Faith, Hope, and Love Remain

Alei's adventures in Ukraine

Did Somebody Say McDonald’s? February 28, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 9:39 am

As yet another addition to the growing  ‘Things I Never Thought I’d Hear Myself Say 5 Months Ago’ list, I really love McDonalds.  I’m at the tail end of a weekend in Vinnitsia (our closest city) and have been surprised, albeit pleasantly, to find just how many of my needs this fast food haven has met.  First and foremost, the free wifi is a nice find as last week’s fire has made my internet down for the count for an undetermined amount of time.  I’m not even going to jinx it by trying to speculate what ‘undetermined’ could possibly entail, so suffice it to say the chance to check email is highly appreciated.  Mickey D’s also provides a pretty good analogy of life in Ukraine.  It looks almost, almost, like what I’m used to but with a few changes, some of them good.  After trekking to the golden arches early enough this morning for breakfast I was a bit disappointed to find that they didn’t have the biscuit part of an Egg McMuffin (the main attraction if you ask me).  I did find however that they have something called an omelette which is basically just the fluffy egg part served with an English muffin and apricot jam.  So while not what I expected, I found myself really enjoying the egg + ketchup combo & never tire of the variety of fruit flavors available here.  Much like life here, usually not what I anticipated but full of interesting & enjoyable surprises nonetheless.  And finally and perhaps most ironically the McDonald’s bathroom is one of the cleanest I’ve seen in this whole country.  Again, probably an overshare but any sign of sanitation is very appreciated here.  Of course the comparison involves food which I seem to spend a disproportionate amount of time talking about here, so I guess that fits too.

I’m here to tutor & support four of our brightest students as they compete in the regional Olympiad, kind of comparable to a spelling bee but for English language & taken very seriously.  We don’t have matching warm up suits or anything but it did feel kind of similar to an athletic competition as we sat together practicing while trying to gauge the competition.  The two-day extravaganza has listening, reading, writing, and speaking tests & will be the culmination of our work in tutoring for the past 2 months.  There’s about 100 kids from 9-11 grade & they’re all pretty nervous but I think they’ll do well.  They wanted me to tag along to tutor them during their breaks which worked out nicely for me as my wonderful friend Olha pulled strings so that I would be able to stay with Dasha (her daughter and one of my favorite students) in her aunt’s apartment complete with a clean bed, hot shower, & sushi instead of paying to stay in a dormitory sans running water.  I think I’ve said it before but I continue to be blown away by the kindness shown by that family.

My trip last week was also fun & full of laughing & comisserating with my Peace Corps friends.  We were able to swap pictures from our glory days in Morozivka which means that I think the world may finally be ready to see our Thriller performance.  So if you need a good laugh or want to be reminded that the benefits of being 6′ tall fall flat compared to the accompanying lankiness, just click here.  The trip back took an entire 12 hours as there are 5 ‘Yampil’s in Ukraine which is just bound to cause problems, but overall it was another great weekend.  More on the good news front includes the revelation that I am an adept bargain shopper even in Ukraine & bought a coat yesterday that is substantially less enormous & obnoxious & was on sale 🙂  So now I’m ready for the warmer weather that is allegedly on the way as today is the first day of spring.  I miss you all & hope Chicago will follow suit & bring on the warmth.


S.O.S. Please February 20, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 7:42 pm

Necessary precursor:  I am fine & typing this sitting in a warm chair in my apartment.  Reason for the precursor:  I walked home from school today to see a crowd of people watching my apartment building & a fire truck that looked straight out of the 1930s.  Everyone was of course gaping in the direction of my balcony but I couldn’t tell exactly which window the smoke was billowing out of.  I’m not proud of this, but my first conscious thought was ‘If my apartment is on fire, I’m going home’ which was immediately followed by ‘If I caused a fire in someone else’s apartment, I’m going home’.  If there was ever any speculation on which side of the fight/flight spectrum I sit, I think this response might settle it.  Luckily neither situation was realized, but there was a small fire in my neighbor’s apartment.  Everyone was fine & no permanent damage was done, but the kitchen stove was a casualty resulting in some sort of mishap with the propane tank.  Luckily they handled everything really quickly & a lot of people were home at the time.  Standing outside watching all of the commotion helplessly with my other neighbors & wondering if my pictures from home were going up in flames definitely qualified as an ‘If only I spoke Ukrainian’ moment though.

Speaking of my neighbors, this unfortunate event really illustrated further what great people they are.  The three hours following the fire were filled with everyone carrying buckets of ashes to the curb and scrubbing down the floor, rugs and everything else that had been soaked with fire extinguisher foam.  I’m really looking forward to warmer weather when it’s more common to visit outside as they’ve been very friendly already & I’m eager to know more of their stories.  As some sort of cosmic prank in response to my last post they seem to have decided that it’s time for me to find a man.  I saw four of them outside waiting for the garbage truck & the conversation went a little something like this:

-Alei! (or something pronounced close enough that I knew it was intended towards me) Hello! (In the casual/familiar case reserved for friends).

~Good day.  How are you?

-Good, good.  Where are you going?  To a boy? (Note:  I’m wearing my floor length sleeping bag of a coat, and have approximately four inches of pajama pants visible that are tucked in to my snow boots.  Not really a date outfit, especially here.)

~No, no.  To the store.  I need bananas.

-Don’t you want a boyfriend.  We will get you one.

~No, thank you.  I don’t need.

-Yes, yes, you are pretty.  We will find a Ukrainian boyfriend.

~He must be tall. (Insert height gesture)

-Of course, of course.  *Something jovial that I don’t understand* (Insert gesture that looked to me like Santa rubbing his belly.  Was that intended to be me or him I wonder?).

-Do you have tall boys in ….where is she from….Chicago (pronounced she-kah-ho)?

~Some but two years is a lot of time.

-OK.  No problem.  Have a nice night.  We will find you one.

And then I said goodbye & headed to the store while the think tank started literally listing off potential candidates for me to date/marry/who knows.  As I walked off it went something like “My nephew, the one that works in Vinnitsia”, “Yes, but what about…”, and on and on.  So there we have it.  Next stop, my Big Fat Ukrainian wedding (really, really, really just kidding).  I still can’t & am not particularly interested in competing with Ukrainian women and their ability to accomplish all sorts of domestic feats while rocking stiletto heels and manicured nails.  Between that and my refusal to buy salo (the white, fatty part of raw bacon that’s a delicacy here) I fear I’d be a bit of a disappointment to whoever they eventually decide on for my suitor.  Still though, I’m glad that they were comfortable enough to meddle a bit.  Maybe I’ll follow Milford Street’s example & pitch the idea of a book club, assuming that everyone’s OK with reading books intended for 3 year olds so I could contribute.  I’ve decided that as far as communicating goes my life here is kind of like one giant game of Taboo.  Only instead of 5 words that are forbidden, it’s the majority of an entire language.  Luckily, I love Taboo & every little conversation or connection feels like a Hellen Keller-size breakthrough (approp?).

I spent a fair deal of time pondering what to do about Lent this year.  My friend Emily gave up chocolate which I must say initially blew my mind.  Now upon much thought & reflection I still can’t seem to wrap my head around the feasibility of that one.  Nixing it would cut my caloric intake literally in half which means I would have to resort to carb loading with the ever-abundant potato.  My landlady would probably be thrilled by that addition but I know myself well enough to understand that a diet of cabbage, bananas, bread, and potatoes would not bode well on the old psyche.  Daily communication with good old America is the other thing I’m sort of into but I think its removal would be a step in the wrong direction as I’d inevitably crack (probably by day 3) & take it out on some unsuspecting, adorable student.   I don’t really have any other vices as of late which I guess is a good thing, but a little irritating when it comes to this.  No soda, no excessive spending on Thai takeout or new clothes, and certainly no beer pong.  The best I’ve come up with is limiting it to just one piece of candy after a meal but that sounds like more of a New Year’s resolution than a sacrifice.  I’m hesitant to risk slighting God especially after all He’s done for me these past few months, but I’m wondering if I can pull the bucket bath card & give up feeling clean for 40 days?  Just a thought.

That’s about all of the deep thoughts happening here.  Ukraine did finally find a way to make me wear my slippers at all times in my own apartment (as is custom here) – the discovery of not one, but two disgusting black spiders.  These weren’t daddy long legs, they meant business, so I was able to get close enough to smash them with one of my boots.  I didn’t even have my contacts in & could tell they were thick which is enough to make me want to gag & at the very least protect my feet from any contact.  Now if only I could find an Ace Hardware or knew the word for ‘spider trap’…


A Volunteer Valentine February 14, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 3:24 pm

Happy Valentine’s Day 🙂  I’ve developed a slight phobia of holidays as they seem to have potential to increase the homesickness factor, but luckily I think it’s just another unfounded fear because  all is well.  The kiddos gave me all sorts of cards with various creative ways of spelling my name (Alie, Elly, ect).

We do celebrate the holiday here but it’s called the Day of St.Valentine.  I learned all about the namesake in a lesson I taught to my 5th graders.  Due to the very blunt translation the story a little 11 year old read sounded something to the effect of ‘A long time ago the Emperor would not let people get married because he wanted men for his army.  Valentine was a kind priest who performed marriages in secret.  The emperor found out and killed St. Valentine’.  How’s that for mushy?  While nowhere near that depressing, I must say that my mood is pretty unsentimental as well.  As far as I can tell everyone my age here is already married so I think I’m embarking on a 2 year hiatus from dating which is actually pretty OK with me.  There’s quite a bit I like about life as a bachelorette- I can blast Taylor Swift, 80’s music, Disney or any other guilty pleasure & sing along without abandon, I spend absolutely zero effort on looking cute, I drink milk & juice right from the box (yes, box), & I’ve spent over 4 months without hearing anyone burp.  So no sappy chick flicks or desperate pleas to Cupid for me today.  I’ll probably eat too much chocolate but sadly that’s become the norm has nothing to with Valentine’s Day.   I’ll also take a break from my romantic plans with Liz Lemon & Tracy Jordan (yes, the TV marathons are still going strong)  to update you on the past few weeks.

Pretty much business as usual.  School keeps me very busy Tuesday through Friday & then my long weekends are full of rest, relaxation, & random ways of filling my time.  Last weekend I invited all of the English teachers over for tea at my apartment.  I’m sans oven so my go-to recipe when I need to be hospitable is the chocolate oatmeal no-bake cookie.  I don’t think it’s quite the same without peanut butter but it’s usually a pretty big hit so I made those & some rum balls which quickly morphed into cognac balls when I discovered that we don’t have rum or brandy here.  I think they tasted pretty much akin to taking a shot but the teachers liked them & I was able to convince them to take the extras home by handing out plastic ‘doggie’ bags  (they’re suckers for English idioms).  They’re all very cute & it was nice to laugh with them outside of school.  I showed them the Exercise TV website & now there’s talk of starting Yampil’s first weekly yoga lesson together.  Can you say Kodak moment?

I was also pleasantly surprised this week to learn that my host mom & sister had planned a visit.  They bought their tickets on Thursday in hopes of spending the weekend in my neck of the woods.  I prepared accordingly by buying potatoes for the first time & had great schemes of turning the tables in the grand tradition of force feeding.  Unfortunately the weather did not cooperate- the temperature has been fluctuating between above & below freezing but the precipitation has been consistent leaving the roads pretty treacherous so we had to take a rain/snow/sleet check.  It was still really nice to know that they were willing to make the trek out here though & gave me a good excuse to clean my apartment.  I also finally personalized my space a bit.  I stuck to my signature style (an explosion of pictures taped everywhere) which is so middle school, but I really wanted reminders of great people and memories from home more than any sort of attempt at classy decor.  So now I look like a proud babusia with pictures plastered all over my refrigerator & elsewhere. It’s working too, I can’t help but smile when I see a snapshot of you all, Hello Dave, my fabulous birthday cupcakes, or anything involving Chicago.  Here’s some proof and an opportunity for a Where’s Waldo type search for finding yourself.

In all honesty I’ve been feeling a little cabin feverish as of late, but every time I start to feel lonesome almost immediately something reminds me that I’m in good company.  Last week I fought the blues by going to the well where the faucet was not working much to the dismay of a little old woman who was trying to fix it.  I employed the old ‘lefty loosey’ tactic which apparently is universal because it worked & she flipped out & started talking rapid-fire to me in Russian.  We spoke for a few minutes & she completely encouraged me by being adorable in general & saying she had never seen an ‘Amerikanka’ before & was so happy to have met me.  It turns out she’s a friend of Totya Lucia who said last night that she wished she spoke English so I could have more people to talk to.  Then again today I wasn’t looking forward to my empty schedule but on my trip to the bazaar was treated to a beautiful soft snow that looked like the glisteny fake kind on Christmas decorations, was able to find & treat myself to decaf coffee, was excitedly greeted by a 2nd grader from my English club & subsequently dragged into the store where his mom works for an introduction & then was greeted by name & complimented on my knowledge of Ukrainian language & currency identification by my friend at the produce stand where I always buy bananas.  Much better already.

In closing, here’s a photographic trifecta of my life as a Ukrainian.

  1. The miniature broom a.k.a. my vacuum cleaner
  2. The mesh turtleneck I’m sporting
  3. The confused but amused expression that I wear 95% of the time

Have a lovely Valentine’s Day!


Bucket Bathing 101 February 3, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 8:50 pm

How’s that for a self-explanatory title. I’ve been told that people are in the dark about the mechanics of my bathing process & am a little uneasy with all of the speculation, so consider this a tell-all. In an attempt to provide honest reporting while making a dent in my looming laundry task, I’ve even provided visuals. Feel free to take notes in case you ever find yourself needed to wash your hair as badly as I do by day 5.

One: Cut a hole in the box…oh wait, that’s not right… download an hour-long exercise video because

  • Unless you want to learn the Ukrainian word for ‘smelly’ sweat-inducing workouts are only allowed on bath days.
  • Standing in the buff in February is cold… any effort to start off warmer is recommended.

Two: 40 minutes into the video, head to the kitchen to start the heating process. This allows optimal temperature conditions & little need for thought when you’re exhausted & light headed because you’re out of shape.

  • Turn on the propane tank, light a match, & fire up the stove.
  • Boil water in the beloved borscht pot.
  • Plug in the electric heater making sure to avoid getting electrocuted by the ‘extension cord’…again
  • Push the heater into the doorway of the bathroom; close enough to circulate but not so close that you run the risk of pouring boiling water on it in a few minutes.

Three: Pour boiling water into The Bucket.

Four: Mix 3 parts boiling water with 1 part ice cold water from the tap.

Five: Place your towel and clean clothes within immediate reach & strip down as fast as humanly possible (I must have lost that picture).

Six: Wash your face with the hot water while it’s still (relatively) clean.  This picture also helps to illustrate yet another reason why my height is the bane of my existence- I’m pretty sure the process would go smoother if I was slightly more compact.

Seven: Submerge as much of your head as physically possible to facilitate the critical shampoo step (Warning: you will have water in your ears for a few hours after this step).

Eight: Lather away but don’t rinse yet unless you want to wash up with greasy hair water.  Slightly counterproductive.

Nine: Try to stop the shivering by squeezing water from the sponge all over you. This will probably be the only enjoyable part of the experience.  In fact I went out of order in the documentation process just to get to this part faster, hence the dry hair.

Ten: Suds up & rinse off with the trusty sponge.

Eleven: Dip your head into the bucket again to get the shampoo out.  Essentially the ‘rinse & repeat’ step only I generally ‘repeat’ much less frequently than I imagine Pantene Pro-V copywriters intended.

Twelve: Pour the remaining water over your head for one last attempt at feeling somewhat clean.

Thirteen: Set a world record for drying off & putting your clothes on & make a solemn commitment to never again take for granted the wonder of hot water that falls from a spout in a little thing called a ‘shower’.

So there you have it. Ignore the dramatics, it’s honestly not that bad & I actually may (possibly) be getting a contraption that heats water soon so my days with The Bucket could be numbered. For the time being I’m enjoying it as just one part of the incredible opportunity I have here to see life outside of my comfort zone. The kids still definitely make it worth it & are nothing but sweet. One of my little fifth former boys even raised his hand in the middle of our discussion on why we say ‘I have’ but ‘he/she has’ to tell me that “he liked my style of hair today”. Pretty sure he was lying though because I just so happened to be rocking the French braid approach of dealing with gross day 4 hair, which is never a great look.

Other recent highlights include my teacher friend Olha driving three hours with me to a magical place with frozen vegetables, Tupperware, and spatulas that aren’t made of wood. It was Ukraine’s take on Sam’s Club complete with the huge warehouse, membership card, and endless aisles full of items bought in bulk. It was amazing. I pushed my cart along the familiar cement floor for over an hour in complete and total awe & ended up with bags full of eggplant, broccoli, Gouda, Diet Coke, & 300 hyrivnias worth of everything else that dreams are made of. Thank goodness for friends 🙂