I'm back! I will do my best to describe my trip ...
My coordinator Lyudmila and her daughter Yana greeted me at Boryspil Airport with flowers in their hair and a sign that said, "Virginia, Welcome to Ukraine!" They had been nervous about my arriving twenty minutes late - thinking they had somehow missed me. (It's a good thing the real flight delays came on the way home ...)
Yana and Lyudmila at MacDonaldz
The bus back to the train station was still 25 hryvnia (the exchange rate, however, is now 1:8 instead of 1:5). On the ride over, I saw familiar things, like the Mother Motherland statue
, and new things like billboards advertising "Oz: The Great and Powerful."
When we got to the station, we waited for the train at the nearby McDonald's, where I had part of a "MacCheekan" sandwich. Sitting there, I told them I felt like I'd only been gone for a week. Everything was immediately and totally familiar. Going back to Bratslav, though - the small town where I lived for two years - was more surreal ...
We left Yana in Kyiv, where she now lives, and boarded a Platzkart car bound for Vinnytsia. (Platzkart is 2nd class, with two planks to lie on.) Exhausted, and receiving hints from the woman who booked the lower berth, I eventually hoisted myself up to the top berth. Or I tried to. Now, maybe I used to take my heavy shoes off before climbing up to a top berth, or maybe I usually shared space with other Volunteers who didn't mind if I stepped on the little table between the beds to get myself up ... but I have no idea how I used to launch myself up there. The upper berth is essentially at the height of my shoulders, and it's close enough to another shelf that you have to come at it from an angle. The one step available was on the aisle side, where a diagonal support for the bed prevented me from entering easily. I tried to step on the lower beds and lift myself up with one hand on each upper berth - and one of my heavy snow boots flew out and nearly kicked someone. Eventually I made it up there and slept a little, despite the defective window letting cold air blow on my face.
The little table is behind my luggage handle - and that's the other passenger lying under a blanket, because of the wind
Lydumila's husband Oleh met us at the Vinnytsia station and drove us home in a car he borrowed from his work. I had forgotten that the road to Bratslav has no street lights - so I spent the hour-long trip silently backseat driving, and waiting patiently for each oncoming car to get by us so Oleh could turn the high beams back on. New things noticed on the drive: a restaurant with a neon red windmill sign, complete with turning blades; and Nemyriv now has neon white crosses at both ends of town (they were apparently donated by ... an Orthodox priest?)
Just because I'd been travelling for more than twenty-four hours didn't mean I was off the hook from having some food and wine when I got to Lyudmila's. She then put me to bed with a silver, silky-fabric-covered duvet in their bedroom, while they decamped to Yana's.
The next day, unbeknownst to me beforehand, was Maslenitsa
. It's a sort of Orthodox Mardi Gras that focuses on crepe-style pancakes - or blinchiki - and other things made with butter, because dairy products are among the foods you're supposed to abstain from during Lent. No one ever mentioned Maslenitsa to me when I was there before - I only knew about it because Robin is sent to Moscow to cover it on "How I Met Your Mother." We got a ride to the center of town (where Oleh parked under the blue structure that - still - has the word "Rock" graffitied on it:
A picture from my Peace Corps days
The celebration in the town square was overwhelming in every sense of the word. I said before that returning to Bratslav was surreal - I'm not sure if that's the right word, but it was just more of a fraught experience than sitting anonymously in a McDonald's in Kyiv. Sure, I stand out there too, but in Bratslav I knew I would attract far more notice. I was a little apprehensive about being stared at again. I got over it after a few days, but being in a crowded town square was like baptism by fire. It was overwhelming to be in a crowd of people and, every now and then, see a familiar face you haven't seen in four years. Also, being forced to eat crepes covered in everything from boiled condensed milk (basically caramel) to garlic paste, and to drink homemade wine (in the morning).
I was ushered behind our school's table (for some reason, different organizations had tables full of food which anyone could partake of), and mostly took cover there, occasionally being alerted to the presence of a teacher or someone else I might remember. And I met Bratslav's new Peace Corps Volunteer, Elyse, for the first time!
Elyse, me, and Lyudmila with some other teachers from School #2
Aaaah, so many people
Nina Mikolaivna, English teacher from School #1, and her daughter, Natalie, an English teacher at the Technicum
A teacher from the "little school" (1st-4th grade) sang to attract people to their table
The biggest and most pleasant surprise of the morning was seeing my Star Pupil Diana - who moved away near the end of my service, so I thought I wouldn't see her. She was in the 5th grade class that treated me like a rock star - several of them got my phone number, and would call occasionally to ask where I was and what I was doing, and if I'd be teaching them the following day. One day I was literally three minutes late to class, and when I opened the door, they were so excited that they rushed me and pinned me against the wall hugging me. It was ridiculous. Diana stood out - she was always extremely self-possessed, even as a 4th grader when she would come visit me before she was my student. The last time I had seen her before she moved, I asked her where she lived. Unwilling to get around the words she didn't know in English by switching to Ukrainian, she described it as if I were walking there: "You see ... blue house. You see ..." etc. So smart. Here's a picture of her back in the day:
With her little brother, at the Last Bell ceremony (end of the school year) in 2008
She's now a student at the Technicum!
Then back to Lyudmila's for a welcome party. This was the spread:
Lyudmila even made me Korovai - Ukrainian welcome bread
, similar to Paska bread
. You sprinkle salt on it and the guest takes a dough flower from the crust, dips it in the salt, and eats it:
Did I mention I was feeling overwhelmed? Well, it wasn't just mental. I regret to say that a little while after these pictures were taken, I got pretty sick. Not fun. Even during Peace Corps training, I had adjusted to the food fairly well (as I recall - certainly never felt this bad), so I was surprised - who knows if it was the copious crepes and homemade wine, or the day-plus of travelling, or the rice-in-oily-broth for breakfast (it is so funny to me how other cultures don't have specified "breakfast food" like we do). Pretty soon I was in bed, and I didn't really eat anything but crackers for the next 24 hours. I felt bad because - especially when one has a Peace Corps mentality - you don't want to seem ungracious or make your hosts feel like they did something wrong. But Lyudmila and I know each other fairly well at this point, so while she did try to get me to rally later in the day to go to some official's house for a last-minute invite, she agreed to let me stay home and sit quietly instead.
I unsteadily made my way to school the next day (walking at what felt like a glacier pace, on appropriately snowy roads (and I forgot how muddy Bratslav is)), where I was greeted with some students' rendition of, what else:
Then it was on to visit Nina, who I lived with for a year on Suvorova Street (not that there's a street sign or anything, but a few of you may remember it from my mailing address!). She proceeded to attempt to make me eat and drink, which I was pretty steadfast in refusing. (The next day, of course, when I was feeling better and visited her again, she kept saying "You were so pale yesterday! You were white as a sheet!" Right, sooo, why
did you keep trying to force alcohol on me?) An extended nap at Lyudmila's that evening had me more or less back to normal. And it's a good thing, because from there on out I barely had a break ...
Tuesday I visited our school again:
Inside, I found some of the sinks from our Pipe Dream Partnership Grant:
Also, there were lots of adorable signs. I won't post all of them here; to see all of my pictures, click here
This last one is from my former 5th graders - the class the aforementioned Diana was in!
Some of you may recall that I had a patronymic in Ukraine: I was called by my first name and then "Robertivna," meaning I was the daughter of Robert. When I visited Bratslav the first time, during training, an elderly teacher asked what my father's name was, and before I knew it I was Virginia Robertivna. I'm the only Volunteer I know of who went by a patronymic. It's typical for Ukrainian teachers, but not for visiting Americans. Elyse goes by "Miss Elyse" - so most of the students' signs were addressed to "Miss Virginia," because that's what they're used to now. But the students who had older siblings who remembered me knew me as "Virginia Robertivna."
I visited Lyudmila's and Elyse's English class at the Internat - which, when I was there, was an orphanage. Now it's sort of a regular school - some kids from the town have switched to it from the main two schools, and also fewer children live at the school because they've either been sent elsewhere or been adopted! So there are some positive changes. They also have smart boards now - something I had never even seen before.
Lydumila made good use of both the smart board there and the laptop that she and Elyse got as part of their English Resource Center Partnership Grant. At the Internat, she played an English-teaching DVD from Disney that uses familiar characters and clips from movies to teach phrases like "she wants to eat," etc. - it was a bit hit, predictably. "Lady and the Tramp" is never a bad idea.
Back at School #2, we were treated to several song and dance performances:
Here's a video of two teachers singing.
Afterwards, I posed with the dancing 5th graders:
Then three of the 11th grade boys - my former 6th graders (in the 2007-2008 school year, when I really got to know the students) - took Elyse and me out for tea, which was not nearly as awkward as it sounds (or as it sounded to us, initially). They asked us questions about America, and I quizzed them about their plans for next year. Kolya has gotten really involved in HIV education (he was not old enough for the last seminar I gave as a Volunteer, so I can't take credit), and even attended at PEPFAR conference! He wants to be a doctor. Here are the three boys as I remember them:
Andrey is second from the left, and Kolya is far right
Serhiy is the partially-hidden boy to the left of me
And here they are today:
What the WHAT?
Kolya I remembered - but he went by "Nick," in class, and somehow my memory had translated that to "Mischa" being his real name, so I was confused initially. For the other two, it took me a second to really recognize them, and it was sooo weird when I realized who they were. "Nick" was always a stellar student - in fact, my superlative for him (I wrote superlatives for everyone when I left) was "Mr. Most Likely to Answer a Question." (Andrey was "Always Energetic" and Serhiy was in a different class - so he was the "Mr. Most Likely to Answer a Question" of his
class. And these turn out to be the kids who want to take two young American ladies out so they could ask polite questions of them in English. You really can
peg a kid from a pretty young age.) My two stories about Kolya: when we were doing Mad Libs once (which I really should have done more often, they loved
it), the resulting sentence included a doctor saying "Take two Coca-Colas and call me in the morning." Kolya, absolutely delighted, blurted out "Goodbye, doctor
!" Another time, I was trying to get them to guess the word for "ice," and asked, "What do you put in your freezer? ... what do you put in drinks?" and Kolya, still thinking about my first question, said, "Meat!" and I started laughing and said, "You put meat
in your drinks?" All week, I was unnerving people with the detail with which I remember things like that - part of it is just how my mind works, but also, I remember those stories making it into this blog, which helped cement them for me ...
We also got a visit, that day, from the Kalinichenkos, my friend Clara's host family! I decided that what with my being slightly unwell and extremely pressed for time, I didn't have time to go visit them, so they very nicely came to me:
Then came a proper visit to Nina during which I redeemed myself by eating and drinking, and she was pleased. I got to meet her two-and-a-half-year-old great-grandson for the first time!
Apparently he's often shy of strangers, but my "in" was showing him pictures of an elephant and other wildlife, and giving him a toy which he reeeally liked
Showing off the horse he keeps at his great-grandma's
Nina, her granddaughter Marina, and me and Ilya (we kept trying to teach him to not point the toy - which would send little plastic discs spinning in the air - at his face, but it doesn't seem like it can do much damage anyhow)
The next morning I finally visited my old neighbors Lyuba and Mikola (I had seen the latter briefly at Maslenitsa). They made me eat, and drink what appeared to be strawberry cordial (their rationale - I swear - was "We don't drink [for various health reasons], so you have to." Great, great reasoning.):
They were wonderful neighbors - starting with the first day I moved in to the apartment across from theirs, when my sink broke. I knocked on their door, and Mikola came right over with a wrench and
a replacement knob. They even found me a new place to live - with Nina - when I got kicked out of the apartment.
From that forced meal, I went onward to the Technicum - or technical college - to see the English teachers there, and eat and drink more (thankfully not alcohol). The walk is very pretty:
It was wonderful to see Natalie and Valya. I first got to know them after taking a student of theirs to the first year of Camp HEAL near Donetsk. The camp is focused on HIV/AIDS and human trafficking education, and still exists. I and the girls I brought planned seminars in all four schools in Bratslav - which helped me get to know the teachers at other schools.
Valya, on the right, is about to go on maternity leave
I knew my former student Diana was there, so I was expecting to see her, but I was not expecting to see my former student Sasha, aka "Alex." (Superlative: "The Thinker.") Alex was a wonderful student - as a boy, he had a stutter, but I never noticed it cause him any self-consciousness, and he always wanted to answer questions in class. This is how I remember him:
Sasha/Alex is right in front of me - the blond boy. (Kolya is third from the right)
Well, this is what time hath wrought:
Seriously. Seriously. I still can't believe it. When I realized who the kid was, sitting in front of me, I couldn't stop saying "Oh my God ..." He had come to perform an American song on his guitar, which you just absolutely must see: right here.
It was all I could do to not ruin the video I took by going, "Aaaah oh my God this is insane" over and over.
Diana was a little shyer than she was before - she hasn't been able to keep up with her English very well - and she was nervous at first. But she relaxed as time went on, and tried reading aloud from the book I brought them - Are You My Mother?
Back at School #2, Elyse and I watched a concert the 5th graders put on in honor of International Women's Day - the 8th of March. These "concerts" are generally a combination of singing, dancing, recitation of original (teacher-written) poetry, and even some games.
The concert not only honored mothers - who came up and danced with their children (one girl's dad was there, so he stepped in, which was cute) - but grandmothers (two participated in a game where their grandsons had to race to sweep a balloon around them and back to the finish line) and little sisters. Two boys were called upon to braid their younger sisters' hair competitively.
It was really cute. And no, neither boy was particularly good at braiding - but the girls were so sweetly cooperative.
Elyse and I were then invited by two former students to come have tea and cake (I have no idea how I didn't gain ten pounds on this trip, but thankfully I did not). Here are the two girls as I knew them:
Oksana is in the middle (on the right is the aforementioned Serhiy)
Olena (aka Helen) is on the left
And here, for reasons you'll see in a minute, is my former 9th grader Yana:
Yana has the red hair (this is from 2007)
Well, on the way to Helen's house, a pretty red-haired girl walked past us and said "Hello" in English. I stopped, and called after her, "Yana??" Yep. I made her come back and take a picture - unfortunately my schedule was already so booked (people had arranged things with Lyudmila far in advance of my trip, unbeknownst to me) that this was all I really saw of her:
Oksana, Helen, me and Yana.
Whaaaaat. Oksana and Yana are both married now, by the way. Yana was not a girl I expected to get married early - she spent 9th grade in an oversize black t-shirt with the metal band Korn's logo. She also accompanied me to Camp HEAL the second summer (when we had 3 "Yana"s and 2 "Olena"s ... confusing).
Helen made us a really good fruit cake, and we talked a bit about how they had both gone to the technicum, and how Helen is now planning to go to university in Krakow.
Both girls are on their own to an extent - both of Helen's parents work abroad, leaving her to take care of the house by herself, and Oksana's husband is also working abroad. While making conversation, I recalled how the 7th grade boys (their class) were the worst (I even said, "What was the name of that really bad boy?" and they immediately answered, "Vlad"). I explained to Elyse that for my superlatives for that class, I gave almost every boy an index card that said "The 'Can You Read This?' Award." As I predicted, they all immediately turned to their classmates to ask what the index card said. Heh. Well, to my shock, Helen got up and ran to her bedroom, returning with her superlative card!
I had completely forgotten her card - but she had been about to go on a trip to London, so that's why I chose that! I couldn't believe she still had it.
Elyse and I were then off to another engagement, but first we stopped by a building I was very curious to go inside. The whole two years I was in Bratslav, I always wondered what would happen to this building - a construction site that didn't seem to be under much construction. There were a lot of abandoned construction sites in Bratslav, but this building stood out:
The Castle, in 2008 when I left
Well apparently just a month or so ago, it opened! Or at least part of it - it's a store. Here it is today:
We then went to Nina Mikolaivna's house for dinner - yes, MORE FOOD.
Valya, Nina's husband, Natalie's husband, Natalie and Nina
Nina, me and Elyse
The night went pretty late. Nina, Natalie and Valya were discussing the various issues with their textbooks, and the conversation eventually devolved into long silences punctuated by such truisms as "One has to work." I was ready to go to sleep.
[I did tell the story of the 9th grade Plakhotnyk textbook's adaptation of a James Thurber story about animals in the jungle. (Side note: our school has no more Plakhotnyk textbooks!! I had to describe them to Elyse. I know they have issues with their current textbooks too, but ... dude. Come on. We had PLAKHOTNYK.) So the lion and the tiger start fighting and all the animals take sides, and then eventually they're all killed. I'm sure the original Thurber is more entertaining than that, but there you are. Then there were five questions. Four were about the text: what happened, who did what. The fifth questions was - AND I QUOTE - "Will it not be the same in the atomic war?" Yeah. That's classic Plakhotnyk, y'all.]
The next day was my birthday! I was 22 when I first came to Bratslav - pretty surreal to spend my 29th birthday there. That morning, it was off to School #1 to meet students, answer some questions, and visit with the two English teachers I know there. Pretty soon, I got another shock.
Here's Olya as I remember her:
For those of you playing along at home, yes you've seen this before. Olya is in the middle with the tilted head and the red-striped sweater
And here she is today:
It was like seeing a computer program that ages people. It did not feel real. Like, "Here, Virginia, this is what these people would look like. But it's not reality because THAT WOULD BE CRAZY." Anyway, there's Olya. She was an extremely feisty 6th grader, with a few issues, but super smart. Her superlative was: "Brightest star - when she tries." She really seemed understand every word I said in English, it was crazy. She seems much more demure now, and was sitting with her friends and smiling and happy to see me.
Here I am with English teachers Nina Mikolaivna and Tatiana Radionova:
And here's a piece of artwork Olya made:
Then we went to School #2 for a final visit, and I was wished a happy birthday:
By the way, I remember that now-10th grader to the right of Lyudmila - another Diana who I knew when she looked like this:
I also got to see three members of my old 5th grade class, briefly. Most of them don't go to the school anymore, but good old Yuri and Bokdan, as well as quiet Mikola, made some time for me. Here they are then:
Mikola is the redhead in the middle, next to Diana, and Yuri is the second from the right (in 2007)
Bokdan is on the right (Diana #2 is in the middle)
Bokdan, Yuri and Mikola
Noticing a trend of people becoming taller than me? Here's some other pictures:
This visit had good timing for a number of reasons. I caught several of my youngest students before they went off to university or left town for another reason. I got to meet Elyse with two months to go before her COS (Close of Service). And apparently - although it's not for sure yet - they might close my school after this year! The number of kids is decreasing, and it's been years since Bratslav was really big enough for the number of schools it has. So I'm especially glad I got to see the school still open, because things might be different next time.
The rest of my birthday, after a visit to a teacher's house for more
food and wine and tea, was spent at Cafe Yulia. Totally forgot how long those things can go - I figured that since we were planning on getting there at 3pm, we wouldn't be there til night. Wrong. Cafes - which are kind of restaurants/discos - are really not my scene, and it was a long five hours of being encouraged to eat and drink things I had no desire/physical ability to eat or drink, listening to Ukrainian conversation I didn't understand, and listening to the mind-numbingly-loud disco beat from the cafe's main room. If I had had enough energy to fake more enthusiasm, I might have, in the interest of being a good guest - but as it is, it's probably for the best that I looked exhausted, because I'm pretty sure we would have stayed later
if I hadn't have looked like I was going to pass out. Don't mean to be a bummer on my birthday, but ... yeah. (It was at least good to have an American - Elyse - to talk to!)
On Women's Day, I went for a walk with Elyse (in the rain, unfortunately) to see the historic Jewish cemetery.
The view from Lyudmila's house
New war memorial - commemorating the locally-born creator of the portable oven, as I understand it. Lyudmila and her husband were among the donors who helped it to be built.
On the walk to the cemetery, down a hill to the South Bug River
Later, another visit with the neighbors:
Then we had an 8th of March dinner with Yana, who arrived early in the morning from Kyiv, and brought a "Drunken Cherry" cake with her:
With all this food, I'm sure you see why I appreciated the walk to the cemetery - even in the rain. But the dinner was lovely - much more my speed than a disco.
Then Elyse and I were invited to a student's house. Yulia is a very sweet 8th grader, whose family, along with one of my former student's family, might be ... 7th Day Adventist or something? It's unclear. Anyway, the "tea" was kind of a ruse to get us to an in-house church service. Elyse, despite being Jewish, has actually been to their services before, because they are just that sweet and inviting and she can't resist. However, after my jam-packed week, I was ready to play bad cop. Really ready. When the conversation with the families quickly turned to "Do you go to church/pray?" I was happy to answer, and even happy to discuss what religion different U.S. presidents were (why I know what denominations they were, I can't tell you), and even more happy to pet the THIRD dog I've ever seen in Ukraine who gets to live indoors! (He and one of the other two are both dachshunds. What does it mean??) But I made our excuses before too long. And it was good to be able to spend more time chatting with Yana back at Lyudmila's house.
Saturday, I caught the bus to Vinnytsia with Elyse and visited the English club at the Window on America library. Technically, I believe it's the same one that Brittany and Clara and I started - although we only did ours every other week. It was a very different feel - lots more people, but a more abstract, formal discussion. For instance, the discussion that week was: "What is a 'self-made man'?" We used to talk about what American teenagers are like and show clips of "Clueless." Heh. Anyway, there were a few people I recognized:
Afterwards, I went to lunch with my friend Sandy's old coordinator, Sophia, and my English club friend Natasha, which was lovely:
Then it was off to the souvenir shop on Soborna to pick up gifts for myself and others - I finally bought a traditional Ukrainian shirt - a vyshyvanka!
In other news, I saw our old McDonald's! It has a new paint job:
And Ronald McDonald is either gone or wintering inside. There's a new mall across the street. And apparently
there is now a second
McDonald's in Vyshenka (a neighborhood where we spent a lot of time). Of course they all serve breakfast food now (though still no non-fried chicken sandwiches).
New statue of Pope John Paul II
And in the picture below, see those little hurdle-looking things? That's where the musical fountain would
be. If it were, I guess, not snowing (and maybe it's only in the summertime).
Back home that night, I had to play bad cop again, because I just couldn't face going to someone's house for tea the night before my last day in Bratslav. So instead Ira - the English teacher who will be serving as Valya's replacement during her maternity leave, and who used to have me over for Orthodox Easter - came to visit me for a bit. I felt bad because she thought I was going to come with her, but we settled for a bunch of pictures:
The New York skyline is something I sent Lyudmila in a care package a few years ago
Finally: the spread for the goodbye party:
And the men making shasklik (aka shish kebob):
I had never really had shashlik before - I really liked it!
Monday morning I packed my things, sat with Lyudmila for a while, and then caught a cab to Vinnytsia - it just made sense with all of my stuff (SO many presents to bring home, so no relief on that front). I managed to find the right track for my train (I was nervous! It had been a while, and I couldn't quite remember where to go), and had a nice ride on the Podilsky Express. I was met on the platform by the very obliging Natasha - who stayed with my family in Alexandria a few summers ago as a translator with a program called Children of Chernobyl:
We met my old Ukrainian teacher (LCF), Yulia, at a cafe - which was fun because it turns out they're both from the same suburb - Boyarka! Making connections!
After some lovely crepes and tea, we caught a cab home, where I got to meet Yulia's 3-year-old daughter, Polina:
Here she is, literally dancing to "She's a Maniac"
It was great to have some borsht, talk to Yulia and her very nice husband Gabriel, see pictures from their trip to Israel, and give everyone some souvenirs:
In the morning, Gabriel was nice enough to drive me to the airport before he went to work. As I alluded to before, some trouble started there: my flight was delayed a total of three hours, bumping me to a later connecting flight, which was then
delayed four and a half hours. On the plus side, I finally had time to read one of the many books I brought and did not open the entire trip.
Of course I'm glad I made the trip, even though it was busy and at times overwhelming. That's what I get for knowing too many nice people who want to spend time with me! I've still never tried holodets
or any of the other foods I used to avoid; I decided to skip being adventurous after the Maslenitsa debacle. Maybe next time I won't
plan my trip around one or more national holidays ... but of course it was lovely to have my birthday augmented by Women's Day once more. And maybe next time I'll go when it's warm
outside! That 50 degree weather I was promised did not really come - in fact, it was snow that caused all my flight delays on the way home.
Bratslav was a little different, but they thought I was different too! I was told repeatedly that I look younger that I used to - I can only assume they were influenced by my now wearing contacts (which I couldn't in Peace Corps), and losing some of the Peace Corps weight gain. But it's a nice thing to be told when you're rounding the corner to 30!
I left a glove somewhere on the streets of Bratslav, and my scarf at Yulia's house - they said that means I will come back. So I'll let you know, and I'm sure I'll fire up the blog once again when I do.