"Road Verginia Robertivna"
As I write this, I am on the plane home. I left Ukraine at 8:00 this morning (my time), and am due to arrive in Washington, D.C. at 3 PM (10 PM my time).
Here are a few stories from my last days in Ukraine . . .
I spent the week of Fall Break getting ready to go home – writing goodbye letters and putting together photo albums for Ukrainians I know. When you have nothing to do but focus on a departure that’s still weeks away, you (or at least I) can get needlessly stressed out over the details. But I was saved from my obsessive tendencies by a visit from my former cluster-mate, Katie. She had some free time before going to Kyiv for medical appointments, so she came to see Bratslav! Unsurprisingly, Nina cooked up a storm for us, and we got to relax a little.
I took her to the Jewish cemetery, and we spent some time looking at the more modern stones. They were really interesting, especially the ones with old photographs. We also visited my school, and talked to my students who were preparing for a regional competition (the Olympiadas). Katie is officially the only other Volunteer to have seen my school’s new sinks! (More on those later.)
As I mentioned in my last post, I didn’t make it to the big Volunteer Halloween party, but my fellow Volunteer Cindy and I had our own small celebration. She was a nudist on strike, and I – as you may have figured out from the pictures – was Sarah Palin. I did my best (and even switched to my “Tina Fey glasses,” which I’ve come to really like), but I suppose that now is as good a time as any to come to terms with the fact that I look nothing like Gov. Palin (and, by extension, Elizabeth Hurley. Does anyone else see that?). Also, I’m not very good at winking.
A couple days later, Clara and I met Katie in Kyiv for the aforementioned doctors’ appointments. It was a very busy three days: we had our various appointments, our close of service interviews with our country director, and our LPI’s (language proficiency interviews). In addition to all that, I spent half the time running around trying to close my PEPFAR grant. Believe it or not, it was difficult to remember the election. It seemed very far away. Even when we sat in our hotel room watching BBC the night before the results came in (remember, we’re 7 hours ahead), I was mostly focused on the math required for my grant’s final budget, and on editing my DOS (“description of service” – an official-type document that you have to write in third person). When Clara and I woke up at 6 AM the next morning, the votes were already tallied! We made it to Katie’s room in time to hear most of McCain’s concession speech (our BBC didn’t work), and stayed for Obama’s speech after that. We had planned on going to a party that the U.S. Embassy was hosting (from 6 AM to 10 AM), but we were tired and still had a lot to do at the office, so our celebration was limited to splitting a persimmon while watching the speeches in bleary-eyed half-disbelief. The PC office has several official photographs of the current President and Vice-President – yesterday, before leaving, I took a “before” picture of them, and maybe a Volunteer with more time left will send me an “after” picture in January!
The rest of our business in Kyiv went well: I closed one grant; survived the “sand-blasting” procedure at the dentist’s; and got “Advanced-Mid” on my LPI! And we enjoyed McDonald’s breakfasts: a new addition to the menu that is only available in Kyiv, so far. We also had dinner with my and Katie’s old Ukrainian teacher, Yulia – who is now married! We met her then-fiancé, which was exciting.
I took my last Ukrainian train-ride home to Vinnytska oblast, and then started the goodbye process in earnest. I gave the English teachers in my town some more resources for teaching about HIV/AIDS, and some goodbye gifts: photo albums with pictures of their schools, and their students at my various seminars; “pesanky” (painted wooden eggs), and letters thanking them for all of their help.
Last Saturday, we had our last big city English club, and a goodbye party for the Group 31ers in our oblast. The next morning, a few of us sat around and watched a DVD of “American Idol” and “The Apprentice” episodes that somebody’s family had sent from the U.S., which filled us with apprehension about returning. But really, what’s the difference? Most of these shows have been remade in Russia and Ukraine, anyway.
On Monday and Tuesday, I had goodbye lessons for each of my classes. I started by thanking them all for being such wonderful students (which most of them were), and then explaining what a “superlative” is. A Volunteer at our COS conference had suggested that we make superlatives for our students. At first, I didn’t think I could come up with enough, but after returning to school in September, I decided that I could manage. I wrote their superlatives on index cards decorated with stickers, and passed them out at each class. Almost every class had a “Miss” and “Mr. Most Likely to Answer a Question.” A few got “Superstar!”, and many were based on physical appearance – like “Happiest Smile,” or “Brightest Eyes.”
For the 9th grade girls whose names I mix up, I gave “Most Likely to Be Called Olena by Virginia Robertivna” (for Natasha), and “Most Likely to Be Called Natasha by Virginia Robertivna” (for Olena). My 6th graders Yuri and Bokdan were each most likely to try to answer questions before the other one, and the Sasha’s who share a name-tag (with two arrows pointing either way) were most likely to sit together. Quite a few got superlatives like “Quiet Girl,” or “Needs to Talk More in Class” – I couldn’t think of something individual for everyone, especially for the kids who never say anything. Lots of the 5th graders got “Good Luck in English Class!”, and most of the 11th graders got “Good Luck in the Real World!”
In the 7th grade, the girls are almost all wonderful, and boys are some of the most obnoxious students I had here. I couldn’t resist: except for Ihor, who got “Most Likely to Understand Everything and Never Say Anything” (which he understood but declined to read out loud), all of the boys in that class got “The ‘Can You Read This?’ Award” . . . and they could not.
After I gave out superlatives and candy, my coordinator, Lyudmila, asked the students to each write me a note. The notes were incredibly sweet, and contained many interesting spellings of my name (variations of Verdjeniya,” though never quite that bad). The title of this post refers to the best surprise in the bunch: two of my 5th graders gave me notes that began with “Road Verginia Robertivna.” You see, the feminine version “dear” in Ukrainian is “doroHA.” And the word for road is “doROha” – pronounced slightly differently, but spelt exactly the same. I had to explain what had happened to Lyudmila – at first, she assumed that they were referring to my upcoming travels (like a theme Barbie – “Road Virginia Robertivna!”).
Lyudmila was worried about what the letters would say, since this was the first original letter in English many of them had ever written. But they were all very nice, and one 11th grader even said “we begs pardon” for not listening more. By now, the word has gotten out about the Partnership grant that we wrote, and all three school buildings have new sinks with running water. So a lot of the students thanked me “for water,” which sounds a little extreme, but I knew what they meant.
That project is finally done – I turned in the final receipts and finished closing it yesterday. It took a little longer than we expected: there were rain delays in September, and our school director broke his hip last spring – but he came to school just so he could make sure this project was finished, when ordinarily he would have stayed home. So, it worked out perfectly; and again, I can’t say how grateful I am to all of you who donated!
My students asked me why I was leaving, and if I would come back. I said that I wanted to come back, but that I don’t know when. When I explained that my family and friends were in America, some students asked, What if they all moved here? Then would you stay? The 5th graders were vocal in their support, though – they said that they were away at a sanitarium for three weeks without their parents, and that it was very hard. A student from School #1, who always speaks to me even though I don’t teach her, told me that her dad works in Moscow, and that she understands my wanting to be with my family.
In addition to giving gifts these last few days, I’ve been receiving LOTS of gifts. All three of my suitcases are filled with gifts and souvenirs. The only clothes I’m bringing home are those that I needed to wrap around gifts. (Don’t worry, I’m also mailing some clothes home – but still, I definitely need to go shopping soon.)
Some gifts that stood out: Lyudmila gave me a massive blue and yellow pillow in the shape of a fish, because I’m a Pisces; my neighbors gave me a figurine of horse-drawn angels with a fake rose; my students gave me a few drawings, including one of me and Lyudmila (I’m wearing quite a fancy red dress); Lyudmila’s husband gave me vodka for my dad and uncle; and, two nights ago, Clara’s host dad presented me with a mace. That’s right, a mace. The mace is a big Ukrainian symbol because of the association with the Cossacks – and I’m proud to say I was able to fit it in my bag with everything else. Also, I had two poems written for me! I never had a poem written about me before! Yana, Lyudmila’s daughter, wrote a very sweet poem in English for me, and the nice vice-principal (there are two, one is scary) wrote me one in Ukrainian (while she was sitting in a seminar, apparently). Very cute.
On Friday, I had a party for the Ukrainians I’ve gotten closest to: my neighbors, Lyuba and Mikola; Nina (my baba); Lyudmila and her husband; and the English teachers from School #1, the technical college, and the orphanage. Not everyone was able to come, but Nina and I made a lot of food anyway. I made some of the same American dishes that we made at the end of training for our host families – chili, macaroni and cheese, corn pudding and brownies – plus a pizza. Nina made holubtsi (cabbage rolls), which she knows I like, and some other Ukrainian dishes. It was funny to see the Ukrainians exclaim over how interesting the American food looked – and then carefully serve themselves very small portions. Welcome to my life, everyone. The chili was a little too interesting for them, but the blander dishes went over well.
On Saturday night, Lyudmila organized a party at a local café for me and the other teachers from our school. Those teachers haven’t ever talked to me much – I think they don’t really know what to make of me – and Saturday night was no different, but it was still nice to see everyone before I left. There was an hour of dancing to awful disco music, during which I tried to think positive thoughts and focus on how ridiculous everyone else looked. I was totally exhausted, but Lyudmila was really excited to have everyone together. She told me that the school director never used to dance before he hurt his hip – but that night, he put down his cane and shuffled along with everyone else!
The next day was Leaving Day: I had to put all of my stuff on a bus and go to Clara’s town to catch the fast bus to Kyiv the next morning. Clara came over and had leftovers and homemade wine with Lyudmila and Nina and me before we left. It was very hard to say goodbye to both women: they’ve done so much for me, and each regarded me as a member of their family. I gave them both photo albums and framed pictures of us together, which they liked – Ukrainians love pictures, and they can spend hours showing you photo albums without ever seeming to tire (or notice if you do). I did my best to tell them how much they meant to me. Lyudmila was still texting me goodbye’s and thank you’s this morning before I got on the plane. Saying goodbye is definitely one of the most difficult parts of Peace Corps. But it has to happen eventually – and I gave everyone stamped envelopes with my address in America, and promised letters and phone calls . . .
So, I’m finished with Peace Corps! I’m coming home as an “RPCV” – Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. It’s very hard to believe. Here on the plane, I’m not really sure I do believe it.
My friend Grant always tells people “No one ever grows up planning to do Peace Corps; well, except for Virginia.” I’m obviously not the only example, but I guess he’s right that a lot of people seem to stumble upon it their senior year of college, without having given it a second thought before. I’ve wanted to do PC ever since I found out what it was – some time during middle school or whenever I first heard about a cousin who was a Volunteer in Honduras. I felt spoiled my senior year because I only worried about one interview, while everyone else was stressing out over all of their options. You would think that Peace Corps might only delay that stress – but the thing is, you have so much time to think over these two years, that a lot of us leave with much clearer ideas of what we want to do and why. That’s how it’s been with me. So don’t let people tell you that it’s just a postponement of the real world . . .
Despite having wanted to do Peace Corps for so long, I’m not sure that I really expected anything in particular. I thought I would be in Latin America, because I studied Spanish, but beyond that I only had vague ideas of what it would be like in terms of a day-to-day life. I was pleasantly surprised when I found out about how many grant-writing opportunities there were: it just hadn’t occurred to me that as an English teacher in some village, I would be able to take on larger projects that you normally associate with public health programs, etc. Starting to teach about HIV/AIDS and human trafficking at Camp HEAL was a big turning point in my service – RPCVs are right when they say that you start to figure things out after about a year in country. Camp HEAL was also where other counselors told me I should go ahead and try the sink project, even though I was afraid that it was a crazy, unfeasible idea.
I had several ideas crash and burn, and there were definitely some not fun times. With regard to other Volunteers: Peace Corps brings together a lot of very different personalities, and there are many times when the mix doesn’t work (to put it gently). But I met several wonderful, amazing people that I might never have met otherwise, and, even though it’s only been two years, they know me just about as well as anyone on earth does. PC can be intense in a bad way, but it can also be the reverse.
Clara once said that she kept imagining when all this would be a memory, and I said that I kept imagining when it would be a three-minute story at dinner parties. “Where were you in Peace Corps?” “Ukraine.” “The Ukraine? What language do they speak there?” . . . etc.
It’s not an experience that’s easy to define. In some ways, it’s very different for every person – the other Volunteers in my oblast didn’t always understand what things were like at my school, and I didn’t always understand the way things worked at theirs. A lot depends on the people in your town, your coordinator, your students, and other things you can’t control (things which, thankfully, all turned out wonderfully for me). But in other ways, it’s a bizarrely consistent experience: visiting my PC Twin in Mozambique, we found that our situations had many similarities, despite the glaring, obvious differences.
My dad saw an ad for Peace Corps that said “Never have to start a sentence with ‘I should’ve’.” That’s one way to look at it.
But it’s not the only way – I was watching “House,” and heard the following classic line from Dr. Foreman: “It’s like willingly getting the flu, or joining the Peace Corps.” (The Volunteers whom I repeated that to loved it.) He goes on to explain that these things are “short-term . . . commitment is only commitment because it has no expiration date.” He’s absolutely right. There are very few Volunteers who aren’t constantly aware of how many months they’ve finished, and how many are left. The countdown is a frequent topic of conversation in Peace Corps, for obvious reasons. Even if we love what we’re doing, that doesn’t mean we aren’t pining for Target and Taco Bell.
So I’m going home to those things, and I don’t know when or if I’ll ever leave them again. I’m definitely not the Foreign Service type, like some other Volunteers. I hope that I can find other useful ways to spend my time, but opportunities like that aren’t as obvious when it’s no longer your job to look for them. But that’s actually the real reason I wanted to do Peace Corps – to sort of force myself into the habit of being useful, in hopes that the habit would stick.
One more quotation made me think of finishing Peace Corps, from Bill Bryson’s book about walking the Appalachian Trail ("A Walk in the Woods"):
“It was unlike Katz not to fall upon soft drinks and junk food with exuberant lust when the opportunity presented itself, but I believe I understood. There is always a measure of shock when you leave the trail and find yourself parachuted into a world of comfort and choice, but it was different this time. This time it was permanent. We were hanging up our hiking boots. From now on, there would always be coke, and soft beds and showers and whatever else we wanted. There was no urgency now. It was a strangely subduing notion.”
I’m about to be parachuted back into that world, and I can’t say I’m not excited. Mostly I’m excited to see all of you – I’ve missed you since the very first day of staging, before we had even left the hotel in Arlington. I never seriously considered going home early, but there was never a time that I wasn’t homesick. I talked about you all nonstop; and I appreciate how many people kept in touch with me, more than I can say. I hope you’ll be able to tolerate my talking about Ukraine nonstop – but if you’ve kept up with this blog, then I won’t have to bore you with background details (and I can get straight to the good stuff). Thank you so much for reading it!
The last letters I have to thank people for are from Emily H. and Dr. Brent! . . .
By the time you read this, I’ll be in America, so give me a call. I’ll be busy preparing scrapbooks, doing grad school application stuff, and attempting to rebuild my wardrobe – but I won’t be too busy to talk to you.
See you soon!