Tuesday, May 31, 2011

May Holidays--Hirdirlez and Victory Day in Sevastopol

The ruins of Chersonesus.

The Victory Day Parade in Sevastopol.

A Russian submarine up close on our tour of the harbor.

Here I am sitting in front of the monument to sailors lost at sea.

Our Sevastopol friends who shared their holiday with us.

The month of May in Ukraine is a time of many holidays. The first of May holidays—International Workers Day—is followed by the May 9th holiday—Victory Day—which celebrates the end of World War II (called the Great Patriotic War) and honors those who died and the surviving veterans. And the numbers that died here are staggering—40 million in all of Russia which includes the 6 million who died in Ukraine, 2 million of which were Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Once I learned more of the history of the war here, I understood the tremendous importance the May 9th holiday holds for people in Ukraine.
May is also a month of commemoration for the Crimean Tatars. May 18th is the anniversary of the Deportation of the Crimean Tatars and is marked by a huge gathering in the center of Simferopol. This year another gathering of Crimean Tatars also occurred in May—a celebration of the spring holiday Hidirlez. In the past this holiday has only been marked by small neighborhood gatherings, but this year a huge outdoor festival was organized which attracted Crimean Tatars from all over the peninsula. Nadjie had told me about it weeks earlier and we had made plans to go, but obviously, that was not to be. I ended up going with the Seytaptievs, and my PCV friend Cheryl was in town so she also came with us. We got an early start, driving about 15 miles to a beautiful tract of rolling green land. Booths were already being set up and people were gathering, and soon crowds of people—almost all Crimean Tatars—thronged the area. There was a main stage with traditional dancing and singing, booths selling crafts, organizations like the library promoting their services, many kazans (large wok type pots) filled with plov cooking over open fires, traditional games, men proudly displaying their homing pigeons (a very developed hobby here), and much more. The crowd was estimated at over 10,000, and it was a great beginning to what is destined to become an annual event. And it felt joyous, hopeful—people laughing and having a good time—an antidote to the grief of remembrance that occurs for so many Crimean Tatars around this time, as the tragic stories of deportation come flooding into people’s consciousness. Neshet dragged Serdar out of bed and told him he had to come. He was a bit disgruntled by it all at the beginning, but I think by the end, he was perhaps glad he had the opportunity to experience this with his father. (Go to my library blog http://crimeantatarlibrary.blogspot.com to see photos of Hidirlez)
The day following Hidirlez, Cheryl and I took off for two days to Sevastopol. I have been in Crimea for almost two years, and I had yet to explore the most famous city of Crimea, the Russian dominated seaside port of Sevastopol. I had driven through it several times on the way to other destinations but had never lingered. Cheryl and I had received an invitation to visit from a woman we met when we did the professional women’s seminar in March, so we decided the May 9th holiday weekend would be a good time to take her up on her offer. And she was delighted to show us around. Turns out she has a twin sister—they each have a young child and live with their mother in a comfortable new apartment, where we stayed for the night. We spent the first day walking around the ancient ruins of Chersonesus with a knowledgeable English speaking friend of theirs as a guide. Chersonesus is the site of an ancient Greek colony founded approximately 2500 years ago on the coast of the Black Sea. The ruins were excavated beginning in the 19th century, and today it is a world heritage site and one of the most interesting archaeological sites in Crimea. It is a beautiful location and despite the cold wind we spent several hours exploring the ruins. Afterwards, we went to the panorama museum in the city center, another famous Sevastopol tourist site. It is an immense circular building that contains an amazing painting of the Crimean War and the siege of Sevastopol. The installation is a mix of the actual painting on the curving walls and life size replicas of battle scenes. It is very hard to tell where the replicas end and the painting begins. The building was opened in 1905, but like all of Sevastopol the Panorama Museum was destroyed in the Second World War--not a single building survived intact. It reopened in 1970.
The following day was the Victory Day celebration, which began with a parade of veterans of the war—ancient men with chests full of medals—and then soldiers from the present military forces. Sevastopol was an especially significant place to view the Victory Day parade—besides being the site of some of the most ferocious fighting of the war, it is also the present day location of the Russian naval fleet, so the Russian forces were very much in evidence and the Ukrainian and Russian sailors marched together. Crowds thronged the sidewalks to watch the parade and constantly shouted hooray and thank you as the veterans walked by, giving us some sense of how deeply imbedded the experience of the war is in people’s consciousness. There is not a single family in Ukraine that isn’t affected by the war, that had at least one family member die or suffer tragic consequences.
We spent the rest of the day wandering around Sevastopol, looking at all the Russian naval ships docked in the port, taking a short cruise of the harbor where we could see them close up, watching the crowds of people enjoy themselves on this holiday. The weather didn’t cooperate much—it was very cold for this time of the year—but it didn’t keep people from taking advantage of the holiday to party with friends and family. Later there were big fireworks, but by that time we were on a bus back to Simferopol. I was glad to have a chance to see some of Sevastopol, especially with people who lived there as guides. But I was also glad to get back to Ak Mechet. Sevastopol is so Russian—for years it was a closed city and no one but Russian citizens were allowed to live there. As a result, the Crimean Tatar presence seems to be pretty minimal. I did see a mosque, but when I questioned our hosts about the Deportation Memorial Day on May 18th, they did not know what I was talking about. And never in my two years of working at the library has there been any reference to the libraries in Sevastopol, and no one seems to have relatives there. I do know people who have lived there and they all love it—it is a beautiful city—but they are Russian. Russian rule of Crimea devastated the Crimean Tatar population and culminated in the genocide of the deportation, so it is no wonder that most Crimean Tatars have little connection to Sevastopol.
I came back with just a couple of days to get a lot of work done at the library on the upcoming seminar, and then I was off again to Chernigov, my training site when I first came to Ukraine. More on that in the next blog.
Love to all from Crimea.

Monday, May 30, 2011

A tragedy befalls my friend Nadjie

It has been four weeks since I last posted in this blog. I feel like so much has happened in those four weeks, and that in many ways, my life here has been much altered.
The two days following our day trip to Tahankut were vacation days from the library. I don’t remember exactly what I did, but I enjoyed some time at my house, getting caught up on household chores, taking walks up into the forest and hills. I came back to work at the library, prepared to help Nadjie with preparations for our upcoming two-day SPA (Peace Corps grant program) sponsored project. However, Thursday morning as I was teaching my English class at the library, tragedy struck. I hadn’t even seen Nadjie that morning—she was out running errands for the seminar—but then we got a call that she had fallen and was at the emergency hospital. Over the course of the day, we learned that she had broken her hip. I was afraid that with my limited English I would be in the way if I immediately went over to the hospital, so I called her and promised to come the next day. I found out later that it was me she wanted to come to the hospital that day, so I regretted that decision.
A word about health care in Ukraine. Though the government says that there is free health care as there was during Soviet Union time, in reality there is little that is free. I don’t thoroughly understand it, but you have to pay for all kinds of things—bandages, medicines, operations, treatments. These aren’t “official” charges, but if you want to have an operation, for example, you are going to need to give the surgeon some money. Some people tell me that if you are truly desperate, they will do the operation for free, but otherwise payment is expected. And given the fact that doctors make so little money here—only $150 to $200 a month—it isn’t surprising. So when Nadjie was told that she would need an operation, I knew she had no money and immediately sent out an appeal to my friends back in America and the Peace Corps Volunteers here who know her.
As I expected, my friends were amazingly generous, and I collected over $2000 to help pay for Nadjie’s medical bills, a large sum in Ukraine. However, she decided not to have an operation because the doctor (who only would talk with her once he learned that she would be able to pay for an operation) told her that an operation had only a 50% chance of having a good outcome. The other alternative was to have a toe to waist cast put on her broken hip and go home and lay in bed for three months. Which, unfortunately she chose, despite my assurances that I could raise whatever money was needed. In the end, it wasn’t so much the money, but the 50% prognosis and her desire to get the hell out of that hospital. Which I certainly understood once I saw the cramped condition of her room (four patients in a very small space) and the lack of nursing care.
So now she is back in her little home, which fortunate for me, is only two blocks from the library. I go to see her often and have gotten to know her 38-year-old daughter and two-year-old grandson who have moved in with her. I hate to see her lying on her bed, unable to move, but I also treasure the time it has given us to just sit and talk, which we seem to be able to do, despite my poor Russian. And her spirits remain amazingly (at least to me) good, despite the fact that she must know in her heart she will probably never be able to walk normal again. For a long time, I despaired of her ever returning to the library, but now I think her energy and love of life will carry her through. We are already talking about what we are going to do when she returns to the library in the fall, what projects we will work on together. And because she does live so close, I have continued to be able to involve her in my work here, especially as the library decided not to postpone our planned seminar but to proceed without her direct guidance. I will write about the seminar in a later blog post.
When I visited her in the hospital and she understood that she would not be returning to the library for a long time, if ever, she said to me, “Don’t forget me.” I responded instantly, “Hekogda (never)!” As is so often the case, the loss of someone in your life makes your realize how precious they are to you, and so is the case with Nadjie and me. Over the past two years, I have come to love her and recognize her as a true friend in my life here. I have resolved to help her in any way I can and to truly “not forget her.”

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Tarhankut with the Seytaptiev's

It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and instead of sitting at the library where I usually am on a Tuesday, I am at home, sitting at my desk, looking out on spring with the apricot and apple trees in bloom. It’s May 3rd and the second day of our two-day May 1st holiday. There are a lot of holidays here in May—Easter (Paska), then May Day, then the Great Patriotic War memorial holiday—all involving at least one day off from work. I also have been home more than usual because for a week, the library had no electricity. I’m unclear why, except that it had something to do with the fact that the Ministry of Culture has never appointed a replacement director for the library when the original director resigned last year, so we really don’t have a director who can make the Ministry of Culture pay the electric bill. So since no electricity meant no computer, I worked at home. Did get a lot more done, but I sure missed being at the library and around the people there.
This past Sunday I took off with the Seytaptiev’s for a May 1st holiday picnic. They didn’t want to go camping like we did last year because it is still pretty cold at night. Hopefully we will go sometime in June. We were debating where to go—the cave city of Eski Kermen or Tahankut in far western Crimea. Tarhankut won out because Serdar has always wanted to go there, and so have I, once he showed me pictures of it on the internet. Problem is that it is pretty far and almost impossible to get to by bus. It looked to be about a 3-hour drive, and we didn’t get going very early. Actually, it is really about a 2 ½ hour drive, but because we didn’t follow the maps, it took us longer. The typical way of navigating around here seems to be to just stop people on the street and ask for directions. That is what we frequently did when I was driving around with the library for our regional seminars last year, and it is what Neshet did this time too. However, one of those directions ended up sending us down a very bad, ultimately dead end, road. Backtracking took a bit, and finally, exasperated, Serdar got the GPS going on his phone, and we followed that. Which doesn’t take into account things like major potholes and cows wandering across the road, but did give us the shorter route and ultimately took us to our destination. Coming back was much easier and faster.
Tarhankut lived up to all its expectations. Initially there is the village with a lighthouse and not such huge cliffs, but then we followed a dirt road along the edge of the cliffs and it just got more and more spectacular. A lot like the headlands of northern California. It would be a wonderful place to kayak, because the surf in the Black Sea is not so strong and there are many caves along the shoreline to explore. We were on a large open grassy area on top of the cliffs. Eventually we pulled over and hiked around, took pictures, and got out the “shashliking” equipment. Shashliking is the Russian form of barbecuing, which is cooking chunks of meat on skewers over a fire. A very popular activity around here. Any holiday the nearby forests are filled with people shashliking.
Serdar decided he wanted to practice driving, so I went with him in search of a bush to pee behind. It was a little nerve wracking—the road is right on the edge of the cliff—but he really has driven enough now that he is pretty competent. Just that a mistake would end up us not in the ditch but instead… Actually, when we left Neshet had him drive the whole length of the road along the cliff, which really made me nervous, but all was well (or I guess I wouldn’t be writing this, would I?)
The weather wasn’t great—kind of cold and cloudy—so we didn’t say very long, but all of us were so glad to have seen this far edge of Crimea. As Neshet said, Crimea has so much varied topography—the sea, the steppes, mountains, marshes, forests, sea cliffs, rolling hills—all in a fairly small area. I think you can drive west to east in Crimea in maybe 8 hours or less.
Off soon to have dinner with the two young PCV’s who live here in Simferopol. They hang out quite a bit together, but I really don’t see a whole of them, which isn’t surprising. I am, after all, quite a bit older than their parents!
With love from Crimea.