while others may be book smart, but cannot seem to converse or communicate outside the discipline of a structured class.


Why?  Perhaps because of the way corrections are handled here – the teacher is “always” quick to correct even the slightest error. The teachers are self-conscious with a native English speaker, afraid I will correct them.


My personal style is different, and so is my goal.  In my capacity, I coach and motivate, I facilitate, I encourage, I focus on understanding and communication.  My goal is to teach them coping skills, help them learn to cope and be resourceful, to apply what they do know…and maybe someday they will feel confident and comfortable.  And to build on success…


What good is it to learn language and grammar if you are too self-conscious to use it?


Having said this, I must admit, my heart often pounds before a public encounter where I must speak Russian.  Even just indicating to the driver on the marshrutka that I want off at the next stop, requires me to steel my nerves.  Sometimes the problem is that the driver may respond with a question or make a comment which I do not understand and I sub-consciously think I will stand there, dumbfounded, groping for words, while everyone on the marshrutka laughs and points at the ignorant American. 


So, my sessions went well.  Afterward there were photo sessions with some of the students and then I boarded the marshrutka and headed north, back to my cozy flat by the sea, my head filled with memories of happy students. 


Life Does Not Get Much Better Than This…

I often find myself thinking this.  I puzzle over these feelings a bit, wondering if this happiness comes with maturity or is conjured up by surroundings or perhaps it is just magic.


Today is one of those extraordinary Spring days that poets write about.  In Moscow there are blizzards this week, but here in Kerch, it is proper spring.

It is the kind of Spring day to etch into memory.


The sun is warm; flowers and trees are blooming, their sweet perfumes filling the air; the sea is azure and the details that belie perfection fade away.  The trash and broken glass on the ground, the uneven pavement, graffiti, crumbling buildings, mangy dogs, drunks and other harsh facts of life are less stark than in the cold, dark days of winter.  (It is like when you see a friend from long years ago and as soon as they laugh and begin to speak, when you smell their signature cologne or see that familiar gesture or sparkle in the eye, the wrinkles and grey hair recede and they become young, fresh, filled with hope.)


No, No Water Today…

You get used to it I guess…


·        Wednesday, 11 April 2007 – Kerch Liberation Day*

Where will we be next year at this time?


I have no idea.


In the past decade we have lived in Texas, California, South Carolina and Ukraine. We’ve made several cross-country trips in the USA, spent a month in Africa, plus family visits and vacations at various stateside locations (SW, SE, and Midwest)… I spent 45 days in DC, 45 days in Chicago, 45 days in Georgia, and 45 days in Minneapolis too. 


You just never know what adventure is ahead.


I may not know where we will be next year, but I do know we will be in Kiev in just three weeks. 


*See my last years’ entry for the history of Kerch Liberation Day


·        Tuesday,10 April 2007 - 1st Anniversary of the Internet Center

This morning, I tossed out the last of the Easter bread.

Friday, L. sent home three large loaves of traditional Easter Bread with Mark.  The bread is rich with eggs and has some dried fruit in it. The loaves are topped with powdered sugar frosting and colorful sprinkles. They resemble tall, oversized cupcakes or bizarre, fantasy mushrooms ala Alice through the looking glass.


It is traditional to bake this bread (read my 2005 and 2006 journals for more on Ukrainian and/or Russian Easter customs) and there are many beliefs associated with the process. 


You can buy them rather than bake them. They come in all sizes. They are everywhere.  They are not wrapped and sit, shoulder to shoulder, on cardboard trays, on display at all the outdoor markets and in shops.  The sticky-sweet scent is in the air.


L. did not bake hers.  And since we received them on Friday, I suspect they were not blessed by the priest.


Mark made an interesting French Toast with some of the bread.  I nibbled at the tops.


We did make some Ukrainian Easter eggs this year.


We also spent part of the day watching Omar Sharif in the story of Moses.  (It is amazing all that Moses went through.) 


We did not visit the Orthodox churches at midnight to watch the impressive blessing of the bread and eggs or view the midnight processions (Priests carry icons out of the church and circle it three times). 


We did not feast all night (and drink, dance and sing) with friends and family as many people do.  We did hear our neighbors coming home at dawn to sleep a bit before beginning a second round of sitting around the table eating, drinking, singing and dancing.


Monday was a recovery day.  The streets of Kerch were empty and quiet.


Today, it is business as usual again.


This was our third Easter in Ukraine.  Next year maybe the Easter Bunny will visit us somewhere in the USA!


·        Monday, 9 April 2007

We are out of Gas

Mark’s doing our cooking on a hotplate these days. The shiny, new, electric appliance perches precariously atop the old two-burner gas range. Now with only one burner and no oven, our meals are becoming much simpler, but actually the preparations become more challenging.


Many PCVs here do all their cooking on hotplates. 


Many working-class Ukrainian families still live in one or two room flats with minimal kitchen arrangements.  There may be a tiny sink, a hot plate and an ancient tiny refrigerator (or no refrigerator…you shop daily and cleanup your plate or eat leftovers for breakfast!).  These tiny flats are a carry-over from when the communists eliminated personal property and divided up old homes and large flats, throwing many people into tiny accommodations.  Later they built the grim, stark 5-6 story complexes one associates with old B&W films of Soviet-era life.


This year Kerch installed city gas lines (above ground eyesores, but a boon for users really).  Each flat has a drop. This means many people can switch from expensive electric appliances and convert to gas. 


Up until recently, we cooked on a gas range, using bottled gas.  We kept our fingers crossed that our bottle of gas would last until we leave (1 May) or that the new gas line in our kitchen would be operational.  Finding a new bottle could be a challenge.  With the impending change-over, the bottled-gas business has disappeared.   


Unfortunately, we lost that bet.  The tiny blue flame under Mark’s pot of breakfast cereal sputtered and went out for the last time.  And, at the start of a long holiday weekend.  No holiday baking.


What to do?  Well, in typical American fashion, we threw money at the situation.  We simply went to the bazaar and bought a shiny new, one-burner hotplate.  (About one-day’s wages, but less than a sixth of the cost of a new bottle of gas, IF we could find a new bottle of gas!).  


As usual, the seller pulls the appliance from the box, plugs it in and demonstrates that it indeed works. (Regardless of what you buy here, the salesperson will perform this ritual dance of opening the item and demonstrating that it works, lest you get home and discover the tube of lipstick, light bulb or immersion heater you bought is defective.  Food salespeople also insist you sample the salad, honey or sour cream you intend to purchase, but that is another story.) 


So, for the next three weeks (our last three weeks in Kerch) we are eating one-dish meals. The hotplate will be added to the stack of luxury items that we will donate to the library ladies when we leave. 


I am self-conscious and almost painfully aware of how often we project the image of being spendthrifts.  People (some people) assess us by what they find in our trash and by the choices we make when we shop.  It is hard to explain how much of our lives are on display here and how many of our choices become topics of conversation or the basis for people’s opinions.  This is not paranoia; it is a very real part of the challenge of living in a different culture. 


One PCV mentioned that she routinely burns her trash in the kitchen sink to avoid confrontations from the local babushka.



·        Sunday, 8 April 2007- Easter Sunday 

I read an interview with author Grace Paley.  There was a reference to her uncle who was killed in a demonstration in Czarist Russia.  He carried the red flag of the working class in that parade.  The advice Paley’s aunt shared with her is telling. ”Don’t carry the flag. You can be in the parade,” she said, “but don’t carry the flag.  You’ll be noticed. Don’t be noticed.”


The advice struck a chord with me.  I see that attitude here.


When we received our posting to serve in Kerch, one of the staff members said we were a good choice for this community, a formerly closed military town, where outsiders are still viewed with suspicion.  The staffer said we would project a professional and discrete image.  People would learn to trust us.


And they have.  We generally project a conservative image. Mark wears his dark suit and a tie to work each day, and I wear business apparel too.  But what set us apart initially is this: we smile.  We are Americans, and Americans smile. Mark and I are not only Americans, are happy, friendly Americans, so we smile a lot!   (I have been known to elbow Mark and whisper: “Stop smiling, you are scaring the locals!)


There’s an old expression: “Smile, it will make people wonder what you are up to.”  It is true here in this former Soviet community! 


It is not that the Ukrainians have nothing to smile about, but in their experience, anything that sets you apart, could cause trouble…serious trouble.  Might as well be carrying that red flag at the head of the parade!


It has been many years since the fall of the USSR and Ukraine’s independence, but the people still retain an over-developed sense of caution.  People are uncomfortable if they are singled out, separated from the crowd, culled from the flock.   They do not like to stand out.  Being different could get you killed


As our 27-months draw to a close, we notice more young people breaking the mold, pushing the envelope, trying out different looks.  Times are changing.  Young people are more willing to trust the future.  


Some of them are even smiling back at us as we go about our business.


These young people are the future leaders. They can make changes.   Some of them may be less wary of carrying the flag, they may even be eager to lead the parade. 


But still, if no one is willing to carry the flag, how can there be a parade?


·        Saturday, 7 April 2007

L. May Visit America in September!

It is a bit premature to make plans, but we are delighted to know that L., the director of Kerch Library Systems, may be selected for a professional visit to the USA.  She received the application this week. 


The application is in Ukrainian.  No one at the library (or in this very-Russian community) speaks Ukrainian. 


This language challenge surfaces frequently.


By making Ukrainian the official language, the many Russian speaking Ukrainians (mostly in the East and Crimea) can not compete on equal footing for opportunities such as attending university, working at jobs in the media, and in many other arenas.  This decision is divisive.  It undermines progress.  It limits options.  It is a political tool.


Language should be used to communicate, not alienate.


·        Friday, 6 April 2007 – Good Friday

Television bombards us with images of crowed trains headed into the capital city (Kiev).  The political situation is drawing big crowds.  Politics as usual here in Ukraine!  There are tents scattered across the areas outside the governmental buildings. Unhappy people wield colorful banners and chant.


Though we are interested in these dramatic events, our own needs surface.  Will we be able to get train tickets to Kiev?  Will we find a flat for our ten day stay?


Morning Routine…

I splash through the morning dishes, wailing out bits and pieces of Janice Joplin songs.


I think about John Steinbeck novels as I go through the almost-daily, bucket-laundry routine (scrubbing, wringing, and setting things aside to soak – today it involves washing two blankets, an effort equal to a workout at the gym!). 


I sweep the floor carpet with my broom. This act always makes me feel good…very self-righteous actually; the “good homemaker smugness” that is so satisfying. (I have fleeting thoughts of the amazing red-headed Brie (sp?) on Desperate Housewives). 


Next, armed with my magic bleach solution, I attack the scary window mold.  I pause to observe the activities outside my two windows on the world: cats in the courtyard and puppies on the street-side.  Then I observe an older woman rounding the corner and entering the courtyard across the street.  She carries a large funeral wreath.   I wonder who has died.  And how they died.  Life expectancy is very short here.  Men and women die in their 50s and 60s.


·        Thursday, 5 April 2007

Easter should be in the air! 

Living in the post-Soviet era here in Crimea (and eastern Ukraine) is a significantly different experience than living in western Ukraine, where the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church influence life more directly. 


Easter here is pretty low key.  The Easter Bunny has not got a toe-hold yet.  We do not know many people who attend church.  People quiz us on US Easter traditions and the meaning of the holiday.

Yesterday we were surprised to learn the library will be closed Sunday and Monday.  Sunday is Easter, but why are they closed on Monday?  Why not close for Good Friday?  English Club members indicated that Monday is about "recovering"...this is likely to be true; the drinking culture runs deep here. (Point in fact: morning cartoon show favorites include several characters who happily wield large bottles of vodka or ”moonshine” and guzzle it at will.).  

Internet Availability…

With the library closed on Sunday, my personal plans are disrupted.  I usually frequent the Internet Center on Sunday and do my online research.  And now since Mark cannot send my e-mail on Monday, it will be Tuesday before I can send or collect e-mail.  Soon we will be back in the USA; it will be nice to have Internet access in my home. 

Of course I can’t complain.  Some PCVs in Ukraine (in villages) do no have an Internet Center and do not (can not) use the dial-up available (poor phone infra-structure makes it virtually useless).  Other PCVs have access at work places and others have sprung for cable in their flats.  (Our flat is in a dead zone - we cannot get access due to infrastructure challenges.) 


It is my opinion that some PCVs are ambivalent about Internet access. They think having Internet somehow invalidates their PC experience.  Perhaps they want the isolation and the opportunity to escape.  There are also PCVs who join PC expecting to tough it out without conveniences.  It is like they expect to do penance for their life of luxury in the USA.  It is as if our service is not as honorable unless we suffer. (I consider the dichotomy between the libraries’ Internet Center and their outhouse in the courtyard.  And who, PCV or otherwise, does NOT have a cell phone?)

Conditions in Ukraine, like conditions anywhere in the world, are uneven and there are pockets where people are extremely isolated and under-served. (In our case, the community we live in is, in my humble opinion, a step up in many quality of life areas, from the community we lived in the USA!)


There are PCVs, particularly those in Eastern Europe (EE), who seem almost apologetic about their lifestyles.  (Among some PCVs there are jokes about the Posh Corps”)  While most of us do not haul our water, wash our clothes in a creek (I use buckets!), cut our own wood and cook over a fire, we do face daily disappointments and challenges when we expect to have light, heat, water, etc and the infrastructure fails us.  (Side note: These days, there are few PCVs anywhere in the world who on a daily basis actually face most of the challenges listed…they are exposed to extremes, and some elect a more modest lifestyle of course, but PC establishes reasonable minimum standards…)


Many of the challenges here (EE) come from our expectations. We initially see a people who appear very much like us, the cultural similarities are fairly evident. This is deceptive.  We are caught off guard by what sets us apart as a people and a culture.  There is much below the surface (values, politics, traditions, norms and mores, etc...). We must discover this and gain a deeper knowledge and respect for the country and the people. In countries where immediate appearances have us believe we are very different from the people and their culture, we approach life from the opposite perspective.

This PC experience has been interesting.  I am fascinated to observe fellow Americans as they immerse themselves (or not!) in another culture. Many arrive with agendas, expecting to change the world and in fact, depart changed themselves. Some are disappointed. Their ideas are not embraced. They feel they have failed.  Their performance measures may be inappropriate. 


As I have said before: it is in sowing the seeds that we make a difference.  We prepare the soil and scatter seeds. We are not here to reap the harvest.

It is time for coffee...and to rinse clothes in a bucket (if there is water).


·        Wednesday, 4 April 2007

The President of Ukraine Disbanded Parliament (the Rada)!

We now live in a country with no rule; in a manner of speaking anyway.  Elections will be held in late May (27th?).  The opposition party does not plan to honor the Presidents’ edict. 


This should be quite a wrestling match. (Or maybe I should say punching match, since these legislators seem prone to fisticuffs!)


The experience of living here (and our experiences in Franco-era Spain) makes me really wonder how our leaders in the USA ever managed to reach consensus and establish a rule of law.  Did George Washington literally duke it out with some of our illustrious forefathers?


Some of the Facts of Life Here, or Things I will Not Miss…

I read another PCV couple’s blog about their recent visit to the bleak, impoverished, coalmining towns of eastern Ukraine and the trials PCVs face there.  It made me mindful about the things we seldom speak about.  We often paint a cheerful picture of life, but some of the facts of life remain quietly tucked away.  The things you just deal with.  The cumulative effects can be disheartening.


In fairness, I must preface my comments with this note: every place I have lived has/had annoyances and challenging aspects.  In my American experiences we faced urban crime, the homeless, the drug culture, rednecks…


I am not whining, simply making observations for the record.  I am not a curmudgeonly, pessimistic person, grousing unpleasantly about things and commenting sarcastically or bitterly on life’s wrongs.  I am more of a Pollyanna-Pulver-person, counting blessings and finding good.


(Oh, it is not that I do not see the negative, it is more that I refuse to let the negative elements effect who I am and what I experience – I choose joy, and cultivate happiness and it responds!  Much in Life is about conscious choices! These challenges are like the tares mixed in with the wheat – in the end the tares will be nothing, but the wheat will nourish …)


I have loved my life here, but as our time draws to a close, I am increasingly aware of small annoyances, which I will be glad to put behind me.


Following, in no particular order, are my top 5 inconveniences (or character-building events)…


1. Mold and mildew. Fighting these outbreaks is a nuisance, a constant battle –our clothing, shoes, walls…sigh…  I am armed and vigilant – spray bottle of bleach solution in hand!) 


2.  Slugs in the water.  And crawling out of the drains. And crawling across our kitchen floor.  Like the mold and mildew, this is somewhat seasonal, but these slimy creatures are disturbing.


3. The tap water.  My hair, skin, teeth and clothing do not like it.  It is filled with minerals (iron and limestone) and, on occasion, the aforementioned slugs as well as other unidentifiable solids.  The water leaves a reddish residue on everything it touches – our shower stall, new when we arrived, appears filthy, despite my compulsive, obsessive and consistent scrubbing.


4.  Water (unexpected) outages.  The tap water may not be pleasant, but it is a challenge to deal without it and the unexpected outages are disruptive.  Days at a stretch with no water for bathing, flushing, laundry, cooking… (At least in the villages there might be a few wells where one could draw water!)


5.  Power (unexpected) outages.  Oh let’s just say the whole deteriorating infrastructure… from crumbling apartment buildings, to overworked heating plants…


I could include drunks, open-manholes, dark streets, litter, … and there are the personal and cultural challenges (pit toilets, unemployment, inflation, language, attitudes…) 


So I have jumped from small inconveniences to larger issues as I ramble on, letting my fingers fly and my head spill out thoughts, unfiltered, at will…


Let me clearly state, Ukraine has no corner on the market for problems.  The local mayor is to be commended on his proactive efforts to upgrade the quality of life here…this is a very pleasant, progressive place to live.  Against tremendous odds, this community is advancing, while our last stateside community has stagnated and ignores some truly frightening issues.



When we return to the USA, there will be issues…and many of them will just be slight variations on the same theme!  I recently visited my nephew’s blog and viewed his telling photo essay of his neighborhood in America’s heartland.  http://www.radloffs.net/blog.html


Life everywhere has challenges.


We just learn to change what we can and graciously take the rest in stride. 


The BBC News Take on Local Politics…

Ukraine leader calls early poll

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has dissolved parliament and
called a snap election, in an escalation of the country's political

The announcement followed seven hours of talks between Mr Yushchenko
and parliamentary leaders.

The move comes amid a long-running power struggle between the pro-
Western president and pro-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.

Parliament has vowed to defy the president and continue its work.

Analysts say the move is likely to plunge Ukraine into political

Rival rallies

Mr Yushchenko accuses Mr Yanukovych of trying to expand his power
base and usurp his power.

"My actions are dictated by the strict necessity to save the state's
sovereignty and territorial integrity," he said in his televised
address to the nation. "It is not only my right, it is my

He has signed a decree setting elections for 27 May.

But lawmakers in parliament - where Mr Yanukovych holds a majority -
backed a resolution stating that parliament would continue to

Supporters of Mr Yanukovych have vowed to defy the president's
decision, setting up tents in parks outside parliament.

Over the weekend, tens of thousands of supporters of both factions
turned out on the streets of Kiev for rival rallies.

Mr Yushchenko defeated Mr Yanukovych in the presidential election of
January 2005, following the pro-democracy Orange Revolution.

But he was forced to accept him as the head of government after his
allies failed to win a majority in the March 2006 parliamentary

Story from BBC NEWS:




·        Tuesday, 3 April 2007 – Only 27 Days Remaining!

We leave Kerch for the last time 4 weeks from today.

I am restless.  As the days melt away in the Spring sun, I find it increasingly difficult to stay focused or feel much urgency about things.


Mark continues to have a good pace. He interacts with students. 


My current projects, on the other hand, are mostly self-directed and solitary.


I manage to move forward a bit each day, but I seem to work better if I have a mix of tasks. 


What I need is a good dog-walk!


I need a dog!

If I had ”do-overs” I think I would have a dog here.  I should have just had Miss Zoë Mae shipped to me when I returned.  She would have been a real asset with her gentle manner and her attractive physique. 


A dog provides excellent companionship and allows a person to stroll about with some impunity. I always feel more comfortable poking around the community if I have a dog along.  Of course a dog offers a modicum of protection from those who are a bit wary of canines, but a dog also often invites some pleasant interactions too.


The dog-walking routine is also great for keeping fit. 


Of course being a pet-owner (and a PCV) can involve some challenges. PCVs travel frequently and travel is on public transportation.  There are unavoidable work-related trips as well as training, medical and pleasure trips. Finding a suitable “pet-sitter” in under-served countries is problematic. Finding pet supplies can be tough too.  In some places having an indoor pet is considered odd or inappropriate.  It may not be considered culturally-sensitive since we Americans treat our pets better than humans treat one another in some countries!  I have read some sad PCV tales about unfortunate pet incidents in other countries


I know of one PCV who had her dog shipped from the USA.   I also know several PCVs who took cats home to the USA and others who have passed on their cat-flat mates to other PCVs when the time came to return stateside. One PCV I know has what she calls a “decorative bunny” as a companion. 


Today a dog-walk is just what I need to raise my spirits and motivate me.  Instead, I am tapping away here on my lap top…


(Following is a Zoë tale, part of the Zoë Chronicles, that was in the Greenwood paper, Fall 2003.)



·        Monday, 2 April 2007

UA Politics …

Friday night we received a call from our warden (a PCV designated to be responsible for some of the security procedures).  We were advised to avoid large gatherings or groups.  Internal political violence is possible, but it is not directed toward Americans.  According to the news, security measures were in place to search passengers traveling on inbound (to Kiev) trains, buses and subways.  They were looking for weapons.


There is lots of drama in politics here.  Things escalate quickly and often become physical. Tensions are running high now.  There are many issues that need attention, but the focus is on who will take the lead.


US Politics…

 Saturday we visited a 9th Century Armenian Church. As we stepped into the cool, dark interior of this ancient edifice, an older gentleman met us at the door to offer us candles. 


Upon learning we are American, he hurried off to get his daily newspaper, the ”Crimean Pravda”.  He thrust the paper into our hands and pointed at the story in question.  We stood under the peeling fresco dome of the church, poring over the paper.  As we deciphered the written Russian, he shared his opinions on the topic.  According to the paper, on 6 April, the USA will begin a 12-hour bombing campaign (Operation Vinegar) on Iran!


I lit my candle and said a silent prayer as I pushed the taper deep into the white sand.  Outside in the garden, I could hear the tranquil sound of cooing doves. 


The doves bring me into the present and remind me that it is wise to deny false evidence quickly and to move on with the joys of life, the true things in life. It is easy to become fearful, drawn in by propaganda and distorted tales.  When these illusions conquer your calm trust in good, God, then it becomes difficult to function effectively.


I stare at the candle flame and say another prayer of gratitude.


·        Sunday, 1 April 2007 - April Fool’s Day & Palm Sunday

In Ukraine, it is Day of Humor & Willow Sunday!

The church bells clang and resonate over the sea. The sound echoes off Mitridate Mount. On the grassy hillside, a few goats savor fresh grass.  On the street, people walk with a spring in their steps. The sky is blue and the air is brisk, but warm enough to lure many people into leaving their hats behind. And of course the young women, eager to show off their spring clothes (and their long legs), are out in mini-skirts and fishnet stockings.


Today, lots of people carry a few pussy willow branches.  In the bazaar, babushkas do a brisk business selling pussy willow branches.  It is Willow Sunday here and next week will be Orthodox Easter. In 2007, Orthodox Easter coincides with our Easter. About every 25 years the two calendars coincide. 


In western Ukraine, the churches are more integrated into life. There are celebrations and many traditions.  Here, we still feel the coolness from the shadow of the Soviet/Communist/Russian past.


Here is a real cultural dichotomy that goes far beyond just language differences.


We did not experience any evidence of Day of Humor this year…


Suicides & Unexpected Deaths in Ukraine…

A PCV we visited Saturday observed that the suicide rate here is very high among older women.  The newspaper publishes a daily column titled: Unexpected Deaths; a term which covers accidents, fires, violent deaths, including suicide.  They use a curious expression for suicide that roughly translates as: ”She made herself calm (or she stilled herself).”    






FYI: If you want to read about our initial Peace Corps adventures, you can start with our in January 2005; that’s when we received our invitation to Ukraine!