Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The circus on Christmas!

‘Tis the season to be jolly and here it’s no exception. Though Christmas as we know it isn’t celebrated—the Orthodox Christian Christmas is on January 7th and is a much more subdued affair—the celebrations around New Year’s (or novi gode in Russian) more than make up for the lack of Christmas. It’s Christmas and New Year’s traditions all rolled into one big holiday—Christmas tree (yolka), big family dinner, presents (though much less than the US), a version of Santa Claus called Grandfather Frost (who apparently travels from Finland but minus reindeer—unclear how he actually gets here), fireworks at midnight, and the circus! Yes, that’s right, a special edition of the local circus, and special it was.

On Sunday, PCV friend Cheryl and I went with Serdar and Safie to the circus, thanks to free tickets from Lenura’s workplace. And since Sunday happened to be Christmas, it felt like we got a little Christmas celebration in after all. Actually, there was a gathering of about twenty of the Crimean Peace Corps Volunteers in the apartment of one of the Volunteers in town, so Cheryl and I went there briefly before the circus. It was fun to get to meet some of the newbies (only been at site for a week) and see again some of the Volunteers that have come in the last year. But I wasn’t really into being at a big PCV gathering in a tiny apartment (as usual), so was glad to take off for the circus.

I didn’t know what to expect, but I have always been curious about the circus when I walked by its building located in the center of the city. Circuses here in Ukraine and Russia and maybe all of Europe—that I don’t know—are different from the traveling affairs we know. Any city of any size has a permanent building that houses the circus and a company that puts it on, much like a repertoire theater. Traveling circuses also frequently appear—recently the circus from Moscow was here—but the rest of the time there is a continuous circus with different themes. So what we attended was the circus celebrating New Year’s.

Even though the building looks quite large on the outside, it is a fairly small space and every seat provides a good view. And there wasn’t an empty seat—the place was packed with kids and adults. It was what I think of when I think of old time circuses—a single ring with clowns, music, a juggler, a unicyclist, acrobatic and high wire acts, a mime, Grandfather Frost and his attendants, and… animals. And amazing animals they were. Not the usual circus animals of elephants and tigers—which I was glad of because I know of the charges of how circuses treat their animals. But instead we had “damashne jhivotne”—as Safie called them—home animals. Which consisted of: dogs of all sizes and breeds (though those performing poodles dominated the pack), pigs, one monkey, a raccoon, an animal that looked like a raccoon but wasn’t, a skunk, a goat, two different foxes, a porcupine-looking animal, and birds. Lots of different birds—homing pigeons, a rooster who was trained to play dead, chickens, owls, parrots, three storks, a cormorant, and an enormous vulture of some sort. And they were all trained to at least do something, even if it was just to walk around the ring. Well, I’m not sure about the vulture—I think his deal was just to awe us all by flapping his enormous wings. He didn’t seem overly happy about it. But entertaining it was, though I kept thinking that one of the dogs, who shared his act with three pigs, was saying to himself, “you’ve got to be kidding me—what are those pigs doing??”-- as they went sliding backwards down a slide.

I’m not sure Serdar—being the cool young man of 18 now—was totally into it, but Cheryl and Safie and I had a great time. As a result of Safie taking over my camera, I have a LOT of videos of the various acts. As we were all waiting for the bus to go home, Serdar asked me if I would go again and I said, “well maybe not tomorrow, but yes, someday I would like to go back,” and once again have a circus experience that I feel I have only read about in novels.

Hanging out with the new PCV's before going to the circus.
We meet up with Serdar and Safie in front of the circus building.
The front of the circus building in Simferopol.
Inside the circus.

Yes, that really is a pig rolling that drum.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Our fundraising is a success!

Thursday afternoon at the library, about an hour or so left before I leave to walk over to Franco Library and the first meeting of my adult English Club. I have a few trepidations about it—will anyone come, do I really want to be doing this (my idea, not theirs), will they be supportive enough—not try to shoo us all out before the library closes at 7pm. I have wanted to do another English Club for adults, but it is so hard to find a place that is open late enough. My biggest hope was to do a club in Ak Mechet using the mosque there, but it turns out the mosque isn’t heated and they only have the one large area where the prayers are conducted. And no chairs, of course. I could have gone back to meeting at the Krymchak Museum, but it is after hours there and is a hard place to find. Franco Library is centrally located and very well known in the city. So, we’ll see how it goes. More on the next blog post.

The great news this week is that my Partnership Project with the Peace Corps got fully funded! And this is even after raising the goal by another $1000. In just a month we raised a total of $4000 from approximately 38 individuals—mostly my friends and family—and one organization, a Crimean Tatar women’s organization in New York. I really didn’t think we would raise that much money that fast—I am so grateful that so many of my friends chose to support my project. So to any of you donors who are reading this blog, thanks so very much. Hopefully I have already sent you a thank you, but because the Peace Corps is slow in getting me all the names, there might be some of you I have missed. It means a lot to me that you have such faith in my work here.

The library staff was ecstatic when I told them the money would be coming In January and began to make plans for what microfilms they wanted to convert into digital format, and possibly even being able to acquire copies of Ismail Gasprinskiy newspaper Terdjiman that they don’t have, one of the long time goals of the library.

Though I would like to do more here, I have come to see my role primarily as a fund raiser. And though many of us community developers chafe on that expectation when we first arrive at our sites, ultimately it makes sense that that is mostly what we would be doing, unless we happen to arrive with a fluency in Russian or Ukrainian. The most successful of us community developers—at least in my eyes—have passed that skill on to the partners in their organization, but I don’t see that happening here just yet. No one has the English necessary to be able to write grants and proposals, the great majority of which are required to be in English.

That’s it for now. The various holidays are coming up, so I am sure that will provide some tales. For one thing, I know I am going to the circus(!) on Christmas Day, which is a nonevent here. Christmas exists in the Orthodox Christian church but it is January 7th and not as heavily celebrated as it is in America. The real holiday is New Year’s, and there have already been much discussions at our house around what foods to make, whether or not to get a new tree (I found out the one they have been using all these years they brought from Uzbekistan twenty years ago), will we go to the grandparents—Lilye and Ablumet’s house—which I so hope we do, as I miss them!

Much love from Crimea.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Birthdays and a visit to Aivasovsky Museum

I’m sitting here at my desk at the library, watching the technician from Kyiv install the scanner that we purchased with the $15,000 grant we received last May from a US foundation. Not that I have any choice given the language barrier, but it is so hard to just sit here and let it all happen without butting in with my opinions. Of which, of course, I have many. I do have faith in the young library workers who are most involved in the setting up of the scanner— I know they are both very knowledgeable about computer technology. But I also know that the scanner is just the first step in a long term project to digitize the library’s rare book and newspaper collections. It will be interesting to see how this all develops. Like everything else here, I know it will take some time for them to initiate a system and I will, once again, have the opportunity to practice patience. And trust—that they will indeed get it together to do what they need to do to take advantage of this wonderful gift to the library.

Following up on my last blog, the “prazdniks” continued after Thanksgiving with my neighbor Siyare’s 24th birthday on a Friday night a week later. Siyare is the daughter in the family of my ex-landlords, and I always enjoy going over there. Though now they always say that I don’t come enough, that I have “forgotten them.” But of course I haven’t, and I try to get over there once a week or every other week. Outside my family, they are my best friends in Ak Mechet. And their gatherings are always a lot of fun—lots of food and usually lots of people—relatives and friends. On this occasion, there were the six family members, a brother-in-law, and three friends of Siyare’s, all of whom I knew. There was much toasting as usual—the men with vodka, us women with wine—and I even got them to sing Happy Birthday as we do in America—the first time I have done that in Ukraine. Candles and singing is not something that happens here.

Safie's 14th Birthday Dinner
Safie’s birthday was a little bit more subdued, but Neshet’s sister who lives nearby came, and Serdar for once was home. There was much toasting with wine among us four adults, and Lenura had made another of her fabulous dinners—this time we had rabbit, which was a first for all of us, including Lenura. Neshet likes exploring different foods and sometimes watches a cooking show. On the last show they were preparing rabbit, so he went out and bought a rabbit and gave it to Lenura to come up with a dinner. I’m not sure how she feels about this “cooking on demand,” but she looked up a recipe on the internet for “Christmas Rabbit”—clearly an English dish—and prepared a tasty concoction of rabbit and mushrooms baked in a cream sauce. Well, it wasn’t really a cream sauce, because cream as we know it is pretty impossible to buy here, but it was a tasty white sauce, nevertheless. And for dessert, we had ice cream and fresh fruit, a choice of two different cakes, and a sort of sweetened squash with nuts. You don’t go hungry in my home, that’s for sure.
This week I’ve been sick—a bad cold—and have stayed home from work until today. I feel like I get a lot more colds here than I did in the States; I suppose it is the problem of my immune system not being used to Crimean germs. Quite a few people in my office have been sick lately with colds, but luckily, I don’t seem to have transferred it to anyone in my family.

One of Aivasvosky's paintings.
Before I got sick, I did make an excursion down to the coastal town of Feodocia to go to the Aivazovsky Museum. Ivan Aivazovsky was an Armenian artist who was born in Feodocia in the early 19th century and lived there all his life. He became world famous for his paintings of the sea and even today is considered the greatest painter of seascapes. His works are large—some of them covering an entire wall—and the sea he depicts is usually a violent one, sometimes complete with ship wrecks. As my experience of the Black Sea is one of fairly tranquil waters, it makes me wonder what inspired his paintings. But there is no denying his incredible mastery of water. One of his most famous paintings—completed just a couple of years before he died at the age of 83—is filled with a raging sea, and as you stand and stare at that painting which fills the wall where it hangs, you can’t help but be drawn into the luminance of those turbulent waves. My PCV friend Cheryl, who accompanied me on the museum visit, had been there before, but wanted to return just so she could once again see the painting. As she said, it felt like one could spend hours just looking at that water.

But, of course, that wasn’t really possible, as we both had buses to catch back to our towns, so we left the library and spent an hour or so wondering the waterfront of Feodocia, usually a bustling place in the summer overrun with tourists, but on this cold November afternoon, filled with only a few people walking the promenade in front of the old ornate mansions converted into “sanatoriums,” as resorts are called here. I don’t really like the overcrowded coastal towns in the summer which is why I had waited until November to make the trek here. I had long wanted to see the Aivazovsky paintings, and I boarded my bus for the two-hour trip back to Simferopol, highly satisfied, with their images floating in my head.

Much love from Crimea