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The Old Man and the Crook

Posted on March 5, 2010 at 9:13 AM Comments comments (6)

FALLING OFF THE BANDWAGON, PART 8

Yes friends, this is (give or take) the 8th time I’ve tried to take life and turn it into words. As you can see, I am an epic failure. Or it’s just really difficult to talk about yourself in a way that is funnily self-deprecating while still being ever gracious to your host motherland, Ukraine.

In the intervening months, life went rather like clockwork. It trucked along at a nice, regular pace. To recap:

 

OCTOBER kept busy with Saturday school, probably an English seminar, a Halloween dance party in Kharkov and two weeks of Fall Break in Budapest and Vienna. There was also the overblown imaginary outbreak of the supposedly deadly pig FLU; masks, vaccinations, and all. Totally political and totally hilarious if the kids hadn’t unnecessarily missed weeks of school. Poor little bored guys.

NOVEMBER ate up several weeks of needless Swine Flu quarantine, a Thanksgiving celebration, hanging with the neighbors, preparing for the GRE, taking the GRE, writing grad school entrance essays and arranging the grant for a journalism center in our school.

DECEMBER kicked off with the incredible Balkan Music Festival in Kiev (Gogol Bordello and the No Smoking Orchestra), then a trip home to Minnesota, which was absolutely refreshing and totally necessary. People balked when I said, “I’m going home for the whole month.”

I, on the other hand, rejoiced. It was a time of loving togetherness, incredible foods—notably spring rolls, goat cheese, real wine, the Joelle Goldade menu, pickled green beans—seeing old buddies and my cat and driving in cars and long baths and running water and carpeted floors and English, sweet English. Speaking went without struggle, mishap or hitch.

The only strange thing was a trip to Minneapolis. It reminded me to mourn the old life because it’s never coming back. My girlfriends and I stayed in a hotel and it was weird to stay in a hotel in a city we’d lived in for years; our university city; our college town. Yet there we were, squatting in coffee shops after check-out time.

THE OLD MAN AND THE CROOK

“Don’t get into any trouble!”

“I’ll try not to!”

This was the final exchange between me and many relatives during my trip home. They’d tell me to avoid trouble and I’d reply that I’d try, but you never knew what was on the other guy’s mind.

The reality of this hit me the minute I stepped foot in Ukraine.

“Taxi! Taxi! Taxi!”

Taxi men lined up in front of Boryspil, Ukraine’s biggest airport, hawking rides at ridiculously inflated prices. The average Ukrainian teacher makes about 1,000grn a month. A single taxi ride to Kyiv can cost 300grn.

A taxi man latches himself to me, assuming I’m a foreigner paid in euros or dollars. I explain that I’m a volunteer teacher paid in local currency. He nods and says he’ll knock down the price to 70grn for 10 kilometers. Ridiculous, but not bank robbery. He even shows me his trusty meter.

I get in and we slug through the watery, rutted streets. It’s dark and we’re swerving and splashing and driving on curbs and sidewalks. Finally we arrive at the train station. I thank him and hand him a 100grn bill.

“Not enough,” he says.

“What do you mean?”

“Look at my meter. You see my meter?”

His meter reads 300grn.

“But, but, but,” I sputter.

“Give me your money!”

“Huh?”

“Give me your money!”

“But you said…”

“Where are your dollars?”

“I don’t have any!”

“Where are your euros?”

“I don’t have any!”

I empty my wallet of a pair of 100grn bills.

Sobbing—people expect women to cry here, so when faced with a chance to hold it in or let loose, I always wail—I go to the nearby store in search of an ATM. There isn’t one. The shop ladies hear my plight and chase the man away.

“Everything will be okay,” they say.

“No, it won’t! I have no money for the train.”

But I’d forgotten a couple bills hidden in my bag. I buy a ticket. A young man sees me struggling, so helps to lug the bags, talking about his business as a dentist.

Ukraine! You're not so bad! I think.

Then we get on the train. You can see your breath. The light flickers off and on. Dentist man is still talking when we hear the clamor of rough men voices. The people in our car look back in unison.

It’s a brawl.

Five burly drunk guys are throwing punches and insults and slams. I bury myself deep in my coat. Pretty soon, people are calling the train conductor, demanding him to stop. Then they call the police. Then the conductor starts yelling over the intercom. Nobody actually intervenes though, because they’re a mad tangle of blind drunk men.

Ukraine! What’s wrong with you? I think.

The cops show up. The guys get forced off. I sit for thirty more freezing minutes. When I arrive, I realize I’m wearing ballet flats, carrying two huge suitcases, a phone with no service, a path drifted with snow, and a kilometer to walk.  I panic.

I could leave my bags and explain, I think. Or I could walk for two hours.

I stare at the sky and curse myself for making such a stupid decision to move to such a stupid country where I’m not even doing anything and nobody cares and I’m alone and it sucks and it’s mean and I just want to go home.

That’s when a little old man appears. He is a foot shorter than me. He’s wearing a big padded cap and an old toggle coat and floppy rubber boots. He’s dragging a little red sled.

“Do you need some help?” he asks.

“That’d be nice,” I say.

With a piece of twine, he ties the bags to his sled, wrapping and arranging and securing. He gives me a wink and we’re off.

As we walk through the woods, we talk about the weather, where I’m from, his old work as a veterinarian, and how he used to be the town mayor.

“Watch your step!” he shouts.

“Do you need some help?” I ask.

We make our way carefully. The path is full of black ice and slippery spots. His sled keeps falling into the ditch. We regain balance and keep on. He tells me the history of his tucked-away, woodsy town.

Finally we arrive at my adopted host Mom’s house. She and her five cats welcome us, treating the old man as if he were an old friend. She explains,

“He is the kind of man who loves people and animals. He is unique. Most people, like me, only like animals. But he is so kind to everybody. That’s why he was mayor.”

We sit down at the dining room table, where she has prepared a heaping bowl of cabbage and potato dumplings. It smells like home. Her girlfriends arrive. They criticize the thinness of my socks, push a glass of brandy at me and ask about America.

I eat, drink, explain, and fall asleep with an orange cat on my bed.

 

Ukraine! I think. Ukraine!

Teachers Day

Posted on October 6, 2009 at 4:02 AM Comments comments (4)

October 4th, 2009

As I sit here in the hut a feeling of pleasure washes over me. Joy gotten from colorful walls and flowers in vases and a kitty on the oven door. Dishes are clean; buckets have been dumped out; all is put away and swept up and in its place.


The only thing to complete the picture would be another. A friend, a neighbor, you of course. To share this bright Sunday morn.


A REALLY LOVELY SENTENCE

"Even in American cities, which seem so much alike, where people seem all to be living the same lives, striving for the same things, thinking the same thoughts, there are still individuals a little out of tune with the times; there are still survivals of a past more loosely woven, there are disconcerting beginnings of a future yet unforeseen."

 --Willa Cather, Double Birthday

TEACHERS DAY

In the States, there are professional days. Sure we have them. I bet they?re celebrated with a free ballpoint pen and an extra plate of cookies in the breakroom. Ukraine does things a little differently...

At 8AM, we were herded into the math room, where a little girl called Autumn handed us shiny apples and red roses. She wore a yellow satin gown and a headdress of leaves. Pink bouffant dressed equally as festively and recited ten minutes worth of poetry about the nobility of our profession (yes friends, it?s us and doctors who are true servants of god), the beauty of harvest, and how we deserve a nice long rest.

Then she told us about our horoscopes?showed a zodiac sign and a picture of those with corresponding birthdays, informing us about our inner selves. After that, we played games with teacher themes, discussing the most important school values. Cake was then served with great flourish. Parents wished us health, wealth, and everlasting happiness.

The next day, lessons were shortened to a half hour. I wondered why, but didn?t ask anybody for I figured if I was I needed, I?d be shuffled somewhere when the time came.

I was right. We and the rest of the county?s teachers met at the Palace of Culture. It was packed. There must have been hundreds of teachers dressed in form-fitting black skirts and sausage rolled bangs and party pink lips. I do not exclude myself from this. Hello, secondhand spangly dress. 

What followed was a glorified distribution of bonuses. Each school director nominates his faculty for Best Teacher of ___ awards and the winners receive roses and a thousand bucks. The ceremony was elaborate: Marching band music and long speeches about health and wealth and more bouquets than I?ve ever seen in one place. It was a real celebration.

We?ve got to start this in the States. Take a couple more half days, get the county together, cue the Sousa music, bequeath roses like we forgot our 20th anniversary. I mean, if you?re going to get a bonus, misewell get a bonus. Let?s pomp this thing. Let?s do it right.


Afterthe showy ceremony, we were serenaded by a pair of men in marching band outfits, a lone, long-haired, bony cowboy, an adolescent girl wearing this, a troupe of junior high boy and girl dancers, and a second troupe of toddler twirlers. After the final number, we were showered with balloons and silvery paper. Entertaining, indeed.
 

GOING ON A TRIP

I have the best time when I?m with Olena the neighbor. If it weren?t for these blasted essays?and the requisite putting-off-the-essay procrastination activities, A.K.A. listening to radio podcasts and doing crossword puzzles?I?d be over there every day. 


Like last Thursday. She made the most wonderful pumpkin rice. It was sweet and zesty and spicy, rich with oranges, nutmeg, and a hint of cream. There's nothing better than delicious warm food on a chilly fall night. After dinner, we talked with her daughter, painted our nails sparkly pink, lamented about the creep who harassed me, and played Russian waltzes on the piano.

As we chatted, I mentioned the trip I?m planning. And this is where friendship with Ukrainians gets complicated.

?Where are you going??

?To Budapest and Vienna. I have a friend in Vienna, and I?ve never seen Hungary.?

?But don?t you need a visa??

?Nope. Just my passport.?

?And you have enough money??

?I should. I mean, we?ll stay in hostels and eat from grocery stores.?

?Wow. You are so lucky??

This hurts me. I feel so torn.Why do I get the free-for-all passport? Who let me roam as I please? I feel like a toddler whining, ?It?s just not fair!?

But it?s not! It really isn?t. The whole thing makes me feel gut-wrenchingly guilty and I don?t know what to do about it or how to say, ?I?m sorry, I wish things were different.?


And I guess this is why, no matter how long I live here, I?ll always be an outsider. Sure, I (sort of) speak the language, and ride my bike to work. I take the bus, receive pay in local currency, eat potatoes, kasha, root vegetables.

But the fact is, I put myself here. And just as easily, I can take myself out.


 

ACTION VERBS 

Help is such a limp word. Thrilled turns me off. Very and extremely make me wonder where the action went. Pursue sounds overused. Motivated makes me want to take a nap. Writing statements is so formulaic that I think: is journalism exactly that?

FEEDBACK
Mom thinks the blog has turned into a pity party. Do you think so too? I hope not! I'm just trying to, you know, keep it real. Be honest about what's going on in the k.gee brain space. Well, okay. That's enough for today.

May the beat go on, friends, and the sun always shine!

 


A little update

Posted on September 29, 2009 at 9:03 AM Comments comments (2)

SCHOOL

I fear I've shot myself in the foot. My authoritative?pink and white bouffant haired, kind in her own gruff, shouting, power mongering way?vice director handed me control of my schedule.

"HERE!" she shouted. "You want it? You TAKE it!"

"Great, good, thanks," I said, creeping backwards out her office.


Doesn?t get any better, I thought, imagining the best schedule ever. Older students and two hours a week with each class and three morning English clubs. Yep. Mornings are the best. Everybody has a fresh brain.


It was a logical move, I figured. Come afternoon, the kids are exhausted. English club veers from conversation about song lyrics to slide shows of Kristi's vacation photos. Not exactly English practice. More like, quality time with the American. Fine by me, but I want them (and more importantly, their parents) to get their money's worth.


I'm here, I'm fluent, let's do it.


But this seven-in-the-morning business. I think it's failing. The kids who do come, real diligent types, can hardly hold their eyes open. Poor guys. They play along. And I modify. A twenty-line dialogue requirement becomes ten. Reading exercises are abolished and line-by-line translations are available like canned pineapple at a Chinese buffet.

Sadly though, even the diligent types have begun to falter. Today, at my 10 and 11th form combo, three little guys showed up. Three. We discussed a Shel Silverstein poem and--no joke--ended the session with a soulful rendition of the Beatles "When I'm 64." Not at my suggestion, I swear. They thought of it themselves!*

Fun as it was, our trio must expand. I'm a person who admits defeat early, but I think even the super steadfast types would admit: it's time to reschedule.


LATEST BOOK

Graduate Admissions Essays: Write Your Way Into Grad School

That's right. We've reached a breaking point. I've been reading textbooks in my free time.


In my defense, I have eight critical essays due in December. Well, critical according to Write Your Way. Apparently, the personal statement is the most important feature of your application. You must creatively reveal your strengths and make your weaknesses seem (1) in the past, (2) resolved, (3) sympathetic, and (4) unlikely to reoccur. Reductionism, friends. That and powerful openers, specific interests, context for accomplishments, achieved goals and of course, showing--not telling. Serious business for serious folks. Ha.


Though December sounds like a long way off, I can't afford to procrastinate. There are only a few free weekends. And somebody decided to lengthen Fall Break by a week. Sort of. We're going to school every Saturday for the next 5 Saturdays, but we get a random free Monday through Friday. Something about the heating bill. ...I don't ask.


The book is helpful and asks lots of questions about weaknesses and strengths. I sat for a whole afternoon at my kitchen table, asking myself aloud,


"Kristi. How have you prepared yourself for graduate study?"

"Well self, it's been a lonely battle, but I think the essays of E.B. White, in and of themselves, have been a journalism course, charting the trecherous landscape of brevity and 700-word stories."
"Fair enough, but what about this G.P.A. of yours? How do explain that away?"

LOVE FOR THE UKRAINE STATE

*How people are willing to sing, even if they're not quote-unquote singers. There's no shame or showiness involved. You sing cause it feels good. Last summer, I found myself on a camping trip with Ukrainians and my American pal. For all the trip's craziness and resulting food poisoning,


(Do not EVER, no matter how polite and graceful you want to appear, eat from tableware contaminated with raw chicken. It's not worth, I promise. Pinky swear. Three days of writhing, curling pain, when I was supposed to be living large at the secondhand clothes bazaar. Think twice, or better yet, refuse flatly.)


I really enjoyed our nights. We were near the lake, the air was clear and cool, our fire blazed. The campsite was sparse, but those who were there had arranged their tents near one another. So there were little fires circling us, groups of people with full bellies and doses of vodka, a harmonica, guitars, blending in the darkness, every one of us, singing.

HELP!
If one of you can give me a summary of my "body of work," I'd really really appreciate it. They're asking for it on several fronts and all I've come up with is: If I had to compare my writing to a body system, I'd say it's a muscular system, blood red and fibrous. But not well protected. It needs a skeleton and some skin, and those aren't things I can grow myself.


Like I say, needs help.

 

 

 

 


Forever and A Day

Posted on September 14, 2009 at 9:04 AM Comments comments (2)

So...It's been a while...

How are you? I'm good. Busy drawing vocabulary words onto construction paper and riding cramped buses for indeterminate hours of time and looking up articles about lusty old birds. This is my life. In the hut, out of the hut, on the bus and back.

The blog had began to feel like a neglected friend, one who I'd wanted to call-message-write, but hadn't, held off, wrote little things only to erase them and forget about them, growing more bashful with the widening chasm.

But I'm back. Maybe with a vengeance. Or a fury. A furious-writing-for-the-blog-at-least-once-a-week initiative. This is my ten-year plan. Is it sound?

ANYWAY! I keep thinking about the metaphorical boiling frog situation. How he jumps out if the water's boiling, but stays if it's slowly heated. That's me. Your regular neon amphibian, being brought to a simmer in eastern Europe.


So, with respect to the theme of gettting accustomed to new environments, a list: Things That Don't Seem So Strange Anymore: :::

1. Everybody Rides a Bike

2. Usable Yards

3. Lipstick Ladies and Manly Men

4. Chickens on the Street

5. Big Crazy Bazaars

Okay. Got to get going. A tease! I know. I'm sorry. I will be back tomorrow, after I actually go home and tap something substantive about these categorical oddities. It's hard to write when there are two creepos watching me while I type. Can't do it! Got to bring it to the homefront.

Until Tomorrow,
Your Loving _____,
Kristi

I love you, it's the first of spring

Posted on August 21, 2009 at 9:56 AM Comments comments (0)

Can I confess something? I have a major problem with losing things.

It?s gotten to the point where, mornings before I travel, my landlady will come over with a dozen eggs. ?For your friends,? she claims. Never mind that those breakable things are probably the worst traveling food ever. They?re mere cover. She?s here to remind me to remember my stuff.

?You won?t lose your phone again, will you??
?Of course not, Svetlana,? I say, ?it?s in the cell phone necklace you knitted me.?

Little does she know, my supposed shopping trip is exactly that: supposed. I?m actually headed to the bank. It?s the third debit card I?ve lost in three months, and I?m not about to let anybody learn I?ve lost it.

?Welcome to Credit Bank,? says an unusually jovial teller.
?Hi, me again, lost my card, here?s my passport, just please gimme another card,? I say hushed, my eyes darting side to side.
?Oh! It?s
you!?
?Yeah. Sorry about that. Can we get started??

Hours later, I?m at the internet club reading an email about my friend?s new Venezuelan lover, when the phone rings.

?Hello??
?Hello Kristi. It is me, Roma.?
?Roma? I don?t know any Roma.?
?Oh yes you do.?
?Nope. Don?t think so.?
?I work at the bank! We met yesterday!?

The recognition was immediate, the way your tongue feels gristle in a good steak, or a bone chip in soup.

?You are beautiful American girl. May I take you out??
?Sure, if you come to my village.?
?It would be great pleasure.?
?Great.?

I hung up the phone with a realization. This guy? The one who just called? The jovial teller? He has my number. But he didn?t ask for it. And I sure didn?t slip my digits on his desk. This led me to conclude?

He stole it. As in, looked through my confidential paperwork, all the documents with passport numbers and social security codes and probably my age, height, and weight!

Could I go out with this creep?

I decided I could. For starters, jovial teller wasn?t American. He was Ukrainian.

And Ukraine, being a post-Soviet republic, has holdovers from the communist regime. Individuality is still strange. Back then, if you were caught acting alone?a scientist questioning the government, for example?you could be sent to Siberia. People clung together to sell goods to another when stores were empty, or to perform baptisms under the cloak of night.

Bank guy was simply being resourceful.

Sunday appeared. I?d agreed to meet him at the bus station.

?Hello!? he cried, brandishing a pink rose.
?Hi,? I said.

?It is the first of spring!?
?Is it??
?Yes! May I recite to you a poem??

So he did. In front of the palace of culture (another Soviet holdover, but a positive one, I think), in the middle of an early spring snowstorm, as people ogled at him, the tall guy alternately consulting a soggy piece of paper and a pocket dictionary, speaking brokenly about saplings and young love, looking down at an American girl in her unbuttoned winter coat, awkwardly holding a pink rose.

Even though I avoided his subsequent calls, for I was weirded out by his favorite phrase?beautiful American girl?and thought he was too eager, too ready and willing, I remember this memory fondly as a time when I tasted the sweetness of a country with every reason to be bitter.

I love you, it's the first of spring

Posted on August 21, 2009 at 9:56 AM Comments comments (1)

 

Can I confess something? I have a major problem with losing things.

It’s gotten to the point where, mornings before I travel, my landlady will come over with a dozen eggs. “For your friends,” she claims. Never mind that those raw things are probably the worst traveling food ever. They’re mere cover. She’s here to remind meto remember my stuff.

“You won’t lose your phone again, will you?”

“Of course not, Svetlana,” I say, “it’s in the cell phone necklaceyou knitted me.”

Little does she know, my supposed shopping trip is exactly that: supposed. I’m actually headed to the bank. It’s the third debit card I’ve lost in three months, and I’m not about to let anybody learn I’ve lost it.

“Welcome to Credit Bank,” says an unusually jovial teller.

“Hi, me again, lost my card, here’s my passport, just please gimme another card,” I say hushed, my eyes darting side to side.

“Oh! It’s you!”

“Yeah. Sorry about that. Can we get started?”


Hours later, I’m at the internet club reading an email about my friend’s new Venezuelan lover, when the phone rings.

“Hello?”

“Hello Kristi. It is me, Roma.”

“Roma? I don’t know any Roma.”

“Oh yes you do.”

“Nope. Don’t think so.”

“I work at the bank! We met yesterday!”

The recognition was immediate, the way your tongue feels gristle in a good steak, or a bone chip in soup.


“You are beautiful American girl. May I take you out?”

“Sure, if you come to my village.”

“It would be great pleasure.”

“Great.”

I hung up the phone with a realization. This guy? The one who just called? The jovial teller? He has my number. But he didn’t ask for it. And I sure didn’t slip my digits on his desk. Which led me to conclude…

He stole it. As in, looked through my confidential paperwork, all the documents with passport numbers and social security codes and probably my age, height, and weight!

Could I go out with this creep?

I decided I could. For starters, jovial teller wasn’t American. He was Ukrainian.

And Ukraine, being a post-Soviet republic, has holdovers from the communist regime. Individuality is still strange. Back then, if youwere caught acting alone—a scientist questioning the government, for example—you could be sent to Siberia. People clung together to sell goods to another when stores were empty, or to perform baptisms under the cloak of night.

Bank guy was simply being resourceful.

Sunday appeared. I’d agreed to meet him at the bus station.

“Hello!” he cried, brandishing a pink rose.

“Hi,” I said.

“It is the first of spring!”

“Is it?”

“Yes! May I recite to you a poem?”

So he did. In front of the palace of culture (another Soviet holdover, but a positive one, I think), in the middle of an early spring snowstorm, as people ogled at him, the tall guy alternately consulting a soggy piece of paper and a pocket dictionary, speaking brokenly about saplings and young love, looking down at an American girl in her unbuttoned winter coat, awkwardly holding a pink rose.

Even though I avoided his subsequent calls, for I was weirded out by his favorite phrase—beautiful American girl—and thought he was too eager, too ready and willing, I remember this memory fondly as a time when I tasted the sweetness of a country with every reason to be bitter.

I love you, it's the first of spring

Posted on August 21, 2009 at 9:39 AM Comments comments (0)

Can I confess something? I have a major problem with losing things.

It?s gotten to the point where, mornings before I travel, my landlady will come over with a dozen eggs. ?For your friends,? she claims. Never mind that those breakable things are probably the worst traveling food ever. They?re mere cover. She?s here to remind me to remember my stuff.

?You won?t lose your phone again, will you??
?Of course not, Svetlana,? I say, ?it?s in the cell phone necklace you knitted me.?

Little does she know, my supposed shopping trip is exactly that: supposed. I?m actually headed to the bank. It?s the third debit card I?ve lost in three months, and I?m not about to let anybody learn I?ve lost it.

?Welcome to Credit Bank,? says an unusually jovial teller.
?Hi, me again, lost my card, here?s my passport, just please gimme another card,? I say hushed, my eyes darting side to side.
?Oh! It?s
you!?
?Yeah. Sorry about that. Can we get started??

Hours later, I?m at the internet club reading an email about my friend?s new Venezuelan lover, when the phone rings.

?Hello??
?Hello Kristi. It is me, Roma.?
?Roma? I don?t know any Roma.?
?Oh yes you do.?
?Nope. Don?t think so.?
?I work at the bank! We met yesterday!?

The recognition was immediate, the way your tongue feels gristle in a good steak, or a bone chip in soup.

?You are beautiful American girl. May I take you out??
?Sure, if you come to my village.?
?It would be great pleasure.?
?Great.?

I hung up the phone with a realization. This guy? The one who just called? The jovial teller? He has my number. But he didn?t ask for it. And I sure didn?t slip my digits on his desk. This led me to conclude?

He stole it. As in, looked through my confidential paperwork, all the documents with passport numbers and social security codes and probably my age, height, and weight!

Could I go out with this creep?

I decided I could. For starters, jovial teller wasn?t American. He was Ukrainian.

And Ukraine, being a post-Soviet republic, has holdovers from the communist regime. Individuality is still strange. Back then, if you were caught acting alone?a scientist questioning the government, for example?you could be sent to Siberia. People clung together to sell goods to another when stores were empty, or to perform baptisms under the cloak of night.

Bank guy was simply being resourceful.

Sunday appeared. I?d agreed to meet him at the bus station.

?Hello!? he cried, brandishing a pink rose.
?Hi,? I said.

?It is the first of spring!?
?Is it??
?Yes! May I recite to you a poem??

So he did. In front of the palace of culture (another Soviet holdover, but a positive one, I think), in the middle of an early spring snowstorm, as people ogled at him, the tall guy alternately consulting a soggy piece of paper and a pocket dictionary, speaking brokenly about saplings and young love, looking down at an American girl in her unbuttoned winter coat, awkwardly holding a pink rose.

Even though I avoided his subsequent calls, for I was weirded out by his favorite phrase?beautiful American girl?and thought he was too eager, too ready and willing, I remember this memory fondly as a time when I tasted the sweetness of a country with every reason to be bitter.

Pitched

Posted on July 27, 2009 at 6:58 AM Comments comments (3)

Hi! Good to see you! It was a rainy day yesterday, and I finally sat myself down and mixed these ideas into concrete. Or juice. Dilluted juice like the kind I made last week by smushing unripe apricots and plump juneberries. A little watery, needs some honey, doesn't quite taste right. But the fruit was free and I had time on my hands and wanted to create something useful.

So let me know what you think. Hope you're enjoying summer!

 


1. "A Most Patriotic 4th"--Ukraine has a holiday for everything. We're talking Day of Women, Victory Day, and over a month of feasting for Old Christmas, Orthodox Christmas, and New Year's Eve, to name a few. It's one of the few positive holdovers from the Soviet Union. In thisstory, I'd discuss my experiences--the good, the bad, the hilarious--with the miriad and nuanced traditions of the Ukrainian Holiday, as well as my burgeoning realization about the importance of our American celebrations. 


2. "On Camp"--As a midwesterner, I know camp. I've attended the International Peace Garden's music camp, Girl Scoutcamp, and the usual, two-weeker, boys and girls church camp. Morningcheers, team building activities, and tie-dye were a part of a kid'sgenetic makeup. Or so I thought. As Peace Corps teachers, we are encouraged to organize and implement camps. We've got the summerfree, after all, and the wherewithall to cobble together a week's worth of daytime activities. Turns out, translating camp isn't as easy as we thought.

3. "I love you, it's the first of spring"--Living alone in a village on the Russia border isn't exactly a winning prescription for dating.This is especially apparent for a girl whose traditional Scandinavian grandparents call her once every three months to say, "Catch them while they're hopping!" A bittersweet look at the trials and triumphs of dating in a foreign country, the painful if necessary farewell to a college sweetheart, and finding one's self--esteem, direction, capabilities--freshly post-college in the 21st century.

4. "Tee-ho! Please!"--Across the board, Ukrainian students are very good at one thing: exercises in workbooks. When they're taken out of thisprescriptive setting, things can get crazy. The Peace Corps calls for a specific mode of language teaching called the communicative method. Instead of rote grammar memorization, we employ games and dialoguesto use language in a more natural setting. We'd rather mistakes and creativity than a token cardboard phrase. I'll discuss the misadventures of my first year teaching in a post-Soviet setting.

Other ideas: "Lipstick and Lightbulbs: The Gender Binary," and something about the police force and corruption, as I recently had an interesting run-in with the miltia, many of whom were former KGB members that I'd unwittingly picnicked with.

 


Tuesday, July 14

Posted on July 16, 2009 at 5:59 AM Comments comments (0)

On camp, two weeks of laziness, and a most patriotic 4th

My friend Diana had the good sense to recap her travels with vocabulary words. I'd do the same if this keyboard had Cyrillic letters. Instead I'll remember in sections.


On Camp


The day after the Last Bell, which we teachers--and Mike Son of Mike, our fearless, guitar-toting leader--marked by a volleyball match, group songs and a picnic at the edge of the forest, I left for Lee-po-vah-dah-lee-nah.


Because of said celebration, my bag was stuffed with soggy clothes. Lesson: never put things on the line after five. Or, for that matter, past eight. I didn't know how long I'd be gone. Or what I'd do when I got there.  


Ramona of Lee-po-vah-dah-lee-nah lives in an apartment that Ukrainians pity. "Is this all they gave you?" she remembers them asking. "Yeah," she'd replied, "it's not much."


There were six of us. She had a room, half a kitchen and half a bathroom. At least there was running water.


Each evening we'd eat from the same pot. It usually held rice, lentils, and fish sauce. Come morning, we'd groggily review lesson plans. Then we'd round up the kids and cheer in chorus about funky chickens and Red Rover coming over. After that was team teaching about poetry or music or arts and crafts. Then lunch, a group activity, sport of the day. After dismissal we'd go to the cafe and suck on fruity popsicles. Nights were cramped, spent floorside on a quarter-inch piece of foam.


One morning I woke to the smell of curdled milk and diapers. I sat up. My feet sunk into a bulging sack of garbage. Flies swarmed overhead. The sack was leaking brown juice. I smeared it off my thigh with a sweaty t-shirt. I realized I was on the kitchen floor. It reminded me of 9th grade when I saw the Pope.


He was visiting Toronto for a conference of the world's Catholic youth. In order to see Him perform mass, we had to camp without tents. It was ten miles outside the city. Our youth group leader said we couldn't take public transit, said it'd be good for us. So we walked it. Trudged with thousands of foreign like-faithed teengaers in long lines in the rain with our Catholic Youth water bottles and foam pads and backpacks.


She called it a pilgrimage. I called it sleeping outside during a storm.


Throughout the night, the storm rallied from drizzle to downpour. We huddled under blue tarp. We listened to the commemorative Christian rock disk they'd given us. We cursed those who plotted to take our tents away. "At least we'd only be damp," we whined, "if they think rain will make us forget being middle class, they can think again!"  


Somehow I fell asleep. Woke to a sharp and putrid smell. Something like curdled milk and diapers. I sat up.


The fields were lined with rings of people on spheres of colored plastic, their bags and national flags looking world weary and soaked. It surprised me. I hadn't realized how many had come. And for a minute I felt proud. Not of being Catholic, or a youth, but of being someplace with so many others at the same time.


I feel this way about festivals, the Peace Corps, even writing itself. People warn about becoming a sheep, but that's forgetting we're just animals in a species in a pack. Beauty is in the lineage itself--in being part of evolving memory, rituals, collective experience of humanity. Or maybe I'm just getting sentimental about a stupid event, corporate sponsored probably, on a field.


Two Weeks of Laziness


My friend Jean lives in a Ukrainian city, sure. It has most outward signs of being a post-Soviet republic. Or as she has said, "the teenage democracy in Russia's backyard."


And yet, the streets are paved. Roofing is not made of decaying wood, but of ornate, pressed tin. Mom n Pop shops are two stories tall, and there's a supermarket where you can choose your own goods (as opposed to asking for them). Churches are well-kept and attended. People insist on speaking Ukrainian. There is a street called America, which looks like your generic suburb, luxury cars and hedges.


She lives in the West.


Last month I visited. Before then I'd only been to Central and Eastern Ukraine. I'd seen my fair share of the country, I thought, had visited most cities that my co-workers and neighbors had not. I even began to call it mine. Then I travelled twenty hours in the opposite direction.


And realized everything I assumed was wrong.


Not wrong as in bad, but wrong as in incorrect. For months, I'd been surrounded by people who hadn't reaped the benefits of Independence. They toil only to see authorities dupe them, prices rise, paychecks not show. It creates an atmosphere that before I came here, I envied: community.


But this sense of togetherness is not butterflies and sing alongs. It is fierce, tight knit, hardly admissable.


I will always be on the outside. A guest. Though I haven't the amenities my co-workers enjoy, I could. This is an exile of free will. No parent nor government has demanded it. Retching parasites into a frigid mud pit was a choice, however ill-conceived. No wonder Ukrainians think I've lost my mind.


"Is it better here than America?" The inevitable question. Sensical, since why would I leave my family? Also working utilities, services for stray animals, labor laws...


Usually I state a love for travel. "I wanted to see the world," I say, "to see how different kinds of people live." True things, but they mask the truth. I could've travelled a month and gotten it out my system and gone home. That's not why I'm here.


...The end of Part 2 and Part 3 (A Most Patriotic 4th) are still to come! Sorry but I am LITERALLY dripping. That's right folks, this girl can't stand the heat. Also the computer is moody as ever, so it's a minute of typing and then a fluorescent screen error. Verdict: It's time to head to the enclave of my hut and spoon icy kvass from my freezer. And then swim in the river! Miss you :)

 

 


Summer Time

Posted on June 28, 2009 at 3:56 AM Comments comments (4)

SINGING OLD MEN

Are half of, or maybe 3/4 of my story. It begins with a forest ranger and ends with a guy who sells fire trucks and they're both crowing like yodelers. 


WHERE AM I?

Oh right! Ukraine. It's easy to forget when you're sitting with a computer on your lap. Later when you're in a dark cafe at midnight, it's storming and the electricity has gone out, the table lit with a pair of crisscrossed cellphones, and you're eating rubber bands of dry salted fish while singing about exclamation marks, you ask yourself seriously though, how did this come about?


ADVENTURE 101

We found a field with a swimming hole in the middle and if you veer left there are cows--live, unchained ones--and to get there you've got to ride a bike with one functioning pedal but not before stopping to drink fermented birch tree juice and raiding trees for cherries. An old man sitting on a bench will direct you if you're lost. He's got fluffy ear hair and a cane. Who's in? 


TRAIN TIME TAKE ONE

My village to the capital: 6 hours.

My village to my friend's house: 20 hours.

My training village back West: 14 hours.

Who is willing to pay 5 extra dollars for a sleeper car?

Me!


GAME I MISS:

Scrabble. Also cribbage.


RECIPE:

Buy a bag of fruit from an old lady. Don't wash. Eat it, dirt and all.


PROTO: 

We can shuffle people into camps. The Accomplished Olds and the Thirties in Therapy and the Frat Boy Types. Also the Social Workers. And we Free-Wheeling Twenties. But when it comes down to it, there are only two groups I'm concerned with: positive and negative. The rest is all specifics. I'll take Miss Sorority Lite over intellectual Debbie Downer any day of the week.


REMEMBER KATIA?: 

"Hi Kristi!"

"Hi Katia!"

"Where are you?"

"In Losynivka, with my first Ukrainian family."

"Are you ever coming back?"

"Yes of course."

"When?"

"I'm not sure. Maybe in two weeks. We'll see."

"Not today?"

"No not today."

"What about tomorrow?"

"Not then either."

"Who are you with?"

"My friend."

"What do you do all day?"

"Swim and read and have tea."

"See you later!"

"Bye!"




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