My first week back in Ukraine was an adventure, from the very moment I stepped off the plane. The only bus to my town from Kiev is an overnight bus, so although I arrived in Ukraine at two in the morning on Sunday, I didn’t make it back to my apartment until early Monday morning. I had called my friend Olha to tell her when I would be home, because she had the key to my apartment. The bus driver said we’d be in Sokyriany around 6am, so I told her 6 and she promised to meet me then.
The bus ended up arriving earlier than anticipated, but I didn’t have the heart to call and wake her up at 5am so I just walked to my apartment building, hauled my suitcases up to my 4th floor apartment (why oh why don’t Ukrainians believe in elevators?), and got my Kindle out to read until she arrived. The hour passed quickly enough, but by the time she got there I was freezing and realizing just how exhausted I was, having traveled 3 days straight on very little sleep. I was also a tad bit slower than usual in my language skills (I hadn’t spoken much Ukrainian in the US!) so when she tried to explain that there was a small problem with my apartment, I didn’t understand what she meant at all.
I’ll spare you my confusion and just tell you what the story was—before I left for the US, I left the rent money with Olha, who gave it to my landlord who was supposed to pay all the bills in my absence. Said landlord paid all of the bills except one—the electricity, so the power company shut off power to my apartment, resulting in the refrigerator melting down and everything inside going bad. So when I called Olha and told her I was on the way home to Sokyriany, she went over to my apartment with my landlord to turn the heat on so it wouldn’t be freezing when I arrived. She said as they climbed the stairs to my apartment, they wondered who had died in the building because there was such a foul odor coming from one of the apartments. But by the time they got to the 4th floor, they realized the odor was coming from my apartment! Inside, the scent of rancid meat was so overpowering that my landlord vomited, while Olha quickly opened the windows and emptied the contents of my fridge as fast as she could. She said she’s never smelled anything so bad, and only out of her love for me (and because my landlord had such a weak stomach) did she touch the mess in my refrigerator. That’s love right there!
She explained all this while helping me get my stuff inside, and she apologized that there was no food in the kitchen. I told her not to worry, because all I really wanted to do was sleep! She made me promise to come see her for lunch at her Bistro as soon as I woke up, so she wouldn’t have to worry about me being hungry and so she could hear all about my time at home with my family. I promised I would, but by the time I woke up it was dinner time! So we had a quick dinner together and did all our catching up. I’d brought her Christmas presents back from the US, and she was excited to have me back in town. I didn’t realize how much I missed her until we were reunited; thank God for good friends like her in Sokyriany : )
My sleeping schedule was completely screwed up my first few days back in Ukraine, and it didn’t help that I had no time to recover! I had a week until school started, but my schedule was jam packed with things to do and people to see. Two days after getting back to Sokyriany, I found myself on a bus to Chernivtsi where a bunch of volunteers were gathering for a going-away party for our dear friend Brandon. He has been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine for 3 years now, and he’s definitely one of the best volunteers I know. But 3 years was enough for him, and he was COSing (close-of-service) and heading back to the USA to start the next chapter in his life.
The selfish part of me wanted him to stay until my group finishes next December, but the generous part of me realized that he gave Peace Corps all he had for 3 years (a year longer than the standard commitment!) and it was time for him to finish. So in his honor, we all went to our favorite Turkish restaurant for dinner, and then to his favorite pub for the rest of the evening.
Brandon had invited 10 people, but everyone brought their friends and the list kept getting longer until finally we had 20 people with us. That just shows you how much Brandon is loved by his fellow PCVs! : ) It was a fun night of food and friendship and celebrating Brandon’s 3rdanniversary in Ukraine, but it was hard to celebrate his going-away, because life in Ukraine will be very different (and not in a good way) without him. Brandon, you will be missed so much.
The next day, I had lunch in Chernivtsi with my friend Tammela, and two of her friends who were visiting from the US. We had lunch at our favorite cafe, and afterwards my friend Andy (one of my cluster-mates from training!) came home to Sokyriany with me for a visit. It was his first time in my town, and he got to meet some of my favorite Ukrainian friends and see my apartment. He also got to celebrate my friend Olha’s birthday with us, which turned out to be hilarious given the amount of wine she forced him and I to consume ; ) Andy isn’t usually a big wine-drinker, but Ukrainians are very insistent and he was a very good sport. It was a funny night. : )
I would’ve loved to sleep in the next morning, but unfortunately the date on the calendar said January 14th, meaning it was the Ukrainian holiday of Старий Новий Рік, which is Old New Years! This is the date the Orthodox Church celebrates New Years, because they traditionally followed the Julian calendar. In Ukraine, Old New Years is more like Halloween than anything else. Old New Years’ customs include caroling the night before (usually cross-dressing and under the influence of copious amounts of alcohol), a Ukrainian version of trick-or-treating called “Malianka” (to be further explained in a moment), and of course, the annual Old New Years Parade, which mostly consists of drunk men dressing as women and dancing like fools. Like I said, much more like a drunk Halloween than like a New Years celebration!
So at 7am on Old New Years, I was fast asleep when suddenly there was loud banging on my door. I assumed something was wrong, so jumped up (and over Andy who was sleeping on the floor) and ran to the door. I opened it, and found two of my 6th grade students who were embarrassed at having woken me up and looking curiously at the man sleeping on my floor behind me. I asked what was wrong, and they asked if they could do something, which sounded to me like the Ukrainian verb “to piss.” I thought they were asking to use my toilet, so I told them off and said they would be in trouble at school when I saw them Monday! I tried to go back to sleep, but unfortunately, I had a steady stream of visitors banging on my door and asking to do something. Finally I called my friend Slavic and asked him what these kiddos wanted—apparently the kids go door-to-door on the morning of Old New Years, and say a blessing on your house while they drop grain all over the floor. In exchange, you give them money. So its like trick-or-treating, except its blessing-for-money. And then you’re left with all this crap on the floor to clean up. I felt bad for yelling at the first two, for thinking they wanted to piss in my bathroom when they really wanted to bless my home in exchange for money! This is definitely going down as a funny cross-cultural memory! : )
So despite my annoyance at having been woken up, I played along and handed out money and let kids say the blessing when they came to the door. One of my visitors was my favorite 4th grade student, Bogdan. He didn’t know it was my door he was knocking on, so when I opened it he looked up at me with a shocked expression and said “Miss Kate!” before throwing himself into my arms for a hug. So precious! I asked him to explain this tradition to me (in Ukrainian) and here’s what he said verbatim (well, translated verbatim): “Its easy! I say this rhyme and throw this stuff on your floor, and you give me money!” I laughed for a solid minute at his description, and then listened attentively to his little rhyme, about “health, happiness and wealth” on my threshold for the coming year. It was quite sweet, and he was excited that I gave him 2 greven for it (about 25 cents, haha). It was an interesting morning : )
Andy had to be on his way home (his village is about 7 hours from my town!), but two more friends came to Sokyriany to celebrate Old New Years with me—Erin, a new volunteer in a neighboring village, and my friend Holden, who lives about an hour away. After enjoying the parade, we went back to my apartment for Mexican food, and laughed at how we were blending Ukrainian and Mexican culture. It was a wonderful day, and I couldn’t believe how fast my first week back had flown—school was starting the next day and break was officially over. In some ways it seemed like my 2 weeks in America had just been a dream and I’d finally woken up to reality. But in other ways, it seemed like everything was back to normal and I was ready to resume life here in Sokyriany. Going back and forth beween America and Ukraine was a lot to take in, and there were definitely moments of cultural shock both ways, but I think overall my trip home gave me the energy I needed to come back to Ukraine and finish the Peace Corps experience strongly. Eleven more months!!! More on that in a blog post to follow : )
P.S: Kudos to you if you know what song the blog title comes from!!
P.S.S: Double kuddos if you read all the way to the end of this incredibly long blog post! 🙂