Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

So, it’s been a while, as I thought it would be, and I have a lot to say, as I always do. But don’t worry, I’ve made notes, and won’t forget anything. Right now (well, not as I put this online, but as I type it beforehand), I’m in my bedroom in my host family’s house in Bratslav. It is Christmas Day, and I’ve strung up the little string of lights that Kimmy sent me across the window (more on the presents I’ve been spoiled with later), and the cat is sleeping on my bed. I think it likes me, or at least tolerates me. Svetlana, my host mom, is preparing for her birthday dinner, and little host brother Roman is probably watching Japanimation dubbed in Russian. More on all that later.

So, way back when, when we still lived in Rokytne, we planned to have a dinner of American food for our host families and our neighbor, Lyuda. We began shopping in Kyiv, which was a little intense – it was nice to see a real grocery store where you can pick things up instead of asking for them in broken Ukrainian, but I also felt kind of like a four-year-old who’s been separated from whoever was supposed to be watching them in the store, v. overwhelmed. We also bought bags for all of the extra stuff we’ve acquired during training, ugh.

The next day, cooking went well, and I became the manic overseer telling people to chop and peel vegetables and figure out why a cup of beer was necessary for chili, etc. Our menu, again, was American chili, macaroni and cheese, corn pudding (which only Yulia and I had ever had before!! Where has everyone been?), cole slaw, potato salad, an apple pie to give to Lyuda, and brownies for us. We were going through matches like maniacs (you light both the stove and the oven), and tearing the kitchen apart for extra pots and dishes, especially for the massive amount of chili. We took a brief break to go by the school and give official certificates of thanks to our teachers, from the Peace Corps. Halina, one of the teachers, told us a really funny story about what had happened when she tried out an idea she had seen us use in one of our classes – I was co-teaching an adapted text from Jane Eyre with Jasmin, in which Jane tells off her aunt (? I’ve never read it), and I had the idea of asking the students to write what they would say to Mrs. Whoever if they were Jane. It was fairly successful, even the students who barely speak any English were able to write, at least phonetically, something along the lines of “I hate you.” Halina thought she’d try it with the same lesson later, and she had a student who had somehow gotten ahold of a book of English curse words/phrases. He responded with, “Mrs. [Jane-Eyre’s-aunt], you are a bitch, you are a witch, kiss my ass and my –” and then Halina was laughing too hard and left the rest to our imagination. She thinks curse words would be a good way to start students out in English.

The dinner turned out well, we had enough time and dishes to make everything, and Yulia made a paper table cloth with pictures and various Ukrainian words. I played my Christmas music (of which I have over 9 hours . . . yeah), and we tentatively served our guests. I gave everyone a little chili, which we think was too spicy for them, except apparently Jasmin’s h. mom was raving about it later. I thought it was great, though we did make it a little spicy (and I didn’t notice the beer). The salads are similar to those they have here, and the corn pudding and macaroni were more enthusiastically received. Yulia decided to play a tape that we had recorded about a week into Ukrainian lessons, on which we described our host families in really broken Ukrainian. There was Luke’s, which was a little sad (he solved the problem of not knowing many connecting phrases by saying “Who is it? Ah . . . it’s my tato/mama/brat etc,” a little like the “Welcome to the . . . how do you say? Ah, yes. Show.”), and I still couldn’t understand most of Katie and Jasmin’s, since they had a lot of phrases we never ended up using (“I . . . like . . . classical . . . . . . music”). I had managed to do mine in mostly complete sentences, and used only words I already knew a little, so mine was going a little faster and everyone was listening attentively until the part when, after talking about my family members and great-grandmother etc., I announced “Also, they have vinicky” – whatever it is they use to make brooms – and everyone burst out laughing, and Yulia had to rewind for us to catch the end.

My cooking must have done some good (even though I was recruited to bring home the rest of the chili and was, as far as I could tell, the only one who ate any of it later), because after about two and a half months of asking about twice a day if there was anything I could do to help, whenever I saw Vera in the kitchen, she finally gave me a job (besides putting away the sugar, or laying out silverware) – to chop ham for a salad. So that was exciting. I spent the last weekend packing everything into three big, heavy bags (one new from Kyiv), and several smaller ones. I gave out presents to my family, including the scarf (and the beach ball I gave to the older brother, who’s generally fairly reserved, was a big hit), and they gave me a clay vase with a Ukrainian cottage and a broom (vinicky, ha ha) on it. Last Monday, we got onto the bus for Prolisok and joined the rest of Group 31 for the end of training and Swearing In.

It was nice to see everyone, I think people have finally gotten to know each other a little more (no longer so much like the first frantic weeks of freshman year), and we were united in our fear of the next two years. We had a talent show the second night, and the Rokytne cluster had an act prepared – the three of us sang, and danced, to a parody of “Something to Talk About” that I made up, based on how just about anything a woman does in Ukraine can be taken as a proposition / sign of being a prostitute, or so we’re told. The only word we could think of to replace “love” was “borshch” – which we explained with the story of how Luke once turned to Jasmin and said “I borshch you,” and it became a sort of catch-word for us. Here, if anyone cares, are the lyrics:

People are talking, saying “good morning!”

We hear them whisper, mostly in surzhick!

They think we’re women of looser morals

We just ignore it, but they keep saying

We laugh just a little too loud

We stare just a little too long

We shake our keys a little too brazenly

Maybe they’re seeing

something we don’t, darlin’!

Let’s give them something to talk about . . .

How about borshch??

We feel so foolish in this position

Each time we smile it’s like a proposition

About this culture we have been learnin’

Now we’re convinced there’s no returnin’

We can’t be alone in cafes

Must not go to bars every night

Something we know will

Prompt a proposal, darlin’!

Let’s give them something to talk about . . .

How about borshch! . . etc.

I have continued to be spoiled receiving mail and packages, and the only explanation that I can think of for this is that I have better friends and family than everyone else. Which is fine with me, though too bad for the rest. Thank you to the Carters for their very thoughtful gift! I got a delightful letter in Spanish from Kristen, covered in highlighter illustrations, which confirmed to me that part of the reason I get mail is that my friends have boring jobs. Gigi sent me an adorable Christmas package, but it unfortunately brought to light a failing in the Ukrainian mail system – several things are illegal and will be removed from packages, especially when declared on the outside slip, and not hidden or wrapped in something. So just so you know, these things apparently include passports, money, food and jewelry. I didn’t know until last week, and I know that other volunteers have successfully received some of these things, but just so you know!!! So, I’m very sorry, Gigi, but I very much appreciate the thought.

Our coordinators came on Wednesday, and we met with our (Ukrainian) Regional Manager, who yelled out “That’s my favorite place in the world!” when I said I was from Alexandria, VA! She’s apparently been there on vacation, so I was a little proud. On Thursday we all got dressed up and went to Kyiv to be sworn in as official Volunteers. We heard from the U.S. Ambassador, who reported on Yanukovych’s trip to visit D.C., where he apparently bonded with Cheney over their love of hunting (seriously). That afternoon we stood up and vowed to uphold the Constitution, etc., and then our names, home states, and destinations were called out one by one – everyone laughed politely at the fact that I’m Virginia from Virginia (even Ukrainians).

I was a little traumatized when I realized that the next time Group 31 will be gathered together will be our Close-of-Service get-together, but I tried to get everyone’s numbers, etc., and we’ll hopefully see each other once we figure out how this country works (should happen sooner or later). We said goodbye, and I got on the bus to Bratslav with seven bags – three big, three small, and a massive “babushka bag” from the PC with a space heater, a fire extinguisher and a carbon monoxide detector.

The next morning I awoke to two more packages! The spoiling continues, this time by wonderful Jeff and Kimmy. I don’t have to announce people’s names on my blog every time I hear from them, but it’s a little exciting. My host family continues to be sweet, the father asked when I was going to America with him (this had to be translated, but still funny). I unfortunately had to spend the next day, Christmas Eve, watching the English Olympiad competition in the district capitol. I was getting depressed about being away for Christmas, which for some reason I didn’t really think I would be (this from someone who has more than 9 hours of Christmas music). It’s stranger than I thought it would be though – the 25th is a total non-event here, it might as well be a Muslim country for the moment. The majority of Ukrainians are Orthodox, and even that Christmas pales in comparison to New Year’s, which is like every single holiday in one. All this, plus being in a new place without the other sympathetic Americans, was wearing on me – and then I stupidly stood up to get off the bus from the capitol, and lost my hat off my lap. So, I was in kind of a bad mood, but got some perspective from a call from home (“Virginia Learns Perspective: A Christmas Special”). I heard about Mr. Marvin’s accident (a very dear teacher from high school), and after that I was pretty much unfit for polite society. Another call from home today gave me more details, and I understand that he is expected to recover, which made me feel about a thousand times better (hope he does too!). I thought I didn’t like being away from home when everyone is happy and celebrating – it turns out I’m much more afraid of being away when they’re unhappy or something’s wrong. I’m sure you can imagine what the thought of anything happening to you all while I’m this far away is like. So, be careful, etc., save the sky-diving and other hijinks for when I come home, I’m sure you can wait a little bit.

Last night I was able to go to a Catholic Christmas Eve service with my coordinator, which was very interesting. We got candles, and sang “Silent Night” in Ukrainian – I was able to sing all the hymns in Ukrainian, more or less, because they went slowly enough that I could usually figure out how to say the next syllable in time. The priest commented at the end of the service on how the children should be allowed to stay home from school the next day (this was translated for me), which Lyudmila, my coordinator, told me was not allowed. They interpret separation of church and state here by giving no one any religious holidays. However, my coordinator and the school let me have most of today off (I was helped by the fact that another volunteer very frankly told my coordinator, on the way back from Swearing In, that I would quit if I had to work on Christmas). I went into school briefly so that the director could sign some documents (we have learned about how Ukraine is what people call a “High-Power-Distance” society – I swear it’s like going in to see the Godfather), and I came home and unwrapped presents. Thank you to all of my family, grandma, aunts and uncle for the very nice gifts, very much worth lugging all the way here to Bratslav! Then I took a nap, and the world looked nicer after that.

Svetlana not only lets me help make salads here, but wash the dishes! It’s exciting, believe it or not. It started snowing – this has apparently not been a “Ukrainian winter” so far, it’s not cold enough and hasn’t snowed, but this may change. That pretty much brings us up to date. The cat is still sleeping on my bed. I have decided to more or less avoid watching cartoons with Roman, if possible, because for some reason Japanimation reeeeally bothers me. Some characters don’t have noses. I really can’t stand it. But I can help with food – and Svetlana wants to learn some American dishes!

There is a two week break until January 17th, during which I guess I will plan lessons or clubs, and try to figure out what I’m doing. I will also hopefully get to see other volunteers around min-January in our oblast capitol. Not sure when I’ll be able to post this, hopefully on one of my Olympiad trips to watch poor children try to describe their fictitious trip to London. Merry Christmas to everyone, and Happy New Year – miss you all, thank you for all of the communication (I even save e-mails), take care of yourselves!

Love, Virginia


At December 27, 2006 10:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Merry Christmas VA!
I love reading your blog :)

At January 04, 2007 3:57 AM, Blogger Virginia said...

Yay, Merry late Christmas to you too :)


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