Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.
-- John Muir, The Yosemite
The Lightyellow Journal
The regular disclaimer: The views expressed on this website are my own and in no way reflect those of the U.S. Peace Corps or any agency of the U.S. Government.
January 2005 - Arrival in Chernomorskoe
Monday, January 10, 2005
The post that doesn't want to post
I should tell you I'm suffering from the second bout of culture shock, which hits most of us when we arrive "at site," meaning the towns where we'll be living for the next two years. I'm certainly not immune. It's hard to suddenly be alone, adrift... I have no native English speakers around me, and not many people who speak English even as a second language. So there's no one I can really communicate with, and no one who I can depend on to translate for me. In the end this will make my Russian better, but for now I'm lonely and frustrated.
For me, this is much more difficult than coming to Ukraine in the first place was. I was just adjusting to my first home here (and the constant business), feeling comfortable with my family in Berezan and like I could finally talk to them. Now I'm in an unfamiliar place, far from the close friends I made during training, and feeling like I can't communicate at all with my new host family.
It's frustrating, challenging, draining, and I completely understand why so many people end up leaving after this transition.
Not that I'm going to leave. I'm just....ready for school to start, so I have something to do. (The spring term starts January 11th.) And I make lists in my head of all the things I'll do differently when I have my own apartment. (I'll wash all my dishes with soap. If I make soup with chicken, I'll take the chicken off the bones. I'll walk around the house without slippers whenever I want to. Maybe even without socks.)
All of which is just to say things are moving along. All is well. And I'll probably sound a bit more cheerful next time you hear from me. For now...
Last week someone pinched me to see if I was real. She was a teacher at the school where I'll be teaching English, one of the older teachers who I think has been there for a long time. I went to the New Years party at the school, and she asked me, "You're from America?" (In Russian of course.) And I said Yes, I'm from America. And then she pinched me, just to make sure.
I had heard that this might happen sometimes, but I thought it was a joke, or an exaggeration. Besides, this is a "resort town" that presumably gets a lot of tourists from all over, and Crimea itself has much more diversity than the rest of Ukraine. To be sure, the teacher was laughing when she squeezed me, but all the same.... I am unexpected, like a gift to the school just in time for the New Year.
In Ukraine, New Years is the biggest holiday of the year. It's a family holiday, when Santa (or Grandfather Frost) comes and gifts are exchanged and everyone is with their families. Christmas, which comes on January 6th in the Orthodox church, is not so celebrated. I'm told that this is because under the Soviet Union religious holidays were banned. People began celebrating New Years because it is secular, and could be celebrated openly.
So I arrived in Ukraine just in time for the biggest holiday of the year, Thanksgiving and Christmas combined. I spent a good part of the 31st cooking with my new host mother. In the late evening we took a nap, and then got up at 12:00 to celebrate and eat the big dinner we'd cooked. There were several different kinds of salad, a goose, and fried potatoes. (Probably more, but I've forgotten.) We also exchanged gifts. This was just the immediate family: host mom, son, and daughter. (The son is a university student who is visiting for the holiday.)
On New Years Day we had lunch with the extended family, and there was just as much food then as there had been the day before. I met most of the family, I think. At least the mother's side. Dad is out of the picture, so I'm not sure if I'll meet anyone from that side of the family.
The next day, January 2, I went to a "concert" in Simferopol, which is a good 2 hour bus ride away (if you're making really good time, which we did). The concert was for the children of the people who work in the town administration, if I understood correctly. The buss was full of children, and the concert--actually a play--was very much for the kids. (I found myself thinking that it was rather long, and no one in America would expect kids to sit still for so long. But these kids were fine. I wonder what that says about us as Americans?) That's how I found myself watching a Russian musical production of the Wizard of Oz.
Of course, I didn't figure out it was the wizard of Oz until Dorothy (not named Dorothy) and Toto (not called Toto) had been given the ruby slippers (not ruby) and were following the Yellow Brick road. It was a pretty good production, and I understood what was going on, for the most part. Of course, I'm sure it helped that I knew the story!
Afterwards we went to McDonalds, which was a big treat for the kids. (Although one of them had a meltdown because his mom wouldn't buy the happy meal.) I've already discovered that I now love McDonalds. I never thought that could happen. I mean, I knew I loved their fries, but I never thought I'd think their Double Cheeseburger Menu (spelled phonetically in Russian) would taste like a little bit of heaven. I think the processing and preservatives remind me of home.
Pretty much all of us feel like that. Every time we went into Kyiv during training, McDonalds was a prime destination. One of my friends went 3 times in a 24 hour period. I never hit that high, but I did manage to visit twice in 2 hours. (On the second visit I limited myself to an icecream cone.)
After McDonalds, on the bus ride back from Simferopol, I made a list of the things I've learned in Ukraine:
I guess that's it for today. I also updated the FAQ.
And the post that was!
So! My last post worked, which is happy for me. But I'm having trouble logging on to update the rest of my website, so my address might not be there when you read this. Check back in a day or so and all should be better. Also, just so you don't all go worrying about me, I'm just fine. All my griping about culture shock is a temporary thing. Happier days are already here. School starts on Wednesday. I'll try to update you next week.
Thursday, January 13, 2005
The first day of school
Wednesday (yesterday, as I write this) was the first day of school. Suddenly the weather has turned beautiful and warm. The sun is out, the birds singing (the stray dogs barking), and the mud in the streets mostly dry. It feels like summer, or at least spring.
I had 5 classes on the first day: two 8th form classes, two 9th form, and one 7th form. All but the 7th form are my coordinators classes (this means that she usually teaches them, and now we'll be sharing the responsibility). Because she's in Simferopol for a class this week, I taught my first classes all by myself, just me and the students. (Only you never call them students here. Students go to college. Pupils go to school.)
I had decided that the first lesson for each class should be more informal. I wanted the pupils to be able ask me all their questions, since I knew they are very curious about me. I wanted a chance to gauge how well they understand me, and how much English they can speak. This is a very nice idea, but it's hard to implement. They're shy to speak in front of me and, even when they understand what I say, try to reply in Russian. The lessons are 45 minutes long, and for the most part they loosened up by the end. But it definitely felt like hard going. And I'm not sure what they thought of me. I'm interesting, but I'm also more difficult to understand. They're probably waiting to see what happens next.
Today I did not teach; none of my classes were meeting today. (This may change with the schedule, which is under revision. Except at the rate things are moving I suspect the new schedule will never be finished, and things will stay as they are.) I had most of the day free to work on lesson plans and procrastinate.
I also had a meeting with the director (I think) of the town after school Center. I'm actually not sure what this place is called, but it's a center where pupils involved in after school activities have classes. For example, there is a sewing class, an art class, a computer class, a music class, and a dance class.
And there's a debate class. Up until now the debates have all been in Russian. But now I'm here, they want to try and have debates in English. Apparently there are teams in other cities, including Simferopol, that have the English component, and the Chernomorskoe kids are pretty excited to join them. There are two groups here, one for younger pupils (pre-teens) and one for teenagers. The teenagers are about to start working on a new topic. The next debate will be on whether young people should be allowed to "make love," as the pupil who translated for me said.
I have no idea how this is going to work, but it will be fun to find out! Hopefully there's another volunteer out there who is involved in this and can help me figure out what I'm supposed to do.
So I've realized I talk an awful lot about food. All my letters, all my conversations...food's an issue that always comes up. So I was going to try to stay away from the subject for a while. But I just have to tell you about this.
Ukrainians love mushrooms. And this is not just about eating mushrooms, it's about gathering them. Everyone does it. It's like a national sport, I think. (For example, I have a copy of a Russian version of Goldielocks and the 3 Bears in which Goldielocks goes into the forest to gather mushrooms with her friends, where she meets the bears.) In most of Ukraine people gather mushrooms in the forest. But in Crimea the mushrooms are on the Steppe.
On Tuesday I went with my host sister and her uncle, cousin, and Grandmother to gather mushrooms. We bundled up nice and warm, then drove to the Steppe. Or maybe I should say "drove on the Steppe," since we only paid attention to the roads part of the time.
The Steppe is a huge expanse, a flat forever. I don't know what it looks like at other times of the year (I would guess much the same--it seems like it should be unchanging), but now it is a light brown, like the California hills during the summer. There are stretches of short grass, maybe ankle-high, and patches where there is almost no grass to speak of. The sky was a big, pale blue.
Hunting mushrooms is taking a solitary walk in this big expanse. You stroll, meander, pick a direction and wander. You scan the ground, looking for the smooth brown lumps that are mushrooms. When you find one, you stoop down and cut it out of the ground with a knife. You look underneath. A good mushroom is brown on top and white underneath. If the mushroom you picked isn't brown on top and white underneath, throw it out. If it is, put it in your bucket.
Note to the kids: The above Good Mushroom/Bad Mushroom rules only apply to Crimean Steppe mushrooms. Don't try this at home.
We spent most of the day on Steppe looking for mushrooms. It was a beautiful day, and all of us were glad to be out. But this isn't the best time of the year for mushrooms (autumn is better), so we didn't find too many--only about a kilo between the 5 of us.
Now, as I'm sure you can image, we can't quite eat that many mushrooms all at once. So we canned most of them.
Perhaps you're wondering how to can mushrooms? (I certainly was.) Well! You've come to the right place. It's actually really easy--I was expecting something much more difficult. All you really do is boil them. First clean them, of course. Then boil them for 40 minutes. Add some salt and peppercorns. Ladle them into a sterile jar and add about a tablespoon of vinegar. Seal the jars up and leave them upside-down overnight.
And you have canned mushrooms!
I'm sorry. I think this is all really cool.
Sunday, January 16, 2005
Notes written while on the bus
I am on a bus, going to Simferopl for the day. It's a long trip--about 3 hours--and I have been watching the landscape pass me by for 45 minutes.
How to describe what I see? I am struck, as always, by the age of everything. All the buildings are old, with concrete crumbling in places and years of dirt making patterns on the paint. It is winter and even the landscape is old. The grass is old, the trees are old, the rocks are old. The sea is old. The sky is gray and old. A black bird sits high on a bare tree. Maybe he has been there, unmoving, for years.
We pass structures that I guess were once greenhouses. Now they are empty skeletons, glassless and dark. Sometimes I see clusters of concrete pillars, half-built buildings long since abandoned, now with waves of rust decorating their sides.
This is how Crimea feels to me: like an old woman who, waking up in the morning, asks herself, "Why bother getting dressed today? Life is difficult." Crimea feels old and tired. It is not vibrant the way Kyiv is, the way Madrid felt to me. Those cities are full of history that is still happening. They are old ladies who woke up and said, "Today I will wear purple!" (If you've ever read the poem, When I'm an Old Lady I Shall Wear Purple.)
But underneath this old Crimea I can see a shadow of a different Crimea, the Crimea of the summer. When those trees have leaves they will be so beautiful. When the fields are green they'll seem so fresh. Those houses, now so run-down, in summer must look quaint and welcoming. People will flock here; the population of Chernomorskoe will double.
In summer, things Happen in Crimea.
Maybe these thoughts are a reflection of a gloomy mood, although I don't feel particularly gloomy. I feel introspective. (Having recently been in a variety of gloomy moods, I think I can recognize the difference.)
Thursday, January 20, 2005
First mail received!
I went to the post office on Tuesday to check my mail, thinking it was probably still too soon, but that I might have something from the Peace Corps. Peace Corps sends us a mail package every two weeks--I am expecting my first soon--with any administrative notices, the PC Ukraine newsletter, our free Newsweek subscription, and (I hope) any letters that might have been sent to me at the Kyiv office. Packages are not forwarded--we must go to Kyiv to pick them up, although Peace Corps is kind enough to tell us when they arrive. I know, for example, that there is something waiting for me when I go to Kyiv again in March. It's a bit of a torment, to have to wait for another month and a half.
But, in any case, on Tuesday I went to check my mail. This was my third time to check since I opened the box at the beginning of the month, and I really expected it to remain empty until at least later this week. (Or only have another returned letter--apparently I must address all mail using blue or black ink. Green is not acceptable.) But joy! There was a letter in the box, and not from the Peace Corps! My very first letter came from America, not Ukraine. (Wonderful confirmation that the address is, in fact, correct.)
My mom sent the letter on January 6th. I received it on the 18th. A little less than 2 weeks en route--very good! I'm happy.
My mom asked me a question that I think I'll answer here: Am I happy about being in Crimea? Wasn't I hoping for someplace cold? (Did I think all of Ukraine was cold?) I do like the sea, right?
Am I happy about being in Ukraine? I'm not sure, actually! If I'm being honest, that is. There are a lot of good things about where I am. For example, my friends will want to visit me. And by friends I don't mean you all back home--although of course I hope you'll want to visit me, too. My Peace Corps friends will want to visit. My site makes me a Destination. If you want to go to the beach in the summer, you go to visit a PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer) who lives on the beach, like I do, and crash on the floor for a few days. Being in Crimea also means I'll have some wonderful fruits and vegetables during the summer. That would be true anywhere in Ukraine, but it's especially true here, and the growing season is longer here--because it's warmer. My Russian will probably improve a lot here, because most people speak it exclusively. I probably won't pick up much Ukrainian. (For the most part, Crimea doesn't consider itself part of Ukraine. I find myself thinking that way, too. I live in Crimea, not Ukraine.) There's a lot of diversity here, which is nice. And my town is bigger, which means there's internet. On the other hand, I think it will be awfully hot in the summer. There will be huge crowds, and I don't like crowds. Things will be more expensive, because I'm in an (up-and-coming) resort town. But...those are small things, really. And I am where I am. It's in my best interests to be happy with it. I don't think too much about what I wanted. What good does that do?
Wasn't I hoping for someplace cold? Yes. I wanted heaps of snow in the winter. I wanted cool summers. I wanted to trudge uphill (both ways) to school every day and come home with the beginnings of frost bite, wrap myself in a blanket, and drink tea while I wrote in my journal or worked on lesson plans. I don't know why this appeals to me. I'm a little weird.
Did I think all of Ukraine was cold? No. I knew it was warm in parts of Ukraine, but I didn't really expect to be sent to those parts. The vast majority of Volunteers go to cold places; anywhere in Crimea is considered prime because it's warm. I also told Peace Corps I'd be happy in the cold, so I fully expected to be sent to some remote little village in Eastern Ukraine. I was really surprised to get a site in Crimea; I hadn't thought it was a possibility. (Most of the Trainees studying Russian dreamed about a Crimean assignment.)
I do like the sea, right? Yes, I love the sea. I love to look at the sea, and listen to the waves and the birds. I love the smell of the air. I love walking barefoot in the sand. I love scanning the beach for shells, and letting the waves lap at my feet. I like to sit in the sand with a book or a paper and pen. I don't like to swim in the sea, though--I like rivers. (Wondering why? Because I can't stand all the sand that gets in your swimsuit when waves crash over you.) I prefer empty beaches, though. I like the solitude of a lonely walk along the coast. It's been a long time since I've gone to a crowded beach. I guess I'll see what it's like in a few months--because the beaches here will definitely be crowded!
All in all, I'm looking forward to summer. I'll be living on my own then--I'm really anticipating April, when I move into my own apartment. I'm excited about cooking for myself, and all the bounty of produce that will be at the markets. I want to learn how to can, which is good--I'll be really glad to have the canned goods in winter. It will be nice to walk around in short sleeves. And I'm very curious to see what this town looks like when all the stores are open, and the streets full, and the trees green. I think the transformation will take me by surprise, even though I am expecting it.
My friend Raisa talks about how she would love to open up a coffee shop in her town. I have the same fantasy. A nice, American coffee shop, with an espresso machine. And maybe a bookshelf with books in English. And big, comfortable, plush chairs. And wireless internet access! Someplace you could sit and drink endless cups of coffee, and have quiet conversation. Oh, it would be heaven. I think that would be a good way to live. (Although I have no idea if you could actually make a living at it.)
Note: Three posts today. Have written several times since I last made it to the Internet Club, so continue below....
Wednesday, January 26, 2005
On a cold day
Today, like yesterday, there is no heat in Chernomorskoe. If I believe what I'm told (and I don't quite), there is no heat in all of Crimea. The day is cold, windy, and rainy. The streets and sidewalks are muddy, and I have to walk carefully or I'll be half mud myself before I make it to school. Teachers and pupils wear jackets to their classes, which have been shortened from 45 to 30 minutes. Kindergartens have been closed.
All of this is being blamed on Yushenko, who was inaugurated Sunday. (Most people in Crimea, if you recall, support Yanukovich. Yushenko is disreputable, and obviously does not have the best interests of the people at heart. Or so seems to be the general consensus.) One teacher says that next the electricity will be turned off.
I tell my coordinator that I don't think Yushenko is responsible for this. Turning the heat off, I think, would be a stupid move for him to make--and I don't think Yushenko is stupid. I say this noncommittally; I must be careful because I'm in the teachers' lounge, a public area. Being publicly political--especially if I favor the hated Yushenko--could jeopardize my position in the school. Also, Peace Corps is a nonpolitical, nonreligious, governmental organization, as we all learned to say in Russian during training. As a representative of this organization, I must also be nonpolitical. At least in public.
My coordinator tentatively agrees: maybe it is the local (Crimean) government. But she is definitely not fond of Yushenko. She thinks he will make life more difficult for teachers, by discontinuing things like gas and electric subsidies for teachers. (Since teachers make so little money, the loss of those subsidies would be an extreme hardship. I'm not sure exactly how the subsidies work, though: I only have my coordinator's slight description of them to go on.)
Wednesday is usually a long day: I teach 6 classes, beginning with the 1 period and finishing up with the 6th. Then I go home for about half an hour, and on to the Children's Center, where the debate club meets. All in all, my day starts at 8:00 and ends at 5:00. I guess that doesn't sound too bad, but it feels much longer! Today, with the shortened classes, I finish much earlier and am home for a good 3 hours before going to the Children's Center, and even that meeting is shortened.
Such is life.
On Sunday I watched a little of the presidential inauguration. My host family (unusually for the area) is more pro-Yushenko than most, so they were very interested and had the TV on most of the day. It was quite interesting, with huge crowds. I watched Yushenko's speech, although I didn't understand most of it. (One problem being that he speaks in Ukrainian, not Russian.)
It's funny how I feel so out of the loop here. I don't really know what's going on in Ukraine, much less the rest of the world. All Peace Corps Volunteers get subscriptions to Newsweek magazine, but I haven't yet received my mail forwarded from Kyiv, so I haven't seen one yet. Watching the news is more about looking at the pretty pictures--news broadcasters speak incredibly fast. (I do a lot better with the soaps that everyone watches.) I have a shortwave radio that can pick up broadcasts from the BBC, but to be honest I don't listen to it very often. It's a solitary activity, and generally in the evening I'm either planning for classes the next day or talking to my host family. I don't feel like I can go to my room and fiddle with my radio.
But I suppose everything is going on much as usual. Somehow I don't think I'm missing a whole lot.
But...enough for today.
Saturday, January 29, 2005
Are you prepared?
Today I came out of a lesson and saw one of the 8th forms in a class in the hallway. There was an olive-green blanket spread on the floor, and one of the boys (one of the smaller boys, who looks very young), was spread out on the blanket, pointing a rifle at a mural on the opposite wall. His classmates stood around, watching and laughing, while the instructor said a few words to him. I have seen that particular teacher around, although I have never met him. He is one of the few men at the school, and generally wears a uniform. Today he had on army fatigues.
Needless to say, this was a rather striking image, one you'd never see in America. I asked one of the English teachers what class it was, and she told me "Military Preparedness," although she wasn't sure if that was the correct translation. All able boys in Ukraine go into the army for a couple of years when they turn (I think) 17, although they can postpone their entrance for several years if they go to college. If they manage to avoid military service until they are (I think) 26, they are exempt. This, however, has its downside: you may be considered less of a man if you didn't serve in the military.
(Sidenote: I had an interesting attempted conversation with my host sister a while back, where I tried to explain American military service, including ROTC and the draft. I'm not sure how much she understood--those are rather complicated concepts to get across in remedial Russian.)
But here were these young boys, and girls, in school learning to be soldiers.
I've been meaning to tell you all a little about how schools work here in Ukraine, and this feels like a good time to do that. After all, the differences are on my mind.
In some ways, it's a lot the same. Young children go to kindergarten. When you're six, you start at school, in the 1st form. A form is like a grade. In America we have 12 grades; in Ukraine there are 11 forms. Since they start school around the same age as we do, the ages are about equivalent. In my 4th form class, most of the pupils are 10 years old. (I also turned 10 when I was in the 4th grade.)
The forms are divided into classes, which are groups of pupils that sit in the same room and study the same lessons every day; teachers move from room to room. There's an upper limit to how big a class can be, as there is in America. At my school, I believe the limit is 28 pupils, but I'm not sure. None of my classes are that big. My largest is about 24.
There are 7 periods in a day, which I think is a lot, although I don't remember how many I had in high school. School starts at 8:00 and ends at 2:35 for the older students. The younger forms (4th or 5th form and younger) begin and end later, and have a shorter day. They take fewer classes, although I'm not sure how many.
As I said, teachers move between classrooms; pupils stay in the same room all day. This allows the daily schedule to be changed whenever needed. There are no substitute teachers here. If someone is sick, the schedule is rearranged to move the empty period to the end of the day (so pupils can go home early), or to allow other teachers of the same subject to cover the lesson. For example, I could be asked to teach any English class at any time, if another teacher calls in sick. And I have gone in ready to teach the first lesson, only to learn that the schedule has gone all topsy-turvy, and I don't have a class until the 4th period.
Another striking difference is that in Ukraine (at the present time), a pupil can't flunk a class. That is, pupils are never held back. They are never prevented from enrolling in a class that they are not prepared for--not really surprising since they don't enroll for classes at all. This means that almost every class I teach has pupils with highly varied levels of understanding. One boy (and they are generally the boys) may not know how to say "My name is Sasha," while a girl (and they are generally the girls) can tell me all about her daily schedule and her plans after school.
It makes teaching a little harder. I find that I tend to ignore those students who aren't interested in learning, who have been coasting through the years of English. I never thought I'd do that, but part of me wonders, Why waste my time on them? It's so much more gratifying to work with the students who actually care.
Sometimes I like being a teacher. Today I taught my 6th form class, the ones I thought were impossible when I first came here. (And, truthfully, they're still a bit rowdy.) When I came in the room, and they saw I would be teaching today, they started jumping up and down, practically cheering. How could that not feel good?
On my first day teaching them, the 7th form asked me for my autograph. (That was a little weird, although it happens a lot to Peace Corps Volunteers. I told myself that they just want to see what an English signature looks like--our cursive is so different from Russian cursive. It's not about me, not really.)
But all the same, teaching is not what I want to do forever. Or at least, it's not all I want to do forever; maybe in the future I'll teach as a secondary activity, but not as my primary job. Right now I still plan to take the Foreign Service exam in a year or so. I can take it at the US Embassy in Kyiv.
Do you think I'd make a good diplomat?
Monday, January 31, 2005
want want want
I so want a new computer. Today I had made up my mind that I would--I would!--buy one. I would have my parents buy it for me, install the software I want, and send it to me through Meest, which is a reliable shipping method.
I made a list of what I want on my new computer (iTunes, an encyclopedia, a CD burner, image editing software, good sound, lots of harddrive space). I have some stock I can sell to pay for it. Why not, after all?
And then on my way to school I talked myself out of it. What exactly would I do with a new computer that I can't do with my old one? Internal dialog ensued:
You don't really need a computer.
On my way home from school I began to talk myself back into it, and then back out again. And then I got home and called another volunteer in Crimea. She HAS a nice computer, with a CD burner and iTunes. I was hoping she had a copy of "Let's Talk About Sex" by Salt n Peppa (or however it's spelled), which I really want to play for my debate team. (Their topic is "teenagers have the right to have sex," and this song would be a perfect teaching aid/discussion-starter.)
She didn't have the song, but she gave me some advice about the computer. "You should buy it. These are resources that can really help our teaching. We can be good teachers without them--but why not be great teachers?"
Having someone else justify the expense is nice, but I'm still fighting with myself. (I suppose that, of all the problems I could be having, wanting a new computer is pretty minor, huh?)