Faith, Hope, and Love Remain

Alei's adventures in Ukraine

Thanksgiving Indeed November 23, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 8:49 pm

Mrs. Klein- this one’s for you.

I don’t have a whole lot to update you all on, but ’tis the season to be thankful, and with the countdown at a mere 19 until the Big Day I am feeling nothing but gratitude as of late to share.  I think my residual good mood from the upcoming reunion makes everything else seem much better which should serve as a reminder for me in later days…attitude is everything.  Attitude and a busier schedule I should say.  Between school, 5 hours of tutoring, finishing writing my next grant, and knitting Christmas presents like the lankiest elf since Will Farrel, I barely squeeze in time for my daily walk around town.  When I do get to take advantage of the still 60 degree weather however, I often catch myself smiling like an idiot with anticipation mid-stroll instead of fighting back (or not) the tears like before.

This year has brought so much to be thankful for in terms of new friends, experiences, lessons, languages (…sort of), and memories.  I’ve been given a water heater, to a trip to Greece,  a fuzzy stuffed cat figurine, countless jars of pickles, and the joy of seeing kids’ faces light up when they realize I’m walking their way & granting them the coveted opportunity to say ‘Hel-LO’ and then giggle like it was the funniest thing since Sponge Bob (which, yes, they do have here).  I’m thankful for the contrast of feeling so completely alone this time last year to now being called ‘Aleychka’ and treated like a daughter by both my host mom and Olha.  And of course I’m thankful for the hundreds of daily reminders of what an amazing support group I have waiting for me at home and how incredibly blessed I am.  Needless to say, I would have a lot to share were I sitting around a table this Thursday, and I can’t even begin to image what a sappy wreck I’ll be this time next year when I’m celebrating my first Thanksgiving at home.  I think a Costo-sized package of Kleenexes will be involved.  Which reminds me… this year has also taught me how incredibly thankful I am for Costco in particular and my American lifestyle in general.  For sure.

As far as thanks in the day-to-day goes, I think a lot of credit has to be given to the random, hysterical moments that my friends and students so graciously provide.  Ridiculousness makes me laugh and laughing makes me stop dwelling on whatever challenge I’ve fixated on long enough to get some perspective and for that I am very grateful.  On that note, here are some things that make me laugh:

  • This reflector vest that Olha gave me when I told her about the incident with the hole.  Because I don’t have enough trouble taking myself seriously already.
  • Pronunciation mistakes.  Probably evidence of my immaturity I routinely have to fake a yawn while forcing myself to think of sad things to keep from cracking up at my students’ well intended mistakes.  The thing is, they’re just so eager to show me that they know the right answer that before long little Vlad is shouting ‘whore’ (his attempt at ‘choir’) repetitively and Miss Alei can’t even compose herself for long enough to indicate that she heard him, not to mention correct him.
  • My 9th grade boys.  On a bad day I’m convinced they’re the devil, but my gosh are they funny.  Highlights from this week alone include telling me that the agricultural products grown in Yampil are  ganjacowski and cannabisovivna, listing Pamela Anderson under the ‘Wife’ category when we played MASH as a warm-up (I had to stifle the Borat reference so hard that it hurt), and convincing poor un-English-speaking-Roma that it was a good idea to say ‘I went to the lady’s store and bought skirts for myself’ when I asked about his weekend.
  • More slapstick humor.  Like when I ran headfirst into the TV in class after turning around too quickly and one of my concerned 8th formers flustered by my laugh-crying summoned enough English to warn ‘You must be attentive!’.  Thanks Vanya.
  • The fact that I’m now scheduled to teach yoga to 2nd & 3rd graders.
  • Spending time tutoring Dasha on English, how to look ‘dignified’ while wearing my glasses, and using Google Translate to find the literal translations for swear word substitutes like ‘darn’ and ‘shiza’

Lots and lots of thanks.  I’m showcasing the sources of my laughter in a video I’m trying to put together in time for my trip home.  So far I’ve got introductions from all of my little darlings and a condensed tour of my routine walk around town, but I’m opening it up to requests as well.  Anything you’ve been dying to see?  And finally, in case anyone is worried I am not even feeling a little sad about missing actual Thanksgiving as even in America I tend to see it as the only thing standing between me and the holiday season, and therefore can’t wait for Friday to kick off my 30 some days of Christmas music bliss.  Plus if I ever see another mashed potato it will be too soon.  I hope you have a wonderful time celebrating though & will see you soon, soon, soon 🙂


On Fall & Falling November 8, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 8:28 pm

It seems as though Ukraine has anticipated my upcoming visit home, is worried (like some of the teachers at school) that I won’t come back, & has adjusted accordingly by making my world remarkably livable as of late.  The cold spell that had me fearing the worst has been replaced by a lovely, light-jacket autumn, consecutive visits with friends have banished my occasionally lonely weekends, cute/hysterical kids make Monday-Friday fly by, and even transportation woes have been overshadowed by weirdly convenient journeys.  Fall break had a lot to do with the positive past few weeks, as did the goal I set at my1 year anniversary: to avoid judging & worrying about being judged.  I think a lot of my frustrations in the past have stemmed from concerning too much about what people think.  I’ve never been a huge fan of standing out, hence the ongoing vendetta against my height, so being one of two Americans in the tri-city area can weigh on me a bit.  My slippery-at-best grasp of Ukrainian made obvious every time I open my mouth coupled with my inexperience teaching  lead me to feel unprepared & overwhelmed on occasion.  Plus despite having 12 months under my belt, there’s still an overwhelming amount of necessary stuff I just don’t know rendering me very dependent on my colleagues & neighbors.   Adding worry to the other compounding factors could make me a mess of paranoia convinced that the stares from students in class & strangers on the street all  translate to “Not only is the American girl a tad strange, but also illiterate, incompetent and incapable of remembering to wear her socks.  And I hear she doesn’t eat meat.”  Letting go of this worry has proven quite liberating as I’ve discovered that while old Soviet custom prevents people from initiating random smiling, they will eventually break down & return my eye contact & ‘dobry den’ after the third attempt or so.  I’ve been trying to start conversations with shopkeepers and other teachers and have been met with surprise quickly followed by friendliness & have been reassured by students I tutor that the group’s sporadic reluctance to participate is caused by typical teenagerism more than boredom.  I still suck at not judging, but I now make myself name one beautiful aspect of life here every time I gripe about a cultural difference which has led me to realize just how many cool things I’m surrounded by.  At any rate, the 34 day count down is a lot less agonizing as of late.

OK, enough of the sappy reflection and on to the recap.  Kanikulay (fall break) was absolutely wonderful & full of hopping from city to city with my fabulous friends.  It started off in little Yampil with the town’s first Halloween party.  I told my older classes about the event a few days beforehand and was expecting about 5-10 students willing to make the trek back to school on a Wednesday.

Tom & Jerry, a 'crazy' witch, a princess, & a 'party girl'...A for originality?

I bought some candy, burned a spooky CD , assembled my nerdy teacher games (Halloween madlibs & word scrambles galore), and scrounged together a costume.  Given my irritatingly meager wardrobe I was tempted to don all black & throw on some oversized sunglasses to be a spy, but opted for a weak attempt at a hippie instead in hopes of avoiding a rumor mill nightmare.

Jackolanterns for the pumpin impaired

I showed up a good 15 minutes early & was greeted by 10 eager students who helped me set up & set to work decorating pumpkins & writing scary stories.  They kept trickling in & by the start of the party I had about 30 excited & energetic (read: loud) kids ready to learn the Trick or Treat chant.  Then Garrick, the other volunteer, showed up with another 15 kids in tow.  We’ve been trying to get our schools to work together (not a common thing in our competitive little village) so the high turn out seemed like a good thing as we pushed desks aside to make room for the mummy wrap competition.  Unfortunately somewhere down the line kids heard that the English Club party was a Halloween themed discotheque which drew in some older students who didn’t know any English & thought it was appropriate to bring lighters, pop the balloons intended for our games, & hit each other with posters.  Unfamiliar with crowd control & very concerned about the state of the classroom that I had asked to borrow I was all too relieved when the janitor asked if we could end the club after an hour so he could lock up the school & go home.  The troublemakers left & I realized yet again just how lucky I am to teach well-behaved little darlings who stayed after to help me clean up & tamely bob for apples.  Too cute.

Then I headed off to the bus station to start my trip to Kyiv for a few days of grant reviewing.  There’s a three hour ‘layover’ between the  hour & a half bus ride & the midnight train to Kyiv which I usually spend struggling to stay interested/awake but this time a street dog sat down on one side of me & insisted that I pet it (with the bottom of my shoe of course) while I pretended it was Maddie & one of my 11th graders surprised me by sitting down on the other side of me.  She’s generally one of the quieter girls in class but one-on-one she was lovely company & it was much more fun to travel with someone for a change.  We made it to Kyiv & had McDonald’s breakfast together before I left for my meetings & she headed out to the German embassy in hopes of getting a travel visa.  The grant reviewing consisted of three days worth of analyzing applications and taking working lunches meaning we often didn’t leave the conference room from 9am-6pm.  The material is always interesting though & we were rewarded with trips to falafel and Chinese restaurants in the evenings.  Gotta love Kyiv.

From there I hopped the electrychka to Morozivka & was pleasantly surprised to find that the woman that sat down across from me was from my training village & spoke English really well.  We’d have never guessed that someone in our little town of 3,000 could communicate with us one short year ago.  Such a small world.  Looba & Snijanna met me at the station for a fun start to a fun weekend in my Ukrainian ‘hometown’.  This was the first time since Swearing-In last December that all of the volunteers from my group were in Morozivka at the same time & we took advantage of that by spending as much time together as possible.  On Sunday we visited the current Trainees in the neighboring town & shared the experience that we didn’t even realize we had & then were treated to a reunion celebration at the Busel’s (Emily’s host family) Morozivka mansion.

The whole gang one year later

Over the next few days we made the rounds to all of the other families & were blown away as always by how nice they are to us.  Inspired by their kindness & how nice it feels to know we have a home in this sometimes foreign country we’re hoping to organize a camp for the community this summer which would be not only another wonderful reunion but also a trivial way to say thanks for all they’ve done for us.  I also got to spend a lot of time in the city as I went to visit Yanna’s fancy university with her one day & then bummed around with Thomas another in search of Ukrainian Christmas presents to unload in Chicago very, very soon.  We had to set off in the middle of the week & were met with more delays & transportation mishaps but since I was traveling with Thomas & Emily the usual frustrations were nothing short of hysterical & for once we were the obnoxious passengers eating salty cheese, drinking beer, & laughing too loud.  I had a brief stay in Em’s town (Vollochysk) for some hair dying fun & then the next day we both headed to Ashley’s town where we indulged in a Spalloween celebration with Ash, Becky & Katelyn.  We had a three day slumber party that perfectly combined facial scrubs, & fashion magazines with Hocus Pocus & candy corn.  It was a delightful way to celebrate the holiday in terms of acknowledging it enough so we don’t feel like we’re missing out but not dwelling on it so much that we’re reminded of all the ways we usually celebrate at home.

Not sure if the hat, the candycorn fangs, or the facial expression is more frightening.

Last week was short as I spent four days teaching my cute kiddos & then started another journey Thurdsday night; this time to Xmelnitski to teach a business seminar at a University in town.  I think I’ve mentioned how much I miss business casual & PowerPoint presentations so the lessons were a wonderful reminder that I actually am confident/qualified at something.  Maybe I will start teaching Business Etiquette to my 6th graders.  I stayed at my friend Nick’s apartment with Ashley & Em & enjoyed a fun few days of sushi & a ridiculous dance party at a club called ‘Neon: Fashion bar’.  I’m still not really sure what that means, but they did play a song or two in English so it worked for me.  I made the trek back to Yampil Saturday night & had a Sunday to rest, recover & enjoy the beautiful weather before starting my week today.

In order to shed some light on the other important lesson I’ve learned recently I should probably elaborate on my trip home Saturday night.  For a little background, the street that I live on also houses two kindergartens and the stadium so it’s blocked off & pedestrians safely walk in the road.  Blocked off, however, means literally that there are two cement blocks at the top & bottom of the hill that cars & especially motorcycles can & do easily squeeze through.  Another key consideration is that thanks to Daylight Savings time Yampil is now pitch black from 5pm on.  So there I was trudging up the hill at 9:00 at night when I saw two motorcycle lights speeding towards me.  I was pretty positive they couldn’t see me so I made what I thought was the responsible choice, & stepped up into the grass on the side of the road.  Imagine my surprise then as I took a step & felt the trippy sensation of my feet falling down into the nothingness halted only by my butt hitting the ground on the ledge of the abyss.  I imagined something a little reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland since I couldn’t see a thing at that point but knew the hole had to be pretty deep for my gangly legs to drop all the way in without reaching ground.  I laughed my head off the entire way home & then again the next morning when I got a good look at the culprit on the way to the bazaar.  My point?  Partially that I am an idiot, but also that the ability to laugh at myself has been absolutely paramount to this whole crazy experience.  The pit of despair that could have set me off on an endless rant about infrastructure, ignorance, and apathy here or how that was the last thing I needed after six hours of schlepping my stuff on unsafe & uncomfortable means of transport was actually just another hysterical story that will make me smile every time I walk past that (not so) little dip in the road.  Thank God I’m a sucker for slapstick 🙂

The End