· Tuesday, 31 January 2006
The Black Sea has iced over.
A family went for a walk on the sea – yes, on the sea. This was the talk of town yesterday – who would be so foolish?! And not just one person, but a whole family! The library ladies were shocked. They clucked and shook their heads.
Half hearted snow flakes drift down today.
The Holy Water Update!
Following is a newspaper photo and caption which explains the Holy Water Lyudmila shared with us (see 21 Jan posting). Here we have President Y bathing in the frozen Dnipro River! It is an election year! 8-)
Subject: Yushchenko in Dnipro Jan. 19
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko takes a dip in the icy-cold water of the Dnipro river in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Jan. 19. The cold snap coincided with the Ukrainian Orthodox holiday known as the Epiphany. Many Ukrainians mark this annual holiday with a ritual that involves jumping into holes cut into thick ice on rivers and ponds to cleanse themselves with water deemed holy for the day. The tradition imitates the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan.
· Monday, 30 January 2006
We Live in the Bosphoran Kingdom
In the 7th Century BC, Kerch (known then as Panticapaeum) was the capital of the Bosphoran Kingdom. There was a wall over 70 kilometers long – 3,600 towers fortified it and protected this area from invaders for a few centuries. The Huns finally conquered and that was the end of the Bosphoran Kingdom by the sea.
The Turks built a fortess here and then later Tottleben, a hero of the Crimean Wars, built a fort here with a garrison of over 5,000. During WWII, or the Great Patriotic War, as the locals call it, Kerch became the focus of fierce fighting against Hitler’s aggression and earned the designation of “Hero City”.
According to legend, the city is protected by eagle bodied, lion-headed creatures called gryphons. They are the symbol of the city and appear on the Kerch coat-of-arms. There are a few statues of gryphons throughout the community reminding us that we are protected here.
From our window, we can see the slopes of Mitridate Mound, covered now in snow and ice. Atop this 90 meter mound is a memorial complex and the ruins of the Greek’s occupation of this area.
So much history and beauty; it is a privilege to live here, to learn about the culture, to struggle with the language and to integrate with the community.
· Sunday, 29 January 2006 – Chinese New Years!
Black Dog Barking in the Dead of Night
Barking wakes me at 2 AM and keeps me awake. I try to decipher the message. The rhythm, tone and pitch of the barking repeat consistently: over and over and over. I try to go back to sleep. I toss. I turn. I put the pillow over my head. I pray for world peace and count my blessings.
The barking continues. This is not the barking of say, an emergency. There is no urgency suggesting a prowler, a fire or other danger. I think of Lassie barking and people responding “Timmy’s in the well!” and racing off to rescue the boy from yet another life or death situation. (What is the Ukrainian equivalent? Perhaps: “Oh no, Ivan’s fallen in the manhole!”…open manholes and pitch dark streets make this a very real possibility and one we joke about among PCVs!)
It is cold outside. I am cozy under two thick wool blankets and a goosedown featherbed, but my nose and face feel the cold. The dog may be saying “I am cold. Someone let me in!”
Black Dog is a street dog. He pals around with white dog, a young mother dog who lives across the street in the courtyard I see from my living room/bedroom window. I do not know if she has house privileges anywhere, but she is not in evidence on this cold, dark January night. Black Dog is White Dog’s friend and suitor. He is quite devoted to her. When they run through the neighborhood, he runs slightly ahead of her, often looking back at her to see how she reacts to whatever is happening. Sometimes he wll see something interesting and will pause, observe and then run off to find her. They will return at a run, barking happily and chase off after whatever doggie diversion it was that originally attracted Black Dog’s attention.
I am sure it is Black Dog barking. I get out of my cozy cacoon and peer through the window. I see nothing. The streetlights have been eztinguished long ago and trees and clouds obscure the stars.
“Bark, bark-bark-bark-bark…Bark, bark, bark-bark!.” pleads Black Dog. There is no howling and no other dogs respond or join in.
I pick up my glasses and the novel that lulled me to sleep earlier and head off to the kitchen. I read a few chapters, but cannot concentrate with barks punctuating every sentence.
The paperback book settles to my lap and I look around the room. My eyes rest on the calendar. I see that today is Chinese New Year. In far away Singapore there is reveling as people celebrate with firecrackers and do the traditional dragon dance. This is Year of the Dog, a fortuitous year for marriages; this year, a year with an extra month to accommodate the other calendars of the world. I find my lips curling in a smile as I consider Black Dog’s message. Maybe, just maybe, he is saying “Happy New Year!”
My smile stays in place as I shiver my way back to the warm comfort of my cozy bed. I crawl in beside Mark and say, “Happy Year of the Dog!” He is sound asleep. I yawn. Outside, it is quiet now. I relax, roll over and soon I am dreaming of Chinese food and happy, barking dogs.
· Saturday, 31 January 2006
Elephants Doing Vodka Shots
It is so cold elephants are doing vodka shots! At first I think this is just a funny Ukrainian or Russian expression. Or maybe my Russian skills are misleading me again; so many words and sounds are similar in this amazing language and then you add the confusion of grammatical changes, whew! It is hard to ever know for sure just exactly what you are hearing - especially in a crowd at tea!
We are at “tea” with a group of the library ladies. It is the director’s birthday so we are celebrating in the traditional manner. There are ten of us crowded around a small table laden with dozens of tiny plates filled with a variety of typical Ukrainian and Russian foods. There are plates of salo (fatty, cold pok that goes well with black bread and a shot of vodka), small salty fish, and sausages. There are about five kinds of spicy or pickled vegetable dishes: shredded pickled carrots, cabbage salads red with a touch of beet juice and a winter salad with corn and lots of mayonnaise. The women plop large mounds of pashed potatoes on our plates and begin filling our small glasses with vodka in preparation for the feasting and toasting that will follow. Later there will be chocolates, a Kiev torte, champagne, and maybe some actual tea too!. In between there will be lots of conversation, laughter and singing.
Outside, snow is flying. Inside it would be cold, but since we are in a small room and huddled around a feast, we do not notice.
I ask the speaker to repeat that comment
“It is so cold in Yalta, they are giving the elephants and monkeys at the zoo vodka shots to keep their blood flowing,” she repeats in Russian. We have to crack the code from Russian into English so there is much conversation around this topic.
Apparently, the elephants at the Yalta zoo get five (5) liters of vodka each day! I do not know how much vodka the monkeys get. I am so caught up in the image of elephants using their trunks to swill shots of vodka that I laugh, and laugh and laugh! I use my arm to imitate an elephant’s trunk. I purse my lips and emit a trumpeting sound like an elephant.
The ladies laugh and spill a bit of vodka into a shot glass for me. We toast the elephants at the Yalta zoo.
People here believe a bit of vodka can help keep one warm in the cold. And it has been cold here lately. The television news says this has been the coldest winter since 1978 and there is more to come! Yalta, is on the coast of Crimea, a few hours west and south of Kerch. It is protected from the peninsula by a range of steep mountains so they seldom get real cold or snow. (Sub-tropical with palm trees and flowers all year round).
The birthday celebration continues. Two of the guests are published poets. They flank the library director at the head of the table. They share poems with us and set the tone for the flowery toasts and birthday wishes. There are stories and songs warming us all while outside temperatures drop as the sun sinks below the horizon.
Finally, late in the day, we bundle up and go our separate ways, taking the warmth of friendship and camaraderie with us as we brave the wintry blasts outside.
· Friday, 27 January 2006
The Cold War Continues
In December we dealt with the Crimean Chicken Wars (Avian Flu evacuation) and in January the phrase that captures our experience is the Cold War.
It is a grey day. Snowflakes drift slowly down from above. The past week has been sunny, bright and frigid, so the grey sky and the snowflakes promise a break in the temperatures.
In the courtyard and the street outside our flat there are several dead birds (Starlings, I think). The local dogs grab the stiff bodies between their teeth and shake the birds as if to bring them back to life. They toss them into the air, but the lifeless birds just fall back to the snow covered ground. A group of live birds huddles together for warmth on a clothesline. They watch the activity below.
Some Data on the Cold
The ladies at the library informed us that the zoo keepers in Yalta are now serving shots of vodka to he monkeys and elephants to protect them from the cold. (Five bottle a day for an elephant!)
The library director has been without water in her flat for three weeks…and plumbing at the library is broken too. It is very cold in the outhouse there but I guess it beats the old sop bucket in the basement.
TV news says over 130 people have died from cold and exposure.
This is the coldest winter since 1978.
· Thursday, 26 January 2006
Another frigid day in Crimea.
I wait to turn on the auxiliary heater. I do not want to blow a circuit so I must juggle my power needs. Ancient, rusty Ivan, my soviet era refrigerator, grumbles in the entryway so I wait until he quiets down before I use the hotpot to make coffee. Once the water boils and the hotpot clicks off,, I can safely turn on the electric radiator. These are some of the routine logistics of life here in Crimea.
While I wait, I look out the window and see some young boys using pieces of cardboard to slide up the street. They throw the cardboard down, back up for a running start, then leap onto the cardboard and glide up the street, holding their arms out life surfers do to maintain their balance.
A babushka moves slowly up the street, smiling at the boys as she carefully places one foot in front of the next. I cannot, of course, see here smile; a scarf covers her nose and mouth. The smile is evident from the crinkles around her eyes and the nod of her head. She wears a traditional headscarf over a huge stocking cap. Her neck and waistline appear to be the same size because she is bundled up against the cold. I think of how small children look when mommies dress them for the cold and smile wondering who dressed this 80 year old woman for her morning walk.
The water has not boiled yet so I move to the kitchen window and see one of the neighborhood cats eyeing a huge black and white crow. The large bird knows there are scraps in the communal cat bowl and wants to steal some food for himself, but he is wary of the cat. There is a standoff. I can almost feel the tension the cat must feel as he hunkers down, tail twitching. Does he think he will catch the large bird and make a meal of him or is he merely protecting the food dish from an intruder?
I will never know. A small yapping housedog emerges from a neighbor’s flat and frightens the crow away. The cat maintains his dignity and assumes a casual pose, licking his paws as if he had never intended to have it out with the crow.
I hear the switch pop on the hotpot and pour the boiling water into the French press. I pour a cup of back gold into my blue mug, wrap my cold fingers around it and retreat to the couch where I can finally turn on the auxiliary heater.
Heat could become a problem with the recent gas situation with Russia. Price per barrel is double last year.
The unusual cold spell continues and is discussed on the news broadcast rather than simply on the weather report. It is the coldest winter since 1978.
The cold takes its toll: people’s homes burn down from fires caused by faulty heaters or the gas stove; street people die from the cold (130 according to the news last night); the hospitals are full and cases of frostbite are routine. I do not need any language skills to interpret these stories on the local news.
English Club was cancelled last night because the library is too cold for comfort after dark. During the day, the library staff wear their coats as they work.
· Wednesday, 25 January 2006
Matters of Consequence
The open document on my laptop this morning causes me a moment of guilt. Around midday yesterday I started my Russian studies, stopped to do some other task that suddenly seemed more urgent (or appealing) and never returned to my work. The open document is the evidence. I never returned to my studies!
So much for good intentions.
Actually the distracter that lured me way from my Russian studies involved good intentions. A small inspiration struck as I was working and I stopped to explore the possibility. It occurred to me to use the bright red yarn I found squirreled away in my knitting bag to fashion a Valentine’s Day surprise for my unsuspecting spouse. I got caught up in designing the project and in my enthusiasm, failed to return to my original task.
I envision it like this: on Valentine’s Day Mark will get up when the alarm goes off and make his way to the chilly kitchen to switch on the hotpot. When he turns to scoop coffee grounds into the french press, he will smile. Why? Because the coffee pot is cozily jacketed in a bold, red, hand-knit sweater with a tassel on the top! Ta da!
I know. It is a rather silly scenario. Mark will understand.
There will be other similar small surprises scattered throughout the day; reminders that I think of him when he is not around. There may be a new bookmark tucked among the pages of the novel he is currently reading. I may knit a potholder for him to find when he prepares the evening meal. There will be foolish notes and other small tokens.
Valentine’s Day is not about gifts. It is a day to think about love and to share those feelings and thoughts with those you love.
In the book “The Little Prince” the wise little fox observes that things (objects) are really not of consequence. It is the time you invest (he says waste) on your rose that makes her so special. Fox has much to say, as do all the characters in that special book, about matters of consequence. (I am tempted to digress about the oft-quoted line: “What is essential is invisible to the eye…”)
So in matters of consequence, Mark and I agree. That, in itself, is a matter of great consequence.
Excuse me; I have some knitting to do.
· Tuesday, 24 January 2006
The clematis on the sunny kitchen window sill has grown five inches this past week. On the other side of the window-glass, the heavy snow that arrived unexpectedly Thursday night still blankets the courtyard. (Is this a paradox?)
If you raise your eyes, the sky is a brilliant blue and the smiling sunshine looks deceptively warm. It is, however a cold smile. I have a history of living in old places and know that it is often coldest when the world appears benign through the window glass.
At 8:30, Mark bundled up, plugged in his earpiece (he listens to stories as he walks), and strode out the door into the frigid morning air. I shiver, lock the door behind him and pour one more cup of coffee to sip as I linger a bit over the Newsweek that arrived yesterday (9 January edition).
Next I spend about an hour reading and studying the Christian Science weekly lesson; this week’s topic - Love. It amazes me how these lessons always manage to meet my spiritual needs in very specific ways. I think of an ongoing dialogue I have been having with some family members about dealing with difficult people. There in the lesson is the answer I have been seeking. I can almost hear my mother quoting Mary Baker Eddy, “…and love is reflected in Love.”
Fueled with prayerful thoughts, I tackle the dishes, reveling in the hot water and suds. The range top needs attention so I scrub it down. Then, I put some laundry to soak, sweep the floors, spot clean the rugs, and get down on my knees to mop the floors. With the kitchen shining, I start to make some coffee then but decide to clean the hotpot first. It looks like new now and is drying in the sun on the windowsill next to my vining clematis plant.
I am on the couch, contemplating my next task.
It is after noon now. I should study my Russian and I have English Club material to organize. There are a few writing projects that I should have tackled this morning when my mind was focused. I also have some personal correspondence I would like to attend to. I want to spend some time considering Valentine’s Day and a couple birthdays. Mark has projects for me to assume and there are other maintenance tasks that need attention in the flat. I would like to play with my paints or move forward with some drawing exercises. A really nice person would do some marketing and make dinner – sigh.
Around 4, Mark will arrive home in a rush of frosty air as he opens the flat door. He will be filled with stories of his day and he may have mail to share and some groceries to put away. He will download my e-mail and settle at his desk by the window to study his Russian for an hour. At 5:30 he will wrap the thick grey scarf I knitted for him around his neck and bundle up again for his trek across town. He has missed the last two tutoring sessions so he will be apprehensive about class.
While Mark is gone, I will perch on the couch and read and respond to my e-mail. Around 7:30, my spouse will storm in again and meal preparations will dominate our activities. We will light a candle on the kitchen table, sip some wine and eat a simple meal together.
After dinner, Mark returns to his desk, cranks up his laptop and labors over his IT lesson plans. (He prepares PowerPoint presentations in Russian.) Around midnight he turns out the lamp and we call it a night.
The days fill up and float away like colorful helium balloons.
· Monday, 23 January 2006
The Dummies Guide to Russian
Now the holidays are behind us and the tree and decorations are put away, I must resume my normal routine. That means I must resume my Russian studies. I have not studied since mid-November! Today I dug out my books and worked out a study schedule. (Yes, I do have “The Dummies Guide to Russian!”)
I spent a few hours simply refreshing my memory on some key phrases. I also transcribed some vocabulary words. Language study is demanding and consumes so much time and requires such focus.
I will never be fluent, but I would like to be able to converse and understand what is going on with some confidence. Russian is a challenging language; the alphabet, the sounds, the grammar, all pose unique opportunities for the student.
Mark spends hours each evening on his Russian and attends tutoring twice each week. He is immersed in it at work, but still finds it hard.
Of course we are here for only two years (only about 60 weeks remaining!) so no one expects us to become really proficient. Some PCVs become quite capable in the language. The most successful learners seem to be younger. This is partly because they have more drive to socialize. Those PCVs working with students also seem to acquire better language skills.
Older PCVs and married PCVs lag behind in language skills generally. There are many theories about this - from motivation to learning skills.
Of course, the important thing is to know enough language to be safe and to conduct business. I wonder if the more mature PCVs have any edge on the younger PCVs when it comes to cultural issues?
Once again I remind myself – last year at this time we had never even heard anyone speak Russian, so we have come a long way since then!
Training Group 30 will soon arrive here in PC Ukraine. (They begin training during Peace Corps Week – the first week of March.) I suspect our Russian skills will seem pretty impressive to them! 8-)
Recap of the Weekend – Snow Days!
An E-Mail Excerpt concerning the weekend weather follows:
We are snowed in and the water is off in our neighborhood!
When we went to bed last night it was raining hard so we were surprised to see a thick blanket of snow on the ground when we woke up. The wind is whipping it around and making visibility a problem too. It is very cold outside too.
Here in Kerch we have not experienced much snow so far, so this is interesting. The Library Director called at about 7AM to say: don't come in the library is closed!
Mark made a walking trip to three stores looking for bread and bottled water (to drink) - no bread available...hmmm, just like in the States: all the bread disappears when it snows! They said the truck did not deliver today. The store next door says they will phone us when/if the bread truck comes.
He came through the door stamping his feet and saying "It's coooooooold!"
We do not have water.
There is not a drop of water in the tap! We do have some 4 large jugs of tap water which we use to support our improvised coffee table. According to the TV station, whose signal is intermittent today, the main water main downtown is damaged. The central area is flooded and the TV video of the area looks treacherous.
There are no people out and about and no cats or dogs visible from our windows. Usually the courtyard crawls with cats and there are several dogs that roam the area and regularly scout for handouts or remnants from the cat's meals.
Mark has put some soup on to simmer we are each working at our computers. Mark is doing curriculum stuff on Internet applications and I am preparing submissions for the PC Ukraine Volunteer newsletter.
The e-mail I wrote last night (and this one) will not go out till at least Monday. And, no e-mail will come in either. The almost daily dose of e-mail makes such a difference in the quality of our lives here. I am very grateful we live where we have some access to that amenity. Two things high on my list of what I miss about the USA are these: National Public Radio and my DSL line!
Friday: 5 PM
Mark went outside with our two laundry buckets and brought them in filled with snow. When they melt the water will be used to "flush" the commode. A back up plan since the water may be off a couple days.
The auxiliary radiator is warming up the living room area. I am glad we have power.
Saturday Afternoon - Day 2: Still no Water.
We gathered more snow this morning - we used it to scrub the initial dirt off the dishes (like you use sand when you are primitive camping. Then we soaped the dishes and poured boiling water over them. It worked well.
I recall the joke about PCVs being able to take a bath in half a glass of water (The joke starts: "Is the glass half full or half empty?")
We went to the bazaar (outdoor market) today and despite the bitter cold, most venders were there. The vegetable and fruit venders were noticeably absent. Everyone was bundled up - lots of fur hats and children pulled around on small sledges. The day is cold and bright - too cold to linger.
We stopped at a cafe by the sea enroute home and had hot soup, bread and hot tea for lunch. The sea steamed - little clouds of steam formed above the water in an interesting manner.
Sidewalks are not shoveled - people simply walk on the snow and pack it down. The walkways are constructed of brick/concrete tiles so shoveling would be challenging. Because this snow started out as heavy rain, there is significant ice under the snow so the sidewalks are a difficult to navigate.
Dogs are running in packs - exhilarated by the cold and bolder than usual. Neighborhood cats line the hot water pipes and meow for handouts as we walk by.
We are thawing out now and planning a supper that will not require dishes - conserving water since we may not have any for a few more days.
The television airs stories of frostbite cases.
Sunday: 2 PM
About 8 more inches of snow fell overnight.
Mid-morning, neighbors began collecting snow in buckets, dish pans and pots. Children were sent off with sleds carrying large empty bottles. On a quest for potable water I guess. They came back later with empty bottles. Not a good sign.
Across the street, 40-50 large black birds collect on the clothesline on the terrace of one of the apartments. The birds reassemble notes on a page of music. The clothesline gets the afternoon sun and is near a tree that the birds seem to find food in. They swoosh down to drink from a puddle in the street where the hot water pipes pas under and water accumulates.
I put stale bread crumbs and the popcorn chain from our Christmas tree o our windowsill, hoping to attract a few birds and then remember the Avian Flu dangers. I also become conscious that my neighbors may not care to have birds on their windowsills. Some cross cultural matters confuse me.
Sunday: 9 PM
Television news shows: much talk of frostbite and freezing. There is video of "Walrusing" politicians. ( Walrusing is swimming in freezing waters.) Major elections are in March - talk of impeachment ...ugly, ugly, ugly.
We have water now! Hooray! We filled up containers, just in case. Outside it is very cold and very dark...
I am off to take a hot shower.
From Our Cozy Crimean Nest
· Saturday, 21 January 2006
We Have Holy Water
Is Lyudmila concerned about our spiritual life?. The other day she sent home an instant coffee jar filled with holy water.
“Splash this on your face, three times,” she advised Mark as he tried not to stare at a few remaining coffee crystals slowly dissolving in the jar of water in question. “You can wash your face in it,” she said rather matter of factly.
There are language challenges in these cross cultural conversations, but apparently it was some kind of Orthodox Holy Day. Lyudmila had spent the morning at church.
When Mark arrived home with his special gift and explained it to me, I began rifling through all our reference materials on life in Ukraine to figure out just what holy day it might be. My search was unsuccessful.
The jar of holy water remains on our kitchen table. In the event of a spiritual emergency, I may even splash it on my face.
· Friday, 20 January 2006 – A SNOW DAY IN KERCH!
My Radio Speaks English - Sorta!
I cranked up the shortwave radio this morning and I mean literally cranked up the radio. It is a Grundig shortwave radio with emergency flashlight, a holiday gift from family back in the USA. Thirty to forty seconds of enthusiastic cranking has an aerobic effect on me and also charges up the radio for about an hour of listening time.
After consulting the broadcast schedules a friend kindly e-mailed to me, I began the challenge of fine tuning. In a matter of moments my radio was spilling out words in English – crisp British English; the morning broadcast from BBC filled the wintry kitchen.
I listen, spellbound to the sportscast.
“You don’t even like sports, so why are you listening to that?” asked Mark, as he filled his coffee cup and took a sip.
“Because it is in English,” I answered, holding the radio antenna in my hand to improve the reception. The station began to crackle and snap then, so I moved closer to the window. “The handbook says I can get a better signal by the window,” I said authoritatively to no one in particular.
I stood by the window, radio perched on my shoulder near my ear and coffee cup in hand, watching the morning commuters as they struggled with the unexpected snow. Sports scores crackled into my ear in perfect British English.
After months of hearing only Russian and Ukrainian on the radio, the prospect of hearing the news in English is pretty appealing. Back in the USA, I am an avid supporter of National Public Radio (NPR). One of the things I miss most about my life in the USA is NPR!
“They are talking about World Cup,” I hollered to my beloved spouse, who had wandered into the other room and was sitting at his desk. “I love those British accents! Oh, darn! I lost the signal again,” I muttered, fumbling with the dial and adjusting the antenna.
Shortwave radio is in theory, a wonderful thing. It seems so European. For me it conjures up images of families huddled around radios to hear the Voice of America spitting out the latest war news. OK, maybe my impressions are a bit, well, dated; like say, back to WWII. Frankly, I do not think shortwave radio reception has improved much since then.
I fiddle with the dial and instead of the British boys talking sports news, all I could get was some high-pitched, Asian influenced music. I consult my broadcast schedule again. “Ohhhhh, it is now 8 AM and according to the chart, BBC stops broadcasting on this band at 8AM,” I said under my breath.. I chose another band and began the task of fine-tuning while my coffee grew colder on the windowsill and snow continued to pile up outside.
A few moments later a heavily accented voice informed me in English that recent studies in San Francisco show cheese spoils the flavor of wine. “Mark, did you know that cheese actually ruins the flavor if wine? Yeah, there’s a story on the Shanghai station,” I said, excitedly.
“That’s nice,” Mark replied in his “go-away-kid-your’re-bothering-me” tone (or maybe his, “who-cares” tone). I did not really notice. I was absorbed in fine tuning again. The station was fading again.
“Maybe I need to wind it up again,” I said to myself. Outside the wind blows snow into drifts and the world is silent. In my cozy kitchen, I crank up the radio while I sing my little radio-winding song (sing to the tune of “Shortnin’ Bread”):
Mama’s little baby loves shortwave now!
So goes our snow day in Kerch.
· Thursday, 19 January 2006
The Ambiguous Life we Lead
Woody Allen said, “Ninety percent of success is just showing up.” Somedays just showing up takes all the focus a person can muster.
This, is one of those days.
The kind of life we are leading right now requires us to deal with ambiguity on a regular basis. It is the nature of Peace Corps projects (for a number of reasons, which I do not intend to explore just now). Many of the decisions and choices are intuitive and relationship based. Structures may not exist. For many Peace Corps Volunteers, even something as simple as “just showing up,” becomes hard to pin down.
Mark’s work is somewhat defined, but often requires him to move forward with not much assurance he will be successful or supported.
My days are even more shapeless, unstructured and ill defined.
I have worked in environments where I came home exhausted and joked, “It is hard work being polite, cheerful and pleasant all the time!” Anyone who works with the public knows what I mean when I say that.
I am generally a cheerful, resilient and genuinely polite individual, but some days one makes a definite choice to be polite, cheerful and pleasant.
Of course I must be polite, cheerful and pleasant these days too, but largely I am on my own and pick and choose to a great extent when and if I will interact with people outside my own home.
I am in the position to set my own standards, identify my own work, and organize and manage my own time and resources. Some days, I would fire myself if I were really the boss!
On these grey wintry days I play hooky…
How do I know if I have even “showed up”?
Some Random Things I Want to do or Have When I am Stateside
A sunflower-yellow VW bug, convertible
Privacy & solitude
Participate in the Susan Komin Walk for the Cure
To go camping
Lots of light – places to sit in the sun
Look into joining Toastmasters
· Wednesday 18 January 2006 – My Brother’s Birthday!
Today the snow is falling with some urgency.
I wonder if people here own snow shovels. I wonder if snow generally stays long here. (So far it seems to melt within about 24 hours.)
The climate in parts of Crimea is tropical, but here in Kerch we have snow and cold. It is, of course not like one would experience in Ukraine-proper. Kiev, for example, has lots of snow, an extended winter, and bitter cold. But, compared to Moscow, Kiev is blessed with milder winters.
In my experience, once you are cold, degrees of cold don’t really matter.
English Club meets tonight and the topic will be: “If I could lunch with anyone, living or dead, I would choose __________ because _______.”
My role in discussions is to facilitate and to make certain no one dominates conversation. I prepare a list of questions to refer to just in case the conversation drags. Usually our group is dynamic enough so we seldom are at a loss for interesting conversation.
Some weeks we have several strong personalities who can challenge my diplomatic and social skills. The group is a mix of ages and backgrounds with 20-something professionals and several English teachers with secondary students in tow and a few people who are older too. Some weeks I introduce a game or activity to warm up the conversation, but usually it is quite casual.
Having Americans facilitating is interesting for them since many of the English texts they use in classes are British. The conversational factor is important too since many teachers here use rote learning methods and dialogue memorization rather than interaction.
I am, in general, impressed with the level of English speaking skills I encounter in the community. Often people are hesitant to use their English skills at first, but English is taught in schools from a very early age so many people know the rudiments.
So getting back to the English Club topic: who would I choose to lunch with?
Today my answer is: Oprah Winfrey. I would invite her to bring along a couple of her pet dogs too.
Why Oprah? She is such a cultural icon and I have followed her career with interest. Though she is a talk-show host, I find her to be a person, rather than simply a personality. She has conducted world class interviews with some amazing people from across a very diverse range. She is an intelligent woman who cultivates strong values and has an excellent grasp on human nature. She lives her life with joy and purpose and with conscious attention to gratitude and abundance and he need to give back. She is also about my age and a heck of a lot of fun!
I think I would invite her to my home for a private afternoon of ”girl talk”. I would have fresh flowers and would have a fine time setting the table and putting together a simple meal to share in my bright, cozy kitchen. We would have a chocolate treat and sip coffee and brandy afterwards as we continue talking in the living room with some mellow unobtrusive jazz playing in the background.
What would we talk about? I suspect we would find many topics, but good books and the simple joys of life would spill into words. We could lounge on the floor with our shoes off, stroking the dogs and relaxing.
If I knew Oprah was coming, I would probably jot down a few thoughts and questions to prepare a bit so I would not end up forgetting to have fun – when I am nervous or am highly invested in things, I sometimes become such a rule-follower that I forget how to think, feel or act like myself. I would want to get past the stuffy, routine questions and just move into the more human matters that bring us pleasure and joy. So by preparing a bit, I can have a backup plan in case my initial impulses go awry or my brain just plain decides to quit working!.
After the meal we could stroll to the top of the Mitridate (the archeological ruins on the mount behind our flat) to take in the stunning view of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov with Russia just across the way.
Of course if it snows like it is today, Oprah and I would just have to sit here and talk some more as the outside world turns whiter and whiter and whiter….
· Tuesday, 17 January 2006
I am reminded of Dorothy’s words in the Wizard of Oz: “My things change so quickly here!” The grey snowy morning outside my window an hour ago has unexpectedly become a brilliant, spring like vista.
The snowfall this morning sneaked in accumulating very subtly. Once in a Peanuts comic strip, bossy Lucy told her little brother Linus that snow did not fall. No snow came up from the ground, growing like plants. The snowflakes in the air result from wind and air currents. Today I did not see the snowflakes, but the walkways and babushka bench were white with a blanket of snow, which fell imperceptibly.
Midmorning I decided to treat myself to a hot shower. I shampooed my hair and luxuriated in the flow of hot water for about twenty minutes (until I exhausted the contents of the water). When I opened the door, steam spilled into the kitchen but it was the bright sunshine that blinded me! Outside, the snow had vanished, leaving no evidence of winter behind and under an azure sky, the sun blazed a path through my kitchen window all the way to the other side of our usually dark living room.
I felt as though I had landed n a time machine!
One thing I learned from the cats in my life is: when the sun shines, enjoy it! I poured coffee from the thermos and sunbathed a bit as I read a chapter of two of a novel.
I am currently reading, “Goodbye is Not Forever” by Amy George. This true story is what prompted me to take such an extended shower and to luxuriate in hot water, soap and the pleasure they bring. The chapter I read before my shower concerned a starving peasant family’s escape from Soviet dominated Ukraine to work in a German labor camp. After months of uncertainty that included traveling like starving cattle in a box car for weeks, working as slave labor in a camp and other deprivations that come with wartime, they had an opportunity to stay in a private, middleclass home. Even before the war, the 7 year old daughter had never seen indoor plumbing. Until then her idea of bathing was a weekly event that involved heating buckets of rainwater. Children washed first and hen the adults. The novel includes a description of her introduction to the joy of a hot bath complete with lilac soap and a washcloth.
It is hard to imagine how life must have been in rural Ukraine in the 1930s and 40s. Stalin’s influence dominated every aspect of life. The family in this novel survive the years of starvation during the years when Stalin used it as a force to humble the enterprising farmers in Ukraine and then the father spends three years in Siberia because of a simple remark reported by a neighbor. Less than five years after his return home, just before the outbreak of WWII the father is once again spirited away to a camp in Siberia.
Village life is austere for everyone, but the fear that suppresses human interactions is what is so troubling. When Germany attacks and occupies, the Ukrainian people can finally speak wit out looking over their shoulders. What an unexpected twist of fate – to feel more free under enemy occupation than under the rule of your own leader.
These influences and experiences could not be spoken of until recent years. The fear of retribution continued to keep people silent.
People we meet have learned to keep silent, to maintain a low profile, to survive.
It is hard to imagine how people have the courage to go on and to accommodate to the changes the world throws at them. Human beings are amazing creatures.
· Monday, 16 January 2006
· Sunday, 15 January 2006
Smokin’ the Hookah
I am not sure why this is popular, but the local tea bar has a selection of fragrant items to smoke in a hookah.
Saturday night we went out with Mark’s tutor L, and her boyfriend. We ordered a tea drink and some dessert when L, asked if we would care to try smoking a hookah.
This is not something I would ordinarily do, but I decided to try it out.
L perused the choices, ordered and shortly our waitress returned with a small sand and a large waterpipe. We took turns inhaling the fragrant and aromatic apple slices as we visited. L’s boyfriend, a member of the local police force, monitored the charcoal while we smoked and talked.
We ate Russian blini prepared with honey and nuts (like baklava). My tea was served in a beautiful cup and prepared Georgian style with honey. We watched the flames dance in the fireplace and imagined smoking a hookah and watching belly dancers.
As we walked home under the full moon over the Black Sea, I thought about how close we are to Turkey. The histories of Crimea and Turkey have influenced one another.
The hookah and the full moon remind me how small the world is.
· Saturday 14, January 2006
A Week’s Wages on Postage!
The Christmas packages are mailed. Notice the date – yes, it is mid-January and the packages are for Christmas 2005.
Several things factor into the explanation for why the holiday packages are so late. I shall ignore most of the uninspired reasons, but want to comment on the challenges of posing anything using the local postal services.
Having lived overseas for over a decade of my life and also sent care package on occasion to my brother in Malawi and my husband during his stint at Shemya, etc, I am accustomed to sending packages to isolated places and am skilled and knowledgeable about packaging techniques
In fact, I rather enjoy putting together a box to mail. The process is satisfying. I like choosing a sturdy box and suitable packing materials (ever used popped-corn as packing material? Yep – it is good in a pinch, but air pop it without oil or salt!), lining the box with plastic and including an inner address in case the box is misdirected or the outside address is obscured somehow.
I like using a fat, sweet-smelling felt marker to label the box in large block letters and then applying wide clear tape to all the seams and rough edges of the box.
I even like the whole post office transaction, well, maybe not the actual paying for the service – mailing stuff to Africa can make you cringe if you pay attention to what the postal service asks you to pay for that service!
Over the years, I have probably spent as much on postage as some folks pay as a down payment on a nice home! Once we mailed a set of feather pillows to our overseas home – six months later those expensive, but very comfy pillows arrived. Priceless comfort in more ways than one!
Mailing packages here in Ukraine though is another matter.
The first clue that this is going to be a challenge should be that the post office is run by the telecom service. Hmmm, does that make any sense? Also when you go into a Ukrainian post office you see many of tems for sale that you can obtain at a regular store or at the bazaar. You can stand in line behind someone choosing a box of detergent or a bucket, while you wait to buy some stamps and a greeting card.
The process is probably much easier if you can read or speak Ukrainian, but I do not think this gives people a significant advantage since people routinely jump to the front of the line to ask questions of the person behind the counter. Sometimes they will stop your transaction to assist these (hmmm, let’s see how to word this politely…),“assertive” people who presume they have special privileges. (How do you say “Back of the line Buddy!” in Russian? It’s not in m phrase book,)
Mailing a package here means you have to take the items you wish to mail to the window so the employee can see what it is you are mailing. You can’t gift wrap stuff. They then provide (sell) you a box or envelope and will do all the taping for you. This sounds nice, but they do not provide any packing materials and are perfectly happy to simply put a couple small items in a large box and tape it shut with one miserly strip of tape. We had a Barbie Doll (maybe a Svetlana Doll actually) to mail to our granddaughter and did the box provided was large enough for a case of beer. No padding or filler provided.
Then there are the customs forms. In the USA, the postal clerk hands them to the customer; here the clerk does the paperwork. Each package has about 5 transactions that involve a couple forms each, a couple rubber stamps, a log book where the transaction is noted, the use of an adding machine and a computer (and did I see an abacus too?).
We arrived with 6-7 packages to mail, each with a variety of small stuff (calendars and notepaper, nothing big except the Barbie, I mean Svetlana Doll). Once everything was inspected and packaged, the clerk sat down and began doing all the bureaucratic tasks I mentioned earlier. I sat down while Mark stood at the counter initially things whenever the clerk needed him too. The line at the widow got longer and longer as the clerk stayed intent at her task – forty minutes later she finally finishesand announces loudly “That’ll be 400 hryvnia, please.”
Everyone in line heard this huge number and I am certain they went home and shared that information with their friends and family. No one said anything, but 400 hryvnia is about 8 days pay. Some people do not make that much in a month…and certainly few Ukrainians would spend that kind of money on postage and certainly not on junk like we sent.
So our latest “economic development project” seems to be mailing packages!
We slunk out of the post office and wondered as we walked home, whether any of the stuff we squandered our cash on will even make it to the recipient. Previous packages have not so we shall see.
In the future, our gifts will be restricted to gift card from Amazon.com or Target or other places that we can access on the Internet.
· Friday, 13 January 2006
· Thursday, 12 January 2006
Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.
- William Arthur Ward
It looks like Christmas morning here in our Crimean flat!
I have that loggy, over-indulged, over-stimulated feel that comes from or with the holidays too.
Mark abandoned me to this chaos and has gone off to the library to teach his classes and work on the myriad projects Lyudmilla and he conjure up regularly. I am still in my blue striped, flannel nightshirt and have yet to comb my hair. I am, as usual, sipping coffee. It is almost 11AM.
The living room and kitchen (that is to say, the entire flat) is strewn with unexpected and much-appreciated delights. Paper and packing peanuts litter the floor along with customs documents and plastic wrap. Yesterday we received several belated holiday care-packages from friend-Jim, our daughter (and family) and Mark’s Mom and Dad. It is as if the boxes exploded and the fall out surrounds me.
The Jim-Box, among other things, contained several boxes of candy canes, which I tucked into the plastic Narnia shopping bag that came in the Mom and Dad V box. (We laughed when we saw the shopping bag since everyone on the streets here carries a plastic shopping bag – it is an idiosyncrasy we enjoy poking fun about.) I opened the dangerous bag of M&Ms from the Mom and Dad V box and quickly downed a couple handfuls of sugary sweet, melt-in-the-mouth pleasure before dutifully heading off to English Club. Mark, the disciplined man he is, managed to avoid the mesmeric lure of those M&Ms, though he was sorely tempted. (I promised to “get rid” of them quickly so he would not have to suffer!)
At English Club, I shared the candy canes with the attendees who enjoyed them very much. “Oh, Christmas candy looks like “J” in Jesus name,” observed one man. So conversation focused on candy canes for a while. “Looks like handle on umbrella,” commented another club-member, as he stripped off the plastic and began sucking on the candy..
My plastic bag with Aslan’s face looming regally captured the attention of an English teacher who remarked, “Happy Meal! Yes I saw such lion at McDonald’s – Happy Meal souvenir, yes?.”
This, of course, prompted conversation about McDonalds and then her trip to Kiev which lead to her adventures on the metro and then into a tale about pickpockets. Eventually the conversation lead back to Narnia as I mentioned the books the film is based on. The conversation happily rolled off onto the topic of books.
And so the English Club hours passed quickly.
Next week the topic is the old tried and true: If I could have lunch with anyone in the world (dead or alive) I would dine with _______ .
Meanwhile Mark introduced another bunch of Crimeans and several library staff members to the pleasure of candy canes. He met with the US Embassy team who came to fine-tune some of the IT proposal (grant) that Mark is involved with.
When my meeting ended, I was invited to join Mark and the Embassy team for “tea”. Typical of teatime in Crimea , there was alcohol (champagne and brandy) and there were toasts bandied back and forth. And of course there were dozens of tiny plates filled with an assortment of savory and sweet foods. “Eat, eat,” says Lyudmilla, splashing more champagne into my glass, and proposing another toast.
We arrived home around 9PM, with sugar running through our blood - high on candy canes, M&Ms, rich pastries and “bubbly”.
This morning I played with the wind-up shortwave radio that came in one of the boxes. We breakfasted on cereal and some leftover fruit and pastries sent home from the “tea”. The radio serenaded us with exotic music from somewhere in Asia (Indian or Pakistani or maybe Turkish?).
I began this post with a quote about gratitude – we have so much to be grateful for. Not only the lovely gifts, but what they represent – the warmth and joy of family and friends, the caring, the simple reminders of traditions and times together. It does not take much to remind us of how fortunate we are; fortunate to share our lives with people who share what they have and take pleasure in sharing.
Now, I am almost ashamed to admit how close to home the opening quote strikes: we have on our bookshelves (the shelves I must clear out to fill with books we received) small gifts for family and friends back in the USA. They have been ready to mail since the middle of December, but somehow have been relegated to the bottom of the to-do list. The challenges and expense of mailing and the logistics of day-to-day life have influenced our behavior. Sigh.
But the lesson is: gratitude. That is one gift-wrapped present I want to deliver. I will find a way to “live” my gratitude for the gifts of abundant love and the lessons of life that I cherish.
I will begin right here with a simple thank you.
Time to work on “getting rid” of those pesky M&Ms!
· Wednesday, 11 January 2006
You don't get to choose how you're going to die. Or when. You can decide how you're going to live now.
- Joan Baez
I keep forgetting I get to choose!
I keep thinking I have to do stuff, but really, I get to choose how I live my life. And, I can choose right now, so it really never is too late!
Today I chose to write – edit really. This year I hope to see a few things in print so I began by selecting some material to edit and hone. My first effort will probably go to the PC Ukraine PCV newsletter.
My eye falls on the box of books sitting nearby on the floor. It is as though a chocolate cake s tempting me to sneak just a finger full of rich, dark frosting off the side. I can almost smell those books! They are newcomers to our small (home) library and that is why they are still in a box instead of comfortably arranged on the bookshelves.
The M-Mail shipment from Mom and Dad V arrived yesterday along with a couple smaller packages. Mom and Dad sent about 15 used books rescued from a book sale in sunny CA. They mailed it space available (M-Mail = media mail and is about $1 a pound) expecting it to take 3-6 months. The package arrived in less than a month!
While I am working here on the couch ignoring the books, Mark is at the library facing an extended day. He and the Library Director meet with someone from the American Embassy late this afternoon. They got word yesterday so they are scrambling around getting things arranged. I suspect this meeting concerns the grant for the resource center. (We heard through the grapevine that it was approved!)
While they march forward on that project, I need to change gears and prepare for English Club. Throughout December, we have not seen many of our usuals at the Wednesday night meetings. Like in the USA, it is hard to get anything done during the hectic month of December. People have family and social commitments. I hope we have a good turnout tonight.
The box of books will just have to wait until I choose to spend some quality time with them. For now, I keep stealing glances at them as they wait patiently for some one-on-one attention.
· Tuesday, 10 January 2006
The Sweet Smell of Summer in January Snow
The unexpected sweet smell of sheets dried outdoors infuses our living room as I sit here tapping away at this keyboard.
It is an evocative scent and my response is visceral. I pause, close my eyes and inhale the gift.
The sheets in question are draped over the chair in our living room. They were not quite dry when Mark brought them in last night, so I spread them there to finish drying. It has been at least fifteen hours, and the pungent smell of outdoors still clings to them and infuses the room with a captivating perfume.
I abandon my work, put my feet up and close my eyes. I can almost hear Seals and Crofts harmonizing “…summer breeze, makes me feel fine, blowin’ through the jasmine in my mind…” For a few minutes, I am transported to a meadow on a starry summer night.
I open my eyes. How is it these sheets can emit such a powerful smell after so many hours? How is it the scent can evoke visions and sounds?
I stop intellectualizing the experience and simply give in to the pleasure.
The rich scent captivates me and I linger for many minutes enjoying this unexpected gift of sunshine and summer on a snowy January day in Crimea; a little vacation from the here and now; a promise of warm days ahead and memories of special summers long ago.
I breathe deeply.
I am grateful to have sense enough to recognize life’s unexpected gifts … and to take conscious pleasure in them.
In some cultures, it is considered bad luck to speak of happiness. It may attract the attention of some evil spirit, which will in turn act to drive away that happiness. I however, tend to follow the , “How can I keep from singing?” school of gratitude for the joys of daily life.
I am happy.
I am grateful.
Mother, a life-long-student of Christian Science, would remind me often that an ill-tuned ear listens to the mortal, physical sense of things s and fails to perceive the harmony of being.
I learned to look beyond fading, finite forms and seek happiness in things spiritual. If hopes and affections are spiritual, if we lean on the sustaining infinite rather than the illusions of mortal life, we will find our treasure.
I was brought up on such quotes, as “Are we really grateful for the good received? Then we shall avail ourselves of the blessings we have, and thus be fitted to receive more.” (Science & Health, by Mary Baker Eddy)
These are not abstract ideas. The trick is to absorb them, make them part of who you are. Sometimes it is a conscious choice. Sometimes we must follow (trust) the Sheppard and like the sheep …”follow and rejoice, all the rugged way.”
The lessons my Mother spoke to me stay with me. I ponder them as I wash the morning dishes. I sing a song of gratitude, enjoying the hot, soapy water, the feel of clean china, the sunlight pouring through the window. These small pleasures hint at the divine principles that govern us.
I am aware of the power of gratitude and the awareness of the abundance and richness that people in our culture often overlook. We get caught up in finding success and satisfaction and security in things or people or places.
· Monday, 9 January 2006
Snow Snakes are Out!
The snow snakes are out and people slip, slide along the streets, wary of black ice. Through my window on the world, I see toddlers looking like puffy stars: bundled in snowsuits with arms, legs and heads poking out in five directions, they can barely move. Mother’s clutch at children’s hands and navigate slowly. The women wear long fur coats and look elegant and warm with fur hats right out of an old Russian movie. It is easy to imagine the women bundled snugly under reindeer hides in a troika drawn by beautiful steeds wearing bells.
Indoors, I relish my day at home. I sip my coffee and snack on cookies as I read hungrily the pages of the latest Newsweek Magazine, taking notes on things that interest me. Later I move from the cozy kitchen to the couch where I read for a while from “Opening Skinner’s Box” by Lauren Slater. The author has written narratives about some of the great psychological experiments of the 20th Century and I am quickly drawn into the writing style as well as the content. This is not a dusty academic tome, but instead, it is written in an engaging prose style. (I am grateful to the PCV who donated this book, or should I say abandoned, or perhaps released, this book to the Volunteer library at the Peace Corps office…With a hundred pound weight limit, you can’t take them all with you!)
Earlier I finished reading “Borderlands” by Ann Reid. This should be required reading for PCVs since it covers the bloody thousand year history of this country we are living in. There is a line either on the cover of the book or in the text that says Ukraine has the bloodiest history of any country in the world. Reading the book was enlightening and I learned more about the psyche and culture of the Ukrainian people, and have a better idea of the hideous challenges they faced.
I have looked forward to today as if it is a holiday. I enjoy the opportunity to own my time and to navigate my day in the way I see fit. I am particularly interested in having time to think and plan when the New Year rolls around. From mid-November until now, I have been accommodating and flexible as my routine disappeared before my eyes. I am grateful for a snowy day at home alone so I can regroup.
I plan to make plans. I will consider my activities for the year ahead: what I hope to accomplish, what activities are important to my agenda during my tenure here in Crimea, how I will manage my time in order to accomplish the tasks I see as important…and so on. I have several roles to consider ranging from housekeeper to wanna-be writer to management advisor and I am wife, Mother, Grandmother, daughter, sister, family and friend. I am also just plain me.
I have business workshop plans to organize (write, promote, implement). I want to devote time to improving my language skills (daily study time – discipline – sigh). I hope to keep the members of English Club motivated and stimulated. I need to write, want to write, and do write – I must guard my time for this activity and I should explore a marketing strategy (something I imagine all writers and other artists dread) There are things I want to research (a challenge since Internet access is not really available). I want to surf the web to explore some medical questions, look at future job opportunities and communities to call home, investigate some non-profits who could offer assistance to our plans here in Kerch, look at publishing requirements, etc.
The daily logistics of life here require considerable attention too. All errands require us to go on foot at least part of the way (public transportation is several blocks away) so distance, weather and how much we can carry become elements to consider. Laundry is done in a bucket, hung on a line and takes days to dry outdoors so clothing care becomes a management challenge. Generally, housekeeping involves routine and basics: dishes, dusting, sweeping, and de-cluttering in a small space require constant attention since it is all in your face all the time. Meals are cooked at home and most foods are prepared from scratch which means more time is spent at this task (one which Mark graciously tackles with enthusiasm and skill!). A schedule to make this part of life manageable or at least less intimidating, is needed.
And of course there are books and periodicals I long to read and study. I also want to try painting and find myself increasingly frustrated that the things I want to do often fall far down the list, below the have-to, should-do, need-to-do, stuff that can foil most anyone’s plans.
Sorting it out – I intend to do that today, but I suspect I may relent and give myself permission to simply wallow in a good book for a bit as the snow flakes accumulate on the window sill on this Monday morning at the start of the new year.
A Group E-Mail “Home” Follows:
Happy New Year!
I hope we will have e-mail access tomorrow so Mark can send this out...it's been about a week so I am eager to hear from friends and family!
Well, finally the pace slows down...8-) Thank goodness! I look forward to getting organized for the upcoming new year...
We lost another Volunteer from our training group this week. We started last February with 46 trainees and are now down to 34. The group ahead of us has 109 at the start and now has 81 and the oldest in-country group started with 62 and still has 52. The baby group (the one behind us) just graduated from initial training and went from 116 to 107 already. Attrition seem high. People get scared, they get lonely, they miss friends and family, they drink too much or make poor choices, they decide PC is not what they thought it would be, whatever...they leave and they are missed. It is hard to see people leave. Mark suggests our Group 28 theme song should be "Another Bites the Dust"!
We (Mark and I and Group 28) have only about 68 more Sundays to while away here in Crimea! That means about 17 months which sure doesn't sound like much time to me. I am not counting down because I am eager to depart. On the contrary, the countdown reminds me that life is short and I better enjoy it!
Yesterday was very cold in Kerch with sharp winds swooping off the Black Sea. We woke to sheets of ice glistening on the streets. The sun hid its face or perhaps was blown away by the bitter wind. It was a good day to spend indoors. Mark switched on the television hoping to find a holiday movie or program since yesterday was Epiphany (Ukrainian Orthodox Christmas). We ended up sprawling around the living room watching several TV shows and simply vegetating. One of the programs was a clever update of a traditional Ukrainian folk tale. We laughed out loud as we watched the Cossacks and Tartars on the screen work their way through the story.
Later we watched Tom Hanks in "Castaway" - it was dubbed into Ukrainian, but was easy to follow since much of it required no speaking. It is quite a good film actually - he is a Fed Ex employee whose plane crashes, leaving him to play Robinson Caruso on a desert island. The action starts out in Moscow so we enjoyed the Russian scenes. (Though we are technically part of Peace Corps Ukraine, our location here in Crimea makes us associate with things Russian since people here are primarily ethnic Russians or Tartar and of course, we are learning to speak Russian, NOT Ukrainian).
I spent some of the day reading. I am almost finished with Anna Reid's "Borderland; A Journey Through the History of Ukraine". It is a good read for those of us interested in knowing more about this region. The history is challenging to trace actually since Ukraine has almost always been ruled by other countries. It is hard to know who is the enemy during some periods in their history. I read aloud the chapter on Crimea as we lingered over breakfast.
Today we woke to bright blue skies and dry, bitter cold air, but decided to hike over to bazaar despite the ice and biting air. Everyone wore fur hats today! Mark slipped and slid a few times but did not take a dive. Earlier in the week, to his chagrin, he bounced on his backside outside the post office. It amazes me that so many building have steep steps when ice is a fact of life for several months each year.
Many of the venders at bazaar were absent today. It is the end of the holidays so maybe they elected to take a post-holiday break, or maybe it is the brisk weather. The poultry and rabbit venders are also absent today and their area is covered with plastic - part of the Avian Flu precautions? (Nearby Feodosia has been placed under quarantine this week due to an outbreak of Avian Flu.) With fewer people at bazaar, it was easier to maneuver and to see the wares for sale. People here are wonderful on their own, but in crowded places they can be intimidating. It is as though I am invisible and they try to occupy the space I am already in. I purchased a pretty plate (2.5 hryvnia or about 50 cents) and a yellow vinyl tablecloth (11 hryvnia or $2.20). Mark bought some cabbages, dark bread and a few other staples before we headed back to our flat. Going to bazaar is like doing a Wal-Mart run back in the States. Sooner or later everyone shows up there.
We stopped at an outdoor vender's kiosk for hot tea (to thaw out our fingers) and also ordered sharooma (a kind of Tartar "wrap" made of shredded cabbage, meat, etc - our version of fast food) to go. We stopped at the post office, anticipating some holiday mail, but sadly, there was nothing in the mailbox. I expect we may get our holiday cards and stuff around Groundhogs Day...seems like a good time to remind folks that Mark's birthday is the 19th of February. 8-)
Well, I hope all is well on your end of the line. We are happy and engaged with work projects and simply enjoying the mechanics of life. We love to hear from you. We will try to get some current photos out soon, but do check in at our website and read our journals and look at the photos and videos posted there.
More later...life is gooooooood 8-)
· Sunday, 8 January 2006
Another One Bites the Dust
Our training group has lost another member.
Early terminations are coming at more than one a month. Our group started with 46 members when we met on a snowy February morning in Chicago. Here we are less than a year later with only about 33 people left on our team.
With less than 17 months until we close our service here, our theme song should be “Another One Bites the Dust”. Who will be there to sing it?
Our training group is much smaller than the previous one and the newest one too. These groups are in the hundreds at the start. There is always an attrition rate. Peace Corps does not want people to be martyrs. How effective can people be if they are not intrinsically motivated? So many issues can make a person reconsider: family matters, assaults, rapes, fear, alcoholism, discouragement, etc. These are common themes that surface when people choose to leave (or are given a choice to leave with no stigma rather than to be separated for cause).
I am sorry to see these people leave.
When they leave, there is usually no time for a real goodbye. Once the decision is made, the individual simply disappears. Within hours, arrangements are made, bags are packed and the member is gone.
Sometimes, in this age of e-mail and SMS-ing, a digital note will appear. The individual leaving may send a sad farewell or a friend may spread the word, but there is never an official announcement.
It is probably better this way, but it is hard none-the-less.
Goodbye E. – we will miss you girl!
· Saturday, 7 January 2006
Ukrainian Christmas Traditions
Those who celebrate Christmas (Epiphany) here in Ukraine celebrate on the 7th of January and have traditions particular to this country. Here on the eastern tip of Crimea (predominately ethnic Russians and Tartars), few people celebrate religious holidays. Ukraine came under Soviet rule in 1923, and religion was “discouraged”. Churches were destroyed. In western Ukraine, there are stronger religious ties, mostly Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic. Of course, this is an extremely simplified explanation. Now that Ukraine has its independence, some people are interested in learning more about different religions and traditions will change.
Christmas trees, Santa Claus and gift giving are not part of the holiday. New Years Eve traditions do include Father Frost (see earlier posts) and decorating a fir tree or branch.
This holiday is a religious one and seems low key to Americans who live here.
Mark’s tutor discussed some of the traditions associated with this holiday, which they call Christmas, but I refer to as Epiphany.
Typical of most Ukrainian holidays, food is a key ingredient. A dinner of twelve dishes is prepared – one dish for each of the apostles. Eggs, milk and meat are excluded from the meal (Lenten meal) so freshwater fish is usually the main course. The children make a special dish (kutya) made from wheat and a variety of specific fruits. The meal is formal. A new plate and new spoon are filled with a bit of each of the prepared foods and set aside as a reminder to give something to the poor and destitute. It is important to have wheat under the tablecloth. Children often go caroling (kolyaduvaty) and are given candy and nuts.
Some of the traditional dishes are holubtsi, a stuffed cabbage roll; varenyky, a boiled dumpling filled with cabbage or potatoes or apples or even herring; and, of course, all kinds of pickled salads and wonderful breads. Tortes make a wonderful dessert.
People attend church on this evening.
Here in Crimea, or at least in Kerch, it is pretty much business as usual.
Even in areas where Christmas is observed, it does not rival Easter. Easter and New Years Eve are the major holidays followed by International Women’s Day (March 8th).
It is interesting that International Women’s Day is not one I ever heard of before arriving in Ukraine. More on this major event in March.
· Friday, 6 January 2006
I was just finishing my second cup of coffee and was about to start my morning chores when, unexpectedly, Mark came charging through the door with a warm smile on his face and a breath of cold air clinging to his clothes.
He took off his fur hat, hung up his overcoat, and began unpacking the bag of groceries he had with him. “Today is a holiday. The library is closed until Monday!” he said, grinning at me.
“Oh,” I said, trying to modulate my tone so I sound pleased rather than put off. “Um…I was just making notes on a writing project. Um, welcome home! …Coffee?”
Here I must pause to explain my lack of enthusiasm when my best friend and husband showed up unexpectedly with happy news and time to spend with me. You see, I seem to be a woman who values routine.
It has been many weeks since I have had a day to pursue my writing routine and I am hungry to sit down with uninterrupted, quiet time to put on paper the illusive ideas that I want to record. So many thoughts wither and die before my fingers reach the keyboard. I have notebooks filled with random thoughts I scrawled own with some urgency. I never feel as though I have thought things through until I have a chance to write it all down.
The routine I most like to follow is to breakfast with my spouse, kiss him goodbye, pour the second cup of coffee and then linger over a bit of reading. At some point, the disciplined self inside prods me to tackle morning chores. (I am happily haunted by my mother’s work ethic that requires me to do the morning dishes, make the bed and sweep before I can do anything else – I used to mentally curse this practice, but now that I am graying a bit, I find it a practical way to manage the details of life…in fact I find myself feeling very close to my mother as I manage those simple tasks…but, I digress…)
The morning tasks are repetitive and repetitive tasks, as many psychologists would agree, facilitate creative thinking. (Before we came to Ukraine, my morning dog-walk with Miss Zoë was the ritual that stimulated me to think and fostered creativity. Back when I commuted to the work-a-day world, the drive time became a time to think and grow.) Once the creative energy begins, I migrate to the uncomfortably firm soviet-era couch where I perch with my laptop ensconced on my lap and begin to pound keys.
I have spent much of my adult life cultivating flexibility. It was kind of the nature of my life professionally (military) and personally (wife, mother and long-term student). You have to learn to roll with the opportunities to survive. I managed to accomplish a lot. I never fully understood the subtle joys of routine until just a few years ago, when I took a sabbatical and finally had the chance to cultivate it. So now, when my routine is disrupted, I sometimes have to remind myself to be happy!
The Tale Resumes (Post Digression)
So here is my enthusiastic husband home for the day!
I try to change gears as he heads to his desk. Before I can utter another word he says, “Thanks for the coffee. I need to do my Russian homework. I have tutoring this afternoon.”
“Don’t let me bother you,” he continues, as he turns on his computer and music begins to pour out through the speakers on the opposite side of our tiny living space.
Another Pause for Explanation
I seldom turn on the radio or television. I do not wear headsets as I walk.
It’s not dislike. No, I love all kinds of music and am an avid listener to National Public Radio broadcasts. I will become glued to foolish episodes of predictable, happy, situation comedies or old
B&W classic films. I love to watch Oprah and, well, you get the idea.
I know these things about myself so I do not allow myself to begin. Once the radio, television, stereo is on I am hooked. It is much like eating peanuts or chips – you can’t stop. Books, magazines, and newspapers also draw me in and distract me, but that is another story.
All these wonderful diversions drain my creative energy and drown out my thoughts.
I do not miss them when I do not have them. I am happy with the quiet and my own thoughts and dreams. It really does not occur to me to turn them on.
Mark falls asleep with a headset in his ear as he listens to a chapter of yet another book. He plunks on a guitar or a banjo as he watches TV. He downloads music. He was a radio announcer and managed a television station. He loves to edit audio.
We are opposites.
The Story Resumes - Let the Dancing Begin!
Suddenly Carol King belts out “Where You Lead, I Will Follow.” The speakers resonate and my slippered feet begin to move, as if a puppet master is pulling my strings. I hear another woman’s voice harmonizing with this classic song and quickly realize it is me singing along as I dance around the living room!
It is as if another person entered my body and took over. I am not a great singer. What I lack in talent I make up for in volume. Here in the relative privacy of our flat (“Oh gosh, what are the neighbors thinking, because surely they can hear me through these thin walls!”) I found myself singing along with every song that played.
Meanwhile Mark is studiously bent over his Russian studies. I do my chores singing enthusiastically and occasionally doing some improvised dance steps.
“Where you lead, I will follow…” I sing along (off key) with Carole King as I soap up the sponge and wash out the coffee cups. Jim Croce and I sing a duet of “Time in a Bottle” as I fill the buckets to wash our sheets. I feel like laughing. Jimmy Buffet croaks out a song that brings a tear to my eyes and then Elton John restores m youth with a rendition of “Crocodile Rock”. Can Queen be far behind?
The odd assortment of music continues to spill out of the speakers. I look over at the back of Mark’s head. He is absorbed in deciphering some nuance of Russian grammar, totally unaware of what he has done to my day.
It always amazes me what joys Mark brings into my life. It is as if he had re-invented music! I had forgotten what fun it is to crank up the volume and sing along.
So much for routine.
My life will never be routine, as long as I have Mark around, and for that, I am humbly grateful.
Our music has been “trapped” inside Mark’s computer for several months. Some problem with the power supply and the external hard drive. Mark recently found and innovative way to solve the challenge so we finally have access, after the holidays, to all the tunes he downloaded prior to coming here.
FYI: When he left for tutoring, the music stayed on! 8-)
· Thursday, 5 January 2006
We Host a Party
I am cutting out lacy, paper snowflakes with 25 children on a cold, cold day in a library in a small Tartar community on the Eastern end of the Crimean Peninsula.
I know no words in Tartar (is it a language?) and even my Russian vocabulary is shamefully limited, yet I am communicating easily with these dark-eyed charming children.
How did I get here?
Friend T, a Peace Corps Volunteer assigned in this community dreamed up the idea of a winter party. He had visions of singing “Frosty the Snowman” and sipping hot cocoa with very-American marshmallows (like tiny snowballs) floating in (very weak) hot chocolate. Maybe these visions were really flashbacks to his own youth. It is easy to get homesick here, far from friends, family, and traditions that make a place more like home.
Our host Tom, looking festive in a red sweater, supervised the event. His friend K, visiting him from Alaska, monitored the hot cocoa and distributed the marshmallows she thoughtfully toted with her from halfway round the world.
Mark read a story to the children. Though far from cowboy country, his wore his big black cowboy hat throughout the event. The children’s eyes were glued to this big American cowboy as they listened to the tale of Frosty the Snowman.
I was responsible for the activities. I think the children (and the librarians) were equally amazed and amused when Mark and I used the demonstration and performance technique to show them how to play the lively relay games.
Imagine if you will, my grey-bearded cowboy and me madly racing across the room to the goal line, donning clumsy gloves, struggling to tear open a wrapped piece of chocolate, wolfing it down and then running back to the start line to tag the next member of the team. No dignity here. When I get excited, I squeal and stamp my feet and generally have a lot of fun (I remember an incident on a roller coaster at an American amusement park where I screamed and squealed so much a young child in the next car asked in a serious, concerned voice; “Is that lady gonna be OK?”)
I lead the children through several rowdy relay competitions, a rousing game of pin the hat on the snowman, and the big event: the snowman piñata! (I had so much fun making the papier-mâché snowman and risked my life supervising the kids as they took turn swinging a big stick, attempting to smash the fat little guy!). We ended the party by enthusiastically singing “Frosty the Snowman” while the children crammed chocolates in their mouths and smiled.
The children were delightful and had a good time, though I am not sure who came away with more joy: the kids or us. The opportunity to spend time with children during the holidays certainly helped the four Americans feel better about being away from family and friends.
I was not exhausted, but ready to sit, so I was grateful when the library staff invited us to stay for tea. We sipped instant coffee served in tiny espresso cups (typical here in Ukraine). We sampled a traditional Tartar pastry as we talked a bit.
The women chatted and asked us questions in Russian with Tartar and Ukrainian words thrown in. This social exchange taxed our conversational skills far more than our earlier efforts had – having fun overcomes any language barrier.
T. did an impressive job of carrying the conversational burden during the impromptu tea party. He was part of our training cluster when we arrive in Ukraine last March. T. was a quick learner from the start. His skills have improved on the job. Mark’s Russian skills are developing at a respectable rate and he uses them on the job too, but T is a talker and is really is in his element when he converses with the locals.
Married people living in a foreign country and learning the language face the need for self-imposed discipline since it is so easy to revert to English or to rely on the other individual’s strengths. Nonetheless, Mark and I engaged and participated in the conversation. Only K was forced to sit smiling and patiently waiting for a translation.
The day’s event was successful.
As Mark and I boarded the bus for the 2-hour ride back to our home, we were still riding on the waves of satisfaction.
It is hard, sometimes, to remember that just a short year ago, we had never even thought about Ukraine and now, here we are, happily making it our home.
· Wednesday, 4 January 2006
No Cheeseburger in Paradise
Sometimes I find myself thinking about cheeseburgers (Jimmy Buffet’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise” sounds inside my head as I tap away on these keys). I have never been a big fan of lunch at the local burger joint, but on occasion, I crave the comforting flavor of a sizzling cheeseburger slathered with ketchup, mustard, pickles and lots of onions….mmmmmm.
The humble American meal of hamburger, side of fries and a Coca Cola is not available here in Kerch by the sea. In Kiev, Mc Donald’s has made inroads – there are more than 50 established there already. Here on the tip of the Crimean Peninsula, such a meal is only a memory.
You can find French Fries at local bars and restaurants, but they resemble home fries, not the golden, thin, salty fries McDonald’s and Burger King customers are accustomed to. They are served up in a plastic cup at the local bazaar. Young people order them, slather them in ketchup and sip hot, sweet chai (tea) from another plastic cup.
People order juice, hot tea, beer, vodka shots, instant coffee and sometime water with gas, but seldom Coca Cola. At 2.80 – 4 hryvnia (50-80 cents) a serving, Coca Cola is quite and expensive splurge. Tea is around 50 kopeks (10 cents) and coffee is 1.50 hryvnia (30 cents).
Excellent juices are sold everywhere and there is a wide variety of flavors. Beer and vodka can be purchased everywhere too. There are kiosks on street corners selling beer and vodka.
The local “fast food” is tasty really. My favorite has Tartar roots and is kind of a wrap. Sharooma is made with a tortilla-like bread called lavash. For 60 kopeks (12 cents), I get a tasty “sandwich” filled with meat, chopped cabbage, mayonnaise, ketchup, and onions. My mouth waters just thinking about this flavorful street food.
Other street food options include the kotlete, which is a piece of indeterminate, greasy ground meat, rolled in flour or corn meal and fried. Pirogies are available too and may include meat or may be made of potatoes or cabbage.
Old, heavy babushka women (grandmothers) wearing traditional kerchiefs knotted under their chins hawk their homemade snacks near the bus station or the train station. Cats and dogs dart around underfoot as the women dispense sticky sweet, hot tea from battered thermal hot pots and sell their tasty treats to passers-by.
This is not a culture of dining out. Restaurants are for special occasions only. People dine at home with family and when they travel, they carry food.
Of course we can cook our favorite American foods here in our flat, substituting as necessary, but ordering out for pizza, breakfasting at Denny’s, feasting on Chinese take-out and even relishing the ubiquitous American burger are not possible.
The only cheeseburger in this paradise will be one made in my own kitchen.
· Tuesday, 3 January 2006
The electric radiator Peace Corps provided us when we moved here last spring has been collecting dust in the corner by the window. This morning I put it in service for the first time. It works well.
I suspect many PCVs use their electric radiators regularly, especially on frosty mornings when it is hard to crawl out of bed to face the morning chill. Americans are generally used to warmer temperatures in their homes. We are also used to having control of the heat.
Most flats or homes in urban areas or villages have radiators, which receive hot water heat from centralized heating plants. If the flat is far from the water plant, the flat will probably have very limited heat. Those who reside near the heat plant probably swelter at times. Three words mean everything, as the old real estate saying goes: “location, location, location”!
Insulated hot water pipes traverse the city (above ground) making walking difficult. They are an unattractive feature, and do not seem very practical, since the heat dissipates before it reaches many of the users. Cats and dogs like the pipes though. When the city heat is on, cats and dogs curl up and snooze happily on the pipes. (The most popular spots are where the insulation is gone!)
It is wise to have a supplement for the heat.
Volunteers get pretty resourceful about things here. The electric radiators Peace Corps provides warm the room and simultaneously provides efficient drying space for three pairs of heavy socks, according to a PCV I met on New Year’s Eve. Another Volunteer mentioned turning on the oven every morning to take the chill off the kitchen. I read a blog that detailed breaking the ice in the bathroom sink so the individual could start his morning ablutions! Brrrrr!
Another fact of life here is that the electrical systems are often not designed for multiple electrical appliances to function simultaneously. Our lights and computer screens dim routinely when the refrigerator kicks on. When we use the electric hot-pot (a routine fixture in all Ukrainian homes) to heat water for coffee, we make a point of turning off lights, just in case.
The 1500-watt radiator PC provided us is putting out some heat! I would love to have some coffee, but I cannot run the hot-pot and the radiator at the same time, so I am patiently waiting.
Actually, the weather here is not particularly cold today. It is quite mild, but I am in a time crunch so I am using the radiator to hasten the drying process on my latest papier-mâché project.
Today I am building a snowman.
I have three large papier-mâché balls hovering near the radiator and when they are dry, I will assemble them into a snowman piñata. We are handling the activities for a winter party for 6-9 year old Tartar children in a neighboring community.
The plan is to board the marshutka in the predawn hours Thursday morning so we can be in Stary Krim by 1030. It is a three-hour ride to the foothills with bags of supplies and a snowman on my lap! We will meet another PCV there and conduct the party.
We will sing “Frosty the Snowman” and a few other children’s songs, do a few silly relays games, play a version of musical chairs, “Pin the Hat on the Snowman”, and then smash the candy, balloon and toy filled snowman piñata. We may cut out paper snowflakes and play with comb kazoos too. The children speak Russian so it should be fun engaging them and trying to communicate, but in my experience, fun knows no language barrier!
We may send the night at T’s house (a PCV we trained with). He does not have indoor plumbing or running water so he draws water from a well, heats his home with coal and generally has a much more challenging life than we face here. Photos of the house indicate it is quite charming and spacious and he has fruit trees, a grape arbor and garden space so there are trade offs.
Friday we will head back to our cozy flat, with a stop enroute: I hope, to explore the bazaar in the town of Feodosia. My plan is to purchase a belated Christmas gift for my spouse. (Practical gifts since storage is limited and in 17 months we will probably be abandoning most of what we accumulate during our adventures here – I may find him a nice pair of slippers and a couple bath towels.)
This weekend is Epiphany; marking the day the faithful Wiseman arrived at Bethlehem and saw the infant Jesus, the Christ Spirit, in a humble manger. What an amazing journey they made – what tales they must have shared! Of course, their arrival there was merely the beginning of an even bigger tale!
E-Mail Advice Sent to a Potential PCV Coming to EE (Piercing & Tattoos):
…Eastern Europe, is not Europe, nor are former Soviet countries likely to have the same cultural norms as Western European countries.
My spouse and I are in an isolated city (eastern tip of the Crimean Peninsula) where most of the population are ethnic Russians. I have not observed any students or young people here with piercings or visible tattoos, though I am sure there are some.
The standards of appropriate dress here differ significantly
from what we generally see in the workplace in the USA. You could wear a
see- through blouse, a mini skirt that is five inches long and just hanging on
bare hips with a provocative thong displayed and 4-inch spike heeled,
thigh-high boots to the office or to teach class and probably none of your
local colleagues would bat an eye. You can wear lots of make-up and
"paint" your hair and just blend right in. This really is how they
dress here! (If they dressed like that in the USA, imagine what label
they would probably get - )
I don't get it - but they are OK with that look here.
Piercings and tattoos, on the other hand, send a different message here. I think it would be considered extreme and might put a wedge between you and your colleagues.
As an outsider, coming to spend two years in a culture you are not from, it is important to establish rapport and credibility. People are often put off by things they do not understand. They are quick to judge and slow to accept...many of the people here have not traveled much and base their sense of norms and values on their own experiences. They have learned hard lessons about being tagged as a rebel and anyone who does not conform, is considered a rebel. (Rebels, and their associates, used to disappear in the night in Soviet times.).
One of the neatest things about a PCV's experience is
the opportunity to develop amazing friendships among the local people. Anything
that puts you on the outside of a cultural norm can slow down that process or
even close doors for you.
If you value the opportunity to become part of the community, be mindful of who they are and their perceptions and beliefs. In order to win them over and be effective, you must do as the Fox says in that wonderful book, “The Little Prince”, - you must take the time to "tame them."
Be your gentle, warm, witty self...do not be intimidating or demanding...do not give people fuel for their insecurities or an opportunity to make sweeping judgments. Once they know you, trust you, love you, they will be accepting of choices you make that may differ from their ideas.
I vote for a low profile initially...let them talk about what a wonderful person you are rather than your tattoo or piercing or how you dress or wear your hair or what kind of jewelry you wear, etc... 8-)
The people here really are great - I look forward to meeting you when you get to Eastern Europe!
Just my two kopeks worth...
Survivor, Training Group 28, Ukraine
:EXCERPT FROM S’s ORIGINAL FOLLOWS: (My Reponse is Above)
Date: Sat, 31 Dec 2005 22:17:37 -0000 From: "umsarahjo"
Subject: to john: Subject: graduation and piercings
… piercings do not carry the same stereotypes today as they did ten years ago. While most are now for decoration, others are for cultural reasons. When I was in Europe many people had piercings including my professor (this was however in Western Europe, im sure Eastern Europe will greatly differ). Hopefully my having one will help to break some of these negative stereotypes. I consider myself to be an intelligent individual who happens to have a (tasteful) piercing. Once again, thanks for your response, I just felt I had to defend myself a little:) And also, I could understand it if PC administration did not want me to have mine in.
· Monday, 2 January 2006
The New Year has swept down on me and caught me off guard.
I like the start of the year. Not New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day actually, but the feelings I get as I move forward into the early days of January. I like to carve out some time alone to think about the year behind me and of course to consider what lies ahead too.
I usually spend time with a notebook and pen, jotting down random thoughts about what I hope to accomplish and what is really important to me. Sometimes I map out a plan. I make random lists. I consider my values, my family and friends, my religion, who I am, what I believe.
I do not make resolutions.
I take stock.
· Sunday, 1 January 2006 – HAPPY NEW YEAR!
House Guests and Hot Water
New Year’s Day started late since we straggled in at about 4 AM.
I awoke to the smell of bacon cooking and quickly made my way to the kitchen. When I was upright, it became clear the shots of vodka I consumed in a great show of cross-cultural enthusiasm were going to haunt me. I navigated toward the coffeepot, moving a bit slower than usual.
Our flat is tiny. How small? Well the kitchen is only a few paces from our sleeping area and between the two rooms lays our living room. As I rounded the corner from behind the bookshelf that acts as a divider between the living are and sleeping area, I realized our houseguests were still sawing wood. T, a fellow PCV, was sprawled on the floor, head jammed up to the ancient TV in one corner and legs spanning the doorway to the kitchen. K, T’s friend visiting fro Alaska, was sleeping in relative luxury on the old Soviet era divan. I stealthily made my way to the coffee pot, which was, by now calling my name.
My wonderful spouse greeted me with his usual hug and a bristly kiss (after all these years, that mustache still tickles). He kindly offered me a mug of steaming coffee and said, “Sit down, and have some pancakes and bacon. How do you want your eggs?”
I love his man. How did I get so lucky?
In a manner of moments, our houseguests joined us. We feasted on the light, fluffy pancakes Mark produced as quickly as we could eat them. Then we lingered at the table, sipping the black gold that courses through my veins and will be keeping me alive for three days after I am officially dead – yes, black coffee…ahhhhhh.
It was time for our guests to start the New Year with hot showers. T. does not have indoor plumbing or hot water at his home in the foothills a few hours west of here, so visits to our flat involve showering – long, hot showers. After several days at T’s house, K was also looking forward to lathering up and feeling the pleasure of hot water spilling over all her nooks and crannies.
While our guests took turns luxuriating in the simple pleasures hot water can provide, Mark and I continued sipping our coffee. It is a joy to be surrounded by friends and to share our modest home. The tiny, stained, Formica-topped table was littered with the remains of our first meal of the New Year. The mismatched, chipped dishes and the equally mismatched cutlery leftover from the Soviet era, were covered with improvised syrup and bits of egg and fat. The dishes would have to wait an hour or so since out luxurious electric water heater was rapidly being depleted of hot water. They remained on the table since there is no counter space to stack them on. The ancient, rusty refrigerator, inches away from our elbows kicked on and rumbled frightenly, drowning out attempts at conversation.
Tomorrow I will pull out my buckets and wash our few tiny towels and spare sheets, hang them out to dry and think about our blessings.
This flat and all our modest possessions makes me think of the one Jackie Gleason’s honeymooners called home.
This small flat with the hodgepodge of old furniture and beat up accessories is our cozy, happy home during this Peace Corps adventure. Looking around, it is hard to believe what a wonderful life we are living.
Mark reached over and squeezed my free hand as I continued to sip my coffee.
Life is good and 2006 is off to a great start.