Faith, Hope, and Love Remain

Alei's adventures in Ukraine

Weird Things I Have Seen Involving Chickens October 28, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 5:09 pm

Sadly yes, there’s enough content on this subject to fill a blog post. 

  • On the most basic level, it never stops being weird making weaving around the chickens a priority as I leave my house for school in the mornings.  Or to be eye level with one while doing my homework outside.  Or waking up to their squawks. 
  • A slaughter that I inadvertently witnessed while stepping outside to have better phone coverage.  I saw my cute little Ukrainian Mom with her hands around the neck of a chicken before I shut my eyes and attempted to inconspicuously cover my ears.   When I finished my call & went inside…plucked & headless chicken in a bucket of hot water.
  • Chicken feet (surprisingly large) sticking out of my refrigerator.  I assume it was connected to the rest of the previously mentioned chicken but I didn’t really care to find out.
  • A cute stray dog (one of the 50 that roam the street) playing with some sort of chicken part.  Again, ignorance is bliss.
  • A bucket full of chicken heads being sold by the babusias at the train platform every morning. 

Needless to say, temporary vegetarianism was by far the best decision I’ve made in a while.

Not much else thrilling to report here.  Our kids have off for fall break this week so we’ve had our Safety Training today & led a writing methodology workshop for Ukrainian teachers yesterday.  Apparently I’m qualified for such a task now that I’ve taught a whole 3 lessons.  Who knew 🙂  We also got our teaching assignments for the rest of training and I’ll be teaching 3, 4, & 5 forms (ages 7-11) 3x a week.  So cute. 

 Have a wonderful Halloween & please have some candy corn for me.


At Long Last October 22, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 7:58 pm

I was finally able to load my early posts onto a computer so sorry for the confusion but the three previous entries are from about a month ago (oy) when we first arrived.  Quite a bit of reading material so I’ll be brief today, but I would like to point out that I’ve been upgraded to a bathtub with warm running water 🙂

Now if I could only figure out the language… To give you an idea, today we translated the following sentence: I sometimes habitually go and return from the museum on foot.  Shoot me.


Little Town, It’s a Quiet Village…

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 7:52 pm

Monday, October 5, 2009

Every day is definitely NOT like the one before.  I thought the Beauty & the Beast intro was appropriate because I catch myself feeling like Belle sometimes as I stroll down the dirt path to my teacher’s apartment, or visit the cellar with mounds of potatoes and canned food for winter, or feed the chickens w/ corn from the backyard plot, or see people leading cattle down the sole semi-paved road in town.  It’s so fun.  My house has not one but three cherry trees and huge mason jars of compotes (fruit, sugar & water) so I have delicious fresh cherry juice at my beckon call.  The quantity of food is a little overwhelming especially because my host family eats separately since they’re not vegetarian, so dinner consists of everyone sitting at the table to keep me company/encourage me to eat more & more.  Between the pressure & the abundant chocolate I think I’ll be fat enough to handle the Ukrainian winter in no time. 

My needs are definitely more than met which is pretty remarkable considering a good monthly salary in Morozivka is $200.  Both of the parents in this family work outside the home so the farm is run completely out of their free time & makes shopping trips minimal since we can get most everything we need just outside.  Their resourcefulness is pretty cool & a remnant from the Soviet Era when whole stores could literally only have 2 items on the shelves sometimes so subsistence farming was a necessity.  The affects of that period of history are still very apparent here.  For instance, trust was an issue back then so the national culture places an emphasis on forming close bonds w/ their inner circle & not really anyone else.  During our first few days here this was a little discouraging because a lot of the time it equated to us smiling at strangers and having them scowl back at us.  They warmed up to the crazy Americans though & now they return our ‘добрий  день’s (hello’s) & often introduce themselves so I think we’re going to make it. 

A few days ago I might have thought otherwise.  I’m blessed with an incredible life full of amazing people stateside, so the whole transition to the unknown here was ridiculously difficult.  Already prone to tears, I managed to be the girl who regularly broke down in the middle of 4 hour language classes and was forced to learn the Ukrainian word for ‘baby’ so I could adequately explain to my host family that it wasn’t their fault that I was upset.  We were finally able to buy cell phones on Saturday though & I think feeling connected is half the battle.  I write this now sipping real hot cocoa as our little kitten, Elsa, is purring in my lap, so life is good.  

It’s hard to sum up the past week since it all still seems so strange and alien.  We basically have 4 hours of intense language class in the morning & feel like we’re mastering it & then go home & try to converse w/ our families & realize we know nothing.  With that in mind we’re pretty motivated to learn & spend most of the time at home studying & doing homework.  We also have technical training on the Ukrainian educational system that we’ll be working with & attend civic events here (meeting w/ the mayor, school superintendent, ect.).  We take the train to the neighboring town on Saturdays for more training & hopefully it will pay off because we start observations this week & student teaching next week…yikes. 

My group mates are wonderful; we’re all really different but given the situation we’ve kind of been forced to be ourselves right from the get-go & it’s extremely comforting to share the experience with people who know how truly bizarre it is.  Aside from hanging out w/ them and my temporary family, my favorite Morozivka moment so far was this past Saturday when I got lost walking back from my friend’s house in the dark (not allowed) w/out a cell phone and had to ask a few preteen boys for help getting home.  Not an easy task when the only words I knew were my host sisters’ first names & ages.  Whoops.  They managed to lead me (crying of course as I wandered up to them) awkwardly back to my friend’s house while one of them played ‘In Da Club’ on his cell phone and told me it was a song by Piatdecet Kopeks…a literal translation of Fifty Cents.  Only in Ukraine.


Home Sweet Semi-Permanent Home

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 7:51 pm

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

I would just like to start out by informing you all that I am writing this post squeaky clean after my first ever bucket bath.  It really wasn’t bad at all, but after years of savoring 20 minute hot showers I can now officially say that I don’t regret a single minute of them.  I’m still contemplating donning a bathing suit & recording the whole process to use as future refutation on camping trips when someone calls me prissy.  I realize that was a random way to start a post but I find it fairly indicative of my past few days here & the myriad of new experiences that characterize life in Ukraine.

Sunday night, Monday & this morning were spent at our Arrival Retreat in an area outside of Chernihiv that looked a lot like Wisconsin to me.  Our days were blocked into information sessions, a safety presentation by the US Ambassador, doctor’s appointments & our first language lesson together as a cluster (the group of 5 trainees that will live in the same town during our 3 months of training).  We found out late last night that we’d be going to Morozivka, a town of 3,000 that’s about an hour outside of Kyiv, to stay with separate host families & as of 6pm tonight we were all moved in. 

My host family is adorable & includes a dad, mom, 16 year old daughter, 14 year old daughter, dogs, cats, birds, and chickens.  That’s right, I’m living on a quasi-farm.  Their house is really nice & comfortable & everyone has their own rooms but I think they converted their living/family room into my room.  Unfortunately I know such scant Ukrainian that I can’t effectively communicate that it’s unnecessary or suggest switching arrangements.  Hopefully I’ll be able to ask my language teacher Anton if it would be appropriate/how to say that tomorrow during our 5 hours of class.  I unpacked everything & spent the rest of the night trying to say ‘No thank you, I’m really full, I promise’ as my house mother kept putting plates of fresh fruit, soup & pasta in front of me.  She was really great about the whole vegetarian thing which was a big relief especially as I saw the live chickens outside when we pulled up.  The abundance & color of dinner was also a nice change from the arrival retreat where the vegetarian options typically involved a boiled egg & cubed potatoes with a bowl of salt on the side…can you say white?  The chocolate however, I seldom refuse. 

I guess I’d summarize the trip so far by feelings of uncertainty & hospitality.  I don’t know nearly enough Ukrainian to communicate with my host family but instead of giving up on me they sit smiling & trying anyways.  I don’t know if I’m doing anything that they’re asking me but they don’t show any indication of what I’m sure are my idiotic mistakes.  I have no idea where I’ll be spending my 2 years of teaching but so far everyone has been nice so I think any region would be OK.  It’s incredibly overwhelming & without access to cell phones until potentially Saturday I’m still feeling the pangs of homesickness.  The country director encouraged us to use the 10 day rule (don’t leave unless you want to for 10 days in a row) & I think that’s going to prove useful due to the intensity of each extreme; when I’m feeling confident I completely see the value of the adventure, when I’m not a direct helicopter couldn’t get me home fast enough. 

In order to end on a good note, I learned that my full name in Ukrainian is Елі Кук so I went from 8 to 6 letters & my last name is officially a palindrome.  Score.


Where in the World?

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 7:49 pm

Sunday, September 27, 2009

This is the day that will not end. The last time I had pajamas on was 5am on Saturday back in Philadelphia. Now it’s 5:30pm Sunday night in Ukraine (yay) & aside from a few intermittent cat naps on the various forms of transportation I’m running on empty. On the plus side however, I am now officially a world traveler having visited New York Cit, Frankfurt, and now Kyiv in the course of a day.

I’m a little too disoriented to provide a thoroughly detailed account of the travels but here’s the jist: we drove two hours to JFK airport & saw the NYC skyline as we passed over Hudson Bay, we waited 7 hours at JFK to check our luggage & board our pimped out 747 plane, during said 7 hours a few people in the group found out that information on their visas was incorrect & they had to fly immediately to D.C. instead of Europe , we waited 4 groggy hours in the Frankfurt airport & then took another bus to our plane which finally landed in Ukraine. Outside the gates were about 20 PC Ukraine staff members waiting with welcome goody bags for us who ushered us onto…yet another bus. 2 hours later we arrived at what was described as a ‘Post-Soviet Sanatorium’ which is actually pretty reminiscent of a better-furnished old college dorm. We have about an hour to fill out paperwork & rest now & then we’re off to a dinner celebration/training extravaganza & hopefully an early bedtime as I’m unlikely to give that great of a first impression in my current semi-conscious state.

On the plus side, the people are all still really nice & funny & we found out which 4 other volunteers we’ll be living with the next 3 months & which language we’ll speak. So now I can (somewhat) officially say that in two years I’ll come back speaking Ukrainian  We still don’t know which town or oblast we’ll be in but I’ll take any information I can get at this point.

As for the mental state, it’s finally starting to sink in & that mélange of emotions is still going strong. The usual rollercoaster of being sure that we’re going to have an amazing time one moment & then completely convinced that I’m not going to last 3 months let alone 27 the next. I’m missing everyone a lot, a lot but I know it’s just part of the experience & hope that it’s something I can learn to cope with. In the meantime I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that eventual access to a phone/internet will help alleviate some of the homesickness. That and perhaps a little borsch, which I am officially off to try for the first time in Ukraine. Do pobachennya!


Just Dance October 16, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 6:04 pm

We are officially at the three week mark today, which absolutely blows my mind considering I feel like I’ve seen 3 months worth of new & extremely different things & been separated from everyone for 3 years (OK maybe a slight exaggeration, but still).  The highlight of my 21 days however, happened last Saturday night.  Not a short story, but quite possibly life-changing.

We took the train from Baryshivka & I made it home in time for our family dinner where we celebrated Yanna (my ‘sister’) getting her 1st passport.  At the table she mentioned that she was continuing the celebration at the local discotheque later & asked if I wanted to go.  I tried to say that I didn’t think I was allowed to but they either know something I don’t (generally always the case) or didn’t care, because 10 minutes later I was getting a full out Ukrainian makeover by my 16 year old sister complete with blue eyelids & hair curled with rollers soaking in boiling water.  The fresh-faced look isn’t really in here but makeup has been the last thing on my mind so I’ve been going au natural & the family flipped out when they saw the finished product.   She did a great job, but when all was said & done…let’s just say it took about 10 minutes to wash my face off at the end of the night.  They continued to pimp me out with my ‘Mom”s red leather coat & a tres European scarf.  Plus brown leather high heel boots.  Got a good visual?  Obviously a lot of activity for all 6 feet of me.

So we departed around 9:30 & met up with her 19-year old neighbor who claimed to know only a little English but made up for what he lacked in sheer volume.  By the time we got out of our taxi (an unmarked car that picked us up on the corner that I thought was an aquaintence the whole time) he had managed to shout that I was an ‘amazing’ and ‘shiny’ girl.  I’m still not really sure how ‘shiny’ could be a compliment but he seemed to think he was waxing pure poetry so I’ll chalk it up to yet another cultural miscommunication.  We were let out at a store (very broadly comparable to a 7-11) where I explained that I didn’t want to drink so instead I was handed a Capri Sun.  Ballin.  We stood outside & I sipped on my little yellow straw & then followed them to the village’s community center/library combo.  After about 10 minutes a 50ish year old woman unlocked the door (after our neighbor friend yelled ‘I love this grandmother’ and bear-hugged the stranger) & led us into a room that looked like it was intended for church potluck dinners.  And then the music started…

There really aren’t words to adaquately describe the night from this point on.  The lights changed into an epilleptic’s nightmare, some sort of cross between black lights & strobe lights, & oh…my…gosh, the dancing.  Yanna is awesome & looked exactly like one of the silouhettes in an ipod commercial.  Everyone else…I honestly can’t do it justice.  Pretty much anything you could imagine was there.  Some people looked exactly like Sims characters gyrating with the hands above their heads, some people looked like they had spent months trying to think up the weirdest moves possible & some people looked just plain dangerous.  No one danced together which was kind of a welcome respite from the grinding in America, but everyone danced and everyone danced hard.  It was so much fun.  I was too busy laughing my head off to get overly creative but my token ‘techno’ move was not only appropriate but mild if that’s any indication of what went down.  I’m really frustrated by my lack of ability to adaquately illustrate, so next time I’ll try to rock a video camera to facilitate some overseas education.  It was probably good that I didn’t go all out though because it turned out that a few of the kids I people I met there are students at my school.  Definite potential for awkwardness there.

Speaking of students, we started teaching this week 🙂  My friend Thomas & I taught a 7th grade class yesterday about food adjectives (sour, sweet, ect.) & I loved it.  Even with my mom as a super-star teacher expample I never realized just how much detail goes into lesson planning, especially considering the resources are nonexistent or incomprehensible (i.e. the back of wallpaper instead of butcher paper, no tape & grammatically incoherent textbooks).  Translating & explaining the directions for our activities was the hardest part given their limited English familiarity, but the kids are extremely receptive, adorable & remarkably nice for 13 year olds.  We’ll be teaching two lessons a week now in all of the different grades & I’m really looking forward to it. 

Other than that everything is business as usual.  Language class is still kicking our collective butt, but the people in our community are warming up to us more & more each day & my host family is still more than I could ever have asked for.  Really sweet & really protective.  Even the 13 year old, Snijanna, scolds me when I try to clean my own plate & I’m writing this while wearing pink thermal socks & flats (what would Stacy & Clinton say) because the ‘they just don’t go’ argument holds absolutely no ground here.  I did however, have a small victory this week when I managed to explain that I’d like to know how to draw a bath myself (when I tried previously I think they thought I was asking how to bathe…yikes).  So baby steps, but I’m on my way to being able to effectively communicate.  Kind of.  Maybe.  Oh well.  Miss you!


OMg Internet October 10, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 4:30 pm

I never thought this day would come.  2 weeks into this crazy whirlwind of a journey we finally have been able to hit up an internet cafe.  I’ve been typing up my posts on my laptop in the hopes of transferring them from my zipdrive whenever I get computer access.  Unfortunately the only internet access we have is in our neighboring town which is a train ride away so we can only go on weekends & the man running this sketchy little basement operation says ‘ni’ when I show him the drive so apparently I’ll not be uploading anything for the time being.  Next time I’ll bring someone who speaks the language & hopefully we’ll be able to figure it out.  In the meantime, here’s a brief summary of life in Ukraine: bizarre but fun.

I live on a farm, yes me, complete with a chicken coop, bucket baths and a cellar full of preserved fruits and veggies.  Until December 17 I’ll be living in Morozivko a town of 3,000 an hour south of Kyiv.  It’s surreal and overwhelming but my host family is incredibly generous & the other volunteers in my group are great so I think I’ll make it. 

I live with Sasha (Dad) and Looba (Mom) & their daughters Yanna (16) and Snijanna (13).  They’re all really sweet despite my horrendously limited Ukrainian vocabulary.  I’m sure they’re convinced that I’m an idiot but they never show any indication of it & spend hours making me Ukrainian food & encouraging me to eat more, more, and more of it.  Between the pressure any the delicious European chocolate I think I’ll be fat enough to handle the winter in no time. 

Speaking of winter, the weather’s been really nice so far & I look a little quirky in my ankle length downcoat as it’s usually between 50 & 60 degrees.  As far as quirky goes though, that’s probably the least of my problems.  We didn’t have any contact with home until last Sunday so the first week here was beyond rough for me.  In all honesty after day 5 of crying myself to sleep I thought it would be a miracle if I lasted a week.  In said state it was nothing out of the ordinary for me to walk down our dirt roads full out sobbing.  Additionally I can’t work out here bc I don’t know when my next bath will be but I hate sitting around all day, so I’ve taken to walking around the lone soccer field in town while going through my flashcards.  Peculiar behavior even in America, here it’s a source of constant confusion & more often than not I end up with two or three small children following me in circles like some sort of disinterested Pied Piper.  I really cringe at what they must think of us, but I must say it’s kind of freeing to know that they’ll ultimately just chalk up any abnormal behavior to our status as ‘Crazy Americans’.  As an aside, cell phones are truly amazing technology & I’m feeling exponentially better now that I have daily phone calls to home.

As far as daily life goes, I wake up around 7 and have whatever Looba left out on the table (she leaves for work in Kyiv @ 5) usually instant coffee & chocolate bc I haven’t really caught on to the idea of potatoes for breakfast.  I get ready (relatively speaking bc I bathe every 3 days & don’t wear any makeup) & walk about 10 minutes to my language teacher’s apartment.  Despite at times questionable hygiene practices here people really go all out w/ dressing up so we have to wear business professional clothes to language class where we sit on a couch in a living room for 4 hours and try to retain some…any…information.  Then we eat lunch (soup and tea) and the school & usually follow it up with a few hours of technical training.  The school kids are adorable & we start teaching this week which I’m really excited about.  I usually get home around 6 & am force fed soup & whatever else they try to gauge my interest in.  They’ve been great about not trying to get me to eat meat & the food is really good but really abundant & it’s always a fine line between trying not to offend and trying not to explode.  We definitely always have fresh vegetables and fruit juice (cherry!) though which is extremely welcome in my book.  After dinner I study for a few hours & then she usually cooks another mini-dinner/dessert which we have around 9 & then again at breakfast the next morning.  After 2nd dinner I study some more & then go to bed in my sparkly-wallpapered room. 

It doesn’t sound like much, but each day is a bit of an adventure & involves some sort of new phenomenon ranging from walking next to little babusia’s leading cattle down the dirt road or being chased by the myriad of stray dogs that roam the streets.  Dealing with culture shock and trying desperately to learn the language has been challenging, but I definitely feel safe & cared for & feel so blessed that my needs are more than met. 

I’ll try to post the previous blogs w/ anectodes next week when I get internet again, but suffice it to say that we’re finding ourselves in random but amusing mishaps left and right.  I miss you all dearly & hope you’re doing well.  Being thousands of miles away has further reinforced that I have an amazing support group back home & I’m so grateful for your thoughts, prayers, & fond memories to reflect on during rough days.  Really, thank you.

And for those  of you w/calling cards & looking to make my week, my phone # is 38 063 606 2113 and I’m 8 hours ahead of Chicago time 🙂