Thursday, January 04, 2007

Sort of settling (kinda maybe)

Hello again! Maybe I should think of a more creative way to start these entries. Not too much has been happening, because at holiday season it really does seem like everything shuts down. At least it’s not as freezing cold as we were warned that it would be – although who knows what it will be like later on and in February, I may need my ice grips after all. So, because very little has been happening, I thought I’d take this opportunity to tell you some of the theories I’ve come up with to try to explain what being in Ukraine is like . . .

During training, when we first started visiting the local school, and observing classes, and generally being the center of attention whenever we walked through the door, I tried to think about what the equivalent of the situation could be in America – what could cause a similar fuss. I thought of how often I had had native speakers of other languages around in school – but I took Spanish. The closest situation I could think of was if there were suddenly native French speakers wandering around school, since most of the French teachers I knew weren’t natives . . . . not quite the same, but the closest thing I could think of. So every time we walked into school and had every single child who walked by us say “Good Morning!,” and all of the teachers in the teachers’ lounge watched us, and occasionally tried to speak with us, I imagined a parallel universe in which young visitors from France, training to be teachers, were wandering through my high school. Unfortunately, being from America doesn’t really imply the same sophistication as hip, bored girls from France might, but it helped me to understand things just a little more. I imagined eager French students insisting on saying “Bonjour!” every time they saw them (they roll their eyes), and teachers whispering about them in the teachers lounge (they avoid conversation, and go take a cigarette break). Again, not quite the same, but sort of close.

Another theory I thought of, after living with my host family in Rokytne for about two and a half months: as an American visitor in Ukraine, it’s like every day is your birthday, but you’re celebrating with people who’ve never met you and know next to nothing about you. No one quite knows what to do, but they certainly want you to have a good time, and no one wants to put you out. So, you may find yourself in a small, five-passenger sedan in which seven, mostly not-average sized people need to fit – and even though you might be a better choice, size-wise, in terms of being a stackable person, no one would ever think of asking you to surrender or share your seat. You, meanwhile, have no idea what’s going on, where you’re going, or what’s going through these people’s minds, but you know that they’re trying to make sure you’re comfortable.

Every time anyone from home asks me when something will happen, or why something is happening, I try to explain that I never know what’s going on. I’m mostly serious. Sometimes people forget to tell me what’s going on, or they try, but it’s in surzhick and I have no idea what they’re saying. Even when it’s in English, it’s kind of a crapshoot. Last week, we went to Nimerov (no idea how to spell it, it’s the district capitol) to grade Olympiad work after school, and around 6 pm when we were finally leaving, my coordinator and another teacher and I realized that all of the doors of the school we were in were locked. As we went from door to door (past really pretty murals that a lot of schools in this country are covered in, of Ukrainian nature and various cultural scenes), and I kept pulling out my little Maglight flashlight (on every suggested packing list) to show the way, my coordinator said that if we couldn’t find an unlocked door, we would stay there for the night. I said, “Oh!” in an ironic little voice . . . and then a moment later I realized that I didn’t know for sure that she was kidding. You would think that tone of voice would be enough, and that a joke would translate in any language, but it really doesn’t. At least not enough for me, when I’m walking through a dark Ukrainian school at night with apparently no way out. I was thinking about how completely confused I was all of the time, and how I might be spending the night in a classroom, when my coordinator mentioned that she was making a joke. It sounds silly, but you really never know. (Eventually were given a key.)

But I don’t think I’m the only one here who doesn’t know what’s going on. I find it totally bizarre to be the only person in the room who understands the words of the song in the music video on TV, or the song that plays on one of my host family member’s high-tech cell phones every time it rings. (Every day confirms more that Ukraine is satellite TVs, fancy cell phones – but outdoor plumbing and generally unpaved roads.) It doesn’t seem to bother anyone else here very much, and most of the time you would think they could get the general idea from the action in the music video (that their 10-year-old is watching passively . . . no matter what the song is about, or what language it’s in, it seems that every video is about being mostly naked in a club. Or doing other things in a club. And the song is really about reaching your potential, or love or something). Occasionally they ask me if I understand, and are sufficiently impressed that I speak the same language as the singer (unless the singer is Non-British-European and just singing in English because), and never really ask me for a translation. Roman, my host brother, asked once what “Cent” means . . . I explained, but 50 Kopiyuk doesn’t quite sound the same. There’s also English all over clothing, advertisements, etc., etc. My host brother in Rokytne, Slavick, used to wear a shirt that said “Danger!,” and he and his mom laughed really hard when I translated it. Other than that, it doesn’t seem to bother anyone.

So, in terms of Bratslav news, it’s mostly been Olympiad grading and New Year’s celebration. As I said, I spend Christmas Eve in Nimerov watching students take multiple choice and true/false tests, writing essays, and attempting to speak and answer questions in English. Even though they have to pick a random number (from little slips of overturned paper), which corresponds to a subject, for the oral part – it seems like everyone who does well has memorized a statement beforehand. In fact, I had edited one of the oral reports during my site visit here, not realizing it was to be memorized and spoken later. So, I’m pretty sure. Anyhow, last week we went to Nimerov several times to grade the written sections of the exam, the questions and essay topics for which are sent to every district from some sort of central authority. However, they do not send the answer key. So, that was basically my job – to take the tests for each level and then, occasionally, to try to explain to the Ukrainian English teachers why I had gotten a certain answer, and which questions were “tricks.” I’m used to multiple choice, standardized tests, and I’m used to trick questions and answers, but it was still definitely strange to determine how many points a bunch of students, who probably didn’t understand the texts very well, got. I tried to ask why the central-type place didn’t just send the answer key, since whatever various sources they got the texts and questions from would clearly have keys, and my coordinator was saying, oh, they don’t care about making us do work, they don’t want to work themselves. I tried to explain that it wouldn’t even require any work – just sending the already-figured-out key, and when I finally used the word “logical,” she smiled and seemed to understand where I had gotten confused.

The school had New Year’s parties on Thursday, one for younger kids and one for older. I went to watch the party for younger kids – it was in the gym with a 20-ft “New Year’s tree” that it had been my coordinator’s homeroom’s job to decorate. There were a few teachers dressed up as Santa (ok not really, Father Frost, or “Did Moroz”), Father Frost’s pigtailed granddaughter, and a witch. American music was blasting (“I like to move it, move it,” if anyone cares), and all of the kids were dressed up too – it seems that New Year’s here was not only the Soviet replacement for Christmas, but for Halloween and maybe nine other holidays – it’s a big deal. Most of the girls were dressed as princesses, with huge dresses, and curled, crimped and glittery hair, but there were also kids dressed as witches, Santas (again, I know, not really), a Zorro, an Indian, etc. There were various competitions, relay races etc., and then they had a slow-dance marathon which started with one little couple dancing, and then whenever the music stopped, they had to run and pick new partners from the circle of children around them. It was really cute to see the cowboys grab a princess and the princesses grab Zorro, and by the end about everyone was dancing (I was pleased to see that Roman made an effort, and didn’t dance with one hand in his pocket like some boys). Afterwards, there was another bizarre Olympiad moment, when I was helping my coordinator record semester grades in the register (a really huge deal here – you are not allowed to make mistakes in the register. It will be totally rewritten if you so much as cross something out, from what I understand. PC Volunteers are encouraged to never touch it – I was just reading things out loud. Similarly, if an answer is crossed out on the Olympiad, it doesn’t count). An overzealous student came to ask if the Olympiad results were in, and upon hearing that they weren’t, she announced breathlessly that she still remembered her multiple choice answers – they were C, D, B, D . . . on and on. I couldn’t help just staring.

New Year’s Eve was also an experience (how could it not be?) – we went to my coordinator’s house for a big meal at 11 pm. We lit sparklers at midnight, and had champagne (on top of the wine . . .), and there were many toasts, including a toast to my parents for raising me well, and a toast from my host dad about how he sees me as a child and has doubts about whether I can live on my own. So. They turned on VH1 to show me English-speaking TV (satellite strikes again), so I got to watch that reality show about the Playboy mansion bunnies for a while. They were in Vegas. Not sure if I mentioned the Dancing with the Stars remake they had here – but I loved the couple that ended up winning (can’t understand a word the “star” says, but he’s hilarious – Volodymer Zelensky . . . apparently has a cooking show), and they and some other couples danced on TV, and various Ukrainian celebrities danced and sang and toasted. A few times, my host parents and my coordinator and her husband turned off the lights and had a dance party (Roman had gone to bed). There were only six of us, including Roman, and yet we didn’t get back home until quarter to 6 . . . it was intense.

Besides that, I’ve helped my host family make pizza a few times (unfortunately “not the season” for tomato sauce . . . but still good). I’ve spent several days just reading and writing letters – I’m afraid they might think I’m insane . . . but it’s a choice between that and watching the music videos and various movies dubbed in Russian, which I occasionally try to do. By the way, read Barack Obama’s book in about a day and a half – he visited Ukraine!! The cat has decided that she likes me – and will now sleep on my lap or sprawled across my chest, very cute (actually is on my lap now). The two of us watched BBC World yesterday, and learned about how Kyiv real estate prices are so high (up to 10 million for some apartments, or something ridiculous, I think it said), that barely anyone can afford to live there anymore, especially considering how the rest of the country’s economic situation is very very different. Also watched some of Gerald Ford’s funeral.

Well that’s about it. But I thought I’d include a bit about how sometimes pretending to understand what’s going on around me pays off – and I realize what the conversation I’ve been having is about, or at least that the others actually understood what I was trying to say. In Spanish, I would often just add “o” or something similar to an English word to make it work. You can sort of do that in Ukrainian too!! Despite the alphabet’s difference, and the grammatical differences (7 cases, I think), it works. Often I’ll be explaining something with a lot of little words, and then I’ll hear them use one word that I already knew – because it’s almost the same in English. These words tend to be kind of SAT words, or words that no one uses anymore in America, but it’s better than nothing. So here are some words you may already know in Ukrainian (more or less): diaspora, cravat, aperitif, divan, and charlatan. There are other easier words, like djeanz-eh, and chips-eh (basically Canadian). So that’s your lesson in Ukrainian for today.

Hope you’re all doing well! Check facebook for update in my address (am the first person to ask for a P.O. Box here), and keep in touch!!

Love, Virginia

P.S. Yeah, apparently no need for P.O. Box - just my name, Bratslav, and the rest. Literally just my name and the city information. I'm kind of floored.

P.P.S. Here are some pictures, uploaded veeeery slowly on this computer

(in methodology center), from last entry:


At January 06, 2007 10:57 AM, Blogger Patrick said...

Hey I am from Arlington in Group 29 down in Zhmerynka Vinnitsya Oblast did you go to William and Mary? Patrick

At January 08, 2007 1:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

lol i read your blog today at work because uh, we're having a slow day, I miss you!! I'll send you more letters en cualquier idioma que quieres as soon as i figure out your address...i think i'll just ask gigi... :)


At January 16, 2007 3:56 AM, Blogger Virginia said...

This is Patrick who I'm about to mention in my next blog - the world is so small! Or something.

Kristina!! Look at my facebook for my address you nut


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