Faith, Hope, and Love Remain

Alei's adventures in Ukraine

Better Already January 30, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 10:14 pm

Oh what a difference a few weeks make. The days following my return to Ukraine dragged along in a rather brutal bout of homesickness, but luckily I only made it to Day 7 of the ’10 Day Rule’ before I started to feel like myself again.  Now almost a month out it’s much easier to remember that ‘myself’ always misses home but has a lot going for her here too.  Almost daily I’m reminded of all of the great things I get the privilege of experiencing from afar (emphasis on FAR), & really with less than 10 months left I’m very relieved to be feeling better & able to make the most of my somewhat limited time remaining.  Ukrainian me is apparently a creature of habit, so once my routine of school, tutoring, trips to the well, and nights of knitting (I’m attempting my first sweater…yikes) was back in place it was like a switch was flipped & I was functional again.  Highly preferable indeed.  Plus my routine has been pleasantly spruced up thanks to my trip to the land of plenty.  This is so not my M.O. at home, but here I generally make the same thing for breakfast, lunch, & dinner.  That was quite possibly the lamest sentence I’ve ever typed, but with vegetable selection being scarce & shopping options limited to twice weekly, having a pretty predictable menu is kind of essential.  In all honesty though, I really don’t mind it at all especially now that recent imports mean that  I can spike my morning coffee with sugar-free almond syrup, add Fajita seasoning to my once bland frozen veggies for dinner & get the weirdly satisfying experience of popping my own popcorn over the stovetop flame.  It may not sound like much but after months of all things tasteless & white, flavor never gets old.  Plus using popcorn kernels bez (without) a microwave is surprisingly satisfying & kind of a power trip.  All good things.

Speaking of good things, news around here would fall into that category as of late.  After writing to a generous group of returned Peace Corps Volunteers in Chicago I was able to raise over $2,000 needed for the grant I wrote last May which means that my students will now have access to a multimedia room with a projector, laptop, and smartboard.  I’ll lead technology trainings for the teachers on the new equipment & software like Powerpoint (as if yoga wasn’t enough of a reminder that I’m so not qualified for 90% of the things I do here) who’ll then pass on the information to students in the older grades, so hopefully within a few months my kiddos will have some experience with the presentation tools necessary for international business.  I’m also hoping to take advantage of the big screen to host a gender development workshop for my girls &/or movie screenings for the English club.  A Journalism Club is hopefully in our future too as I just finished a grant through USAID that would give my school the equipment and training necessary to start & publish our own student-run newspaper.  It goes before the board February 8 so hopefully I’ll have an exciting update in my next post.  In the meantime my little ambitious English readers can browse through our new fiction library that arrived last Friday thanks to Darien Books who offers & ships 35 pounds of literature to any volunteer for free.  I stumbled upon their program & thought it sounded too good to be true but sent an email anyways, & am very glad now knowing that I get to be the bearer of a bevy of new books tomorrow morning 🙂

Extracurricular events have been a blur of positive as well.  After the trying week alone in my apartment I was invited back to Becky & Ashley’s site for the next installment of the spa + holiday series: Spartin Luther King Jr. Weekend.  Katelin & Julia joined the festivities & themes of the fete included appetizers & desserts,  fashion magazine-inspired crazy makeup, & glittery rhinestoned nails that you couldn’t have paid us $20 to sport a few short months ago.

Classy lady alert

Once we were appropriately dolled up we headed off for a week of language learning at Ukrainian Camp but arranged a day trip to lovely Lviv on the way.  That city never ceases to impress & we spent the day wandering along the cobbled streets & eventually found a fairly legit Italian restaurant for dinner.  The sightseeing was a joy as always but even better was the reminder of how nice it is to travel with friends.  I couldn’t have asked for a more laid-back & fun group of people to wander with .  The next morning we tackled the second leg of the journey & made it to camp by lunchtime.  Language camp never sounds that enticing, but always turns out to be a blast & a throwback to our college days.  Our sunlight hours were spent broken up in classes, but we were able to choose some of them so along with having a slightly better grip on the (many) verbs of motion I also was treated to an hour & fifteen minutes of hysterical Ukrainian slang with a corresponding worksheet that I will probably cherish forever & happily email to anyone interested.  All of our meals were spent together in a dining hall equivalent & our evenings were filled with playing Euchre (a supposedly very Midwestern & fun card game) & listening to music in our dorm rooms.  The camp lasted four days & then Katelin & I started our journey back to Vinnytsia region starting with a 9 hour layover.  Another instance that would have been a drag by myself but turned out to be nothing but fun when we met up with similarly stranded volunteers & spent the day in a cafe learning more card games & appreciating the company.

The following week at school was normal & filled with appreciative kids & a somewhat successful trip to the gym.  Successful in that I found it.  Somewhat in that the equipment consists of a stationary bike, elliptical & treadmill circa 1980 & apparently it’s impossible for the machines to be plugged in & thus turned on for some reason.  Hopefully there was a translation error somewhere down the line that I can figure out this week.  Then Saturday I met with volunteers in my region in Vinnytsia partially for a meeting & partially just to hang out.  Aside from seeing many a familiar face there were also about 10 newbies who arrived in December & were all very cool & much more put-together than I remember being this time last year.  Olha saved the day again & arranged for me to stay with her sister in an extra apartment that she has downtown so I didn’t have to leave on the last bus at 5 per usual & got to join the others at a restaurant.  Dinner quickly morphed into hours of laughing & talking before long I realized that I should text Lena (Olha’s sister) to make sure that she wasn’t up waiting for me.  I was using T9 to text in Ukrainian & apparently overestimated its vocabulary as while I thought I texted Hi, it’s alei (це елі) I actually sent ‘це злі’ instead which just so happens to mean ‘It’s evil’.  I got a confused and quite funny call from Olha directly afterwards encouraging me to stay out with my friends at least until midnight just like Cinderella.  Once the clock struck twelve I started started the trek home & conveniently her apartment was on the way to the train station where my friends were going so we were able to head out together for an evening stroll which just so happened to bring us past McDonald’s.  At this point the store was closed but the drive-through was open so naturally we walked on through.  I tried to order a chicken sandwich with ketchup & they said I couldn’t.  Thinking they ran out of ketchup I tried substituting it with barbeque sauce & struck out again.  Confused but unwilling to move on at this point I asked if it was possible to order one chicken sandwich and one ketchup on the side & then & only then did I get a yes.  Apparently it was just the sauce distribution that was absolutely not happening.  We walked up to the next window to pay & then devoured our little taste of home in plain sight & much to the amusement of the taxi drivers ordering food like ‘normal people’ from the comfort of their cars.  As far as representing America & breaking cultural stereotypes go I fear that when McDonald’s is involved it’s always one step forward, two steps back.  Gotta love that quality control though.  We found Lena’s apartment with rather remarkable ease & I got to spend the night in a warm bed, have coffee  & conversation with her this morning, catch a bus & make it back to Yampil by noon.  My alternative is catching the train at 10pm & hoping for a bus at midnight & making my way half-asleep to my apartment at 2am which illustrates yet again how nice it is to be taken care of by that family.  Their generosity will likely continue tomorrow after school when I join them for Vanya (the four year old son)’s birthday party 🙂  So I guess all of this is a long-winded (as always) way of saying that while I still miss you all dearly, I’m feeling exponentially better & truly appreciate your thoughts & prayers.  You’re the best!


Hating on Michael Buble January 12, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 10:25 pm

Last month was bursting at the seams with so much potential for quality time with loved ones that wasting time on something as solitary as updating this wasn’t even a consideration.  At the risk of sounding bratty, I am NOT sorry for the delay.  Home was everything I had hoped & more.  I was surrounded by my family, friends, & dogs & truly couldn’t have asked for a better experience.  While the modern conveniences were nice (ohmygosh did daily access to a hot shower, washing machine, & elliptical with a built in TV rock my world), I think the most amazing part was just feeling loved, understood, and finally within arm’s reach of people who know me best.  I was happy.  Really freaking happy. Which sort of brings me to today.

Today just so happens to present the chance to show the other side of life in the Peace Corps I suppose.  I don’t want to dwell on this as I try (occasionally unsuccessfully) to keep this positive, but  I’m not going to lie, this past week has been a struggle.  I knew the goodbye would be hard but I wasn’t expecting the aching, heavy, can’t-eat-or-sleep kind of sadness to continue for quite this long.  6 days after leaving I still can barely finish a sentence without my voice shaking to signal the onset of another teary breakdown.  I do not want to be this person & thanks to the recent comparison I know with relative certainty that I am not this person at home.  That being said, I am still within the first week & remember the initial voyage being a bit of a trick as well, only then I didn’t have internet access to document it for you lucky readers.  I also can completely rationalize that I’m about 60% done with the whole PC journey & it’s likely all downhill from here.  Plus I have great friends here who are in the process of planning a trip to Egypt for Spring Break as well as an American visitor heading my way in July.  Lots of silver linings if I can just get past trying to remember if I was really happy here before I left or not & deciding if teaching English to my kiddos (who are still cute btw) is worth being a chronically slightly sad person for the next 11 months.   Fun stuff, huh?  Luckily between Skype, gmail, K-Love radio & of course my Bible I’ve got all sorts of guidance & encouragement headed my way, so I’m sure I’ll be fine just as soon as I get Michael Buble sing/whining “Let me go hoooommmmme” out of my head 😦

OK, enough of that.  I want to talk about my trip again.  I feel like the majority of you that I have in mind when I write these updates were right there with me experiencing all of the Christmas fun, but I kind of want a detailed record so bear with me as I rehash my (& your) last month. Or actually, you really don’t have to as it will definitely be long & full of things that probably only I feel the need to remember.  I promise I won’t be offended if you skip to the end.

After 24 hours on various forms of transit without the help of an alleged sleeping pill, I managed to be one of the few blessed passengers to land in O’Hare in the midst of a snow/windstorm without delays.  I can’t even describe how amazing it was to hug Mom, Dad, Patience & even Lukie in the airport before we booked it (in a heated car!) to El Molino’s to savor my first real fajitas & margaritas in 15 months.  Between that meal & seeing Maddie walk into the foyer when we got home, ‘bliss’ doesn’t even come close.  I distributed all of the cards & gifts from my students & the suitcase full of food that my host family brought to me at 2 am in the airport before I left.  Shockingly no takers on the salo.  One of my favorite routines was remembered that next morning when I woke up early, had coffee (with sugar-free syrup & whipped cream!) & did devotionals with my parents in the sunroom for the perfect start to the day.  I went into Mom’s class & gave her adorable kids candy from Ukraine much to their (kind of surprising) delight.  Since it was a school week Nicole & I decided to trek back to the Alma Mater on Tuesday for a slumber party with our favorite undergrad, Colleen.  Champaign looked almost the same with a few fun additions including a Turkish restaurant & overall the roadtrip & reminiscing gave me a perfect opportunity to catch up with my friends.  Right when I got back Wednesday afternoon Mrs. Klein treated me to an amazing mani pedi & a night full of baking Christmas cookies.  The next day the pampering continued as I shopped with Nicole & stumbled upon Crystal Lake’s first self-serve frozen yogurt store!  Twenty some days later I almost completed an entire punch card.  Friday was also festive as I helped out at Mom’s Christmas party at school & then got to play dominos at the kitchen table with my whole family just like the good old days.  Then we were off bright & early to Ohio for our family party & a reminder that 6 hour rides happen in the US too although the car was substantially less bumpy than a marshrutka & at least this time I knew the person who was sleeping on me.  It was great to see everyone & Mom & I were rewarded for our travels with cheesey caramelcorn & a showing of Burlesque at the Catlow on Sunday night.   The next morning I headed out to Dale’s house for a highly-anticipated reunion with the girls including a fabulous dessert extravaganza at Fleming’s where Nicole works.  I guess it pays to have coworkers who love you 🙂  The winter wonderland worked in our favor as we were  snowed in & got to spend the night playing Scategories together & looking through Dale’s gorgeous wedding pictures.  I love my friends.  So much in fact that I spent Wednesday with them too at the German Christmas market downtown & then on a tour of Wicker Park including a swanky restaurant & a speakeasy-bar courtesy of Kapicka.  I headed home Thursday in time to go to the mall with my aunt & cousin (Jamie & Carlee) & got in some much needed catching up complemented nicely by Baskin Robbins.   At that point it was already Christmas Eve & I finally got to experience the moment I’d been picturing for months on end- being huddled together with my family when the ‘Silent Night’ song played at the end of church.  Just perfect (as was the proceeding Greek food).  Christmas morning started with a change as not only did we not wake up on the floor in our parent’s room, but we got to enjoy our coffee & a nice breakfast before covering the sunroom with wrapping paper.  Apparently we’re growing up.  Between my brand new ereader, the boys’ nerf guns & inability to understand word games the rest of the day was certainly enjoyable as well.   The next week my family was still on break so we packed it full of errand-running & fun weekend activities together including a good old Willow Creek church service,  a much needed haircut at Tricoci University & Thai food (which made me sick 😦  I fear Ukraine has ruined me), & a night downtown with my parents including Zoolights & a delectable tapas restaurant. Then I shifted into friend mode with Chi-Town excursions for an ugly sweater barcrawl (two years post grad & I think we’ve still got it) & a wonderful NYE in Chicago with Ashley & Colleen (who unintentionally but proudly wore matching dresses). I was also spoiled by my Grammy to a wonderful dinner and my first ever beautiful Fossil bag that I proudly paraded downtown 🙂  Saturday was a bit sad as I had to say goodbye to my friends for 11 months & the following final 24 hours in the States were really memorable but more than a little weepy.  Between a warm breakfast with mom, a crab leg lunch with the whole family, a very inspiring concert at church & a chocolate cake dinner with the Kleins & Nicole it really was a sweet if not sad day.  I packed & hung around the house before one last lunch with my parents on Sunday & then they drove me to the airport & the tearful goodbye ensued.  I waited at the gate a mess of tears & listened as our flight was delayed half an hour for ‘unknown’ mechanical problems.  I was busy wondering if that was supposed to be a sign telling me not to go back as I heard another announcement pushing the flight back 30 more minutes.  After an hour had passed they made the announcement that the delay would be lengthy- 24 hours in fact- & as everyone else threw up their hands in anger I was beaming like an idiot & crying at the thought of spending another night at home.  I’m sure they thought I was confused/deranged but I didn’t care & rushed to the payphone to share the good news.  Rescheduling the flight brought about even more good news- I was staying an extra 5 days 🙂  Everyone else had started school at that point so I got to spend the week pretending to be a housewife doing laundry, baking desserts, stopping by Mom’s school & scheduling lunch/dinner/movie dates with my friends for every day of the week.  It was glorious & definitely exactly what I needed.  Friday morning eventually did roll around though & I had one last Walker Brother’s breakfast with my parents before heading to the airport with slightly more permanent results 😦  The trip home was brutal culminating with the airline losing my luggage & my host family insisting that I stay the night with them when all I wanted to do was sit alone & sob.  But they love me & I love them & everything turned out OK, including my suitcase which arrived in Yampil this morning at 2 am.

So here we are. 27 perfect days there & 11 more months here hopefully filled with recovering & pushing through whatever it is I have the pleasure of dealing with now.  I can’t help but notice that I had one day there for every month here & really think that if someone would have just figured out that instant transportation mechanism I could have fought the PC blues with brief but monthly visits.  What’s the hold up?  Well I suppose that’s enough whining & wondering for one (embarassingly long) post.  Thank you for bearing with me through this all & giving me such an incredible trip.  Even in the darkest moments I find a lot of solace in knowing that my grief is directly proportional to the quality of loved ones I have supporting me back home.  Love & miss you all much too much.