Archive | January, 2010

“The boundaries of language I quietly cursed”

30 Jan

Ways I Fight and Embrace my American-ness In Ukraine #2: “You shouldn’t even try…”

It was “one of those weeks” this week.  Subtly adverse, the full weight of this week didn’t hit me until I finished teaching my lessons yesterday morning.  Left with a gap between the end of classes and the beginning of English club, I ventured into the cold to run overdue errands.  Tired but pleased with myself for making my last phone card last such a long time, I headed toward the grocery store.  

The normalcy of my week ran straight into a brick wall when I reached the spice section.  Hunting for yeast to help me bake out my stress by making my orange glazed Challah bread, I found this packet of black pepper.  I was likely quite a spectacle for some Ukrainians, immobile and aghast as I was between the pasta, flour, and spices.  You see, Peace Corps provides special materials for volunteers who will be a minority where they are carrying out their service, but the rest of us are left a little in the dark when it comes to what to expect in our personal reactions to living in an extremely homogenous culture.  While there are minorities in Ukraine, the area where I have been stationed is remarkably lacking in diversity.  For the past two days, my English club students had been asking me, among other things, about diversity in America, which is perhaps why my indignation over a packet of pepper slipped quickly and uncontrollably into intense homesickness.

Back at my house, I tried desperately to replace sadness with even a meager good attitude through cookies and American comedy (I watched The Hangover).  Unfortunately, my bad day had accoutered itself in the memory of other disheartening events from throughout the week.  Addled by how swiftly homesickness had overrun my day, I was at a complete loss as to how to avoid dwelling on these episodes.  They paraded through my mind in laps.  Anyone would have thought I was watching the movie on my laptop, when in reality I was alternating between mild amusement as I stared at the film and utter anguish as the week made another pass through my consciousness.

There was Wednesday night – I dragged myself out of my pajamas and went out with another volunteer and his Ukrainian friends to celebrate a birthday, only to have the pleasantries of the night crash around me when the birthday boy told me “You shouldn’t even try speaking Ukrainian because you do it so badly.”

Wednesday and Thursday at English club I was asked if I had pets, to which I responded that in America I have four, only to silently suffer through embarrassment and sadness over having lost one recently and being incapable of admitting this to even myself.

I was forced Tuesday to teach three classes without the slightest bit of preparation.  Smooth and natural as they unfolded, the jump in my stress was anything but.

The main difference in “those weeks” here and “those weeks” in America is that in America, I would have realized Tuesday or Wednesday night what kind of week it was shaping up to be.  Grumbling to myself about each new event, emotionally I would have dealt with the blows as they came.  Here, it took slamming full speed into my limits to realize exactly what had happened.  I was unaware of the accretion of emotional weight until it was physically too much to bear.

Last night, stuffed to the brim with cookies, I decided today would be a mental health day.  Sleeping and reading would be my only priorities.  I suppose the upside to this abysmal week is that I have a new sleeping-in record.  Kari and I always text each other when we sleep late into the morning because it seems to be such a physical anomaly here – throughout training 8:00 was the latest either of us could sleep in.  Previous to today our record was first 9:30 (one of my visits to see her in Lviv), then 10:30 (all Kari’s)…but today I get to add a solidly collegiate waking time of 12:00 noon to that list.

*Music: “Different Names for The Same Thing” -Death Cab for Cutie


“This how we do it where I’m from…”

27 Jan

Ways I Fight & Embrace My American-ness in Ukraine #1; “Opah!”

I own the most hated jeans in Ukraine.  Perhaps an exaggeration, but not as much as you’re doubtlessly thinking.  Bear with me.

My relationship with jeans is tenuous at best.  Even stateside where jeans monopolize the social scene, I would frequently wear tights with skirts or dresses rather than these monsters of discomfort.  I wish I could abrogate the social rule of wearing jeans in public when not work-related.  Swishing around town in my silk-lined dress pants is something I find a luscious joy in – they make me feel prepared, organized, and experienced…ok ok, and snazzy.  America is ruled by a temporally visual culture, which begs the question, if we concern ourselves with the appearance of things to such a vast extent, why do we choose to always look at jeans?  I’ll save my diatribe of this American classic, and suffice it to say, I would be perfectly happy alternating between professional or dress attire, and slouchy, bejeweled sweatpants.

Part of my dislike for this section of America’s closet admittedly comes from the fact that I cannot find a pair that fits to save my life.  Not only do I have to hunt out the extreme inseam measurements hidden in the seemingly endless rows at places like The Buckle which actually bother to carry jeans by inseam, I also fight a losing battle against my accumulated swimming and water polo experience when in the dressing rooms (read: swimmer’s muscular thighs).

All of which leads me to being here in Ukraine with merely one pair of jeans that feature a massive hole over my right knee.  Ukrainian jeans differ from American in two fundamental ways; 1. for girls they are all tight (when I say tight, I mean skin tight), and 2. there are pristine in a hole-less way.  Granted, some of their jeans have so many decorations on the back pockets they spill over, down the leg of the wearer.  Still, not a hole in sight.  Coming from a country where we pay extra to buy the jeans that come pre-damaged, this is a little off putting to me.  Just as off putting to them, it seems, is my thoroughly American pair of jeans.

Shortly after I first wore said jeans around Drohobych while running my errands, an odd thing started happening.  A prickle of strange outside attention would slowly build until I’d look up to find an old lady staring at me…or rather, staring at my exposed knee.  The stares I’ve encountered have ranged from confusion to worry, curiousity to pure disapproval.  I was growing accustomed to these glances at my knee until an older man stopped me on the street and asked, «Не замерзла?» («You’re not cold?») in response to which I donned my sweetest smile possible, and in a way I hoped would impart an appreciation for his concern responded «Hi» («No») before carrying on my way with my groceries.  Since then I’ve been stopped frequently with the same question, or the variation «Не холодна?»

Tickled by what I perceived as an overabundance of concern, you can imagine my surprise when, walking to the bus stop on my way to work one day, I lost my footing on one of the many ice patches scattered throughout town and an older gentleman very calmly looked at me and said «Opah!» before carrying on his way.  I couldn’t hide my confusion as I stared up at him from the snow bank in which I had landed.  More amused than concerned by my spill, his reaction had thrown a wrench in my whole theory about Ukrainian concern for strangers.

Although, in all fairness, my pants were hole-less that day.

*Music: “This Is How We Do” -Big Tymers

“I’ll roll my eyes, turn a cold shoulder to these even colder skies”

21 Jan

“Do you have a ruble?” or, Recent Adventures #1;

Wandering through the Christmas villages that dot the Lviv layout for three weekends in a row was sufficient to convince me I should try the гаряче вино (hot, spiced wine) featured at almost every booth.  I have to admit that though the smell of cinnamon was part of the allure (a thing I’ve been missing for four months now), I was also enticed by the possibility of toasty fingers while we wandered through the cobblestone paved alleyways.  Curiosity finally got the best of me this past weekend after Kari and I braved the icy streets after enjoying a thoroughly American dinner of four cheese pizza (featuring feta!) and beer.  Streets all the colder for our time spent in the basement of the toasty restaurant, I started prodding Kari about the prospect of the spicy drink shortly after we strolled into the Плоша Рінок (Plosha Rinok).  Likely as cinnamon deprived as me (though she was smart enough to pack some in her suitcase), Kari acceded to my entreaties.

Being accosted by a man in search of a ruble (which, just to clarify, is not the currency of Ukraine) failed to dampen our excitement, though he came close when he decided attempting to take our wine was a sufficient substitute for finding a ruble.  Lacking the Christmas spirit their job would seem to entail, the booth worker shooed him away, informing him as well as the rest of the street that Kari couldn’t speak Ukrainian, though she had just ordered our drinks in Ukrainian while I continued to snicker about the ruble.

Retreating from the crowd to stand and sip our wine (walking on ice while carrying a scalding liquid being a skill neither of us have yet developed), we simultaneously wondered aloud why did we think we could each finish an entire cup of this?  From memory I’d say it was less spice and more booze than the Swedish glugg I was hoping it would emulate.  Though I consumed a mere fourth of that little plastic cup (a generous estimation), the cheerfully warm fingers and stomach were well worth the hryven’…or do I mean rubles?

*please take a moment to note the hair length, one of the many things I’m excited about these days.

*Music: “In Like a Lion (Always Winter)” -Relient K

“Following close but nearly twice as slow”

20 Jan

The long awaited moment has arrived – I finally have a mailing address!  *Remember to write my address in both English and Ukrainian so that it can get through both postal services.  It is suggested you use USPS to send packages because it’s the most secure service.

Linnea Zielinski
Drohobych Pedagogical Lyceum
Ivana Franka, 36.
m. Drohobych
Lvivska oblast

Лінея Зелинські
Дрогобич Педагігний Ліцей
вул. Івана Франка, 36
м. Дрогобич
Лвівська обл.

My first real day at Drohobych Pedagogical Lyceum was glorious in a way that cannot be undermined by even the massive spill I took in the middle of the ice paved street walking home.  While I nurse my legs and back maybe I’ll find the time to post recent adventures here for you to enjoy.

*Music: “Postcards from Italy” -Beruit

“I see our time expand in the air almost forcibly”

19 Jan

Kari and I have frequently discussed the pace our Peace Corps time is going to adopt.  The discussion usually went as follows – Kari would suggest that it would fly, I would suggest that summers would fly while the school year would drag.  When I called her crazy, she would carefully break down our service for me: one semester of figuring out your role within your new site, three months of working camps and traveling in summer, a full semester of teaching, winter holidays, then it will already be time for grad school applications and beginning close of service paperwork in the middle of our final full semester teaching before we slide into another whirlwind summer, and our final semester that we will leave before finishing (that is, if we don’t decide to extend our service time).  It all sounded packaged and shiny to me, but day-to-day I had a hard time imagining her timeline’s reality.

Here I am a month into being at my site, about four months into my entire service.  Already.

I’ve listening to this song in my iTunes several times over the last month; it’s becoming increasingly reflective of my Peace Corps time.  Tomorrow classes start on a regular basis which inevitably means I slip into the numbness of routine, whether I fight against it or not.  New projects, group meetings, and city trips aside, it might be month six of my time in Ukraine before I jolt awake and look up from my school books!

Dear Kari,

You were right, homie.

Love, Linnea

“I think life is too long to be a whale in a cubicle”

18 Jan

“To our new American friends, sharing our culture.”

I have heard variations of this same toast several times throughout my brief experience of Ukraine, and not once has it failed to illuminate ever so clearly the warmth, generosity, and hospitality of the culture into which I have been thrown.  In three months various Ukrainians have shared with me their time, experience, stories, pictures, space, food, drinks, friends, family, beliefs, homes, classrooms, frustrations, and plenty of chocolate.

The toast was the most poignant given on this last train I took, however.

You see, taking an oath to the US Constitution was one of the most charged experiences of my life.  I have always had issues with events requiring me to stand in front of a large group of people in auditoriums, oh yeah, and in heels.  Though this time there was no opportunity for me to fall (we stood in place), from the second I started lifting myself out of my seat to take the oath, the usual reaction began;

  • instantaneously sweaty palms,
  • body shakes starting in my hands which then move quickly to my knees, threatening to buckle and make a fool of me,
  • my stomach feeling like it’s simultaneously going to flutter out of my body and drop to the floor like a brick, and
  • my head swimming with words of the oath, thoughts of the past three months of training, fears for what’s to come, and some random stowaways that have nothing to do with the situation (“I should have re-painted my nails.”)

Still, this time was fundamentally different.  Media cameras zoomed in and panning the crowd, the US Ambassador on stage, my future coworkers and possibly friends sitting at each of my sides – as this all soaked in a painfully expansive smile spread over my face that I refused to control.  Few people have the opportunity for moments in their lives during which they are conscious of the momentous nature of what is unfolding around them.  Standing toward the back of the plush, red upholstered auditorium, sporting chipped nail polish on my raised right hand, I knew what I was doing was кльово (western Ukrainian slang meaning approximately «cool»).

The reality is, I might not change the world, and I’m ok with that reality.

Peace Corps is fundamental to who I am, a mere four months into the experience.  In terms of instantaneous changes in your life, I would venture to guess this ranks right up there with childbirth.  Some days spin by me at a dizzying pace, while others creep along a little slower than I would like, but in the middle ground there is a very basic joy in the every day experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer.  Sure, I buy groceries, clean my room, go to work, make commutes, mail letters, and run to the bank as I did in America, but I do it in Ukrainian.  When my days aren’t flying by me, this simple fact makes every errand beautiful and enjoyable even in their simplicity.

I still don’t know what I want to do with my life, but I know how to make пирушки (pyrushki: rolls with a sweet poppy seed and raisin mixture in the middle).  I’m not «well connected» nor do I have a job lined up when I return, but I ate a traditional Ukrainian Orthodox Christmas dinner with my Ukrainian friend, Y, and chatted with her friends in Ukrainian.  I don’t drive a car, nor do I watch TV, but I can tell you which fruits and vegetables are in season and navigate a complicated public transportation system.

Ukraine is simply beautiful and beautifully simple.  And here’s the simple truth of my simple Ukrainian life – it’s shaped by people sharing their lives with me, and I’m elated with the form it’s starting to take.

 *Music: “Plasticities” -Andrew Bird

“I’mma rock this sh*t like fashion”

14 Jan

Note: LPI = Language Proficiency Interview, Caritas = local NGO in Drohobych where I volunteer my time writing and correcting grants as well as teaching the staff English.

*Music: “Hard” -Rihanna