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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


“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

“your heart’s a mess; you won’t admit to it”

28 Oct

*Written before my trip to Poland, but failed to post.*

Though the weather here seems to have abated into a normal autumn and the leaves have metamorphosed into a living painting, my homesickness refuses to be alleviated.  The past week has been trying, though interspersed in the maudlin days were some moments of an esoteric contentment rather germane to a year spent acclimating to life abroad.  Walking home from the store on the edges of town, it chanced that I had a moment of life amplified by music, inspiring the creation of my autumn playlist to which I have been continually listening.  A thought struck me immobile as I walked along the edge of the woods; though autumn is fragrant and beautiful, the air crisp and smelling of frost, and I felt as if I could have stood forever on that carpet of carmine leaves…I wanted to do so in Central Park.

I yearn for the concrete of New York.  I miss the pace of life, the acrobatics of ducking and weaving through the mass of humanity on my way to work in the mornings, the brilliant sun tunneled down the avenues, and the feeling of gliding between frosty shadow and blinding daylight surrounded by glass, concrete, and steel.  Unequivocally linked with my feelings of futility and lack of accomplishment here in Ukraine, the sentiment is no less arresting for my comprehension.

Perhaps this ache for the familiar comes from eagerness to embark on my next step of life now that I have chosen one; we all know I never wanted to be a teacher.  Admittedly, there are evanescent moments in which I adore my job, namely when the announcement that a class has rotated back to being my students is met with fervent cheers and a mad dash for my classroom.  Being forced to teach to an established formula created long before my arrival, my lack of a creative outlet leaves mountains of frustration festering in the back of my mind.  Under these conditions I cannot help but feel that my accent is the only thing valued about my presence.  Whatever the truth of the situation may be, with every fiber of my being I itch to feel prolifically productive as I did in New York.

Setting dates I can look forward to has been an invaluable tool for surviving this semester.  On Saturday, Kari and I leave for a week trip in Poland where we will meet up with her friend Ama, tour Auschwitz (none of us can handle Birkenau), (after which we’ll need to) drink margaritas and eat guacamole at a Mexican restaurant, and enjoy wandering around the city of Krakow.  Ideally, an absence from Ukraine will counteract all the pent-up grievances I’ve accumulated in cross-cultural interactions and classroom difficulties.  Check back later to see if it worked!

*Music: “Heart’s A Mess” -Gotye

“I went and stole some wings and thought why can’t I?”

20 Jul

This is out of character, but just a straight forward update today to let everyone know what I’m up to, as I haven’t posted in about two months!

Life in Drohobych

Perhaps the happiest I’ve been throughout my service time at site, I’m currently extremely grateful for my phenomenal friends Olesya and Pavlo (they’re brother and sister) who patiently bear through our deal of alternating days speaking English and Ukrainian.  Several days ago Olesya and I sat in the park after doing some grocery shopping at the bazaar and I worked through translating the titles of the articles in a Christian newspaper we had been handed at some point on our walk.  Plus, seeing their family is continually a lift in my day!

On Friday as a storm rolled into town, I sat with Olesya and her mother in their home where a cool breeze whispering of an incoming thunderstorm could reach us, chatting about cultural ideas of the family unit as a fluffy puff of a kitten and his mother dozed lazily on my lap.  Sometimes I feel as if my Ukrainian would develop significantly more if I could relive days like this all year long.

Untangling Ukrainian

After the confidence shake that was Language Refresher, I have rebounded wonderfully.  The group I trained with at the Ukrainian Language camp was mostly volunteers who have been here longer, inevitably leaving me feeling incompetent after each session.  The only time I felt helpful was when we had to conjugate verbs; the tenses were indicated with the letters for their Ukrainian names, which my Ukrainian tutor had drilled into my head!  Point being, I survived the camp, and returned to site with a new found motivation to work on my Ukrainian.

These past few days I’ve been speaking so much Ukrainian with Olesya that I’ve been dreaming in a stressful mixture of English and Ukrainian that usually leaves me exhausted in the mornings.  Having felt my Ukrainian skills stagnate for quite some time, it’s a relief to feel a leap in my communication skills, and to hear that Ukrainians notice it as well.  Olesya’s mother and I can easily communicate now and she bolsters my confidence every time I see her by commenting on the marked difference in my speech.

A Sense of My Summer, Pictorially.

 <–My 11th form students graduated and made us proud by receiving a lot of medals.  The big ceremony was with all the schools in the middle of the town.  That’s the emblem for the lyceum where I work the boy is holding up.






On L’viv’s Day of L’viv there were –> many musicians playing out on the street, including one of this year’s contestants on Ukraine’s Got Talent.  He’s playing the bandura (as you can see, something like a traditional Ukrainian guitar), which I find to be one of the coolest instruments ever.  He can listen to a song on someone’s phone once and then immediately play it (while I watched he played everything from traditional Ukrainian music to hard rock).  Now that’s talent! 







<– I went with one of my students from English club to the old synagogue in town, which in good weather is turned into a local art gallery.  They had paintings done by a local artist as well as a photographic series.






Kari and I spent some –> time in Kyiv, showing her friend Jordyn around.  We went back to what we had seen in fall, and had much better lighting for some great photos!  This is my favorite statue to photograph.





<–We finally made it to the Chernobyl Museum where I snapped a couple photos before someone came to tell me I had to pay if I wanted to take pictures.  This picture has the words to a poem about the memorial of Chernobyl painted into the objects.  I love the rich colors and the traditional prints the painter put into the grandmother’s scarf and the long scarf wrapping around the perimeter of the work.  While we were there we ran into a group of Americans from the US Marine Corps – random.





I went to meet my family –> in Copenhagen and we drove across the bridge to Sweden.  We went hiking where part of the film The Seventh Seal was shot.  Even though it was raining/misting both times we were there, it was a great place!






<–The day before I had to fly back to Ukraine, the whole family went to the Carlsberg brewery.  Despite my aching feet from high heels, it was an interesting walk through the displays and we all enjoyed the beer tasting at the end.  The taxi driver who took us all the way back out to our hotel near the airport afterwards was wonderfully friendly and told us all about the challenges of living on the paycheck of an average person in an extremely expensive city.





After dragging myself off the plane into –> 40 degree weather in Kyiv, I barely made it to Nosivka to see my host family for the first time in 6 months.  I had a wonderful week full of movie watching with Ira, disco dancing with Ira and Yulia, Ira taking pictures of me, learning to make jam at home, and thoroughly enjoying some of the amazing cooking that I’ve missed so much the last six months.  I can’t wait to get back and see them again sometime soon!







<–I had a whirlwind birthday weekend in L’viv with Olesya, Pavlo, Andriy, and some of their friends.  I got to see Olesya do her work with Artistry at a product show (a makeup brand of Amway) finally!





We had an authentic  Fourth of July BBQ in L’viv at –> Kari’s place.  A volunteer even provided us with real tortilla chips, graham crackers, and marshmallows from her parents in the states!  It was nice to spend the 4th with Americans.





<–At Language Refresher, Joe and I got in touch with our inner children and played on the see-saw.  We needed to blow off some stress after a day full of language classes on grammar and skills work.  Kari just laughed at us!






We were at a sanatorium –> for Language Refresher while they were celebrating a summer holiday that included massive amounts of dancing.  The little kids were digging it!  Despite the bug bites, it was a delightful evening.






<–Part of the holiday involved audience members popping balloons which contained strips of paper on which were written tasks for them to complete.  Matthew got to pop one of the balloons – it’s a nice action shot if I do say so myself.






Just so you’re all sure nothing –> has changed, here’s proof that, as usual, I found a kitten to play with at Language Refresher as I do everywhere I go.  Living without pets for this long has been harder than I imagined it would – I want a kitten so badly I already have a name picked out for one – Conrad. Yes, as in Joseph Conrad.






Though I’m kicking myself for posting a blog so somniferous, I hope all of you enjoy the photos and brief life update.  Here in Drohobych there’s a wonderful new volunteer named Kelly who lets me use her wireless internet (with which Skype video works), so let me know about Skype dates to be set up when I get back from working a private Ukrainian camp in the Carpathians for three weeks (I’ll be gone until August 16th).

*Music: “Sunrise” -Yeasayer

“you know I’ll fall for each and every pretty word”

25 May

A brief account of a moment that has brightened recent saturnine days;

Studying my students to ensure they were actually watching the movie I was playing to bolster their lagging energy the last few minutes of class one day last week, a sudden torrent of “What’s shakin’ baby!” burst out in my classroom.  Parroting occasional lines from “Coraline,” my class picked this particular one up with fervor.  Slang is, unfortunately, rendered meaningless when subjected to the word-for-word translation with which my students like to be supplied.  Grasping for meaning, they worked through the slang by searching for words they knew in English.  From this farrago of UkrainianslangEnglish came a cry of, “Shake the baby!” to which, after a snort into my coffee cup, I quickly put an end.

*Music: “Swallow People Whole” -The Receiving End of Sirens

“comic and awkward grace, in a picture, on the table”

9 Mar

While I concentrate any and all writing skill I possess on what I hope to be a moving, persuasive, and unforgettable letter to a grant foundation in the hopes of obtaining much deserved support for a local NGO, enjoy a picture update.

The lifestyle in Ukraine being more active than that in America, I can enjoy such a weekend splurge meal in L’viv; 100 g картопля фрі and regular soda.

One of the many reasons I love fellow PCV, Linda, is the espresso maker she passed along to me on a Sunday that felt particularly akin to Christmas.  (I have no qualms bragging that I light the above pictured gas stove like a professional).

The layers of clothing necessary to feel only moderately chilly in my house – tights, silk lined dress pants, short sleeved turtleneck, long-sleeve wool sweater.  Oh, March.

Happy (belated) Women’s Day.  The student I was warned about as being a chit has earned a permanent spot in my heart; not only does she beam at me every time I see her, she left gorgeous tulips for me in honor of this holiday yet snubbed by America.

*Music: “A Bird Flies Out” -The Weepies

“Someone is hoping just that this will be the day”

14 Feb

This morning I walked back home through freshly fallen snow after seeing Kari off, headphones in, plugged into my own inner world.  Even with music on, my iPod has the astonishing ability to wrap me in nebulous silence from which I can absorb without taking part in my surroundings.  Though I have taken part in Ukrainian life, my life as defined by Ukraine has yet to gel.

Winter in Ukraine for me has been the way in which the blankets of snow lay perfectly across the fans of pine branches in the woods around Drohobych.  I habitually realize there’s something powerful about an unmarred stretch of snow, but never so often as here in Ukraine. Laying my boots in the footprints of others, my thoughts shuffled with each new song.  As Michael Buble’s “Home” slid through my headphones, my focus shifted from the branches to the banks of snow embodying both the ephemeral and permanent alongside the churned mire of the streets.  I stared at snow in Ukraine and saw snow in Indiana.

Four years ago, cold coffee turning icy next to my laptop, I stared out the library window as dense snow fell onto and was immediately indistinguishable from the drifts already covering the quad.  “Home” played over my headphones (then courtesy of a Dell DJ) as I, one of four people in the building thanks to the campus emptying effects of Winter Term at DePauw, sat in mental silence.  Thought is a lot like sound for me; focused solely on the remarkably steady pace of snowflakes gently erasing my path from the dorm, my mind was comfortably quiet.

I filled the day after Kari’s departure with annotating a Conrad, dismissing or pushing to the side any parenthetical concerns about the modest lassitude tugging at me.  The maudlin feeling was as disagreeable as unaccountable.  Setting aside my book (since Conrad has a tendency to encourage brooding), I decided to trade mental noise for musical.  Staring at nothing in particular, I let my mind drift…

…until Jason Reeves came on and “Someone Somewhere” found me on my morning walk up 8th Avenue two years ago.  I wore calf-length leggings in late November.  The air bit my knees through the material and my lower legs were florid from both my pace and the chill by the time I rounded on Times Square and dug blindly through my purse for my electronic work ID.  Matte grey was everywhere, unbroken by snow flurries until days later.  The elevator doors closed with their usual impartiality, but I felt nestled by the steel and content repeating this process interminably.

These songs made me miss these points of my life, who I was at these points in my life.  Kari once remarked that few people can be the same person no matter where they go; I’m not one of those few, and I’m not quite sure who I am here.  Today countless people feel a poignant lack of the person for whom they’ve been waiting.  I cannot say waiting to figure yourself out is poignant – it’s more of a dull ache.  Still, today I’m hitting the shuffle button waiting to find the song that tells me the person I’ve been looking for has been here all along.

*Music: “Someone Somewhere” -Jason Reeves