Faith, Hope, and Love Remain

Alei's adventures in Ukraine

Ready to Run April 28, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 2:34 pm

Travel season is upon us at last & I am packed & ready to go.  The span between Easter & the end of the school year is marked by consecutive long weekends thanks to holidays celebrating pretty much anything & everything.  In Peace Corps volunteer code that means “It’s train time”.  Last weekend’s adventure took me to Morozivka where I was force fed enough carbs to fuel me all the way through this weekend’s running event.  I’ve spent the month fighting my way through 6 mile runs in anticipation & then was asked by my friends to be on a relay team which means that my 10K dropped to 5 just like that & some sort of costume/uniforms are involved.  Friendship is a beautiful thing.  A big group of us are heading out tonight for the festivities which do include running, but I think the main draw may be the wine festival & hot springs that the town is known for.  Win-win.  The train is a 13 hour-er, but we have Monday & Tuesday off of school for…actually I honestly have no idea why.  But I know we’re off, so off I go.

I have about 20 minutes before I head out, so I’ll honor my weekly commitment & touch on the past week of fun.  The journalism club is up & running thanks to our new laptop, printer, recorder & camera.  Last Friday’s meeting involved interviewing each other & giving our first article assignments.  Of course tea & cookies were involved again.

The dream team hard at work

Then it was time to celebrate the season with a trip back to my host family.  I opted against the overnight train so my Saturday & Monday were filled with various forms of transport adding up to 11 hours both ways.  While I bet there’s video footage evidence somewhere in Cary, Illinois of how much twelve year old me would have whined about that kind of a trip, maybe Ukraine has changed me after all because the all-day journey didn’t even seem that bad.  Ebooks are truly amazing technology & I was more than content to take in the beautiful spring scenery through the windows as well as my fellow passengers including the Easter bunny…in a cell phone box.  I got in on Saturday around 10pm & was met by my host mom at the train station.  It’s always a pleasure to visit with them & it felt like it had been awhile since I’d seen them last so there was a lot to catch up on.  We chatted for a bit over tea (& cookies of course) & then were sent to bed early so we’d be ready for our 2:30wake up call.  Yes, 2:30am.  Tradition has it that the celebration starts in the middle of the night with families dressing up, putting on headscarves, & packing baskets full of food to be blessed by the priest.  The timing was never fully explained to me, but I was very grateful to be included & privy to the beautiful sight of what appeared to be the entire town huddled with their famililes in clusters that circled the perimeter of the church.  The baskets featured sausage, bread, horseradish, hard boiled eggs, bananas (mostly for my benefit), & the traditional bread called Paska, that looks like a giant cupcake but is actually dry bread.  In the pitch black all you could see were the lines of Easter baskets lit up by the sole candles illuminating the Paska bread.  I wish I could have taken pictures, but it would have required the flash setting which seemed wrong given the night’s sacred atmosphere.  Suffice it to say, it was lovely & I have a feeling I’ll be thinking of the scene every Easter from here on out.  We waited a few hours for the priest to whip us with holy water (decidedly not a gentle process) & then trekked back home at 5am to feast on the basket’s contents & immediately went back to bed until 10am.

The rest of the day was slightly reminiscent of a progressive dinner as we traipsed between five different relative’s houses, but the fare was pretty much the same at each stop…lots & lots of meat & Paska bread.  Part of the Lenten season involves abstaining from meat, so the Easter celebration involves eating lots & lots of it.  This doesn’t sound ideal, but the abundance of creative & gristly meat dishes (i.e. fried pork with mayonnaise, pineapple, & cheese) drew attention away from the usual variety of  oily vegetarian options, so I was able to skate by mostly on raw tomatoes & cucumbers plus lots of bread & chocolate.  I forgot how good chocolate is during Lent.  Now I remember.  I’m an idiot & asked about the baby pig that I saw last time I was there & was met with awkward silence followed by someone pointing at the plate on the table that held Maska 😦  His brother Vaska however is doing just fine.

The spree of visiting lasted most of the day & then in the evening I was able to meet up with my friends from training (Thomas & Julia) & make the rounds together to visit all of the other host families.  It was very home-esque & a wonderful way to celebrate my last Easter sans egg hunt.  Yes, I fully intend to take part in the Cook family egg hunt next year at 24.  The following morning I was sent off with the customary bag of carbs that I gave to a homeless man at the train station, a big hug, & a reminder of how lucky I am to have such a nice Ukrainian family.

OK, times up.  Miss you much & see you next week!

Greetings from Yampil


Goodbye Maddie Jean April 21, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 9:01 pm

This week’s post is dedicated in remembrance of Miss Madison Jean, my loyal friend, entertainment, foot warmer & truly the best dog a girl could ask for.  After 17 years she’s as much a part of most of my childhood memories as Lukie, so letting her go is hard & weird from afar.  That being said, I know that her impressive lifespan was definitely not normal for a dog of her size & feel very grateful that she stuck it out until Christmas so I could see her one more time.  I vividly remember a TV commercial from back in the day (& I’m not saying this just to validate my choice of a major) for dog food that showed a girl about my age playing with her new puppy & then they both morph over time into teenagers & college-aged, & I remember being bummed that our timing was off & Maddie wouldn’t be around when I was a “grown-up” going off to college.  Now two years post-grad (although the grown up thing is debatable), it looks like she outdid my eight-year-old expectations by far.  I’m not walk-around-crying sad which is a nice surprise, but the news has put me in a bit of a funk this week which was definitely not helped by having Elton John’s ‘Candle in the Wind (Norma Jean version)’ stuck in my head.  I don’t want to dwell, so I guess I’ll use that little backstory to illustrate another aspect of life here, particularly why it is not the ideal place to stop thinking about your dog.

On a daily basis I see upwards of 20 dogs roaming our streets.  Some are strays, some are pets that get free reign of the town & some are security systems that spend their lives on a 10 foot chain.  The latter group tend to be the most vicious as they really are kept with the sole purpose of scaring away intruders & are quite good at their jobs.  My favorite  lives by the river, is called Tarzan, & is a dead-ringer for the monster from Sandlot.  They break my heart a little when I see them hooked up & spike my heart rate a lot when tricky ones manage to get loose & prowl down the street trailing their metal prison-style chains behind them.  The wanderers’ presence struck me a lot when I first touched down, but now they’re just kind of a part of life.  They find their way into stores, train stations, & even official ceremonies.  They usually  travel in friendly packs & are fed by kids, babusias, & the fairly abundant leftover food on the ground at most times.  It’s a country-wide epidemic apparent in little villages & big cities alike that the government is allegedly trying to fix, but the only problem I face with them is the constant temptation to steal one much to my landlady’s dismay.  That is until this week when the last thing I wanted to see was 14 reminders of my Maddie on the way to the store, or hear her apparent twin who spends the night barking right outside my window from 11pm-1am.  Sweet dreams to me.

On the bright side, God seems to be lobbing consolations at me left & right.  Case in point, on Sunday after hearing the bad news I walked outside & found that literally overnight my favorite cherry trees decided to bloom.  I really do love them & am all the more appreciative since last week’s school days were cut in half due to the cold.  Never a dull moment in spring.

The end of last week reconfirmed my status as a sappy fool of a teacher when we held our first Journalism Club & I was so touched by the enthusiasm from my little reporters in training that I veered on the edge of tearing up for a solid 45 minutes.  The 6th graders all brought coffee cups from home so they could have tea at a meeting like adults do & begged us to come back to school on Saturday morning to extend the meeting even though all that was on the agenda was choosing a name, mission statement, ect.  It could easily be described as a trivial gathering of eleven year olds drinking tea, but watching their excitement & creativity  overflow while they dreamed big dreams together made for a perfect “This is why I did Peace Corps” moment.  Our equipment came in today & they’ve already started petitioning for more club time on Sunday (Easter) so I’m definitely looking forward to tomorrow afternoon with them & will try to keep it together this time.

Other highlights include last weekend which was spent in Vinnistia with my friends for a brief meeting followed by a night of dancing to a classic American rock cover band  (sung with a super-thick Ukrainian accent).  I don’t know how we managed to find the sole bar in the city playing anything in English, but it was amazing to hear live music again & flail around to Another Brick in the Wall.  The “Hey teacher, leave those kids alone” part was particularly fun since it reminded me of both Hello Dave & what I imagine my 9th graders are chanting in their heads every class period.  Aside from the chance to enjoy some revelry & speak my native language, my sole mission in Vinnistia was to find an exercise ball. It was sadly a bust but then to my great surprise I found a bright orange one sitting on the counter of the single, teeny, tiny sport store in Yampil.  I was amazed & not at all phased by the fact that there was only one pump in town (at the store) leaving me to  further weird out my fellow Yampilians by walking down main street with a fully inflated yoga ball resting in front of my stomach.  Crazy American.  And last but not least, as of an hour ago I am officially the proud/embarrassed owner of a handknit sweater.  I’m certainly not going to break any land speed records as it’s been in the works since January, but I think it turned out pretty good as far as bulky, but toasty warm sweaters go.  I afforded myself the liberty of adding an extra 5 inches onto everything length wise so I finally have sleeves that cover my wrist which was something new & exciting for my lanky limbs.  It’s just too bad that Prom is  approaching so quickly because now that I know I can assemble things other than hats I bet I could have whipped Patience &/or Luke up something real nice.  Nothing like wool for a long night of photographs & sweaty dancing.

This weekend will bring a long awaited return to Morozivka with my host family & some friends from training.  I can’t say I’m too thrilled about the prospect of  the oily, carby force feeding sessions before next month’s Turkish beach vacation, but I am very excited to see everyone  again & experience a more traditional Paska celebration than last year.  I miss you all & hope the Easter bunny treats you well.


What’s for Dinner? April 13, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 3:54 pm

Or” breakfast?”or “lunch?” for that matter are questions that I very rarely ask.  As I’ve lamely admitted before, due to limitations in budget, convenience & culinary creativity I usually make the same meals day in & day out.  While I realize it makes me sound like a bit of a drone, I’m pretty content with the system & think it may be one of the rare benefits of living solo.  At home I love to cook & was probably the only college student with a subscription to Rachael Ray magazine, but without a Jewel not to mention a Whole Foods (ohmygoodness what I would do for a trip to Whole Foods) finding new healthy recipes can seem like mission impossible. Factor in my lack of an oven or dishwasher & my temperamental kitchen sink that isn’t too fond of draining & I am just very grateful that I’ve found a few reliable dishes that keep me fat & happy.

The problem (relatively speaking) is that I’ve recently become addicted to reading healthy living blogs that include daily updates of their fun & inventive meals.  I can’t imagine why I thought that was a good idea as I don’t have a penchant for masochism, but regardless now I’m hooked & thought it would be fun to try my hand at the daily meal documentation.  Hopefully this will not only  reassure my mother that I’m eating enough but also serve as a reminder for me to be thankful a few years from now when I forget how amazing it is to have a fridge full of choices, beautiful choices.  Whining aside, I’d also like to remember how lucky I have it as a PC volunteer in Ukraine where I have the opportunity to choose between ample, safe food sources.  That’s really not a given in the world & I hope I keep that in mind while looking back at my…creative…takes on comfort food.

Breakfast~ This is probably my favorite meal of the day.  I’m a big believer in coffee’s role as the best part of waking up & as long as my big Anthropologie mug is filled to the brim with java (especially the non-instant & flavored variety thanks to my french press & generous Mom respectively) then I’m a happy camper.  And yes, I enjoy it through a straw bc I don’t want to stain my teeth & swirly straws are fun.  So sue me.  While the rest of it may look somewhat gruelish it’s actually kasha (buckwheat) that I boil with water, condensed milk, cinnamon, & bananas so it’s sweet & oatmeal-esque.  They gray blobs are called halva (sunflower seed paste) & I wish there was a less disgusting way to describe them because they’re actually a quite tasty addition.  Adding halva to kasha is a special tradition reserved for Christmas morning here, but I pull the foreigner card & celebrate every morning with this treat.

Our dining schedule is a bit different & more frequent here (as I learned very quickly during the first few months with my host family) & lunch isn’t until 3 or 4 so I usually have another cup of coffee, a banana, & toast (w/ peanut butter if I’m lucky) during a lesson off at school.


Also in the effort of time & money saving I usually make a big pot of soup or chili on the weekend & then eat it during the week after school.  Thanks to the wonder that is World Market the  soup du jour lately has been a spicy curry that I got during Christmas.  It makes my whole apartment reek but I think it’s a) kind of funny & b) a small sacrifice to make for flavor.  Thank goodness for the imported seasoning packet because my contribution to the pot was corn, lentils, & onions which would have been downright gross without the added  spices. The homemade juice in a jar was a gift from Olha’s mom & the water bottle is my best friend/security blanket that I always have with me & drink all of my water from.  Between my coffee mug & that bottle I didn’t even realize that I didn’t own a  cup until it was time for visitors to stop by my apartment last May.


I like to pretend that these are fajitas but then again  I have an active imagination & an easily impressed Ukrainianized palate.  My local store in town did step it up this year though & provided me with steady access to a bag of frozen vegetables (including green beans, corn, & carrots), a sort of spicy sauce called Mexicanski & something that very closely resembles salsa.  Throw it all in a pan with onions sauteed in cilantro & real fajita seasoning from home & I’ve got myself some dinner.  Plus an egg with cheese for vegetarianisms sake.  None too shabby.

I usually make some popcorn on the stove for a snack before bed thanks to kernels sent from home, which reminds me that all of these meals are made enjoyable thanks to fantastic contributions in care packages from you lovely people.  Really I can’t imagine what I would do without you but I’m pretty sure it would involve more cabbage & less smiles, so thank you, thank you, thank you.  Cradling granola bars, rice cakes or coffee creamer always seems like a low point, but I guess it’s OK as long as you know how much your gifts are appreciated.

So there you have it.  Save for the breakfast kasha absolutely nothing is traditional Ukrainian cuisine, but again I think I maxed out on that living in Morozivka & am quite content to save it for “special occasions” when I visit.

The main excitement around here this week was yesterday’s Jehovah’s Witness attempt.  These really sweet ladies knocked at my door right after I had gotten out of the shower & were ushered into my apartment with its music blasting & curry smell by me in my pajamas with my sopping wet hair wrapped up in a turban towel.  I’m sure they were wondering exactly what they had gotten themselves into at that point.  I invited them to sit down & then startled them by tripping on my pants & careening towards my new “workstation” (basically my laptop elevated by a foot & a half of stacked up boxes & books because I keep reading that it’s very unhealthy to sit for long periods of time) & then confused them further by being unable to pull it together & stop laughing about my near tumble.  We went through the Bible & they politely attempted to convert me while I politely tried to explain in Russian that I’m pretty secure in my relationship with God already.  Take a sec to try to mime your way into explaining why you think that the Father, Son & Holy Spirit are actually the same entity…& welcome to my world.  We didn’t manage a breakthrough of any sort, but they really were extremely nice & respectful throughout so no harm was done either.

I’ve still been running & have found that as long as I go comically slow I am capable of pounding out a 10k.  The emphasis is most emphatically on slow though as it takes me almost an hour & a half to get in the 6 miles.  I still feel pretty idiotic trudging around the stadium panting in full view of the town, but last time one of the 5th graders at my school kept me going by hollering “Alei…I love you!” every time I passed the playground equipment he was loitering on.  I don’t teach him & am not sure he actually knew what he was saying, but at that point I’ll take any encouragement I can get even the inappropriate & awkward.

And finally I would just like to point out that after the last two posts I was able to do my laundry without a cloud in the sky & my showers have been fairly warm & even pressured.  It seems to me that the Universe is trying to make me look like a liar, but little does the Universe know that I’ll take dry clothes & warm water over credibility any day.  In fact, if that’s how it’s going to go then please excuse me while I lament over the fact that good old Yampil still doesn’t have a Thai restaurant or a frozen yogurt store.  Your move Universe 🙂  Miss & love you all!


Weekly Update April 6, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 3:19 pm

OK, here’s the thing: nothing all that interesting has happened since my last post, but I suck at journaling & am starting to feel the need for documentation of the daily in & outs of my time here, so I’m contemplating updating this weekly regardless.  Which basically sounds like quantity over quality for my own personal benefit now that I type that out.  What a considerate blogger I am 🙂  I guess then take this as fair warning that while you are obviously more than welcome to keep keeping up with me, I will likely start devoting some time to the more mundane though memorable aspects of my life here.

And with that I would like to take a moment to discuss my shower.  One might think that not having a boyfriend for two years, while not ideal on the spider-killing front, would at least make painful relationship analyzing conversations unnecessary.  Unfortunately, one would be wrong.  I have these heartfelt, frustrating, slightly confrontational talks (in my head) with my shower every time I feel the need to wash up.  Already freezing & vulnerable, I step in & must brace myself for either a face meltingly hot or goosebump inducing cold trickle (definitely not to be mistaken for a spray) of water depending on his mood & am immediately filled with the need to discuss our ‘situation’.  The Talk usually goes something like…

Listen, I don’t want to be ungrateful.  I know that a lot of people wish they had someone (OK, thing) like you & I was so happy when you came into my life last March, but this is getting ridiculous.  I just don’t understand why you insist on making things difficult (a.k.a. drastically changing the water pressure & temperature at your every whim).  Is it something I’ve done?  I feel like I’ve made a lot of  effort (carefully adjusting the hot & cold dials like a mad scientist) & have tried to be sensitive (barely touching each dial to avoid a 20 degree drop or rise in the temperature), but sometimes I think you actually enjoy making me upset  (randomly blasting freezing cold water after I’ve managed to find a slightly comfortable balance).  I hate to say it, but I don’t even like being around you anymore (hence the 1-2 day gap between my visits).

We’re about to the point in a real relationship where I’d bail, but unfortunately singleness in this analogy equates to bucket bathing, so I think I’ll stay by my man until November when I plan to drop him hard.  And for a foreigner no less.  That’ll hurt.  On the plus side, like many a dysfunctional relationship the rare moments when all is well (i.e. pleasantly hot water strong enough to actually rinse the conditioner out of my hair is delivered) my confidence is completely restored & I’m convinced that putting up with another day or two of bad behavior is worth it in the long run.  Have I mentioned that living alone makes me weird?

Other non-news of the week has included my feeble attempt at running.  There’s a 1oK run/wine festival event at the end of the month out west on the border of Hungary that a bunch of my friends are going to & this is not the time to have regrets so I’m trying to get in shape for it.  My friend from training (Julia, who b.t.w. ran track at the University of Wisconsin) did it last year & had a blast & I have yet to really see the mountains so I think it’s a worthy goal.  My lungs however disagree quite violently.  I am obnoxiously bad at running & have provided the neighborhood kids with all kinds of entertainment as my face turns from pale to various unnatural shades of magenta over the course of an hour, but thanks largely to Sean Kingston & Drake I think I can keep going.  I want to express my deep gratitude to them as the only thing that prevents me from walking but sending a thank-you card probably wouldn’t get me any street cred in the rap world, which you know is very important to me.

I’m still loving school.  My students are adorable & I wish I wrote about them more on here because they do play such a big role in my happiness, but most of the stories seem a little guess-you-had-to-be-there when I retell them.  Suffice it to say they continue to find ways to make me crack up in the middle of lessons on a daily basis, like when one of the cute 10th grade girls that I tutor told me her favorite movie is “Hey guy, where is my car?” (Dude, where’s my car).  The teachers also moved further into my heart this week by taking such care of me when I had a touch of the stomach flu.  Immediately upon noticing my coloring I was sent home with strict instructions to rest & given a bag of fresh mint leaves to boil with lemon as a very effective Gatorade replacement.  They’ve started asking me if I’m sure that I don’t want to stay past November & while my answer is a confident 185% sure I certainly do appreciate them & will miss everyone dearly.  But not for 7 & a half more months 🙂