Monday, December 20, 2010

On Crimean Tatars and ethnic hatred

It is late on a dark and cold Thursday afternoon. I’m at the library, answering some emails, helping some coworkers with English translations, chatting a bit with my office mates, and at 6, I will go to my English Club. Earlier in the day I sent a “Letter of Inquiry” to the Carnegie Foundation about funding for preservation projects at the library. I have been working on the “letter” for quite awhile, as it is really more like a full blown grant application, so it felt good to get it off. It is a long shot—a very long shot—but they have an Islamic Initiative in which they have funded mostly research, but they also funded the main library in Alexandria, Egypt for preservation work (to the tune of a million dollars). So, who knows? Might as well give it a try. I think that now I am going to just start sending off grant applications to any place I can think of, no matter how unlikely I feel it is that we would be awarded a grant, in the hopes that someone will take notice of who the Crimean Tatar people are and the importance of preserving their culture. And now that I know enough about the library, and how to ask questions, I can do more of the grant writing on my own, though I continually consult with Nadjie, or at least show her what I am doing.
I had a disturbing conversation last week with a young American Fulbright student here. She was only in Crimea for four months and has left now to go to a different country to study. She told me that when she asked young people she met at the university in Simferopol and other places what they thought were the biggest problems facing their country—thinking they would say corruption, the economy, etc—many said, “ the Crimean Tatars.” I asked, “How many?” She said she would estimate it to be 70-75%. One young man responded, when Sarah was talking about how terrible Stalin was, that “Stalin wasn’t so bad—at least he deported the Tatars.”
I guess I shouldn’t have been so shocked. I know that there are a lot of hostile feelings towards the Crimean Tatars. Every year around the memorial of the deportation (May 18th), a survey is conducted by Crimean NGO’s about attitudes towards Crimean Tatars. The results mirror almost exactly what my young friend said—70% of the Russian-speaking population feel the deportation was justified, and furthermore, a considerable portion of that 70% feel it should happen again today, that the Tatars should be forced to leave the peninsula. Granted, those who feel they should again be deported are a small minority, but those who just generally feel hostility towards the Crimean Tatars apparently is not.
And that hostility gets transmitted in many ways, I would think. Recently Serdar was talking about what he wants to do in his future (as he often does, being that age), and one of the things he said he might like to do would be to teach at the medical university where he is attending. But then he said, “That probably wouldn’t be possible because of my name.” I asked him what he meant, and he told me how he knew of someone who applied for a teaching job at the university who was passed over in favor of an individual with lesser credentials because they were Crimean Tatar. He really felt it was hopeless to even think about trying to teach somewhere like the medical university.
So, all of this I at least intellectually knew from reading and talking with people. But because I mostly don’t understand conversations that go on around me, and because almost all the people I know well are Crimean Tatars, and the people I know who aren’t Crimean Tatar know that is the population I live and work with, I do not hear that kind of virulent hostility. And it just sort of broke my heart to listen to Sarah’s reports of her acquaintances’ attitudes. How can people hate these wonderful, kind people that I love so much? But, of course, racism and its attendant violence, is not based on “knowing” people, but rather on a fictional idea of who they are, an idea fed by inadequacies and unhappiness in one’s own life and community. In the case of the Crimean Tatars, I would imagine that some of that ethnic hatred comes from residents of Crimea watching a group of Muslim people “immigrate” (even though they originally lived here, they are still seen by the rest of the population as outsiders) to their country, take over land (which the Tatars were forced to do when they weren’t provided land to replace the land and homes taken from them), and building sometimes substantial homes (Ak Mechet where I live is a mix of really huge homes, small to medium size homes, and also many unfinished and abandoned homes), and bringing all the problems and pressures that a huge influx of people in a short period of time can bring.
But what they don’t see is how the Crimean Tatar people were forced out of their homes in a span of fifteen minutes with only the possessions they could carry on their backs; the misery and deaths on that journey into exile; the difficult lives they lived for fifty years in a country that did not want them, that used them for what amounts to slave labor. They do not see the struggle of the people who made it back to Crimea to build homes, to find jobs, to make a new life for themselves, a struggle which at least three people ended in the violent protest of self immolation. They do not see how some Crimean Tatar people live to this day—several families crowded into a small space; my counterpart Nadjie who has lived for 16 years without heat or water, raising her two children; the two men in Ak Mechet living in what amounted to a boxcar and who perished in an alcoholic stupor as their “home” burned to the ground.
Of course, many of the Crimean Tatar people I know do live in nice apartments and houses, have relatively decent jobs, and seem to do okay for themselves, as best I can tell. But they all have in common the struggle to survive as a people in a land that once was their ancestral home but in which they are now a minority and are often viewed with hostility. I, of course, do not know the answer to any of this and can only hope that the ethnic tensions do not erupt into some kind of prolonged violence as they have many other places. And I can also hope that as the Crimean Tatar people build their homes and mosques across the peninsula, that they will be allowed to live in peace in the homeland that is rightfully theirs.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Traveling in the winter

Safie's 13th Birthday.
A happy cat.

Tuesday afternoon, things are winding down here at the library. Going home in about 45 minutes. I put in pretty long days here—leave my home around 8:15 and don’t get home until close to 7pm. And on Thursdays, it is even longer with my English Club after work. But I’m not really complaining—I like being here at the library. Everyday something unexpected seems to happen, and I understand more and more as my language very slowly improves.
Last week I left on Wednesday to take the train to a city about 6 hours north of here to attend a PCV “warden training.” Wardens are PCV’s who are assigned by the PC office to be the communication link between the office and volunteers in the region in case of an emergency. In other words, we really don’t do anything, but are required to attend trainings twice a year. We also don’t do much at the trainings, but it is an excuse to visit PCV’s in other regions. In this case, I had planned to visit my friend Debbie, about an hour bus ride away from the training site. However, “kak amerike” (like in America), the best laid plans can often go awry. Adrianne (my co-warden) and I took a late train to Mykolaev where the training was to be held, arriving at 1am in the midst of a bad ice storm. We called about the apartment we had reserved for the night (people here frequently rent apartments instead of staying in hotels, as it is usually quite a bit cheaper), only to find it was “no longer available.” We tried a few other numbers, but no luck. So we climbed into a taxi, and asked the driver to find us a hotel. All of this being conducted in Russian, of course, but luckily for me, Adrianne is a pretty good Russian speaker. The taxi driver found one place for $100, but we said no way, and eventually we found a reasonably price place—about $20 each. We settled into our freezing room about 2:30am for a few hours of sleep before our meeting the next morning. Which we tried to walk to… Ice and snow removal is not a popular concept here. The sidewalks were thick sheets of ice and the sleet continued to come down. We made it to the library where the meeting was by shuffling along in the grass and leaves and very gingerly crossing streets and walking on sidewalks when we had to. It’s pretty bad when a very slight incline is impossible to go up and a free for all skate going down.
But we did eventually get there and spent the day in the meeting, which was mostly fine, except for one humiliating experience of having to role play in Russian reporting an incident to a local policeman (who was at the meeting). No matter how much I told him to slow down, he didn’t do it, and I wasn’t able to understand much of his instructions. I had told the training leader (the PC security officer) that I just didn’t have the language skills to do this, but he ignored me. To make it worse, the rest of the group were young volunteers with far better language than me. They were very supportive, but still I felt so stupid… A common feeling I have around my language, and one I didn’t need reinforced by the Peace Corps!
But I got over it and headed out at the end of the meeting to take the bus to Debbie’s city, only to find that all the buses had been cancelled due to the storm and that the roads were closed. So it was yet another adventure, figuring out where to stay that night. But it all worked out well. Adrianne (who had planned to go to Odessa to meet some friends but also couldn’t get out) and I holed up in a pizza place with a local volunteer who lived in a nearby village but wasn’t able to make it home, and then went with her to meet the Dean of a university who was a very interesting, very fluent English speaker who was soon heading to America to teach for 8 months on a Fulbright scholarship. He was going to teach Spanish literature, his specialty! It was so interesting to listen to his life story, growing up in Siberia, how he came to Ukraine. Everyone here—at least the older people—have such varied stories, and many people I know were born in Russia, but somehow made their way to Ukraine for a myriad of reasons. The Crimean Tatars, of course, have their own set of stories, but the Russian stories can be equally fascinating sometimes.
(Now it is Saturday afternoon, and I am holed up in my house on this cold, wintry day, looking out my window at the blowing snow. We had rain turned to snow yesterday, and now it is icy out. Thought about going for a walk just to get out of the house, but I think the most I will end up doing is walking across the street to the Seiptatiev’s in the evening.)
I got out of Mykolaev the next morning on a bus to my friend Debbie’s site, the city of Kherson. Spent the rest of that day there and the next, taking a very late (1am) train home. It was great just hanging out with her, seeing her apartment, the beautiful large children’s library where she works, helping with an English club at another library. The highlight was a concert we attended of a men’s a capella vocal group from Odessa, called DukeTime. They were just fabulous—six young men whose voices blended on an amazing range of music from a medley of traditional Hebrew songs (“We’re from Odessa—this is our heritage!) to the contemporary music of Michael Jackson (who is immensely popular in Ukraine) and the Beatles. Two hours of a spellbinding performance. They have only been together three years and are not well known outside of Ukraine, but maybe someday they will make it elsewhere in the world, so more people can enjoy their fabulous music.
The Monday after I got back was Safie’s 13th birthday, so I went over for the traditional birthday dinner and just hanging out. I gave her several things, but I think her favorite was a picture I had printed of her and her dog Nutsa. I told her long after Nutsa was gone, she would have this picture to remember her by.
Love to all from wintry Crimea.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Making manti with Lenura for Thanksgiving

It’s a Sunday afternoon. I returned home a couple of hours ago from a weekend in the village of Stary Krim, about a 2-hour bus ride from Simferopol. PCVs Jason and Aubree live there and they decided to invite all the Crimean PCV’s for a potluck Thanksgiving Feast. They managed to buy a turkey from a local person (turkeys are not a common food here), cut it into smaller chunks, and cooked it in a toaster oven, along with stuffing, glazed carrots (no sweet potatoes in Ukraine), and gravy. The rest of us contributed mashed potatoes, pumpkin bread, salad, cranberries, and lots of other goodies. And Aubree also managed to make a pumpkin pie and apple pie for the occasion! None of which sounds all that difficult, until you consider the fact that the town they live in has no consistent water supply, so they depend on filling up plastic bottles for water; the kitchen in Jason’s apartment (the better of the kitchens in their apartments) has no stove and only a small sink with no running water, and the only counter space was a small table mostly taken up with the toaster oven (which had to be carried from Aubree’s apartment a half hour walk away along with a couple of chairs).
Of course, despite the “hardships,” we managed to have a great meal and a great time—imbibing some beer and wine, eating our way through all the delicious foods, playing cards and then a charades game. Before dinner, Cheryl and Vicki, my older PCV pals, and I took an afternoon walk up into the hills to see the ancient Armenian monastery located there. Built in the 1300’s, the monastery has been somewhat restored and is an imposing structure, high on a hill top overlooking the valley below. A young Armenian man who could speak some English showed us around and told us that there is now a priest living there and that it is an active monastery. Curious about the relationship of the Armenians with the Crimean Tatars, I asked him if Tatars were here when the Armenians build the monastery, and he said, “Oh no, they are a much newer people.” I, of course, knew that not to be true, and indeed, when we visited the ruins of the old mosque in the center of town the next day, there was a plaque saying the mosque was built in 1311, which would have been before the Armenian monastery. I was not overly surprised by his answer, because I think it reflects some of the ethnic tensions here in Crimea, but it also wanted me to explore exactly what is the joint history of the Armenians and the Crimean Tatars.
Some of the PCV’s had to head home that night, including Cheryl and Vicki, but a number of us stayed, though not totally willingly, as my site mate Adrianne had planned to get back to Simferopol that night and went to the bus station 15 minutes before her bus was due to depart, only to be told that the bus had already come and gone, despite the fact that she had a ticket for the bus! Oh, the undecipherable workings of the Ukrainian transport system…
We had a good time that evening talking and playing games and it wasn’t too awfully late (midnight), as some of us made our way through the very dark streets to Aubree’s apartment, where we stretched out on the floor in our sleeping bags. Luckily, I also had a sleeping pad I had brought with me. I really am too old to sleep on hard floors.
For my contribution to the dinner, I asked Lenura to help me make pumpkin filled manti, a Crimean Tatar dish. Of course, it was really the other way around—she made them and I helped—mostly folding the manti into their intricate little shapes. Manti are a steamed dumpling or ravioli, traditionally filled with meat but sometimes with pumpkin and onions as we did this time, or other fillings. The real art to making manti is the crust. Composed of only flour and water and a small amount of salt, it is rolled out to a thin crust. I was amazed how quickly Lenura was able to take a ball of dough and turn it into a perfectly round, very large and thin crust, ready to be cut into squares for the filling. Folding the manti into the proper shape with the filling inside is a precise maneuver, but easy to master—even I was able to learn it! Then the manti are placed onto stacking trays in a stove top steamer (brought from Uzbekistan—it was Neshet’s mother’s) and 30 minutes later you have beautiful delicious steamed manti, usually served with a dollop of butter or sour cream.
I doubt I will ever be able to master making manti on my own, but I sure love helping Lenura make them, and of course, eating them! As did all my fellow PCV’s at our Thanksgiving feast.
Much love from Crimea on this post-Thanksgiving Sunday.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Serdar's 17th birthday

The weather here in Crimea is beginning to act more like typical November, or at least that was the case when I was in Kyiv last weekend—very dreary, cold, rainy. I went to Kyiv to close out my grant that I had received for the library, a necessary procedure before we can apply for a new grant. I had a pretty bad cold so didn’t feel like traveling, but there really was no choice. I spent all day Friday at the Peace Corps office, working on the grant, talking with people, getting a flu shot. That evening I stayed at the apartment of an acquaintance who was out of town, so I had the place to myself and spent the evening resting. The next day I went to the dentist in the morning and then spent the rest of the day wandering around the center, in and out of stores, looking for possible birthday and New Year presents.
Serdar’s birthday was coming up on Monday, and I knew exactly what I wanted to get him. When we were in Kyiv together in June, he spotted a book at a vendor on Independence Square who was selling Ukrainian nationalist books and paraphernalia. The book was the memoirs of Nestor Makhno, a famous anarchist in Ukraine in the early part of the century. He and his friends had become very impassioned about the anarchist movement, and he wanted to buy the book for his best friend. However, it was more money than he had, so he dropped the idea. But when I went to the museum of the poet Voloshin last month, I saw a picture of Makhno (they apparently were pals which further intrigues me about Voloshin) and remembered Serdar’s interest and was determined to buy the book for him if I got to Kyiv before his birthday. So when I arrived at Independence Square I immediately went looking for that vendor and there he was, and there was the book. We haggled over the price a bit, but he didn’t budge, which I wasn’t too surprised about. It is a pretty scarce book, as I found out when I checked the bookstores in Simferopol (who had never heard of Makhno) and at the weekend book fair where the vendors just laughed at me for thinking they might have that book. The vendor in Independence Square was a nice old guy, and I really didn’t mind paying the money (about the equivalent of $20), and it was fun chatting with him, though I didn’t understand much of what he was saying. I found out later from Serdar that he only speaks (or probably more truthfully only will speak) Ukrainian, so no wonder I was having such a hard time understanding him.
Near the end of the afternoon I met the acquaintance in whose apartment I had stayed the previous evening and had a cup of coffee at the nicest coffee shop I have been in in Ukraine. I took the overnight train back to Simferopol and slept fairly well, given that there was only one other person (a woman, thank goodness) in my compartment. I was still pretty exhausted by the time I got home, probably because of my cold and the fact that it wasn’t a very successful trip outside of the birthday shopping. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to close my grant after all due to some difficulties with the budget, so I have to make yet another trip to Kyiv to do that at some point. Hopefully, if I am able to go to the language refresher in January, I can tack it on to that trip.
I rested up for a bit and eventually went for a walk and stopped by the store in my neighborhood for some staples. Ran into Safiye on the way home and had a nice chat, but walking up to my door, I tripped over something and went flying. Bent my little finger all the way back—I quickly straightened it—and also cut my lip and bruised my knees. Most of it was minor except for the finger. I immediately went over to get some ice and TLC from Lenura, which she was more than happy to give me. I could move my finger so I knew it wasn’t broken, but it sure did swell up and is very black and blue now. Quite impressive looking, I must say. I really need to be more careful!
So yesterday was Serdar’s 17th birthday, and I went over to their house when I got home from work to share the evening with all of them. Serdar still hadn’t returned from his day at the university. He eventually showed up, beaming with happiness at having a great day there with his friends—“having a blast” he said, once he asked me what “blast” meant. He gave us all hugs and kisses and a really big hug for his sister for the present she bought him. We sat down to a wonderful meal and Neshet gave a long toast which I couldn’t totally follow, but to which Serdar frequently said “saghol,” which is thank you in Crimean Tatar. Later I also gave a toast to him and talked about his wonderful spirit and that I hoped it never changed. He told me that of all the toasts on his birthday that was the best. Which made me love him even more, of course. He was surprised when he opened his present to realize I had remembered and found that book, and told me that is the first book that he personally has ever owned. I said maybe he would need to put off reading it until he has a break from university, but he said, “oh no, I’m going to start tonight!” I had also made a card from the picture my friend Cheryl took of Serdar and I with Chatyr Dag in the background, and everyone really loved the photo.
It was a wonderful evening; the second birthday of Serdar’s that I have spent with him and his family. I often ponder where this life is leading me, as I feel a deepening love for the Seiptaptiev’s and the sense that they are becoming my family. And it is not only them, but also Maiye and Siyare next door and Nadjie and other women at the library that I feel a stronger and stronger connection to. Recently, the Peace Corps office sent out an announcement about my group’s “Close of Service” conference which will happen in February, four months before practically everyone leaves. A couple of us are “extending” for another year, but the people I have gotten to know from my group--Fran, Jud, Debbie--will all be leaving. But for me, I can’t imagine leaving next June when my service is officially over. And right now, the truth of it is, I can’t imagine ever leaving. The thought of walking away from these people I have grown to love seems unbearable. So who knows what my future will bring? Maybe someday I will feel a readiness to leave, or maybe I will continue to build a life here and America will become a place I visit. I try not to dwell on those thoughts too much, because everything is, of course, ever changing. I just continue to feel so deeply grateful and blessed that my life at this moment has led me here.
My love to all of you from my home in Crimea.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

I celebrate my 63rd birthday on Kara Dag

It’s a Tuesday morning, and unusual for me, I am home today. It is a major Muslim holiday—Kurban bayram—and my library is closed today and tomorrow. We also were able to leave a bit earlier last night—5 instead of 6—so people could get home and prepare the traditional Crimean Tatar dishes of cheburek (fried meat pies) and plov (rice pilaf with meat, usually mutton). I had planned to spend the evening at home, but I wasn’t very surprised when Mariye from next door showed up with a plate of plov for me. She makes the best plov around. Tonight I will go over to the Seitaptievs for some more tasty Crimean Tatar cooking. What a treat…
So Sunday was my 63rd birthday, and what a wonderful day I had. The weather in Crimea this November has been exceptionally beautiful, so I wanted to get out somewhere to celebrate my birthday. Last year I also wanted to go exploring, but the weather was not so cooperative, and we ended up getting caught in a cold rain as we hiked the cave city of Eski Kermen. But this year I knew it would be beautiful, so I started talking with friends about going to Kara Dag on the coast, a place I have always wanted to explore. Actually, it was Serdar and I who started talking about it, but in the end, he couldn’t go because of his studies. A disappointment, but I understood and am glad that he prioritizes his studying over anything else. Right now that is what he needs to be doing.
Our original plan was to go on Saturday so I would have Sunday to be at home and easily be with my neighbors on my actual birthday. But you can only go to Kara Dag with a guide, and they cancelled on us for Saturday, so Sunday was the day. I spent a lot of time being nervous about whether or not I would be able to get back in time to have my birthday dinner with the Seiptatievs, but when Sunday dawned, I just decided it was going to all work out. And it did. I did have to rush home from the bus station, but I got there only ten minutes after I said I would be there, so all was well.
Kara Dag (which means Black Mountain in Crimean Tatar) is located on the coast near a town called Koktebel which I had visited earlier. It is the remains of a volcano that spewed rocks and debris over a 25 square km area. As a result, the region is covered with strange rock formations and jagged peaks that drop down to the sea. It is also home to many endangered species—called “Red Book” species in Ukraine—of flora and fauna. There is a small museum at the entrance to the area which explains the ecology, but by the time we got there—a total of 5 hours on buses and marshukas, or waiting for buses and marshukas-- we were anxious to start hiking. Kara Dag has been a protected wilderness for a number of years now, a rarity in Crimea, and you are only allowed in with a guide. Because of that it is the most pristine place I’ve been to here—not a piece of garbage and only a few trails crisscrossing the area. We had a group of 11 plus two guides. And a diverse group it was—three older and three younger PCV’s, two Ukrainians (one my friend Dima who was on my birthday hike last year), and three international students from Spain, Germany, and Lithuanian. Everyone (except us older volunteers) spoke pretty good Russian, and the guides only spoke Russian. I tried to pay attention and catch what I could and frequently asked one of the Ukrainians to fill me in. But mostly I just wanted to be there, to be immersed in what is the most beautiful place I have been to in Crimea. We hiked for four hours through pine and juniper forests, across open grasslands of pale yellow, and on up to the top of the peaks with rock formations scattered everywhere, and vast vistas out to the sea. I really don’t have the words to describe it, and hopefully my pictures will convey some of the beauty of this incredible place.
We made it back to the bus station in Koktebel in plenty of time for the five o’clock bus to Simferopol. It is about a two-hour trip and there was actually a screen in the front with a movie—just like in an airplane! First time I have encountered that. Once we got to Simferopol, I quickly got off the bus and went to catch a marshuka to Ak Mechet, and then power walked to the neighbors as Serdar had called to let me know they were waiting for me, and I didn’t want them to wait long. And what a lovely dinner I had with them. Lenura had prepared manti, one of my favorite Crimean Tatar dishes, along with a tasty salad of cabbage, onions, carrots, and French fries! But, really, it was delicious. And they gave me a present of a ceramic Turkish coffee maker from Brazil (I have no idea where Neshet found that!) and a beautiful card in which they had written how thankful they are for destiny bringing us together. I felt so loved and so much a part of their family. Like trying to describe Kara Dag, I also have no words to describe how truly blessed I am by their presence in my life.
Much love to all.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Hospitals, hiking, an invite to Istanbul

My new hiking buddies, Anastasia on my left, and Ira on my right.
On the summit of Chatyr Dag.
A view from Chatyr Dag.
Nadjie and I at the library's 20th anniversary celebration.
Serdar and I on the bluffs near my home. That is Chatyr Dag in the background.
Monday morning at the library, trying to ignore the voices around me and my lingering irritation at not being informed there would be a meeting at the library this morning and thus no English class. Not untypical due to the lack of advanced planning here and something I have gotten somewhat used to, but irritating nonetheless, especially on a Monday morning!
But to get on to my work for the day. Last week was the 20th Anniversary conference at the library which I plan on writing a post about in my library blog, but first I thought I would write in my own blog some of what I have been doing lately.
Last week much of my time—and thoughts—were taken up with the fact that Lenura was in the hospital. Apparently, she had some kind of planned operation—not sure what, maybe a hysterectomy or something along those lines (“woman’s problem” Serdar called it). I visited her twice in the hospital and called her often, checking up on how she was doing. She recovered remarkably well—two days after the operation she was walking around, and a week later when she came home, she spent her whole first day at home cleaning! She won’t be going back to work for a few weeks, but she sure won’t be resting, it seems. I tried to encourage her in that direction, but she just laughed. Saturday night I went over to their house to make chili and cornbread for them, thinking it would keep her from cooking on her first full day at home, but of course, she also made manti for dinner. Maybe it didn’t seem right to her that she wouldn’t be preparing any of the meal. Her parents were there, and also a friend of Neshet’s. They all seemed to love the chili (I had gotten chili powder from an American friend) and especially the cornbread—Lenura and her mom, Liliye, made sure they got the recipe.
But what I really want to relate in this story is the experience of the hospital. Sometimes when I see the fancy stores in the city center and some of the nice cars driving around, I forget that I am in a developing country. But walking into a hospital certainly brought that reality back. According to Neshet, the hospitals here are all owned by the government, and viewed from American eyes, they are pretty scary places. This is the hospital where Lenura works as a surgical nurse, so at least she had the comfort of knowing the staff, but I don’t think you would find a hospital like this anywhere in America these days. She was in a “recovery room,” where she stayed for two days. There were six beds, one sink, and a few bedside tables and that was it. No bathroom, no chairs for visitors (no room for chairs), no curtains for privacy, no television, no way to ring the nurse, old hospital beds that did not work, sheets brought from home, no water pitchers, etc, medicines and bandages in a cardboard box by the bedside. Everything had a run down dinginess to it, the hallways were dark and poorly lit, there seemed to be little staff around (this was on a weekend—maybe it is different during the week). I know the Peace Corps quickly evacuates any volunteer who needs hospitalization, and now I see why. The Ukraine hospitals are very, very far from what we call “western standards.”
Another “interesting” thing that happened to me last week was my debit card number from my bank account at home got stolen after I used it to buy a pair of shoes (something I am unable to do on my Peace Corps salary, at least ones that are wearable without making my feet ache for days). Somehow it ended up being used to withdraw money from a number of locations of a Lebanon bank which banks in the Middle East, Cuba, and Belarus. I was able to get the money back with help from my friend Pam at home and a great person at my credit union, though it cost me a lot in the phone call I had to make to Visa to cancel the card ($25 for 7 minutes!). But except for the fact that I now no longer have a credit card here, things are fine. I will just have to live off my Peace Corps salary, which I do anyhow, except when I want to travel out of the country…or buy a pair of shoes!
But some great things happened recently too. One was the 20th anniversary of the library which resulted in a gala event at the library last Thursday afternoon. Guests from Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, and the Republics of Baskortostan and Tatarstan in Russia were present. I have written more about it on my library blog. After the event which consisted of many speeches and some wonderful music (does everyone here have these incredible voices that they can just burst into beautiful singing at the drop of a hat?—that is what happened at this event, and also the anniversary event at the children’s library…), everyone went to a performance at the Crimean Tatar theater. I ended up sitting next to a professor from Turkey. She was at the conference to give a talk about her father, who was a famous Turkologist and a contemporary of Gasprinsky. Turns out she lived in America for a number of years, including the city where I grew up, St. Louis. She is a fluent English speaker, and we had a nice time talking, and she ended up inviting me to visit her in Istanbul, which I just might do. I’m sure I would see a whole other part of Istanbul, visiting her.
And another thing that happened recently that made me happy, was I finally got to go hiking on Chatyr Dag mountain, something I have always wanted to do, as it is the mountain I see in the distance on my frequent walks from my home. Serdar and I have often talked about going there together, and I had hoped he would join me and my new hiking friends (from the library in Alushta, a town on the coast near Chatyr Dag), but despite his wanting to, it was not to be. He pretty much has to spend all his time studying these days and didn’t feel he could take a day off. I understand and encourage him to stick with his studies, of course, but it was disappointing, nevertheless. I do miss him.
But it was great up on the mountain. A vast open plateau—the fifth highest mountain in Crimea—with beautiful views all around: the mountains up and down the coast, the Black Sea stretching out to the horizon in the south, Demerdji Mountain where I have hiked looming up on the other side of the pass, and way in the distance, Simferopol and Ak Mechet. So now when I go for my walk at home and see Chatyr Dag rising in the distance above the fields and villages, I can think about standing up on the plateau and being surrounded by the beauty of Crimea. What a precious sight it was.
Love to all from this beautiful place I call home.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Libraries in Crimea

Time seems to be flying by so fast these days. Hard to keep track of what I have been doing. At least some of that feeling comes from the fact that once or twice a week for the month of October, I have been going with Nadjie and two other staff people from the library to small towns around Crimea to conduct a seminar on Crimean Tatar language and literature—the second phase of the grant we got from the Peace Corps. We will have visited nine libraries by the time we are done. And then I have to go to Kiev for a couple of days and close out the grant, so we can get our application in for a new grant by December 9th. Will also do a couple of medical things while I’m there—a teeth cleaning (they are now convinced that I really do need more frequent than once a year cleanings), plus our required flu shot.
The traveling to the libraries has been very interesting for a number of reasons. The libraries themselves vary greatly—most are fairly small, tiny really by American library standards, and lacking some basic facilities. At least two libraries had outside toilets, and at one we had to walk several blocks to a different building for a toilet; plus only the library today had heat, though I am assuming in the others it just wasn’t turned on yet. The collections seem fairly meager and not very up-to-date, reflecting their almost total lack of funding for new acquisitions. Today at our seminar, Nadjie said something about me getting a book donated for the library that cost $20, and there was much exclamation that I was able to do that (it was an English language book that I requested from the author). A purchase of a $20 book is pretty out of the question these days. All the libraries seem to have money for is maintenance and staffing.
But every single library was brightly decorated with interesting displays and filled with welcoming participants for our seminars, librarians from the even smaller libraries in the surrounding villages. And no matter what time we got there—even if the reading hall was filled with waiting participants—we would sit down in the director’s office for tea and cookies. And afterwards, we usually had tea again with open faced sandwiches, the standard fare around here. Several of the libraries had special Crimean Tatar displays and at least two of the libraries had Crimean Tatar music, dance, and children reciting poetry in Crimean Tatar.
The towns seemed pretty bleak to me, but I think they are typical Crimean towns of 5000 are more inhabitants. Two of the towns we visited have Peace Corps volunteers assigned to them, and I realize how lucky I am to be located in a city where there are many more opportunities to do things. I am especially lucky since I get the peacefulness and community feeling of a small town because of where I live here and access to the advantages of a large city (well, not large my Minneapolis standards of course—Simferopol population is about 350,000).
Last weekend I went to a truly large city about five hours north of here (“in Ukraine,” as we say down here in Crimea, despite the fact that Crimea is theoretically part of Ukraine) where a married Peace Corps couple live—Larry and Ellie. They are both English teachers—she at a local school, he at a fancy technical institute. Larry was conducting a training for a project he does called Living Library, in which culturally diverse people act as “books,” and participants “read” them to learn more about their culture. Seemed like a good idea to explore as a possibility for Crimea, but I realized it was really more of an English practicing exercise. But it was a good experience anyhow, and I enjoyed spending time with Larry and Ellie whom are leaving soon, plus all the other volunteers who came. And Cheryl, one of my new older PCV friends here in Crimea, and I traveled together, so that made it even more fun. On the way there we ended up playing cards with a Ukrainian woman in our compartment. There was a lot of laughing as we tried to teach Cheryl the ubiquitous Russian card game called duroc (Russian for “fool”).
I have also been pretty busy at the Children’s Library, trying to get a Halloween event organized requested by the library director with the idea of inviting children, teachers, and the director from the local school. Clearly a PR event, which I wouldn’t mind, but I keep making plans that are constantly changed, etc. A long story, but not untypical of my life at the Children’s Library. I really don’t have a counterpart there, and so I never know exactly what is going on, and no one works with me on projects. Ah well… I do have a lot of fun with the kids, at least.
Let’s see… what else? Oh yes, I just started a new adult English Club. I wanted to have it at the Gasprinsky Library, but, believe it or not, the Ministry of Culture (the government body the library is under) prevented it—during hours it would take up the reading hall and library patrons might complain; after hours we would have to pay more “rent.” Seems crazy to me, of course—we are only talking about one hour a week—but I have long since learned not to think too much about the whys of how things are done here. So instead we are holding it at the Krymchak offices where there is a big meeting room. Had our first meeting last week—it was a lot of fun, maybe I haven’t laughed that much since I have been here! Will see how it goes tonight and I’ll write more next time. I want to finish up this blog so I can get a little Russian studying in before heading to the English Club.
Much love to all.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Koktebel with the Krymchaks

The coast at Koktebel.
Gathering for lunch.

Nina and Natalya (on right), two of the Krymchak Ladies.
With the Krymchak group in front of a statue of Voloshin.
Starting to get behind in my blog posts. This is my third start on a post about a day trip I did with the people from the Krymchak Museum a couple of Saturdays ago. It is sort of a slow afternoon here at the library, so maybe I will rally and actually finish it (or rewrite it, as the case may be, as I see I have left the original draft on my computer at home).
Anyhow, here’s the story:
The “Krymchak Ladies,” as I call them, are three women in their 60’s who have been coming to my little English class at the library ever since Nadjie invited them when we went on a tour of the museum earlier in the summer. I did a blog post about who the Krymchaks are, but for those of you who don’t read ALL of my posts, the Krymchaks are the Crimean Jews, a group of people who have lived here for centuries and who very much resemble the Crimean Tatars in language, dress, and customs. However, because they are indeed Jews, almost the entire population (86%) was wiped out in the Holocaust. Today, there are less than 1000 Krymchaks left and only one fully fluent speaker. They have a small museum in Simferopol and a pretty active preservation society. I love the fact that my little English class has brought together people from these two groups whose history is so intertwined but who seem to now have little contact with each other.
Their organization had arranged a day excursion to Koktebel, a small town on the Black Sea coast, famous as being the home of 20th century Russian poet Maximilian Voloshin and also the location of the Kara Dag Nature Preserve, which I have always wanted to visit. The ladies invited me to accompany them, and I jumped at the opportunity. I didn’t have high hopes that we would make it to the preserve (touring the preserve is a four-hour hike apparently), and we didn’t, but what fun it was to go with a busload of people from the organization to Voloshin’s house and museum and to stroll around the beautiful sea coast of Koktebel. But what was really the biggest surprise was watching the transformation of Natalya, one of the Krymchak Ladies, from a brusque, very stereotypical Russian woman, to a fun loving free spirit, beating on her chest and extolling the virtues of being Russian. Of course, a little (?) vodka at lunch seemed to help. I have learned that when people go on excursions here they all bring enough food to feed everyone for a week. So when we finally found a place to picnic out of the blasting wind (the weather left a bit to be desired that day), out came loaves of bread, whole chickens, pickles, cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, salads, and all kinds of other treats, along with at least two bottles of vodka. I managed to keep my imbibing to a couple of small shots—enough to participate in the toasts—but others weren’t so reluctant. So we had quite the gay afternoon, as we continued to walk around and then later stopped in the old village of Stary Krim to visit the Crimean Tatar museum there.
Back to Russian poet Voloshin, our reason for the visit to Koktebel. He was quite the interesting character, and his house was filled with photos of people who visited him there—many famous Russian literati of the time, along with mystics and painters, apparently including the famous Mexican painter Diego de Rivera because there were two portraits of Voloshin by de Rivera hanging in the museum. Serdar told me later that Voloshin often wrote about nature in his poetry, and his house was filled with watercolors he painted of the surrounding dramatic landscape. I tried to imagine what his life was like there 90 years ago, living in that small Crimean Tatar village in a sun filled house facing the sea, surrounded by the vineyards of the valley and the dramatic mountains of Kara Dag. It is hard to imagine a better place to live. Now the town has become a resort, and the waterfront is packed with stalls selling all kinds of food and souvenirs. They were empty when we were there, but it wasn’t hard to imagine the scene in the warmer months, as I so often have experienced the crowds that throng the coastal towns in the summer. Like everywhere in the world where tourism has given local people a means for a livelihood, it is difficult to wish for a former time, and yet it is hard not to long for the peaceful beauty and way of life that is no longer there for anyone, tourists and locals alike.
It is late evening now. Just came back from the Seitaptiev’s, where I made my first batch of chocolate cookies here in Ukraine. They were pretty yummy, but lacking a few of the essentials—like chocolate chips. They don’t exist here so I improvised with chopped up chocolate bars. Also, you can’t find brown sugar—well, you can find it, but it is very expensive, about $5 a pound. So given that I only get about $200 a month to live on, I resorted to white sugar for my cookies. They did not turn out quite up to my standards, but my neighbors loved them anyhow. I decided I am going to start doing some cooking over there. It is a fun way to spend time at their house, and especially with Lenura, and it is a way I can give something back to them. I think I will make chili next because I have some chili spices from America a Fulbrighter left me.
Love to all.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Traveling with the library

Posing with the wax figures in the Evpatoria Museum.
The whirling dervish monastery and our guide.
The staff in front of the big mosque in Evpatoria.
A stop at the windy sea on the way home.
With the director of the Alyushta Library and Gasprinsky Library staff member.
I see my last blog post was about backpacking on Demerji. Seems like a long time ago, because in the last ten days or so, you definitely would not want to be camping. We have had continuous cold, rainy, windy weather here—more like late November than early October. And, of course, the heat in the city hasn’t been turned on, so all my work places are quite cold. However, I can’t complain much because, unlike many of my coworkers who live in city apartments, I have heat in my home. I turned on my furnace and haven’t turned it off yet, so at least I come home to a nice warm place after a chilling walk home.
But, weather notwithstanding, I have been doing quite a bit of traveling these last couple of weeks. September 30th is “National Librarian Day” in Ukraine, which means the library closes and we go off on an “excursion” somewhere--last year we went to the Red Cave. This year it was decided to go to the nearby town of Evpatoria. I had already been there several times so was a little disappointed in the choice, but it turned out to be an adventure nevertheless. Just hanging out with the library staff, who I now know so much better than our travels together last year, is an adventure in itself. They are a fun loving bunch sometimes. On the way home, some cognac was cracked out, we stopped to watch the sea stirred up by a recent storm, and though it was lost on me, there was a great deal of hilarity concerning some visit to buy dairy products in a local town. I guess they overwhelmed the poor shopkeeper—not surprising.
And in Evpatoria we went to the ethnographic museum which I haven’t been to. The highlight was a hall of wax figures—Bush, Bin Laden, characters from Harry Potter, and many more. There was a lot of posing and picture taking with the figures. One figure was a girl with long hair asleep on a chair. I could swear she was alive.
The other place we visited in Evpatoria was an ancient crumbling mosque that was—and I think still is—home of a Sufi sect of Whirling Dervishes, the Islamic mystical order founded by the poet Rumi. An old woman dressed in a head scarf and colorful skirt showed us around and then ushered us into the mosque where she first had us meditate for a few minutes and then gave a long talk on the Whirling Dervishes. I so wished I could have understood her—they asked her to speak in Russian instead of Crimean Tatar so I could understand at least some, but still it was pretty unintelligible to me. She was quite energetic and clearly was going to go on for a long time, but eventually Gulnara, the library director, told her we had to leave. On the way out I told her I was an American and she gave me a big smile and told me to come back. Maybe someday I will—all the way home I had a fantasy of apprenticing myself to her to learn the Sufi way. A fantasy that I know won’t happen, given she’s an hour or more bus ride away, but I might try to go back on my own and see if I can talk with her a bit.
I am also starting to travel with Nadjie around Crimea to do the regional seminars that we had written into the Peace Corps grant I got for the library. We went to two communities last week—Chernemorski on the far west coast of the Black Sea, and Alyushta, on the southern coast. Nadjie along with two other women from the library conducts a 2-hour seminar on Crimean Tatar language and literature at the local community library for a group of librarians from the surrounding small villages. My role is to give a short presentation on what I do as a Peace Corps Volunteer at the library, and to encourage them to consider having a volunteer at their library. Both places were very welcoming, showing us around their library and town (both beautiful and interesting in their own right), and feting us with sandwiches, candy, cookies, tea, and even, in the case of Alyushta, cognac toasts (in my honor). Though it makes for a very long day as we leave early in the morning, I have really enjoyed the experience of seeing different libraries and meeting some of their staff. The directors of both libraries were quite wonderful and enthusiastic and urged me to return. Which I certainly want to do. Also at the Alyushta Library there was a young woman translator whom I found just delightful. We make a quasi plan for me to return so she can show me Alyushta and the surrounding land (Alyushta is located below Demerdji Mountain on the sea coast and is very beautiful).

As always, I have my ups and downs around my language, my work here, my relationships. And though I have felt for quite some time that I am part of my neighbors’ families, my life at work has seemed more distant, detached. But now, that too is beginning to change. I feel more at ease with everyone at the library, am less concerned with being able to understand and to speak correctly and thus I converse more freely. I feel bit by bit I am building connections and friendships. It makes me look forward to the upcoming year and the possibilities that might bring. Stay tuned! With love, from Barb in Crimea.