Monday, December 21, 2009

Winter Solstice Eve in Crimea

Just checked my blog and see it has been almost two weeks since I did a post--result of my computer dying and no internet access at home. (Hopefully I will get my computer back today or tomorrow). It is Monday morning, and I am at the library, going a bit crazy. Another person has moved into our office—why, I don’t know—and now there are five of us in here, and it is pretty crammed and chaotic with comings and goings. Hard to think, much less get anything done. And the energy feels very stressed. As I understand it, there is a government audit happening in January, and everyone is wound up about it. My three times a week English class for four of the staff got reduced to two, and now it has been cancelled until “after the holidays.”
And about the holidays here in Ukraine: The really big holiday is New Year’s—“novie gode.” That is when the family gathering, big feast, gift giving all happens. Santa Claus comes in the form of St. Nicholas I believe, and people decorate “Christmas” trees. It happens on Dec. 31st like in America, and at midnight the president comes on all the TV stations and gives a welcome to the New Year. Plus there are fireworks, all night gatherings, champagne toasting, partying in the streets, etc. Or so I have been told—will have to report on what really happens, at least in my part of this world.
Christmas is observed on January 7th, the Orthodox Christian date. It is not such a big holiday, and in the Crimean Tatar community it is, of course, not celebrated at all. Pretty much everything closes between New Year’s and January 7th, and there is much partying. A lot of PCV’s take this time to travel and maybe I will do that next year, but this year I wanted to be here in my community and hopefully be part of the celebrations. I do have presents planned for my neighbors and assume I will end up at their houses on New Year’s Eve, but which house and when and how to negotiate all of that does make me a little nervous. Just got to relax around it and figure it will get worked out in whatever way it is meant to. My American Christmas Eve and Christmas will be pretty much business as usual, though I will be having dinner on the 24th with a fellow volunteer who is heading out of town. And that weekend there is a party at one of the PCV’s sites which I think I will go to.
It has been snowing all over Ukraine and apparently causing a lot of havoc in various places. But here in Crimea we have been having rain, a little snow which quickly melts, and ferocious winds. Apparently this is par for the course for winter in Crimea, though usually there is some snow. Serdar keeps hoping. I do miss the snow, miss skiing, miss being out in the woods in that beautiful low winter light casting shadows on the snow. The rain let up for a bit yesterday, so I went for a walk and headed up into the forest and then out onto the bluffs. The distant mountain peaks were covered in snow—gave my spirits a lift. I, of course, immediately began pondering how I could get to that snow and where I could find some cross country skis. The skiing is probably not possible—apparently there is some skiing here on the highest mountain, but no cross country skiing and no place to rent any kind of skis. But maybe I will figure out a way to go there and least tramp around in the snow.
I am in the midst of several grant writing tasks, so it is probably good that I am not going anywhere over New Year’s. It is a struggle, as always, to communicate enough to know exactly what I am supposed to be writing, but now I feel that if I can get the gist of the meaning, I can take if from there. I have quit trying to be true to their words for the most part, because the translation available is just not adequate enough. This experience certainly has given me an insight on how hard it must be to do literary translations—how do you take the beauty of the written word and translate it into another language and retain that beauty? What a deep understanding one must have of a language to accomplish such a task.
Saturday was my six month anniversary here in Crimea, a marker along this journey. Several of my PCV friends refer to the marker as how much time is left in their Peace Corps service—18 months for the people in my group—and there seems to be a sense of relief that it is going fast and they are getting through it. But for me, I feel almost a sense of panic—a fourth of my time here gone and I feel I have accomplished so little; the hopes/expectations I had for my language knowledge at this point haven’t been met; but most of all, I think how can I possibly leave my neighbors when my time here is done? Always I try to put these thoughts away and concentrate on the present, but the grief I feel at the thought of never seeing Neshet and Lenora and Serdar and Safie ever again makes me know how attached I have become to them. But I also feel that they will somehow stay in my life. Serdar, for sure, will make it to America, and I know I will come back. And sometimes I think of staying here if there was work I could do. IF I become fluent in the language—and that is a big if. I go from hopeful to totally discouraged about my language learning progress. I had some notion that I would just be able to chatter away by this point. I guess because people here gave me that idea, and also some of the other PCV’s seem to have learned very quickly. But it will be slower for me, I know now. I don’t think I have much of an aptitude for language learning. But I keep plugging away and feel joy at every new word I recognize and say.
Tonight is the longest night of the year, and then the sun will start its slow journey back. I think of my friends in Minneapolis celebrating the solstice as we do every year and know how close we all are, despite the miles that separate us. Much love to all of you on this Winter Solstice in Crimea.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

More birthdays in Crimea

Siyare's Birthday--Server and May, (Dad and Mom), brother Ruslan, Siyare
Siyare with her two best friends

I’m starting to get behind in my blog writing. It has been almost two weeks since my last post. I don’t have any exciting adventures to report, as my Crimea exploring days are over for awhile as the darkness and cold settle in. We have about an hour less light here than Minneapolis, which means the sun doesn’t come up until after 7 and sets a little before 4. Not enough time to travel to one of those beautiful hiking spots. And winter is starting to happen, though so far no snow and temps in the 40’s. However, maybe that is what winter means here in Crimea, though everyone keeps saying that it does indeed snow. But I read on Facebook of everyone shoveling out back home—the first snow storm of the season—and it makes me homesick. How I loved that first real snow of the winter and the beautiful blanket it laid over the city.
Last weekend I went to a meeting of PCV’s in Crimea. About ten of us came to the meeting, which for me and other folks in my area, required a 4-hour bus trip, as it was in northern Crimea. One of the PCV’s from my group is a guy in his 30’s who was in the Peace Corps first in Russian and got kicked out of there (when Russian kicked out the PC) and then again in Georgia and got kicked out of there when Russian invaded Georgia. His goal this time around is just to complete his service. He came into Simferopol on Friday night and stayed over at my place, and then we took the bus in the morning to the meeting. It was a good gathering—there sure are a lot of smart young people in the Peace Corps. I was the granny of the group, of course, older than all their mothers, I’m sure. But I feel pretty much at ease with them, except when they start talking about movies and music, and then it’s kind of like listening to Russian conversations. In other words, I don’t have a clue what they are talking about. And they all seem to be able to sleep just about anywhere. The ten of us crashed in one of the PCV’s fairly large apartment (by PC standards), which meant three rooms. I shared a room with two women and one man, though I curled up on the sofa bed in the corner, so I had the best spot. The old gal deserves something, I figured.
Northern Crimea is much different than the south. Very flat, endless farm fields. I’m not quite sure of the farm ownership now, but during Soviet times they were all collective farms. So there are vast unbroken fields. The people who worked the farms then, and now, live in the nearby villages, so you don’t see the farm houses scattered on the land like you do in American farm areas. The fields are green with what I assume is winter wheat coming up, also some fields had a very leafy plant, which I couldn’t distinguish from the bus window. Got to wondering if it was radishes, as there has been a spate of them recently in the bazaars. Though a field that big of radishes is a little hard to imagine….
My neighbor’s daughter, Siyare, turned twenty-two last week, and then Lenora and Neshet’s Safie turned twelve last Sunday. I never quite know when to go anywhere. I know I was expected at both events, or at least I assumed so as we had been talking about the birthdays, but there never was a specific invitation, which is so Ukrainian, and so hard to get used to. In America I pretty much did not go to people’s houses unless invited. But here you just show up, I think. The night of Siyare’s birthday I went over there a little after I came home from work to bring her a present. I kept angsting (not a word I know, but I’m sure you get the idea) about when to go and finally just went. Well, it turns out there was the preparations going on for some big party of Siyare’s friends and Maya (the mom) was frantically cooking and had enlisted Lenora’s help. I tried to pitch in, but seemed to be more in the way, so I just sat down and wondered what I should do and if I was invited. But I knew they would be offended if I left, so I just stayed for the whole event, and of course, it was great fun, once I relaxed and quit worrying about it all.
And then Sunday I had the same angst about when to go over for Safie’s birthday. I thought I had timed it pretty well, but when I went there, Lenora was just starting to make manti for dinner. This time I did help her, which I enjoyed. Manti are these artfully made large dumplings stuffed with meat or sometimes squash and steamed in large stacked steamers (which she had brought from Uzbekistan). Eventually some of the relatives showed up, though that seemed unplanned, also. I gave Safie earrings that my friend Robin had gotten in America—made by Navajos—and she really loved them.
Not much happening this week, and maybe that is good. Went over to Neshet and Lenora’s last night and ended up feeling so depressed about my inability to communicate very well. And I got the feeling that Neshet was feeling pretty frustrated too, though I could, of course, been totally misinterpreting him. My six-month anniversary of being here in Simferopol is coming up in another week, and I had so thought that I would know the language better than I do. But I will keep plugging away, despite the temptation to give it up, because some day I want to have real conversations with the people I have come to care about so much.
Tonight was the second meeting of the English Club I conduct at the nearby university, and I know it gave me a boost to be able to speak English (these are all fairly fluent speakers) and talk about issues. Since World AIDS Day was December 1, we spent the time talking about truths and myths concerning AIDS. It was so interesting to hear what they had to say. Ukraine has the highest HIV infection rate in Europe, and they were all aware of that.
Getting tired, I think I will end now. Much love to all.