Friday, May 29, 2009

This week in Ukraine May 29th

Saturday was our little reading seminar. It was a very good start, I think. There were 13 Ukrainians plus Fran and I. Their English fluency varied, but they were all able to understand the readings and to talk about the ideas in the two excerpts. We got into some great discussions about what it means to be an immigrant, the comparison between serfdom in Ukraine and slavery in the U.S. and how they were at least legally abolished at about the same time; what “freedom” means. Really a pretty amazing discussion given our language barrier. They wanted us to try it again so we are going to read two Ukrainian authors and an excerpt from Martin Luther King’s I Had a Dream speech, the common theme being they were all “freedom fighters” in different countries at different times. Hopefully we get as good of a group. It could be an even more interesting discussion.
Sunday night I went to a performance that was a benefit for the organization we are working with. It was at the philharmonic theater here, a very nice old building, and was sort of like a dance recital. Many people of different ages from little kids to a 50 plus woman performing various dances, plus some people in wheelchairs. Not traditional dances, but the kind you see at dance competitions in the U.S., though, unfortunately, they weren’t quite that good. But it was fun and a pretty Ukrainian experience, I think. I really love the tradition of people constantly coming onto stage and giving people flowers. After every dance almost!
Wednesday I had my “site placement interview” which is where you talk with the Peace Corps staff—in my case it was the country director and the Community Development head—and discuss where you might be assigned and what your preferences are. I realize that I have come to have no real preferences. When I first got here, I wanted to be assigned to an area where I would have more access to outdoor activities, ie the mountains, or near the ocean, or down in Crimea. But now I don’t really care where I go. I know I can find ways to be out in the woods or on the river wherever I am—I certainly have here in Chernihiv—and I have come to the understanding that the real adventure is the people. Most volunteers I have talked to seem to have definite ideas of where they do or do not want to be, and seem a bit stressed out about the whole idea of placement. But surprisingly enough for those of you who know me well, I have not been doing my endless speculation on where I might end up. I just have the feeling that I will end up wherever I am suppose to be, though that might not be so evident right off the bat.
Thursday my little group went to a “social action” put on by an NGO that we met (as in the guy who runs it) at the crafts fair. It is an organization that works with disadvantaged youth to teach them healthy lifestyles. It was sort of a show—singing, the kids playing games, a couple of women performing circus acrobatics who were quite good. It was all very fun and energizing. We had to get up and sing with them the Ukrainian song we learned (sort of). By the way, I haven’t been able to load the clip of me singing, but maybe at some point I’ll get it on the blog. Then I worked with Fran at the library putting together our reading seminar. A good day, all in all.
Here’s a slice of what life is like here in Ukraine. The hot water went out in my apartment building several days ago. Seems to be no projection as to when it will be fixed, so it is heating up water for baths or cold showers. My host family seems quite used to it…. At my friend Fran’s apartment building, someone stole all the copper wire out of the elevator, so it no longer works. She lives on the 8th floor. And once again, no info on when it will be fixed. Her host family just shrug and say that’s Ukraine. They, by the way, are making plans to move to Russia and become Russian citizens. They apparently have had it with the independent Ukraine.
Well, I better get some language studying in. Only two more weeks. I felt like I was doing pretty well, but today my brain seemed to empty out all the words I had learned and nothing made sense! But it will come back, I’m sure. Patience….I need lots of it!
Love to you all.
ps The picture is the one we did for my "graduation" certificate.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Kyiv photos

Photos from the field trip

These photos are from our trip to a small town. (The red haired woman is Ira who I talked about in my blog). The monument is in the town square where most of the inhabitants of the town were executed in World War II. The green building is the city hall (with an outhouse). The smoke stack in the background of the lake is the wallpaper factory that much of the town residents work at.

Traveling around Ukraine

A LOT went on this week—
Monday we took a “field trip” to a small town—12,000 pop.—about a 2 hour bus ride from Chernihiv. It was an interesting day. A PCV works there, so we got to see where she lives, works, and talk with her about her life in general in a small town. She lives in a high rise much like the one I live in. Even the small towns have them—most people in Ukraine live in apartments. There were several things I loved about the town. Bicycles seemed to be the main mode of transportation—you saw all kinds of folks on them, including babuskas with their bags and high-heeled, business suited “ladies.” The town was surrounded by beautiful forests, and we learned that over 60% of that rayon (county) is forested. The PCV is assigned to the city council but has a hard time coming up with a project to work on. When she asked them what they wanted, they said a university (!) because all the young people leave home to go to school. She is doing a HIV/Aids education workshop—a common PC project all across Ukraine as the HIV rate here is the highest in Europe. But it was clear she is feeling frustrated by the lack of direction. A common PCV problem, I think.
Wednesday we had the first half of our community project we are doing here. It was a crafts fair at a local university with the organization Chance, which is an advocacy org for disabled people. It went pretty well, though there is much that could have been different, of course. One of things that you all will find pretty funny is us (my cluster group) singing with the Chance folks in a little performance. I will try to put a clip of it on my blog.
While at the fair without a whole lot to do, I spent quite a bit of time talking with Ira, one of the Ukrainian Peace Corps staff we work with. (You will see her in the pics I will post of our visit to the small town). We had such an amazing discussion about communism, Ukraine and the U.S, evolution of human consciousness. It came out of me bringing up the lecture we had yesterday about the struggle of Ukraine to form a democracy after 75 years of communism. What a transformative, difficult time this is in the history of Ukrainian people. Ah, I have no words to describe how it feels to be here in the midst of all of this change. Maybe later it will come to me… I do know how much I love getting to know the Ukrainians—the PC staff, the librarian, my host mom, even the babuska who checks bags at the supermarket (whom I finally got a smile out of). I will miss them all when I leave Chernihiv.
Friday we went on a day field trip to Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, which is about 75 miles south of Chernihiv. Kyiv is a large (2 million pop. I think), bustling metropolitan area with a “Metro”—a subway system. Quite the change from the little town we visited on Monday and the city of 300,000 I have been living in. It is quite beautiful and very Western European looking. We took a bus to the city and then took the Metro to the city center area where the Peace Corps office is located. Walked from there all over the place—train station, Independence Square (where the famous million strong gatherings of the Orange Revolution occurred in 2004), visited St Sophia, a church built in the 11th century. Climbed the bell tower there for some amazing views of the city. It was a great day—fun to be in such a city, such a contrast from the last couple of months.
Today is my reading workshop, but I think I will bring my computer into town with me and post this before then, so I will report on it next week. Three more weeks here and then a few days in Kyiv, and then we will be off to our permanent site. Much, much speculation about where each of us will end up.
Hope you all are well. Much love from Ukraine.

Friday, May 15, 2009

photos explained

Once again, didn't quite get the photo arrangement right. Obviously, the last one is from the rally. The other unexplained photo is my two language teachers--Natasha (young one) and Tamila. We were on a tour of a history musem.

Some photos

Here are some photos. First one is from a rally in Red Square on Independence Day--that is the group that was getting people to "sign the wall" about their work conditions. The other photos are from the dachas out in the country, incuding one host family's greenhouse. Quite the gardeners they are.

This week in Ukraine

Going to try and write this as the week goes along. Seems that so much happens every day, I tend to forget things I wanted to write about by the end of the week.
Sunday I walked all over the place—my only real physical activity here. I do love wandering the city, checking out the parks, the neighborhoods, the buildings. Ended up in “Central Park,” the major city park which had a lot of what you would expect—a little amusement park, refreshment stands, a small amphitheater. Of course, it does have that run down Ukrainian look to it, but I am so used to that now, I almost forget the appearance of Minneapolis parks that I took for granted.
Yesterday I had a rather annoying day with my fellow Americans, but at the end of the day I had a real treat. Went with another PCV to an area on the river where we would have a chance to paddle kayaks. We had met Larissa at the English Club on Sunday who coaches women teams in kayaking, and she invited us down. Naturally, I was quite excited at the prospect…. Well, in turns out that what they call kayaks, we could call rowing sculls, I think, though they do use a kayak paddle. Very narrow (and very crudely built except for a few super sleek and fast ones we saw) and super tippy. We also tried a “canoe” that was sort of built like a bowl—it was even more tippy. Barbara, the other PCV, eventually dumped in that one. It was all very funny—Larissa had a great time trying to show us how to do it, I think. She spoke very little English, and of course, we speak very little Russian, but we were all giving it a good try. The most fun was that eventually I went out on the “Dragon Boat” which has 20 paddlers paddling in unison to a drum beat. I’m pretty sure they have them in the states, too. That I really loved, moving fast down the river, stroking with 19 Russians, the steersman behind me calling out directions, the drummer in front beating. I would love to do it longer, but I don’t think I probably have the stamina. Barbara went out with them for an hour, but she is younger and in better shape than I am. Anyhow, I did love those few minutes I had with them.
Later in the week now. Weather has gone from beautiful spring to very cold, rainy, and windy. They need the rain desperately, so that is good to see. Merat, who is head of the PC Community Development program, has been talking this week about NGO’s. He started by telling us what it was like when the Soviet Union dissolved and Ukraine became an independent country (in 1991)—the start of the NGO’s here. The country was in a turmoil, people didn’t know what to do. Some couldn’t survive the radical changes and either left the country, or in quite a few instances, killed themselves. Or became hopeless alcoholics. The inflation rate soared to 10,000% (really, I’m not adding a 0)—a record worldwide. Many men left their wives, which is one of the reasons there are so many women without husbands here. Merat was a teenager at the time and talked some about his mother, who was making $7 a month and trying to support her family. I hope that at some point in my PC service I get to the place where I am fluent enough to have deeper conversations with Ukrainians. The history of Ukraine is endlessly fascinating to me. So much here looks like a very run down version of the U.S., but it is so, so different.
Monday we are going on a “field trip” to a smaller Ukrainian community to see what life is like there. I look forward to getting out of the city and seeing the surrounding countryside and learning some about life is a small town.
There is a lot of discussion among the PCV’s about where we will be “stationed.” I’m pretty open about where I go and how I live, but many have some pretty strong opinions about what they want—like hot water and indoor plumbing. But there are definitely no guarantees about what kind of living situation one will find oneself in. Most of us, however, won’t be in large cities—the housing is too expensive.
I have run out of thoughts and need to get to bed. Hopefully I will post this tomorrow and maybe some more pics.
Love to you all.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Some photos of Chernihiv

I can't seem to get the program to upload any of my photos, so I will post some on my Facebook page. If you don't have access to my page, send me an invite request.

This week in Ukraine

It’s Friday night, I’m sitting at my “desk,” trying to remember what exactly I did all week! Busy, busy, busy… Last Saturday went out to visit the dachas—gardens on the outside of the city, many with tiny rustic houses—which many people have to grow vegetables. Our hosts were planting potatoes in a big field they also have. Rode the marstruka out there—they are small van-like buses that go all over the city and are usually crammed with people. Lots of babushkas (grandmothers literally but basically any woman over 60) on the bus heading out to their dacha with a plastic shopping bag filled with seeds, seedlings, tools. A note on the plastic shopping bags—if you were to watch people on the streets, you would think everyone has just come from shopping somewhere. But the actuality is that people use those bags as their purse, briefcase, backpack. The women have a large purse and a plastic bag, men usually just the bag. You have to pay for a bag at the stores, so folks hang on to them and use them over and over to carry absolutely everything. Now that is a lesson us Americans could use…
Rest of the week spent language learning, a health workshop with a Ukrainian doc who works for PC, working on our organizational project. We have a new language teacher for 3 weeks—the idea being to have another speaker to get used to. Her name is Natasha. Very young, very beautiful, very fluent, and a good teacher. It is true what they say about Ukrainian women—they are quite beautiful by western (white) standards.
Tomorrow is one of the big Ukrainian holidays—Victory Day, which celebrates the end of the “Great Patriotic War”—what we call World War II—in which over 6 million Ukrainians died (including 2.6 million Jews which I have yet to hear referred to). A group of us along with a couple of the language teachers are going to a military museum. Something that would normally not interest me, but here it is such a huge part of the culture.
My friend Fran and I have got our little reading seminar worked out. The librarians are quite excited about it. I hope we can pull it off. But Fran has a Ph.D. in something and is a retired history prof, so that should help. Anyhow, what we are going to do is have everyone read a very small excerpt (3 pages) from Willa Cather’s My Antonia and a similar excerpt from a famous Ukrainian writer whose home is preserved here—Miklailo Kotsyubinsky. They were both writing about the same time and with similar themes—at least the passages we picked. I think the discussion should be pretty interesting, especially since Kotsyubinsky was writing of the time leading up to the Russian Revolution (called the October Revolution here) and the unrest of the peasants.
Well, this is probably way more than you really want to hear, though it is fun to think of sitting and talking with all of you. Hopefully, I have figured out why I’ve had trouble posting pictures and will get some up this time.
I don’t know yet where I will be posted—much speculation as we meet PCV’s who are currently serving in Ukraine and get their feedback. We won’t know until our actual graduation from training-June 18th-and then a couple of days later we pack up and head out to who knows where! More of the unknown. Gotta love it….life in the Peace Corps.
Love to you all.

Friday, May 1, 2009

May 1--International Workers Day

May 1 is a big holiday here—Labor Day or International Workers Day. Not sure what happens except that everyone has it off. There are flags decorating the Chernihiv Red Square and probably a parade. Perhaps I will report before I post this.
From the next day:
No parade, but music in the square plus the communist party and socialist party had booths. Coolest thing was some organization for workers' rights that had a "wall" for people to right things, telling the government what they thought of what is going on in Chernihiv. Of course, I couldn't read it, but it was great to see these young people getting folks to write on the wall. Let's hear it for democracy. This would not have been happening 19 years ago (before Ukrainian independence).
We were supposed to go to Kyiv for a field trip that day, but the Peace Corps wouldn’t let us, because a big demonstration is planned. I, of course, thought that would be a reason to go, but the PC has a very nonpolitical policy and also there is a possibility the demo could turn violent. So maybe we will get to go next week.
Another increasingly exhausting week of language lessons, cross cultural lectures (which have been very interesting), and organizational visits. This was the week that each group had to pick a project to do with a local NGO. Our group decided to help the NGO that works with disabled people to put on a crafts fair which they want to make an annual event. I think it will be a lot of fun to do, plus I think the experience of working with the director will be worth whatever hassles it all entails. She is quite something. A story she told us this week gives you a picture of what kind of woman she is. She was walking across Red Square (which is a bit of free for all in the traffic department) and got hit by a car. Luckily, she wasn’t hurt but was knocked down, etc. The driver turned out to be head of some cosmetics company, so Svetlana convinced her to come to her organization and do the make up for a theatrical event they were putting on in exchange for not pressing charges. Now there is a woman who thinks on her feet (or maybe it is off).
We are also going to do some kind of smaller project with another NGO that we liked a lot that serves needy families, also run by powerful women.
So the upcoming month is going to be even busier, if that’s possible. Will need the rest of the PC time to recover from the training period.
Has been really warm here this week, though I think the weather is going to turn this weekend. The trees are all leafing out and spring flowers blooming. Looks a lot like Minnesota in the spring if you can see beyond the crumblingness of it all. (I know that is not a word but it sort of describes the landscape here.) Tamila told us today that the average income for people in this city is about $100 a month. There are clearly also wealthy people here based on some of the stores and the cars you see, but the majority of the people are quite poor.
(Sweet little Artom just came in to say “Spakone Noche” or goodnight in Russian. He is such a little cutie pie. It’s fun—most of the time—living around a 4 year old.)
I’ve become friends with this great woman in our group—she’s the oldest of the trainees—69—and is a retired professor of history and taught women’s studies. We are working together on coming up with something that might work for the reading group idea. We realized it has to be very simple, so it has become a bit of a challenge. But it’s been fun pursuing the idea. And making a friend in the process.
Well, I’m at home and it is getting late and I am really tired, so I will end for now. Might add more before I post this tomorrow. I tried to post some more pics last time, but they didn’t transfer. Will try again tomorrow.
Love to all of you.