Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Spring and mud

Once again, at the library, trying to remember my life of the past week so I can write this blog. Also, working on the blog I am going to write for the library and a power point presentation about my work here for a Peace Corps meeting in Kyiv in April. Murat, who runs the Community Development program for the Peace Corps, invited me to attend an advisory committee meeting and to present a short presentation of my “success” story here at my site for people from the Ukraine Ministry of Economics who will be at this meeting. I don’t really feel all that successful here, at least not in the terms they are talking about which is fulfilling the Peace Corps’ third goal of technical training for country nationals. But I will present what I can and hope they find it beneficial. And I will try not to tread on too many toes. I have learned more and more that there is a lot hatred directed towards the Crimean Tatars. I think it is mostly among the ethnic Russians in Crimea. Surveys done here annually on the anniversary of the deportation of the Crimean Tatars (May 18th) show that roughly 70% of the ethnic Russians justify the deportation. Moreover, a large portion of those responding maintain that the Crimean Tatars should be expelled from Crimean once again. Depressing statistics. And I hear snippets of that ethnic hatred everywhere—from a PCV’s host family “warning” her about the Crimean Tatars when she told them about her assignment in Crimea to a Russian woman I met here who talks about all the “privileges” the Crimean Tatars have, the way some people in America talk about affirmative action. So I don’t know what the reaction to my presentation will be on the part of the Ukraine government officials, but I will try to stay alert to their perceptions and learn what I can. It is hard enough in America to be awake to racism (at least if you are a white person). When that attempt at awareness is compounded by an ignorance of the culture and language, it is sometimes very difficult to really know what people are thinking and feeling.
So back to my week in review. Hard to remember because right now it is very warm and sunny, but early last week we had several snow storms and cold winds, wreaking havoc with the bus transportation. The buses just can’t make it up the hill to Ak Mechet if it is very icy, necessitating some hiking to get to the bus stop. And then later in the week as the temperatures warmed up, it was slogging through the water and mud. I don’t really know who, if anyone, maintains the roads in Ak Mechet. There is one paved road, but the rest of the roads are mud and filled with holes and ditches, and now the buses and few cars can barely drive over them. I think Neshet was telling me that you don’t really need oil changes because the bouncing effect of the roads keeps the engine oil stirred up and prevents sludge buildup.
One night this past week, I can’t remember which, I spent over at Neshet and Lenura’s as I often do, and it was just so peaceful sitting around the table, talking, drinking tea, watching TV. I kept thinking—and saying—that I really should go home because I had “homework” to do for my Russian tutor meeting the next day, but I just stayed on. We were all eating sunflower seeds—the Ukrainian pastime—taking a handful out of the bag and cracking them one by one. I am so much slower, so one of them periodically would give me a pile of shelled seeds. It was late when I got home, but really, what better way to study Russian then to spend a whole evening trying to speak it?
Last weekend was our first truly spring weekend, and of course, I wanted to get outside. My friend Elizabeth came out to go for a walk, so we rounded up Serdar and decided to hike to PCV Sam’s house. He lives in a village not far from here—I can see it when I am up on the bluffs and have always wanted to try walking there. The beginning of the walk along the road was fine. Then we followed a line of trees along a field and up over a hill, and that wasn’t too bad, either. But when we started down the hill on the other side, we were in soft deep mud, as the snow had just melted off the fields that morning (we found out later). So needless to say, we were a dirty mess by the time we showed up in Sam’s village. But no matter, we walked around town and saw his school, the three stores, and the one bar. And then we built a fire outside his house and had “sashlik”—the equivalent of our shish kabobs and a true Crimean Tatar tradition. It was so great sitting outside watching the sun go down with the smoke of the fire curling around us. Later, Serdar and I took the bus back home (Elizabeth had another engagement and left earlier) and walked the back roads (also very muddy) to our houses. A great day.
Sunday, I just spend the day puttzing—washing and hanging out laundry, getting my hair cut (really short again) at the neighborhood shop, walking down to the bazaar, having coffee with the neighbors. What a fine life I have here.
Heading home now from the library. Will post this with some pics of our muddy walk. With love from springtime in Crimea.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Spring snowstorms and meeting the Ambassador

Fellow PCV Sam Kendall, USA Ambassador to Ukraine, John Tefft
Sam, Leniye from Windows on America, Elizabeth, Nada from Windows on America
Serdar and I loving the winter wonderland.

At the library, leaving shortly to go take the bus to Bakcheseray and the Khan’s Palace, where there is an opening of a photography exhibit of American photograph Tom Till of UNESCO world heritage sites. The new US ambassador is going to be there, so some of us Volunteers got an invite. Apparently, people from the library are also going, but they are going in the library car. They are having various conversations about it, but I really don’t know much of what they are saying. Unless people are making the effort to talk directly to me, I don’t pick up much of the conversations. I have learned to live with it, though it is hard not to get frustrated when the discussion topic concerns me. Younger Russian people seem much more willing to make the effort to communicate with me, I have noticed, with the exception of my neighbors and Nadjie. How blessed I am to have them in my life.
Last weekend seemed so hectic, but as I sit here, I can’t quite remember what I did. The weather was pretty terrible. Like Minnesota, Crimea is experiencing March snow storms with high winds and heavy snow. Saturday I was at home with the idea of eventually going into town to a party at my Fulbright friend Elizabeth’s apartment. I almost gave up going, but eventually made my way there. It was quite the international event—Americans, Russians, Crimean Tatars, a German, Italians, a Lithuaian, a Canadian. Elizabeth knows a bunch of foreign students here studying Russian plus there were all of us Peace Corps types and assorted friends. And all young, of course. Though one guy was maybe in his 40’s. I have gotten use to being the only older person and sometimes forget my age—it is an interesting experience. Working with young people all those years at the bookstore certainly prepared me for this aspect of my Peace Corps service. Sometimes I miss the company of my peers, but mostly I feel it is a great privilege to be part of the lives of young people who are forming their futures right in front of me.
My young PCV friend Grace stayed with me on the weekend. Sunday evening we went over to my neighbors for dinner and then played cards with Neshet and Serdar. A popular card game here called “durak” which means fool in Russian. And I was quite the fool, I must admit. I never quite got the hang of the game, but we did have a lot of fun.
Monday was International Women’s Day, an official holiday in Ukraine, so the library was closed and I had the day off. International Women’s Day is something I have long known about, and, indeed, it was that holiday I was celebrating many many years ago when I got arrested for doing graffiti celebrating women! But, of course, it is not a holiday that is recognized in the western world, despite the fact that it originated in the U.S. in the early 1900’s. But it was adopted by the socialist countries and has long been a celebration of the strengths of women. It seems to have evolved into kind of a Mother’s Day type event here with flowers and gift giving, but it isn’t restricted to just mothers. I received many “congratulations”—for what, I am not sure, but it was fun anyhow. I did not actually do much that day except recuperate from a hectic weekend, but in the afternoon I did what turned out to be the highlight of my week, a walk up into the snowy forest with Serdar. It was quite cold when we started out with the wind blowing, and we almost turned back when we got to the open areas, but I am so glad we didn’t. The forest was truly a winter wonderland, that rare occurrence after a storm with the snow still heavy on the branches and the feeling of being surrounded by a soft white winter hive. And it felt so fine to be sharing it with Serdar. We seem to be getting ever closer, as he talks more frankly with me about his dreams and fears and I feel more able to share my life with him. I truly enjoy our conversations and greatly value our friendship.
Sunday now. Making a pot of chicken soup, trying to get caught up on numerous things. The trip to Bakcheseray was fun but uneventful. Did meet the new ambassador who seems like a regular, Midwestern kind of guy (he is from Madison) and went to our favorite restaurant and had our favorite Crimean Tatar dish, lagman soup (a vegetable meat soup with homemade noodles).
Saturday I went to an event at the Franco Library, which is the main library in Simferopol and is housed in a beautiful new building—by far, the most modern building I have been in in Ukraine. My new found friend Natalya, the English speaking librarian there, invited me to come. It was some kind of celebration of Hungary with many speeches (in Russian and Hungarian so needless to say I didn’t catch much) and some great music performed by young people. A group of ten violinists and then two solo saxophone performers. One of them was this really terrific young girl. Unfortunately, her performance was marred for me—but not for anyone else probably—by one of the event organizers talking loudly to the person sitting next to him. I have been around this more than once. Apparently, behavior at public events that we would consider quite rude is acceptable here.
Later in the day I went over to where an English language camp for kids was happening. Most of the nearby PCV English teachers were conducting it and I had talked Serdar into going. He turned out to really enjoy it, but I think what he most loved was that he came with me to a gathering of PCV’s that night, and we all ended up playing cards. He had a great time, said he wants to do that every weekend! It was so fun to see him connect with everyone.
Better go finish my soup and get on with my other tasks. The sun is finally out for a little bit, and I really want to go for a walk, but the roads are truly a muddy mess. Many city buildings now have wash bins with brushes by the front door so you can clean the mud off your shoes before entering. And trying to keep your pants clean is a losing battle. Now I see why one of the PCV’s who has been here for awhile said she spends the spring in knee high rubber boots. Yellow ones, at that.
I am going to start working on creating a blog for the library which they will link to their website, so they will have an English component on their site. It was a suggestion from my Fulbright friend, Elizabeth, and I am really grateful to her for it, as I am beginning, once again, to feel like I am spinning my wheels at the library. So we will see where this leads….
That’s all for now. Maybe next time I will have a hiking report. Serdar seems to think it is going to be nice weather next weekend and he and I are itching to get out for a long hike in the mountains.
Much love from Crimea.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Cousin Sara comes to Crimea

It’s Thursday at the Gasprinsky Library, the only day I am working here this week—took Monday and Tuesday off because Sara was here. A slow day, so I think I will try to get my blog post written. Many times at night I am too tired to do anything except to read fiction and go to bed.
So cousin Sara (Sara Paretsky) has come and gone. My first visitor from America. It was wonderful, challenging, and sometimes surprising to see how the two parts of my life came together. Sara was only here three full days, but of course, I wanted her to see everything, meet everyone. I’m afraid I exhausted her, especially since she came from an already exhausting book tour in England. Hopefully, she is now getting some much needed rest.
To say her visit had an impact on my teenage neighbor, Serdar, would be an understatement. Serdar was so excited to meet her that he wanted to come to the airport with me to pick her up. There was also the fact that he had never actually been to the airport, so it was a thrilling event for him to go there and meet someone coming off a plane. He really wanted to see the plane come in, but the airport is set up in such a way that is impossible. We had to wait almost an hour after the plane landed before Sara finally made it through customs, but then through the door she came, my cousin Sara, in Ukraine!! At the suggestion of Serdar’s father Neshet, I had hired a local man to pick us up at the airport, so we got back to Ak Mechet without braving the crowds on the buses, which I did not think would be a good choice for Sara’s first experience in Ukraine.
But what was a good choice, of course, was dinner that night at Neshet and Lenura’s house. Sara was her usual charming self, and they just loved her. She especially paid attention to Serdar as his love of poetry piqued her interest. By the end of that evening and subsequent encounters throughout the weekend, Serdar found a true soul mate in Sara. He was so taken with her, and I think she got him thinking about all kinds of things. Like feminism! He apparently had heard of it, but after she left, he started asking me about feminism and what it meant.
On Sara’s first full day, we went on my favorite walk from my house up into the forests and bluffs, encountering cows and goats along the way. Later we went into the center of the city and walked around. I showed her the Gasprinsky Library, and then took her to the huge new library in the city, the Franco Library, where we ended up encountering a librarian in the foreign language department who was so delighted to meet Sara. She had heard of her, and eventually found that the library has two of her books in Russian. She showed us around the library, took many photos of us together, and I got a library card (with the usual fee waived because I am a “pensioner “—retired person), something I have been meaning to do ever since I toured the library when I first came here. And now, thanks to Sara’s visit, I have an English-speaking contact there.
On Sunday we took the bus to Bakchiseray, home of the Khan’s Palace and the cave city of Chufat Kale. I knew we wouldn’t have time to explore both, so we decided for the cave city since it was a lovely warm day, and Sara had seen so many pictures of them on my blog. It was a good choice—there were few people there, unlike the hordes during tourist season, and we got to explore the caves to our hearts’ content. I had been there before, but I saw so much more this time. However, I really need to bring a history book with me if I am going to continue to be a tour guide. Though I have read the history of Chufat Kale more than once, in my usual fashion I couldn’t remember much of it. No wonder I am having such a hard time with the language—in one ear and out the other.
On Sara’s last full day here, we decided to take the bus down to Yalta and go to Livadia Palace. As a lover of history, Sara wanted to see where the Yalta Conference with Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin took place at the end of World War II, the meeting that decided the country borders of contemporary Europe. My trusty information aids—internet weather forecast and two Ukraine guide books—really let me down this time. Despite a forecast of clear and sunny weather, we were surrounded by low hanging clouds the whole day, never lifting to reveal the beauty of the setting with the snow capped mountains and the Black Sea. Both guidebooks said nothing about the Palace being closed on Mondays—other days, but not Mondays—but sure enough, once we got there (which took some wrong turns in the bus navigation department), it was closed. Disappointed, we walked around the grounds, but then realized we were looking at the balcony where the famous photo of the three leaders was taken, and that seemed to satisfy Sara’s desire to be in the place where such a momentous piece of modern history took place.
The following day Sara was leaving, but she had agreed to do a book presentation at the library that morning. I wasn’t sure exactly how it was all going to happen, as I am always a little unclear of the going ons at the library, but it turned out to be a nice event. Arzy, the director’s daughter who is a very good English speaker translated along with help from Elizabeth, my Fulbright friend here. The audience was mostly the library staff, but some outside people including the woman we had met at the Franco Library (who brought Sara flowers and chocolate) also came, along with the local television station. Sara talked about her writing life in America and answered questions. I found it very interesting to hear what questions the library staff asked her—about her life in America, her family, what authors she likes. Sara also talked some about Russian poets she admires, particularly the 20th century poet Anna Akhmatova, much to the delight of the Gasprinsky staff. She took a short tour of the library, we had coffee and cookies in my office, and then Neshet came and got us and off we went to the airport. Simferopol to Istanbul to London, and then home to Chicago. A long journey—I am so grateful that Sara came so far to see me in my new home.
It was a wonderful experience, showing Sara Crimea. And though it increased my stress level, trying to speak Russian not only for myself, but for someone else (though Sara’s Russian background helped), the experience greatly increased my confidence in my language abilities, at least for the tasks of traveling and limited translation. And also, I felt so strongly how Crimea has become my home, how, despite all its problems, I love it so.