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!