30 October 2007

last tour

I’m back in L’viv after a whirlwind 13 day goodbye session across the center and east of Ukraine. We went to Kyiv to start the final paperwork to get out of the country. As it stands, we have 20 days left in Ukraine. Then we went to see our host family one last time, and we had an amazing time there. Then Karen went home and I went east to my friend Travis house (read: cabin). After my time there, we all went up to Kharkiv (the 2nd biggest city in Ukraine) for our annual Halloween party. The pictures which follow this post are a smattering of images from the times I’m about to describe.

First off: Kyiv. Not much to say here. Just ran around the office and got paperwork signed. I was unimpressed with the diligence in the office, but I’ll expand upon that thought in 21 days. We stayed in an apartment on the cobblestone street which serves as the scene for the city’s largest craft bazaar (Andrew’s Descent.) We stayed for three nights in Kyiv for a total of $44.80 which is ridiculously cheap for Kyiv. We were just lucky to have friends and other volunteers to share the space, and price, with. The agency had double booked the residence (b/c nothing can really go as planned in Ukraine) so a second group of volunteers, who had rented the place, had to hoof it to another apartment. We met Olya, a girl from my English Club who now goes to Kyiv-Mohila University (pretty much the best Uni in Ukraine), for dinner at Puzata Khata. It’s always nice to see her. She’s so bright and cheery and happy.

Off to Pryluky to see the host family. It was a short trip because Larysa is now a LCF (Language and Cross-Cultural Facilitator) for Peace Corps. She works in the Oblast capital (Chernihiv for all those at home keeping score). So, we arrived Saturday morning, helped her make lunch, spoke a lot of Ukrainian, and waited for our host dad and daughter to return home from buying a new computer. We had a wonderful lunch of chicken borshch accompanied by some warming horilka. That night, we had tea with the neighbors, Kris and Jen’s host family, and some family friends. The conversation quickly descended into Surzhik (a mix of Ukr and Russ) that we had a hard time following. The next day, we hung out with the family until the afternoon, when Larysa had to go back to work. Before she left, we decided to do something special….

For those of you who’ve been with this blog since the beginning, you may remember our first few weeks in Ukraine. During that time, our host family took us out to a park outside of Pryluky for a hike. After the hike, our guide took me off into the woods and told me to dig into the ground with a rusty pick. What I dug up was a bottle of homemade horilka. He had buried it because, “It is Ukrainian tradition to bury something special in a place that you want to come back to.” In Pryluky this last time, we told our host family that we wanted to bury our engagement rings in their yard. It was a sign that our time with them meant a lot to us and we looked forward to coming back one day. Our host dad found an old Tic-Tac box and we dropped our rings into it. He then wrapped the box in a plastic back and took us our to the front yard. He dug a hole and we dropped the rings in. Then we all took turns turning dirt onto the rings, burying a piece of ourselves in Pryluky—in the one place in Ukraine we truly hope to come back to.

Our host family means a lot to us and, the next day when we left at 4am with Valera (who is a marshrutka driver between Pryluky and Kyiv), it was a hard leaving. When Valera walked us to the metro, I was unable to say all the things I wanted to say to him—how much he meant to us, how he made us feel safe, how we’ll miss him—because I was spending all of energy trying not to cry. They were a part of our best experiences in Ukraine and we’ll always remember them and miss them.

After Pryluky, Karen went home to L’viv to teach and I, taking the last of my vacation days, went east to my friend Travis’s house. He lives in a small village in Donetskaya Oblast and is known to have one of the toughest sites in Ukraine. When he wants water to bathe or wash with, he has to pull it ten feet out of a well with a bucket and a hoe. When he’s gotta use the bathroom (winter or summer) he’s got to truck out to his outhouse. When he wants to heat up his house, he’s got to cut wood and stuff his stove (petchka) with wood and coal (he buys coal by the ton). When the fire’s burned down, he takes the remnant coal and wood and sifts it outside to get rid of the pig-iron (creating quite the ash storm). It’s tough living for two years, but for the three days I was out there, it felt like I was at my family’s cabin—except we have running water and an indoor toilet there. We had a good time hanging out—only getting freaked out by the locals one time when we met the man on the train who, unknowingly following Kurt Cobain’s words, was so high he scratched himself until he bled…the entire 30 minute train ride.

Onto Kharkiv for the annual Halloween party. [PC Ukraine hemorrhaged about this party…. More about that in 21 days.] It was a good time and people had a lot of fun. Group 29, especially those who organized the party + their friends, made sure everyone was safe. There’s not a lot about this party, I find, that I can write about without setting PC off in a fuss, so I’ll write about this in 21 days too. Highlight of the day, before the party, was a horse-driven cart carrying a two men dressed as skeletons, a stereo system, and a sign advertising a Halloween party that night in Kharkiv. When they saw us, they turned up the music (heavy metal) and headbanged down the boulevard. Seeing that all happen while being pulled down the street by a horse was just too funny/anachronistic to forget.

I took a 21 hour platskart (where the conductor didn’t want to let me on the train and a family was dead set on getting my bed) back to L’viv and now I’m back with my wife. I missed her and I’m happy to see her. Saying goodbye to our friends and family out east was hard, but as we get older we find that it comes with the territory. If you make friends, one day you’re going to have to say goodbye to them. Without their footprints all over your life, even the sets you never see again, make your time here on earth rich and happy.

I am blessed with good friends. I hope you are too.

Kharkiv Cathedral modelled off of Istanbul's Hagia Sofia

Figures at base of T Shevchenko statue in Kharkiv

Weird mural in Kharkiv Zoo

Travis pulling water out of his well

Fountain in Kharkiv

Only statue I know of that has T Shevchenko as a painter, in Pryluky

Our host family--Me, Valera, Larysa and Karen

Me burying rings in yard

Karen on Andrew's Descent

22 October 2007


Our thoughts are with everyone in southern California affected by these fires. We're hoping for the winds to die down and the air to become humid. It's hard to be so far away when bad things happen, but we're lucky to be in contact through emails and sms messages.

We hope the damage is minimal and that your loved ones are safe.

Best wishes from Ukraine.

11 October 2007

picture day

Brand-New Statue of Stepan Bandera near our house.

St. George's Cathedral (near our house)

Karen in Plosha Rynok with Teacher's Day Flower

Larry in Plosha Rynok with kvass

Our Attempt at Making Donuts

The countdown of days left in Ukraine, starting from 100. We're now at 39.

I taught from Safran Foer for a day.

A beautiful chuche we discovered one day in L'viv. They are just kinda hidden everywhere.

Fall has come in all its colors.

Some participants of my English club.

City Hall's Tower during a Yulia Tymoshenko Rally.

It says "(The West) ahead toward Europe, (the East) back to Russia, and (the middle) spins in circles and goes nowhere." A political party's add.

Karen at Olesky Zamok (Castle)

Posing at the Zamok.

Sign at Entrance to Olesky Zamok

10 October 2007

A Reflection on 2 Years in Ukraine

I keep thinking about how I need to start packing, to start sorting through the binders of lesson plans and classroom materials, the drawer of mail from friends and family, the CDs and tapes of photos and memories we’ve accumulated. But I find myself fighting the urge to get ready to go, almost as if to slam on the brakes and slow down the countdown a little. Time has never moved as fast in my life as it’s been moving for me lately.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m really looking forward to being home, seeing family and friends, driving my car, eating Mexican food, and readjusting to life in the U.S. But right now it’s hard to imagine being on the other side of this experience. One of the things I’ll miss is how every day is an adventure. At home we take for granted the small interactions and experiences that are made challenging here by culture and language. When viewed with some distance, I know these moments will be funny and interesting, though they can be crushingly frustrating at the time.

I will also miss this experience because of the lifestyle I have maintained during the last two years. I live in a beautiful apartment with high ceilings and a sunny balcony and sleep in a comfortable bed. I walk everywhere, usually 6-8 miles per day, with an occasional trip on public transportation when necessary. I eat fresh, local foods that vary by season. I cook more than I ever did before, and I appreciate the time and love required to make things from scratch (and re-heat them without a microwave).

Last week in class I was teaching about cross-cultural communication. We discussed different aspects of culture and likened culture to the metaphor of a tree. There are parts of a tree that you can see, like the trunk, branches and leaves, and there are the parts you can’t see, the roots. Without the roots, the tree would die or fall down, or would never have grown in the first place. We compared this tree to culture, attempting to demonstrate that the aspects of culture that we can observe, such as clothes, holiday traditions, and amount of touching, are a result of the invisible aspects of culture, such as concept of beauty, religious beliefs, and concept of personal space.

Living here for two years has given me the ability to begin to understand the roots of some cultural behaviors that I would otherwise view from an outsider’s perspective as weird or illogical. Many things can be explained by history, religion, or some other unobservable aspect of Ukrainian life. This experience has also given me a chance to reflect on my own culture in more depth.

Often when you are walking through the Center of L’viv on a weekend you will see numerous wedding parties getting their photos taken in front of the town’s monuments. Sometimes there are 3 or 4 brides lined up just steps away from each other at the same monument, waiting to have their picture taken on their special day. I’m sure that in some of these wedding day photos, there is a stray bride in her white gown and veil in the background of another couple’s picture. Perhaps it’s the only child in me, but I would never want to share my special day with other couples, especially not in the backgrounds of my photos! I would have run the other direction if we had met another wedding party on the beach in Monterey on our wedding day. I suppose this attitude is similar to the motto on packed Ukrainian marshrutkas, “there’s always room for one more”; Ukrainians are really good at sharing space.

I never realized how much I relish my personal space until I came to Ukraine. Even in Spain, where people would often bump into you on the street without saying “Excuse me,” I never experienced the stifling lack of space of my daily life here. This situation has made me realize how irrational my attitude toward space really is. I view it as “my” space, as if I own it. The fact that I haven’t been able to relinquish ownership on the space around me during the last two years shows me that this personal space bubble is really a part of me. I have begun to embrace it, along with trying to keep a sense of humor about it. When people sit on my lap at concerts, tell me to scoot over and share my small seat on the bus with someone else, or hip-check me on the street I try to visualize these wedding photos and remind myself that it’s good to share.

That said, I am really excited to go home and maneuver my personal space satellite through the streets of Monterey and the San Diego Zoo, the aisles of El Comal, and in the roomy interior of my Galant. I’m going to eat myself silly while trying to maintain my walking policy whenever possible. I’m going to bask in the comfort and convenience of a washing machine and never again complain about saving quarters for the Laundromat. Soon I’ll probably join the ranks of those complaining about gas prices and a lack of free time, but I will do so with the knowledge and appreciation that it can be and has been another way.

07 October 2007


she's so beautiful (in a niece sort of way) it makes me teary.

06 October 2007

3 october 2007

as i forgot to blog about twice, 3 october 2007 marked the end of the second full year we've spent in ukraine. the two years have seemed to fly by and, at the same time, drag on. we spent the day teaching. we celebrated on the 4th by going out for pizza (the 4th, coincidentally, is the two month mark until we arrive, once again, on american soil--that time, for good).

spent a relatively sunny saturday walking to the park to find donuts (which weren't being sold at 1030am). ukrainians, judging by the empty streets and our two years of experience, do not get up early on weekends. you can get up at 7 am on a saturday, troll around the downtown, and literally have the streets to yourself (except for all the tourists who are looking for an open shop (which doesn't really exist that early on a saturday)). that nothing was open early on a saturday or sunday once frustrated us. now, we just laugh. they'll either figure out that the swaths of tourists wandering the streets probably would be inclined to spend money in their shops (if they were only open) or they won't.

had a yelling match in ukrainian the other day at the train ticket office. the woman working there was convinced that i should go to the english speaking window (which doesn't exist) because she couldn't understand that I wanted to go to slavyansk--a city in the east of ukraine--and not slovakia (a country to the west of ukraine). we finally worked through our differences and she tried to sell me a ticket, only she was having a hard time remembering that it was october, not september, and tried, continually, to sell me a ticket for the 23d of last month. ah, ukraine....

slowly packing up here. discovered that there is a ups office near our house. the guy who works there is really nice. unfortunately, he said it costs $200 to ship 10 kilos of stuff to america. that seems pretty pricey. but, at least we have it as an option. i'd never walked in that direction, away from our house, so it was nice to see that part of lviv. the man began by speaking russian to me, but switched over easily to ukrainian when i asked him too. he even used a few phrases of english, which i had a hard time understanding cuz my mind was in ukrainian mode.

44 days.

03 October 2007

election plus

it happened.

it's still happening.

too bad i can't comment on the weird stuff i heard about.

guess we'll have to wait 47 days for the tell all.


in other news, i'm teaching from Foer's Everything is Illuminated in my American literature class. I was explaining to my students that one of the narrators, Alex, uses words that he obviously found in a thesaurus. Therefore, he says things, and uses words, that a native speaker wouldn't normally use in certain situations.

one of my students raised his hand and said, "you mean, he tries to use non-famous words?"

"Exactly," I said. "Non-famous words or, as I like to call them, uncommon words."


my students, today like every day, told me how much better the ukrainian school system is than the american school system. this discussion came as we were talking about the FLEX (Future Leaders Exchange) testing that's coming up in L'viv. Winners of the competition study in Americ for an academic year.

During the conversation, one particularly clever student asked if homework was assigned in America.

"Yes," I said. "And if you don't do it, your grade lowers. But you have homework here too, so it shouldn't be a big deal."

"Yes, we have it," the student said. "But we don't do it."

And now i'm wavering...which system is harder?