Wednesday, April 20, 2011

'...Wait, what?'

She points to the word in the dictionary and makes the gesture of clinking shot glasses again.

Prikmeta - sign, token

In her broken English she lets me know once more that what I did out of habit has much more significance. Even past the shots of vodka I've imbued, it starts to sink in. I, as an unmarried man, cannot 'clink' glasses with one of the opposite sex unless I wish to show intent. She is a married woman...

I am in a minefield.

I stay quiet and wait for rescue. Stepping in any direction could get me blown up and out of town. I feign un-understanding and it seems to work. My host mom and our guest start talking again. Color returns to my face and I keep eating my lunch. I start chuckling to myself when the door opens. I am introduced to her husband.


There are 2 ways I see this going. The first involves yelling. The second also involves yelling, but between them, not at me. Something about how this rich American has promised to marry her and that she doesn't need to stay married to him. We customarily shake hands and then things quickly escalate to nothing. 2 minutes of brief chatter and he leaves. A few more shots (sans-clinking) and she leaves too.

Really need to learn this language..(and stop imagining disastrous outcomes for every situation..)


There is silence at the dinner table, but not for lack of curiousity. My family and community have been through so much trauma, and their parents even more. Their parents lived through one of the greatest (albeit man made) famines in recorded history, while they have lived through the entirety of the Cold War replete with spies, secret police, and, if one was worldly enough, fear of nuclear annihilation. My host sister is among the first in 80 years raised in a forward looking society. I hope her eyes never harden and her gaze never shortens. When you stop worrying about the bread on the table is when you can set some sight on the future.

This past week, we are continuing to build the foundations of language. Strong, common words and verbs make the main supports while a smattering of grammar holds it all up. At the end of training, we must pass at the 'Intermediate Mid' level of a general lanugage test. I don't think we'll have any trouble.

More important is what happens at our 2 year site. As English teachers, it will be expected and accepted to speak English and not Ukrainian. Hopefully my language skills will not whittle down to 'How Much?' and the various ways to say Please and Thank You. What will make the difference is what site I get sent to. It is possible that I would be the only fluent English speaker in town. Also, it could be that the entire teaching staff speaks English. So much difference down to chance.


It's been a while. ..well, it seems that way to me. Time moves slowly when you start a new life. There is much to learn and each day is thoroughly lived. That's not to say there's no time off, but time spent away from study and work is still not spent away from culture. Please do not take that as a complaint. Life here is as good as it is different. I have been placed in a village called Hermanivka. It is over 900 years old and claims 3000 residents. We are 2 hours out of Kiev and 30 minutes from Obuhiv (the closest proper town). There are five of us here. We are in school 6 days a week (5 for language and 1 for teaching) It is a 20 minute walk for most of us to our teacher's house. It is made through sound and smoke. The roosters alert us to wake, study, and sleep. Since it will soon be time to farm, each plot keeps a pile of burning leaves, branches and/or trash that has been cleared from the fields. The village pearl is the gymnasium (specialty school) It is a historical building (100 years) known for producing historical people. In a few weeks we will teach there.

My family is not rich, but their warmth and hospitality is not something money can buy. The father is an electrician and the mother works the grounds at the gymnasium which the daughter attends. They know no English and my Ukrainian is lacking. A month from now I hope we can have a conversation.

Identity Theft

It is stange to have so much routine taken away. It's difficult to imagine being without something you've had your entire life. You think that what you do is what defines you.. but when it is all taken away and replaced, then just who do you become?

Distilled to your basics and as vulnerable as you are, you can choose to either hibernate until you again find known comfort (internet, running water, language), or you can forge foreward and find comfort in new places. If I wish to survive here with a smile, then I must seek new comfort. I'll let you know when I find it.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Means and Motives

I had a post prepared and typed out last night, with a picture and everything, but when you can't get to a usb drive, then everything kind of falls apart. But now I know I need to write things out and bring a notebook with me as I'd rather not leave you with a broken paragraph and cherry picked memories. 

I am in an experience. One week into it and it feels like I've lost track of your lives. We are still crawling our way around, but in a few weeks I think we'll take our first steps. Language learning is exhausting and never really ends, but it has let me learn more in a week than I took away from 2 semester of Japanese. Our village is a place called Hermanivka it contains a bit less than 3000 people. Everyone knows of us, and soon they will all have met us. There are no crowds to melt into, we are on the job truly 24/7. There was a story told of a prior volunteer that did something unrespectable right when she got to her site. For the next 2 years she had to fight for even a brief glance of respect, and when she left, her progress was wiped away and herself forgotten. 

Anyway, I must be going, bus to catch. More later. 

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Legacy

JFK in '61 with some of the first volunteers.

Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of my soon to be employer. Those were different times and different people. No internet, no 24 hour news network, and very few travel guides. You found out about other countries by who we were at War with, where your family immigrated from, and what you read in the morning paper. If you were lucky you had a distant relative that actually wanted to inconvenience themselves with foreign travel. Today, you are out of place if you haven't been out of country.

It took a different kind of swagger to do what they did back then. When all they had were anecdotes and newspaper clippings. They devoted two years of their lives to the unknown, back when something foreign was actually exotic. I, on the other hand, have spent many hours researching Ukraine, have actually been there, and am more concerned about teaching well than adapting to the culture.

Here's to the trailblazers of yesteryear. The first group of many sent out of country, not to destroy or preach, but to teach and learn. Their assigned country needed help and they happily gave it. (Though not without incident)

I only hope that with all my knowledge I can hit the ground running, quickly adapt, and aid them to the best of my abilities.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Introductions and Preparations


Well here we are. I am less than a week away from leaving for the Peace Corps and I've decided to start a blog.  I suppose this would work best if you knew a little about me (You can stay in the shadows, I won't mind).

Simply, I love culture. I like to understand as much as I can about a people, their places, and their things. I enjoy the differences, but what I am really interested in are the similarities. Every culture is unique, but the rationale that led to each of our cultures is beautifully similar. There are threads that repeat over and over and that by braiding them together, one may catch a glimpse of an unabashed humanity.

After the Peace Corps I have no idea where I'll end up. Heading into an office and then back to school is the likeliest option, with INSEAD being the hope. Until then, I hope to do a commendable job teaching English, blending with the culture, and learning Russian and/or Ukrainian. This blog will try to give you some idea of what the Peace Corps in Ukraine is like. I hope you enjoy.


I am trying to gather all my things together for the next two years and it's proving difficult. I've worked half the day, and have most of what I'm taking in the same room. I have six more days to buy some forgotten items, organize and protect the fragile bits, finish editing my pictures, organize my hard drives, realize more things I forgot, buy them, catch a movie, eat some local food, see some local friends, pack, repack, and bid my adieus. Fun.

I am milking, as much as I can, the creature comforts of my current life. Long hot showers, washing machines, driving myself places, speaking English, being able to live on autopilot. Soon I will (probably) be without all of these. While I am not worried so much about making it through this upcoming life, I am concerned about fully transitioning into this new culture. I cannot just tolerate differences and dislikes for the entire two years. I will have to change who I am or I will be miserable. Who will I be? I'll let you know.

So here we go, first post of a new term. You should see a few more posts up before I leave, and after that I shall continue when I am able.

I'm glad to have you along.