So much has gone on the past two weeks, I am not sure where to start…

Playing on the streets of Kyinka

One of the best (and worst) things about serving in the country with the most peace corps volunteers in the world is its organization. The past two months of training have been an endless string of activity. Every minute of every day must be planned. If we have free time, it probably means we are behind in Russian or procrastinating from writing a lesson plan. Relaxation has become an unattainable ideal. Even when we come home from the day’s lessons, our brains must be in high gear – Before bed we must chat politely with our host families in broken Russian, do our chores around the house, eat 10 pounds of potatoes covered in mayonaise, complete our Russian homework and plan the next English lesson for tutoring. Whew..

Despite this chaos, I feel extremely blessed to be serving in such an fascinating country, learning a great language, living with an loving host family and going through it all with such wonderful cluster mates.

Teaching the 3rd graders in Kyinka about Bikes, Robots, Drums, Cars and Planes!

Another great aspect of Peace Corps Ukraine’s organization is its support of volunteers networking amongst themselves. Last monday my training group gathered in Chernihiv for a two day retreat called Pre-Service Training University. This is only the second time PC has sponsored such a retreat in Ukraine, so I feel very lucky to be part of such a productive group. At PST University the PC staff reviewed some of the more dull bureaucratic policies and procedures that will be expected of us during service, summarized (for the 10th time) basic safety and security issues in Ukraine and gave us our seasonal flu shot. The staff also discussed with us what outcomes to (realistically) expect from our service…

The cutest, smartest 3rd grader I know. Another great shot by Sarah.

At the close of service, many volunteers in Ukraine struggle with their inability to understand the impact of their work. In contrast to the many under developed countries the Peace Corps serves, Ukraine is considered a transitional country and far from needing help with basic physical and educational needs. This means it is not as obvious for volunteers to find where or how to help and our work produces a much more nuanced process of development. Therefore, our job as volunteers much be focused on furthering development through building relationships that can continue our work when we are gone, not introducing development through drastic physical or educational change. However, this type of work produces a very long term impact that is not immediately visible for volunteers…sometimes not for the entire two year service.

PST University also gave us trainees the opportunity to talk with four current volunteers and baraide them with questions about their service. They lead us in workshops such as: how to adapt a Ukrainian textbook, classroom management, how to teach multiple ability levels with one lesson plan, etc. Receiving this information from the perspective of current volunteers was invaluable. Networking with other clusters was also exciting, since we are usually confined to the company of only our four other cluster mates.

Kyinka's PC couple: Sarah and Larry

The most exciting news from PST University was an engagement announcement! I know peace corps has an insanely high marriage rate, but I never expected two volunteers to get engaged within the first two months! The PC staff was much less surprised than me and is even willing to place the couple together for service since they plan on getting married this summer. Out of the 37 volunteers who attended PST University, there are now 5 new couples…

My host sister Natasha on her Birthday, her best friend Natasha and I

This was the weekend of Birthdays. Friday, my host sister turned 15 (although she looks and acts more like 18). Natasha was beaming with excitement the whole week and when the day actually came for her party, she literally squealed with joy. The family invited more than 30 people to their sauna for a party. There was an endless flow of food and alcohol all night. I stuffed myself to the brim and washed it down with way more vodka than I have ever drank in the states. Just when I thought the last course was on the table, another one appeared that I had to try, and just when I thought everybody had given Natasha a birthday toast, another person would appear. I think my host father drank a full fifth of vodka himself. The gluttony was only paused when the lights were turned off and all the guests got up to dance. At first I was too shy to dance, but when the priest asked me, I couldn’t say no. However, he proceed to dance around the sauna like Michael Jackson and out danced everybody at the party…Go figure.

First course of the night! Notice the vodka glasses at each setting of a 15 year old's birthday party...

The dancing was followed by a few hours of karaoke, which I have discovered to be a great way to work on my Russian pronunciation! Eventually, Natasha, her friends, and I ended up at the Kyinka club (which converts to a produce store during the day)…bad idea. The girls had a blast but for me it was unbelievable awkward. I saw at least five of my 10th and 8th grade students there. One boy, who I gave a bad grade to earlier that day, came up to me and shook his head in frustration. I shrugged my sholders and told him he was disruptive in class. – This situation is exactly why Peace Corps advises us to not go to the clubs in our little villages.  🙂

Creepy walkways under the streets of Chernihiv...

Saturday was Sarah’s 25th birthday. My cluster splurged and went out to nice restaurant for dinner and drinks. I had salmon pancakes, borshch and bread with a whipped pig fat & garlic sause…Mmmm. After dinner we decided to go to the club. After many detours, we never made it, but we did come upon an bar where we met a bunch of Ukrainian people our own age! That was so exciting that we spend the rest of the night speaking Rus-glish with them.

Yesterday, we had our site placement interview. This interview is designed to gather trainees’ opinions on their permanent site. I was extremely nervous going into the interview because it is essentially our only opportunity to influence our site placement. However, even if we present our preferences, they are by no means what we will get and we have to have good reasoning behind each preference or else they are not even considered. For example, I would really like to live in the southern part of Ukraine. This is the most beautiful part of Ukraine and where most natives vacation, but it is also the most diverse religiously and where they speak the most pure Russian. It therefore would be an ideal placement to achieve my goal of becoming an advance speaker of Russian as well as working with interfaith education as a secondary project.  – We will see if this was enough reasoning – I also emphasized in my interview that I would like to live close to other volunteers, teach grammar and work with journalism or English literature as a secondary project.

My host family's winter store of vegetables - delicious!

In three weeks we swear in as official Peace Corps Volunteers!! Training has gone by so quickly and I still can’t get over the fact that I am living in Ukraine, half way across the world from my friends and family. How did this happen?

Right now my biggest anxieties for service are:

    • Loneliness: I know loneliness is a fact of service, but how can I make friends in a different language? Will I have any friends the next two years?
    • Depression: Service is a mental rollar coaster ride. How low will I sink into the inevitable first four month depression of service?
    • Being an English Teacher: Are my teaching abilities adequate? What if I am a awful teacher?
    • Site placement: Where will I be placed for the next two years of my life? What if I hate it?
    • Winter:  If I am in a village, will there be hot water during the winter?
    • Purpose: Will I be a productive volunteer and positively influence my site? Can I leave it better than when I arrived?
However, I am most excited about:
    • Personal free time: I plan to read lots and lots of books, learn Portugese (when I need a break from Russian) and practice the guitar. Since entering grade school, I don’t think I’ve ever really had time in my life to pursue a hobby…this is the time.  Maybe i’ll even learn to knit!
    • Integrating into my host community: I don’t want to be the Volunteer who swoops into a community for two years only to come out when on duty. I want to  understand the Ukrainian lifestyle, make real Ukrainian friends and enjoy teaching English because I believe it’s opening doors for my students.
    • Speaking Russian: I’ve been given an opportunity to learn one of the most widely spoken language in the world and I plan to master it. 🙂