L’viv for the Last Time; or, Surviving the Plague.

As my final days are winding down, something I was most looking forward to was spending a few days of my Fall Break hanging out and shopping with my friends in L’viv! L’viv is a beautiful city in Western Ukraine, and its one of my favorite places. I was going with some of my closest PCV friends, and we were renting an apartment and celebrating the end of our service together.

So Saturday dawned, the day of our departure, and all I could think upon waking was, “oh crap, I’m sick.” I had felt like I was coming down with a cold all week, but I’d been drinking orange juice and trying to sleep it off, hoping my body would know I had big plans and didn’t have time to succumb to illness. Well, this cold (turned plague) had no regard for my plans or feelings on the matter, and Saturday morning I felt like death warmed over. But the tickets were already purchased, the plans were already made, and I couldn’t bring myself to bail on my friends, especially as this was our last trip together in Ukraine. So I packed my backpack, drank some Theraflu, and stopped to see Olha on my way out of town.

She took one look at my pale face and said “what are you thinking? Go home to bed now!” I laughed at her and told her (in my sick, manly low voice) that I’d be fine in a few days and there was no way I was missing this trip. She did the mothering thing, and claimed she felt a temperature. In my experience, Ukrainians tend to overreact to illness, so I thought she was exaggerating to get me to stay home. I thanked her for caring, and told her I’d call and give her updates on my health.

I took a bus to the city of Chernivtsi, where I met all my friends for a yummy Indian meal. They expressed concern, but I told them it was a cold and I just needed to sleep. We hung out until our train left the station at 1 in the morning, and as soon as I laid down in my bunk, I was out. I woke up at 6 the next morning, because our train was arriving in L’viv and it was time to go. My head and throat hurt, but I figured I just needed more Theraflu and cold medicine. The apartment we rented wasn’t available until 10am, so we found a cafe and sat down to wait it out. I spent some time on the Internet, checking my email and assuring my Mom in America that I just had a cold and would get over it soon.

Unfortunately, I was wrong. It was not just a cold, as I found out shortly after getting to the apartment. I laid down to take a nap, and woke up groggy and dizzy and feeling like I was going to be sick. I made it to the bathroom, where the room was spinning and my heart was racing, before I realized that something was really wrong. I called for Michelle, and barely made it out of the bathroom before falling to the floor in the hallway. I think she must’ve caught me, but the next thing I know, I was laying there moaning about how hot I was and how much my pounding head was hurting. Michelle was holding my head and looking really scared, which in turn scared me, because she said I was freezing to the touch. Janira and Erin whipped out a cell phone and called the Peace Corps doctors, and Sarah just looked upset.

The Peace Corps doctor listened to all the symptoms, and sent my friends to the pharmacy to buy my medicine. Michelle helped me move to the couch, where the hot flash subsided and I started shivering. I don’t think I’ve ever been so sick, and I was scared to death. I had no clue what was wrong, but the Peace Corps doctor thought I was dehydrated and fighting either a sinus infection or a viral infection. I know she was right about the dehydration, which probably caused the dizziness and swooning, because we all stopped drinking before getting on the train to L’viv the night before. We always try to avoid having to use the bathrooms on Ukrainian trains, and I didn’t think what a bad idea that was if I was sick. The Peace Corps doctor also said I had to stop drinking Theraflu, because it dries you out and probably contributed to the dehydration. She didn’t know if it was a viral infection or a sinus infection, but was prescribing antibiotics. The Peace Corps prescribe antibiotics for every illness, which I’m not really a fan of, but I was in so much pain that I had to take something.

Erin returned with the medicine and some water, and I remember her making a joke that the horse-sized pills had to be taken anally, and I thought she was serious. I moaned that I couldn’t do it and they all assured me it was a joke ; ) For the next two days, I pretty much did nothing but lay there and pray it would end. My head pounded and the dizziness lasted for most of the illness, so it was a pretty rough time. But my friends took such wonderfully good care of me, I only felt an incredible sense of love the whole time. No one was angry that I came or told me I should have stayed home; in fact, they took turns sitting with me and rubbing my head when the headaches were so bad I was in tears. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so loved in Ukraine.

Monday I tried to get up and get dressed, but I quickly realized as the world span around me that I was not up to leaving the apartment with my friends. I laid down and fell back asleep, and when I woke up at lunchtime, I discovered they had returned with carryout from my favorite Ukrainian restaurant (Puzata Hata!). I was so touched then, but now just remembering it brings tears to my eyes. What wonderful friends I have ๐Ÿ™‚

My cell phone had died at some point, and I had forgotten to pack the charger, so I asked to use Erin’s phone to text my parents in America. I told them I was really sick and needed to talk to them, and hit send. But they never called, and I felt bad, thinking they probably tried calling my Ukrainian number instead of the one that was texting them. By Tuesday, the day I was finally up to walking and leaving the apartment, we stopped at a cafe with Internet and I could tell from the emails that they were worried sick. So I signed into Skype and called and reassured them that I was alive, just fighting a nasty illness. I promised I was being taken care of and recovering slowly but surely, and I apologized for worrying them. I just wanted to talk to them while I was laying in the apartment feeling miserable, and that was why I sent the text!

Tuesday was such a long day, because I wasn’t healthy yet but we had to leave the apartment because someone else was renting it. Tuesday was also rough because Erin got sick too, with nausea and a terrible headache. I assume she got whatever I had, but we all made jokes about it being the apartment we were staying in, trying to kill us ; )

We did a little shopping Tuesday, and both Michelle and I found beautiful boots and bought them. Mine were a steal at 200 griven (= about $25), but Michelle’s were genuine leather a cost a bit more ๐Ÿ˜‰ That night, we had dinner at a new Tex-Mex restaurant in town that was opened by an American, and we enjoyed a taste of Mexican food! My dear friend and language teacher Natalia, who lives in L’viv, came to join us after work, and I was so glad we got to see her one last time. Saying goodbye to her was on my list of things to do in L’viv, and I’m so glad it happened. She was one of the nicest people I met in Ukraine, and someone I hope to keep in touch with the rest of my life. I apologized that we hadn’t called sooner, but the plague had derailed most of our L’viv plans :/

That night we took the train back to Chernivtsi, and the next morning I caught a bus back to Sokyriany. For the rest of Wednesday, (and a good chunk of Thursday) I slept, and I finally started getting better. I think this was the sickest I’ve ever been in Ukraine, and I hope I get over it soon. This weekend is my last weekend in Sokyriany; Monday afternoon I catch the bus to Chernivtsi and then the overnight train to Kyiv! So I really need to get over being sick so I can pack, say goodbye, and then leave. Scary thoughts.

That’s all for now; I can proudly say I survived and that our trip to L’viv proved (if there was any doubt) that my friends are the best in the world. Thanks for keeping me alive guys ๐Ÿ™‚

Here’s a picture of us, at a cafe in L’viv our last day:ย 

Me, Janira, Erin, Sarah, and Michelle.

And in closing, a quote from Walt Whitman that sums up how I feel about these wonderful ladies: โ€œI no doubt deserved my enemies, but I don’t believe I deserved my friends.โ€ โค

The End of an Era.

This was my last week at school. My last week of lessons, my last week with the munchkins, my last week of English Club… Next week we have Fall Break, so there will be no school and I’ll be in L’viv with some of my favorite PCVs for a last adventure together. So this week has been full of last moments with my students, trying to make my final lessons memorable and trying to prepare everyone for my imminent departure. I’m still getting surprised looks; no one seems to believe that this is really it… that in 2 short weeks, I’ll no longer be a resident of Sokyriany and an English teacher at 1st School.

To be honest, I won’t really miss teaching. The idea that this is my last week as a teacher isn’t painful to me at all… in fact, I feel a twinge of excitement knowing these are my final lessons. But when I think of the kids who I’m leaving, then the sadness kicks in. For better or worse, the last two years of my life have revolved around these munchkins, who sometimes double as monsters. They also have angelic moments, but those are few and far in between ๐Ÿ˜‰ Lucky for you (and for me as well!), I’ve captured some of the angelic moments on camera and I’m sharing them with you. I’m so grateful for all the beautiful memories they’ve given me, and just seeing these pictures pulls my heart strings. Lucky for me, I don’t have to say goodbye just yet. I’m planning on going to school the Monday after Fall Break, before leaving for Kyiv. So these photos are of us happy, before the reality of goodbye sets in : )

Okay, so let’s begin this little show and tell with one of my favorite classes- fifth grade. They’re as cute as they come, plus they still think its fun to learn new English words to try and impress me ; )

Next we have the only class who can rival the fifth grade in cuteness… 2nd grade! I teach this group of 12 of the smartest 2nd graders, and let me tell you, they’re impressive. They speak with amazing accents, because they’re young enough to pick up on English sounds and speak without a Ukrainian accent. For example, they can say the “th” sound in “thank you” and “Kathryn,” which is something even the English teachers struggle with. Usually when Ukrainians try to make this sound it comes out more like a “z;” so they say “zis is a cat.” Or sometimes they even make it an “f” sound, like in my name: “Kafryn” which coincidentally is how my older brother Heath used to say my name when we were little ; ) So without further ado, I give you second grade. I’ll let them wow you with their cuteness factor through pictures.

2A… click to see these precious faces close up ๐Ÿ™‚

Ira, me, and Anya.

In addition to being smart, they’re precious. I teach this class with Liudmyla, and they defy my unease around little people because they’re just so stinkin’ cute.

ย 2 of my favorites… Vasya and Sasha. Definitely the smartest in class!

Sasha, me, Vasya, and Lyera

Now in terms of smartness, my favorite class hands down was 10th form. I split the class with one of my Ukrainian colleauges, and she took the weaker students while my group consisted of 10 of the smartest, most entertaining teenagers I’ve ever met : )

10th grade!

Tetiana and Christina.

Vanya and Artem, my class clowns.

My favorite 10th formers… Vanya and Vanya, who I refer to by their last names, which I’ll omit just because this is a public forum ๐Ÿ™‚

10th form boys trying to do a jumping picture, but between the slow camera and they’re inability to all jump at the same time… it didn’t happen. Hilarity ensued.

I also LOVED my group of 8th grade girls, who were always excessively chatty in class but also incredibly sweet. For our last lesson, they made posters that said “Miss Kate, we will miss you,” and combined efforts to write me a goodbye letter in English. Somebody must have resorted to Google Translate though, because some of the funnier lines included “We’ll miss your beautiful smile and sonorous laughter from your sincere nature” (what!?) and “We will always detect and love you” and “Hope for you we were the good children.” They totally get an A for effort, I was very touched : )

8A with their good-bye posters for our last lesson!

Lilia and Tanya, who never fail to crack me up and bring a smile to my face ๐Ÿ™‚

Olia, who is such a sweetheart.

Nastia, me, and Olia

Next we have my 7th graders, who used to be my favorite class when I came to Sokyriany and they were in 5th grade. Unfortunately puberty has gotten the best of them, and they no longer make an effort to learn English. They don’t love me as much nowadays because I give them bad marks for not doing their homework. Oh well, I still have fond memories of them from when they were younger!


And finally, we have the 9th form. The 9th form is incredibly weak as a whole, so I teach the top 4 students and I’m pretty hard on them. I only speak English, assign loads of homework, and demand speaking every time we have a lesson. Lucky for me, these four actually have an interest in learning English and have risen to every challenge I’ve thrown at them. I must say, I’m most proud of these 9th graders. Having lessons with them always gave me hope and recharged my batteries ๐Ÿ™‚ Maxim wasn’t at school, but here are pictures with Aliona, Angelina, and Seriozha.ย 

Angelina, me, and Aliona.

If I was giving out awards, Seriozha would get “sweetest” and “smartest.”

Those were some of my favorite pictures from my final lessons! But now I want to share some thoughts and photos from my last English Club. I’ve been holding English Club since January of 2011, and I feel like I’ve developed the deepest relationships with these kids. They came entirely of their own free will, to work on their English and hang out with me, and they have a special place in my heart. English Club was for older students, from the 9th to 11th forms, because we mostly spoke in English and practiced communication skills. Here is my English Club, at our last meeting!

English Club students, some of my very favorites ๐Ÿ™‚

Ivanka, me, and Nastia

Bogdan, me, and Vlad, one of my students who I tutored. He speaks English very well, I know he’ll go far in life ๐Ÿ™‚

Girl Sasha (I call her that to differentiate between her and Boy Sasha), who is a doll ๐Ÿ™‚

Boy Sasha, me, and Pavlo making Uker face, which is what I call the Stone Face. Here’s a cultural difference for you: Americans cheese, Ukers stone. Haha not in the drug sense ๐Ÿ˜‰

But the best part of our final English Club meeting was the use of the newly installed English Resource and Technology Center! Many of you contributed financially to the grant that made this possible, so this is all thanks to you. With the use of our fancy new computer and projector,ย I prepared a special surprise: a going-away powerpoint, complete with pictures I’ve been acquiring over the last two years of my life in Sokyriany. They’ve loved it!

Then I made them watch a clip from The Sound of Music, where the Von Trapp children sing the “So long, farewell” song, and then we talked about all the different ways to say “goodbye” in English. We also discussed my favorite J.M. Barrie quote: “Never say goodbye, because goodbye means going away and going away means forgetting.” We agreed to say “So long” or “farewell” in place of “goodbye.” ๐Ÿ™‚

English Club in the new English Resource and Technology Center!

Katya working on one of the exercises on the white board.

Our fancy new computer, speakers, and copier/scanner/printer!

Thus concludes my last week at school. I will miss these kids something fierce, so I’m thankful we haven’t reached our final goodbye yet! I’ll leave you with this photo of flowers that I received at my final lessons… oh how the students spoil me ๐Ÿ™‚

For my dear Ukrainian readers:ย 

All my love,


Last Slumber-Party in Sokyriany

One of the best parts of my two years here has been weekend-long slumber parties with fellow PCVs, especially Michelle. Whenever she comes to Sokyriany we always cook all weekend, because she lives in a dorm without a kitchen and cooking is a treat for her. We also are both addicted to the TV show Castle, so whenever we’re together we watch new episodes. This weekend is Sokyriany marked the end of an era; our last slumber-party! I’m down to two weeks left in Sokyriany, but next weekend I won’t be home because I’m going to L’viv with some friends for one last adventure in Ukraine. The weekend after that I’ll be packing like crazy, so this weekend was pretty much the last possible weekend we could do this.

Michelle arrived Friday afternoon, and freaked out when she saw the suitcase on the floor in the middle of my room. “Isn’t it a bit early to be packing?” she asked. I explained that I was putting away all the clothes that I wouldn’t need during my last few weeks here, because they were taking up space in my closet. I wanted an idea of how much room they would occupy in my suitcase, but they didn’t even all fit! I really don’t know how I’ve accumulated so much stuff… I even sent a huge suitcase home to Ohio with Tori in August, and yet there is still so much to pack.

After Michelle arrived I put the suitcase away; packing was not on the agenda for this weekend. Firstly, I dragged Michelle to Milady (Olha’s shop) to see Olha. I had a secret plan that I needed Michelle’s help with.ย ย My going-away present for Olha is a beautiful engraved picture frame, but I needed a cute picture of Olha and I to put inside of it! I told Olha we needed to have a “photo sessia” (photo session) and she immediately closed her shop and led us to the park. The weather was perfect and the park was full of beautiful fall colors. Michelle did a great job as photographer, and the pictures turned out so well! I have a few to choose from for the place of honor in the picture frame.

This one is my favorite, it’ll probably be the one I frame!

ย Here’s one of all three of us: Michelle, Olha, and I.

And of course I have to include this picture, because some of my happiest moments in Ukraine were spent here.This is the sign outside Olha’s shop, it says “Milady” in Cyrillic.ย 

After the photo sessia we headed back to my apartment for dinner. It was a Ukrainian meal of borsch and pelmeni, the former being homemade by Olha and myself, and the latter being bought at the grocery store. What Michelle and I didn’t know was that the pelmeni was disgustingly old, with an expiration date in 2011. We didn’t realize this until it was cooked and on our plates and we were wondering why it tasted so funny. GROSS!

After dinner we watched Castle and squealed for every love scene, because our favorite characters finally got together! Then it was time to get down to business… the dreaded business of hand-washing our clothes. I’ve been making a grand master list, detailing “things I will miss” and “things I won’t miss” about Ukraine, and handwashing goes firmly in the won’t-be-missed category. I hate hand-washing; your clothes never come as clean as they do in a washing machine, and your hands always end up chapped and sore. Plus air-drying doesn’t shrink your clothes, so jeans never fit exactly like they should. Lucky for me, I think this was my last time hand-washing! I don’t want to jinx it, but I think the next time I wash clothes will be in two weeks in Kyiv (I know, my standards of cleanliness have fallen in Peace Corps), so this might have been the last time I ever have to do this! I sincerely hope it was.

My camera is dying, but this is me hand-washing in the bathtub. I don’t know why I look so happy, hand-washing does not evoke feelings of happiness.

Another picture that goes in the “things I won’t miss” column; endless dirty dishes. Bring on the dish-washer in America!

Now, to be fair, I have a few pictures to illustrate the “things I will miss” column. First off we have Olha, my dearest Ukrainian friend. This is one of the pics from our photo-session, a bit blurred but still precious!

I will also miss my favorite bet-you-can’t-eat-just-one Ukrainian cookies.

I will definitely miss this group of 10th formers… such smart, funny kids; class with them always makes my day better ๐Ÿ™‚

Last, but not least, I will definitely miss Sokyriany, my home in Ukraine.

And of course, I’ll miss slumber-party/cooking weekends with Michelle! Saturday we made Ukrainian Eggs Benedict for brunch, followed by Sweet & Sour Chicken and Fried Rice for dinner. Then Michelle made us French Toast for breakfast Sunday, and we had Chinese leftovers for lunch! When we weren’t eating we were just hanging out, and both of us did some blogging we wanted to get caught up on. I even did some studying for the GRE, making flashcards of all the GRE vocabulary words I’ve never heard of. Examples: pusillanimous, saturnine, ineluctable, tendentious, and stentorian. And here I thought only the math portion of the GRE would be a challenge ๐Ÿ˜›

Sunday night Michelle left for a meeting in Kyiv, and tomorrow my LAST week of teaching starts. Fall Break starts this Friday after class ends, so this is my last week of lessons! On one hand, it’ll be hard to say goodbye to some of the kids, but on the other hand, the lessons this week will be easy and consist mostly of taking pictures with the munchkins. Oh and I have my last English Club this Thursday, so I’m going to make a slide show of all my students who come to English Club and plan something cool as a way to say goodbye. I’ll miss those kids the most.

I hope all is well where you are, thanks for reading!


“Every New Beginning Comes From Some Other Beginning’s End…”

My RM came to visit! But what is an RM, you might ask? Peace Corps is organized so that volunteers work on their own but report to a supervisor who works at PC Headquarters in Kyiv. There are different supervisors for each region, and they are known as RMs, or Regional Managers. My RM is Roman, and we the volunteers of Region 4 know that he’s the best regional manager in Ukraine. We also think he’s the most attractive, but that’s beside the point ๐Ÿ˜‰

RMs visit their regions and check on their volunteers once or twice a year, and I got an email from Roman last month saying he was coming to Sokyriany. I put the date on my calendar and then forgot about it, so this week has been crazy trying to prepare for his visit. I told my school Roman was coming, and they thought we should organize a fancy lesson and try to impress him. It’s kind of too late for that at this point, and besides, Roman already knows all about my school, the good and the bad. The main point of his visit to Sokyriany was not to visit my school but to interview the other school in Sokyriany, called the Gymnasium, and see if they were ready to have a volunteer. The Gymnasium applied for a volunteer, and since the new group of trainees will be sent to site in December, Roman needed to do site interviews in our region to see which schools would be receiving new volunteers.

Roman did come to my school, but the purpose was to thank the director and English teachers for their work with Peace Corps, and to affirm that the experience was a positive one for both the Volunteer and the site. Roman gave my counterpart Natalia a certificate of thanks and cooperation, and she told him the only way it could’ve been a better experience was if I stayed. It was a really sweet moment, and it finally felt like she had accepted that I’d be leaving in a month. I think Roman coming made them realize that this is really the end.

Roman and I also had a meeting with my director, which took place in Ukrainian. She said that it had been a good experience, but that I should have come to her with my problems. Whenever she asked me how things were going I would say, “good, thanks!” because even if things weren’t perfect, I was working them out with my colleagues and didn’t want to bother her with the details. I think I was also deterred from going to my director by the language barrier; having problems is hard enough without trying to communicate them in Ukrainian to someone who intimidates you. It was always easier to explain to Olha, who I knew would understand me and try to help.

But this made it harder for my director, because then she would get random calls from Olha, giving her hell when things weren’t as they should be. In Ukrainian, to give someone hell is to give the “bomboli,” and no one does it quite like Olha. I’ve actually felt bad for my director a few times, because I would not want to be on the receiving end of Olha’s wrath. The “bomboli” always produced the desired effect, but I understand that my director would’ve rather me come to her and say how things were going than get a phone call out the blue telling her she’s doing a crap job as the director, not taking care of her volunteer. The director was very gracious at the meeting with Roman though, and said that the children would miss me so much. I think she implied that the children would miss me more than the teachers will, and I’m sure that’s true too ๐Ÿ˜‰

After the meetings we walked outside to where the Range Rover was waiting. One of the best parts of the RM’s visit is that you get spoiled, and one of the ways this happens is through car rides! I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been driven around Sokyriany, and its always when Roman comes to town. We drove to the Gymnasium, with me in the back giving directions. Sokyriany doesn’t seem that big when you can get from one side of town to other in three minutes flat :-/

The director and the teachers were waiting for us in front of the school, and I was surprised by what a production the visit was. They ushered us into the director’s office, where coffee and truffles were waiting, and didn’t waste a moment in telling us how much they wanted a volunteer. Roman said he would see what he could do, and sat down to hammer out the fine details. When a school applies for a volunteer, it is the RM’s job to assess the site’s readiness. Roman asked to see the proposed schedule for the volunteer and asked what their motivation for having a volunteer was. Apparently the Gymnasium had a volunteer five years ago, and they want a volunteer now to help the English teachers improve their English, as well as to teach speaking and pronunciation to the students. The Gymnasium in my town is a specialized school, meaning the students have English lessons every day. They seemed much more on top of things than my school, and all the teachers I met were so incredibly excited about getting a volunteer.

Another important aspect of getting a volunteer is housing; Roman asked if the Gymnasium had found a place for the volunteer to live, and the director informed us that a host family was ready and eager to house a volunteer, so long as the volunteer was a Christian. Roman explained that Peace Corps only guarantees an American; color, gender, and religion are not taken into consideration when sites are assigned. Roman asked me to explain my housing situation to the director and teachers, and I felt a bit nervous to explain it all in Ukrainian. But I took a deep breath and related my housing saga in Sokyriany; how I started out living with a host family and since then have gone through a series of four apartments in less than two years. I explained that most Americans have lived on their own since college, so living with a Ukrainian family that speaks no English makes adjusting to life in Ukraine an even bigger challenge. You never get any time to truly relax, because you’re always mentally preparing for interactions in Ukrainian with the family. I explained that my own personal happiness increased dramatically when I got my own place, because I could eat, sleep, cook, (or not cook) whenever I wanted and didn’t have to explain it to anyone.

As I talked about my recent apartment, I realized it would soon be empty; I’m leaving in November and the new volunteer (if the Gymnasium gets one), would arrive in December. I offered to speak with my landlord about another volunteer renting the apartment, and the Gymnasium was thrilled. Roman asked if the Gymnasium would be willing to pay part of the Volunteer’s rent each month, because the Peace Corps budget has been cut and this group of Volunteers will get a smaller housing allowance than my group got. The director said the Gymnasium would definitely pay half of the monthly rent, and I could tell that Roman was impressed with how prepared the Gymnasium was to have a Volunteer.

The meeting at the Gymnasium was great, and I told Roman that I hoped Sokyriany would be getting another Volunteer. He said its a good possibility, and I was happy thinking my friend Erin in Romankivtsi (a nearby village), might soon have another neighboring Volunteer in Sokyriany to hang out with. After the meeting we drove to my apartment, because Roman hadn’t seen this place yet and wanted to make sure it was up to Peace Corps’ safety standards. He loved the place, and the idea that the next volunteer could take up residence here the month after I leave. It made me sad to think that someone else will soon be taking up the place I vacate, but I guess that “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end”… and right now, its time for mine to end.

Roman and I discussed my two years here, the highs and the lows, and I told him that I wouldn’t have changed a thing. I loved Sokyriany, despite having a crappy site-mate (the other Volunteer who worked in Social Services for part of my time here) and quite a few challenges at school. Roman said he was impressed by my self-sufficiency at site, and how I never called him to complain when things were rough. I thanked him for always being there, and said it made a big difference knowing he was on my side and only a phone call away in Kyiv if things ever got to be more than I could bear. I realized that this felt kind of like goodbye, and Roman told me he wouldn’t be in Kyiv in November when I fly out… so this was in fact the last time I’d be seeing him. It made me tear up a bit, because he’s been a big part of my Peace Corps service, and I didn’t know how to say goodbye. So I just thanked him again and asked for a picture. My plan is to print it out and leave it in his office in Kyiv when I go, so he has something to remember me by : )ย 

Roman and myself.

REGION 4! Only the best in Ukraine ; )

Before Roman left, there was one remaining item of business: my space heater. Peace Corps gives all Volunteers a huge space heater at the beginning of their service, just in case the heating in their homes/apartments isn’t sufficient. Well, the heating hasn’t come on in Sokyriany yet and its starting to get COLD here, especially at night. When I woke up the morning Roman came, it was 38 degrees on the street, and probably in the low 50s in my apartment. It was chilly, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted him to take my space heater! But if I gave it to him, that meant one less huge thing to lug back to Kyiv when I COS with all my suitcases. So I put on my brave face as he worried about me freezing, and I told him I would bundle up until the heat comes on. He put my space heater in the back of the Range Rover, gave me a hug, and drove away.

Its starting to get real now! Goodbye to my space heater, goodbye to Roman… I’m sick of the word “goodbye” already and I’m just getting started. Looking forward to some hello’s though… in a month I’ll be in ALBANIA with Emily, and in 6 weeks I’ll be saying hello to my family at the airport! Knowing these hellos are in the future balances out the pain of the goodbyes now in the present. Plus, my time ending here means I have a new beginning awaiting me in America!

Thanks for reading, sending you all my love.

The Beginning of the End: My Last Teachers’ Day and My Last Collaborative.

This weekend I celebrated my third Teachers’ Day holiday in Ukraineโ€“can you believe that? The time has flown; its hard to believe that this marks the third and final time I’ve celebrated being a teacher. My first October in Ukraine, I was in training in Kolychivka and we didn’t really celebrate Teachers’ Day like Ukrainians do; after all, we were trainees and hardly teachers yet!ย But last year in Sokyriany I celebrated with my whole school, and it was a nice trip down memory lane reading this blog post about it from last October. This Teachers’ Day was bittersweet, knowing it was my last in Ukraine and possibly my last as a teacher.

I dressed up and went to school, attending all my lessons and watching the 11th formers teach all of my classes. [This is the best part of the tradition; the 11th formers teach all the lessons!] One of my most hilarious 11th formers, Hallia, who speaks no English, was in charge of teaching the 7th graders English, and she was surprisingly good. She’s an intimidating girl, so their behavior was impeccable, and I was a bit jealous of how well they behaved for her when they always give me a hard time. Hallia had me do most of the reading with them, but all in all it was quite a good lesson.

On Teachers’ Day the teachers are supposed to relax while the 11th formers run the school, and at my school, we “relax” by hanging out in the Teachers’ Lounge, drinking champagne and eating cake. Students make pilgrimages to the Teachers’ Lounge throughout the course of the day, delivering flowers and presents, and the teachers just sit there drinking champagne and letting their piles of presents grow. After attending a few of my lessons and helping the 11th formers teach English, I stopped in the Teachers’ Lounge to drop off my flowers, and the teachers insisted I stay for some champagne. I sat there for an hour with them, and marveled at how quickly the bottles of champagne were going, and then got up to leave. They wanted me to stay and celebrate with them all day, but I had a bus to catch.

I stopped to see Olha on my way out of town, and gave her my huge armload of flowers. They would’ve died in my apartment, because I was going away for the weekend, and I knew Olha would enjoy them and put them on display in her coffee shop. She asked me what all the flowers were for, and I explained that it was Teachers’ Day. Then I thanked her for being my Ukrainian and Russian teacher, and gave her the traditional wishes a student gives a teacher. She was really touched and I knew the flowers would have a good home with her ๐Ÿ™‚

I spent Friday night in Chernivtsi with two of my favorite Peace Corps Volunteersโ€“Michelle and Janira. We ordered pizza and watched Castle, a TV show that Michelle and I are majorly addicted to, and as we sat there I realized this was probably our last slumber-party in Chernivtsi. I think that’ll be the worst part of this month, knowing that this is my “last” everything in Ukraine. What a depressing thought.

The next morning we woke up early and caught a bus to Ivano-Frankivsk, the capital of the neighboring region. We were attending our last “Collaborative,” which is a meeting of regional Peace Corps Volunteers every season. I missed the summer Collaborative because of my travels, and I really wanted to attend this one to say goodbye to some Volunteers I wouldn’t get to see again before leaving Ukraine. Ivano-Frankivsk is the site of my friend Philip, who had permission from his university to use a classroom for our gathering. Once we were all assembled, the meeting started and we got down to business.

We welcomed the new volunteers who had arrived in the region over the summer, shared our upcoming projects and solicited help from neighboring PCVs, and then the COS-ing Volunteers gave words of wisdom and tried to say goodbye. Many Volunteers are closing their service (COSing) in November or December, and its sad to think how much smaller the Collaborative will be for the winter meeting once we’re all gone. It was also hard to say goodbye; I’m dreading that aspect of my final weeks in Ukraine. So many goodbyes to say, and so many of them are permanent! I don’t know when I’ll be back in Ukraine again, and I don’t know when I’ll see my PCV friends in America. The goodbyes are looking pretty final for now, and that thought scares me.

After the Collaborative was finished, we set off to find the hostel where we could drop our stuff off before going out on the town. One of the volunteers had stayed at the hostel before, so we had no trouble finding it, but once we arrived there was no one there working to check us in. A strange old man came out and asked us where we’re from, which is always a confusing question to answer, because we’re from America (obviously) but we’re all living in Ukraine. So does he mean where did we come from in Ukraine, or where are we from originally? We answer “America,” and he responds with “I hate Americans. Are you Republicans? I want to kill Republicans.” We were too dumbfounded to answer, and he continues to tell us about how American spies roughed him up during the Orange Revolution, the political uprising Ukraine in 2004-2005 protesting the rigged election results.ย 

I had a hard time believing a word this man was saying, because he seemed a bit mentally unbalanced. Also, I would imagine America would be on the side of the protestors, who were demonstrating for a more democratic form of government, one that was more representative of what the people wanted. So I had a hard time believing American spies would be roughing him up for protesting! He seemed like a mentally challenged conspiracy nut to me. But then it got worse; the hostel worker arrived and checked us in, and it turned out we were in the same dormitory as this nut job! AWESOME. In this moment, I was really excited by the idea that this might be my last hostel stay in Ukraine. Usually staying in a hostel is fine, but let’s be honestโ€“its not something I will miss when I finish Peace Corps!

We left the hostel and went to hang out with the whole group of Volunteers for the evening. The rest of the night was a blast, and our little episode with the crazy guy at the hostel was quickly forgotten. For dinner we even went to a restaurant that had “steak-burgers” and it was the closest thing to a legit cheeseburger I’ve had in the last two years in Ukraine. The company was wonderful, the weather was beautiful, and it really was a great “last” Collaborative. I’m glad we went to Ivano-Frankivsk for it ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m also really glad I was sent to Western Ukraine; the volunteers here are the best, and I’m so proud I got to be one of them during my time here.

So this is a shout-out to Region 4: here’s to the most memorable collaboratives and the most fun group of Peace Corps Volunteers I know; my time in Ukraine would not have been the same without you guys .<3

October, ะ–ะพะฒั‚ะตะฝัŒ, ะพะบั‚ัะฑั€ัŒ.

October has arrived, month 25 in my Peace Corps adventure. Its interesting how fast the final months are going, when in the beginning the days crawled. I had to discipline myself not to count how many months I had left, because the number terrified me and gave me anxiety attacks. Now the reverse is true: I’ve studiously avoiding looking at calendars (except for getting caught up on my blog) and trying to live as in-the-moment as I can. But avoidance only works so long, and one of the things we talked about at the Close-of-Service Conference was saying goodbye to our communities, and doing it as intentionally and gently as possible. So now is the time to tell people, “in a month I’m going back to America.”

Today was my first day, and I told my favorite lady at the grocery store, “I’m going home to America next month.” And she answered, “yes, to visit your family. But then you’ll come back after the holidays, like last year, yes?” And when I said no, this time its final, she gave me a withering look and asked me why. I carefully explained that Peace Corps is a two year commitment, and my service is ending. Its time to go home, back to my family, and find a job. This answer makes complete sense in my head, so why did she continue to look at me like I was the grinch who stole Christmas? If this is how people take the news that I’m leaving, I guess I can understand why volunteers have a hard time doing this. Goodbyes suck.

In other news, I have been hard at work planning life-after-Peace-Corps (if there is such a thing). I registered to take the GRE the week I return to America, so I have been spending lots of quality time with my GRE book, which daily reminds me how bad I suck at math. I realized today that I took geometry 10 years ago… so now, not only do I feel retarded for not remembering the basic principles of geometry, I also feel old. Thanks a lot, GRE. At least my verbal scores are where they need to be!

I also applied for TWO adult-type jobs, so I’ve been spending lots of time researching how to write a kick-ass resume and an attention-grabbing cover letter. Its been informative, but also anxiety-inducing. My dear friend Emily spent hours helping me tweak my resume (and make it fit on one page!) and my wonderful mother has read countless versions of the cover letters I draft. Its a bit early to start the job search, because I won’t be in America for another 6 weeks, but I’m afraid of being an unemployed slouch (almost as much as I’m afraid of having to waitress again).

Sadly, there are pretty much no jobs in Cleveland that are suited to my skill set, so I’ve had to expand my search radius. I’m really interested in working in a Study Abroad office at a university, and I’m hoping that my three semesters abroad in college will get my foot in the door. I’m also looking at jobs in Washington D.C., because there is a huge Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) population there, so if I’m unemployed there will be many RPCVs around to sympathize ๐Ÿ˜‰ Plus, chances are I’ll be in grad school in the D.C. area next fall, so it might make the most sense to get a job there now and get established before starting grad school. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes!

Another big project I’ve been working on is my application for the Fulbright program. I’m applying for an English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) in Russia, starting next fall. Its very similar to Peace Corps, except they pay better and its only for 10 months. If I return to America and find that my wanderlust still hasn’t been cured, I wanted to have another escape route planned and this is by far the most attractive option. Basic skills in Russian are required for an ETA position, so I’ve told all my Ukrainian friends to only speak to me in Russian from now on. I think I’ve acquired basic Russian in my time here, though my Ukrainian is much more advanced. Many people in Ukraine speak a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian, which is known as “Surzhic,” so its been quite a process untangling the mixture of the two languages I’ve acquired.

Fortunately for me, learning Russian is much easier after knowing Ukrainian. Russian and Ukrainian are both Slavic languages, so they have very similar grammar patterns, sentence structures, and even many shared word roots. When I first started working solely on Russian, a friend of mine from the Administration (who delights in teaching me terribly bad words and phrases to shock my friend Olha with) said that I had already mastered a significant chunk of Russian through learning the quite impressive lexicon of Russian swear words. Ukrainians are shocked that English has less than a dozen legitimate swear words, and after learning at least 30 Russian curses, I see why English is so disappointing on this front. We have no equivalent of “you dirty dick,” or “I give you nothing” (which is as strong as flipping someone off in Russian and Ukrainian). Ukrainians also claim there are no bad words that are originally Ukrainian; all the bad words Ukrainians use are Russian.

Unfortunately, telling Fulbright I’ve mastered how to swear in Russian will not fly, so I’m working on speaking pure Russian. So far my attempts have been met with: 1) “stop speaking Russian, you’re Ukrainian!” (Actually I’m American, but thanks for thinking I’m one of you after two years here!) 2) Hilarity ensuing; “you speak Russian with such a strong Ukrainian accent!” (well I learned it from Ukers, so if I do have a Uker accent, its your fault!) 3) “You speak beautiful pure Ukrainian, why do you want to learn Russian?” 4) “Why would you want to go to Russia? Can we speak Ukrainian now?” And of course, my personal favorite, 5) “You want to speak Russian with me? Ok, ะ”ะะ’ะะ™ [let’s]. What do you want to talk about?” (Of course, all of this being spoken in UKRAINIAN, because many Ukrainians where I live can’t differentiate between the two languages and end up speaking a mixture of both.

Olha is the only person I know who can speak either pure Ukrainian or pure Russian with no mixture. She went to school in the USSR, which means all her schooling was done in Russian, and she is one of the few patriotic Ukrainians who can still concede the beauty of the Russian language. Now when I go see her for coffee breaks, we speak in Russian and she teaches me proverbs and quotes and famous sayings in Russian so I can increase my vocabulary and come to appreciate the Russian language for its intricacies. She says I have inherited the Ukrainian habit of dissing Russian, and she hates how I wrinkle my note when I’m trying to pronounce the “ye” sound, which pops up all the time and conspires to ruin my Russian pronunciation. For example, the word: Elena (ะ•ะปะตะฝะฐ), which is my mother’s name (Elaine). In Ukrainian, we say “Olena” but in Russian you’d pronounce it “ye-lye-na.” Its a pain, but I’m getting better with practice. I hope my skills are good enough for Fulbright, I’m having an interview in Russian next week!

One of my favorite new Russian phrases is: “Is all quiet in Bagdad?” The same question, meaning “is everything normal?” can be phrased, “Is Moscow still standing?” I’m not sure why these phrases are used for a simple answer to a question like, “what’s up?” but it never fails to make me laugh. I’m looking forward to surprising Slavic with my improvement in Russian, and I will lead off with “Is all quiet in Bagdad?” next time I ask him how work is going!ย 

Speaking of Slavic, he mentions my imminent departure every time I see him, which is hard because I’m doing my best to not think about it too much. But he brought it up, so I told him my plans for saying goodbye: I had a picture frame engraved for Olha (my Ukrainian friend/mother), with the help of my American mother, that says, “With all the love in my heart, Your American Daughter.” So once I get a cute picture of us taken, that’ll be ready for her. I’m writing all the English teachers good-bye cards, and a thank-you note in Ukrainian for my director. I’m having a little going-away party with my kids at school November 5th, which is my last day in Sokyriany because I take the train to Kyiv that night. I mentioned to Slavic that I was thinking of printing up business cards with my contact information, so I can keep in touch with the people who have been important to me here. He liked the idea, and knew of a cheap place to order business cards online, so he helped me create this little masterpiece.

It says:

Let’s keep in touch!

Baus, Kathryn

Peace Corps Volunteer

(and the rest is in English, so you should be good.)ย They are ordered and off to the printers, so soon I will have 100 of these babies in my purse, ready to be handed out the next time someone refuses to accept that I’m trying to say goodbye ; )

And finally, as if this all wasn’t real enough that I was leaving, I bought PLANE TICKETS which means its final. November 9th I’m flying to Tirana, Albania, to spend 10 days with one of my dearest friends from college, Emily, who is currently working there. Then November 19th, I have a ticket to Cleveland, getting me home just in time for Thanksgiving!

I would tell you the countdown, but since I’m avoiding calendars I’ll just tell you that its less than 2 months. If you’re in America, we can cheer, but if you’re in Ukraine, we’ll just go on ignoring the calendar until the goodbyes are unavoidable.

Thanks for reading, sending you all my love.

P.S: Blog title is “October” in English, Ukrainian, and Russian!

My Chernobyl Diary

With my time coming to close, I had one important thing remaining on my things-to-see,-places-to-go-in-Ukraine list: Chernobyl. Because after all, talking to anyone in America, Chernobyl is always their first association with the word “Ukraine.” And while my two years here have given me plenty of material to expand on the word “Ukraine” with, I still wanted to be able to say “yeah I’ve been there, done that, seen the radioactive catfish. But Ukraine is really about the borsch and salo, let me tell you.”

For those of you who are worried that I took my life into my hands on this little adventure, rest easy. Spending a few hours in the Exclusion Zone at Chernobyl gives you the same dose of radiation as a flight from New York to London. We didn’t wear radiation suits, but we did go through multiple radiation checkpoints, and the machine dubbed me “chisto” (clean) every time.

All that aside, seeing Chernobyl was definitely the coolest thing I’ve done in Ukraine. I went with two other volunteers, my friends Andy and Danny (who I also mentioned in my blog posts about Venice, because we traveled there together too!). We had just finished our COS (Close-of-Service) Conference, and it was a now-or-never type moment. I felt like I deserved a reward for completing my service, and going on the expensive-but-oh-so-fascinating tour of Chernobyl definitely fit the bill.

We met our tour guide in downtown Kiev, and she led us to a van with a driver waiting. We handed over a substantial amount of cash, and part of me felt like this is what a drug deal must feel like. The other part of me wondered if this was the part where they kill us and hide our bodies. But lucky for us, they gave us breakfast and we set off.

ย Entering the ghost city of “Chornobil”

Chernobyl is located two hours north of Kiev, and we knew we had arrived when we saw a huge checkpoint up ahead. The guards checked our passports, and another tour guide got in the van with us. At this point I started feeling a little nervousโ€“we were really doing this!After we were cleared, we entered the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation, known as the “Exclusion Zone” for short. This refers to the 30 square kilometers surrounding Chernobyl that has been cordoned off, almost completely abandoned after its residents were evacuated. Some areas still have incredibly high levels of radiation, while others are almost normal.

In the van, our official tour started. It turned out the new guy who joined us at the checkpoint was our authorized Chernobyl guide, and his name was Yevhenia. Tanya, the girl who met us in Kiev, turned out to be the tour manager and this was actually her first time at Chernobyl. She was a bit scared, which didn’t do much for my confidence in the adventure we were about to undertake.ย 

We had only been inside the Exclusion Zone for five minutes when Yevhenia barked out a command in Russian for the van to stop. Here is the part where we get murdered, was my first though. But he jumped out of the van, crossed the road, and then beckoned for us to follow him. Through the woods we could see some of the wild horses that the Exclusion Zone is famous for, called the Dzungarian horse. These wild horses are endangered, but have thrived upon their introduction to the Exclusion Zone. It serves as almost a nature preserve for them, because the area is closed off and they have free run of the place.ย 

Yevhenia showing us the wild horses inside the Exclusion Zone.

We got back in the van and resumed our tour, and a few minutes later we pulled over in front of a World War II monument. Our guide told us that we were in the remains of a former village, and we were stopping to see a school. No school was insight though, and everything was deadly quiet.

It says: No one is forgotten. Nothing is forgotten. It was engraved on the World War II Memorial, but seemed just as fitting for the Chernobyl.

Yevhenia led us through the woods, which had grown up over what used to be the schoolyard and took us inside the building. It looked more like a natural disaster had taken place rather than just the simple abandonment that actually occurred. The windows were shattered and toys and school supplies littered the rooms. It was creepy, I have no better word to describe it.ย 

It was like something out of a horror movie.

One of the textbooks was open to this poem for Lenin. This picture of him is so creepy.

Beds inside the school- maybe it was an orphanage?

After we left the school, we continued on into the Exclusion Zone. We stopped to see this memorial for those who died in the immediate aftermath of the explosions at Chernobyl, fighting fires with no protection from the radiation that the firefighters were being exposed to. At least 30 people died from radiation poisoning in the following days.

The Firefighters’ Memorial, which was actually created not by artists but by the surviving firefighters who wanted to immortalize their fallen brethren.

The memorial was so powerful, mostly because the faces were so lifelike… I couldn’t believe it wasn’t done by artists.

The inscription says “To Those Who Saved The World.”

We got back in the van and resumed our tour, with the first major stop being the ghost town of Pripyat. Here’s a picture of me and the boys; we look too happy to be on a tour of Chernobyl, right?

Danny, me, and Andy about to enter Pripyat.

Pripyat was founded in 1970 as a place for power plant workers and their families to live. Following the Chernobyl Catastrophe (which is what its called in Russian and Ukrainian), everyone was forced to evacuate. The residents were told they would be able to return once the area was free of contamination, but this before the true extent of the radiation poisoning was known. Consequently, people left many of their belongings thinking they would be able to come back. Today the city is completely abandoned, yet full of empty apartment buildings and schools.ย 

One of the abandoned apartment buildings; notice the hammer and sickle on the light-post on the lefthand side of the picture.

The abandoned Polissya hotel in Pripyat.ย 

Like any good Soviet city, Pripyat had plenty of propaganda, which is now rotting away inside the old House of Culture.

By far, the coolest yet creepiest part of Pripyat was the murals. They popped up unexpectedly on buildings, making your stomach crawl but adding to the atmosphere of the ghost city.

The murals reminding me of ghosts dancing… it felt like we were inside an abandoned soviet hell.

As we wandered around inside Pripyat, our tour guide related the events following the explosions at Chernobyl. The townspeople weren’t informed that anything catastrophic had even happened; they thought it was a simple electrical fire. The Soviet Union didn’t even admit that their was a nuclear leak; it was only after radiation particles were detected in Sweden that the world discovered a major nuclear catastrophe had taken taken place in the western Soviet Union. The Soviet state media downplayed the severity of the incident, and as a result, people in the surrounding area were subjected to incredibly high amounts of radiation before the evacuation was undertaken.

Just weeks before the accident, a fun park had opened in downtown Pripyat. Today the abandoned and rusted ferris wheel and bumper cars are fixtures in the guided tours of the area.ย 

Me in front of the ferris wheel in Pripyat.

Creepy bumper cars.

As we stood taking pictures of the bumper cars, our guide wandered over holding the Geiger Counter. As he came closer to us, and the bumper cars, the steady “beep…beep…beep” of the Geiger Counter started speeding up, indicating higher levels of radiation. By the time he reached us, it was freaking out, going “BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP,” meaning we needed to move. Here’s a picture of the Geiger Counter, showing a reading of 81.70 ยตSv/h. ยตSv refers to Micro-Sievert, which is the most common standard of measurement for radiation.

After leaving the “fun park,” we saw countless abandoned buildings and even though it was incredibly eerie, it was also strangely peaceful. The sun was shining, and it was a perfect fall day… its like nature is reclaiming what man abandoned in Pripyat, and if this is how it looks 25 years later, I wonder what it will look like in the future.

Another abandoned school, but this one looks like a bomb went off.

Wandering down an empty corridor in the school… no wonder Chernobyl was used as the setting for a horror movie! I’m referring to the Chernobyl Diaries, which I haven’t seen but heard terrible things about.ย 

Danny photographing an old gas mask in the school.

A gas mask… I wonder how much good these did, if the people weren’t even told there was a problem until two days later.

Andy and I standing next to the empty pool. It doesn’t get much creepier than this.

After leaving Pripyat, we headed to the cafeteria where the current Chernobyl workers are fed. The current sarcophagus covering Reactor 4 and keeping the radiation inside has cracks in it, and it is feared that the sarcophagus might end up leaking radioactive waste. So right now workers are constructing the New Safe Confinement (NSC) to completely entomb the old sarcophagus. In the cafeteria, we saw lots of other tourists and experienced our first radiation checkpoint. Here I am getting checked out!

Don’t worry, the machine declared me clean ๐Ÿ˜‰

After lunch, our tour guide stole a ton of bread from the cafeteria, and we departed. We were finally on our way to see the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant!ย 

Chernobyl Today

Before taking us to Reactor 4, we stopped to see the cooling ponds, which contain very high levels of radioactive waste. You would think that the radiation would poison anything that once lived there, but this is not the case. The cooling ponds are home to the biggest catfish I have ever seen, catfish taller than I am. I kid you not. The bread we stole from the cafeteria was apparently for these monsters, who eagerly awaited the tourists. I was picking off little pieces and throwing them, when the tour guide told me I was doing it wrong. He rips off half a loaf of bread and throws it hard to the water’s surface. Moments later a catfish who’s mouth was bigger than my head rose to the surface and devoured it. The radioactive catfish were hands down the coolest thing we saw all day ๐Ÿ˜‰ย 

The cooling ponds at Chernobyl.

Radioactive catfish.

Look how big the catfish are compared to the birds!

There are some normally sized catfish, but there were a few that were bigger than I am.

And finally, we have what you’ve all been waiting to see: Reactor 4, the scene of the worst nuclear disaster the world has ever known. It was kind of anticlimactic, to be honest. Our guide was very strict here about what we could and couldn’t take pictures of. Off limits was the New Safe Confinement being constructed to cover the old sarcophagus. But here is Reactor 4 today, with a memorial in front of it.

Below is a picture of the Geiger Counter, showing a reading right in front of Reactor 4 that is lower than the one we experienced in Pripyat. Apparently some areas in the Reactor show almost normal levels or radiation, while other rooms have such high amounts of radioactive waste that one exposure would be fatal.

Our guide also explained the events of that fateful day in 1986, when the engineers at Chernobyl ran a test of an experimental cooling protocol. A power surge occurred in Reactor 4, and they tried an emergency shut down, but it was too late. Another power surge led to a series of explosions that launched radioactive waste and remains of the fuel rods into the surrounding atmosphere. Fires broke out, and emergency response crews came from Pripyat and the surrounding areas to contain the blaze. The majority of the radiation contamination covered areas of what is today Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, but spread all over Europe as well. The Soviet Union was reluctant to admit what really happened, so it was days before the world knew the true extent of the damage. Today Chernobyl is remembered as the worst nuclear disaster ever. What a sad claim to fame for Ukraine ๐Ÿ˜ฆย 

Andy, me, and Danny in front of Reactor 4. I can check “Chernobyl” off my list of things to see in Ukraine!

So there you have it, Chernobyl in all its glory. I hope you enjoyed the pictures! Some of them were mine, but my camera was on the fritz and not all of my pictures turned out well. I used some of Danny’s pictures, as well as my friend Katie LaRoque’s, as she went to Chernobyl the week after we did. Thanks, friends! Also, Danny wrote a blog post about our adventure and included a lot more pictures, so if you’re so included, check it out by clicking on this link.

Thanks for reading!

COS Conference

I’m sure you’re figured out by now that Peace Corps is full of acronyms. I hope through reading my blog you’ve learned the major ones:

  • PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer)
  • PST (Pre-Service Training, the 3 months I spent with my cluster-mates before service)
  • LCF (Language and Cross-Cultural Facilitator = language teacher)
  • TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language-this is my job in Ukraine).
  • RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, the title you get for completing service!)

And today, you get to learn a new acronym, probably the last one you’ll learn from me. It’s COS, which stands for Close-of-Service. Strike that, since I joined PC they modified this acronym’s meaning: today we refer to it as “Continuation”-of-Service, because volunteers are supposed to continue with the third goal of Peace Corps, taking Ukraine back to America with us when we go. Just like we’ve been trying to explain America here during our service, our next task is to explain Ukraine to Americans. I think I’ve started this in Ukraine, through my blog, but I look forward to telling everyone at home about how special of a place this is, and how so many amazing people here have touched my life.

COS is the official term for what happens at the end of a Volunteer’s service, and surprisingly enough, the end of my service is upon me. My COS date is December 7th, but that’s actually the last day I can leave Ukraine. The window for Group 39 to leave is November 9th-December 7th, so I can pick any date within that time frame to COS. I came to Ukraine with Group 39 in September 2010 and there were more than 80 of us. (We are Group 39 because we were the 39th group of Volunteers to come to Ukraine, seeing as Peace Corps has been working here since Ukrainian independence in 1991, usually sending a group in the spring and a group in the fall.)

The Peace Corps Ukraine post actually had a “mega-growth” the fall that we came, having not one but two groups (39 and 40) arrive within weeks of each other, meaning more than 150 volunteers were sent to new sites in December of 2010. After our groups’ arrival, the Peace Corps budget was cut, meaning every Peace Corps country post had to cut down and trim their budgets. So “mega-growth” ended with our groups, and now its going to be interesting to see how all 150 of us are going to COS at the same time! It’s also going to be sad to see how much Peace Corps Ukraine shrinks with our departure; 150 us are leaving and only 60 are in training at the moment (in Group 44, which arrived in September) so that means Peace Corps Ukraine is losing approximately a fourth of its work force when we leave ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

In order for a Volunteer to COS, there is a quite a long list of things that must be done. Every group has a COS Conference three months before their COS date so Peace Corps can explain everything that we have to do in the time remaining. The conference is also a fun time when the whole group comes together and looks back on how service has been; the highs, the lows, the struggles, the achievements. Peace Corps staff thanks us for our service, and explains the next steps for transitioning back to America as RETURNED Peace Corps Volunteers.

Group 39’s COS Conference was September 23rd to 25th, and I must say, it was one of the best Peace Corps events I’ve ever attended. It was very well-organized, and they gave us lots of helpful information on how to end our service and start again with life in America. There are so many logistics to it that I hadn’t even considered; the process of saying goodbye at our sites, the Close-of-Service checklist, complete with writing a DOS (Description of Service) which must be completed before we get clearance to leave the country, “non-competitive eligibility” for jobs (meaning RPCVs get preference with some governmental organizations), the formidable idea of job searching post-Peace Corps, and also health-care after Peace Corps.

We’ve had complete health care for free the last two years, with Peace Corps Medical Officers standing by to treat any illness or injury we acquire. Medication was included in that, so now its a wake-up call hearing how much we’re going to have to pay to get medical insurance back in the states. The cheapest alternative for RPCVs is $200 a month, which is more than a Volunteer makes in a month. I think the cost of living is going to be a shock; I’m anticipating that already. And that will make the job-search even more stressful, having the pressure on to be able to pay the bills… at least knowing I’ll be at home for a while means I won’t have rent to pay right away!

Discussion time at COS Conference, talking about our lessons learned.

The COS Conference also included some closure on what the last two years have meant to us, and how we can close this chapter gracefully while moving on to what life holds for us in America. We had a reflective session on how our Peace Corps service has changed us, and the introspection did me some good. I realized how much I’ve matured in the last two years; how much I’ve learned to appreciate solitude, how much flexibility I’ve gained, how I went from high-maintenance to mid-maintenance (I still won’t claim I’m low maintenance, you all know that’s a lie anyways), how much perspective I’ve gained, how less self-obsessed I’ve become, and most importantly, how empowered I feel after two years in Peace Corps. I know now that I can adapt, cope and overcome anything if I’ve survived the last two years… and that’s a great feeling. Our COS Conference helped me realize how important my service has been, and how much I have to be proud of as I close this chapter. Its not only about the work I did in my community and at school, but the personal growth I’ve experienced myself. I already knew this fact before our COS conference, but it still holds true: joining Peace Corps was the best decision I’ve ever made.

The COS Conference was also fun because I got to see so many friends, as well as people I haven’t seen since our swearing-in two years ago. Ukraine is a big place, and I rarely saw Volunteers who were posted in the east. It was nice hearing about everyone’s adventures : )

Group 39 at our COS Conference

And a silly shot of Group 39.

Here is a picture of my favorite Group 39ers… my CLUSTER MATES! We started this adventure together two years ago, and here we all are at the end. So proud you guys, we made it!

Andrew, Tammela, me, Janira, and Andrew

Trying out a Ukrainian pose, but failed and smiled like the Americans we are.

And last, but not least, here is a picture of my cluster mates and our link mates. We were paired up in PST (Pre-Service Training) to have some training together, and what I didn’t know then was that these people would be some of my closest friends in Peace Corps. This picture is pure love to me… I would not have lasted the two years without their friendship and support. So here’s a shout out to my all my cluster and link matesโ€“you guys are the best.

From left: James, Michelle, Andrew C, Andrew K, Tammela, Janira, me, Chris (behind me), Phil, and Andrew G.

After the COS Conference concluded, I headed to Kyiv for a few days. I had a final meeting to close my grant, an LPI (Language Proficiency Interview) to assess my final level of Ukrainian proficiency, and lastly, a little field trip to this place called CHERNOBYL! Check out the next blog post for pics.

How Lucky I Am To Have Something That Makes Saying Goodbye So Hard

Somewhere in the rush of going back to school and establishing the English Resource and Technology Center, it dawned on my students and fellow teachers that I’ll be leaving soon. They’ve always known November-December 2012 was the end-date, but I guess it snuck up on them like it did on me. I didn’t really see the teachers much over the summer, so this month has been a reminder that my time is almost up. As we made the schedule and divvied up classes, I mentioned that all that classes I’m solo-teaching will need to be absorbed by the teachers in November. I could tell from their shocked and confused faces that they weren’t putting two and two together, so I tried to gently explain to them that my Peace Corps service is ending soon.

Not making things any easier was my dear friend Olha, who’s been refusing to accept the truth for months now. She always laughs it off when it comes up, and says that I’ll stay another year. She knew the previous Peace Corps Volunteer in Sokyriany had wanted to extend a year, but her site didn’t really want her to stay so she ended up leaving. Olha was determined to not only make the teachers realize how much they needed me to stay, but she also seemed to think that she could program the idea of extension in my brain by repeating it to me so often, “no, you’re staying another year.” And at first it was sweet, and brought a smile to my face, but now as the time is running out, its made me feel really anxious. I never planned on extending, and always said November 2012 was the end of the line.

I’ve been spending lots of 1-on-1 time with the teachers as we installed the computer and projector and I’ve showed them how to use it. I’ve also helped them make year-long lesson plans for the new Oxford textbooks we’ve purchased, so there has been lots of bonding time outside of our lessons. I’ve never seen so much of my counterpart, Natalia, in the whole two years that I’ve been here, and this month has helped me realize what a good person she is, deep down. I think our biggest problem was that she never knew what to do with me, and her neglect was never intentional. She really does like me, she just doesn’t know what exactly to do with me. She’s really come alive with the grant, and she’s more inspired as a teacher than I’ve ever seen her. She had me come over to her house (for the very first time!) last week so we could continue our technology-tutoring, and I had such a great time with her. I’m glad these last few weeks have given me another chance with her, I’m thankful for these happy memories we’re making at the end.

But for me, part of my brain is already moving on to what comes next. I realized somewhere in the beginning of September that if I want to go to grad school next fall, I need to study for the GRE and take it as soon as I get home to America. I’ve been researching grad school programs and trying to narrow down exactly what I want to study. There’s also part of me that really doesn’t want to go back to school; I’ve enjoyed the financial independence that I’ve had in Peace Corps, and I really don’t want to go in debt for a Masters degree. So I’ve also been looking into jobs, and trying to see what I’m qualified for. One perk for Returning Peace Corps Volunteers is that we get “non-competitive eligibility” for some government jobs, which means we have a better shot of getting hired and have less competition to face. The only downside to job hunting is that not one job I’ve considered is located in Ohio. I’m really looking forward to spending time with my parents, being close enough to drive down to visit Tori at college, and just being home for a while. But unless I want to work in menial labor, waitressing or bar-tending, its pretty much guaranteed that I’ll need to leave Ohio.

As life-after-Peace-Corps stress started to kick in, Sokyriany conspired against my plans for the future and threw a big wrench in my plans. One day after my lessons Natalia asked if we could go meet with the director, because she wanted to talk to me. I agreed, not really sure what was up, but I found out soon enough. Without much preamble, the director told me that she was aware Peace Corps Volunteers could stay if they wanted, and she wanted to ask me to stay and complete the school year. I sat there in shock, not really sure where this was coming from, before the answer came to meโ€“it was Olha! I don’t think my director knew about the possibility of extension, and Olha has never refrained from calling my director and giving her hell when Olha feels like it. And Olha thinks its best for everyone if I stay, so I could easily see her being behind my director’s sudden inspiration in asking me to stay. Even then, I wasn’t really swayed. But Natalia added that we still have so much to do with the grant and teaching the teachers how to use the technology; she said that we needed till the end of the school year, and it would mean a lot to her if I stayed. Coming from her, this meant a lot to me. I promised to think about it and give them an answer in a few days.

So as I went from lesson to lesson, and interacted with my kiddos, I tried to imagine staying until May. I happen to love quite a few of these little monsters, and once the idea took root, I realized that it wouldn’t be hard to stay and finish the school year. I could see all the things still left to be done with the English Technology & Resource Center, and I really do love the 11th form this year. It would be so nice to see them graduate, and finishing when the school year ends has a better symmetry to it than finishing in November… so I realized that it was more of a possibility than I originally believed it to be. I called my Regional Manager (my Peace Corps boss) Roman, and explained the events of the last week, and asked him if it was too late to consider this. He said he could make it happen, but I had 24 hours to make a decision and fill out the paperwork requesting an extension of service.

Those 24 hours were hard, and I handled it the best way I knew howโ€“I made a list of the pros and cons, tried my hardest to pray about it without letting ulterior motives bias the decision (either way), and asked a few friends for advice. The biggest pros: ending in May and finishing the school year, doing more with my grant, 6 more months with Olha and Slavic, 6 more months to avoid the inevitable job search, more adventures in Ukraine, hanging out with my PCV friends that aren’t finishing in November (that’s you, Erin)… those were the pros. The cons: I was already mentally moving on (and it would be hard to completely reverse that), I was already excited for life after Peace Corps and if I stayed that would be postponed 6 months, plus the idea of 6 more months away when I was really ready to be home…

The biggest con was the knowledge that registration and getting a visa extension would be a time consuming process, and Roman warned me that it probably wouldn’t come through until January. And without having a valid visa, I wouldn’t be able to go home for the holidays. I missed Christmas once for Peace Corps, and honestly, this was a nonnegotiable for meโ€“I wasn’t willing to do it again! Plus, I was aware the September is best month for teaching because you’re happy to be back and see the kids again. Having my grant to work on made being at school more enjoyable too! But did I really want to stay and continue teaching? I think deep down I was ready to be done, and if I stayed, in February or March I’d probably really be kicking myself. The bottom line was that if I stayed, it would mostly be for Olha and Slavic, and as much as they mean to me, I couldn’t base the decision just on them. Olha could only see me staying, but Slavic understood the dilemma and even said it would probably be best if I went. So with his blessing, I made the decision and tried to find the courage to explain it to his mom.

Telling Olha was the hardest, obviously, and watching her cry almost made me change my mind. It was such a hard conversation. But on the other hand, telling my parents that I’d made the choice and was coming home was such a happy moment. They tried not to influence my choice (for the most part) but they were definitely happy with the decision I made ๐Ÿ˜‰

My teachers weren’t surprised, but they were a bit sad. My director thought she could appeal the decision, and called Roman to tell him to make me stay. It was sweet that she cared so much, but once I told Roman that I was going, he supported me and explained to my director that I’d fulfilled the commitment I’d made and she couldn’t ask for more.

All of this to say… I’m coming home in November! It was a tough call to make, but what I realized is that I truly have come to love this place and these people, otherwise the decision would have been a lot easier to make. And I’m glad I invested so much emotionally, because its made my service so meaningful.

How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard…

And how lucky I am to be coming home. In two months!!!