Faith, Hope, and Love Remain

Alei's adventures in Ukraine

A Big, Fat, Ukrainian Wedding October 17, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 10:47 pm

At exactly this time next month I’ll be throwing mad bows & skipping off the plane before collapsing on the shiny linoleum of O’Hare in search of the optimal angle for kissing the floor.  Isn’t that a pretty picture?  Dignity & sheer delight don’t often coexist in my world, & something tells me I’ll be embracing the latter.  But then I’ll get to embrace all of you, so I’m calling it worth it 🙂 That’s not to say that I’m over this whole Ukraine thing though.  I’m still having regular freak outs about saying “пока” for good & if you think I’m about to bail on my grand tradition of being a hot sobbing mess at the airport, you’re wrong.  On my best of days that kind of scenario would have me way less than stable (despite my superlative.  Ha, that still makes me laugh.), so I imagine all heck is prone to break loose considering I’ll be making the journey bez sleep.  My friends are all coming to Kiev to say farewell & my flight is at 5am which means I have to be there at 3am which means…we’re not sleeping.  Good life choices abound.  I think it’s for the best, but I’m assuming the poor soul assigned the seat next to me on the plane will think otherwise.  I should probably just wear a sign on the front of my coat explaining the sitch so he/she won’t have to try to decipher the story through my laugh-sobs.  Thank goodness I’m a planner.

In the meantime, I’ve been enjoying yet another unforgettable week in Yampil.  School was good, but not extremely newsworthy.  The kids are as cute as ever, but I’ll try to avoid gushing about them to fill your time with a new cultural phenomenon I got to experience on Saturday: a Ukrainian wedding.

I love weddings.  The detail, the themes, the color coordination.  The sap, the sentimental toasts, the display of relatives & friends breaking it down on the dance floor.  Really even the stupid bridal movies and TV shows are completely my cup of tea, so I was thrilled to have the chance to see such an important Ukrainian event firsthand.  The newlyweds were two young teachers from my school, Yura (P.E.) & Ira (English) who met last year & are extremely cute together.  The Ukrainian wedding really stretches out over a weekend, but most guests (including us) just attend the reception portion.  I guess the bridal party spends the earlier parts of Saturday riding around in a pimped out car (& by that I mean much more 7–year-old-with-glitter-crepe-paper-and-a-glue-gun than anything Vin Diesel would be involved in) & stopping at the Town Hall to sign the official marriage license, & then to all sorts of local landmarks & monuments for extensive photo sessions.  Then they make their way to a café which is where we all came in.

We showed up around 5pm & were led inside the restaurant then ushered into a line where we waited to meet the beautiful new couple and give them our best wishes and bouquets of flowers.  There were about a hundred people in attendance so this was no speedy process, but we mingled with the other teachers and took in all the sights.  And sights there were aplenty.  The groom wore a pretty standard tux & the bride looked like a princess in a lacy mermaid dress.  From what I’ve seen here in store windows many gowns take “over-the-top” to a whole new level & can include mesh, rhinestones, feathers, pleather & hoopskirts (all on the same dress, mind you) so I was prepared to lie through my teeth, but Ira honestly looked completely elegant and understated.

The room was equally all dolled up with balloons hanging from the ceiling & a horseshoe arrangement of long wooden tables that reminded me of a medieval feast setting.  The connecter part of the horseshoe was the head table where the newlyweds sat with their bridal party that pretty much just included a Best Man & Maid of Honor equivalent (who didn’t have to wear coordinated outfits but did sport red sashes) & a few of their friends.  By 6:00 we were all seated & ready to start the fun.  The evening kicked off with an announcement by a lady who served as the evening’s emcee.  I’m not sure if she was a family friend or an employee of the café, but she narrated the entire event & was in charge of the microphone, directing who would make speeches when.  She also led us in a spectacle or two which I will certainly detail soon.  The other key attendees were the members of the Ukrainian folk band who played traditional music in (somewhat) traditional ensembles- Ukrainian embroidery pattern plus sequins.  Intrigue indeed.

As for the main events, I want to start out by saying that between the very loud enthusiastic music & my desire not to interrupt the cultural moments as they happened I don’t know exactly why everything happened.  I do know that it was a lot of fun though & everyone seemed to enjoy the customs whether they understood them or not.  The evening pretty much revolved around snacking on the elaborate & constantly replenished spread of food covering every square inch of the table, fake-sipping on shots of cognac (I think I’ve perfected this art & managed to make two little shot glasses worth last over at least 20 toasts), & doing whatever the Master of Ceremonies told us to.  It was kind of reminiscent of a dinner theater remittent with audience interaction.  But in Ukrainian.

Her first order of business was to appoint the Party Police.  I’m not sure how these people were chosen, but they were called up to the center of the floor, pinned with traditional embroidered table runners, & then made to dance around to a festive little jig.  I know I’ve mentioned this at length before, but oh my goodness the dancing.  The older generations favor a…mode of expression?…far different from the typical teenage disco fare, but I came to the realization that night that both styles can be characterized by the same fundamental root: years & years of white people struggling to find the rhythm.  I don’t say this with judgment as I am both very white & very appreciative of any dance style that does not accentuate my general lankiness and lack of coordination.  And let me just tell you, I lucked out.  Everyone is free to dance because no one looks good doing it.  It’s weirdly liberating actually.  You don’t have to worry about looking goofy because you already know that without a doubt you do, but so does everybody else.  So what point is there in sitting down? You mostly just stand in a circle & shuffle your feet in two inch increments basically dancing your way around an endless rotation on the dancefloor.  Some people’s footwork is a little fancier than others & the really bold ones get their hands involved, but for the most part you just circle round & round watching the laughing faces across from you like luggage on a carousel.  Then if a particularly catchy song comes on everyone joins hands & starts an accelerated version complete with high pitched “ay-yi-yi”ing noises & other savage but celebratory non-speech exclamations.  Just think Borat.  It’s honestly a blast & usually goes on for hours.  I’m pretty sure it counts as an aerobic exercise which is always welcome in my book since it usually accompanies force feeding.

Which I guess brings me back to the Party Police.  So they are all stationed at different strategic locations around the room & sporadically patrol the aisles commanding people to drink.  Illustrating yet another cultural commonality that drove me crazy two years ago & now barely phases me.  Folks like to boss.  I’ve realized that our culture is very hyper-aware of not making anyone uncomfortable or offending while here they pretty much just tell you what they want.  They tell you to eat more because food is love.  They tell you to move to a different chair because it will be more fun for you.  At home any resistance would probably be respected & chalked up to shyness.  Here, you’re just not hearing them right & the only acceptable answer is to do what they say or the shouting will continue.  But it honestly all comes from same place.  Whether respecting the fact that dancing in the middle of everyone might make you uncomfortable or dragging you by the arm onto the dance floor, both are motivated by the same desire to see you happy.  The Party Police are a prime example of this.  Could being shouted at to drink more every ten minutes be called overbearing?  Probably.  Did we all end up having more fun because of it?  Absolutely.

I’m to the point now where I realize I’m full-on babbling , so I’ll try to use some bullet points to keep me on track in describing the rest of the traditions.

  • The parents toast the new couple & then take their two separate candles & light the new couple’s one candle symbolizing the joining of families.
  • Everyone else toasts the couple.  Yes, including me.  I am pretty sure that prior to this no one has been understanding a word of my Ukrainian because they were all so blown away that I was able to string two sentences together into a microphone.
  • After most toasts everyone yells “Horka” which means “bitter” & has the same effect as clinking a glass in America, making the couple kiss.  No one I asked knew why they say bitter, but think it has something to do with wishing that this wonderful day is as bitter as their marriage gets.
  • The couple has a first dance inside a circle of rose petals & tea lights.  Interestingly enough the chosen song was “Once Upon a December” from the cartoon about the Russian princess Anastasia.  In English.
  • The Best Man has to drink a shot out of the bride’s shoe.
  • The Best Man & Maid of Honor have a semi-choreographed dance-off.
  • The Best Man & Maid of Honor walk around with pairs of satin baby pants, one pink & one blue, & people put money into the one that corresponds with what they hope their first kid will be.  The boy won.
  • There’s an auction for a bottle of champagne that the winner is supposed to drink one year after the wedding.
  • Everyone writes wishes or advice for the couple on little paper hearts that are collected on a silver platter.
  • The bride & groom are presented with a set of bedding from their parents.
  • The bride sits on the groom’s lap & covers her eyes while the Maid of Honor taps a spoon on a plate that’s hovering over her head & tries to block the Best Man whose goal is to slip a piece of lace over her head.

And finally, the bouquet catch equivalent.  A by-product of the pushiness here is that once 11:00 rolled around people just started disappearing.  They couldn’t announce their departure because then they’d get bullied back into sitting down, so they really would just seem to vanish.  We were on our third attempt to make a break for it when my counterpart Oksana asked me if I wanted to dance with a hat on my head.  Really, that was the question in its entirety.  I mean…do you?  I was pretty much danced out & try to keep my accessorized dancing to Cinco de Mayo, so I politely declined & committed to ignoring the grasping hands & pleas to stay in favor of moving it to the exit with Olha & Oksana, my colleagues & neighbors that I was going home with.

Once out the door Olha explained that the hat thing alluded to was a unique cultural tradition that I really should take a picture of.  One month left.  OK, fine.  We headed back in & before I knew it Olha had taken off my coat & guided me into the center of the circle.  Well shoot.  The numbers had dwindled but there was still a group of about 50 plus the cameraman watching the confused American be led onto a gigantic pillow in the middle of the room where in a matter of moments Ira’s veil was placed on my head & then the Best Man grabbed my hands & proceeded to twirl me around the floor before I could even work up an objection.  Struggling to make sense of it all fell on the backburner as I was mostly focused on trying not to trip or drop the veil that was sliding precariously down my face due to our speedy little waltz.  After a few moments he pushed my back really hard propelling me towards the floor, but I fought it while laughing my head off, emerged looking completely disheveled to cheers of joy, was given my coat, & then sent on my merry way.  On the walk to our ride home I came to figure out that the whole shenanigan was a traditional effort to get my ancient 24-year-old butt wed & everyone’s applause & excitement made a lot more sense.  The back thing was because apparently the girl is supposed to bow at the end but I was clueless & just fighting for balance. 

And that was my first & only Ukrainian wedding experience.  I guess they also had a small ceremony at church on Sunday & a family dinner afterwards, but only the close bridal party went to those parts.  I have more pictures on Facebook here, but overall it was a really sweet & special night, made memorable by all of my colleagues & friends from town who seemed so happy to have me there & went out of their way to make me feel welcome.

Just one more week of school before our Fall Break 🙂  I’m pretty stoked about that mostly because it is freezing in school & I lose all motivation for things that don’t include being wrapped up in a blanket.  I actually found myself being  thankful for my baby-thin hair for the first time ever today because if God didn’t make my unwashed hair so prone to grease then I legitimately would probably never shower.  Mysterious ways, that One.  I’m throwing another Halloween party on Friday with the kiddos then making a break for my last travel spree with stops in Derajhnia for Spalloween part deux, Morozivka for a stay with the host fam, & then out East for a Halloween party with volunteers from all over the country.  Happy October to one & all, & see you in a month!

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Bring on the Bucket List October 11, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 4:51 pm

I feel like every single entry as of late starts with me marveling over how little time I have left, so I’ll try to spare you all of the  “whoa” & “I just can’t believe it”s today as a special treat.  Rest assure I’m feeling them though, especially when clarity sneaks up on me like it did this morning after discovering that I only have 3 more lessons with my American Literature class left.  Ever.  They only meet once a week, & given our Fall Break coming up at the end of October I’m down to single digit lessons with almost every class.  Remember getting the wind knocked out of you after falling off the monkey bars (please tell me I was not the only uncoordinated eight year old)?  It feels kind of like that.  Only weirder, because the shock & sadness is tempered with downright giddiness at the thought of finally being home.  I am a complicated lady as of late.

Handwriting twins

I’m trying to enjoy the emotional rollercoaster with both hands in the air by just appreciating the heck out of my students while I still can.  They make it pretty easy, too.  For instance my adorable 7th graders who should be way too cool for school at this point spent an entire lesson last week talking into a flashlight  as if it were a microphone just to appease their crazy English teacher.  The funniest part about it is that my original intent was for them to shine the light on who they wanted to answer the homework question & then pass it on, but understanding complicated directions isn’t something they’re used to & they were just so eager to please that I ended up stifling a laugh & going with it.  Now that I type that out I guess the flashlight seems like a bizarre prop in either activity, but my point is that they will happily play along with almost anything I throw out & I love them for it.  Those of you used to deciphering my weird handwriting may also understand how proud (& a tad vain) I felt when after complimenting one of my tenth graders on her very uncharacteristic writing style (they almost exclusively rock cursive around here) she blushed & said that she had been practicing copying mine.  I think I’ve found my legacy.

The teachers have been pretty great too.  At the beginning of the month I celebrated my last Teacher’s Day with an invite to a party in the woods one day after school.  As yet another illustration of how planning works here we heard about the get together at approximately 12 & were expected to board the little schoolbus  at 2.  Thank goodness we did though, because it brought us to an old Soviet campground where we were treated to an outdoor picnic & reveling  well into the night.  One of the hardest parts of life here for me has been feeling out of place so often (which, duh Alei, seems like a pretty obvious side effect of living abroad), so words can hardly express how nice it was to feel included by my colleagues that evening.  I was sandwiched between teachers who had their arms maternally around my waist most of the night & was singled out in a toast proclaiming me ‘the best volunteer they’ve had’ and a ‘true Ukrainian girl’.  I was also able to share the love via my own toast in Ukrainian that they seemed to like despite my truly atrocious grammar.  Then the next morning we celebrated at school with armfuls of flowers from students, my last school assembly, & a LOT of picture taking & tea drinking with my 11th graders, Olha, & Valya (teachers) while we waited for the town concert at 12.  Here again my words fail me when it comes to describing the warmth & contentedness I got from being considered a part of their little group.  Inappropriately giggling during the concert was obviously nothing new for me, but laughing with them while sharing a bag of “fitness” cookies, trying & failing to figure out which language was being sung & worrying that our ears were bleeding from the ridiculously overachieving speaker system was a nice change.  It was just a comforting, cozy exchange overall & a perfect way to celebrate my last big holiday in Yampil.

Now as for the title, I put together my Bucket List back in August & have been systematically going down the line & relishing the pure joy of checking things off.  Man, do I love lists.  One goal accomplished thanks to my wonderful students was printing a full edition of our new school newspaper, The European Generation.  They’d been compiling articles & focusing on the really important things (like thirty minutes spent designing nametags) during preceding few club meetings, but managed to put it all together & send it to the presses (a.k.a. our printer) in time for Teacher’s Day.  I felt like a proud mama & wished I had room on my fridge to prominently display it despite the fairly embarrassing thank you letter & picture of me they put on the first page.  Really though, seeing their sense of accomplishment and professionalism (including making sales charts) melted my little heart  & made all of the effort completely worthwhile.  Something tells me that issue is making the cut into my suitcase even though I doubt I’ll be able to comprehend a word of the Ukrainian by this time next year.

Next on the list was the world map project that I had helped out with at Katelin’s site earlier this year.  After seeing the pictures my school wanted one of their own & thanks to help from my friends (Kacey & Katelin) & our projector we were able to conquer the world in just one weekend.  For longevity’s sake my principal preferred an inside mural which worked quite nicely since we could just shine the image onto the wall instead of mapping out a grid & attempting to freehand.  It was a lot of fun as well as a good excuse to play hostess for the weekend.  I got to see them & quite a few other PCVs in the area again last weekend when we all met up to do a project in Vinnistia.  Human trafficking is a big & frankly terrifying issue here, so we put on a seminar about the risks involved with working abroad.  Luckily there’s a program called 527 which serves as a free hotline that people can call to verify that their work opportunity is legit.  We made sure to include it in the presentation & then took to the streets sharing the good news with unsuspecting Vinnistians via posters & brochures.  It was a cool if not unconventional project & allowed us to feel like we’d earned the sushi dinner & sleepover that followed at Kacey’s.  Then this weekend I’ll get to check another exciting item off the list: a Ukrainian wedding 🙂  One of our English teachers is marrying our P.E. teacher & I couldn’t be happier for them or selfishly the chance to see such an important part of the culture.  I may not even be all that awkward since other teachers are going thus providing me with pleasant people to sit with.  Oh yeah, & did I mention I’m coming home in less than 40 days?  Life is good.

I’ve been putting all of my ‘end of the line’ pictures into a facebook album seen here & will try to update it relatively often as the list continues to shrink.  Hopefully one shot will include me giving two big thumbs up for getting a job one day.  Hopefully.    I can’t wait to see you all & hope you’re loving the unseasonably warm October…I say while wearing long underwear & gloves inside.  But I swear I’m not pouting.  Luckily 38 days leaves no time to pout 🙂