Saturday, September 27, 2008

Crimea, and Seminars (Long Entry!)

Hello everyone! 52 days to go. And a whole lot of government paperwork to be done in the meantime . . .

So! For the first two weeks (or so) of school this year, I was sick; so I didn’t do a lot of teaching. Mostly I sat at home and coughed, and ran around town to make sure the four local schools remembered about the seminars on HIV/AIDS that Lyudmila and I were planning. It’s quite a commute to walk to all four schools – my school is right in the middle, and that’s more than a mile from my house – but I’ve really enjoyed getting to know the different English teachers. And the teachers at the technical school almost always ask me to stay for tea and chocolate, so it’s not like I don’t get anything out of the deal.
As I may have mentioned, my coordinator, Lyudmila, and I wrote a PEPFAR grant (the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief) to hold seminars for the four local schools this month, and to have a disco afterwards to raise awareness. Luckily for me (and, of course, the community) Lyudmila is a powerhouse, and really took the lead with the project’s implementation. We went to our district capital, Nemirov, to print lesson plans to give to the teachers and students, as well as little pocket calendars and brochures with information about HIV/AIDS in Ukraine. Thanks to Lyudmila, we managed to get discounts on a lot of these things, and we’re well within our budget! (That’s particularly impressive given the recent combination of inflation and the antics of the U.S. dollar, which has meant that anyone who wrote a grant last winter (like I did) probably didn’t get quite what they asked for.)

Lyudmila is originally from Nemirov, and on one of our trips I met her mother and step-father for the first time! Of course, her mother insisted on my eating salad and deruny (potato pancakes), which was fine with me. Her attempts to give me something to drink were more problematic: I consider myself a fairly flexible eater (and I’ve gotten better in the Peace Corps), but there are just some lines I don’t cross. For instance, I’ve never once eaten salo, the fried pork fat they love to eat here (though I’ve eaten things cooked with it, which can be good). I have yet to try holodetz, the jellified meat fat dish served here. And, apparently, some liquids here give me pause as well. First she tried tomato juice, which I’ve never been a fan of, which Lyudmila knew and explained for me. Then she offered me milk, and I accepted. She brought me a full glass, with a spoon in it, and explained that it had to be stirred. Because there were chunks in it. Lyudmila said, haltingly, “It is milk that has . . .” “. . . Curdled?,” I asked. I think it was “kefir,” – the “yoghurt” that Nina made by leaving milk next to my electric space heater. I tried it, but couldn’t handle it. So finally, she gave me hot water with lemon. Good enough. They were very sweet; and when I noticed their accordions on the shelf, they played for me – Lyudmila’s energetic mother dancing around, singing and even using her good-natured husband’s face to beat a tambourine-type-thing against.

At the end of the second week of school, my fellow Volunteers Clara and Brittany and I took a trip to Crimea! It was the first trip for each of us, and we had all been told that we had to see it before leaving. I thought that a trip in September would mean fewer crowds, and less oppressive weather – and I was right, but unfortunately, that week the weather in Ukraine turned chilly and rainy all over. We were better off in Crimea than we would have been up north, but still – no sunbathing.

We decided to fly from Kyiv because of a special deal, and to save time – Crimea is a long train ride away (over 20 hours). I realized after it was too late that I had forgotten my real passport, but thankfully they let me through with my PC identification card. Packing for the trip was slightly confusing, because the website clearly stated that liquids were not allowed in checked baggage. We were skeptical, but went along with it – only to discover at the check-in counter that we had been misled. We hastily repacked, and went on our way.

Even though it was September, Crimea was still pretty busy, and we were turned away from several hotels over the course of five days. We finally found a hotel in Simferopol (where we landed), and decided to call ahead before traveling to Yalta. I made the phone calls because I was trying to use the very little Russian I’ve picked up. (In the East, and in Odessa and Crimea, Russian is the dominant language, while in the West, it’s Ukrainian. Clara claims that I pick up a crazy Russian accent when I switch over, that I don’t use with Ukrainian.) We discovered (with the help of someone who spoke English back to me) that Yalta was holding a conference, and so was all booked. (We were later told that this might have been a racecar thing.) So, we went to Bakcheserai instead!

Bakcheserai was definitely my favorite part of the trip; it’s a very pretty town, with many attractions related to its Tatar history. The Tatars are a Muslim minority group in Crimea, originally from Asia or thereabouts. I don’t know much of the history, but it was really interesting to see how different this region of Ukraine was, due to their influence. I heard the Muslim call to prayer for the first time in my life, which was really cool – though we only heard it once, each day we were there.

We arrived, and began to search for a hotel. Lonely Planet told us about a nice bed and breakfast, so we started searching, and ended up following a man up a steep hillside, after which he indicated that we should keep walking straight. After a long, long walk, with all our bags (and under a very threatening-looking sky), we came to a different hotel, which was full. They helpfully called us a taxi, though, and we stopped in a café to regroup, while it started to rain. This café was maybe my favorite part of Bakcheserai: it had couch-like, cushioned seats with low tables, and great Tatar food. The people who worked there were very nice to us, and a man from Uzbekistan walked up to us and immediately began rattling off everything he knew about America, including city names – including Alexandria! He later had some less charming things to say involving conspiracies and UFOs, and we humored him for a bit before returning, with looks of determination, to our plates. He was helpful, though, in that he called up his friend who ran a bed and breakfast down the road! He even got the friend to pick us up in his car, because of the rain, so that was nice. In the meantime, we discovered amazing Tatar desserts, which mostly involve honey, and which include a version of baklava. Tatar food isn’t that different from Ukrainian food – maybe slightly more Mediterranean – but it was still exotic to us, and we loved the desserts.

We met Clara’s training cluster-mate, Christina, who knows all about Tatar culture, as well as Russian politics, and enthusiastically filled us in on some specifics. The room we were given at the bed and breakfast was very nice, and our host greeted us in the morning with Turkish coffee and peanuts covered in powdered sugar. That morning, we hiked up to a monastery in the hills, which was very pretty, and then hiked even further to a series of formerly inhabited (not sure when) caves. It was sort of reminiscent of the Flintstones – the caves often had little openings for doorways and windows carved into them. We took a lot of pictures, posing in the windows . . .

That afternoon, we got to visit a workshop/gallery that I knew about because of the SPA grant that started it: at my first SPA meeting, I think, a Volunteer from Bakcheserai, who was also on the SPA committee, submitted a grant for a workshop/gallery for Tatar artists, to help ensure that their traditional art continued. So, I was really excited to finally see it, after hearing about it so long ago! The workshop was really neat, and the artists came into the gallery to explain their pieces to us (and, of course, to encourage us to buy them). It was all very pretty, and I finally decided on a wedding present for a friend at home (it will be REALLY late . . . sorry, Carolyn!!!).

In addition to Crimean desserts, we got to try Crimean wine, which was very nice. We ate both nights at a restaurant named for Pushkin, where a very nice cat spent the evening first on Brittany’s lap, then mine. So: desserts and wine, pretty art, and a nice cat. It’s clear why Bakcheserai was my favorite stop on the trip.

Our next stop was Sevastopol, where we spent a few hours visiting with a Volunteer couple in our group, Phil and Carol. They pointed us toward “the Panorama,” which Christina was excited to see, and Greek ruins, called Hersonis. The Panorama is a 3D work of art commemorating the siege on Sevastopol at the end of the Crimean War. It’s a circular room that you can walk all around, with a painted scene continuing off the wall (if that makes sense) into cannons, reconstructed trenches, etc. You can see the French and the British approaching in the distance. They even made the room smell like gunpowder (apparently there is a recording of gunshots and explosions that they play when lots of children come). I’m not very knowledgeable about history, and the whole thing made me think of Eddie Izzard’s imitation of the Germans retreating from Russia (“Oh – it’s a bit cold, a bit cold!”).

We took a very late bus to Yalta, where we stayed in a nice apartment. Unfortunately, the palace that hosted the Yalta Conference (of FDR, Churchill and Stalin fame) was closed, so we satisfied ourselves with a ferry trip to the Swallow’s Nest: a very, very small castle on a cliff, built at the beginning of the 20th century, for someone’s mistress. It was on the cover of the last Lonely Planet for Ukraine, and is very photogenic, but, as Lonely Planet warned, much shorter than you would expect. (Like meeting a celebrity in person, they crack.) It’s about the size of a suburban house. But I was still happy to see it, finally, and we all took lots of pictures, when not ducking out of the photos of Ukrainians. Asian tourists might be famous for how many pictures they take, but I swear, no one can out-do Ukrainians at the random, “glamour shot” photo. Every two feet, at least, there was a Ukrainian girl draping herself against a wall and gazing dramatically at her friend’s camera (no smiles and peace signs for Ukrainian photos). It was pretty intense.

The next day, we woke up early for our journey back to our sites. This required the following sequence of modes of transportation: a marshrutka (minibus); a bus; a taxi; a plane; a bus; a train; a taxi; and a bus. Needless to say, it took all day, and we were all very tired when we reached our respective homes. However, exciting tidbit: I met someone who spoke Spanish on the train! I was complaining to Clara about not knowing the word for “blanket” (wanting to request one from the conductor), and how I knew it in Spanish (whine, whine) – and the guy across from me must have understood some of what I said, because later he asked, in Spanish, if I spoke Spanish. I was so shocked and unprepared that, even after a few tortured seconds of thinking, I was only able to respond with “sí” and “entiendo” – “I understand” (which I did . . . I just couldn’t really respond). For basic words, my mind immediately goes to Ukrainian, but after a few minutes I was able to carry on a conversation with him, and learned that he’s been working construction in Barcelona for four years. So, my Spanish is not totally dead!

Back in Bratslav, Lyudmila and I continued with preparations for our seminars. That weekend, we went to the store and bought 140 juice boxes – individually. Not so many “in bulk” options in Ukraine. We were a sight to see.

On Monday, the seminars began! We invited (and confirmed the names of) five dedicated students and any interested teachers from our school, the technical college, School #1, and the orphanage – and that’s more or less who came. Unfortunately, the students and teacher from the orphanage never did show up – apparently there were various competitions to attend, which took priority. Sigh. By the end of the week, we had lots of new students, and very few who had actually attended all four days. So, the “before and after” tests we gave on Monday and Thursday have little to no statistical value, but whatever.

On the first day, Lyudmila and I went over the lesson plans I’ve been using to teach about HIV/AIDS here, which my campers had translated into Ukrainian for our seminar participants. Usually I don’t care too much about grammar when I speak Ukrainian during these lessons – I figure, if I can get the main point across, I’m good. But this time, I was speaking in front of my former Ukrainian tutor (the Ukrainian teacher at our school) and the vice-principal, in addition to other teachers and students who hadn’t heard me before, so I was a little nervous. I tried hard to use the right grammar, and people were very nice about complimenting me afterwards. We did the elephant and lion game, and I went over the true/false questions about how it’s possible to get HIV (sharing needles, yes; toothbrushes, no). I noticed that the vice principal had sort of a stern expression on her face, and I was nervous that she was offended, so I kept trying to smile and direct my lighter comments towards her. But afterwards, she came up to me, looking like she was about to cry, and thanked me and Lyudmila for the seminars – so I had no reason to worry, after all.

Lyudmila was very enthusiastic while explaining the lesson plans with me, and the first day was great. The second day, I wanted to show part of “A Closer Walk,” but, unfortunately, the CD I burned on my computer didn’t work with our new TV and DVD player, so I ran home to get my computer. A student claimed to be able to read the Russian subtitles from the back row of chairs, but he must have been lying: soon after starting the movie, I realized that most of the thirty-some people in attendance had no idea what was going on. I was panicking, but they came up with the solution of having someone in the first row read the subtitles out loud. Everyone was satisfied with this, and I was thrilled – an English teacher from School #1 and Lyudmila took turns reading, and it went very well. My former tutor told me afterwards about how she got our 80-year-old literature teacher to come see the movie: at first she wasn’t interested, after hearing what the subject matter was, but she came anyway, and later thanked my tutor for convincing her. It was wonderful to have such enthusiastic and appreciative participants, even though they didn’t all come every day. The whole point of the project was to encourage teachers and students to continue teaching about HIV after I leave, and to feel confident with the subject matter. So I was very, very happy with the reactions we got – I think we were successful!

On the third day, we invited two speakers from a nation-wide organization I had come across, named ACET (AIDS Care Education Training). They were great! The students and teachers loved them, and they covered everything in a straightforward way, with humor – really, I felt like I was in a “family life” class at home (yes, that’s what my crazy high school called it). My Ukrainian isn’t so good that I could understand all of the jokes, but I could see how much everyone was enjoying the presentation. The speakers were impressed with Lyudmila’s attitude and she with theirs, and they may come back to our school again!

On the final day, the different school groups were to plan their own projects (like at Camp HEAL, where campers sit with their Volunteers at the end of the week to plan something for their community). Unfortunately, as I said, many of the students hadn’t been there all week, or couldn’t come on the last day: there was some concert thing at the technical college, so they couldn’t come, and only four students came from School #1 (and not the ones who came before). Apparently there was some driving school thing on Thursdays that no one bothered to tell me about beforehand. But, it was an enthusiastic audience anyway, even if it didn’t have the sense of “closure” that I planned for.

Before the students started planning projects, Lyudmila taught an extra lesson on “healthy living,” which was a surprise to me. I was a little skeptical, since her preparation had including cutting out lots of pictures of cute, fluffy animals, and making flowers and grass from colored paper. [Side note: Ukrainians really like to make things pretty. Really. Students may not have any clue what the test in front of them is about, but they will have the white-out ready to be employed at a moment’s notice. Women might alternate between two sweaters all winter, but you had better believe that both will be covered in sequins and flair. If they have one pair of boots, you’d better believe they’ll be pointy stilettos – never mind that Bratslav’s uneven roads are hard on my feet even when wearing sneakers. It’s just a priority, here.] Lyudmila had the students make collages using the pretty pictures of nature and fluffy animals, and she posted them on the blackboard. She then said (and I’m paraphrasing, from what I understood of it) that these represented a nice, healthy life. She asked if the students had enjoyed making them – and, sure enough, they had. She then said: well, this is what happens to your life when you get sick (again, paraphrasing, she was probably more eloquent) – and she began ripping the pictures off the posters, and crossing out the flowers. The students cringed and caught their breath, but they smiled and understood the lesson. Then, she said that your friends and family might help you, take care of you, and take you to the hospital – and she began to glue some of the pictures back into place. But the damage was done, and she explained that life can’t be totally the same again, afterwards. Which is why we should live healthy lives. I was impressed!

So, the seminars went very well! I was especially pleased with the teachers’ reactions; they were really excited about the lessons. At my school, I’ve had very little contact with any adults besides Lyudmila – the teachers say Hi to me (sometimes), but that’s about it. So it was nice to have some of them there at the seminars, so that they could understand more about what I’ve been doing all this time. If these seminars are what I’m remembered for, then I’m happy!
I’ve finally started teaching regularly again, although I won’t be for much longer! It’s too bad that I won’t get to know my new students better. My new 5th graders – Lyudmila’s new class, now that her 11th graders are gone – are very, very cute. They’re very intent on translation: I can barely get out a sentence before a child shouts out what he or she thinks the Ukrainian is. There are a few enthusiastic new students in my other grades as well – including a girl who gave her name as “Meri,” in the 7th grade.

This year, we only have six 10th graders – a result of all the smart students (and some others) transferring to the technical college after 9th grade. But – it’s great! Because they’re all at the same level. This is very rare in my classes: I usually have four kids who understand everything I say, six kids who don’t have a clue, and about ten somewhere in between. It limits what I can do – especially what I can do for the kids who are behind. These six don’t have a high level of understanding at all, but I can go slowly enough that we’re all on the same page. They get tired of looking things up in the dictionary (as I repeatedly request that they do), but they’re actually engaged – not just staring off into space – so I’m happy.

One more story about teaching: the other day, I was teaching a text about trying to understand new words, for my 7th graders. The text suggested that we guess what part of speech the new word is, in order to understand it, and that we look at the context. So I decided to have them guess some words I knew they wouldn’t know. I used the sentence, “Mr. Brown has a new plant. It is a rhododendron. It is mauve.” I was trying to get them to guess that a rhododendron is a plant, and that mauve is a color (or at least an adjective). This led to the following exchange:

Virginia Robertivna: What’s a rhododendron?
Olha: [random Ukrainian word]
VR: I don’t know what that is.
Lyudmila: (laughs at VR)
VR: What?
L: She said “rhododendron.”

So clearly, Olha is too smart for her own good. But the class got the overall point, as well.

As I said, it’s gotten cold and rainy, and for most of September, Nina didn’t have the heat on. (It’s ok, I have a space heater.) Usually, I take cold/lukewarm “showers” (with water pressure that couldn’t drown a daddy-longlegs: I know – I’ve tried), but because of the weather, I finally considered an alternative. I had been wary of bucket baths because I was worried about running out of water mid-bath (my hair has gotten really long) and having to heat up more with wet, soapy hair. I did the bucket bath thing in Mozambique, and, sure enough, it took as much water as I could carry to get my hair clean. But what I realized – as a recent bucket-bath convert – is that, when in my own house with a bathtub inside (and not down a path, like in Mozambique), I don’t have to only use as much water as I can carry! So, now I’m a believer. It is so nice to wash my hair with warm water that I don’t even mind how much time it takes to boil it.

In other news, I’ve been baking a lot: I made brownies, oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, and chocolate chip banana bread for the seminar participants. I think I’ll be doing a lot of baking in the next month or so, too – baked goods tend to be my default gift for Ukrainians, and I’ll need something to give all the people I have to say goodbye to. My Regional Manager, Natasha, came by this week, and while she was talking to Nina about how soon I’m leaving, Nina started to cry, and then Natasha started to cry . . . and oh man, this is 52 days from the finish line. Wish me luck.

Finally, thank you to Katie B. for another “time-capsule” card! I don’t mind – after all, my favorite movie (“The Muppets’ Christmas Carol”) urges us to make Christmas “last all year.”

I hope you’re all doing well!! Thanks for reading this very long post . . . see you relatively soon!

Love, Virginia


At September 28, 2008 11:53 AM, Anonymous Virginia said...

Ohhhhh, I feel homesick for Ukraine after reading your recent post - had to laugh about the holidets...I never did learn to like them. I did, however develop some affection for salo! 8-) Forget about kefir though...ick!

Thanks for the delightful post about Crimea...though Mark and I lived in Kerch (easternmost Crimea) we have many delightful memories of the "tourist zone".

Yep - the "goodbying" will be a challenge. I made up some autograghed postcard photos of us and had a friends send us several dozen engraved pens (our names & dates)- we gave this stuff out to the local shopkeepers and other locals who had been helpful and warm...I gave some framed, printed photos to others...wait till you see the crazy gifts you will get to cope with - we got two huuuuuuuge decanters of vodka - filled almost one whole suitcase!

In Sunny Santa Fe

At October 16, 2008 5:42 PM, Anonymous ukraine hotels said...

thanks for the great post, was realy amazing to read about your nice experience in Ukraine.

As I know, vodka destroys your health and wealth :) So better take a cup of tea!! (just kidding)

At October 29, 2008 7:00 AM, Blogger Virginia said...

Glad you all enjoyed reading :)


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