Faith, Hope, and Love Remain

Alei's adventures in Ukraine

Things I Never Knew I Never Knew April 30, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 7:31 pm

On yet another walk around town today I did a little inventory of my current knowledge.  I’m reminded pretty daily of what I don’t know: Ukrainian, the reasoning behind English grammar rules, how to convince people that I’m well fed/not cold/ect.  While that list could continue for a depressingly long time, I also couldn’t help but be struck by some of the things I have learned over the past 7 months.  These are things that I can safely say I never would have known otherwise.  While not quite as useful as, say a native language, I think they’re still pretty worth recognizing & will help me remember to be thankful for this unique opportunity.

  • The myriad of trees:  I can now pretty successfully identify the difference between an apricot & cherry tree based on their blossoms.  I also know how recently said cherry tree bloomed based on which stage the flowers are in.  Want proof?  At first they look mostly like green leaves with tiny white dots.  Then the dots bloom into the dainty flowers featured in the last post.  After a few weeks they turn a dusty pink color & then finally they drop the flowers making it look like it’s 60 degrees & snowing (something I’ve always wanted btw).  Love that cherry tree.  I actually probably would have been able to observe this in America too but I certainly never have taken the time to do so until now so I’m counting it.
  • Lots of things about cows:  For instance, they moo really, really loudly.  As in while sitting on the banks of the Dniester river in Ukraine I can hear the Moldovan cows crystal clear.  Additionally I know they are quite enormous & are not receptive to pleas to move when they are blocking the path.  They do however respond to being led by a chain leash & will be herded everywhere from the main highway in town to a steep 15 foot drop if the need be.
  • The impact of a good song:  I’ve always appreciated music’s mood-enhancing abilities but for some reason it’s all the more powerful to me here.  Whether it’s a perfect background like the Counting Crows on a sunny day or the contrast like Brand New or Kanye accompanying my walk past goats on a dirt road everything seems like it’s an epic soundtrack to my life.  Suffice it to say Bone Thugs & Phil Collin’s rendition of ‘Home’ will never be the same.
  • How to knit:  I started my lessons this week & am pretty confident in saying that I have a new 2 year hobby.  It probably qualifies as yet another quirk & I don’t know how much of a language booster it will be as I can’t talk while concentrating that hard, but it definitely remedies boredom on the bus.
  • How lucky I am to have friends & family like you

and finally…

  • Why the chicken crossed the road

Really, truly just to get to the other side. Who knew.

Really quite a short list for what seems like a long time, but there we have it.  I’m T minus 20 minutes from starting my early-birthday celebration with Emily in Lviv 🙂  I’m guessing I’ll have some pictures & stories to share next time.  Have a lovely weekend!


Spring Has Sprung April 18, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 11:29 pm

And with it everyone’s attitude.  Strangers are nicer, the population seems to have tripled & I’m watching a beautiful sunset over the hills now at 8:00 pm.  As a temporary citizen of Yampil I’m following suit & am happy to report having many a ‘I like Ukraine’ day as of late.  The ankle length parka & snow boots have been relegated to the closet which was especially appreciated when I noticed that the shadow I cast when wearing them closely resembled two people in one coat…one person on the other’s shoulders, walking all tall & wobbly.  It made me wonder if I stroll a little too jauntily here in an effort to avoid slipping on the ice.   Deep thoughts that I no longer have to ponder thanks to the sweater weather.  Just one more thing to be glad about I guess.  Granted, this has been a good week w/ yet another perfect care package courtesy of my mom (so spoiled per usual), plenty of time to go on my apparently important long walks, and the promise of a vacation to Lviv with Emily in a few weeks, but whatever the cause I’m happy here & that’s OK with me.

It seems like each day I find some trivial thing that completely reaffirms my choice to be here, which could possibly be the first ever benefit of my tendency to over-analyze.  For instance, the trees are in full bloom which has brought me all sorts of delight & led to extensive photo shoots.  My absolute favorite is a tree that has the tiniest, most delicate  little white flowers that cover every square inch of its branches.  It looks straight up fairy tale to me.  I love it so much that I decided it will be in my wedding in some capacity (getting ahead of myself much?) & asked Olha what kind of tree it was.  Any guesses?  It’s a cherry tree.  As in cherries, my favorite food in the whole very wide world.  As I type this out I’m realizing that the gravity of the ‘coincidence’  probably isn’t quite as powerful to everyone else which may mean that I’m grabbing at straws, but I thought it was pretty cool & served as another small reminder to me that I’m where I’m supposed to be right now.  And hey, I’ll take what I can get in that regard.

I think it also helps to have my bar set low & the intensity of emotions set high.  While I definitely feel the drawbacks of that occasionally, it does makes otherwise passable events seem extremely significant & encouraging.  I was glowing for a solid half hour after meeting my neighbor on the street, having a 2 minute conversation, & realizing after I walked away that it was in Ukrainian, fast, & somewhat normal.  Not quite as big of a deal back on Milford Street.

Adding to the general good mood has been the kindness shown by my new friends here.  That same neighbor brought me over a delicious homemade cobbler Friday night & returning an empty plate is a don’t here so I made some no-bake oatmeal cookies to reciprocate & gave them to her today.  Within 10 minutes she was back at my door with a plate full of cream puffs, only instead of cream they were filled with cherries.  So essentially we’re in a food fight where everyone is a winner.  Everyone that is except my bathing suit which will never be able to see the light of day again at this rate.

Olha & her family have also made a huge impact in helping me feel welcome.  As a teacher at the school I work at she really is not at all obligated to spend time with me outside of class but has gone out of her way to include me & as a result I had a weekend filled with sight-seeing, game-playing, & general family normalcy.  I tutor Dasha, a 9th grader, & was surprised to see her at my door Saturday afternoon asking me over for fish soup cooked over the fire (really, very delicious).  I was all too eager to accept the invite & spent the rest of the day visiting with their family- both grandparents who are about 70 but look & act 50, the dad Vitya who’s hysterical and a bit reminiscent of Chris Farley, Olha, Dasha, Kate the 5 year old who named a doll after me, & Ivan the 2 year old who’s all boy & tells his mom to ‘stop speaking nonsense’ when she teaches him English.  We walked around town after lunch & I was lucky enough to have Kate holding one of my hands & the other filled with a bouquet of tulips that they cut from their garden for me.  Then today I awoke to a phone call from Dasha inviting me to see a nearby city & got to go on a roadtrip through the hills as well as a shopping excursion.  Kate & I played the ‘I Spy’ game for hours at a time because while I don’t have much to offer language-wise I seem to have mastered colors & sure am capable of pointing.  And finally we rounded the day off by playing the Ukrainian equivalents of tag, red light green light, & marco polo at a park near the river.  Vitya happens to work at the cultural center of Yampil so as a perfect end to the weekend of fun he made a few calls & I am officially signed up to play sand volleyball in the summer &…get this…join a knitting circle with the women who meet 3 times a week to embroider.  Boredom be gone.

My Yampil Besties

And because I can’t seem to write a post without including some spider-drama, the latest conundrum involves the one currently residing in the corner beneath my kitchen sink.  He generally doesn’t move around a lot which is actually preferable in my book as I don’t really relish killing living creatures, I just am real afraid of spiders in motion.  To ensure that he stays stationary I’ve contemplated throwing food his way &/or closing off the area with a box.  It didn’t sound like a bad idea until I realized that would essentially mean that I had a pet spider which is just absolutely too much too soon.  I think I may have to commission a neighbor for a rescue mission.  As you can probably discern from the last paragraph, that’s all the exciting news happening here.  I hope spring is in full bloom wherever you are as well 🙂


Blessed Bananas April 11, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 7:46 pm

Christ is risen, yes indeed He is risen 🙂  A week ago we celebrated the only Ukrainian holiday that I had really heard anything about, Easter, & that was the common greeting for the day (much easier to pronounce in English, btw).  Pre-departure I knew alarmingly little about this country, but after a trip to the Ukrainian Village in Chicago with my mom I was looking forward to witnessing the making of писанки (pysanky), the colorful eggs decorated with some sort of wax technique, firsthand.  It’s even the picture on the cover of the Lonely Planet guidebook for Ukraine.  While I sadly did not see that tradition up close & personal this year, I did see quite a few others.  Rumor has it that people go to church at midnight & stay until 4 am for the service, but I hear things kind of sporadically and fragmented around here so when I asked my counterpart if I could go to church with her & her son she said we’d leave at 6 am.  From what I understand (after talking to my host family & other volunteers) you can go to church all night but you don’t have to.  Less optional is carting a basket full of Easter goodies over to church to have it blessed by the priest.  So I woke up early & tried to assemble my basket (which has sat conveniently on my kitchen table this whole time holding my produce).  I thought we were only supposed to bring Easter related treats so my basket was modestly packed with the dyed eggs & special festive…what else…bread that my counterpart had given me.  That was quickly deemed not OK by my neighbors as everyone else looked ready for a full day of picnic-ing  with baskets stuffed to the brim with sausages, mayonnaisey salads, full roasted chickens, and more so I scrambled back upstairs and grabbed whatever I could find, namely bananas, & called it a day.  Luckily my host-babusia from Morozivka had embroidered me an Easter cloth of some sort to cover the basket & protect me from hecklers whose life goal seems to be convincing me to ingest meat.

I also had to borrow a scarf from my neighbor as women have to have their heads covered at church & the end result was a little more babusia-like than I’d hoped as undereye bags were present courtesy of the early wake up call.  All in all I think I prefer my days of puffy, frilly Easter dresses that were seldom weather appropriate for spring in Chicago but always pretty.  We got to the church & I followed the group into the building decorated with ancient religious pictures of saints, Mary, Jesus, ect. and old books and relics in glass cases.  We walked from display to display making the sign of the cross & kissing the relics (I opted to show respect while avoiding the flu by touching the relic with my hand instead of my mouth).  Then we were supposed to light candles & say a prayer for people we have lost.  I lit mine for America.  Next we joined the masses circling the church outside, set down our baskets, and waited.  Unsure exactly what we were waiting for, I stood quietly for a half an hour, nodding & smiling at the students & shopkeepers I recognized until the priest came around and flung water at us from a bucket.  I don’t really know what I was expecting, but it certainly was not the speed &/or cold temperature of the blessing flying through the air & hitting me on the face…twice.  I stifled a laugh & then followed suit as we packed up our now-blessed food & headed home.  That was pretty much it as far as my Ukrainian holiday was concerned.  I spent the rest of the day celebrating American-style by listening to the church service from Willow Creek while taking one of my now signature long walks by the river.  While nontraditional, it meant as much to me as the blessing at church as the holiday’s message of hope was illustrated beautifully not just through my ipod headphones but also through witnessing firsthand all of the intricate detail in the trees and flowers beginning to bloom.  That was of course followed by a long and wonderful Skyping with the whole family & another difficult day to get through crossed off the list.  I promised my host family that I’d visit them next year so hopefully I’ll have a better account of the traditional festivities then.

Speaking of my host family, Yanna just came to visit me in Yampil 🙂  She came in Thursday afternoon & stayed until yesterday.  It started off a bit worryingly as she got off at the wrong bus stop and in only Ukrainian I had to figure out where she was & how I could get there without either of us knowing the name of the stop she was at.  Luckily I discovered that the cars waiting at the bus station are actually taxis & not just commuters despite their completely unmarked vehicles & we found her at a stop on the other side of town.  While definitely another why-don’t-I-speak-this-language moment at the time, it turned out to be kind of reassuring in a backwards way as a reminder that even native Ukrainians have trouble navigating on less than clear transport.  Granted she’s 16 & I’m almost 23, but still.  I was wondering why she’d packed a full duffel bag as well as a backpack & purse for such a short stay but then quickly discovered that she’d carted around a full carrying case stuffed with jars of produce, and yet another bag of potatoes for me.  Too cute.  We bummed around, cooked, & toured little Yampil including a trip to the bazaar, well, & river.  On Friday she came to one of my classes with me & then we went with Garrick, the other volunteer, to a disco

A jar of pickles the size of my head...definitely not travel sized

at night.  Definitely not as crowded or fun as the one in Morozivka but still a good time.  She asked if she could do my hair before we went out & motioned braiding so I said yes (because really what else could you say to that) but was certainly fearing cornrows & bracing myself for how I could explain it if I saw my students out.  Luckily however, it turned out to be a headbandish hairdo so my worry was in vain per usual.

That brings me to today where the cloudy weather provided a solid excuse to catch up on the local newspaper from home while eating Peeps due to kindness from Mrs. Smith & her wonderful care package (thanks again!) & finally make a facebook album with pictures from my time in town which you should be able to see here.  This week will likely be focused on planning our AIDS seminar so hopefully I’ll have a story or two for the next post.  Have a nice week 🙂