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“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

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“you and I are on the other side of almost everything”

2 Dec

*Please note that temperature discrepancies throughout this entry are due to the fact that it took me several weeks to find enough time to sit down and complete an entire blog entry.

I’ve torn myself, for a few evanescent moments, from the pages of my current reads to devote some attention to my ever increasingly neglected blog.  Though the temperatures are mercifully holding steady around a balmy 50oF, the before 5 pm sunsets have me wrapping myself in the comfort and warmth of my annual winter hibernation mode.  My daily totals of sleeping hours and tea consumption are simultaneously increasing.  This weekend I prematurely indulged in my favorite way to pass a winter weekend – I alternated watching episodes of an entire season of Grey’s Anatomy with reading what amounted to almost three entire books while continually wrapped in my fleece blanket, sipping scorching hot coffee or chai tea lattes.  A fireplace would have made the picture complete; that, however, is a luxury waiting for me at the end of my Peace Corps service.

The soothing combination of modern Motown and cinnamon laden hot drinks has driven away any mercurial moods lingering from my mid-semester slump and I eagerly await my favorite season of the year.  What I love about winter is simple – everything is wrapped in a fleecy haziness that lulls me into passive good cheer.  The crystalline frost outside only underscores the simple comforts of gliding over the wood floor with sock or slipper-clad feet, pulling on a sweatshirt immediately upon waking in the silvery mornings, or sliding my icy fingers through the handle of a steaming mug of tea.  Despite my pining for the delicious solitary moments dawning, I should fill you in on all that has happened.

I put my foot down about a fall break, giving myself a week to cross the border into Poland with Kari to meet her gregarious friend Ama.  Kari and I crossed the Polish-Ukrainian border on foot, quite the interesting experience.  Ukrainians apparently don’t take well to cutting in line, which Kari and I found out through the faux pas of a man who seemed undisturbed by the string of rather harsh curses that followed him.

Krakow main square

 Wordpress is hating me right now as it has not allowed me to post any more than the one picture of Krakow no matter how many times I try to update the entry, thus they will be posted at a later date.  The first snow has officially fallen and stuck in Drohobych, winter has announced the end of fall.  My book goal is going strong and I’m working on catching up on an array of emails, messages, and cards that have been pushed off because of Thanksgiving celebration preparation.

Ten volunteers came into town to partake in an American Thanksgiving that was as American as we could make it.  The night before Thanksgiving, Kelly helped me bake apple pies at her apartment, allowing me to video Skype with my mom – the first time I’ve seen her since my trip to Denmark and Sweden in June.  Lows hit me harder than some volunteers here who have constant access to video Skype because I don’t have that direct line to a support system be it friends or family.  I feel the distance more strongly than many other volunteers because the distance shows through our connection, or lack thereof.  We can only talk through Skype with audio interrupted by amounts of static, delays, and cut offs proportionate to the number of miles between us.  Steadier connections tend to leave me maudlin for a couple days because of their scarcity – an hour phone call from a friend in the states left me a shaky, sobbing mess from happiness hearing from her and sadness at having to give up the miraculous connection after the shortest hour I’ve ever experienced.

Thanksgiving was memorable this year, for lack of a more concise word.  Not only was there massive Thanksgiving dinner preparations going on in my kitchen, I also had to get myself ready and hurry to my best Ukrainian friend’s wedding.  I was flattered to be Olesya’s Maid of Honor in the small document-signing ceremony.  She and her husband, Ivan, will have their official wedding ceremony this spring (or so our mutual hair dresser was telling me in Ukrainian) but I’m glad I got to be a part of this smaller, more intimate rite.  As Maid of Honor, I was allowed to take an active role in some of the traditional rituals, such as laying down the embroidered cloth onto which the bride and groom take their first steps as a married couple.  I feel absurdly lucky for having fortuitously met Olesya in the post office one day last winter; her family has become my family.  I now have two Ukrainian families of which I feel myself a part.  What more can a girl abroad ask for?

Not to brag or anything, but my wedding toast at the reception dinner made her mom cry and dad tear up a bit.  In case you’re interested, here’s (approximately) how my extemporaneous toast went (*I don’t remember exactly because it was impromptu and I was shaky and crying all my makeup off);

In Ukrainian; “Although I can speak Ukrainian, I am going to say this in English because I want to be concise.  Pavlo (Olesya’s brother) will be my translator.”

In English; “Olesya, I am so happy and honored to be here today because, though it’s only been around a year since I met you, you have become my sister.  Your family has become like my family, and I hope that when they come to Ukraine, my family will become like yours.  The first time you brought Ivan to a cafe to meet me, I could see in your eyes how happy you were; I knew you had found the person you were meant to find.  I cannot tell you how happy I am that you have found the one person who can complete you.  Ivan, thank you for making my friend the happiest I have ever seen her.  I wish, for both of you, that no matter where you live, what job you have, how much money you make, or how many children you eventually have, that you never forget the feeling you have now of pure happiness of just being with one another.”

As you’ve likely divined, Thanksgiving will never again be the same for me.  Despite its ups and downs and my distance from family, this just might have been the best Thanksgiving ever.  I hope everyone had a special Thanksgiving, filled with loved ones and warmth.

*Music: “You and I Are a Gang of Losers” -The Dears

“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