·                     Saturday, 28 October 2006

“Leaf” Well-Enough Alone I Always Say…

The women who clean the courtyards and streets every morning have been working overtime. They cannot abide leaves. 


Every morning they use their twig brooms to sweep up every single errant leaf in the courtyard. The raw earth underneath the debris looks vulnerable and barren for awhile, but soon more leaves fall. Tomorrow morning, the women will return in the predawn hours and take them away. 


All year round the local street-cleaning women arrive early to tackle this job.  Everyday they are out there by before 7 AM: sweeping, sweeping, sweeping. But lately they arrive even earlier because they must deal aggressively with the falling leaves.


They often cast an evil eye at our small fenced garden where leaves find refuge from their brooms. The local cats favor our yard now because the leaves make a cozy insulated bed for them.


I am puzzled by this need to gather up all the leaves.


They are more vigilant about leaves than they are about rubbish!


In the park there are teams of dedicated women in orange vests wielding various primitive raking and sweeping tools, valiantly doing battle with Mother Nature’s leaves.  They are at war.


I observe the piles of burning leaves. They smolder all day long. The flower beds and pathways in the park are also raw and bare. The leaves are stripped away and the soil is turned.  They are clearly putting everything in order for the winter months ahead.


Wouldn’t they be surprised to see our techniques? Back in our Stateside home, we leave grass cuttings on the ground to act as mulch. We collect leaves and blanket our flower beds with 5-6 inches of moldering leaves to keep the bulbs cozy during the cold winter.  We actually collected bagged leaves and cuttings to augment those from our own oak tree!  The vegetation also adds nutrients to enrich the soil and encourages worms to go to work to produce more rich black earth.


Mark and I are certified Master Gardeners, but our neighbors here in Crimea do not know that.  They observe our laissez-faire approach to our garden with raised eyebrows.  What appears to them as neglect is really just a benign approach.  While they seem thwarted by nature, we seem oblivious to the threat.


Don’t these foolish Americans know these evil leaves must be dealt with?




·                     Friday, 27 October 2006

Fall Facts of Life (The “Damp” Facts of Peace Corps Ukraine)

Everything in our flat is clammy, damp, and sticky these days - the bed sheets, the smelly feather pillows, my clean clothes, even the keyboard of my laptop.  


“This too shall pass,” I say, as my mother might have.  The parakeets, the only creatures around, just stare at me. “This damp place gets on my nerves!” I joke, but the birds just ignore my lame play on words. 


This time of year, everything is damp.  Nothing dries – towels damp from drying my face last night are still damp this morning.  The socks, towels and trousers I washed Saturday are still wet to the touch.  I smell them and know I will have to launder them again.  Meanwhile, the pile of dirty laundry grows an the whole flat smells musty and stale.


Everyday I inspect the closet.  I look at the back wall and check the back wall for evidence of mold.  I also check my shoes.  My leather shoes on the closet floor, require attention. The perspiration and oils on leather make a good place for mildew and mold to set up housekeeping.  I panicked the first time I saw my favorite black pumps violated with a crop of green stuff. A good stiff brush eliminates the evidence from the shoes (but not from my rather squeamish memory).  


My middle-class American shoe philosophy (invest in good, healthy leather shoes for years of use) is not practical in this environment.    The locals wear vinyl shoes.  (See advice below).


I paw through my clothes checking for signs of mold or mildew.  Natural fibers are at risk.  Again, my typical American penchant for natural fibers means my cotton and wool sweaters, etc, are likely to remain damp (and smelly!) and may mold or mildew overnight.  I will not be bringing many of my original clothes back to the USA with me – between laundering issues, mold and mildew and general wear-and-tear, they will be in the rag bag (many already have gone that path!) 


Once again, a cultural experience in disguise. (See advice below)


Why is it so clammy?  Kerch, at the junction of two seas (the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov) should be a damp climate, but usually, it really is not noticeable.  Summer humidity is not high and sea breezes keep us comfortable.


But this time of year, the autumn season, is rainy. The old buildings absorb moisture. You can see the darkened spots on the foundations. Moisture is wicked from the soil and penetrates the buildings. With windows closed against the cooler weather, the moisture is trapped indoors.  


Inside, the radiators are still dormant since it is not really cold yet.  Once the city turns on the heat, things will dry out and become more comfortable again.  Of course by then the snow will be falling and a different set of challenges will become apparent. 


OK, If I had Packing “Do-Overs”…

I would travel lighter.


Lots lighter.


That is part of what attracts people to Peace Corps life isn’t it? This is a great opportunity to simplify, streamline and define what is important to you.


This is a chance to change or challenge old behaviors and adapt new ways. This is a chance to stop hiding behind things and just be.


OK, this is not a philosophy treatise! But following is a little of my advice on shoes and clothing items.   


SHOE ADVICE:  Vinyl shoes are a good choice in Ukraine.  They are the norm at the local bazaar. While vinyl shoes do not allow your feet to breathe, they do not seem to grow crops of mold or mildew.  – a point to consider if you plan to live happily in this environment.


Vinyl shoes also stay shiny with little maintenance – walking on muddy, wet street most of the year makes this an important point too.  (Wait till you live through “mud season”!)


Vinyl shoes are fairly inexpensive so, you can buy a couple pair, wear them everyday all season and then toss them out when the season changes – no mold, no storage problems and fun new shoes!  


Reminder: people doff their shoes and don slippers when they enter a private home here.  When you select shoes to bring, keep that in mind.  (I brought my favorite footwear – a pair of great lace-up boots…what a pain it was putting them on and off 6 times a day…now I have slip-on shoes.)


CLOTHING ADVICE:  Manmade fibers are more practical here in Ukraine. They dry quicker than cotton or wool and are not prone to mold or mildew.  Ever smell a wet sheep?    Wool really stinks when damp! 


The local bazaar features many towels, sweaters and socks made of fast-drying fibers.  Manmade fibers also hold up better in the laundry – cotton, linen and wool fibers tear and stretch when you wring them or hang them; while manmade stuff does not. 


I do recommend silk thermal wear – it is lightweight, easy to layer, insulates well, wicks moisture, and breaths…very important when close to the body or your odors will become offensive.  I hand wash mine, but silk is a “steel magnolia” - it has a tensile strength almost equal to steel, though it is touchy about soaps…do some research. 


·                     Thursday, 26 October 2006

In ordinary life we hardly realize that

we receive a great deal more than we give, and that

it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer


Gratitude and gratefulness was the topic at our Wednesday evening English Club meeting.  The question that sparked discussion was: To whom am I grateful and what would I like to say to them?


Actually the topic did not spark conversation. It was a little like the Wednesday evening testimony meetings at Christian Science churches…long pregnant pauses.  At church though, someone eventually rises to speak and breaks the silence. 


At English Club, the members often wait until I force their hand in some direct way.


Getting people to use fledgling language skills is a talent, but it also takes hard work. I come home from the sessions tired. Yes, tired.  (Keep in mind my diverse resume when I speak of being tired: I have worked at demanding physical jobs that required me to spend long hours outside in the elements, ie: avionics technician in wintry northern MI…brrrrr!. Soooo “tired” is something I have experienced!)


The topics, selected at random each week, are drawn from a pool of topics submitted by English Club members.  We draw each topic at the close of the meeting so people can consider the topic and come prepared to share.


In theory anyway.


I arrive prepared.  As group leader, I spend some hours each week preparing leading questions, finding vocabulary words and bits of poetry or old sayings or song lyrics that may be relevant.  I bring newspaper and magazine clipping to stimulate conversation.  I devise activities to get them to speak. I work at establishing rapport…


I use my psychology skills and the things I’ve learned from theater and drama.  I rely on my on-the-job training techniques honed from my long military career as a training manager (making boring technical stuff interesting). I use my leadership skills and management skills to motivate them and encourage them, and to acknowledge their successes…all this energy and drive just to get each member to speak at least once each week.


Though this role is challenging and often leaves me exhausted and a bit disappointed or frustrated, I am really very grateful for this unique opportunity to learn and grow and share. 


·                     Wednesday, 25 October 2006

Are there more drunks around or am I just noticing it more?

I see drunks from my flat windows. 




Not drinking people, or ”happy” people, but people who are absolutely blind drunk.   They vomit; they can not walk even with help.  I live on a quiet street.  What if I lived near a bar?


It is midday as I write this. Outside my window I see two 40-something year-old men helping a third navigate his way home.  Like a scene in a comedy routine, the drunk in the middle suddenly loses his trousers.  They are pooled around his ankles.


Some school boys laugh and two women avert their eyes, as the two friends pull up the man’s wayward pants and continue to steer him toward his home.


Opportunities to grow…

I am mindful that there are so many opportunities for spiritual growth in my life. 


I am grateful that I can see the opportunities, take up the challenge, and make a difference.  Often we allow ourselves to mire down in shock, self-righteousness, indignation…or fear.


There is spiritual activity demanded – a call to action.   

·                     Tuesday, 24 October 2004 – United Nations Day


We did not leave the flat yesterday. 

Mark and I sat at our respective computers, working on our respective projects, occasionally exchanging comments, but mostly working, working, working.   


We are not Online.  We do not have Internet in our home.   Yet, we spend many, many hours each day at our keyboards, preparing plans, documents, video and audio... 


If we did not have computers, would we work less?


Even when we finally stop working, our recreation revolves around the computers. 


No, we do not play games on them, but with speakers attached, my laptop becomes a stereo and lets me sing along with tunes as I do some household tasks.  Later I listen to a resonant voice read a few chapters from a James Michener novel (“Poland”) while I prepare some things for snail-mail and scrub some laundry in a bucket. 


Work done, we meet on the couch and my computer becomes a movie theater for a few hours.  We watch ”Chocolat” – the Russian translations are flawed and/or peculiar. (Johnny Depp transcends language.)   


Later, as I drift off to sleep, the blue light from Mark’s laptop at the desk a few feet from my head, acts as a comforting nightlight. I drift off, thinking about an e-note and a photo I want to send to grandkids far, far away…


·                     Saturday, 21 October 2006

Friday Morning I Danced and Drank Champagne!

We had an unexpected engagement Friday morning: a delightful program at the library. I was asked to be the official photographer while Mark was the sound guy and videographer.  The program was dynamic and well organized. The participants performed joyfully, making it a real pleasure for the audience.


The program was part of some professional training for the library staff from all 19 locations.  The local staff prepared several humorous and educational skits and put on quite a show for the assembled crowd.  They work together so well and seemed to have such fun with the events. 


The team had worked hard to prepare so when it was over the workhorses behind the scenes cranked up the music and had a small celebration – dancing and champagne on a Friday AM. 


That is how life is here in Ukraine – you never know when (if) there will be water or electricity, but there will almost always be dancing, champagne and chocolate!


·                     Friday, 20 October 2006

My Thursday Ended with Blessings…Blessed by “Blessings”…

As I sit down to write on this bright fall morning, I see I should provide some closure on the events of Thursday. First I must add that there were many other bumps in the road that day.  (I suspect that Peace Corps experiences are good for observing what life is like when you do not have choices, ie: money, resources, opportunities…Many PCVs come “home” with a greater appreciation of the  opportunities afforded them in the USA…but I digress…)


So Thursday, when things conspired to thwart my plans, I picked up a wonderful novel, wrapped up in a comforter and read until I finished the book. (You can call this avoiding reality or escapism or you can say, “When you are beating your head against a wall, just stop”!)  


What a luxury to just read!  Often my novel-reading opportunities are brief; I only make it through a few pages at a sitting. What a pleasure to just read and read and read.


Yesterday, in my frustrated state, I wondered if things would improve in the next chapter. Well, I was referring to my own life, but I must say, they did (both in the novel and in my own life!) 


The book,”Blessings” by Anna Qunindlen (a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer), drew me in and allowed me to escape. But more than that -  the writing is good, the storyline compelling and the characters true to life.  The secrets people keep and the choices they make are topics worth exploring. After I closed the book, I remained on the couch, thinking about my family and friends and details of life that come to light in unexpected ways. (In this novel, Blessings happens to be the family name.)


So, refreshed and relaxed by the rewards of a good read, I was delighted to discover hot water!  I took a leisurely shower, happily washed the dishes and when Mark came home, pleased to find my e-mail account had merely migrated to another area of my computer.


·                     Thursday, 19 October 2006

The Plans..

1. Wash greasy hair

2. Answer e-mail

3. Papier-Mâché Project

Thursday is usually my day.  There are fewer interruptions and demands on Thursdays.   My plans for today are not grand, but by 10AM they are all foiled…



We have not had any “no-water days” for a long time…weeks anyway. Lyudmila was without water for several days recently, but we have been fortunate. 


This morning there is not even a drop in the pipes. 


So much for activities #1 & #2.   


My E-Mail Disappears…

Easygoing, flexible woman that I am, I happily settle on the couch and open my laptop.


I go to my e-mail program and ZOUNDS!  I discover that all traces of my mailbox have disappeared! 


This may be some simple fix.  I hope that “Dr. Mark” will laugh and say something reassuring and make all my virtual friends and contacts reappear again.  But my geek-spouse will not be home until early evening.


Activity #3 is foiled.


I scratch my dirty scalp and sigh.


Well, another opportunity to be accommodating.  So here I am with my greasy hair and my other two activities for the day derailed (and I am trying not to fret about the longer term ramifications of the disappearing e-mail account).


This is a plot twist I do not enjoy. 


Maybe things will improve in the next chapter.


·                     Tuesday, 17 October 2006

The Intruder…

It is 3 AM.  The man, clad in blue stripped pajama bottoms and a graying t-shirt, stands nervously by the door, clutching a rolling pin in his hand. Behind him, his wife wields a large cast iron skillet.


An intruder kicks repeatedly at the door and tugs on the doorknob until it falls off in his hands.  He roars in frustration.


The woman whispers, “I think we should call the police.”


It sounds like a cliché, right down to the details that initiated this scene a few minutes earlier.


“Mark, wake up! I think there is someone in our building!”  I hissed as I sat up and slipped on my flip flops.  Mark was close behind me as I crept stealthily into our front entryway. 


We were somewhat relieved to find the intruder was not at our door (yet!).  We could hear him muttering in the upstairs hallway, banging his fists on the door and savagely kicking.  One of those flats is vacant and the other tenant is spending several months in Moscow, so we are the only people in the building.


“Remind me to speak to our neighbor about her scary friends,” I joked in a stage whisper.  Mark rolled his eyes.


Our relative relief was short-lived when the man stumbled down the stairway and began attacking our door. 


This is when I suggested Mark grab the rolling pin and I reached into the oven and hefted the skillet.  We stood there, thinking our separate thoughts (I was prayerfully finding things to be grateful for and I do not know what Mark was thinking).


We watch horrified as the door knob falls to the floor.  The frustrated kicking grows more fierce and the muttering even more incoherent.  If the intruder manages to come through the door, which appears very likely at this moment, we will be trapped in our flat!  Both windows are barred, ostensibly to keep intruders from accessing the flat from the street.  With no other exit than the door in question, we will be at a significant disadvantage.


I adjust my grip on the skillet. 


It seems like a good time to call the police. Unfortunately, the textbook phrases we learned in Russian class seem to escape, so the phone conversation was a bit fragmented. 


While Mark wrestles with the linguistics exercise, the wanna-be intruder departs.  I catch a glimpse of him stumbling drunkenly through the dark courtyard.  The light from Cat-Woman’s building gives me a chance to see that he was probably about30-35 years old; slim with brown, short hair; and wearing a red sweatshirt and blue jeans. He lurches with the gait of a drunk, and thankfully keeps moving with no alternate stops in our courtyard.


The Police…

Mark’s experience on the phone was typical of many of our phone experiences in this country.   We have observed Ukrainian’s doing business on the phone and they are very abrupt, often curt. You must get to the point quickly because there are no pleasantries and when the business is done, the caller simply hangs up and the phone line goes dead. It is a real cross-cultural experience.  Under the best circumstances these phone transaction are stressful, if not intimidating.  So in the deep of night with a violent stranger pounding at the door and the challenges of the Russian language and bureaucracy making matters more intense, Mark did an admirable job of keeping cool on the phone.


A pair of young police were dispatched to our flat and arrived about 15-20 minutes later. They came in, asked a few questions and then patrolled the neighborhood on foot before leaving.  It was an uneventful experience.


The Detectives…

Then the shrill sound of the phone broke the silent night.  It was a follow-up call from the authorities.  There was some confusion, but it was a typically curt exchange involving our address, which Mark repeated several times. There was a brief callback for more information.  Neither time did the caller identify himself, Mark observed as he removed his shoes, getting ready for bed.  And, he noted that the caller sounded slurred, like someone who has been drinking.


Mark crawled wearily into bed.   I decided to sit in the kitchen and read a bit. I was considering whether to make some tea when a pair of headlights rounded the corner into our courtyard.  Several burly men in black leather jackets spilled out of the vehicle. I could hear their voices, but not their words.   They banged on the outside door. 


More police?  Detectives  perhaps?  Sometimes, it is tough to be a foreigner.   One of the perks is you get opportunities to practice your faith. 


Mark let them in.  The men spilled into our tiny kitchen.


Yes, we surmised, these men must be detectives.  (We hoped they were anyway.)


The senior man asked lots of questions and we certainly proved to be at a language disadvantage in the discussion.  His speech was slurred and rapid fire, filled with words not in our textbook vocabulary.  There were pregnant pauses as we deciphered his questions with some help from his subordinates.


The senior man rolled his eyes and shook his head - not thrilled to be dealing with stupid foreigners it seemed.  He was probably wondering: How do these people survive?  What was he really thinking?  Disdain, condescension, frustration, even boredom or resentment… lots of attitudes to choose from. 

Of course, I am speculating on his motives and attitudes based on my experiences and beliefs. But he and his team put their lives on the line to protect the community and I am grateful for that.


In my experience, people in law enforcement positions are generally pretty opinionated about safety and security – they like to control things. These attitudes are consistent with the nature of their job. I am sure that we represent many ideas that are inconsistent from his. 


In any case, they were here to do their job.  They looked at our documents and asked if anything was stolen. Maybe they were disappointed or maybe they were relieved, but they soon left us.


Their visit was more unsettling than the actual intruder’s.


The Upshot…


Do I feel vulnerable?  No.  Nothing really happened. 


This was a random incident and could happen anywhere: in the USA or elsewhere.  The procedures of the local authorities are disturbing, but the attitudes seem the same to me as what I face in the USA too.


And now Mark and I have actually experienced the old comic cliché of hearing a prowler and wielding rolling pins and skillets!


·                     Monday, 16 October 2006

The parakeets from their vantage point on the living room window sill sing along to the Beatles. They seem to like “Yellow Submarine,” if cheeping is any indicator. 


On the kitchen window sill, a large pot of yellow mums smiles out at the grey day.


·                     Sunday, 15 October 2006

Don't be afraid to take a big step if one is indicated.

You can't cross a chasm in two small jumps.

 - David Lloyd George


October is half gone already!

In eight months we will be gone…


I find myself eager to think about the future (but there is so little time between our many projects and daily demands!)  I have explored some rather amazing volunteer opportunities available through Americorps.  Saturday, I downloaded a few dozen organizations who work through them.   There are openings to work in public television and with arts groups, there are wonderful technology opportunities with libraries and schools, and there are many literacy and language positions.  


Unlike some volunteer opportunities, you apply for the actual positions so you can choose a community and a position, and then negotiate the hiring. You commit to about a year and receive a small stipend and a few benefits.  This seems like an interesting way to serve and still explore the world a bit.  Or a way to test the waters in a community you are curious about. 


The operative word, of course, is VOLUNTEER.  Much like internships offered by some organizations, these opportunities may not be feasible for everyone, but for us, transitioning back to the USA, this may be an excellent way to continue a life of service.


The puzzle may be how to handle our cozy bungalow (and possessions stored there) in sunny SC. Once our current house sitter gets restless and moves on with his own life, we will want to find another solution.  Ideas may unfold –perhaps a return PCV couple would want to call our acre home for a year while they write a book.  Or maybe a retiree toying with a move south would like to rent it while they negotiate their own digs… Who knows!


I want to wait until after Christmas to really begin to think about the future. It is hard to stay focused on the present opportunities, as delightful as they are, when the future looms ahead so bright and exciting. 


Other Stuff on Our Minds…


English Club Halloween Party – With no pumpkins available locally, I may make a papier-mâché jack-o’-lantern. We will bob for apples, sip hot apple juice (in lieu of cider), playa few games, tell a few scary tales (with flashlights directed up strategically under our chins to add an element of terror and eerie music provided by my techno-geek spouse).  I will make a few extra masks for newcomers.  


Our Newest English Club - We are starting another English Conversation Club (or clubs) at a local school.  This involves preparing materials and building rapport with about 20 teens who will meet weekly to practice their English by discussing American culture.  It also means another evening or two each week when we will not get home till after 8.  


Mark’s Latest Work Project – He is teaching teens how to use computers to prepare a literary news letter.  He is busy taxing his Russian skills, preparing PowerPoints and lesson plans. The sponsor is the Children’s Library, so the adult staff requires training too.  New computers and Internet access come with the grant, so there are technical purchases and decision, and all the fun stuff that Mark enjoys.


Friends of Ukraine Projects – We have committed to work on website and newsletter design and I am doing membership work and also working on a national mentoring project for post-PC service.  (Mark is also working on the  PC Ukraine  website and other IT issues…)


Ukrainian Christmas (31 December) Preparations – The library has a big staff party on New Years Eve. December25th is not a big deal here and locals associate the holiday evergreen tree, gift-giving and Santa with the big New Years Eve masquerade parties. The library ladies are already practicing their skits. 


We have to prepare a skit and costumes. We’ve juggled many costume ideas already: beach bums maybe (we could involve the audience in the limbo as part of our skit); pirates are always fun (Aren’t they Matey?); maybe Vikings or fur trappers or maybe square dancers (people here always want to see our traditional American costumes so we are at a loss for what those are actually – I always say jeans and at-shirt). I thought maybe Native American outfits would be fun, but today Mark suggested we surprise the library ladies and show up in Ukrainian costumes…I think we have a winner!  Sooo we shall see.


The skit may be a bit of comedy based on the questions host country nationals usually ask Americans.  There will be the expected answers and then the answers you would like to give…gentle humor of course and we will run it past the tutor and our English Club folks.


Peace Corps Close of Service (COS) – We are collecting PCV’s photos for a digital presentation.  Mark also asked them all to share a photo of the Lenin Statue in each of their respective communities.  So far not too much response, but then, in my experience, many PCVs tend to be a bit independent and maybe even procrastinate a bit and of course limited access to the Internet slows down transfer of documents….  


I hope someone is working on a theme song.  Previous training groups have modified songs like “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and “Hotel California” to reflect their Ukrainian experiences in a humorous way.    


This is one time I feel bad about not actually being part of the Peace Corps. (I am now kind of an associate member of the training group and technically I have COS paperwork - am I a RPCT???  My situation is ambiguous to say the least!)  Anyway, sometimes I do feel a bit like a poor kid looking through the window of a candy store - I can’t, shouldn’t, participate actively in their events. It is presumptuous.  But, I love being part of an organization and have spent many years in staff positions that allowed me to use my creative energies to motivate and organize community-building events.  So it is hard to not want to be involved. This COS event is not my party and really, I am not invited to it either. Sigh.     


Thanksgiving and Christmas – I did not mention these holidays, but we will plan some ways to acknowledge these events.  It will be good to be back in the USA where we can share events with family and friends again.


We are fortunate to have each other, but despite that and despite our previous experiences abroad, this is a challenging experience.  I imagine some of the PCVs here who have fewer years and experiences under their belts may be confused by their own mixed feelings about their position in their local community.  


People sometimes call Ukraine the “Posh Corps” – compared to a mud hut in Africa, perhaps, but the challenges here are different and they are subtle. They are challenges none-the-less…fire burns, regardless of the temperature.  This kind of work is not for the faint of heart.


I am glad to be here. I love it here. 


And, I will be glad to return to the USA when the time comes.



·                     Friday, 13 October 2006

Strangers in the night…

The fall nights are clear and bright and quiet. All summer the park hosted temporary venues for drinking and dancing so we often fell asleep in our cozy flat, hearing the heavy back-beat of a dance band or a karaoke machine far into the night.  The music has ceased and the nights by the sea are quiet again.


Except for the last few nights.


It is 3 AM.  I have (again) been awakened by the sounds of men standing just outside our window.  I emerge from deep sleep, swimming slowly to consciousness, roused by the animated conversation just a few feet from my bed. Their voices are resonant, deep, as if they auditioned for a movie part demanding a cello-esque tone.  


The men have been drinking. They are drunk.  They speak in Russian.  I listen and realize that the earnest conversations of drunks follows pretty much the same pattern regardless of language or culture.


“You are my friend, you are my best friend…we will always be friends. I love you like a brother…better than a brother… Do you love me? Of course you do…we are friends! We should make a toast to friendship….”


They are so earnest.  And so drunk.  And so noisy.


I put the pillow over my head and try to sleep. 


My dreams are peopled with drunken men.  I wake up tired.


·                     Thursday, 12 October 2006

The sculptor looks at the marble and carves away all that is not David.

What remains is the masterpiece.


In theory anyway. I mean, what happens if the sculptor hacks off something that turns out to be essential to “David-ness”?


I keep carving away at my life trying to uncover the essential me.


Often I feel I am making headway, but sometimes I wander into the area of fears and doubt. Usually, almost as soon as I am tempted to catalogue or outline disappointments, dead ends, and sorrows, I have sense enough to turn myself around and move away from the scene.


Inside my head, I hear my mother’s voice whisper a quote from Mary Baker Eddy reminding me that for “…those leaning on the sustaining Infinite, today is big with blessings.”


I regroup a bit.


On my kitchen wall here in Kerch I have laminated and posted another familiar quote from Mary Baker Eddy (it is found on the walls of almost every CS church I have ever been in). As I turn away from the temptation to itemize my woes, I see the sun streaming through the window, illuminating the words “Divine Love always has met and always will meet every human need.”


Ahhhh, I see now!  I am not the sculptor.


I am David.


·                     Wednesday, 11 October 2006

The park near our flat has become a movie set.

As we walk to and from our regular haunts we transit through the park and catch glimpses of scenes being shot, actors sipping hot drinks, locals gawking.


A Russian (or perhaps Ukrainian) rock star is directing (or producing) the film. We stand at the edge of the crowd with the gawkers and observe awhile. 


When the scene ends one of the crew strides over to us, extends his hand to Mark and says (in English),”You are a long way from home, aren’t you?”


“You have a good command of the English language,” I joke when the man turns to shake my hand.


He smiles back and replies, “I understand you are from the USA.  I am from LA.”


“Well then YOU are a long way from home. We live here.”


He is the sole American on the set.  There are few Americans in Kerch, so word gets around when someone arrives. 


In this case, the crew’s Russian photographer came by the Internet Center at the library to use the lines to transmit some photos.  He met Mark there and then told the only American on the movie set about him.


Peace Corps Volunteers are not expatriates or tourists. PCVs generally manage to keep a low profile, living quietly among our neighbors.  But moments like this remind me that we really are not invisible.  People know we are here and observe how we live, the choices we make and our demeanor and dress.


The other day one of Mark’s younger co-workers asked him point blank why I do not color my hair. I seem to be an anachronism among the lovely women who live here in Kerch – their attention to style is amazing and even in the most casual setting, they arrive well manicured and coifed, wearing something dramatic with exotic footwear to match.  While I am not an L.L.Bean customer, I probably resemble one compared to the local women who could pose as trendy Spiegel’s models. 


The swath of grey running through my dark brown hair should be subdued with color, at least in the eyes of the local women.


I get the feeling that once you let the hair go grey, you are supposed to don a kerchief and keep it covered. At least stop wearing it long and loose. 


Not so many years ago this would really be true. Things are changing here. I guess I am part of changing things here, in a low-key way.  I am conspicuous (but comfortable) as I parade through the park enroute to the library, wearing slim-cut, black jeans, my graying-hair flying.


The man from LA said we are a long way from home…but, I think we really are home.


·                     Tuesday, 10 October 2006

Another Novel…

I abandon myself to reading “The Jane Austen Book Club” by Karen Joy Fowler.  I am not a reader of Austin, but this novel is a delightful read. (I did not avoid Austen, rather simply have not had access…the list of authors on my to-be-read list grows rather than shrinks…What about Dickens?...)


I have often wished to be part of a book club.


I have often wished to live in a community with a good library.


I conjure up little fantasies of riding my bicycle to the library on an autumn Sunday afternoon, to browse and linger among stacks of books. Then home later, to sit by afire, sip some tea, cuddle with a cat under a cozy quilt in a comfy chair and read, read, read.


The novel draws me in, as if I am part of a group of friends.  Having limited knowledge of Austen’s work is not limiting my enjoyment of the book.  (Though I am interested in reading a volume or two to see what I think, now that I have read some of the observations the women in the book have made.)


I have just decided to abandon my day’s plans in favor of wallowing in a reading orgy on this fine fall day!  Mark has tutoring following his regular schedule at the library. It will be night when he returns home.  Now it is a crisp autumn afternoon and this book continues to whisper my name…I like the sense of home and family it conjures up in me, so I will make some tea, wrap my red shawl (see photo of red shawl below) around me on my Soviet-era couch and spend a few hours with my new ‘friends”.


Some Recent Knitting Projects:

Last spring, my thoughtful Mother-in-law (who also sent me the novel above – thanks Mom!) gave me a great knitting book (“The Knitting Experience- Book 2: The Purl Stitch” by Sally Melville).  Below are photos of two of the projects I have completed.  This winter I may tackle making some socks for my pet guinea pig Mark.


 I made this very soft yellow, mustard, and brown scarf on the train during our September vacation – I can use it as a shawl or a scarf.  Because of the stitch pattern, it becomes long and narrow when I wear it as a scarf.  There is a little silver in the yarn.


This burgundy shawl has fringe on all three sides and looks nice with a broach holding it closed or wrapped around the waist with a skirt or swim suit. The yarn is cotton and I got it at the used clothing bazaar – recycled from an old sweater.  I wear it often!


·                     Saturday, 7 October 2006

Everything is Illuminated

Mark sought out this DVD (“Everything is Illuminated”) for me on his recent trip to Kiev and we thoroughly enjoyed this quirky film about life in Ukraine.  The lead is played by Elijah Wood (from the Spiderman and Hobbit films, among others).  The action takes place in western Ukraine (Odessa, Lvov, and a fictitious village in the countryside in the Galician region).  It was actually filmed across the border in either Poland or Hungary rather than here in Ukraine! 


I have had this film on my wish-list since I first heard it was in the making in 2005.  It did not disappoint me; I found it delightful and inspiring.  I wonder how it plays for those who have little or no knowledge about Ukraine’s history, language and culture.


Woods plays a collector of odd memorabilia concerning his family history – he places these various objects in zip lock bags and pins them to the wall below framed pictures of each relative.


The story is not really about this behavior.


The story is about family history.  The tale unfolds with humor that may seem a stretch to American viewers, but will be appreciated by people who have traveled and lived here in Ukraine.  (There are a few moments when I hear a little of the Saturday Night Live, wild-and-crazy-guys version of Eastern European accents and humor in the storyline, but these moments pass.)


The story is carried a narrator who learned most of his English for Roget’s Thesaurus, so there is humor in the word choices.  This is especially funny to us, since we are often exposed to the odd phrases and words people here have in the English vocabularies.  (We create giggles when we speak in Russian too.)


The film is comic, but the ultimate subject matter is sobering.


Ukrainian history has many brutal chapters- as a borderland (as the name Ukraine actually means) these people have literally been caught in the crossfire in many wars and sieges.  The countryside is bathed in the blood of victims.   There are also the tales only recently becoming public knowledge - the genocide perpetuated by Stalin and craftily hidden from the rest of the world.  (Systematically starving the farmers of Ukraine –imagine starving to death in the breadbasket of Europe while the world averted its eyes.) 


There are also brutal tales not shared so freely; tales concerning anti-Semitism.  (“Fiddler on the Roof,” inspired by a story written by Ukraine’s version of Mark Twain, is a small window into the pogroms and clashes between the Jews and the Ukrainian peoples.  But, we come away from that film focusing neither on the plight of the Jews nor on the people who did nothing to stop it.)  This film addresses some of this.


We close our eyes.  We deny what happens.  We save only ourselves.  I often wonder what it would be like to be the child of one of the German soldiers who served Hitler.  How would this impact your view on the world or your feelings about your parents?  How would this color your world?


The film does afford the viewer an opportunity to consider some serious material, but it is not a heavy film.  Not sobering, but more, as the title suggest, enlightening…


(I would like to get a copy of the book….)

·                     Friday, 6 October 2006

Application Sent!

After far too many hours of online challenges, disappointments and small victories, I finally hit the”send” button to submit the basic application. 




Not hooray.  I do not know if it actually went through.  Sigh.


The server crashed almost simultaneously with my key stroke. So the completed application may be there, but the indicators may still say its status is incomplete.  So after several days and lots of stress, the application may not even be considered.


The deadline for submitting the application was, 5 October, one minute till midnight Eastern Time.


In the USA, it would be easier to find ways to troubleshoot this bump in the road, but here, access to connections is limited.


I did go to the local phone center and placed a call to the agency in the USA, hoping to verify it was received.  I got voicemail.  I left a message.


In truth, the application was sloppy and not very professional. This is mostly because it must be done online and I could not access the site for several days: my login would not be accepted, my password did not work, the system would time-out, etc.  Oh, and did I mention that the space bar on my computer does not work well…I have to go back and insert spaces…


So, by the time I accessed the application, I was already running short on time.


Completing an initial federal application on this site takes approximately 6 hours.  That is by their reckoning, probably based on an average applicant.  Of course, that is if everything goes right and if you are not old with a long and convoluted history of education, residences and work.


OK, I will not go of on a rant, because, I am honestly OK with this. 


Won’t it be interesting if I get a shot at the job?


Frankly, I am well qualified for the job and would be happy with the work demands and life in that particular community (I have often said I would love to live in there). but I would prefer not to begin a new job until maybe next September.


So, perhaps in a few months I will be submitting another application when another position comes open. 


Next time my application will be a winning one, because I have learned what needs to be done.


Mark’s schedule…

Mark has been working hard since we returned from vacation.  He totally missed his weekend with the business trip to Kiev and then hit the ground running here in Kerch.


He received the grant so the next stage of work is unfolding.  With tutoring and English Club, he leaves the house at 9AM and gets home at 8PM three days a week.  And, of course he often continues to work at home too.


Some PCVs have very relaxed schedules and considerable time off while others work long hours.


“Lassie” the movie…

We collapsed on the couch and watched a DVD last night: the new version of “Lassie”.  The young girl in the film made us think of our granddaughter, both in her general appearance and manner and her attitude too. 


·                     Thursday, 5 October 2006

Thinking about when Zoë-walks bracketed my daily activities…

I logged many miles and spent many happy hours when Miss Zoë and I trekked around Greenwood together.  What began as a twice-daily responsibility, and sometimes a burden, grew into a very special ritual. 


Funny how a chore can transform from a demand to a delight.


Zoë reminded me to look around and be aware of what is going on.  She also encouraged me to step off the beaten path and investigate interesting things.  The morning and evening Zoë-Hour also gave me a precious opportunity to let my thoughts fly.  I would come home inspired with new ideas and insights to ponder.  It was like a runner’s-high.


As I walked to the library, I found my thoughts falling back into my joyful dog-walking mode.  I said a prayer of gratitude for Zoë’s influence on my life. 

Zoë’s spirit beats in my heart. 


·                     Wednesday, 4 October 2006

My thoughts are alive and bright as I reflect on the time I spent with my rambunctious, exuberant, tailless Siberian Husky, Miss Zoë Mae. 


Her spirit continues to burn bright.  Instead of missing her, I fill my thoughts with all the joy and blessings she brought to my life.  My world is better; my heart is larger, for having known her.  In that way she is always with me.


I am grateful for the gifts she gave to me – the myriad, generous and unexpected lessons on loyalty, curiosity, joy, playfulness, beauty, resourcefulness, discipline and most of all, love.


Her spirit is a light in the darkness – an affirmation of good, God.


(Miss Zoë’s remains are buried in the woods at the lovely Georgia farm she has called home while we have been here in Ukraine.) 


·                     Tuesday, 3 October 2006

Some people have a wonderful capacity

to appreciate again and again,

freshly and naively, the basic goods of life,

with awe, pleasure, wonder, and even ecstasy.

 - Abraham H. Maslow

With Fall here, our kitchen catches more sunshine. It is a pleasant place to linger. I lunched on a sandwich of mayonnaise, black bread and a wonderful, huge, tomato with pepper and salt. Now I am sipping black coffee and considering how I will miss the fresh tomatoes that are a boon in summer and a treasure not to be bought in winter.  Soon our vegetable selection will again be limited to potatoes, cabbage, carrots and beets.


Not quite time to pull out the winter clothes, but the flat is chilly now. Time to wear slippers and long sleeves indoors – no thermostats to adjust the indoor temperatures.


Like the Ukrainians around us, we live close to nature here, closer that most American’s do.


Life is good…

I woke up thinking about how people live here. 


A typical American has been schooled to cultivate goals.  Even the most laid-back people have some idea, some expectations of how things should go. We have a sense of control over our destiny. It may be an illusion, but we believe we are in control.  We believe we have choices.  We expect to have choices.


We take responsibility for our happiness usually. We expect to be able to pursue happiness so we make ourselves crazy pursuing it when we should probably just roll with things…relax, chill, breathe.  We are, as a culture, so type-A.   Motivated.  Driven. 


I have observed our Ukrainian counterparts, and though this is all framed by generalizations and against a background of my American belief system, I feel as though people here take what life deals to them and simply run with it.  No whining. No complaining.


The whole idea of dealing with unexpected changes to such basic expectations as running water, power, food, schedules ... this is difficult for Americans, while our Ukrainian companions seem to cope - I think it is because they expect nothing. Or maybe they expect the unexpected. Years of living this way has taught them to not get too nonplussed. They simply do what they gotta do. 


They also eat chocolate and drink champagne (or vodka) – a way of consoling themselves for what they can’t control…”Heck, at least I can have chocolate and bubbly!” 


The average person here does not seem to dream or hope or outline. They stay in the moment and accept what they get.


But, life is good here.  And I am grateful to be the kind of person Maslow referred to in the quote above.


It will be hard to leave Ukraine when the time comes, but I will be grateful for the simple blessings of routine, of choices, continuity, and the opportunity to hope and dream.


·                      Monday, 2 October 2006

A Day Online…

We both spent the day at the library.  In fact, I did not get out of me seat from 0930 until 1745!  (No lunch break, no bathroom break, just tap, tap, tap on the keyboard!)


My agenda was to complete a federal job application for a position and location I have daydreamed about and recently discovered open!  I would love to have a shot at it, but the closeout day is Thursday.


It is really too soon to submit applications, but this is serving as a wake-up call to get the data online and ready so I can get serious about applications after Christmas.  I actually thought I had the data in my computer, but only just discovered a couple days ago that my application materials are in hard copy back in sunny SC!  (This happened during my crazy medivac and recovery period when my life felt a little like a bad soap opera!  It was sure gratifying in a time like that to discover how great my friends and relatives are!) 


So, I spent a large part of the day trying to access my original PC application from their data base so I could extract information from it…no success so far, but some leads to pursue tomorrow.


Technology is great, when it works. I had to get a password, etc…and with time differences between continents, etc, the whole day escaped with little real progress.


I still have to wrestle with a federal service resume – unlike resumes for civilian applications which are essentially fluff that lure HR folks into interviewing you, these federal resumes are highly personalized and require extensive information (including things like the exact number of semester hours for various qualifying courses, previous supervisor’s phone numbers, etc).  The people who get these jobs are clearly dedicated bureaucrats! The application process is an effective screening devise and not for the faint of heart.


·                     Sunday, 1 October 2006

Let us be grateful to people who make us happy;

they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.

-  Marcel Proust


Mark is Home Again…

A nice way to start a new month: at home together and happy.


He was like Santa Claus- he came bearing gifts!  He managed to find a copy of “Everything is Illuminated” – a film about Ukraine, starring Elijah Wood. He also found another rather obscure DVD I have wanted to see for several years. I did not even know the name of it actually so his sleuthing is pretty impressive! (It involves a woman and two soldiers, none of whom speak the same language. The two soldiers are enemies.  I believe they are Russian, Finnish and German. They are trapped on an island.)


He bought himself a copy of what he thought was the popular film “The DaVinci Code” but it turned out to be a DVD about the film…sigh.


He also brought home some great soviet-era Ukrainian classic films and a DVD of Kozbar music – a kind of Ukrainian traditional music which we have become interested in. 


So we have some entertainment to look forward to on the long winter evenings ahead!