Friday, September 05, 2008

Seminars, COS conference, etc.

Hello, again. 74 days left! Pretty crazy.

When I last wrote, I was relaxing at my site, and battling fleas in my room (fun). But I was soon on the road again, this time to help at a summer camp and a week of training seminars.

First, I visited Grant’s camp in Vinnytsia, to teach about HIV/AIDS. He had told me that his students knew everything on the subject, and were very smart, so I had nothing to worry about. So I was a little taken aback when I learned, shortly after I arrived there, that the campers were mostly in the 4th and 5th grades. Most of his regular students, it seems, were busy. I was in shock, but he kept saying “It’ll be fine, don’t worry.” I said “I know it will be fine – because I’m not going to teach the lesson I had planned . . .”

So, I focused on biology and stigma, rather than transmission, and – as Grant marveled afterwards – I didn’t say the word “sex” once, during the whole 45 minutes. It turns out that my cartoonish rendering of the immune system (the T4 cell is Superman) works well for 9-year-olds, and they really liked the lion and elephant game. (Have I described this game before? One person is the “baby elephant,” surrounded by “elephants” who link arms to protect the baby from the “lions.” After one trial attack, I tap several elephants on the shoulder, and send them back to their seats, leaving just two. After that, the lions have no problem getting to the baby. The message: the baby elephant is the body; the elephants are the immune system; the lions are germs like the flu or tuberculosis; and HIV is what reduces the immune system to the point where it can’t fight the germs.)

Grant asked them to make posters about what they had learned, and they did a really great job! One that I liked in particular had a group of people from different countries standing in a circle with linked arms around someone with HIV – saying that even though the person’s immune system couldn’t protect him, these people would. Aw.

From there, I went to Clara’s site to help with the teacher training seminars she was holding in honor of her new English resource center. Fourteen teachers from around her district came to learn about the communicative method, etc. Again, I taught about HIV, and passed out all of my lesson plans and materials for them to use if they wish. The teachers had varying levels of English, so I tried to go through my lesson plans in Ukrainian as quickly as I could, to fit it all into an hour and a half. As it turned out, I went too fast – and we finished a half hour early! Ukrainians don’t usually ask questions after presentations the way we Americans like to, so that was that.

A couple days later, it was time for me to leave for our group’s Close of Service conference (COS). In preparation for the long trip west, I stopped in Vinnytsia to buy new earphones. I don’t do much shopping here, but it seems that the following story is pretty standard. First, I had to put my luggage somewhere, and it wouldn’t fit in the lockers by the door, so I had to leave it by the stairs and trust the guards to keep an eye on it. I found someone to show me where the earphones were, and then had to find someone to cut the ones I wanted off of the display shelf, where they were tethered. This set off an alarm. Then they told me to go to the “kasa,” or counter, where I waited for a few minutes completely alone until a guard bothered to explain that I had to go to the kasa upstairs. This required going through a gate, which set off another alarm. Upstairs, I was given a receipt approximately twenty-five pages long, and returned downstairs, where I was told I couldn’t go through the most convenient gate, but had to go back around through the store to another one. Finally, I surrendered half of my massive receipt to the guard, collected my luggage, and was on my way . . . with a new pair of earphones.

On our way to the conference location in Slavske, outside of L’viv in the Carpathian mountains, my friend Clara and I went through Ivano Frankivsk, a city south of L’viv. It was very pretty, and a nice place to wander around and relax. There are several historic churches, and we ate in a Moroccan restaurant! The next day, continuing with the ethnic food theme, we met Brittany and her former training clustermates Angela and Diana for Japanese food in L’viv. Very fun. The following morning, Clara and I got up early for our train, and inadvertently caught part of Michelle Obama’s speech on BBC at our hotel! The hotel where we had our conference had BBC as well, and several of us woke up at 5 AM to see Barack Obama’s speech a few days later.

At the COS conference, Clara and I realized that we had both forgotten our bathing suits – and there was a pool there! So we walked down to the bazaar in town, and picked up matching tank-top and shorts sets that said “Sports Happy,” which did just fine as makeshift suits.

The conference was very nice! There were 82 of us, I think, out of the 84 remaining in Group 31. We were told that we’re the largest COS group ever, even though we weren’t the largest coming in! There were definitely several people I didn’t know at all, and another Volunteer and I spent the first dinner quizzing each other in lowered voices about the unfamiliar faces at the table.

We had several presentations on opportunities after PC, and learned about grad schools, teaching programs, the Foreign Service, and how to write a resume. That was all very interesting, but it was also nice to just sit around and catch up with people, some of whom I hadn’t seen in almost two years!

One of the highlights of the conference was the superlatives: “most likely to” etc. Grant and another Volunteer were in charge of these, so I had been hearing hints about mine for months. I had never had a superlative before (my high school stopped the practice because they were getting too mean), so I was pretty nervous. Well, the suspense is finally over: mine was “Most likely to COS early to strengthen the Obama presidential campaign.” Ha. See, a lot of my fellow Volunteers are from way out west, and different places like that (Montana or God knows where), and they’ve never really met anyone so plugged into politics before. So, I’m a bit of a novelty. I’ve tried to explain that I’ve never even worked for a campaign (and it’s not like I haven’t had opportunities in D.C.), but they just smile and shake their heads. I think I’ve said this in this blog before: I can’t always be “the cute one,” so I guess I’ll settle for being “the political one.”

Clara was the “most genuine,” and Brittany was the “nicest Volunteer.” Did we girls in Grant’s oblast get immunity or what? Overall, they were less harsh than I had feared.

I was afraid that we would spend the whole week at the hotel, and that I wouldn’t end up really seeing the Carpathian mountains, but I did! They paid for us to go on a chair-lift up into the mountains, where we had a beautiful view. It took a half-hour to get up there, and then again to get back down, so we were pretty far up.

On our second-to-last night, one of the Volunteers in our group organized an “open mike” event. Well, I had had the same song stuck in my head for three days . . . and I had always wanted to try performing at one of these things . . . so I signed up! I was plenty nervous, I can tell you. And drinking does bad things to my voice, so there was no liquid courage to be had. It made me feel better to see that other people performing were nervous too, and in the end I made it up there without collapsing. Somewhere in the middle of the second verse, I realized that I was singing. It went well!! It was sort of a melodramatic Appalachian song about saying goodbye, and allegedly I made people cry. (Not that I was lucid enough to notice at the time.) People were very sweet about complimenting me afterwards, and I’m glad I did it! It was fun.

The other performances were fun to watch (especially after mine was over)! We had a couple of sing-alongs, and some original poetry readings by the Volunteer who organized the night. Two Volunteers did a dramatic reading of a story from the 9th grade Plahotnik textbook – involving “the typhus” and a dead dog – complete with bongo drums! The Volunteer who had been voted “best storyteller” told about an interesting establishment where she used to work as a hostess, which was hilarious. And another Volunteer read a long, funny poem that ended up mentioning all 84 of us – though I had just left the room when he read the line about me! I think it was something like “Virginia endures life near Grant.” How true.

On the last night, we had a special dinner complete with live traditional Ukrainian music. The band later followed us to the outdoor bar, and we even did a traditional Ukrainian dance! (Mostly you dance around in a circle, so it wasn’t too difficult.)

I arrived home at the end of the week to discover that we have a new puppy! He’s very cute, black with tan spots, and his name is Zhuk – “bug,” in Ukrainian.

Back here at home, I continue to be very spoiled by Nina – she frequently brings me hot Ukrainian dishes like borsht or holubtsi (cabbage rolls), and it’s very nice. Before COS, I invited my Camp Heal girls over to work on our project, and Nina helped me peel fruit to make a dessert for them beforehand. It’s just very nice to have someone around to help me out when I need it!

Since COS, I’ve been running around: visiting the schools in Bratslav to tell them about the seminars that Lyudmila and I are having at the end of this month. It’s going to be a very busy fall, and I have a feeling that my teaching will be sporadic. At COS, we had several meetings about how to finish things up and say goodbye, and I felt like it was a little premature to be thrust into the “goodbye” mode when we still had a couple of months left. But now that I’m back at site, I’m thankful: I have a lot to do before I go, and it’s helpful to already be in that mindset!

One more thing: according to the Facebook version of the Myers Briggs test, my personality has changed in Peace Corps! I took the test twice! There’s no denying it. Instead of being an ENTJ (“The Executive”), I’m now an ESTJ (“The Guardian”). This shook me up quite a bit. I looked it up, and it seems that the difference between N and S is as follows: S, or Sensing people “like to take in information that is real and tangible – what is actually happening,” while N, or Intuition people see “the big picture.” N people “trust inspiration,” while we S folks “trust experience.” So, I suppose that’s not such a bizarre reaction to the Peace Corps experience, now that I think about it.

Thank you to Katie B., Melanie A., Steph and Kristen for their letter! It was like a time capsule! It took me a second to understand why Katie seemed to think I hadn’t met her fiancé yet – and then I saw the date on the letter. Haha. Better late than never!!

Hope all is going well at home! I was happy to see that Hurricane Gustav wasn’t as bad as people were afraid it’d be. Keep in touch – see you fairly soon!!

Love, Virginia

P.S. These last pictures are from the First Bell ceremony, a few days ago . . .


At September 16, 2008 4:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


also, dont' put too much faith in the Meyers-Briggs test, it's a crock of shit. Just read Barbarah Ehrenreich's new book when you come back, Bait and Switch

see you soon! Will be your secret spy at Cal's wedding


Special K

At September 19, 2008 12:57 AM, Blogger Virginia said...

It's not a secret if you tell everyone :)

Haha, I was a little unnerved when I saw that "anonymous" was talking about smuggling puppies . . . I was like, what freak found my blog . . . but it's you :) who is Barbarah whoever?

E-mail me a long LA-trip-esque account of the wedding, and tell everyone there that I love them (if I know them)!!!


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