Faith, Hope, and Love Remain

Alei's adventures in Ukraine

Baby It’s Cold Outside January 27, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 8:07 pm

One of the most common pre-departure conundrums I faced was convincing people that Ukraine is not Siberia despite the surprisingly prevalent association.  I can just hear myself smugly saying “It’s actually warmer than Illinois” completely believing that to be the case.  A few months later I now  know not to say anything with even a hint of confidence as it is currently about -18 F.  It’s cold enough that my nostrils freeze when I walk 10 minutes to the store & school has been can canceled for the past three days to prevent a similar fate for children that have a 30 minute commute to school.  Hindsight.

Luckily I’ve still been able to tutor and the Great Freeze made living conditions unsuitable for Garrick (the other volunteer in town)’s cat while he is in Kyiv for the week so I have a kitten to play with.  I’d kind of prefer a dog as the cat has a propensity for hiding and would give Houdini a run for his money in my 20 square foot apartment, but when she’s not tearing down my curtains she’s nice.  Allegedly this year is abnormally cold, a Russian winter, & the worst will be over soon but I’m going with my new ‘Don’t hold your breath’ philosophy & am planning to keep piling on the long underwear layers until I see flowers in full bloom.

For the time being I’m hanging out  in the kitchen shoveling coal into the heater & actually quite content with it.  I’m gradually catching up on all of the television shows that I didn’t make time for in the States & thereby highly recommend The Office & Arrested Development to anyone in a similar snowed-in predicament.  I’ve thus rediscovered my love for Dwight Schrute & come to the uncomfortable conclusion that I see some resemblance in Buster Bluth  (i.e. my mom & I have matching pajamas.  Insert gag here.  That actually was pretty problematic  in my spree of horrible packing as I managed to stow away both pants & now have 3 pairs of PJ bottoms and only one top).   Not a whole lot else newsy here (as evidenced by the TV talk).  I did have a weird moment today when I was ‘exercising’.  I like to stream B96 radio when I ‘work out’ because it makes me feel marginally less idiotic & I of course want to have things to talk about when T.I. gets out of prison & comes to visit me.  I also like to listen to the Chicago ads, so imagine my surprise today when the announcer started trying to convince me to spend 2 years on an adventure in another country.  That’s right, a Peace Corps ad live in my apartment in Ukraine; a little surreal.

I’ve also added my address (it should be on the right side on this page) but please keep in mind all of the multimedia references in this post- with internet & a cozy apartment I’m really in want of nothing.  Letters are always fun, but I think anything bigger than an envelope gets expensive so really please know that I definitely don’t need/expect care packages.

School starts up again tomorrow (or so I’ve been told) & then I’ll head out Saturday morning for Vinnytsia (a big city 3 hours away) to spend the weekend with other volunteers in my region 🙂  We have meetings Saturday during the day & then Emily & Ashley (from my training group) & I are splitting a hotel & looking forward to hours of catching up, reminiscing on Morozivka, swapping war stories of our first month at site, & probably a good deal of subsequent laughter.  I hope you have a good weekend too!


No really, please, sit down. January 23, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 11:57 am

That’s how I start pretty much every lesson.  This desperate plea is not because the kids have too much energy & too little interest in chairs &/or English but rather because they’ll patiently stand there looking at me until I grant them permission to sit.  Talk about potential for a power trip.  While a  consistent phenomenon, it’s one that I tend to forget & never cease to be surprised when I look up from organizing my notes before class to see them all waiting & at attention.  45 minutes after I persuade them to sit they all file out of the classroom with a “Thank you for the lesson Miss Alei”, that is if they’re not helping me erase the board without being asked.  I’m afraid the complete & total absence of behavioral issues may have something to do with me being a novelty right now & will gradually wear off, but for the time being I’ll relish the fact that the only reprimand necessary is ‘One at a time please’  as they all grapple to prove to me that they know the answer to whatever I’ve just asked.  So in other words, school is going well.  I can’t imagine why we didn’t start right when we got to site because being busy & feeling like I’m actually contributing has made all the difference.  I teach 18 lessons a week with 5th, 8th, 9th, & 10th formers (comparable to 6th, 9th, 10th, & 11th graders), have 3 English clubs, & do individual tutoring 6 hours a week so my weekdays are pretty full, but they coordinated my schedule to have Mondays off so I can take long weekends to visit my friends & have plenty of time to relax as well.  I’m at a specialized language school so the kids are really motivated & none of my classes have more than 14 students (most of  them have 8).  They’re really cute & provide a myriad of funny moments.  My favorites so far were when a little 1st former shouted ‘I love you!’ during our lesson on American Holidays (Valentine’s Day of course) at the English club for younger students & the other 40 kids in the auditorium followed suit with their romantic professions which was closely followed by the time when an 8th former was trying to say ‘3 sheets/pieces of paper’ but instead proudly exclaimed ‘3 pieces of sh*t’.  I didn’t even try to explain why I was laughing at that one.

Middle English Club

So apparently the lesson here is downer posts like the last one make all subsequent  events seem excessively wonderful in comparison.  I’ll go with it, as now my internet is back up & running & the ice death-traps have been covered by inches of fluffy snow.  I think the trip to Kyiv was just what I needed as it consisted of 5 seconds of getting a shot, a whole day of exploring the city with my friend Melissa in search of peanut butter & Tom Kha soup (success!), a  hot shower, and a full 8 hours of sleep on an American mattress (I’d forgotten how nice it was to lie on something that wasn’t a couch).  I’m a huge fan of Disneyworld, but between the water pressure & ample  library collection I think the PC office might just be my ‘Happiest Place on Earth’ for the next two years.  It was also refreshing to be able to navigate around with a semblance of competency as most everything had corresponding signs (a rarity here) & I was mistaken for a Pole after talking with some people on the train…not a Ukrainian but a step in the right direction nonetheless.

I got back from my trip on Wednesday night & spent the evening preparing for my first day of school on Thursday.  I started the morning with a cup of real (not instant) coffee thanks to the generous input from one of my favorite teachers at school (Olha) & had just finished saying my prayers when I heard a knock at the door.  It was a bit strange to see four little boys standing there at 6 in the morning  but not nearly as strange as what happened next.  Part of the holiday traditions here include kids going  door to door singing carols for money, so when the boys asked me something in Ukrainian I assumed it was along the lines of “May we sing?”.  I realized just how sorely mistaken I was though when they started chanting something and pelting my foyer & I with rice.  They were pretty calm about it & seemed surprised by response – laughing my head off – so I assume it wasn’t done maliciously & I gave them pieces of candy, sent them on their way & then proceeded to try to clean up the mess.  Luckily it wasn’t cooked rice as I’m quite sure the task would have been more that my dinky little broom could have handled.

The aftermath

Aside from that, things have pretty much been business as usual.  No real moments of self-realization other than I now know that I can get by on a diet of mostly cabbage as long as I have a variety of sauces & spices to liven it up & chocolate  to wash it down.  I also discovered that contrary to popular belief (a.k.a. slight arachnophobia) I can coexist with the 3 daddy-long legs that live in my apartment.  Granted, I know where they are at all times and would probably lose my resolve & squash them if they started creeping towards me, but still…baby steps.  The only other big adjustment as of late is coming to terms with living under a microscope.  I found out just how strong the lens is when I was tutoring an 11th former last week.  For a little background, when I was getting off the bus from Kyiv I heard something hit the floor & realized that it was probably my cell phone so I waited for everyone to get off & then went back on, saw it on the floor, picked it up unscathed, said ‘Goodnight’ to the one other woman on the bus, and set out on my way.  The whole incident took maybe 30 seconds.  Imagine my surprise then when after telling Looda (the 11th former) that I imagine people here probably think I’m crazy after I laughed aloud for a good 30 seconds to myself when I completely wiped out & sent my water bottles flying on my way to the well one day, she said “I didn’t hear anything about that, but I did hear that you dropped your phone”.  Even my trash is not safe as my land lady essentially goes through my garbage when she burns it in my furnace every night (if only I knew the Ukrainian word for ‘carcinogen’).  I do however, brush my teeth with cherry toothpaste every day so I guess I’ll have to take the good with the bad 🙂


And the Hits Just Keep Coming… January 12, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 8:33 am

Monday, January 11

I should probably acknowledge that this post will likely fly in the face of my goal to serve positively and whatnot, but I also want to paint an accurate portrait of life here which occasionally includes some setbacks.  This week it just so happened to include a string of setbacks in rapid succession.  Viewing them concentrated like this kind of makes it seem funnier though & thereby easier to deal with, so here goes.  (How’s that for a disclaimer.)

  1. My internet, which previously was my lifeline to the world & apparently a very balancing factor, is no more.  While convenient, this is still a small town in Ukraine so in order to get a signal I had to place the cord at just the right angle.  Gradually that progressed into having to use the ever popular guess & check method to find the perfect mix of twisting the cord at the proper degree & spot while applying enough but not too much pressure.  With 45 meters of cord it wasn’t unusual for the process to take half an hour in the final days.  And then…dun, dun, dun…the cord broke.  Inevitable, probably.  Obnoxious, definitely.  However, if you’re reading this it probably means that I have access again.  Hopefully it’s not March.
  2. I had a closer-than-comfortable run in with a car when I slid down the dirt road wielding two 6 liter water bottles on my way home from the well.  I could see the thing coming at me but couldn’t stop sliding & just had to hope that it saw me & could stop in time (which it did with no problem).  No big deal, but an illustration that even walking can be a challenge here since we take no precautionary measures and thus a stroll down the hill to town is akin to trying to tiptoe down a slip’n’slide…which actually sounds kind of fun now that I type it out.  I can’t even chalk this one up to my foreigner status as everyone slips regularly, which while sometimes hysterical is probably really dangerous.  I’m contemplating writing a grant for $20 so I can buy a gigantic bag of salt & go to town (literally & figuratively).
  3. Given the absence of internet I foraged on to attempting things I’d been postponing…namely housework.  First stop was doing my laundry Saturday night by hand in my bathtub.  At the end of two & a half hours of scrubbing & rinsing I felt like I’d done a month’s worth of laundering but looked at the end result & realized it was only about ¼ of the amount of a usual load stateside.  And now, a full 3 days later, everything is still sopping wet.  Joy.  Next on the agenda was ‘vacuuming’ except while cell phones are essential here (my 8 year old neighbor has one) vacuums are extremely rare.  So I spent a fair amount of my evening spastically brushing my floor with a miniature wooden broom…one that literally reaches to my knee & is comprised of pieces of straw bound together.  And finally while trying to make…what else…borsch, I realized I am my father’s daughter by singing off my arm hair when the propane-tank system leaked & two burners caught fire instead of just one.  On the bright side though, Mr. Cook’s incident involved partially burnt eyebrows resulting from fixing the basement thermostat so I guess I’d prefer my mishap (sorry Dad :)).
  4. I can’t speak the language.  I found this out yesterday when after showing 4 people my ticket & asking if the unmarked bus at the station was going to Bapnyarka then boarding said bus I discovered that someone else was in the seat that I was assigned.  I knew that she was probably right so I tried to exit said bus but a cultural difference that we were warned about is that people can seem pushy (cutting in lines, not moving out of the way, ect.) & my efforts to move upstream were in vain as I couldn’t get past everyone in the aisles and ended up riding the bus anyways.  Obviously I wasn’t in my proper seat so when the person who’s seat I was in got on a few stops later & started yelling at me the bus driver had to stop, walk to the back & explain to the woman in front of 80 some passengers that I was an American who didn’t understand & that she needed to find a different seat until we got to my stop (he actually was extremely nice about it but I wanted to disappear in that moment nonetheless).
  5. I was only en route to Bapnyarka to begin with because it is our closest train station (2 hours away) & my doctors said I needed to go to Kyiv ASAP to get a swine flu vaccination since I’m ‘high risk’ (a.k.a. I have asthma).  So at 11pm I arrived and attempted to buy my ticket that would have me to the city at 7am but of course, there were no available seats.  So I found myself on a bus back to Yampil & got home @ 2am tired & without even having learned a ‘better luck next time’ lesson because our one & only option for buying tickets is going to the station & hoping they’re not sold out.  Yikes.

So now I’m all packed & ready for Operation: Get-To-Kyiv take 2 hopefully starting with getting on the right bus tonight.  Once (perhaps I should say ‘if’) I get there, all will be well because along with the shot I’ll have access to a shower, lots of books donated by previous volunteers, and potentially Thai food.  Plus when I get back on Wednesday school will have started & maybe I’ll even have my schedule so I can lesson plan @ long last.  If nothing else I think that weeks like this provide me with plenty of material for later in life when I need to pull the ‘When I was your age…’ card with my kids & if they’re as sassy as I was to my parents that one might just come in handy 🙂

PS: It’s now Tuesday morning & I’m posting this after successfully arriving in Kyiv so things are already looking up.  Because I can’t avoid weird situations to save my life though, here’s another little gem from last night’s travels.  A little boy came up asking for money & in an attempt to temper my bad mood I asked if he was hungry & he said yes so I told him I would take him to the store (the size of a closet with mostly candy & soda).  On the walk over we talked about what he would like (sausage of course) but when we got in to the store & I asked him to tell the saleslady what he’d like he started grabbing toys from the wall & I didn’t know how to explain properly without causing a scene (not recommended by Americans traveling with all of their belongings in a backpack) so I said ‘Just one’ and he walked out with a racecar & a toy gun.  As if that wasn’t enough fun, about 5 minutes later his mom came up to me & told me that I needed to take him back to the store & exchange the toys for money but I wasn’t particularly keen on the idea of giving money to the woman in a nice coat who probably put her 5 year old up to begging at a train depot so I pretended like I didn’t understand & called it a day.  This is my life.


My Super New Year January 6, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 8:13 pm

З новим рокем! That’s of course Happy New Year which is what I hope you’re all having 🙂

One of my favorite things about Ukraine is that they use the word ‘super’ without a trace of sarcasm.  From TV news anchors to my 13-year-old sister, it’s said commonly and enthusiastically and never fails to make me laugh.  Odds are I’ll be considered quite dorky when I get back to the States if I make it a part of my regular vernacular but I took the plunge with the title of this entry because it described my holiday and I have a feeling it’s likely to accurately characterize 2010 for me; very Ukrainian and a little zany but positive overall.

I made the trek back to Morozivka Wednesday night & spent 4 relaxing days with my host family before heading back Sunday night.  All in all it felt a lot like coming home from college for a long weekend- sleeping in, catching up with the fam, eating too much, and swapping war stories with friends.  In a word, wonderful. We spent the 31st cooking &  watching a television show called ‘Ukraine Has Talent’ for hours upon hours.  TV is the national pastime here during the winter months so our marathon was completely standard behavior.  Yanna had big plans of meeting her boyfriend’s family for the first time & was nervously doing fashion shows for us in order to decide on the right ensemble.  Just another cute example of how we’re really not that different after all.  Anhriy (the bf) lives in the next town over so my ‘Mom’ & Snijanna & I walked (more accurately shuffled like penguins due to the ice) her to the train to wish her an early Happy New Year.  They don’t salt the roads here so the village looked like a Winter Wonderland but felt like an ice rink so we spent the whole way back taking running starts and gliding far-from-gracefully home (obviously I fell but only once).

Everyone had to bathe (New Year’s tradition to start out the year clean; I don’t even want to think about the questionable hygienic implications of using the same bathtub in rapid succession like that but  always appreciate the opportunity to wash my hair) & then we got all dressed up & had dinner at 11pm.  We sat in the living room & admired the New Year’s Tree which was truly worth admiring.  I was picturing our typical triangular evergreen bought from a lot but as usual I was wrong.  No, in my house my ‘Mom’ went to the forest and cut down a 9 foot tall & incredibly wide Charlie Brown fir tree, brought it home on her bike…alone… & then decorated in with tinsel, pretty ornaments and (what else) chocolate candy dangling from strings.  That woman never ceases to amaze.

We ate, had a glass of champagne at midnight & then everyone started putting their coats on so I followed suit and ended up walking down the street with a bag of fruit, a bottle of champagne and a little wooden sled.  I was confused to say the least as we stood there in the cold looking at the stars but in a matter of minutes other people started arriving with similar accoutrements.  They set up a nice spread on the sleds & the kids entertained themselves with sparklers and full out fireworks.  We didn’t join hands and sing ba-ho-doray or anything like the Who’s & there was not enough champagne in all of Ukraine to make me feel comfortable with the children + explosives combo but there were definitely about 5 families eating, singing, dancing & celebrating in the cold for 2 hours.  Not a bad way to start the year.

The next few days were spent having lunch & dinner parties with the extended family in order to get rid of all of the food that we cooked on NYE.  At one point the grandma was snoring in the chair next to me, our neighbor, Anna, was teaching me Ukrainian hand clapping games, and everyone else (including my ‘uncle’ ) was shamelessly belting out Russian karaoke.  I really wanted to videotape the shenanigans but didn’t know how that would go down.  Anna was a 4th grader that I taught & one of the revelers who spent NYE dragging me by the hand all over the place & made a point of visiting us every day.  After a relaxing weekend full of visiting friends and watching Shrek in Ukrainian I had to head back to Yampil, so my family & Anna walked me to the train station.  I thought I was going it solo but when the train pulled up my ‘Mom’  hopped on too & we watched together as little Anna cried & waved goodbye from the platform.  Apparently I’m spreading my tearful affliction.

We got to the train station with about 30 minutes to spare so I followed blindly after my ‘Mom’ through the crowded depot in crazy slushy ice.  I thought we were going to get hit by at least 5 cars but we managed to make it to a jewelry store where before I knew it rings were being put on my hand.  I know I’m making myself out to be a victim here, but in all honesty I couldn’t even see the display case.  She’d decided that I needed a ring for a Christmas present & that was what was happening; the only consideration was which of my fingers it would fit on.  So 20 minutes later, after she helped me find my train & asked the conductor if she could get on without a ticket in order to make sure that I got on OK, I sat comparing my two hands & a little symbolically my two lives.  My right hand is marked by the understated silver cross ring that I spent about an hour deciding on with Mom last Christmas, strategically considering which was the most comfortable, which would match with everything, ect.  My left is now adorned with a glittery number that’s pretty but practically goes to my knuckle & was literally put on my finger for me.  Very different yet both laden with meaning & importance & not likely to be removed any time soon.

I made it back to my apartment at about 2am & while I always love seeing my host family it did feel kind of nice to be back at my place.  The vendors at the bizarre now generally know what I want before I ask, the kids bundled up so that only their eyes are visible wave as their parents pull them down the sidewalk on those ever-present wooden sleds & Тьотя Луся leaves me walnuts every night in an attempt to boost my protein intake.  I think it might be starting to feel like home 🙂