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.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Backpacking on Demerdji Mountain

It’s a sunny though cold Saturday afternoon. I have my laundry hanging outside, getting ready to walk down to the bazaar to get the ingredients to make risotto for the neighbors tonight. I found Arborio rice so have been wanting to try it. Will be fun to do some cooking with Lenura. Up to now, our cooking together has consisted of me assisting her in her manti and cheburek (Crimean Tatar dishes) preparations, so this will be a whole different experience. Good for my language skills, I hope!
Last weekend I went backpacking up on Demerdji Mountain for three days with my PCV friends, Grace and Cheryl. Grace is young—in her twenties—and Cheryl is one of the new older volunteers in Crimea—she’s 51, I think. So I was still the old gal, but not with as big of a gap as there is sometimes. Unfortunately, Serdar had to stay home and study, despite his really wanting to come. He even thought about bringing his anatomy book with him, but finally realized he needed to work at home. I sure missed him, though. We are still going to try and get a camping trip in before it gets too cold. I just got him a sleeping bag that a returning Volunteer was giving away, so we are pretty set, equipment wise.
It was beautiful up on Demerdji. We only had a vague idea of where we were going, but it is a treeless, open plateau, so it is pretty difficult to get lost. However, hiking in Crimea is not so easy. There are many paths which crisscross frequently and none are marked. The first night we were heading for a waterfall and adjacent campsite that are shown on a Crimea hiking map I have (which is, of course, all in Russian to add to the challenge). We eventually found the campsite with the help of advice from other backpackers we met along the trails, but never did find the waterfall…or else it was dried up at this time of the season, though I don’t really think so. Finding water at all was a bit of a problem. Springs are marked on the map, but we were unable to locate them, and thus the necessity of finding the designated campsite because we knew there would be water there. And there was, but, unfortunately, it was a heavily used site, and there was a lot of garbage, a ubiquitous problem in Crimea and all over Ukraine. But we set up our tent under a beautiful old knarled tree, rustled up some fire wood (left over at another tent site thank goodness, as there was little to be found in the woods), I cooked up a simple dinner on the new stove I bought (my first camping purchase in Ukraine!), and we had a lovely evening. There was one other party, two men and a young boy, but they were nice neighbors and not too noisy. It was a cold night so there was much discussion about who should sleep in the middle, Grace winning out because of a broken zipper on her sleeping bag. Unfortunately, it was Cheryl who had the really cold night because the sleeping bag she had borrowed was more for crashing at PCV apartments.
The next day we made our way to the famous rock formations we could see in the distance at the far end of the plateau, and then down the steep mountainside to the “Valley of the Ghosts” filled with jumbled rock masses twisted into “ghost-like” shapes. We had met up with a group of middle-aged day hikers at that point, and followed the stragglers down the mountainside. It was quite difficult for us with our heavy packs. I don’t think they know the meaning of switchbacks here. So far my hiking has been straight up or straight down. I tried to create my own little switchbacks to avoid tumbling head over heels. Was glad when we got further down the hillside and the trail leveled out somewhat.
Camped that night in a really used campsite that you can drive to. Shared it with a loud party of young people (though instead of canned music they were playing the guitar and singing, so I kind of enjoyed that) a family, some pigs and piglets, a few cows, and a herd of horses. Needless to say, there was an abundance of manure around. However, in the absence of firewood, I decided to try burning dried cow patties, remembering all the stories of the pioneers in the American West burning buffalo chips. And, you know, it worked pretty well. Quite well, actually, and did not smell. Told Neshet about it later, and he said, oh yeah, they used to burn horse chips in Uzbekistan and they gave off a certain aroma that pleasantly flavored the food. Or at least, I think that is what he said!
We made our way into the local village, buying fresh grapes along the way, and waited a while for a bus down to the coast where we could get a bus back to Simferopol. While sitting there, waiting for the bus, nursing my aches and pains, I thought some about how I am getting older and some day perhaps I won’t be able to do this. But I was pretty proud of myself and my ability to keep up with the younger ones. And my spirit, that I know will never go away. I loved being in those mountains. And so next time, I hope we explore Chatir Dag, the mountain I see on my daily walks from home, and then after that, who knows….
Much love from Crimea.