·                     Friday, 28 October 2005

Cooking with Gas…Living Vicariously…

It is mid-morning.  I hear the steady rhythm of my upstairs neighbor’s kitchen knife pounding the counter as she chop, chop, chops cabbage for a pot of soup. 


Perhaps she is chopping some other vegetable or is preparing something besides soup, but I know that almost any soup or dish prepared in a Ukrainian kitchen probably has some cabbage in it and a bowl of soup is a part on most Ukrainian meals.  So I imagine her industriously chopping cabbage.


When we lived with our host-family, we would wake to the sounds of T. chopping vegetables at 5 AM.  By the time we were called to breakfast at 7 AM, the smells rolling out of the kitchen would make the saliva flow.  T. makes the most wonderful soups and usually the main ingredients do not vary much: cabbage, carrots, onions, garlic, and chicken are a good start to any soup.  Oh yes - add a dollop of fresh sour cream!  Her simple, tasty soups set the standard for the remainder of my life here in Ukraine and Crimea.     


It is a brisk, gray day.  A hearty soup would be a good meal teemed with some of the crusty dark rye bread that is a staple here.  A glass of Crimean wine would complete the meal nicely.  My thoughts turn to a favorite of mine: Russian Vegetable Pie – a dish I used to cook in Upper Michigan.  It is a recipe well-suited to our life here in Ukraine where cabbage is a staple!


Now that we finally have a new tank of gas for our range, we can begin to cook a bit more. 


For several weeks Mark has been certain we would run out of gas at any moment.  There is no gauge on the tank so it is a matter of guessing. 


I am not as concerned as my spouse because, frankly, I could live quite happily on coffee and muesli (oat cereal), black bread, cheese, tomatoes, cheese, yogurt and so forth.  No stove required!  (We make coffee with an electric hotpot and a French-press, so no problems!)   Mark, on the other hand, has a passion for cooking and longs to create, as well as to dine, on real meals.  I am a more reluctant cook (but a grateful diner).


There is no science to this process of obtaining a new tank.  A delivery truck makes sporadic visits to the neighborhood, but there is no way to know when or if he will arrive.  (He rings a small bell to announce his arrival – charming, but not very effective.)  Car owners can take their tanks to a station and have it refilled.  A large wrench, a special kind of wrench, is necessary to install or remove the tank. 


How long does a tank last? 


“Oh, about two months,” says Ludmila, Mark’s Director.  I wonder how often and how much she cooks.  Her husband graciously helps us obtain a new tank and installs it in our kitchen.            


So we have gas and I can cook.


No, because, in truth, I am afraid of lighting the gas range. 


The huge orange bottle of gas poses a threat to me.  The idea of striking a match to light the gas paralyzes me.  It torches when it lights and makes loud, abrasive sounds.  My vivid imagination paints a blood, guts and gore pictures of us splattered across the ceiling of our cozy kitchen.    


I have yet, in fact, to use the stove.


Not only am I afraid of the gas; it burns my eyes. 


I suspect as the weather becomes colder and the days grow shorter, I will overcome my reticence (no, it is fear) of the beast and begin to cook a few things.  Someday I imagine I will close the kitchen door and put something in the oven to bake as I spread out my papers and writing projects on the kitchen table.  The window will steam up and the room will be cozy and inviting when Mark arrives home from is days at the library or his tutoring sessions across town.  Good smells will greet him as he fumbles with the skeleton key and the lock.    


But for now, I avoid the range and the scary orange gas tank in the corner of the kitchen.  I am content with eavesdropping on the meal preparations upstairs and I know my spouse will come home and happily cook up a delightful meal while we discuss the events of the day. 


I will sit near the fire extinguisher, just in case.    


Hmmm, the chopping upstairs has stopped – just a matter of time now before the sweet smells of savory soup waft through the open window!               


·                     Thursday, 27 October 2005

No Heat for Five Years…Hyper-Inflation…Bank Failure…

Last night at English Club, I was reminded of what younger Ukrainians have been through. 


From 1992-1997 the city of Kerch had no heat.  No one in Kerch had heat.


The city provides heat throughout the community through a system of pipes and hot water.  During those years of hyper-inflation, homes and businesses throughout this city had no heat.  Other utilities were intermittent or nonexistent too. 


On the cold winter nights with bitter winds whipping across the Black Sea, children and adults huddled in their beds, bundled in fur coats, mittens and knit caps.  Red-nosed children spent their days shivering in classrooms, still bundled in fur coats, mittens and knit caps. 


No heat was only one chilling symptom of a larger problem.  During those years, the banks failed.  They failed more than once.


There was no money.  People with government jobs (teachers, postal workers, street cleaners, etc) did not get paid for ten months.  When they did get paid, their paychecks were docked in an effort to find a way out of this devastating economic crisis.  Then no one got paid.


Imagine going for ten months with no money coming in.  Imagine going from day to day, not knowing when or if you might get paid.  Imagine being cold and hungry 24 hours a day for weeks and months on end.  Imagine raising children, caring for aging parents and yourself under these circumstances. 


Imagine if you were already unemployed at the start of this crisis.


Communism probably looked good in retrospect during those early years of independence from the Soviet Union.


We hear almost daily about the Great Patriotic War (WWII) and its impact on life in Ukraine.  It is as though those events happened in the recent past. 


We also hear about the hideous famine Stalin imposed on the Ukrainian people back in 1932-1933 when he forced the Collective Farm policy on this nation – Stalin used starvation to “break the backs” of the farmers: close to ten-million Ukrainians starved to death as a direct result of this initiative.  At the same time Ukraine exported produce and was hailed as the breadbasket of the world.  Desperate farmers here were so hungry they chewed on leather and used the thatch from their rooftops to make soup (long after they had resorted to eating vermin and insects). 


This history has been suppressed.  When Khrushchev “purged” Stalin in his 1956 secret speech, he did not even mention this hideous crime, but later in 1970 devotes a chapter of his book “Khrushchev Remembers” to the imposed famine in Ukraine.  The extent of this crime is now coming to light. 


We hear of other brutal historic events that shape the psyche of these people of “the Borderlands”.


Yes, we hear about these historic events often, but this more recent experience is not easy to speak of.  


We seldom hear about the years of hyper-inflation.  Perhaps it is too painful to speak of it – the wounds have not healed and speaking of it is like picking a scab and watching the blood flow.  Maybe it is too soon for people to speak freely about the more recent events of the early years following independence from the Soviet Union. 


I am chilled and feel raw thinking about what it must have been like to even get out of bed each morning during those years with no heat, no cash, and no promise of a future.


On Tuesday I wrote some rambling thoughts in this journal concerning how frugal and careful people are about their choices.  I wrote about how conspicuous and uncomfortable I feel when I make a purchase that is inconsistent with the values of my neighbors here.  Unemployment is high here.  Corruption at higher levels is evident.  People are eager to live the “good life” they see on television, in movies and magazines.  People are afraid of banks and still tend to react by squirreling money away in their homes.  They have experience dealing with duplicity.  It is not easy to trust. 


The conversation last night about hyper-inflation less than a decade in the past reminds me that though this country has suffered a long history battling starvation and oppression, they still live with the threat in more recent times. 


The Ukrainian people astound me with their ability to rise above these kinds of events and find joy in life.


They are a generous people and they sing often.  When it is time to eat, they do not just eat, they dine. 


Despite all the hardships she has lived through in her lifetime, the woman next door feeds her dozen cats twice each day and gave me a geranium for my windowsill,  


·                     Wednesday, 26 October 2005

Death can come at any minute, in any way.

We do not know what is in store tomorrow, or,

Whether there is a tomorrow, or even a tonight!

But still, we have the golden present.

Now we are alive and kicking.

What should we do now?

Love all, serve all."

-                     Swami Satchidananda


The “golden present” – what a gift!  Of course that is not what the phrase extracted from the quote above means, but isn’t each day really a gift, which we can open with enthusiasm and excitement and acknowledge with joy?  Even if we don’t feel inclined to like the gift, we can be grateful to our maker for thinking of us!  Give thanks rejoice…life is good!


What I am Reading…    

I finished reading “Mango Elephants in the Sun” by Susana Herrera. 


This book has its moments.  Peace Corps Volunteers will relate to it because it is about one woman’s experience at a Peace Corps assignment in Cameroon.  Despite differing cultures, languages, and crossing generations there are many commonalities between our experiences here on the shores of the Black Sea and hers in the desert of Africa. 


I have started Marina Lewycka’s novel “A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian” and can not put it down. 


Despite the reference to tractors, this is actually a delightful novel.  The Ukrainian step-mother is a rather cruel caricature of people from this country, but looking past that aspect, the book offers some amusing reading.     It is light reading and of particular interest to me for obvious reasons: it concerns Ukraine and at this point in my life, I am fascinated by all things Ukrainian. 


The tale takes place in England and centers on the crash of two cultures and two families: the aging father marries a youthful, outrageous, Ukrainian divorcee so she can stay in England.  The author has captured many of the details we are observing here in Ukraine and Crimea. There is insight into the history of Ukraine and how it effects her people, but it is essentially, a foolish novel.    


More on Books & English Club…

I will have to set aside my reading for English Club tonight.  The topic is books.  The original topic suggested by the English teachers was “the book I take everywhere”. 


I wonder if my Russian phrase book qualifies?  


Mark suggested we broaden the topic, but certainly if there are people who have a book they take everywhere, they may share their thoughts about it. 


It will be interesting to listen to this topic.  It has been my experience that people of Russian heritage value books and revere authors.  I have engaged in several conversations about books, and was grateful I have read widely and appreciate literature, because their reading choices were not casual ones!  I feel like I am in deep water when the topic of reading comes up with Ukrainians. 


I am wise enough to ask questions and let them speak rather than reveal the limitations of my understanding.   Of course the language barrier helps me hide too!  Actually, I have read, with pleasure, many of the Russian authors (Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Nabokov, etc. – I need to read Pushkin, whose style inspired Tolstoy to begins “Anna Karenina”!)  and I have read a large selection of French literature too (Flaubert, Balzac, Proust, et al). 


Flashbacks on My Stateside Bookshelves Far Away…

Besides Russian, French and Spanish authors, on my stateside bookshelves sadly collecting dust as they wait for my return, are a wide range of novels and literature (Mark has his own preferences and a large collection of his own, many of them from the science fiction genre).  There are no quick romance novels, thrillers or mysteries on my shelves. 


I tend to read by author.  I select a book for whatever compelling reason, read it and then wonder about the author’s other works.  I generally focus on one author and then eventually move on when a reference or recommendation intrigues me enough to deviate from my path. 


I seem to often choose books from the early to middle part of the Twentieth Century.  I enjoy Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Cather, Steinbeck, Dreiser, and other American writers of that era.  Oh and the author of the classic, “Giants in the Earth”…I have many books about pioneer life.


I also have affection for a few contemporary authors so you will find most of these authors’ works on my shelves:  Ann Tyler, John Irving, Amy Tan, Barbara Kingsolver, to name a random few.


James Michener fascinated me when I was younger and I would say he had a direct influence on me.  He opened my eyes to the world in a way that allowed me to step out into that big world and carve out a life for myself.  It is probably not his writing style, but his topics that appeal to me.  (We have lived in many of the locations in which his novels take place, which adds to my interest level, ie: Iberia, Texas, Colorado, etc...)


Some random authors pop up on the shelves as the result of recommendations by National Public Radio (NPR) or family and friends. 


And there are the wonderful selections I’ve collected as the result of “Saint” Oprah’s Book Club.  (She does a remarkable job choosing challenging and pertinent novels…what an impact she has on the book club trade with her marketing skills.  Even more significant, she is successful at getting American women to read good books!)


I have a “woman’s” section of what could be categorized as feminist works.  Next to it on my shelves are many books about women’s role in the military. 

I have many books about things Chinese and by Chinese and some Japanese authors.  “The Good Earth” planted seeds that influenced my lifelong reading tastes. 


Children’s books intrigue me.  Many are in my collection because of the delightful artwork, but some inspire me with their prose and simple answers to the complicated questions of life.  I re-read “The Little Prince” often and learn from it each time I open its cover.  I am living the lessons from “The Velveteen Rabbit,” growing older and having the fur loved off of me. 


Young people’s books too – The Narnia series, and the original Little House series on the Prairie series are still favorites, along with Alcott’s work and Dickens… 


There is poetry too…sigh…I miss my musty old books and will have to wait 20 months to see them again…


A few more categories dominate my choices. 


I majored in psychology so there are many books on human behavior (Weisel, and other holocaust writings) and these lead to some self-help tomes (“The Artist’s Way” is fun and useful and so is “Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain”) and then, because I spent much time teaching training and management functions (accredited through CCAF), I have many books on management and training.  (The One Minute Manager series is there and one of them is autographed by the author whom I met at a conference in San Francisco - he asked to have our photo taken together because he had never met a woman Master Sergeant!)


Then there are the travel books…and my books on Christian Science (Mary Baker Eddy’s works) and religion in general…oh and art (& crafts) books…and my collection of architecture and design books concerning small spaces…and….well…there are many more..


I miss my personal library.


I cannot imagine a home without books.


Our first purchase for our tiny flat here in Crimea: books shelves. 


I have been here less than a month and those new bookshelves are rapidly filling, despite the limited access to books in English.   


As the Little Prince says, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.”  I would say though, that much of what is essential can be found between the covers of some book somewhere.


Well, back to the history of tractors… I have to see how it ends before I head off to English Club!  


·                     Tuesday, 25 October 2005


Joy does not simply happen to us.

We have to choose joy

And keep choosing it every day.

 - Henri Nouwen


There is an expression I use often lately: “We will be here only two years.” 


And what do I mean by this phrase?  Mark is becoming good at interpreting my body language and intonation when I utter this phrase. 


Usually I mean, we can do without that __________ (fill in the blank with some charming item or even some rather basic household utensil) because we will be here only two years and we have what we need.  We can tough it out.  We can make do.


Sometimes when I utter the phrase, the word “but” and the words that follow, are simply implied.  “Yes, we will be here only two years, BUT we need to (Choose one of the following) a.) enjoy our life, b.) be comfortable, c.) live like real human beings, d.) _________. 


Sometimes it is a challenge to decide which direction to go.  Usually we choose to do without.     


Our flat came with an assortment of chipped dishes and odd tea cups.  We have what we need to survive.  Being practical people and people who are living on a Peace Corps Volunteer’s allowance, we are keenly aware that we have the necessary items to maintain our home for the next two years. 


As I wash these dishes, I look at them and try to think grateful thoughts.  I am even becoming a bit fond of some of these sad little bowls.  I have a favorite.  It is old and has character.  When Mark serves up a meal, I always hope I will get that special bowl.


But some days, some days, some days I want to go to the bazaar and choose some dishes of my very own.  I want to choose.   


I use dishes as an example, because I am fond of them and I am always inclined to purchase charming orphaned bowls and small colorful plates whenever I see them.  If you have visited our home in the USA, you see that though we have lived a rather transient lifestyle (I almost said “live like gypsies” but I am sure some people would be upset about that term and the whole conversation would digress into some other topic about political correctness, etc…but, I digress…)…as I was sating, yes… we live a rather transient lifestyle, yet back in America we have accumulated a vast collection of delightful bowls and small cheery plates.  I get so much simple satisfaction in choosing which bowls and plates to use as I go through the routine of setting table.  Despite all our moves, these fragile treasures are lovingly packed and are a part of what makes our house feel like a home. 


Our previous international moves have been associated with organizations that kindly moved our belongings at the close of an assignment.   The dilemma was not such an issue. 


So here we are in Crimea for two years with the Peace Corps.  At the end of that time, all the delightful items that accumulate in our nest will have to stay here.   (We joke that what we leave behind will be our real economic development project!)   


Yes, we are here for only two years and we can get by on less.  We can simplify.  We observe how our neighbors live.  We live respectfully. 


PCVs may choose to spend money from their savings on things that will bring them comfort or joy.  Some pay for cable TV or purchase new appliances for their flats.  Routine purchases seem like conspicuous consumption here. 


Of course it is wise to be comfortable and to make choices that enrich life.  I am not against simple pleasures, but often our choices draw fire from local people.


“Those rich Americans…” and you can probably imagine what kind of remarks would complete that sentence. 


Just being an American takes on a new meaning when you are the only real American they have ever met.


Our first host family uses old newspaper for toilet tissue and unplugs their refrigerator during the winter months to save on electricity.  Their dishes are mismatched and chipped. 


They live joyfully though.  Meals are hearty and there is singing at the dinner table.  Nikolai hugs Tamara and winks at her often.  He encouraged Mark to hug and kiss me.


People are frugal in a way we do not see in America.  They comparison shop.  They bargain. 


When we first arrived here Mark wanted to buy some hangers for our shirts and blouses.  One of Mark’s acquaintances from work was with us at the bazaar and decided to help us shop.  What should have been a simple purchase suddenly became a very tiring and demanding shopping episode and we came home with no hangers.  Hangers cost about 20 cents apiece. 


People here consider their purchases carefully.  They shop around.   They have no qualms about asking how much you paid for an item and will also inform you that you have paid too much. 


Of course people like to be helpful.  We recently bought a loaf of the wonderful black rye bread that is available everywhere here.  A woman whom we have met saw us standing at the bus stop and made a bee-line to us.  “You paid too much for that bread.  They charge too much in that store.  You should not shop there,” she said.  


We paid about 3 cents more for that bread than we would have paid elsewhere.


I recently chose to purchase a broom at the supermarket rather than trudge across town to the bazaar to comparison shop.  I found myself feeling defensive about my purchase knowing someone would ask me what I paid and would shake their head and berate me for being such an imprudent shopper. 


I felt very conspicuous walking home with my broom which I could have purchase at the bazaar for 50 cents less.  (I could have bought two hangars or two trips on the marshutka or about four pounds of potatoes for that difference!)     


Of course people here make far less money than we do in America.  Our Peace Corps allowance is fairly generous really but the learning curve for budgeting seems steep.  


The learning curve on living simply is steep too. 


But you know - we will be here for only two years.


·                     Monday, 24 October 2005

The Doctor Makes House Calls, Billiards & Hummers…


Here it is Monday evening and I finally am sitting down to write - Mark came home early Friday and brought me my daily "fix" of downloaded e-mail messages.  He usually checks mail late in the day because that's when mail arrives here.  Since he came home early, my mailbox is not very full. (When the business day is over here, it is just beginning in the USA.).   

Mark came home early because the library director closed the library.  She determined it was too cold at the library and sent all employees home for the day.   The city has not turned on the heat yet.  Last year there were problems paying for heat.  This year, the library can close one day a week to save on fuel. 


People supplement the city heat with electric radiators, but it is a rather expensive solution for many people.  Eve when the heat is on, flats and houses here are usually much cooler than what Americans are accustomed to.  Buildings are not insulated nor are the windows energy efficient.  (Our flat has brand new windows which seal well –they were a wise investment.) 


The weekend warmed up nicely.  After a cold wet week (see my journal earlier this week for some whining about getting my laundry dry - between water & power outages and rain...sigh...) 

Friday night we used the laptop as a DVD player and watched one of the 10 English-speaking DVDs we have with us - we watched "K-19, the Widowmaker".  It is excellent.  The plot, based on a true event, follows a crew of Russian sailors in a nuclear submarine as they go through a hideous disaster just off the coast of Washington DC.  The situation almost escalated to an actual holocaust.  Some fine acting and of course we found all the Russian cultural references especially interesting.  There were no attempts to speak Russian or imitate Russian (I lovingly refer to that as "Moose and Squirrel Russian" from the Rocky and Bullwinkle days). 

Saturday night we went out with several people for an evening of billiards.  Four Ukrainians (or should I say Crimeans?) and three Americans.  Mark and I were the old foggies of the group, but never felt like it though everyone else was around 26.  The three men played Russian billiards and the women played eight ball on the one American style table in the place.  The two police officers who were with us, took drink orders and then disappeared for a while.  They returned from the grocery store with several bottles of wine and some large chocolate bars and bags of chips.  There were stray dogs roaming through the billiard hall which was in the basement of the prestigious Pushkin Theater on Lenin Square.

Mark managed to learn the Russian billiards game and beat the men several times while I also was victorious at the women's table.  Who knew we were pool sharks?  8-) 

Conversation was amusing since only two people in the group are really capable of speaking both languages.  We had fun. 

Once the police officers learned that I was a retired Air Force NCO they had lots of questions and thought it was great fun to hear me talk about some of my experiences.  We did some jodies (marching cadences) and they laughed.  Jodies led to actual singing sooooo we ended up doing karaoke at a street booth. (People love to sing here...If you come to visit, I recommend you have a couple songs, ballads are especially popular, to share with people.) 

On the walk back to our flat we saw a Hummer - pretty strange in a country where not many people have cars.  The Hummer started a conversation about wealth and one of the police made references to the "Mafia" here in  Ukraine/Crimea...
FYI: One of the police officers plays trombone in a jazz group - we had fun telling him about my sister Janeen who plays in the Circus Band and has a red trombone.   

We got invited to join them all for an evening of dancing next weekend. 

Sunday we did our shopping at bazaar - I never tire of watching people at the open air market.  I take lots of photos and we buy too much stuff - Mark hauled home about 45 pounds of veggies, etc......when you buy by weight, you know exactly how many kilos you are toting! 

Today the doctor from Peace Corps made a house call here and gave Mark and another PCV  avian-flu shots.  He made a long trip to administer two shots.  His office is in Kiev (a 24-hour train ride from here).  He actually flew to Simferopol (Western Crimea) last night and administered shots to about 20 PCVs there this morning, then took the four hour bus trip here, took a cab from the station and while the taxi waited. He gave the two shots and was gone in ten minutes heading back to Simferopol and the airport.   

There are a couple articles about avian-flu below.  It is a big deal here I guess, hence the urgency about the shots.  People eat lots of poultry here.  The second short article below references a boycott on American poultry - we heard about this when we arrived last year - people had nothing nice to say about Purdue chickens...

It is getting dark early - the clocks roll back an hour this weekend so by 4:30 it will be night.  We really should be in the same time zone as Moscow, but since we are associated with Ukraine, we follow their time zones.  We are pretty far east. 


Natasha Lisova, Associated Press (AP), Hazhyn, Ukraine, Thu, Oct 20, 2005

HAZHYN, Ukraine - Bird flu hasn't reached Ukraine, but in this village where chickens and geese run freely, residents are debating what to do if it reaches them. They fear it's only a matter of time.

In the past week, the deadly H5N1 strain of avian flu appeared in Romania, which borders Ukraine to the south, and advanced into the European part of Russia, which lies to Ukraine's east.

Slaughtering their flocks would be a big blow; domestic birds are an important source of income and food in this impoverished ex-Soviet republic. So far, there is no need.

But Ukraine remains on high alert. On Tuesday, an infected swan was discovered in northern Romania, just 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Ukraine's border.

The H5N1 strain has killed 60 people in Asia, and scientists worry that it will eventually mutate into a strain against which humans have no defenses, setting off a pandemic.

This country of 47 million has already strengthened controls over the poultry industry, banned wild bird hunting and urged Ukrainians to keep their birds inside - advice few appeared to be heeding.

In addition to fears of a human pandemic, Ukrainians were also concerned about what they would eat. Poultry is often the only meat that many Ukrainians can afford.

Lyudmila Muharskay, a top health official, said the Health Ministry was pushing to increase the country's stockpiles of ordinary anti-flu medicine.  Ukrainians in areas considered high-risk, near the Romanian border and near wet lands where migratory birds are often found, have already started receiving vaccinations.

Such shots are given to prevent more-common flustrains so that if a person gets infected with the bird virus, there is no human flu strain inside the body to mix with and create a dangerous hybrid.  -30-

Interfax-Ukraine news agency, Kiev, in Russian 1127 gmt 20 Oct 05
BBC Monitoring Service, UK, in English, Thu, Oct 20, 2005

KIEV - The head of the state department for veterinary medicine, Petro Verbytskyy, has tendered his resignation.

"The resignation request has indeed been submitted," the Interfax-Ukraine news agency has learnt at the Ministry of Agrarian Policy.

Verbytskyy wrote the letter of resignation of his own free will, providing no reasons. The Cabinet of Ministers should take a decision on Verbytskyy's resignation.

[Agricultural Policy Minister Oleksandr Baranivskyy has recently criticized Verbytskyy for what he described as the state veterinary service's failure to take necessary precautions against bird flu - see Kommersant-Ukraina, Kiev, in Russian 19 Oct 05.]  -30-
FOOTNOTE:  Petro Verbytskyy has been a very controversial head of the state department of veterinary medicine.  He used several of his 'unusual' and 'new' biological theories about the way the U.S. processes poultry meat and its possible impact on the human body to effectively stop the import of U.S poultry into Ukraine for several
years.  Many persons who worked on this problem felt the real reason the import of poultry was stopped did not have anything to do with the 'unusual' and 'new' biological theories promoted and effectively used by Petro Verbytskyy to stop the import of U.S. poultry. EDITOR
3. Movie:Everything Is Illuminated
"Everything is Iluminated" opened in Toronto a week or so ago.  Has anyone else seen it?  We quite liked it.  Captured the American visitor as so clueless he can't even begin to understand what he's clueless about, Ukrainian teenage fantasies and realities, the woman who shares your compartment on the train, your waitress, getting completely lost even though there's only one road to drive on, and much much more.  But the L'viv railroad
station is actually in Prague, which may explain why the elderly heroine's cottage doesn't look very Ukrainian.  Best from Ellen

·                     Friday, 21 October 2005

Newsweek & Baby Talk…

When Mark leaves for the library each morning, I remain at the breakfast table, pour a second cup of coffee and indulge in reading a few articles from the far-to-quickly-dwindling stack of Newsweek magazines.  (PCVs in Ukraine receive Newsweek in their bi-weekly mail from the main office and Mark had a backlog when I arrived.)


The August 15th Newsweek features an engaging article on research on how babies think.  I read it with interest.  I was particularly interested in the brief references to experiments exposing infants to foreign languages. 


It appears there must be an emotional connection to language learning for infants to actually assimilate meaning.  It is the human element that provides this element.  If the baby simply views an audio/video tape they fail to learn.  They consider it “just another background noise, like a vacuum cleaner.” 


I have wondered whether having the TV or radio on would help me integrate what I read in my Russian studies and improve my vocabulary and understanding.  Radio is background noise for the most part, but I have noticed that when I become familiar with a song and like the rhythm and melody, I sometimes try to sing along.  I master the words more easily and interact when I hear the song.  Perhaps the music facilitates an emotional connection. 


The practical application of what the article says is I need to get out and talk to more people if I am to master the basics of this language.  I guess, like most anything in life, success has to do with emotional involvement and in my experience, emotional involvement involves commitment.


The Culture of Running Water…

According to a sidebar in my Russian phrasebook, sinks in this part of the world often do not have plugs.  This is not because people do not wash in them, but it reflects a prevalent attitude that running water is more healthful than bathing in a basin of water. 


Apparently the people they refer to have running water available.


·                     Thursday, 20 October 2005

Rain Outside & No Water Inside…

It looks like rain again today.


It is Thursday and Tuesday’s early morning laundry (most of our towels) is still dripping, dripping, dripping on the clothesline in the garden. 


Oh well, without water we don’t really need the towels right?


Managing laundry is obviously going to be a challenge during the rainy season and throughout the winter. 


No washer and dryer in the flat and no laundromats or dry cleaners in the community.  Perhaps this is a viable economic development project it his country where people love stylish clothes and take such care to look good! 


I drew an extra bucket of emergency water this morning.  There has been no water the past two days. 


I may be a slow learner, but two days in a row without water may indicate a pattern. 


(Hmmmm, a laundromat may face problems with unreliable water and power sources – make a note of that as a limiting factor for any economic development project.)


So far I have lucked out on the personal hygiene aspects on this intermittent waterless situation so my hair and I are fresh and clean.    


The PCV “Look”…

Long before we arrived here I began perusing PCV blogs and online journals.   The photos they post often reflect a certain “look” which no doubt has to do with water supply challenges. 


One of the obvious adjustments for PCVs seems to be in appearance.  Traveling light and learning to cope with challenges like reliable water and power supplies, climate and availability of products make compromises necessary.  The learning curve is steep.


Yes, vanity may suffer during this experience in being flexible and learning to cope.  Individuals who once were the epitome of professional appearance now find themselves satisfied to be simply clean and neat.  It can be humbling.


While we learn to cope and adjust, our host-country peers amaze us with their ability to walk through a rainstorm and still show up well groomed, shoes shined and hair styled, while the American counterpart appears mud-covered, frizzy-haired and certainly not in stylish clothing since many PCVs show up in country with clothes more well suited to a camping trip rather than a professional setting. 


Of course I am poking some fun at the PCVs, but it seems like many of them prepare for their assignments by shopping at REI, LL Bean and other outfitters…you can almost pick a PCV out in a crowd by the kind of hiking sandal they are wearing!  Here in Eastern Europe and in the Business Development program, this is less true of course. 


Labels & the Living Room…

All over our flat there are little yellow sticky labels indicating the Russian words for various items, ie: window, curtain, door, wall, bed, etc.  I wonder how many of the folks in our training group have a décor that includes similar labels.   


This concept of labeling household items is part of many early language learning programs.  I am really past that stage in my Russian studies, but spent a few hours yesterday refreshing my memory on some very basic lessons and found this exercise to be rather therapeutic. 


I am sure the workman was impressed (or maybe puzzled) to see the telephone and refrigerator labeled in Russian. 


Our living room walls resemble a cross between a kindergarten classroom and a military command post.  In lieu of art, the bare walls of our living space are covered with maps of Ukraine, Crimea, USA, and the World.  There is a large, colorful Russian alphabet chart above the desk.  There are seashells collected on a recent excursion to a local fort, seed pods from a peculiar tree, rocks from a local quarry, and other assorted memorabilia and photos reminding us of special events. 


There are, of course, photos from friends and family in the USA too.  Books on Eastern European history, language and culture are stacked here and there and there are novels waiting to be read too.  (Always room for more of these!)  Newsweek magazines are stacked on our makeshift coffee table alongside phrasebooks and cameras and the ever present laptop.  Ed the duck is perched on top of the ancient TV in the corner. 


And of course there are the labels.  Which reminds me…I should be studying my Russian right now…




·                     Wednesday, 19 October 2005

Midmorning Coffee Break…

I am sipping coffee from a mug I picked up in Kyiv.  It is a lovely blue and is an American style coffee mug. 


Ukraine and Crimea adhere to the great traditions of the tea culture, (though I have yet to see an actual samovar in use).  Coffee is a foreign notion.   


Returned PC Volunteers and current Volunteers advised us - coffee is not available here.  At gatherings there will always be tea and there may be a jar of instant Nescafe for those aberrant folks who choose to forgo tea.  (I shudder to even label instant powders as coffee!)


My spouse and I are diehard coffee aficionados so when we packed for our move to this part of the world, we packed accordingly.  We stashed a French press pot and many bricks of our favorite coffee into our limited baggage allotment.  (Our favorite comforts see to weigh most and with only 100 pounds authorized per person, there are limits to the coffee and books one can reasonably carry.)


Settled now in Kerch by the sea, we are finding coffee is available.  Imagine our delight when the new market included bricks of Maxwell House Coffee in among their small display of instant and freeze dried coffees!  The price is very reasonable so we purchased several bricks.  We feel compelled to create a demand for this product so they will continue to carry it! 


So, this “Maxwell House-wife” is happily sipping said coffee after an exciting morning of doing a bucket or two of laundry, sweeping floors, dusting furniture, washing dishes and generally making sure our cozy nest remains pleasant.  


Coffee is making headway here. Located near the checkout n many stores I have frequented since my return to Eastern Europe I have noticed small single-serving tubes of various coffee and cocoa drinks.  My spouse mentioned seeing some of the young women on the library staff indulging in a cup of this trendy product. 


Packaging is everything, or at least it can be useful in enticing buyers.  In this culture, no home is without a handy electric teakettle.  Instant products that require a dash of hot water are quite popular and convenient for lunching or teatime breaks (note: they do have teatime breaks and take them very seriously here). 


Coffee is edging in through machine too.  I observed a coffee vending machine in the entry to the supermarket.  For a few kopecks (not sure of the cost) coffee drinks are served up in a small plastic cup. 


So coffee is catching on or catching up here.  Now if we can just get the locals to serve it in a coffee mug instead of a dainty tea cup or a tiny espresso cup!


Things PCV Visitors Could/Should Bring When They Visit Other PCVs…

Just some random thoughts on what fellow PCVs could bring along when they visit other PCVs (besides the obligatory bottle of dry red wine I solicit from all my guests!)…


  1. A personal towel.  Bring one to use.  Towels in this part of the world are generally smaller than those we are accustomed to and many PCVs probably only has a couple.  Hand washing towels is challenging and getting towels dry can be tough too. 
  2. A sleeping bag.  This will alleviate the problem of bedding: specifically availability and laundering issues (see above).  
  3. Used novels, magazines, & other reading materials.   Share the wealth!  There are never enough reading materials in English available at site!  Leave them with the host, or just make it a long-term loan…
  4. DVDs, videos, software, & media stuff.  Sharing is important!  Burn copies or pass them on or just share them for the evening…
  5. Photos from your site.  OK, maybe you post them on the web, but some folks don’t have access and might just like to see how you live and where you work at site.   
  6. Recipes, shopping, cooking tips.  How do you cope with cooking and food at your site?  What have you discovered that makes a suitable substitute for something else or is just plain good?


·                     Tuesday, 18 October 2005

We are Powerless!

0830:  I pour soap powder into two buckets and reach for the water nozzle in the shower.  The power goes out.  The lights go immediately and the music from the radio seems to linger a few beats longer.  By the time the music stops resonating, the refrigerator coughs to a stop, and I realize that we have no power.


In the absolute silence of the moment, I hear my laptop in the next room adjusting itself to the situation.  It makes a distinctive crackling sound as the battery takes over.  On reduced power, the screen takes on a bluer tone and everything on the screen appears darker. 


Now what?  I think my power is connected to the store next door.  If their freezers fail, so do my lights.  I wait.


Plans for my immediate projects require power: cold water to do laundry, hot water to shower and do dishes and lights to guide me in the dim, windowless entry hallway where I hurriedly stacked clothes and personal items which need to find a home in the new closet.


Through the wall, I hear voices in the store.  Soon they will resolve this situation.  Or perhaps it is neighborhood wide. 


Yesterday, rain kept people out of the streets somewhat.  This morning the sun is bright, but the air has a bite to it.  I look out the window and see only one person on the streets.  He wears a stocking cap.  This is a first this season – an adult wearing a knit cap.  Up till now the only cool weather wear I have seen has been in the form of fall fashion.  The young women are eager to wear their dramatic fall coats and aggressive-looking boots with stiletto heels and pointy toes.   The weather has not forced people to don serious cold weather attire yet.


I pour coffee from the thermos and remember to be grateful that I was not in the midst of the shower when the power went off.  Standing in the dark shower stall with a head full of shampoo with only cold water (or no water) would be a rough start to the day. 


I think about friend T’s place (see notes on our weekend guest’s recent visit).  He hauls water up from a well; he uses coal to heat his home and his water.  He has an outhouse.  He has no shower or bathroom.  


There are no sounds now.  The voices from the store are silent.  Outside there are no people or cars.  From my windows I see no dogs and only two cats.  Usually there are several dogs happily cruising the neighborhood on their morning rounds looking for food and friendly pats.  By now I can usually count twenty cats; at this hour, they usually stretch out or curl up in sunny spots having completed their morning ablutions.


The city has not turned on the heat yet this season.  The flat was chilly and damp last night. We slept under the duvet, grateful for the warm feathers inside. 


I wonder if people snapped on electric heaters in their flats this morning to take the edge off the chill. 


The price of these small heaters has come down and there are more available each year.  We have seen young couples walking home from the local store carrying small electric radiators. 


The demands for power may exceed the supply.


I pull on a sweater.  The sun is coming out and the sky is bright.


No Water Now…

1000: My radio sings to me again and Ivan (our sad, old Soviet refrigerator), hums and coughs along with the music. 


The power is on, but there is no water now. 


I managed to eke out enough water to scrub some towels before the water supply tapped out. 


Towels are soaking in suds, waiting, waiting, waiting. 


Years of training have aught me to expect the unexpected so we have several bottles of emergency water cleverly stashed in our tiny flat, just in case.  Four large plastic water bottles currently comprise the legs for our improvised coffee table.  They are hidden by a tablecloth that gives our creative solution a bit more elegance or at least allows us the illusion of it.


We have emergency candles in our flat and carry small flashlights with us for a variety of uses including unexpected power outages and dark streets with open manholes and packs of dogs and other surprises. 


Yesterday we were slowed down and inconvenienced by power problems too.  This time it was the public transportations system that suffered or caused suffering.  We were across town enjoying a birthday celebration with an executive from the local port.  Following the party, we found the electric trolleys empty, people standing along the curb.  A couple of women employees had climbed onto the roof of one vehicle to troubleshoot the problem. 


Mark faced the same problem in the evening when it was time to return home from his tutoring session.  He walked home, about a 40 minute walk.


In America we are less accustomed to dealing with infrastructure problems.  Here they are a fact of life. 


1500:  Water trickles out of the faucet into my rinse water bucket. 


Limited water is better than no water.


1700: I finally rinse out the towels and hang them on the line.  The bright morning sun that prompted me to wash towels has passed on and now it looks like it may rain. 


Depsite the impending rain, I wring out towels and hang them outside.  


There is no place to hang wet towels indoors and with no heat or air circulation they are hardly worse off out in the rain.  Anyone who has experienced the sour smell laundry dried indoors can emit will understand my decision.


So ends a day here in lovely Kerch by the sea.


·                     Monday, 17 October 2005

Friend Tom came to visit Saturday. 


It was R&R for him I think.  Soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines know R&R stands for rest and relaxation. 


Tom, a PCV, lives here in Crimea, but his experience is much different from ours.  He lives in a village in the foothills away from the sea while we are in larger, port city.  His village was once the capital of Crimea and many artists and writers have called it home.  Now it has become a quiet village and is strongly influenced by the Tartar culture.


The Tartars left Crimea during Diaspora and now many decades later, ancestors of these people have returned to the peninsula to their homeland.  During their exile, many Tartar families called Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries home.  


We will have a chance to visit the area and learn more of the history of the Tartars in Crimea, but this weekend, we provided Tom an opportunity to visit a more typical Crimean town.


While Tom politely listened to us detail facts about the history, culture and peoples of Kerch, I believe the thing that made the largest impression on this American far from home was the plumbing in our humble flat.  We have running water and even have an electric water heater!  Tom has the opportunity to learn firsthand the challenging details of managing life with an outhouse and a well. 


We sat at a café by the canal sipping tea and enjoying delightful autumn weather listening to Tom provide the details of buying coal by the ton, storing it, and burning it.  The topic moved on to the public baths. 


Public baths are common throughout Ukraine and Crimea.  We listened with great interest as Tom explained the customs associated with a weekly visit to the baths.  The community he calls home is small, so the bath is open only on Saturday night.  It comprises a significant part of the social life as well as contributing to personal hygiene and comfort.  People linger for hours at the baths, sipping vodka, sweating and bathing. 


During cold weather, people do not perspire like they do in the summer months so a weekly bath suffices, at least according to Tom’s local mentors! 


Our market is quite large here in Kerch.  Though it was late in the day and many vendors had packed up and closed already, Tom, like anyone who comes to the city after an extended stay in a small town, was still a bit wide-eyed at the number of choices available here.  We stopped and sampled a few salads, bought some vegetables and selected some chicken to cook up for dinner.  It was fun to hear Tom using his Russian skills to negotiate with the locals.   


We meandered through this charming town as we made our way to our flat near city center.  We walked along the clean streets, admired the architecture of the buildings, observed the people strolling happily through their town.  We detoured bit to walk along the Black Sea and caught a glimpse of the mountains in Russia, glinting in the distance as the late afternoon sun highlighted them. 


It was fun to see our town through someone else’s eyes. 


To me one of the joys of being associated with Peace Corps is to share what we see and learn with others PCVs.  This sharing allows each of us the opportunity to expand our know ledges and to vicariously experience even more of the country we call home for 27 months of our lives.  


Some volunteers live isolated lives and socialize only with English speaking opportunists or fellow volunteers.  Others are immersed in the local culture and live rich lives, learning much about themselves as they strive to make a difference where they live. 


It is interesting to hear the experiences of others.  Volunteers in urban settings may dine at restaurants or dance at clubs that are well above the standard of other humble PCVs.  Rubbing elbows with expatriates and tourists is interesting and sometimes a bit amazing, especially after living among working class people. 


As PCVs, we are provided with a modest allowance for food and housing.  We live like the locals around us.  Of course there are local people who live in elegant homes who live lives we cannot even imagine.  Some PCVs seem totally oblivious to the fact there are many elegant homes, people with wealth and disposable income.  The volunteers may stay very close to their work sites and experience a very small piece of the pie they are offered when they come to this country.  Others are exposed to both extremes.


There are other volunteers who try to duplicate the comforts and standards of life in the USA in their lives here.  Satellite TV, cable, Internet, elegant clubs, fine apartments, fine dining - these things are available, but not on a working class salary and certainly not on a PCV allowance.


Tom’s idea of high life was much more humble, at least on his visit here: the idea of a hot shower in a pleasant bathroom was very alluring.  It was fun to be the fairy godmother who could grant this happy wish. 


After depleting the hot water supply showering, Tom sighed and said, “I love your apartment!”


Hot water on demand will do that for people!


Another challenge volunteers face is cooking for themselves.  The local open-air markets sell whatever is in season.  Any produce which is not in season or not common to this culture is pretty exotic and definitely pricey.  For many volunteers learning to cook foods based on what is available is a new concept. 


Americans are used to simply buying whatever foods strike their fancy, regardless of season or price.    Here, the market carries the same things everyday and additional produce is available, depending on the season.


What is available?  Cabbage, potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, chicken and this time of year tomatoes and peppers, eggplant and bananas, grapes, and apples, cucumbers and radishes are all available.  Learning to use these products to creative and tasty combinations is a challenge for many of the PCVs.  In fact, many simply get by and seldom master the joys and the art of cooking.  This is sad, but true.


One of our fellow PCVs has ten huge bags of potatoes squirreled away in his root cellar.  A wise man, ready for winter up in snowy Ukraine!  Another couple in our training group, who say they live in the “Wisconsin” of Ukraine, are doing lots of canning to preserve vegetables and fruits that will soon disappear from their markets. 


Since Mark takes some pleasure in preparing food, it was fun to have a guest eager to learn about food preparations.  Tom and I sipped wine and watched as Mark put together a simple, but tasty meal, and expounded on chopping techniques and cooking methods.  We ate simple food, but we ate well.


We lingered around the table sampling local cognac and talked until far past bedtime.  Somewhere around 5 AM, Tom finally had his opportunity to exploit our shower and then went off to bed on clean sheets on our very-firm Soviet-era couch for a few hours of sleep.


On Sunday, the men huddled over the computer discussing web page design while I tidied up.  Outdoors, the fall weather was bright, clear and perfect for a hike up to the Mitridate.


We enjoyed the view of the harbor and the city from the Greek ruins 90-plus meters above the sea.  We watched as a wedding party sipped champagne and snapped photos in front of the huge, hilltop monument to the Great Patriotic War.  The bride left behind her bouquet, as is the custom here. 


We walked down the hillside on the 2,000 steps that lead down to the city center and the plaza where the Pushkin Theater, the statue of Lenin, and the city symbol, the Griffin, dominate.    


Later in the afternoon, Tom boarded the bus and headed west to his village to resume his life there until another day. 


·                     Friday, 14 October 2005

This morning I witnessed a savage event…German Shepards & Spiders

My morning routines in our cozy Crimean flat are growing as I discover what must be done each day to maintain our home.  My mother had a schedule with certain major tasks assigned to each day.  Other tasks were simply part of a daily routine.  Making the bed, running the dust mop across the golden hardwood floors, washing the morning dishes and sweeping the kitchen floor were all routines accomplished every morning. 


The local radio station provided background to some of her work.  Certain tasks were accomplished at particular times so she could hear the programs she enjoyed.  During the breakfast hour she would listen to the swap shop program where people would offer items for sale or trade.  Later she would listen to the hospital report and the obituaries.  In a small town this is important news.  When the stock reports (not stock market, but actual livestock, as in feeder pigs and the price of cattle, etc – this was part of life in Iowa) came on, she would snap the kitchen radio off and move on to tasks in other parts of the house.    


One of my household chores today involved death and destruction. 


I had to evict several daddy-long-legs spiders and their families from their webs near the ceiling of our living/bed room. 


For many days I have eyed these harmless and somewhat graceful creatures that populated the area twelve feet above my head.  Today I felt the need to relocate them to quarters further away from my sleeping area.  They have never invaded our space, yet somehow I was not comfortable having them staring down at me from above me bed and perhaps they were not happy with me gazing up at them either. 


I used a broom and took a position on one of the seven dining room chairs that came with the apartment that has neither dining table nor dining room.  Before I swished the broom their webs and destroyed their quiet homes, I spoke to them in a loud voice, advising them to find another place to live.  They are not welcome in this room, but should they care to relocate to the living room ceiling I could allow them to remain in the flat.  They are quiet tenants and do no harm.  They are reputed to dine on mosquitoes and so they serve a purpose here. 


Despite my speech of encouragement, I did feel rather cruel when I swept them down. 


I wonder if they will relocate or if they will return to the site of their original home to rebuild like the victims of Hurricane Katrina. 


I hope they are not vindictive creatures.


Suddenly, I think of that German Shepard dog and the poor cat I saw earlier today.


As I was watering my geranium and enjoying the way the sunlight spills across through the kitchen window I heard a loud commotion in the courtyard.  Under the willow tree a large German Shepard dog was shaking his head vigorously and running in circles. 


Three young workmen on their break seemed to be cheering the strange dog on.  In a moment I understood that they were not cheering the dog, they were crying out to him to stop.


The dog had swept into the courtyard and grabbed onto the neck of one of the many cats that live here.  He was shaking the cat with the vigor of a cleaning woman shaking out a dust mop. 


In the next few moments the dog ran out the gate with the cat still clenched in its jaws. 


The cat cannot survive this savage attack.


I was stunned and so, apparently, were the workmen.  They stood there quietly for a few moments, then one young man drew a package of cigarettes from his pocket, offered one to each of the other men.  They stood quietly smoking, not speaking. 


Nature has a way of reminding us we are vulnerable creatures and at any moment the joys and privileges of life may be taken from us. 


·                     Thursday, 13 October 2005

Are the stars too distant,

pick up the pebble that lies at thy feet, and from it learn the all.

-                     Margaret Fuller


Three fishermen, home from the sea, relax on the terrace outside my window.  Their poles, nets and other equipment are leaning neatly on the terrace rail.  There is a bottle on the table and their voices are animated.


A large orange and white cat, lured over by the sea-smells, inspects each item, sniffing and pawing and finally sauntering off down the street in search of something more interesting.  Other cats observe from their nap-spots across the street.  Stray dogs dart about, occasionally barking, always begging.  


The men continue to talk in voices that are deep and that seem to rumble out of their chests.  I catch an occasional word or phrase that I recognize from my Russian studies, but mostly their conversation is, for me, like listening to birdsong; it has no real meaning to me, but is a soundtrack for my life these days.  


In the kitchen window, next to the pink geranium and the large yellow mum, the radio is on and the local morning show personalities pratter away, much as they do anywhere in the world.  Morning talk shows seem to be morning talk shows.  There are the usual components: a serious-sounding host and a wise-cracking sidekick; upbeat music; callers who must answer questions regarding some obscure fact about a celebrity, sports or news event; sound effects used to punctuate foolish or racy remarks and, of course, lots of loud commercials.    


The radio program is in Russian, so I must speculate about much of what I hear.  Sometimes I follow the conversation for a brief period of time.  This morning there was a call in segment about the Lord of the Rings films (– funny to hear English words and names Russified almost beyond recognition). 


Language facilitates conversation and can draw people together.  It can also isolate people. 


Living in another country, absorbing the culture and hearing the language makes me think what it must be like to be a small child or a baby.  I am surrounded by so many activities and sounds that I must assign meaning to.  This activity requires significant amounts of energy and patience. 


There must be a willingness to listen and learn and to take some risks too.  Some days this is a marvelous game, but on other days it can be more than a novelty or a challenge; it can be exhausting.  


I consider what immigrant life in America is like.  Many people migrate to the United States of America to make a new life for themselves.  They face the challenges of language and a diverse culture and many of them are quite successful at integrating into their new world.  I think of the medical people I have met and students of engineering and language and business. 


Many of the people we meet here have studied in the States and have returned to their home and families.  They are modest about their language skills, but often they speak our language better than students we had in our classes at EHS.   I am amazed at the nuances of vocabulary some of these speakers possess.


I will be here another about 20 months.  I wonder how much language my language skills will improve. 


Mark is exposed to conversational opportunities daily at his work and he studies with a tutor twice weekly.  He also teaches Technical English to the library staff and hosts English Club each week too.  Soon he will be teaching disabled children too.  There are also the daily transactions that involve some command of the language – shopping for food and household items in stores and at the bazaar, dealing with the bank and the shoe repairman and others all involve language skills.


My own language studies are erratic and I do not yet have any daily network of people to converse with (practice on).  I have a variety of language materials which I am slowly working my way through. 


My passive vocabulary is fairly large, but there is so much more to learn than simply vocabulary: everything involves case, stress, word order…endings change on so many words so there are many opportunities to err.  This aspect of learning a language can paralyze people.  How do Russian children ever decide to open their mouths and speak?        


It is strangely quiet outside.  I look out the window and see the fisherman have packed up their belongings and departed.  Several cats are stretched out in a pool of sunlight where just recently fishing poles and nets rested.  The noisy dogs are napping now. 


I switch off the radio.  It is time for me to move on to other activities.          


·                     Wednesday, 12 October 2005 (Columbus Day)

So much has been given to me;

I have no time to ponder over that which has been denied.

- Helen Keller

I wake to rain.


Rain foreshadows the inconvenience and discomfort of winter.  This is my first experience with rain here in Crimea.  I have no errands outside the doma (house) today so I can be benevolent about the rain. 


Outside it is dark. I stand at the kitchen window sipping from a mug of sweet tea and wonder how the dogs and cats manage in wet weather.  Scavengering for food becomes hard work.  People, who walk to and fro, move quickly with heads bent.  They will arrive at destinations with damp clothes and flyaway hair.


Inside the flat I am dry, warm and comfortable.  I decide this first rain day is a little holiday for me.  I celebrate by lingering over the novel I am reading.


With the limited availability of books in English, I find myself rationing my reading a bit.  I limit myself to a couple chapters each day rather than giving in to my voracious appetite which would allow me to consume whole novels at a single sitting.  This discipline is particularly difficult with the current novel I am enjoying. 


Dreams of My Russian Summers by Andrei Makine absorbs my interest and paints pictures that lure me in and trap me there long after I set down the book to pursue other activities.


The author conjures up a babushka who captivates her grandchildren with personal tales of all the major events in Twentieth Century Russia, but the story is really about her two disparate lives, one in France and one in Siberia.  The young Soviet boy, coming of age in the 1960s and 70s, listens and learns and allows the reader to feel what life must have been like in that era of the Iron Curtain…Life in rural Russia juxtaposed against life in Paris.


The author was born in Siberia in 1957 and lives in Paris, where he was granted political asylum in the late 80’s.  The novel is somewhat autobiographical.  Originally in French, the book won France’s top literary awards and was a national bestseller. 


I suspect my generalized description of the book will not draw in many readers or influence anyone to read it.  It is, however, a decidedly delightful book; well written and filled with evocative images that are especially interesting to me now, living in a community of Russian speaking people , in a country that was part of the former Soviet Socialist Republic.  Russia is, in fact, just kilometers away from my flat here in Kerch.


Reflections on Humor…

This evening I will attend English Club at the library.  We will share anecdotes and idioms.  Mark has TEFL book which provides many simple jokes and these will be well suited to the group.  Many of the jokes are ones my grandchildren would appreciate – elephant jokes and knock-knock jokes.  


In learning a language there are times when you get to re-live some of the simple joys of being a child.  Laughing at jokes is one of those times.  You must have some mastery of a language to appreciate humor of course. 


I think maybe that is why children of a certain age appreciate knock-knock jokes so much.  It is a chance to play with words.  Up until a certain point, language is merely a tool for communicating needs. 


The joke and anecdote theme was proposed last week after some remark that motivated me to quip,  “Men work from sun to sun, but a woman’s work is never done.”  Immediately pens began scribbling as the women in the group wrote down this phrase for later use no doubt.  I had to disabuse them that I was the author of this phrase, but they were delighted with it!  Some things require no explanation.



·                     Tuesday, 11 October 2005



·                     Monday, 10 October 2005

My storehouse having been burnt down,

nothing obstructs my view of the bright moon.

-                     Mashade

I do enjoy quotes.  This quote above, a haiku perhaps, seems iridescent.  It shimmers with color.  Each time I read it, I find my attention drawn to another nuance of reflected color, another idea to consider. 


Today I see that sometimes we focus on what is in front of us and do not always see the beauty of what is happening around us.  We can be so focused, we fail to observe the blessings that surround us.  Our obsession over things and accumulating them can detract from our pleasure in what we already have. 


We will live here for about 20 months more.  Though we are transient, this is our home.  We want our nest to be an attractive, functional, comfortable place to spend time together and with friends and family.  It is a pleasure to approach decorating this way.  It is also challenging. 


Each of us comes to this place with 100 pounds of baggage.  The Peace Corps coordinates the matter of finding a suitable apartment for the volunteer to call home.  PCVs are to live in housing appropriate to the standard of living for local people working in similar positions.


Like any bureaucratic organization, they have checklists which prescribe the standards for what must be in the apartment.  There must be a specified number of dishes, pots and pans, towels, and items of furniture.  The checklist is detailed and reflects an American perspective of course.  But, each PCV comes to their new home and finds some basic elements to make life easier.


Each PCV also receives a small allowance for settling in.  This permits the individual to purchase a few things which make the flat a home-away-from home. 


With each small purchase I am reminded when we leave, we can take only 100 pounds away.  I will have to leave behind many of my small treasure.  This tinges my pleasure for a moment, but I ultimately realize that today is all that is promised to anyone.  I must simply enjoy today.  That is enough. 


It would be interesting to see how others personalize their flats. 


The items provided in our flat are generally very utilitarian.  Our chipped dishes and assorted cutlery are a mismatched collection.  The two-burner stove has been painted to make it appear less unattractive.  Ivan, the Terrible, our rusty, scary refrigerator, really should be retired.  (The workman ran a finger over the door of the refrigerator, shook his head and said “plaho” which means bad and then quickly changed the subject, challenging my linguistic skills by asking me where in we are from.) 


Our flat is centrally located.  The street outside is tree-lined and attractive.  It has potholes and there is a manhole missing its cover.  There are streetlights on our boulevard and they remain on all night.  Many PCVs live on back streets with no streetlights or lights that are turned off around 9-10. 


Our apartment is small, but really is in good condition. 


The two windows are new and seal very well.  This is important when winter arrives and the winds whip off the sea.  The windows have iron work protecting the glass on the outside and there are vinyl shades on the inside.  One faces the street outside our living room/bed room on the north and the other window, in the kitchen, faces south to our tiny fenced yard and the courtyard.


Plumbing & Heat…

We are fortunate to have a toilet and a separate water closet that are bright and clean looking.  They have been recently renovated.  Plumbing stories are common among PCVs in Ukraine/Crimea. 


Among the PCV community there are many funny kolonka (sp?) tales too.

Our flat also boasts an electric water heater rather than a kolonka.  We have experience with these unique systems: when we lived in Spain we had water heaters similar to the kolonka.  They run on gas and provide hot water on demand.  There is a pilot light and when the water is running there is a cheery little fire burning.  These are great water heaters when they are functioning well.  They do, however, seem to be temperamental.  The pipes corrode and the gaskets leak and there are all manner of troubles with them.


Our electric water heater is a nice luxury, but will be of little use when the power goes out, which happens more than people care to admit.  We have been assured that since the Mayor lives in our immediate neighborhood we will probably not suffer power outages and heat problems that are more common in other parts of town. 


There are PCVs in country who actually draw water from a well or potable water source rather than from a tap.  They also heat their water for bathing, washing, and cleaning. 


Our heat is provided through radiators.  Like the military in the USA, the heat is activated on a prescribed date in the Fall and remains on until a specified date in Spring, regardless of the actual weather conditions.  One PCV in our training group has a more primitive heating system - chops his own wood.  When PCVs go to their site, they are provided with electric heaters.  These are useful for augmenting heat.  The growing availability of inexpensive electric heaters may create quite a power demand this winter when everyone plugs in.  Our local city government could not pay the city heating bill last winter so they did without heat…


Padded Doors & Slippers…

Our apartment has a typical entrance.  From the dark, dank communal hallway, there is a double door coming into our flat.  The two doors are side-by-side.  They are roughly upholstered in dark vinyl and decorated with large brads.  We have observed many doors like this, in apartments and on individual homes.  Perhaps the upholstery helps retain heat, but why double doors? 


In many entries, there are actually two sets of doors – an outer upholstered pair and an inner wooden pair.  This makes a very secure entrance and probably also helps retain heat too. 


The doors lock from the inside with a huge skeleton key.  They do not close without the lock.  It is difficult to open the door when someone comes to visit.  This is fairly typical in our experiences too.  I also wonder what would happen if there were a fire and we had to escape. 


To the right of the door there are the typical hooks for hanging outer garments.  On the floor underneath, all the shoes and boots in the home are stored.  Upon entering a home, one removes street shoes and dons slippers (“tapachki”).  Street shoes are generally taboo inside private homes.  A good host will provide slippers to guests.  (Do not think about going barefoot – I have already been chastised about this by the “babushka” woman who lives upstairs.  I have since acquired some warm house shoes.) 


Directly across from the front door, welcoming guests to our humble abode, is the doorway to the toilet.  The tiny, closet-size space houses a commode and a fluorescent light.  It is a small space and serves only one function.  (The water closet, with the sink and shower, are in another room adjacent to the kitchen.)   To the left of the front door is our disreputable, aforementioned refrigerator-friend Ivan.  You pass him enroute to the kitchen.  


The Kitchen…

Immediately to the left in the kitchen is a tiny sink and a small cupboard on the wall above it.  The stove is about 18 inches from the sink.  There is no counter space, so we place a cutting board on the stove or use the small kitchen table which is also about 18 inches from the sink and/or the stove. 


The stove is about 30 inches wide, has two burners and a small oven.  There is no thermostat so baking is a challenge both in temperature and quantity – no self-respecting thanksgiving turkey would fit in that oven.  (We faced this challenge in our Spain years too!)  The stove runs on bottled fuel so a huge orange tank, almost as large as the stove, dominates a corner of the valuable real estate in our kitchen.  There is no gauge on the tank so it is just a matter of experience to learn when to purchase a replacement tank.  (Without a car, we rely on the delivery man who drives around town on Fridays…I hope we don’t run out of fuel in between visits or we will be dining on bread and raw veggies!)      


We used some of the settling in money to buy a bright yellow, gingham tablecloth for the utilitarian kitchen table.  I splurged on a couple blue and white dish towels which hang from the oven door of the stove.  I also bought a yellow potted mum for the windowsill above the kitchen radiator.  A neighbor gave me a geranium cutting – it is pink and looks quite happy on our windowsill.


On a more practical note, Mark purchased a two-liter, electric hot-pot.  Everyone seems to own one of these.  Even the street venders often have them stashed inside their stalls so they can make a cup of tea in an instant.  The hot-pot is very efficient.  With the infrastructure as poor as it is, these popular appliances are a great alternative to the gas range and a tea kettle.  (We use ours to pre-boil water for cooking, ie: we pour boiling water from the hot-pot into the kettle and then make rice or macaroni.) 


The kitchen window looks out on our small garden space and a courtyard of sorts.  There are always about 15 cats hunkered down by the neighbors door and there are a few resident dogs roaming the courtyard too.  The window gets some afternoon sun.  


The Living Room/Bedroom…

Make a right turn and go through the door into the living room/bedroom.  We invested in a couple bookshelves for this space.  We placed the couch at right angles to the wall and arranged the very tall bookshelf behind it to act as a partial wall.  We attached fabric to the back of the bookshelf and using staples have devised a room-divider so our sleeping area is more private. 


Our living room has a couch that converts to a bed for guests.   There is also an arm chair and an old television.  (The TV gets few channels and each must be fine-tuned individually.)  These are arranged in a conversational grouping and are anchored by a rather contemporary carpet.  


A rather peculiar table was provided as a desk.  It is near the window.  We have removed our bed frame and placed the mattress and springs on the floor behind the improvised room divider near the window. 


There are seven upholstered dining chairs which are scattered strategically throughout the apartment.     


Many homes have furnishings and décor that still reflect the Spartan, utilitarian choices of soviet era.  Things were not readily available then.  There were few choices and little variety.  People would simply buy a functional item.   Everyone had the same type of furniture with minor differences.  On big ticket items, people would actually just put their name on a waiting list and when the item became available they took it.  No choice. 


We are accustomed to having choices in the USA.  Many years ago, the host family that housed Mark all summer purchased a car.  They had the money, but no car was available locally.  So their name went on a list.  They waited for it.  When the car finally arrived, the economy had changed and they could no longer afford the car (during the restructuring of the Soviet Union people were laid off from the major industry and had to carve out new ways to make a living). 


Now they see the car they almost bought around town and refer to it as their car.


Our host family experiences and visits to homes makes us keenly aware of how much space we have in American homes.  Many people are crowded together in small flats here.  Rooms and furniture serve multiple purposes here.


Home is important.  It is a place to retreat to, a place to contemplate things, a place to relax, a place to share with friends.  The rudiments are here, it is up to us to provide the spirit that makes house a home.  A sense of home fortifies one to go out into the world and engage. 


I feel strongly about my sense of home.  I like what Mary Baker Eddy says in Science and Health, “…home is the center, not the circumference of being…”  This is a good perspective.


·                     Friday, 7 October 2005

I am reading Russian Journal by John Steinbeck.  It is a curious book.  Not much in the way of writing really, but impressions of his experiences with people in various places in Russia.  He and photographer Robert Capa decided over drinks one day that a visit to Russia was in order.  Their mission would be to report to the American public on just what people are like in Russia.


The trip takes place about 6 years after the Great Patriotic War (which we know in the USA as WWII).  His report on Ukraine is of particular interest to me, of course. 


I wish there were more of Capra’s photographs.  There are 70, but he took hundreds more.  He was not permitted to photograph many things which would have been of interest.       


Following is a quote from Steinbeck extracted from the book.  I find it interesting, particularly since I am within the window he speaks of.  Seeing a country with new eyes is delightful.  There is definitely a freshness and newness that infuses even the most mundane things with novelty.


“…It is said that in a foreign country impressions are sharp and accurate for a month, and then they become blurred, and the reactions are not accurate again for five years, so that one should stay either a month or five years in country.”


·                     Thursday, 6 October 2005

Who is it that can make muddy water clear?

No one. But left to stand, it will gradually clear of itself.

-                     Lao-Tzu
Tao Te Ching

This quote is good for anyone feeling the stress of learning a new language.  You cannot hurry.  The water will calm and things will become clear.


Last night was the weekly English Club meeting.  A diverse group attends so it is a good way for Mark and me to find out much about life here in Kerch. 


Of course the purpose of the group is for those who wish to improve their English speaking skills to have an opportunity to practice the language in a conversational way.  This is one of Mark’s projects.


There are a few business men in attendance, and there are several secondary school students who show up, but the backbone of the group seems to be several women who teach English.  The teachers show up with cookies, prepare tea and encourage their secondary students to attend these meetings.   This is wonderful except they fail to check their teaching skills at the door.  And they tend to dominate the discussions. 


As in any group there are those who speak often and can be relied on to respond and there are those who are more passive participants.  Watching the dynamics of this group is interesting for us.  It gives us some insight into how students learn in classrooms here in Crimea.  It also makes me wonder about the balance of “power” in home settings…are the homes matriarchal or do these teachers simply reflect their teaching background in their behaviors?


When students use their fledgling English skills and speak up on a topic, the teachers are quick to correct their word choices or fill in the pauses with more specific information or actual corrections.  At first I only observed this behavior with the young students, but last night the teachers were cutting off the businessmen’s sentences and making corrections on content and on grammar and word choice. 


This week we heard about many of the historic sites in the area and closed the meeting with a song.  Ext week we agreed to each come with a joke, anecdote or idiom to share.  This may facilitate more participation.  We shall see.  In any case, the club allows us to learn more about local people and observe behaviors. 


And, I came home with a bag of leftover cookies too!


·                     Wednesday, 5 October 2005

Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers.

Pray for powers equal to your tasks.

Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle,

but you shall be the miracle.

-                     Phillips Brooks

Some Ramblings on How to Live Life…

I woke up with this quote (above) on my mind. 


The question is: am I equal to the task?  We have so many opportunities to take up this challenge in our lives.  The challenges seem to find us, no matter how safe and secure our lives seem. 


We could micro-manage events to make ourselves comfortable and free from difficulties, but something will always happen to disturb the careful plans.   You cannot anticipate the events that may shake you to your very core.


It is wise to learn early that in most areas of our life, we really only have the illusion of control. 


This frees you to enjoy the events that come your way.   If you cannot enjoy the events, at least you may have the energy and wisdom to handle them with grace.  


It is wise to be grateful for the challenges.


It is in dealing with these challenges we discover our strength and even sometimes find joys we could not have anticipated. 


Challenges are opportunities to put your beliefs to practice.


No reason for this rather serious sounding reflection.  Life is good. 


Life is very good.


Mopping the Floor…

My mop, provided by the landlady, is merely a stick with a cross piece at the bottom.  The landlady also provided a couple clean rags as part of the system.  To operate this mop, merely wet the rag and use the stick to manipulate the rag across the floor.  Rinse, wring and reapply the rag as needed.


At first this seemed like a rather foolish way to manage floor care.  I had every intention of purchasing a traditional mop at the local bazaar.   In the interim, since the kitchen is small, I simply used a sponge and soapy water to clean up the tiles. 


This was not satisfactory.  There were streaks and it was as if I was simply moving the dirt around, rather than removing it. 


Today, I tried the stick.  Despite my initial reticence, I quickly mastered the technique.  (As in everything, technique is often the factor that matter most!)


Now the morning sun shines through the kitchen window, past the potted mum, and spills across my shining floor.  I sit here at the computer sipping coffee and cannot help but feel pleased with how nice the results look.


Life is about small pleasures.


I will cross that new mop off my shopping list. 


Hmmm, I could buy a chocolate bar with those grivna! 


It has Been Two Weeks…

Today it has been two weeks since my plane touched down in Kiev and my husband met me at the airport with a silly smile and a bouquet of yellow roses. 


Let me say again – life is good.  Life is very good.


FYI: Mark told me there is a line of appliances here that goes by the label LG – it stands for Life is Good.  8-)


·                     Tuesday, 4 October 2005      

Those who are lifting the world upward and onward are those who encourage more than criticize.

- Elizabeth Harrison

At first light the orchestra in the park begins to tune up – it is a cacophony that continues for about half an hour.  I spring from my bed some days, hoping to get a glimpse of the musicians from my north-facing window.  So far I have failed.  I suspect, from the sounds, there are crows and probably sea gulls, but there are sounds that make me think of geese and ducks too.  


The birds wake and begin their morning concert, or perhaps it would be better to all it a dialogue since it really is not very musical. It could be a strategy meeting where they plan the events and activities of the day.  In any case these noisy fowl waken me most mornings.  For about thirty minutes their sounds dominate.  One day soon, I will rise early and walk the two blocks east to the waterfront and observe the sunrise and perhaps I will actually see the birds in question. 


By 0700, there are students striding off to school, heads bent, some smoking cigarettes.  A few men on sturdy bicycles pedal toward town center.  There is no conversation. 


It is very quiet, the only sound is the wind in the trees which mimics the sound of the water lapping along the edges of the waterfront. 


At 0900, people are beginning to stir a bit more and I begin to here bits of conversation as people walk past the window or enter the small store that is next door to our flat.  A group of men congregates in a sunny patch in the middle of the street.  They talk, smoke, laugh.   The voices resonate and sound urgent.  The street sweeper shares a joke with them.  Several dogs on a morning mission scoot past and the usual cats begin the morning ablutions in their designated spots. 


Reading, Television, Radios and Other Diversions…

I finished Vassily Aksvonov’s novel “The Island of Crimea”.  It was a good read, but reminds me that I have much to learn about the actual history of this place I am calling home.  The book interjects some fantasy into the story and I do not know whether the battles they discuss are factual or simply part of the poetic license authors use to enhance the storyline.  


Before I start another of this author’s novels, I am reading John Steinbeck’s “Russian Journal” with photos by Robert Capa. 


I did not know Steinbeck traveled in Russia or produced a book about it.  This book was an unexpected find in a used book store (Thanks cousin C!). 


Capa and Steinbeck journey off to Russia just about six years after WWII and travel through the countryside attempting to paint an unbiased picture of life in Russia.   So much of the material in the American media of that day and age, presented a frighteningly biased picture of the Russian people as eager for war.  Steinbeck’s journal avoids politics and editorial comment. 


The material on Ukraine fascinates me.  


I will have time to read during our tenure here in Crimea.  I hope I will be able to find enough novels to occupy myself as time passes.  Hobbies and pastimes change due to circumstances.  I am a reader, but if supplies diminish or dry up, what other interest may fill that void? 


Lack of books for pleasure reading: this is a fact of life for many PCVs worldwide I am sure.  There is a paradox because the Volunteers often, for the first time in their lives, have time to read.   In fact, I have spoken to and read blog entries from Volunteers who really never read until they were isolated by language and access to other diversions.  Some people only cultivated an interest in reading during their PC tenure. 


PC sends each volunteer a copy of Newsweek.  I imagine many PCV’s become lifelong readers following their 27 months of relying on this magazine for information about the world news.


Some PCVs in Ukraine and Crimea have televisions in their flats.  One Volunteer actually has cable TV, but has no running water and frequents an outhouse on a regular basis! 


Radio is available of course.  In many locations BBC broadcasts are available.  Here in Kerch we have not found BBC on our shortwave radio.  


I imagine laptop computers have been a a major change in the lives of PCVs worldwide.  Many of the Volunteers have them here and use them for all the usual, practical purposes, but they also rely on them for entertainment too.   Laptop makes a fine DVD player and also provides a source for music and video games.  Mark has lots of music and even books stored in his computer.


Access to Internet is uneven across our country of service.  The phone lines actually permit users to have dial-up at home, but in practice this is not satisfactory.  Mark has spent hours listening to a busy signal as he tries to access the line.  In fact, almost all infrastructures here are a challenge so most technologies are unevenly distributed.   People use Internet Cafes for e-mail, gaming and other applications.   Of course in rural America there are challenges too…I must remind myself of this occasionally.


We may break down and get an Internet connection at home – the cost, on our budget, is rather steep, but we look at it as an investment.  It will permit us to share our experiences with our family and friends more readily and will also provide a wealth of resources for various projects too.  It will be interesting to see how easy it will be to obtain a home account.


On the negative side of things: PCVs and their laptops can more easily isolate themselves from their local community.  The laptop and Internet access allow a global community to grow, but using these tools can rule out many opportunities to engage with local people.  


The impact of any technology is so diverse.     


As winter sets in here on the Black Sea, walking around town will become more challenging.  Games, reading, DVDs, and other diversions will become more important. 


We already broke out the Scrabble game the other night – it is a cheap cardboard version Mark bought in Kiev.  There are Cyrillic letters too.  It is hard to imagine spelling the long, convoluted Russian words on a traditional Scrabble board! 


·                     Monday, 3 October 2005

We don't receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.

- Marcel Proust

Some Descriptions and Observations of Neighborhood Life.

Morning Business…

0900 and our laundry is already out dancing in the autumn breezes. 


When I finished hanging our garments on the line in our tiny patch of green outside the door, I notice two tiger-striped cats nearby.  One rests in a nest of fallen leaves beneath the overgrown berry thicket that has usurped half of our fenced in outdoor space.  The other, squeezes through the fence pickets and then stretches in the magnificent way only cats can.  They observe me and I observe them.  They are not ready yet to make friends of me, but perhaps soon. (I may enlist the help of some canned cat chow!)


The usual crowd of cats outside our neighbor’s door has dispersed already.  There are no signs of them.  They have, no doubt, found sunny spots where they can take care of their morning ablutions preparatory to a morning nap.


At lunch time, they will be on duty again, hunkered down, waiting outside the door for their servant to appear with rations and water.  There are about 10 regulars, but a few independents also show up at mealtimes and squabble to become part of the pecking order.  Usually they fail to get more than a bite or two.


Street Sweepers

As I stand there watching the cats, the street sweeper rolls her cart into our courtyard.  I linger a few moments longer to observe her at work.   


Street sweepers, clad in bright orange vests, appear on the sidewalks and streets each morning about 0800.  They sweep away the remnants of the night before.  They are generally in the background, taking care of their work throughout the day, but I notice them most in the bright morning sun because they are the first people out most days. 


This is the first time I have seen a street cleaner in our courtyard.   She uses a large broom which appears to be made of sticks.  The primitive looking broom rakes through the dirt and sporadic grass and collects debris which the woman scoops up using a heavy, metal dustpan.  Her wooden cart looks old and well worn.  Already she has piled it high with tree limbs and trash.


I wonder what street sweepers do in the wintry months when there is snow on the ground.


The Water Truck…

Yesterday as we were going out to walk by the sea, the bevy of cats by our neighbor’s door was disrupted when a loud bell rang out nearby.  The cats flew up the tree trunks and into the bushes at the first harsh clang of the bell.  We rounded the corner onto the boulevard and saw a large blue tank truck parked near the corner.  A burly man wearing a cap perched on a stool ringing a bell.  On the side of the truck, in large Cyrillic letters was the word “Bodu” (transliterated here, the Russian word for water).


Customers arrive bearing water vessels.  Business is slow today, but I imagine there are times when his services are in high demand.  As we walk toward the sea, we observe him as he makes his rounds, his harsh bell announcing his presence to everyone.


Water Tales – Floods and Rumors…

We have heard tales from co-workers at the library of going without water for days.  City services are taxed to meet increased demands in our lovely city.  Often, at peak seasons, heat, electricity and water are at a premium.  We have been advised to have some water on hand and to keep candles in the event of power outages. 


One of the chief merits of our tiny flat is the proximity to city center and the mayor’s home.  Apparently these two factors indicate the probability of better services.  This is a good thing.


A bad thing, or so some people have said, is that city center occasionally gets flooded.  Those living on the ground floor (which we are) may find themselves up to their knees in water following seasonal rains.   


This thought frightens me a bit.  I conjure up visions of the recent flooding in New Orleans when the levees broke following Hurricane Katrina.  Here in Kerch, we are only two blocks from the sea.  The water laps at the stone and concrete walls on the seaside walkway, just inches below the level of the land.


I have been assured that the flooding is a result of rains that wash through the canal that dissects the city center.  The central bazaar (or rinok, as it is called) is adjacent to the area in question.  We are not close to the canal. 


Reclaimed Land - the Kerch Waterfront…

The land between our home and the sea is reclaimed land.  The old homes on our boulevard once fronted the sea, but some enterprising city leaders with vision and resources decide to fill in the sea and claim this area as public park land. 


This reminds me of how the people of Boston filled in part of the bay to make the wonderful central area of the city.  I think of Venice and Amsterdam, and other cities that have carved out seaside spaces or created manmade respites near the water. 


The tree-lined, seaside parkland in Kerch stretches for many kilometers.  Near our house, there is a huge Ferris wheel which dominates the seaside skyline.  Several other nearby amusement rides lure in mostly children and couples.  There are many charming outside bars and a few discotheques compete for crowds.   Fountains and pavilions, playground equipment, two outdoor theaters, and public restrooms are also tucked away in the park. 


A public bathing area has been carved out of the sea too.  Actually there are two, one is old and seems to have been relegated to fishermen and old folks.


The bathing areas are interesting.  They are not beaches (this is not a beach community, but a port town really).  In each, there is a building built out over the water.  Off to the right side of the main building is a series of bleachers.  These face the shoreline and are parallel to it.  People stretch out on the benches to soak up the sun, dry off or to watch people bathe.  The large swimming area is staked out in the water below.


The swimming area does not seem inviting to me, but I am certainly not an avid swimmer.  I look forward to seeing how crowded the bleachers are during the hot summer months. 


I have been told there are people who swim in the sea all year round.  They are a hearty bunch I imagine. 


One woman I met practices a philosophy which requires her to bathe twice daily in cold water.  This ritual is in part, a penance, and, in part, a health regime.  She also swims with the Seals (people who swim in the Black Sea during the winter months).


It is autumn now and the wind off the sea has more of a bite each day.  The park may not seem so inviting in a few weeks.


·                     Sunday, 2 October 2005

Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, worn or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace, and gratitude.

- Dennis Waitley

The Old Part of Town …

The street east of our building and parallel to the park is divided by a narrow boulevard that channels vehicle traffic in either direction.  On either side of the street are a row of densely-planted conifer trees which shield pedestrians from the street.  At night the trees tend to obscure the streetlight and make the sidewalk very dark.  Since there are not many cars on the street, we often stroll on the street itself.


Walking north from our flat, keeping the sea to our right, our quiet boulevard merges with a major street where one can catch a bus, trolley or marshutka to another part of the city.   I like to cross that avenue and wander up another tree-lined street where there are several rather elegant-looking restaurants.  This street is at the base of the Mitridate Mound, a 90-plus meter hill which dominates the city center.  There are 2,000 steps leading up the hillside to the ancient Panticapaeum acropolis ruins (circa 500 BC) and the spectacular view of the bay at the top. 


This short street winds around the base of the hill and ends in a large park and a plaza.  There is a school on one side of the street and there is often music pouring out over the park.  Many days I have seen teachers conducting physical education classes in the park – children racing about under one of the statues of Lenin, teachers blowing on whistles and looking at stopwatches.


On the edge of the actual plaza here at the end of Lenin Street, is a large theater and also the Post Office.  The flags of Ukraine, Crimea and Kerch snap in the breeze overhead.  There is a tall pillar with a golden griffin perched on the top.  The griffin is the symbol of Kerch.


On Friday and Saturdays, this monument is a popular site for wedding parties to congregate.  Brides and grooms walk down the few blocks from the registry building where the ceremonies take place and have their photos taken here.  Often the bride will leave behind a bouquet of flowers.  There are other monuments to be visited by wedding parties too.  People sometimes rent a car, bus or a marshutka so the wedding party can travel from monument to monument paying respects. 


Lenin Street, a popular pedestrian street, lined with fine stores, cafes and restaurants as well as a few artists and street vendors, is a lovely place to stroll, but there are a couple more diversions in the plaza.  A couple entrepreneurs have set up karaoke stands on either side of the plaza.  They two businesses are popular and provide entertainment on summer and early fall evenings.  There is a businessman who rents out small cars for children to drive on a course in one corner of the plaza.  Across the plaza are usually a couple horses and a donkey or two which people can rent for a ride around the plaza.  There are speakers which play music on the plaza all day and evening.  Occasionally the plaza becomes the setting for concerts and live music. 


Lenin Street is open only to pedestrians for several blocks.  In the daytime businesspeople hustle down this street and in the evenings couples stroll under the deciduous trees.   There are a few benches and it is a wonderful place for people walking.  The buildings along the base of the hill have been refurbished and are quite elegant.   The library is only a block or two off from this lovely street, and only about a fifteen minute walk north from our flat.            


·                     Saturday, 1 October 2005

Turn your face to the sun, and the shadows will fall behind you.

-                     Unknown

The Bazaar Experience…

I love to people-watch, so going to the bazaar is high on my list of activities. 


Getting There….

This morning we decide to take the electric trolleybus across town to the Central Rinok (the word for bazaar or market) area.  Of course the trolley-bus is crowed.  When I say crowded, I do not mean crowded like a bus may be crowded in an American city.  No, I mean we stand body-to-body with people and still more riders jam into the trolleybus. 


Taking public transportation here is almost a sport. 


You must be strong enough to stand your own ground once you manage to get through the door and jockey a position on the vehicle.  At each stop more people attempt to pile inside the car, but of course there are people pushing from behind, attempting to get off the vehicle. 


Often riders cannot reach the hanging straps or bars and they must simply brace themselves against others to keep from falling as the vehicle bounces along the city streets.


Marshutkas (small privately owned vans) cost a bit more to ride, but generally the number of passengers is limited to the number of seats available.     


Today, I find myself crammed against the door.  When we arrive at our stop, a sea of passengers pours out, forcing me forward.    


The day is bright and clear.  The street is place is crowded with shoppers and people socializing in the crisp autumn air.  People seem especially well dressed today and I observe many people purchasing flowers and candy.  Children are well-groomed and in festive clothing.  These signs indicate that today is some kind of holiday or celebration, but everyday seems a bit like a celebration here.


Second-Hand Vendors…

We stroll up the street just outside the actual market area.  Along the canal that bisects the city, there is a long row of unofficial vendors who spread their wares on blankets on the ground.  These are the second hand dealers.  There are old military campaign buttons for sale and chipped china, used shoe and boots, clothing of all types, hand-knit socks and all the usual paraphernalia from people’s lives.  I see a samovar and some metal teacup holders which slow me down a bit, as I eye them carefully.  I do not buy today. 


The venders in this section sit on stools and visit with one another.  They eat sunflower seeds.  Many of the old women knit socks as they while away the hours.  The men congregate and sometimes cast lines into the murky canal waters.  It seems unlikely any fish live there, but of course fishing is sometimes about camaraderie and not about fish.    


Closer to the bazaar are second-hand book venders and then there are my favorites: the people selling cats and dogs. 


With all the stray animals, it is hard to imagine who buys these creatures, but there are always women with baskets filled with kittens and men hovering over boxes containing puppies.  My limited language skills do not matter when I coo and ahh over the animals.  These feelings transcend language among animal lovers.   


The Central Rinok

We finally reach the actual central market, a sprawling series of small metal kiosks, wooded structures, and improvised tents set up around several permanent structures.  The main buildings include a place for venders to sell milk and dairy products, a building for fish and meat, and a few other buildings. 


Most of the vendors here work out of tent like structures packed as closely together as the people on the bus were! 


The venders sell everything from household items, to shoes and cosmetics.  There is a section where fruits and vegetables are sold and an area where fabric and curtains are available. Bathroom products are in one area and flowers and seeds in another.  The list goes on and you can wander around for hours exploring and watching as people conduct business and socialize. 


We make several purchases including a large potted yellow mum to brighten our kitchen.   We also buy a few daffodil bulbs and a couple iris rhizomes.  It is nice to imagine them blossoming in the area under our kitchen window next spring. 


We buy a soap dish that will stick to the bathroom tile and a rug for outside the shower.  We buy emergency candles (in case the power fails) and a pretty yellow candle to enhance our meals at our kitchen table.  I find some blue and white cotton napkins and buy four, in case we have guests.  We purchase tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, pears, and carrots. 


Each purchase is made at a different booth. We carry the fabric tote bags we use for shopping and tuck each item into our bags.  I see few tote bags and even fewer baskets.   The local people prefer to bring their own plastic bags to carry their purchases. 


At midday, we seat ourselves at a café on the canal.  Mark orders a couple sandwiches which resemble wraps filled with shaved chicken, cabbage and a red sauce.  We sip on the ever popular “chai”. 


People around us also drink chai.  Many have longneck beers and some have purchased shots of vodka.  People sip and talk.  Ashtrays are available and many people smoke.  Some people pull snacks from their bags and eat them along with the drinks they purchase.  At one table, a group of men and women order a large bottle of water and several glasses.  They alternate between sipping water and doing shots of vodka which the man somewhat surreptitiously pours from a bottle he carries in his bag.   


This is a social event.  Married couples make arrangements to meet at the café after they have finished their shopping and linger for a while.  It is obvious it is a weekly ritual for some.  


After our late lunch we walk home. 


This is where we end our bazaar experience for this week.


Everyone Carries a Plastic bag…    

I will digress here a bit (what a surprise!) and comment on the popularity of the humble plastic bag. 


In America you might see briefcases or backpacks, but here it is the plastic bag that predominates.      


I find it amusing that everyone in this country seems to carry a plastic bag.   Regardless of the setting, people have their preferred plastic bag with them.  These bags can be purchased at the bazaar for a few kopeks or grinvia, but people tend to use the same one over and over and over.  When they make their plastic bag purchase they consider sturdiness and the look of the bag too.


It is understandable to see people at the bazaar or supermarket with a plastic bag in tow, but you will see them strolling along the elegant, tree-lined, Lenin Street pedestrian-walk with the said plastic bag swinging along beside them. 


Of course some of this is because people tend to use public transportation and therefore shop often.  One stops enroute to or from work to pick up items before boarding the bus or marshutka, so a plastic bag is necessary to hold those purchases.  People also use their plastic bags to carry their paperwork or even a laptop computer, much like a brief case really.  Many bags contain a bit of lunch and a bottle of water or vodka too. 


So, we are a bit of an enigma with our fabric tote bags and our rucksack with the Ukraine patch stitched on it.