Saturday, November 25, 2006

Happy Late Thanksgiving!!!

Hello everyone!!! It’s been two weeks, but so much has happened that it’s hard to remember everything. And then I remembered that there were a few things I didn’t get to update about before I left for Prolisok and my site visit . . so I’ve decided to take a few items from my journal of funny things that happened to be before the site visit, and then I’ll do my best to describe the last week or so and my visit to where I’ll live for the next two years – take your time! This will be a long post!

At school in Rokytne one day, while sitting in the teacher’s lounge after teaching, a non-English teacher came and sat down across from me and said, Do you have time for me? And I said, of course – and it turned out she wanted to practice speaking English with me and ask me questions about my family and Virginia, which was the cutest thing ever. I told her a little about Virginia and the nature, and my family, and she asked to see pictures. She had a very nice accent, and she was funny and enthusiastic about things like the difference between “go after husband” (literal translation of Ukrainian) and “are you married.” I was afraid our schedules the next day wouldn’t overlap, but a day later in the lounge the teacher, Svetlana, was like Virginia! can I see the pictures? So I went through as many as I could, and she was very excited and really liked looking at the pictures of different sights around America (Virginia mountains, North Carolina, New York City, California, the Grand Canyon, Mt. Rushmore), and although I tried to pick out the pictures that would be interesting (i.e., not just pictures of my smiling friends she didn’t know), soon a crowd of teachers gathered around and started looking at all of them. They were all interested to hear about how my grandma is 93 (doesn’t look it), and my dogs, and pictures of the Belarussian girls my family hosted during a few summers when I was in middle school. When he saw my pictures of the California coast, a science teacher sang “Welcome to the Hotel California! such a lovely place . .,” and Svetlana really loved a Halloween picture I had of Charles and Louisa with an afro wig. So that was really fun, and I hope to talk to her more.

That Sunday morning I decided to go to the Orthodox church in Rokytne to see what a service was like. It had snowed the night before, so it was an experience just getting across town to see it. When I got there, I was instructed to use a broom to brush the snow off my boots before coming in, and while by the door I saw a bride and groom. Ignoring this, I went inside and a babysya told me that it was alright to sit by her on one of the few benches on the side. It was beautiful, with colorful paintings everywhere, a gold chandelier, a carved wooden iconostas (wall separating the back apse of the church, behind which only priests are allowed), and my memory of art history in high school helped me recognize the Gospel writers with their attributes on the wall (though I could have just read their names on the wall too, still), and there were other Biblical scenes. Soon it became clear that I was about to witness my sixth wedding, despite not knowing anyone involved – the wedding party entered and the priest began chanting – he would chant and the choir in the balcony would respond in song, with this really haunting sort of sound, like a cry (not good at describing it). The service eventually moved forward to where I could see it, and where (I’m fairly sure) I was captured in several pictures and videos taken of the ceremony. Oh well. The couple’s witnesses had to hold crowns above the couple’s heads during the ceremony so that they could bow and kiss the icons and holy books at various intervals (yeah, ok, I had no idea what was going on), and the bride’s witness (basically bridesmaid) got tired holding the crown up, so a man came up behind her and supported her arm, which was cute. At one point, the couple’s wrists were tied together and they followed the priest around the altar three times, with the witnesses following with crowns. After the hour-ceremony was over, and the wedding party had left to visit various photogenic/historical sites in the town to take lots of pictures in front of (there are some pictures from a previous entry about Kyiv in which you can see several brides), it was time for the main event, a two hour service. Standing. So it was very pretty, and interesting . . . and tiring. One interesting thing was that I sort of understood some of the chants – because of a hymn that the Women’s Chorus at W&M sang last year in Russian! It turns out to be very antiquated Russian, but almost every verse was used in the chants in the service. So that was exciting, and at one point a babysya walked around handing everyone

(including me) chocolates and a little cake, which was a nice perk. The babysyas seemed to do everything, putting out rugs, rolling up rugs, taking up the collection, extinguishing candles when they were low, all on a volunteer basis helping the priests. All very interesting, but was definitely ready to go home after three hours.

A brief story about teaching – among the many and varied texts in the Plakhotnyk English textbooks here was page-long adaptation of King Lear for the 8th form (grade). I taught this class with Jasmin, and we found that King Lear just doesn’t really lend itself to that kind of summary – I never read it, but I saw it once, and I swear that everything made a lot more sense in the original than the sort of “King Lear was sad and the Fool tried to help but he could only sing and tell jokes . . . and then everyone died” version that we were dealing with. So I drew each of the characters on computer paper and, while Jasmin read the text to the class, I moved the characters from various spots on the board to try to help make clear what was happening: they moved from spots denoting places like “King Lear’s castle,” to Goneril or Regan’s castles (they looked very evil and mean), to “France,” and then eventually everyone but the Fool was in the “Dead” area of the board. Not sure if this helped, but we tried – just an example of the amount of drawing we do as teachers here, and the weird things we have to explain . . .
(Was Norman Rockwell Ukrainian? This was taken out of the Rokytne school window)

Ok, on to my recent experiences. I’m afraid I sound out of it – so much has been happening, and we’ve just had two an a half days of meetings at seminars about teaching, secondary projects, mental health, AIDS education, etc. etc. for PST (Pre-Service Training) University. But the more interesting part of this trip has been discovering where we’ll live for the next two years, and visiting for five days!

I will be living in Bratslav, a small town (of 2,300 people) in Vinnystka oblast, in central Ukraine, southwest of Kyiv. It’s fairly near Moldova, I think, and it’s about halfway between Kyiv and Odessa (it would appear). It was a six hour bus-ride down (it might be less if I split the trip up into a minibus (marshrutka) from Bratslav to Vinnytsya (the oblast capitol), and then a train to Kyiv, but we shall see), which I didn’t quite expect, and since I was too nervous to be the only passenger on the bus with the light on, I sat in the dark and listened to my iPod the whole time. This particular day of traveling was also my first experience with what I will call toilets of a Mediterranean origin. It’s pure luck that it’s taken this long, but my school has them (outside), so I’ll be acclimated in no time I’m sure.

I got there and was met by my coordinator, Lyudmila, an English teacher at the school I will teach at, her husband, and my host parents, Yuri and Svetlana. They were very nice, and worried about my reaction to the mud from the recent rain, and wanted to know if I was from a big city – and I assured them I wasn’t (well, not really). Lyudmila speaks really great English, with a very nice accent, so that’s really great – and she gave me a little tour of my host family’s house and told me about how her daughter in high school is studying abroad for a year in Mississippi!! So she had wanted a young, female volunteer to take care of, in return for Americans she doesn’t know taking care of her daughter, to give something back . . so basically I’m her surrogate daughter. My host family has a 10-year-old son, Roman, who is in the 5th form, and who was prompted by Lyudmila to say that it is interesting to learn English because he can sing English songs (more on this theme later). My family was extremely nervous about communication – I’m the first volunteer in Bratslav, although Lyudmila and her students have had some experience working with a couple former volunteers in the nearby town of Nemirov, and probably the second American my family had ever met (a volunteer from Vinnytsya who came to interview them was the first, I think). I think they stayed up til 1 am that night talking about me (I got in at 10), they were that keyed up, but they were extremely relieved to find that I was able to speak some Ukrainian to them, so much so that they often spoke at normal speak back to me, which me with mixed success.

My host family is extremely sweet, and they have a fairly new house that they built, with heating and plumbing etc! Svetlana is a math teacher at the school I’ll be working at (there are two, the 1st, a bigger school, and the 2nd, where I’ll be working, plus a kindergarten and a “boarding school”/orphanage), and Yuri works for an electricity company in Nemirov. They have a cat, Lizzie (who I found sleeping on my bed, and got a picture), and a big puppy German shepherd who lives outside. He’s very gentle, and one day I got back from school with them and he jumped up with his paws on my shoulders! Lyudmila and Svetlana were like, NO! but I didn’t mind, and he wasn’t heavy, and they were totally shocked that I wasn’t scared or angry. I said that he was gorgeous (very pretty dog, seems like a purebred), which Lyudmila thought was hilarious, and so she addressed him as Gorgeous for the rest of my visit (or “Gentleman” after I said that he was gentle). My perceived obsession with dogs was not helped by the number of pictures I have of my dogs at home, or my explanation that yes, these dogs live inside (and sit on the couch and the bed, and basically have the same rights as children). They all really liked seeing all of my pictures, and I was able to explain a lot of stories to my family in Ukrainian, which was exciting (like about the Belarussian visitors we had, or why I cut off my hair this summer). Later, I would tell the same story to Lyudmila, and she would turn to translate to Svetlana, who would say, yeah yeah, I know, Virginia told us . . which was funny. Lyudmila is excited to have another English speaker to talk with, and we talked about most everything under the sun, it seems, but it was also nice to be able to practice Ukrainian.

Lyudmila is the only English teacher at the school for the 5th through 11th forms, and another woman who I only got to speak to briefly teaches the younger grades. She is a really great teacher – and has won an award from the American council for English teaching – and her lessons are like a well-oiled machine. Kids in every form always know the topic of the lesson, and know when to stand up and sing Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes etc (Do you like to sing English songs? Yes, I do, I like to sing English songs). She’s extremely organized and passionate about her work, which is a much more American mentality about work, but which I can of course understand and appreciate. She had schedules for me for each day, and sheets to record my observations, etc., all printed in colorful fonts. About computers – there are computers at the school, and Lyudmila has internet (works best at night, because of a nearby agricultural plant) at home, but my best bet for regular internet use, until further notice and the possible development of such schemes as my own apartment or cell-phone internet, will be traveling to Nimerov, where I can use the internet for free at the methodological center. I observed almost three days of classes: many English classes, and also Ukrainian, gym (hardcore – they had to climb a rope and jump a pummel horse (is that the right word?)), physics, and algebra. The physics teacher was able to show experiments that they didn’t have the materials to conduct through a computer program he bought, produced by but not provided by the Ukrainian government, which was very nice. The teachers buy a lot of things, or ask the parents to buy things, to supplement the school’s resources – which is why they have computers, various software programs, and several alternatives to the Plakhotnyk English textbooks.

On Thursday, at the end of the day, I had a question and answer session with interested students about myself and America. The classroom was full, and before I began answering questions I was treated to various class’s choreographed performances of the Hokey Pokey (performed along with a tape of a man and a woman with accents so British is was like Julie Andrews on speed), a song about playing the big bass drum, and the “I’d like to build the world a home, and furnish it with love” song that was a Coke ad too. It was all pretty priceless (especially the v. specific, careful (Soviet) “shake it all about” motions in the Hokey Pokey), and very cute, and they really love the singing and dancing and don’t seem embarrassed by it. I was then introduced as Virginia Robertovna – that’s right, I have a patronymic, it was sort of an accident (I’ve been Miss Virginia in Rokytne), but a teacher asked me my dad’s first name and it just sort of caught on. Feels authentic, might just stick with it (they address their teachers by patronymic here). I answered questions about my family, what I studied, and what I like to do, and it was pretty successful.

Oh my, I’m writing so much, I’ll try to cut it off soon . . . read this on your time off for Thanksgiving. By the way, HAPPY THANKSGIVING!!!! We’re going to try to have a celebration when we get back to Rokytne with Yulia, although the menu remains to be seen. So anyway – I also got to teach three classes: we had prepared vague lessons based on nothing in particular because we weren’t sure which grades or topics we’d be asked to teach, or even what kind of school we’d be at (I’m at a normal secondary school, not a “magnet” or gymnasium type). So I prepared a lesson about poetry and rhyming words with a few simple poems that might work for various grades, and though I had to teach two normal fifth form grades, for the seventh form I was able to teach my poetry lesson! I ended up teaching them e e cummings, “maggie and millie and molly and may” (not sure actually of the title), which I would have thought would only work for 11th form – but Lyudmila’s students are, on the whole, quite advanced compared to what I’m used to (and definitely benefit from her good accent – even though Roman doesn’t always know what he’s saying, he says it very nicely). It was really fun and Lyudmila loved it – I tied it into the theme of hobbies by saying that writing and reading poetry is a hobby, and poetry can be about other hobbies like playing at the beach. They were able to read lines out loud, get the general gist (with lots of explanation and pantomiming), and find the words that rhymed, so it was all very fun. I was really relieved at Lyudmila’s enthusiastic response to my teaching, since she’s such a good teacher and obviously has so much more experience, but she was really receptive to the differences in attitude or approach that I brought (for instance, a lot of times half of the students in classes in this country will be very active (waving hands in the air and asking frantically “May I?!?”), and half will do nothing and understand little – so I tried to make sure everyone was involved, etc., more American style). So that was all really nice, and made me feel reassured about the next two years, somewhat.

Lyudmila, her husband, and my host family had a little goodbye dinner for me, which was really fun, and they each gave me a dog-themed gift (a Snoopy keychain from Lyudmila, and a little dog figurine holding a Welcome sign in its mouth from my host family, very very cute). I got sooo many questions about America (especially Mississippi, where I’ve never been, but I did my best), and I answered in mixed English and Ukrainian as best I could. Later that night, I got to watch the Ukrainian version of Dancing with the Stars (there’s also a Russian Skating with the Stars) and my family was so excited when I knew the premise, and it was fun – I definitely have a pair I’m rooting for (two pairs left . . .). The next morning they got me on the bus (7 and a half hours this time . . . oh well, it could easily have been an overnight train ride like most sites, so I shouldn’t complain), and I came here to PST University.

So that’s it. Sorry it was so long, but I had so much I wanted to tell you all!! I think of you often, tell stories about you when I show off your pictures, and am continuing to try to get letters out. Happy Thanksgiving, I hope you have a wonderful holiday, continue to take care of America while I’m absent, and keep in touch!!!

Love, Virginia

P.S. Ok, I wrote this entry several days ago, if you couldn’t tell, and Thanksgiving has now come and gone. But it was indeed another adventure, so I will try to quickly tell about it, also as an excuse to put pictures of it here. I was determined to have a Thanksgiving dinner, so we enlisted our LCF Yulia to buy us a turkey and I started looking through the (amazing) PC cookbook for recipes. I decided on glazed carrots, mashed potatoes (seem to not have sweet potatoes or yams here), Thanksgiving stuffing and pumpkin pie. Sounds ambitious, but we were (generally) up to the task. We had a late lunch (it was a day off, thank goodness) and went to the bazaar, where the woman who knows us gave us almost all of the things we needed (also reading off of my list of Ukrainian translations of ingredients to speed things up) – but couldn’t tell us where to find mashed pumpkin (even though I’ve been served it here), or carrots or potatoes. I had started off thinking that pumpkin might be a problem, and I worried about chicken broth for the stuffing (turned out it’s everywhere, in cubes) – but carrots and potatoes??? We ended up giving up on the pumpkin and switching to apple, but still couldn’t find carrots and potatoes, so we asked Yulia (who could not find a turkey, even though Jasmin’s family has them in her backyard, because apparently they are only home grown in Ukraine and they laughed at her in the store), who said she’d bring a half kilo of each. We started cooking in Katie’s kitchen, and although we had to make a few extra shopping trips (after having gone to just about every “mahazen” in town, including the bazaar – I do really miss one-stop shopping, and couldn’t help remembering the joy of overloading a cart at Target or Food Lion in Williamsburg), we had enormous success. That cookbook is amazing!!! The stuffing was great, we put extra spices and even though we had to stale-ify the bread ourselves (in the oven), it was perfect. I have never made a pie by myself before, but the apple pie turned out amazing. I credit the cookbook almost entirely – even without being able to measure things, or even know what degree the oven is set at, everything was perfect. We made the carrots and potatoes at Yulia’s that night, and heated up the roasted chicken (which I insisted on referring to as a turkey), and bought ice cream for the apple pie. It was a lot of work, but very fun and some reeeally good food. That cookbook is never leaving my side for the rest of my life. Ok, goodbye for serious, love you guys!

P.P.S. Ok, this is annoying, but it's only letting me post so many pictures, and then it stops working . . I've switched computers twice. I will try a little more, but then may give up til next week (if I have internet then) - check again then!!


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