Faith, Hope, and Love Remain

Alei's adventures in Ukraine

Closing Time November 18, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 4:00 am

I’m not going to lie; I’m in no sensible condition to form sentences right now.  I’m currently struggling with a staggering deficit of sleep (a generously estimated 6 hours of the past 72),& a swimming surplus of emotions as I wait out my 4 hour layover in the Frankfurt airport McDonald’s.  I’ll try to beckon the strength to push on through though (with immense help from the “Christmas” flavored macchiato that good old Ronald apparently dreamed up while I’ve been away) because the last few days have been nothing short of amazing & I have a feeling that I’m not about to seek out any spare time at the computer when I get into Chicago today.  That’s right, I said today.  Typos & weird grammar are probably about to happen.

I cannot believe that I am going to be home today.  Not in the normal, excited expression’s context (although excitement is certainly a dominant feeling in the jumbled mix).  More along the lines of ‘my brain is not able to comprehend the fact that my worlds have permanently & irreversibly switched again’.  Or ‘I’m just on another lovely vacation & will be returning refreshed, spoiled, & fattened on frozen yogurt (as always) in a few weeks’.  Or ‘There must be some mistake.  Certainly I can’t be expected to do that ‘living’ thing without having my close Peace Corps friends to vent to every single day’.  Does not compute.  As a measure of how poorly my brain is handling the task, here’s a fun fact about my failure to understand what’s happening around me- I have yet to cry.  At this point I’ve doled out & received heartfelt letters, heard incredibly moving toasts made in my honor, had a tea party of crying children bidding me farewell & have said goodbye to people I love dearly without having the slightest clue of when I’ll see them again, & yet nary a single tear has rolled down my cheek.  I think I might have become a robot.

I’m guessing this readjustment business is a gradual thing & as cathartic as a sobfest can be I am certainly not about to provoke any sadness just to spite that darn stable façade,  so instead I’ll share a little bit about how incredible my last few days in the country were.

I usually teach (or I guess I should say ‘taught’ now.  What?!) each of my groups two consecutive lessons every week, so for my last week we did normal curriculum material for the first half of class, & then the second half was devoted to a writing letters about themselves the first day & then making videos the second.  Probably the most self-indulgent lessons I’ve ever planned, but the results are completely heart melting.  Between their embarrassingly sweet words & adorable English mistakes I know I’m going to cherish the binder that I eventually store their letters & videos in for years to come.  Ukrainians do a bang up job of expressing appreciation when (& often only when) someone is about to leave, & the kids & teachers at my school proved that to me 100% last week.  There were moving moments & creative encouragement left & right that  all wrapped up with a party with the faculty in between classes on Friday & then a surprise tea party put on by Olha & my 7th & 11th grade students after school.  Then another tea & hair braiding soiree at my knitting club, & even an outdoor tea picnic with Olha & Valya’s families on my last day in town.  It was a warm, fuzzy weekend & I was really spoiled rotten by them with their kindness.  Packing, well, sucked as always, but I did do it far in advance this time instead of the night before which was my brilliant plan two years ago.  See, PC changes you.  I cleaned my apartment until it was bleak & empty, had one last tea with my counterpart, & then was driven to the train station for my overnight to Kiev by Olha & her husband, Vitya.  Thank goodness they were kind enough to drive me, because if they hadn’t I honestly think I would still be trying to carry my irritatingly over-stuffed luggage across the tracks.

I managed to lug the bags to the Peace Corps office early the next morning alone (even though the experience convinced me that I maybe should not have kids if I can’t handle even 30 minutes of intense pain without cursing everyone & everything directly related to my baggage &/or accidentally in my path), & then headed to Morozivka for a day & a half with my host family.  That too was amazing as they continue to be nothing but wonderful.  My host Mom hurt her foot, which is obviously unfortunate, but worked out nicely in our case because it meant she didn’t have to go to work, so we were able to have a whole day’s worth of quality bonding time.  We didn’t do anything particularly noteworthy, but it was just perfect to sit around with them talking like normal since we knew our version of normal’s days were quite limited.  I gave them the Shutterfly photo album that I made them for a goodbye gift, & while they admitted that I had a mistake or two in the commentary, they really seemed to love it & cried their way though each page.  The morning goodbye was definitely a little rough, but luckily I had Thomas on the same electrychka to Kiev to keep me company & distract me with his always-exciting adventures.

That was Tuesday morning & it started a solid two days of soaking up hysterical moments with my Peace Corps friends, & finishing everything up in the office.  I think at least 40 people were all leaving on the same day, so the office was packed with excited people all trying to grasp what was happening to us.  It also was a lovely excuse to be ridiculous together & laugh until the wee hours of the morning over inane but hilarious topics per usual.  Mom treated us all to a luxe lunch at a restaurant that we’d been drooling over for two years, & then we finished up the rest of our office paperwork, had a lovely, laid-back dinner with our old & new friends, managed to make the hours until 3am fly by at a local bar & then headed to the airport where all heck broke loose.

My amazing friends sacrificed their slumber & came to the airport with me even though I was the first one to leave (out of our whole group…holler) & together we had a chaotic, frustrating, & perfectly slap happy last few hours.  To end my stay in the country on a culturally fitting foot, the workers at Boryspil decided to remind me of just how much they like to watch hoop jumping by charging me $350 (while sneering sarcastically, of course) for the one bag that I was so proud of managing to fit all of my stuff into (Peace Corps allows us two) which resulted in a mad dash of us trying to find a solution.  At one point Kacey was emptying out her dirty clothes bag to give me another “piece of luggage”, Katelin was offering up her credit card (since the bank of COURSE couldn’t take the American dollars that PC gave us specifically for the occasion, but also couldn’t exchange my hyrivnias since the printer was broken), & Julia was guarding our other bags while I spastically dug through my suitcase on an animated but completely unhelpful verbal tirade against stupid unmarked rules & the glory of customer service.  We may have created a scene, but when I sat on the plane rehashing the event in my non-sleeping brain I couldn’t help but thing of it as a quirky analogy to my cross-cultural experience in general: often confusing & occasionally irritating events made manageable & memorable by my fantastic friends.  We did eventually get it all worked out (I bought a stupid plastic babusia bag to put 15 Kg’s worth of stuff in for a much more manageable $85) & then they went with me as far as they could to the security gate where we irritated everyone around us with a dramatic 2 minute hugging session & then made me laugh my head of despite the security guards barking orders at me to take my shoes off.  Even when I couldn’t see them anymore I could still hear the cries of “Momma (my arbitrary nickname) don’t go!!!” resounding down the corridors of Customs.  It was an absolutely perfect send off.

And now here I sit whipping my head around every two minutes because I’m sure I hear one of their voices.  The entire week, & especially the past few days, was another beautiful illustration of just how lucky I got with the people who shared my PC experience.  I can’t accurately put it into words, but I just felt so completely loved & accepted by them, & was in constant awe of how everything worked out.  My friendships with Ukrainians & Americans alike completely exceeded my expectations & made my entire service worthwhile, & although the goodbyes don’t yet feel real I’m pretty confident that that is going to be the hardest part of readjustment.  Luckily we have access to & plans for regular communication & I have all of you at home to do some serious catching up with.  So basically, despite coming off kind of whiny, I guess what I’m trying to say is that I had the perfect end to an amazing adventure, filled with love & laugher from some of the world’s finest people.  Who could ask for more?  I think I’ll write a wrap-up post of Peace Corps overall in the near future because I can’t quite stomach yet another ending right now, so for the time being let’s just say that I feel extravagantly & unwarrantedly blessed beyond belief & am just about ready for some happy hellos in AMERICA 🙂

Update: I’m home!  It’s amazing.  Everything I’d hoped & more.  Still can’t really grasp it all, but am really looking forward to trying!


One Week November 7, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — aleicook @ 7:09 pm

That’s just about what I’m working with right now.  In less than that amount of time I’ll have left Yampil & with it the smiling faces of students, friends, and colleagues that I have come to love.  In exactly that time I’ll be on an electrychka heading to Morozivka for one last potato-filled visit with my host family.  That’s also the approximate number of days in which I’ll be in Chicago before packing up & reveling in a roadtrip to start my new life in Austin.  While vastly different, each span of seven days will be jam packed with a bittersweet blend of beginnings & ends.  At home I’m almost faint with anticipation about buying my first iphone & car.  My first foray with almond milk & chia seeds.  Hugging my family for the first time as a Returned PCV.  Seeing my new house for the first time.  I’m pretty darn pumped about all of the firsts.

Before I get there though I have to keep plowing through way more lasts than I would like.   Already I’ve checked off my last time washing laundry by hand, visiting Vinnitsia, & riding a bus in Ukraine.  While the last of the laundry had me as victorious & convicted as Scarlett O’Hara (With God as my witness I shall never wash laundry by hand in a bathtub again!), the thought of my last bus ride made me tear up on the walk home yesterday.  I’ve spent countless hours & realistically days on busses & then just like that they’re done.  As much as I’ve whined about some of the daily inconveniences, they’ve become a part of my life & it’s strange to think that they’ll be completely replaced soon.  And if the crappy transport evokes emotions I’m pretty sure my last lessons this week & the first of the farewells will really do a number on my mascara.  I’ve been getting myself ready for the goodbyes by putting together gifts & cards, & have been stricken & surprised to find how similar this sadness feels compared to missing America.  I knew it would be a little sentimental, but was not expecting the same intense & nauseous feelings that I now expertly associate with homesickness.  But such is life, &especially life in Peace Corps, with the resounding lesson as always being that I’m enormously blessed both here & there.  So here we go 🙂

In the meantime I’ve been enjoying stuffing my last month full of wonderful moments.  I’ve been very deliberate about my attempts to document all of the activities & have two main qualms with the resulting photos (seen here).  One is the rogue strand of hair that seems insistent on breaking free from the pack & lying awkwardly & isolated across my forehead in almost every picture.  Definitely not the look I’m going for.  The other is the goofy grin plastered on my face in most shots.  While I’m pretty sure that hating on my huge smile is a valid complaint as the end result has me looking borderline deranged, I am grateful that while not attractive it is authentic & has been provoked so often by my amazing friends.  I guess smiling too big is highly preferable to not at all.  I’m hesitant to dwell too much on the rehashing of events as I have a job to find & an apartment to pack up, but here’s a brief summary of my past few weeks as I certainly don’t want to forget them.

The fun started with a visit from Ashley for a little tour of Yampil & some help at our Halloween party.  It was lovely to have someone to cook & craft with after school, & between the two of us we were able to treat my kids to a festive fete with games & candy aplenty.  They were all really cute, excited, & again all too willing to partake in the silliness.  I think my favorite moment might have been when my explanation of the spooky relay race (with mummies, witches, bats, & so on) backfired & instead of going one team member at a time all twenty of them bolted simultaneously resulting in a mob of twenty giddy ghouls.

They didn’t want to leave despite having gone way over the intended time, but we had to break up the bash in order to catch our bus & train to Ashley’s town for the second annual Spalloween celebration with her sitemate Becky.  I got to see the adorable Ukrainian woman (Totya Anya)that Ashley lives with one last time which is always a pleasure, & then spent the remainder of the weekend chatting, flipping through fashion mags, cooking & eating delicious homemade deep dish pizza & decadent peanut butter bars courtesy of Becky’s thoughtful parents, & singing along to an epic 90’s playlist.

After a few relaxing days I hopped an early morning (&cold!)electrychka to Kiev to visit my host fam for a few days.  They were as adorable & gracious as ever, & we spent a lot of time marveling at how fast the two years have gone & reminiscing on some of our favorite memories while watching CSI Miami which seems to have replaced “Everyone Dance!” as their favorite form of nightly entertainment.  Snijanna was also on Fall Break so I spent a lot of time with her & her little cousin visiting for the week from out East.  The three of us hung out at home & went to Snijanna’s dance club where I was asked to translate rap songs for her teenage friends.  You’re welcome, America.  We also accompanied her to a high school soccer game & while the game was less than riveting, it was fun to see how similar teenage girls are all over the world as I watched her goofing around & gossiping with her friends.

The last day we went to see the factory where my host mom works which I was very thankful for as I’ve gone the past two years without really knowing what she does.  What I was sure of was how hard she works, taking the electrychka every Monday through Saturday morning at 4:30, getting home at 5pm & then spending her evening hours cooking & working on the garden/farm.  It turns out her in-between time is just as strenuous as she works at what looks like a cement factory.  She was really cute & proud to parade us around like it was Take Your Daughter to Work Day, & relatively speaking it is considered a well-paid & stable job, but seeing firsthand how hard she works & how little by our standards she gets for it ($500/month) was pretty brutal.  That being said, she never complains & is genuinely thankful that she has work to go to as it’s definitely not a given for many, & they manage to make the meager salary meet all of their needs comfortably.  Pretty impressive stuff.

Later that evening Ashley & I set out on another adventure, this time to Kharkiv for a Halloween party with other volunteers.  We’d never been East of Kiev & had heard reports of all things grim, gray, & industrial.  While aesthetically the city pretty much fit the bill, in all other aspects our expectations were exceeded by far.  We spent Friday wandering around through many cute little neighborhoods smitten with Kharkiv’s charm & charming inhabitants.  The West usually gets hyped up for its friendliness, but really everyone we dealt with was nothing but helpful & we had a wonderful day walking around.

The next day everyone else got in & we spent the morning putting the finishing touches on our costumes: completely hand-crocheted & patriotic basketball uniforms made by Katelin.  The idea was sparked by the basketball tournament that was supposed to be held in conjunction with the party in which we, the Dream Team, would make up for what we lacked in competitive drive or athletic ability with sweet outfits & ridiculous plays.  Unfortunately we found out the day of that no one had managed to find a court ahead of time so the contest was cancelled, but the costumes were put to good use nonetheless.  Before the party we got our sport quota filled with a trip to the nearby stadium for a professional soccer game.  I forgot just how fun live sporting events are & was surprised by how much I loved being there & seeing the fans’ excitement.  It was a really cool thing to experience & a part of their culture that I hadn’t yet seen.  Afterwards we escaped the cold & spent the remainder of the night dancing like idiots as always & hanging out with other volunteers at the Halloween party.

After spending another day roaming the city until our overnight trains I got into Kiev early Monday morning for my exit interview, which was the last of the Peace Corps appointments I had scheduled necessary for pre-departure.  Another example of the blessed little I have standing in between me & America at this point.  The talk with our country director went well & was basically just a summary of what I’ve accomplished here & so on.  Then it was back on a train for Yampil & a week of teaching & packing.  I was treated to a nice dinner & gift exchange at Valya’s house with Olha & both of their families on Friday night & then bussed one last time into Vinnitsia for a final outing with volunteers in my oblast (like a state).  We rented an apartment & enjoyed delicious Georgian food, more ridiculous dancing, & of course, one more trip through the McDonald’s drive-thru on foot.  I’m slightly embarrassed to say that between Vinnitsia & travels through Europe with Ashley I’ve walked through more drive-thrus than I care to count, but in my humble opinion the hilarity of it all never does diminish.  That’s a last that I think might be for the best.  At the very least we all solemnly promised that if we’re to stroll through a drive-thru window at home it had better be a Taco Bell.

Now it’s just one last week of teaching my little darlings & sharing sappy wishes.  I’ve already been given a fuzzy stuffed animal, an otherwise beautiful scarf with what I think are little pelts of rabbit fur on the end, & a bunch of cards including one with stick figures whose speech bubbles proclaim “I grieve!”.  Here’s hoping for a very worthwhile week 🙂