Monday, August 24, 2009

Independence Day Ukraine

Monday morning, August 24th, and it is a holiday here in Ukraine. Independence Day—the 18th anniversary of Ukraine becoming an independent country. I’m a little uncertain as to how much it is celebrated around here. There is a huge parade in Kyiv, and according to my 15-year-old neighbor who seems very excited about it, there is a parade and concert here in Simferopol. However, the young Ukrainian man who I have gotten to know a little is definitely not excited. Said it is “not a holiday for him,” and was disgusted by how much the president allocated for the celebration in Kyiv. Also, as I discovered yesterday, it is Ramadan, the Muslim month-long holiday of fasting and prayers. I was hanging out my clothes when my neighbor tried to explain it to me, and then he showed me the schedule print out from the mosque of sunrise and sunset (no eating or drinking between sunrise and sunset), and I finally got it, along with a little research on the internet. It will be interesting to see who of the people I am around observe it. I really don’t have a clue how religious people are, and this will give me some insights. Server (my neighbor) is obviously observing the fast, but I don’t know yet about the others. Maya, Server’s wife, invited me to go with her to her sister’s home next weekend in Bakhchysaray, a town near here that was the original center of the Crimean Tatar khanate (the Tatar ruling body) and has a lot of beautiful old ruins. Will we be fasting or not, I don’t know. Though I think the fast can be suspended if you are traveling, as long as you make up the days. We’ll see…
Spent the last week in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, at a training for Peace Corps Volunteers and our organization counterparts. It was a good experience in many respects. The train trip up and back, though long—18 hours each way—was not so bad. Actually, I think travelling that way is very civilized. You get on the train in late afternoon/early evening, have something to eat (you bring your own food and water), watch the scenery go by, read, chat. Then you go to bed, and when you wake up in the morning, you are almost at your destination. We were in 3rd class, which consists of facing double bunk beds perpendicular to the side of the train, and then another bunk across the aisle along the opposite side. In second class, which I had travelled before, there weren’t the side bunks and the two facing bunks are enclosed in a compartment with a door. Travelling alone, I definitely would go third class because it is more open and feels safer. But if I was with another person, perhaps the enclosed compartment (even though it would be shared with two others), would be better. Definitely would be quieter. Going to Kyiv we had a side bunk right next to the door which leads to the hallway where the bathroom is, so there was constantly coming and going. But the trip back was fine. I like the rocking motion of the train and feel like I sleep well. The bathrooms aren’t great, but it is Ukraine, after all. At least they aren’t a hole in the floor.
The training was centered around the idea of service learning—getting people to volunteer and what they are able to learn from that experience. There was a talk at the beginning on the history of volunteerism in Ukraine, particularly during Soviet times, where there was forced “volunteerism.” It was quite interesting. Much of the time we spend working on a pilot project with our counterpart on how we would recruit and manage volunteers. The fact that Nadzhye and I can’t really communicate beyond the basic necessities was, of course, a problem. But they provided interpreters, which was so helpful, at least in the beginning. What became hard for me as the week progressed is that Nadzhye kept coming up with different project ideas and seemed to discard earlier ones that appeared to be, at least initially, what she really wanted. I don’t know what was going on, but it was very frustrating. And on the train ride home, she presented yet another idea. Hard to know if she is one of those people who have a million ideas but don’t seem to be able to focus, or if she was just responding to the ideas of the training. Time will tell, as always. We did have a logistical communication breakdown on the last evening, which didn’t help. I had told her I was going into the city center with Jud to have dinner with his niece, but I got a frantic phone call from her wondering why I wasn’t at the venue. We got it worked out, but it wasn’t a good way to end things. She seemed more distant on the train ride home, but perhaps she was just tired. So much guesswork without the language bridge.
I did have a nice time with Jud visiting his niece. Her and her husband and two kids have just moved to Kyiv, where he has some high level military appointment at the embassy. The embassy provides them with an apartment, and it was quite amazing, even by American standards. Two floors, four bathrooms, four bedrooms, huge living room and kitchen, etc. etc. And right in the heart of the center up on the 8th floor with beautiful views. Now I know where Jud will be spending his free time—he only lives 3 hours from Kyiv. It was a treat to spend the evening with them, eating chili and cornbread and brownies! We had to take a bus and then the Metro (subway) to get there, which was fine, except when we got off the subway we couldn’t find our way out and circled around different levels for about a half an hour. That song about “He never returned, no he never returned, riding forever beneath the streets of Boston….” kept going through my head. The Metro is quite something—built during Soviet times, it is incredibly deep. At some stations, you go down two of the longest (and fastest) escalators I have even been on. Down, down, down…. But the platform areas are very lovely with a lot of mosaics, and clean, and the trains aren’t bad---better then New York! And I feel next time I am in Kyiv, I will be able to navigate them better—and find my way out.
Well I think I am written out, so maybe I will wander over to my neighbors and see if anything is happening for Independence Day, or maybe I will just go into the city on my own and walk around. It’s a beautiful day , and not so hot. The evenings are very cool. Summer is winding down here in Crimea. Love to everyone back in the States. I do miss you all.

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