Sunday, January 31, 2010

Back to Chernigov

Late Sunday afternoon, returned earlier today from a week of traveling and being up in my training city of Chernigov where the Peace Corps had a three-day Russian “Language Refresher.” There were fifty of us there from my group and the group that came before us. It was great to see some old friends and get to know some of the other volunteers which I had previously only known by name. It was located in a hotel at a university, a pretty decent setting by Ukrainian standards. Only “problem” was that it was very cold. The weather was quite cold, down in the single digits F, and I guess they just aren’t able to heat the buildings adequately when it gets that cold. Everyone was wearing coats and hats and gloves much of the time and wrapping in blankets to watch the nightly Russian films. There is a lot of snow up there—and ice unfortunately. Because many of the sidewalks are not cleared when it snows, eventually there is a build up of ice, and it was pretty difficult to walk around. I have been missing true winter (though we had a lot of snow and cold down here in Crimea the week before I went up north), but I would find it hard to live in a place where walking was so difficult, even with yak traks, which they do not sell in Ukraine. It would be a good little business for someone if they could make them affordable. So I was happy to return to Crimea where despite a bad snow storm a couple of days ago, it was a balmy 50 degrees when I arrived and all the snow and ice were gone.
The language refresher was very helpful and a lot of fun. We divided into small groups by our language level, though I wish I had been in a bit more challenging group. We met in those groups each morning, but then the rest of the day we met by topics (like verbs of motion, a real challenge in Russian) and also had activity “clubs” like chess, knitting, singing, dancing, etc. where everything was done in Russian which was good way to learn. There was aerobics every morning which I managed to drag myself to, but no one else came except three young people, and the last day I was the only one there! But the instructor told me how much she liked that I liked her class, so that made those early mornings worth it.
In the evenings we watched some Russian films. Two of the evenings we watched a classic Russian film in two parts which is shown every New Year’s on television—a tradition like our “It’s a Wonderful Life,” though it was a much more interesting and entertaining film. That was especially so, because the Ukrainian woman whom is head of Peace Corps training gave a short talk each evening, explaining the context of the movies in Soviet times. She is a wealth of knowledge about the history of the Soviet Union and is so good in helping us understand what it was like to live in the Soviet Union and how it affects how people are now and the politics of Ukraine.
And speaking of politics, Ukraine is in the midst of a presidential election process. The first election was January 17th—the 18 candidates were narrowed down to two. The final election will be February 7th. Iryna spent one session going over all the candidates and the tricky situation that exists here now that might result in no one ending up being president. And what that will mean for the country no one knows, but it can’t be good. I appreciate so much that she has the enthusiasm and willingness to try and explain all of these intricate histories and politics to a bunch of ignorant Americans.
The last night we watched a beautifully done, very haunting movie about what happened to one man during the Stalin purges of the 1930’s. Based on a true story, it takes place on the last day of freedom of a revolutionary hero, before the KGB shows up to take him away. Even having a direct phone line to Stalin did not save him, as he was executed a few days later, and his wife and young child were also taken away to camps. The mother died in the camps, but the daughter was still living at the time the movie was made. We were all stunned by the movie and found it hard to talk about. There is such a deep and tragic history here that is hard for us Americans to grasp. However, for one of my volunteer friends, it was the story of her family, as her grandfather died in the camps and she was born in a displaced persons camp in Austria, coming to America when she was five. As difficult as the film was, I want to watch it again and got a copy of it. Watching Russian movies with English subtitles is also a very good way to learn Russian.
After the refresher course was over on Friday, I stayed an extra night to visit with my host family. It was great to see them again, to be back in my familiar room, to walk down the streets of Chernigov which, though snow covered, still brought back many nice memories. Chernigov is a much more peaceful and beautiful city than Simferopol. The main thoroughfare through the center has a lovely park promenade in the middle with huge old trees, monuments, fountains. The beauty of Crimea is not to be found in Simferopol, its capital, but rather in the mountains and forests and sea of southern Crimea and even the steppes of northern Crimea.
Took the marshuka back to Kiev, and then an overnight train to Simferopol. I am finding trains a delightful way to travel. There are three classes on the trains in Ukraine—3rd class, which most PCV’s take when we are paying for it, 2nd class which we take when the Peace Corps pays for it, and 1st class, which none of us seem to know anything about, except that instead of 4 people in a compartment there are 2, and supposedly there is a sink. But whether you are in 3rd class or 2nd class, you have a bunk to spread out on, people to visit with—friends you are travelling with or strangers you share your compartment with--food to eat ( you bring it with you), and coffee or tea in the morning that the conductor brings to your compartment. All in all, it really seems like a much more civilized way to travel than the rush rush of air travel in the States. Not that there isn’t air travel here, but by far, most of the population travels by train because it is so much cheaper. A 2nd class ticket to Kiev cost $28 one way and only $15 on the way back (why the discrepancy no one seemed to know). Granted it does take 15 hours, but most of that time you are asleep or lounging around. What could be better?
Well, that’s it for now. I want to get over to my neighbors for some dinner, hopefully, as I don’t feel like cooking. And I missed them! Hope they think my language improved a bit. But if not, ah well, someday I know it will.
Much love from Barb in Crimea.
Ps. Back now from a 3-hour visit with the neighbors, and yes, I do think my language is better. If nothing else, the refresher course gave me the confidence to try and talk more, as I chatted away about all kinds of topics. Serdar was there the whole time which does help, but I do think I have improved—and they thought so too. Hooray! An evening of language victory!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Crimean Tatar life

Today I saw a different kind of Crimean Tatar life. This week I have been involved in helping escort a retired architect from Switzerland around Crimean Tatar settlements. He is a volunteer with an organization called Swiss Contact which sends out retired professionals to places in the developing world to lend their expertise to different projects. Most of the assignments are for two weeks, some four weeks. He is here for two weeks.
Somehow one of my artists hooked up with Swiss Contact. Besides the arts NGO I work with, he is also involved in another NGO that is concerned with housing for returned Crimean Tatars. In his usual big dreaming way, he has a wonderful idea of building planned settlements of small houses for Crimean Tatars who want to return but cannot afford the housing here. The organization, or maybe it is the communities, have been given land to build on by the government in various locations. We have spent a couple of days visiting these plots of land and helping Christian (the Swiss Contact guy) get an idea of what they are planning. They needed a full time translator for him, so first Cary, a PCV who speaks Russian well but lives in a village two hours from here did it. Then I hooked them up with Elizabeth, the Fulbright scholar here, and she has been doing a good job of translating. I mainly serve as sort of a go between as I know the artists and Nadjie, who is also part of this organization. Also, I think Christian feels he can relate to me better because I am more his age. Which I don’t think is true, but he is very European in that elderly gentleman sort of way.
One of the settlements we visited today was Ak Mechet where I live, as does Seitabla. While he wanted to show us a fairly typical Crimean Tatar home that was built after their return (his home), he also showed us the half built homes of some families. At one place, several generations were crowded into what was basically a semi basement , as they had run out of money to build the rest of the house. He pointed out other small half built houses that I have noticed in my walks, explaining the size of the families that live in them. And though he didn’t talk about it much, we also walked by the burned out shell of what looked like an abandoned boxcar where two men had been living. A few weeks ago, the men were drunk and passed out and it caught on fire and they burned to death. I had heard about it and knew one of the men was the brother of someone on my street, but I didn’t know exactly where it was. I have begun to hear more tragic stories like this, of people who came back from Uzbekistan in hopes of a finding a better life by returning to their homeland, only to live in poverty with no work and no future. Many turn to alcohol, some have committed suicide. In the early years of the return, there were men who self immolated themselves as a protest of the conditions they found here.
Ak Mechet is such a mix of people, I guess. They are definitely some wealthy looking, large houses here. And then there are the houses I visited today. And in between that, there are the homes of my neighbors where I have spent so much time and who live in relative comfort. Most of the homes I have visited have been in that category, so I think I didn’t realize how much poverty there really is out here, and how desperate some of the living conditions are. For this reason, Seitabla and his organization want to build communities which would provide housing for returning Crimean Tatars while they get on their feet. I hope they are able to pull this off, though it seems that it will take a much more developed organization than what I can discern. But I do think if anyone ever trusted them enough to fund the kind of the project they are talking about, that they would succeed.
The last place we visited today was the small village (50 homes) where Nadjie’s son and his wife and two young children live. Their village is about 45 minutes from Simferopol, close to the mountains and only 15 kilometers from the sea. Despite the foggy, gray weather, I could see what a lovely setting it was with the houses nestled on a hillside above a small river. The houses are old, from pre-deportation times. If I understood correctly, Nadjie’s grandfather lived there at some point. In the usual Crimean Tatar fashion, they fed us a wonderful meal of manti (steamed dumplings stuffed with meat and potatoes), shredded carrot salad, home preserved tomatoes and other vegetables. It was a treat for me to go there, as they had invited me this summer, but then Nadjie’s daughter became ill and she could never get away. And now that my Russian is getting a little better, I am hoping I will be able to get to know them better.
And so my life goes on here. I feel myself sinking deeper into this community as I learn more of the history, more of people’s lives, as I become more comfortable around the people I work with, as I feel closer to my neighbors and Nadjie. And of course I continue to struggle with the language. Sometimes I feel encouraged, other times it feels hopeless. It is especially hard with Neshet sometimes. I think it is because he truly wants to have meaningful conversations with me and wants me to understand, and I try so hard and sometimes end up feeling that I have failed him and myself. But at the end we smile at each other, and I know that he hopes for that understanding as much as I do. So I will keep working, keep trying.
And next week I will be trying in a big way as I head north to my training city of Chernigov for a three-day intensive language course. And to see all my buddies! Yet another PC adventure. Will give a full report on my return. It is actually starting to feel like real winter here, and it will really feel like that up north. There will be snow—yikes!! Love to all and stay warm (those of you in those cold places).

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

My first weeks of 2010

This week is a back-to-normal week for me. Last week, the first week of the New Year, I was sick. Woke up New Year’s Day feeling kind of lousy but still went off for a walk, up into the hills where I could say hello to my favorite mountain and leave some dried bread for the birds up there. A good way to start the new year. That, and washing my sheets—which since I have to do it by hand is not a very often occurrence these days.
But as the day wore on, I felt worse and worse. Spent the rest of the weekend and on into the following week mostly lying around and reading, watching Harry Potter movies (since I don’t have the books I seem to have gotten addicted to the movies, oh dear…). Didn’t work the first three days, Thursday was another holiday (Christmas) and the library was closed. I got better as the week went on, just a really bad cold. There is such a scare going on around here with a lot of cases of the swine flu that I wanted to be extra careful and take care of myself. So unlike what I might have done in the past, I stayed home and did just that--with the help of my neighbors, of course. Let’s see….during those few days I received milk and eggs from the grandparents’ village, oranges, a plate of manti (Crimean Tatar steamed dumplings, this time stuffed with pumpkin), lemons, medicine, and much advice. They were quite wonderful to me and checked in on me every day. And Nadjie called several times. Oh, how loved I feel. And how lucky.
By Wednesday I was feeling better, so I ventured out and met up with my new PC buddy here. Adrienne’s boyfriend was visiting from Prague (he’s Czech), and it was interesting to hear his comments about Ukraine—he had never been here before. He was rather appalled at how poor looking it was with the crumbling infrastructure and trash everywhere, though I think what most took him aback was the remnants of the Soviet era: Lenin statutes, streets named after Karl Marx, etc. He emailed his dad some pictures, and his dad said it looks like Czechoslavakia fifty years ago. I had gotten use to seeing all of it, but talking to him took the blinders off and I once again noticed the trash everywhere, especially. It’s pretty heartbreaking. Crimea is so beautiful and is so abused. Also while I was sick read a book about the Crimean Tatar deportation and return , and they talk in the book about how the Crimean Tatars were not returning to the Crimea they had known, that is has suffered much environmental degradation in the last fifty years.
By this past weekend, I was feeling pretty much back to normal, so I did my usual weekend stuff—bazaar shopping, laundry, visiting with the neighbors. And Sunday my other new friend here, Elizabeth the Fulbright scholar, came out to go for walk with another Fulbright friend of hers who was visiting. I took them on my favorite walk up into the bluffs where you can see the mountains and the sea in the distance. For once the wind wasn’t blasting up there, and it was quite warm, so we perched for a long time looking out over the now green fields (winter wheat I assume) and the distant mountains. They were so impressed that you could be in a place like that and be so close to the city. Just what I have always thought about this wonderful spot where I live.
Today was English Club day at the children’s library. We haven’t had the clubs the last couple of weeks, plus the schools are closed yet another week because of the quarantine around the swine flu, so I wasn’t sure who would come. The 11am club just had a couple of kids that I hadn’t met before—two 12- year- old girls. And they were a riot, I must say. We talked about what people like to do—sports, reading, watching television, playing the piano, etc—and then we played a game where one of them had to act out an activity and the other one guess it. And what hams they were, especially one of them. It was so much fun to watch her.
The 3:30 club started more like at 2:30 and kids just kept filtering in. Eventually we had about 8 including an adult woman. I showed them the power point Global Village where the world is reduced to a village of 100 people. I was hesitant to show it to them, not sure if the language was too much, but they really got into reading and talking about it. They seemed to be astounded at some of the figures—that that many of the world’s people live in poverty and are illiterate. They immediately understood the concept of starvation when I said like the Holmodor, which is the name for the time when 10 million Ukrainians died from starvation because of Stalin’s genocidal policies. And they were also very knowledgeable and proud of Ukraine’s high literacy rate.
The latter half of the time we played some mad lib games which were pretty hysterical. They love to play games. It is a great way to get them to use their English. I just need to stay on top of coming up with games!
Working with children is something I have never really done, never thought I wanted to do, never thought I would be any good at. And I am so loving it, loving their energy, their shyness and boldness, their way of looking at the world. When I was walking to the bus stop tonight, I kept thinking, why wasn’t I a teacher? And why not become a teacher now? Who knows what the world will bring, if I can just stay open to that shining path in front of me.
Much love to all. Hope those of you in the north are staying warm!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Holiday photos

New Year's Day sunset looking out my window
Lenora goofing around Safie looking glum
Lenora presents her stuffed pike. Yummy!
The Crimean PCV's gather in Sovetsky for holiday cheer.
Decorating the tree at the Christmas party at CIPU university

My holidays in Crimea

Hi friends,
It is New Year's Day, and I am trying to get the energy to write this blog post. I am, unfortunately, feeling quite lousy. Congestion, sore throat, exhaustion. Didn't feel great when I got up, though I attributed that to last night's partying—more on that later—so I decided to go for a little New Year's walk up into the forest to pay homage to my mountain, and then came back and washed my sheets (a rare occurrence). But as the day has gone on, I have been feeling worse and worse. Trying to stay warm and drink lots of fluids and hoping it is just a one-day thing.
Thinking about my last couple of weeks. Seems like much has been happening. I have two new young American friends here in Simferopol, which is nice to look forward to going into this year. One of them is the new Peace Corps volunteer here. She's great. Despite her youth she is pretty worldly having lived in Prague for a year and has a Czech boyfriend (who is coming to visit this week).
The other volunteer is the new Fulbright scholar in town, who will be here until August, studying Crimean Tatar language and how parents make the decision to send their children to one of the Crimean Tatar schools. And just like Adrienne (the new PCV), she has also lived abroad—three years in Istanbul. She is also great and will be a joy to spend time with. So I feel very blessed to have two new friends in Simferopol.
So getting back to a recount of my life here since Solstice. Christmas week was pretty festive, given that it is not a holiday here. On the 22nd there was a large gathering at the department at the university where I conduct an English club. Mostly put on by the American missionary folks here,who seem to be everywhere. They aren't too preachy, though there was a rather long winded retelling of the Christmas story. That is the first time that I have been around any of them, and they are nice folks, but I must admit, I had a pretty hard time when one of them told me they were working on translating the Bible into Crimean Tatar. However, it's the holiday season and I kept my mouth shut, though I find the notion very troubling.
Christmas Eve I had dinner after work with my PCV friend Grace who was heading out of town, Adrianne the new PCV, and our Russian friend Dima at our favorite Crimean Tatar restaurant. Christmas Day was just another work day for me, but I had a nice surprise that evening. I came home, made a little dinner of a tuna fish sandwich (from packaged tuna Debbie had given me for my birthday) and settled down to do some reading. Serdar called from next door and said to come over in a half an hour. Well, Lenora had made me a nice Christmas meal, complete with champagne and little presents—socks and chocolates. I was so touched and grateful that they had thought to try and honor my holiday. Once again, I know how blessed I am to have them in my life.
The following day, Cary, one of my favorite PCV's here in Crimea, had a holiday party at his apartment in Sovetsky, a town of 20,000 about 2 hours from here. It was a fun gathering-- there must have 20 or more of us. The only other older volunteers were a Japanese American couple in their 60's, who live in the city of Kerch on the Russian border between the Sea of Asov and the Black Sea. I had communicated with them via email (their site is also a library), so it was good to meet them. Their service is done in June, so I hope to get down there to visit with them sometime in the spring. They did not stay overnight, so once again it was me and a gaggle of mostly 20-somethings (and a couple of 30-somethings like Cary). We scatted to various apartments to spend the night. Where I was at, there were five of us in one room—two on a sofa bed, two on a thin mattress on the floor, me on chair cushions I put on the floor which wasn't too bad. Gone are the days I can share a bed with someone I barely know. Hanging out with all of them sure makes me forget how old I am, except of course when we play a game, and no one had a clue who William Kunstler is (was?). And I, of course, knew none of the entertainment people they talked about.
This week (New Year's week) I spent a lot of time agonizing over buying a new computer. The USB ports when out on mine, and there was no fixing it. Serdar and Neshet took me computer shopping one afternoon which meant I got to see the big box stores, complete with crowded parking lots. A whole other side of Ukraine I haven't experienced—felt like I was back in the States. Also went to some smaller stores—there are many opportunities to buy laptops here, and the prices are about the same as the US, which means they are very expensive for the average Ukrainian. However, there must be enough people able to buy them, because there sure are a lot of stores. Anyhow, I couldn't quite convince Serdar that I needed an English operating system, so no purchases were made that day. However, it gave me an idea of what was out there and the next day I went on my own to a couple of stores and managed to communicate enough in Russian and a little English to buy a computer, and to get an English Windows 7 (pirated copy of course) put on it. I really wanted to get one of the net books because they are so easy to carry around, but they don't have cd drives and are expensive, so I settled for a budget Asus notebook at $500. Works great, the computer store is near the library in case I need help, and it has a 2-year warranty. So hopefully I am set for awhile.
The really big event here is New Year's, much like our Christmas. Much shopping for presents, holiday lights (though way, way less than what we see in America), lots of frenzied activity. Not much got done at the library this week as no one was in the mood to work—word has it that not much gets done all of January, though in my case that will not be true as I have a grant due at the end of the month. On Wednesday there was a big party for the staff at the children's library—a sit down meal with a lot of food, skits, games, a little dancing, champagne. Went on for about 3 hours. I had great fun despite no english speakers there. One of the highlights at the end was helping to clean up and singing Beatle songs together—they all know the words, if not the meaning.
I thought there was a party scheduled the next day at the Crimean Tatar library and came prepared, but when I got there few people were at work. Apparently, they had their party the previous day too, though not so elaborate because of the audit situation. But Nadjie was there and it was a chance for just the two of us to talk, something I have been wanting. I really do want to get closer to her and maybe this year as my language improves, I will be able to. I think she is a pretty wonderful woman. I gave her a copy of cousin Sara's new book for a New Year's present, and she was so appreciative. We joked how someday she will be able to read it (I'm giving her English lessons).
So that brings me to last night, New Year's Eve, and my quandry about what to do about being invited to both my neighbor's, plus someone from the library coming to bring me a present earlier in the evening. But it turned out to be a non issue. Zarema from the library came quite early, and I had dinner early with Maya and Server, leaving me free to spend the rest of the evening with Neshet and Lenora which is what I wanted to do. Another neighbor whom I know and like a lot, Lavisa, who is good friends with Maya, also came to their house for dinner. She was, unfortunately, extremely drunk from a work party. She was loudly carrying on and since I like her so much, and I know she likes me, I was trying to go along with. Then we all went over to her house and had more dinner and cognac. Her poor son was clearly very embarassed, as I think Maya and Server were, though by that time Server had also drunk quite a bit. Levisa's husband died three years ago at the age of 40 and this was the anniversary of his death. She works six days a week at a shop in the bazaar, and her life is pretty hard.
We came back to Maya and Server's and then I went over to Neshet and Lenora's where I spent the rest of the evening, having a grand dinner and drinking some wine and toasting in the New Year. The president always gives a little speech on television at midnight—apparently a tradition in Russia and all the former soviet union countries, and then fireworks were set off everywhere, which we went outside to watch. I think the most interesting part of the kind of long evening was a discussion Neshet and I had—or tried to have—about how hard it is to communicate without the language, that we can only talk on one level. I, of course, have been feeling this so strongly, and I sort of thought he was too. He also used a Russian word that wasn't in my little dictionary that basically was saying how you are going along down one road in your life and then an event happens that totally changes that direction. The event he was talking about was me moving in across the street. He kept referring to how he was out shoveling gravel when I stopped to introduce myself, and that event changed his life in some way. I'm pretty sure I understand all of it correctly. After much trying and frustration, I finally got what he was saying, and it was a moment of great connection from the heart. A wonderful way to start the New Year.
But now I have been sick since yesterday with a bad chest cold that has totally wiped me out, hopefully nothing more serious. I am trying to lay low these few days and know I don't have the energy to try and communicate in Russian. But already I miss going over there. My most fervent New Year's wish is that our ability to talk with one another will grow and grow.
Happy New Year to all my friends and family back in the States. May this be a year that brings you joy and wisdom.