Friday, March 16, 2007

Long, long post

[Yet another three-part post. This first part was written for last Thursday, March 8th, and the second part for March 10th . . . then I gave up trying to find a place with internet and USB ports for a while, and now here I am! As a result, this is long . . . really long . . . take your time.]

Part I

Hello! Much has changed since the last time I posted, and I could have updated you last week while in the midst of some of those changes, but my stress level was a little high then . . . and I decided that if you can’t say anything nice, and you’re a government employee, then you shouldn’t say anything at all.

One of the changes was my age – and thank you to everyone for your birthday messages!! More on that later . . .

Our oblast’s Volunteer "Meet & Greet" in the big city was fun, I got to learn more about what other Volunteers are doing, and I even got a hair dryer and a DVD from the Jacobs, who are on their way out. We had a very good shish-kebob lunch (called "shashlik" here – my translation to English greatly amused my ninth graders when we talked about it . . . I guess it’s a funny word), and I got more familiar with the city. Meanwhile, my school was quarantined – like many schools in Ukraine during the flu season, we closed, partially because of the number of students who were sick, and partially, I think, as a preventative measure against further spreading of the "epidemic." Apparently this happens every year – some schools even closed for three weeks. It’s either this, or they close due to extremely cold weather, and this winter has been fairly mild by local standards, so it was the flu instead. So, on Thursday, instead of teaching I got to see my apartment for the second time ever – now that I’ve been living in it for a little over a week, that day seems like forever ago . . .

It wasn’t quite as clean as I had hoped – pretty much all of the excess possessions of the owners were in the exact same positions as they had been a month before, and I discovered new things, like high up storage spaces filled with old clothes, newspapers, shoes, empty bottles, plastic knickknacks, etc., and in the kitchen cabinets there were exciting finds, such as a piece of fish (they way they eat and serve fish here – you know it’s fish) and some false teeth. Also, there was the crisis of the refrigerator, transported to the apartment in our school bus - it had been placed by the stairs to the door, unanchored and with no one nearby it, and when we stopped too suddenly, it tipped over. (Everyone was shocked.) When it didn’t work at first, there was a concern that we had broken it – but it turns out it was fine. I’m kind of glad things worked out, because I doubt we could have found another refrigerator as funny as this one: on the door, there is a massive advertisement for Yushenko – he is holding a little boy in his arms and smiling, and I think it says, "I believe with him we can. Yes! I believe in Ukraine" (his election slogan, was Yes! – "Tak!"). So I see his smiling face every day.

On Thursday and Friday we worked to clean the place, and moved the excess stuff out onto the porch, where, thank God, the owners picked it all up over the weekend. My coordinator and host mom were incredibly helpful, tackling the bathrooms (separate rooms for toilet and tub), while I carried loads of clothing and shoes back and forth. The school borrowed or gave me the following: a desk, a table, a bed, a wardrobe, a bookcase, a refrigerator, a two-burner stove top, and some chairs. The stove top will be replaced with one complete with an oven soon. I decided to replace the wallpaper in the bedroom because of a mold issue (the issue being that there’s mold), so that process is going on (looking more promising recently), and until then, I sleep in my sleeping bag in the living room.

I took a break from cleaning to go back to the city for the Olympiad – to watch students take a big, standardized English test. Unfortunately (ha), because I wasn’t one of the judges, I didn’t really have anything to do when I arrived, and wasn’t allowed to just watch. So, two other Volunteers and I spent the weekend relaxing in Vinnytsia, waiting for our judge friends to emerge from grading (and creating the answer keys, like I did for the regional level test). It was really nice to talk to Americans and do nothing for a little while, especially because of how anxious I was getting about the apartment, etc. We also got to meet the U.S. Ambassador for coffee! Really – he met us at a hotel, and we talked with him and some Ukrainians about the country’s situation, etc., so that was very interesting. Finally, before I left for home, I got a lot of great things like a mop and a wooden spoon etc., the first of my many apartment purchases . . .

Luckily (sort of), my school was quarantined for the next week as well (apparently there’s a law saying the minimum period is ten days), so I was able to focus on moving in and cleaning. Over the weekend and on Monday and Tuesday, it was as cold as it’s been all winter – very cold – and it was snowing on Tuesday when I officially moved in. I bought as many things, like food and plates, as I could, and then settled in to start cleaning. I meant to take "before" and "after" pictures, but I couldn’t hold myself back long enough – I started almost immediately. I’m happy to say that most of the major cleaning has been done – the cabinets are shining white and not sticky, all sorts of stains have been erased from the walls, the refrigerator, the sinks, and the tub, and most of the cobwebs are gone. The steel wool brush is my favorite tool, even though it shreds my fingernails (yes, I know, I should buy gloves) – and where steel wool can’t do the job, I don’t care to try anymore. My host mom and coordinator wallpapered over the bookcase, and a section of the living room wall that had been a different pattern of wallpaper (and tried to wallpaper over the mold but that’s a different story). I also got help from my neighbors – a really sweet couple who came to my rescue several times, explaining the knobs on the boiler, the eccentricities of the toilet, and saving me the first day, when the hot water started running in the sink and wouldn’t turn off (the knob’s grooves had worn down and I couldn’t switch it off – my neighbor ran over with tools and replaced it for the time being with a knob he just happened to have!). So I’ve gotten a lot of help, which is nice.

Despite the frustrating moments (turning the faucet knob frantically while water continues to pour out comes to mind), and the changes that have to be made (wallpaper, stove), I’m pretty lucky in my apartment. I have two rooms, a kitchen, and the bathrooms, with gas heat and hot water – more than many Volunteers get! And now that I’ve swept and mopped obsessively, I’m more relaxed and at home. When I was able to let the steel wool go, I got some reading done: finished Barack’s first book, it’s amazing, I highly recommend it – and when I was reading about his work as a community organizer in Chicago, something you wouldn’t expect to be very similar to life in a Ukrainian village, I realized that the process he describes – talking to anyone who will listen, listening to them, and basically waiting until you find a concrete problem to tackle – almost exactly describes our job description with regard to secondary projects, so that was interesting. Now I’m reading the latest Hannibal Lector book, largely set in Eastern Europe . . . but not very similar to my life.

I also had my first solo adventures with cooking since the two big meals I helped orchestrate during training. I treat the PC cookbook like holy writ, and have been trying anything I have the ingredients for (and fudging things for which I don’t). I’m temporarily limited to stove-top recipes, but I was able to make nice things like pancakes, "béchamel" sauce with cheese and onions, and even tried making gnocchi (mainly because it only has two ingredients), which turned out alright. But I haven’t been completely on my own – my very nice neighbors have brought over four meals in the last week, twice waking me up with a hot breakfast, which I decided is worth waking up for.

Also, I finally unpacked, so even though I’m sleeping on the floor I’m not technically living out of suitcases anymore, which is a good step, and I got ready to go back to school. I’m still figuring out the balance of cooking meals and having a work schedule – two mornings ago, I woke up and realized that the cold water was turned off, my milk gone, and my bread . . . bad. Then, while trying to poach an egg, I spilt egg-white, lit a napkin on fire and burnt my hand. So . . . I’m learning, and anyway, I’ve been able to get to school on time (twenty-five minute walk, good to combat my recent all-potato diet).

An exciting headline in Bratslav news is the new grocery store that opened on Tuesday – it has shopping carts, shopping baskets, aisles and cash registers!! I’m serious!!! Ok, maybe you’re not in open-mouthed shock, but you really ought to be. Other Volunteers I’ve told are so jealous – it’s rare, even in cities, to have a store where you can touch things and pick them up yourself. When I saw the set up through the window last week, I almost passed out. Luckily, it’s right down the street from me (I may be far from the school, but I’m right between "Ukrainian Walmart" and the post office, which is fine by me). I showed up on opening day at three, not realizing that that was when the doors were to open, so I was a part of the first crowd of people inside. There were assistants there to help you, and they even had an impulse-buy section where you stand in line to check out, with gum and candy bars. So I’m extremely happy about all that . . .

Yesterday was my birthday – am 23, and thanks again for the good wishes! It was especially fun because today is "International Women’s Day," which meant everyone was celebrating with cake and homemade wine all day anyway, and my birthday was just added on top. (If you weren’t already aware, it’s not really that international. People here are very surprised to hear that – they were always told different.) The first order of the day was to get a peephole installed in the door, very good (not so fun to have no idea who’s knocking and calling something outside your door in Russian). The next task was to go around and advertise the English Club and the Teachers’ Club I’m starting next week. I went to the 1st School, and met two English teachers there, who were very nice, and they gave me a carnation for Women’s Day, and another teacher gave me a book of songs and information about the Bratslav area. Then I made my way to the orphanage, and met an English teacher there, talked a little to her class, and then found Ira, the teacher my age whom I had met before. I was invited into the director’s office for cake and homemade wine, and it was all very entertaining (still not used to alcohol before noon, will let you know). When I got back to my school, the 5th graders met me outside and sang Happy Birthday, and all day students sang to me and gave me flowers, cards and various presents, very very cute. I got dog shaped salt and pepper shakers with the letter "e" on them from my host mom and coordinator, fiber-optic enhanced fake flowers from a student, and many more interesting things. There was more cake, and champagne, and the vice principal was found to speak enough English to tell me "I love you, I love you, I love you!"

I’ve gotten a lot of great mail in the past two weeks: thank you to my family, Karin, the Landrums, and long-lost cluster-mate Luke! The kicker was a package, yesterday, from Gigi, and those of you who know Gigi know exactly what I mean (the amazing, sophisticated pre-med/artist/gourmet cook/too-much-talent girl). Not only did she send me a whole bunch of reading material (I forgive her disparaging remarks about People magazine), but she made stationery. So now I have to decide who’s special enough to send original, Gigi-crafted, each-one-is-unique cards to. As if I didn’t have enough on my plate. (Just kidding . . . thank you!!)

That’s about it! I’m using my day off to see the internet, and search for a yoga mat and various spices in the big city. I hope you all are doing very well – miss you all – and if you free-text me, learn from the mistakes of the stranger who told me Happy Birthday and that Williamsburg was boring (ok, later identified as Katie M) – the texts are anonymous unless you sign them!

Part II

Ok, not too much has happened in the past two days since I was denied internet. I had a fun day in the big city with the three resident Volunteers – did a lot of grocery shopping, but unfortunately the bazaar stand that sells yoga mat-like items was closed, so maybe another time. The Jacobs very sweetly made poppy-seed bread for my birthday, and gave me lots of spices and even some seasoning packets from America that they no longer need! Also, we saw the second half of "Gone With the Wind," dubbed in Ukrainian, which Sandy and I translated as best we could from memory for the boys.

I now have a stove, but it needs a whole lot of cleaning . . . the men from school who delivered it (and scooped ashes out from the inside, etc., in their efforts to make it useable enough to test out) pointed at my dish detergent and then the stove several times and just laughed, at me. So that will be fun, but my coordinator will help . . . I had to restrain my wonderful neighbor from just sitting down and cleaning it herself, the moment she saw it, but I did allow her husband to take a look at my recently non-functioning toilet – and after about an hour of repair-work, with water occasionally shooting into the hallway like a Busch Gardens 3D movie, it works much better than it ever did before! They’re amazing. Again, I refused to let them clean my stove, but when I asked if he could hammer a nail into the wall so I can hang the smoke detector, he said sure – but tomorrow, as it was a church holiday. It was hard not to laugh out loud – after he had just spent an hour fixing my toilet out of the goodness of his heart (and earlier he had wandered over to help the men with my new stove) . . . so, my new idea for a secondary project is to erect a statue to my neighbors.

That’s about it! Weather is getting warmer – since my birthday it’s been parka-optional! I spent Friday afternoon (when not overseeing repairs) reading the Washington Post, so thanks again to Gigi. Hope everyone is doing well – feel better Heather, and Happy Birthday Grandma!

Part III

Maybe saying "That’s about it!" jinxes me for the internet . . . I won’t say it anymore. I’m very stubborn about my routine of writing out my entry beforehand, instead of trying to remember everything while there at the internet . . so that means that whenever I go to somewhere without a USB port, I’m sunk. Anyhow, here’s the rest of what I’ve been doing . . .

My coordinator came and helped me clean the stove for several hours on Saturday . . . it was exhausting, but you can see what color it is now, which is nice. In other news, I started my English Club on Tuesday! At first, there were only five students, all from my school (two were my host brother and a friend, ordered into the room by my host mom), and so, even though they were looking at me like they thought it was kind of pathetic, I forged ahead, remembering all of the Volunteers who only have two students in their English Clubs. I explained that we’d have a President, Secretary, etc., and what the rules would be, all the while encouraging them to tell their friends, so that they wouldn’t think I was settling for a three-officer, five-member club, and they brightened up when we played a game where you make a rhythm (pat the desk, clap, and snap twice) and say any English word you can think of, going around in a circle, without repetition. Just as I was about to sign off, twenty-some students from the 1st School arrived with their teacher, late because their schedule is different. So we agreed to make our meetings a little later, and I re-explained everything to a now-full room. We played the game again, and everyone was enthusiastic, and seemed to understand me well. So hopefully that has gotten off to a positive start, maybe we’ll get some kids from the orphanage, and if this many or more kids keep coming, I’ll find a way we can all sit on the floor or something, instead of overcrowding the ancient, heavy desks (though that would require moving the ancient, heavy desks . . we’ll see). A group of girls from the other school and their teacher walked part of the way home with me, and the kids were really excited, chattering away at each other with the various English phrases they knew, so that was cute.

On Wednesday, my Regional Manager came to visit, and I taught a 5th grade lesson while she observed. It wasn’t a very exciting lesson, but she said that it was interactive, which is good – the 5th grade, probably because they’re so young, has adapted the quickest to me, and they’ve gotten much better at really answering my questions instead of just reading lines from the book out loud. She saw my apartment, and told us more about her visit several years ago to Alexandria, which she says is the greatest place in the world. I can see how Old Town might have that effect on people, being nice and quiet and pretty and not as scary for first-time visitors as a big city . . .

Later that day, I taught my first of five lessons on St. Patrick’s Day! It occurred to me that, unlike all of the hoopla over St. Valentine’s Day, no one had mentioned St. Patrick’s Day, so I decided to remedy that, and my coordinator let me leave the curriculum behind for a day or so to educate them about it. Only one of the five grades had a student who had ever even heard of St. Patrick before, and only two knew that the correct color to wear on the holiday would be green. Ireland, needless to say, sort of gets left by the wayside with their London-heavy curriculum. So I told them about St. Patrick and some of the things he did, and why Americans care, and how we show it: parades, wearing green, going to pubs to drink green beer, listening to Irish music, watching Irish dancing, and dying the river in Chicago green. I assured them that this was a much more fun holiday than St. Valentine’s Day, and although they were a little taken aback by my examples, they seemed to agree. I told them about Gaelic, how to say "hello," how the one Gaelic name I remember from my semester in Ireland is written versus how it’s pronounced, and played part of a song in Gaelic for them (with my iPod and speakers). Yes, I went a little overboard – but these kids know nothing about Ireland or the holiday, this was all news to them. The highlight of the lesson was teaching them the refrain to the song "Mary Mac," which I first heard at Murphy’s in Old Town last summer (some of my readers may remember this as well . . .) – a very funny song, but very very fast, so the refrain was all they could hope to get. It goes: "Mary Mac’s mother’s making Mary Mac marry me – my mother’s making me marry Mary Mac!" – so, imagine Ukrainian students trying to sing that five times fast. They liked it, and the 9th grade especially was able to sing out the refrain loudly and quickly. I might have the song stuck in my head for all time, though.

So, my St. Patrick’s Day lessons were fun, but the week ended on a slight downer when no teachers showed up for my Teachers’ Club. We’ve been warned about arranging meetings that everyone says they’ll come to and that no one does approximately nine thousand times, but it’s still kind of annoying. But there are several English teachers in the area who claim to want to work with me, and whom I would like to work with, so I’ll keep trying. To distract me while I waited for an hour, I had a little fourth grader who had decided she needed to visit me and tell me everything about her life. It was really funny – she’s sort of like Dakota Fanning, extremely, almost eerily self-possessed and confident. She talked to me essentially like a 30-year-old would, about what I’d do on my day off ("You should relax, visit friends, maybe go on an excursion"), how I shouldn’t drink cold water (health risk. Obviously. What, you didn’t know that? Everyone here seems to), and how I need to visit the little kids’ school, grades 1 through 4, which I promised I would. She had visited earlier that day and told me, in English, that I am a good man, which was nice – so I’ll definitely be dropping by there.

I’m continuing to settle into the apartment, figure out how to cook (I made chicken and dumplings, and apple pancakes!), etc., etc. I got a wonderful package from Alyssa – thanks, Alyssa! My poem exchange offer still stands, as Gigi (who, inadvertently or not, met the requirements: piece of celebrity gossip, bizarre piece of news I may have missed, and update about letter-sender’s life. Send me those and you get a poem about you, and you can offer suggestions, too!) will find out when her letter arrives. In other news: please keep my PC Twin, Katie, in your thoughts (blog: – her village was hit badly by a cyclone, and she’s back there now, rebuilding. She’s my PC Twin because our service dates are almost exactly the same . . . but clearly our experiences are turning out very differently. So, for real now, that’s it – I hope you’re all doing very well – take care and keep in touch!

Love, Virginia


At March 26, 2007 5:32 PM, Blogger Gigi said...

VA!!!! I got your letter yesterday! And POEM! yay! I was so excited :-) It's wonderful!
Everyone should want a Virginia original ;-)

At March 28, 2007 1:53 AM, Blogger Virginia said...

Haha glad you like it!! Now for a short, short post . . .


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