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.

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