Sunday, November 29, 2009

Birthday celebrations

Serdar's Birthday dinner. Neshet is holding Sima the household cat.
My birthday dinner. That's Dima, a Russian friend of PCV Grace's, on his right. My friend too.
The library staff wishes me happy birthday with flowers.
My office mates, Nadjye, Refika, and Fatma, give me a Turkish coffee maker.
Lenora and I on my birthday.

Birthdays and Thanksgiving/Muslim holiday

A rainy Sunday afternoon. Good day to be inside, get caught up on my blog, make some soup (borscht), study, get prepared for my English classes and clubs this week, work on a couple of grants. Hmmm…maybe I have too high expectations for this afternoon.
But I do want to get caught up with my blog. My birthday celebration continued with a celebration of sorts at the library Monday morning. It is the tradition here for the birthday person to provide sweets and coffee for the whole staff, and then a lunch for one’s office mates. I got the lunch together the night before despite being exhausted from quite the day of hiking—traditional American food of potato salad and pasta salad, plus bread, cheese, and fruit. I decided I would get the cakes, etc. once I got to the library. However, it turned out, sadly enough, that the father of one of the women on the staff had died the night before, so several people were going to the funeral , and we wouldn’t have the big staff birthday gathering. But at some point in the morning, most of the staff did come in my office with flowers which the director presented to me with a little speech (also part of the tradition), and we still had a nice luncheon in the office, complete with some wine! I was sad about the death of Zarema’s father, though. I had met him when I went to her house for dinner. Even though she is only 33, he was in his early 80’s, not uncommon among the Tatar families, which meant he had seen much tragedy in his lifetime, as he would have been a young man when the deportation happened. He had been sick and died during the night, and apparently it is Muslim tradition that if someone dies during the night, they must be buried before noon the next day, unless family have to travel, which is why the funeral was so soon. Zarema is one of my favorite people in the library, and I feel so bad for her. The pain of her loss is so evident on her face.
The following weekend (November 22nd) was Serdar’s 16th birthday. He made a point of making sure I was going to come to his house to celebrate, which made me feel good. He went bowling with his friends during the afternoon (yes, there is a (as in one) bowling alley here in Simferopol), and then the dinner was in the evening and another neighbor friend joined us. As is often the case, I didn’t quite get the information correct and thought we weren’t actually having dinner, so I ate dinner before coming over. But, of course, we did end up having a big dinner complete with Lenora’s home made French fries, Serdar’s favorite. I always seem to be showing up for meals when I have already eaten. But I always eat anyhow, as it would offend them not to. Sharing food is a very big deal around here. However, I did tell Lenora that I had misunderstood and eaten before I came over, which is a sign of how comfortable I feel with them.
This week passed so quickly. Monday I discovered that I somehow had lost my bank card, which is how we get our money here. It is a cash economy and credit cards are rarely used, and I’m not sure they even have checks. So my cash card is my link to having money. I was pretty good about not obsessing about it all day. I kept thinking that perhaps I would find it once I got home, but no luck. So I dug out the paperwork, found the number to call to block the card and luckily they spoke English, made arrangements to go to the bank with someone who could translate for me, and the next day took care of it. I still don’t have a new card, but it should show up this week. So not too bad, plus it meant I got to spend some time with Arzy (the translator), whom I like a great deal. She helped me shop at the bazaar for a new umbrella. And that umbrella led to a realization of my aging, because when I got home and was looking at it, I realized I didn’t have the strength in my hands to close it easily. I took it back to the woman at the bazaar the next day thinking maybe something was wrong with it, but no, it was my hand. She could easily close it. When she saw I struggled with it, she said something about “problema” and then pointed at her hands, saying Russian hands, and then found me a different kind of umbrella that was easy to close. Ah well, at least my feet are going strong.
The major event of this week in the American world is that it was Thanksgiving. In my world here, it was also a holiday, the Muslim holiday of Kurban Baram, or the Festival of Sacrifice, which is at the end of the Mecca pilgrimage. If I understand it correctly, it is when Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son for God, but because he showed such great love, God told him to sacrifice an animal instead. Or something like that—a Biblical scholar I am not. Anyhow, it is traditional that Muslims slaughter a sheep or goat and give it to their family and friends and poor people. Or give whatever they can afford. In my case, I think it translated to receiving some yummy pumpkin stuffed dumplings (called manti) that evening from one of my neighbors.
Thanksgiving Day also found me attending my first ever Muslim religious service. In the library in the morning they said the “mullah” was coming for a prayer service at the library. All the women were busy finding head coverings—Zarema had brought several scarves for people. They were assuming, I think , that I wouldn’t want to go, but I did and used a bandana to cover my head. The mullah turned out to be a young man dressed in a business suit with a small fez on his head--how living here among these Muslims has attacked my stereotypes of Islam. Before that day, when I thought of a mullah, I thought of a white-turbaned, long-bearded man. But his singing of the prayer in Arabic was familiar to me from listening to the call to prayers, and I found it very meditative. After the service, when we had sweets and coffee as we seem to do after every event at the library, I found out that it was a prayer service for the people who had died in one’s life.
Other events of this week: Tuesday was a reception at the library in honor of a famous Crimean Tatar writer who had died the previous year. There were cookies, cake, and tea and coffee every where, including our office, and many older Crimean Tatars came to the library. They were all speaking Crimean Tatar and I couldn’t understand anything of what was being said, but it was wonderful to watch their faces. And then yesterday (Saturday), I spent much of the day with my neighbors. I was hanging out my laundry in the morning, when Server (my landlord) said something about guests. I thought about it and decided he was inviting me over when their guests came as it was relatives I have met. It was a gorgeous day and I really wanted to go hiking, but decided I should stick around and see if I was correct. Well, finally I decided that maybe I was wrong and put my shoes on to take off, when Maya knocked on the door and said to come over. I was so glad I had waited because she would have been so offended if I hadn’t been there, but I really need to get these invites figured out. Had a lovely few hours with them, including talking with the somewhat English speaking 13-year-old granddaughter, and a tasty meal of Crimean Tatar dishes.
And then last evening I spent a couple of hours with Lenora and Neshet and Serdar and Safie. Neshet was showing me old pictures of his family. His parents were born in 1924 and 1928, so they were grown when the deportation happened. He was born quite a bit later—he is 44. His father never made it back to Crimea and died in Uzbekistan and his mother died shortly after returning to Crimea. There was a picture of them the day they got to Uzbekistan and another picture of his mother with Serdar as a baby. How ancient and sad her face looked. I also learned that Lenora, who I thought was an only child, had a sister and brother. Her sister died at two years of age from an illness, and her brother died at eighteen from a “catastrophe,” which I assume means some kind of accident. Her parents are still living—I have met them both—and this knowledge makes me think of them too, and the tragedies they have faced in their lives. More and more, as my knowledge of their world increases, I am feeling a part of Neshet and Lenora’s family, and it is such a gift to me.
Well, I have managed to go into a third page this time, so I think I will end here. Nothing like a rainy afternoon to spend a lot of time ruminating. But I need to get some work done, and also some kind of walk in before the darkness comes (4:00 these days). Much love to you all.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Some pictures from the Cave City of Eski Kermen

My 62nd Birthday in Ukraine, Part I

It’s a rainy dark Thursday afternoon. My counterparts at the library took off for a meeting, so I left early to go home and do some work, though I haven’t quite gotten started. But I will. There is so much to do, sometimes I get in that do-nothing-because-I-am- overwhelmed mode—I don’t know where to start! But I have to remember that many, many times I felt that at the bookstore, and, of course, it all eventually got done, so I just have to take a deep breath, and get started.
A little rundown on what I am doing these days, since mostly I talk about my weekend hiking excursions. Because of the high (relatively) cost of housing here in Simferopol, I am working with three sites, instead of the usual one or two, because they all put money towards my housing (as does the Peace Corps and now, me). It seemed manageable at first, but now it is starting to feel a little out of control, though there is nothing I want to give up doing. Three mornings a week I teach a small English class to some of my co-workers at the Gasprinsky Library. One day a week I conduct two English clubs for kids at the Childrens’ Library, and one day a week (starting this week) I conduct an English club at the Crimean Tatar University for university students and adults. All of which take a lot of preparation, especially since I have zero experience in any of this. I am also working with the artists on two grants and with the Gasprinsky Library on a grant. Plus I continue to research funding ideas. My current research is in the Islamic world because apparently there is a lot of money in some places (like Dubai) for Islamic cultural projects. And then there is the one afternoon a week I spend with my Russian tutor. Actually, I only spend a couple of hours with her, but it takes a half hour to get out to her place and a hour to get home. So there you have it, my life in a nutshell that is sort of making me nuts!!
But what I really want to write about is my birthday weekend which was last weekend. My first birthday in Crimea. Birthdays are a big deal here, so I anticipated something happening, though I wasn’t sure what and Ukrainians are not very into advance planning. Somehow everything just seems to happen. So here it is, Saturday morning, the day of my birthday, and I still don’t really know what I will be doing. I do know that PCV Grace is going to show up around noon so we can go hiking the next day, and that she does. We head down to the bazaar to do some food shopping and run into Lenora, who gives me a big birthday hug and says to come over in the evening to celebrate. Hooray! A plan! And then later in the afternoon, my other favorite neighbors, Maya and Siyare, came over to have some tea and cookies (which luckily I thought of to get at the bazaar in case they showed up), and brought me a little present. Dima, a young (22) Russian friend of Grace’s, showed up later with flowers for me, and we all went over to Neshet and Lenora’s, where Lenora had prepared a big feast—pizza with chicken, cheese, and tomatoes; a fish, onion, and mayonnaise kind of pie (I know it sounds awful but it really is tasty); various tomatoe and eggplant type relishes; mashed potatoes; and many other treats. Not a Crimean Tatar dinner, but very tasty. Plus she made a great fresh apple cake for dessert. It was a very fun evening, and since Dima is quite fluent in English, we had a really good interpreter.
The next day was our hiking trip we had planned to Eski Kermen, one of the cave cities, and supposedly the most interesting. Serdar, Grace, and I headed out about 7:15 am, met Sam, another PCV, at the bus station and took off. Two bus rides got us to the small village nearest Eski Kermen, and then it was a 6 km walk. But it was a beautiful walk through the rolling pastures as we made our way to the steep bluffs. Eski Kermen, built in the 6th century, is located high on the top of one of the bluffs, with wonderful views of the valleys and distant mountains. Like all the cave cities of Crimea, it was built on the bluff as a natural fortress to defend the town against invaders. There were many caves hollowed out of the limestone walls, multi levels and rooms, windows looking out into the distance. There were holes in the ceiling to catch the rain and to funnel the smoke of fires. Some of the caves were used for burial, some were churches. Supposedly, there are more than 400 caves at Eski Kermen, though we only saw a few.
There was more to explore, but while sitting in one of the caves having lunch, it started to pour down rain. I was the only one with rain gear, so we waited out the rain a bit, but when it was obvious it wasn’t going to let up, we took off anyhow and continued to explore. However, everyone got increasingly wet and the wind picked up, so we decided to head back. Dima had come out to meet us, but we were all too wet and cold to continue to explore. As it was, we missed the earlier bus back to town and had to wait 1 ½ hours in the cold and dark for the next bus. Finally got to the bus station in Simferopol around 7pm, the bus to Ak Mechet (where I live) wasn’t running, so we had to take another bus and follow Serdar on some back trail to our houses. By the time we got home, we were all very exhausted, but everyone agreed, it was a great day, and that we had to go back and explore when we had more light and it wasn’t raining!
Well, I wanted to report on the rest of my birthday celebration at the library on Monday, but I think I have run out of steam, so that will have to wait until my next post. Plus I need to get some dinner made (potato soup) and some studying done, as I meet with my tutor tomorrow.
Love to all from this now old-enough-to-retire hiking babe.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Pictures of the Genoese Fortress

Sudak and the fortress

Tuesday night, nursing a bit of a cold, trying not to worry that it will turn into the “California grippe”—what people here are calling the swine flu. There has been an outbreak of cases in western Ukraine that has sent the country into a panic, with the government closing all schools and universities across the country for three weeks and banning any large gatherings. Some small towns in western Ukraine are quarantined, not letting anyone in or out. Much to the dismay of Peace Corps Volunteers who live there and ended up not being able to return if they happened to be visiting somewhere when the quarantine was declared. One poor guy is at the end of his service and has a non refundable ticket to go back to America, but he can’t get his stuff from his village! But here in Crimea there have been no cases of the swine flu, and people seem a bit more relaxed about it, though there are some folks wearing face masks. And the schools are closed here too.
Struggling this past week with my growing apprehension about the fact that I am at three sites, none of which have had a PCV before, all of which want me to get money for them, and now they are beginning to get it that maybe that isn’t going to happen in the way they had expected. Besides my ongoing issues with one of the artists, I also had a meeting with the director of the Children’s Library who thinks I should be able to raise donations from the U.S., because that is what she was told PCV’s do. When I explain to her that they need a project to raise donations for, she just sort of rolls her eyes. And then at the Crimean Tatar Library, I know Nadjye is under pressure from the director to produce grant money, and so keeps fruitlessly searching on the internet instead of pursuing the smaller amounts of money that are available. Though today she did start working on one of those grants, so that was gratifying to see. I just have to keep remembering that it is a process, that what I can to is to help them along in that process, and if it doesn’t produce results this time, then maybe it will pave the way for the next PCV to work with them. I have to keep reminding myself that I have only been here (in Simferopol) about 5 months now, and that isn’t a very long time.
Wednesday afternoon now. I decided to stay home from the Children’s Library and nurse my cold a bit, especially since the English Clubs aren’t really happening (had one kid show up last week) due to the quarantine. Doing some laundry, sipping some coffee (I now have a little stove top espresso maker thanks to Lenora who dug it out of her cupboard for me), trying to get caught up on emails, and cleaning my house. Turns out I’m going to have guests tomorrow. My friend Debbie and another older PCV I don’t know, Suzanne, are going to come into town for the day on their way to somewhere else. I knew they had planned to spend the night, but they decided to make a whole day of it and celebrate my birthday a few days early. So, what a treat! Maybe I will take them to the nearby cave city.
Last Saturday Serdar (I found out I have been spelling his name wrong—it’s Serdar instead of Sirdar) and I took off on another adventure. I had asked him if he wanted to go hiking, and he said sure and then we sat around with Lenora and Neshet and discussed where , or rather they discussed it, and came up with going to the fortress at Sudak, a town on the coast I have wanted to visit. It is a 2-hour bus ride from here, which was a little more than I had planned, but of course, I agreed. And what a great time we had. It was just the two of us—Saphye is at her grandparents in their village. We took a marshuka to the train station, got tickets there for a bus to Sudak, and then in Sudak took another marshuka to the fortress. On the ride to the fortress, Serdar struck up a conversation with a couple who lived nearby, and the guy was very excited about me being an American. I, of course, did not have a clue what was going on, but when we got off the bus he wanted Serdar to take a picture of us—he with his arm around me—and then he walked us to the entrance of the fortress and convinced the ticket cashier to give us free tickets! And we exchanged contact information. He clearly had been drinking some, but I think he was harmless and just an exuberant soul. Serdar kept rolling his eyes at me but was very excited at the free tickets.
The fortress was built by the Genoese in the 14th and 15th centuries mostly with Tatar workers. Much of it is still standing, and it is quite an impressive structure, with a long, 2 meters thick and 6 meters high, wall, and many towers. What is most amazing is its location on a towering cliff face above the sea. The views were absolutely stunning—of the village below with its curving beach, the surrounding mountains, the beautiful blue sea. We perched high up on the rocks and ate lunch and just marveled at our surroundings. And also, as Serdar said, at what it must have taken to build such a structure in that location.
After exploring the fortress, we still had some time left before our return ticket to Simferopol. Serdar wanted to explore a nearby village and mountain because he had heard it was very beautiful, so we headed out in that direction, but I convinced him we really didn’t have enough time to get there and back. Ah, the exuberance of youth—too bad it had to be reined in by old lady me (as I called myself). But instead we made our way down to a rocky beach below the cliffs the fortress is perched on. It was such a gorgeous day and there were people actually swimming, so Serdar decided he wanted to get in. Well, neither of us had brought swimsuits, but we just stripped down to our underwear (I had a nylon tank top on) and got in! Serdar went all the way in, but I just sort of waded in up to my thighs. It was really cold water, and I decided I didn’t want to spend the rest of the day with totally wet underwear. We hung out on the beach for awhile, and then headed back to the bus station. It was dark and cold by the time we finally arrived home that night, but a “very good day,” as Serdar said. How lucky I am to have such a wonderful young friend.
Uh oh, it is clouding up and looks like it might rain. Better go out and get my laundry and hang it up inside. There are so few hours of sun now, anyhow—only about 9, even less than Minnesota. I have a hard time thinking where I am at is further north than Minnesota because the climate is so much milder, but latitude wise, it is.
Much love to all from the land of wonders.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Some pics from the Children's Library

That's Elnur, the computer guy there, who helps me with my Russian,
My morning English Club. A great group of kids.
the Library is in an old building that it shares with a ob/gyn clinic.

A cold and quiet week

Tuesday afternoon, sitting at my desk at the Gasprinsky Library, trying to ignore (unsuccessfully) how cold I am. About a week ago, the weather went from the beautiful, warm, sunny weather of our hike to Bolshai Canyon to cold, windy, overcast skies. Today when I woke up there was a dusting of snow on the ground, and all day there has been a steady cold drizzle. All of which would be tolerable if one could come to work and be warm. But such is not the case. Apparently, the city still has not turned on the gas that goes to the commercial and apartment buildings. Both of my libraries are very cold, and the homes of my office mates’ also have no heat, though they seem to deal with it using space heaters. I do have heat in my house, which is such a treat to come home to. But I’m having a hard time working—I have on long underwear, boots, a wool turtleneck sweater and a heavy wool cardigan, fingerless gloves. And I am still cold. But I try to keep quiet about it. Everyone is definitely saying they are cold, but there isn’t a whole lot of griping about it, just an unhappy acceptance and a “who knows” attitude about when the heat might come on. I would love to go home and work. I know I would get a lot more done, but no one else is bailing out, I see. The wimpy American going home because of the cold is just not the image I want to project. So here I sit….
The last ten days have had its ups and downs. One of the highlights of last week was the birthday of Refika, one of my office mates. There was quite a hoopla surrounding it at the library. I don’t know if that is the typical celebration, or if it was something to do with Refika and her position here. Anyhow, in the morning there was cakes and coffee for the whole staff as we gathered in the reading room, and the director and other people gave her flowers and offered toasts. And then over our lunch break, she and another woman in the office spread out an entire lunch for the four of us in the office, including sweet wine. Quite the treat, though something made me a bit sick later in the day. It was a lovely celebratory day, and I felt so included.
Another wonderful event of last week was a presentation of a new book published by a local Crimean Tatar publisher. The reading room was packed with people, including a television station filming the event. As best as I could tell, the book was a collection of old Crimean Tatar music that someone had collected. Some very old Crimean Tatar men were in the audience (men who would have been living in Crimea before the deportation) and one of them gave a speech at the beginning. Everything was in the language of Crimean Tatar, so I didn’t have a chance at understanding, not that I would have caught that much of the Russian. But it didn’t really matter, because the real event was the music. There was a small band—clarinet and what looked like traditional instruments—a drum that reminded me of the Irish drums and 2 stringed instruments, one with a very long neck, the other about the size of a mandolin and held upright. There were three singers—a man in his 50’s/60’s, a woman also of that age in traditional dress, a younger woman. They all had wonderful voices, and after singing solo, they joined in the end in a haunting song that many people in the audience knew and sang with them. I sat there thinking of the ancientness of this music and culture and how eternal music can seem as it unites us across the barriers of language and culture. I felt very thankful and privileged to be there.
The rest of the week was my usual—working three days at the Gasprinsky Library on various projects, mostly a grant for one of the artists; one day at the Children’s Library where some kids showed up for the English Clubs despite it being a school holiday; and Friday my day of meeting with Enver and then my Russian tutor.
I had my first weekend in quite a while with no visitors and no plans. The weather wasn’t conducive to hiking much, so I spent it reading, doing laundry (love all my heat pipes to dry my clothes on), food shopping, cooking, visiting some with the neighbors. I did manage a 2-hour hike Sunday afternoon on the nearby bluffs, being blasted by the wind, but still loving being there. And a funny thing happened. A guy passed me and I actually said something to him in Russian without even thinking about it! And he understood me, and I understood him! All I said was cold, huh? And he said he was fine, but it was the fact that it just came out without me making a plan of what to say. So I am progressing, slowly like the tortoise, but that is my normal pace, I have to keep remembering. I do reach the top of the mountain (usually), it just takes me a while.
A down side of my work right now, is that both the library and the artists continue to have this expectation that I will find them grant money, and are disappointed and/or angry (in the case of one of the artists) that I haven’t. Nadjye spends her days searching the internet for grants, something I have already done, and I want to say, “don’t you think we should concentrate on writing the grants that we do have a chance of getting instead of these endless fruitless searches?” (especially when she can’t read most of what she is looking at) But I know she is under pressure from the director to come up with big money. I just don’t think it is out there, and I have run out of places to look. I would just like to get on with the work of it.
And then there is Ceitabla, one of the artists, who I haven’t seen for weeks, but sends me emails telling me how disappointed he is, and isn’t this what I am supposed to be doing as a PCV, and in the meantime doesn’t do his end of the work of writing a grant. I really want to just start ignoring him, but I know that isn’t a helpful approach. Many times it just feels so impossible to communicate about all of this. He sends his emails in Russian, I put them through google translator, and then write my response and also run it through google translator. Who knows what we are really saying to each other?? But I do think we get the gist, if not the finer points, and the gist is definitely that I haven’t lived up to his expectations. He clearly had unrealistic expectations, but still, it isn’t a good feeling. Hard not to get defensive. But, as always, it is good practice in…patience, not taking it on, just letting him be what he is.
Have written enough for now, I think. Maybe I will try a little research (or maybe not) before I head out into the colder night and on home. Last night I got home much later after helping the director’s daughter whom I like a great deal, teach an English class. It was very cold and dark when I got home, after walking quite a ways from the bus stop, and all I wanted to do was curl up in my warm house. But a couple of minutes after I arrived, my neighbor came over and invited me to her house. And because I never turn down invitations, over I went, and what a treat it turned out to be. Much of her extended family was there—all Crimean Tatar, some who now live in Russia, and it was so interesting to be with them, listening to them talk (I could understand a little and there were a couple of sort of English speakers). I was clearly the American on display, but I didn’t mind. Besides, Maya fed me some of her great plov and there was some shots of Russian whiskey that warmed me up. A good time—
Here is a link to a NY Times article recently about the Crimean Tatars. What a surprise to see it—

With love from Crimea.
Ps. I posted some pics from the children’s library.