·                     Saturday, 30 September 2006

My Toothbrush Looks Lonely …

Mark called last night and will call again tonight.  He will be home again tomorrow.  Time apart is good.  It provides some perspective, a chance to consider who that loved one is and what you value in them.


Some time apart also lets you explore who you are too. 


I curl up on couch rather than actually sleep in the bed when Mark is gone.


Resume Writing…

Well, our commode is shining and lots of housework is getting done as I avoid the activity I should be focusing on!   I have a serious aversion to working on my resume, and may miss the closing date for the job, but at least the flat will be clean!


Even without the challenge of how to explain the gap in my career created by my medical separation from Peace Corps, my  sporadic writing attempts, and my ”freelance” volunteering here in Ukraine, I find preparing a resume or completing a job application a tough assignment.  I have had so many diverse experience and years of working and my education has been nontraditional too.  Interpreting my military career so that it presents my experiences requires focus and attention. 


It is good to start now. The position that has prompted me to start this painful process may not pan out, but at least I will be moving forward!   Mark has about 9 months of PC service remaining here, so if I start now, perhaps I will have a resume I can be comfortable sharing, instead of a hack job thrown together in a panic!


·                     Friday, 29 September 2006

Being Punctual…

I left my flat 0610, rushing out the door, having one-sided conversations with myself about the limitations of the mortal concept of time as I strode along. 


I remind myself: there is no time in Eternity. Time really is just a mortal concept; a useful tool perhaps, but it has no power.


I walked quickly; joyfully and prayerfully aligning my thoughts with that Truth.


I arrived at the bus station at 25, minutes before 7 -  five minutes to spare.  Usually we allow 40 minutes for this walk.


Last year when Mark and I went along on the annual Library Day Excursion, we were early, but we went to the wrong location!  After a couple concerned phone calls (thank goodness for cell phones) and instructions in a confusing linguistic soup of Russian and English, we finally arrived, almost thirty minutes late!  A few dozen library ladies stared at us as we arrived. 


Mark and I are almost always about 15 minutes early for meetings, etc. so being rushed and late are uncomfortable situations for us.  And of course here we have the feeling that we are representatives of what American citizens are like.  (The feeling of being under a microscope or being ambassadors underlies almost every transaction during our Ukrainian adventures.)


The Library Day Excursion &  Generalizations About Ukrainian Excursions…

I was on time, relaxed and ready to go.  This year, someone else had the honor of being late!  The bus pulled away about 15 minutes late.


Our original destination was a famous waterfall, which provides the ever-important health benefits that make it an appropriate destination for an excursion.  Travel here in Ukraine seems to require something more substantial than simply going to see something because it is beautiful or fun.  Usually some healthful, educational or edifying element is necessary to justify a visit.  (Even a day at the beach is justified as a healthful venture rather than just a fun activity on a hot summer day.)


I wore my black jeans and walking shoes, expecting a hike under trees and on rugged terrain. 


Typically, the destination was changed at the last minute - the military decided to have training exercises on the land surrounding the waterfall.  So our revised itinerary involved touring several churches, some ancient city walls, a visit to an art gallery and a picnic at the beach. 


Touring churches usually means being respectful by wearing a skirt, no lipstick and donning a scarf to cover one’s head. A picnic on the beach means lighter clothes and maybe even a swimsuit. 


The weather changed from moment to moment so we stood for half an hour in a rain shower listening to an earnest guide detailing the history of a church and later stood in hot sun for 40 minutes as another dedicated guide shared extensive knowledge of another church.  We visited six or seven churches and at each stop we received an extensive lecture prior to entering the building followed by more details once we were inside.


Guides here take their role seriously. Our excursion guide kept up a detailed, nonstop commentary for the entire hour and a half on the highway to Feodosia.  We have observed this kind of attitude on all of the excursions we have been on since we arrived. 


Following the lecture, the cameras come out.  In my experience in Ukraine, the candid photo is a rarity.  Everyone poses and everyone with a camera takes the same group shot at every site.   If you do not have a camera, the polite gesture is to offer to take the group photo. 


The mantra of “Not right or wrong, just different” flashes through my mind.  Americans, used to having our own vehicles and making our own arrangements for the pursuit of happiness, have our own way of approaching sightseeing. 


Picnicking on the Beach…

I had a fine day with the delightful library ladies, but the best part with them is when we sit down to eat.  We ended the formal excursion with a picnic on the beach.  Now the corporate culture of the library involves several work groups within the larger group – they refer to these groups as ”the collective”.  At all the functions, I dine with the Library Director’s collective. 


Each collective shares among the group whatever items they have brought along.  Not exactly like a potluck, but sort of.  There is never any organizing ahead of time.  People just bring whatever they want to bring.  (In past eras there were really not many choices so it was not necessary to be concerned about not having something – there will always be the same basic items.) 


When we arrived at the beach we discovered a makeshift table already set up by previous innovative picnickers – a weather beaten board balanced on some large rocks surrounded by driftwood seats. There was evidence of a fire ring too.


The ladies quickly threw a tablecloth over the wood and began unpackingtheir plastic bags.  The offerings include several kinds of apples, lots of delicious tomatoes and pickles, dozens of boiled potatoes in their skin, 5-6 sausages, loaves of bread, the very Ukrainian salo (garlicky pork fat), and many carrot, beet and eggplant pickled salads and chocolate bars.  There are also bottles of sparkling water, cognac and vodka. Far more food and drink than we can consume and it all looks lovely and inviting spilled haphazardly  across the table!


There is much laughter as we eat and toast one another. Most of these women have worked together for decades. The other collectives have younger women and I see that they play music and have beer with their meals.  The camaraderie is consistent across the various groups. They giggle, poke fun, tell stories. Usually there is singing, but today that did not happen. 


I shared the soap bubbles my daughter sent me for my birthday. What fun to watch them play.


I feel included, yet I am an outsider really, isolated by language and culture.  This is not entirely bad. It allows me to enjoy the view in a way one cannot if you are an intrinsic part of it.  This ”otherness” allows me to put things in perspective…I am in the forest and yet, I can see the trees!  I am happy to watch and to sit in the inner circle and soak up the beauty of this lovely picnic among friends. I mentally compose photographs-a camera would violate the sacred and intimate nature of this kind of gathering.


These moments, and others like them, make this Ukrainian experience more than just a vacation…I am grateful for this opportunity to experience community in this intimate way.


·                     Thursday, 28 September 2006

8 AM: Mark’s distinctive black cowboy hat and his trench coat, unbuttoned and flying behind him, are still visible from our kitchen window as he rounds the corner to the street outside our courtyard. 


He is on his way to Kiev for a 2 ½ hour IT meeting. 


That’s 24 hours on the train each direction and a night in the yet-to-be-renovated rooms Hotel B.   He will be home Sunday evening.  Not exactly cost effective, but necessary. The PCV IT team is scattered around this country which is the size of Texas, so travel is inevitable. This particular meeting has been scheduled, rescheduled, canceled and then scheduled again,  all in an effort to make it copasetic for all those involved. 


PC Ukraine has about active 300 PCVs; more than any other country served.  The Kiev staff includes about 3 US representatives and maybe 35-40 Ukrainians.  They are support personnel and do not actually get involved in projects – they put the PCVs in a position to serve. The staff is responsible for placement, training, safety, security, medical, administration, logistics, legal, discipline, morale, and myriad other needs.  


The life cycle of a typical PCV is 27-months. There are two training groups per year and two groups departing each year.  It is a dynamic environment.  Just managing the basics for those four groups is a full-time job for the staff.  Those PCVs who are in-between initial training and preparation from departure (close of service) present another opportunity for the staff to serve. 


There is a network of committees comprised of PCVs who help address some of the issues and provide feedback to management. The IT team is one example of such a committee.  There is also an advisory groups, a committee that works on the PCV quarterly newsletter. There are several support groups too.  There is a minority needs group and an over-50group, etc.


Why am I rambling on about the organizational structure and demands of PC staff. Well, maybe Mark’s trip is a trigger, but it may also be that my awareness is heightened by my own interests.


I find all this organizational background interesting.  Perhaps my decades of military experience in training and development and my MA in organizational management make me mindful of what actually goes on behind the scenes.   It is as dynamic as preparing a braodway show.


This is all on my mind because one of the small ideas I have nurtured for several years is beginning to burn brighter. The coals are becoming red and I am about to add some fuel.  With our tenure here in Ukraine rapidly winding down, I am thinking about options.  I found something that reflects my dream both in location, demands, and qualifications.  So, while Mark is gone, I will prepare my application and we shall see what unfolds…


·                     Wednesday, 27 September 2006

Successful English Club…

I am always most satisfied when I find ways to get everyone who attends English Club to speak. 


I move from satisfied, to happy, when I get them to relax and smile or laugh. They were comfortable, playful, at ease – in many ways people here are wary and suspicious. They are cautious people.


We also were able to share some language information and materials that are helpful, but it is the atmosphere that resonates for me. Trust and joy and gentle humor go a long way toward preparing the soil for the tiny seeds we plant.   


I have a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote pinned to the wall of our humble flat (I had it, and others, on my work desk for most of my military life).  As the years pass, this simple measure of success becomes more relevant, more meaningful, to me.   


…To laugh often and much,

to win the respect of intelligent people

and the affection of children,

to earn the appreciation of honest critics

and endure the betrayal of false friends,

to appreciate beauty,

to find the best in others,

to leave the world a bit better,

whether by a healthy child, a garden patch…

to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. 

This is to have succeeded!

- R.W.Emerson

The meeting tonight was very successful.


Some things we have helped English Club members with…

How to help organize a gallery show – this man has talent

How to help someone land a job and a flat in another city?

How can I start a business here in Kerch?

How do I find grants and funding?

How to improve English language classes?

How do I get a credit card? …a bank account?

How do I use the computer to enhance my life? (find music, art, companionship, information, jobs…etc)

How do I find the courage (and logistics) to venture out into the world?

How to dream…how to laugh…how to think outside the box…(in a culture that values the group over the individual these are lessons that are not easily learned…)


·                     Tuesday, 26 September 2006

Embracing Abundance…

There are days when I feel as if I am a character in a delightfully crafted novel, penned by a happy author.


Some days I feel as if I am living inside a beautiful painting – a kind of Norman-Rockwell-does-Eastern-Europe look. Mr. Rockwell and his paints would have fun here.


On this fine fall day, it is easy to be here, far from the USA, friends, family, the familiar life, but, life is good.


It is not yet 10AM and already I have returned from doing some marketing at the bazaar across town.   The bazaar is especially pleasant during the early hours on a fall day.  I returned with all the important staples of life in Ukraine: chocolate (a kilogram of delicious Korovkas to share with the library ladies on our excursion Friday), flowers ($2 buys a lot of fragrant marigolds, colorful mums and some purple blossoms for contrast), and yarn (which may become cozy socks for my guinea pig, Mark – haven’t made socks before!). 


As I strolled home past the Hero City monument, across Lenin Square and along the tranquil sea, trailing the perfumes from my bouquet, I made a point of looking around.    Many of the outdoor cafes that popped up to take advantage of the small summer tourist rush (mostly Russians with family here in Kerch), have decamped now that fall is here. With children back in school and the venders absent, the seaside walk is quite nice. Fishermen come early and as they reel in their lines and start walking home, they nod and greet me (or ignore me). Many of them stop at a local bar to swap fishing tales with their friends. Others, like our friend V, will take a few fish home for his housecat and then change into his suit before heading off to work at the port.


Cats are an integral part of life here in Crimea. During summer months, they have been somewhat invisible, but now that the weather is temperate and the crowds have thinned, they are prominent again.  I notice that the cats who monitor the morning anglers have finished their daily job and now seek out pleasant places to soak up the morning sun and nap awhile.  I pause to watch a handsome orange and white cat leap onto a café table. A determined waitress rushes out to shoo him away, snapping a dishtowel as she pursues him off the premises.  At another outside café, I see a pair of lanky kittens charmingly cuddled together around the base of a large potted plant – a photo opportunity for a cat lover.


I turn and look at the sea. The morning sun glitters on it and there is not a single wave.  Russia, only a few kilometers away, is obscured by a light morning haze, which may, or may not burn off.  Anyone not familiar with the peculiarities of seaside weather would be doubtful that some days Russia actually appears close enough to touch with an outreached hand.  (I remember my own skepticism when, after a few weeks at my brother’s Malawi home, I had still not actually seen Lake Malawi from the bedroom window where it is reported that the view is outstanding!  On my last day at the farm, I was rewarded with a glorious sunrise view from that very spot – the mountains of Tanzania beyond the glittering-blueness of Lake Malawi, bidding me farewell and burning a beautiful image into my brain.)


Now as I sit here on my soviet-era couch, tapping away on my laptop with the spacebar that fails to work, the scent of flowers wafts in from the kitchen where the blossoms wait in a sink full of cold water.  Later, I will spend some time in my sun filled kitchen arranging them into small bouquets using various mismatched cups and drinking glasses as improvised vases.  Then, I will sit down with a cup of coffee and a couple Korovka chocolates, admire my yarn purchases, breathe in the sweet perfume of my flowers, and read a few articles from the C.S. Monitor before I tackle some more practical tasks.


·                     Monday, 25 September 2006 (Russel & Kent’s’ B’Days!)

With our vacation over and the official workweek off to a start, I find a long list of happy demands on my time.  Like a woman with many delightful children all calling for her attention, I find myself pulled in many directions.  I have to remind myself to stay in the moment and allow the small pleasures and joys (the blessings) of life to dominate rather than to give in to the seeming bumps in the road.


It is noon.  A bucket-load of laundry is flapping on the sunny clothesline, drying in the fine autumn air.  The dishes are washed and in the cupboards and the floors are swept.  I spent a long time just putting things away.


Some of the clutter is gone, but there are many things that seem to have no home yet.  We have a few souvenirs from our vacation and there are some birthday and anniversary gifts that arrived in the mail.  And there are the training materials Mark accumulated in Kiev.


Blessed with too much stuff…

Mark took this small flat just over a year ago and it was quite empty when we moved in.  Now it is crowed with furniture, clothing, shoes, books, memorabilia, and the tools of daily life. 


Living like this, that is, knowing when we will leave and that we must take only what we can carry in our two-bags-apiece, hundred-pounds-apiece limit, is challenging.


There are many things we will want to take home with us, but we will have to leave them behind. How do we pick and choose?


Editing, both in writing and in life, is not my forte.     


You would think after over 29 years of military moves we would find this business easier.  In all our moves, we have gone forward with many things that remind us of our various adventures.  And, we have had to leave behind things too.  The deciding and the logistics are never easy, but perhaps easier in a military community where you have proximity to others who are arriving and are happy to lighten another’s load.  


Both logistics and culture work against us here. 


I would simply give it all to a new PCV, but we have no community of PCVs to turn over our treasures to. We are hours from the nearest PCV. 


Yard sales are not part of this culture. People give away what little they have. So why not give it away to local friends and acquaintances? 


Well, in part, I am self-conscious about the embarrassment of riches we have.  

I am aware that some of our purchases represent ridiculous, frivolous expenditures


I would like to, and probably will, find homes for our things by simply giving them away.  This sounds easy, but Ukrainians seem to prefer giving gifts to accepting them.  And our tastes are really dissimilar in ways beyond explaining. 


I find this dilemma similar to how one feels when they have over-tipped and it is seen as an insult to the recipient – this is all very difficult to articulate, but my sense of cultural sensitivity is rocked by this whole dilemma.


This experience, living in a post-soviet world, makes me cognizant of how our capitalistic system affects our behavior and choices. 


There is also the challenge of what to do with gifts we receive from our Ukrainian friends.  As I mentioned, they are fond of sharing gifts.  And did I mention that our tastes often differ?  Ukrainians have lived in a world with few choices for so many years.  Now with goods coming in from other countries, they are delighted by the razzle and dazzle. I have already received about 6 espresso sets, made in China and re-gifting them locally is really not an option. 


So, as I begin to look forward to managing our departure from this wonderful home, I am still plagued with keeping our tiny abode tidy and livable. 


Over the past few months I have corresponded (via e-mail) with many of the new PCVs in the training group that will begin their Ukraine adventures in just a few weeks. They are stateside now, packing their bags and will board the airplane in just a matter of days.  They will arrive with high hopes and far too much stuff…


Imagine – our greatest “problem” seems to be abundance.


We Americans are blessed with abundance, yet we often turn that blessing into a problem….


·                     Sunday, 24 September 2006

Collecting the Birds…

Our parakeets, well, my parakeets, (Mark says he is not a “bird-person”) have had a vacation too.  We took a marshrutka to the flat of one of our English Club members who offered to keep them. 


She (I.) has an 8 year-old, blue parakeet that flies around the small flat chattering and cheeping happily. My previously cage-bound birds have learned about the joys of flying and freedom during the past 20 days!  I felt a little like a mother whose child began to walk while I was away when I. told me about their first attempts at flight (they actually fell!) and their ultimate success at flying.


I found it interesting that I. used to mate birds – she knew her current bird when she was still in the egg!  


While we were at I.’s Spartan flat, we somehow got into a discussion on discrimination and prejudice.  It is interesting to hear the perceptions of people from this part of the world regarding life in the USA.


In this instance the generalization concerned the attitude of white Americans toward black Americans.  We had quite a conversation on American history and diversity as well as politics. Maybe a good topic for English Club…


·                     Saturday, 23 September 2006

Is there Such a Thing as Train-Lag?

The day after vacation is always a little rough.  We both woke up a bit stiff and still tired.


Mark decided to head over to the library for a few hours, partly because he is a conscientious kind of guy and partly because he can download our e-mail for the last 10-12 days.


I walked along as far as the post office where I collected the snail-mail: a couple unexpected packages, two cards (birthday and anniversary stuff) and some newspapers to keep me busy as I lounge on the couch, recuperating from vacation.


Catching-up on E-Mail…

My e-mail inbox says there are over 400 e-mails for me to sort through.  I sit on the couch, laptop on my lap (hence the name laptop) and begin my vigil. 


My approach is to basically follow the management advice about only “touching” a paper once.  I start with the newest mail and make my way through, deleting, filing or providing a quick reply.  There are many business e-mails which I group together – I will respond to them during “business hours” when I can give them the attention they deserve.


I spend a long pleasant evening in front of the flickering screen, catching up on news and humor from friends and family.   


·                     Friday, 22 September 2006

Waiting for the Train in Joncoi…

After an uncomfortable night on the train, we arrive in Joncoi around 9. We say goodbye to Babba, who is breakfasting on her sausage and bread (see yesterday’s post), and stagger off the train under the weight our luggage.  We do not have tickets to Kerch, the end of the line, because no seats were available when we booked our trip.   


We check in at the ticket window to see what we can arrange.  (Plan B is to catch the electrichka, a kind of electric short-run train, or a bus.  Plan C is to get a room and try to get, out tomorrow.  Plan D is the unofficial taxi - way too expensive so probably not an option) Luck is with us and we manage to get train tickets in a kupe on the Moscow-Kerch train leaving around noon and arriving in late afternoon. 


There is no where to lockup our luggage so rather than tour the town or visit the local bazaar, we settle into the dirty, uncomfortable waiting room and to people watch for a few hours. 


Cats and dogs wander in and out, sniffing at peoples bags and cadging food. The place is thick with flies.  The room smells of sweat, urine and greasy food. I am grateful it is not crowded or hot. 


Most of the other patrons look like actors in a depression-era film. I find myself wondering how old they really are and what their lives are like.  These are hardworking people, their teeth flash with metal repairs, their hands are gnarled, their clothing is worn.  The women are hunched and wear headscarves and shawls.


Much of the luggage piled around their feet is comprised of large, overstuffed plastic bags or the sturdy, ubiquitous plastic duffels we call”babushka bags”. (All over Ukraine venders use these bags to tote their various wares too and from market and many people use them for traveling too.) My tidy, red overnight bag by my feet looks out of place; the only color in a black and white film. 


 In Kiev and Lviv, both urban areas, the train passengers seemed more affluent, judging from their luggage and their attire. Among urban travelers you can sometimes see the wheeled carryon bags commonly used by airline passengers around the world.  These are becoming available and popular, but they are still somewhat of a status symbol.  They are really too large for train or bus travel.  Storage space is limited. People travel very light.  They are also impractical on typical Ukrainian surfaces – sidewalks are uneven and difficult to navigate. There are stairways up and stairways down – even when it would seem a stairway would be impractical or unnecessary.   


Though they travel light, they carry food when they travel.  Like the Babba on the train last night, there are sausages and bread, pickles and fruit, chocolate and juice tucked somewhere in their plastic bags or purses.  I can smell them.


I hear some angry voices and look up to see policemen pulling a gypsy woman away from the ticket window.  She spits and yells. They calmly hold her elbows and escort her out the door.    


I bury my nose in a book, ignore the flies, and occasionally feed a stray cat from the small stash of cat chow I routinely carry in a zip-lock bag in my own handbag (I confess, I also routinely carry a chocolate bar, but no sausages!).  A lame dog pauses by me. I give him part of the greasy snack I am not eating.  He limps away on three good legs.


I hear a loud splat and look up to see the red guts of a very ripe watermelon splattered across the floor.  It appears to have rolled off the bench.  The disappointed owner gathers up the remains, keeping a chunk for himself, and disposes of the rest in a trash receptacle.  Minutes later I watch as a person paws through the rubbish and happily extracts chunks of watermelon and begins to eat.  I look away. 


By the train I watch as a young man kicks a dog.  People stare.  This is uncharacteristic behavior in this country.  Everyone is a bit shocked at the brutality of the kick.  We avoid making eye contact with one another.


What kind of person kicks a dog?


Sometimes it is hard to overlook the dirt, filth, and poverty.  Things are seedy, grimy, old, battered – the train, the people, the community. 


I am glad when we finally board the train and leave this station behind. The heavy feeling lingers.


Racking Up the Rail Time: and the Grand Total is: XX Hours!

On the last leg of our train ride home (Joncoi-Kerch), I finish knitting the winter wooly scarf that I began at the start of the vacation (Kerch-Kiev).  All the train time in between also allowed me to read two novels.


The trip from Lviv to Kerch was 30 hours, and we logged XX hours from Kiev to Lviv, plus XX hours from Kerch to Kiev (the last of the faster trips provided to summer travelers to and from Crimea) for a grand total of XX hours bouncing over the rails of Ukraine in the past 12 days. Yikes!


Poor Mark is making another business trip to Kiev and back in less than a week so he will add another 48-hours of rail-time to his September train accounts!


Hmmm, 4-6 September we spent about two days on the bus…maybe it is better NOT to keep track!


Needless to say, it will be good to be home!


(Mark pointed out that in a thirty day period he will have logged 7days of the month on public transportation and that is 24/7! Or, put another way, he will have spent the equivalent of three US 40-hour work-weeks on the train or long distance bus!) 


Vacation is Officially Over.

The train pulls into the Kerch train station. We splurge on a cab to take us home in style.  As the familiar sights of Kerch rolled past the taxi’s windows, I feel happy to be home again.


Dusty and Oscar, my favorite courtyard cats and good friends, meet us at our gate.


Vacations are nice, but there is no place like home!


·                     Thursday 21 September 2006

Leaving Lviv…

We check out of our luxurious digs in old Lviv, buy some sausage, bread, cookies and fruit for our 9AM train ride to Joncoi and then take a taxi to the train station.


We have a sunny kupe to ourselves and enjoy watching the Ukrainian countryside fly by outside the window. Around 1 PM, Mark slices apples and tomatoes, bread and sausage. A vender comes by and sells us a bottle of wine to complete our lovely picnic lunch in our cozy train car. 


Our Knife-Wielding, Babushka Buddy…

Around 2, the train stops, and soon our compartment door bangs open. In walks a large, round, smiling Ukrainian Babushka, smelling strongly of onions and sweat.  Our new companion informs us she is a type II invalid and will be traveling all the way to Kerch.  (Something about her reminds me of old Miss Johnson, my home economics teacher back in high school.) 


“Babba” eyes the upper bunk that has been assigned to her.  She is not happy. The upper bunk will be a challenge for her. She speaks to the conductor who informs her that changes cannot be made.  We hear the discussion of her invalid status.  Babba whines.  The conductor stands firm.  Computers make the seat assignments and there is no way to make an adjustment.  The conductor sighs and leaves.


Mark and I look at one another. Babba looks at us.  Mark, graciously, if not happily, knuckles and kindly offers to take the upper bunk. 


I am relieved that we will not have to actually witness the logistics of this formidable woman climbing into that narrow upper bunk.


About 3PM, our new travel companion produces, from the depths of her ancient, black, cracked vinyl purse, a large, greasy kielbasa wrapped in yellowed newspaper. She spreads a stained napkin on the small train table. She wrestles the lid off a small salt container and reaches in her bag again.  She pulls out a loaf of bread and a massive pocket knife.  She carves huge chunks of fatty sausage and places them on slabs of bread. 


“Eat, eat,” she intones in typical Babba fashion, pointing at us with the blade of her knife and flashing her metal-work smile at us.  


Since Mark made the bed swap, it only seems fair that I be the one who politely shares the meal with her.  No matter that we had already eaten or that I do not care for fatty sausage, etc.  It is a no win situation.  I was trapped: when a Babba says eat, you just eat.


I nibbled at a piece of meat watching while Babba dips hers in salt and wolfs it down. She talks to me in Ukrainian as she eats.  I try to ignore the bits of food that fly from her mouth.  She uses the corner of the greasy napkin under the sausage to wipe her lips and then the knife.    


Around 4, another companion arrives. About 5PM, Babba says goodnight and crawls into her lower bunk for the night.  This leaves the newest travel companion sitting on the edge of Babba’s bed.  It is her turn to bite the bullet.  She crawls up into her upper bunk and calls it a night too. 


Ordinarily there are reading lights in each bunk so one can simply retreat into a book if compartment-mates choose to sleep and you are trapped in an upper bunk.  But the reading lights do not come on until dark, and at 5PM in September, it is not yet dark. (In fact, our reading lights turned out to broken anyway.)   So, not only were we trapped with a snoring Babba in a small space smelling of sweat and onions and greasy meat, we also had no lights. 


So, we all went to bed, roosting like chickens.


·                     Wednesday, 20 September 2006

Rainy Start..

Fall weather can be unpredictable, but nonetheless, fall is my favorite season.


Our plans for the day include several outdoor activities so I stepped out on the narrow balcony and breathed in the scent of petunias while I looked down at the street and the café below.  It appears to be a fine day.


We cross the room, open the door to the hallway and stop dead in our tracks.  We make eye contact.


“Is that rain I hear?” asks Mark.


I move swiftly back across the room, and once again step out on the balcony – rain.  “Cats and dogs,” I reply.  “In the street cafe below, people are huddling under the awning.”


“Change of plans?” asks Mark “Or shall we tough it out?”


. There is a Ukrainian proverb that says, if it rains when you are leaving, it is because the city does not want you to go.  What a lovely thought.   I like Lviv, and I am not eager to go, but this is our last day in Lviv and these “tears” are very inconvenient! There are things I want to see and do! 


I remember an American proverb Mother used to repeat: “Rain before 7 quits by 11.”  Not too helpful since it is already almost 10.  Sigh.


Well, as my military training instructor said several times during Air Force basic training: “You aren’t made of sugar honey!  You won’t melt in the rain!”


“Grab the umbrella and let’s go.” I say to my waiting husband, and head toward the door.


We are in luck.  The rain stops as quickly as it began. By the time we arrive at the artist street market, the streams of water that turned the 750 year-old city’s cobblestone streets into slippery deathtraps have dried up and the sky is bluing.


Buying a Ukrainian Folk Shirt… 


Despite the earlier rain, these hearty souls have set up their impressive displays of beautifully hand-embroidered, traditional Ukrainian folk shirts. The mission today, is to choose one.  


It should be a pleasure to choose one and take it home. 


But for me it is a challenge.  It is akin to choosing just one pup or one kitten from a shelter with rows and rows of homeless animals.  How does one ever choose one?  The right one?  Any one?


When given many choices, I am often inclined to simply walk away.  (Want to sell me something?  Make it exclusive or one of a kind!)


Another method of dealing with such decisions is to allow someone else to make the choice.


This seems to be a characteristic of my mother’s side of the family.  My brother and sisters used to lovingly poke fun of this family foible. 


When our delightful aunts would try to choose a place to eat lunch the conversation would circle around and around, something like this:  “Where do you want to eat?”


“Oh, you know I don’t care, where do you want to eat?” demurs the second aunt.


“No, no, you choose, I really have no preferences and you are the guest!” replies the first aunt.


“No, I insist, you choose,” responds number two.


“Well, sister, I chose last time.  It is your turn to choose.” Says aunt number one, smiling sweetly.


Heaven forbid if all the aunts were together trying to make a decision!  Then of course when someone finally makes a choice the others would say things like the following.

,”Yes, Wong’s House of Rice is wonderful, if you like that kind of food.  But we will go there!  It will be fine.”


Or: “That’s a good choice! We haven’t been there since they had that food poisoning scare last year.”


Yikes…what a passive-aggressive bunch!     


Have I digressed? Perhaps, but it ties in with what happens next.


At the artist market, Mark quickly finds a lovely shirt.  The style suits him.  It is fun to watch the venders hover around him, offering suggestions or adding accessories to enhance their choice of shirts and making adjustments to the collar and so forth.


I hang back a bit, trying to assess my own feelings on which shirt to claim as my own. None of them seems to call my name.  I really want to walk away.


Suddenly Mark and the saleswoman turn tome. I am caught off guard.


Mark suggests I try one on.  The eager saleswoman quickly removes my glasses and begins pulling a shirt over my head.


The neckline is too small.  My head will not go through easily – I feel trauma like an infant might as it passes through the birth canal! My head is stuck; my arms are in the sleeves and are flailing about over my head as the woman aggressively tugs at the blouse.


We pause.  People stare.  I am conscious of being a foreigner.  I am conscious of my large head. I am conscious of the makeup getting smeared on the neckline of this shirt.  


The clerk suggests removing my hairclip.  No, I say, the shirt is too small.  The woman, eager to make a sale or perhaps sincere in her efforts, insists this is normal and tugs one more time.


My head pops through.  People stare.  The saleswoman holds up a mirror.  I am self-conscious and my eyes tear up under the stress.  Teary-eyed and without glasses, I cannot really see myself in the small mirror, but, I am not happy with the glimpse I get.


The sleeves seem too short. I think I would like the red and black shirt better, but my makeup has ruined this shirt and I am certainly not eager to try on another shirt and repeat this stressful episode.


Mark admires the shirt.




This is not going well.


I just say yes and we buy the shirt.


The rain is gone and the Ukrainian skies are almost cerulean.  Inside my head and heart, black clouds have rolled in a sudden storm is threatening.  I do not want to spoil Mark’s day, but I have disappointed myself and am doing battle to keep from behaving like a tired child.


This should have been a fun experience, but somehow it has gone awry.


Castle Walk,

The hearty walk up the hill to the 14th century castle ruins helps me regain my composure and perspective after the shopping “ordeal”.


Part of the climb includes stairs – I stop counting somewhere around 300.  The bold yellow and blue Ukrainian flag snaps in the breeze at the peak of the hill. The panoramic view is worth the climb, but the castle ruins are a disappointment. (Friend E., warned us of this). 


On the walk home we stopped at Gunpowder Tower (1555), near our flat, and had a drink.  The edifice was where munitions were stored when the building was part of the fortress walls.


Dinner at E.’s…

Poor E.  Every PCV who visits beautiful Lviv, makes a stop at E.’s flat and many stay the night.  This gracious southern gentleman gets no privacy!

We had him over to our temporary digs earlier in the week for a “home cooked” meal and tonight we agreed to dine at his place. He is a transplanted lawyer from New Orleans.  I suspect when the term ”Posh Corps” gets thrown around, E.'s flat and site are mentioned. He has a lovely location, for those of us who prefer an urban setting.


It was nice to relax and visit.


When we got back to our temporary home on our last night in Lviv, I turned on the satellite TV to an Irish channel which has a weekly”Girl’s Night”.  It was fun to stay up late watching reruns of “Sex in the City” and the movie “Mr.Wonderful” while we packed up our things. 


It has been wonderful to access English=speaking TV news all week too!  One of the things I really miss about life in the USA is National Public Radio (NPR), but this TV access has been great!


I guess I may miss the great bed in this flat too!


Tomorrow we begin our return trek to far away Kerch and or return to Peace Corps life.


·                     Tuesday, 19 September 2006: Mom’s Birthday (1914-2004)

Jacuzzi in the Morning…

I have often said I consider taking a hot shower to be a mini- vacation. What can be more luxurious than lots of hot, hot, hot water and sweet-smelling soap?


The Jacuzzi is a nice start or finish to a day and this Jacuzzi is versatile.  The flat has a few lovely, large, fluffy, white spa towels and even has heated towel bars!  Typical of Ukrainian homes, the commode is isolated in a separate room making the bathing experience even more pleasant.


This flat also has a bidet, something we became accustomed to in the places we lived in Spain. This is our first exposure to them in Ukraine, but then we have been circulating in a Peace Corps environment up until now.  This is a vacation! 


The Day Unfolds…

The flat is only a few blocks from historic Rhinok Square (Renaissance buildings, lovingly restored – most of Ukraine’s historic architecture was destroyed during the Great Patriotic War and other battles in their bloody history.) where there are several museums. We spent a pleasant hour touring the Museum of Furniture and then spent almost as long in the wonderful bookstore near the entrance.  Despite the fact that most of the volumes are in Ukrainian (some English and NO Russian!), we found plenty to engage us there.


In fact, Lviv is a city of bookstores.  It could be because there are more than ten institutions of higher learning here.  There are several publishing houses here too. It may also that Ukrainian nationalism is alive and well here and they are eager to get works published in Ukrainian, the national language of this newly independent country.  In any case we wandered in and out of about 5 great book stores each day of our visit here!  (Not to mention the Book Fair that was in town when we arrived!)    


Lychakiv Cemetery Walk…

The highlight of this day is a leisurely visit to the cemetery. Yes that may seem strange, but it really is a place worth seeing.   It is a historic landmark and reputed to be the finest cemetery in Europe.  The elaborate and diverse styles of tombstones and monuments provide real insight into the various cultures that have claimed this city.


The Austrian-Hungarian Empire collapsed and bloody battles between Ukrainians and Poles ensued in the streets of Lviv.  The cemetery is the final resting place honoring those who fought in a stunning, elegant necropolis.  The row upon row of stones representing each soldier is a chilling tribute to those who gave their lives and is a reminder of the impact war has – each marker means a family who has lost someone.


We spent some quiet time here.


Butterflies visit and flowers bloom.  Squirrels scamper about.  It is a beautiful place. It is a sacred place. 

I am reminded of how wonderful life is and how much joy there is.


I think of “The Spoon River Anthology” and wonder what these young soldiers would have to say.


Celebrity Cowboy in the Italian Courtyard…

We stop for Irish coffee in the Italian Courtyard in Rhinok Square before we wend our way home. 


There is a party going on at a neighboring table.  The guests cast a few looks our way when we enter, and then continue on with their lively celebration.  Later we wander through the gallery and when we are about to leave we are approached by a well dressed man from the table of revelers. He asks if he may have his photo taken with the cowboy.  Once again, it is Mark and his cowboy hat that create a stir. 


This is not the first time, nor will it be the last.


As we pose with several Ukrainians, I have a sudden memory of a similar incident when my father visited us when we lived in Spain back in 1976, 


Dad wore a large tan Stetson, a cowboy hat and a black suit. He was a striking man and may have resembled a celebrity, but it was probably the cowboy hat that attracted the crowd.  We were wandering around the beautiful gardens of the Alhambra in Granada and a bevy of giggling school girls suddenly appeared, huddled around him, begged for his autograph and wanted their photos taken with him.  More students arrived.  Dad stood there with his wonderful smile lighting up his face. He laughed and let them snap away. Pretty soon the crowd dissipated and we resumed our quiet tour of the gardens.


Thinking of Dad, reminds me that today is (or would have been) Mom’s birthday.  I linger over pleasant memories of Mom and Dad while the revelers continue to snap photos of Mark. Good memories and a pleasant moment.


Back in Kerch, the locals are used to seeing Mark’ cowboy hat, but here in Lviv,   he stands out.  People smile.  Sometimes they say the word “cowboy” or “George Bush” or “America”…there is a moment of connection.


I have said before, if you want to meet people or start a conversation with strangers take a dog or a small child on a walk…apparently a cowboy hat is a good icebreaker too!


·                     Monday, 18 September 2006

A Lazy Day…

We wander through bookstores like kids in a candy store. I miss Barnes & Nobles and all the other mega-bookstores.  Here there are few books I can really read, but also they seldom let you touch the books.  Most stores protect the books from theft and filth by keeping them behind the counter. If you wish to look at a book you have to ask.


We lunch at McDs…don’t tell anyone!


The afternoon escapes us as we wander for hours and hours in a huuuuuuge outdoor bazaar near the beer factory.  We look at kittens and bridal wear, household goods and clothes. Mark buys some embroidery materials and I find a scarf.


I love people watching at the bazaar.


·                     Sunday, 17 September 2006

We awake to church bells and the sound of pigeons flapping their wings…

After a lazy breakfast, we hiked over to the big bazaar, but discovered it was closed.  Could it be the influence of the Catholic Church or what? The huge bazaar is closed on Sundays and so are all the surrounding stores.  In Kerch, everyday is bazaar day from dawn until late in the afternoon.


We walked here expecting to buy supplies for the dinner we are preparing for our guest.  E., a PCV living here in Lviv, is coming over for an evening meal with us.


After much tramping around the city we find a few venders and manage to put together a menu.


We also stumble on an antique and used book market near our flat. I found some old museum reproductions of illuminated Russian manuscripts which will make great framed pieces when we get back to the USA. About a dollar!


·                     Saturday, 16 September 2006

Flower Market…

A few blocks from our flat we found ourselves in the middle of a thriving flower market.  There are permanent venders and of course there are babushkas who show up with bouquets from their dachas and gardens.  They are almost as colorful as their bouquets with their bright headscarves and floral print dresses and shawls, their blue eyes peering out of their wrinkled, smiling faces.  I am in sensory overload. I am delighted.


What a place to take photos! 


Since we are enroute to a destination, I leave with no purchases, but I will come back later for a bouquet.


Schevshenko Grove & the Museum of Folk Architecture & Rural Life…

The weather is crisp and the sky bold blue with fluffy clouds – a great day to wander through the 165 acres and 100 old buildings that make up this 165acre outdoor museum. 


We arrived early and spent a leisurely day exploring the cottages in each village. I have wanted to visit the similar museum in Kiev and have not yet managed it, so, I was especially delighted to spend the day here. I only wish we had brought a picnic.


50 Brides and Still Counting...

The event that really topped off the day was near the end. As we were wending our way toward the exit, we saw more and more bridal parties arriving. Photographers were busily creating beautiful scenes and capturing intimate moments while elegantly dressed members of the wedding party sipped champagne and wandered around the grounds. Outside the church there were wedding parties waiting to consecrate their vows too. The meadow was filled with brides.


We counted about 50 brides, before the novelty wore off and we quit counting. 


And then, at the entrance to the park, there were many more wedding parties waiting to come in. More brides!  The parking lot was jammed with marshrutka and rented cars, all decorated with flowers. Lots of beer and champagne and vodka flowing and grumpy drivers trying to jockey parking places.


For about a mile outside the park, we walked among brides and grooms and guests… pretty amazing. A nice touch since this vacation is focused on our own wedding anniversary celebration.


Seeing all these brides made me think of our daughter and son-in-law’s lovely wedding ceremony and photo session by the mill stream in MA…Some lovely memories!


I had to laugh remembering that we wanted to have our own wedding in the local park in my hometown, but my Mom’s sisters got in an uproar over that and the preacher did not think it was proper…how things have changed in the USA.  It would be fun if my Aunts were around to see all these brides at Schevshenko Grove!  


·                     Friday, 15 September 2006

We got off the Train in Lviv at 0708…

It is too soon to check in at our flat, so we check our bags at the station and start exploring.


Lviv is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

There about 800,000 people here and since it is close to the Polish border (50miles) it is a crossroads.


It is said that a couple could have been born in Austria, married and raised a family in Poland, lived in Germany, died in the Soviet Union, and  buried in Ukraine yet never moved from their original house or city.  This is not a riddle; it is just that Lviv has changed hands often, very often.


So when people say it is the most Ukrainian of cities, I wonder what they really mean! 


Ukrainian history is confusing and convoluted.  It is a borderland and the site of many battles. Lviv is one city that has managed to come through all the strife with some of the beautiful architecture still intact.


Lviv is celebrating 750 years this September - like me, she is a Virgo! Kerch, our PC site, had its 25,000 year birthday last September (a Virgo too!).


Circus Building, Book Fair& Finally, the Flat

We meander along making our way to the center city, waiting until we can check into our flat.  We discover the permanent circus building, and are disappointed to find that the cast is on the road just now, so there will be no opportunity to see the show.  


We pass many beautiful buildings and visit a few shops as we walk along.  Soon we find ourselves in the square fronting the theater. A book fair is in progress so the boulevard is lined with kiosks and crowds.  We walk, and take photos of monuments (there are over 2,000 monuments in this city!)  We stroll through the artists market and eye the beautiful embroidered shirts and towels that are typical souvenirs of this part of Ukraine.


Finally the cell phone rings and we are invited to check in.  Wewalk afewblocks and arrive.


Flat – a beautiful bargain!

The flat is up one flight, and from the street we see the windowboxes spilling pink and white petunias over the wrought iron. There is a delightful sidewalk café and a gallery just steps away. The location is wonderful for alazy, unstructured visit.


Inside we find a large, bright, well appointed space with twenty foot ceilings and many modern accoutrements.  Our agent meets us and explains how to use various things such as the Jacuzzi and, the gas system., and the satellite TV, etc. 


We have rented flats from this agency before, and they were fine, but this one is really elegant.  Yes, we splurged a bit, but they also reduced the price a bit when they heard we were celebrating our wedding anniversary. 


We have discovered that the tourist trade is still developing so some of the best accommodations are flats rather than hotels.  The prices are less and the accommodations better.  There is far more privacy and space.  We paid about $60 a night and the local hotel (Hotel George is poular), with the bathroom down the hall, would want far more than that for two guests.


Even at that price it is still steep for a typical Ukrainian or a Peace Corps Volunteer.  Our rule of thumb for maintaining perspective on what is or is not expensive is that many people here earn only about $10 USD a day (that’s 50 UaH).  So $60 USD a night is quite a splurge!

Museum of Ethnography, the Bazaar…

We settled in and then began to explore the beautiful city outside.


·                     Thursday, 14 September 2006

No Breakfast or Hot Water…

We started the day with no hot water (again) and then when we strolled into the dining room, learned that despite assurances yesterday from the PC staff, there was no breakfast available for those of us who remained overnight.


Despite the inconveniences, this conference site is far nicer and more comfortable than the ones usually contracted by Peace Corps.


Taxi to Train

Since we have luggage, we elect to share a cab with another departing PCV.  We go to the train station, check our bags and get lured into McDonalds for coffee and a restroom stop.


We hop on the Metro and make our way to the enormous second-hand bazaar.  I poke through piles of inviting items and Mark finds a few good deals himself.


We head back to the train station, rearrange our bags to accommodate our purchases and board the train with enough food supplies for dinner and breakfast. The train left Kiev station at 1510.


Soldier Songs…

Our train car is pleasant but we discover there is a bar at the end of our car. They sell beer and vodka and snacks.  Some soldiers discovered the car after most of the passengers were in bed, and sour lullabies were drinking songs and military tunes as we sped through the night toward our vacation destination.


·                     Wednesday, 13 September 2006

In Service Training Winds Down…

There are more training sessions today. I participated happily.


One speaker is an expert on Ukrainian politics (some kind of an analyst) who provided us some interesting insights into a very confusing situation here in the nation’s capital. 


There are several good sessions.


I elect to not participate in what I predicted would be a “bitch” session in the afternoon. One of the “Perks” of not being an actual PCV is I can walk away from stuff!  (I was right about the ugly nature of the session – I was informed by others that Mark made a creditable and much appreciated effort to keep


Local Bazaar Visit

With the official part of this trip over, we spent the late afternoon strolling in a local bazaar and then found a lovely park to explore.  (There was a restaurant setup in an old submarine!)  We walked until I got blisters and then headed back to the room.  We grabbed some street food enroute and called it a night.


·                     Tuesday, 12 September 2006

Reunion the PCV Business Group…

It was great to meet old PCV friends and meet new ones so breakfast was like a reunion for me.  I am not a PCV so try to keep a low profile.  I pay my way and make sure people know that so I hope not to get tangled in the favoritism trap…soooo, I am leery about being here.


While Mark attends the morning session, I walk around the neighborhood.  The conference site is a University setting and we are staying in pleasant graduate student rooms.  It has the feel of a hotel and is used as a conference setting. The location is actually not great for walking – mostly factories in this area.


I return for lunch with the attendees and the staff folks encourage me to attend the afternoon sessions. I elect to attend.



The evening flew by. We spent some time sitting with a large group of PCVs at a local bar.  Later we piled into one room and continued talking shop, burning DVDs and getting acquainted until about 2 AM.


I met a couple delightful fellow Midwesterners, including a guy from Council Bluffs.  We had lots of stuff in common. His Mom is coming for a visit, so we made tentative arrangement to meet.

I enjoyed feeling like part of the organization and being among business folks. Flash backs to my days in The Air Force!


·                     Monday, 11 September 2006: Five Year Anniversary of9/11

The view from the train window makes me homesick for Iowa.

Autumn is in the air. Ripening pumpkins grow in patches near the train tracks.  There are many cows staked out along the tracks too.  I see an old woman riding a bike – she has buckets filled with apples attached to both handlebars and a wooden box of apples strapped on the back of the bike. There are beautiful conifers and birch trees.


As we approach Kiev, I find myself thinking of Iowa and get a little homesick –the terrain and the rich, black Loess soil seem to trigger this feeling.


We breakfast on muesli and yogurt which we brought with us and sip hot tea provided by the conductor.  Then we get dressed for our arrival in the big city of Kiev.


McDonalds – a Taste of Americana…

We quickly make our way on foot, up the hill several blocks to the PC office.  Mark is like an ox, loaded down with out things.


I will spend the afternoon at the PC office.  I expect to meet and interview a very special PCV for article for the Friends of Ukraine newsletter.  Mark will hurry off to attend a PC training event for business track volunteer sat allocation across town.


I end up not getting the interview.  The PCV returned from medical with bad news – medical separation. He will be out of the country and separated by Friday. Under the circumstances, I did not get to meet him.


I ended up whiling away my afternoon wait with several young women in an atmosphere somewhat like a slumber party!  We shared McDonald’s burgers and fries; laughed and talked as we lounged in front of the satellite TV in the PV lounge.  I learned a lot about hip-hop and fashion and other topics as unexpected afternoon events unfolded.


The Kiev 9/11 Memorial…

Around 1915 I began walking to Kiev’s beautiful the 9/11 monument (Klovcka Metro stop on the Blue line). I met Mark, and several other PCVs at the monument to pay respects on the five year anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy.  The base of the monument was surrounded with hundreds of bouquets. A steady stream of visitors arrived and departed as we stood near the monument sharing stories of what we were each doing when the 9/11 news broke and how this event changed our lives.


The monument is shaped like a divided heart and incorporates the idea of a tuning fork (harmony) into the design.  The body of the monument has ”Thou shalt not kill” written all over it in many languages.


We took the Metro and then a marshrutka back to the institute dormitory for the night.


·                     Sunday, 10 September 2006

On the Road Again - Off to Kiev…

This is the last summer train of the season. That means we depart at 1640 and arrive tomorrow at 1320.  Normally the trip to Kiev involves 23 hour of train time. 


During the summer, Crimea is packed with tourists so getting seats on any train, coming or going, is almost impossible.  (See earlier posts on difficulties in getting train tickets!)  This train has clearly been worked hard – it is filthy! 


On long train rides, we travel in kupe rather than platzcar.  With 4 people in a kupe compartment there is more privacy, security, and space and it is generally a bit tidier.  Platzcar cheaper and has is open seating (and sleeping).  It is an adventure and an opportunity to really observe Ukrainian culture at very close range. During summer, literally thousands of kids transit to and from the beaches and summer camps here in Crimea.


Unfortunately, this kupe compartment, this whole car, has been abused all summer long and is need of some serious housekeeping and maintenance.   I detect the smell of cat piss and there are brown, drips dried on the walls.  The reading lights do not work.


We share the kupe with a young Ukrainian couple (he – an engineer, she – a doctor).  They have visited friends in Novy Svet (Crimean beach town famed for its champagne).  Initially they were a bit cagey, possibly put off by our language skills (we do not speak any Ukrainian and they speak no Russian).  Our discomfort was compounded when we managed to lock ourselves into the compartment. The young engineer painfully explained how the lock works, using the patronizing manner one might take when dealing with a stupid child.  Not a great start.


Mark presents a picture of incongruity in his very casual train wear (cit off sweatpants, a white t-shirt and bare feet), bent over his embroidery project stitching away.  I began knitting a scarf. Our travel companions buried their noses in Ukrainian newspapers.


Later in the evening, when we were all four in the compartment, the kupe door slammed shut, leaving us all trapped inside.  Mr. Engineer became somewhat panicked and began banging and kicking at the handle.  Soon another traveler came to our rescue. He slid open the door and then explained to us that the”child lock” was on. He demonstrated how it works to keep a child (or ignorant adults) in the compartment. 


We four had a pretty good laugh.   


Later we shared some wine and had some good conversation (especially considering language challenges!) before the younger couple declared it to bedtime at about 9PM. They are on a health regime that included a light dinner of apples. 


Since there were only broken reading lights, it was an early night.  As night progressed it was very cold. I used my shawl as an extra blanket and still shivered under the summer blanket provided by the conductor. 


·                     Saturday, 9 September 2006

Gratitude can turn a meal into a feast,

a house into a home,

a stranger into a friend.

It makes sense of our past,

brings peace for today, and

creates a vision for tomorrow.

- Melody Beattie


1,000 Days without War…

The world is in the midst of the longest period of world peace in more than half a century.* For over 1,000 days there have been no wars: yes there have been conflicts, but it takes two governments to wage a war, and according to the article cited below, war is just not happening.


The threats that remain are not the focused, global threats that come from a nation with weaponry or stockpiles of missiles. 


This is not just semantics; nor is it simply cock-eyed, optimism or drivel.


The absence of war is worth celebrating, despite the fact there are still insurgencies and bloodletting and terrorist threats.  It is evidence. It is a light at the end of the tunnel. 


The seeds of hope must sprout, before they take root.  We must nurture this seedling.


We fixate on the negative so often - what if we celebrate the positive?  What if we acknowledge the good, the blessings we have already received?


*NOTE: These are my thoughts based on a provocative opinion piece I read in the Christian Science Monitor/World Edition, 2-8 September 2006 issue. The article is titled: “Welcome to World Peace” by Charles Kurzman and Neil Englehart – with the anniversary of 9/11 ahead, it is an editorial to be read!   


The Wedding…

The evening entertainment involved watching the wedding video (about 3 hours of unedited stuff) of one of Mark’s Ukrainian co-workers…it felt like watching a documentary. 


There was a personable Tatar “Baba” wearing a traditional scarf. She was ready to go when the dancing began. Mark observed,”She looks younger in every scene!”.


It would have been fun to be at the wedding, but we really enjoyed the video.  Nothing like a wedding or a funeral to tell you about a culture.



·                     Friday, 8 September 2006

Go within everyday and find the inner strength

so that the world will not blow your candle out.

– Katherine Dunham

An Englishman in the Neighborhood…

I heard three faint taps on the entry door.  I squinted to read the time on Granddaddy Mark’s wristwatch that lives on our kitchen table. It is 1730. It maybe Mark at the door,  


“Mark?” I called out. “Is that you?”


I reached to unlock the door before the answer hit my ears. The door swung open to reveal Cat-woman standing there, cradling Poodoo-Dog and scratching him behind his ears.


Cat-woman reeled off a long barrage of Russian and gestured for me to come with her. As I walked out the door with her, I worked at deciphering the details of her invitation. 


Clearly she had something to show me.  Thinking, rather than listening, I assumed there may be kittens involved…perhaps a new litter? This seemed unlikely since Cat-woman has never knocked on my door before.  It must be something more urgent.


I stopped thinking and began actually listening (a very useful strategy that I sometimes forget to engage).  As we walked across the courtyard I learned that there is a new couple living here; an older 50-is, Englishman and his youthful (20-something) Ukrainian wife.


I looked down at my scruffy trousers, frumpy t-shirt and flip-flops and wondered if I had even combed my hair today.  Cat-woman waved her hand at me and indicated that I look just fine.  


The couple was working in their garden when we descended on them.  We quickly introduced ourselves and conversation plunged forward to intimate life details as conversation often does among expatriates with a common language.  Within moments of shaking hands, I knew details about her family and his medical condition and many of his political opinions and fears too

Cat-woman slipped away to watch her afternoon soap opera and I lingered, listening to the new neighbors and answering their questions and concerns.


You never know what each day will bring.


·                     Thursday, 7 September 2006

Each moment is a place you’ve never been

-Mark Strand

We are home again now…

Yesterday we mostly traveled. The weather warned us that days at the beach are history now.  I walked in the rain in my flip flops, shivering, glad to have the umbrella Amanda bequeathed me when she COSed this spring. As we stood in the bus station, I mentally revised my packing list for our upcoming extended trip to Kiev and Lviv: warm clothes.


Our getaway was lovely.  We have traveled so much over the decades that we really just enjoy a lazy pace with no real agenda when we travel together. It is not so much about seeing things as it is about just being together.


As typical Americans, we are so used to traveling by car.  Going by bus and train make different demands on a traveler.  The agenda is different too.  People speak of going on an excursion when they go anywhere.  It is appropriate.  In touristed areas, there are venders on the street who sell tour packages to local sites. These include transportation and a guide.


Of course you give up your autonomy on a tour. When we took an excursion last spring we were marched through the palace (and the mansion and garden),   told all the “important” details (“…the ceiling is XX meters high and the books on the shelves number XXXX.  Now move along, move along…”) 


We have taken several excursions since and it is typical. The guide controls the event and makes certain the educational and health matters are shared. Stopping to actually shop or even look around in the gift shop or at the venders along the way is impossible.  I could have made a significant contribution to economic development had they given me sometime in the gift shop at the palace! 


So, no excursions on this trip.


Bus-ride Vignettes…

I watch a mother weeping under a lone tree, surrounded by miles of golden, flat prairie-land. Her son brushes my arm as he makes his way down the bus aisle to his seat.  I look up to see him wipe away a tear.


I listen to a young mother and new father patiently shhh-shhh-shhhing a tiny baby that cries and cries as the bus bounces down the highway.  People smile.


I smell the sweat of a large middle-aged traveler and watch as she delicately pats and blots perspiration from her brow with a blue and white handkerchief.  She tucks it in her bosom, plumps up her considerable cleavage and sighs.  


On the highway I see a skinned hog, hanging from a tree, a scale beside it, in case someone wants to make a purchase.


Along the empty roadside, a babushka, wrapped in clear plastic to keep the wind off her, sells red onions from a bucket.


A tiny man, in a much-too-large black suit, wears tennis shoes and a happy smile.  He shakes people’s hands as he boards the bus and again when he leaves.


·                     Wednesday,6 September 2006

Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others.

Unfold your own myth.

- Rumi

Pushkin and Chekhov…

Yesterday, we visited the home and gardens where Pushkin, in his early 20s, began to collect the words he would later pen. His short time in Crimea continued to influence him long after he was gone. 


The house made me think of plantations near Charleston SC.  I could have stayed happily on the veranda and whiled away the day enjoying the sea breezes. 


Later we wandered up the steps and out to a rocky isthmus where Chekhov long ago spent time in a cozy, very private dacha.  Mark read and translated the Russia text as we wandered through the museum (chiefly B&W period photographs). 


On this more humble veranda, I thought I could stay here all my life.


·                     Tuesday, 5 September 2006 – Our Anniversary!

Could we change our attitude, we should not only see life differently,

but life itself would come to be different.

-Katherine Mansfield

Enjoying Gurzuf…

Long before I arrived in Crimea, I saw a small, grainy photo of a street in Gurzuf and thought, I would like to visit this place someday.  


It was a feeling, a hunch.  I could find no information on this town.


Later I learned that Chekhov once lived in Gurzuf and Pushkin, spent time there too.  I found a few references indicating that this community is the vacation site of writers, painters and the educated Russian elite.  During July, many movie and TV stars vacation here in this artist community.


Now we are here and I see my intuition is good!


Gurzuf is charming with a wonderful ambience. It has the feel of Carmel or the SF Bay area.  It is not a randy beach town but an elegant one.  The people sunbathing read books and many of them play chess.


In the early 1800s this community was home to only about 200 people, living in wooden homes built on the steep mountain slopes looking down on a cove. The Tatar architecture and the steep cobblestone streets give it a special charm.  It retains the feel of a small town.


Our room opens onto an enclosed patio just off the town square.  The September weather is perfect for a short holiday by the sea.


We visit the local bazaar and sample some local wine – the vinyards stretch up the mountainside behind the town.  We buy a fruity cabernet in a Pepsi Cola bottle and then move on to choose some locally made cheese and some sausage too.   Fresh tomatoes are so sweet, firm and beautiful they make a meal with just a little salt. We buy soft, doughy lavage (Tatar bread).   


The venders are friendly and banter with us.  They ask about home. They seem interested and sincere and welcoming.  They like Mark’s cowboy hat.


After a stroll along the sea, we stop and enjoy cognac and espresso in contrail of an almost full moon.



The tourism industry is puzzling here. Things are not developed in a way that Americans can easily understand, so I had a hard time finding information about this former fishing village.


Typical of almost all the seaside communities in Crimea, Gurzuf is the home of several sanatoriums. Artek, is a sanatorium where 5,000 young people converge each July. These sanatoriums are a hold over from the Soviet era.  People did not vacation, but came to the sea for their health.  The only people who came to the sea would usually be people in the “Party” or people who were ill (TB, rheumatism, arthritis, diabetes, etc).  The government often paid for the e sick people to come to the sea for a cure. The sanatoriums are huge and have large gardens surrounding them.  There are dining rooms and private beaches. Hotels are still where foreigners might stay. They are (relatively) expensive.  


When Russia relinquished Ukraine and Crimea, the Crimean economy suffered because Ukrainians generally cannot afford to vacation in Crimea. All along the highways there are people sitting beside signs offering rooms for rent generally in private homes.


This is a culture where people get things done because they know someone.  The role of”fixer” lives on.  Even getting train or bus tickets is more easily accomplished by retaining a fixer to accomplish the job.


So, calling up the local “No-Tell Motel” to make reservations is not how it is done here in Crimea or Ukraine. We could have hopped off the bus and taken our chances negotiating a room from one of the people on the roadside.  We made arrangements through an agency we worked with in Kiev (our fixer) and they had a friend in Gurzuf who met us at the bus stop and provided us with accommodations.



·                     Monday, 4 September 2006

It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled,

but it is a calamity not to dream.

- Benjamin Mays

We go to the CIRCUS!

Sunday evening, as the sun was going down, we stood outside the large red and yellow circus tent and watched the crowds gather for the final performance of the Bim-Bom Circus..  A large two-humped dromedary was entertaining the men, women and children while venders sold popcorn and cotton candy. 


The circus tradition lives on in Eastern Europe and in Russia.  In large cities there are permanent circus arenas where, like the operand symphony and ballet, connoisseurs of the art can purchase season tickets.  There are also many small traveling shows that make their rounds to isolated places like Kerch. 


I imagine in the days before television and highways, the circus really was a magical event.  As I entered the canvas tent, I considered what the circus was like when seen through the eyes of a child.  I know many adults who speak disparagingly about the circus. They go off on tangents about how the animals are treated and how everything is dirty. They generalize about the character of the performers and use words like cheat, fraud, cruel,… I avoid these suspicious people, toxic people who suck the joy out of life.


Inside the canvas tent, we quickly find our seats.  We are in the second row, close to the curtained entrance hiding the performers from view.  There are about 5 rows of bright plastic chairs bolted to risers and further up are the cheap seats (about 5 rows of wooden benches).   Most patrons shepherd wide-eyed children ahead of them as they quickly find their seats and settle in for the entertainment ahead.  The little girls have big, white poufs in their hair and are dressed in girlie-pinks and blues with lacy socks. The boys are combed and groomed. I see shorts and knee socks, caps and even a boy wearing suspenders.  There are many grandparents in the crowd.


Two young performers are in loitering in the ring. We watch as a small girl approaches and shyly thrusts a bill (5 UAH or about$1) at one of the boys.  He pockets the money and proceeds to strap the child into a harness.  He signals his buddy and in a moment the child is hoisted to the peak of the tent and immediately drifts back down; a small, colorful parachute, billowing above her. 


Other children follow her example and we watch for the next 15-minutes, as tiny tots sail up and down..  The children are sober.  They do not laugh.  They do not smile.  But you can see in their wide-eyes, they are delighted.


The lights dim and the performance begins.


In the past, I have never cared about circus clowns.  Their humor often seems cruel or escapes me completely, but the clowns who entertained us at this circus were real performers.  They involved the audience and kept us interested.  Their humor was joyful and not unkind.


There was an aerial act, a juggler, a magician, more clowns, and more; but my favorite acts always involve animals. 


The dog act involved 6-8 huge white poodles with fluffy, flowing manes. There were four Saint Bernards and a couple large black dogs who assisted the stars. 


There was a camel act – the four large dromedaries filled the ring, and though we were in the second row, they could reach out their heads to sniff us.  They were impressive as they thundered around the tiny ring with their glamorous handler.   


There was also a bear act.  No cage, large bear, and just six young men in black staged around the ring to act in the event of a bear-emergency.  After the show I had the opportunity to have my photo taken with the bear.  The handler shouted directions at me in Russian – I think I was not supposed to hug the bear, but just stand nearby!   


The Bim-Bom circus is small.  It is a modest show, but well done.  There are about twenty people who comprise the entire operation, yet they put on an excellent show.   They seem to enjoy their work, but there is an earnest quality about them that makes the experience all the more satisfying.  They do not rely on technology or ornate costumes to dazzle their patrons.  They put on an honest and engaging show to an appreciative audience.


In this day and age of cable TV where one can channel surf and view a dozen highly choreographed performances and see fantasy worlds splashed across the screen, it is refreshing to se people happily enjoying an evening of live circus entertainment. 


Happy birthday to me – an evening at the circus…what could be better!


·                     Sunday, 3 September 2006 – My Birthday!

We are here, charged with the task of completing (one might say creating) ourselves.

- William Cook

Birthday memories!

I open the window shade to let in the morning sun and across the street on the upstairs terrace a row of small fish are drying on the clothesline.


“Toto, we’re not in Kansas no more!” I think, as I start another typical day here in Crimea.  Well, not a typical day- it is, after all my birthday!


I wish I had my sparkly tiara I bought when I was in Phoenix a few years ago.  (Friend Michelle and I actually bought glitzy crowns to wear on our respective birthdays.)  If you don a crown on your birthday, people are likely to ask about it and you can modestly reply, “Oh, well, ummmm….it’s my birthday!”  This usually prompts a hearty birthday greeting.


Here in Ukraine, you do not have to modestly wait for people to say happy birthday or hope they remember it is your special day.  No, the Ukrainians simply (and wisely) invite friends over and have a party.  People take a party to work with them too. (You see the venders at bazaar surreptitiously sharing birthday parties outside their booths quite often.) The party is usually a few plates of food and some champagne, and/or vodka and juice.  There are at least three toasts and many wonderful warm, poetic wishes.  People often bring a flower or a chocolate bar.


Mark prepared a hearty birthday breakfast for me – bacon, eggs and pancakes served with lots of hot, black coffee. 


Last year I had the same birthday meal, but with different company. I tagged along to Tucson with Cousin Carol who had business there.  So my daughter and grandkids came down from Phoenix to help me celebrate my special day. We went to Denny’s and I had the “Grand Slam Breakfast”. 


Here in Ukraine, there are no breakfast places. It is common to have soup, an entrée and veggies for breakfast.  People sometimes dine on leftovers from the night before. Blini, a fair approximation of the American pancake, are usually stuffed with mushrooms or sweet cheese or fruit and served with honey or sweetened, condensed milk.


My birthday last year was pretty low key, but very nice.  It was a nice couple days.  We spent one afternoon at the Tucson city zoo and the next day drove over the mountains to visit the Sonora Desert Museum (a zoo). It was great fun.  We had a “slumber party” at the motel and hung out at the pool a bit too.  We ate some great Mexican food and did a windshield tour of the town while Moriah told us all about her freshman year of college and how she met and fell in love with Chip.  We took a picnic and rode in Moriah’s Jeep to the top of “A” Mountain to watch the sunset.  We lingered too long after sunset so the local police helicopter turned on the spotlights and used their speakers to tell us to leave the park!


This year, I am going to the circus for my birthday.  


Since the circus is only a few hundred yards from our flat, we have already seen many of the animals and the circus people too.  There are two-humped camels; a big bear; and a dog act.


This afternoon we met the dog handler in the park, walking one of several enormous Saint Bernards who comprise part of the dog act.  The handler, a jolly man who resembles his dogs, encouraged me to pet the large beast.


“Take a photo,” he said (in Russian), to Mark.  “The dog is friendly.  Put your head on his shoulder.  Put your arms around his neck,” he instructed me as he orchestrated the mammoth dog’s head in a suitable pose.


“Will you be coming to the show?” he asked.


“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” I said, still hugging the dog.


·                     Saturday, 2 September 2006

A hundred times a day I remind myself

that my inner and outer life depend on the labors

of other people, living and dead, and

that I must exert myself in order to give

in the full measure I have received and am still receiving. 

- Albert Einstein


Mark’s “new” secondhand tie…

The day is rainy and gray.  Mark headed off at 9AM wearing a funny necktie he bought for 50 cents at the secondhand stall yesterday - the pattern shows Homer Simpson, feet propped on his desk and says "Man at Work"   Now I am not suggesting that Mark resembles Homer, but the bald heads are similar and I think the women at the library will get a laugh when they see the tie!  (And yes, Homer Simpson gets aired here - to those who have cable TV...)


Movies to see…

I happened to catch the movie “White Squall” – what a great film! It is well-acted, suspenseful and focuses on about ten young men who attend school and crew an old tall ship.  They learn what integrity, responsibility, and friendship mean in practice.   It is an excellent film and one that I would enjoy sharing with Mr. Cam.  The students in the film are not much older than Cam. 


Another film I would love to share with him is also about the sea -”The Dove” is an excellent adventure and a coming-of-age story worth viewing.  This story follows a young boy (about 15) goes around he world alone in a small sailboat.


Both films are based on real events.


When the credits on “White Squall” rolled, I was pleased to see the lead character went on to become the first Country Director for Peace Corps in Latin America! 


Another film…

“Newsweek” wrote a lengthy article on Oliver Stone’s latest film effort: “World Trade Center.”  With the 9/11 anniversary approaching, this new film will probably attract many viewers. 


The movie depicts the attack through the eyes of two policemen as it is happening. It is based on actual people.


Reviews indicate that it gets high ratings across age groups. The film also leaves the audience thoughtful and hopeful.  (A tough thing to manage with all the anger and paranoia and politics associated with this event!)


I hope to find DVD copy here…


·                     Friday, 1 September 2006

It’s never too late - in fiction or in life - to revise.

- Nancy Thayer


This is the first day of autumn here in Ukraine.  They go by the calendar rather than the equinox or solstice. 


This is also the first day of school. The streets are full of students dressed up for the occasion.  The boys wear white shirts, black ties and trousers.  Some have on suit coats too.  The girls have on lacy white blouses and fancy black skirts and (typically) rather outrageous shoes.  Many of the girls have huge, white, tulle puffs holding their hair in ponytails.


The parents escort the kids to school to meet the teachers, so the adults and children carry gifts (bouquets and boxes of chocolate). 


In the town square and bazaar, dozens of booths have popped up to sell school supplies.  There are plastic book covers and people line-up with stacks of books soothe venders can help them choose the appropriate size. 


There are all kinds of delightful notebooks and cunning agendas available too.  There are notebooks designed for keeping track of new vocabulary words so one can have a numbered list.  This explains why English Club students often ask me how many words of Russian I know – I have never kept a list and do not really know the criteria for this list-keeping strategy, but given the bureaucratic nature of this culture, there are probably rules! 


I am fascinated with all the various paper products associated with back to school.  Our school supplies in the USA pale by comparison with the impressive variety and quality of the supplies available here.   There are also wonderful plastic envelopes for keeping papers neat and organized.    


There is a tradition on the first day of school. Usually the oldest student and the youngest pupil step forward to ring the first school-bell of the year.  On the evening TV news, they aired many clips showing first bell ceremonies from all over the country.