Monday, September 28, 2009

Мой Дом (My House)

Here I am in my house (on the way out, thus the coat). Sitting at my desk next to my bed. My "dressing room"--the other bed filled room. Debbie sitting in my "dining room." And my kitchen/bathroom (toilet behind the curtain.)

The neighbors

It’s Monday morning, I’m at the Gasprinsky Library, not where or when I usually write my blog posts, but feeling inspired at the moment. Or maybe it is just trying to escape the drudgery of the twice-a-year Peace Corps reporting form, which true to government style, is on some elaborate excel spreadsheet that I’m sure makes the bean counters happy.
Two highlights come to mind when I think of what I did last week. Wednesday was my neighbor Maye (the landlord neighbor)’s 52nd birthday. Birthdays around here seem quite important. Everyone seems to know when everyone’s birthday is—I have been asked my date numerous times. I got Maye a plant—an African violet—and a pretty pot to put it in and a card. When I got home from work that evening, she was outside doing some thing, and I told her happy birthday and that I had a present for her. I couldn’t quite figure out her reply, except for the word potom, which means later. So I go into my house and start wondering exactly what she said—should I go over now, later, how much later? Ah, I can agonize forever over these things. Finally after about half an hour, I decided to just go over there. And as it turns out, it was perfect timing. The table had been set for dinner, and soon two other neighbor friends of hers showed up. The Goddess of Communication was smiling on me. So we had a lovely time and ate some really great Crimean Tatar food—a cold spicy eggplant salad called baklasha, plov (rice pilaf with lots of garlic) and shashleek—marinated meat shisk kabobs. And assorted other dishes and sweets. What a treat, and I felt so included, talking away with the help of my little dictionary, trying to listen and understand their conversations. Once again, I think how very lucky I am to have such wonderful neighbors.
And along the wonderful neighbor theme, Saturday I went on a 2 ½ hour hike with Sirdar, the soon-to-be 16 year old across the street. He really is an amazing kid. We talk in English, as he is studying English and that is a way I can help him. And his English is pretty good, so we can have some real conversations. We talked about Darwinism vs. creationism, the existence of God, the difference/similarities between Islam and Christianity, Soviet history, Stalin—these are all topics he brought up, mind you. I wanted to see if we could hike to this large lake I have noticed in the distance, so we kept heading in that direction into open fields I hadn’t crossed before. Nor had Sirdar, I don’t think. We had to turn back because the sun was starting to set, but it was great fun. Now he wants to take a day from his school vacation and the two of us hike as far as we can get in one day, which would mean about 8 hours of hiking. We want to hike to a village about 2 hours away where another Peace Corps volunteer lives, and then on beyond that. It will be an adventure. And since his dad has a car, I figure if my knee (or another part of this aging body) gives out, we can call him to come get us!
Sirdar’s 16th birthday is at the end of November, and I have been thinking about what to get him. Robin in America offered to send something, so I’m trying to come up with ideas. A male twenty-something Russian friend suggested an American football as they are not available here. In the rest of the world, football means soccer. If anyone reading this has ideas, let me know.
Sunday I spent visiting—Peace Corps Volunteers who were in town for the day, my neighbors, talking on skype to folks in America. I think of all I plan on getting done on weekends when I have no plans (unlike the next three), but rarely do get a whole lot accomplished. But just living in this culture is an accomplishment, I think.
I will post some pictures of the inside of my house that I took when my PCV friend Debbie was visiting last weekend. I hope I get to keep my little place, which is also turning into the gathering spot for Crimean PCV’s. It has enough room for overnight guests, and the neighbors love meeting the “Americans.” Especially the ones that they can actually talk with!
Home now and will try to post pictures with some captions. Love to you all.

Monday, September 21, 2009


Chilly night in Crimea

Monday night. Trying to stay warm with a blanket wrapped around myself. Turned cold and windy this weekend, and I’m assuming, like the rest of Ukraine, the central heat doesn’t get turned on until at least the middle of October, maybe later. Unlike America, the heat in Ukraine (gas) is controlled centrally in the towns and cities and gets turned on and off on certain dates—usually October 15 to April 15. Though last year, a nearby PCV didn’t get heat until December! The Peace Corps does provide us all with electric space heaters, but it can get mighty cold in Ukraine, even down here in Crimea. I took a walk this afternoon and experienced the infamous Crimea wind. It was just blasting across the open land. It is also beginning to get darker earlier—sunset is about 6:45 now—and everyone says in the winter it is dark by the time you get home from work. Like Minneapolis. Well, I finally looked up the latitude, and it is indeed like Minneapolis—we are almost at the same latitude. In Ukraine I think of myself as living in the south, and it is definitely warmer in the winter than Minnesota, but we are basically on the same latitude, so we experience that same low winter light here. I will have to really make an effort to see my neighbors. This summer I got together with them because I would run into them outside, but now we are all going to be holed up in our houses.
Nadzhiye was still gone on vacation this week, so I didn’t do a whole lot at the library, besides trying to make some contacts at the Library of Congress—a challenge in itself, as they have 3700 employees. My new English Clubs are starting up at the children’s library—one in the morning, one in the afternoon—but they haven’t been advertised much, so only have about 5 kids at each. Varying ages, varying levels of English. Somehow I can’t convince the library to separate the groups by age and ability. Well, it will be interesting. I decided today that I am going to try to incorporate some kind of info about America into each group, because everyone here—like the rest of the world of course—knows of Americans through a few movies, so they think we are all rich, for one thing. Got talking last week how only women are school teachers here, so I put together a little slide show on women’s jobs in America, showing several nontraditional women’s occupations.
My friend from Peace Corps training, Debbie, who lives in a city about a six-hour bus ride from here, came down for the weekend. First time she has visited, and we had a great time. Took her on my favorite hike up the bluffs near my home, visited my neighbors, and then Sunday went down to Yalta, the famous resort on the Black Sea. In the 1800’s it was a playground for the Russian czars—Nicholas II built a palace there—and during the Soviet times it became a “resort for the working people.” Today is continues to be the most popular spot in Crimea, with thousands of tourists every season, mostly from Ukraine and Russia. The waterfront is what I imagine Atlantic City to be like (or rather a more shabby version)—a long promenade along the sea with beaches, boats, restaurants, stores, kiosks selling all kinds of stuff. The setting is incredible beautiful—steep mountains rise up from the water, and the town is built on the slopes. I’ll post a few pictures, but they really don’t convey the beauty of it (just the tackiness!). We took a trolley bus down—the world’s longest trolley bus—and it lumbered along at a slow pace—took about 3 hours. On the way back, we took a marshuka (small bus)—about half the time. Apparently, we had some illegal passengers on the marshuka, because there were people standing in the aisle, and at some point the bus driver said something, and then they all kneeled down out of sight and Debbie pointed out a guard station of some kind we were passing. Don’t exactly know who was making the money on it—the bus driver or the bus company—but I imagine there was some money passing hands somewhere.
While we were walking along the waterfront, we heard a speech over a loudspeaker and then the Ukrainian national anthem, and then what we realized was the president of Ukraine being introduced. There was a crowd to see him, but many people seemed uninterested and just passed on by. There is a presidential election coming up in January, and there are four main contenders, including the very unpopular current president, but there is much apathy. Everyone I have talked to seems so cynical, feeling that nothing will make a difference in the current state of the country, that the government is so corrupt. One of the front runners in the current campaign is the candidate who almost got elected in 2004 via a rigged election which triggered the protests called the Orange Revolution. How disheartening to think of him ending up being president. The Orange Revolution, at the time at least, seemed a leap forward for the Ukrainian people, that they had had enough of the corruption of the political system, but now it seems to have gone sour. The economy is in such a terrible state—Ukraine is the hardest hit European country by the economic crisis—but every other day there is a news story about a scandal in the government and the various parties are constantly bickering and unable to accomplish much of anything. (Not unlike our government at times, of course.)
Just got off the phone with my PCV friend Jud who is going to come down for a visit in a couple of weeks. It’s late and I want to try and post some pictures, so I’m signing off for now. Love to you all.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Some pictures from Chufut-Kale

Cave City of Chufut-Kale

Monday night, still recovering from a pretty exhausting weekend for the old gal. Hard to keep up with those youngsters. Friday night twenty-something Grace and Aubree, two of my fellow PCV’s, came into town from nearby villages—they each had about a 2-hour bus trip to get here. They stayed overnight with me (my first guests!) and then we got up early in the morning to take the bus to Bakhchysaray and the cave city of Chufut-Kale, about a 45-minute trip from Simferopol. There are quite a few cave cities in Crimea, ancient areas of caves and structures high in the mountains where people lived for hundreds of years. Chufut-Kale was first settled between the 6th and 12th century. The first Crimean Tatar ruling body was established there, and later it sheltered a dissident Jewish sect called the Karaites. Located on the top of a high plateau, it is a series of dug out caves with windows facing out to spectacular views, ancient stone walls and paths, some small stone buildings.
To get there, we took a bus through the narrow winding streets of the old part of town, past the Khan’s Palace, which I will have to visit next time. It is a long hike up a winding road to get to Chufat-Kale. About halfway up is a Christian monastery built into the rocks by Byzantine monks in the 8th or 9th century. It was shut down during Soviet times, but re-opened in 1993 and there are eight monks who live there amidst the swarms of tourists.
The three of us had a nice time exploring the caves and structures, having a picnic of bread and cheese and apples from the tree in front of my house, taking pictures. We got there fairly early so it wasn’t too crowded, but groups of tourists starting showing up, so we headed on down, past all the souvenir stalls. Stopped at Caravan Serai, a Crimean Tatar restaurant where you can sit outside and lounge against cushions around a low table. All of us had logman, a traditional Tatar soup of homemade noodles, chunks of meat, and vegetables.
Got back to my place in the late afternoon and Aubree headed out to catch the bus back to her village. Grace stayed for the night, because she was heading to Kyiv the next day. Ended up spending most of the evening at my neighbors’. Grace can speak Russian fairly well, having been in the country 6 months longer than me and probably better at languages, and my neighbors loved talking with her. Got to ask her all those questions they probably had asked me, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying!
The next day two more young PCV’s showed up at my house, and we went on a long hike around the nearby bluff with Sirdar. They also could speak Russian much better than me, having been here even longer. I started feeling very incompetent. I so hope I can speak as well as they all do after I have been here that long, but I must say, I do have my doubts. One of them told me that she was at first lost when she got to her site, but after a couple of months, she started understanding what people were saying. A couple of months!!! But she also studied Russian in college, as many of them have.
It was fun having the company, but I was pretty exhausted by the time they all left in the late afternoon. I was out of food, so I trekked on down to the bazaar and did some power shopping for my usual groceries of the current vegetables—eggplant, peppers, red onions, cucumbers, tomatoes—and some fruit—grapes and a few oranges. Except for the oranges, everything I buy is local, and therefore very cheap. Come winter all that is going to be available is potatoes, onions, cabbage, and beets, so I want to keep eating those summer veggies while I can.
I think I’ll end this now and try to post some pictures. Next weekend my friend from training is coming for a visit. Maybe we will make it down to the Black Sea.
With love from Crimea.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Fall comes to Crimea

It’s Saturday evening, about 9 pm, and I just got back from a delightful time at my neighbor’s across the street. I hadn’t really seen them for a couple of weeks almost. With school starting this week and the days getting shorter, I haven’t run into them and am too shy to just appear on their doorstep. But today I made myself do just that, and I am so glad I did. Lenora gave me a big hug, we sat and chatted for awhile, and then later she went for my evening walk with me—first time she has done that. Afterwards I helped her cook dinner—also first time I have done that, usually I am the “guest.” Neshet, her husband, wasn’t around, but her father is here for a week so I got to meet him, and, of course, I love being around the kids, Sophye and Sirdar. So, once again, I am so glad I listened to that voice inside saying “just go ahead and do it, no matter how scary it seems.”
It’s been kind of a slow week in Barb’s Adventures in Ukraine. Nadzhiye, my counterpart at the library, did come in on Monday despite her being on vacation. She presented yet another idea for a project, but I realized we don’t really need to talk about it or make a decision until she comes back at the end of the month, so I let go of my anxieties and frustrations about the process. We weren’t really having a very good day in the communication department, and later she wanted me to go over a letter she had just written and then run through a translation program. She wanted me to “check for errors” so she could get it sent out that day. I had a hard time explaining to her how I couldn’t just check for errors, that I would have to take her ideas and rewrite the letter, as the translation programs are really worthless for something like a long letter. She got very frustrated with me it seemed, but I stayed late and finished the letter and she managed to get it sent out, so we ended the day (and our time together until the end of September) on a good note. She was very grateful, I think.
I had wondered what exactly I would do at the library while Nadzhiye is gone, but I realized that it is going to give me an opportunity to get to know better some of the other people I work with. Like the elderly man we share an office with. This week it was just the two of us. He speaks no English at all and is one of the folks who just talks more in the hopes that I will be able to figure out what he is saying. Sometimes I can, but mostly not, and it is pretty frustrating to try and talk with him. But I made more of an effort this week, and I think we made some progress. At least we are communicating a little bit. I would like to get to know him. He is the deputy directory of the library and is 79 years old, which means he must have lived in Crimea and been part of the deportation as a child, as it happened 65 years ago. Everyone else I have met was born in Uzbekistan to parents who were deported. So obviously there is much I could learn from him, if only we could talk. Someday….
Wednesday and Thursday afternoons I spent at the children’s library on my new split schedule. The plan is to have two English clubs at the library. Unfortunately, I only had one kid at each club. Obviously, the times were a poor choice. Next week we are going to try a morning club one day and an afternoon club the next day and see how it goes. I hope we get some kids, because I actually I have begun to enjoy being a teacher. Imagine that…. I got kind of attached to a couple of the regulars from the summer, and I was sorry not to see them. They are great kids. Part of the deal is that the school schedules of classes aren’t set yet. This is pretty crazy sounding to us Americans, but they don’t really have the class schedules worked out until a couple of weeks after school starts. The PCV’s I know that work in schools teaching English have to check every morning to see when their classes meet. I don’t understand how they let the kids know where to go when. As I recall, it seemed pretty nuts when you did have a schedule. But like everything else in Ukraine, I’m sure there are many underlying reasons that I have no knowledge of as to why things are done the way they are.
Friday is turning out to be my most exhausting day, because it is the day in which I am constantly trying to speak Russian with no real breaks. In the morning I meet with the artists—this time just with Enver which made it easier—and we are trying to communicate the whole time, talking about the project we are working on and other things. And then in the afternoon I meet with my tutor for a couple of hours. She speaks very poor English, and we do most of our talking in Russian. So far, I have my doubts about whether or not she is going to work as a tutor for me, but I really want to stick with her. She is a single mom of a 2 year old boy, lives with her parents across the mountain from where I live in another Crimean Tatar community. She told me about her “no good husband” and how her neighbors shun her because she doesn’t live with him. I know she needs the tutoring money, and I have begun to like her a lot. And she is trying very hard to help me. She is a Russian teacher and is educated, it’s just that she doesn’t speak English well so I have a hard time asking her questions. Ah, another cultural experience.
It’s Sunday evening now. Spent the day cleaning my house for the visit of my regional manager tomorrow, and then went on a two-hour walk, exploring a back road I had never been on. It winds along the fields that I see from the bluffs I frequently hike. A beautiful day with clouds floating in the sky, the mountains in the distance, hawks circling above, wildflowers along the roadside. A few people out working in their garden plots, but otherwise I didn’t see anyone. A couple of dirt tracks wandered off in the direction of what I now call “my mountain.” Got me entertaining the idea of a having my backpack and sleeping bag, and just start hiking there and see what happens. Maybe next summer when I can speak the language a little better.
It’s late, I need to get off to bed. Wonder what this week will bring… Love from Crimea.