Wednesday, December 16, 2009

До свидания!

Goodbye, Ukraine!

Host family
School children
The metro
Winking strangers
-14 Celsius weather, not counting humidity or wind chill.

Until we meet again...

Edit: When we left for the airport at 3am, it was -18 Celsius--the coldest I have ever been.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Today's Battles

Battle #1: When I got to Ukraine, I was told to expect snow by mid-November, at the latest. Mother Nature teased me with a day of flurries, but then she yelled "PSYCHE!" and it's been frost-less ever since. What kind of world do we live in where Ukraine doesn't have snow in December? I've been asking everybody, from our Russian teacher to my host sister, "Do you think it'll snow before I leave?" The official response has been "Probably not." Whadda let down. I move to the other side of the world and I don't even get one lousy sleigh-ride. If willpower controlled weather, Kiev would be covered in snow right now. I've been wishing so hard for snow, encouraging it to get cold by blowing extra-big clouds with my breath every time I walk outside, saying in my head, "Come on, weather! You can do it! Look what you've done with my breath!" I would like to say that I'm kidding, but I'm not. At least my efforts have not been entirely in vain. I woke up in the middle of the night and my peanut-buttery brain managed one thought: It's snowing right now. I swear, I couldn't see anything, but when I woke up in the morning I walked out on the balcony, confident that it would look like this:

And it did. Victory!

Battle #2: This has been a really hard week with the kids. I mean really, really hard. Angry parents railing on the school for their stupid kid who spends all day elbowing the other kids (who finally retaliate by knocking her to the floor. "She had it coming...") and therefore not paying attention in class and therefore not  learning. Pre-language, which is basically pre-school, makes me feel like I got the wind knocked out of me. Let's not even go there. On top of all that, I was sick all weekend and I'm still not 100%, so my battle defenses are not completely intact. (My nose was so runny that I used an entire toll of toilet paper. In one day.) And it's only Wednesday. Defeat.

Battle #3: After school (aka "war") today, Lynsie and Jill and I were so totally defeated that we just sat at the table contemplating how we could possibly survive the last few days of teaching. Imagine three corpses flopped over the table; one occasionally lifts its head to mumble, but only manages to let a little more blood trickle out of its mouth. That was us. So I came up with a genius idea. Two words: Celery. Fight. Jill had thrown away some dying celery sticks, so I broke off three swords and let out a battle cry. I dubbed Lynsie as "The Lion," Jill as "The Jolly Jack-O-Lantern," and Jill called me "The Limp Noodle". I tapped them on each shoulder with a stick of celery, King Arthur style, to make it official. Then we turned off almost all the lights in the school, and when I turned around, they had gone into hiding. I started crawling, but was quickly ambushed by the Lion and the Jolly Jack-O-Lantern. A bloody battle ensued. Soon our swords were down to stumps, hanging by strings, but the wave of fury did not relent. We stabbed, we jabbed, we punched, we kicked, we jumped, we sushi-chef chopped, we wrestled, we doggy-piled, we went for the nostrils. It was very dark, very loud, and very fierce. Lynsie and Jill are very small, but if you ever find yourself opposing them in a war, here's some advice: Run. The front-door into the hall is paper thin, so I really hope everybody walking by enjoyed our battle cries. It was the perfect release after a soul-trampling day. Victory!

Battle #4: I wasn't paying attention on the way home tonight, and I accidentally went one bus-stop too far, to a place I wasn't familiar with. I was out later than I wanted to be, and the side-walk was extremely icy (come on, snow!). So I was on the lookout for ragamuffins and hooligans. What I was not prepared for, however, was a car to zoom around the corner with a Ukrainian guy leaning out the window shooting a gun. I'm pretty sure it was just a cap-gun or something though, because the shots weren't really loud. And because I am still alive. Victory!

Battle #5: This isn't a battle, really, unless you count it as a battle against our public image and our sanity. I have an awesome pair of mittens that just seem to attract people's hands. Whenever I wear them, whoever I'm walking with just ends up holding my hand! Ok, maybe I help a little bit by asking if they want to hold my mittens, but nobody has ever turned me down. So Lynsie, Jill, and I walked to the bus stop by our school, one on each side of me, holding my hand. In this part of the world, girls hold hands all the time, so it's not a big deal. We stood at the bus stop, short-tall-short, holding hands and singing: Doooo you think the bus will coooome? Yeeeees! I think the bus will cooooome! All very badly sung. I hope the other people at the bus stop had ear-plugs handy. While we stood on the curb, waiting for the headlights of our bus to appear, we did the Hokey-Pokey (or the "Pokey-Pokey" as six-year-old Katya would say). It wasn't wimpy or quiet either, we did it full-out, the three of us still holding mittens as we turned ourselves around. Why? Because that's what it's all about.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Catching up on details.

I am knitting a scarf. It was pretty cool until I realized that the stitches are way too tight, causing it to stand up like a collar when I try to wrap it around my neck. But I am going to have a hard time getting rid of this semi-ugly collar-scarf because of the things I knit into it:

1) Sitting in "my chair" at home, talking to my sister and knitting with both cats asleep on my lap.

2) Hanging out with George while Lesya took a two-hour shower. George, sitting at the computer using an online translator to help him find the words in English. Me, trying to guess what word he was looking for. And knitting.

3) Riding the line. This is what I/we do when we need to get out of the house but there's nothing to do. In America, this is the situation where I would head to the library to read, nap, or just sit. Here, there's not really a warm, dry, free place where I can hang out and waste time. So we head down to the metro, weasel ourselves onto a bench, and ride up and down the line. We have unlimited metro passes, so it's free. It's dry. People-watching doesn't get any better than the Ukrainian metro. Riding the line encourages exploration. Sometimes I go alone and just listen to my music. Sometimes I put my headphones in without turning on my music, just so creepers won't bother me. Sometimes I just sit and listen to everything. Sometimes I read. Sometimes I knit.

4) I spend a lot of time with Camille. She is hilarious in ways that I am not, and helps me forget to worry about the little things. She is my riding-the-line companion. Sometimes, if we have good seats, I tell her to wake me up at our stop. So far, she hasn't left me asleep on the metro, and I am very thankful for that. One time, we jumped off at the Hydropark stop, one of very few stops that aren't underground. It was one of those perfect autumn days--crisp air, leaves blanketing the floor, all sounds muffled. Hydropark is an island in the middle of the Dnipro river, and I hadn't been down to the river yet, so this was my official introduction. We had no idea which way to go, so we set off down a quiet path through the thin woods, and eventually ended up at the water's edge. I stuck my finger in the water, and it didn't fall off. (The water is only radioactive at the bottom. Thanks, Chernobyl!) We sat on a ledge overlooking the river, with the gold domes of the Lavra on the opposite bank. Whenever anybody walked by, we pretended that they were giving us the Your-Ovaries-Will-Freeze-If-You-Sit-On-Anything-Cold! lecture. We shared headphones, listening to our favorite song. We talked. We listened. We sang. We knit. We got out a camera to snap a photo, but stopped. It was more than a scene, it was a situation. Too perfect for a camera.

In other news, today is December 6th. Since I got here in August, I have done my laundry three times. Count: one, two, three. I am strangely proud of that. It's not as dirty as it sounds, I promise.

Did I mention that one of our cats has a dreadlock? A real, legitimate dreadlock on its chin. Not my favorite thing.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Notebook Archaeology

November 3rd

First snow flurries.

On the 11th story, snow falls up to me in swirling flurries. Clouds of black birds fly by in migratory thousands. I walk outside at night and it's finally begun to stick to the cars. I need to touch it, to prove that it's really there. I choose the car least likely to have an alarm, a tiny green European thing, and draw a huge heart on the trunk. Hopefully somebody will feel loved tomorrow morning.

All on a Saturday night.

To the market, over the train tracks, a visit to Дружби Народів (arc of the Friendship of Nations), through the woods, across the footbridge, over the Dnipro.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

No Horoscope Necessary

I'm going to end up an old cat lady. It's not that I really like cats all that much, it's just that I like dogs less. And you have to be either a cat person or a dog person, right? We moved to a new school and now our teachers' room is on the first floor, looking out over feral-cat-headquarters. A headscarfed babushka feeds them, and almost every person who walks by tries to pet them. Unsuccessfully. But they don't know that I can see every single vain attempt! My favorite was the woman in high heels and a fur coat, doubled over chasing one of the cats. Nice try, Cruella.

And then one of the cats came up to my open window and didn't run away when I approached it with my camera. That's when I realized that I was going to end up an old cat lady. Nobody likes seeing photographs of other people's pets, and I imagine this is even worse because it's just some stray cat.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Cold Feet

 In my defense, it's been sunny and warm the past few days. [Come on, weather! I want to experience the natural evolution of the seasons! Give me some freaking snow already! I'm in Ukraine, not San Jose!]

Woah. Sorry. Back on track. But really, the past few days have been pushing 14 degrees (the high 50's, for all you Fahrenheit lovers) with brilliant blue skies. So I really do not think that breaking out my sandals one last time is such a crime. Besides, when a girl has a fresh coat of bright red polish on her toes, you just can't expect those toes to stay clammed up in shoes all the time. What a dreadful waste. School finally resumed today, after four weeks off, and I was having a hard time convincing my body to switch into Teacher gear. To make things a little easier on myself, I picked out my favorite outfit. That outfit happens to correspond with only one pair of shoes--my sandals. So, considering the warm weather we've been having, I figured it would be acceptable to venture out with exposed feet. And it really was fine. I'm only outside for about 10 minutes of my 45-minute commute, and it wasn't raining or cold or anything.

But then I got to school. I'm usually the first one there, and I'm alone for an hour or two before Jill and Lynsie show up. The school coordinator, Larisa, doesn't even arrive until the kids do (she just sits in the office and is basically our language liaison with the parents). So I was a bit surprised to find the school unlocked. I went inside and froze, recognizing the silhouette of Tania--the native coordinator for our entire group, and ILP's head person in Ukraine. Tania is a very concerned person. She is concerned for our health, safety, and all the big things. Unfortunately, she is also concerned with the little things, like what kind of tape is allowed on the floor, and the unspeakable evils of air-conditioning. Do you get what I'm trying not to say here?

I stood in the doorway and knew that, despite the warm weather, I was busted. Completely, totally, wholly, utterly, entirely, absolutely busted. I stood there, racking my brains for an excuse for my feet. Could I get away with saying that I wore shoes on my way, and then changed into sandals once I got here? No, it was too late. She was coming towards me. I braced myself.

"Alena! Did you wear those shoes on your way here? Did you?"
"Yes, Tania."
"Why!? What were you thinking? That is not okay, not okay at all. Why would you do that?"
"It's been sunny and warm the past few days. My feet were too hot in closed shoes."
"I cannot believe this. That is totally inappropriate. It does not matter what the weather is like, that is totally inappropriate of you. So inappropriate. I can't believe you went out in public like that. People will think you are [taps head] crazy."
"Well, it's a good thing I don't talk to people."
"It doesn't matter! It's not okay. At least wear socks! You must promise me that you'll never do this again. Do you understand me? Never again! You cannot be seen like that. Totally inappropriate."
"Tania? Tania! It's ok. I can hear you. It's not a big deal. I won't do it again."

Later that day, I went to a church activity and nearly forgot about my exposed feet until I was about to leave. Three Ukrainian girls (about my age), who I'd just started to get to know, finally summoned the courage to ask me about my footwear. Giggling, they pointed to my feet but I stopped them before they could say anything, "I know, I know! I'm not crazy, I promise. It's just been so warm recently, don't you agree?" At first they refused to acknowlege how lovely the weather was, but they finally gave in and admitted that it had been pretty nice. They still shook their heads and smiled knowingly to themselves as I walked past.

Leaving my house this morning, I knew full well that the babushkas would give me crazy looks, well deserved for a young rascal like myself. I knew that. And I enjoyed watching the younger Ukrainian women in their high-heeled patent-leather knee-high boots look me up and down, and then look away as I returned their stares. (One of my favorite Ukrainian cultural quirks is the eye-contact dance--they'll stare unashamedly, even rudely, at your body for as long as they please, but not into your eyes. I love watching people look me up and down, but quickly look away when they realize that I am prepared to stare right back. I feel like the undefeated Staring Game champion, because they just won't hold anybody's gaze.)

So there you have it. I am a creature quite beyond Ukrainian comprehension. Even though they admitted that my sandals were not entirely unfit for the weather, I was still labeled "inappropriate," several times over (thanks, Tania). It was quite amusing to defiantly stare back at strangers on the metro and on the bus, but it was also something of an awakening. Our culture basically embraces a don't-worry-too-much-about-what-people-think attitude. Not to be taken to the extreme, of course, but we're taught not to overly-conform to others' expectations, merely to gain acceptance or impress others (or to be considered "appropriate"). We're taught not to judge a book by its cover; here, the opposite is not only true, but demanded. Today, the librarian demanded that I fix my cover. Ouch.

I just realized that I dedicated several significant paragraphs, and a substantial amount of time, to a story about my feet. I have an infamous story about a favorite pair of socks that makes my friends roll their eyes, "Wow Alena, great story!" So, recently I've been a bit paranoid about the lame-level of the stories I tell. Obviously, I haven't been paranoid enough, because I just posted this.

But really, it's been such pleasant weather.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Halloween and RIP Center School

Here's a few pictures from our small Halloween celebration, but Lynsie and Jill have most of the other pictures on their cameras. After browsing Wikipedia, learning about holidays around the world, I've decided that Halloween is the one cool holiday that the United States pretty much owns. Everything else is pretty standard, but I want to kiss whoever came up with the idea of putting on crazy costumes and demanding candy from every door you care to knock on. Go us! Nobody else really celebrates like we do, if at all. So Halloween in Ukraine was pretty low key. The parents requested not to have the kids wear costumes at school because they're so hard to get ahold of, so we just painted faces and they came trick-or-treating to the teachers' room.

Jill, Lynsie, and I are the three lucky teachers at Center School. Center School just opened up this semester, so we were given bare walls to work with--an empty canvas. We worked our butts off making the place feel less cold and sterile, making decorations for the floors and walls, and putting together the teachers' room. Halfway through the semester, they decided to move the school to a new location. We really adored this one and spent so much time making it a fun place for the kids (ok, and for us), so the change of venue was quite unwelcome. The reason for the move: Center school, like most of the other schools, is located on the first floor of a large apartment building (it's pretty common to have a business or something on the bottom floor). The tenants of the building decided that they didn't like having a school there. No, it wasn't a problem with excessive noise. No, it wasn't a problem with too many people in the halls. Our school is only open for four hours a day, and if a regular business moved into our place, there would be people coming and going all day long. They just didn't like having a school there. The tenants got together and signed a petition, so we're out. I told my host sister about the situation, and she matter-of-factly explained, "Oh, somebody paid off those people to sign that. It was probably another business who wanted your location. Happens all the time." Yay for corruption! So before we packed all our decorations and supplies into boxes, we had to document our dear school. Rest in peace, Center School!

Welcome to Little America!

Jill's awesome hand-print tree.

Opening room/Classroom 1.

Classroom 2 of 3.

The teachers' room! Our home away from home.

View from the loft.
The loft. Yes, that's a bed.

Work space, with Hugh Jackman on the wall to distract us.

Supplies closet, past crafts, and our cubbies.

I know we were spoiled to have a school with a bed and stuff, but it's going to be rough starting over in a new location. My enthusiasm for school decorations has fizzled out, I'm afraid.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Lost in, really.

Despite my near-Asperger's level of social skills, I managed to make friends with (or at least, be befriended by) a Ukrainian girl named Natalie. Half the women in this country are named Natalie, and they are also called Natasha, Nastia, Natalia, Natalie, Nata, and so on. Russians/Ukrainians LOVE the nicknames, let me tell you. That also explains why it's so difficult to keep all the characters straight in their literature. Anyway, Natalie invited me to see a movie for some sort of festival, and that's all the information I could extract beforehand. Camille came with us, and the three of us made our way to a large auditorium in some sort of building for film festivals/cinematography stuff. Natalie speaks almost perfect English, but it still took my awhile to figure out exactly what was going on. It turns out, we were attending the movie part of a Spanish festival, which was why we weren't in a regular movie theater. It was called "El Milagro de Candeal," and had the most beautiful soundtrack. It's a Brazilian movie, so the voices were in Portuguese, with Spanish subtitles, Ukrainian subtitles under those, with Natalie whispering English translations to us. Count: four languages for one movie. I couldn't hear Natalie very well, so I had to use my limited Spanish to figure out what was going on. Considering that I slept through two years of Spanish classes in high school, I think I understood a pretty decent amount. The movie itself wasn't fantastic, but it was about music, so the soundtrack was more than redeeming. If that wasn't enough, the sheer novelty of four languages was enough to make me giddy.

After the movie, Natalie told me that she worked in that building for two years, doing film festivals and stuff. She didn't study anything like that in school, but now she is the assistant producer of a documentary. I mentioned to her, in passing, that I was interested, so a week later she called me up and invited me to a meeting about it. I thought it was going to be some big meeting where I could sit silently and observe, fly-on-the-wall style. No such luck. There were only six other people, and they handed me a set of notes to study. Two of the guys there were professional movie makers, one just finished shooting a music video that just started playing on tv. Natalie introduced me, "This is Alena. She is from the States. She has an eye for photography." My confidence doesn't measure up to that kind of introduction, and the whole meeting was pretty intimidating. The guys actually in charge of the movie are from LA, due to fly in a few days later. Natalie asked me if I could spend Tuesday hanging around with her and them, an American to help make them more comfortable in Ukraine, and hopefully contribute some ideas to the movie. The working title, according to the notes, is "Little Chernobyl," and it's supposed to examine the effects of the disaster on Ukraine and Belarus's children. Woah.

Tuesday came and went with no call from Natalie. On Wednesday evening she called me, somewhat hurt that I didn't come to whatever pub that afternoon for a meeting. Uh...what? I haven't heard from her since.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Falling in love on the metro.

I've never fallen in love. I don't think I've even dipped my toes in. So here I use the term loosely, but I think you know what I mean. In Ukraine, I fall in love every day. On the metro, on the bus, walking around the city, old men, young men, every day.

Social law dictates that eye contact is strictly forbidden. Anything more than a passing glance will make people wonder. Don't get me wrong, staring is just fine. People stare at each other's clothes/shoes/hair/boobs/butts all. the. time. But eye contact is a different ball game. And it is a ball game that I miss. No friendly smiles at strangers, no blush-inducing winks. Time to step up to the plate.

I started out on the metro escalators. As I go down, I look at somebody going up, and I look them right in the eyes. I let my head turn a little as they pass, daring them to look back. Most of them look back for a moment, but then look away. If they are bold enough to hold my gaze, I give them a little wink and a smile. Nothing scandalous, and completely safe. We're going opposite directions, where it's impossible to turn around. This isn't a very rewarding form of entertainment since hardly anyone will lock eyes, but every once in awhile it works brilliantly. The other day a boy, probably about 15 years old, dared to return my stare. I winked and smiled, sending him off burrowing into his face into his scarf, grinning and blushing like mad. True love.

Camille and I were waiting on a bench in the station, watching the metro cars stop and then zoom off again. We weren't paying much attention, but one car pulled up and inside was a seriously good-looking guy. He sat inside the car, facing us through the window. We caught eyes, and without thinking, I smiled and waved at him. He smiled back and winked at me. Camille watched the whole thing and then blew him a kiss. He blew one back, and as the metro left the station we watched him turn to his friend, an excited smile plastered across his face. True love.

Saturday night, four of my favorite female friends and I adventured around town, allowing ourselves the luxury of laughing as much and as loudly as we wanted. Usually in public we try to keep our laughter and voices to a minimum, but we just didn't care. We walked down to the metro station and some guy approached us, obviously attracted by our extreme intelligence and sharp wit:
Guy(perfect, thick Ukrainian accent): Hello! Where are you from?
Us(still laughing): The States...America.
Guy: Oh, we do not like the United States.
Us: Uh...ok.
Guy: But Johnny Depp, he is American, no?
Us: Yeah!
Guy: Oh, we looove Johnny Depp.
Us: We love Johnny Depp too.
Guy: Do you want to drink some beer with me? Have some good times?
Us(still giggling): We don't drink beer!
Guy: Oh. What do you drink?
Us: Water!
Us: Milk!
Us: Fanta!
Guy: Fanta is poison!
Us: Kompot! (boiled fruit, basically)
Guy(thoroughly bewildered by this point): Oh yes, kompot!
Us: Yes, we looove kompot!
Guy: Ok, well, goodnight.
The poor guy. We thought it was insanely funny, but he was so confused by our drinks of choice. Still, with a pick-up line like "We hate the United States," he couldn't have expected much success. Not true love.

Earlier the same night (actually, about twenty seconds before), we walked by three young guys hanging out on the stairs. One guy was jamming his brains out on the guitar and singing along. Another friend held out an empty hat, asking strangers for money. The third guy stood around, just enjoying himself and watching the people walk by. When I walked by, the guy asking for money came up to me and held out the empty hat. I looked at him, looked down at the hat he held out, thanked him for the hat, and then put it on my head. He stared blankly. I laughed and handed it back to the confused kid. As I walked off, I turned back around to see the bewildered look on his face. He didn't get my joke, but his friend was howling with laughter. He smiled at me, blew me a giant kiss, and waved goodnight. His giant mustache was icing on the cake. Definitely true love.

Tonight was what really made me appreciate this whole falling-in-love-with-strangers business. Three of us got on the metro, the other two girls were talking to each other while I stood off by myself. Next to me stood a tall guy in the Kyiv police uniform. (Side note: The policemen here are impossible to take seriously. They are almost all our age, most of them really good-looking, and they seem to do nothing but stand around and enjoy looking official.) I could tell he was trying to catch my eye, but people on the metro usually stare when they hear English, so I just routinely ignored him. Then I realized, oh wait, he's handsome and not trying to be a creep, so I looked around me and let him catch eye contact with me. We were standing right next to each other against the wall, so he leaned over to me and asked where I was from. We talked a little bit, and I was really grateful that he wasn't being a creepy slimeball, like so many of the men here. I told him that we were here teaching English to little kids, and he asked who our translator was. Oh, that was funny. He was shocked to learn that we had no translator, spoke hardly any Russian, and that my Ukrainian host family doesn't meet me at the metro to walk me home at night. At the next stop, where two metro lines meet, he asked if I was changing lines. He wanted to talk to me more, but we weren't going the same direction. I told him it was very nice to meet him, and watched him walk away. This time, I was the one to fall in love a little. Major kudos to guys like him: I am a girl he doesn't know, doing my best to ignore him, and I speak another language. He had the guts to patiently persevere and catch my eye, and then the courage to talk to me in a foreign language. Not only that, but he was extremely polite and remarkably un-slimy. He admitted not being too happy with his English skills, but I was impressed, and not just by his language. True love.

In order to participate in this program, every teacher has to sign a contract that we won't "pair off" with anybody in the group or in the country. No Ukrainians, no Americans, nobody. It's a pretty smart rule and helps prevent a lot of drama within the group (there's only one guy in our group of 15 teachers), and helps prevent us from being sold into sex slavery (you think I'm joking). We call it the "Man Diet." We don't want to get involved with Ukrainian men or anything like that (unless you're looking for a husband drunk before 10am every day), but being on the Man Diet sucks, nonetheless. We really would choose to be on the Diet anyway, but the fact that it is a contract-inflicted agreement just seems to make it such a restraint. At least we're allowed to look. And, oh boy, we do! None of those ridiculous saggy gangsta pants here. The Ukrainian men are deliciously vain, and wear their pants on their waist and just fitted enough to make us drool. Take note, America!

I've made it a conscious point to fall in love a little every day.

Come to Ukraine and understand:
This is a country of well-dressed, if not necessarily well-behaved, men who believe that declaring passionate love is their sole duty in life. Unfortunately, this makes them lousy husbands, as they don't find it necessary to contribute anything to marriages besides love. And even that wears thin. It's heartbreaking to see all the women here carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. As one woman here put it, Ukrainian men are, from a very young age, "sad lost puppy dogs." They live to drink, and it seems to be the only thing they have to look forward to. Drinking in public is legal. The women do it too, but the men drink constantly, even in the mornings. A sad existence, totally devoid of all the freshness the world has to offer.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On the topic of babs.

The school cleaning lady is a babushka named Valya. Sometimes if we stay late after school to use the internet or just hang out, we run into her. She speaks zero English, but is incredibly talented at gesturing and pointing. We managed to communicate not only our names, but also that we live with Ukrainian host families, where we live along the metro line, and more. She is so animated and eager to take us under her wing, like poor little American ducklings. She hugs us and gives us big kisses on the cheek. One night, Valya showed up to clean right as we were leaving, so she made us wait for her so that she could take the bus and metro with us. We couldn't understand a word she was saying, but she chattered at us the whole way home, using hand motions and exaggerated facial expressions to communicate what she really wanted us to understand. I got off at my stop and tried to wave goodbye to Valya and the other two teachers, but Valya got off the metro with me. We stood on the escalator, and she continued gesturing and talking to me. Earlier, I thought she said she lived at a different stop, so I was sweating a little bit as we rode the escalator up to the street. Was she trying to come home with me? Fortunately, we reached the surface and she waved goodnight, heading a different direction than me.

I didn't see Valya for a few weeks until I arrived at the school early one day to find her chatting on the office phone. Way to use your resources, Valya. She waved at me as I came in, and continued chatting as I went into the teachers' room to work on my stuff. When she was done racking up the phone bill, she came in to say hi to me. Valya prides herself on her massage skills, and now, alone in the school, I became the victim of an unsolicited back rub. First she just rubbed my shoulders as I sat in my chair, but then she leaned me forward, supporting me with one hand from the front, and using her other hand to beat my back to a pulp. I am incredibly ticklish, but I didn't want to offend her, so I metaphorically shoved my fist in my mouth and held back peals of laughter. When she was done with my back, she rubbed my neck and then travelled upwards to my scalp. She massaged my hairline around my face, and did this thing where she stuck her fingers almost in my ears and then quickly wiggled them back and forth. I don't think I can really describe it. She finished up with another shoulder massage, migrating down my arms. At the end of it, I was red, embarassed, and had terrifically tousled hair. I stood up to say thank-you, expecting another bear-hug from her, so I jumped the gun and tried to hug her first instead. As I leaned in, she looked behind her, thinking that I was just trying to get something behind her. She finally realized what I was doing, and gave me a hug and a thumping pat on the back. Why am I so awkward?

On the topic of babushkas, I got on a bus the other day, along with thirty head-scarfed babushkas and dedushkas. The entire bus was crammed with them. I don't have any awkward story about them, I just don't want to forget that picture.

I was on a marshrutka (one of those tiny yellow busses) on the way home from church, and this time I was fortunate enough to have a seat. When an old woman with her bags got on the bus, I offered her my seat. The offering of one's seat on the bus is part courtesy and part social requirement. It used to be a law that you had to give your seat to the old folks or pregnant women, and even though it's not required by law anymore, people will give you wierd looks if you don't. Actually, what will most likely happen is that the bab will walk up to you and glare at you until you surrender your seat. If that doesn't work, she will yell at you. So when this babushka got on the marshrutka, I moved to give her my seat. She waved me to sit down, stowed her bags up by the driver, and happily stood next to me for the ride. When my stop came, I moved my leg out into the aisle to stand up, and bumped her with it in the process. As I stood up, I hastily apologized in English, just from instinct. Her response? She gave me a wry grin and winked at me. Kindest babushka ever. They are usually crusty old crabs who yell at any young creature in their way, but this lady actually WINKED at me. I got off the marshrutka, totally exhilarated, and gushed all about it to Camille. Unbelievable, and it made my day.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Some Happenings.

Until a couple weeks ago, my host mom was sick and kept mostly to her room. It's surprising to see her out and about, cleaning and talking and even, sometimes, laughing. The other night I was in the sitting room eating dinner when she and my host sister came into the room, arguing and giggling in Russian. I looked back and forth between them, and my sister finally asked, "Isaac Newton...How do you say his name? We say it several different ways." When I pronounced it for them, my mom and sister laughed and to each other and my mom gave her the "I told you so!" lecture in Russian. The sound of so much laughter from my mom was refreshing, and I felt pretty dang smart knowing so much about science...haha.

I was dreading a haircut, but my hair was gradually turning into a Euromullet. After school one evening, Jill finally convinced me to let her cut my hair. I was nervous. She was nervous. Jill had never cut girl hair before. Lynsie sat in the doorway of the school bathroom and played Sufjan Stevens on the iPod. Jill dressed me in garbage bags and soaked my head in the sink. I was so worried about how it would turn out; I faced the white bathroom wall and refused to look in the mirror until it was over. I sat in a chair and listened to the foreboding snip-snip-snip of the cheap scissors she bought at the market. Partway through the haircut, something gave way and I was able to relax. The three of us sat quietly in the school bathroom listening to the music and the sound of the scissors. I stared at the white wall, and felt drops of water run down my shirt, despite the garbage bag's best efforts. And I was happy.

A couple weeks ago, Camille and I arrived on the metro platform and found that a crowd had gathered. Then we noticed that the train was not pulled all the way up alongside the platform, but was stopped about a fourth of the way into the station. Highly unusual. It had not let it's passengers off yet, and the crowd stood by the front. I walked up to the edge of the platform, and peered down to see what everybody was fussing about. Twenty feet to my left, between the train and the platform, was an old woman. I couldn't figure out how she got down there without being squished like a bug--there's only about a six-inch gap between the platform edge and the train. An old man was lying on his stomach on the platform, reaching down to her. She just cried and crawled around. The station workers were yelling something to her, which, of course, I couldn't understand. Somehow they managed to get her up on the platform, and the police took her away. The crowd remained, so the old man waved his arms and yelled at everybody to go away. The train pulled the rest of the way into the station, and Camille and I walked away. A few minutes later, a woman walked up to us and asked us a question in Russian. We told her that we only speak English, and she switched languages, "Oh that's fine, so do I. Did you see what happened?" We told her all that we saw, and what little we knew. She told us that she was on the train that was stopped. They were still in the tunnel when the train abrubtly stopped and the lights went out. They waited a long time without knowing what was happening. The train was full, and people were pushing and yelling. I can't even imagine the chaos when the driver slammed on his brakes. Even when the train comes to a regular, slow stop, people fall over if they aren't holding on to something. I've had strangers catch my falling body. But to have the driver actually slam on his brakes because a woman was down on the tracks--it must have been like being in a car accident. We think that this is what must have happened: Somehow, the woman fell(?) down onto the tracks while waiting for the train. The driver saw her as he approached and tried to stop as quickly as possible. Even though there's only a six-inch gap between the platform and the train, I guess there's some room underneath the platform where she took refuge. Camille and I asked the woman who was on the train if she had ever seen anything like that before. She, and every other native Kiev-ian we asked, said that they had never seen that happen. That night I dreamed about hiding under the station platform as the train came storming in.

One particularly rainy, cold, trafficky day, we only had two kids show up to school. That's right, TWO. Jill was home sick, so Lynsie and I were teaching by ourselves. Liza showed up on time, and we thought she was going to be the only student, but Igor showed up twenty minutes late. Fortunately, these kids are both in the older class and are quite fluent in English, so we had it easy. Instead of having normal classes, rotating teachers every half hour, Lynsie and I both hung out in the classroom and the four of us just had a party day. During opening exercises, Lynsie and I sat in the student chairs while Liza taught us the school rules, did the weather chart and the calander, and lead us in the alphabet song. I think we are pretty genius, because it was fun for her, fun for the teachers, and she was still practicing English. Part way through opening exercises, Liza ripped the loudest fart and then just giggled. I didn't even know that a little body could produce a sound of such caliber. Igor hadn't shown up yet, so we three girls just laughed till we cried, squeaking out poots in between. For the first class, we frosted cookies and put white chocolate chips on top. Igor showed up part way through, and the four of us ate a week's worth of sugar. Lynsie and I took turns leading the kids in different activities, but we mostly just played. At one point, the four of us were playing Old Maid, so we put some music on. As soon as the music started, Liza threw down her cards and started dancing without any prompting from us. This is Take Two, on camera. Remember that part in Mean Girls with the little sister in front of the TV? Yeah...basically Liza.

In Drama class, we decided to introduce the Ukrainian children to Britney Spears. Seven-year-old Liza was shakin' it like her financial health depended on it, and she required backup dancers, so we promised we would follow along to her moves. Because that's what any good teacher would do, and we are fully invested in her education. We figured that since the music was in English, they were still learning! Camera man: eight-year-old Igor.

This is Liza. And Liza's favorite mode of transportation.

Monday, November 2, 2009

When Pigs Fly

This past week we had our second (and last) vacation until the end of the semester. Three of us took an overnight train to a city in western Ukraine called Lviv. The day before we were supposed to come back to Kiev, swine flu hit the West big time. Everybody in the city walked around wearing surgical masks, or with a scarf over their faces. We got back to Kiev early Halloween morning, assuming that Kiev would be calmer since it's not in the West. No such luck. When we got home, we found out that the government imposed a 3-week forced vacation for all schools and the university. Normally, this would be the answer to every child's prayers. Unfortunately, vacation is not so exciting when it is -2 degrees Celsius outside, and the government has closed all restaurants, businesses, museums, stores, cafes, clubs, theaters, cinemas, etc. Public gatherings are illegal, so church (at least FHE and Institute classes), parties, etc. are officially against the law. Several girls' host families aren't even letting them leave their houses, and one girl has to wear a garlic necklace. Please note that almost everybody is going around in surgical masks. On Friday, the last mask in Kiev was sold for a hundred bucks. Pharmacies are closing because they are out of medicine, and the ones that still have drugs have inflated prices by about 500%. The government isn't letting anybody in or out of the country, except for "pressing business." There is talk of closing the borders of our city as well.

Hysteria at it's best.

So what does this actually mean for me? Three weeks of mind-crunching boredom. At first I was really excited to have our one-week vacation extended to a month, but it looks like it's not going to be the prayed-for vacation that I thought it would be. It's too cold to play outside, and there's nowhere we can go inside since everything's shut. So far I have read about half of "Mansfield Park," and a few of us are hanging out at one of the schools learning dances on YouTube and eating brownie mix. I don't know what we're going to do once all the brownie mix is gone...

Cast of Characters

The people who made the places:

Michal, airport angel
Tiger-breasted Kate, England
Crazy-eye Sean, Irish, Slovakia ride, glitter tattoos
Anna, Balloon Hostel owner
Karolina, worker
Barbara, worker
Bartok, brother of Anna/worker
Jacob, solo-travelling German
Tom, Australian astrophysicist, gorgeous
Harmonica Dan from San Fran/London
Eric, earned a cold shower
Dave? Polish, with crazy hair
Andrew, from Portland
Suza, travellin' Mama
Ashleigh, Australian, Ginger Monkey worker, paintballing, orangutan
Dror, Australia, sloth
Dan, Australia, jaguar
Jimbo, Ginger Monkey owner, Australian, delicious
Nick, Australian, fantastic drunk dancer/singer, paintball
Damien, Australian, paintball
Saint Jimmy, Australian, hot chocolate, paintball penguin
Kate, Australian, hamster
Patrick, Australian
Chrissie, Australian
Whitney, cool pants
Perry, San Jose
Ian, Irish
Andy, Australian, nap bed
Ryan, Australian
Chris, Australian, magic tricks and curls

Friday, October 23, 2009

Sunday 10/4: Mass and Bus Rush

Even though I didn't go to sleep until past five, my body woke up before nine. We got dressed in the cleanest clothes we could find, and walked to mass at the cathedral. Earlier in the week, we watched a concert here and the church seemed like something of a tourist draw. Now it was filled with devout church-goers. I have never attended mass before, so all the standup-sitdown surprised me a bit. But it kept me awake, which I think might be the intention. I didn't understand a word, since the service was in Polish, but the music was beautiful. The choir and the giant pipe organ resonated through the church, stirring up souls to repentance (I assume). At one point, the guy at the pulpit must have instructed everybody to meet their neighbors, because the wrinkled grandmas and grandpas in the row in from of us turned around and gave us the biggest smiles. I may not agree with everything their church teaches, but I do agree with people who are doing their best to be their best.

We spent the most of the day tired and ready to go home. On Sundays, a market fills the square in front of the hostel, so we burned some time poking around there. There were booths of fresh produce, clothes, antiques, junk, and old books. I bought a beautiful old book from the same stand earlier in the week, but it was still my favorite to dig through. We ate our favorite french-bread pizza (for the fourth? time that week) and I took a nap at the hostel. Our beds were already made for the next guests, so Andy let me crash in his.

I woke up with just enough time to grab my bag, and we headed out the door for the bus station. One of the front desk girls showed us how to get there on a map, but she couldn't get any more specific than saying that the bus and train stations were next to each other and that a shuttle bus to the airport would be waiting. We set off walking, and realized that the bus station was much farther than we anticipated, and we had no extra time to compensate. We broke into a fierce power-walk, taking turns carrying the two bags. Our bus was scheduled to leave at exactly 5:00, and we were afraid that if it was a big charter bus on a schedule then it wouldn't wait for us if we were late. With five minutes left on the clock, we found the bus/train station. We had a sticky note from the hostel, who arranged our reservation, but it just said "Bus Station, Platform 15&16, 17:00." We couldn't see platforms anywhere and started to sweat. I showed a woman working at a stand our sticky-note but she spoke no English and just brushed us off. We were all sweating, stressed, and grumpy. We had no idea where to go and our bus was leaving any minute. If we missed our bus, we would most likely miss our plane. If we missed our plane, the next one wouldn't be until tomorrow, and then we would miss a day of teaching. If we missed a day of teaching, we would be dead meat. I accosted the next person who walked by, "Excuse me, do you speak any English?" The boy, about our age, replied with "A little," so I showed him our sticky-note and asked him if he knew where our platform was. He looked at it and said, "Oh, you're looking for the bus station. This is the train station." Please visualize four girls with looks of utmost horror on their faces. Time was nearly gone. We still hadn't paid for the bus nor had tickets of any kind. Only a sticky-note from the hostel and a promise that our names were on some reservation list. We frantically mumbled something, asking if he could give us directions to the bus station. Instead of just pointing the way or explaining, he personally marched us across the train station, through crowds, outside, to the adjoining bus station, and then showed us exactly where we needed to be. We made it to the shuttle exactly on time, and had the whole van to ourselves. We never found out that boy's name, but he went above and beyond the call of duty and saved our foolish skins. Yet another person on this trip helping to restore my faith in humanity.

We made it to our flight on time, and Ukraine even let us back in the country. The passport inspection lines, which were such a nightmare when we came from America, were uncrowded and took less time than it took to fill out the forms. A shuttle bus was waiting right outside the airport, and dumped us off right exactly where we needed to be. The metro shuts down at midnight, so I called my host mom and told her that I was back safe and would be sleeping over at Jessica's apartment. We walked into her apartment tired and starving, but Jessica's roommate, Jo, had a homemade cake waiting for us. The three of us ate the entire cake in one sitting, and slept in till noon.

Saturday 10/3: Jump-Rope and More Australians

Saturday morning brought us a quiet goodbye to the Ginger Monkey. We woke up late, and I walked to the market/gas station to buy a map. If and When I ever have my own place, I intend to cover the ceiling above my bed with maps. Old maps, new maps, places I've been, places I want to go...fuel for dreams. Zdiar, in the High Tatras, would be a lovely place to dream about after I'm gone. And that morning, we left. They hugged us goodbye like we were family. And it really did feel like we were leaving behind family. We had been with these people twenty-four hours a day, and in more than one country with some of them. When Sean first persuaded us to check out the Ginger Monkey, we planned on staying one night. We stayed three, and would have stayed longer if we didn't have a plane to catch in Poland.

While I was in Slovakia, my dad emailed me this and it just seemed to say it so well:
"The good memories are all of stopping and staying awhile. I realize I've always driven too fast through life, carrying in my baggage too much impatience and apprehension, missing too many chances, passing too many good people in the dust." Charles Kuralt, from A Life on the Road.

I like to think that, given the brevity of our vacation, we did a pretty good job of "stopping and staying awhile." Before we left, Sean gave us one of his signature glitter tattoos. The four of us got them on our wrists (I got a purple seahorse), Ashleigh got a gecko on her cheek, Kate got a dragon her chest, but we all opted out of the breast-tiger like we encountered our first night in Poland. Delightfully tacky, for three to seven days.

Sean drove us back to the Balloon hostel, and it was less-than-fun saying goodbye to him. I get the feeling that he is one of those people that I'll run into a few years down the road when I'm least expecting it. We'll see. We immediately met another Australian (shock!), Andy, and went out to lunch at the Momo restaurant. Before Slovakia, we walked by this place and the smell alone reeled us in and we promised one another that we MUST eat there before the end of our trip. We finally made it, and it turned out to be one of the most scrumptious meals ever to tickle my taste buds. Everything is vegetarian, which isn't a selling point for me, but I don't think we had a better meal the entire week. I think I had something called the "Masala Dosa," which was simply incredible. And whoever invented mint lemonade, I tip my hat to you.

We took a power nap and then sat at the picnic table in the kitchen, groggily playing cards to wake up. We learned how to play @$$hole earlier in the week from Eric, and although we are all quite bad at it, it's a lot of fun. Andy, and two new Australians, Chris and Ryan, eventually wandered into the kitchen and sat down with us. Almost immediately after sitting down, one of our new Australian friends told us, "We can tell you're American, but your accent is really, really neutral. You could almost be from anywhere." A week ago, Sean told us that we had harsh American accents. Now, after just a week of hanging out with Australians, our accents were "neutral." Sweet. We sat for a couple hours, just talking and playing cards. We decided to move the party away from the kitchen and out where we could dance. The seven of us walked to a packed pub and danced to eighties rock and weird music. Some guy there thought he was James Bond, and he showed us all how to dance like him.
(James Bond, in the red shirt)

Once we got sick of the eighties, we went upstairs to a place with different music. Around two, Jessica and I were done and so we left Jess and Camille with our three Australian friends/bodyguards. We walked out into the main square, where we bought sunflowers earlier in the week, and walked around a bit. Even though it was the middle of the night, there were still a lot of people around. In front of a big statue, about fifteen Polish kids (roughly our age) were playing jump-rope with a 25-foot-long rope. We wandered over to watch them, and they quickly waved at us to join them! We took our places in line along the rope, and everybody counted to three for the rope-swingers to start. We all made it over the rope a couple times, but soon somebody got caught on the rope. We did it a few more times, and a crowd started to form around us. A short, plump man old enough to be my father came up to me and asked, "Is it okay if I try?" I laughed and told him, "I don't know! They invited me, so I guess it's fine!" Pretty soon, the rope was so crowded with people that we could barely jump because our knees hit the person ahead in the line. A crowd stood on one side, counting for the rope to swing, and a big, formal statue stood on the other side. Getting invited to play jump-rope with fifteen Polish kids at 2am in the main square--I love my life.

We met up with the other two girls and went back to the hostel, showered the pub smell out of our hair, and went to bed at five in the morning. We had the whole room to ourselves, with a view of the little market-square from our window. The moon was perfectly full, and it shined brightly through the string-curtains. I lay awake for a long time, just watching the moonlight and citylight, thinking about the week.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Friday 10/2: Hike and Piantballing

Friday morning, after the party, the four of us were by far the happiest people in the hostel. While everybody else nursed hangovers, we set out on the River Walk: Take Two. This attempt was more successful, and we actually made it to the trailhead without too much distraction. It had rained the whole night, so the road/trail was thick with mud. I think somebody told us that it's a cross-country ski trail during the winter. We followed it along the river and through the woods. We passed Slovakian lumberjacks in the forest. Maybe I've been sheltered my whole life, but I have never before seen Slovakian lumberjacks. It was almost religious. A good friend of mine once educated me on the Evolution of Manliness. He told me it goes like this: Caveman, Barbarian, Viking, Pirate, Lumberjack. Now you can understand, and appreciate, that to witness lumberjacks in their natural environment is to witness the culmination of millions of years of evolution. Amen.

The trial eventually twisted up higher into the mountains, and opened onto a giant field, Sound of Music style. We stood at the top of a grassy hill and wanted so badly to roll down it, but the grass was soaking wet. The soaking wet grass wouldn't normally have stopped us, but washing machines are scarce, dryers don't exist, it was freezing cold, and we brought hardly any clothes on the trip. Instead, we did the next best thing and jumped around like fools, taking pictures in front of the mountains. Also, a mushroom fight.

The trail looped back across the main highway, and connected with another trail. We hiked past the paintball field (argh! We were within five minutes of it yesterday!) and into another, thinner, forest. Our trail, which was supposed to loop all the way back to the hostel, quickly petered out so we blazed our own. Everything sort of dead-ended, so we sat on a log on a grassy hill overlooking the town, and pretended to be a Jamaican bobsled team (If you've never seen Cool Runnings, please do so immediately). When our bums were cold and sore, we ran straight down the hill and back into town, through somebody's backyard/farm.

Jess and Camille walked up ahead, while Jessica and I walked slowly back home. We stopped to play on a rope swing over a creek. The swing was tied between two trees, with a small piece of wood in the middle to sit on. The wood wasn't even secured; the weight of your bum held it in place. The swing was on a steep incline, so it was a bit tricky getting to it, but once you sat down it swung far over the creek below. With the town below my feet, it felt like I was flying through the yellow and red-leafed trees.

We made it back to the hostel with just enough time to turn around and gather our group for paintballing. We made the trek through the town the way we just came, and found the paintballing place with no trouble this time. The field was on top of a hill overlooking the town on one side and with a view of the mountains on the other. Not a bad location for our first time paintballing. This was hardly a commercial paintball arena; the place had one small sign indicating the company, and no building or office at all. A German guy met us there in a car and brought out boxes of equipment and clothing from his trunk. We put on scrubby pants and army jackets over our clothes, and left our stuff in the make-shift lean-to. The field was full of bushes, trees, wood barricades, and ditches. I know hardly anything about paintball, but this field seemed to be awesome. We played 4 guys against 5 girls, all hostel guests/staff. None of us had ever gone paintballing before, so Slovakia was a pretty fantastic place to try it out. The first round, the girls soundly slaughtered the guys, but after that we were pretty much toast. Please note that most of these guys were huge, burly, Australian beefy men. They made for quite the formidable enemy.

By the time we finished, it was freezing and almost dark. Since we arrived at the hostel, we had been giving the owner a hard time about not making good on the flyer's promise of free hot chocolate. He told us he would get some, but it never happened and just turned into a running joke. So when we finished paintball and started on the cold 45-minute walk home, somebody jokingly said, "Hot chocolate sounds sooo good right now." Jimmy, one of the paintballers, volunteered to run back, stop at the market, and have hot chocolate waiting for us by the time we all got back to the hostel. We thought it was a joke, but he was quite serious and took off running. When we walked into the hostel, Jimmy had homemade hot chocolate waiting for us on the stove. We each got a mug full of the best hot chocolate I have ever tasted. The stuff in Poland was delicious, but Jimmy's hot chocolate was something else altogether. The town doesn't sell hot chocolate mix, so he bought bars of dark chocolate, melted them on the stove, and made his own concoction. We now call him Saint Jimmy.

More people arrived at the hostel that night, including two girls who just came from Greece. By this time, there were 23 people in the hostel, and nearly all of them were Australian. We all went out for pizza together, and completely packed the restaurant. The two girls had Australian accents, so I was pretty shocked to learn that one was from...San Jose, California! She graduated from college and has been travelling for 15 months, mostly bartending. The Australian accent is pretty much inevitable when you travel that long, because Australians are everywhere and are probably taking over Europe one hostel at a time. She went to Willow Glen high school, and I went to Piedmont Hills--same school district at the same time. We know some of the same people. Of all the places in the world, I ended up in Slovakia sharing a room with a girl from San Jose. Small world.
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