Faith, Hope, and Love Remain

Alei's adventures in Ukraine

So Far So Good December 30, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 10:01 am

The close of 2009 will also mark the close of 2 weeks here in my permanent site and I’m happy to report that all’s well.  The timing was a little tricky as we wound up alone and bored during our first Christmas abroad which seemed like a recipe for disaster, but thanks to my family, friends, and a miraculous little thing called Skype it actually was a pretty good day.  My thoughtful parents emailed me a list of presents to buy for myself at the bizarre in the morning & then the 5th graders at school had a Christmas party where they put sparkly pink garland on me, gave me cards and candy & sang ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ with their little Ukrainian accents.  I successfully freaked them out by crying.  I think that PC service may have confused my body’s ability to identify emotions because tears seem to be my standard response  nowadays whether happy, sad, or just confused.   Oh well, at least my contacts will stay clean 🙂

After Christmas things felt much closer to normal & between the immediate connection to the world through internet & the absence of anything left to count down (leaving for site, Christmas, ect.) I’ve finally started to settle.  I’m getting to know the Yampil natives a little better and the kids in particular have been extremely welcoming and helpful.  I’ve spent much of my time tutoring some of our brightest students for our Olympiad (kind of like a Spelling Bee but for English) & was really encouraged by their ability to communicate & their appreciation.  One of the 14 year old girls told the judge during the speaking component of the competition that I was her favorite teacher.  I don’ t really think that was a fair estimation on her part but I’m definitely flattered nonetheless.

I also was able to teach a few lessons yesterday.  I thought I was going in to observe but I asked the teacher beforehand if there was anything I could do to help & she asked if I wouldn’t mind running the lesson while she finished grading their tests.  Normally that would have been a little problematic but our resources are so good that I was able to just follow along with their text & make up activities on the fly.  It was really encouraging and with classes of 9 students that can already produce whole sentences I really think I’m going to enjoy teaching here.  I must confess my guilty conscience though; part of the lesson included teaching unknowing 13 year olds that Pluto is a planet.  Probably not the most progressive lesson but the alternative seemed a little bit like telling them Santa’s not real so I went the ‘ignorance is bliss’ route instead.

My other favorite Yampil resident is my landlady who introduced herself to me as ‘Тьотя Луся (‘Aunt Lucia’ in Russian) & comes over every evening to feed sticks to the little metal heater in my kitchen that keeps my apartment nice & warm through the night.  The whole process takes about an hour and a half but she sits there patiently talking with me despite my embarrassingly broken Ukrainian.  I think she might be secretly working for the cattle council for the amount of lectures I’m given about how I need to eat meat in order to live, but she’s cute so I shrug it off & say ‘I don’t like it’ & then switch the subject.  She calls me ‘Aleychka’ using the diminutive suffix which basically translates to ‘little Alei’ & is not alone in thinking I’m a child, as I’ve already been asked by a teacher if I was 18 years old & am regularly called ‘little girl’ by shop vendors & babusias alike.

Communicating is still a bit of a trick as evidenced by the time that I needed matches to light my stove & went into the store closest to my building (like our equivalent of a White Hen Pantry but half the size of a baseball concession stand) without knowing the word.  I said ‘I need…stove’, mimed striking a match, and then said ‘Pojejah’ which we were taught meant ‘fire’.  It worked, the little old woman laughed and sold me the matches, but I found out later that I’m an idiot and pojejah actually translates closer to ‘catastrophe’.  Oy.  But I’m able to get by and was even capable of buying my bus ticket to Kyiv for tonight that will take me to visit my host family for New Year’s.  They still call every night to chat & I’m thrilled that I’ll be back with them in a few short hours.

That’s pretty much all that’s new around here.  There are still some adjustments to be made but overall things are feeling more normal by the minute.  I’m also kind of embracing that I’ll be ringing in the new decade with contradictions between old and new like when I peeled mushrooms with a tiny knife while watching a church service in perfect picture on my computer, or set an away message online that said ‘fetching water from the well’ (granted it’s not with one of those wooden contraptions that rests on your shoulders, but still).  Welcome to 2010.  And on that note I hope you all have very  Happy New Years!

Oh yeah, I put up a new photo album story of PC Training here: it’s a lot of the same pictures but a bit more chronological.


Merry Christmas! December 25, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 12:17 am

I’m about 45 minutes early in Ukrainian time but am too excited by my very own Christmas miracle (newly installed internet in my apartment) to postpone the greetings of tidings and joy.  Any and every reminder of home is a huge comfort these days, as evidenced by the fact that I’m currently streaming Chicago’s 93.9 the Lite, so I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your comments and concern.  Have a warm & wonderful Christmas & know you’re in my thoughts today 🙂


Remembering December December 20, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 9:26 pm

To say December has flown by is definitely an understatement.  Since my last post I’ve passed my Language Proficiency exam, sworn in to the Peace Corps, said goodbye to my new Ukrainian family and friends, moved and settled in to my new apartment in ямпіль (Yampil), been slightly electrocuted and of course memorized and preformed a dance to Thriller.  It’s been a whirlwind of conflicting emotions with lots of pictures & no time to reflect, so now I’ll attempt a marathon summary of my month; you’ve been warned.

My last weeks in Morozivka were wonderful; we managed to pack in a few more trips to київ to the theatre & an English resource library but most of the time was spent with our families and community.  Our community project was held the last Friday in town & was a testament to our acclimation into the town despite our far from perfect performance over three months.  When planning for the event the principal had asked us to present information about the Peace Corps and ourselves so that parents might see the benefit of donating time & effort into helping build the school’s language department enough that they would quality to host a volunteer permanently (PC only sends volunteers to schools with specialized language programs).  That was followed with a presentation of resources that we purchased with money from a grant we wrote together, an intermission with American cookies, & then finally a 6 act talent show.  We kicked off the performance with a rendition of a traditional Ukrainian song in full costume.  Already feeling ridiculous, the principal and administration called us onto stage before performing to present us with certificates expressing their gratitude.  It was embarrassing yet sweet & the community’s support really blew us away.  We were expecting about 20 or so people (mostly just our host families) but it turned out to be standing room only with all of our neighbors and students cheering us on while we danced around like idiots.  To illustrate their constant encouragement before heading to the event яна was fixing my makeup, сніжана was fixing my hair, my host Mom was fixing my dinner, and my host Dad was fixing my necklace.  I felt like Dorothy getting worked on in the Emerald City.  We did our Ukrainian rendition, then school choir did a much more authentic rendition & our 3rd and 8th graders performed Christmas songs that we taught them in English while we changed for our ridiculous finale, Thriller.  It was ridiculous but went off pretty much without a flaw & was followed up with a ‘debrief’ at the discotheque with our host siblings and friends.  The final days were sweet and low-key; we had a big dinner cooked over a fire outside & bummed around together cooking, cleaning, and doing Russian karaoke in my room.  We had to leave early that Monday morning & the whole affair was extremely sad.  The bus picked us up from the school parking lot & it was a scene straight out of a movie as all of the families & volunteers were crying while a hundred of our adorable students watched from inside & waved goodbye.  I was more than weary about living with a host family at first but now I can’t imagine life without them.  Яна wrote me a really sweet note about how it had been the best three months of her life with me & they’ve all been calling at least twice a day since I left.  Again, really sad on top of the already prevalent homesickness but it was nice to know that I wasn’t just a burden & I feel so blessed to have made a connection with such great people here.  Luckily we’re only about 6 hours away so there’ll be plenty of visits between us.

Monday through Thursday of this week were spent at a dorm in the outskirts of київ for our pre-departure conference.  It basically consisted of meetings from  8 am to 7 pm every day where we learned where we’d be staying the next two years as well as how to write grants, live at sight, and host conferences of our own.  We met our counterparts the second day (the English teachers who we’ll be working with during our service) & other volunteers who are located near us.  It was a bit overwhelming but we were good about making sure to spend time as a training group since our time together was so limited.  Three of my friends from Morozivka are fairly close to me & there’s a meeting point that’s about 3 hours from all of us so hopefully we can stay in touch.  Thursday morning we had some final training seminars & then had the swearing-in ceremony.  All of our host families from Morozivka were there along with the Ukrainian press, US Ambassador, and some government officials.  It lasted about an hour and was followed by another tearful hour at the reception as we said goodbye to our families again.  When we got back to the dorms we frantically packed & within an hour had said goodbye to each other, and boarded a bus en route to our new towns.  Luckily it all happened so quickly that we didn’t really have time to be sad & right when it started to hit me on my 6 hour train ride south to my new home I got a perfectly timed call from Ms. Ashley Chamberlain to help alleviate the melancholy.  I talked to my counterpart a bit on the train & then slept for a few hours before hauling all of my baggage off the train and into a car that took us to my new apartment an hour away.  The landlady (a cute older lady and her husband in a Soviet-style fur hat) came over to show me everything and when all was said & done it was 3am when I was left to my new life in ямпіль.

My apartment is really cute and much nicer that I’d expected.  Pictures are online but it has a living room/bedroom that’s almost the size of my living room in Cary, a little kitchen, bathroom, foyer & balcony.  There were a few glitches as internet & hot water may not be possible & the electrical outlets are a little tricky hence the bout of electrocution, but as of this morning I was officially able to make breakfast by turning on the gas tank, lighting my stove with a match, and boiling water for coffee & to wash dishes with.  I think I’m back to bucket baths but I’ll deal with that tomorrow.  Another great perk to the apartment is that my next door neighbor is my counterpart, Oksanna, and her 15 year old son, Artem.  They both speak English really well and have been nothing but helpful to me.  They took me around town yesterday & helped me stock my apartment by showing me the best places to shop.  They’ve also offered me access to their internet whenever I’d like so the time without a connection of my own shouldn’t be too bad.

My walk around the town was lovely.  Yampil is located on the southern border of Ukraine with Moldova & as such they don’t get a lot of snow.  I’m pretty sure I received a little Christmas miracle though as it started snowing when I arrived Thursday night & now it’s a winter wonderland perfect for exploring.  It’s incredibly scenic and hilly & as I look out my sunny window I can see the town center & Moldova behind it.  Also, the street that I live on houses a huge stadium and 4 kindergartens so street traffic is prohibited & I happily walk down the middle of the street with my groceries.  I think that training in a small town was a huge blessing as now my town of 12,000 seems absolutely enormous.  I have immediate access to a grocery store, internet club, post office, and house of culture any day of the week as well as a myriad of small shops selling everything from sports equipment, to medicine for pets.  There’s even the equivalent of a dollar store where everything is 3, 5, or 8 гривн.  I live right across the street from my school which I was able to see yesterday.  It’s beautiful and specializes in language and the arts so I have plenty of performances to look forward to.  I met with the language department, 7 young teachers who speak amazing English and are really sweet & decided on my schedule for next semester.  I’ll be teaching 6th through 11th grade & get to host 3 after school clubs for all age groups.  There are three schools in Yampil and as a specialized school (called a gymnasium) the students at my school are generally very driven and eager to learn and practice English as evidenced that despite the quarantine that went into effect yesterday I’ll still be able to meet next week with students who want to practice for the Olympiad (language competition) at the end of December.  This works out perfectly for me as I’m not particularly looking forward to down time while knowing that Christmas is going on across the ocean.

The rest of my day was spent unpacking & settling in & then visiting with the other Peace Corps Volunteer who lives in my sight.  Having two volunteers is a rarity so I feel very lucky to be able to get some perspective from someone who’s been here a year already & knows the essentials.  My school has also already hosted 2 other volunteers so I have clearly defined responsibilities and the community members are a little more accustomed to foreigners.  I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t been sad and weird to be by myself during the holiday season but I really feel like I’m in the best place possible as far as opportunities to socialize & available resources.  So please know that I’m safe & comfortable bundled up in my blanket & listening to Christmas music, but remember to hug your family & friend extra hard for me J


What’s Ukrainian for ‘Where Are We’? December 4, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 7:39 pm

Another week, another trip to київ 🙂  This one’s strictly business (and by business I mean finishing downloading Christmas music & workout videos & finding stickers for my keyboard so I can type in Ukrainian) but it’s appreciated nonetheless & gives me the opportunity to share with you all what an idiot I am. 

Story time; last week we got caught up in the pure bliss of being connected with the rest of the world & realized too late that we missed the last маршрутка (marshrutka) (like a bus but with only 10-15 passengers) from the city to our little village.  We moved on to plan B which was to take the електричка (electrychka) (super crowded commuter train system) home.  We’d only been on it once before and that was with our native-speaking families but we thought we could manage.  Nothing was marked at the station so we were already pretty proud of ourselves when we managed to buy a ticket to our village.  We took our tickets to a man in uniform (albeit blue camouflage uniform) and mustered up enough Ukrainian to ask “This track, next train to Morozivka?” and he said yes so we boarded the next  train that arrived even though it was 10 minutes early.  An hour or so into the trip the woman came to check our tickets and I asked how many more stops there were until ours since they don’t make any announcements and none of the stations had signs.  She said ‘немає (Hemayeh)’ which means ‘there is none’. 

  The events after this moment were a frenzied blur.  Our friend Thomas’ jaw dropped to the ground which made Emily & I dissolve in hysterical laughter (confusing all of the other passengers with our inapprope response) and all of a sudden the whole train car was on a mission to get us home.  We had our technical trainer on speed-dial and gave the phone to the man sitting next to us and before we knew it we were being whisked off the train an onto a station in the middle of nowhere with a man who sells corn puffs on the train.  10 minutes later we were on another train & were told that we would have 7 minutes at the next stop to run the entire length of the train, down a small staircase, past the woman selling tickets and onto the fourth platform.  It felt straight out of mission impossible & we managed to stop cracking up long enough to haul it to the platform in 5 minutes flat;  just to find that the train had already left.  At this point our host families are calling nonstop & Thomas, in an act of desperation & confusion, went up to a stranger, thrust out his cellphone and said “можна” (roughly may I) hoping that she would speak to his mom & calm her down.  Needless to say, she didn’t quite understand the request & scooted a little farther away.  It was a mess & ended with a 45 minute taxi cab ride home with a driver who was told by our Ukrainian lifeline that the US government would be watching his car & he had better have us back by midnight.  It should have been terrifying but it was mostly hysterical & made us realize how lucky we are to have each other & the myriad of resources provided though the Peace Corps.  Sometimes it seems that we’re kept on a tight leash but I can’t imagine what I would have done without their support.  I think I’d probably still be on the platform in bumble with the corn-puffs man.  Yikes.  Our families surprisingly don’t think we’re complete idiots because they let us go back again today but we’ll definitely be catching that маршрутка (marshrutka).

Speaking of looking like idiots, along with our language learning extravaganza we’ve been putting together a PC presentation/talent show for the community & the principal said that he was hoping that we’d be able to perform as well.  Not to disappoint, we’re now rehearsing a traditional Ukrainian song in full costume as well as Thriller.  I’m already mortified and made sure to learn the word for ’embarrassed’ but everyone we’ve talked to loves the idea & it prompted our 6’4″ language teacher to demonstrate the ever popular ‘goose step’ which requires a whole lot of squatting & squirming around on the floor…yet another Borat moment at its finest.

We had our last real language class today & the rest of our time will be spent reviewing for the language proficiency test on Thursday.  It’s really crazy how time flies, but we’re trying to make the most of our remaining days with our families and each other.  I went to the city with my HM last Sunday to a beautiful church district & then the zoo (I’m so 5 years old) where we fed pastries to the zebras…standard protocol, right?  Apparently animals eat anything here as evidenced by our little puppy who eats borsch most nights.  Another universal is the hilarity that results from dressing up animals as illustrated when little дружок (Droojhoke) was dressed up in a dress and doll hat while I was playing outside with my sister.  That kind of thing seems to transcend language barriers.

Nothing else too interesting here.  I’m taking the plunge and getting a Ukrainian haircut tomorrow & then Sunday I’m going with the host sister & 4 of her friends to tour the town like a 16 year old & see a play.  It’s just about time for the the mad dash to the metro.  Пока for now 🙂