…I am still not quite sure.
…I am still not quite sure.
Last Tuesday morning, I said goodbye to the amazing Ukrainian family that has taken me in as their adopted child. Last Tuesday afternoon, I met my counterpart Lesia who I will be working side by side with for the next two years. Last Tuesday night, I spent my last night with two girls that I haven’t been apart from for more than 10 hours for the past three months. My emotions were numb, but now I am officially a TEFL Peace Corps Volunteer!!
The swearing in conference was held in a little town outside of Kyiv. For the first time since landing in Ukraine, all 96 volunteers from my training group were together. (We will not be together again until the close of our service in December 2013). We spent our time reviewing how to be a ‘good volunteer’, how to integrate HIV/AIDS education into our community, and listening to inspirational speeches form returned volunteers, non-profit organizations in Ukraine and our country director Doug Teschner.
After our oath, there was a flurry of activity and before I knew it, Lauren and Sarah were gone on their way. I held back my tears…unsuccessfully. After many other goodbyes, I left for Romny with Lesia, Garrett (another volunteer who will serve in a village outside of Romny) and his counterpart Oxsana.
I’ve jumped head first into my new life in Romny. My first weekend was spent with my counterpart Lesia. We walked around town looking at various points of interest, arranged a P.O. Box, met with the local militia and looked at a potential apartment for me. For the past few days I have stayed with the vice-principal of my school as the administration looks for a suitable place for me to live that is within budget. However, since apartments are very hard to find at this time of year, my stay with the VP has evolved from 1 night to a one week stay until my apartment opens up on the 24th…Yes, Christmas Eve. However, Christmas is celebrated on January 7th in Ukraine, so I won’t miss out on any holidays. I actually get to celebrate twice for the next two years.
Romny is a small city – Big enough to have shops for every need and their own hospital, but small enough that you can run into many people you know on the streets. Before the USSR fell, the town centered around a brick factory. Now, the only memory of this time is its huge building, standing empty and deserted. The city is built on a hill and and named after the daffodils that once bloomed there. Now, the town boasts of its beautiful statue of Taras Shevshenko, a poet who was popular for writing in the Ukrianian language. His work supported the creation of a Ukrainian national identity and independent country.
My first day on the job at school I met the governor of Sumy Oblast. He visited my school to officially open the new primary school building (Grades 1-4). The city of Romny has been building this school for over 20 years. Many current teachers were students when the building commenced, so it is truly an exciting time. The new building is absolutely beautiful! Each room has new desks, bookshelves, chalk boards, white boards and a projector! The best part is that it is attached to the secondary school building (Grades 5-11) so teachers don’t have to run down the street between classes and the students don’t have to leave the building for lunch everyday. There will be an official opening ceremony December 27th to christen the building.
This week I am a combination of a celebrity, teacher and observer in our school. Each class I am blown away by the students’ ability in English. I am able to talk at a very comfortable pace with students as young as the 6th grade! They are already able to read long paragraphs, pronouncing the majority of the words with little difficulty. The secondary school building is beautiful as well. From the inside it reminds me of a New England boarding school with large wooden doors and class room bells that announce the hourly stampede of students. The walls are filled with local Romny artwork and panels detailing the History of Romny.
Other things of note: I met my first Ukrainian Vegetarian! I also met my site mate, John. Thankfully he is sane, friendly and down-to-earth and believe it or not, from Pennsylvania as well. I am afraid that the citizens of Romny will think all Americans live in Pennsylvania.
Romny is a small city with a population of about 50,000 that was founded in 902 AD – its is over 1,100 years old!! I will be working in a specialized school of 800 kids and teaching the four oldest grades (8-11). This means my kids will have a higher level of English than the average Ukrainian. I might even be able to start an extra course on English literature or Country Studies. Romny is also only three hours away from Kyinka, where I have lived for the past three months of training, which means I can go back and visit my host family on a regular basis. I am also thrilled that my BFFs Lauren and Sarah were placed only four hours south in a city to which I have a direct train route.
Tomorrow I leave Kyinka and travel to the capital to swear in as an official peace corps volunteer! I can’t believe the past three months have flown by so fast. We have just started to feel at home, build relationships, and learn the area and now we have to get up and do it all over again.
I am very sad to leave my host family. They have been amazing and taken great care of me. I truly feel that I have a second family here in Ukraine and if I ever get into trouble they will be there to help me on a moments notice. This past Saturday, my cluster rented out my family’s sauna/bar and threw a party for all our families. It was the perfect way to say goodbye and thank you for opening their homes to us for the past three months. I can’t wait to come back and visit. I am also very sad to leave my cluster mates. Through all our ups and downs they have been a great group of people and I know we have made friends for life.
Three weeks ago the zipper of my boots busted. I was very upset this happened so soon into my service, mainly because I knew I didn’t have the Russian vocabulary to find a repair shop and get them fixed. However, long story short, I figured it out and have since been back to the shop to help my friends fix their shoes. I’ve even made friends with the repair man who is very patient and helpful with our Russian and has helped us find many other things we needed about the city. He was also very excited that we were peace corps volunteers and told us how much he appreciated having a volunteer in his Villiage a few years back.
Now, I am very grateful I had this experience because I have a bigger and more difficult challenge awaiting me….how to fix my MacBook. Its a simple problem, the backlight of the monitor burnt out, but I am not sure where to start looking for a repair store. In the states I would simply drive to the Mac store and send it away for a week, but Macs are as unpopular in Ukraine as high heels on dirt roads are in America. There is only one store in the capital of Ukraine that sells Mac products, but since it is not a legitimate apple store there is no help bar. I guess I will have to hope I can find a PC repair man who can repair it before I move to my site next week. My host brother made a few calls this morning and seems to know somebody who knows somebody (typical manner of solving problems in Ukraine) that we can go visit later today, so I will see how that goes…
Until I overcome this next adventure, I might be slightly MIA, but you can always Skype my cell phone at (country code 38) 0932824281.
Other exciting things in my life right now:
I find out my permanent site in only five days!! And Breno turns 28 that same day! This Thursday I have a language proficiency exam and will find out how much Russian I’ve actually learned.
When my family gets together for Thanksgiving, my Aunt Jill always makes us go around the table and say what we are most thankful for this year. I love the tradition, so here I go:
I am thankful for my wonderful family whose eclectic personalities never cease to entertain me or prove how lucky I am to have them in my life. I am thankful for my amazing boyfriend who has the biggest heart in the world and a personality to match. I am thankful for my friends who are truly beautiful both inside and out. I am thankful to be living in a country whose people have welcomed me with arms wide open and have already taught me so much about the simple joys of living.
This Thursday marked my first big holiday away from home. My cluster mates and I decided to celebrate on a day late and go into the big city on Thursday to get internet to skype our families. We were all able to talk, some of us for the first time since leaving the states almost three months ago.
On Friday we ended Russian language class a few hours early and started cooking our feast! The gang managed to make some delicious baked vegetables, fried chicken, non-cabbage or mayonnaise based salad, sweet varenyky and even apple pie with ice cream! (Mom, you will be very proud that I also successfully made Chocolate Chip Banana Bread!) I am very proud of what we managed to scrape together seeing that we only had one knife, an oven that smoked profusely, and a whole thanksgiving meal that cost the equivalent of $27.
Last week also marked our last English lessons in the Kyinka school since our training will be over in just two short weeks. We each taught a demo lesson by ourselves that was observed by a technical specialist sent from the Kiev office. We were all very nervous for the demo not only because we had an observer, but also because it was the first lesson we taught solo. I taught my tenth grade students how to write a professional letter. Only five kids showed up for my class (because there was an intramural soccer game going on outside), but they were very well behaved and throughly enjoyed how I framed the shape of a letter to be the same as a cheeseburger. I have a feeling that they might actually remember what I taught them 🙂 At the end of the classes, the students gave us a thank you card and a big box of chocolates. Next week we are hosting an English week at the school: On Tuesday the kids will be able to watch episodes of Planet Earth with us after school. On Wednesday we are hosting a workshop for all the teachers in the Kyinka school on how to use a digital projector in a classroom as well as presenting the English teachers with a booklet of tongue twisters we made for them per request. On Thursday we are hosting a game night in the school gymnasium where the kids can play any games they like as long as the commands and calls are in English.
So much has gone on the past two weeks, I am not sure where to start…
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.
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…
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.
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…
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.
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. 🙂
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.
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:
What a great past two weeks!! We haven’t had a moment to breathe, but every day has been wonderful. Pre-service training is more than half way over and it is just starting to hit me that I will be on my own soon.
Halloween weekend passed without hesitation. None of our students or school counterparts wanted to celebrate so my cluster got a bunch of candy from the shop and watched ‘A Nightmare before Christmas.’ I missed carving a pumpkin the most.
I’ve taught nine English lessons so far and completed seven weeks of Russian language class. I love studying Russian, but I feel like I’ve hit the mid-training plateau. This might be a result of the new language teacher we’ve had for the past three weeks or our busy schedule, or simple laziness. I don’t know, but I am sure even during my least productive days I am still retaining more than I ever did when studying Spanish or Arabic in the US.
My host family is still awesome. I am pretty sure I got the best one in the village! – although I am sure my cluster mates would claim they got the best too. There has been only two instances when I felt uncomfortable. The first time was when I couldn’t eat their fish head soup for breakfast… The second time was after my host father came home with a bunch of new clothes and they started to ask me questions about how much clothes cost in the US. I told them I spend about $100 on a pair of jeans which converts to 800 Hirivnas (the equivalent of my monthly peace corps pay check). They were amazed and didn’t believe me – He bought his jeans for 100 Hirivnas.
Last Sunday, Lauren and I splurged and visited the capital city of Kiev. It was beautiful! We spent most of our day wandering around the Pechersk Lavra, also know as the Kiev Monastery of the Caves. The Lavra is considered the heart of Eastern Orthodoxy in Ukraine and pilgrims come from all over Eastern Europe to pray amidst its many icons and relics. Beneath the monastery there is an elaborate system of caves where the early monks used to pray and live. Now there are over 100 monks buried within its walls, many laid in glass sarcophaguses along the narrow walkways of the caves.
I also had my first tast of Black Caviar!! Mmmmmmm! A small jar only cost $30 but 250 Hirivnas is about a quarter of my monthly paycheck and way to much to spend on something I’d devour in 10 minutes.
Last weekend my parents slaughtered a pig at Sarah’s house. It took them three days to cut up the meat. Sarah’s family even bought a new, full size freezer to store the meat. For the past week, I’ve been eating nothing but some assortment of pig meat and guts. I wasn’t able to stomach the baked intenstine stuffed with with blood and organs, but the rest was quite tasty.
Sarah was able to capture these shots of my host Mom and Dad during the process. They depict each of them very well – Tatiana will eat anything and everything and has a stomach of a rock. And Yuri, a builder by profession, has some crazy strange skills.
Last week was our first week of teaching!! Surprisingly, we managed to get by without any major debacles despite our whole cluster (except me) battling a case of the flu.
So far, our cluster partner teachers five classes a week: 5th grade twice a week, 6th grade, 8th grade and 10th grade. I am amazed by how much the students’ English ability and maturity level drastically changes from the 5th grade to 10th grade. Lauren and Larry essentially have to entertain the 5th graders and do everything they can to teach them English with managing their endless energy. Whereas, Sarah and I have to do everything we can to energize our 10th graders and make them understand they need English to graduate from University in two years. The hardest part about planning the lessons is accommodating these drastically different ability levels in the same classroom. Unlike my high school in the states, all academic levels in each grade are in the same class. That means we can have normal speed conversation with some students while others don’t even understand ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’. Since Ukrainian teachers are determined to be good teachers or bad teachers by how much their students lean, we have been told most teachers simply pay no attention to the students who are slow and don’t put forth academic interest. We have been told to forget about them and understand that they have no interest in pursuing an academic career, and that is okay because the country needs bricklayers and plumbers as much as they need University graduates.
Another element of Ukrainian teaching that fascinates me is the strict national law requiring teachers to have lesson plans on them at all times and structure their lesson plans in the following mannar: Warm-up, Presentation of New Material, Practice of New Material, Application of New Material, Sum-up & Homework Assignment Presentation. Although I agree this is an excellent method, I am amazing that such a specific method is so strictly enforced throughout the entire country without any flexibility. Since I wasn’t a teacher in the States, I am unfamiliar with the methodologies enforced there, but I cannot imagine it was as specific as here in Ukraine. If anybody has some insite into the US method I’d love to hear it…
Tomorrow my cluster and I are visiting Kiev, the capital of Ukraine! It will be a 2 hour bus ride each way, but I am very excited!