Faith, Hope, and Love Remain

Alei's adventures in Ukraine

First is the Worst, Second is the Best September 25, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 8:46 pm

Exactly two years ago today I left Home.  I trudged through O’Hare  in full sobs painfully aware of everything I was leaving outside the automatic doors, weighed down both figuratively with the burden of goodbye & literally with suitcases containing 700 some days worth of essentials.  The thought alone still makes my stomach turn, & while I’m somewhat surprised that my brain didn’t block that brutal memory out, I’m mostly just thankful that I managed to keep putting one foot in front of the other.  At the time I felt like the forward momentum away from everything I held dear was equivalent to a death march, but from where I’m sitting now (balanced on a yoga ball, resting after a weekend with friends & eagerly anticipating another week with my students) I know that each sluggish stride brought me closer to an incredible  journey just waiting for me across the ocean.  In trying to prepare for a very different departure this November 17 I came across something I wrote last year around this time that aptly illustrates how I feel on this strange second anniversary.

Rust-colored paint, barely peeking through the scraps of old carpeting that have been fashioned into rugs.  Slanted walls plastered haphazardly with peachy floral wallpaper.  A ceiling-to-floor peeling pastoral mural.  A full sized, tangerine oriental rug hanging on a wall opposite a fancy black shelving unit that runs the length of the room.  A window hidden behind thick, white lace curtains flanked by layers of sherbet, brocade, flowered drapes.  Felt and leather furniture draped with fluorescent fringed orange velour.  Pattern upon gaudy pattern, and inch after dusty inch of the seemingly trivial details that I already worry I’ll forget all too soon. 

This room, the main one in the Soviet-era apartment that I now call home, is a shining example of the experience that serving with the Peace Corps is enabling me to have.  Sometimes it seems to be the setting for too much of my time, and yet I already fear leaving knowing it will likely be for good.  Its tacky wallpaper that I described with disdain less than a year ago now seems vintage and endearing to me.  In the dark of winter or directly proceeding a spider spotting it seems a fortress of solitude, a cold and hostile place, yet after 18 hours of public transport ‘cozy’ is the only adjective that will do.  My landlady and the piles of her old, decrepit belongings that she stores here ensure that I never forget I’m not entirely welcome, yet the sea of faces smiling at me in photos and heartfelt trinkets from kids somehow manage to make me feel at home.  Yes, this room and this county provide a myriad of memories and a mind full of mixed emotions to sort through.  Luckily, two years in the Peace Corps supplies time for sorting galore.

I’ve now officially made my way, occasionally skipping, often crawling, to the halfway point of my service and am somewhat apprehensively embarking on a mission to analyze the life I’ve carved out for myself a half a world away.  At first this ‘carving’ consisted of me sitting on the ground legs splayed, arms crossed like a petulant five year old letting the waters of life abroad rush past me while I pouted.  Any shaping done at that time can only be credited to the same steady force that gave the Grand Canyon its depth and beauty while its rocks sat immobile.  Instead of streams flowing through, in my life it was God’s love, grace, and power gently but resolutely winding around and forging a way through my stubbornness.  Gradually I moved to cathartically voicing my frustrations by swinging a mallet at the marble block of my life here & watching chunks fall away without a hint of grace or acumen.  It is only recently that I’ve begun to realize the hidden potential waiting to be unveiled by a chisel’s simultaneously soft and deliberate strokes, and the patience of an artist genuinely striving to create something beautiful.  

While I think the artist metaphor was a bit of a stretch, in retrospect this past year really did live up to my lofty expectations.  Between the hours of frantic phone calls, sheer volume of public breakdowns, & even written proof of neurosis evident to any faithful reader from the first few months I think it’s neither a surprise nor an exaggeration to say that the first year here sucked sometimes.  Yes I made new connections, fell into a new culture (again, quite literally at times) & had incredible experiences along the way, but to be completely honest I felt like those were just silver linings to the Eyore-esque  storm cloud that hung around on occasion.  When I visited at Christmas the question “Would you do it again?” came up a few times & while my public response was always a ‘yes’ I’d be lying if I said the query didn’t give me pause.  It was a deep seated, unsettling,  ‘what if’ kind of thought that I deliberately suppressed convinced that the honest answer might bring on a little cognitive dissonance if not a full on quarter-life crisis.

Ask me today however, & I could answer honestly & immediately with an emphatic ‘absolutely’.  As crazy as it seemed to trade in my perfectly lovely life in America, it would have been even crazier to turn down the opportunity to experience life to the fullest in Ukraine.  I opened my heart up to this new culture & community, & in return it has rushed in to fill the space  with joy, love, & gratitude that I never thought possible.  The only tears that fall these days are the product of being so filled to the brim with appreciation & expectations for the future that a little spillage is unavoidable.  The life I have here & the life I get the privilege of plotting out in America are incredibly beautiful indeed.  So on this second anniversary I just want to say thank you.  Thank you to everyone who has seen me through and thank you for everything that has brought me to where I am today.  Thank you for the chance to create an exciting future at home, & thank you for two years’ worth of sustaining memories of the past that can never be taken away.  Thank you for changing me & thank you for helping me stay the same.  Thank you for understanding that only by dropping me in a place where I felt like I had nothing would I realize how incredibly much I have.  Thank you, sincerely thank you,  for Peace Corps Ukraine 🙂

And thank you for kids who do yoga in business suits.


And Then There Were Two… September 13, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 8:58 pm

Months.  Total.  As in two months until my time on this crazy beautiful Peace Corps adventure is up.  Just two months.  Can you tell I’m having trouble grasping that?

I will officially touch down in Chi-town on the afternoon of November 17 but our last few days in country have to be spent finishing up business in Kiev, so in exactly two months I’ll have already left Yampil for good.  Insane in the membrane.  The thought just about permeates my every move as I navigate through my last few weeks teetering between the two very enticing worlds.  Not even crossing the street is safe.  In one moment I’m making note of the goat wandering along the road in a deliberate attempt to appreciate & store away the charming oddities associated with village life.   But then.  Before I know it, I realize that one of the cars yielding the barnyard animal is a Hyundai which reminds me that I ‘ve been hearing great things about that brand & should definitely check out the Carmax website after school… & just like that I’m back in a world where buying a car equipped with a cupholder for Dunkin Donuts coffee & driving with a seatbelt on roads clearly marked with speed limit signs is all a part of my reality.  It’s a mindtrip for sure.  Thankfully the lesson I’m starting to glean from these moments of mental mayhem is that whether looking at a box before or after November 17 on the calendar I’ve got it pretty good.  The morning commutes probably couldn’t be more different, but I appreciate them both immensely & either way I’ll likely spend them talking to people I love.  The difference being that here ‘talking’ implies returning my students’ enthusiastic “Hel-LOs” & there it will mean hours of catching up on all of the free calls to Fave Fives that I’ve been missing.  T-Mobile (& traffic cops for that matter) be warned.

My last first day of school was September 1 & we’ve been up & running ever since.  I have the slightly scratchy teacher voice to prove it too since apparently no amount of summer camp shenanigans compares  to the energy my little darlings exhibit during English class & the sheer voice volume required to keep them all focused.  Lucky for them, I still kind of like them & am prone to letting them get away with murder now that I realize how fleeting our time left is.  Lucky for me, they’re adorable & intersperse their arm flailing, talking-during-class with professions of love for me & boxes of chocolate.  I think we’ll get by.  My grants have finally all come completely into fruition so now I get to make the most of the time with my students by holding weekly extracurricular clubs & seminars using the new technology.  This week will  kick off our Movie Club featuring English TV shows & movies to watch & discuss after school, our Journalism Club with researching, writing & printing articles, & of course our Yoga Club with trying to follow Miss Alei as she makes weird shapes with her even weirder long limbs.  Weekends will be the prime time for a series of seminars that I want to host for older kids focusing on topics that are important but don’t quite fit in to our curriculum, like gender equality, healthy lifestyles and options for work & study abroad.  Fun for all.

This is the exact moment that she discovered I have a belly button ring forcing me to spend the rest of the night running away from the kids as they tried to touch it.

Lest you worry it’s been all work & no play I’m happy to inform you that there’s been plenty of socializing as well.  Olha invited me on an evening picnic celebration after the first day of school that involved cooking potatoes over the fire, playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with her three year old son, & trying not to laugh as her husband shouted every bad word he knows in English.  It was a perfect, giggly end-of-summer celebration with Olha, Valya (teachers) & both of their big boisterous families & I was delighted as ever to be included.  My weekends have been spent away in Vinnitsia with friends & in Kiev making a dent on the mountains of paperwork that closing up shop here entails.  Both cases have provided an excellent means of easing out of summer by affording me the opportunity to keep on speaking English to my little heart’s content.  They’ve also led to more random exploits with ridiculously wonderful friends including impromptu but intense dance parties & hour-long cartwheel tutorials.   

That’s a pretty good segue into my next & final topic: taking advantage of weird opportunities PC gives me that I won’t have at home.  Realistically I will not be able to spend an entire weekend watching movies with my friends with absolutely no other obligations in the near future.  Never again will I be able to start my workday at noon two days of the week (Monday & Thursday, holler!). Crackle nail polish or metallic reverse french manicures, despite looking pretty fly, will probably no longer be considered work appropriate.  20 minute phone calls with my host mom may not be as fluent (already I catch myself feeling like one of those stuffed animals with three programmed audio responses that I default to when I don’t understand what she’s telling me but am trying to pretend otherwise).

That's what a Yoga Club poster looks like in Ukraine. And business professional nails.

I’m even trying to take advantage of the daily surprises that pop into my schedule. Like the elderly man who asked me to sit with him & translate an entire “How to Make Millions by Printing Stickers at Home” manual after school today (He’d sent away for a kit based off of who knows what cheapo advertisement & gotten a package from Los Angeles that contained some adhesive paper & a packet of instructions in English that I’m pretty sure was printed using a typewriter back in 1952).  Or the four year old girls with a makeshift stand outside of school selling apples that they picked off of trees (lemonade’s not a thing here).  As draining & frustrating as it could be in the beginning, living in a foreign country really does seem to bring something bizarre  unexpected to the forefront each day & I’m trying my darnedest to appreciate it all before I return to a land of familiarity where things tend to make sense to me.  Please remind me of that when I find some cultural difference to rant about tomorrow.

That’s just about all of the news here.  The leisurely job search has morphed into a full on job hunt partially because the clock is ticking ever louder & partially because I just finished reading the Hunger Games & everything seems a little more intense these days.  Really though, while I’m thrilled to have my house ready & filled with three wonderful roommates waiting for me in Austin (my room is literally sitting there, all empty & patient) I’ll be even more thrilled when I know I have a steady income & means of staying in said house after my Peace Corps allowance runs out.  And on that note, I’m off to embark on tonight’s application fun 🙂  Hope you’re having a splendid September!