Faith, Hope, and Love Remain

Alei's adventures in Ukraine

It Was an Incredible Experience, but I’m So Glad to Be Home March 12, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 6:32 am

I was Home for Christmas 🙂

I think I’ve uttered the aforementioned phrase literally a hundred times in the almost four months I’ve been back.  Whether at a job interview, a family gathering, or an impromptu chat with a grocery store cashier (yeah, I still do that) it’s unintentionally become my go-to when I have 30 seconds to sum up the past few years of my life.  My life jacket for small-talk situations to prevent me from blabbering on.  It may not be the most creative or eloquent & at this point it feels like kind of a cop-out, but honestly, I stick with it because it’s the truth.  I can’t think of a more succinct way to encompass the slew of of sentiments the long-awaited transition has brought about.  I realize this final entry is a little delayed, but while entirely unplanned (I just love me some fast-paced, friend-filled America & have developed a slight aversion to sitting alone with my thoughts) it is pretty convenient, as I think I’m almost to the point where I can meet someone new & not mention Ukraine.  In fact, I really probably shouldn’t or else I’ll start sounding like that girl spouting on about “This one time, in the Peace Corps…”. So now as I careen into my new life & closer to the days & weeks when I won’t need to say it at all, let’s take a minute & break this sum-up of a sentence down.

Christmas dinner at Kyoto, nice like a family

Incredible?  Really Alei? As overkill as it sounds, I like that as a descriptor not for its hyperbole, but because I think it emphasizes the fact that prior to Peace Corps I didn’t & couldn’t understand what my service would be like.  It really, truly was unbelievable.  The two years & two months pushed me to limits of frustration & homesickness that I couldn’t possibly have fathomed from Cary or even Champaign, Illinois.  That going to buy bananas would require a fully formulated speech beforehand as well as time specifically devoted to psyching myself up to be stared & often yelled at (for misdemeanors like refusing to eat meat or wear socks obvi).  That saying “Happy Easter” to my family couldn’t happen without a very orchestrated adaptation to our daily routines as well as a hint of good favor from my fickle internet connection.  The simple was made difficult in ways I could have never anticipated.  But at the same time, how could I have ever known by reading the information packet some 700 days ago the effect Ukraine would have on me?  That to this day my heart would melt from the mere remembrance of my little babies trying their hands (& flailing arms & legs) at yoga as an excuse to hang out with me?  That I’d rank an evening spent sitting in my pajamas singing Russian karaoke with my host family as one of my lifetime’s chart-topping favorite moments?  That I’d make connections with people whose voices I still (& hopefully will forever) hear both on the phone every week & in my head every day?  The things I felt, the things I got to see, to experience, the relationships forged anew & kept strong against all odds; in a word, incredible.

My new roommates. And yes, that's (unnecessary) outside apparel for the dead of winter. I love Texas.

Also incredible is the opportunity I have to reflect back a few months removed not just on the experience’s impact on me, but on God’s grace & palpable presence throughout.  I started most mornings reading a few chapters from the Bible & annotating in the margins.

Ookie & Bronsie

 My notes were scrawled from many a bizarre location ranging from my host family’s sparkly living room, to bundled in blankets in a chair in my icebox of an apartment, to the steps of Piazza Michelangelo overlooking Florence & even sprawled out on a towel (clothed!) at the nudie beach in Crimea.  My handwriting is at times almost indecipherable often on account of attempting to write on the various forms of transportation rambling at breakneck speeds over dirt roads & Soviet-era railroad tracks, & other times from the watermarks created by tears & maybe even a little homemade vodka.  I took it everywhere & commented on anything that struck me at the moment, & now thumbing back through the silky pages the only word that describes the timing & relevance of His words in the thick of each intense emotion is, you guessed it, incredible.  I read through in a sequence without jumping around at all, & as such I simply can’t call a coincidence the way the chapters in the book reflect the chapters of my life in each & every small moment.  That the story of the Tower of Babel happened on day 5 in Ukraine when I could attest better than ever the confusion caused by lack of a common language.  That I read of Job being “drowned in his affliction” & overcoming in the airport as I was on my way back from Christmas & feeling like I was sinking in a sadness of my own.  That I started the book of Romans on the day I met Mom & embarked on our journey to Rome.  That I was reminded that the Red Sea didn’t part until Moses actually stepped foot in the waters, just as I was preparing to move into the uncharted waters of a town called Yampil. Almost every page is rife with perfectly timed messages that I would have easily glossed over had it been any other day.  Honestly, it would be weird if it weren’t so wonderful.

They're fancy, huh?

These small tokens of hope, encouragement, wisdom, guidance, really whatever the moment called for, touched me in ways that I could never do justice to, bolstered me to carry on attempting what seemed impossible, highlighted how incredibly blessed I am, & reminded me when I needed it most that at no point of the way was I walking alone.  Hard to believe, but impossible to forget.  In fact, the whole experience was elegantly encapsulated in a verse that I read in the Frankfurt airport on my way Home for good on November 17.  In the midst of an emotional, sleep-deprived, journey to the Promised Land trying to make sense of the two-years worth of a life that I was leaving behind I read “Out of most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.  For I testify that they gave as much as they were able and even beyond their ability” (2 Corinthians 8: 2-3).  While my “poverty” was far from extreme & my “trials” much less severe than what too many of Earth’s inhabitants face on a daily basis, this verse served as yet another goosebump-inducing, accurate example of exactly what I needed to hear.  It gave me not only closure, but a sense of indescribable accomplishment & gratitude as I glided over the Atlantic & into my new life in America.  Simply incredible.
Which brings us to the glad part.  Try as it might, nothing could break my joy on the tumultuous trip home. If you fought your way through the last post back in November you 1.  are a trooper & 2. can personally vouch for how sleep deprived I was.

Hims my gay boyfriend, Dexter.

At that point I’d been running on single-digit hours of sleep over the course of three days & was simultaneously exhausted by the sad goodbyes & exhilarated by the happy hellos waiting for me at O’Hare.  I wanted nothing more than to pop the half of a heavy duty sleeping pill that my friends scrounged up for me the second I sat down on the airplane & pass the heck out.  No such luck.  Mere moments into the boarding process I was asked to swap my window seat with a crying baby & her mom.  Then after tearing maniacally through my carry-on bag I came to the devastating realization that the meds (which I was referring to as ‘horse tranquilizers’ by that point & finding hilarious every time) were nowhere to be found.  So instead, while already eons beyond slap happy, I resolved to watching hours of ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadephia’ which is hysterical on a bad day.  Suffice it to say, I’m pretty sure my fellow passengers were (rightfully) afraid that the zombie-esque girl in the back was having a seizure thanks to my frequent convulsions of silent laughter.  For eight hours.  After proving one last time though that I will never be a truly seasoned traveler, I made it through security & into the loving arms of my mom & dad, & it’s been on the up & up since then.

Peace Corps is careful to caution us that the readjustment to home process is often the most difficult part of service for volunteers.  Apparently I am incredibly shallow, because I have yet to find America anything less than amazing.

Beautiful Christmas sweater party.

Honestly, I think the biggest blip I hit was the dastardly discovery that my pants no longer fit, & while I handled that challenge like a particularly petulant five year old, America also just so happens to have amazing technology called the elliptical machine as well as sugar-free everything so me & my jeans are just fine again.  Trying to find a job was an irritating-at-times process mostly because it made me feel like a bum being unemployed & more often than not sporting sweatpants while everyone else was out accomplishing things, but thankfully I’ve been gainfully employed for the past 2 months & fully appreciative of health insurance & a paycheck that covers slightly more than cabbage & chocolate.  Really though, it’s my people.  It’s knowing that despite living in Austin (& loving it, btw :)) I can be home in a matter of three hours if the need be.  It’s getting to spend Spring Break with my parents in Las Vegas.  It’s being able to call & check in on my stupid, little brothers (jk, kind of) on a whim because going to Taco Bell reminds me of them.  It’s spending literally the whole day laying in the living room with my roommates burning CDs & laughing about things that only we find funny.  It’s doing, well, anything with the world’s most perfect dog, Dexter, who I now share a roof & often a bed with.

Hims can't get on the bed without a formal invitation.

I’m not going to take more of your time going into the details of the life that I’ve had the joy of crafting & getting used to these past few months (that’s what the pictures are for), but I will say that I love it.  I still am known to fall prey to whining about the daily first-world irritations of bad drivers & long lines at Starbuck’s.  I’m slightly alarmed at how easy it is for me to drop $40 on a new pair of sunglasses & definitely still have some things to work on, but I go to bed each night with a sense of peace & a new awareness of how blessed I am to be here with all of you.

And so, here we are at the end.  I feel like I should have some profound insights or at least a solid, inspirational quote worthy of a college application essay, but I don’t.

Welcome to my life. Great friends & popcorn galore.

What I do have is a mind full of memories & a heart full of gratitude.  I have appreciation for things that I used to overlook, & drawers full of pictures that whisk me away to Ukraine whenever I choose to look back at them.  I have a folder full of my students’ adorable letters & a standing weekly phone call with my host family, not to mention daily phone calls with my real family.  And I have this as a resource to look back on thanks in large part to you.  These posts will help me remember not only exactly what the day-to-day was like, but also how loved & supported you all made me feel by showing interest in my trivial life abroad.  You let me be & write exactly as I am, stuck with it through every run-on sentence & cringe-worthy typo, & validated the feelings (& quite often ramblings) that I was wont to pour out with reckless abandon.  We join Peace Corps partially because we want to change the world.  While that goal is obviously a little far-fetched, the experience & your faithful involvement throughout has changed my world without a doubt.  So, thank you, дякую, & спасибо from the bottom of my heart & please keep in touch.
Love always,

Closing Time November 18, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 4:00 am

I’m not going to lie; I’m in no sensible condition to form sentences right now.  I’m currently struggling with a staggering deficit of sleep (a generously estimated 6 hours of the past 72),& a swimming surplus of emotions as I wait out my 4 hour layover in the Frankfurt airport McDonald’s.  I’ll try to beckon the strength to push on through though (with immense help from the “Christmas” flavored macchiato that good old Ronald apparently dreamed up while I’ve been away) because the last few days have been nothing short of amazing & I have a feeling that I’m not about to seek out any spare time at the computer when I get into Chicago today.  That’s right, I said today.  Typos & weird grammar are probably about to happen.

I cannot believe that I am going to be home today.  Not in the normal, excited expression’s context (although excitement is certainly a dominant feeling in the jumbled mix).  More along the lines of ‘my brain is not able to comprehend the fact that my worlds have permanently & irreversibly switched again’.  Or ‘I’m just on another lovely vacation & will be returning refreshed, spoiled, & fattened on frozen yogurt (as always) in a few weeks’.  Or ‘There must be some mistake.  Certainly I can’t be expected to do that ‘living’ thing without having my close Peace Corps friends to vent to every single day’.  Does not compute.  As a measure of how poorly my brain is handling the task, here’s a fun fact about my failure to understand what’s happening around me- I have yet to cry.  At this point I’ve doled out & received heartfelt letters, heard incredibly moving toasts made in my honor, had a tea party of crying children bidding me farewell & have said goodbye to people I love dearly without having the slightest clue of when I’ll see them again, & yet nary a single tear has rolled down my cheek.  I think I might have become a robot.

I’m guessing this readjustment business is a gradual thing & as cathartic as a sobfest can be I am certainly not about to provoke any sadness just to spite that darn stable façade,  so instead I’ll share a little bit about how incredible my last few days in the country were.

I usually teach (or I guess I should say ‘taught’ now.  What?!) each of my groups two consecutive lessons every week, so for my last week we did normal curriculum material for the first half of class, & then the second half was devoted to a writing letters about themselves the first day & then making videos the second.  Probably the most self-indulgent lessons I’ve ever planned, but the results are completely heart melting.  Between their embarrassingly sweet words & adorable English mistakes I know I’m going to cherish the binder that I eventually store their letters & videos in for years to come.  Ukrainians do a bang up job of expressing appreciation when (& often only when) someone is about to leave, & the kids & teachers at my school proved that to me 100% last week.  There were moving moments & creative encouragement left & right that  all wrapped up with a party with the faculty in between classes on Friday & then a surprise tea party put on by Olha & my 7th & 11th grade students after school.  Then another tea & hair braiding soiree at my knitting club, & even an outdoor tea picnic with Olha & Valya’s families on my last day in town.  It was a warm, fuzzy weekend & I was really spoiled rotten by them with their kindness.  Packing, well, sucked as always, but I did do it far in advance this time instead of the night before which was my brilliant plan two years ago.  See, PC changes you.  I cleaned my apartment until it was bleak & empty, had one last tea with my counterpart, & then was driven to the train station for my overnight to Kiev by Olha & her husband, Vitya.  Thank goodness they were kind enough to drive me, because if they hadn’t I honestly think I would still be trying to carry my irritatingly over-stuffed luggage across the tracks.

I managed to lug the bags to the Peace Corps office early the next morning alone (even though the experience convinced me that I maybe should not have kids if I can’t handle even 30 minutes of intense pain without cursing everyone & everything directly related to my baggage &/or accidentally in my path), & then headed to Morozivka for a day & a half with my host family.  That too was amazing as they continue to be nothing but wonderful.  My host Mom hurt her foot, which is obviously unfortunate, but worked out nicely in our case because it meant she didn’t have to go to work, so we were able to have a whole day’s worth of quality bonding time.  We didn’t do anything particularly noteworthy, but it was just perfect to sit around with them talking like normal since we knew our version of normal’s days were quite limited.  I gave them the Shutterfly photo album that I made them for a goodbye gift, & while they admitted that I had a mistake or two in the commentary, they really seemed to love it & cried their way though each page.  The morning goodbye was definitely a little rough, but luckily I had Thomas on the same electrychka to Kiev to keep me company & distract me with his always-exciting adventures.

That was Tuesday morning & it started a solid two days of soaking up hysterical moments with my Peace Corps friends, & finishing everything up in the office.  I think at least 40 people were all leaving on the same day, so the office was packed with excited people all trying to grasp what was happening to us.  It also was a lovely excuse to be ridiculous together & laugh until the wee hours of the morning over inane but hilarious topics per usual.  Mom treated us all to a luxe lunch at a restaurant that we’d been drooling over for two years, & then we finished up the rest of our office paperwork, had a lovely, laid-back dinner with our old & new friends, managed to make the hours until 3am fly by at a local bar & then headed to the airport where all heck broke loose.

My amazing friends sacrificed their slumber & came to the airport with me even though I was the first one to leave (out of our whole group…holler) & together we had a chaotic, frustrating, & perfectly slap happy last few hours.  To end my stay in the country on a culturally fitting foot, the workers at Boryspil decided to remind me of just how much they like to watch hoop jumping by charging me $350 (while sneering sarcastically, of course) for the one bag that I was so proud of managing to fit all of my stuff into (Peace Corps allows us two) which resulted in a mad dash of us trying to find a solution.  At one point Kacey was emptying out her dirty clothes bag to give me another “piece of luggage”, Katelin was offering up her credit card (since the bank of COURSE couldn’t take the American dollars that PC gave us specifically for the occasion, but also couldn’t exchange my hyrivnias since the printer was broken), & Julia was guarding our other bags while I spastically dug through my suitcase on an animated but completely unhelpful verbal tirade against stupid unmarked rules & the glory of customer service.  We may have created a scene, but when I sat on the plane rehashing the event in my non-sleeping brain I couldn’t help but thing of it as a quirky analogy to my cross-cultural experience in general: often confusing & occasionally irritating events made manageable & memorable by my fantastic friends.  We did eventually get it all worked out (I bought a stupid plastic babusia bag to put 15 Kg’s worth of stuff in for a much more manageable $85) & then they went with me as far as they could to the security gate where we irritated everyone around us with a dramatic 2 minute hugging session & then made me laugh my head of despite the security guards barking orders at me to take my shoes off.  Even when I couldn’t see them anymore I could still hear the cries of “Momma (my arbitrary nickname) don’t go!!!” resounding down the corridors of Customs.  It was an absolutely perfect send off.

And now here I sit whipping my head around every two minutes because I’m sure I hear one of their voices.  The entire week, & especially the past few days, was another beautiful illustration of just how lucky I got with the people who shared my PC experience.  I can’t accurately put it into words, but I just felt so completely loved & accepted by them, & was in constant awe of how everything worked out.  My friendships with Ukrainians & Americans alike completely exceeded my expectations & made my entire service worthwhile, & although the goodbyes don’t yet feel real I’m pretty confident that that is going to be the hardest part of readjustment.  Luckily we have access to & plans for regular communication & I have all of you at home to do some serious catching up with.  So basically, despite coming off kind of whiny, I guess what I’m trying to say is that I had the perfect end to an amazing adventure, filled with love & laugher from some of the world’s finest people.  Who could ask for more?  I think I’ll write a wrap-up post of Peace Corps overall in the near future because I can’t quite stomach yet another ending right now, so for the time being let’s just say that I feel extravagantly & unwarrantedly blessed beyond belief & am just about ready for some happy hellos in AMERICA 🙂

Update: I’m home!  It’s amazing.  Everything I’d hoped & more.  Still can’t really grasp it all, but am really looking forward to trying!


One Week November 7, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 7:09 pm

That’s just about what I’m working with right now.  In less than that amount of time I’ll have left Yampil & with it the smiling faces of students, friends, and colleagues that I have come to love.  In exactly that time I’ll be on an electrychka heading to Morozivka for one last potato-filled visit with my host family.  That’s also the approximate number of days in which I’ll be in Chicago before packing up & reveling in a roadtrip to start my new life in Austin.  While vastly different, each span of seven days will be jam packed with a bittersweet blend of beginnings & ends.  At home I’m almost faint with anticipation about buying my first iphone & car.  My first foray with almond milk & chia seeds.  Hugging my family for the first time as a Returned PCV.  Seeing my new house for the first time.  I’m pretty darn pumped about all of the firsts.

Before I get there though I have to keep plowing through way more lasts than I would like.   Already I’ve checked off my last time washing laundry by hand, visiting Vinnitsia, & riding a bus in Ukraine.  While the last of the laundry had me as victorious & convicted as Scarlett O’Hara (With God as my witness I shall never wash laundry by hand in a bathtub again!), the thought of my last bus ride made me tear up on the walk home yesterday.  I’ve spent countless hours & realistically days on busses & then just like that they’re done.  As much as I’ve whined about some of the daily inconveniences, they’ve become a part of my life & it’s strange to think that they’ll be completely replaced soon.  And if the crappy transport evokes emotions I’m pretty sure my last lessons this week & the first of the farewells will really do a number on my mascara.  I’ve been getting myself ready for the goodbyes by putting together gifts & cards, & have been stricken & surprised to find how similar this sadness feels compared to missing America.  I knew it would be a little sentimental, but was not expecting the same intense & nauseous feelings that I now expertly associate with homesickness.  But such is life, &especially life in Peace Corps, with the resounding lesson as always being that I’m enormously blessed both here & there.  So here we go 🙂

In the meantime I’ve been enjoying stuffing my last month full of wonderful moments.  I’ve been very deliberate about my attempts to document all of the activities & have two main qualms with the resulting photos (seen here).  One is the rogue strand of hair that seems insistent on breaking free from the pack & lying awkwardly & isolated across my forehead in almost every picture.  Definitely not the look I’m going for.  The other is the goofy grin plastered on my face in most shots.  While I’m pretty sure that hating on my huge smile is a valid complaint as the end result has me looking borderline deranged, I am grateful that while not attractive it is authentic & has been provoked so often by my amazing friends.  I guess smiling too big is highly preferable to not at all.  I’m hesitant to dwell too much on the rehashing of events as I have a job to find & an apartment to pack up, but here’s a brief summary of my past few weeks as I certainly don’t want to forget them.

The fun started with a visit from Ashley for a little tour of Yampil & some help at our Halloween party.  It was lovely to have someone to cook & craft with after school, & between the two of us we were able to treat my kids to a festive fete with games & candy aplenty.  They were all really cute, excited, & again all too willing to partake in the silliness.  I think my favorite moment might have been when my explanation of the spooky relay race (with mummies, witches, bats, & so on) backfired & instead of going one team member at a time all twenty of them bolted simultaneously resulting in a mob of twenty giddy ghouls.

They didn’t want to leave despite having gone way over the intended time, but we had to break up the bash in order to catch our bus & train to Ashley’s town for the second annual Spalloween celebration with her sitemate Becky.  I got to see the adorable Ukrainian woman (Totya Anya)that Ashley lives with one last time which is always a pleasure, & then spent the remainder of the weekend chatting, flipping through fashion mags, cooking & eating delicious homemade deep dish pizza & decadent peanut butter bars courtesy of Becky’s thoughtful parents, & singing along to an epic 90’s playlist.

After a few relaxing days I hopped an early morning (&cold!)electrychka to Kiev to visit my host fam for a few days.  They were as adorable & gracious as ever, & we spent a lot of time marveling at how fast the two years have gone & reminiscing on some of our favorite memories while watching CSI Miami which seems to have replaced “Everyone Dance!” as their favorite form of nightly entertainment.  Snijanna was also on Fall Break so I spent a lot of time with her & her little cousin visiting for the week from out East.  The three of us hung out at home & went to Snijanna’s dance club where I was asked to translate rap songs for her teenage friends.  You’re welcome, America.  We also accompanied her to a high school soccer game & while the game was less than riveting, it was fun to see how similar teenage girls are all over the world as I watched her goofing around & gossiping with her friends.

The last day we went to see the factory where my host mom works which I was very thankful for as I’ve gone the past two years without really knowing what she does.  What I was sure of was how hard she works, taking the electrychka every Monday through Saturday morning at 4:30, getting home at 5pm & then spending her evening hours cooking & working on the garden/farm.  It turns out her in-between time is just as strenuous as she works at what looks like a cement factory.  She was really cute & proud to parade us around like it was Take Your Daughter to Work Day, & relatively speaking it is considered a well-paid & stable job, but seeing firsthand how hard she works & how little by our standards she gets for it ($500/month) was pretty brutal.  That being said, she never complains & is genuinely thankful that she has work to go to as it’s definitely not a given for many, & they manage to make the meager salary meet all of their needs comfortably.  Pretty impressive stuff.

Later that evening Ashley & I set out on another adventure, this time to Kharkiv for a Halloween party with other volunteers.  We’d never been East of Kiev & had heard reports of all things grim, gray, & industrial.  While aesthetically the city pretty much fit the bill, in all other aspects our expectations were exceeded by far.  We spent Friday wandering around through many cute little neighborhoods smitten with Kharkiv’s charm & charming inhabitants.  The West usually gets hyped up for its friendliness, but really everyone we dealt with was nothing but helpful & we had a wonderful day walking around.

The next day everyone else got in & we spent the morning putting the finishing touches on our costumes: completely hand-crocheted & patriotic basketball uniforms made by Katelin.  The idea was sparked by the basketball tournament that was supposed to be held in conjunction with the party in which we, the Dream Team, would make up for what we lacked in competitive drive or athletic ability with sweet outfits & ridiculous plays.  Unfortunately we found out the day of that no one had managed to find a court ahead of time so the contest was cancelled, but the costumes were put to good use nonetheless.  Before the party we got our sport quota filled with a trip to the nearby stadium for a professional soccer game.  I forgot just how fun live sporting events are & was surprised by how much I loved being there & seeing the fans’ excitement.  It was a really cool thing to experience & a part of their culture that I hadn’t yet seen.  Afterwards we escaped the cold & spent the remainder of the night dancing like idiots as always & hanging out with other volunteers at the Halloween party.

After spending another day roaming the city until our overnight trains I got into Kiev early Monday morning for my exit interview, which was the last of the Peace Corps appointments I had scheduled necessary for pre-departure.  Another example of the blessed little I have standing in between me & America at this point.  The talk with our country director went well & was basically just a summary of what I’ve accomplished here & so on.  Then it was back on a train for Yampil & a week of teaching & packing.  I was treated to a nice dinner & gift exchange at Valya’s house with Olha & both of their families on Friday night & then bussed one last time into Vinnitsia for a final outing with volunteers in my oblast (like a state).  We rented an apartment & enjoyed delicious Georgian food, more ridiculous dancing, & of course, one more trip through the McDonald’s drive-thru on foot.  I’m slightly embarrassed to say that between Vinnitsia & travels through Europe with Ashley I’ve walked through more drive-thrus than I care to count, but in my humble opinion the hilarity of it all never does diminish.  That’s a last that I think might be for the best.  At the very least we all solemnly promised that if we’re to stroll through a drive-thru window at home it had better be a Taco Bell.

Now it’s just one last week of teaching my little darlings & sharing sappy wishes.  I’ve already been given a fuzzy stuffed animal, an otherwise beautiful scarf with what I think are little pelts of rabbit fur on the end, & a bunch of cards including one with stick figures whose speech bubbles proclaim “I grieve!”.  Here’s hoping for a very worthwhile week 🙂



A Big, Fat, Ukrainian Wedding October 17, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 10:47 pm

At exactly this time next month I’ll be throwing mad bows & skipping off the plane before collapsing on the shiny linoleum of O’Hare in search of the optimal angle for kissing the floor.  Isn’t that a pretty picture?  Dignity & sheer delight don’t often coexist in my world, & something tells me I’ll be embracing the latter.  But then I’ll get to embrace all of you, so I’m calling it worth it 🙂 That’s not to say that I’m over this whole Ukraine thing though.  I’m still having regular freak outs about saying “пока” for good & if you think I’m about to bail on my grand tradition of being a hot sobbing mess at the airport, you’re wrong.  On my best of days that kind of scenario would have me way less than stable (despite my superlative.  Ha, that still makes me laugh.), so I imagine all heck is prone to break loose considering I’ll be making the journey bez sleep.  My friends are all coming to Kiev to say farewell & my flight is at 5am which means I have to be there at 3am which means…we’re not sleeping.  Good life choices abound.  I think it’s for the best, but I’m assuming the poor soul assigned the seat next to me on the plane will think otherwise.  I should probably just wear a sign on the front of my coat explaining the sitch so he/she won’t have to try to decipher the story through my laugh-sobs.  Thank goodness I’m a planner.

In the meantime, I’ve been enjoying yet another unforgettable week in Yampil.  School was good, but not extremely newsworthy.  The kids are as cute as ever, but I’ll try to avoid gushing about them to fill your time with a new cultural phenomenon I got to experience on Saturday: a Ukrainian wedding.

I love weddings.  The detail, the themes, the color coordination.  The sap, the sentimental toasts, the display of relatives & friends breaking it down on the dance floor.  Really even the stupid bridal movies and TV shows are completely my cup of tea, so I was thrilled to have the chance to see such an important Ukrainian event firsthand.  The newlyweds were two young teachers from my school, Yura (P.E.) & Ira (English) who met last year & are extremely cute together.  The Ukrainian wedding really stretches out over a weekend, but most guests (including us) just attend the reception portion.  I guess the bridal party spends the earlier parts of Saturday riding around in a pimped out car (& by that I mean much more 7–year-old-with-glitter-crepe-paper-and-a-glue-gun than anything Vin Diesel would be involved in) & stopping at the Town Hall to sign the official marriage license, & then to all sorts of local landmarks & monuments for extensive photo sessions.  Then they make their way to a café which is where we all came in.

We showed up around 5pm & were led inside the restaurant then ushered into a line where we waited to meet the beautiful new couple and give them our best wishes and bouquets of flowers.  There were about a hundred people in attendance so this was no speedy process, but we mingled with the other teachers and took in all the sights.  And sights there were aplenty.  The groom wore a pretty standard tux & the bride looked like a princess in a lacy mermaid dress.  From what I’ve seen here in store windows many gowns take “over-the-top” to a whole new level & can include mesh, rhinestones, feathers, pleather & hoopskirts (all on the same dress, mind you) so I was prepared to lie through my teeth, but Ira honestly looked completely elegant and understated.

The room was equally all dolled up with balloons hanging from the ceiling & a horseshoe arrangement of long wooden tables that reminded me of a medieval feast setting.  The connecter part of the horseshoe was the head table where the newlyweds sat with their bridal party that pretty much just included a Best Man & Maid of Honor equivalent (who didn’t have to wear coordinated outfits but did sport red sashes) & a few of their friends.  By 6:00 we were all seated & ready to start the fun.  The evening kicked off with an announcement by a lady who served as the evening’s emcee.  I’m not sure if she was a family friend or an employee of the café, but she narrated the entire event & was in charge of the microphone, directing who would make speeches when.  She also led us in a spectacle or two which I will certainly detail soon.  The other key attendees were the members of the Ukrainian folk band who played traditional music in (somewhat) traditional ensembles- Ukrainian embroidery pattern plus sequins.  Intrigue indeed.

As for the main events, I want to start out by saying that between the very loud enthusiastic music & my desire not to interrupt the cultural moments as they happened I don’t know exactly why everything happened.  I do know that it was a lot of fun though & everyone seemed to enjoy the customs whether they understood them or not.  The evening pretty much revolved around snacking on the elaborate & constantly replenished spread of food covering every square inch of the table, fake-sipping on shots of cognac (I think I’ve perfected this art & managed to make two little shot glasses worth last over at least 20 toasts), & doing whatever the Master of Ceremonies told us to.  It was kind of reminiscent of a dinner theater remittent with audience interaction.  But in Ukrainian.

Her first order of business was to appoint the Party Police.  I’m not sure how these people were chosen, but they were called up to the center of the floor, pinned with traditional embroidered table runners, & then made to dance around to a festive little jig.  I know I’ve mentioned this at length before, but oh my goodness the dancing.  The older generations favor a…mode of expression?…far different from the typical teenage disco fare, but I came to the realization that night that both styles can be characterized by the same fundamental root: years & years of white people struggling to find the rhythm.  I don’t say this with judgment as I am both very white & very appreciative of any dance style that does not accentuate my general lankiness and lack of coordination.  And let me just tell you, I lucked out.  Everyone is free to dance because no one looks good doing it.  It’s weirdly liberating actually.  You don’t have to worry about looking goofy because you already know that without a doubt you do, but so does everybody else.  So what point is there in sitting down? You mostly just stand in a circle & shuffle your feet in two inch increments basically dancing your way around an endless rotation on the dancefloor.  Some people’s footwork is a little fancier than others & the really bold ones get their hands involved, but for the most part you just circle round & round watching the laughing faces across from you like luggage on a carousel.  Then if a particularly catchy song comes on everyone joins hands & starts an accelerated version complete with high pitched “ay-yi-yi”ing noises & other savage but celebratory non-speech exclamations.  Just think Borat.  It’s honestly a blast & usually goes on for hours.  I’m pretty sure it counts as an aerobic exercise which is always welcome in my book since it usually accompanies force feeding.

Which I guess brings me back to the Party Police.  So they are all stationed at different strategic locations around the room & sporadically patrol the aisles commanding people to drink.  Illustrating yet another cultural commonality that drove me crazy two years ago & now barely phases me.  Folks like to boss.  I’ve realized that our culture is very hyper-aware of not making anyone uncomfortable or offending while here they pretty much just tell you what they want.  They tell you to eat more because food is love.  They tell you to move to a different chair because it will be more fun for you.  At home any resistance would probably be respected & chalked up to shyness.  Here, you’re just not hearing them right & the only acceptable answer is to do what they say or the shouting will continue.  But it honestly all comes from same place.  Whether respecting the fact that dancing in the middle of everyone might make you uncomfortable or dragging you by the arm onto the dance floor, both are motivated by the same desire to see you happy.  The Party Police are a prime example of this.  Could being shouted at to drink more every ten minutes be called overbearing?  Probably.  Did we all end up having more fun because of it?  Absolutely.

I’m to the point now where I realize I’m full-on babbling , so I’ll try to use some bullet points to keep me on track in describing the rest of the traditions.

  • The parents toast the new couple & then take their two separate candles & light the new couple’s one candle symbolizing the joining of families.
  • Everyone else toasts the couple.  Yes, including me.  I am pretty sure that prior to this no one has been understanding a word of my Ukrainian because they were all so blown away that I was able to string two sentences together into a microphone.
  • After most toasts everyone yells “Horka” which means “bitter” & has the same effect as clinking a glass in America, making the couple kiss.  No one I asked knew why they say bitter, but think it has something to do with wishing that this wonderful day is as bitter as their marriage gets.
  • The couple has a first dance inside a circle of rose petals & tea lights.  Interestingly enough the chosen song was “Once Upon a December” from the cartoon about the Russian princess Anastasia.  In English.
  • The Best Man has to drink a shot out of the bride’s shoe.
  • The Best Man & Maid of Honor have a semi-choreographed dance-off.
  • The Best Man & Maid of Honor walk around with pairs of satin baby pants, one pink & one blue, & people put money into the one that corresponds with what they hope their first kid will be.  The boy won.
  • There’s an auction for a bottle of champagne that the winner is supposed to drink one year after the wedding.
  • Everyone writes wishes or advice for the couple on little paper hearts that are collected on a silver platter.
  • The bride & groom are presented with a set of bedding from their parents.
  • The bride sits on the groom’s lap & covers her eyes while the Maid of Honor taps a spoon on a plate that’s hovering over her head & tries to block the Best Man whose goal is to slip a piece of lace over her head.

And finally, the bouquet catch equivalent.  A by-product of the pushiness here is that once 11:00 rolled around people just started disappearing.  They couldn’t announce their departure because then they’d get bullied back into sitting down, so they really would just seem to vanish.  We were on our third attempt to make a break for it when my counterpart Oksana asked me if I wanted to dance with a hat on my head.  Really, that was the question in its entirety.  I mean…do you?  I was pretty much danced out & try to keep my accessorized dancing to Cinco de Mayo, so I politely declined & committed to ignoring the grasping hands & pleas to stay in favor of moving it to the exit with Olha & Oksana, my colleagues & neighbors that I was going home with.

Once out the door Olha explained that the hat thing alluded to was a unique cultural tradition that I really should take a picture of.  One month left.  OK, fine.  We headed back in & before I knew it Olha had taken off my coat & guided me into the center of the circle.  Well shoot.  The numbers had dwindled but there was still a group of about 50 plus the cameraman watching the confused American be led onto a gigantic pillow in the middle of the room where in a matter of moments Ira’s veil was placed on my head & then the Best Man grabbed my hands & proceeded to twirl me around the floor before I could even work up an objection.  Struggling to make sense of it all fell on the backburner as I was mostly focused on trying not to trip or drop the veil that was sliding precariously down my face due to our speedy little waltz.  After a few moments he pushed my back really hard propelling me towards the floor, but I fought it while laughing my head off, emerged looking completely disheveled to cheers of joy, was given my coat, & then sent on my merry way.  On the walk to our ride home I came to figure out that the whole shenanigan was a traditional effort to get my ancient 24-year-old butt wed & everyone’s applause & excitement made a lot more sense.  The back thing was because apparently the girl is supposed to bow at the end but I was clueless & just fighting for balance. 

And that was my first & only Ukrainian wedding experience.  I guess they also had a small ceremony at church on Sunday & a family dinner afterwards, but only the close bridal party went to those parts.  I have more pictures on Facebook here, but overall it was a really sweet & special night, made memorable by all of my colleagues & friends from town who seemed so happy to have me there & went out of their way to make me feel welcome.

Just one more week of school before our Fall Break 🙂  I’m pretty stoked about that mostly because it is freezing in school & I lose all motivation for things that don’t include being wrapped up in a blanket.  I actually found myself being  thankful for my baby-thin hair for the first time ever today because if God didn’t make my unwashed hair so prone to grease then I legitimately would probably never shower.  Mysterious ways, that One.  I’m throwing another Halloween party on Friday with the kiddos then making a break for my last travel spree with stops in Derajhnia for Spalloween part deux, Morozivka for a stay with the host fam, & then out East for a Halloween party with volunteers from all over the country.  Happy October to one & all, & see you in a month!


Bring on the Bucket List October 11, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 4:51 pm

I feel like every single entry as of late starts with me marveling over how little time I have left, so I’ll try to spare you all of the  “whoa” & “I just can’t believe it”s today as a special treat.  Rest assure I’m feeling them though, especially when clarity sneaks up on me like it did this morning after discovering that I only have 3 more lessons with my American Literature class left.  Ever.  They only meet once a week, & given our Fall Break coming up at the end of October I’m down to single digit lessons with almost every class.  Remember getting the wind knocked out of you after falling off the monkey bars (please tell me I was not the only uncoordinated eight year old)?  It feels kind of like that.  Only weirder, because the shock & sadness is tempered with downright giddiness at the thought of finally being home.  I am a complicated lady as of late.

Handwriting twins

I’m trying to enjoy the emotional rollercoaster with both hands in the air by just appreciating the heck out of my students while I still can.  They make it pretty easy, too.  For instance my adorable 7th graders who should be way too cool for school at this point spent an entire lesson last week talking into a flashlight  as if it were a microphone just to appease their crazy English teacher.  The funniest part about it is that my original intent was for them to shine the light on who they wanted to answer the homework question & then pass it on, but understanding complicated directions isn’t something they’re used to & they were just so eager to please that I ended up stifling a laugh & going with it.  Now that I type that out I guess the flashlight seems like a bizarre prop in either activity, but my point is that they will happily play along with almost anything I throw out & I love them for it.  Those of you used to deciphering my weird handwriting may also understand how proud (& a tad vain) I felt when after complimenting one of my tenth graders on her very uncharacteristic writing style (they almost exclusively rock cursive around here) she blushed & said that she had been practicing copying mine.  I think I’ve found my legacy.

The teachers have been pretty great too.  At the beginning of the month I celebrated my last Teacher’s Day with an invite to a party in the woods one day after school.  As yet another illustration of how planning works here we heard about the get together at approximately 12 & were expected to board the little schoolbus  at 2.  Thank goodness we did though, because it brought us to an old Soviet campground where we were treated to an outdoor picnic & reveling  well into the night.  One of the hardest parts of life here for me has been feeling out of place so often (which, duh Alei, seems like a pretty obvious side effect of living abroad), so words can hardly express how nice it was to feel included by my colleagues that evening.  I was sandwiched between teachers who had their arms maternally around my waist most of the night & was singled out in a toast proclaiming me ‘the best volunteer they’ve had’ and a ‘true Ukrainian girl’.  I was also able to share the love via my own toast in Ukrainian that they seemed to like despite my truly atrocious grammar.  Then the next morning we celebrated at school with armfuls of flowers from students, my last school assembly, & a LOT of picture taking & tea drinking with my 11th graders, Olha, & Valya (teachers) while we waited for the town concert at 12.  Here again my words fail me when it comes to describing the warmth & contentedness I got from being considered a part of their little group.  Inappropriately giggling during the concert was obviously nothing new for me, but laughing with them while sharing a bag of “fitness” cookies, trying & failing to figure out which language was being sung & worrying that our ears were bleeding from the ridiculously overachieving speaker system was a nice change.  It was just a comforting, cozy exchange overall & a perfect way to celebrate my last big holiday in Yampil.

Now as for the title, I put together my Bucket List back in August & have been systematically going down the line & relishing the pure joy of checking things off.  Man, do I love lists.  One goal accomplished thanks to my wonderful students was printing a full edition of our new school newspaper, The European Generation.  They’d been compiling articles & focusing on the really important things (like thirty minutes spent designing nametags) during preceding few club meetings, but managed to put it all together & send it to the presses (a.k.a. our printer) in time for Teacher’s Day.  I felt like a proud mama & wished I had room on my fridge to prominently display it despite the fairly embarrassing thank you letter & picture of me they put on the first page.  Really though, seeing their sense of accomplishment and professionalism (including making sales charts) melted my little heart  & made all of the effort completely worthwhile.  Something tells me that issue is making the cut into my suitcase even though I doubt I’ll be able to comprehend a word of the Ukrainian by this time next year.

Next on the list was the world map project that I had helped out with at Katelin’s site earlier this year.  After seeing the pictures my school wanted one of their own & thanks to help from my friends (Kacey & Katelin) & our projector we were able to conquer the world in just one weekend.  For longevity’s sake my principal preferred an inside mural which worked quite nicely since we could just shine the image onto the wall instead of mapping out a grid & attempting to freehand.  It was a lot of fun as well as a good excuse to play hostess for the weekend.  I got to see them & quite a few other PCVs in the area again last weekend when we all met up to do a project in Vinnistia.  Human trafficking is a big & frankly terrifying issue here, so we put on a seminar about the risks involved with working abroad.  Luckily there’s a program called 527 which serves as a free hotline that people can call to verify that their work opportunity is legit.  We made sure to include it in the presentation & then took to the streets sharing the good news with unsuspecting Vinnistians via posters & brochures.  It was a cool if not unconventional project & allowed us to feel like we’d earned the sushi dinner & sleepover that followed at Kacey’s.  Then this weekend I’ll get to check another exciting item off the list: a Ukrainian wedding 🙂  One of our English teachers is marrying our P.E. teacher & I couldn’t be happier for them or selfishly the chance to see such an important part of the culture.  I may not even be all that awkward since other teachers are going thus providing me with pleasant people to sit with.  Oh yeah, & did I mention I’m coming home in less than 40 days?  Life is good.

I’ve been putting all of my ‘end of the line’ pictures into a facebook album seen here & will try to update it relatively often as the list continues to shrink.  Hopefully one shot will include me giving two big thumbs up for getting a job one day.  Hopefully.    I can’t wait to see you all & hope you’re loving the unseasonably warm October…I say while wearing long underwear & gloves inside.  But I swear I’m not pouting.  Luckily 38 days leaves no time to pout 🙂




First is the Worst, Second is the Best September 25, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 8:46 pm

Exactly two years ago today I left Home.  I trudged through O’Hare  in full sobs painfully aware of everything I was leaving outside the automatic doors, weighed down both figuratively with the burden of goodbye & literally with suitcases containing 700 some days worth of essentials.  The thought alone still makes my stomach turn, & while I’m somewhat surprised that my brain didn’t block that brutal memory out, I’m mostly just thankful that I managed to keep putting one foot in front of the other.  At the time I felt like the forward momentum away from everything I held dear was equivalent to a death march, but from where I’m sitting now (balanced on a yoga ball, resting after a weekend with friends & eagerly anticipating another week with my students) I know that each sluggish stride brought me closer to an incredible  journey just waiting for me across the ocean.  In trying to prepare for a very different departure this November 17 I came across something I wrote last year around this time that aptly illustrates how I feel on this strange second anniversary.

Rust-colored paint, barely peeking through the scraps of old carpeting that have been fashioned into rugs.  Slanted walls plastered haphazardly with peachy floral wallpaper.  A ceiling-to-floor peeling pastoral mural.  A full sized, tangerine oriental rug hanging on a wall opposite a fancy black shelving unit that runs the length of the room.  A window hidden behind thick, white lace curtains flanked by layers of sherbet, brocade, flowered drapes.  Felt and leather furniture draped with fluorescent fringed orange velour.  Pattern upon gaudy pattern, and inch after dusty inch of the seemingly trivial details that I already worry I’ll forget all too soon. 

This room, the main one in the Soviet-era apartment that I now call home, is a shining example of the experience that serving with the Peace Corps is enabling me to have.  Sometimes it seems to be the setting for too much of my time, and yet I already fear leaving knowing it will likely be for good.  Its tacky wallpaper that I described with disdain less than a year ago now seems vintage and endearing to me.  In the dark of winter or directly proceeding a spider spotting it seems a fortress of solitude, a cold and hostile place, yet after 18 hours of public transport ‘cozy’ is the only adjective that will do.  My landlady and the piles of her old, decrepit belongings that she stores here ensure that I never forget I’m not entirely welcome, yet the sea of faces smiling at me in photos and heartfelt trinkets from kids somehow manage to make me feel at home.  Yes, this room and this county provide a myriad of memories and a mind full of mixed emotions to sort through.  Luckily, two years in the Peace Corps supplies time for sorting galore.

I’ve now officially made my way, occasionally skipping, often crawling, to the halfway point of my service and am somewhat apprehensively embarking on a mission to analyze the life I’ve carved out for myself a half a world away.  At first this ‘carving’ consisted of me sitting on the ground legs splayed, arms crossed like a petulant five year old letting the waters of life abroad rush past me while I pouted.  Any shaping done at that time can only be credited to the same steady force that gave the Grand Canyon its depth and beauty while its rocks sat immobile.  Instead of streams flowing through, in my life it was God’s love, grace, and power gently but resolutely winding around and forging a way through my stubbornness.  Gradually I moved to cathartically voicing my frustrations by swinging a mallet at the marble block of my life here & watching chunks fall away without a hint of grace or acumen.  It is only recently that I’ve begun to realize the hidden potential waiting to be unveiled by a chisel’s simultaneously soft and deliberate strokes, and the patience of an artist genuinely striving to create something beautiful.  

While I think the artist metaphor was a bit of a stretch, in retrospect this past year really did live up to my lofty expectations.  Between the hours of frantic phone calls, sheer volume of public breakdowns, & even written proof of neurosis evident to any faithful reader from the first few months I think it’s neither a surprise nor an exaggeration to say that the first year here sucked sometimes.  Yes I made new connections, fell into a new culture (again, quite literally at times) & had incredible experiences along the way, but to be completely honest I felt like those were just silver linings to the Eyore-esque  storm cloud that hung around on occasion.  When I visited at Christmas the question “Would you do it again?” came up a few times & while my public response was always a ‘yes’ I’d be lying if I said the query didn’t give me pause.  It was a deep seated, unsettling,  ‘what if’ kind of thought that I deliberately suppressed convinced that the honest answer might bring on a little cognitive dissonance if not a full on quarter-life crisis.

Ask me today however, & I could answer honestly & immediately with an emphatic ‘absolutely’.  As crazy as it seemed to trade in my perfectly lovely life in America, it would have been even crazier to turn down the opportunity to experience life to the fullest in Ukraine.  I opened my heart up to this new culture & community, & in return it has rushed in to fill the space  with joy, love, & gratitude that I never thought possible.  The only tears that fall these days are the product of being so filled to the brim with appreciation & expectations for the future that a little spillage is unavoidable.  The life I have here & the life I get the privilege of plotting out in America are incredibly beautiful indeed.  So on this second anniversary I just want to say thank you.  Thank you to everyone who has seen me through and thank you for everything that has brought me to where I am today.  Thank you for the chance to create an exciting future at home, & thank you for two years’ worth of sustaining memories of the past that can never be taken away.  Thank you for changing me & thank you for helping me stay the same.  Thank you for understanding that only by dropping me in a place where I felt like I had nothing would I realize how incredibly much I have.  Thank you, sincerely thank you,  for Peace Corps Ukraine 🙂

And thank you for kids who do yoga in business suits.


And Then There Were Two… September 13, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 8:58 pm

Months.  Total.  As in two months until my time on this crazy beautiful Peace Corps adventure is up.  Just two months.  Can you tell I’m having trouble grasping that?

I will officially touch down in Chi-town on the afternoon of November 17 but our last few days in country have to be spent finishing up business in Kiev, so in exactly two months I’ll have already left Yampil for good.  Insane in the membrane.  The thought just about permeates my every move as I navigate through my last few weeks teetering between the two very enticing worlds.  Not even crossing the street is safe.  In one moment I’m making note of the goat wandering along the road in a deliberate attempt to appreciate & store away the charming oddities associated with village life.   But then.  Before I know it, I realize that one of the cars yielding the barnyard animal is a Hyundai which reminds me that I ‘ve been hearing great things about that brand & should definitely check out the Carmax website after school… & just like that I’m back in a world where buying a car equipped with a cupholder for Dunkin Donuts coffee & driving with a seatbelt on roads clearly marked with speed limit signs is all a part of my reality.  It’s a mindtrip for sure.  Thankfully the lesson I’m starting to glean from these moments of mental mayhem is that whether looking at a box before or after November 17 on the calendar I’ve got it pretty good.  The morning commutes probably couldn’t be more different, but I appreciate them both immensely & either way I’ll likely spend them talking to people I love.  The difference being that here ‘talking’ implies returning my students’ enthusiastic “Hel-LOs” & there it will mean hours of catching up on all of the free calls to Fave Fives that I’ve been missing.  T-Mobile (& traffic cops for that matter) be warned.

My last first day of school was September 1 & we’ve been up & running ever since.  I have the slightly scratchy teacher voice to prove it too since apparently no amount of summer camp shenanigans compares  to the energy my little darlings exhibit during English class & the sheer voice volume required to keep them all focused.  Lucky for them, I still kind of like them & am prone to letting them get away with murder now that I realize how fleeting our time left is.  Lucky for me, they’re adorable & intersperse their arm flailing, talking-during-class with professions of love for me & boxes of chocolate.  I think we’ll get by.  My grants have finally all come completely into fruition so now I get to make the most of the time with my students by holding weekly extracurricular clubs & seminars using the new technology.  This week will  kick off our Movie Club featuring English TV shows & movies to watch & discuss after school, our Journalism Club with researching, writing & printing articles, & of course our Yoga Club with trying to follow Miss Alei as she makes weird shapes with her even weirder long limbs.  Weekends will be the prime time for a series of seminars that I want to host for older kids focusing on topics that are important but don’t quite fit in to our curriculum, like gender equality, healthy lifestyles and options for work & study abroad.  Fun for all.

This is the exact moment that she discovered I have a belly button ring forcing me to spend the rest of the night running away from the kids as they tried to touch it.

Lest you worry it’s been all work & no play I’m happy to inform you that there’s been plenty of socializing as well.  Olha invited me on an evening picnic celebration after the first day of school that involved cooking potatoes over the fire, playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with her three year old son, & trying not to laugh as her husband shouted every bad word he knows in English.  It was a perfect, giggly end-of-summer celebration with Olha, Valya (teachers) & both of their big boisterous families & I was delighted as ever to be included.  My weekends have been spent away in Vinnitsia with friends & in Kiev making a dent on the mountains of paperwork that closing up shop here entails.  Both cases have provided an excellent means of easing out of summer by affording me the opportunity to keep on speaking English to my little heart’s content.  They’ve also led to more random exploits with ridiculously wonderful friends including impromptu but intense dance parties & hour-long cartwheel tutorials.   

That’s a pretty good segue into my next & final topic: taking advantage of weird opportunities PC gives me that I won’t have at home.  Realistically I will not be able to spend an entire weekend watching movies with my friends with absolutely no other obligations in the near future.  Never again will I be able to start my workday at noon two days of the week (Monday & Thursday, holler!). Crackle nail polish or metallic reverse french manicures, despite looking pretty fly, will probably no longer be considered work appropriate.  20 minute phone calls with my host mom may not be as fluent (already I catch myself feeling like one of those stuffed animals with three programmed audio responses that I default to when I don’t understand what she’s telling me but am trying to pretend otherwise).

That's what a Yoga Club poster looks like in Ukraine. And business professional nails.

I’m even trying to take advantage of the daily surprises that pop into my schedule. Like the elderly man who asked me to sit with him & translate an entire “How to Make Millions by Printing Stickers at Home” manual after school today (He’d sent away for a kit based off of who knows what cheapo advertisement & gotten a package from Los Angeles that contained some adhesive paper & a packet of instructions in English that I’m pretty sure was printed using a typewriter back in 1952).  Or the four year old girls with a makeshift stand outside of school selling apples that they picked off of trees (lemonade’s not a thing here).  As draining & frustrating as it could be in the beginning, living in a foreign country really does seem to bring something bizarre  unexpected to the forefront each day & I’m trying my darnedest to appreciate it all before I return to a land of familiarity where things tend to make sense to me.  Please remind me of that when I find some cultural difference to rant about tomorrow.

That’s just about all of the news here.  The leisurely job search has morphed into a full on job hunt partially because the clock is ticking ever louder & partially because I just finished reading the Hunger Games & everything seems a little more intense these days.  Really though, while I’m thrilled to have my house ready & filled with three wonderful roommates waiting for me in Austin (my room is literally sitting there, all empty & patient) I’ll be even more thrilled when I know I have a steady income & means of staying in said house after my Peace Corps allowance runs out.  And on that note, I’m off to embark on tonight’s application fun 🙂  Hope you’re having a splendid September!