·                     Friday, 31 March 2006

Internet Center Grand Opening Approaches!

L. has quite a big party planned for next weekend when the Internet Center has its Official Grand Opening, which is being held in conjunction with the library’s’ 150th anniversary.


This is a very big deal - about 150 invitations went out to people outside the library system.  The crowds include people from the US Embassy in Kiev, Library Association people from across Crimea and (we hope) the Regional manager from Peace Corps (Kiev) and our local politicians and other esteemed guests.


The first activity of the day will be a bus tour around the city for out of town guests.  Around noon the staff Mark has been training and working with will have the official Grand Opening Ceremony for the Internet Center.  An elegant buffet and social follows that event.  Late in the afternoon, we will be bussed to the Palace of Culture for the Library Birthday Celebration program and then we will dine and socialize for several hours at a formal banquet. 


We better brush up on our toasting skills!


Spring is here and the spring cleaning is underway!

L. suggested Mark work at home this afternoon since the library smells so bad today.  The paint fumes are strong.


The staff is in the midst of their monthly Sanitation Day activities and this month they are painting the floors.  Yep, librarians, researches, administrative staff, bookkeepers, etc,. on their hands and knees, slapping oil-based paint on the floors with 2 inch wide brushes.  They paint around the bookshelves.


I try to imagine this in America – the whole idea of a monthly Sanitation Day makes me smile somehow.  Schools here expect students to tackle similar tasks.  The idea of the maintenance person or a contracted cleaner is uncommon here.  One of those holdovers from the Soviet era.  


In preparation for the grand opening and the birthday events, the cleaning and fix up pace has accelerated.  There are new sheer curtains in all the windows and I noticed several new light fixtures throughout the building. 


Life Without E-Mail

Still no e-mail though the bill was paid days ago. 


It has been over a week since I go my last e-mail “fix” and I am eager for my connection to the outside world.  The library is changing to a different service supplier so things may change. I hope it is a change for the better.


Customer service is a new concept in this country.  When there were no choices people had to put up with inefficient, ineffective service, but now choices are popping up everywhere!


Mark is Turning Green…

We have a bit of a mystery here – Mark seems to be turning green.  He suspects the new sheets.


Our new sheets are a cheerful deep blue with large white daisies scattered across the background.  I have enjoyed them, but Mark thinks the bedding is the cause for the greenish tinge evident on the back of his neck and his shaved head.   His white undershirts and the inside of his collars show a greenish tinge too, though he showers and scrubs regularly.  So far I seem unaffected. 


Perhaps he is just reacting to too much cabbage in our diet.  


·                     Thursday, 30 March 2006

Our Potential Peace Corps Birthday Celebration Plans

English Club met last night.  The group was a genial collection of diverse ages, but with similar personalities.  We had a pleasant discussion about the Peace Corps: the mission, purpose, how it s organized, the history, and so forth.  We did most of the talking however, but we kept our group engaged.


After the meeting o pair of rather reticent students approached me and complimented me on my energy and enthusiasm.  They asked if they could bring friends along next week.  The two came this week as referrals from a twenty-something Peace Corps Volunteer at a local institute who will soon be departing for the USA and exploring life after the Peace Corps.


March 1st was the start of Peace Corps’ 45th year so there is a push to find ways to acknowledge this milestone.  We hope to involve our English Club in organizing a Texas-style 4th of July celebration and use that as a springboard for sharing materials on Peace Corps history and progress in Ukraine.  There will be Mark’s home-made chili and maybe corn on the cob and ice cream sundaes (IF we can find the moneys for food!) as well as some relay races and games and some Texas Swing music playing on the computer.


We will try to get red bandanas, small flags to hand out and maybe a few cowboy hats for the club members to wear to set the tone.  We will invite people from around the community (the mayor too) who may have an interest or would benefit from having a Peace Corps Volunteer so in a way this will be a “recruitment” effort, but generally it will be a celebration of Peace Corps in Ukraine and the American connection here.  There will be handouts, displays and a PowerPoint show and probably a short speech or two.


Culture Shock USA

Our Friend L. arrived at club tonight with a large ar of home-canned apricots for us.


She arrived a bit late so I did not get a chance to speak to her privately and after the meeting we could not escape others who were eager to visit informally so I still do not know the next chapter in the story of the American who came here on a bride-hunt!


L. was cheerful and smiling so I suspect things went well.  She pulled a book from her bag and shared it with me. “Culture Shock USA” is a book from a series that gives traveler insights into the particular country they plan to visit.  L. indicated that her recent American guest brought the book for her.  I smiled and asked if she was planning a trip to the USA and she smiled and looked away, blushed a bit, and seemed to imply that it is a possibility.  So our soap opera continues.  The “friend,” whom she met on the Internet, is from southern Colorado.  Culture shock is a high probability!


I had to laugh when I saw the book, because we own the counterpart titled “Culture Shock Ukraine” and have recently re-read it.  The author is an American who spent a few years working in Kiev shortly after Ukraine’s break with the Soviet Union.  While there are some useful insights, it is not well edited and is about as accurate and disorganized as my notes here in this journal – just one person’s collection of opinions, experiences with a little research thrown in.  Its primary virtue is that there are few books available on travel in Ukraine.


Ukraine has been going through rapid changes so any book would be hard pressed to be accurate for long.  Each day we see new products available and attitudes changing as television, films and magazines continue to influence local culture, attitude and expectations. 


I borrowed L.’s USA book to get an idea of an outsiders approach to America and Americans.  Mark took our Ukrainian version off to work with him to share with a club member who was interested in seeing how their countrymen are represented.


Minding my Knitting - Starting Over

Sigh – the knitting project I began earlier this week became once again, a simple ball of yarn.  I had almost a meter of scarf on my needles when I found a fatal flaw.  A dropped stitch on the outside edge laddered down the projects leaving huge gaps.  I investigated the possibility of repairing the error, but because of the nature of the yarn (very slick, ribbon-like material) and the large stitch pattern, it seemed best to simply cut my losses and begin again.


I pat myself on the back for maintaining my dignity and simply acting, rather than reacting or mourning the losses.  I used a different stitch pattern for the newly created scarf.  It is moving forward quickly, but I must admit, I do not have the affection for it that I had for the original.  I am more detached and dispassionate.  Is that a good thing?


Knitting as psychology….hmmmmm.


Internet Access Today?

It has been over a week since I sent any e-mail…no Internet access at the library so I have no connections with the world outside Kerch really.  Even with e-mail, our knowledge of what is going on in the USA is limited and we miss hearing from friends and family.


·                     Wednesday, 29 March 2006

Where’s the Camera When You Need it?

Mark had a photo opportunity yesterday, but it was not so charming and perhaps it is best that he did not have the camera available.  It is an image he may wish to erase from his mind too.


Walking to work through the park along the sea a about 8 AM, he came across a family of three – Father, Mother and a young child of about three.  They were seated on a park bench enjoying the fresh spring air and the bright morning.  A nice moment until they each reached for their beer bottle, the three-year old included!  There is a moment of culture shock: a child drinking beer and, for that matter, anyone drinking beer at 8 AM!


On this fine Spring day, I sit at the desk near the window and have a clear view of Mitridate Mount in the center of the old city.  In a few weeks, the view will be obscured by fresh, young tree leaves.  A flock of goats grazes on the steep hillside in a timeless manner that captures my imagination.  A photo opportunity.  The camera, of course, has traveled to work with Mark where he is no doubt, documenting progress on the new Internet Center at the library.


There are so many delightful images I would like to capture in my camera.  The photos are a way of refreshing my memories in years to come.  Of course, when caught without my camera, I often pause and take a mental picture, framing the shot in my mind as one might with an older 35 mm camera.  (With digitals, people tend to take shots rather randomly and do the artistic work later on their computer screens – they go for volume rather than quality).


Goats, in this urban setting; a pleasant reminder of the past; babies and beer, a not so pleasant social commentary on the present, but hopefully not on the future.


Power Struggles

No electricity today.  I reframe this potentially frustrating issue into an opportunity to play hooky from some activities and indulge in writing a few letters and beginning my Pilates regime. 


Solar Eclipse

What began as a very bright day evolved into a very dark midday.  Since I had no electricity and was relying on light coming through the window I was aware of how uncharacteristically dark it was becoming.  I looked out, expecting storm clouds, but none were evident.  It was as dark as evening and the sky around Mitridate Mount was an eerie purplish-blue.


The solar eclipse!  We had a solar eclipse of about 85%!


·                     Tuesday, 28 March 2006

Finding Flow…

Friday I received a bulging envelope from my thoughtful mother-in-law.  Among the treasures inside were two pair of wonderful, fat, smooth bamboo knitting needles, a couple skeins of colorful novelty yarn and a great how-to knit picture book that has set my heart running.


The book is titled “Book 2: The Purl Stitch, Becoming Intuitive” by Sally Melville and Photographed by Alexix Xnakis.  Large glossy photographs show a wealth of really stylish, eclectic clothing projects – not the typical boring, lumpy garments executed in cheap acrylic yarn that are often depicted in black and white and available as free patterns at the local crafts store.  (There are plans for five books in the series.)


It has been hard to keep my hands off the new toys.  I already have most of a scarf made up from the glitzy purple, gold and turquoise ribbon yarn.  I have also prepared a gauge swatch hoping to create an elegant sleeveless shirt from some rich burgundy thread I purchased a few months ago at the bazaar.  The book also has a sophisticated and stylish shawl and a charming short knit dress that are high on my list of projects. (maybe I can accomplish one of them on the three long round-trip  train trips to and from Kiev we have ahead of us in May – Hmmm…that’s about six (6) days and nights on the rails…yikes!)


The book includes some meditative sections sprinkled throughout its pages.  One of them is a nice discussion on what Hungarian psychologist Czikzentmilhalyi refers to as “flow.”  The author suggests that knitting provides people with an optimal experience, or flow, which engages them in healthy ways. 


In my experience, the repetitive nature of knitting soothes and frees the mind in ways that facilitate creativity and problem solving.


But, knitting an be a dangerous pastime for anyone with compulsive or obsessive tendencies.  It is easy to become absorbed and totally lose track of time.  People will say, “just one more row and I will quit,” and then continue to click away for another hour or two. 


I like the feeling of accomplishment when I pause and admire the fabric flowing away from my needles.  There is a magical quality about the way each stitch builds on another stitch to eventually create something tangible.


Some people make knitting look so effortless.  I doubt I will ever achieve that standard.  In my experience, there are few things (if any) I do that are effortless.  They all involve commitment, repetition, and a positive attitude.  It also helps to have the ability to know when to rip it all out and start over or instead to just happily focus on the hundreds and hundreds of perfect (OK, adequate may be a better word choice) stitches and overlook the flawed ones.


Thank you Mother-in-law!


·                     Monday, 27 March 2006

Some Post Election Rambling

The Ukraine Elections were yesterday and it was the first day of Daylight Savings Time here too.


Friday the political rallies were at fever pitch.  There are around 48 political parties represented on the ballot and each faction seems to have very strong opinions to share.  For weeks (months?) the television has been dominated with campaign advertising and political rhetoric.  Here in Kerch the public areas were crowded with small tents staffed with people intent on thrusting pamphlets into the hands of passersby.  This made for some interesting encounters when we would decline the papers and announce in Russian that we are Americans and are not allowed to vote here.


The campaigning groups often hire bands to draw an audience so we have enjoyed sitting in the square and listening to brass bands and accordion players harmonizing happily.


Friday was the last official day for campaign activities so music and firecrackers, cars with loudspeakers ad people were out and about until long after midnight.


We were advised by Peace Corps to keep a low profile over the weekend since tensions could be high.


The ballot boxes here are large clear Plexiglas containers.  The blue trident that is Ukraine’s symbol adorns the side.  Each voter physically deposits a ballot into the slot on top.  We were surprised to see a police officer and several men arrive in our courtyard carrying the local ballot box with them.  They arrived at our housebound elderly neighbors door and pounded enthusiastically, waiting for her to appear and to cast her ballot.


We are told that most people vote at the local fire station, but it appears that if the voter cannot come to the ballot box, the ballot box can b brought to the voter!


So far, all is quiet here in Kerch.  Perhaps Mark will have political tales to share when he arrives home this afternoon.


Weather & Animal Updates

It is a glorious spring day!  Windows are open and the flat is filled with sunlight and the sounds from the courtyard and the street.  Birds sing, pedestrians banter and chat, and the sounds of the sea make pleasing background rhymes and dogs bark, and bark and bark.


Yes, the neighborhood puppies and their parents happily bark and bark and bark.  They are loud and constant.


As an observer, I would say the parent dogs have encouraged their progeny to be a bit overly confident since they are not in the least cowed by the massive stray dogs who wander through the area looking for scraps and fights.  The pups, encouraged by the pack mentality and the ignorance and bliss of puppyhood, delight in pestering the larger (in many cases huge) dogs that come into their turf.


So far, the St Bernards, German Shepherds and pit bills have simply ignored the annoying yappy-youths.  Obviously at this point their attacks are not to be taken seriously.  At least not yet.  I expect one day they will learn the consequences of bullying behaviour when one of these larger, more experiences dogs shows them that a bite, is indeed worse than a bark!


We have not seen the fourth puppy in over a week.  We have no idea what happened to him.  Life on the street can be challenging.


Since I have reported on the dog neighbors, I feel compelled (or inclined anyway) to add some notes about the felines in the kitchen courtyard.  I find them increasingly often camped in the leaves under my kitchen window where they are warmed by early morning sunshine and protected within the fenced area that is our tiny garden.  Their population seems to have dwindled too, though they may simply have become braver and extended their adventures to other areas now that snow and ice do not keep them restricted to home. 


This morning there were seven of last year’s littermates snarled up in a cunning ball of heads and tails as if they were cold.  They sleep in this jumble for long periods and then wake to groom themselves and each other.  It is one of my simple pleasures to pause in my work, sip some coffee and watch cat life unfold.  (I imagine this is as exciting as watching paint dry for some people!) 


A handsome elder cat has adopted this gang of youngster cats and stays with them throughout the day.  I enjoy him because he is handsome and well behaved and seem to be a kind, guardian presence for the yearling cats.  He is a delightful marmalade cat – arrange guy, as I call that kind of cat.  He reminds me of one the cats we got in Spain – Catt E. Wampuss was a wonderful companion so it is nice to be reminded of him.


Water Report

We do have water today after a weekend of intermittent service.  A backhoe spent some time in our courtyard and crews of men were in and out of the several murky manholes, apparently trying to isolate the problem.


They were here a few times last week too…this does not bode well, though perhaps it is part of a spring maintenance plan.  We shall see!


Internet Report

It is the end of the month again so I was not too surprised when Mark came home with news that the Internet shut down while he was online Friday.  My mail did not go out nor did mail come in


This seems to be the monthly scenario in this cash economy.  Service is cut off until the cash arrives and no one pays ahead because in a country where things change frequently and people go for months with out pay, days with out water or heat, and have lived without choices for so many years…well…what can I say? 


·                     Friday, 24 March 2006

Ramblings about life and choices…

One of the things I have observed in moving about over the years is that each place offers many new interesting and delightful surprises.  When it is time to leave to make my home in some new place, I have usually acquired a taste for something I may not be able to find at the next place.


Knowing this from experience has made it easier for me to leave behind things I cherished and people I love.  Of course people cannot be replaced, and many things take on a personal value that makes it difficult to part with them too.  I believe it is because I have had a good life that I am able to move forward with grace and joy and to embrace a new, expanded life beyond the limits of my immediate community and culture.  Each positive experience makes me more confident that God provides us with more blessings than we can possibly comprehend.


Too often we limit ourselves by allowing fears to rule our lives – we become like the greedy monkey caught grasping a fistful of treats from inside a jar with a narrow opening.  I am also reminded of the Bible tale about the individual who buries his coins (talents) rather than investing them in life.


This is not a particularly profound observation, but it occurred to me as I read my daily e-mail digest from an informal group of people who are mostly in the application stages of their Peace Corps adventures.  There is much e-mail traffic about what to bring along for their 27 months overseas and of course there is sadness about leaving people behind and fear about what the future holds.  (Wait until they have to figure out what they can bring back from in those same small bags - even harder I think.)


Flying on ones own wings…

Fortunately, most of the applicants are bravely and happily moving forward, knowing the life ahead of them will be rich and rewarding, but for many, it is impossible to break the ties they have woven around themselves over the years.  (The ties vary from the obvious to the subtle – complacency with life, family demands, a narrower sense of home, fears about supply or safety…)


This learning to fly on ones own wings is quite a feat, to paraphrase the Oregon state motto.  I borrowed that motto back in 1978 when I elected to put it to the test and joined the US Air Force.  (I was happily married, with two small children, but felt like a panther pacing inside a cage waiting for release.)  It was frightening to see the earth drop away beneath my feet (figuratively) as I made my way into the clean, pure air above.  Those earthbound below may have thought it looked easy to soar and glide on the currents, but of course, the hardest part was deciding to fly in the first place.


For me, that was the real start.  Up until then, my adventures had been vicarious or passive.  Now more than a quarter of a century later the children are grown and the spouse is still with me as we fly.


Now I know for certain that the world holds blessings and joys…the illusions and bad dreams tat tell us otherwise only have the power we give them.  (Hmmm – Think of the woman trapped in Hell in the movie “What Dreams May Come”… Think of Goethe’s Faust…Think Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health…Jonathan Livingston Seagull…etc. )


This is where my thoughts are on this bright March Friday in Crimea where crocus bloom and the spring air is fresh!


·                     Thursday, 24 March 2006

Life’s a beach…

I am doing research on the Kerch area for a tourism website.  Today I am learning about the beaches.


In the center of Kerch, there are no beaches but this is a beach community.  There is easy access to the Black Sea, the Kerch Straits and the more isolated Sea of Azov.  The solar light hours in the Strait area (1,790 hours) is higher than the famous resort area of Yalta!


The official bathing season in the Kerch area for adults begins 21 May and extends until 9 October.  Children, I have learned, have a separate timetable.  Children may swim in this area from 30 May until 14 September.


There are hundreds of kilometers of virgin beach to choose from and many inviting “pocket beaches”.  This is one of the perks of being isolated here on the tip of the peninsulas (we are on a peninsula of a peninsula actually!). On one beach there are pines among dunes.  This is quite unusual in Crimea.  On this end of the peninsula, we do no have many trees so it is unique in more ways than one.


Then there are other kinds of beaches.


Nuclear power and nudity go hand in hand…

Cape Kazantip and the never-completed city of Shcholkino offers a very different beach experience.  Shcholkino (named for the father of the nuclear bomb and atomic power engineering) began as a community designed for the workers at the nuclear power plant being built on the cape.  Plans were abandoned in 1998 when Crimean “Green” Party strikes succeeded in halting the project.


I will quote a part of a description of this beach extracted from a local guidebook “Time to Come to Crimea” by I Rusanov:  “…   For people with traditional morals it is better to refrain from visiting this place, such abundance of tattoos, pierced noses, lips, and whatnot, frenzy haircuts, hairdresses, and such a free nudism you cannot find in any other place within the borders o well-behaved Motherland….”


The text continues to describe how “…you will face a number of ways to have vacations without trunks and panties…”


You can dance all night on the nuclear reactor, race jeeps all day or enjoy sailboarding, etc.  Oh, there are international biker’s meetings there too!


Hmm, I wonder if this all happens during the children’s’ bathing season? 


So I continue with my research and editing.   I guess I will have the opportunity to see what life is really like in a post-soviet era beach town far from the traditional resort areas in Crimea.


·                     Wednesday, 22 March 2006

We woke to the sound of a waterfall.

Mark thought it was static on the shortwave radio that serves as our alarm clock, but one look out the window revealed a serious water problem: the intersection is flooded and water is bubbling several feet into the air in an impromptu fountain!  This cannot be good!


A Day in Feodosia…

Tuesday we bounced along in the back of a bus to Feodosia where Mark was to meet with his Regional Manager to pick up some medical supplies.  This arrangement meant an opportunity to enjoy the city on the sea on a bright spring day. 


Lunch at Billy’s Saloon – burritos and enchiladas Crimean style

We lunched in a Crimean shrine to Texas!  Yes, we actually had nachos, burritos and enchiladas, though if someone had not told us that is what we were eating, we may not have recognized them as Tex-Mex food.  My cowboy spouse and I found a Tex-Mex restaurant!


When we entered the restaurant, the waiter quickly guided us back to the entry where the coat check room was and took our outer garments before allowing us into the dining room.  Mark kept his cowboy hat on.


Once seated in Billy’s Saloon, we perused the menu and had fun deciphering the names of Tex-Mex food from written in the Cyrillic alphabet.  The wait staff wore jeans and had bandanas around their necks.  The dance floor had a pole for the dancers who perform on weekends!


This was our first experience with a theme restaurant here in Crimea.  Tourism is growing and in Feodosia, where we were spending the day, they do get tourists.  In Kiev, the capital, there is a large expatriate community and there are tourists so when we make occasional sojourns there (24 hours on a train each way!) we can find some eating places that serve familiar American foods.


There s actually a TGI Fridays in the heart of Kiev as well as McDonalds and even a few Baskin and Robbins (haven’t been to B&R yet, but I plan on some Rocky Road when we head north in May!) establishments!  As the country develops economically, there will be others too.  According to the “Kiev Post”, a newspaper that primarily serves the English-speaking expat-community, IKEA plans to open its doors here in the next couple years.  I love IKEA!)


We were delighted to eat the food offerings, though the nachos turned out to be potato chips rather than tortilla chips and the enchilada was heavy on catsup and had pickled carrots inside. 


The experience left me wondering how Chinese people in America feel when they dine at a Chinese restaurant!


Book store visit – Gogol book

On our last visit to Feodosia, the huge book store we found was closed.  This time we had the opportunity and time to linger.  Of course the books are in Russian and Ukrainian, but there was a small section of materials geared toward students and/or teachers of English.  In these sections, it is often possible to find a few classic American authors available in English. DeFoe, O’Henry, Twain are there as well as others.  Books are quite pricey by local standards and after life in America with behemoths like Barnes and Nobles proliferating; it is hard to be satisfied with what is available here.


We did not come away empty handed though.  Mark found a book on cave-cities of Crimea and we found a cultural studies book on Ukraine, which will be useful and interesting.  I splurged on a children’s book with wonderful artwork depicting a classic Gogol tale we have seen aired in three different versions on Ukrainian television.  The details in the colorful artwork include all the things associated with peasant life in Ukraine.  I hope to find a good English interpretation of the actual story!


Gogol, in English, is another author I hope to add to my growing library


Institute visit

We had the chance to participate in a site-development visit, an interesting experience.  We met with the two PC staff representatives and their driver and went to visit the Institute where some lucky business PCV will serve for the next couple of years.  We sat in on the interview and toured the facility, but did not get to see the flat.  Our participation was incidental, since we actually met with them to pick up some medical supplies.



Early in the day we found ourselves drawn into a cemetery adjacent to the central bus station and the bazaar.  I am drawn to cemeteries and seem to find myself wandering around in them in every country I visit.


Cemeteries here are often crowded together in a way that seems odd to my more regimented western sense of order.  I see the same chaotic approach to the dachas I see – everything is so close together and initially seems disorderly or chaotic.


I find some charm in this really.


People visit cemeteries and while they are not groomed and maintained in a way that I might expect with my American perspective, they are lovingly attended.  Flowering plants, vines, benches, photos, bright paint and other details make each grave individual.  I guess I might have expected more regimentation somehow – the influence of all those years of Soviet rule and the suppression of thoughts.  I want to know more about this aspect of life in this culture.


·                     Tuesday, 21 March 2006

A great read – “Master and Margarita” by M.A. Bulgakov

I am currently reading a borrowed copy of the classic (and electrifying) novel by self-described satirist M Bulgakov, “Master and Margarita.”  Clearly this novel requires readers to make notes!


My spouse pokes fun at me because I cannot seem to read any book unless I have pen in hand.  Yes, I underline, I make parallel lines down the margins and insert small arrows.  On occasion, I scrawl a few words or simply indicate surprise or confusion by using the appropriate punctuation mark as shorthand.


This habit is troublesome if I am reading a borrowed book or one from the library.  In those cases, my parenthetical remarks and observations are noted, rather randomly, in one of my omni-present spiral notebook.  (I am partial to the yellow graph paper sort and I maintain a small stock of them among my possessions.)


I am delighted to finally lay hands on this particular book with its detail of Soviet live in the 1930’s - a totalitarian culture that precluded this noel from even being published until decades later.  It is playful reading with surprising plot twists and elements of fantasy, yet it presents issues of personal responsibility and reconciles philosophical opposites that leaves a reader changed.  The novel can be read and enjoyed as simply an unusual story, or one can interpret the allegories and allusions that are layered into the narrative.  There is magic and moonbeams, a talking cat, monologues by Pontius Pilate, and references to philosophy and religion and so much more, and all artfully woven together with irony, humor and great skill.


Bulgakov, a Ukrainian author born in Kiev in 1891, wrote this novel knowing it would probably never survive the censors, but he attempted to circumnavigate them through artful and ingenious handling of the controversial ideas he wanted to explore and share.  The expression to “write for the drawer” was an accurate description of how many writers and thinkers of that period managed to survive.


This author will merit a shelf in my library.


Two other M.A. Bulgakov books I hope to obtain are “Heart of a Dog” and “White Guard”. 


·                     Friday, 17 March 2006 – St Patrick’s’ Day

Living like the locals – less is more!

As I washed my dishes in wonderful hot, soapy water this morning (after a day without water) my mind traveled many places.  First, of course, I counted my blessings and my gratitude was compounded as I thought about our friend T who is moving today.


T. has been living in a private home with a lovely yard, but no indoor plumbing.  He hauls water from the well, has an outhouse and heats his home with coal.  As you can imagine, he is careful in his habits in order to reduce the amount of work involved in food preparation and clean up and washing clothes and bathing, but it is still a significant amount of work for those of us accustomed to a different life style.


Friend T. is moving to an urban area and will live in a flat with more amenities.  I will miss his occasional overnight visits where he enthused over our hot water and tidy bathroom.  He will not miss the practical experience on living modestly, but he will miss the garden filled with fruit trees, nuts and berries, and he will miss the wonderful network of friends and neighbors he cultivated during his tenure in the village he called home.


The logistics of life here can be amazing.  We have few dishes here and just enough cutlery to get by actually.  We have fewer clothes, so there is never much laundry.  This is good because in the end it is less work to maintain than if we had a more generous table setting or a larger wardrob.  With a limited number of dishes, washing them never takes long and we certainly do not need a dishwasher and the same holds true with our laundry!  It never takes long!


In part, we keep it simple here because we are here for only another 14-16 months here.  Then we will have the difficult chore of deciding what to keep and how to dispose of all the errata we have and will accumulate.  We can leave with only what the airlines allow us to carry. 


We also came here expecting to live like the local people, so we could learn more about what makes them who they are.


Our local friends and acquaintances have formed opinions on Americans from television, books and films and an occasional encounter with a tourist or a missionary.  They watch us carefully.  We try to be circumspect in our habits, but often find ourselves painfully aware of how much energy we use,  what foolish things we buy, how much trash we generate and how accustomed we are to throwing money at problems.


I remember feeling a bit foolish at our initial host family home because I had several pairs of shoes and so many changes of clothing.  The local people manage to be clean, neat and professional with far fewer choices at their disposal.  (Of course I know they would probably like to have more, yet years of living frugally and carefully makes our abundance seem pretty frivolous.). 


Years ago in Spain (under the Fascist rule of Generalissimo Franco), I would observe people going through our trash.  In our privileged American way, we often disposed of items that are useful and valued by others who strive to make ends meet under such difficult circumstances.


The same is true here.  We dispose of simple items like plastic bags, card board boxes, paper with writing on only one side, jars and bottles, broken toys, and all kinds of other items.  


While many PCVs see their role as someone who can bring something to the table, they may be surprised at the banquet of opportunities that awaits them.  Their little American casserole of money and technology and strong opinions may look pretty meager next to the bounty of offerings awaiting them.


In living like the locals, observing how they handle daily activities we really can learn some valuable lessons.  And by adopting some of their attitudes we find new priorities that make life more about relationships than about things.


By living a more humble lifestyle I find I earn the respect of the local people and they are more inclined to listen when I have something to share.


As I washed my few dishes this morning, I used methods I learned from my earlier experiences in Spain when water supplies were erratic and hot water was a luxury. The process worked well - I ran out of hot water, just when I rinsed the last plate!


Housework quickly done, time to play on this Friday when everyone is Irish!


·                     Thursday, 16 March 2006

No Water

I malingered too long at the breakfast table.  By the time I paused from my morning read (a couple Newsweek articles and a couple columns from the Christian Science Sentinel are my breakfast companions most days) and strategy planning (I make a “to do” list most days), it was  already 10 AM!


I decided to put water on to boil for the thermos of coffee I like to have around all day and while it heated up, I would brush my teeth, etc and get dressed. 


I turned on the tap.  Nothing came out.  Sigh.


“Rats!” I thought, unhappy that the electric hot pot did not have any residual water in it this morning.  I thought I had learned to refill it automatically when I empty it - just in case. 


Of course I do have some bottled water around so I can brush my teeth and scrub my face and yes, I can make coffee, but there is always that lingering fear that the water may not return for days or weeks.  It happens around here and it happens fairly often.


The library director was without water for three weeks this winter.


People who live like this learn to be flexible. 


People do not talk about it, in much the same way people in snowy, cold places do not ever really complain about the snow and cold.


During summer months, the water is off more often.  This is when they do the repairs.


·                     Wednesday, 15 March 2006 – The Ides of March

The Ugly American Visits

We just got home from English Club where the evening took a strange twist - ended up running shotgun on an ugly American who came to Kerch on a bride search and managed to chug too much cognac, flash cash and make himself look pretty stupid between his limited Russian skills and his drunken, obnoxious behavior.  We stuffed him into a cab and hope for the best.


I know this man is probably quite charming under normal circumstances, but as we stuffed him into a taxi, I was not too certain about that.


When we arrived at English Club we were met at the doorstep of the library by one of the regulars who had an American tourist in tow.  It was obvious right away the American was feeling pretty uncomfortable and stressed, but some people may have perceived his abrupt behavior and aggressive manner as rudeness.


He seemed dismissive when I initially introduced myself – I got that, “you are merely a woman and an old one at that, therefore of no particular use or value to me, so beat it” attitude from him that some guys just seem to emanate.  (Do they not know or do they not care or do they actually cultivate this?)  He barely looked at me and did not acknowledge my greeting or handshake.  (Hmmm, perhaps I am invisible, I thought, as he looked past me!)


I decided to simply escape the encounter and left my spouse behind to deal with this man.  Mark concurred with me later, when we had a chance to talk, but Mark did not think his boorish start to the evening was merely gender or age bias.  No, my spouse was concise in his choice of words, “this guy is a jerk.”


It went downhill from the start, and the next few hours were tough to navigate.  I will spare the reader the details of our sorry evening with this ugly American, but drunken boors are more challenging than just regular boors.


It is hard to discount his behavior tonight, but he could be under considerable stress, but he did little to win me over. 


We will see about his character in the way he handles himself in the next few days I guess.


Maybe, if we are lucky, we will not encounter him again at all.


·                     Tuesday, 14 March 2006

Vinyl Tablecloths and Choices

This morning as I sip my coffee I am reminded of my mother.  What was the trigger?  The practical yellow plastic tablecloth that brightens my humble kitchen here in Crimea by the sea makes me think of Mother.  When we were out shopping, Mother always seemed to be on the look out for an oilcloth tablecloth for the stark, enamel kitchen-table in the big yellow house on Eighth Street


At the time, I was disdainful of even the term oilcloth.  The word seems archaic.  Wouldn’t plastic or vinyl be the appropriate term?  And why would anyone want a stiff plastic tablecloth?  Why not fabric?  I would remain silent as Mother consulted the clerk.  “Oilcloth is easy to keep clean,” Mom said to the clerk, as her search continued, “and the colors stay bright.”


I recently had tea in the home of one of my Crimean friends.  We gathered around the kitchen table, sipped hot, sweet tea, indulged in rich, dark chocolates and slices of a cream filled pastry, while we talked. 


L. set down her cup, fingered the bright vinyl table covering and admired it, “Oh how pretty and so easy to clean!”  Then she looked at me, tilted her head, and asked, “Do you have these in America?”


I paused.


I love table linens and tablecloths.  In my South Carolina bungalow far, far away from Kerch, I have a about fifteen or twenty tablecloths – dinner-party-elegant to picnic or tailgate party depending on the requirements.  I also have dozens of napkins from playful cows grazing on a field of bold red to crisp white Battenberg lace.  There is also a drawer where dozens of placemats wait to serve o days when the mood strikes me.


Yes, I have quite an inventory of tableware, but I do not have a vinyl tablecloth.


My mind wandered back to one of my first visits to a bazaar here in Ukraine.  My host family took Mark and me to the local open-air market on a snowy cold day when everything seems to have stepped out of a black and white movie.  The venders had their fur hats pulled down over their ears and their collars were turned up to foil the wind.


T., red-cheeked and happy, hustled around from vender to vender making her weekly purchases and showing off her American guests to her friends and acquaintances.  After a stop at the fish market where she pulled a plastic bag from her purse to wrap up her purchase, we bought some sour cream, which the vender ladled into a jar T. also brought with her


Then, oblivious to the snow and ice, T. quickly wound us through the crowds and stopped at a vender who had roll after roll of vinyl.  The large bolts of vinyl strewn with bright sunflowers and hot peppers clashed with the grey day.  T. smiled as she examined what was available and made her choice, a rather sedate brocade pattern in a pale strawberry pink.  The vender cut the required amount from the bolt and T. carefully counted out the coins and placed them in his hands.  She tucked her special purchase in her bag and we made our way home.


Small pleasures, bright colors, and choices.  I have had them all my life.  Some people have not.


I suddenly realized that the simple vinyl tablecloths are a symbol of a better life.  Something inexpensive and practical, yet bright and comforting in a world where there are not always choices.  A step up from a bare table.


“No,” I answered L, breaking out of my reverie, and smiling at her,  “We don’t.”


And I just left it at that.


My Morning Pages – What is the Point?

The stuff I spew out here is just ramblings that pop into my head as my fingers race across the keys.  This is intended to be a kind of morning calisthenics that gets my brain moving and the blood pumping so I can move on to other writing projects.  Of course, it does not always work that way.


Some days I find myself logging the events of the day and other times I latch onto a thought and just let it fly while I try to keep up on the keyboard.


The original goal was simply to articulate whatever went through my brain for 15 minutes at the start of my day.  (Read J. Cameron’s book on creativity and find the “morning pages” exercise – Hmmm, I cannot remember the name of her book!)


It has morphed a bit I guess, but I still freewheel my way through this exercise on a daily basis and thoroughly enjoy myself in the process. 


·                     Monday 13 March 2006

The Business of Life - What is My Business?

These days I often feel filled with ideas.  I feel as if I have helium inside me and may go aloft at any moment; like a buoyant balloon.  Life has so much to offer and I seem so aware of all the wonderful options available. 


Today I go about my household routine after a few days’ hiatus and keep stopping to make cryptic notes about some idea that pops into my consciousness.  This is not so unusual, for me, at least.  I am not now, nor have I ever been a particularly linear thinker, worker or manager. 


I prefer to multi-task or I become like a fish in a bathtub going round and round, occasionally (often) splashing water out on the floor as I make quick turns and swish my way back to the other end, only to discover I am still in a bathtub and not in a sea.   (The fact that my MA is in organizational management makes me laugh at times – striving to impose structure on any organization is a huge endeavor and the most successful in the field seem to rely on intuition as much as science…but then, isn’t intuition akin to what Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, says about angels – they are simply God’s thoughts passing to man.  But, I digress)


I do like to observe organizations (see above) and the behavior of people (yep the undergrad is in psych) consequently I have collected quite a long list of observations concerning work, leadership, management and processes.  It is these thoughts that drive me back to my notebook to scrawl yet another almost unreadable though down on paper before resuming m original task.


I have yet to write the article, but before writing it, I consider my potential audience.  I want the material to be available to my Peace Corps comrades (what a Crimean choice of words!).


I consider (have considered) writing business articles for the Ukraine PCV’s unofficial newsletter.  That forum for my articles is not entirely appropriate though.  Since I am now only an “associate” member of Group 28 and/or Peace Corps, I feel constrained; I am overly conscious of a need to keep a fairly low profile since I am not officially part of the organization anymore.  I do not wish to endanger the position of anyone in Mark’s food chain (including Mark). 


No, I am not part of the team.  I am, instead, a real volunteer, having financed my own return here following my medical separation from Peace Corps last summer.  This opens some doors, but certainly closes others.


My conscientious concern about policy and appearances is elevated since we anticipate new leadership at the Ukraine headquarters offices in the next few months.  I have some angst regarding how the newcomers will regard my status (or non-status).


Yes, I live in a rather ambiguous situation, but then, don’t we all?


If there is one thing my life has taught me in recent years, it is this: we do not know what is ahead.


This realization can be frightening or exhilarating or of no concern.  We can choose how we will feel about our future, but ultimately we can do little to change some of the events.  Any sense of real control is actually an illusion.  It is important to remember that some of the events one would not choose to experience may eventually become an unexpected source of blessings. 


Dealing with death and dying, disease, disappointment – these things may slow us down and cause us to stumble on our path, but the path remains and we can continue it with joy, grateful for the beauty that has been ours and aware of how important it is to go forward, to share with impunity, to live graciously with exuberance, and to genuinely care.  (I’ve learned to understand the phrase, “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me,” and the Bible story behind it and I am even more responsive to the complex and essential messages shared by the authors of such children’s books as the Narnia series and “The Little Prince.”)


Well, I have clearly taken another track as my fingers dance across the keyboard this morning.  I sat down musing over a list of about thirty amusing leadership and management maxims I have jotted down over the past few months, but clearly, my head, or my heart, wants to spill other thoughts onto this computer screen.


My spirit of optimism, joy, enthusiasm and gratitude dominate today.  Who knew that life could be so good?  I will continue to go about my tasks and let my helium balloon-ideas carry me somewhere unexpected.  The article will be written and an audience will be found.


·                     Saturday, 11 March 2006

Teenage Beauty Queens in Crimea

The auditorium was packed.  Friends and family members came prepared with bouquet of flowers for the beautiful young hopefuls gracing the stage. 

The Miss Gracefulness of Kerch contest began and we were among the eager spectators watching as the contestants performed.  Two of the young women are members of our English Club, secondary school students who love fashion and have such an infectious joy for living.


We did not know when we accepted the invitation to attend, that we would be viewing a beauty pageant.  We thought it was a fashion show.


The participants are lovely.  They are fresh and young.  Much of their beauty comes simply from the radiance of youth and not any particular structure or sophistication.  It is fun to see these young girls laughing, smiling.  I view them almost as one does a bunch of playful puppies or kittens.  Each is unique and charming.  How can one ever say, “This one – you are the most beautiful, the best, the winner!”


I do not like these contests.  I do not want to see the light go out in the eyes of those who do not “win”.  I hope there will be no tears or worse, the faces that harden and grow cold, because a part of them feels they are somehow not good enough.


The evening unfolds much as beauty pageants everywhere do.  There are dance numbers that make me uncomfortable as I watch them perform in suggestive or revealing, costumes that make me think of scenes from films like “Striptease”.  Some of the fathers and brothers and male friends avert their eyes, probably not knowing where to look as the nubile girls go through their paces on the stage. 


Young girls with “new equipment”…they often mistake tawdry and cheap for sophisticated and glamorous.  In a country where spike heeled leather boots, micro-min skirts, colorful eye-makeup and flowing hair are the norms, these young teenage women have no skill at distinguishing the difference between beautiful, sophisticated, stylish, seductive, sensual, sexual, flashy, cheap.  Costumes are tight, garish.  You sometimes do not see the girl; instead, you see only the costume.


There are not many smiles.  Shouldn’t they be having fun?


We have observed that people here do not smile like American counterparts do.  In fact, they are a bit skeptical about those foolish smiling Americans.  During photo opportunities, our Ukrainian friends do not smile and they seem to avoid smiling on the street.  Smiles are shared with immediate family and friends.  Ukrainians smile often and sincerely, they are just careful about who they share those smiles with!


The look they seem to strive for is the bored, almost jaded, expression of a runway model.


The judging finally concludes.  One of our young friends was runner up.  We were delighted because it had seemed unlikely she would be selected.  She is a beauty, but has a frightened self-consciousness that might have undermined her chances of winning.  It was a pleasure to see here look of surprise and delight.  She beamed.


Our other young friend was a confident, happy participant who throughout the whole evening seemed to simply enjoy the entire experience.  She seemed as comfortable and relaxed on the stage as she would be walking up Lenin Street with her friends on a Saturday evening in May.  She flashed her smile and acknowledged her adoring fans with a nod of her head as she went confidently and comfortably through her paces.  She had fun.  Winning would merely have been icing on the delightful piece of cake she was happy to share with her friends on the stage.


We were relieved to see our two friends so comfortable about the event.  Not everyone walked away smiling.  Several young beauties, struggled to remain composed.  Exhausted from hours of performing and weeks of preparation, the news that seemed to say to them “you are not good enough” was devastating.  These girls were quick to disappear when the show was over.


The girl who won the event was a frighteningly cold competitor.  Her face was an unsmiling mask.  She did not seem to allow herself to show her happiness even when she won.  Perhaps she was already plotting how to win the next competition.  I could not look at her for long.


I had a quick image of the wicked stepmother in the tale of Sleeping Beauty.  She gazes into the mirror and is never pleased with the image she sees and she does not trust the words she hears from the mirror itself.


Sometimes women forget, there is life outside the mirror.


I was glad to leave the auditorium when the event ended.  Beauty pageants, in any culture, are the same – there really are no winners.


·                     Wednesday, 8 March 2006 – International Women’s Day

Mark headed off to work with his 25 pretty, red-tulle-wrapped bags of chocolates and his 25 handcrafted, beribboned bookmarks with the hand-illuminated roses ready to delight and bedazzle the ladies of the Kerch library staff on this gray International Women’s Day morning.  He is now back at home after standing outside in the cold waiting for the library to open.  The staff usually arrives around 9 AM and the library opens to the public around 11 AM so when the doors did not open at 9, Mark assumed they would be open at 11 and patiently waited with his bag full of small gifts.


There were no signs posted indicating the library would be closed and he had not heard any indication of the possibility yesterday so he waited, half expecting someone to arrive and let him in.  He surprised me by showing up at home at about 11:45, looking rather dejected and feeling rather foolish and a bit disappointed since he could not present his thoughtful gifts to the nice women he works with.


Just another example of how cross-cultural experiences can unexpectedly hit you between the eyes occasionally.  The PCV mantra for days like this is: “I can handle ambiguity!”


The streets are almost deserted on this holiday that embraces the magic of both Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day here in Crimea.  When I see people out and about they are dressed well and invariably carry a bouquet of flowers since they are no doubt enroute to some women’s home to honor her on this special day. 


Mark observed that he saw men on the street early today, breakfasting on chips and cans of beer since on International Women’s Day, the women do not cook.  It is the one day of the year that the men prepare the meals.


Mark also observed that he would prepare my meals for me today as a special surprise and would give me time to read and relax to do as I please.  In other words, business as usual for me.  I am well taken care of and believe me, I am grateful for the man in my life and I am grateful for my life too.  I say this as I sip my coffee and indulge in a few pieces of rich dark chocolate and let my eyes take pleasure in the three bold yellow tulips that grace our humble kitchen table on this special day.


Footnotes on the History of International Women’s Day

(Source: www.bogdana.net)


In springtime in ancient Rome, free men paid homage to their wives, showering them with gifts and love.  The women dressed up, put flowers in their hair and went to the temple to worship the Goddess Vesta, keeper of the family hearth.  On this day, these generous and privileged women gave gifts to their slaves and give them the day off.


This lovely spring ritual evolved into a political holiday over the years and then it became once again, a day to honor women.


The political version began on 8 March 1857 when female textile workers in New York City staged a street protest over working conditions.  Years later on 8 March 1908, the granddaughters of these revolutionary women rallied.  This time the demands included women’s suffrage (the right to vote) and a ban on child labor.  In 1909, in support of these strong women, the Social Party of America proclaimed the last Sunday of February as National Women’s Day.  Then in 1910, at the International Conference of Women in Copenhagen, 8 March was finally proclaimed International Women’s Day as an annual memorial of those civic-minded women who rallied in New York City back in 1857.  (Klara Tsetkin proposed it.) 


In Russia, the 8th of March has been celebrated as International Women’s Day since 1913.  Historically women were honored with gifts, flowers, chocolate and respect.  During Soviet times, the newspapers typically ran stories about heroic mothers. 


This holiday continues to be extremely popular among all the countries that were formerly part of the USSR.


No one believes us when we say it is not celebrated in the USA. 


It certainly is a tradition here in Kerch, Crimea!


·                     Tuesday, 7 March 2006

The Eve of International Women’s Day

Oh my, I think we may have underestimated the power and significance of International Women’s Day!


My tip off?  Well, I heard a group of people singing loudly as they walked down the middle of our street, totally oblivious of cars and the barking dogs that trailed them.   I went to the window and saw several well dressed, smiling women each with a beribboned long-stemmed rose. 


The women strolled along; arms linked in the way of schoolgirls in bygone days and sang as loudly as they could.  I suspect the singing and merriment was fueled (in part anyway) by some early morning toasting. 


Just as I opened the shade, I saw one of the neighborhood men approaching the happy sisterhood of women.  He doffed his cap and bowed deeply then spoke a few well-chosen words about how beautiful the bevy of women was.  When he stood beaming at the ladies, he received a flurry of kisses.


Before I could synthesize what I was seeing, I heard a tap at my kitchen window and looked up to see S, the manager of the store next door and the woman who collects our rent each month.  I went to the outside door and let her in.  She beamed at me and shot some rapid-fire Russian while I tried to pick out recognizable words.  (Did I hear the word sister and tomorrow?)  Before I quite got the gist of the one-sided conversation I was being bear-hugged, my face pressed firmly between S’s fur collar and hat and my back beaten with affectionate pats.  She released me and headed upstairs to read the electric meter, while I stood there a bit dazed and confused.


Then light bulb in my head went on as I suddenly remembered reading that in the workplace, gifts and acknowledgements for International Women’s Day should be given the day before.  (Poor Mark, I thought!  His rather American offering for this holiday is here at the flat waiting until tomorrow.) 


The big event is tomorrow, but already I see we are not prepared for the magnitude of this celebration, which is not just Valentine’s Day, but also Mother’s Day too.  There is nothing low-key about it!  This is not just a private celebration, but it extends to the workplace as well.


“Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore,” I say aloud as the enormity of the event dawns on me. 


We are so naïve.


I suspect the gesture Mark and I conjured up which seemed clever at the time, may lose its shine in the light of day tomorrow.  There are 25 women at his work place, plus the director, and his tutor not to mention people at the Peace Corps offices and others.


Usually the men in a workplace get together and organize a tea with food, tortes, chocolates and champagne.  They probably recite poems and sing sentimental songs.  There may be French perfume and bouquets of flowers (always an odd number of blooms because an even number is only for funerals!).  They are well schooled in the cultural norms and expectations (i.e.: never give women red carnations since they are a flower associated with politics and men).  Unfortunately, Mark’s workplace is devoid of fellow men. 


This is compounded because he just had a pricey tea to mark his birthday just a couple weeks ago.


Last year at this time, we were newly arrived in Ukraine and safe in the bosom of our host family’s cozy home.  Our language/cross-cultural trainer and our technical trainer both coached the men in our group on the significance of this holiday so they at least showed up with a flower and a chocolate bar for these women and also for their host mothers. 


In typical American style, the men were confident that it is the thought that counts. 


Not really.  Not here.


I was caught off guard when I showed up for breakfast in my usual jimmies and met my host, N showered, shaved and smelling of aftershave; looking rather dapper in a sport coat and proffering me a bouquet and a gift. 


I suspect our trainers were a bit disappointed with the single red carnations and the local equivalent of the Hershey bar each of the three guys in our group presented them with.  Boyish charm and being a foreigner only get you so far!


I am glad I am a woman so I don’t have to deal with it! 


And maybe, just maybe, I’ll get some flowers out of the deal!


·                     Monday 6 March 2006

March - the Month of Birches

Here in Crimea, among the Russian population, the month of March is pronounced Mart (transliterated).  In the Russian language, the months have roots in Latin and when pronounced are recognizable to English speaking people.  (Reading them in Cyrillic, either block and especially cursive, is another story - actually Russian is another story today.)


This morning I am thinking about how lovely the names of the months are in Ukrainian.  The Ukrainian people waxed poetic when they named the months.  March is berezen, the month of the birch trees.  This time of year, the “juice“ of the birch tree flows, a sure sign of spring.  What a lovely image is conjured up and the name seems appropriate.


Other months have pleasing names.  A list of dull Russian and delightful Ukrainian months follows in transliterated format:


English      Russian      Ukrainian   Definition

January       yanvar          sichen                   Month of slicing (wind)

February     fevral          lyuty            Month of anger

March                   mart            berezen       Month of birch trees

April            abril            kviten                   Month of flowers

May             may              traven         Month of grasses

June            iyun             cherven       Month of redness (fruit ripens)

July             iyul              lypen            Month of linden trees

August         avgust         serpent       Month of syckles (harvest)

September  sentabr       veresen       Month of heather

October      aktabr         zhowten       Month of yellow colors

November    nayabr         lystopad       Month of falling leaves

December    dekabr         burden         Month soil freezes


In many ways Russian and Ukrainian are similar, but at surprising points they depart on their own paths and the diverging paths are significant.  The challenge is not only for the individuals living in this culture.  The national language issue is becoming a controversial topic politically (and economically) as this young democracy attempts to pave a single path.


On the surface, the issue seems simple, but the roots are convoluted and strong.  Economics and politics – money talks.  What language will it speak here in Ukraine and the Autonomous Republic of Crimea?  I do not know.


I am no expert, but part of the challenge is Russian has been the language of business and a large percent of the population speaks it at home.  With Ukrainian as the national language, schools must conform with teaching in Ukrainian and media must produce in Ukrainian.  If Russian is labeled as the secondary language, the school curriculum has a challenge since English is often the second language student study.  English has become an essential skill for professionals in all fields.  The established culture of the Ukrainian language is small so there will be large economic challenges to face. 


Belarus struggled with this issue and eventually decided to adopt Russian as their language. 


Spring is here in Ukraine and Crimea and that is true regardless of which language one speaks.  The seasons are grouped by month rather than by the equinox.  Winter begins on 1 December and extends until 1 March when it is spring.  Summer begins 1 June and ends with the first day of autumn on 1 September.


Outside in our courtyard, the birch tree is swaying in the wind and the sun shines brightly.  On this gusty, fly-a-kite kind of day, it feels like springtime has arrived, in any language!


·                     Sunday, 5 March 2006


Making Kvas!

Some things remind me how far from home we really are.  One of those is kvas. 


There really is nothing quite like kvas!  According to author Helen and George Papashvily in their book, Russian Cooking, kvas” has never enchanted many non-Russians.”  That is no doubt an understatement but despite this faint praise, kvas was an important component of the early peasant diet.  Why?  Not only is it cheap and easy to make, but the yeast actually acts as a nutritional supplement to limited diets.  Kvas improves digestion and buoys the human spirit too.  It will quench your thirst on a hot day and innovative cooks have found they can incorporate kvas as a wonderful soup stock.  The consensus among the diverse group at English Club here in Kerch is that it just plain tastes good!


For the uninformed, kvas is a mild beverage made from fermented bread.  Yep, you read that right: fermented bread! 


It is definitely a Russian drink, and quite popular in Ukraine too.  As summer rolls into the neighborhood, so do the kvas tanks!  Thirsty crowds queue up, coins in hand, eager to chug glasses of this unique beverage.  The best kvas comes from the street vendors, but in recent years local stores stock large plastic bottles of it.  The stacks of bottles make me think of good old A&W Root Beer.


If you cannot wait for the street venders to arrive and your local store does not stock this unique beverage, you can make it yourself.  It is a simple process.  Long ago enterprising peasants discovered they could simply soak leftover bread in hot water, allow it to ferment for a couple hours, add some kind of sweetener (sugar, fruit or honey usually) and the end result was a hearty, effervescent brew they could drink on the spot or bottle for a later occasion. 


If you would like to experiment with making a batch of this traditional beverage here are some guidelines I have extrapolated from several sources.  Like many homemade specialties, everyone has their own “secret” recipe or “special” method and often are not willing to share their trade secrets, but the rudiments are the same. It is just a matter of fine-tuning the process.  Following is a basic procedure.  Why not make a batch and see what you think? 


Now let’s talk about holidets…




½ Kilogram                Black Bread, Day Old

2 Soup Spoons        Active Dry Yeast

1 Teacup                   Sugar (experiment with honey or fruit)

¼ Teacup                  Lukewarm water (110-115 degrees)

2 Soup Spoons        Raisins


  1. Place day old bread in the oven and bake it at about 200 degrees until it is thoroughly dry (about an hour). 
  2. Chop the dry bread into small pieces and drop into about 6 liters of boiling water, then immediately remove it from the heat. 
  3. Cover the pan with a clean dish towel and let it sit for about 8 hours
  4. Strain the bread mix through a colander or sieve (or a cheese cloth bag) into a large pot, using a large spoon to press the bread mash through.  Throw out the bread and keep the liquid.
  5. Sprinkle the dry yeast and a pinch of sugar onto the warm water and let the yeast “work” in a warm, draft-free place (i.e.: an unlighted oven) for about 10 minutes.  It should double in volume. 
  6. Next, stir the yeast mixture and remaining sugar into the bread water.  Cover the pot with a dishtowel and let it sit for another 8 hours.
  7. Pour the mix through the sieve again and then, using a funnel, pour the liquid into two or three liter-size bottles.  Fill each bottle about 2/3 full then add raisins to each bottle. 
  8. Put plastic wrap on the top of each bottle using a rubber band to hold it in place, the store the bottles in a cool (not cold) place for a few days or until the raisins have floated to the top and the sediment has settled to the bottom. 
  9. It is time to pour off the amber liquid and rebottle it in clean bottles. 
  10. Refrigerate the kvas until ready to use. 


Word of advice – don’t tell your friends just what’s in this drink till after they drink it!  8-)


·                     Saturday, 4 March 2006

This knitting project is character building. Other days it seems to be a metaphor about life.


I am about 20 centimeters into a lovely burgundy shawl, happily knitting away and I suddenly, about three rows back, I notice a dropped or split stitch glaring up at me from the otherwise neat and orderly ranks of stitches marching across my lap.


I tug at the infiltrator and look at the reverse side.  I poke my needle through trying to close the gap.  I shake my head in denial.


I start thinking about tearing out the stitches and starting over.


“Don’t be such a perfectionist!”  Right Brain says.  “It is lovely and the flaws hardly show.  They show it is handmade, with love.”


Left Brain speaks up, “Rip it out - start over!  You will be glad you did.  It is like playing the piano.  When you make a mistake you stop and start the piece over until you can finally play the whole song without error.”


I sigh.  “This is supposed to be fun,” I lament as I pour myself a cup of coffee.  I have had so many false starts on this piece I feel like Scheherazade.  I can imagine Mark’s face when he sees I have started over yet again.


Right Brain speaks up, “You know, every knitting or needlework project should have a flaw.  This keeps the gods from being threatened!”


“No gods would be threatened by this piece,” Left Brain says with a rather disagreeable tone.  “Rip it out!”


I turn up the radio to drown out the voices.  I stand by the window sipping coffee and watching the rain.


Maybe I should just take up painting instead.


Later Thoughts

Maybe I should apply the “good enough” principle and just move forward.  Finishing a project is as important as having it turn out well at times. 


The world is filled with people who never finish anything (a lot of them never even start anything!).  We demand perfection of our children and ourselves.  We do not know how to simply enjoy.


The trick is, I think, to figure out where your pleasure is: in the process or the product.


Maybe I should just stick to my knitting as the old saying goes! 


I have to have a talk with Left Brain…


·                     Friday, 3 March 2006

“Dale’s Chevrolet” in Crimea & Observations about Commercials

The radio station we listen too is airing many political commercials these days.  The elections are around the 25th. 


We also notice more car ads lately (both on radio and TV).  I wonder if there really are more car ads, or if we are simply more conscious of them as our language skills improve. 


I swear I heard an ad for a local car lot called “Dale’s Chevrolet”!  Not a very Russian sounding name is it?  Mark thinks I am mistaken, but I am certain that is what I heard. 


I have not heard any references to Crimea’s “Miracle Mile” yet but it is only a matter of time.  (I have a Far-Side vision of the salesmen wearing fur hats and playing accordions…never mind….)


I suppose car ads are seasonal.  With spring in the air, people may decide to get a new car and plan a vacation to the beach or to the water park on the other end of Crimea. 


During winter, cars say locked up indoors mostly.  The snowy streets and icy roads discourage people from driving.  Snow removal is not common outside major cities.  People bundle up and trek to their destinations or use public transport.  There are cabs and route taxis too.


Cars still are beyond the reach of most people here.


The car commercials may be seasonal, but they could actually be an economic indicator.  The idea of using credit is new here.  They even pay cash for houses and property.  I think car sales may be an ideal way to encourage people to assume debt or use credit wisely.


Commercials on TV and radio are announced before they are broadcast.  You hear the word “reclama” and know a commercial block is about to begin.  This keys you to either listen up or find something else to do while the advertisers promote their products or political party.  There may be 12 minutes of commercials one after another before the programming resumes.


I read a humorous article in the Kiev Post about this – the writer joked about washing her hair during the commercial break.  You really could.


The disclaimers on commercials make me laugh.  The voice that explains that that additional credit restrictions may apply, etc, is so rapid fire no one could possibly decipher what is actually said.  When I first heard one of these disclaimers, I believed it was a joke, a little spoof or take-off of an American commercial maybe. 


When they produce these disclaimers, the announcer speed-reads the statement and then the announcement is compressed digitally so it is rapid fire fast.  Russian words are so long and convoluted so the combination of speed and distortion make the deep-voiced announcers sound much like Alvin or Theodore Chipmunk.


Local Street Dog Notes

White Dog and her mate stretch out, nose-to-tail along the sun-drenched wall across the street and the four usually animated puppies follow suit as well.  In this moment of perfection, they resemble a highly orchestrated Madison Avenue ad campaign for some obscure product. 


It is a rare moment of calm for the Dog family. 


Usually the four pups and their parents are a study in motion; tail-wagging, tongues hanging out and barking commentary accompanies everything they do.  The big, new world of springtime offers many interesting diversions for the young pups and Mom and Dad Dog find many opportunities to train the pups on practical matters as the days pass.  They have learned to chase cars and bicycles; they have learned to badger large dogs who wander into their turf; and they know how to trail after customers departing from the neighborhood store.  The term “dogging” someone takes on new meaning after watching this team in action.


·                     Thursday, 2 March 2006

To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion....In a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common. This is to be my symphony.

 - William Ellery Channing


Thoughts about English Club

Some PCVs disdain English Club activities and others find them challenging.  I have not really heard anyone speak lovingly of this activity.  Let me be among the first to say, I thoroughly enjoy facilitating English Club events.


I channel many of my skills and use talents I cultivated in other arenas to draw people out, to make them comfortable enough to speak in a language that is not their own and to voice thoughts they may feel vulnerable about.  I get theatrical and I use humor, I have energy and enthusiasm, I am sincere and interested, I have a treasure trove of experience and examples to draw on, I change gears easily, I do my homework so I have questions, examples and prompts in case the conversation flags.  I make it look easy, casual, and unrehearsed.  I work at it!


I love it.


It is even more satisfying when people respond to my efforts, and they do. 


We have a diverse group and maintaining interest and involvement can be a challenge.  Last night was a delight since everyone present engaged and shared a few thoughts.  No one dominated the conversation, nor were there side conversations.  The flow and pace was smooth. 


I feel the same kind of thrill I have experienced following opening night in a theater performance.  It is a nice, comfortable, glowing sensation that comes from a job well done.  There is an adrenalin rush.


It is good to acknowledge simple joys and pleasures.  I am grateful for the opportunity to experience English Club here in the Kerch Library.


Neighborhood Improvements

Mark says the neighbors are putting up a grape arbor.


They have been using an arc welder all day long.  Our lights flicker and dim as their equipment drains power from our block.  I glance out the window and watch the group of men supervising operations.


Mark voices concerns about the lack of safety in how they operate the welding equipment and notes several examples.  I close the window shades so I won’t have to see.  The mantra we repeat at times like this is “Things are not better or worse here, they are just different.”


We have learned to avert our eyes or step away from some situations here in Ukraine/Crimea.  We are products of the USA and seem more keenly aware of safety rules and hygiene factors than those around us.  No, that’s not right…no, we just see the situation differently! 


Cultivating cultural sensitivity is essential and an ongoing process.


Americans may be too uptight about these things, but the local people are pretty casual so it is sometimes quite a dance between danger (or disgust) and getting the job done.  People here get the job done.


The arbor is finished now and the tools are put away.  It will be beautiful this summer when fine, plump grapes hang down from the bars high above the courtyard and the full moon shines down from above.


·                     Wednesday, 1 March 2006 – Peace Corps 45th Birthday!

Courtyard March of the Cat Kings

I thought I had seen elegant fur coats, but I had no idea such furs as these exist!  In our courtyard a procession of regal male cats commenced with the advent of warmer weather, and despite the rising temperatures and spring like sunshine, they swagger past flaunting their beautiful winter garb.  There are dozens of handsome male cats in the fashion parade outside my kitchen window.  These are the Cat-Kings of Kerch and no ermine robes could be finer!


The gang of female cats that usually haunt our courtyard are modest tiger cats, drab by comparison with these handsome guests.  These males congregating here are large, colorful cats; clearly, they claim lineages that are more exotic.  They are Angoras and Persians; they resemble Maine Coons and Norwegian Forest cats.  The blood of lions is evident.


They have thick manes and some of them look as if they are wearing fur cravats.  It is easy to imagine them wearing Cossack hats or traditional fur hats with the ear flaps tucked neatly up.  Their tails curl and swish as they posture and pose like models on a boardwalk (or a catwalk?).


How elegant they are, these pompous pretty-boys, parading through the area.  They stop often to preen and clean, carefully licking paws and wiping away smudges of mud from their pink pads.  These fabulous creatures are as fine as any show cats I have seen, yet they live out on the muddy, mean streets and survive on meager handouts. 


Where have these amazing creatures been all winter?  Perhaps they have homes, which they have temporarily abandoned during this springtime testosterone festival.  They are here in our courtyard seeking female companionship.  They are on the prowl. 


At first, the females put up with the attention of these visitors.  They simply outran them or fled up to the treetops where the heavier males could not reach them.  After the novelty wore off, the females strategized and de-camped.  They found somewhere else to hole-up until this invasion of male cats departs again.  The hopeful males remain.


The daily routine has been disturbed.  The females who used to wait religiously outside our neighbor’s door for their three-times daily meal are no longer queuing up.  At feeding time Cat-Woman’s small orange dog chases away the visiting males so that any of the females brave enough to venture out can dine without being disturbed.  I see very few of the regulars dining, but Cat-Woman stands guard stamping her feet at the intruders and giving them a piece of her mind in a rapid-fire Russian that is clearly meant to discourage them from returning.


The males parade around the perimeter of the courtyard, pausing to leave calling cards on bushes, shrubs, trees, doorways or anything else in their path.  They remind me of overdressed pimps cruising the neighborhood in preposterous looking cars, eyeing the streets for new opportunities.  They posture and pose and assert themselves aggressively when they are crossed. 


Too much testosterone in one place, but quite a wonderful show!


Maslenitsa Festival at the Library

Spring comes late in northern Russia, but here on the eastern tip of Crimea the Russian community celebrates the same festivals their cousins in the frigid north do.  Maslenitsa (literally “Butter Festival”) is a pre-Lenten celebration that seems to have survived Communist oppression.  According to Helen and George Papshvily, authors of “Russian Cooking”, during the seven weeks prior to Lent, Russians allowed only vegetables and vegetable oils on their dining tables.  It is hard to imagine how they could stick to this menu since there is very little fresh produce available even here in the more temperate Crimea.  As consolation for the sacrifices ahead of them, they celebrate the feast of Maslenitsa.  


Even non-believers indulge in Maslenitsa because it is a wonderful excuse to eat bliny!  The heart of this festival is an orgy of bliny feasting: bliny with butter, bliny with sour cream, bliny with caviar, bliny with cottage cheese or jam, salmon, pickles, almost anything!  (Mark likes to dress them up with a sauce of pears, walnuts, and raisins soaked in brandy and topped with sour cream)


Bliny are like a cross between pancakes or griddlecakes and crepes.  They have a subtle flavor that sneaks up on you.  They are made of simple ingredients, including buckwheat, yeast, eggs, sugar  and flour but they require some patience to prepare.  If you make them from scratch, you must let the batter rest for six hours before you begin to cook them.  No one eats just a few so plan on serving about 15 bliny per person.  They are best eaten immediately; golden brown and hot from the grill!


The ladies of the library decided to have a small version of the bliny-fest for their midday meal yesterday ad kindly included us in their event. 


As usual, they pulled all the small tables together and spread tablecloths before piling on the plates of food.  They served tea, but this time they used an actual teapot to steep a strong tea essence.  A little essence is splashed into each teacup and then boiling water from the electric hot pot (chinock) is added.  In the era when samovars were common, this is how tea was prepared and the flavor is far better than the usual casual tea bag-flung-into-a-cup with a dash of tepid water version, which we often get when we order tea at the local kiosk.


We huddled around the knee high tables and sampled about ten different bliny and a variety of tasty, rich fillings and topping while we laughed and talked. 


The spring sun shining through the window was hot.  When the library staff went back to work, I strolled home through the park, along the sea.  Swans sailed along the shore and I paused, soaking up the sun, enjoying the taste of springtime in the air and the aftertaste of bliny in my mouth.