• Thursday, 31 March 2005

The last day of March is spent and so am I…

Last year on this date, Mark and I were hovering over my computer working hard on the last few sections of our application package for the Peace Corps.  We submitted our application just as the clock struck midnight.


It struck us funny that our application was submitted on April Fool’s Day.


Here we are one year later, living with our host family in a small community in rural Ukraine, burning the midnight oil learning Russian.     


Our cluster was the last one to complete placement interviews.  In a few short weeks we will take the train to our site for a tentative visit.  Most of the business team will be posted in less developed, smaller communities.  Much like the military, postings are based on the needs of the organization, but of course our preferences are solicited too. 


Some volunteers seem to have some definite expectations about their assignments.  I came with an open mind and I welcome the adventure ahead.  I have found it wise not to outline a future for myself.  If I did, I suspect the outcome would be less interesting. 


Ah yes – the interview was conducted sans shoes!  8-)


I am eager to do some writing, not in this journal, but on a couple pieces I have been working on in my mind.  Currently I do not have time or energy for writing.  The days pass too quickly and are filled with lessons and projects.  I look forward to a time down the road when we no longer share a home with a host family and when we have more control of how we organize our days.  This is a demanding time.   


March came in like a lion (a small lion) in Chicago so will it go out like a lamb here in Ukraine?  The skies have been bright and sunny and the air crisp all week.  The lake is still iced over.  The morning temperatures have been around 32 degrees all week, and in the 40’s by afternoon.  I am told there will be lilacs in early May…

  • Wednesday, 30 March 2005

Saint Oprah comes to Ukraine


So why don’t I spell Kiev/Kyiv/Kyev the same way twice? 


Well, I am an American learning to speak Russian while living in Ukraine.    Depending on several factors (to whom I am speaking - Ukrainan or Russian -  which alphabet I am using or whether the font is in print or cursive) I choose which spelling I will use.  This does lead to some confusion.  It also wrecks havoc on any confidence I have in my language skills.  Sigh. 


Ordering lunch yesterday (a Ukrainian experience) for example – words we may have recognized in ordinary print were presented in cursive where “t” takes on the appearance of “m”, the “d” looks like a “g”, and other letters also mysteriously change their basic shapes.  I will spare you details, but trust me, it can be frustrating.  And oh, by the way, there is NO word for frustrating in Russian…so you see what I am up against here!  


Never mind though.  What I really wanted to mention today is that the “Kyiv Post” published an article this week saying the Oprah Show will soon debut on Ukrainian TV.  This is quite a surprise since, according to the article, Ukrainian audiences generally prefer Ukrainian or Russian programming.   Western television shows are no longer a novelty.  Even the steamy “Sex in the City” series doesn’t hold an audience here. 


Oprah’s program airs in many places around the globe, including unlikely spots such as China, so she is obviously capable of overcoming cultural differences and charming audiences in any language.  A chief reason Ukraine television executives have decided to give Oprah a try is that they can acquire the programs at such a low price.  The popular Russian soap operas that air here are several hundred thousand dollars per episode. 


Will Oprah Winfrey become a Ukrainian television icon?  Perhaps – she represents a self-made woman and certainly that will influence some of the viewers opinions.   She is also a nurturing and generous individual, qualities that are valued here in Ukraine. 


So, we will see what happens.  I certainly did not anticipate the possibility of watching my favorite daytime TV program during my Peace Corps tour, but it looks like it may happen.  (Of course that depends on where I am posted and if I have access to television or even electricity…)


Long live Saint Oprah! 


  • Tuesday, 29 March 2005

Interviewing in my socks: cross-cultural differences are alive and well n Ukraine


The job placement interview is tomorrow.  We were advised that it really is not a traditional job interview, but more of a conversation regarding our skills and aspirations.  


The information they ascertain will be used in the placement decisions. 


Am I nervous?  No not really, though it occurred to me today that I may feel at a disadvantage during the interview since I will likely be in my stocking feet.  Yes I will be looking very professional from the ankles on up, but my feet will present a very different image.  Not a very professional situation is it, but typical of life in Ukraine, or at least the life of a Peace Corps Trainee in Ukraine.


A word of explanation is called for I guess. 


In Ukraine, it is customary to remove outdoor shoes when entering someone’s home.  Many hosts will offer guests a pair of slippers to wear during their stay and of course guests sometimes simply walk about in their socks.  In most professional settings (schools, offices, etc.), shoes stay on. 


Our language classes are conducted in an apartment setting.  When we arrive at class, we quickly take off our wraps and shoes before settling in to study.  Our instructor wears slippers (rather formal ones) but the rest of us in our group tough it out in our socks. 


The interviews tomorrow will be held in the apartment.  I am wondering what the protocol will be.  Will the interviewer waltz into the apartment wearing amazing Ukrainian spike heels or will she slip off her shoes and conduct the interview in stocking feet. 


Here is my guess: once inside, she will remove her outdoor shoes and don a pair of professional shoes.  This is not typical.  Everyone removes shoes when entering a home.  I will keep you posted.   


Cross-cultural differences are alive and well here in Ukraine.


  • Monday, 28 March 2005

Time Changes, Buses, Subways and Cities…

We were up early on this bright Sunday morning and arrived at the bus station well before our 7:40 bus was scheduled to depart.  The air was bright, the sky blue and the promise of a mild day brought out crowds of people.  Apparently all of them wanted to take advantage of the fine day to travel to Kiev.


Mark strode up to the ticket window and uttered the magic Russian phrase that should have been rewarded with two tickets for Kiev, only to be met with a rapid-fire barrage of Ukrainian.  Before we could decipher what she was saying, another official arrived and began her own assault on us.  After several minutes of gesturing and exhausting our limited vocabulary, we determined the bus was full and the next available bus would not depart for an hour. 


We strolled across the street to while away some time at the busy Sunday bazaar.  When we returned, the bus station was even more crowded.  The two officials saw us coming and made a point to advice us that here would be no seats on the next bus and we would have to wait yet another hour.


K. is a stop on the route to the capital city.  If we lived at the end of the line, we would have a chance at getting on the bus and maybe we would even have a seat.  What happens is all the seats are filled at stops in the outlying towns so when the bus to Kiev pulls in at K. there are no seats available.  The bus stops, passengers step off and sip tea or catch a smoke and then board again and head off to Kiev, leaving us behind.  The busses that arrived and departed without us were packed with no standing room either. 


We entertained ourselves watching the local hungry dog population work the crowds.  Venders sold hot dogs and the persistent, tail-waggers often scored a few bites from generous animal-lovers who, like us, waited to board the bus.  We watched the Babushkas enjoying the warm sunshine as they sold sunflower seeds to passengers.    


At 9:30, after a long wait and with the help of the two women at the bus station, we finally managed to get tickets and board a bus for the city.  We had hopped to be in Kiev by 9:15, but our spirits were not dampened.


After an hour on the bus we stepped off the vehicle and headed underground to the Metro station for the next stage of our adventure. 


I am grateful for my experiences with the T and the El and also the subway systems in Madrid and Paris.  The Kiev Metro is a modern, efficient system and many people take advantage of it.  For those unfamiliar with the Cyrillic alphabet and/or the Ukrainian language, the challenge is big and the opportunities to get lost or confused are a very real.  With our smattering of Russian and our confidence and common-sense, we managed to make our way to the appropriate stop, make the change to the red line and then once again disembark at the right place. 


We boarded the longest escalator I have ever seen and were carried up, up, up for several minutes.   According to a classmate, the subway system here was designed to serve as a fallout shelter.  We finally emerged from the dark cavern and found ourselves in a stunning city made even more beautiful by the brilliant Spring sunshine.


We proceeded on with the first item on our agenda which was to find the Peace Corps office.  During our 5 minute walk to the building, we ran into three of the trainees who arrived here in Ukraine with us.  Of course we spent several minutes sharing many of the details of life in our village and how we felt about our training and our language classes, etc. 


It was during the course of this conversation we discovered that it was an hour later than we thought it was.  At 2 AM on Sunday morning the clocks sprang forward.  Our clock did not, so instead, we lost an hour of our short day in beautiful Kiev.  This also helped explain why there was no bus available when we arrived at the bus station earlier that day.  So here it was 1230 and we were really only just arriving in Kiev.


We trundled up the steps at the PCV lounge and enjoyed the opportunity to use the computers there.  We visited with other volunteers and also swapped a few paperback books.  Next time we visit, we will take advantage of the opportunity to take a hot shower (a rare treat for many volunteers here).


After we accomplished our business, we set out to explore the city a bit. 


We walked past churches, museums, a theater and university buildings.  The architecture and the colors of these grand buildings is stunning.  This ancient city is vital and alive and has a special charm I already love.  This is a city designed to delight the senses.    


On Sundays, traffic on the main avenue of the city is blocked and the street becomes a spacious pedestrian mall.  (I wonder what this wide boulevard must be like on a business day?)  On this early Spring day, the crowds of walkers were jubilant and happy to be out and about without heavy wraps and hats.  The willowy, beautiful Ukrainian women walked about donned in dangerously-tall, spike-heeled boot and dramatic, short skirts.  They are confident, poised, elegant and distant looking.  They define sophistication. 


There are street musicians and a few outdoor cafes are serving drinks.  This area of the city promises to be a wonderful place to people watch and linger over coffee.  Street venders hawked flowers and small amusements for children.  When the trees sprout leaves and flowers bloom, this walk will be truly delightful.


As the afternoon waned, we reluctantly headed underground to catch the subway to the bus station.  Once we boarded the bus, I dozed a bit and had to shake off my dreams when we arrived in our sleepy, rural village where we hiked past the chickens, stepping over mud puddles, dodged scruffy stray dogs to get home in time to dine on our host family’s’ wonderful borscht and black bread.     



  • Saturday, 26 March 2005

To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything.

Thomas Merton -Thoughts in Solitude

Yesterday was Good Friday, but not here in Ukraine.  The Ukrainian Orthodox Church follows a different calendar so Good Friday and Easter will be acknowledged in May.  I guess the Easter Bunny won’t be visiting us here tomorrow.     


During the Soviet era religion was not tolerated and here in our village there are no real churches.  I have read there has been a resurgence of people interested in religion.  In some Ukrainian communities the Easter celebration is quite important.  People take baskets of food to the church to be blessed and there is a tradition of coloring eggs using an elaborate method that produces works of art.    


I learned about what life in a communist country is like as the cross-cultural trainer presented material on the history of Ukraine. Until the last decade, the history of Ukraine has been colored by whoever controlled this beautiful land.  The name Ukraine actually means border land and as such, the country was annexed by many different countries over the years.  The Ukrainian people could not share their own history because whoever ruled them imposed their own history on the country.  During the Soviet era, the history books reflected the politics and opinions of the USSR.  It is only now Ukrainians can begin to piece together the events that comprise their unique history. 


There are significant events that were never shared during the Soviet years.   One of the most disturbing stories had to do with Stalin engineering a food shortage that resulted in the starvation of 10 million Ukrainians.  Since Ukraine is a rich farmland, this is particularly amazing.  Our cross-cultural trainer and two other PC host country representatives shared personal stories on what it was like to live under communist rule.  There were tales of relatives sent to Siberia and people disappearing.  We learned about the effects of hyper-inflation and the events surrounding the Chernobyl incident.  The one hour session expanded to three hours as we discussed the historic events that shape this country we call home for the next two years. 


We did not linger after the session since we had to catch the mid-afternoon bus back to K.  It would have been nice to visit the bazaar in O. but we wanted to get back to K before sunset.  Unfortunately there is nothing to do on this fine Saturday night in the village.  The town where the other trainees are has some nightlife.  Here in K, people watch TV I guess.  (At our host’s home, the TV is in their bedroom so it is not an option for us.  The trainees here in K. are getting a bit restless for social activities. 


We plan to get up early tomorrow and head to Kiev to explore the big city a bit.  This will be our first venture on the Kiev Metro.  I am fairly comfortable with negotiating transportation issues, but it is a challenge to read the signs.  The signs are in Cyrillic alphabet and they are written in Ukrainian.  We are studying Russian, so we are familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet, but Ukrainian is not the same as Russian.  Ukrainian and Russian words have so many letters so it is hard to quickly read a sign in passing. 


Kiev is has been around 1,500 years (twice as old as Moscow).  It is a beautiful city with a remarkable history.  I look forward to visiting in May (That’s when we swear in as actual Peace Corps Volunteers) because the lilacs will be in bloom and the streets will be filled with people enjoying Spring.     


  • Friday, 25 March 2005

When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Tonight the full moon shines down on our small village.  I can see it from the kitchen window, glinting off the frozen lake that is the last bit of winter to give way to Spring here in Ukraine.  Across the valley on the opposite hillside, dogs bark and share messages with one another.  I try to imagine what the view will belike in just a few weeks when buds will turn into leaves and the lake will be liquid again.  The change from Winter to Spring is like looking at old B&W snapshots from the Fifties and then opening an album of bright colored photos taken more recently. 


This has been a long week.  Learning is hard work.  Being flexible is too.  I have often said it takes considerable character to remain genuinely cheerful and pleasant under duress.  While we are not truly in duress, we are in stressful circumstances.  The five Americans in our training site are isolated by our limited language skills.  We also are beginning to miss the comforts of home and friends, family and pets – all far away. 


We live with host families and dine with them each day.  In America we seldom eat the same meal twice in a row and how often do we dine on fish soup or borscht for breakfast?  Even our exercise routines are disrupted.  It is interesting to observe how other people cope with their situations.  Privacy is limited and so are choices. 


Of course in a few months we will begin to feel at home here, but these initial stages are significant.  People deal with stress in many different ways.


At our usual lunch spot (the only place in town actually) one of our crew ordered an entrée that proved to be something they preferred not to eat.  Rather than leave the rejected meal on the plate, we scooped it into a plastic cup and took it with us when we left.  Later in the day we shared these leftovers with a couple stray animals who were very grateful for the meal. 


I enjoy all the cats and dogs that roam the streets, though it is sad to see how thin some of them are and of course some of them have had difficult lives and it shows when they limp or walk with an unusual gait.  They dart in and out of shop doors and the stalls at the local bazaar.  Tails wag and dogs bark and people for the most part, just ignore them.  There seems to be an affectionate tolerance of these creatures.


When we stopped behind the bus station to feed a scruffy, black, stray kitten that spends time on the steam pipes there, a woman peered out the window at us as Mark put the meat down by the cat.  She smiled at us.  I wondered what she thought of the strange American man in the cowboy hat feeding the tiny, little kitten. 


I was glad to stroke the kitten and hear a small purr.


I miss my Zoë Mae and Mr. Bubba.


  • Wednesday, 23 March 2005  

Another day of training.  Four hours of intense language training and then a couple hours break.  We ate lunch at the local bar (there are really NO restaurants in town!) and then went for a walk in the bright Spring air.    


At three we met the technical trainer for some coaching on our afternoon site visit.  We visited a local hardware store and interviewed the owners about how business operates here in Ukraine.  The husband and wife team that owns the store are delightful people.  We peppered them with questions about tax structures, employee benefits, etc and then sat down to afternoon tea and sweets and continued the conversation.  They seemed optimistic about recent changes to the tax system and spoke quite candidly about the challenges of running a small business.   The optimism springs from the Orange Revolution.    


  • Tuesday, 22 March 2005

Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth.

Shirley Chisholm

Mark is at the extracurricular Center observing the computer classes held there.  This is the start of his internship project.  I finished my interview with the woman running the Leadership Club earlier this afternoon so while he is off working, I am taking a beak here at our host’s home. 


I hear N. working on the plumbing in the bathroom – always a delightful chore, no matter where you live. 


I just realized this is actually the first time Mark and I have been apart in about 25 days.  Our lives since we arrived at PC and began training have been scheduled and choreographed leaving little time to accomplish anything other than necessary tasks.  Some of the more routine tasks become more challenging when done in a new setting with limiting factors like language,  culture, money, time and availability all working against us.  Fortunately we are both fairly even-tempered, calm and conscientious so we simply do what we must do and move on.        


It is 4:30 and outside the sky is bright.  The afternoons grow longer as Spring begins to finally creep into Ukraine.  In a few weeks we will be able to sit in the sun after classes or internship activities and study in the fresh air.   It is still below zero in the morning.  Now that the snow is melting there seem to be more chickens, geese and other poultry out and about.  It seems odd to see chickens foraging along the streets as we walk to and from class.


Russian classes continue to move forward at a rapid pace.  Everyday we learn about a new rule of grammar which seems to cripple my ability to communicate since I become more self-conscious with each added nuance.  Learning a language is humbling – a real character building experience.  My short term goal is to simply be able to communicate my routine needs so I can be safe and healthy. 


Today we had an observer from PC headquarters.  We covered lots of material and are beginning to reach the phase where we can really make some sentences.  Speaking them is another story though!  We have an excellent language facilitator and I am grateful for her attitude and her teaching style. 


  • Monday, 21 March 2005   


The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

Eleanor Roosevelt

No class this morning so time to do some laundry and study, study, study.


We stopped by the post office and challenged the local postal workers with our request to mail a letter to Malawi, Africa.  This is a small town so they don’t often have such unusual requests and of course they are not accustomed to dealing with people outside the community.  Completing this task was a good exercise of our fledgling Russian language skills.  We eventually dropped the stamped letter in the mailbox.  I hope my brother receives it.  


The weather here continues to be very cold and blustery, but almost all the snow is gone.  We walked along the lake on our way to class this afternoon.  There are several fields adjacent to the lake and the earth is a rich, deep black.  After the past few years in South Carolina, I am unaccustomed to seeing such fertile soil.  There is an earthy smell that permeates the air.  Ukraine is the breadbasket of Europe.  It is easy to see that people here in K. value the earth and treat it reverently.  Every yard has fruit trees and grapevines and evidence of large gardens. 


Tonight N. (our host) had his equipment set up in the kitchen so we got to see first hand how he makes his homebrew.  I think it is illegal to make it, or maybe just to sell it.  It is quite an operation.  It was interesting hearing about the recipe and the logistics of the operation.  Mark took a photo.  A future home business?


We brought in our laundry when we came home from class.  Several pieces were frozen.  Now they are draped over the radiators in our two rooms.  March is the start of spring here in Ukraine, but so far it still feels like winter.  


Tomorrow I have a meeting to attend – I will be working with a youth leadership group.  My exact role is still vague, but I will begin to pinpoint what my internship contribution will be after the meeting tomorrow.  One of the first requirements will be finding an available translator since language presents a problem. 



  • Sunday, 20 March 2005

A cold snap…

Sunday is drifting by in the way a Sunday should.  It is easier to relax and enjoy the day because I know our work will not begin on Monday until noon.  Our schedule is relaxed because language class is delayed Monday because two of our cluster-mates have a technical appointment Monday morning.  Knowing we have no early morning commitments makes today even more relaxing than usual.


The shortwave radio spews out news and stories from BBC.  The stories they choose to follow are more global and focus more on politics and economy.  In USA, we rarely (never) listen to shortwave radio.  In the other room, our hosts nap with the television chattering in the background.  


Outdoors the air is cold and crisp.  Earlier today we walked to the bazaar.  It was cold and the air stung my face and fingertips.  There were no pigs for sale today and no horse drawn carts.  The wind spoke up occasionally and made itself unpopular with those of us who enjoy wandering the marketplace on Sundays.  With Spring’s official start almost here, this cold spell is not appreciated by anyone.  Vendors at the market displayed colorful packets of flower and vegetable seeds.  The (amazing) fur hats that were retired this past week reappeared today.  Faces and fingertips burned, but people still made their way to market make their purchases and to catch up on the local gossip.  These are hearty people and they are social too. 


Our morning adventure outdoors lasted little more than an hour.  We purchased some cookies, a jar of instant coffee and an extension cord.  We wandered around a bit and observed people, but the cold encouraged us to come home promptly.  


The cold snap brought out venders selling fur hats and warm knitted items.  One of the hat venders wore tall, fur mukluks unlike anything anyone else had on.  I suspect he makes the hats in his booth and his personal boots are likely his own creation too.  He did a brisk business today.   


We came home to thaw out and spent several hours wrestling with the various cases and rules that govern the Russian language.   


When our hosts came home from the bazaar, they had a large fish in their shopping bag.  N. went outside and chopped the creature down to size.  I did not go outside and observe N. in this process, but from the sound of the activity outside our window, it was heavy work or a very large fish. 


T. actually made short work of preparing lunch.  We dined on a variant of a tasty fish soup with a side of fish stew and a plate of sardines and onions.  Dessert was a cherry pirogue.  The homemade brew appeared again.  There were toasts and by the end of the meal we had downed three shots.  The alcohol relaxed us all and afternoon naps became the order of the day.


I am not, by nature, one who naps, but I napped today.  I slept hard and woke late in the day.  It is hard to shake off sleep and I am not comfortable with this loggy feeling. 


As I write, the radio has moved from news stories to narrating a radio drama.  The light is fading in the room.  I can hear N. in the kitchen working on our evening meal.  Usually T. cooks, but this afternoon, she is also napping. 


I am slow to wake up.  I feel the need to brush my teeth and splash water on my face, but as a guest it this house, I am loathe to walk through the kitchen and use the facilities.  (It is disruptive to anyone in the kitchen to have someone use the bathroom – they always feel the need to leave if one of us uses the facilities – the door does not close properly so it is not surprising they choose to evacuate if one of us wanders in to use the bathroom.  I am reminded of the downstairs bathroom at my parent’s home. They modified it during the last years they lived there so it was not a very private place.)


Wonderful smells drift into our room from the tiny kitchen across the corridor.  After our leisurely lunch and the afternoon nap, I am not really ready for another meal, but the smells are inviting.  Our Sunday meals in recent years are usually casual – we often eat a large, late lunch and then simply snack on popcorn on Sunday evening.  When children were in our home, we made Sunday evening a game night, so the casual meal was part of the event.  Popcorn is not readily available here in Ukraine, or at least it is not something most people are familiar with.


We were invited to dinner and now we are back in our cozy quarters.  Monday morning is ours because cluster-mates have business so language class will not begin till after noon.  The rest of the week is filled with classes and appointments so we will enjoy our morning off.  Actually we still have homework to complete tomorrow, even though we have spent almost all day on our studies.  The pace is fast here in Ukraine, at least for the PCTs in classes.   There is also laundry to do – no machines here. 


We hope to stop by the local church on Monday afternoon to see if we can get some Internet time.  They have offered us time after 2 on Mondays and Thursday but we are in class until almost 6 so we may not be able to make this happen tomorrow.  We have only received e-mail once and only had a couple brief notes and could not really send much last time.  We hope to update our website and send some individual mail next time. 


Letters to us take about two weeks to arrive I guess, but I doubt anyone has written to us.  I miss my daily e-mail connections with various wonderful friends and family members.  It was such a privilege to connect each day with so many good people and share hopes, dreams, plans… 


We are busy these days during our training and transition, we have no time to be homesick, but in these moments when I find time to journal, I remember how much I enjoy hearing from loved ones.  I take joy from my e-mail connections and learn so much from family and friends.  I miss the interactions.  I am grateful for friends and family and I know I could never be here if it were not for those people who encouraged me to follow my heart and my dreams.  I am so thankful for the support.  We are all in this world together, but we sometimes do not know how much we influence one another.    


Mark is taking a break before we call it a night.  He has put together the banjo parts he brought and is breaking in the strings.  This involves playing bits and pieces of songs and plucking chords and then tuning and the more playing.  It will be fun when he finally is ready to share some music with local people.  Singing and music seem to be a big part of Ukrainian culture (according to my reading).  The five-string banjo is very American, but when we lived in Spain we met a musician who could make the 5-string sing.   Musical instruments are a wonderful way to open doors to new relationships.

(I think there is a 5-string banjo on the “Bering Strait” CD - those musicians are from Russia…)


  • Saturday, 19 March 2005

Saturday stuff…

I wonder if younger toddlers ever tire of hearing the people around them speaking to them in a language they cannot really understand?  Maybe that frustration would explain their occasional emotional outbursts.  I have not reached that level yet, nor do I think I really will, but I do wonder if it may be the case.  It is difficult to not be able to share thoughts and ideas with the people around me.  My limited language skills do not keep me from communicating, but this limitation does reduce my efficiency and effectiveness.  It may, however, enhance my creativity and develop my character.


I find it useful to be grateful for small victories.  The language is a challenge.  I do not expect to ever be a master of it, but I will have a healthy appreciation for it and for those people who have mastered it. 


Outside the wind is once again howling and there is snow in the air.  We have a quiet Saturday night ahead.  Tomorrow we think we are going with our host family to visit their daughter on a farm near a community in the local area.  We discussed this a while back, but have not heard details yet, but our language instructor assures us the plans stand. 


After our morning cross-cultural training we had lunch with our host-mother.  Her spouse was busy working on the car so she lingered with us as we dined.  She is still on her diet so she did not eat the borsht, fried fish, fried mushrooms, mashed potatoes, black bread or cherry piroghy (sp?).  She encouraged me to eat, eat, eat…  She also decanted some of the home-made vodka and shared a couple shots with us.


After lunch Mark and I made a long walk around the town.  This was our first real opportunity to explore a bit.  After about a mile, the wind picked up and the snow began to flurry in earnest.  We headed back home after about two miles of walking. 


One of the neighbors arrived at the door shortly after we came inside.  She came to purchase a bit of vodka from our hosts.  Customers bring their own bottles and T. on N. decants it in the kitchen. This is not their only entrepreneurial venture: T. also sells Aire Flame cosmetics from a catalog.      


Next week will be filled with activity.  I have an appointment with the woman that runs the student leadership program locally.  I will spend some time speaking with her (with a translator) and will probably work on a leadership project as part of my internship. 


Each of us in our training cluster will have an internship project and as a group we will organize and implement a community event.  This is in conjunction with our language and culture training, etc. 


It looks like Mark will work with the computer folks at the extra-curricular center.  They have a student of English on their staff.  He teaches some of the computer classes so those two should have a good time sharing techno-geek information.   The twelve weeks here in K. are busy ones. 


We will have a visit from the PC deputy county director and also one of our cluster mentors this week, in addition to our technical site visits and our internship demands.  Language classes and tutoring continue too.  On Saturdays we have our cross-cultural training in a neighboring community. 


Next Sunday we hope to take a trip to the capital (Kiev) so we are familiar with the transportation system and to sightsee a bit too.  In April we will travel to our permanent sites for an orientation and will have to travel back to K. on our own so the trip to Kiev will be practice for traveling independently.


At the meeting this morning, one of the host family members indicated everyone in town knows us – the Americans’ with the hats… Mark and his cowboy hat and me with my shearing hat.  The local people wear fur hats that would seem pretty exotic in America. 


With snow falling outdoors and Saturday evening stretched out before us and no real plans, I think I may take the opportunity to nap.  I am not much of a napper, but the long week, cold air, exercise and that bit of vodka at lunch may be just the combination to make me give napping a try.  Later I will tackle some language lessons and maybe write a letter or two.




Dinner is over.  We sat down to a repeat of lunch (pickle soup is actually wonderful).  It is Saturday night so the meal started with a kick: samoran (the homemade vodka I mentioned earlier).  We toasted and drank and then proceeded to eat.   After the meal I encouraged T. to sing a few Ukrainian songs.  I found I could hum along as she sang.  The songs sound sad.  Outside the wind is singing and a lonely cat joins in the songfest (spring is almost here and cats sing for their mates). 


When night falls on this village, it is dark.  I would not want to venture out at night this time of year.  I wonder what it would be like to be a young volunteer eager to have a social life in this small community.  During the winter months it would be difficult to go out.  I imagine most social activities revolve around friends and family.  As in America, many people merely sit down in front of the magic television and while away the cold winter evening, but younger people long for more adventure than that.  There does not appear to be a discothèque in K.  In the community where our link group is training, there are places for people to dance and socialize.  Their experience in Ukraine will be different from those who live in more rural communities.  I am content o have a quiet evening at “home”.   


When the weather warms and the days grow longer, the evening streets will fill with people.  We have been told that when spring comes, the street fill with people eager for romance.  Like cooing doves, people nuzzle and kiss because romance is in the air.  A stroll by the river, away from any lights, will be a chance for romance.  After a long winter indoors in close quarters, people take to the outdoors with abandon.  These hearty people who do their daily shopping outdoors all year round, really appreciate the joys of springtime. 


I will keep you posted as the events of Spring in Ukraine develop.  In the meantime the wind is howling – a last hurrah perhaps.



  • Friday, 18 March 2005

Cooking cabbage…

The site visit yesterday provided an opportunity to visit the local business center where people go to register for unemployment benefits.  We toured the facility and then spent some time with the director.  As the discussion warmed up, the local media arrived to shoot a bit of video for the evening news. 


The facility itself appeared to be well organized and was maintained well too.  The question/answer period provided us with some insight into post Soviet practices. 


The sky was bright and once again we got a taste of spring. We stopped at the Calgary Church facility to see if we could use their Internet access during our stay here in K.  (The Deputy Mayor spoke to them on our half.)  Two of our folks spent a little time catching up on e-mail and we three others decide to return another day since they can only really accommodate one person.  We look forward to having time Monday to finally upload journal notes to our site and o send some e-mail.


Today we visited the bazaar enroute to class.  Our mission was to purchase ingredients for our communal lunch.  Since this exercise involves developing our Russian-speaking skills we decided to visit several venders rather than buying the items all at once.  We each had a chance to ask for items and pay using local currency.  It is challenging for newcomers to deal with local currency and to understand native speakers citing prices.  An additional challenge for the PCT’s involves using kilograms and grams when buying produce, etc. 


Our shopping experience was pleasant and we finished in short order.  My shopping bag was filled with a bottle of oil, a cabbage, several cucumbers and some tomatoes.  We stopped at the bread vendor and chose a large loaf of wonderful black bread.  On the way out of the market I made an impulse purchase: a big, square, knit scarf like I see many of the older women (babushka’s) wearing.  The lovely wool reminds me of a soft, grey kitten. 


After two hours of Russian class we had interviews with the Training Manager from Kiev.  It is already time for the first self evaluation.  The training manager and coordinator used this opportunity to get feedback from each of us on how things are going at our site.  The men in our group seemed to be the most vocal and each spent quite a bit of time behind closed doors during their individual interviews.   


Time is flying by.  By this time next month we will know what our permanent site will be.  We will travel to our site and spend 3-5 days there for a preliminary visit.  The return trip will be on our own so we will have some training on using train and bus transportation before we go. 


We also learned that all of our original group is still here.  We talked about attrition rates and causes. 


After the training team left, we spent the afternoon preparing our lunch menu: borsht, salad, and a fried dessert made of cheese.  There was lots of chopping and cutting.  Mark, as usual, dazzled people with his ability to slice and dice – the man knows how to use a knife.  We all poked fun at B. who had never chopped cabbage and found it to be quite demanding.  Yesterday he had his first experience with doing laundry by hand – you can really develop strong arms and wrists wringing out clothes and chopping cabbage. 


After the meal we lingered at the table.  It was pleasant to just sit and talk a bit.  Though the five of us in our cluster group and our facilitator spend lots of time together, we rarely stray far from the agenda to discuss our personal lives.  We sat around the tiny kitchen table and talked for a bit.


Tomorrow we have a two hour cross-cultural session with our link-mates.  They will visit us here.  Several of our host family members will also be there.  It should be a lively discussion and it will be a quite a crowd for K’s small apartment! 


  • Wednesday, 16 March 2005

Chickens and horses…

Another long day of training and I still have a challenging homework assignment ahead of me tonight. 


Russian is a challenging language and it is indeed a character building exercise to live here without the ability to interact and converse.  I have to keep reminding myself we are in an accelerated class and have actually learned a significant amount in our short time here in Ukraine. 


Spring is in the air.  Today on our walk to class we observed many chickens out and about, enjoying the morning sun and pecking at patches of black earth that are beginning to show through under the blanket of snow.  People are wearing lighter jackets and are beginning to retire their fur hats.  Typically, it is the young people who are quick to remove their hats.  Young women are donning short skirts to welcome spring. 


A horse drawn cart followed us down Main Street today.


Tomorrow we have several hours of Russian class and then another site visit.  We will also compose a menu for our cooking exercise for Friday.  Part of our language/culture class includes preparing a meal.  This means we must put together a menu, shop for ingredients and then work together to prepare a meal.  This is a particularly useful exercise for people who have never dealt with the metric system (how many grams/kilos do I buy?) or cooked on a European gas range.  Of course we will use the language in order to shop and we will have the opportunity to use local currency too.       


This Saturday the cluster at U. will take the bus here and visit our site for a few hours.  They are having a more urban experience there.  Our lovely rural community will seem like “Green Acres” to them.  This really is a lovely site and is more conducive to study and work than theirs is.  (We are envious of their Internet access though!)



  • Tuesday 15 March 2005

Banduras, singing and tea…

Language classes started early today so we could accommodate and afternoon with our technical coordinator.  After five hours of Russian training we had the opportunity to visit to the Extra-Curricular Center here in K. 


This facility is separate from the school system, yet provides the kinds of activities one may find in an American school system.  They have a small staff, yet manage to serve over 600 young people and seem to do an outstanding job.     


The director devoted a couple hours to our visit so we had a good opportunity to ask questions and tour the facility.  She is very enthusiastic about the programs the center offers and after our tour, we could see why.  


Before we started our tour, we were serenaded by one of the instructors played traditional Ukrainian songs on the bandura and sang for us while we sipped tea and ate cookies.  We also listened to one of his students as he performed on this amazing instrument.  There are so many strings!  Playing a laud requires so much dedication and significant dexterity. 


On the tour we heard several singers, viewed children putting on a puppet play, and observed the art club students painting and drama students practicing for a performance.  We also spent some time with the sewing club and the knitting club.  We ended our tour in the computer lab.  They are very proud of this facility, and aspire to have Internet access someday.  There are financial issues and infra-structure issues to deal with before that dream can be realized. 


Mark collected video on our digital camera – we may be able to use this for our internship project or maybe just add some of it to our website later.


Late in the afternoon, we returned home to complete the daily homework assignment. 


No time to relax.


  • Monday, 14 March 2005

Medical Day…

Our cluster made another visit to the other site today. This time we gathered at the language instructors’ apartment for a day with the nurses.   These two women are hospitable and professional.  They gave us immunizations (I got 3), provided us with first aid training, nourished us with food (homemade lentil soup) and also took time to listen to our various concerns and observations.  They had a definite agenda, but these women also found ways to use the occasion to educate us on the culture and help us keep our vision broad. 


Each of the ten trainees has different needs and concerns. We each are having a different experience too.  Since many of the trainees are younger and single, part of the training focused on sexual issues.  It was interesting to listen to the dialog on this topic.  I found myself wondering how many of the people in our entire group may find themselves married before this 27 month adventure ends.    


We checked our e-mail and found only one personal message.  It is hard to find an empty e-mail box. 


We had only a brief visit to the Internet café and it was frustrating because we still cannot upload our journals or access our e-mail address book soooo I left there feeling very far from home and a bit blue.  We miss family and friends and have not even seen a newspaper or heard any news since we arrived. 


The late afternoon bus ride home proved to be more crowded than on our Saturday trip.  We remained standing for the 45 minute trip.   At each stop people from the rear of the bus had to squeeze past us on their way to the front.   


Home in time to eat dinner and tackle the homework before heading off to bed.


  • Sunday, 13 March 2005

We walked to the bazaar at about 8 and already it was crowded.  Ukrainian women are always attentive to their looks and even a visit to the open air market finds them mindful of how they are dressed so they strut about in furs and dangerous looking spike heeled boots.  Men wear black leather jackets.  Since the weather was spring-like today, the fur hats were left behind and replaced by less impressive headgear.  No one ventures out without a hat during snow season.  (If you dare to, certainly one of the omniscient, all-powerful babushkas will set you straight on the matter!)


As we headed into the market, I heard a loud squeal and realized the man walking past me carried a small pig in the pillowcase he had in his hand.  When we arrived in the market we saw several crates containing plump, pink piggies.  Several cars were backed in and the trunks were open – inside each vehicle were several fat little pigs nestled in a warm bed of straw.  Some venders brought their goods to market in horse drawn carts.  There were rabbits and chickens for sale too. 


Venders display colorful seed packets.  They are a promise that warm weather will be here someday, but not today.  As we start our walk home, the sky darkens and the snowfall begins.  All afternoon the huge, fluffy flakes came floating down.  Much of the snow cover melted in the balmy morning air so it was odd to see so much snow again so soon.  It snowed for a couple hours.  When we walked to the late afternoon tea party, the snow had stopped and melting was again in progress.


Since we live in a valley, about halfway down a steep hill, we are conscious of the effects of snow.  The hike up and down the hill is a challenge much of the time.  We walk in the street.  There are no snowplows.  Few people own cars.  People walk and the weather does not keep them home or change their plans. 


The tea party was pleasant – a chance to exchange ideas with all our hosts.  We crowded into our language instructor’s apartment for a couple hours of talk about life in Ukraine and in America.   The other three members of our cluster arrived escorted by their host-mothers.  N. went with us since his wife is still feeling bad.  The women guests were very convivial and seemed to enjoy the opportunity to socialize, but I think N. was a bit uncomfortable.  The conversation turned to the Orange Revolution and I am certain he was not attuned to the sentiments of the other people present.  Despite this matter, it was a pleasant gathering.


  • Saturday, 12 March 2005 

“Another Saturday night and I ain’t got no money…”

Actually money is not an issue so far, but it is Saturday night in this rural village ad in March, it is still cold and wintry.  Younger folks would no doubt have already sought out some entertainment for the evening.  An old married couple like us may be happy to just relax at home with no agenda.  In a few weeks the Saturday night plans will be more interesting as people begin to feel spring in the air and perhaps there will be people out and about, walking after dinner. 


At dinner we lingered tonight.  The discussion was lively, despite the language limitations.  Themes included how much it costs to live here in Ukraine and in America and moved on to how much children (ours and our host’s, spend).  The conversation moved to music and we sang a bit.  According to our study materials, Ukrainians like to sing and our experience supports this.  I look forward to learning a few songs from our hostess.  She wrote down the lyrics for one song so I may be able to learn it…


We had an early start today. We ate breakfast (fish soup including the tail) and then walked to the bus stop.  It is hard to plan when you rely on bus service since all the seats may be filled when the bus arrives.  We were fortunate today and managed to catch the 7:40 bus.  After a 40 minute ride, our group of 5 got off the bus and caught a mershuska (sp?) to the next town.  We arrived there with about half and hour to spare and used the time to check our e-mail. 


After a walk in the bitter morning cold, we arrived at the Internet café where we were able to call up our e-mail on webmail.  Our plan was to use our flash drive to upload info to our website and also to import e-mail addresses into the webmail system.  The plans were disrupted when we found that all peripherals were blocked, ie: could not read off the drive or flash drive.  So we can get Internet access, but cannot use peripherals.  Soooo, Mark will be busy trying to troubleshoot this situation so we can communicate more effectively.  We expect to have an opportunity to check our e-mail again on Monday when we will repeat our lengthy and convoluted bus ride for another training event. 


It was good to meet with the folks in U. today.  Their experiences are different from ours.  Everyone was eager to share their experiences with host families. 


The community we are visiting (U.) is a more urban place and is near the capital so it is a bedroom community really.  Our counterparts there live in apartments built in about 1967.  There are about 60 buildings.  The PCTs in U. have television, microwaves, hot water, etc…where we are training the infrastructure is not so good so things are a bit more rustic.   They live in a dynamic community. 


Our community is rural and has many individual homes built long ago.  In fact K. has been around for about 800 years.  It is a peaceful, rural community of about 14,000 with several excellent factories and a wonderful park.  It is a small town so there are few restaurants and cafes and no public Internet facilities.  When the sun sets, it is dark everywhere.  We have not ventured past the garden gate after sundown so far. 


K. is a lovely community – attractive and safe.  It is set on rolling hills.  There are apartments on the outskirts, but our neighborhood is comprised of small brick homes surrounded by small plots of land which contain gardens, fruit trees and often some poultry.  Most of the property has small houses or outbuildings where guests or family may reside.  We observe people collecting water at a community spigot and some people have wells.  There are also wood piles near many doors. 


The roofs are often made of corrugated concrete and the houses are of yellow or white brick.  The wood and/or brickwork around the windows and doors is usually painted a shade of blue.  The rain spouts sport attractive metalwork designs on the corners of the house.  The windows are comprised of many small panes often set at an unusual angle.  There is something about these charming homes that make me think fairytale cottages.   


Our training session included four Ukrainian university students who are majoring in business.  We engaged in a stimulating discussion of business education practices. 


The bus ride home was uneventful, but was a good reminder of how processes we take for granted may seem quite ridiculous to an outsider.  Out language facilitator, a host country national, found it a challenge too.  (I think everyone should have to travel by public transportation from time to time…it is a bit humbling and a character building experience.  It also reminds us of how other people live – I am thinking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, etc…)   


Next Saturday our PC counterparts will visit our community and see where we live.  We will have technical training and cross-cultural training too.  Our counterparts in U. will travel to our site and see how we live.  So it will be a few weeks before we can read our e-mail and try to write a bit – hopefully by then Mark will have found some way to get this stuff uploaded.


Tonight is really the first night since we have been here that I feel somewhat relaxed…I have been trying to keep up with all the demands and now I am glad to have an evening off.  Tomorrow will bring a few tasks and of course study and homework for our language class.  We also have a tea to attend in the late afternoon.  Monday is a Health Day which means a trip to U. again.  I hope we can spend some time at the Internet café and maybe read some news from home.  There was not much personal mail when we checked today…   8-(


We are happy, healthy and learning so many new things…more later  


  • Friday, 11 March 2005

Second Friday in Ukraine

It is hard to believe just two weeks ago we were dining with Kris and Bill in Chicago. 


This morning we made a quick trip to the bazaar and picked up some coffee and cookies to take to class for our break.  Despite the cold temperatures the market was crowded.  The walkways are coated with thick ice and people take tiny steps to avoid falling.  Young boys make a game of sliding.  The sky is clear and blue and the air is biting.  The local dogs race around excitedly following behind people who are likely to drop a bit of food or even give them a snack.  We see a babushka (grandmother) pulling a sledge behind her as she wanders through the marketplace.  Tiny birds flit about and steal crumbs from the displays of cookies in a nearby booth.  Everywhere I look people are dressed in fur or leather coats and hats worthy of a Russian novel!  The sights, sounds and smells of the market hold my interest and I forget about the cold.       


I am glad it is Friday.  I am physically and mentally tired and even though the weekend is filled with several demands, it will be a change of pace and there may even be a bit of unscheduled time.  I know things will begin to seem easier as we adjust to life here and begin to have a real routine. 


Tomorrow we meet with our cluster-mates at 7:30 and travel to another village for training with another group of PCTs.  Bus connections are challenging here in our village so this should make for an adventure.  The bus arrives from neighboring villages so it is possible there may not be seats available by the time the bus reaches our community.  The plan is to arrive at training by 10 AM.  At 12 we will try to find Internet access so we can check our email.  We will begin our return trip at 1 PM so we can make sure to arrive home before sunset. 


Sunday I hope to wash some clothes – by hand.  This will be my first experience with this activity.  I am sure my host ill coach me thoroughly.  I also have some mending to attend to.  (The zipper pulls on my snow boots have already destroyed the lining on my favorite long wool skirt.)  Of course there are a few letters to write and homework and study to accomplish.  Later in the day we have a tea party with our 5 cluster-mates and their hosts.  This is an opportunity to resolve difficulties and get better acquainted.   


Today we finished one of the technical training requirements which involved an information interview with the deputy mayor of our village.  Our group of trainees is diverse so the questions ranged from social issues to economic development concerns.  The technical trainer provided translation for us.  I found many parallels between this village and my small hometown in Iowa. 


Following the interview we resumed language training.  I am impressed with how quickly our counterparts are picking up the language and the grammar.  I am always amazed when people become fluent in another language.   My goal is to be able to communicate basic needs and understand simple conversations.  Obviously it is to my advantage to develop a more sophisticated command of the language, but perhaps it will come with time and experience.  Based on our experiences in Spain, I suspect I will not really hit my stride till after I am established in my site and away from others PCTs. 


We arrived home just before 6.  Both our hosts are ill today so they did not join us for dinner this evening.  I can hear the television in their neighboring room.      


  • Thursday, 10 March 2005    

The training demands accelerate…

I am fatigued and feeling overloaded with the demands of learning a language at such an accelerated rate.  It is a complex language so there are real challenges, but this is all compounded by the fact that I cannot even communicate with my host family.  It would also be easier if the signs and newspapers around us were in Russian instead of Ukrainian. 


Our classmates seem to be picking up the language rapidly and rather effortlessly too.  They are in host families where there are young people so there are more interactions and I am sure that helps them somewhat.  Since Mark and I are a couple, we have the advantage of being able to consult one another and to bolster each other’s confidences, etc. 


Language and cross-cultural training are just one component of our lives.  We are also involved in technical training.  Today we began doing some site visits for our technical training project.  We walked across town in the snow and spent a few hours at the school where my host “mom” is vice-principal.  After our initial information gathering session with the principal we spent some time observing an English class and then spoke briefly to the students.


Tomorrow we will hike to the administrative offices of this town and learn more about local needs.  The idea is to garner enough information to develop a small project that will help the local community.  This opportunity should help each of us once we arrive at our post this summer.  Once there, we will be expected to tackle community projects in addition to our primary work. 


We slipped and slid up and down the streets after language class and arrived home after sundown (6) to find the house dark and our hosts napping. 


I got the impression they were not happy to have us arrive so late for dinner.  They like to dine and have the dishes done by 6.  He is retired, but she works all day and takes care of all the housework, laundry and of course cooking.  She is up at 4:30 AM preparing the food for the day.  The soups she makes are wonderful.  She usually prepares several dishes and serves them for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Most days we have cabbage and beets in some form and hearty breads too.  We also seem to have fish often.  One morning we had fish soup – the fish tail was intact and hung over the side of my soup bowl. 


Since we were late tonight we had a much lighter meal for dinner – oatmeal, fried fish, and an apple dessert.  Mark and I were quite drained and not equal (or well equipped) to having a conversation with anyone.  Our hostess put the food on the table and went back to bed and our host picked at his meal, but did not initiate a conversation.  It was rather uncomfortable. 


After our supper, we spent several hours doing homework and review.  Now it is time to crawl into bed for much needed rest.  This portion of our experience is akin to basic training…no time (or energy) for anything personal.  I remind myself constantly to celebrate small victories.  I also remind myself how fortunate I am to be sharing this unique experience with Mark. 


  • Wednesday, 9 March 2005

Cowboy hats and the logistics of bathing…

Today was a bit rough.  Our host did not grace us with his presence at breakfast today.  He is retired and apparently decided to take advantage of that fact so he could sleep off the excess of yesterday’s merriment.  I, on the other hand, had to drag myself off to language training. 


Classes move along quickly and the language is demanding, with many rules to learn and difficult sounds to master, so given last night’s over-indulgence, my day seemed especially long today. 


Our class went to a restaurant today to practice our language skills.   This was more challenging than one would think.  Ukraine does not really have a restaurant culture.  People entertain at home and dining out is generally expensive and unnecessary, particularly in rural areas where outside visitors are few and far between. 


There are two local establishments.  The one we visited today was more of a bar really so the menu choices were limited.  Trying to read the choices was fun since they were written in cursive Cyrillic which is quite different from print.  The menu was also written in Ukrainian and we are studying Russian. Ordering food and managing the local currency was a slow process.  Mark ended up with a cabbage salad and we both had delicious dumplings along with hot tea.


Our group of 5 Americans attracted considerable attention as you might expect in a small town anywhere outside the USA.  Generally Ukrainians are not too eager to approach foreigners, but we had an encounter today. 


It was Mark’s cowboy hat that started it.  While all the local people wear wonderful fur hats, Mark proudly sports his signature black hat.  He looks quite imposing in his big black hat with his long, black overcoat.  As Mark and I were leaving the bar, the patrons at a nearby table gestured for us to come over.  They admired Mark’s hat and one large man asked to try it on.  That led to a lively offer about trading hats.  I wish I had had my camera so I could take a photo of the two men wearing each other’s hats.  Mark looked pretty dapper with the big fur hat and the large Ukrainian man reminded me of Hass Cartwright (ala Bonanza) as he postured in Mar’s hat.   


A hot shower would do wonders for my disposition, but it is difficult to manage this simple activity here.   Our host and hostess have a modest private home in a rural community and are fortunate to have indoor plumbing and hot water while our cluster-mates reside in apartments which do not have hot water, so they must boil water to bathe in.  Our arrangement may sound good, but there are other factors that complicate our situation.  The (only) bathroom is adjacent to the small kitchen.  The door does not fit the frame properly consequently, it does not close.  So, there are privacy issues.  This is compounded by the actual hot water arrangement.  The hot water must be turned on manually.  The knob is in the kitchen so the logistics of this operation are a real challenge.  And yes, we have an indoor commode, but there are problems with it so we must not put paper in it and we must fill the tank after each use.  I am certain we will find a way to manage these logistical challenges and of course we will only be here for twelve weeks. 


Someday soon, we will have to tackle another task that may prove to be eye-opening: the laundry. 


Tonight, I hoped to commandeer the bathroom to shower, but when I indicated I wanted to shampoo my hair, my host mother decided to help me.  I bent over the tub while she managed the water, holding the showerhead and pouring shampoo.  By the time that event was over I did not have the energy to even try a shower.


Our hosts plan an excursion for us on the 20th – more details later, but it will involve a trip to the country to meet the family. 


Now, I am off to bed.


Today marks the end of our first week here in Ukraine – it has been a good week, filled with wonderful people and many lessons.


  • Tuesday, 8 March 2005

International Women’s Day and our lesson about mushrooms…

Today is a big holiday here in Ukraine – it is a combination of Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day in the USA, but honestly I don’t think either of our holidays approaches it. 


When we walked into the kitchen for breakfast, our host “father” was beaming.  He was wearing a sports jacket and was as exuberant as a teenaged boy as he presented his wife with a bouquet of tulips.  I was not left out of the gift-giving, but I was surprised to receive not only a bouquet, but a bottle of cologne too.  Mark presented his offerings to our host “mother” and me and after several moments of animated compliments and chatter, we sat down to eat our morning meal – soup, potatoes, fish, beets, etc.


Over our meal, the men discussed the plans for the day.  Our host father planned to cook lunch and somehow Mark got caught up in the enthusiasm and offered to prepare dinner.  Men, as a rule, do not cook here in Ukraine, so it is quite a gesture when a man prepares a meal.  I am sure it is a mixed blessing for a woman to have someone take over the kitchen, even for just one day and I suspect the kitchen may not be in such good order once the men finish their cooking adventures.  Nonetheless, this is what men in Ukraine do.


After a long day of language classes (our language instructor was feted with flowers and chocolate – the men in class were well coached on Women’s Day by the PC trainer), we visited the bazaar to select components for a simple meal of chicken, rice, tomato and cucumber salad.  Since we have been in Ukraine for only a few days, shopping and dealing with money was a good exercise for us both.  We managed to acquire all the ingredients and enjoyed our encounters at the market.  The only people at the market were men buying flowers and food. 


Our host broke out some Russian champagne for the occasion and there was a special vodka (he usually served his home-brewed stuff) and the spirits helped save the evening since the cooking enterprise did not turn out to be too successful.  Although the meal was lovely and quite good, the raw mushrooms in the salad were not well received by either of our hosts.  With our very limited language skills we had a difficult time determining exactly what the problem was, but it was obvious from the questions and discussion we had violated some social norm.  Neither of our hosts ate much of the food, much to Mark’s disappointment. 


There was much toasting and more compliments and a little singing and kissing as the spirits flowed.  We lingered at the table for a long time and conversation flowed, lubricated by the celebratory drinks.  I have read that when Russians drink, they become serious and morose, but when Ukrainians indulge, they will sing and become happy.  I do not know about Russians, but this appears to be true of our Ukrainian host and hostess! 


Needless to say, we did not complete our language study after dinner as we had previously planned to do!


  • Sunday, 6 March 2005

Sooooo much to learn…


I do not think I ever really heard anyone speak Russian before we arrived here.  In the short weeks before we arrived here we attempted to find movies where Russian was spoken, but our little hometown did not have any available.  Now, here we are in a babbling sea of incomprehensible Russian!


Last night we spent several hours working through the extensive Russian language materials provided by PC.  My eyes burned and my head ached.  Dinner conversation is limited, but we manage to communicate.  I seem to retain few words, but it is very early.  Right now the sounds are strange and the combinations of letters difficult to replicate.  I am practicing gymnastics with my tongue. 


It was off to market today.  Our hostess let us tag along as she made her rounds at the local bazaar. 


Once again the snow is flying as we make our way across town to the sprawling outdoor marketplace.  The booths and stalls are crowded with hearty shoppers.  Venders do not seem to notice the cold but their cheeks and hands are pink.  Skinny dogs dart through the crowds, avoiding half-hearted attempts at kicks as they seek out dropped food.  Small children clutch onto their mothers. 


I admire knitted hats and try on a few but make no purchases. 


Our hostess knows where to go for each of the items on her shopping list.  She finds fresh river fish still flopping about on the scale.  She wraps her purchase in a plastic bag she has brought with her for this purpose and then deposits her cargo into her shopping bag.  We inch across the icy street to buy fresh bread – dark bread (for Mark, she says). 


The next stop is in an enclosed space where all of the meat venders congregate.  Behind their tables are huge chopping blocks with large, sharp axes wedged into the wood, waiting to be used when necessary.  After some discussion, Tamara pays for her purchase and tucks it into the bag Mark carries.  Then we go back out into the crisp winter day to find fresh sour cream.


The ladies selling sour cream are worthy of a photograph, but it would seem rude to take their photo so I try to store way the mental image to enjoy again later.  The women are lined up in a row; each wears a scarf on her head and a hopeful look on her face.  As we approach, the three or four that are nearest to us begin their sales-pitch’s and move to open their containers.  When Tamara presents her jar to the vender, the crestfallen hopefuls drop back a bit and wait for another potential customer to arrive.


There is another stop.  I am not certain if it is an impromptu purchase, but we select a pink vinyl cloth for the kitchen table.  We stand and admire the pretty pink color as the young venders cut it to size for us.     


By the time we make our way back to the “doma” the snow is melting and the streets are slushy and/or filled with brown water.  The occasional cars splash through the puddles.  A few shoppers drag sledges behind them and as the snow disappears the runners scrape on the pavement. We three walk slowly down the hill, clutching our purchases and avoiding the ice that still lurks under the snow.  It feels good to come inside.   


Our host and hostess use their land wisely and many of the fruit and vegetables they dine on are home grown.  Even now, in late winter we eat well from their labors of last summer.  Cabbages, turnips, potatoes, carrots, beets and apples are among the produce available from their home garden.  Nicholai also makes his own wine and vodka.  Behind their home is a river where he fishes. There are men fishing on the ice right now. 


Late in the day, after a hot meal (more borscht, cabbage and beet salad, fried fish, rye bread and a shot of vodka, Mark and I take a walk.  The snow begins to fall again as we explore the city park and stroll around the neighborhood.  Now, late in the afternoon, our host and hostess nap while we study and write letters.


It was a pleasant day after a very busy week, but of course the pace will resume again as the new day dawns tomorrow.


  • Saturday, 5 March 2005

Venturing out in the snowy world of Ukraine

Snow is falling in earnest and there is a wind that bites at noses and bare fingers.  We trudge up the street, walking gingerly on the slippery hillside in front of our hosts’ home.  Tamara escorts us on our first venture into the village.  We will meet our language instructor and the other PCT’s in our cluster to begin our daily language lessons, but first we have a twenty minute trek. 


The neighborhood is lovely blanketed in fresh snow. I observe dogs sniffing about and hear a rooster crowing nearby and a few crows cawing above.  The wind blows through the trees across the valley and there is a special silence one experiences only on a winter day.  I keep my mind on walking since there is ice under the snow. 


We skitter along as we crest the hill.  Despite the snow and cold, there are many people on the streets.  Men wear distinctive fur caps that remind me I am far from my Iowa home.  The women are bundled and warm in their leather and fur coats.  Mark strides ahead of Tamara and me.  He stands out in his cowboy hat, but it protects him from the snow. 


We meet at the facilitator’s home, stamp off the snow and take off our wet shoes and coats.  The PCTs share this first meeting with our host families so there are conversations in English and Ukrainian and Russian too as we each eagerly report on the experiences of the last 24 hours. 


Once the business is resolved, the host families depart and we get down to the business of orientation.  We bundle up again and make our way to a few local shops and the post office.  I try out a few words of Russian and make a purchase at the post office. One can buy seeds and plastic tubs at the post office as well as candy and the more usual postal related things there.  Learning to take care of business is hard so it is good to have some supervised practice.  I think it will be a long time before I will feel proficient enough to be comfortable really, but it is good for the soul to have humbling opportunities (and certainly good for the character!).


The snow falls more quickly now but soon we are indoors again, hard at work learning new things.  Sunday we will have no formal responsibilities but the other six days a week will be filled with lessons and work.  The next twelve weeks will go quickly.


Nicholai meets us when it is time to go home.  Next time we will be on our own.  We slip and slide along the streets.  At the corner near our home, a wedding party spills out of a building into the snowy street.  Even in the snow storm the bride’s white gown is pristine and grabs our attention.  Before we can capture the moment on our camera the bride and groom squeeze into the decorated car and drive away.  Other cars soon follow the parade and a cacophony of horns announces the news to everyone in this community.


When we arrive at our current home, Tamara has hot soup ready to warm us up.  The broth is magnificent and just the thing for a cold winter afternoon.


We have had a soup course at each meal, including breakfast.  Beets and cabbage make their appearances at most meals too.  Of course there are two kinds of bread and a plate of marvelous cheese and sausage too.  Pork is a staple.  Our hosts serve us home made vodka and homemade wine at lunch and dinner.  All of the produce comes from the garden that waits somewhere under the seasonal white blanket behind the cozy house.  I can only imagine how well they eat during the summer months!


  • Friday, 4 March 2005

We meet our host family…

Before breakfast we are packed and ready for the big adventure ahead.  Today we will meet our host family and move in with them for the next twelve weeks. 


All of the volunteers are apprehensive.  Some have written speeches to share with their new families and others are concerned about the small hostess gifts they have brought with them.  Others are anxious about the accommodations they will have.  Some of the volunteers will be in homes with amenities that include gyms and Internet connections.  Other volunteers will live in old Soviet block apartments with no hot water available. 


Volunteers are located with families in several villages with about 5-6 volunteers in each town, each at a different residence.  This arrangement facilitates more independence among volunteers and also immerses them in the culture effectively.  We will meet daily with our groups for several hours of classroom instruction on language, customs and also on professional/technical skills.  We will also serve a brief internship during this twelve weeks. 


Luck is with us it seems.  Our hosts have a house on the edge of a charming village.  She is a principal at a local school and he is retired from the railroad business.  We will have two rooms – a large sitting room and a smaller sleeping room.  The village is set on rolling hills along a river and will certainly be lovely as winter fades into spring during our twelve week stay. 


Other PCTs in our cluster will reside with families that include single mothers and/or children and pets.  They are in apartments closer to city center.


There is not Internet café in our village.  We will have an opportunity to check our e-mail when we meet with our “sister” cluster – our link – next week. 


Restaurants and bars are scarce in our village too.  From my reading I learned that this is not, generally speaking, a restaurant culture.  People are family oriented, stay close to family and friends and love to play host in their own homes so restaurants are not a high priority.  This may be changing as are so many things in this dynamic age in Ukraine.     


Mid afternoon, several dozen exhausted PCTs’, staggering under the weight of their luggage, make their way to the busses waiting to take them to their new homes.  We are on the first bus and will be the second group off the bus. 


As the bus pulls to a stop in the first village, a grey industrial village not far from Kiev, the PCTs’ quiet down and stare out the window as the first five volunteers drag their bags out to meet their host families.  The hosts beam as they greet their guests.  For those of us on the bus, reality sets in.  How will we communicate with these people?  How will we take care of our needs in this different culture?  The bus is markedly quieter as we roll off and to the next stop.


The next village proves to be far more charming.  It is more rural setting.  We find our host immediately.  We blurt out the three or four words we can muster in our new language, fill his truck and back seat with our baggage, and pile into his car for the short trip to our new home.


Our hosts live in a house on a quiet street overlooking a valley.  Though we are in the village proper, there is evidence that people grow produce and may even have some small livestock on their premises.  I am happy to see the neighbor has a cat (kot) and dog (ceboka).


We trundle in with all our worldly belongings and go through the process of removing our shoes and donning slippers. (No one in Ukraine would dare o wear shoes into a private home.)  Off come the coats and hats and finally we settle down for a tasty meal of borsht, beets, bread, etc and of course there are toasts of vodka.  We drag out our small hostess gifts and then share photos of our home and family.  These activities make it easier to deal with the fact none of us know many words of the other’s language.  There is much laughter as we laugh and point and try to interpret one another’s gestures.  


After a couple hours we break away and though it is scarcely past 7:30, we begin preparing for much needed sleep.  Forty-eight hours in country and we are still jet-lagging and exhausted from all the stimulation of the last few days.


So the real training begins.  


  • Thursday, 3 March 2005

We begin to learn Russian…

As the day begins, one of our first discoveries surprises us.  According to information posted on the bulletin board, we are among the PCV’s who will have the opportunity to learn Russian.  Ukrainian is the language of the country, but during Soviet rule, Russian prevailed.  Many people speak Russian, others Ukrainian and some speak a mixture of them.  I have read that it is not uncommon to hear conversations where each individual speaks in their own language and has no trouble understanding one another! 


Over breakfast we discuss this with trainees who arrived yesterday and speculate on assignment possibilities based on language skills.  Of course it will be weeks before we will be advised of our site assignment. 


Today we spend some time with our language facilitator and meet with the medical staff too.  We get our shots and find more paperwork to accomplish.  There are safety briefings and hours of administrivia. 


The highpoint of the day is the welcome by our country director.  We have often heard that he is “the best” and it certainly appears so base on the efficiency, effectiveness and motivation in evidence here.  His remarks are low key, heartfelt and laced with dry humor.  He appears to be a man who loves his work.


During the lunch hour most of the PCTs bundled up against the crisp March air and walked down to inspect the river.  The day was clear and bright; a contrast to Chicago’s grey, snowy farewell weather.  


Just before dinner we each receive information about our host family.  Tomorrow our group will split up into small teams (clusters) in order to begin the next stage of our training and that means we will each move in with a host family.  The conversations at dinner were filled with bantering and concerns.  


  • Wednesday, 2 March 2005

We arrive in Ukraine & walk on water…

After changing planes in Frankfurt, Germany, we continued our flight to Ukraine.


The land below is frozen and cold looking.  The snow-covered, flat lands stretch far and on the horizon there are mountains.  Clumps of trees look dark against the snow.  The roads winding across the land are lined with trees.  I take a few photos as we make our approach to Ukraine.


Once the plane landed, we wrestled with customs and visa paperwork and with the assistance of Peace Corps staff, made it through the red-tape quite quickly.  Our country director is among the people we meet at the airport.  He chatted with several of us as we accomplished our tasks.  Next we wrested with our baggage and boarded to bus which would take us to our orientation site near Kiev. Enroute to our conference site where received briefings and of course there was more paperwork to take care of.


We checked into our rooms and then immediately began orientation.  The afternoon became a blur of paperwork as we fought jetlag and sleep deprivation.   


Before dinner, local host nationals put on traditional costumes and welcomed us with a lovely bread ceremony.  Each of us shared a piece of the bread and salt as they offered it.


At the end of the busy day, Mark and I found a few minutes to slip outside for a short walk.  The street was too icy to traverse so we found ourselves standing on the frozen ice of the river adjacent to the conference center.  Locals often take advantage of the iced-over-river to visit the nearby town. 


There are few lights at night here.  


  •  Tuesday, 1 March 2005

Off to the airport – we say goodbye to the USA

The second group of volunteers is much smaller than the first.  We had plenty of time to get acquainted as we went through all the hurry-up and wait business at the airport.  We piled all our carry on bags together and took turns watching it and exploring the terminal.  Many of us had lunch while we waited to board.


When we finally settled in, the flight attendants fed us and made certain we had plenty to drink.  Across the aisle from us a Russian-speaking man sipped vodka and sang under his breath before finally curling up to sleep.  The PCV in front of us shared his seat with another Russian speaking gentleman.  The two of them engaged in a long difficult, but animated, conversation making much use of a Russian/English dictionary. 


Mark plugged into his Ukrainian lessons and I read about the culture.  Later we the movie (Neverland – quite good, but not too accurate I understand) and then watched the sun break over the horizon as we reached Germany.