·                     Wednesday, 30 November 2005

Fighting a Cold with a Good Book

There are perks to being in battle with a bad cold; you can generally ready with impunity since you cannot do much else really.  It is a good excuse anyway.


I am well enough really, but still not seeing myself clearly as God’s perfect child, which know from my Christian Science upbringing to be the Truth of the matter. 


Tonight is English Club and there are preparations to make, yet I keep getting drawn back into a book I picked up at the Stone Baboon (café and bookstore) in Kiev: “A Sense of Place” is a compilation of interviews with great travel writers.  Michael Shapiro conducted the interviews.  Among those (15-20) included are Iowa’s own Bill Bryson, Paul Theroux (who was kicked out of Peace Corps Malawi years ago), Isabel Allende with her troubled history, Rick Steves, Arthur Frommer, Redmond o”Hanlon. 


I envy Shapiro his job; what a pleasure to spend hours with these intrepid individual and to probe their thoughts on their lives, their craft and their muses.   I keep reading, pen in hand, annotating the margins with cryptic, undecipherable observations and endlessly underlining significant and not so significant stuff.  (I cannot seem to read without a pen in hand.)


I pried myself away from the book when I finished the chapter on Bill Bryson.  While I am not a big fan of his writing, I find him to be so appealingly Iowan (though he left Des Moines many years ago and has made England home for many years of his life).  I identify with his remarks and found that my responses to the questions presented were almost exactly the same.  Are we products of the culture, or is it something in the Iowa water system?  


The interviews are a bit uneven, but it engages me, stimulates me.  I am glad to have it in my collection.


The emphasis on travel reminds me of a travel dream I would like to make a reality someday (perhaps in the summer of 2007 when this Peace Corps adventure is likely to come to an end and we have yet to take up the reigns on some other occupation).  For many years I have had a quiet dream of walking across northern Spain on the path to Santiago de Compostella.  This is a pilgrimage route.  When I first heard of it, I knew it was something I would like to do.  The seed was planted and has taken root.  Will it continue to grow?  Will I nurture it, cultivate it?


Sanitation Day at the Library

Mark just came home, unexpectedly early – kicked out actually! 


Today, the last day of the month, marks Sanitation Day at the library.  This is the day the library is cleaned.  The doors are closed to the public and each person cleans their area and then community areas are tackled.  Windows get washed, the courtyard policed, floors scrubbed and so forth.  There are maintenance people for daily tasks, but most of this work is accomplished by the entire staff.   


The day ends with pay checks for everyone!


·                     Tuesday, 29 November 2005

I May be Just the Cleaning Lady, but I Have the Best Cook Around! 

Mark is quite the cook.  This works well since I seem to be more inclined to clean and do laundry than to actually prepare meals.  Some of it is conditioning actually, but it is a good division of labor.


There is a pan of gnocchi waiting to be cooked up for dinner tonight.  Mark used left over potatoes to make them last night.  After he finished in the kitchen, he sat down at his computer and decided to detail the process to share with other PCVs. 


In a country where there are potatoes in abundance, gnocchi really should be in everyone’s repertoire of meals.


He tapped away at his computer for quite a while and then let me read his efforts.  I read it aloud and enjoyed the rhythm of his words.   He integrated tales about his father and incidents in his life into the text.  His good humor and playful attitude make the writing alive.  It is clear he enjoys the processes well as the finished product.  


It interests me how each person can approach the same task with the same tools and still end up with something that reflects their own unique personality or attitude.   Whether it is making gnocchi, writing a recipe, or even cleaning a house, when the task is complete, the personal touch of the artisan is evident. 


Tonight there will be gnocchi, lovingly prepared and I am guessing, it will be artfully presented too.  Mark will be mindful of the details, as he always is.


I have a clipping (yellowed) which once hung on my refrigerator in SC, and is now tucked inside the cover of my address book.  It says: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”  (Winston Churchill)


This cleaning lady has some laundry to lovingly attend to. 


·                     Monday, 28 November 2005

Monday, at last. 


I apply myself to cleaning up the clutter and dirt that accumulates from a weekend at home. 


Though I generally stay on top of the dishes, washing things as I cook, every dish in the kitchen was dirty before I even ate my breakfast this morning.  Remnants of the weekend cooking spree were everywhere.  The floor was littered with debris – a trashcan overflowing, muddy boots by the door, a raisin and some oats on the carpet, a bit of dirt from a re-potted plant, a pile of tissue beside my nest on the couch, and stacks of books and papers on every flat surface in our tiny domain, some clothes littering the floor.  Sigh.


The activity was actually good. Since the cupboard was empty of dishes, I washed it inside and out and then washed dishes, did some laundry, swept floors and carpets, scrubbed the kitchen floor, washed the window and moved on to the water closet.  I just kept moving.


Yesterday was a down day – I fought and lost to a cold.  I simply sat on the couch wrapped in a wool blanket, a scarf around my neck, curled up with a book.  I sipped lots of tea and abused my delicate nose using “bumaga tyalet” (harsh Ukrainian toilet paper – brown with a texture like crepe paper) to honk and blow.  I was pretty miserable company with my burning eyes, sore throat and runny nose and intermittent sneezing fits.


I did finish the latest Nabokov book (“The Real Life of Sebastian Knight) and I also read another novel in one, long sitting: “Death and Penguin” by Andrey Kurkov.  Good reads both.  Good diversion from my misery too.


Mark steered clear of me most of the day.  He occasionally threw me a few scraps and brought me tea.  I tried not to snarl at him much.


Saturday we had a rather delightful day (a tranquil day negotiating the transfer of the cold, which belonged to Mark earlier this week).  We took a wheeled cart across town and did our belated Thanksgiving Day shopping.  The wheeled cart was in anticipation of hauling home a large turkey and a pumpkin.  No easy feat on foot! 


The weather was remarkable – warm, bright, almost a festive note around town as fur coats and hats came off.  We managed to outfit ourselves to prepare a feast and headed home to begin the cooking. 


The pumpkins in Ukraine resemble odd green melons rather than the lovely orange ones we cultivate in the USA.  We recognized the pumpkins at arket because they were cut in half and the orange meaty insides clued us in to the fact they were indeed pumpkins. 


At home, we popped the pumpkin halves into the tiny oven for a few hours to soften it up for mashing.   While the pumpkin baked, Mark stuffed the large bird (which cost us approx 4 days pay!) and innovated a baking arrangement.  Since we do not have a suitable pan and Ukrainian ovens are not as large as what we are accustomed to in America, we had to be creative.   (People cook differently here; no large chunks of meat…culture and economic factors come into play, I guess.).  The oven has no gauge on it and seems to either be on or off.  Our bird filled the oven with no room to spare.  No aluminum foil here – another American luxury which can be had for a price, but is not commonly used or available here. 


While bird baked, we whiled away the late afternoon watching the televised version of the Holodomor activities in Kiev (see earlier journal notes for more).  The candle lighting ceremony was moving.  We continued to watch television as documentaries, films, photos, interviews diaries, and anything else concerning this act of genocide where shared with a public hungry for facts.  It was rather strange preparing for our holiday Thanksgiving feast  and simultaneously watching all this footage on starvation…


The oven worked overtime Saturday.  We initially turned it on around noon and finally turned it off around 8 at night when the beautiful pumpkin pie came out of the oven.   The oven burns bottled gas and the fumes make my eyes and nose burn and water.  I am sure that some of my problems on Sunday stem from the effects of the gas. 


Now the refrigerator is stocked with bags of sliced turkey.  Today we will have hot turkey sandwiches for dinner.  Yum!  Today I am starting to feel better.


Maybe there will be some E-mail from friends and family tonight!  (The library access has been down since early last week…)   


·                     Sunday, 27 November 2005

“…Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat! Please put a penny in the old man’s hat…” I sing as I make my way around the flat on the bright November day. 


My favorite part of the Christmas holidays is caroling!  Back in the Iowa of my youth, we would often straggle home from late November and December basketball games in small groups, singing Christmas songs in the falling snow  as we walked home.  We often organized actual caroling parties, where we made up for in enthusiasm, what we did not have in talent as we sang verse after verse of our favorite holiday songs. 


After a snowy walk and lots of singing, we would warm up in someone’s kitchen where we sipped hot cocoa with marshmallows and munched on warm, crunchy, buttery cinnamon toast.


I do not expect our Christmas holidays to be very traditional since the holiday is not really celebrated the same way here in Ukraine, but I hope we get to sing! 


WISH LIST (There’s Also Some Stuff on our Web Site):

Candy canes, red ribbon, garland & a few holiday decorations: We will host a holiday party for English Club so we will try to decorate festively and it would be nice to send home candy canes with guests and with a bit of ribbon tied to them they make good tree decorations too!  (The locals decorate a holiday tree, but they do it on New Year’s Eve and Father Frost brings gifts.


Little, fun stuff we can give away: It is nice on the train or at events to have some small things to give to adults or children – bandanas, bookmarks, postcards of home, lapel pins, Americana, just small items that are easy to carry.  Our English Club will be conducting a camp this summer and will probably do a Library Day Camp too so we will need small, fun stuff for prizes and activities…I wish we had a Dollar Store here!  8-)  People are delighted to receive our business cards even!


Shirts for Mark:  Mark could really use some size XL button-up-the-front shirts: plain and darker colors.  (He wears festive ties so plain shirts are better!)  He could also use some short-sleeve sports shirts for work next summer when it is hot and humid.  FYI: hand washing is very hard on shirts – the color seems to vanish rapidly…must be the soap or the water.  Mark’s birthday is in February so keep shirts in mind for the future too.


Marshmallows!  It would be fun to have some for hot cocoa!


DVDS!  This is a nice way to while away cold winter weekend nights.  We were really bummed to discover that our “Fiddler on the Roof” DVD has vanished!  That makes three DVDs that seem to have disappeared (I only brought about 6 DVD!) from my bags…sigh.  The author of the original story for Fiddler is the Ukrainian Mark Twain!  It is written about the near Kiev.   Here’s a couple more DVDs we would definitely enjoy…

  1. Fiddler on the Roof
  2. Shop Girl
  3. March of the Penguins
  4. Narnia (The NEW version)
  5. Pride and Prejudice (the NEW version)
  6. Some of those Dollar Store TV/movie episodes
  7. Anything really…


Stuff for Byron: If I were stateside, I would be making boxes for Byron. I like to send some hard Christmas candy (he like ribbon candy, satin pillows, anise and horehound drops and fruit cake.)  I usually send a few small ornaments and foolish stuff.  I send seeds and paperback novels.  He can always use more socks, underwear, t-shirts and handkerchiefs – he shares any surplus/bounty with young men who are in need, so a variety of sizes/styles is a good idea.  Most people are size Medium or smaller.  Someone will wear them!  (In his last letter, he mentioned getting some socks and underwear from the PCV who is leaving and he passed them along to a couple very grateful kids.) 


·                     Saturday, 26 November 2005: Holodomor Remembrance Day

All sorrows can be borne if you tell a story about them.

- Karen Blixen




·                     Friday, 25 November 2005: Miranda-Panda-Roo’s Birthday!

Sad news in my last batch of e-mail:

My cousin’s significant other (7 years together) was killed in a highway accident a week go today.


I spent most of my summer at my cousin’s home.  I know this incident will take a significant toll and yet, she will move forward. 


Dealing with death and dying and denial is difficult.


Saying an unexpected goodbye is never easy - so many things left unsaid. 


Though I only met Johnny a few times, I heard tales about him that made me laugh. He made my cousin laugh too, and for that, I am grateful.


Johnny is (was) a large man with an infectious enthusiasm for life.  He seemed to always have a vision about how things should be and certainly was not one to take things lying down.  He loved animals and despite an appearance that might make some people wary, he was a gentle man.  One look at him as he handled his dog would tell you what kind of heart this bear-of-a-man had.


He left his mark on people in many ways, both as a friend, and also, quite literally, as a talented tattoo artist.      


I will carry a picture of him in my mind as he was at the recent Minnesota Renaissance Festival – a hearty man in his prime, enjoying the beauty of a bright September day in a place that was very special to him among people who gave him pleasure.


Far away from my home here in Ukraine, my cousin is walking through the difficult days that follow on the tail of a tragedy.  There are no words of comfort.  There is no healing. 


But there are memories to share; memories that keep a spirit alive.  I hope my cousin is sharing those tales with her family and friends as she struggles through the days ahead.


No E-Mail Access & No One is Home to Answer the Phone…

Mark arrived home with no e-mail to download onto my system…the library is often late paying their bills so the Internet access is cut off…I had looked forward to reading some Thanksgiving greetings and messages.  It just hasn’t seemed like Thanksgiving.  It will be next week before I can upload and send any e-mail….


Just after dark, we hiked across town in the intermittent sprinkles to call the birthday girl, Miss Miranda.  That mission ended in minor frustration.  Three numbers dialed and no answers at the H. household….sigh.  We tried to call Mark’s Dad – no answer there either.


The post office stop was rewarding: a good letter from Jeys Mawingo!  I read it aloud under the street lights as we walked down Lenin Street.  Mark collected huge yellow maple leaves to decorate our belated Thanksgiving table with.



·                     Thursday, 24 November 2005: THANKSGIVING DAY (USA)

Don't be concerned about being disloyal to your pain by being joyous.

- Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan
Alchemical Wisdom

Back in America, my homeland, it is Thanksgiving Day.  It is a time of abundance, feasting, sharing the joys of family life and giving thanks for all the blessings for which we often fail to express gratitude.  My family and friends there are stuffing huge turkeys, rolling out piecrusts, laughing, sipping wine and sharing memories of other Thanksgiving Days.  It is pleasant to think about this tradition.  It is right to give thanks and to rejoice.  


Here in Ukraine, it is simply another workday.


My husband, a Peace Corps Volunteer, dons his heavy winter coat, kisses me goodbye and heads out the door to meet the challenges of another day. 


I am preoccupied with heavy thoughts about the country we currently call home.  I pour myself a cup of coffee and sit down at the kitchen table, where it is my habit to start my day by reading a few pages of Newsweek.  My mind is elsewhere this morning.


This past week there has been much in the local news detailing the secret horrors of Holodomor, the  1932-1933 genocide of Ukrainians, orchestrated by Stalin.  Right here in the “Breadbasket of Europe” (a phrase I recall from my elementary school geography classes back in the “Breadbasket of America”)   11,000,000 (eleven million) men, women and children starved to death.  While the rest of the world ate Ukrainian produce, the farmers themselves were dying at a rate estimated at 33,000 (thirty-three thousand) a day!   


These deaths were not caused by drought or acts of nature.  These people starved to death in the midst of plenty, as a result of Stalin’s policies and procedures.  The very farmers that produced the crops wasted away and died alongside their children.  The scandal was buried along with their bodies.


While friends and family in the USA are preparing for more holiday festivities, this Saturday in Kiev, the capital city of Ukraine, there will be a memorial service.  33,000 (thirty-three thousand) candles will light up St Sophia’s Square. (Historians believe 33,000 people died in Ukraine each

day at the height of the genocidal-famine in the spring of 1933).  Each candle is a dramatic reminder of the 11,000,000 who actually died. (Try to imagine 11,000,000 candles burning – the crime is so unspeakable.)    


It is only since Ukraine established itself as a separate nation (1992) that this terrible story has really come to light.  This story has been hidden from the world.  The shocking facts are available now.


One of every four Ukrainians starved to death right here in the breadbasket of Europe and no one intervened or even acknowledged what was going on.  In fact, people around the globe denied the truth of the whispered rumors. 


The tales of Holodomor mesmerize me. How did the world close its eyes to this tragedy?       


Now a struggling democracy, Ukraine still battles with issues we American’s cannot begin to understand.  The community we live in had no heat for five years during the late 1990’s when hyperinflation and bank failures nearly destroyed this country.  Members of our local English Conversation Club tell us of sleeping in their fur coats and hats to keep warm at night during those years.


Despite forward leaps (represented by last year’s Orange Revolution), there are still many issues yet to be resolved here including a significant problem with AIDS/HIV, human trafficking, corruption, health issues and economic problems, but today, on a day those of us from USA feast and count our blessings, this contrast seems even more surreal.  


I try to shake off these sobering thoughts and pick up the Newsweek magazine.  As I sip my morning coffee and leaf through the pages, my eyes are suddenly riveted to the headline “Freedom is Not Enough,” by Joshua Hammer (14 November 2005).  He spells out a tale of current day food crisis in the small African nation of Malawi. 


Malawi, the country my brother, a former Peace Corps Volunteer, resides and has happily called home since the mid 1980s, is struggling to feed its people. 


I read a tale of people starving.


The article explores the facts behind the cycles of famine that haunt the people of Malawi.  Among the issues cited, Mr. Hammer references scandalous corruption – politicians selling grain reserves at huge profits and investing in luxury hotels at a time when the country is also burdens by devastating drought.    


People are starving to death, right now in Malawi (and other places – the article says food aid is needed for 10,000,000 in Africa alone), yet the world does little or nothing.


I puzzle over how it is, on this Thanksgiving Day 2005, that I find myself heart-to-heart with this issue.  I am living among people who have survived a heinous crime and my own brother lives among people who are also victims of similar crimes: people allowing people to starve to death. 


Yet on the other side of the world, people feast and most do nothing.   Many simply close their eyes.  When the feasting is over and the thanks have been said, it is time to demonstrate that gratefulness.  It is time to devise a plan of action.


When we step away from the groaning board, we must find tangible ways to share our bounty with the world outside our own front door.  We must be proactive in finding long-term solutions.  We must move forward with joy and thanksgiving, in the true spirit of abundance, but our actions should not simply be reactive nor should they spring from guilt.  We should cultivate a culture of caring and concern.  We must stimulate one another and avoid the trap that complacency sets for us.


We have an opportunity and a responsibility to act, not react.  We must share our heart songs…why are people starving when we have so much to give?


We cannot tolerate the corruption that leads to using food as a weapon.


The coffee in my cup, has grown cold, but my mind continues to ponder these issues.


(Following are short extracts from local news sources – do a Google search and you will find many more facts and articles.)




The Holodomor - "Famine-Terror Death for Millions" 1932-1933

Worldwide "Light-A-Candle" Campaign

Saturday, November 26, 2005

4 PM


Brief summary extracted from newspaper articles:

November marks one of the greatest tragedies in human history, when 7 to 10 million members of farm families which had just brought in record harvests, were deliberately starved to death in the breadbasket of Europe by the Soviet regime in 1932-33.

 The Stalinist regime perpetrated the Great Famine/Holodomor by making

food illegal in Ukraine's countryside. Red Brigades under the direction of

Lazar Kaganovich seized grain, prevented the starving population from

leaving the countryside and then sent the food to the West for export. This

was done to eliminate resistance to the forced collectivization of agriculture

and to destroy Ukraine's national identity.


45 millions of people suffered hunger and as many as 11 million died of starvation, were shot dead or died during the deportation. The exact numbers is unknown.

After the fall of the Soviet Union 12 years ago however many authentic
records were discovered in the archives and published, accounts of the
Russian communist party and of the Bolshevistic government agencies, but
also secret documents of the German Foreign Office. In accordance with
today's estimation over eleven million people died because they opposed



·                     Wednesday, 23 November 2005

The Train Trip Home from Kiev…

We shared our kupe with a mother and her 14-year old daughter.  The father was in a separate kupe.  They were enroute to Russia.  At the end of the 24-hour ride to Kerch, they boarded a marchutka to the port and took a ferry across the strait where they would board another train, bound for Georgia. 


The father was born in Chechnya.  He learned English when he was in secondary school (probably 15 years ago) and was delighted to communicate with us.  Our communications skills in each other’s respective language were fairly evenly matched.  That is to say, limited. 


But, he was eager to talk.


He would wrinkle his brow and search for the words he needed to convey his thoughts. 


The pleasantries that phrase books provide for encounters on public transportation are quickly exhausted.  People in this part of the world are curious to know about life in America.  Our linguistic muscles are stretched and raw after a few hours of intense “conversation” that actually include pantomime and play-acting to relay some of the answers when actual words fail. 


As usual, the conversation was initiated with an offer to share food.  The blue-eyed Russian from Chechnya tapped on our car door and invited us to breakfast with him.  He placed an offering of homemade cucumber pickles, slices of sausage and dark rye bread on our tiny table and sat himself down on the seat beside me. 


At first, his attempts at English were hesitant, shy.  Later we learned he seldom had opportunities to practice his skills.  He was clearly delighted to speak to us and had questions and concerns far more complicated than any of us could ever tackle with our limited command of each other’s language.


We had no food to add to this breakfast repast, but Mark, in a true moment of cross-cultural genius, pulled out a small bottle of pepper vodka he had stashed in his baggage.  In moments, he splashed a bit of vodka into water tumblers and proposed a toast to our new friends.  The Russian’s eyes glistened as he raised his glass and iterated a lengthy toast.  (I looked on and mentally contemplated whether there are actually special toasts appropriate to vodka with breakfast.  I also considered whether vodka at breakfast would seem inappropriate at all in this part of the world!)


The toast forged a friendship and perhaps, lubricated the machinery that allows people to speak more easily.  The two men spoke of politics and economics, business and life.  Any self-consciousness over language disappeared quickly.


Our interactions with this man, and others, provide a window into a life we could not really imagine, but one consistent with things we have read.  


Nothing can prepare an American traveler for the kinds of direct questions people will ask.  I am never well prepared when the conversation turns, as it usually will, to money and opportunity in America.  “How much money do you make? How many cars do you have?” they will ask point blank.  “Do you have a machine that washes dishes?  How much does your computer cost?”  And one even harder to answer, “Why are you here?”


People here often believe, or want to believe that life in America is like going to heaven; streets lined with money trees and paved with gold.  Many Ukrainians emigrated to the USA, especially during the last years of the Soviet era.   The term diaspora is often used.  The 20th Century has challenged Ukraine in ways we cannot imagine.    


There is sadness over dying traditions and families torn apart in a search for a better life, in this case, better life meaning enough money to live, to have some of the comforts that television and movies introduce. 


I listen and hear some regret in the man’s voice.  I want to reassure him somehow that he is missing nothing by remaining here where family and friends are.  I think of the lyrics of a Pete Seeger (or perhaps Woody Guthrie) tune:


If you see me passin’ by and you sit and you wonder why

And you wish that you were a rambler too,

Nail your shoes to the kitchen floor,

Lace ‘em up and bar the door

And thank your stars for the roof that’s over you.


And I can’t help but wonder where I’m bound, where I’m bound,

And I can’t help but wonder where I’m bound.   


I also remember the look in my own father’s eyes when that wanderlust would awaken and stimulate a long litany of questions regarding choices and possibilities.  My father never seemed to become morose, but there is a very private feeling when one reveals their dream of venturing out into the world.  How different his life would have been!  A father of five, a man who valued family above all else, could hardly take off for South America or explore the back country of Alaska, but in his dreams there were opportunities there and he needed to consider these adventures from time to time. 


I listened as Mark and this gentle blue-eyed Chechnyan spoke. 


So many feelings run through me as I consider this delightful encounter.


Before we go our separate ways, our Russian friend makes point of saying he plans to renew his long-neglected study of English when he returns to his home.    


Twenty-four hours on a train can speed by given the right companions.     


·                     Tuesday, 22 November 2005: ANNIVERSARY OF ORANGE EVOLUTION & DAY JFK WAS SHOT

One of the advantages (or handicaps) of not speaking a language well is we are isolated (somewhat) from news and events of the world.  Though we have been in Kiev for several days, we are not knowledgeable about the events planned to mark this anniversary of the Orange Revolution. 


Over the weekend, we observed bleachers being built at several points along the main avenue (Kreshchatyk), so activities are planned.  We are southbound on a train so will not know what took place.  The sentiment generally seems to be one of disenchantment with the current leadership.  This may be attributed to overly optimistic expectations regarding change.  My assessment of Ukrainians is they often have a rather pessimistic streak, but despite this characteristic, those who supported the current President anticipated sweeping, dramatic changes. 


Along with disappointment with the timelines, there is also some grumbling about how the president is conducting his personal life too. 


I find it wise (and fairly easy) to disassociate with politics. 


No doubt in several weeks, when our copy of Newsweek arrives, we will read a short, synthesized version of the events of the day and perhaps a perspective on how things are going. 


When we arrived last March, the color orange was evident; perhaps it is simply no longer a popular fashion statement.


·                     Monday, 21 November 2005

Last Night We Stayed at Prolisok…

Mark gave another presentation to the new trainees at Prolisok, the sanitarium just outside of Kiev, where PC accomplishes group trainings.  True to the name (Prolisok means snowdrop), we arrived to snow flurries, the first of the long winter season. 


The facility is gradually being restored.  Since my last visit, in April, the lobby has been renovated, old windows and doors replaced with energy efficient ones that allow more light to pour in, yet keep the space comfortable and breeze-free. 


I hope the renovations will eliminate the beds currently in use at this facility.  The beds are definitely a holdover from the Soviet era.  They are very narrow, but the discomfort is from the mattresses, which are only about two inches thick.  Under the thin mattress (mat?) are wires stretched between either side of the bed.  Many of the beds sag, sag, sag while others have been firmed up by adding boards under the mattress.   If the occupant of the bed is taller than 6 feet, they will have additional remarks concerning length of the bed.


These narrow, uncomfortable beds are not restricted to Prolisok.  The beds at the hotel in Kiev seem to have been purchased from the same distributor (in Soviet times there was only one distributor!).  In our double room at both hotels, we found two narrow, hard wooden beds lined up on opposite walls of the room.  We have yet to sleep in a double bed in this country.


The hotel, is also under renovations, so perhaps the beds will be replaced during our tenure here in Ukraine.  Our sleeping arrangements on the train are more comfortable than our experiences at either of the afore-mentioned hotels.


Of course, there are hotels with wonderful accommodations in this country.  We are, of course, not tourists and we are not paying the rates a tourist may pay.  A tourist may stay in very pleasant accommodations here for $30-$50 a night.  In fact, at the hotel in Kiev, we perched on the edge of our narrow “cots” watching a tiny TV that advertised beautiful, well-appointed rooms in the very hotel we were staying in.   


During our host family stay in the village, we were exposed to a hotel that was clearly intended for tourists; and recently in Kerch, we toured a recently renovated hotel that had rather luxurious accommodations at very reasonable rates for paying guests. 


One of the lessons Peace Corps service offers is the opportunity to visit a country and live like the local people live. 


The contrast between expatriate life, tourist life and PCV life is dramatic. 


For most Americans visiting Ukraine, it would be easy to visit Kiev and not be aware of how economically challenged this country really is. 


·                     Sunday, 20 November 2005

Last night we dined at an Italian restaurant with several other PCV couples. I find some humor in observing a group of Americans using Russian to order Italian foods from a waiter who speaks Ukrainian.   The waiter actually was quite pleased to demonstrate his English speaking skills.  Many of the people dining in this restaurant are, in fact, speaking English. 


Kiev is a cosmopolitan city where one can find most anything one wants, for a price. 


Like many capital cities, there is an interesting mix of foreigners present and they often congregate in the same places though they may, in fact, have widely diverse interests, experiences and backgrounds.  Ambassadors rub elbows with back packers…


The PC office is set in a neighborhood teeming with life.  It is near the Opera House, cathedrals, the University and several embassies.  The botanical gardens are near by and so are monasteries, war memorials, and the most fashionable street in the city and all the elegant shops associated with it.  There are museums and malls, the circus (permanent), stadiums, and all manner of places to dine or drink.  There are more trees and shrubs and flowers than in any European city, so the streets are lined with chestnut trees and plants.  There are street venders everywhere too.  You can buy anything on the street!  There are photographers who will entice you to let an owl or a monkey perch on your shoulder while you smile for the camera.


The best part is the street music!  On the way back to the hotel, we stop in the metro to watch couples dancing.  The accordion player in the metro station had gathered a crowd of hundreds of dancers.  The dancers, mostly older men and women, dance enthusiastically and with abandon.  I laugh, clap, and delight to see people so willing to have fun.  They wear their furs hats and coats as they whirl and twirl, making the metro stop into a ballroom. 


This is a wonderful city and I glad to be here to observe it all.



·                     Saturday, 19 November 2005

At the married couples group, there was much discussion about experiences during the host family stay.  Many of the PCVs indicated they felt it was not necessary for them to stay in a host family setting because as a married couple, they had lived on their own for many years and consequently needed additional privacy and space.  The consensus seemed to be that only young singles really needed the second host family setting to make the transition to life at site. 


Now, after the fact, I wish I had shared an opinion. 


The initial experience of living with a host family is definitely challenging and eye opening.  As married couples (and Americans), we are accustomed to have space, privacy and autonomy.  In our American life, we do not usually have several generations living is such small quarters.  Here it is fairly common for people to live side by side in close quarters. 


The second experience of sharing a home with a host family is also a challenge for many of the same reasons.  It also confirms that the first experience and the related challenges are not simply an aberration. 


It is an opportunity to see how life really is in this country.  While each couple or each volunteer has a separate experience, I believe that the frustrations and challenges of living in a small space with limitations on autonomy can help us all have a better picture of what it is like to be a Ukrainian.  We experience first hand the frustrations of dealing with limits that we are unaccustomed to in the USA.  Through the host family experience, we gain firsthand a better understanding of how people make decisions and what drives their choices.    


This is an opportunity to build skills and to observe first hand how life works here.  The insight gained from watching a family operate is invaluable, not only from the cultural angle, but also as a way of learning about the economy and politics of the area. 


It is less about the transition and learning coping skills, but more about learning who these people are that we will live among.  The insights garnered throughout this challenging apprenticeship period can be the basis for doing effective needs assessments and designing project plans that will be sustainable because they matter to the community of people served.


This aspect of the host family issue was not discussed and though it may be obvious to some trainees, I think many may overlook it.  The three months with host family at site can be, should be, a considered as an apprenticeship and really is a wonderful tool for making the whole PCV experience more meaningful and more effective. 


Yes, it is a pain, but growing pains are part of most ventures.        


·                     Friday, 18 November 2005

Thursday afternoon and night and all morning Friday on the Kerch-Kiev train.


We walk from the train station through a winter wonderland.  The first snowfall of the season welcomes us to this beautiful city.  The streets are filled with people sporting elegant furs and dramatic boots. 


After 24 hours on the train, we are glad to walk and to breathe fresh air.


I spent my train-bound hours engaged in re-reading a classic: “Anna Karenina.”


At the PC office, we are once again trapped indoors in a stuffy room.  The PCV lounge is filled with animated trainees who have returned from site visit and are eagerly sharing experiences with one another.  Bags, backpacks and coats litter the floors and cover all the chairs and couches.  Lines to use computers are long.    


I step into the TV lounge where the bookshelves are.  Here I find several PCVs who are repacking overstuffed bags and discussing the strangeness that comes with completing service and returning to the USA as a RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer). 


I listen to conversations from the PCTs and RPCVs as I peruse the bookshelves.  


The bookshelves house books donated by PCVs.  The general rule is to exchange one book for each you take, but it is understood that when you depart you will no doubt contribute many volumes since the weight allowance for returning stateside is no lager than for those who are arriving here.  There are always piles of clothes, books, movies and knickknacks that simply do not make the final cut when the  RPCVs struggle to downsize their cumbersome bags at the last minute. 


This is a wonderful time to visit the bookshelves.  (The new trainees are already overloaded with new acquisitions from site, so they have no room in their baggage and pose no competition for the excellent books available.)  I spend a happy hour picking through the volumes and settle on a stack to haul back to Kerch. 


Meanwhile Mark has commandeered a computer and is trying to upload our newly revised webpage.  We made major revisions to the site and streamlined it as well as made it more attractive and used friendly.  I am eager to share some photos of our neighborhood with family and friends.   We also reworked the CALEB Library Project site and added some duck tales from Ed the Duck (Mark is having fun with that!). 


Unfortunately, the uploading does not go well. 


It does not go well at all. 


After several attempts and several failures, the site is now a real patchwork of old and new.  We are finally locked out.  Mark is unhappy and we are disappointed. 


With presentations to give to the PCTs tomorrow, Mark has no time or energy to deal with this challenge today, so we elect to escape the PC offices and metro to the outdoor market.


First, we walk through the city and visit the artisans market that wends down the hillside behind a beautiful church in the upper city o the river at the base.  There are delightful and beautiful handcrafted items to admire, but we do not buy anything.  This area is beautiful and it is enough to just walk and observe and enjoy. 


Mid-afternoon we board the metro and are dropped off at the huge outdoor bazaar where we spend the afternoon wandering through the hundreds of market booths devoted to computer toys, games, movies, and equipment.  Despite the snow and cold, the bazaar is thronged with people happily shopping and socializing. 


Later we visit an indoor store (an actual Computer City Store!) and wander through a shopping mall for a while.


The city is so alive and beautiful.  Tomorrow Mark has presentations and we will attend a married PCVs meeting to discuss relevant issues and to socialize with like-minded PVC.


·                     Thursday, 17 November 2005

Laughter is inner jogging.

-Norman Cousins

English Club last evening – sleeper car enroute to Kiev this evening.


I am thinking about a review of a J. Didion book I look forward to reading. 


The title, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” is a clue to the contents.  She details of loss and grief during the year following the death of her spouse.  (Reviews include the fact that she also lost her only child, an adult daughter, just months after she completed the memoir.)


The past few days I have been working on upgrades to the CALEB Library Project web site, so my thoughts turn to my own feelings of loss and grief.  There is a power and a strange joy that comes with efforts to come to terms with death and dying.  Since Caleb’s death, I am able to step outside my own small world in a way that transcends anything I was capable of before I went through this unkind lesson in loss.  There is more purity in my joy and my appreciation of small things is much grander.  I find connections I might never have considered. 


I have earned much about love and there are no words to frame those lessons.


I wish I could read my journals dealing with the months immediately following Caleb’s death.   Those journals disappeared in a computer incident last year.  The loss of the narratives of those years was/is painful too.  But I know that the “fading, finite forms” (as Mary Baker Eddy says) give way to a grander panorama. 


It is the lesson that is important, not the steps taken to achieve it. 


These thoughts may seem abstract or lie some kind of mind-game one plays to find comfort, but that is not the truth.  It is hardly possible to transcribe even a glimmer of Truth in mere mortal words, yet Truth and Life and Love grace my life in abundance. 


And for that I am grateful.



·                     Wednesday, 16 November 2005

Kindness does wonderful things to a face.

- Dixie Doyle

My Approach to Journaling…

I approach these moments at my computer as catharsis.  I simply write for a minimum of ten minutes.  Whatever flows through my fingertips and spans the screen is what becomes my daily post. 


I journal in a stream-of-consciousness fashion.  I write without editing (though I may run the spell-check on occasion.) 


The words and sentences simply flow and the thoughts that appear are sometimes a surprise to me, even though I am the one originating them.  Even when I detail an event in our lives, there is no conscious editing. 


I seem to think in sentences, though often I resort to phrases and use ellipses too often to bridge some digression or indicate some extract.


I find a connection between my morning routine and the thoughts that flow through my mind as I do the simple chores and tasks we all must do to move forward with our lives.  Often I will wake with thoughts I would like to share or perhaps later, with hands in hot, soapy water at the kitchen sink, I will ponder some idea or incident, but rarely, if ever, do those essays or random ideas make it to the journal. 


My dog-walking days with Miss Zoë (Oh how I miss Miss Z!) were filled with thoughts eager to line up on the virtual paper that my laptop provides.   And now my days of learning Russian and carving out a life in another culture provide me with many fuel for essays and conversations with others or with myself.


These daily moments at my computer, pouring out rather random thoughts, center me and help me to approach my day with more grace.  This daily ritual or routine helps me focus on who I really am.  It is a conversation with myself really. 


No Editing…I am - I Write…

My fingers fly across the keys…who I am pours out on the screen…who I think I am pours out on the screen…who I want to be pours out on the screen…Perhaps this is my version of the television reality show…


All my life, I have used writing as a way to explore who I am.  In my early-married years, spent overseas and isolated from media (pre-email, DVD or even VCRs!) and away from the distractions of life in the USA, I would pen  long letters to Mother, spilling out words and thoughts, sharing ideas.  I sometimes made rambling cassette tapes, which served the same purpose. 


The advent of the computer allowed my fingers to wing their way across the keys almost as quickly or in some cases faster than my mind realizes what is being said.    


When I decided to post my journals on our website, I was concerned the quality of my journals would suffer because of the self-consciousness, which could arise from the thought of people reading my words.   Surprisingly that does not seem to be the case. 


I have been posting my journals for several years now.  I rarely think of readers.  I simply carry on a dialogue (a monologue would be more technically accurate I guess).  I entertain myself.  (Of course, I occasionally slip into another mode where I detail the events of the day – that is not my intent here – hmmm, there is no real intent, simply to write honestly for at least ten minutes regardless of what spills out.)


While I do not think everyone would care to post their un-edited daily rambles online, I do think most people would benefit from the daily routine of writing for ten-fifteen minutes.  (Author Cameron recommends this stream of consciousness writing in her book The Artist’s Way - She calls this practice the “daily pages” and maintains it stimulates creativity)


I think any commitment has a life-changing potential. 


I think learning to commit is essential to any success.


I think mindful daily-ness and conscious routines can free one to think (or to take pleasure in simple tasks) creatively or meditatively.


I think we often fill our lives with busy-ness.  Are we afraid to really face we are?  Hmmmm…I think…


“Ms Pulver, your ten minutes are up,” interjects my nonexistent personal assistant.


“Oh, thank you.  Can you please freshen my coffee before we begin packing my bags for the train trip to Kiev?” I reply to the nonexistent aide.  What would I do without her? 


(Who am I 24-Hours later? Re: Yesterday’s Post.  I am, wiser, more tolerant and more grateful for the abundance and blessings in my life as the result of the character-building effects of dealing with no water.  And, thanks to the magical properties of the long-delayed hot shower, I am, thankfully clean, fresh and ready to face the world with a smile on my kindly face!  Who am I?  I am the joyful, grateful, perfect child of a loving God and I am counting my blessings.)  


·                     Tuesday, 15 November 2005


Who will you be in 24 hours?

- a watch ad

Hmmm, in 24 hours I will be (hope to be) showered and clean and smelling good.


Today I am disappointed and adjusting…being flexible.  I am also smelly and my scalp itches.  I want to wash my face and brush my teeth. 


The water is off.  Once gain I am caught off guard.  I have no buckets of water in reserve, so I will have to tough it out. 


Thank goodness for the cup of water left in the electric chinok (tea kettle).  Thank goodness also for the thermos of coffee I made before I realized there will be no water this morning.  I can sip coffee and fantasize about how I will use that cup of water: I can wet a washcloth and swab my morning face and hands and I can brush my teeth. 


There is a PCV joke (and jokes are often based on reality) that goes something like this:  The professor hold up a tall glass containing 200 grams of water. 


“Is the glass half empty or half full?” he asks.


“I don’t know if it’s half empty or half full, Professor, but I do know there’s enough water for a bath,” blurts a recently returned PCV.


Now that is optimism!


Who will I be in 2 hours?  I like the sound of that question.  I saw that quote in an ad in “Newsweek”. 


The phase has the ring of possibility, potential.


It reminds me that we have choices. 


We choose who we will be, by being who we choose to be.


For years I had a quote on my desk that reminded me that (paraphrased) the only thing we have control of is our attitude.  That choice is always our own and no one can take it away from us.  (Eli Weisel demonstrated this in his experiences in German prison camps during WWII. )


All this from one line advertising a fancy watch, but there is more…


Abraham Lincoln said “People are about as happy as they choose to be.” 


The man from Illinois is right. but what does the Universe say about this?


Well, I actually get a daily e-mail from the Universe.  Yep.  The Universe sends me daily e-mail (visit: © www.tut.com ® )  I often read the delightful personalized postings aloud to Mark.  The e-mails always close with the following remark, which reminds us how important our choices are.  Here is what the Universe says:


Thoughts become things... choose the good ones! ®


I think I will just end on that note too. 


·                     Monday, 14 November 2005

Figuring Out Money…

We blew our budget the other day.  We each spent 50 hyrvnia ($9 each X 2) on an inexpensive winter hat!  People around us sport beautiful (and warm) fur hats which start at about 400 hyrvnia (about $75 plus) so our modest purchase seemed reasonable. 


Unfortunately, we did not stop spending.   


We also bought a 60 hyrvnia ($10) steam iron (prices range from 45 – 400 hyrvnia) and then bought two tea cups at 2.5 hyrvnia each (about 45 cents each X 2).    


(Note: To get an idea of what things cost here in Ukraine, visit Our Ukraine Adventure web page and look for the price comparison link where we are informally compiling some prices.)


Shopping here can be dangerous, especially if you convert the prices into American dollars.  I mean who can quibble over 45 cents for a teacup? 


People here actually quibble over mere kopeks (less than a cent) and we are learning to quibble to!


Unfortunately (for us), the reality is this: Mark’s entire PCV stipend amounts to about 50 hyrvnia ($9-10) a day.  Out of approximately $300 total each month, we pay about $100 for rent. The remaining money must cover our needs. 


One of the operative words in Mark’s title is VOLUNTEER.  (And the ONLY word in my title is VOLUNTEER, however my title does not come with a stipend!) 


Actually, the PCV stipend is a fair and reasonable amount, based on local conditions.


Now all this information is not designed to encourage sympathy or as a complaint.  No, I am merely putting some facts down on paper so I can get a greater appreciation for how the Peace Corps works and how we fit into the local economy. 


This ramble is about developing a perspective on the local economy.


PCVs receive stipends, which are designed to permit them to live at the standard of host-national people in similar positions in the local economy.  The stipend is generally slightly more generous since PCVs do not have the same network of family and friends and other resources to allow them to function completely on that limited amount. (For example, many local people live with family, have gardens, can food, etc in order to stretch their finances and they also have mastered skills to survive in the local economy – who to trust, where to shop, etc) 


Of course, it is a challenge to PCVs to learn to budget and be more frugal, but the challenge really seems to be compounded when PCVs continue to convert prices into American dollars. 


Prices for many things here do not seem very high when you consider that in the USA, many people earn more than $10 an hour.    Consider that Mark’s reasonable stipend is only about $10 a day and that should, and really does, cover food, housing, etc here in Ukraine.    


We are learning to think in terms of hyvnia rather than converting things into dollars and cents. 


At the fancy supermarket it is easy to “…but it’s only $2…” ourselves into a whole lot of hrvnia. Two dollars is 1/5 of the daily stipend BEFORE we pay the rent!  ($2 = about 10 hyrvnia from a daily allotment of 50 hyrvnia.)


Since my status as “PCV” changed to simply “V” we receive only Mark’s stipend.  We shall see if two can live as cheaply as one.  It starts with careful planning and a change in paradigm when it comes to managing money.


All this discussion is preliminary to understanding how people live here. 


People actually quibble over kopeks (1 hyrvnia = 18-20 cents so 1 kopek = less than a penny…) when they buy vegetables, they use cut up newspaper for toilet paper, they turn out the lights (and don’t turn lights on!), they only plug in the hot water heater when they prepare to take their weekly shower.  People SMS messages and seldom actually use their cell phones to speak and they actually know how much per kb it costs to download stuff online because the Internet Café charges them for it. 


One more example: in preparing paperwork for a grant for the city library, Mark and the director had to determine the cost of electricity to accommodate the computers.  Much effort went into determining the cost of one watt of electricity for a three-year period. 


A recent trip to the post office was eye opening – we mailed a Russian version of a Harry Potter book to a librarian stateside.  By Ukrainian standards the book was expensive, but the shock for us was how much the postage was.  We spent the stipend for one whole day just to mail that book.  


Back to those Fur Hats…Some Thoughts…

I mentioned fur hats.  They are not a luxury; they are beautiful and practical in a cold climate. 


Women (and men, to a lesser extent) have donned their fur coats now (the elegant leather coats are stored until springtime).  The amazing fur hats are “out and about” now too.  These higher ticket items, along with a pair of warm, yet dramatic, (usually high-heeled) boots, represent a sizable expense.   They are considered an investment.  People plan for these purchases. 


In America, I think we tend to approach clothing with a “fast-food” mentality.  We often buy on impulse.   We are influenced by trends (Target) rather than fashion (think designers).  Moreover, we Americans often have several coats for various occasions and many pairs of shoes or boots and a variety of hats.   


Here people seem to invest in one or two really good items and wear them regally and with pride and joy.  At the bazaar, we see well-dressed men and women who would be equally at home in a club or at a party while in a similar situation in America we would predominantly see casual wear or sports clothes.


I have several pairs of polyester pants, which I layer with tights for added warmth.  My counterpart has one pair of excellent wool trousers. 


Of course, more than culture and economy influence shopping habits.  There are many subtle lessons to learn about priorities and making choices that reflect the abundance of life.  We will study, observe, practice and learn. 


Living within our means is a valuable character building exercise and one we have cultivated over the years.  We will learn some practical things about money and value and choices in the remaining 18 months or so that Ukraine will be home to us. 


We will continue to be grateful for the wonderful blessings that are already ours.


With practice, we will be able to balance our budget and prove that two can live as cheaply, and joyfully, as one!  (And I may even come home with one of those wonderful hats!)  



·                     Saturday, 12 November 2005

Where there is great love there are always miracles.

 - Willa Cather

The other day, I slept in a bit. 


I must have been tired because I did not hear Mark preparing to leave for his early morning appointment. 


I did not mean to sleep in.  I like to have coffee with Mark before he heads off for the day.  Somehow it seems rude to sleep in when others have to bundle up and face the morning chill and a day at work. 


When I awoke and found him gone, I felt a little guilty.


As I made my guilty way into the kitchen to see if there might just be a bit of cooling breakfast coffee in the thermos, something in the window caught my eye.  In a big bold scrawl on the steamed up kitchen window were the words: I LOVE YOU!


That extra sleep must have done me good, because I sure felt good all day long! 


·                     Friday, 11 November 2005 (Veteran’s Day)

Trying Kvas…

Kvas is a non-alcoholic beverage associated with Russia, but it is alive (that thought scares me) and available here in Ukraine. 


There’s an almost full bottle fermenting in the back of our deep, dark refrigerator. 


This story started a few weeks ago when we were wandering through the aisles of the amazing new supermarket in town and I observed stacks and stacks of plastic bottles resembling two liters of A&W Root Beer.    


The display was huge, so whatever it was, it must be popular, I reasoned.  I stood there admiring the intricate artwork on the labels of several different brands when Mark appeared at my elbow.


“That, my dear, is Kvas.  During the summer months you can buy it from venders on the street,” he said.  “Want to try it?” 


I chose a bottle with an attractive label (this works for choosing wine) and put it in our shopping basket.  I was pondering whether it would be a suitable substitute for root beer in a root beer float when Mark broke my reverie with another remark. 


“It’s made from grain,” he said.


So much for the idea of root beer floats.  Nonetheless, we purchased the kvas and considered it another opportunity for a cross-cultural experience.   


With no guidance on the matter, we decided to chill the drink before we sampled it.  I decided to do a little research on this rather obscure beverage while we waited. 


According to some travel literature I extracted from the Lonely Planet web site, kvas khlebny (bread kvas) is an ancient sweet and sour beverage. The major ingredients are rye flour and sugar.  It is popular because it is thirst quenching, and it is very healthful for the digestion.  It also benefits the human spirit.  The site continues: “Napolean himself said that the Russians defeated the French thanks to the fact they drank kvas.”


Wow!  Imagine a military success based on a beverage! 


Wow, bread kvas…hmmmm.  Well, maybe it will be good.


When the kvas was adequately chilled, Mark took two small glasses from the shelf, and like the locals, splashed a hundred grams into each glass and proffered one to me.


“Cheers!” he said with his usual smile.


“Cheers!” I repeated with less enthusiasm than Mark. 


I was thinking about drinking liquid bread with sugar mixed into it. Perhaps it is better at times to sample first and do research later, I thought.


I bravely tossed off the drink (Pey dadna – to the bottom, as they say here). 


Mark laughed when I slammed my glass to the table and grimaced.


Let’s just say, my tastes run more to root beer.


That bottle fermenting in the refrigerator?  Well, if we ever go to war with France, I guess we will be ready. 



·                     Thursday, 10 November 2005

English Club…

“Mama, why are none of our Ukrainian songs merry?” asked one of the teachers at English Club last night. 


She had spent time at a Peace Corps Summer Camp and came home with a head filled with foolish, cheerful songs typical of any American summer camp. 


“And what did your mother answer?” I asked, suddenly remembering something I read in one of the cross-cultural books provided to us by Peace Corps.  In a discussion of wedding traditions they mentioned a traditional song “Mnohaya Lita” which means “many years”.  It actually means “many happy years” the author said, but the middle word was deleted after it was decided no song could be considered Ukrainian if it contained the word “happy”! 


Before the teacher could answer, I repeated this amusing anecdote and everyone laughed and nodded their heads in agreement. 


In my experience Ukrainians love to sing their traditional songs.  I delight in this facet of Ukrainian culture.  But it seems to be true, there is an element of sadness in all the traditional songs. 


It may be because of their ties to Russia.  While Ukrainians are generally quietly optimistic people, my cross-cultural reading indicates Russians are not.  The observation in the text said Russians like to sit, talk, drink and brood while their Ukrainian cousins prefer to eat, drink and sing. 


Another example comes to mind – Ukrainian’s have poetic names for the months of the year while the Russian names are colorless and reflect the  Latin equivalents.  November in Ukrainian is lystopad (meaning: leaves are falling) while November in Russian is nayabr’ (meaning simply November).  This demonstrates cultural influences.


The residents of this community are mostly of Russian heritage yet are citizens of Ukraine.  


We talked, pondered, drank tea, ate cookies and sang a bit too.  The nuances of history, language and culture in this complex country continue to complicate any generalizations.    


The lively discussion that followed was quite interesting and ranged to many topics including, but not limited to, marriage, my military career, astrological signs, child rearing techniques, evolution, literature, death, dying and funeral traditions.  Keep in mind this collection of people, with the exception of Mark and myself, are native Ukrainians who speak Russian.  This far-reaching discussion was in English.  The 14 year old students and the 34 year old teacher as well as the others in this diverse group of participants were involved and contributing to the animated conversation and had significant mastery of terminology appropriate to all these topics.


Next week English Club will discuss food.  Of course that will lead us to many other topics too!


And maybe, maybe, we will sing a merry song!


(Note: I posted some observations about music earlier this week – please keep in mind, that post regards contemporary radio music and not traditional Ukrainian music.)


·                     Wednesday, 9 November 2005

Don't let other people's opinions burn holes in your dreams.

- Elsa Joy Bailey

The Cowboy of Kerch…

Well the Cowboy of Kerch is at the library, hard at work on some Peace Corps project. 


Mark wears a suit and tie to work everyday and most days before he leaves the flat, he dons his black Stetson and his cowboy boots. 


Mark’s cowboy hat and western boots set him apart from the community, but people smile when they see him and he smiles back.  Or maybe he smiles first.    


The boots and hat are very American symbols, a bit out of place here in Crimea, but they are also Mark’s trademark.  They make a statement.  Mark’s hat and boots are a symbol of who he is.  They tell people something about his personality, his values, the life he has lead and choices he has made.


The Cowboy persona opens some doors.  These “props” make him approachable.  People speak to him: they admire the hat; they want to try it on; they ask about the boots.  They ask about cowboys. 


They ask the Ukrainian version of “You’re not from around here are you?”


There are, of course, times when it is wise to maintain a low profile.  There are times when wearing the hat and boots would seem imprudent, indecorous or inappropriate.  Some days the hat and boots stay home.


But, as the Cowboy of Kerch says, “I am not Ukrainian and will never pass as a Ukrainian.”     


There are times to blend in and times to just be yourself.  Who you are is who you are, and it shows through no matter what you wear. 


It makes me smile when I see my Cowboy striding up the sidewalks of Kerch.



·                     Tuesday, 8 November 2005

Whatever your life's pursuit -- art, poetry, sculpture, music, whatever your occupation may be -- you can be as spiritual as clergy, always living a life of praise.

- Pir-O-Murshid Hazrat Inayat Khan
Bowl of Saki

Singing Along with the Radio…

Listening to the Ukrainian version of top-40 radio is part of my life now. 


The music that dominates the airwaves is what my husband Mark calls manufactured music.  


 “If you can call it music,” he says.  “It is synthesized….someone with a computer generates those sounds.  Is it really music?” 


The man muttering these words was a radio announcer for close to a decade.  A lecture could follow.  I turn up the radio.


Frankly, I don’t care what he thinks.  I like the music.  It makes me smile.     


The music, even their version of hip hop, sounds cheerful and bouncy.  I cannot listen long without doing a little dance.    


I try to sing along, but the lyrics often trip me up.  Those long Russian and Ukrainian words with the odd consonant and vowel combinations leave me in their wake.  I hum a lot.


Many of the songs actually adapt old familiar songs that are in English and incorporate some of the sounds and lyrics into new versions.  I hear extracts and echoes from old Boy George cuts.  I get flash backs to the disco era.


English phrases pop up in Ukrainian and Russian originals too.  Often the accents fall on the wrong syllable or the English words just are not pronounced properly, so it takes me a few listens to realize the singer is indeed singing in English. 


Nabokov’s novel “Pnin” provides a good example of a Russian speaking English but pronouncing the words in such a way that American listeners are baffled at first.  On page 59, the protagonist is frantically banging cupboard doors in the pantry when Joan walks in... 


“What are you looking for Timofey?” Joan asks.


Wiping tears from his eyes, he responds “I search, John, for viscous and sawdust,…”


Hearing (reading) Timofrey Pnin’s response may puzzle many English-speaking  people.  Note that he is not using the wrong words, but merely pronounces them in such a way that most native English speaking listeners would not know what it is he wants.   


“John” is actually Joan, but pronounced in a typically Russified manner.  The hostess, Joan is familiar with Timofey Pavlovich Pnin’s speech patterns so she knows he is searching for whiskey (viscous) and sodas (sawdust) so he can drown his sorrows. It is the pronunciation that creates the problem.


Of course, I knew it all along! 


So it is with many of the English lyrics I hear and so it is with many of the phrases I try to speak in my Anglicized Russian.      


Yes, the reverse happens too.  One of the cheery songs I especially like has a refrain that repeats the English word “bouncing, bouncing, bouncing” over and over in a pleasing pattern.  One day as I happily sang along, Mark pointed out that the word is not English, it is actually the Russian word “tanstee, tanstee, tanstee” (transliterated here) which means dancing, dancing, dancing. 


“Oh,” I said.  I decided to hum.      


When I get some time on the Internet, I will “google-up” the lyrics for several of the songs, just to verify what is actually being said.  In the meantime, I continue to listen and learn.  I hum a lot too.


·                     Monday, 7 November 2005


The Shiny New Supermarket in Town…More on Buying Groceries…

In this old land that has finally gained independence at a ripe old age, there are many contrasts.  Old ways butt heads with new ways. 


We went to the new supermarket in Lenin Square.  This store, though small by American standards, is a Super-Target of grocery stores in contrast to the small shops where people generally conduct business when they cannot make I to the sprawling open air bazaar.  (See my Friday observations on going to market.)


The new supermarket is brightly lit (gotta wear shades!) and is arranged much like a typical grocery store in the USA.  Here customers actually browse the aisles rather than standing in front of a counter in a dimly lit establishment to request items from a bored clerk.  Here the bored clerks stand in the aisles conducting their social lives uninterrupted by pesky customers who try to maneuver around them to reach desired items from the shelves groaning with choices. 


New products show up on the shelves each day.  This is exciting for us.  Many of the items are products that have previously not been available in remote places or small towns.  New products fill the shelves and then other new products replace those the following week so it is best not to set one’s heart on obtaining a particular product.  (No fear though, there will always be plenty, no a plethora, of vodka and chocolate bars available!)


Disappointment is an integral part of this form of Russian Roulette.   For example, muesli: a month ago the store had generous stocks of a variety of brands of muesli, a hearty grain cereal which I consider delightful.  Since cereal is not a traditional breakfast item (actually they do not seem to have any traditional breakfast items – people seem to eat leftovers or as in my host family’s home, fish soup, but I digress…since I am digressing, I must admit I really miss Denny’s Grand Slam breakfast, all bacon please!) it was especially nice to find bags of muesli stacked on the shelves. 


For three weeks I breakfasted on muesli.  I was hooked.  Then one day, fat and happy, anticipating my purchase of muesli, I arrived at the appropriate aisle where my familiar breakfast food should have been awaiting my arrival. 


My heart skipped a beat. 

No muesli.  The shelves formerly allocated to my healthful, hearty grain cereal where stocked with brightly colored boxes of familiar-looking sugarcoated children’s cereals sporting American names encoded into Cyrillic!  (Think Honey-Nut Cheerios in Russian script)  I quickly snapped up the three remaining packets of muesli and speculated sadly about my future breakfast habits.  Sigh.


This scenario is fairly typical.


Hoarding is an ugly word (probably uglier in Russian!).  I prefer to say “stockpiling”.  We are currently stockpiling bricks of Maxwell House ground coffee, just in case.  (It amuses me to see their slogan “Good to the last drop” in Russian text – believe me though, it is not a phrase that rolls off my tongue easily!)  


From a business perspective, this supply and demand problem is interesting.  Marketing and management techniques that rule our lives and mold our tastes in the USA are new here.  The idea of choices and free enterprise are just taking root here.  The free enterprise system in action: management students take note!


The new economy offers students classic examples of how an economy works and case studies on business and management that one will never get in an academic setting at university.


Enough pontificating, it is time to head to the check- out so I can pay for my purchases and make a few more observations.    


At the check-out line, I miss reading the lurid headlines on such rags as National Inquirer or Star.  There is no reading material to distract customers as they wait to shell out hard earned cabbage (kapusta in Russian and it is slang for money, green backs, dough…). 


There are though, many of the usual familiar candy and gum products.  There are also many choices of condoms available, conveniently located between the M&Ms, Skittle’s, Orbit,  and Snickers bars.  (Ukraine is among the countries with the fastest growing rate of Aids/HIV in the world.) 


Unlike in America, the cashiers (who often resemble fashion models) at the check-out are comfortably seated.   (Why doesn’t Wal-Mart do that?) There is also a wind screen protecting them from drafts. 


There are no baggers since people bring their shopping bags with them.  “No paper or plastic?” questions from some gum-chewing teenager.    


Here are, however, lots of security personnel keeping a close eye on things.  


The shopping experience at the supermarket is much easer for us, than the usual small Mama & Papa market, because we can inspect the jars and cans and bottles.  It takes us some time to decipher the convoluted words (sometimes Russian, sometimes Ukrainian, sometimes in cursive and other times in block letters). 


People stare at us as we pore over the labels trying to determine if the can with a fish on it is cat food or tuna for human consumption or maybe just a nice fish picture the labeling folks decided to put on a can of tomato sauce for some unknown reason.  It helps to be able to read.    


Babushkas in the shiny bright super market create quite an anachronism.  They strike a contrast, since they often dress in traditional Babushka-wear: a bright scarf tied in a knot under the chin, several sweaters, a long dark skirt, thick wool stockings and heavy brogans on a wrinkled, weathered woman who stands about 4’6” when she is not hunched over leaning o a walking stick. 


These women may look out of their element here, but they are quick to know a bargain.  They typically poke at the foods and rifle through the choices looking for the best item.  Despite the incongruity, these matriarchs are clearly at home in any market. 


The hard part begins when we leave the store and have to lug our purchases home in bags and backpacks.  I get flashbacks to the olden days (last year) when we made monthly trips to the Base Commissary and filled up two large carts with staples – bags and bags and bags to load into our red pickem-up truck. 


Here in Crimea the mantra is: shop small and shop often!


Most days we patronize the local small market and do our major shopping at the outdoor bazaar across town, but a trip to the Disneyland supermarket where the lights are bright and the world of consumerism is unfolding is a good fix for days when we are homesick for the USA. 


·                     Friday, 4 November 2005

Random Observations on Neighborhood Grocery Stores….


Let’s go grocery shopping in the neighborhood!


Most local grocery stores here are still basically Mom/Pop establishments and do not allow the customer to get near the products.  You stand at the counter and squint into the dark interior of the store, (For reasons of economy, many smaller, and not so small, public businesses do not turn on the lights during daylight hours regardless of how dark it is – though some establishments do turn on the lights when a customer enters the store…but dim, dark and dank are generally the operative words.)


Behind the counter is a generally bored clerk, waiting for you to indicate which product you desire,


It is a challenge for us to read the long, convoluted Russian cursive words, so this process is somewhat frustrating and often pretty amusing or annoying, depending on how the rest of the day has gone.  After leaning forward and squinting into the darkness, deciphering the code, we make a selection.  


We point.


There is much discussion clarifying which item it is the Americans are interested in purchasing.  “This one?” says the clerk, reaching for the wrong item.


“No, the red one, to the right,” Mark politely states, in plain PCV Russian.


“Ohhhh, this one,” says the clerk as she points to the blue box on the far left. 


There is more conversation and eventually an item is plopped on the counter and paid for, though it may or may not be the item we originally requested.


Often the clerk and the other customers, in an effort to be helpful (at least we hope that is their motive!) will provide opinions on our choices of food items.


“No, you cannot purchase that sausage!  No, no, here you must try that one!” urges a total stranger waiting behind us in line.


“Perhaps this would be a better choice,” says the clerk, plunking down her personal favorite (or the item they are pushing today?). 


“No, thank you so much for your help, but we prefer the one we selected originally,” Mark utters politely, laboring a bit, over the Russian phrases. 


“Oh, I cannot sell you that one…” says the clerk and the other customers nod in agreement. “Here try this one.”  She says.


We seldom get out the door with the items we actually wanted. 


Shopping can be a challenge.  We usually shop at the open air bazaar where we can get closer to items and can observe things more easily.


Here are a few random observations about shopping in grocery stores.


They are dark.  Products are behind the counter.


There are no shopping bags - bring your own.  The locals do not carry charming stringed bags or sturdy baskets; no that is an image from days of yore.  They have adopted large plastic bags – they embrace their plastic bags and use the same one over and over and over. (At the bazaar, if you forget your plastic bag, there are vendors who specialize in selling plastic bags.  At the grocery store, you may be out of luck.)


If you plan to buy fish, bring along an extra plastic bag or everything else you purchase will smell like fish.


Large boxes of cookies are open and the contents are visible to the customer (as well as flies, bees and hungry, quick children or clerks).  Instead of buying a box of cookies, the customer indicates how many kilograms they wish.  There are lots of cookie choices.


Bread is not wrapped.  It sits on the counter all day long.  It is fresh daily.  You can buy half a loaf if you like. 


Big, wonderful, tasty loaves of fresh black bread are available, but locals are infatuated with pasty, white bread that has recently become popular here. 


There are whole aisles selling only chocolate bars and boxes of chocolates.   Where are the hard candies?  They are not popular here.  Chocolate bars are given as gifts here.


There are aisles and aisles and aisles of vodka.  How do people choose – isn’t vodka a spirit that has no flavor?


All stores sell vodka, beer, bread and chocolate.


Sugar is delivered to the local stores in huge bags.  Employees gather to scoop the product into individual plastic bags.  They weigh each bag and place a price tag on it and put it on the shelf for the customers to purchase it.


There are often lines waiting to purchase sugar.


Salt is sold in large, solid bricks.  We use a cheese grater on it.


Ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard are sold in tubes rather than bottles.


Milk and yogurt come in plastic bags and do not need to be refrigerated until they are opened.


Many items (beans, mushrooms, etc) are sold in large, open-mouth jars.  These are a standard size and are used for canning or as simple canisters.  Plastic lids are available to replace the manufacturers seal. 


Salo – how do we live without it in the USA?  There are many varieties available.  It all looks like very fatty, raw bacon to me.  I have acquired a taste for it though and it is very popular here.  Try a chunk of garlicky salo on a wedge of good dark bread following a shot of vodka.  It does grow on you!


Holidets…now that is another story.  I am not qualified to speak on this issue.  I know it is popular and Americans often find it distasteful. So far I have not been offered any.  It is a gelatin-like substance similar to what is found around the edge of a canned ham.  I am not certain I have spelled it correctly, but perhaps you can find information on the Internet.


Cheese is generally white, soft and bland.  Sometimes it is sweet. (I miss cheese!)


There are few very low-fat products.


A dollop of sour cream goes on almost everything.  Sometimes along with some rich butter and a bit of cheese ad maybe even a glob of mayonnaise for extra flavor… my cholesterol raises just thinking of it.  (Don’t forget to bring a jar if you are buying sour cream at the bazaar!)


Clerks often work from 8AM till 8PM, but they do not work everyday.  They do not have official breaks or leave for lunch hours, but they do take time for tea.


Despite the challenges, shopping in the local magazine (say mogozeen - that mean store) or at the bazaar (rinock, say reenock) are great opportunities to interact, become par of the local community and learn more about the country we call home for the next few years so grab your shopping bag and lets go. 


·                     Thursday, 3 November 2005

I am Reading “Pnin” by V. Nabokov…

There are few pleasures as rich as the joy found in reading.  Discovering the small joke, the nuance, the secret the author shares with a few astute readers is such a privilege. 


These days my post-breakfast routine includes a visit with my literary friends; friends who live between the covers of various books.  It is not the characters in the books that intrigue so much, though I follow the plot and am engaged by the character development, but really it is he author that holds my interest.  So much can be inferred about the authors life, from the text of a novel.  Certainly not the details of the author’s life, but definitely the manner in which the writer engages the world, the way he or she interprets things. 


I am reading “Pnin” by Vladimir Nabokov.  What a writer Nabokov is! 


Because we are currently living in Crimea, the humor takes on a special meaning for me.  There are references that would be obscure or meaningless to many readers but for me they add to the richness and truth of this fiction about a 52-year old Russian exile who is a professor at an American college.  It is not so much the humor or the story that spills out of the book, but the back-story that is Nabokov.


I have always been intrigued by the authors of the books I read and often find myself reading all of an author’s works.  This is not a scholarly approach; I simply enjoy the continuity of the writing style and the opportunity to become more familiar with the writer.  My affinity is with the writer as much as with the book, literary style or the plot. 


I hope I can obtain more of Nabokov’s works.


I originally read his most famous work, “Lolita” many years ago, decades ago, and did not understand what it was that made this book so special.  I was put off by the story or at least influenced by it and never explored any other works by this author.  Now I am eager to feed my curiosity.   


“Pnin” delights me with how well the mannerisms and speech patterns I have observed here in this former Soviet Republic, are lovingly executed o the page.  The character is alive and human.  I will hate to say goodbye to him when the story ends.  I suspect he will stay with me and cause me to laugh again in surprising moments when someone or something reminds me of him.


I Finished Reading “The God of Small Things” by Abundhati Roy…

Wednesday was a grey, damp day, so after wrestling with some household chores, I gave into the impulse to simply finish the novel I was reading. 


Generally I ration out my reading so I can relish the pleasures and prolong the book.  (This is especially true now that we have such limited access to books, magazines and DVDs in English.)  I read at night, before drifting off to sleep and I read in the quiet following breakfast, before I begin the day’ activities.  I discipline myself in a positive way, much like I do with eating, and restrict my habit to allocated times.  I am not so sure this is discipline so much as habit, but it is how I approach things. 


Yesterday I stopped mid-afternoon, made a pot of coffee and sat at the kitchen table, book in hand and allowed my mind to travel off to India to watch the story unfold.  When I had read all the words, I closed the book and sipped from the cold and bitter remnants of my coffee cup.  I did not rush the transition back to my flat in Crimea. 


On the back cover of this novel is a remark offered by an anonymous critic from USA Today: “Offers such magic, mystery and sadness that, literally, the reader turned the last page and decided to reread it.  Immediately.  It’s that hauntingly wonderful.” 


I concur. 


And I did just that.


·                     Wednesday, 2 November 2005

I have noticed that in most courtyards there is a babushka bench.  This is where the wizened, headscarf-wearing grandmothers gather to soak up sunshine, share sunflower seeds and gossip with one another.


The women gather.  Animated conversations spill out.  Unnoticed, a cat arches its back and rubs against one woman’s swollen, sturdy calves.  Black shells from sunflower seeds pile up below the bench. 


Words fly.  The volume is loud.  It is hard to know whether the story the women share is a happy tale or an angry one.  


One babushka knits thick grey socks as she listens to her neighbor’s chatter.  Another tugs on a piece of yarn attached to a tattered blue sweater.  She unravels the knitting and expertly winds the yarn into a smooth ball which she will later recycle into a serviceable pair of warm socks. 


A playful kitten darts from under the bench, swats at a wayward piece of yarn and quickly disappears back under the bench. 




·                     Tuesday, 1 November 2005

Eight Months Down – Only 19 to Go!

The first day of November marks the end Training Group 28’s eighth month in Ukraine.  There are only 19 months of Peace Corps service ahead.  So little time, so much lies ahead.


Where were we 19 months ago?   


It was during the first few moments of April 1st 2004, 19 months ago, that I anxiously clicked the enter key on my computer and made our Peace Corps application an official matter of record. 


There was nervous laughter when we realized it was April Fools Day, but the nervousness wasn’t really because of any superstitions.  The laughter was simply a joyful release following a significant moment.  The laughter was like the effervescent champagne that spills out when the cork is popped.  The laughter was the outward sign of the relief that comes with a commitment. 


Up until that enter key was clicked, the whole Peace Corps dream could be sidestepped, avoided, dropped, ignored,…maybe.


That life-changing moment does not seem so long ago.


The 19 months ahead do not seem like much time to do the things we want to do.


We have ahead of us 2 winters, 2 springs, 1 summer, 1 fall. 


It is interesting to think in these terms.  We will have only 1 summer together in Crimea. 


It sounds like a book title: “Our Crimean Summer,” by Mark and Virginia Pulver. 


In a way just living is like writing a novel.  We collaborate on what path the story will take, we make choices about what adventures to pursue and what things are important to each of us.


We are the protagonists in our own story.


Daylight Savings Time is Over – We Live in the Dark Ages Now.

The Dark Ages have returned. 


Our world is a blanket of pitch by 4:30 each day.  Street lights are a luxury here.  There are often no street lights and those available are only turned on for short periods of time or on special occasions.  


I tell myself the days will begin to grow longer in late December, just 6-7 weeks from now. 


People still conduct business despite the darkness. 


It has been raining intermittently since Friday so the daylight hours are gloomy and dark too. 


The heat is not on yet.


I have damp, dank-smelling laundry draped around the flat.