Faith, Hope, and Love Remain

Alei's adventures in Ukraine

I Make It Rain March 28, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 8:33 pm

But sadly not like Lil Wayne.  Last week’s excitement over starting the job search may have been in vain as I think I’ve accidentally stumbled upon a potentially lucrative & rewarding career.  My calling may in fact be to bring rain to desert areas thus enabling abundant growth & eradicating a little thing called hunger.  How you ask?  By doing my laundry of course.  Washing & drying clothes here bez (without) machines takes some planning as many soaking & boiling processes are involved.  Then comes the scrubbing & wringing & once that has subsided they need a good 6 hours of flapping in the wind to dry completely.  Any misstep or alteration to The Plan can very likely result in mildew as clothes simply do not dry in my air-circulation-less apartment.  Ever the organizer, I literally plan my whole weekend around the task.  For instance my underwear (which I always hang inside over my bathtub so my 6th graders don’t have a front row view of Miss Alei’s underpants) need a full 36 hours to dry rendering my bathroom un-usable, so I need to make sure that I shower Friday night.  Not Saturday morning mind you, because I already have to wake up early so that I can wash the clothes & have them clean & ready by 10 so they can be hung on the line with enough time to dry before nightfall.  After all of this careful planning & despite my anal-retentive checking of the forecast 14 times beforehand, when I’m finally done washing & walk outside with a bucket brimming to the top of clothes to hang up it always is raining.  Every. Single. Time.  The whole thing is really quite amazing as both rain & laundry-doing are pretty infrequent phenomena around here.  I’m no scientist, but the correlation seems too obvious to overlook so I should probably just accept my ‘gift’ & unleash it on the world at large.  Fear not farmers. Me & my laundry hamper are on our way.  While I’ve obviously yet to master the process I must say that I do love the smell of the clothes after they finally do dry.  I don’t know if it’s the new Tide detergent, the joy of being able to dry stuff outside again without it freezing solid, or early onset nostalgia but one way or another I caught myself burying my face in my newly not-damp shirt yesterday & vowing to line dry my laundry when I get home too.  Especially if I have a dryer ready & waiting for when I naturally make the rain cloud materialize.

I suppose that is a very long-winded way of explaining what I did the latter half of my Spring Break.  Laundry, cleaning & relaxing with a good read.  The weather cooperated on Friday which afforded me a nice walk around town  & eager anticipation of more to come after the clouds clear.

The first half of SB2011 was also quite enjoyable, if not a little more exciting.  The fun started bright & early last Saturday morning when Olha & the fam picked me up to take me to Vinnitsia.  Them for dental work, me for a meeting with my manager & other volunteers in the area.  I was expecting to spend a few hours alone since I was way ahead of schedule, but I was pleasantly surprised to find three of my friends already waiting at the American embassy (also known as McDonald’s) & spent the morning laughing & enjoying coffee in a to-go cup.  Eventually we inadvertently rounded up about 10 other volunteers & headed to the meeting for a lovely 4 hour information session followed by a night of fruitlessly looking for a karaoke bar.  The mission was a bust, but the company is always good.

Ashley, Kasey & Becky met me the next afternoon & we killed time meandering the mall & choosing hair-dye colors for each other until our overnight train to Truskavets, a vacation town out west near the Carpathian mountains.  10 hours is a perfect amount of time for an overnight train in my humble opinion & I woke up fully rested & confident that none of them would judge me on my awkward top bunk dismount.   We’d read about our destination, The Hyzhyna Spa, online & had been impressed but slightly skeptical of the place with only a few jungle-themed pictures to go off of, so there was definitely a moment of panic when our taxi driver crossed over a rickety wooden bridge & pulled up to a white-washed straw & stone building.  Luckily we pushed on through though because it turns out that was just the rustic entry way leading to a truly amazing & extravagant hotel.  They held true to the theme with exotic plants, draping fabric, & jumping fountains everywhere.  It basically looked like a Rainforest Cafe without the giganto fake pythons (clearly not my favorite part).  From the huge suite, to the hot shower, to the continental breakfast it definitely did not feel like Kansas anymore.

We spent a solid three days lounging around in our robes & wandering from one spa area to the next, including a sauna, an aromatherapy room, a pool & a tepid (not quite hot) tub.  My personal favorite was the Roman sauna which is like the inside of the Bean in Chicago but all tiled & warm with a constant mist of hot air spraying out.  It’s a little tricky to describe but it prompted me to profess my love & desire to live there (in the sauna, not the town) multiple times.

I am clearly matching the hotel's theme by towering like an Amazon.

The company was also a delight providing hours of conversation & shared confusion when the “hot” tub jets were set off & seemed bent on launching us into space.  We managed to make it out of the hotel a few times (very reluctantly) but were glad when we did because there happened to be an amazing sushi restaurant nearby that cost even less than the hotel dinner.  It was just one big, luxurious exercise in “Are you sure we’re in Peace Corps?”, but amazingly the whole trip was less than I would spend on one night in a hotel at home so I guess it’s allowed.  Needless to say, we were a bit surly at the checkout counter but thankfully we were able to ease back into the real world with a long train trip back providing another good 10 hours of not-alone time.

The brief respite outside & few days’ absence prevented me from getting as bored as usual at home & by Sunday night I was pleasantly rested & ready to see my kids today.  Talking with other volunteers at every stage of the Peace Corps journey has made me very appreciative of where I am now.  I’m close enough to the end that I’m feeling motivated to make sure every plan gets put into motion & no smile goes unnoticed, but far enough away that I’m not yet frantic or checked out.  Able to treasure the moments & opportunities left without being overwhelmed by a daunting end date.  Comfortable enough that the cultural mishaps usually make me laugh instead of cry for a change, but foreign enough to never forget that my time here is fleeting.  It’s a good place.  Plus with enough events scattered through the remaining 8 calendar pages I’ve got plenty to look forward to.  This month’s highlights include Easter & a 10K race in western Ukraine, followed by a trip to a beach in Turkey, a joint birthday celebration with Ashley, & graduation in May.  Summer is ushered in soon after which just so happens to be my favorite season, especially here where the hot weather, friendly neighbors, camps full of grateful kids, & daily ice cream make the days fly on by.  Oh yeah, & then there’s Paris.  Bez problem 🙂


Fool Me Twice, Strike Three March 18, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 6:11 pm

While making breakfast this morning I glanced out the window & had to pause for a moment to figure out what was wrong with the picture.  The months of winter have apparently made me grow accustomed to the blanket of grimy snow as its reappearance today didn’t even seem like an obvious change.  Realizing that the past week of spring-like weather was just a cruel joke stung on many levels, one of which being the reminder that I never ever guess right here.  After 18 months of unpredictability I still managed to believe wholeheartedly that I’d seen the last of winter & took it a little personally when today’s flurry seemed to say “Ha- fooled you again”.  Actually I think it probably tacked on a “…you stupid idiot” because I view this particular storm’s personality like its presence, rude & uncalled for.

As a Chicagoan I’m no stranger to snow (even in late March) & am usually quite fond of it, but I’d let spring fever get the best of me & spent a sizable portion of my week cleaning all of my winter boots & then dealing with the four inches of dirty water left behind when my bathtub drain was unprepared to handle the job.  Let’s just say someone else’s plunger (eeeew) was involved.  Shoe hygiene is an interesting peculiarity here.  Having dirty shoes is said to speak volumes about a person & none of it positive.  Keeping shoes clean however, is a physical impossibility as the majority of our roads are made of dirt & our pointy high heels sink right into the murk & mire with every step.  Sometimes I think it’s an interesting cultural commentary, trying to hold to the Western standards so readily shown on TV without the coinciding Western infrastructure that makes it all possible.  Other times I just find it obnoxious.   I’ve yet to adopt the common practice of carrying a shoe brush in my purse like most everyone else (partially because I’m lazy & partially because I know how much of our dirt is probably comprised of animal waste) so I walk around defying footwear norms & was happy to be done with the accompanying guilt.  Between that & the joy of no longer needing to wear my coat inside suffice it to say, I was done with Ukrainian winter.  The flipside of never being in the know however, is that it could very well be 85 degrees & sunny tomorrow & I’d hardly be surprised.  And regardless it doesn’t really matter because as of two hours ago I am officially on Spring Break.  Wahoo!

Sadly Spring Break doesn’t include the stereotypical beach destination.  That will have to wait until May when we book it to Turkey for a few days.  Not sadly, it will include lots of time with friends to relax & gear up for the last 8 weeks of school.

I’ve been browsing through job sites this week eager to plot out my next step, but I have to say that being down to two months of teaching this semester sounds just crazy to me.  It’s hard to think about school without our current 11th graders & if I’m already attached I can’t imagine how the other teachers who have seen them grow up must feel.  Class sizes here are super small &they have the same teachers every year in every subject so really the dynamic between both the students & teachers is like a close knit family.  Even looking from a high school romance perspective the dating pool pretty much excludes their own school because the alternative would be like dating your brother.  It’s pretty cute.  Except this means that they think nothing of changing for gym class in the same room with the door open which elicits all sorts of awkward when the foreign English teacher wanders in for the lesson & is instantly mortified.  I was clearly startled but a good five steps into the room before I realized what was going on, so at that point I had to either make things even weirder by abruptly evacuating or walk to my desk & become very, very interested in my notes avoiding all eye-contact for a good 5 minutes.  Things no information packet can prepare you for.

My kiddos also got to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day this week which basically translated to a brief illustration of the importance of clovers & dying everything green & then a cathartic trip around the room pinching everyone who wasn’t wearing green.  Apparently no one wears green here.  I think in all of my classes there were a total of two students lucky enough to join me in the pinching. But what they lacked in number they made for in enthusiasm & ran through the halls attacking unsuspecting unfestive students during the breaks.  I can only imagine how they explained their behavior to rightfully concerned teachers other than “The American said so”, & yes I did.  The other factor keeping this week fun was a stowaway in last week’s care package bliss- a gigantic book of Mad Libs.  I’m sure they can’t understand all of the stories they create but my goodness does it crack them up.

And finally after a long & occasionally painful process I have officially gotten both of my grants approved & funded so hopefully we’ll have the new student run & printed newspaper & multimedia room up & running before school’s out for the summer 🙂  Also today is the 8 month marker until Home (capitalization both intentional & necessary).  What a lovely start to the weekend.  I love & miss you all (especially those who recognized the title of this as a Michael Scottism).

Ooh, & on that note those of you who were with me for Office marathons & all other junior year fun will appreciate the fact that when I walked into my 11th grade class today they’d arranged the desks into a ping pong table (literally considered a sport here, cough*Borat*cough) which provided an opportunity too good to pass by- an explanation of “Juice Pong”.  Once I got to explaining the NBA Jam rules I realized that was probably as passionate as they’d ever seen me.  I think they humored me, but I’m not really sure if they got it so I’m using a demonstration as a reward to hold over their heads & will happily bring the cups, juice, & my video camera on that fateful day.  Пока!


Strolling into Spring March 13, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 11:00 am

Recently spotted in Yampil: the lanky American meandering around the perimeter of town with her headphones.  That sounds a little creepy, but I was quite thrilled that today’s sunny, warm weather made my podcast accompanied walks possible again.  Aside from the chance to escape the confines of my apartment & catch up with church services & chickens alike, I love being able to note the change in trees & nature in my little town.  Right now there’s only a smattering of tiny green buds but I’m eagerly anticipating charting their progress as the temperatures climb.  I’m a summer girl through & through, but winters here have a particular knack for making me appreciate spring & its almost palpable message of hope.  I’m not going to say it’s my favorite season (unless El Nino’s Ukrainian equivalent makes it a steady 90 degrees), but I do think that the cherry blossoms and apricot trees make it the prettiest season & I’m ready for some beauty after months of grey slush.

And slippery slush at that.  Lately every trip outside (pun fully intended)has been a bit of an adventure requiring balance & poise (that I just don’t have) & a pretty elaborate inner monologue in which I remind myself to not scream if/when I fall & keep my tongue on the roof of my mouth so I don’t bite it off.  I didn’t even realize that was strange until I had to explain it to my friends last weekend, but I’d much prefer another addition to the weird quirks list than a trip to the local hospital that I am moderately terrified of.  Common knowledge here is that seasons start at the beginning of the month in December, March, June, & September which means that I should have been enjoying eleven days of spring so far.  While I didn’t see how that seasonal system could be true, I felt that at the very least my complaining about the cold was justifiable after February 28.  I don’t like to be a whiner though so between that & the tongue amputation I guess there are two less (probably unwarranted) things to worry about.

This is the first weekend in over a month that I’ve been home & I am equally happy that a) I’ve had so much fun stuff to keep me busy with & b) I get to sleep in tomorrow.  The ‘stuff’ includes touristy travels with my Peace Corps friends & a trip to Vinnitsia for the Olympiad (English competition) with my students.  It’s a two-day extravaganza of writing, reading, listening, & speaking tasks that I went to last year just to help tutor the kids during their breaks.  This year I was asked to go as a judge when I saw the coordinator a week beforehand at a seminar.  Always looking for something to add to my calendar, I agreed & joined about eight other Ukrainian English teachers in the grading group.  The first day’s reading & listening tasks were pretty straightforward, but all heck broke loose the second day when I expressed some qualms I had with the scale for the speaking task.  I’m really not one for confrontation, but this was a national test & for simplicity’s sake I’ll just say that the scores seemed more than a little subjective.  Voicing contradictory opinions is not often appreciated here though, which I found out the next day when my student’s scores were negatively affected.  It was a teary & terrible day at school to say the least as these scores are a pretty big deal for both the students & the administration, & for once I was not the one crying.  These kids had been studying for months including 2 hours of tutoring/week with me & speak extremely well, so it was brutal to think that their efforts could be cast aside like that because of something that I had said.  I hated the idea of letting it drop, but my teachers worried that challenging anything further would result in lower scores next year & honestly at this point I don’t doubt that at all.  I’ll definitely remember it as a trying time, but justice is a message that could stand to be sneaked in here occasionally & I’ve been blown away by the support I received from my school & Peace Corps through all the drama.  I was feeling quite sheepish about causing so much trouble, but they really backed my decision 100% despite the consequences & I’m extremely grateful for that.

School friends~ Valya, Natasha, & Olha

My school life has actually been a lot more social as of late.  I think people finally figured out that I can speak Ukrainian (albeit poorly) & have been very generous with their invitations.  I roomed with one of my teachers in Vinnitsia & she happened to have an old friend that was staying at the same dorm so our evenings were filled with feasting & sipping on homemade wine.  They both tried to speak nice & slow & stopped to involve me in the conversation which was hugely appreciated.  I had to fake a stomach illness (by repeating “I will throw up” since I didn’t know the polite sentence construction) to avoid exploding from all of the food, but overall it felt like being with my host family in Morozivka & I definitely enjoyed the warm company.  Then Valya, a computer teacher at my school & friend of Olha’s, has always been nice to me but recently had me over after school to show me pictures, talk knitting patterns, & play with her two cute daughters.  She also invited me to go to the concert in town for Women’s Day last Thursday & I think it feels much better to walk into a crowded event with someone so I was thrilled.  Our group also included Olha & another teacher, & I was reminded of my college crew when we left the concert after like 5 minutes because it was too crowded &decided to get tea instead.

Speaking of Women’s Day, along with flowers & chocolates the holiday (March 8th) gave us a four day weekend which I used to go explore castles with Ashley, Katelin, Kasey & Becky.  Our adventure included twelve legs of travel (including inadvertently hitch-hiking when the bus dropped me off 12 km from where I needed to go without a person, bus stop or even gas station in sight), but it was definitely worth it to see the 1,000s of years of history.  The fortresses in Kamianets-Podilski & Khotyn are two of The Seven Wonders of Ukraine & now I see why.  Despite the brutal cold it was still pretty amazing to wander along & wonder how much history had enfolded within the walls, although at the time we were (mistakenly) under the impression that the movies 300 & Monty Python were filmed there so much of my time was spent daydreaming about walking where Gerard Butler had tread.  I have more pictures of the castles (as well as a summary of the past year) here for your viewing pleasure.  Our time was also spent plotting our next adventure which will include four days at a “spa” in the Carpathian Mountains for spring break next week.  The hotel boasts an indoor pool, sauna & salt room as well as many other intriguing pampering options & thanks to the exchange rate the whole trip should be under $100.  I started the P90X workout this week & am hurting enough that I may even defy my ticklish-ness in order to get a $5 massage.

Nothing else too newsy here.  I’ve discovered that I’m within 100 days of starting the job search, which is very exciting at this point (maybe not so much later) & a mere 130 days from escorting Ms. Ashley Chamberlain around Ukraine.  That plus two very wonderful care packages have made me a happy girl & I hope you’re feeling the joy as well 🙂