·                     Wednesday, 31 May 2006

Packing up the Visitors & Off to the Airport…

The day is quickly gone. 


The logistics of packing and transporting the in-laws to the airport consume the hours.  I do not make the trek to the airport.  I am tired and glad to have some time alone. 


It has been fun, but busy.  I am sorry to see them go, happy with how things generally went, but somewhat disappointed too…I feel a bit like a spoiled, cranky, over-stimulated two year old. 


I take a long hot shower and veg in front of the TV.


No sleeping in tomorrow – Mark has appointments!


·                     Tuesday, 30 May 2006

Rain Day

We are tired and it is cold and rainy.  We loaf a bit.  We eat.  We watch TV and read.  Dad enjoys opera and some other music on a local TV channel.  The vacation is almost over.  Tomorrow the plane takes my in-laws away.  On Thursday, they will be touring the Isle of Capri!


The Sad List of Stuff We Did Not Do!

We did a lot these past few weeks, but there are items on my checklist that did not happen. 


I am “bummed” that we did not get to go to the Museum of Folk Architecture and Folkways.  The weather has been too bleak and we could not arrange transportation.  I really wanted to go there to see the dancing ad costumes and to picnic.  This is a big disappointment for me.


I had also hoped to visit the botanical gardens to see the hundreds of varieties of lilacs in bloom – a stunning site on a beautiful spring day.  We should have tried this last week when the flowers were at their peak, the weather was fine, and we were still fresh too.  But now there is too much walking involved and bad weather and no energy…besides the blossoms are gone anyway.  Sigh.


The Lavras also got bumped from the vacation checklist.  Navigating the huge area and the hilly terrain would have been too much really.  We had hoped to poke around there a bit today, but discovered at the last minute that it is closed on Tuesdays!


Mark tried to get Opera tickets but they were sold out.


We did not even manage one picnic.


Internet Café…

Did I mention the amazing Internet Café in the mega mall under the Arena City area?  There are about 250 computers available at 6 HRV an hour…all of the seats are filled.  Most of them are gamers, but many of them check e-mail and some even watch DVDs!  (Our Internet Center in Kerch has only 5 computers!)


Mom V. checks her e-mail and lets their Rome connection know their plans. 


I look for personal mail – friends and family know we are vacation so though there are 400 e-mails to wade through, most of them are work and news related.  Sigh.  I hoped to hear from our daughter and grand kids.


·                     Monday 29 May 2006 (Memorial Day Observed in USA)


Babi Yar – 150,000 People Slaughtered…

A grey, rainy day seems appropriate for another sobering visit.  This memorial is to the 150,000 Kievians, primarily Jews (33,000), who were slaughtered and dumped in a ravine by the Nazis during the Great Patriotic War (WWII). 


There are two monuments.  One erected in 1976 to the memory of “Soviet Citizens” who were “victims of fascism”.  The central figure is a communist resistance fighter.  This monument really ignores the fact that many of the 150,000 victims were Jewish and invited there to be gunned down simply because they were Jewish!  


It is also some distance from the actual site.  The ravine where they were “buried” has been leveled and made into a highway and an apartment complex. 


When Ukraine became independent, they invited Israel to erect a monument.  It was dedicated in 1991, commemorating the 50th anniversary of this event.  It is a ten-foot high menorah, is about ¾ of a mile from the other monument, and is closer to the original gravesite.


The Jewish people were told to pack their warmest clothes and arrive at the corner of the cemetery.  When they arrived, they were mercilessly slaughtered.


We came to Babi Yar on the metro with M. and M. and 2 of their older kids who are just “home” to Ukraine from college in the USA.  M. and M. moved to their Embassy jobs in Kiev last fall and so the kid’s “home” is new to them and so is the language!  The kids are fun and it is fun to watch the parents interact with them! 


We trek around in the rain to see various monuments and discuss what various guide books tell us about the incident.   We try to find the Jewish cemetery, but end up wandering through a military cemetery. 


I am wearing my summer clothes and it is cold and wet.  I trek down steep, muddy paths like a mountain goat though I am wearing high-heeled slides.


After our sobering morning history lesson in the cold rain, we head downtown and have a tasty lunch at an Irish pub. 


·                     Sunday, 28 May 2006

Street madness & Kiev Days

We walk down to Kiev’s main avenue and find a road race in progress.  Kiev Days is in full swing and the starting event today is a run down Khreshchatik Street. 


The plan is to stroll to Andreyevsky Spusk where the usual numbers of street arts and crafts venders will be triple today.  We make strategic plans for a bathroom break at McDonald’s enroute.  Extended walking and stairs are no popular with some members of our little party so we try to avoid these too.


The day is bright and lovely.  There is much to see as we wander up the length of the street turned pedestrian mall every Saturday and Sunday year round.  There are extra events today though and of course, the good weather inspires even more crowds.


Winter snow, fur coats and cold are all just unpleasant memories on this fine day.


Gregorian Chants & Lighting Candles – a High Point

We arrive at Mykhaylivska Square, and take photos, consult guidebooks, etc.  We enter the beautiful cathedral where we light candles and then observe church services. 


Dad V, an expert and enthusiast of Gregorian chant is delighted to hear the monks singing.  A holy procession with icons ensues as the faithful circle the church, pausing to pray at designated locations. 


This is a wonderful experience.


Trekking the Cobblestones of Andriyivsky Street in High Heeled Slides

We reach our destination: the huge art market!  We ooh and ahhh and bargain a bit as we stop at various booths.  The traditional embroidered towels are so beautiful, but not possible on my budget. 


Mom and Dad V. find some painted miniature dolls to take home as souvenirs and Dad V. gets a St Nicholas too (Ded Moros sp? Actually!).


I must pay attention to my feet as I navigate down the steep slope on the slippery, uneven cobblestones in my rather spiky-heeled slides.  The crowds are thick and so the experience is not as pleasurable as it could be.  There are many wonderful artists and also many venders pushing trinkets too. The Kiev Day crowds change the character of this adventure.


We stop for lunch – dining under a large tree at a café on the hillside. 


I poked my head into the Bulgakov house, but I guess a visit will happen on another Kiev trip. 


At the bottom of the hill, I was glad to see the old dog woman.  Her canine friends pose beautifully on a large blanket and people put coins in a bucket to help her feed and house her many dogs.



I the lower city, we take more photos and consult guidebooks and point out numerous sites.  We take photos of St Andrews from down below. 


We seek out a café for coffee or tea, but there are no seats available – too many crowds.  Even the McDonalds at the end of the street is crowded beyond belief.  So, we take the funicular up the side of the hill and wend our way back across town.


In Maidan Square young people are gathering for the rock concert so we keep moving. 


Later, we turn on the TV and view the singing and dancing from the comfort of our flat.  Later when the fireworks go off we open our terrace door and hear he sounds less than a mile away and watch the colors spill across the TV screen.  The fireworks mark the end of Kiev Days.


·                     Saturday, 27 May 2006

We arrive at the flat...

… with bags of supplies we picked up at a grocery store enroute to our temporary home. 


Kiev weather has turned cold and wet since last week.  My suitcase does not contain appropriate wear.  I am ready for summer, but the forecast is pretty bleak.


Mom V buys a new camera

Mom and Mark conspire on purchasing a new camera since her old one cannot be fixed readily.  It is not good to break a camera mid-vacation – they have their visit to Italy next week too.  Gotta replace that camera! 


We visit a few stores and end up in a luxury underground mall.  I rest my aching feet and alternately watch extremely thin, beautiful women buying Baskin Robins ice cream or couples getting their photo taken with an engaging little chimp, while Mom V makes her final selection at the camera counter.


The Nikon she buys is the same as the one that broke and seems to be about the same price as she would pay in the USA.  For those living on the average Ukrainian budget (or a PCV ad his non-PCV wife) that is a small fortune! 


WHO is buying all this luxury stuff in Kiev?  The city is full of Bentley dealerships and pricey merchandise!  Even in Kiev, the average monthly income is about $300 (about $100 more than anywhere else in the country, but still not enough to support this kind of life style!)


The agenda tonight is a sushi-making party…

…at the flat of an acquaintances.  M. and his wife work at the American Embassy and they included us on their guest list.  The flat is huge and elegant – a far cry from the life style of Peace Corps Volunteers.  I try not to gape!  (It is really huge, even by American standards!)


We sip wine and visit with a crowd of young people who work at the embassy or ex-pat schools.  Later we get the chance to try our hand at rolling sushi.


It is a delightful evening.


·                     Friday, 26 May 206

On Board the Overnight Train to Kiev

Another travel day – we board the train for a 23 hour ride back to Kiev.  No walking involved and time to rest up a bit before we tackle Kiev Days!


·                     Thursday, 25 May 2006

We are off to an early start. 

Lyudmila kindly arranged for a tour guide (the director of local museums!) and a translator (Masha, from English Club) to take us all to see some of the special sites around Kerch. 


The 1st stop: Adzhimushkai Stone Quarry-a Monument to Heroes 

This is a chilling monument to those who suffered and died and those who survived this hideous event. 


On May 20th 1942, Hitler’s troops occupied the Kerch Peninsula.  10,000 Soviet troops were ferried to the Taman Peninsula and did not have time to cross before they were attacked.  They hid in the damp, dark, underground labyrinths under the quarries.  About 5,000 civilians also hid there. 

The defenders held out for 170 days.  They received approx 100 grams of sugar each day and many died, picked off by Nazi gunners as they tried to collect water for those underground.   


The Nazis also used gas to kill people in the dank, subterranean hiding place.  There are mass graves and monuments underground.  One area contains thousands of colorful toys marking the site where children are buried.  


At the end of October 1942 the Nazis made a final attack.


Our tour guide, armed with a flashlight and a spare lead us through this sobering underground museum where we observed the conditions people lived under during those six months.  Many of the survivors actually ended up in concentration camps. 


The events here lead to Kerch being honored as one of the Hero Cities of the Soviet Union. 


Coming out into the sunshine of a warm spring day following our hours below was quite a shock.  It is hard to imagine what it would be like to emerge after six months of darkness, starvation, thirst and fear.


12-meter high pylons depicting the heroes emerging from underground flank the entrance to the underground museum.  It is a massive monument to these heroes. 


The Tsar Barrow

Just up the road from the quarry is a marvel of Greek history – the Tsar Barrow.  Our guide detailed many interesting facts about it, but my mind was sill on the sobering sites in the Adzhimushkai Stone Quarry.


Mom V’s camera was fumbled in a photo taking venture here so if Mark cannot fix it, we may be off on a camera buying mission soon!


The View from Mitridates

Our guide soon whisked us to the top of Mitridate Mount to take in the stunning view of the blue sea and the panorama of the city. 

I am grateful for this since Dad V would find climbing the almost 500 steps up to it quite a challenge.  No visit to Kerch is complete without a trip to the Mitridate. 


I had hoped to picnic there and maybe explore the Greek ruins, but the vacation and family visit is escaping far too quickly…sigh.  I also regret not getting photos with the Gryphons (we call them Merv and Andy…thanks Tom C!) that guard the stairway.


St. John the Precursor-the Oldest Church in Eastern Europe

We ended our day of touring at the beautiful and historic church in Lenin Square, another must-see in Kerch. 


Dad V bought an icon here.


We had a late lunch at an outdoor café on Lenin Street.  Masha joined us and continued to delight my in-laws with her wonderful English skills and her beauty and grace!  


·                     Wednesday, 24 May 2006

We visit Yeni Kale…

This ruined Turkish fortress built in 1703-1706 on the edge of the Sea of Azov was intended to prevent the Russian Navy from entering the Black Sea.  There is not much written about it, but it has a lovely profile and so we decided to seek it out today. 


Mark and I had attempted to find it once before, but did no have definite instructions.  Today, with the aid of a map, we were able to stroll out to it and take a few photos.  I wish we had more time here in Kerch so we could have had a picnic lunch and lazed away the day.  But, we had to have tea at the library at 4 and then English Club follows at 5:30.


Tea with Lyudmila

We sipped champagne with Lyudmila and made our presentation to the library. 


Mark and I gave a set of C. S. Lewis books in English and in Russian to the Library as a memorial gift for Caleb.  (We usually this around Caleb’s birthday)  I wrote the remarks and Mark and his tutor translated them.  I read the English aloud and Mark read the Russian to a gathering of library staff and Vogels. We put bookplates inside the cover of each book, with a photo of Caleb and a few words stating the books were given in his memory. 


Vogels also presented a pair of their own books to the library.


·                     Tuesday, 23 May 2006

Kerch Bazaar

I love the bazaar and of course we ad many purchases to make since we buy all our produce there each week.  We stocked up on food and let the in-laws soak up the general ambience of the huge market place. 


Mom bought a few meters of oilcloth to make into a tablecloth for her California kitchen.  The motif is bright yellow lemons on a filed of lovely dark blue.  She also purchased a hat for a baby girl.


We lunched at an outdoor café at the edge of the marketplace where we had Tartar food.


·                     Monday, 22 May 2006

Tea by the Sea and the Bus Trip to Kerch

We started the day with a seaside walk and a cup of tea by the water.  Then it was time to pack our belongings for the six-hour bus ride to our perch in Kerch.


We wrangled all our luggage onto a bus to the train station and then found a cut restaurant for a leisurely lunch.  The décor and meal were traditional Ukrainian – we started with borsht and had some vareniky too.


The bus ride was typical – it was hot and sticky and no one would allow us to open the windows for fear of drafts.  We got out twice during the six-hour trip.  Using the toilet at bus stations is a character building experience.


I spent my time on the bus knitting a scarf for my mother-in-law and listening to Mark’s MP3 player (He had several “This American Life” stories with him). 


It was dark and cold when we arrived in Kerch.  After so long on the bus, we elected to walk, but it seemed like a very long trip as we rolled our luggage along the uneven pavement.  We were all very happy to reach our cozy flat and tumble into bed for a good nights sleep.


·                     Sunday, 21 May 2006

Bus to Bakhchisarai and Khan’s Palace

The city of Bakhchisarai was founded in the 15th C.  The name actually means “the palace garden” in Crimean Tartar and the palace and its garden are what we wanted to see. 


There were no organized excursions from Sevastopol to Bakhchisarai so we decided to simply take a bus and find our way to the palace.  The terrain there is dry and rugged and it was already hot when we arrived.  We had to catch a marshrutka across town and ended up standing, or should I say squatting in a very crowded van as we bounced and sweated across town.  Outside Khan’s Palace, venders lined the path to sell baklava and Tartar foods that we happily sampled before we made our way into the beautiful, quiet, garden.


One of the reasons we wanted to visit the palace was because in photos it seemed reminiscent of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.  This is one of our favorite places so we were interested to see this similar palace.  Our friend Jay, a former Peace Corps Volunteer, served in Bakhchisarai and he has also spent time in the Alhambra.  He and I discussed the two places at length.   


The visit proved to be wonderful and there were many similarities.  I enjoyed the museum housed there too and of course, we visited the harem and saw the famous Fountain of Tears that inspired Pushkin’s poem. 


It would be fun to explore the area, but on this trip, we could only sample a little of the culture and beauty.  There area has many cliff dwellings and monasteries to visit, but the climbing involved made them prohibitive to use on this trip.


We ran into an acquaintance as we paused in the gardens.  The young woman, whom we met at a library function a few weeks ago, introduced us to her party.  We were honored to meet the leader of the Crimean Tartar people. When he learned of Mark’s association with the Internet Center and his IT expertise, he was quick to suggest a possible project involving IT for members of the Tartar community.  We agreed to discuss the possibility at a later date and exchanged business cards. 


An Angel Takes Us in Hand…

Back in Sevastopol, we took a sunset walk after dinner and discovered a beautiful church.  We started t enter only to be advised that it was closed. 


Suddenly a young woman swept down the steps and greeted us.  She took me by the hand and insisted that we follow her inside.  She chatted away in Russian, and pointed out all the renovations and artwork as she gave us a private tour of this place she so obviously loved. 


After a thorough tour of the main building, she took us downstairs, unlocked the door, flipped on the lights and showed us the underground chapel.  All the while, she chattered away and smiled at us encouragingly. 


“Oh I wish I had paid attention in English class,” she uttered in Russian and we all laughed and smiled! 


She was like a small bird or an angel, happily pouring out stories we could not begin to understand.  She seemed to know or feel my father-in-laws joy and love for religious art and music.


At one point, we paused and he sang a few verses of a suitable hymn while she listened reverently.


When the impromptu, after-hours tour ended our angel guide, kissed us each three times and escorted us out the door, leaving us with the feeling that we had somehow been visited by an ethereal creature.


It was a delightful experience that had the feeling of a dream.


·                     Saturday, 20 May 2006

An Excursion to Yalta

The weather is grey and colder today, but still quite pleasant.  We board a Mercedes van for an hour drive up the coast to the beautiful area of Yalta.  Chekhov wrote “The Cherry Orchard” and other plays and stories during his time in Yalta - it is easy to see how he could be inspired to write in such a lovely place by the sea.


Alupka Palace

This palace is worth an extended visit.  It is an incredible mix of styles.  A soldier and statesman who was instrumental in development of the Crimean wine industry built the structure in the 1830s.  Count Vorontsov’s castle is 16th C. English gothic style on the northern side and is has a Moslem architectural style on the southern side. 


Wandering through the 150-plus rooms is like seeing a fairytale coming to life.  I particularly like the steps guarded by sleeping and awakening white marble lions, but many of the actual rooms are equally stunning. 


Our tour guide kept us moving along and did not let us waste any precious time at souvenir stands. She also kept a running commentary throughout the tour.


We continued our tour in the elegant and diverse gardens surrounding the area.  There were ponds and waterfalls, peacocks, falcons and exotic trees and flowers – our guide had a story about every one!


The next stop was Livadia Palace. 

Livadia was the summer residence of the Russian emperors including Alexander II and III and Nicholas III.  The great white palace was built in 1910.


 In 1945, the three allied powers (Roosevelt, Stalin and Churhill) met in Livadia castle to settle Germany’s future.  They also planted the seeds for the formation of the United Nations.  Seeing the conference table and seeing the accoutrements and photos related to the Yalta Conference had a powerful effect on me. 


Touring these palaces reminded me of the “summer homes” at Newport and on Jekyll Isle and America’s castle: the Biltmore in Asheville, NC.  I also flashed back on stately palaces we visited in Spain – El Escorial and the summer palace in Aranjuez.  The world produced some monumental buildings in that era.  Breathtaking splendor.


Swallow’s Nest

One of Crimea’s most famous landmarks is the Swallow’s Nest Castle perched on Avrora Cliff, overlooking the sea.  This romantic structure was built in 1912 and now houses an Italian restaurant.  We stopped to take photos of this attractive building before we headed down to the promenade where we dispersed for lunch.


Art Show, Confederate Bikers, Chess and Herds of Cats…

Our guide released us for lunch.  We walked along the water, enjoying bright sunshine and cool breezes.  We observed many people playing chess – one of them was a two-year-old boy who you could play against.  We also saw a Harley Davidson with a huge Confederate flag draped above it – props for an extensive fantasy photo booth on the waterfront.


We ended up having blini (Ukrainian pancakes – crepes) at a local “fast food” place and then meandered through an outdoor art show.  About 15 cats came racing through the pedestrian walk – a herd of cats or perhaps a gang, but they made an impression with their show of force!


After boarding the bus, we headed back to Sevastopol.  The sites we visited were beautiful and the day was very pleasant. 


·                     Friday, 19 May 2006

Settling in Sevastopol…

We arrived in Sevastopol (about 400, 000 pop) after about 18 hours on the train to find bright sunny weather and a cheerful, pleasant driver waiting for us.  Mark booked a flat in the central city of Sevastopol from the same agency he dealt with in Kiev and it proved to be a good bargain.  Our driver took us on a windshield tour of the area and told amusing and inspiring stories about life in this city on a hill.   


When we arrived at the flat, the cleaning crew was just leaving.  We opened the door and suddenly water spewed out of the kitchen area.  Our driver slammed the door and called for the women t return.  The hot water heater had simply broken, but was quickly fixed and we were able to settle into the lovely flat.


We have two bedrooms, a kitchen and living area, a lovely, remodeled bath with luxury tub and a huge terrace.  It is a delightful place to call home during our visit. 


Sevastopol is one of the Hero Cities (WWII) and we learned much about its history as we explored the area.  The Black Sea Fleet is at home there.  We saw the famed monument to the scuttled ships.  We learned more details about the Crimean War (1854-1856). We wandered through the park and took photos of the important and picturesque sites, did some souvenir shopping, purchased food for snacking and breakfast and coordinated an excursion for tomorrow.


We ended up dining by the sea at an outdoor café. 


Tomorrow we are off to explore Yalta.


·                     Thursday, 18 May 2006

Bentleys, Lladro’s, Villeroy & Bosch…Not a Peace Corps Experience!

Nothing about the central city of Kiev suggests a Peace Corps experience.  People are well dressed and prosperous looking, but the stores are what make it seem unbelievable.  The city has so many luxury items available.  Where does all the money for these shops come from - who buys these things? 


As we wandered around the area my in-laws, Mark and I pondered this many times.  A recent Kiev Post states that the average monthly income in Ukraine is about $190, which is the price of a pair of glitzy shoes at a toney shop on Khreshchatyk Street. 


We walked around Arena City, near the central rynok at the end of Shevshenko Boulevard at the west end of Khreshchatik Street and saw a Bentley dealership and a place selling Lladro and a Villeroy and Bosch store with upscale merchandise.  The prices we saw were about the same as these goods would cost in the USA – we checked prices on Swiss Army knives, Ecco shoes, Nikon cameras, and several computers too. 


Dining in central Kiev is a culture shock for those of used to living on the $10 a day a Peace Corps Volunteer’s money averages out to.  A few years ago, there was relatively nothing available to purchase in Ukraine, now the shelves are filled with luxury items, but WHO has the money to purchase these items?


Touring the City on Foot…

We spent the day wandering down Khreshchatyk, the beautiful main street of Kiev.  On weekends, this wide, tree-lined boulevard is closed to traffic and people link arms and stroll, musicians perform, venders sell trinkets and outdoor cafes draw crowds. 


The chestnut trees are in bloom and the weather is balmy.  We walk slowly, trying to avoid stairways that make walking a challenge for my father-in-law.  Actually avoiding stairways is quite a challenge in this beautiful city of walkers. 


We purchase street food (delicious sharumas) and watch people wander by while we savor our snack.  Then we continue walking. 


We enter St Sofia’s Square, formerly called Bohdahn Khmelnytsky Square, and have a frenzy of photo taking.  There is a huge (10 tons of bronze – 36 feet high) state of the old Kozak leader. 


We head into the grounds of St Sofia’s cathedral and take in the beautiful sites there.  The frescoes and mosaics are wonderful.  The cathedral was established by Yaroslav the Wise back in 1037


Plan a McDonald’s Stop if You Want a Toilet Bowl!

Here my mother-in-law has her first experience with the porcelain feet we call a Turkish toilet. The toilets in St Sofia’s are brand new and exceptionally clean.  There are long banks of toilets behind closed doors.  Behind the doors are the porcelain feet with a hole between them where one squats.  This is not an easy position for some people to assume – hard on the knees.  (Later we figured out that there are 50 McDonald’s burger places in Kiev and they generally have toilet bowls in the woman’s room – with proper planning one can visit them, purchase some tea and make use of the facilities)


Next, we stopped for tea at an outdoor café at the Golden Gate – it was immortalized in Mussorgsky’s piano piece, “Pictures at an Exhibition”.  The gate served as the entrance to the city and was built back in 1037.  There is also a fine monument of Yaroslav the Wise holding a model of St Sofia’s Cathedral and of course, the large bronze cat. 


Our PCV friend Tom met us by the cat and took a few photos of us all before we headed toward the Opera House. We continued walking and took photos of the starry domed St Volodymyr Cathedral.  We skirted the botanical gardens where lilacs perfumed the air and headed for the railroad station to catch the night train to Sevastopol.


After all the walking and the late night before, we were all ready to sleep when we were ensconced in our cozy railroad car.  We will return to Kiev during Kiev Days and take in a few more sites before my in-laws depart for their visit to Italy.


·                     Wednesday, 17 May 2006

The Kiev Flat

Mark arranged, via the Internet, for a flat in Kiev.  It is just a few blocks form the historic market place on Khreshchatik Street.  There is a metro stop nearby.  It is a reasonably priced alternative to a hotel and will allow us more space and privacy, plus we can easily prepare meals here if we wish. 


The hotel industry in Ukraine is just developing, even in the major cities.  Unless you are among the rich and/or famous or traveling with a large business, it is difficult to negotiate a satisfactory hotel arrangement.  People here stay with family or friends.  Traveling is not so common.  


The flat he engaged is modest, bright, clean and fairly spacious.  The entryway and stairwells are typical for all the private buildings we have been in here in Ukraine and may be off-putting for travelers not accustomed to life in this fast-changing country.  It will be a good place to call home for our days in Kiev.  


The plan is to stay two nights and then head to Sevastopol for a few days.  After some sightseeing there, we will go to our home in Kerch, on the other side of the Crimean Peninsula and share our Peace Corps site with them.  We will return to Kiev and the flat there for the final days of their visit, which coincides with Kiev Days activities in the beautiful capital city.


Cheesecake at 2 AM

The weather is sunny and hot as we walk to the market to stock up on a few supplies.  We buy flowers to take to the airport and find fresh strawberries to serve with a local version of wonderful cheesecake.  The central market (Besarabskyy Rynok) is a pricey place to shop, but the food is very fresh and it is so beautiful to wander through.  The bright fruits and vegetables are stacked artistically and the venders wear lacy caps and cajole in sing-songy Ukrainian to sample their wares. 


I remain at the flat and bathe and nap when Mark heads off to the airport o collect his parents and their bags.  In a few hours he returns, daisy bouquet still n hand and no parents in tow.  They missed the plane connections and went back to Italy to fly in on a different plane.  Thank goodness for cell phones!


Mark is not at the flat long.  He returns to the airport by taxi to escort his parents back with him. 


They are tired, but happy to be in Ukraine at last.  At 2 AM, we sit in the kitchen drinking hot tea and eating large portions of rich, creamy cheesecake, with sweet strawberries and dollops of fat sour cream.


Tomorrow we explore and then catch the night train headed to sunny Crimea – let the vacation begin!


·                     Tuesday, 16 May 2006

We are off on the overnight train to Kiev!

Amanda and Jay arrived early.  Amanda wants to download some tunes on her MP3 player in preparation for their extended trip through Russia, Georgia and other places.   We are all traveling to Kiev together – she will complete her Peace Corps paperwork and then she and Jay depart on their big adventure (part of which involves working o an organic farm outside Moscow – can’t quite imagine Amanda milking cows!).  We will check into a flat in Kiev and pick up Mark’s folks from the airport for a couple weeks of sightseeing and visiting.


Amerada arrives with bags of stuff for me o have.  She is sad to part with her favorite brown sweater.  I promise to give it a good home and maybe even send photos of it to her later!  There are books and other assorted things.  I wait to go through them so she won’t have to say goodbye to the stuff again.


Leaving is hard.  Watching her leave is hard too.


Amanda is closing out her Peace Corps service. 


One accumulates so much stuff in 27 months.  You arrive with about 100 pounds of stuff and when you leave, you can only take home 100 pounds (or what the airlines allows).    


The 23-hour trip to Kiev is uneventful.  Jay has a bellyache.  Amanda falls asleep and so does Mark.  Jay and I sip vodka and talk of literary matters while the Ukrainian countryside flashes by outside the windows.


·                     Friday, 12 May 2006 (Actually, it is 3 minutes after midnight so it is Saturday!)

The full moon shines through the kitchen window, spilling into the living room.  My world is quiet and dark.  I am a bit puzzled by the silence and darkness - it is Friday night and the weather is mild.  Our proximity to the seaside park with all the outdoor cafes, discos and other amusements makes me think people should be out, even at this late hour.  But, it is quiet.  I sit here in this quiet, typing on my laptop, moonlight teasing my toes.


Mark’s breathing is the only sound.  He is deep in dreams.  The cat who was our guest has gone home to her family.  I miss her quiet companionship.  She vied with the computer for “laptop” status. 


She was a nice guest and a reminder to us of many things.  Mark and I are accustomed to each other’s ways and her cat ideas of how life can be, and should be. offered us pleasant surprises…a chance to think outside the box.  How quickly we forget, there are other ways to see and experience things.  I miss her influence already.


Today unfolded on its own.  I started the day knowing I would probably hear from Miss Pushkin’s “owner” (in quotes because I am not certain ANYONE can own a cat really!).  I also knew an English Club member (and friend) planned to come by for dinner and some computer-geek-fellowship with Mark.  (S. took a quick vacation to Hungary to purchase a laptop computer at an excellent price and plans to coordinate with Mark on setting it up.)  My own agenda involved tasks associated with the upcoming visit of Mark’s parents and our vacation… – many logistics to accomplish.  


The day is behind me now.  In the final assessment, it was a pleasant day.  We had good conversation with the cat-people and dinner with S. proved to be pleasant too.  I simply relaxed and let the day take its course.


I simply enjoyed each moment. 


And now, I have a private audience, a midnight assignation, with the full moon, the scent of lilacs, and the sounds of the sea.


Life is good.


·                     Thursday, 11 May 2006

Did I mention that what Americans call lady bugs are called “God’s cows” in Russian.  This puzzles me.


Victory Day sentiments linger on.  So, the TV airs old movies about the war and other conflicts and wars.  I watch, absorbing the action and puzzling over some things and nodding my head when some things click. 


I am like a small child trying to learn what this game is the adults play with sounds.  I walk a line between understanding things and then, like a light going out, I am in the dark, totally clueless.


I dabble at reading Ukrainian, Crimean and Russian history.  I am a dilettante – not a bad thing, thought here are connotations of superficiality in that word.  There is also pleasure and love involved too. My intermittent and erratic quest for knowledge motivates me to learn more of the language.  It is not the conversations I long to have, it is the understanding.  

Many PCVs are motivated by a need to communicate.  My need is more based on absorbing information. 


Frankly, I am not motivated intrinsically by the language.  I leave that to linguists. 


This whole language issue is interesting.  It is a challenge, but sometimes our limited abilities free us from petty matters.  We can use it to screen out events and activities.


Obviously, knowing the language, being fluent in it, would be wonderful, but with one year remaining here, I do not see big changes ahead.  We are not striving for fluency, rather dealing with the demands of daily life.  We can handle most challenges, not always with ease or grace, but we manage.


This makes me think what it might be like to have no hearing or to be incapable of speaking.  There would be ways to lead a full life.  The limitations would merely be bumps in the road and we would find other ways to move forward and succeed at the things that interest us. 


So, we are blessed with so many abilities that we forget about.  This experience in Ukraine is a proving ground for many of the lessons we have leaned in other avenues of our lives. 


TV Notes…   

There are Russian versions of many shows we watch in re-runs in the USA.  It is interesting to see the characters recast into Russian settings and language and the same plots re-played by Russians.


“The Nanny” and “Who’s the Boss?” are easy to recognize, even if you understand no Russian.


There is a version of “People’s Court” too.


The daily soap operas are aired in the evening around 8:10.  Of course the plots of soaps everywhere are similar (love, infidelity, heartbreak, abortions, alcoholism, divorce, desperate lives, etc), but the cultural details are of interest.  The clothing and food choices, the vodka shots instead of martinis, the nudity…


Variety shows are alive and elaborate here.  They are highly over-produced and every singer has a huge group of dancers accompanying their singing.  The theaters are huge and filled with enthusiastic audiences who often bring bouquets to present to their favorite performers.  The costuming is dramatic, bright and bold – sequins and glitz abound.


TV commercials are aired in blocks of about fifteen- twenty and span ten-fifteen minutes easily. Enough time to do some household tasks, take a shower, etc.  


The best thing on TV are the movies.  I love Russian films.  I am often spellbound by them.  When I return Stateside I plan to prowl the movie world and find versions with English subtitles. 


The films start at around 10 PM and lure me into staying up too late too often.  I never seem to see the beginning so I seldom know the name of the film.   


Miss Pushkin and I stayed up watching a film last night while Mark got his beauty rest a few feet away. 



·                     Wednesday, 10 May 2006

At the top of Mitridate Mount, under a grey sky and almost gale force winds, we huddled together for warmth. 


M. and I are outsiders here.  I feel a bit like a voyeur as I look at the people gathered here today to honor the memory of their dead and to toast those who survived.  In many ways, I am at home here among those honoring veterans.  I am a veteran, and my father served in WWII.


The Great Patriotic War, as WWII is called here, ended 61 years ago.    The survivors are quite grey and the children of those who served are also old.  The grandchildren and great grandchildren are here, bearing bouquets of tulips, lilacs, and lilies of the valley.  Military medals adorn many chests. 


There is a solemn parade of people filing past the monument to this Hero City.  Thousands of individuals pause and present bouquets or lay wreaths at the base of the obelisk that dominates the top of this 90 meter mount in the center of the city.  There are patriotic speeches, a 21-gun salute and finally the mayor advises everyone to adjourn and drink a toast – the traditional hundred grams of vodka will warm the body and the soul.


Despite the blustery cold day, the veterans and their families gather at tables set up just for them.  Each is served a plate of kasha with a slice of bread and 100 grams of vodka. 


People bring out their private stashes and packets of radishes and salo appear on tables.  Bottles of vodka appear.  The singing begins.


We stand by watching taking photos, absorbing the details and shivering with the cold when out of the blue, someone grabs Mark’s elbow.  “sit with us, have some kasha! Come, come, come – I have good Russian vodka!” says V. He is an acquaintance of M’s.  V.’s son went to America a few years ago and has disappeared.  He and M. have spent time on the Internet tryng, without success, to locate the young man.


We are whisked into the middle of the activity.  A vacant table is procured and chair borrowed.  We sit and magically a plate of food appears and out of a briefcase comes the bottle and shot glasses  – the toasting begins.  Other veterans join us and put humble offerings on the table.  Radishes, salo, bread and there is more toasting.  We take photos and exchange stories, using our Russian language skills or reverting to English and letting them struggle with their language skills.  Around us there is singing, laughter, and there are some tears. 


The word camaraderie is an accurate one.    


We are no longer watching, we are part of the event.  M. tells them I am retired Air Force and I am toasted by the sailors at my table.


Later, we dance to street musicians in Lenin Square.


·                     Tuesday, 9 May 2006 – Victory Day

On this date each year, Ukrainians solemnly commemorate victory over the Nazis in the Great Patriotic War (in USA we say WWII).  This is a day of military parades as soldiers and families gather to remember fallen comrades and lost loved ones.  About 20 million lives were lost in the countries of the USSR, so few families escaped the consequences of this war.


Ukraine, a borderland and consequently a battleground, was devastated by the Great Patriotic War -  cities, people, lives were destroyed.  Read about the heinous slaughter at Babiy Yar in Kiev or research the events here in the Hero City of Kerch.  This country was torn apart by war, with both sides occupying at various times. Many of these stories are only now coming to light.  About 3-5 million Jews died in Soviet countries yet the word Holocaust was never used in the Soviet media.   Tartars were exiled from Crimea.


Not only were Ukrainians and Crimeans victims in this tragic world event, but their own leaders were proving to be despots as well.  The stories of activities that Stalin executed during this same era are overwhelming and difficult for the average American to fathom. 


But, today, we pause and remember.


In a few weeks on Memorial Day, back in my hometown in the American Midwest, there will be solemn ceremonies commemorating those who served in WWII as well as in other conflicts.  A large American flag will catch the spring breezes and fly in memory of my father.  Another red, white and blue flag will fly in memory of my son.


I am a veteran too.  Perhaps one day a flag will fly there for me.


In honoring our past, we learn to honor our future – to make choices consistent with our values.  We can rededicate ourselves to finding pathways to peace and to living lives of gratitude.


·                     Monday, 8 May 2006

There is a kitchen sink, complete with the cabinet that surrounds it, sitting in the courtyard outside my kitchen window.  A man and a boy are slowly filling up the area with other household goods.  Above my head, I can hear floorboards groaning and objects banging against doorframes as people go about the business of clearing out the flat. 


It appears the upstairs neighbor is moving.


The elderly women and her Pekinese dog are leaving.  This is the woman who often scowls at us and shares strong opinions about what we are doing.  She lob off her thoughts in rapid Russian, hurling comments like grenades.  With our limited Russian skills we can only speculate on what she might be saying to us.


I first met her when I opened my hall door and found her scrubbing the painted concrete steps that lead to the second floor.  She immediately pointed at my bare feet and let me know in no uncertain terms that bare feet in a flat are unacceptable!   


A few days later, she turned her sharp tongue on Mark.  She was not happy when Mark tried to tame the neglected berry thicket that dominated the small garden.  The  thorns threatened us, tearing our clothes and pricking our arms and legs when we entered the garden to hang laundry on the clothesline.  The out of control vines reminded me of the wall of thorny shrubs that once kept Prince Charming from the palace in the old fairy tales.   


The berries, old woman ranted, should be harvested, canned and sold in the store.  Mark continued to work, hacking, hacking, hacking.  He reclaimed half the garden and planted iris and daffodils.  We made plans for some tomatoes and squash.   We smiled at the woman and listened to her vent.


Our neighbor shakes a fist and scolds at me when I give the courtyard cats an occasional snack and scoop up each kitten for a moment of gentling talk. 


Of course, she may actually be saying kind, loving things.  People often speak in loud, assertive voices here – their strident pitch and volume make everything sound like a debate or an argument. 


I simply nod my head and strive to decipher what she says.  I smile and listen attentively for a while.  I utter a few words of agreement in Russian, smile a lot and usually end up shrugging my shoulders and apologetically saying “Izvinite, ya ne panimayu” (Excuse me, I don’t understand.). 


I cast her pleading look.  (Resorting to the “foolish American role” is not my favorite strategy…) 


She stamps her walking stick and walks away, muttering under her breath, the Pomeranian, following along at a rapid pace behind her.


Other neighbors have indicated that the woman upstairs is a bit eccentric and far too opinionated.  Maybe even a bit crazy.  Catwoman, another courtyard neighbor, shakes her head and rolls her eyes whenever the woman speaks. 


Despite her prickly attitude, I am sorry to see her go. 


I wonder where she is going and if she will be happy (happier?) there. 


Perhaps she is going to the family dacha for the warm months. 


Perhaps my new neighbors will be tourists eager to have a flat near the sea for a few weeks during the summer. 


Perhaps the old woman and her dog will return in autumn when the trees begin to turn and air begins to chill. 


Maybe she will be back in her flat when we harvest the berries (and the tomatoes and squash) in our garden and we can share them with her.



·                     Saturday, 6 May 2006

“Are those…ostriches?” A. asked, as she pointed her finger at the small black specks far below us.  “Yeah, Those are ostriches!”


“Wow!  They are ostriches!” I responded, squinting my eyes, hoping to get a better view. 


The “strauss” farm (strauss, though not spelled like this, is the Russian word for ostrich) seemed to have plenty of feathered occupants strutting around the premises.  From our vantage point high on the hill overlooking the Sea of Azov, it looked as if there were around fifty of the large birds in residence. 


Somehow the idea of an ostrich ranch here in Crimea just seems funny.  Of course, people into green tourism and health food would be delighted with this prospect, but it just seems odd to me.


I had momentary flashbacks to when I retired from the US Air Force a few years ago.  The counselors in the pre-retirement employment seminars kept making cracks about retirees who bought into the idea of raising ostriches. 


Apparently, there were many failed ostrich farms in the San Antonio area and people were abandoning the big birds in the rural areas around the city.  On a quiet Sunday afternoon drive outside San Antonio, you could find your car stopped by a couple large, homeless ostriches brazenly panhandling for a snack.  It is no laughing matter when an ostrich stretches out its neck inside your car, seeking a bite to eat! 


The abandoned birds presented quite a problem to local authorities. 


So here on the eastern-most tip of this part of Crimea, someone has invested in ostrich ranching.  I wish them success.


I wonder if the owner is retired Air Force! 


·                     Friday, 5 May 2006 – CINCO de MAYO!


·                     Thursday, 4 May 2006

A very strange work schedule.

Mark had last Friday and Saturday off.  These are his regular days off now that the Internet Center is open. 


He worked Sunday, and then Monday and Tuesday were holidays, so more time off.  He worked Wednesday and is working today.  Friday and Saturday are his regular days off again. 


He will work Sunday and then Monday and Tuesday will be off because of more holidays!  So, next week he will work Wednesday and Thursday, and again have two days off! 


The following week he will work Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday and then we go on vacation for two weeks. 


It will be June before he returns to a regular work schedule. 


He will have worked only 7 days in May!


·                     Wednesday, 3 May 2006

We have a feline houseguest.  I call her Miss Pushkin (pronounced with a silent “h” as in Pusskin).  She is in residence here for at least the next week.  I am no longer pet deprived! 


Miss P is a small calico with lots of orange, white and browns.  Her chest is pure, snowy white.  Her shortish tail seems incongruous – like a transplant from a tiger striped cat. 


She is peeking at me from under the living room chair, observing me and her new surroundings a bit skeptically.  Maybe she is not too fond of the CD I am playing (Jimmy Buffet is not everyone's idea of music!). 


I shared some tuna with her earlier so she knows we eat well here!   Her owners will be back next week. 


It is nice to have a cat guest around.

·                     Tuesday, 2 May 2006

We get held-up!

We encountered members of a wedding party as we made our way home from our May Day picnic at the tip of the peninsula looking down to the bay where the waters of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov merge.  The meeting was unexpected as the garishly costumed people circled our vehicle and urgently pounded on the windows. 


Our driver Sasha, an off-duty militia (policeman) man, quickly rolls down his window and rapid-fire Russian conversation spills into the car as a man, dressed like a peasant woman rattles a cup under Sasha’s nose.  In front of us, a man abuses an accordion and several voices (apparently lubricated by some beverage of celebration) blend with the music (whose chief merit is volume, seconded by enthusiasm).  Several women with garlands in their hair dance by the roadside.  Across the street, a large brown cow, oblivious to the events around her, stretches her neck to reach the tender leaves on a tree blossoming behind the wall of a dacha.  Chickens scratch in the dirt and a few geese waddle past.  


“Give them money,” Sasha says, digging into his trousers pocket for a couple small bills.  Mark follows suit and, money in hand, the crowd around the car cheers and laughingly disperses.  Sasha puts the car in gear and we leave the merrymakers behind.


These were not drunken thieves, Sasha explains.  There had been a wedding in the small village at the end of the peninsula and the revelers were simply raising money for the newlyweds in a time-honored way. 


So many of the old traditions have died out.  It was fun to share this small window into the past as we wound our way home from our lovely day of celebrating by the sea.


With the next day being a holiday too, I imagine the party would go on far into the night.  A wedding is something to celebrate and Ukrainians are well versed in taking time to celebrate.


The willingness to stop work and take pleasure in life’s events is something worth cultivating.  There is a saying: “If not now, when?”  There may never be another opportunity to pass this way again!  Celebrating and sharing joy is simply another way of expressing gratitude. 


As we drive away down the dusty road, past cows and chickens, I smile and make a mental toast - “Three cheers for the newlyweds and to their wonderful friends too!”