Saturday, October 13, 2007

Happy Anniversary To Me

Hello again! It’s been a long time . . . as I said in a previous post, my life has recently begun moving in fast forward, so I’m sorry that I can’t seem to sit still long enough to write a blog entry. I will attempt to remember any interesting things that have happened to me in the last few weeks . . .

For a week or so in September, I felt like all I was doing was sitting in my apartment waiting to move – waiting for someone to come take the bookcase or wardrobe away, or the desk or kitchen table, and then leave me with an increasingly empty apartment. I refused to clean since I was leaving so soon, and as the furniture I borrowed last spring slowly disappeared, I was more and more aware of the dust bunnies. Dust in Ukraine is no joke. (Which is why I can’t understand why people hang Oriental rugs on the walls, here. You’re just moving the dust-absorbing mass closer to your lungs.) I took a break from that excitement to go to Vinnytsia to advise fellow Volunteer Lee on a SPA grant, which was very fun. I got to eat a gourmet meal she made for me and the two women she works with, who are great, and I got to play with her cat! I did a lot of typing while they were figuring out the details of their project, and had quite a scare when something I did (which would have been innocuous on any other computer but an evil Mac) made the document disappear. For several hours I had been typing the budget and attempting to do math – to see it all disappear was pretty horrifying. Thankfully we found the rescued document, and I managed to put it back into the right format. I know many of you probably like Macs, and think that whatever happened was my fault; however, you are wrong, and we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

Hmm, I’m reading through my journal to see what all I’ve been doing recently that’s interesting . . . I’m afraid there’s not a lot. Fast forward, for me, has meant a lot of worrying and planning, packing, unpacking, being anxious, running from school to school to re-check details on my upcoming seminars, and worrying. On the up side, if I make it through Peace Corps (I don’t mean that to sound fatalistic, I’m just saying), I will be living proof that Type-A personalities can survive in an organization that tends to limit its instructions to variations of “be flexible” and “leave your expectations at the door.”

But, things are happening! This might be a good time to mention that I’ve officially been here for over a year. According to Peace Corps gospel, this is the point at which everything begins to make sense. It might be psychosomatic, but I’m beginning to believe it . . . the seminars are falling into place, secondary projects have sprung up where there were none before, my English clubs are multiplying, and even the language is seeming easier. I’m booked just about every day until New Year’s, and my to-do lists are growing as fast or faster than I can get through them.

I may just be feeling easier because of the resolution of two crises that arose at the end of August: the loss of both my apartment and my classroom. I was so preoccupied with finding an apartment that I didn’t really register the second problem until more recently. It turns out that that was the last empty classroom available; now that the 6th grade has split into two classes to accommodate its size, and taken my room, we can no longer divide the classes to teach them individually. I wasn’t sure what to do until my Regional Manager came to visit, to watch me teach, visit my new place, and see how things were going. She confirmed that my co-teaching ten or eleven hours a week was not ok, and the solution was to just give those classes to me!

I am now the main English teacher at our school – I teach 17 hours a week, not counting my English clubs, which leaves my coordinator with fewer than 10. This is not an unheard of situation among TEFL Volunteers at smaller sites (and it is legal, my RM assured us) – in order for me to get (close to) the 18 hours I’m supposed to have, I have to take over. During negotiations, I offered to begin grading, for the first time since I came here. I was wary of the system before: daily grades for each lesson, frantic grade grubbing and mysterious school politics that I wasn’t in a position to understand all made me want to run in the other direction. Lyudmila, my coordinator, was over the moon – it was like she had been holding her breath since I gently declined to grade last spring. She had never nagged me, but she is very happy that I’ve changed my mind. So, now I have my own grading book, and borrowed a system that fellow Volunteer Clara implemented this fall. Having all of your materials gets you 1 point, homework adds 3, participation is 6, and showing creativity (or any real interest) gives you 2 more, making a total of 12 (in accordance with the Ukrainian system). So far it’s going well, and I’m finding that feeling more in charge and responsible actually makes things easier. I’m no longer as worried about making a mistake regarding the national curriculum or something else I’m not familiar with – I figure now I’m in charge whether I screw up or not, so I may as well act confident. And the threat of grades does seem to perk students up . . .

Speaking of students, my 5th graders continue to be stars, and the 6th graders are great as well. That, on its own, is a cheerful fact – but it’s a little depressing to realize that the same question that silences my older students will get an immediate response, or at least a real effort, from the 10 year olds. The younger students adapt to me quickly – they now answer questions off the cuff, instead of just searching the text for the right line to quote. They’re also really enthusiastic, and don’t have the whole adolescent attitude issue. But the other students are improving in their way. I think some of the older kids are a little nonplussed, though, at the way the 5th graders react to me – they’re my groupies. They want to know what I’m doing, what I’m reading about, and what my phone number is. It’s very cute, and it’s about time I was treated like a rock star (the reaction that some, but not all PCVs receive).

The big move finally happened two weeks ago, after several false starts – I would wait at home for the school bus, only to hear that it had been called away to another town. Or it got a flat tire. Or it was somewhere unknown . . . oh well. I ended up moving on that Friday night with the help of my coordinator and her husband, with a car he borrowed from his job. Unfortunately, he only had about ten minutes to help me before he had to go catch a bus to visit their daughter at university, so they arrived at my door and said Ok, what do you really need? My big priority in packing had been fitting everything into something (most of the kitchen went into plastic grocery bags), not grouping things according to their importance, so I was a little panicked. However, we got the most important bags into the car, and then he drove a half block away to my new house. My neighbors ran around helping us carry things, and everything worked out well – I even got to walk back to the mostly empty apartment afterwards and finish the dinner I had been starting when they suddenly showed up.

My housemate, Nina, is incredibly nice, and we get along very well. She’s easy to understand, and has complimented my Ukrainian. She couldn’t believe how many things I had for the kitchen – pots and pans, flour and spices, and that I cooked for myself. This seems logical to me, since I was both sole resident and cook in my apartment, but she still shakes her head when she sees me working in the kitchen and says “hazaika” – which apparently means something like “she does it all.” I’ve insisted on cooking for myself, which she has grudgingly accepted, because I know that if I don’t start out strong, and consistently decline her borshch and potatoes early on in the game, it will be a slippery slope.

She spends a lot of time outside in the outdoor kitchen, making grape juice and, more recently, canning mushrooms (she spent the past few days gathering them in the forest – an annual affair in Ukraine). Outside with her are a cat and some very small, very cute kittens, and a puppy named Sharik, who loves me. Sharik goes nuts whenever he sees me, and it’s really fun to have a puppy. Unfortunately, he has some bare patches without fur that seemed irritated, and we don’t know where they came from, but we teamed up to medicate him. I held him while Nina spread some concoction on the patches; Shari yelped and cried horribly, but loved us again the second we let go. (And he seems better now.)

As I said, I’ve continued shilling for the seminars, re-checking things, finding people to speak, movies to show, and projectors on which to show them. You might wonder what I have to talk about with everyone, going back over and over again, but you’d be surprised. I basically show up and say, “Hey, remember my seminar? Is that still ok?” And they either say “Yeah, sure” or “Hmm, I never told the director about that. Could be a problem.” Then it’s my turn to say, “Ok . . . could we maybe do that . . . now?” It’s a process.

I took a short break to go down to Koblevo, a town near Odessa, for a yoga weekend that yoga enthusiast Lee organized. It was fun to see people, and I’m sure that I’m more mellow now than I would otherwise be – but I’m afraid I’m still lacking a lot in the way of inner calm. Also, I discovered that real yoga is much harder than the “beginner yoga” on my DVD.

So, I’m just getting used to my new place, and beginning to figure out which Vova is which for grading purposes – and I’m about to pick up and go. Just for two weeks, though – I’m taking advantage of the school’s fall break to visit home! I will miss a little school (more than I had thought – apparently “the last week in October” means different things to different people), but it’s for a good cause. I can’t wait to see everyone I will see – and thank you to everyone who’s rearranging crazy schedules to come by! If you can’t make it to where I am, don’t worry. I have a bit more than a year left, and after that (if you’re nice), I’ll come to wherever you are and visit.

Thank you to Archer for the card, and to Mary for the nice, long letter, and if I’m forgetting anyone else in my slightly frantic state then I’m sorry! I am also sorry about not writing many letters recently: during the summer I was never in one place long enough, at the end of the summer I was staring at my apartment walls and couldn’t think of anything interesting to say, and then by the time interesting things started happening again I was too busy to say anything, and also began to think that any letters I started wouldn’t beat me home, so what’s the point. Anyway, that’s my excuse, but I’ll get back on track.

See some of you soon, the rest of you I hope are doing well; stop by if you can when I’m there in a week!

Love, Virginia


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