Faith, Hope, and Love Remain

Alei's adventures in Ukraine

525,600 Minutes September 25, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 7:06 pm

350 hours on public transport.  11 disco adventures.  258 Skype calls.  200 hours learning Ukrainian.  1.25 times through the Bible.  37 trips to the well to fetch water. 9 host family celebrations.  700 bananas eaten.  338 nights spent sleeping on a couch.  4 countries visited.  344 lessons taught.  15 pounds gained & lost. How do I even begin to measure this year in the life?

Radical discoveries & personal growth?  Probably not.  Try as I might I’m still prone to judging everything from fashion choices to post office etiquette.  I prickle whenever told what to do by well-intending helpers.  I spend hours online reading job descriptions & fanstasizing about the day when I’ll feel competent at something again.  I even whine (often to you patient listeners) about having too much free time.  Cultural awareness?  There’s been a baby step or two, but the fact that I had to leave the stadium today after laughing so hard I was crying when a grown man broke out into the splits during a football match celebration suggests otherwise.   Physical deprivation?  Not so much as I sit in my warm apartment, online, with my fully stocked fridge & water heating up in the boiler affording me a hot shower soon.

No, much like the song (a favorite of ours in training all those months ago) this year would most accurately be measured in love.  As happy as I am to finally be able to wear my pre-Ukraine skinny jeans, the statistics mentioned above pale in comparison to the 200+ smiling faces that greet me with an excited hel-LO every time I walk by, or the 8 shopkeepers who now know my name & empathetically ask me if I’m sad/missing home on a weekly basis, or the German teacher who without fail grabs my shoulders and whips out the only English phrase she knows ‘Hello my dear, I’m glad to see you’ every time she bumps into me.  As much as I hated standing in that line in O’Hare sobbing my eyes out 365 days ago, I think it was a price worth paying for the Ukrainian family that calls me their own & the friends that saw me at my weakest/weirdest & put up with me nonetheless.  In just a year & often in the most bizarre of conditions paths have crossed & relationships have blossomed where I never thought possible.  Over the course of countless phone calls sharing little victories & lots of venting  we’ve made bonds that have drastically improved my experience & connections that I intend to keep for the rest of my life.

And through it all, I’ve had you all supporting & encouraging me from afar.  I’m a sucker for anniversaries so you’ll have to bear with me on this one, but really I could never express how much I appreciate all you’ve done.  Even more than battling spiders solo I feared losing touch with the amazing people in my life but I actually feel like the opposite has happened.  While I miss out on the daily details (& I must confess I do really hate that) I cherish each email & call all the more & am constantly reminded of my blessings through your kind words.   While less frequent, the conversations I get to have not only make it seem like no time has passed, but are also richer and full of  the sentimental reassurances that are usually saved for special occasions.  People go their whole lives without getting the chance to tell loved ones what they mean to them & I get the privilege of sending & receiving those affirmations all the time.  It’s an unexpected benefit but probably the most meaningful to me so thank you, thank you, thank you.  I can say with complete certainty that I could not have done this without you.  After now living & traveling abroad for a year I feel qualified & confident in saying that I have the best friends & family in the world 🙂

OK, I suppose that’s enough sap until next year (or at least the next post) but here are a view parting pictures from the past few weeks…

How far a dollar goes in summer. The beauty of supply & demand. I'm taking full advantage now because when winter hits that same dollar would only buy half of a pepper.

The after effects of my recent decision to add 'bedbugs' to my list of paranoias. I shrink wrapped my apartment.

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Idle Hands September 13, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 9:49 pm

Rumor has it they’re the ‘tools of the Devil’ so my last few weeks have been filled with more attempts to avoid them.  Feeling unproductive & far away led me to research many an option for trying to turn my free-time into something a little more beneficial.  After failed forays into at-home Yoga Certfication programs (suprisingly very expensive) & GRE prep (I miss working too much to consider that route immediately post-PC) I threw in the towel on trying to eventually break my current $5/day salary & defaulted back to knitting.  While I love the ladies at the museum who taught me back in April, I learned everything in Russian & was thus completely unable to read a pattern enabling to make knitwear other than scarves.  Luckily, the internet is a wonderful thing & between its many online tutorials & 8-hour long recent weekend bus trips I can now add headbands & armwarmers to my repetoire.

Bc who doesn't want to receive a pink, glittery headband in the mail?

I feel like a zany Grandma whipping up such unnecessary items, but I imagine I’m only going to have more time when winter comes around & rules out my walks so odds are you have a handmade gift in your future (albeit one with dropped stiches galore).   Get excited.  It not only passes the time, but also makes me laugh out loud regularly when I picture myself at the moment.  Most notable, or at least recent, was yesterday when I was listening to the ever-eloquent musings of DMX while knitting on the train (don’t look it up Mom, you won’t like it).

Armwarmer allowing me to type while essentially still wearing gloves. Ukrainians don't get the concept & think the poor American girl doesn't know that gloves need fingers.

The song (Up in Here) is a favorite on my workout mix for the fast pace, inappropriate lyrics that make me laugh, & whistles blowing in the background & after awhile I realized that the overall effect that usually makes me run faster had transferred to bizarro head bobbing to the beat & needles moving way too fast & furiously.  Maybe next time I should stick to a book.

Other random musings from the free time include (of course) some food related discoveries.  The seasons are a changing & fruit is apparently falling off off the trees prompting my next door neighbor to share the wealth via bags & bags of apples.  I’m very touched & appreciate her generosity but am just one person & thus incapable of eating soooo many of them before they go bad so I combined the Ukrainian bounty with a classic American recipe & introduced the joys of caramel apples to them & Olha’s family.  I think it was a success, as well as a lesson for me in just how organic my food really is…a.k.a. I found a live worm squirming around in one of the apples.  Smachnoho.  While at camp I stumbled upon the weirdly good combination of cherry flavored beer with bacon flavored popcorn.  The fact that I just typed that sentence makes me seriously question this whole experience & its apparently devestating effect on my tastebuds.  It honestly tastes good though & after finding cherry flavored popcorn earlier this summer I can’t help but wonder if they make bacon flavored beer.  Pretty sure I’m going to let ignorance be bliss on that one, although I did see beer flavored shampoo so I wouldn’t put it past them.

The weekends have actually been pretty eventful as of late. One consisted of a trip to Vinnistia with Ashley & her friend who just finished her two years with Peace Corps in Mali.  We took a tour of the one & only attraction listed in Lonely Planet’s Guidebook- the eeriely embalmed corpse of a scientist who I think invented anesthesia – & found an amazing restaurant that served both margaritas and sushi.  Then I went camping with some other volunteers in my area where we slept in what looked like an old Desert Storm tent built for 20.  We ate rice & beans cooked over the fire & foraged in the woods for tree trunks in lieu of tent posts & somehow ended up with an arrangement that held up & kept us safe from the rain while we played Catchphrase into the night.  Then this past weekend I was lucky enough to head back to Morozivka.  I just love them & can’t believe it’s almost been a year since we first met.  I was in town for a grant workshop in Kyiv which basically consisted of Peace Corps paying for my trip & giving me excellent information on how to start a journalism club at my school 🙂  It was just a one day thing though & gave me a great excuse to hang out with the host fam & reminisce about the day they picked me up when all I could say was ‘My name is Alei’, ‘I’m a vegetarian’, & ‘It’s delicious’ as well as the time I got lost the first week & ended up walking through their door at night in the middle of a party crying my eyes out & unable to explain why.  I remembered it as a bit of a lowpoint of being lost, vulnerable, homesick & completely overwhelmed.  They however, had thought this whole time that the tears were because their dog Varsik had startled me.  How nice it is to be able to explain myself at last.  I also was privy to a new experience- being a third wheel on a date between a seventeen year old & a twenty-seven year old.  Yanna just started studying architecture at a university in Kyiv & asked me to go to the disco with her & her new friend from school.  A few hours later I found myself awkwardly looking around a restaurant while they had what probably would have been a cute date in Russian.  She is very smart & responsible so I didn’t have to pull the chaperone card or anything, but it definitely was a ‘Never Have I Ever’ moment nonetheless.

There’s really not a whole lot to update on actual events in my life.  School started September 1 & I am beyond glad to be back in the classroom with my little oochni (students).  I went in this year with a plan & individual notebooks for each kid so they don’t panic each time I ask them to take out a piece of paper for an activity (a remnant of Soviet studies is their practice of grading student’s notebook on neatness so having torn or messy pages would wreak havok on everyone involved).  I also asked to teach more hours & to have 5-10 minutes at the beginning of class to do warm up games or journal entries before we dive into the curriculum.  Between the familiarity & the copies of the textbooks that I’ve been given, I feel much more confident in the classroom this year which is a welcome change.

As mentioned, we’re dangerously close to the one-year mark of time in Ukraine which is mind-blowing on many levels.  I absolutely, by no means have it all figured out, but it really does get easier every day.  It may be knowing that I get to visit home in less than 3 months (& for an extra week!  The new arrival date is December 12 thanks to what I’m pretty sure was a God-given airline error), but I really am feeling pretty content as of late.  About a year ago I vividly remember telling my fellow Morozivka trainees my reasoning for seriously considering going home- I couldn’t go for two years being a sad person.  It was physically & emotionally exhausting to feel that way & it was an entirely new sensation that seemed like it would be hanging around for awhile.  Luckily however I was wrong.  There are certainly no shortage of frustrations & trials but when I think about my normal everyday activities & attitude I honestly am pretty much back to being me.  I miss everyone in ways that I never thought possible, but as an illustration of the perfect, happy moments that sneak up on me as I go throughout the day here’s a little recollection of my walk today after school.  Thanks to iTunes I was able to listen to a great service from Willow Creek that was only interrupted by my students & kids from other schools saying ‘Hello!’ to me in cute little Ukrainian accents.  A little girl that I never met before watched me pass, sprinted past me, stopped about 20 feet ahead abruptly & then held out her hand when I passed by again to give me a gigantic chestnut (I think, I haven’t cracked it open yet) for no reason.  I strolled with arms reach of the usual bevy of livestock & was surprisingly sad to think that this is probably the only time in my life I’ll be able to say that unless I start frequenting petting zoos upon return.  And finally I enjoyed a perfect pastoral scene complete with a sunset over the fields & the hazy fog & smell of burning leaves (& realistically garbage) that will now always remind me of my time in Ukraine.  It all just came together perfectly to remind me that even alone in a village of 9,000 in middle-of-nowhere Ukraine life is good.  Weird, but good.