Dance Party in Budyliv

The last weekend of April, when I probably should have been packing my apartment, I decided a weekend with my friends was in order and caught a bus to the tiny village of Budyliv, about 4 hours away, where my dear friend Janira lives. Janira was having a dance fundraiser at her school to raise money for new textbooks, and lots of volunteers were coming for the night to help out. I served as a money collector at the door, and as an unofficial photographer. This was actual Janira’s second annual dance fundraiser, and I was impressed with how much her girls’ dancing has improved in the last year. They were cute last year, but they did a great job with their routines this year!

After the girls danced, it was the PCVs turn to provide some entertainment. With Ryan on his banjo and Abe playing the washboard, they introduced Ukrainians to the joy of bluegrass music. Adam brought along his saxophone and tried to explain the concept of jazz in Ukrainian, which was hilarious. But my favorite part was when they tried combining all these instruments, and Shaun joined them on stage to add his voice. They blew the audience away, and definitely created a Ukrainian fan club amongst the teenage girls in the crowd, who loved Adam ; ) Especially when he went down into the audience and made them dance with him!

The show-stealer, however, was Miss Janira herself when she came out at the end of the fundraiser dressed in traditional Ukrainian wear, and led us all in singing the Ukrainian national anthem. The whole audience got to its feet, and there were even tears in some of the babushkas eyes. Janira has definitely won their hearts, it was beautiful to see their response to her : ) She looked quite Ukrainian too!

Janira was exhausted by the time the show was over, but at least she could rest easy knowing it was a huge success. Her girls were happy, they’d raised a lot of money for her project to buy new textbooks for her school, and of course the Peace Corps Volunteers had made quite an impression on the village of Budyliv. I’m pretty sure the girls might start a “We Love Adam” group on Kontakte (the Russian equivalent of Facebook) to show their adoration. But seriously, congratulations on a job well done Janira!

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I caught a piece of the sunshine, put a little hope in me…

Shortly after Easter, I had another visitor in Sokyriany… my boss, Roman! He was coming to my tiny town to oversee the end of my site-mate Rachel’s service. She’s finished with Peace Corps this month and going back to the US, so he came to talk to her director and help her close her service. Soon I will be the only Peace Corps Volunteer in Sokyriany, and I’m looking forward to that day!

Roman also stopped by my apartment to make sure it was up to Peace Corps standards of safety and such. He approved, but unfortunately I’m moving later this month, so his approval doesn’t count for much. When my landlord picked up the rent money last month, he told me that he wanted to start renovating my apartment in May so he could sell it this summer. So I need to move by the end of April, which means I’m currently on a house-hunt. We haven’t found anything yet, but my friend Olha is looking, as well as the teachers at my school. The teachers suggested an apartment near school where one of my students lives—she lives alone because her parents live in the next village over, and her mother wants me to move in, not only for rent money, but so I can serve in a sort of supervisory capacity. Thanks but no thanks, I’ll keep looking : )

Roman’s visit also included a discussion of my current projects as well as future goals I want to accomplish before the end of my Peace Corps service. I told him about an English seminar I have planned at my school in early May, and also about the grant that is currently in the works, provided I can find all the funding we need ($1700 to go, click on the Donate tab if you want to help us meet this goal!). He asked me if I have any plans for life after Peace Corps, and if I would consider staying in Ukraine and extending my service another year. I told him I hadn’t seriously considered staying, but that I had no definite plans for next year either. I promised to keep the option in mind, but I’m pretty sure (90%) that the end of 2012 will find me in America. I guess we’ll see!

After Roman left, I had a few more days of teaching to get through before the weekend came and I could go to Chernivtsi to meet Mark. He had been visiting friends in Odessa, but decided to come back to Sokyriany for his last few days in Ukraine before his flight back to the UK. I guess he didn’t get enough of Sokyriany the first time ; ) His first visit definitely inspired some whispers and rumors (maybe now the teachers will stop asking me if I’m getting engaged to Slavic!), but on the second visit people were flat out asking me if he was my boyfriend or husband. Ukrainians aren’t always subtle, and the funny thing was that it was complete strangers who were asking—like the cashier in the grocery store or the secretary at school. But I like that Ukrainians tell you what they’re thinking—in the US, people talk about things behind your back. In Ukraine, people tell you to your face, even if its something that’s not very appropriate to say (like if the guy standing next to you is your husband, if you look a little fat, or if you really need to wear some lipstick).

For Mark’s second visit, the weather finally started cooperating and springtime Sokyriany is quite beautiful. I took him to the ravine and showed him our fresh water spring, and also to the prison where we have a lovely little pond that is perfect for picnic-ing. We actually saw some people there who had the same idea, and invited us over to have a beer with them. I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this quality before, but generally speaking, Ukrainians are very generous with their food. I wonder if its because historically Ukrainians have known hunger (think the Great Famine in the ’30s) or if generosity is just a positive national trait. But it seems like all Ukrainians are constantly offering to share their food. On trains, for example, people offer to share their food with anyone in the vicinity and can sometimes be offended if you decline.

Mark brought his camera along on my tour of Sokyriany, and he’s quite an incredible photographer. Looking through his pictures, I was struck by how beautiful rural Ukraine really is. Sometimes I complain about living in the boonies, but really, Sokyriany is a beautiful place. It’s a great place for a walk in the nature, as Ukrainians would say! (Or at least, as our Ukrainian textbooks for English would say.) Here, see for yourself.

The lovely “yar,” which means ravine, but I prefer the word yar 😉

Another shot of the ravine; looks like something out of the past, untouched by time. You can’t even tell its the 21st century when you’re going for a walk in the yar!

Me and the handsome photographer.

Sunset on Sokyriany from the roof of the House of Culture

The Jewish Cemetery on the outskirts of town, on the way to the pond/prison.

Our pond (Став), which is located right next to the prison.

The cows were having a picnic of their own at the pond ; )

Perhaps my favourite (the British spelling, of course) shot of the pond.

Another highlight from Mark’s visit was English Club, where we talked about stereotypes. Perhaps you’ve noticed the stereotypes I’ve mentioned about Ukrainians in this blog post (they’re generous with food, they’re quite blunt, they like to gossip, haha), but others I’ve blogged about before include Ukrainian men always being drunk, Ukrainian women loving fashion and always dressing a little provocatively, and Ukrainian babushkas always wearing tons of clothes and claiming you’ll get sick on the bus if there’s a breeze when its 90 degree weather. In English Club, we talked about stereotypes by explaining the ones Americans think about the British and vise versus. For example, Mark said British stereotypes of Americans are that Americans are ignorant, love guns, and drive everywhere. I said Americans think Brits are snobby and wear crazy hats to official functions (You know the ones I’m talking about, the fascinators!).

We encouraged the students to think about what stereotypes they hold, and the answers were entertaining (all Russian men are drunks! Americans are always under-dressed! Moldovans are stupid!). We tried to explain why stereotypes can’t speak for all members of a race or ethnicity, and asked them what stereotypes about Ukrainians they find the most erroneous or would like to change. As for me, I’d like to change the stereotype that all Americans are ignorant. That one stings the most, especially as most of the Americans I know drive everywhere (America is too big to walk! Public transportation is hard to come by!) and some Americans I know are pretty big on guns ; ) But as for ignorance, that’s complete bollocks.

 Speaking of which, I learned lots of British slang from Mark’s visit, and I can say that I’ve definitely expanded my vocabulary to include such words as dodgy, snogging, wanker, bugger, twat, and other such colorful expressions. Mark also introduced me to the joys of British entertainment, with funny TV shows such as The In-Betweeners, Only Fools & Horses, and Coupling (the British equivalent of Friends). The British sense of humor is indeed unique, but I’m growing to appreciate it ; )

After Mark left, I realized I hadn’t done much except enjoy his company while he was in Sokyriany. But the day after he left, my apartment hunt finally proved fruitful. My school director’s sister showed me an apartment she wanted to rent out, which is conveniently located on the same block as my school! Its a little bit smaller than my current place, but it has a nice kitchen, a beautiful balcony, and hot water in the shower, so I have no complaints about it! I need to move by the end of April, so I guess that’s the next big project on my list. This will be my 5th move in two years, and I’m hoping its my last.

That’s all for now, cheerio! : P

April: The Highlights

I’ve fallen terribly behind on blogging, so for the first two weeks of April I’m just going to give you the highlights (and a few low-lights) to give you a sense of how the month went.

  • Upon my return from Cairo, the airline lost my bag AGAIN so I was bag-less in Kiev for a day. This wouldn’t have been the end of the world except for the huge temperature difference between Cairo and Kiev. When I left Cairo, it was 75 degrees outside. When I arrived in Kiev, it was 35 degrees and drizzling, which became snow as the temperature dropped. I could’ve really used some warmer clothes, but alas, they were in my lost bag. Moral of the story: don’t fly the budget airline and expect decent service. The Russian airline “Aeroflot” now has a new nickname in my book—AeroFLOP.
  • I spent three days in Kiev for some quality time with the Peace Corps doctors for a little thing we call “Mid-Service Medical”—a medical checkup done for all volunteers halfway through their service. My halfway point was January, but I put off the doctor as long as possible. I finally got an email requesting my presence, so I scheduled my appointments around my return from Cairo, when I knew I would be in Kiev anyways. So I spent three days getting checked out, which included a sand-blasting for my teeth (with a dentist who spoke no English), a TB test, a physical, and some other not-so-lovely appointments that you don’t need to know about. The Peace Corps doctors are good, and by day three I was finished and pronounced “TB free,” thank God : )
  • I had lots of down-time in Kiev when I wasn’t at the doctor, some of which I spent hanging out with my British friend Mark, who was in Ukraine on vacation after finishing a job teaching English in Moscow. He knows Kiev really well, and showed me lots of places I’d never been before. I’ve only been in Kiev for brief periods of time, usually work-related, so I’ve never really explored it like a tourist. Kiev is better than I gave it credit for! I also invited Mark to visit Sokyriany and see my life in the boonies, and he bought a ticket to come! Yay for company!
  • My dear friend Tammela had a special guest visiting her in Ukraine as well, and she invited us to lunch in Chernivtsi at our favorite restaurant to meet him. So on a cold and rainy spring day in Chernivtsi, me, Mark, and all of my favorite PC friends gathered at Efes to meet Fabian, Tam’s German boyfriend. All I’ve got to say about that is I approve : ) They’re pretty adorable together, and I’m glad I got to meet the guy who’s making my friend so happy!
  • This same cold and rainy day, Mark and I took a bus that didn’t go all the way to Sokyriany, so we ended up walking down the highway and hitch-hiking. As we were walking my phone rang, and it turned out to be my parents calling from America to wish me a happy Easter. I honestly didn’t know it was Easter—in Ukraine, most people are Orthodox, and Easter on the Orthodox calendar was still another week away. This was definitely a day when life in America seemed incredibly far-removed.
  • This same cold day turned into an even colder night, complete with a SNOW STORM. I kid you not, April 8th and we’re still getting snow? So much for spring.
  • Mark came to all my lessons, where he was loved equally by my students and fellow English teachers. In fact, I would dare say that he was loved more by the teachers, who were in awe of his British accent. I’m pretty sure if they could’ve arranged a trade (him for me), they would have made it! One of the English teachers, Marina, who has made no secret of her love for British English (and conversely, her dislike of the American accent), even invited Mark to be a guest speaker in one of her classes. I’ve been here a year and a half and I’ve never had that honor! English Club had exceptionally high attendance, and we spent half the hour asking Mark questions about his life in Britain. In Ukraine, the curriculum is based on British English, and the topic of British customs and traditions figures in prominently to every textbook. So for my kids, talking to Mark was a real treat. His presence even launched an autograph trend, which made me laugh when my kids asked for my signature as well. They see me every day, but suddenly getting the foreigners’ autograph was the cool thing to do : P
  • In the midst of Mark’s visit, the teachers at my school were notified that the regional Board of Education would be coming to evaluate our school. Stress levels rocketed, as the teachers updated the class journals, planned incredibly complex lessons, and demanded that the children correct the errors in their notebooks. My counterpart planned a lesson about tea-time in Great Britain, which ended up being a lesson mostly taught by Mark and myself. The woman who came to evaluate the English program was actually someone who I’d already met, at the English Olympiad in Chernivtsi a few months ago. Her name is Svetlana, and she loves Peace Corps Volunteers, so she was happy to be sitting in on my lesson. Plus there was Mark, speaking beautifully proper British English and teaching the kiddos how to make tea like a true Brit—the lesson was bound to be a success ; ) Our lesson included a Powerpoint presentation, teaching the song “I’m A Little Tea-Pot,” and even tea and biscuits for all the kids! Needless to say, Svetlana loved it and our English department got a great review. No matter that our normal lessons never involve forethought or this level of complexity (in fact, we rarely lesson plan)—we looked good for the Board of Education, which is all that matters.
Mark giving a demonstration on how to make tea like a true Brit 😉

5th graders dressed to impress and awaiting tea tea, a.ka. “elevenses.”

So there you have it. After an incredible week in Egypt and a few days in Kiev, I’m back in the saddle in Sokyriany, teaching again and enjoying the daily adventure that is life in Ukraine.  I hope all is well where you are, thanks for reading!

Ma’a Salaama Masr [Farewell Egypt!]

After almost 10 hours on the bus, with multiple checkpoints and even drug dogs sniffing our luggage, Becca and I finally made it back to Cairo late Saturday night. We had about 20 minutes at her apartment to freshen up before heading back out, because we had already made plans with two Egyptians that I had to see while I was in CairoRamy and Amgad, the brothers Khattab. We used to hang out all the time when I was studying and living in Cairo during college, and my trip wouldn’t have been complete without seeing and catching up with them. We even picked one of our old haunts for the reunion, an adorable outdoor cafe called Harawi’s where we spent many a night hanging out back in the day. Since then its been remodeled, and it looks better than ever! Here’s a picture of us at Harawi’s.

Amgad, Ramy, myself, and Becca

Then next morning, reminiscing was at the top of my list of things to do with my last day in Cairo. Our first stop was a place in Zamalek called All Saints Cathedral, where I used to teach English to Sudanese refugees. I think this experience was one of the main things that encouraged me to join Peace Corps, well, that and meeting a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Ethiopia who pretty much converted me to the Peace Corps gospel and encouraged me to apply. Both of these experiences happened while I was living in Cairo, so sometimes I attribute my decision to join Peace Corps as the outcome of my time and experiences in Egypt. Its so interesting to me how one chapter in your life can lead to subsequent chapters you never saw coming…

After All saints, our next stop was Agouza, the neighborhood where Becca and I lived while studying with the Middle East Studies Program. Walking through the streets of Agouza, it felt like nothing had changed. We saw Mr. Koko, our favorite street-side vendor who makes the best shwarma in Cairo, and he even remembered us! We used to be very loyal customers back in the day… that was Before Peace Corps (B.P.C.), when I didn’t know how to cook AT ALL and ate out 90% of the time. Oh the memories : )

Mr. Koko makes the meanest shwarma in Cairo… he’s so good he should be in the guide books.

Becca and I ordered some shwarma to go, and walked down the street to the Villa, the home of the Middle East Studies Program and the place where we used to go for class every day. I have such fond memories of the Villa, from spending massive amounts of time in our Arabic immersion classes with Nahed, to learning how to dance Dabka, the Palestinian form of line-dancing, to spending hours on the shaded roof with my friends and classmates, discussing everything we were learning. I think my semester with MESP was the best semester of my college experience, just don’t tell anyone I studied with in Indiana, Ireland, or Ecuador that I said that : P

The Villa, where we had an impromptu shwarma picnic.

Becca, me, and fellow former MESPer Laura, eating Mr. Koko’s shwarma at our old stomping ground.

Unfortunately for us, the Villa was locked. The Middle East Studies Program (MESP) had to relocate after the Revolution in Egypt, so its currently based in Jerusalem. The Villa is locked and unoccupied, and it felt like we were visiting a historical place that nobody remembers except us. Its been three years since we lived in Agouza, but sitting there reminiscing made it seem like a lifetime ago. I miss Cairo.

MESP how I miss thee.

After our stop in Agouza, where our friend Ismail joined us, we went to Islamic Cairo to the Khan-el-Khalili, which is kind of like tourist-central. I wanted to buy some souvenirs for my Ukrainian friends and stop by the famous Fishawi’s cafe. We got a table, and Ismail and Becca talked about their upcoming trip to Siwa, a beautiful desert Oasis in western Egypt where Ismail is from. It made me wish I was in Egypt for longer than a week, because Siwa’s an amazing place to visit. While they made plans, I was approached by a lady offering henna tattoos. I was secretly hoping this opportunity would present itself, so I willing put out my arm and let her do her magic. I like henna tattoos; they’re beautiful, and by the time you’re sick of looking at them, they’ve already disappeared.

My friend Omer also came to join us so he could say goodbye, and he proved to be a huge help when I wanted to go souvenir shopping. He did all the talking and bargaining (in Arabic) and I just stood there and smiled. It made the experience much more enjoyable for me, because I didn’t get ripped off and I didn’t have to worry : ) I’m glad he came and that we got to hang out one last time.

For my last evening in Egypt, Becca and I headed out to Nasser City to meet Khadra, who was a dear friend from when I was a student studying in Cairo. She’s originally from Djibouti, but her father is a diplomat working in Saudi Arabia, so that’s where she grew up and where her family currently lives. She’s been living in Cairo the last few years to study law, but she’s concerned that she’ll never get hired as a lawyer because she wears the naqab (the full veil that only shows a woman’s eyes). It’s always so interesting to hear her perspective on things, she’s such an intelligent, witty woman and I love her dearly!

What the naqab looks like. (And no, this is not my friend Khadra!)

We went to a new cafe that just opened for dinner, and to be honest, the service was terrible. We were all starving, and it took forever for the food to come. But I ordered hooka (it was my last night, I had to!), and the hooka man at least was attentive. Egyptians have smoking hooka down to an art form, its probably for the best that I’m not living in Egypt because I’m sure I would damage my lungs with the amount of hooka I’d smoke ; )  Becca and I had a great time hanging out with Khadra, and we even took some pictures to remember it by. I can’t share them here, so you’ll just have to imagine our smiling faces. 🙂

So having seen almost all of my favorite Egyptians, and having spent a few glorious days in the sunshine at Dahab, the time had come at last for my departure. Becca’s friend Ayman came with his car to drive us to the airport, and I could hardly take in the fact that the week was over and the time had come to return to Ukraine. It was with a heavy heart that I said goodbye to Becca and made my way through the airport, bound for Moscow and then finally Kiev.

So for now, Ma’a Salaama MasrFarewell Egypt! Until next time, you’ll be in my heart.