this is my winter song

26 Dec

November in Krakow, Poland.

November in Oświęcim, Poland.

November in Vilnius, Lithuania.

November in Kaunas, Lithuania.

November in Trakai, Lithuania.

November in Šiauliai, Lithuania.

November in Riga, Latvia.

November in Dārziņi, Latvia.

*Music: “Winter Song” -Sara Bareilles & Ingrid Michaelson

“but i don’t have the words in my head”

30 May

Being a vegetarian in Ukraine is something that starts as a challenge and slowly degenerates into tedium, both in cooking and in representing a lifestyle largely missing from this country.  In training, the constant stomach-clenching fear of offending your host family keeps your vegetarian identity edgy and interesting.  You’re asked, told, begged, ordered, cajoled into tasting, eating, sampling, nibbling this meat and that.  Each situation presents a new obstacle course of cultural values, family traditions, and hospitality to be negotiated with perspicacious mental agility, a situation which largely distracts you from the fact that your diet is, most likely, already dull (if you’ve seen/read it, think restaurant scene from Everything Is Illuminated involving the potato).  As a lacto-ovo vegetarian (one that eats eggs and dairy products) my host family finally surrendered to force-feeding me more eggs than I thought a normal person could possibly eat.  Varieties in my diet, thus, largely came from different forms in which eggs could be cooked.  They now have a certain recipe dubbed “Linnea’s eggs” because they were the kind I was most happy to see come dinner (or lunch or breakfast) time.

After an understandable adjustment period in which a volunteer figures out where everything can be found or purchased for the lowest price at their respective sites, cooking experimentation begins.  For me, this wasn’t until spring rolled around, a significant four months into my time at site.  Figuring out the stores and bazaar wasn’t the only factor; as TEFL volunteers, we arrive at site for the beginning of a long, hard winter…alone.  Missing Christmas away from home for the first time in my life, I largely escaped to the world of fiction and drank hot chocolate for sustenance.  Tempest past, I finally emerged and stumbled, amazed into increasingly fresh and tempting produce at the bazaar.  The variety of squash, rainbow of fruit, and bouquets of fresh herbs called out creative recipe ideas of their own accord as I tiptoed along boards covering the floor of puddles.  Long into September, I was still canning and preserving apple butter and pear jam while trying to resist the raspberry jam made earlier in the summer.  Playing around with tastes and textures, I whipped up stuffed eggplant, deep-dish spiced apple pie for an American Thanksgiving abroad.  Then fall started frosting over, warning of the winter to come.  My schedule wore me down, the setting sun at 4:30 in the afternoon pissed me off, and another approaching Christmas far from the comforts of home was already invidiously wreaking its havoc on my mood.  I stopped cooking.  I quit baking.  I bought hot chocolate.

This curve was paralleled by my experience singularly representing vegetarianism in my community.  Food and communal eating plays an important role in Ukrainian culture that is readily apparent.  No different from my experience living with a Ukrainian host family, explanations were expected when I balked at the passed cold-cut tray.  The first day in my new town had prepared me for the continuation of this dialogue.  My attempt at a gracious decline of a fish dinner had been met with the terse response, “so you’re refusing my gift outright.”  It was not a question and my verbal footwork had clearly been found lacking.

I gradually tired of sitting with my hands in my lap at parties centered around an array of largely meat-based dishes, smiling like an idiot, answering questions about my lifestyle that were posed with condescension.  The fatigue I experience after a night of explaining my particular type of vegetarianism, (as well as providing a brief overview of the spectrum of vegetarian lifestyles) repeating myself for those who hadn’t bothered to listen initially, being misrepresented by those with more proficient Ukrainian, correcting the misrepresentations for the once again deaf ears was one of body, mind, confidence, and enthusiasm.  Whereas before I was proud to share a piece of my culture and lifestyle, I found myself frequently begging lack of appetite rather than peak interest in which dishes I was choosing to partake.  It strained my appreciation of the culture I had been given the chance to experience.  Health conscious but thoroughly castigated, polite apologies were my solution to the dinner party problem.   The latent problem was the ambivalence created in respect to my vegetarian diet.  Attention to my diet was shirked, as my only focus became a steadfast loyalty to the lifestyle.

Recipes turned to routine and I ate almost the same three meals each day simply because eating is necessary.  Something akin to joy left when I stopped cooking to cook, to experiment, to share and to create.  Diffidence turned me into a person who happened to not eat meat rather than a vegetarian.  I lost sight of the fact that being vegetarian is a sign of my culture, finding nothing extraordinary about it a luxury of my culture.  As culture, it should be respected even if it cannot be understood.  My patience with Ukrainian culture was worn thin as a result of the constant disparagement of my own.  Then a couple weeks ago an unexpected thing happened.  Cherries reappeared in the bazaar, and I was ready to cook again.

In the midst of my period of dietary monotony, I volunteered to take the role of head of Healthy Lifestyle Working Group’s newly created Recipe Committee.  Part of me clearly wanted to be twirling around the kitchen again.  Though in its nascence, the committee had some immediate goals; to acquaint volunteers throughout the country with the ins and outs of Ukrainian gastronomy (as in what is possible, not necessarily cultural) by season and, as the name suggests, dispersing recipes via blogs and monthly newsletters.  So here is a declaration to all of my readers, no longer shall I neglect my cooking blog.  I cannot promise consistency as Peace Corps summers are filled with travels and summer camps, but for every week I am at site I will share a minimum of two recipes I have tasted, tweaked, or thought up.  Perhaps you’ll find something you want to try, perhaps a vegetarian (or carnivorous!) PCV in another Eastern European country will be encouraged or inspired to let their culinary creativity flow or simply to cook after a long, hard day at work.  No matter their influence, the recipes will be here…and I’ll be cooking up something new.

*Music: “Rewind” -Diane Birch

“girl you live in a hurry, life comes at you in a furry”

26 May

End of service in sight, I’m being shredded by conflicting urges.   A wanderlust pulls at my feet, shoelaces, ponytail as it whips in the air on my runs.  It trips me in any direction, spinning me around for the sake of yet another city, journal entry, photograph, running event.  My headphones, their connection broken on one side, emphasize the lack where I could be hearing the crashing of waves as I run along the river in Budapest until the absence is all I can think about.  The screaming of adventures to be had reaches a shrill screech that leaves me deprived of any sense of direction yet feverish and itching to move until I throw open the windows in my new apartment and listen to the haunting sound of night trains passing through.  Their mournful hooting brings the quiet whispering of the familiar that beckons in the crisp night air, reminiscent of an Illinois frost.

Fears tug and scratch on either side; If I go straight home am I ordinary?  If I run home immediately after living abroad, does it negate my separation by revealing a yearning for the familiar, showing that there were indeed rough times or that, mentally, I was home all along?  But then, with what speed is it ok to return from a new culture without being seen as fleeing?  If I continue to move, am I running from something I’d rather not face?  Rarely have I met a volunteer who joined the program simply for the experience; there’s always an ulterior motive, conscious or subconscious, ranging from a desire to change or save the world to the less noble resume padding.  On several occasions it has crossed my mind that perhaps, in arriving I was running, making the only literarily (and, if the idea behind mimesis is correct, literally) appropriate next step a return to the abandoned.

The expansive horizon of possibilities has washed over me, suddenly and with surprising force.  Perhaps I hit the trifecta, the perfect combination of non-fiction adventure memoirs, personal travels, and boundless optimism, catalyzing my wandering desire.  A through-hike of the Appalachian Trail seems a logical next step, never having been seriously considered before.  Uprooting my life to live a clandestine year in Budapest makes perfect sense after a brief three day visit.  Reckless abandon seems to be the feeling I’m trying to embrace, something akin to what I felt visiting friends at College of Santa Fe when we went cliff jumping.  Every fiber tense with the natural urge to hold back, there was something intoxicating in breaking with logic and literally throwing oneself off a cliff.  The water’s cushioning presence in no way detracted from my vertiginous tumbling through the air, I tell myself, so why should home?  After all, the only reason I leapt was my security in the knowledge that the water would be there at the end of my plunge.

*Music: “The Quick & the Dead” -Bedouin Soundclash

“hey, you’ve been used”

8 Apr

Lately I’ve been seized by an all encompassing quiet.  Exhaustion has set in, and only extreme quiet ameliorates my mood.  The mental silence of running has become my haven and training for the Prague Marathon is my foundation in many ways.  Routine has muffled any mental noise or confusion, and it’s calm if not entirely comforting.  My running schedule, diet, and water intake are all regulated closely which, to my surprise, ended up organizing all other parts of my schedule almost entirely.  Being without a computer for roughly two weeks did wonders for calming my nerves and anxiety, and I found myself much happier for my ignorance on world news.

Spring, it seems, is bent on ensuring my life isn’t too quiet.  My quiet morning runs are full of pops and snaps.  The emerging birds drop sticks from the trees with small pops that usually make me jump a little, which I am then forced to play off as if I’m an oddly bouncy walker.  Fires snap and pop thickening the morning fogs as the residents of Drohobych clear their yards of sticks, twigs, and trash.  The edges of the fields are being prepared for the spring plantings, and the black soil is usually rimmed with a thin red outline as the weeds burn wetly.  Sunflower seeds crack in the teeth of local high school boys skipping school as they lean on the sagging metal fences of the local stadium, watching me run.

With two months until the end of the semester I’m close to collapsing.  Seeing Erin was an amazing uplifter which turned into as much if not more of a downer the second I said goodbye to her at the airport.  I experienced first-hand the confusion of hours upon hours of translating until I could no longer tell which language I was speaking.  My working group is preparing for our first summer camp to teach Ukrainian children about healthy lifestyles and all that encompasses – alcohol and smoking awareness, HIV/AIDS awareness, nutrition, sportsmanship and teamwork, and respect for oneself and others.   I’m still working out plans for a very quick trip into Moldova to poke around wine country, will be enjoying historic Ukrainian/Polish sites in Poland around Easter time, and seeing a brand new city May 6-9 when my relay runs the marathon in Prague.  Things have ceased to seem new, making it hard to know what to write to all of you back home.  I’m largely inured to the ups and downs of daily Peace Corps life, but still thoroughly enjoy watching my month countdown dwindle.

*Music: “Expectations” -Belle & Sebastian

“and it looked like a painting I once knew”

24 Feb

Snowy winters suit Drohobych, if not my Prague Marathon training.  The dirty yellow haze of a sun looked this morning as if painted in abstract.  No warmth comes from it, no rays fall on the cold morning floor, the world has become dove grey, yet the snow seems to dance with the otherwise absent light.  Each object is blanketed, the sidewalks merely compressed, not cleared, snow.  Even the trodden streets look an oddly pleasing shade of cappuccino as if the color was created with purpose, not just an adulteration of the blinding white bordering the roads.  I feel comfortable in this world, nestled in the grey.  The texture of the snow covering the streets resembles creamed butter and sugar, the first step of home-made cookies, and the vision is just as comforting as the cookies of which I’m reminded.  Fresh snow has twirled and spiraled to the ground for a solid four days as if nature had a great blizzard in store for our sleepy town, but decided there was no need to rush.

Although getting myself out the door to run is an endeavor, gratification always accompanies the effort.  I have my own personal lane in the field of white barely recognizable as the sports school track.  The crisscross pattern worn into the snow by my YakTracks after each run is gently blurred in the continuously falling snow, yet somehow detectable when I return.  In a town big enough to grant anonymity, my runs identify me.  The same early morning cross-country skiers share the stadium with me, our breath-clouds looking less forlorn for the company.  Though gawking, familiar faces accompany my runs, I create for myself a duel world.  The daily commuters and I share this time, the worn familiarity, while I simultaneously cut myself off.  In for three, out for two – there’s just my breathing, the falling snow, and the opera I play on my ipod.

*Music: “I Can Feel a Hot One” -Manchester Orchestra

“when the storm comes, will you reject the rain?”

24 Feb

ready the models

Enjoying some final sun and warmth our last day in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.  Our friend Hassan wanted us to all pose together, but I prefer the relaxed candid.

*Music: “Bend” -Ben Sollee

“eight miles a minute for months at a time”

12 Feb

I haven’t written a blog entry in quite a while, and that is most likely an understatement.  Journaling in general seems vapid and frivolous to me these days.  Running on full speed 7-11 each day has worn me thin to the point where I don’t have independent thought outside my minute to minute schedule, let alone find the little that passes through from time to time worth anyone else’s time or energy.

The only thing I’ve had to be thankful for in some time was moment of complete silence walking back from the grocery store two days ago (a three mile round-trip).  Along a major road, nonetheless, the only sound was the crunching of gravel under my shoes as I crossed one of the torn apart intersections.  It lasted for perhaps 20 seconds, but it was a glimpse of a break and rest I hadn’t gotten in over two weeks.  My emotional exhaustion has surpassed anything but vague, hazy notions of emotions and most of the time I feel unenthusiastic and generally sub-par.

I’ve started a journaling project at one school through which the senior students are consistently writing “letters to Linnea.”  Though the amount of work I have each night has skyrocketed as a result, the project is what I’d tentatively call fulfilling and a success.  Personalizing the attention I give each student through our letters back and forth has already achieved marked improvements their writing and participation.  Students I never thought would say a word in class are openly sharing their lives with me through these journals and I’m thankful for that step forward even if it means more sleepless nights of grading past 3 am.

Other than that, I’m regretting my luck of being out of the country for the release of such a ground-breaking book as Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes.  Most of you are well aware of my literary fixation, so I’m only going to say that this is the biggest step in melding literary art and visual art since the release of Tristram Shandy (in my humble opinion).  I’m jonesing a copy and tearing my hair out over Amazon not having it.

The daily grind keeps going day in and day out, though I’m enjoying a weekend of running, watching “The Wire,” and reading Gone With the Wind.  My next rest will be on International Women’s Day, a holiday I’m in full support of America finally adopting.

*Music: “Against the Wind” -Bob Seger

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