Friday, September 07, 2007

Bratslav Day and more

Hello! Ok, there is a lot to tell, and I’m not sure I’ll remember everything. My fall is packed very tightly, and life is already starting to speed up considerably (as in, I sat down to write this and the room spun, ever so slightly).

When I last wrote, I was shilling for my seminars this fall, for our Camp HEAL project. Shilling continues, and the planning is going well! I took a break about three weeks ago to go to Vinnytsia for Lee’s birthday party (Lee is one of our oblast’s new Volunteers). She made us chicken marsala, it was very good, and I got to meet some of the Ukrainians she works with as a business Volunteer. They’re involved in a lot of really great projects, one of which is art therapy for survivors and the children of survivors of human trafficking (more shilling: look at the website! I left early the next morning to get back to Bratslav in time for “Bratslav Day,” an annual celebration in the park. I had attempted to attend Bratslav Day the day before, and arrived at the park to find it empty. This theory (that Bratslav Day was Saturday, not Sunday) was based on silly things like multiple people telling me that it was on Saturday, and then, on Friday, saying things like “See you tomorrow!” after discussing it. Oh well. It was very festive: there was music and shashlik (Ukrainian shish-kebob), special bread (paska) with roses sculpted in the crust, local artwork, and musical performances. The mayor spoke, several choirs sang, there were dancers, and, I’ve come to realize, no celebration is complete until someone sings “Yesterday.” The performance was very cute, but most of the syllables that came out of the girl’s mouth bore little, if any, resemblance to the actual lyrics.

About two weeks ago, I went to pay a visit to fellow Volunteer Clara, at her site, Trostyanets. It was nice to get out (in between shilling trips, I was sort of staring at the wall), and we got to have dinner with her host family, for her host brother’s birthday. They were happy to have us because, as Americans, we could show them the correct way to take tequila shots. Clara’s family came to visit Ukraine this summer, and they brought her host family some tequila (and limes) back from their visit to Hungary. I had actually only observed tequila shots before (Clara, from Los Angeles, found this difficult to believe – I attempted to explain to her host family in Ukrainian that Virginians are just different), but knew the drill well enough to show off, and I even knew the right Spanish toast! It sounds less cool in Ukrainian, but the original is “Arriba, abajo, al centro, al dentro” – “Up, down, to the middle, down the hatch” essentially.

I returned from my fun visit to some unpleasant news: I’m being kicked out of my apartment. I knew that, at some point, my landlords wanted to give this apartment to their son after he got married. Apparently that has happened ahead of schedule (for some reason . . . if you get my drift), and I need to be out by October. I had been planning on using the fall as my apartment searching time, but that period has been shortened to just September. So the last week has been taken up with frantic searching, and listening to my coordinator dramatically explaining my plight to potential landlords over the phone: She is a teacher, a good person, very quiet and calm, she just wants a quiet place to work, etc., etc. Despite the various problems I’ve had with this apartment (like mold), it was a good apartment – and mostly I’ll miss my neighbors, who’ve been like the ideal host family, just next door. I’ll still visit, but it will be sad not to have them sitting on the bench outside interrogating me about where I’m going, why, with whom, and when I’ll be back (and, even if they don’t catch me on my way, still knowing where I’ve gone and what I’ve done, somehow).

Last Saturday, we had “The Day of Knowledge,” which is exactly like the “Last Bell” at the end of the school year, but with the opposite purpose. Maybe if I could understand more of the speeches, or the endless amounts of poetry recited by six-year-olds in unison, I would be able to differentiate between the two celebrations more, but as it is, I didn’t even feel the need to take pictures: same little tiny kids lined up, same massive white bows in the girls’ hair, same dramatic raising of the flag, etc.

As you may have noticed from my recent entries, I’ve done a lot of traveling this summer, and I think everything, combined with various stressful issues like apartment searching, sort of hit me on Sunday, and I got sick. I swear it wasn’t a last-ditch effort to avoid the first real day of school, and I even got a fever to prove it (very unusual for me!). But, although the cold hit me fairly quickly, it seems to be going away quickly too, and I made it back to school on Wednesday with some new posters about the use of articles! (One of the more common mistakes students make here is to drop or add articles unnecessarily, such as “I have dog, and he lives in doghouse.” or “I would like to see the New York City.” Ukrainian and Russian don’t have these tiny little articles to trip you up.)

I left school early on Wednesday, however, because I needed to explore: a man writing a travel book about Ukraine ran into Lee, and was interested in hearing about sites in Vinnytska Oblast, especially those involving Jewish heritage, that had been overlooked in the book’s previous editions. So, I suggested the Jewish cemetery in my town that I knew had something to do with Hassidism, though I didn’t know exactly what. Lee agreed to meet me to check it out on Thursday, and I spent the week attempting to research and prepare. Turns out there is a lot of information about Bratslav online! Seriously!! I just about fell over from shock, but it’s true: we even have a Wikipedia entry: Most of the information deals with the history of Hassidism in the area, and how the Breslov sect of Hassidism (named after Bratslav), was founded by Rebbe Nachman here in 1802. (Nachman is the great-grandson of the founder of Hassidism, Baal Shem Tov.) He is buried in Uman, a city not too far away, and apparently around 20,000 people make a pilgrimage to his gravesite every year, at Rosh Hashana. One of his closest disciples, from Nemirov, and that man’s grandson, are the two buried in the mausoleum in Bratslav, in the graveyard I visited with my family when they came in June! At the time, we didn’t know any of these details, and the cemetery’s caretaker wasn’t around, so we simply enjoyed the beautiful view of the river from the ridge, and left.

No one seemed to be able to tell me how to get back there (if you recall, we were led by two students in a roundabout path up steep hills, through trees, across fields and past irritated goats, and I knew I’d never be able to replicate the route alone), and no one I spoke to had even been there, though they knew about it. I knew it was right on the river, and remembered that you could see a large building that looked like a former factory, so I decided that, instead of trekking through the woods, I would walk by the river until I could see what I saw from the ridge, and then see how to get up from there. I had no idea what I was doing. I found a road that went down by the river, and followed it and followed it and walked and walked and was losing faith in my vague idea of where this place was geographically, when I finally saw the old factory! Now, I thought, I just have to climb the ridge. I was still getting over my cold, and wasn’t really excited about climbing, but as I turned the corner I saw a little white building, with a red roof (like the building up on the ridge, the mausoleum), with signs written in Hebrew! Two men were standing outside, one with a Star of David necklace, so I walked up and introduced myself, and tried to explain why I was there. The man was very nice, and showed me to a staircase a little further down the road. A staircase. We completely didn’t notice the stairs before, having come from the opposite direction, but now I understand how one of the students was able to scramble down the ridge so quickly to check for the caretaker – he took the stairs. They’re not too steep, they just wind around up to the cemetery, where the man (Yefim) showed me the mausoleum, and explained all of the history, and I did my best to understand. He’s written a book, and knows everything about Bratslav’s history – and even told me about the days, centuries ago, when there was a castle on the opposite bank of the river (you can still see the place where it stood, though no stones are left, it’s just slightly raised).

Bratslav, essentially, used to be a really big deal. Up until about a hundred years ago it still was, but after being left out of the railroad fun, it sort of fell off the map. And here we are! Who knew. I did not . . . but this week I learned a lot. When Lee came Thursday, he showed us old pictures of Bratslav (compared with more recent photographs of the same views, very different – no more synagogue, the Catholic church used to have two tall bell towers but no longer does, there used to be more houses, etc.), and lots of pictures of the visitors who’ve come from all around the world to visit the gravesite here. There were Hassidic pilgrims from India, Ethiopia, France, Israel, and America, really amazing. (Speaking of France, at one point, Lee and Yefim realized they both spoke French – well – and started chattering away! I was impressed, and very confused until forgotten vocabulary words would force them back to Ukrainian.) In a week or so, I may well see more pilgrims for myself, on Rosh Hashana. We talked to him for a long time, and Lee and I decided that we smell a project there. I’ll let you all know what develops, but for the time being we don’t want to jinx it . . .

Somewhere in there, I had my first class with my new 5th graders, whom I’d never taught before. They were adorable. I’m sure the novelty of me will wear off, blah blah, but they were so cute and enthusiastic, and seemed to understand a lot of what I said, even. I almost never speak Ukrainian when I teach, and when I do it’s just to translate vocabulary words when needed, and that method has worked well so far. Every TEFL Volunteer teaches differently (and obviously we all have very different schools), and when I’ve talked to others about what I do, I’ve said that I never really decided to not speak Ukrainian, it just happened. It’s sort of fun to shock them when I know a word (I don’t know how they think I survive outside of English class, but they really don’t think I speak anything else), and it’s definitely a plus to not worry about my awful accent. But I realized this week that I was also influenced by my coordinator – despite being Ukrainian, obviously, she never speaks Ukrainian in her English classes, even with really young kids (like 2nd graders). So it’s immersion, even without a native English speaker! I think it works really well, and it’s definitely a huge help to have that precedent set for me.

Thank you as always for the wonderful mail, I hope in my frazzled state I don’t forget anyone: thank you Lauren L. for the update on the rainy season in PC Cameroon, and thank you Brian I. for the pithy report from Nevada.

Ok, that’s all. I hope you’re all doing well at home, or wherever it is that you are – please keep in touch and tell me what you’re doing! I may not be staring at walls any more, but I still want to hear gossip, as well as legitimate news . . .

Love, Virginia


At September 09, 2007 2:15 PM, Blogger Mary said...

I talked to your mom on the phone for awhile the other day - the whole apartment situation sounds like a gigantic pain in the butt.
Re: Ukrainian Jews - have you read Everything Is Illuminated? I'm pretty sure you saw the movie but I can't remember if you read the book - if you haven't you totally should (I liked the movie, but the book has a lot more going on).

At September 12, 2007 12:16 AM, Blogger Virginia said...

Yeah - the apt thing has been less than fun. As of yesterday afternoon, I felt like barricading myself inside this apt and not letting anyone make me move . . . . as well as I'm sure that would have worked out, with the help of my neighbors I think we found a light at the end of the tunnel. I'm sure I'll have more details later . . .

I saw the movie, yeah :) but no, haven't read it. Lee, the other Volunteer, was mentioning it too. That book, and "A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian," make the rounds among Volunteers very frequently, both v. popular . .


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