Faith, Hope, and Love Remain

Alei's adventures in Ukraine

A Very Happy Birthday May 16, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 12:02 pm

It might be a little late for an addendum to my baby book, but I’ve had  another first: ushering in a year in a foreign land.  My birthday was yesterday & to be honest I was planning on being a very reluctant reveler.  As recently as Thursday in fact,  I intended to boycott my birthday all together & even change the date on facebook to avoid birthday wishes.  I wasn’t particularly interested in turning 23 (the year that will not include standing on American soil) & really didn’t see much cause for celebration without you all.  I have been spoiled rotten by my family & friends in the past with elaborate birthday cupcakes, Hello Dave concerts, decorated lockers, my favorite meals, & freedom to use ‘It’s my birfday!’ as a valid excuse for pretty much anything on May 15, so you can probably understand my hesitance to celebrate any other way.  Friday changed things.

I woke up at 6am & was doing my morning reading when I received an uncharacteristically early call from Olha which was particularly peculiar as I knew she was en route to Poland for a week-long conference.  She (& many other teachers & students) speaks English very well but it’s still a foreign language so our conversations sometimes require flexibility in interpretation & willingness to fill in the blanks of seemingly cryptic messages.  This was one such conversation that begs repeating.  “Hello Aleychka (little Alei). Will you be here Saturday?” “Umm…yes?” “Good, the museum (the people I knit with) would like to invite you to the woods.  Will you go?” “To the woods?” “Yes, it will be in a small village 30 km from here all night & there will be singing & food & your birthday” “Oh, um, that sounds…fun” “Yes, do you have a sleeping bag?” “Yes, I do” “So bring it to the museum at 4:45 & they will be waiting for you.” “[Pause while I weigh my options]…OK, thank you so much” “It is nothing.  I will call you tomorrow to congratulate you on your birthday.  Goodbye!”

Now normally I wouldn’t commit to going into the forest with people I’ve met a total of 4 times whose language I don’t speak, but the combination of knowing that pretty much every good experience in Yampil has been directly related to Olha & not wanting to spend my birthday alone in my apartment seemed to be just the ticket for a less than calculated response.  So off I headed to school happy to have plans.  As my 5th formers filtered in & started cleaning the chalkboard (cuties) one of the little darlings came up to me and asked in Ukrainian something to the effect of ‘Can student go out of the room & come back in?’.  He’s quite a trip, borders on the mischievous side & has a tendency to speak Ukrainian in class that often prompts a ‘Serhiy, which lesson is this?” response, but he’s hilarious & thus gets away with it.  Thinking he had asked to go get his book from their homeroom & I said yes & then watched in wonder/horror as every single student crowded out of the room & shut the door leaving me alone in the classroom to ponder exactly what I had just permitted.  Luckily I didn’t have too much time to plot my recovery before the door opened & they marched in single file singing ‘Happy Birthday’ in their cute accents.  I’ve never been so happy to be kind of a pushover.  After school I made a trip to the museum to see if I could glean any more details about Saturday’s plans.  They were friendly but nonchalant & the only new development I got was hearing the word ‘discoteque’ thrown around.  Intrigue.  The kindness continued when I made my weekly trip to the post office & was greeted with yet another care package & spent the rest of the evening savoring rice cakes & catching up with the kind sender, Ashley, & my family on Skype.

Saturday started by waking up without an alarm (always a good feeling) & hearing a knock on my door a few minutes later from Dasha (Olha’s daughter) showering me with birthday wishes, a cake her grandma had made for me, & kind words about how lucky she is to have me here.  After eating birthday cake with Nutella from America for breakfast & talking to my host family, I took advantage of the beautiful weather & headed to the river.  On the way a little girl on a bike who I had honestly never seen before passed by & wished me ‘Happy Birthday’.  I got some sun & talked on the phone to my PC friends before heading home to chat with my parents again & then attempting to pack for the mysterious outing.  I gathered from the sleeping bag comment that it was an overnight affair so I brought my contact case, toothbrush & hoodie as a defense against against the bugs-in-ear horror that I equate with camping.  In true Ukrainian fashion I also remembered not to go anywhere without enough food to feed 5 & thus packed a shoebox full of bananas & my birthday cake.  I arrived at the museum & saw four of the ladies I knit with & their whole families piled into a big white van.  They beckoned me over & I boarded the van & headed off into the unknown.  Half an hour later we pulled into a beautiful historic village/community deep in the hills.  After stopping to fill up bottles with water right from the spring by a creek, we made our way to a big field that was open save for a little stage decorated with traditional scarves and a huge pile of sticks.  The kids took to wandering the scenic area, the dads took vodka shots in the van & the moms started setting up what looked like a craft fair booth only on the grass instead of on the table.  I soon came to realize that we were at an annual festival celebrating traditional Ukrainian culture & handicrafts in particular, hence the group from the museum  

Yes, that's a rat on her shoulder

representing Yampil.   We spent a few hours talking to people (many of whom resembled hippies…who knew) & then were treated to a concert where along with Ukrainian song & dance numbers by kids this happened…

The concert lasted until about dusk (8ish) & was followed by tug of war & games for the kids while the parents packed up their display.  Alona (the director of the museum & organizer of this event) & her husband (the van owner) drove to the opposite side of the field while the rest of us…I kid you not…joined hands and ran around the huge bonfire in a circle until they called our group over for a picnic feast.  I was very glad to have a contribution (however small) & felt a little bit like I belonged as we all unpacked our wares.  I went off for a bit to photograph the scene from afar & when I returned I found everyone waiting with shot glasses filled and raised in my direction.  Alona made a beautiful toast wishing me health, happiness, & a long life before giving me another necklace that they made, an embroidered napkin & a bouquet of beautiful Lantana flowers. In some miraculous feat I managed not to cry despite being incredibly touched & stumbled through a response in Ukrainian about how I was very scared to have a birthday without my friends, but was so glad that they were my new Ukrainian friends & were generous enough to invite me.  We commenced the feasting & in another accidental but perfect orchestration of details I was within arms reach of the raw cucumbers & very far away from the mayonnaisey cabbage salad.  It really, truly blew me away that these people who I hardly knew were so accepting & welcoming & we spent a memorable hour talking and laughing as the sun set.  When it got too dark we used the car engine hood light as a spotlight & then the real fun started.  First they treated me to the Russian equivalent of the ‘Birthday Song’ (there’s no Ukrainian version).

As if that weren’t enough we followed it up by blasting old Ukrainian music & having a full out disco in the field in complete darkness save for the van flashing its hazard lights in lieu of a strobe.  The kids shockingly wanted no part so it was mostly the parents & I who, while just as enthusiastic, favor a different style of spaz dancing that looked similar to an Irish jig but much less regimented a.k.a. more chaotic.  It was a crazy melee of jumping, skipping & kicking & again words cannot to justice to how much fun it was.  As I laughed hysterically while galloping around in another linked-arm circle listening to them make those high  pitched ‘ay-ay-ay’ shrieks that I thought were more characteristic of other exotic cultures I was able to take in the whole picture & realize how incredibly blessed I am to experience something like this.  Twirling around in a cornfield with people determined to give a strange American girl a fabulous birthday was not how I thought my day would go, but I was pleased to find that when they asked me “You’re not sad/missing home?” I was able to respond quite honestly “Not right now”.  I felt a lot yesterday- confused,intimidated, excited, terrified (when a festival-goer dangled his toddler over the edge of a tall tower a la Michael Jackson), incredulous, happy, accepted, nostalgic & extremely grateful but one thing I didn’t feel was sad.

We grudgingly packed up & headed for home when it started to rain but I was able to summon enough Ukrainian to thank them excessively for a birthday that I would never forget.  Even the rain was a welcome birthday gift as it meant that I got to sleep in my spider-free (I hope) bed & provided a very fitting end to the day: talking to my college roommate Nicole who I’ve spent the last 3 birthdays with, on Skype for the first time ever & reading over the abundant birthday wishes from all of my friends & family at home (thank you!).  As you can probably tell by the size of this post, it was a wonderful, memorable day & yet another reminder that I’m loved & far from alone on this crazy adventure.  I’m still definitely looking forward to celebrating the big 2-5 with you at home in a few years but in the mean time, this works too 🙂

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Do we have to leave Lviv? May 8, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 12:10 pm

Today’s edition of the ‘Good News Weekly’ includes a wonderful discovery I made in the freezer of a small store this afternoon.  Nestled in next to the carb explosions (dumplings stuffed with rice) and raw sausages, I found a drumstick type ice cream cone but instead of ice cream it has chocolate-cherry yogurt.  I think I may finally be over Coco Mero.  Big news, huh?  This week has been chock-full of equally pleasant little occurrences & while they don’t necessarily provide the most riveting blog fodder I sure have appreciated them all.

We started the week of all things good with a wonderful trip to Lviv.  Last Monday was Labor Day here which in my book translated to 2 days off of school & a perfect opportunity to see a city described with dreamy, far-off stares to me by most people familiar with Ukraine.  I didn’t really need much convincing & jumped at the opportunity to be a tourist.  I took an overnight train, arrived a tad disoriented & made my way to the trolleybus that said ‘Center’ on its sign.  After what seemed like 5 minutes I asked someone how many stops away we were from the center & they ushered me off the tram & towards the square.  They passed me off to an acquaintance who was headed that way & after 10 minutes of walking & talking, we ended up at the City Hall equivalent where I was told I could go fill out the forms to get my Visa.  Super.  Luckily I was able to backtrack, find the same trolley & come to the slightly embarrassing realization that the ‘other’ center was just two stops later.  And that’s how I learned to be more specific.  I had about an hour to kill waiting for my friend Emily(one of the PCVs I trained with in Morozivka) & spent it sipping coffee with cherry syrup & saying my prayers outside on a bench amongst the beautiful old buildings.  Not a bad way to start the morning.

Raynok Square...apparently something completely different than Ranok Square

I was so lucky to be accompanied by Emily because along with being hysterical she’s also a seasoned traveler & scouted out all sorts of fun for us.  We rented an apartment right in the main scenic square in town (actually a pretty normal practice) but couldn’t check in until after noon so I made a winning first impression by rolling my suitcase down the cobblestone roads loudly emphasizing each & every brick as we visited gorgeous churches & monuments.  The city really was as beautiful as everyone had said & we got to see it under the guidance of a temporary Lviv native as our friend Scott was placed there for his 2 years of service & acted as our tour guide all day.  We met up with more volunteers in town for the holiday & spent the afternoon people watching on patios, climbing a giant bell tower for an aerial view & reveling in the opportunity to speak English at a rapid pace.

The next day the rest of them went to a neighboring town which left Emily & I to embark on our weekend-long eating escape.  Yes, amongst culture & history Lviv also has ethnic food which was a feature we made a point of experiencing to the utmost.  We kicked off the journey at the famous chocolate factory where we split a breakfast of champions- coffee, ice cream with chocolate sauce, and a cup of something that tasted like Dove chocolate melted into thick, liquid form.

Against our better judgment this feast was directly followed by a hike through a park to the highest point in Lviv.  It was a beautiful way to see the city but probably slightly more enjoyable for healthy tourists who didn’t just partake in a chocolate extravaganza.  We sauntered through the park & then decided to embrace our inner hippies by making dandelion headbands.  The one good thing about the constant & unsolicited attention we get here is its freeing potential.  If people are going to stare anyways we might as well lose the filter do what we want.  I employed this same logic today by purchasing hot pink sunglasses that I would never be bold enough to wear at home.  How’s that for a silver lining?  So anyways, we wore our princess headbands while shopping & seeing the many cultural sights until my allergy to pollen kicked in & forced me to abdicate my throne.  The weekend was perfectly paced with enough time to see a ton of stuff (5 churches, a theatre, a beautiful Gothic cemetery, ect.) without being tired.  We also successfully found a sushi restaurant and a Mexican restaurant.  Granted our standards are beyond low but to our little Ukrainianized palates each meal was pure bliss.  Between the Thai salad, Tequila sunrise & something that really closely resembled guacamole I can officially not complain about food for awhile.

Ukrainian fajitas complete with...cabbage & barbeque sauce? So close & yet so far.

And actually that’s a good transition to today as I really don’t need to complain anymore due to yet another fabulous care package (thanks again Mrs. Klein!).  As much as I loved my vacation we were gone long enough that I started to miss my kiddos & was happy to get back to teaching on Wednesday.  My 5th graders haven’t yet learned to start compliments with ‘You look…’ & I’ll probably never teach it to them as it feels pretty darn good to walk into class & hear ‘Miss Alei, you are wonderful/beautiful/great’ every day.  Another highlight was when grading greeting cards that my 10th formers wrote, I found that one of them was signed ‘Friends with benefits’.  It was completely out of context & from one of the shier girls in class so I knew it was unintentionally suggestive but that didn’t make it any less funny.  Once I managed to stop laughing I had to explain it to my teacher friend Olha (take a second & try to explain that concept in simple English without slang) who then had me explain it to the kids.  Needless to say, hilarity ensued.  Finally, on the way back from the bazaar today I came to the odd conclusion that I’m essentially living the life of an 8 year old.  While walking down the street eating aforementioned ice cream cone, wearing aforementioned pink sunglasses I ran into my neighbor who greeted me with a ‘Hi little girl’ & then gave me a cookie.  I am a child.

We’re officially down to 13 days of school and just 33 days until Mom, Maw Maw, & Aunt Jane fly in to start our highly anticipated Eurotrip 🙂  I can’t help being a little nostalgic remembering all of the fun that happened this time last year celebrating graduation & summer, but if I can’t be home with all of you I’m very grateful that things are consistently getting easier here.  Thanks for sticking with me through this (the whole experience as well as this excessively long post) & I hope you’re doing well!

PS: I have more pictures but will post them later when I can steal some of Emily’s as well.