Friday, June 13, 2008

Family Visit!

Hello again! I’m back from my traveling, but will leave again very soon. When you consider how soon I’ll be packing to go home, it seems that I have a very full schedule for the next six months . . . but mostly fun stuff, so it’s ok!

As promised, my Uncle Jack and Aunt Archer came to Ukraine to visit me a little over two weeks ago! I went to meet their plane and shepherd them back here to Bratslav. Not surprisingly, my energetic uncle began trying to read Cyrillic signs right away, and wanted to tell our taxi cab driver jokes about Monica Lewinsky. To the extent that I was able to translate, I did (and to the extent that I was able to stall and change the subject, I also did).

My latest cooking adventure was learning how to make pizza dough, so I had a pizza waiting for us when we got back. I was almost totally prepared for my guests – except that I forgot about coffee, having never been a coffee-drinker myself. Luckily, Nina had some instant coffee available in the morning, and later, a trip to the “Ukrainian Walmart” down the street remedied the situation.

On Thursday, I left my guests at home to rest (though I think they rose with the sun – around 5 AM here, now that it’s summertime), and went to teach my 5th graders. We read a few fables, and learned that the word “moral” is the same in both Ukrainian and English. Cognates: when you least expect them . . . they’re there. Later, as I said, we visited “Ukrainian Walmart,” where my uncle volunteered his services as a “beast of burden” so that we could buy big 5-liter jugs of water. (I’m afraid I’m very environmentally insensitive – I usually buy water in 1.5 liter bottles, because I carry it with the rest of my groceries and can’t be bothered to attempt anything heavier.)

Archer and Jack seemed to enjoy meeting Nina, who immediately began to fill them with Ukrainian delicacies such as green borsht and potato varenyky (dumplings). After one meal, I found them sitting in their room staring at the walls, and asked if they were “detoxing” – they nodded grimly. They also learned how to take what Jack calls “Dolly Parton” showers; and if you’d like the story behind that, you’ll just have to ask him yourself. There was a moment early in the visit when I was afraid we’d be without running water, but it came back on – I think that this house has better plumbing than my old apartment, where I had water for just a couple hours at the beginning and end of each day in the summer.

On Friday, we went to the “Last Bell” ceremony, celebrating the end of the school year. I found that I understood much more of what was being said than I did last year. The teachers wrote poetry about all of the graduating 11th graders, which was recited by the little kids starting 1st grade next fall. The poetry was really cute, like: “Roma drives a motorcycle and is really cool . . . Vira is so helpful and very good at math” (except that it rhymed). Archer and Jack met the 11th graders afterwards, and they showed about as much enthusiasm for speaking English as they usually do in class (i.e., none), but Lyudmila offered to translate their questions, and things picked up after that. I was eager to show off my younger, more fluent students, and made sure that Archer and Jack met Diana, my superstar 5th grader, who told them with typical composure about her stamp and coin collections. My students were very sweet, and gave us armloads of flowers: all three of us had our hands full, it was crazy. They filled five vases when we got home.

After the ceremony, we went with other teachers to visit the school director, who’s unfortunately laid up with a broken hip. That morning, he had listened from his balcony to his daughter’s graduation at School #1, near their apartment. We gave him flowers too, and then headed home.

The next day, I led Archer and Jack to the old Jewish cemetery overlooking the river; I now know where the stairs are, so they didn’t have to rough it like my parents and sister did last year. My uncle and aunt are fascinated by nature, and were constantly stopping to examine various plants and bugs. It made me feel like a good hostess to have such easily entertained guests – all that was required was a trip outside (though there are a few moths and things inside as well). Afterwards, we took Nina to a café for more varenyky, and beer, which was fun, but left my uncle and aunt craving more healthful fare. Luckily, we had bought a lot of fruit for the get-together I had arranged for that evening.

I thought it was going to be a small event, and had planned to make apple pie and chocolate-chip banana bread to serve with some fruit. However, my coordinator Lyudmila and my host mom Svetlana showed up with wine, vodka, sausage, chocolate and bread; and Nina made holubtsi (stuffed cabbage rolls)!! I’m thankful they did, because my little desserts would have barely satisfied the twelve people around the table; and this way, my uncle and aunt got to experience a Real Ukrainian Party, complete with nine million toasts.

My old neighbors Lyuba and Mikola came, along with Svetlana, her husband and son (my 6th grader, Roma), and Lyudmila, her husband, and their daughter Yana. It was great! I hadn’t seen my host dad in over a year, and definitely don’t see my neighbors as much as I should. It was a really good excuse to get everyone together. Lyudmila and Yana (who spent a year studying in America) discovered the dangers of offering to translate for my uncle – but, smart ladies that they are, they soon resorted to claiming (with nearly straight faces) that he was simply complimenting the banana bread, and making other innocuous statements. It was very fun, and I hope I’ll have a few more get-togethers like that with everyone before I leave.

The next day, we said goodbye to Nina and caught a marshrutka to Vinnytsia. Our first stop was the Piragova Museum, located in the former mansion of the famous Dr. Piragova, who invented anesthesia when he began using ether on patients during surgery. It was very interesting, but I think Archer and Jack, both science enthusiasts, were more interested than I was. Afterwards, we walked to the chapel where his body is perfectly preserved – he is one of three such preserved mummies in the world! The other two are Lenin and Mao.

We met up with my fellow Volunteers Clara, Cindy, Jessica and Linda (visiting from another oblast) for lunch at an Italian restaurant, where my uncle and aunt were finally able to eat salad. We were planning on taking a boat tour, but it started to rain; so instead we retreated to the Window on America library to watch a movie. It was fun to introduce my uncle and aunt to everyone, and we all had a good time watching “Dave.” That night, we had to wait for a 1 AM train to L’viv, so Grant and Joyce graciously entertained us at Edelweiss, a local bar. Grant and Jack tried to drink each other under the table: I won’t say who won, but Grant was not walking in a straight line when we went back to his apartment.

The next morning we arrived in L’viv, which was fun for me to see for a second time. We visited the souvenir bazaar, and ate in a Greek restaurant where my uncle was finally freed from my translation censorship, and able to speak to the waitress in German. The next day, I attempted to take them to High Castle Hill, but the taxi driver left us at a different hill instead. I thought it was maybe just another, less manicured path up the same hill, until I reached the top (marked by a cross and a shaky looking platform), from which I could see the hill that I had intended for us to visit. It was interesting . . . but in the end we made it to the right hill.

On our last day in L’viv, we visited Lychakivska Cemetery, and its many pretty monuments. After lunch at the Japanese restaurant (I appreciate ethnic food so much more, since joining PC), we caught a train down to Odessa. I was less familiar with Odessa, having only spent an hour there before, but we soon found the famous Potemkin Steps, and the port. There aren’t as many sights to see in Odessa as there are in L’viv, but it was nice to walk around and see the city. We also went to see two performances at the opera house! The first was a concert by the local orchestra and choir, with opera singers performing familiar solos, which was really great. The next night, we saw “Madame Butterfly,” and unfortunately – unlike the L’viv Opera House – there were no subtitles, even in Ukrainian, so I had very little idea of what was going on. But it was pretty!

The last morning, we visited the creepy catacombs under Odessa with an English-speaking guide. The catacombs, it seems, were first dug under the city when they were mining limestone for building construction, about two hundred years ago. Because of the cheap, duty-free imports coming into the city, the catacombs soon became storage places for organized criminals smuggling goods through the black market. Finally, when the Nazis occupied Odessa during World War II, the catacombs were used as the headquarters of the partisan resistance movement. We saw a recreation of the cave-like rooms where over fifty Soviet partisans, including women, hid for over two years and plotted against the Germans. There are electric lights now, but the guide told us about how they lived in complete darkness and silence, which could cause hallucinations. The villagers above ground provided them with food, information and ammunition; and they forced the Nazis to keep more troops in the area until their eventual defeat.

The next day, my uncle and aunt left for Prague, and I met up with Clara – who was visiting with a teacher from her school – and caught a bus back to our oblast. It was a long ride back to Clara’s town, and I didn’t get back to my house til the next day. (I had an unfortunate surprise upon my arrival: as I had requested, Nina used a lot of the food we left sitting in the fridge. However, I discovered the food she hadn’t used sitting outside the fridge – on the front porch, in the hot sun. The food had reacted as perishable products are wont to do, which wasn’t pleasant. Oh well. It was soon disposed of, including the fermented apple juice.) I’ve mostly been resting for the past few days.

The next month is going to be a little crazy: a lot of traveling, a lot running around. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to update next, but I promise I’ll have a lot to tell!!

On the mail front – thank you very much to Annie for the card, and Aunt Mary for the package! Also, I don’t think I’ve thanked Sandy J. yet for her letter, but now the more pressing need is to say Congratulations on the arrival of baby Siobhan!!!

Speaking of arrivals, I was thrilled to discover that my kids’ pen-pal letters have arrived safely at Katie M.’s door, after I thought they were lost forever. I think perhaps the Ukrainian flag I included in the package was mistaken for contraband: something caused an awfully long delay.

I hope you’re all doing well; and if the little boat on the top of this blog is to be trusted, I’ll see you all fairly soon. And finally, thank you to my aunt and uncle for a wonderful visit, it was great to have you here!!!

Love, Virginia


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