·                     Saturday, 31 December 2005 – New Year’s Eve!

See you next year!


·                     Friday, 30 December 2005

I am amazed to read that friends back in the USA have already taken down their holiday tree and are back to life as usual. 


We have always been the people who have holiday decorations up through the end of January (we follow the rules of Advent for putting them up.). 


We are just getting into the holiday spirit.


Here in Ukraine, the holiday season revolves around New Year’s Eve.


We are relaxed in our flat, recuperating from the New Year’s Party at the library.  The lights are low and I am relishing the sounds of holiday music.  We were not able to access our stores of seasonal music until today.  The music was “trapped” inside Mark’s computer and required a new power supply to access it.  Mark found a way around the problem today, so we are happily listening to Christmas music.  It amazes me how much music sets the tone for the holidays.  We sorely missed hearing holiday music.


The holiday party at the library was quite a success.




·                     Thursday, 29 December 2005

A Visit from a Web-Master

I woke this morning, gazing up at the romantic, gauzy-white canopy my spouse recently hung above our narrow bed.  OK, I think it is romantic – it is actually chemically treated mosquito netting, courtesy of Peace Corps.   There are no flying insects this time of year, but Mark liked the idea of further defining our sleeping space, so he used the mosquito-netting canopy to give the illusion of privacy. 


It is a fine improvement to our cozy flat.  It is pretty and practical too. 


In summer, the canopy will serve its original purpose.  With no air conditioning, windows here are usually open in the hot, humid summer months.  Window screens are not available, so the open window is a portal for all manner of flying creatures.  The mosquito netting will be an asset.


(I am actually concerned about cats wandering in those open windows too – I love cats, but there is a potential for more than twenty neighborhood cats to walk in at will.  If word gets out to the cat community at large, other felines may decide to visit the crazy Americans.  A few already perch on our windowsills to catch the afternoon sun.  Sometimes they peer in and “meowl”  at me through the glass.) 


This morning I observed a Daddy Longlegs spider inspecting the top of the canopy above me.  There are, about a dozen resident spiders in the flat.   We have an arrangement: they generally remain near the very high ceilings in our flat and pose no threat to us.  They dine on small flying insects, so during the summer season, they are nice guests.  They are reclusive and seldom visit the lower half of the flat where we live.  It is a good arrangement. 


I watched as the tiny webmaster strolled across the mosquito netting and after completing his tour he gracefully ascended the silken thread that is his link to home.  He returned to the dim recesses far above.


I watched the white netting flutter as a small breeze lifted the corner gently and then rolled over for a short cat nap.


·                     Wednesday, 28 December 2005

Introducing Father Frost & Snow Maiden: New Year’s Traditions…

New Year’s Eve is almost here and with it, a host of new traditions to observe.  The New Year’s Eve celebration is one of Russia’s oldest traditions and here in Crimea, just a few kilometers across the Black Sea from Russia, the traditions live on.


Two of the main symbols of New Year’s (Novigod) are Father Frost, King of Winter Cold, and Snow Maiden.  They have stepped out of Russian folklore to brighten the holidays in this pert of the world.  Ded Moroz, as Father Frost is known in Russian, and the lovely young Snegurochka are hearty characters who love the snow, ice and cold of winter.  They reside in the remote pine forests near Veliki Ustyug, far north in Russia at the mouth of the Yug River.


Do not confuse Father Frost with Santa Claus. 


No, Father Frost has met Santa Claus, and though they share a similar interest in bringing pleasure to children of all ages and share other similarities, they are distinctly individual.  Of course, Santa is associated with Christmas, while Father Frost is a New Year’s kind of guy. 


Father Frost is about seven feet tall and is a slim man with a long white beard.  He often wears a long red jacket with furry cuffs and a matching stocking cap, but he prefers to wear the traditional blue, a far more frosty kind of color. 


As Father Frost he walks along in the winter wonderland, he pounds the ground with his tall walking stick.  The tapping causes deep frost to form.  Father Frost loves to freeze the ponds and rivers so people can skate and ice fish.  He and Snow Maiden take special pleasure in frosting window panes with lovely ice designs.  They are hearty individuals and delight in people who enjoy winter.


And who is Snow Maiden?  She once was a snow sculpture who sprang to life and now brings holiday joy to girls and boys.  She dresses in blue and on her head, wears a seraphim of pearls and silver.  She wears a beautiful warm shuba (fur coat) lined with white fur.  Snegulochka makes everyone happy; even the sun smiles when Snow Maiden is around.  She lives with Father Frost in Veliki Ustyug.


If you visit Father Frost’s home, you may see his magical mirror: old people who gaze into the glass become young and young people who look, become more clever.  Father Frost’s bed is piled with pillows, one for each day of the week.  They are not stuffed with goose down, but are filled with the desires of children from all over the world.  When Father Frosts lays down his weary head to rest, the desires inside the pillow fill his dreams with activity.  The good desires are fulfilled.


Father Frost is serious about his work.  He says, “The more good we wish each other, the better our life becomes.”


But Father Frost and Snegulochka, cannot do it all alone.  He says, “I try to bring to life all the good desires of people.  I want to see a peaceful, calm joyful world.  I want wars to stop and people to be happy.  But my own will is not enough, only when all people living on the planet strive for this, from the bottom of their hearts, will this desire be fulfilled.  Be kind to each other, and everybody will be happy.”


So, at midnight on December 31st here in Crimea, there will be revelry and costumes; champagne and chocolates, good wishes and fireworks; and of course, underneath the decorated fir tree, Father Frost and Snow Maiden will leave behind a special gift for those hearty souls who love the winter cold and all the joys that come with it.


I wonder what Santa Claus will get from Father Frost and Snegulochka?


·                     Tuesday, 27 December 2005

No one has change in this country.  It is difficult to break a big bill (20 hyrvnia).  Sometimes you get change in goods – usually a handful of candy. 


I like it: chocolate as currency!


·                     Monday, 26 December 2005

·                     Sunday, 25 December 2005 – Christmas Day


·                     Saturday, 24 December 2005 - Christmas Eve Day

I remember once laughing over an amusing story my Father-in-law shared concerning a woman who donated a large number of tea bags to the church.


“They have only been used once,” she said seriously.


Imagine considering used tea bags as a legitimate donation.  A used tea bag belongs in the trash, or perhaps in a mulch bin.


I am not certain how my Father-in-law handled it, but I am sure he was as  gentle and diplomatic as he always is, even when faced with this rather awkward situation.


After living here in Ukraine for a while, I am wondering if the woman in Dad’s story may be a Ukrainian. 


I do not mean anything humorous, unkind or cruel when I suggest this.  On the contrary, I find Ukrainians to be remarkably generous and willing to share everything they have.  Ukrainians have been through so many discouraging events in their history and despite it all they remain generous and kind.  They share what they have and they are warm and thankful for what they have.  They have also learned to be frugal.


Using a tea bag more than once is a common practice here.  People are careful about using electricity too.  On a grant application Mark worked on this fall, there was much serious discussion about what the electricity would cost to run a single light bulb for three years.  They did the necessary math and included it in the proposal.  We stayed with a family that scrimped on toilet tissue by recycling newspaper.  They also unplugged their refrigerator during the icy, wintry months and stored perishables on the screened in porch.


In the USA, we throw away so many things.  Here people have learned, from necessity, to be respectful of many of their resources.


Here it is Christmas Eve Day and I am remembering that woman and her used tea bags.  Now, instead of laughing about a penny-pinching grinch donating her used tea bags, I consider another image.  The donor shared what she had; the real gift was her willingness to share.


On this night long ago when the inn was too full to accommodate guests, someone offered them a humble manger as a bed for their infant.


The willingness to share what one has is all it takes to make a difference.


·                     Friday, 23 December 2005

I got my First Fur Coat in the Peace Corps

It strikes me funny that we get to dress better during our Peace Corps experience than we did in the last two places we lived in the USA.


Frankly, I always felt people where we lived dressed far too casually.  They missed much of the fun in life since khakis and polo shirts kind of sum up the attire there. 


I wore my fur coat (second hand, if you do not count the original furry owners) and tall boots to English Club the other night.  I even carried the requisite plastic shopping bag.  A long coat, fur or leather are the usual attire for adult women in Ukraine so I was appropriately dressed.


I must admit, I felt a bit conspicuous when I left the flat wearing a fur.  I had flash backs of Zha-Zha and Eva Gabor in fur coats, speaking accented English and being the center of attention for any number of reasons.  My ensemble won the approval of the library ladies and the members of the English Club too.  They even acknowledged that I got a good deal on the coat.


Mark routinely wears a suit to work, tough occasionally he wears a sports jacket or a sweater with a tie.  During the winter months he wears a cashmere overcoat and lately sports a Russian fur hat (also second hand).


Regardless of the weather or other circumstances, people here in Ukraine manage to show up looking remarkably neat.  Their shoes shine, their pants are creased and it is obvious they have put some thought into the clothes they wear.  Whether they are going to the market or to a restaurant, people dress well.  I shudder when I think about people I have seen in the grocery store back in America.


Summer in the City

“You say that now, but wait till summer comes,” says my spouse.


I missed summer in Ukraine this year, due to some medical matters, but Mark assures me standards here in Kerch drop considerably when the hot weather of summer kicks in.  People of all ages shuck their clothes and really get comfortable.


“The attitude seems to be, if you’ve got it flaunt it,” says Mark, “and lots of them flaunt it, even though they obviously don’t have it!”


“We live by the sea, so I expect to see some casual wear here,” I respond in a tolerant and culturally sensitive manner.


Mark smiles and ends the conversation with, “Let’s have this conversation again in August, when you can see both sets of cheeks, even in the checkout line at the local store.”


I have heard other PCVs discussing the “invisible” blouses students wear when the weather arms up and I have seen the very, very, very short skirts young women wear in spring and fall, but I have yet to experience Ukraine and Ukrainians in all their exposed glory, in the summer months.  Deep in December, it is hard to imagine such a radical change.


For now, I am happy to see the attractively dressed, confident people strolling through the wintry streets.  Lots of leather and fur, spiky heels with pointed toes, and a sense of style that is infectious.


Check back with me in approximately 180 days and see what I have to think then.


·                     Thursday, 22 December 2005

Adventures in Papier-Mache

Sometimes I feel like I am stuck on a desert island, re-inventing things I am accustomed to having at hand.  I do not think I would be very successful at many aspects of re-inventing modern life on a desert island, but I did mange to conjure up a bit of papier-mache to sculpt some holiday items.


On New Year’s Eve Crimean’s, don masks as part of the official attire for the holiday.  New Years Eve seems to be a combination of several of our American holidays with many diverse traditions including, masks, costumes,  fireworks, Father Frost, decorating a fir tree, popping the champagne cork, singing around a bon fire, talent shows, swapping gifts, eating and drinking waaaaay too much, caroling through the neighborhood, etc, etc.  We are going to two New Year’s Eve parties so a mask is necessary.  (Actually Mark is off the hook because he gets to play Father Frost at one party – the staff at the library is designing and making his costume – they have had him try it on several times this week already!)


So, I am experimenting with papier-mache to create masks for New Year’s Eve in Ukraine!


Last year in SC when I was heading up a Brownie Troop we made piñatas for the Christmas party.  That involved wrangling the efforts of several 7 year olds up to their eyebrows in squishy, messy, sticky, gooey flour and water paste and tissue paper.  This year, I am aiming for something a bit more sophisticated and since I have no children to supervise, I get to play n the squishy, messy, sticky, gooey flour and water paste myself!


I hope I have the ingredients right.  It would be nice to read a bit about construction techniques and pitfalls, etc.  I miss having access to the Internet where I can find resources easily and quickly.  Every project I tackle seems harder without being able to get information or at least confirm details with my friendly Google search engine.


I mixed flour and water and a bit of salt into a liquidy paste and immersed strips of torn up “Newsweek” magazines in the mess.  I apply the strips over an overturned metal bowl (which I covered in a plastic bag, just in case).  I placed a large serving spoon under the area where I anticipate my nose will be.  Today I am experimenting, but if it works well, I have several ideas for my final mask – perhaps a sunflower (very Ukrainian) or a goose (Avian Flu escapee), or maybe a Viking helm complete with horns (I could get yellow yarn and apply thick braids on either side just for fun!). 


Once my prototype dries, I will use acrylic paint to detail it.


I am happiest when I have a messy creative project going!


Next project, which I am avoiding, is preparing some kind of entertainment for the evening.  Each guest must perform.  Between my limited language skills and my questionable singing talent, I am at a loss on what to do.  Once again, I wish I could surf the Internet for some inspiration – a humorous skit perhaps?  Maybe I will lead them in a version of the Twelve Days of Christmas having each group sing a line…hmmmm, maybe I can do something with a kazoo!


In Ukraine, people sing and dance at every opportunity.  It is a pleasure to attend a party and hear the sweet harmonies that pour out as the guests sing with gusto.


The director expects Mark to play his 5-string banjo.  I suspect this is just a polite request.  I wonder how it will be accepted.  He plays “old timey” style and generally does not sing along.  Here when people play instruments they generally accompany a sad song with lyrics about unrequited love or some other gloomy topic.


Life here in Ukraine seems more stripped down and hands on; people cook from scratch, sing for their guests, entertain humbly and happily.  People live long on hugs and short on cash, to paraphrase an old expression I used to guide me in raising my children.


Life is good.


·                     Wednesday, 21 December 2005 – The First Day of Winter

Outside fat snowflakes fall. 


I look past the simple paper snowflakes Mark and I created and hung by threads in our window and stand sipping my coffee.  I smile and for the first time in days begin to feel enthusiastic about something.  The snowflakes tumbling down in a flurry are large and theatrical.  I watch for a few moments and then with new energy begin my daily activities.


It pleases me that the first real snowfall here in Kerch coincides with the first day of winter.  The days will grow longer now.  I am grateful for this and that knowledge lightens my heart.


Suddenly I am eager to begin the many projects I have outlined for myself.  I no longer feel concerned about the urgency of the outcome.  I am ready to enjoy the process.  I will not let pressures and stress steal my joy.  Things may not go the way I have planned them, but that is OK.  In fact, the element of joy is often associated with deviating from the plan.


Some of the best things in life result, not from our own plans or efforts, but through unexpected events that catch us off guard.


Sometimes people are caught up in their activities, agenda, timetables, or goals and fail to experience the joy. 


There is a trick to joyful living: you do not pursue joy, instead you simply express joy. 


Joy, beauty, truth, love, spirit…all of these qualities are always present and just waiting for us to express them. 


So today, I am the happy Snow Queen, enjoying life in my little kingdom.


·                     Tuesday, 20 December 2005

Carving out Christmas

I am not ready for the holidays.  Sigh. 


Sadly, Mark is in the same mood too.


We are polite with one another, but clearly, we each wish the other would take charge of the events and build a holiday for the other.


There is a calm part of me that know this too will pass and that the Christmas Spirit will dawn full orbed.  Even if we do nothing, Christmas will come and it will be OK. 


One of the prospective PCVs in the Yahoo Group I monitor says, “It will be alright in the end.  If it isn’t all right, it isn’t the end yet!” 


I roll that thought around in my mind for a while.


I am reading (again) “Anna Karenina”.  Vronsky is struggling; he has won the thing he has so long desired, but he is not happy.  Tolstoy writes, “This fulfillment showed him the eternal mistake people make when they imagine that happiness is the fulfillment of their wishes.”


This holiday season may turn out to be quite delightful.  We have (involuntarily) stripped away many of the activities and events that often dominate the season.  Even the nicest traditions can obscure the meaning of the holy day.  Without these distractions and pleasant obligations, we will be free to actually meet the day with open hearts.


·                     Monday, 19 December 2005

There is a wonderful luxury in spending time alone.  Some people never seem to cultivate this habit.  I strongly recommend the practice of spending time alone, at least occasionally.  Warning: it can be addictive.


The past few weeks have not afforded me much time to myself.  Though I am not suffering overtly from ill effects, I am aware that I have “unfinished business”.


Since mid-November, I have been around people and out of my element pretty much 24/7.  That means compromises, consensus, being polite and tolerant, sharing, being attentive, and a host of other behaviors demanded of people in social settings.


None of these demands is in and of itself bad, but the constant demand can leave one raw and vulnerable.


My sisters and I often joke about the need for a “pajama day” now and then – an unstructured, relaxed day involving no great efforts and obviously a day when one can lounge about in jammies, perhaps sipping coffee and reading a book by the fireplace.  A pajama day may be scheduled, but generally, they are more effective when they simply happen.  There is a recreational essence (recreation as in to re-create) to a pajama day. Some people may use the term “mental health day,” though that has connotations to me.


What I am feeling is something more than the need for an unstructured day of ease without the demands of other people.  What I crave is simply time alone to actively enjoy my own company.  I feel over stimulated by people and the world.   I need distance and perspective.  I need to remember who I am and touch bases with what I believe.


Today Mark returned to the Russian-speaking world after a rather lengthy departure from it.  The weeks in Kiev at the PC office during the Avian Flu evacuation and the PC University training at Prolosok have filled his head with English and now he must abruptly change gears.  Reverting back to Russian after an extended break is challenging and unsettling.  It undermines the confidence.  Language skills, like muscles, suffer from disuse.


We are both feeling the strain.


The Christmas holiday is almost here and we are not prepared.  There is no one here to help us celebrate or to choreograph events so we can simply relax and enjoy.  No gifts have been bought or plans made.


Our Thanksgiving this year, fell through the cracks and now our Christmas is looking rather glum too.


·                     Sunday, 18 December 2005

About Train Travel in Ukraine

I remember old movies where glamorous stars traveled across America on the train.  They dined at elegantly appointed tables and slept in clever beds in Pullman cars.  Happy porters attended to all their needs.  There was some romance to the whole adventure.


Those are movies: American movies; old, American movies; old, American movies with stars…


Long distance train travel in Ukraine is inexpensive and reliable, but not exactly comfortable or fast.  It is better than riding the bus.  It can be a wonderful opportunity for cross-cultural experiences.  It is usually a good opportunity to read a book (not in third class where lights are dim) or just think.


It is not glamorous.


The Disclaimer!

You can whine and moan or you can make the best of these facts.  The trick is, as in most things in life, to find a way to make it an adventure.  You also need to be prepare so you can handle things with good grace and have a game plan in mind.  With that in mind, let me detail a few observations about train travel.


On our 23-hour, overnight, return trip to Kerch, we traveled in platskartny, third class (one-way for one = 35 hryvnia or about $7 USD).  No other tickets were available for at least a week.


We usually travel kupeyney, second class (51 hryvnia or $10 USD).


There are no first class cars traveling the Kiev-Kerch-Kiev stretch of railway and there are also no fourth class cars available.


Observations on Getting Tickets

Buying tickets is a challenge here, probably not as challenging as it was during the Soviet era, but still not what an American traveler is accustomed to.  Getting things here often seems to be an unreliable combination of who you know, how much you will spend and some magic thrown in for to make it all gel.  There appears to be no real logic to the process (Sometimes I think it is simply because we are outsiders or do not understand, but we have verified this with several Ukrainians who tend to smile enigmatically and shrug before changing the topic)


To obtain tickets, you must go to the train station (or a travel agent) and wait in line.  Tickets may or may not be available.  There is disagreement among travelers about whether it is better to buy ahead or to simply go on the morning of intended travel.  The cashiers hold a certain number of tickets for last minute and do not sell any tickets during the hours immediately before the train arrives. 


You must show the passport of each individual who will travel in order to buy tickets.  Do not expect anyone to deviate from procedures.  Unlike in the USA where only travelers have passports, here, all Ukrainians have passports – They are used as a legal document for many practices.


I want to talk about the train experience rather than the ticket buying challenges so I will abandon this topic and move on for now.


Observations on the Train Trip

Arriving at the train, we are pushed along by the crowd eager to board the train and get settled in.  Storage space, by American standards, is at a premium.  Most of our fellow travelers have small, overnight bags and also the inevitable plastic bag.  Somehow they manage to accommodate all their travel needs with very little luggage. 


The Ukrainians arrive, dressed well, in fine furs, hats and polished boots.   They hang their coats, stow their bags under the benches, and soon change clothes for the rest of the train trip. 


In second class, there are four passengers per compartment so the men step out while the women change and then the women step out while the men change.  In third class, you may get a lesson in what kind of lingerie or undergarments those of the opposite gender wear as they make their changes more-or-less publicly.  (I modestly changed under my bedding in my tiny bunk – an athletic challenge to say the least.  On another trip I changed in the tiny toilet – also a challenge, though I was at least horizontal, I had to deal with wet floors, etc).  This whole performance repeats at the other end of the trip when people want to arrive at their destination impeccably groomed and attired despite spending 23 hours on a train.


Once everyone is comfortably attired in sweat suits and slippers (no Ukrainian ever travels without slippers) the food appears.  Somehow, these people who seem to travel light, always have a supply of food and drink available. 


There are porters assigned to each car.  They work in pairs and often are a married couple.  They make the rounds collecting tickets and distributing packages of sheets, pillowcases, towels and soap to those who care to rent them (8-10 hryvnia = about $2 USD).  Some travelers just forgo those amenities or bring their own bedding.


The porters help everyone settle in by offering each passenger a cup of tea.  The tea arrives in a glass tumbler resting in a metal cup holder.  The tea bag hangs over the side, and a small spoon is provided to stir in sugar and or lemon.  Some passengers prefer to bring their own glass cups and tea rather than rely of the possibly dubious cleanliness of the utensils offered.  (They also avoid the small fee because the hot water itself is free.) 


People typically bring along provisions of dark bread, pickles, and sausages along with bottles of beer or vodka.  There is a small table in each compartment in second class and it is usual to share provisions with the other three people in your compartment.  In third class, there is no compartment and there are six people in immediate proximity so you can expect to share with them, or at least make sincere offers to share. 


In second class, there are two upper bunks and two lower benches in each compartment.  Soon after eating, and a visit to the toilet at either end of the car, the passengers in the upper bunks make up their beds and crawl into their spaces to recline and read.  The people who will sleep on the bench below roll out their bedding and can either read, sleep or remain up talking or playing cards, etc.  The four individuals are cozy and quiet behind a closed compartment door.  Eventually the lights go dim (you still have a light near your head if you wish to read, etc) and everyone sleeps.


In third class, things are more Spartan and life is livelier.  Since there is no compartment, you smell and hear everything.  (Keep in mind, I have yet to travel in Ukraine in summer, but without air conditioning, well, I will leave some of those concerns to the imagination)


The bunks in third class are smaller – narrow and short and headroom is reduced.  Small bags fit under the lower benches, but most baggage is stored on open shelves above the upper bunk.  (The upper baggage area is less claustrophobic than the upper bunks and I have heard sometimes people try to stretch out there!)


More people share the toilets in third class too.


People walking to and from the toilets or the smoking area pass by you as you relax or sleep. 


Reading is third class is less feasible because there is only the overhead light.  When the car lights dim, it is impossible to read.


When the train stops at various stations, venders may board and sell magazines, ice cream, or fried foods.  At longer stops you can get off the train and purchase food or use the public toilets in the station, if you are comfortable leaving your things on the train.


On the Kiev-Kerch line, we spend about 5 hours each way parked in a town in northern Crimea.  This is a logistical problem that involves waiting for an engine to take our few cars on.  It is a logistical problem for passengers too, if they are in third class, particularly.  The toilets are locked while the train is in station.  It is also difficult to secure belongings in the train so passengers generally remain on the train for the duration of the trip.


Having said all this, I want to reiterate something I mentioned before: these observations are intended merely to make a traveler aware of how things are.  Many travelers have a delightful time on board the train.  In part, because they know what to expect and come prepared to enjoy.


Bring a picnic, a good book, a good sense of humor, and travel light! 


I have been reading Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” on the train.  The individuals who people the book, often traverse Russia (Ukraine) by train.  I laugh as I read the passages regarding train travel in those days.  It sounds so elegant, so refined…kind of like those old B&W movies I mentioned earlier.


Maybe train travel was just better in the olden days.


·                     Saturday, 17 December 2005

Why Ukrainian women do not smile


I bought new boots in Kiev.


Of course, it was only a matter of time before it would happen.  Not many women can resist splurging on a pair of boots, once they spend any time in this country.  Beautiful, fashionable boots are everywhere.  They are also practical, when you look past the spike heels and the very pointy toes that are so popular among the younger women in particular.


I think Ukrainian women do not smile much in public because they are wearing painfully pointed, stiletto heels most of the time!  You think I am poking fun, but I am somewhat serious! 


There are advantages to the spike heels.  You can stride across ice and snow with style and confidence.  I am sure the pointy toes offer some protection should one need to serve up a swift kick to an aggressor.


The boots sold here also have warm linings that are seldom available in boots sold in the USA.  Last year preparing for our departure to Ukraine, I spent hours on the Internet investigating boots.  There are many huge collections of footwear available online, but generally, the boots did not meet all my criteria: warm, stylish yet professional, and suited for walking. 


The boots in USA tended to be heavy looking and if they were warm, they tended to be less than feminine looking.  My host family was not too impressed with the pair I finally showed up with last March.  (After examining them T shook her head and sighed.  “Not warm,” she said in Russian, “and not pretty.  I show you how to shop.”)


Another occupational hazard of working in Ukraine is coat-lust.  You cannot avoid it!  Coats here are stunning, dramatic and warm too.  Fur is everywhere.  It is warm and practical in a country where walking and winter go together.  In America, we tend to avoid fur, but here it is everywhere.  I feel a strange need to apologize to my fur-bearing, four-legged friends, but they are born with elegant fur!  Boots and coats are large-ticket items in this country, but they are necessities too.  Furs are not limited to the idle rich or those with disposable income, no people at all levels have some fur or leather to warm them on the cold wintry days.


Whiling the away the hours on our evacuation-train trip, A and I discussed our coat preferences in some detail.  We have similar tastes.  The ideal coat should resemble a cross between the one worn by the
”Little Prince” and the one worn by “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”.  A winter coat should be long and should be fitted at the waistline yet should flare out as is reaches the ankles.  We conjured up images of the ideal coats.  A, who will be leaving Ukraine this spring, decided to shop for her coat during this opportune visit to the big city.


So, A and I set out coat shopping.  We metro-ed to a huge warehouse where hundreds of venders displayed coat after coat after coat.  We wandered up and down the aisle admiring coats and discussing pros and cons.  We were swayed by beauties that were not a bit like the criteria we discussed on our train ride, but we resisted.  It was a bit like wandering through the pens at the humane society – you want to take all of them home with you and cannot choose just one. 


After hours of looking, we lunched at a Ukrainian buffet (cabbage rolls, borscht, black bread and fresh juice).  Fortified, we set out again. 


This time we deviated from the mission.  The general rule is this: buy the coat and then choose the boots.  Unfortunately, the smell of leather lured us into the boot venders section.  Allegedly, we needed to think about coats in a coat-free environment, so we innocently wandered into the boot domain. 


Of course, you can see where the story is going.  Boot-lust-fever set in and before we knew it, we were trying on dramatic leather confections and discussing prices and styles and, well, you know the rest of the story.


My new, rather conservative, black-boots are knee high with a small cuff at the top.  The chunky heel is a modest 3-inches high.  They do not have pointy toes nor spike heels, so most Ukrainian women would not find them to their tastes.  I like to think of them as a cross between pirate boots and equestrian boots.  They are warm and make me feel wonderful.


A chose a sweet pair of black suede boots   A is a small-framed woman and much younger.  Her boots are girlishly cute with a bow on each toe.  She also found boots sans spike heels and without pointed toes.  They suit her well.


The coat mission was temporarily aborted, but we each have our warm, stylish, new boots to stride through the Ukrainian winter in.


·                     Friday, 16 December 2005

Finish each day and be done with it.

You have done what you could…

Tomorrow is a new day.

You shall begin it serenely

and with too high a spirit

to be encumbered with your old nonsense.

 - Ralph Waldo Emerson


Mr. Emerson’s advice (above) is apropos.


We are home in Kerch after an unexpected, sometimes delightful, often frustrating, 12-day adventure to Kiev and back.  (We were evacuated by Peace Corps due to outbreaks of Avian Flu in Crimea – the president declared a national emergency)


We arrived home last night, completely broke once the taxi driver soaked us of our last bill.  


Taxis here in Ukraine do not have meters so one negotiates the price before setting foot in a cab.  We seldom take taxis for a number of reasons; one of them being the negotiation process itself.  It is useful to have a better command of the language to really wheel and deal so we generally rely on the marshutka (route taxi-vans which charges a flat fee of 1 hryvnia and drops passengers off at designated stops).. 


In this case, one of our traveling companions, a very proficient speaker of Russian, made the deal.  For $25 hryvnia (about $12 American), the four of us and our luggage could be swept to our doorsteps quickly.  After almost 24 hours riding “platscartny” (open seating with bunks on the train) we were eager to be done with traveling.


The cab driver dropped off our travel companions first.  He pulled up to our courtyard, hopped out and said (in Russian), “That’ll be 25 US dollars, please.”


He hoisted our luggage from the trunk.  That “please” did not sound very sincere I thought as I stood by, stamping my feet to keep warm. 


“Wait a minute,” Mark sputtered, in his basic Russian, “You said $25 hryvnia at the station!”


“No,” said the cabbie, “I said 25 dollars US.  Pay up.” 


The cab driver stood between us and our suitcases.  I listened and noted (silently) how dark our street is.  Why is it there are no streetlights in this country?  There are so many trees on our street and they add to the darkness.  I stamped my feet again and wondered how Mark would handle this no-win situation.


In my head, I tried to work out the math.  Twenty-five dollars American is about 125 hryvnia.  (We only make about 50 hryvnia a day, about $10.)  Wow!  What a pricey cab ride! 


Mark pulled out the only bill in his wallet, the last of our cash (that’s another story, having been declined cash at 15 ATMs in Kiev over the last few days!).  He handed the cab driver that lone 50-hryvnia note.  He had expected to get 25 hryvnia back which would allow us to stock our pantry, but that hope was now long gone!


I watched the cab driver spit on the pavement.


“Thanks for the ride,” Mark said as the scamming cabbie grabbed the cash, slammed his car door and roared away, with all of our cash.


Welcome home.


Being taken advantage of is unsettling and leaves a black cloud behind that threatens to rain on our spirits.  It is hard to let it go. 


Of course, this kind of thing happens everywhere.  Once, years ago in Denver, Mark was held-up in front of our apartment on a fine Christmas Eve.  The robber took Mark’s change and an engraved wristwatch I had given him the previous Christmas when he was living isolated on Shemya.  Another December, in Austin, Texas this time, our truck windows were smashed when someone tried to steal our modest car stereo.  There are plenty of situations where people have been taken advantage of, violated. 


What is rather amazing really, is how many times we have met with kind, helpful people!


It amazes me how well the world works.  So many things we do each day are based on trust and integrity.  And day after day, most people demonstrate integrity and trust and kindness and joy. 


Somehow, this sad cab driver here in Kerch reminded me that we are blessed to be surrounded by good people who care for one another and who help one another. 


Good people surround us.  People who choose not to take advantage of others, people who choose to be caring, kind, generous, and polite.


I am so grateful that the good outweighs the bad.  I can even find it in my heart to be grateful to this cab driver for reminding me how blessed we are to have so many wonderful, kind, people in our world. 


We are home.  The avian flu evacuation is over and Christmas is almost here.  I re-read the Emerson quote I started with and have put aside the nonsense of the day and now I recall another Emerson quote: 


When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Next time I am out on our very dark street at night, I will remember to look past the darkness and see the stars (and I will say a little prayer of thanks for the lesson I learned from our greedy taxi driver.)


·                     Saturday, 10 December 2005

Brrrr – it is about 25 degrees today.  We are “southerners” and are not used to the cold here in Kiev.


We spent our few hours of Saturday sunlight (the winter sun disappears by 3:30) tramping around at a huge open-air, used clothing market.  Despite biting cold, the vendors were busy tending to eager customers pawing through piles of used clothes.  The hearty “Kiev-ians” do not seem to notice the cold. 


The venders smoke cigarettes and sip steaming hot tea as they bark out sales pitches to potential buyers.  They pace up and down as they lure in customers.  Stray dogs dart about, snapping up scraps near the food vender’s stands.  Old babushkas quibble over the prices, young men in leather jackets speak urgently into their cell phones and stamp their feet in the cold. 


Despite the bitter cold, tall, fashion-model-thin beauties stride along confidently in their short, short skirts and tall spike-heeled boots while everyone in their paths steps out of their way.  It is like watching the Red-Sea part.  There is magic in being a young, beautiful woman in Ukraine.


There are used clothes everywhere.  Wonderful suede, leather and fur coats hang on the walls of these makeshift buildings.  Tables hold piles of sweaters, blue jeans, boots, and shoes.  Booths line the street for hundreds of meters in any direction.


On a warmer day, I would have been in my element, but I am not prepared for the cold.  I blow on my hands to warm them.  I hang in there, but have a hard time toughing it out.  The wrong boots make my life miserable and allow my toes to get too cold too soon.  Cold penetrates through the leather soles and it is like walking barefoot on ice.  I left my hat at the hotel, so cold pierces my feet and chases the heat straight out the top of my head.


I pull my hand knit scarf over my lips and nose and breathe through the wool.  The smell of damp wool gives me a momentary flashback to the long walk to elementary school back in my Iowa youth.  The old wool scarves we wore would freeze to our runny noses.


If it were not so cold, I would be spending my inheritance on wonderful, funky used clothes, so there are some blessings associated with cold.  I will definitely visit this bazaar again, when the weather warms up.  (Will it ever warm up?)


I look forward to thawing out in a hot shower at the hotel tonight.


·                     Monday, 5 December 2005

The Train Ride North – The Chicken War Refugees are on the Road!

Last night I was rocked to sleep by the rhythm of the rails.  I awoke around 8 AM, scratched a clean space through the ice-covered window and saw a thick blanket of snow covering the rich black soil of central Ukraine.  (Tolstoy says the soil is as black as poppy seeds)  Saturday in Crimea, the sun was bright, the sky blue and the temperature close to 62 degrees. 


I put on my slippers and ricochet off the walls as I walk down the corridor of our train car to the tiny toilet facilities.  What a relief to find them reasonably clean.  When I returned to our car, Mark has a cup of hot tea waiting for me.


We share our 24-hour train ride in a "kupeny" with another PCV and a Ukrainian man who spent some of the evening before proselytizing to us.  There are times when not fully understanding the language can be a blessing!  Our Ukrainian companion is already up and neatly dressed, anticipating his departure soon.  We lounge in our sleep clothes for a while and when the Kiev city limits slide past our window, we quickly change into street clothes and bundle up to face the brisk Kiev morning.


We pull into the station around noon.  Mark dons his long overcoat and the warm Russian fur hat he bought at the bazaar Saturday.  The other PCV and I follow behind him like little ducks as he navigates through the crowd of taxi drivers trying to sell their services to us.  He looks Russian in the hat.  I anticipate some interesting interactions with locals when they assume he is Russian or Ukrainian.


Another Crimean PCV who recently completed his service and had planned to remain in Crimea with a friend through the holidays, met us at the station.  We all trudged through the ice and snow and were glad to arrive at the PC office where there was hot coffee and a warm cozy lounge to collapse in.


The Crimean-7 (Avian Flu evacuees) spent the day there, waiting for various people to speak to us about our situation.  We read e-mail, browsed the used book selections and swapped stories while we waited for the officials to agree on what would happen next.  At about 6:30 in the evening we finally had our last briefing.  They assigned us various tasks to keep us occupied during our anticipated week-long stay. 


We finally headed off for dinner at a Korean restaurant and then onto the metro with all our bags for the trip to the hotel.  We checked in around 10 and collapsed into bed.


·                     Sunday, 4 December 2005

Avian Flu Evacuation - or Goodbye Poultry Economic Development Project!

We just won an all-expense paid trip to Kiev!  We got the call last night and were told to get train tickets and head out immediately.  Pretty exciting huh?  Actually, we are being evacuated from Crimea due to an outbreak of Avian (Bird) Flu.  Three Crimean villages have reported cases and President Yushenko has declared a state of emergency. 


We are fine, of course.  This adventure is simply a precaution by Peace Corps (and the American Embassy) and an inconvenience and also an unexpected personal expense especially since we only just recently returned from Kiev.  On the positive side though, Kiev is a delightful city and it will feel quite festive this time of year.


We boarded the train north around noon and began the 24-hour trip to Kiev where we will remain for at least a week.  The train from Kerch stops in one of the towns where cases are reported so we will spend about 4 hours there. 


Domestic poultry in suspected areas are being killed, burned and buried.  They are using napalm from the Soviet era.  The government is paying bird owners approximately $3 per chicken and more for other kinds of fowl. 


There are about 5 PCVs in this area of Crimea.  A couple PCVs from sites on the Sea of Azov (on the migratory path) are also being evacuated.


We packed up our leftover Thanksgiving turkey and boiled the eggs we bought at market yesterday to eat on the train.  The turkey was a considerable investment and we have already eaten much of it so if we were in danger of dining on a foul-fowl, it is too late to save us! 


We also decided to “smuggle” our little friend Ed the Duck out of Crimea – can’t allow anything to happen to our favorite yellow rubber ducky can we? 


This is my second evacuation in 8 months.  Just lucky I guess!  Hmmm, “they” told me to pack for a week last time I was evacuated and that certainly stretched out a lot longer than that.  We shall see.


·                     Saturday, 3 December 2005

Bazaar Day…

Today we will be off to market.  Saturday at the bazaar is my pleasure. I have a sense of anticipation as if I will find some wonderful treasure among the crammed booths and vendors hawking plastic goods, fruit and veggies, used clothes and new clothes, shoes and household goods, books, office supplies, flowers, plants and candies. 


Despite the weather, the vendors are there and so are the shoppers.  This is our Saturday trip to Wal-Mart, our day at the mall.  It is a social activity as well as a necessity.  I join in with as much enthusiasm as the locals.


I patrol what I call the old people street first.  There, women sit knitting and talking, laughing with friends as they while away the day next to a blanket stretched on the ground where all sorts of secondhand treasures wait patiently to go home with a lucky buyer.  The old men joke and often have a fishing line in the canal behind this street. 


Midway through the old people street, there are always a few people with puppies or kittens for sale.  Of course, I have to stop here.  I practice my tentative Russian skills and always manage to have a good encounter – animal people are kind.  One day, I am afraid there will be a sweet orange kitten who needs a home and I my have a hard time walking away, but for now, I am happy to pet and coo at the animals there.  I slip them bites from the tiny bag of cat chow I carry in a zip lock bag in my pocket. 


After this traditional starting point, the rest of the visit usually follows Mark’s plan.  Since he is the faithful cook (I am merely the bottle-washer and occasional maker-of-desserts) he has a list of culinary supplies to collect.


This week, I hope we will try our hand at making some Ukrainian dumplings – either as a main course or as dessert.  Varenyky, dumplings filled with cheese (pot cheese/cottage cheese) or fruit (often cherries) would be tasty.  I like Pelmeni meat dumplings too.  I enjoy recipes that call for playing with flour and making dough.  We can use the rolling pin we purchased at the bazaar where the train stopped for three hours enroute home from Kiev.


While Mark picks through fruits and vegetables at bazaar, I sometimes wander over to look at the chickens, ducks and rabbits that are for sale nearby.  Of course, I am a bit uncomfortable admiring the beautiful rabbits which are intended for stew and/or fur, but they are so appealing, so vulnerable and so trusting.  Why do I torture myself by even looking at them?  I do not know, but somehow it seems sadder to simply ignore them.  I know they will die, and so shall we.  It does not keep me from finding some joy in them now.


When we are exhausted, our shopping bags are too heavy to carry and the cash is all gone, we will grab a bite to eat and a cup of tea and then hike back across home to our cozy flat. 


And we will be back to do it all again next week.



·                     Friday, 2 December 2005

We Live in the Bread Basket of Europe…

I read somewhere in my cross-cultural studies (or maybe in a novel or a cookbook,) that Honore de Balzac, during his three year stay in Ukraine (1847-1850), counted approximately 80 kinds of bread. 


Ukrainian bread is outstanding.  For those brought up on pasty, pale white bread, Ukrainian bread is an epiphany!  It is hearty, full-bodies with taste and textures that leave one longing for more.  Slathered with butter it is even better.  Most of the bread is made of whole grains so when one indulges in a bread eating binge, it is actually good for you.    


My favorite is "chorney kleb" (black bread).  The huge, brown, crusty loaves call my name.  Most days I make my simple lunch from a large, thick slice of this bread with the aforementioned slather of rich butter.  I take small bites and relish the nutty, rich flavor.  When I finished with my generous lunch slice, I start thinking about the slice I will have with my dinner.  I look forward to my bread experiences, with the enthusiasm usually reserved for good chocolate.


Yes, Ukraine is the Breadbasket of Europe.  That is why I find it a bit frightening to observe a phenomenon at the local kleb stores.  It is becoming difficult in our fair city to find the humble round loaf chorney kleb that sets the gold standard for bread here in Ukraine. 


Where is all this “crummy” bread coming from?

Yes, even as I type, the traditional breads are disappearing and bland, tasteless loaves of white bread are filling up the shelf space in the local markets! 


Mark visited three stores the other day in search of the usual loaf of black bread.  He came home with a sad substitute – a small loaf of bread baked in a loaf pan typical of American-style bread and though it was a bit brown, it was obvious that the major ingredient was pale, refined white flour.  After one taste of this bland loaf, we set it aside and instead had another bowl of soup.    


Mark observed the other day that several women on the trolley-bus were oohing and ahhing over a baton of bread poking out of one of the women’s shopping bags.  The women each tore small samples off the bread and were delighted with this new treat.  It appeared to be made of white bread, twisted with some dark bread.  More and more, white bread is appearing in the markets.


At the bazaar, several vendors sell only bread products.  As Balzac noted, there are many kinds of bread available, but in the short time we have lived in this country we are already noticing a decline in the quality and choices of bread available.  The fine old breads are going by the wayside and “new” breads are stealing the hearts and tastes of the next generation of Ukrainians. 


Scary imitation French baguettes, croissants and sliced loaves of dry, white bread are infiltrating the stores. 


I can only hope these interloper breads will be a temporary novelty and that the good and faithful cooks and homemakers here in Ukraine will return to the breads that gained them their title of Breadbasket of Europe. 


Lunchtime is here so I will slip away quietly and relish my secret pleasure while I can.  Who knows, with all the changes going on in this booming country, this may sadly be our last loaf of chorney kleb.


·                     Thursday, 1 December 2005 – Our House Sitter’s Birthday!

So much of modern life is a feverish anticipation of future activity and excitement.

We have to learn to step back from this into the freedom and possibility of the present.

- Fr. Bede Griffiths


Welcome to December and the possibility of the present!

Living as we do here in Ukraine, as outsiders, somewhat isolated from life by culture and language, we have breathing space.  This is a luxury and I cherish it.


We have considerable autonomy and can structure our time and our lives in ways that do not seem possible in the context of our lives back in the USA.  These luxuries may not even be so available to us if we were really residents of Ukraine, rather than simply transients. 


Money cannot buy this kind of opportunity. 


By being a seemingly dispassionate outsider with no immediate family, friends, or history to confine, define or outline our choices, we are free to choose in a way we can never be in our “real” lives. 


This is an unexpected gift I cherish and hope to keep somehow, even long after the moment of receiving is past. 


Just Say No.

Sometimes, it is a matter of learning to say no.  (NO is an acronym for New Opportunities, while the letters Y-E-S stand for Your Existence Stops as in “Once you say yes, you are trapped, so say no and run for your life!”)


In this breathing space we live in just now, we seldom have to exercise the discipline of saying no.  We can simply live quietly and make our humble, happy choices with ease.  We are outsiders with no ties to tie us down.


Our life is a pleasant respite from the world.

We take our meals together and relish them rather than rushing off somewhere.  We choose to shop together and make the choices as if we were investing in a stock portfolio.  We walk often and we take time to sip coffee together and simply talk.  The TV, which speaks only Russian and Ukrainian, remains mute most of the time.  We seldom delve into our meager collection of DVDs for diversion or entertainment.  We do not even get out the Scrabble board or Uno deck.  We just talk to one another.  Even after almost 35 years of marriage, we have much to say and when we occasionally do not, the silences are companionable.)


I like how my days unfold here.  Once Mark escapes to his day at the library and his personal adventures, I fill my blue mug with a second cup of coffee and read a bit. 


Later, I take care of routine tasks, which I find meaningful and pleasurable because I choose to accomplish them and I choose to take pleasure in them. 


Then I move on to do some journaling.  I sip more coffee, find a sunny spot and begin to write.  This journaling routine allows me to give vent to my thoughts, capturing an essence of who I am at a particular moment in time.   It is a ritual I treasure and recommend to others.


Next, I accomplish some work on professional and personal tasks and projects, which often fall under the guise of coordinating, networking, developing and planning, all of which seem to require computer time.  There is danger in this activity, because I can easily be consumed by details and the daylight will be gone from the sky before I look up and realize my obsessions have stolen the hours I could be enjoying in other ways.


There is time in each day for corresponding with family and friends.  Usually it is in the evenings that I write letters of e-mail.  Often my spouse downloads my daily e-mail from the flash drive and then heads out the door to his tutoring classes, only to return a few hours later to find me still reading and responding.   


Each day, there is always time to just read.  Reading is much like eating – I must find time for it each day!  There are magazines and nooks trailing through the house.  I read a bit from Newsweek over morning coffee, later I find respite and inspiration in the CS Sentinel.  I read snatches of news on my e-mail and try to stay current on the Ukraine Report that provides extensive coverage (in English) on what is going on in our current home.   There are novels near the bed and usually some non-fiction tome is fighting for my attention too.  I read cross-cultural materials with enthusiasm and schedule time to study a bit of Russian (I am lax at enforcing my own schedule here!).


Between these activities, I also observe life and absorb the tiny details, taking pleasure in them all.  I stop to watch the babushka feeding the cats on a rainy fall day.  I eavesdrop on the customers who stand and talk outside our living room window on their way home from the local store.   I take a stroll in the park under sun-dappled chestnut trees and walk along the sea just to observe how the sun and light play at different times each day.  I rise early to watch the birds congregates and listen to them making strategic plans for the day as they perch high in the trees above.   I smell the air, I sing along with the radio, take pleasure in life and I give thanks for the abundance in my life. 


Days slip by and I consider how long it has been since I painted or drew or wrote a story.  I have plans for cooking projects and I have some knitting I would like to enjoy.  I think f family and friends far away and miss them, but know they are leading happy lives too and I smile. 


This breathing space, bubble or time warp is a joy and a gift.  It will not last forever, because soon we will become ensnared in life outside our tiny circle.  Commitments will deepen and opportunities too will arise.  I am not eager for this next phase really, but change is inevitable. 


Last night I accidentally said “dah” when I should have said “nyet”! 

One of our English Club members did some fast-talking last night and now Mark and I are committed to a lesson in ballroom dancing!  Me - with no sense of rhythm is a roomful of Russians learning to glide across the floor with my cowboy leading the way…we shall see. 


This may be the beginning of the end for our precious breathing space, or maybe it will just be a new beginning, a new opportunity.