Crimea Suuki!

Crimea, Ukraine… if you’re not Ukrainian (or Russian) the mention of this place probably rings no bells for you. But in Eastern Europe, Crimea is pretty famous. And its THE place to go for a summer vacation in Ukraine!

Crimea is technically an autonomous republic of Ukraine; back during the USSR it was “given” as a gift to the Soviet Republic of Ukraine, and after the breakup of the USSR Crimea remained part of it. However, Crimea wasn’t very happy about that (hence the “autonomous republic” part of its name). The majority of Crimeans are ethnically Russian, and Russian is the dominant language. Ukrainian is not appreciated there, as Crimeans don’t like to be reminded that technically the peninsula belongs to the country of Ukraine (and not Russia). In fact, I was even told that when we were traveling in Crimea it would be better to speak in English if we couldn’t make our point in Russianthe Ukrainian language is looked down upon that much, and (supposedly) English was more wide-spoken, given Crimea’s booming tourism.

So seeing as this was my last summer in Ukraine, traveling to Crimea was a big priority for me. Crimea represents a huge part of Ukraine that I have no personal knowledge of, and of course I wanted to spend some quality time on the best beaches the country has to offer! 😉

I originally began planning this trip in the dead of winter; it was a form of escapism for Michelle, Erin, and I as we suffered through a miserable winter of record-setting lows. We had plenty of down time in which to plan the trip due to the endless school closures, which occurred every time the temperature was below -25 degrees celsius (-13 fahrenheit) because it was too cold for the kiddos to walk to school. I think I went two weeks straight without teaching a day of school; hence, with the Internet at my fingertips and images of hot days on the beach in my dreams, I planned an epic week in Ukraine with some of my favorite people.

This group originally consisted of Michelle and Erin (my nearest PCV neighbors and dear friends), Kristin and Janira (two other PCVs whom I also love), and my sister and myself. Unfortunately, Janira ended up being busy the week we planned on going to Crimea, so we were one person short. Around this time Mark started planning on coming back to Ukraine for another visit… and the rest is history. Plus Mark knows some Russian, so we figured having him along to translate couldn’t hurt ; )

The entire group met in Kyiv the morning of our departure, except we were one person short–due to flight delays and cancellations, Michelle was delayed and ended up coming down to Crimea a day later. So the five of us (Erin, Tori, Kristin, Mark and I) spent the first day without Michelle exploring Sevastopol.

Sevastopol is well-known to history buffs as the site of the Siege of Sevastopol, carried out by the British against the Russians. During the siege, the Russians had to sink their whole fleet to keep it from falling into enemy hands, and today the Monument to the Scuttled Ships stands in the harbor of Sevastopol as a tribute to this battle.

  The port of Sevastopol

Sevastopol is also known as the port of the Russian navy, both during the USSR and in the present; Russia rents the port for its Black Sea Fleet.

Sevastopol has history dating much further back; the remains of an ancient Greek colony called Khersones are located there on the Black Sea. Dating back to the 6th century B.C., Khersones is known as the “Ukrainian Pompeii” or the “Russian Troy.”

It also made the list for one of the 7 Wonders of Ukraine, so we made seeing it a priority when we were in Sevastopol. Today its mostly ruins, but there are pillars of what used to be a temple that are impressive.

Today Khersones is popular for its beach, and its a surreal experience walking through the ruins of an ancient settlement to get to a craggy beach on the Black Sea. Not your typical beach location, but it was interesting nonetheless : )

Our last stop in Sevastopol was near Khersones, just a few minutes away. It was Saint Vladimir’s Cathedral, which was built after the Crimean War (in the 1850s) as a tribute to the heroes of the Siege of Sevastopol.

The inside was breathtaking, but I didn’t realize you weren’t allowed to take photos until I already had taken 10. So you get this illicit peak inside because I didn’t read the sign in Russian 😛

Also, being scantily clad in shorts and tank tops, we had to dress up a bit to be allowed inside. So I give you Kristin, Tori, myself, and Erin dressed… appropriately. Our shoulders are still showing, but this was covered enough to go inside the church. Based on this experience, I think I can safely rule out the convent for all of us 😛 

After Sevastopol, our trip continued to Yalta, Sudak, and Bakchisarai! Read on to the next blog post to hear about the Genoese Fortress, the Khan’s Palace, and to see pictures of the most beautiful beach in Crimea : )

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From Kyiv to Crimea

Tori did surprisingly well with the time change, and after sleeping a solid 10 hours her first night in Ukraine, she had no trouble adapting. We had three days to hang out in Kyiv before taking the train to Crimea, so we spent our days site-seeing and catching up. Mark has been to Kyiv several times and served as tour guide and photographer, so Tori and I could have pictures of us everywhere we went ; )

Here are a few of my favorites:

This is Tori and I in Independence Square, which is the central square in Kyiv. The statue behind us is the slavic goddess Berehynia, Protector of Kyiv.

Downtown Kyiv by twilight (damn, I hate that the book ruined the word!).

And here we have Tori and I at Mark’s favorite park in Kyiv, which reminds me of the children’s book, Where The Wild Things Are. Tori and I posed in the cat’s mouth : P

And here is Tori and I at one of Kyiv’s most famous churches… St. Michael’s.

Possibly my favorite night in Kyiv was when Tori and I had an evening to ourselves to see the Ukrainian Ballet. Tickets were the equivalent of 5 dollars (for both of us!) so we splurged on dinner… and went to Dim Sum, an incredible Chinese place near the Opera House where the ballet performs.

Tori looking beautiful at dinner!

Steamed dumplings, could I have been happier? No!

Tori and I at the Opera House in Kyiv.

We saw The Marriage of Figaro, and while the dancing was incredible, I think the music was my favorite part (I’m a huge Mozart fan). Tori and I also had amazing seats, so we even managed to get some decent pictures! The next time you’re in Kyiv, I highly recommend seeing the ballet. For $5, you really can’t go wrong… plus, it’s an experience you shouldn’t miss! 

Figaro and Susanna, the main characters. 

The chorus from the Marriage of Figaro.

Susanna and Figaro end up together… yay for happy endings.

The ballet was our last night in Kyiv, and the next morning Erin and Kristin arrived at the hostel. We had tickets for the overnight train to Sevastopol, Crimea, and had the whole day ahead of us in Kyiv before needing to head to the train station. But we were one person shy of having our group assembled, because Michelle, who had been in America for a friend’s wedding, was delayed coming back to Ukraine. One of her flights was canceled and she was going to be postponed for at least a day, so she was going to miss our train to Crimea. I went to the station and tried to sell her ticket back and purchase one for the next day, but alas, every train to Crimea was completely sold out. My friend Graciella came to the rescue, and agreed to help Michelle by taking her to the train station and helping her buy off a train steward on the train to Crimea (I kid you not, anything is possible in Ukraine). Graciella lived in Crimea during her Peace Corps service, and knows all the ins and outs of train-hopping, so I knew I was leaving Michelle in good hands : )

That night the five of us (Tori, me, Erin, Kristin, and Mark) went to the train station and boarded the train to Sevastopol. It was leaving Kyiv at 10pm and arriving the next day in Crimea at 4pm, so we packed plenty of food and got settled for a long train ride. This was Tori’s first train ride, so the whole thing was a novelty for her. The rest of us were old pros, but it was fun to watch her excitement. 

I documented Tori’s first train ride; isn’t she cute? : )

And with that, we were on our way to CRIMEA! Read onto the next blog post to hear about our days of fun in the sun on the Black Sea : )

It Was The Best of Times; It Was The Worst of Times.

On Saturday, Mark and I took the overnight train to Kyiv and got settled in at the hostel. This hostel is more like a home-away-from-home for me; I know everyone who works there, a Ukrainian friend of mine owns it, and its a really small place with only 10 beds. I always stay there when I’m in Kyiv, and this time was no exception. But a wonderful surprise awaited there; almost all the other guests were Peace Corps Volunteers from my group who were in town for the Eurocup, so it was like a mini reunion with several long lost friends that I hadn’t seen in ages! I love running into other PCVs : )

Saturday night we had big plans; there was a Eurocup match between Spain and France that we wanted to watch in the Fan Zone (the main street of Kyiv, Kreschatik, was turned into a pedestrian zone for the Eurocup, complete with beer tents and huge screens where the game was broadcast!). But before then, Mark and I had dinner plans with my friends Graciella and Artem in Independence Square. We went to this really cute Crimean restaurant and sat on the veranda, enjoying the atmosphere and spending a lovely evening hanging out.

But just after dinner, a gypsy woman with crazy face paintings came up to our table, with a huge bag covering the lower part of her face like she was huffing something inside of it. I leaned away from her as she invaded my space, and my friend Artem told her off in Russian. Instead of moving on to the text table to beg (as we assumed she was doing), she took off running and left. I looked down at the table, where my cell phone and wallet had been sitting, and realized that’s why she took off running–she’d stolen them! They’d literally been sitting right in front of me, and I didn’t connect the dots until she was out of site.

Needless to say, I freaked out. The wallet contained $300, a credit card, my Peace Corps-issued passport (which has my Ukrainian work visa inside), my accreditation card (that says I’m a legal resident of Ukraine) and a key to the room at the hostel. The loss of the passport and the accreditation card were the most upsetting, because those would be hard to replace. I was also devastated at the loss of my cell phone–I had no way to get in touch with anyone without it, and I had no one’s number written down! And my sister was flying into Kyiv the next day, and her only way to get in touch with me if anything happened was through my cell phone. I was so upset, but luckily for me, I have some amazing friends.

Graciella flagged down a police man in Independence Square, and Artem (who is Ukrainian) explained the whole situation in Russian. Soon a Jeep full of cops pulled up, and they demanded we come with them to the police station to file a report. Again, I could not have remained calm and composed without Artem’s help… the cops didn’t speak any English, and conducted the whole affair in Russian. Artem served as translator (my Russian is terrible) and explained what happened to the cops, while I called the Peace Corps Safety Officer and told him what happened. Then I used Graciella’s phone to call America and ask my Mom to cancel my stupid credit card. Graciella even offered me the use of her spare cell phone (everyone in Ukraine has at least two cell phones, don’t ask me why) so I had a number I could give my sister just in case.

We were at the police station more than 2 hours, and by the time we finished filing the report the Eurocup match was over–France had lost. We ended up just going back to the hostel, I was pretty bummed out. I already realized that if my passport was gone, I couldn’t leave the country with Tori for our upcoming Eurotrip… the stress was pretty intense.

Luckily, the next day things really started looking up. I had a breakfast adventure with some of my favorite PCVs, where our objective was finding the fabled New York Bagel place. After a few different metro lines and some exploring, we finally found it! Having a tuna bagel greatly improved my mood, not to mention hanging out with Lee and Janira ; )

 

But the best part of the day was when I caught a bus out to the airport, and met VICTORIA at the airport! Her flight had gone really smoothly, and our reunion was wonderful. I can’t tell you how good it was to see her, and the stress of the last week just melted away as I hugged her and told her what a bad week I was having. Thank God my sisters, I happen to think mine is the best. Plus, she even looks incredible after flying 20+ hours ; )

I took her back to the hostel, where she met my friends and dropped off her stuff. She was pretty tired, but agreed to check out Kyiv that evening with me and Mark. We considered buying scalped tickets to the match between Italy and England, but decided to just watch the game in the Fan Zone. It was definitely the smart thing to do–the game was pretty boring and Tori was falling asleep by the second half ; )

But here, you can see what a wonderful time we were having! This is Tori having her first taste of “kvas,” which is kind of like a non-alcoholic beer. Its an Eastern European specialty, and I’m a big fan, and I’m proud to inform you that I got Tori hooked on it too ; )

Tori was finally with me in Ukraine! To hear about our adventures in Kyiv and Tori’s first train ride, on our way to Crimea, check out the next blog post ; )

“And We Know Its Never Simple, Never Easy…”

While the Eurocup tournament continued, my main task was planning the summer of a lifetime; my sister Tori was set to arrive in less than a week, and our first adventure was traveling to Crimea, Ukraine. This is the primary tourist destination of Ukraine, located on the Black Sea in the southern part of the country. Mark was coming with us, as well as a few of my favorite PCV friends‒Michelle, Erin, and Kristin. Michelle had taken care of buying our train tickets, but I was in charge of the hostels/apartments we’d be staying at, so I was busy planning our itinerary and finding places for us to stay.

I also was doing research for the bigger adventure to follow in July; a two week trip to central Europe for just me and Tori! Mark was a good sport while I worked out all the details, and he also served as a guinea pig for the meals I wanted to try cooking before Tori arrived. One of my main hopes for the summer was to impress Tori with my new-found cooking skills, and I was already crafting a menu of dishes to cook while she was with me in Sokyriany. So Mark got to experience strawberry scones, Eggs Benedict, Chicken Tikka Masala with naan (Indian food!), Banana bread, and lots of other yummy things : )

I also had to cook for a picnic with the 5th grade, which was arranged by my counterpart Natalia. She is the homeroom teacher for 5th grade, and I think I can safely say this class was my favorite last year. We arranged the picnic before school ended, specifically for a date when Mark would be in Sokyriany and could come too. My 5th graders were very excited to see him, and were shameless about asking questions regarding him and “Miss Kate.” I’ve never blushed so much in my LIFE, and for once I wished I didn’t understand what they were going on about in Ukrainian ; )

It was hilarious to listen to, but also hard to dodge their questions. I’m sure many of you have guessed (or were told by me!) that Mark was more than a friend, but during the week of his visit I started to realize that it wasn’t going to work out between us, for a lot of different reasons (none of which I’d care to go into on this public forum). I’d probably have realized it sooner had I not wanted it to work out so much… I had such a wonderful impression of him from our first month together that I wanted to continue thinking the best of him, so I just chalked up the first few warning signs as the struggles of a long-distance relationship. But being with him 24/7 in Sokyriany brought everything to light, and it turned out proximity was even more of a challenge than distance! The worst part was we still had two more weeks together, in Kyiv picking up Tori from the airport, and then a week in Crimea with all my friends. I didn’t know what to do about it, and looking back I know I could’ve handled it better. But I didn’t, and I didn’t say anything until the end of our trip. It made for a challenging two weeks, knowing there were problems but not addressing them… needless to say it was a rough couple weeks.

But this picnic with the fifth graders turned out to be one of the nicest days of the summer, and I’m pretty sure it was the highlight of the whole week Mark was in town. We went to a hillside near the prison, overlooking all of Sokyriany. (I’m sure some of you remember my post about the sites to see in Sokyriany, and how the beautiful countryside surrounding the prison is one of the best spots in town!) All of the kids brought food, and Natalia even brought “shashlik” which is a huge Ukrainian summer tradition. It just refers to grilling meat outside, although I’ve heard it translated as “barbeque” sometimes too. I have adopted the word “shashlik” into my own vocabulary, and I’m determined to bring it back to America with me ; )

Here is Natalia being our shashlik master:

We had a wonderful time, enjoying the sunshine, eating lots of tasty food, and chatting in the most interesting mixture of English, Ukrainian, and Russian (for Mark, who doesn’t know Ukrainian). Here is a picture of some of the girls, sitting on our picnic blankets and smiling for the camera : )

Here is Yanna and Tanya.

And here is Dasha, my smartest fifth grade student, and probably my favorite too if I’m being honest; she comes to see me every week for tutoring, and speaks wonderfully for her age. I’m so impressed with how fast she improves too; every week she understands more!

But my favorite part of our picnic was American football. I promised the students I would bring my football, and the boys’ main motivation in coming to this picnic was learning how to play! I explained the rules, but our position on a hillside made it hard to play. We mostly ended up just throwing and catching, but the kids loved it anyways. I also enjoyed watching Mark play; it was nice to play some AMERICAN football after hearing about European football (soccer) the whole month of June! 😉

My counterpart Natalia even played with us!

 Our picnic was a huge success, and I enjoyed the day spent with my fifth graders so much. They’re such special little people, and they’re at the perfect age–not filled with hormones yet but old enough to communicate and be hilarious. Spending the day with them was exactly what I needed, and turned out to be one of my favorite summer memories from summer 2012 : ) (Although to be fair, this summer provided me with a lot of incredible memories to pick from!)

Soon enough my time in Sokyriany ran out, and Mark and I went to Chernivtsi to catch a train to Kyiv, where an incredible reunion would take place… my sister Tori was coming to Ukraine for the summer! 😀

Read on to hear about our reunion, and the disaster that preceded it. 

Eurocup Craziness

The biggest thing to ever happen in Ukraine during my two years here took place in June‒Eurocup 2012! This huge European soccer tournament was jointly hosted by Ukraine and Poland, and was a huge source of national pride for Ukrainians. Most Ukrainians are crazy about soccer, so the whole month of June the nation was overcome with Eurocup fever. Every game was broadcast to packed cafes and beer tents, and daily conversation revolved around the results of the matches.

 

Ukrainians were also incredibly interested in the tourism generated by the Eurocup and the chance of profiting from it. Hotel rooms in Kyiv were shamelessly up-charged‒not even a bed in a hostel could be found for under 30 euros. And it wasn’t just Kyiv that prepared for the huge boost in tourism; the Eurocup matches were hosted in Kharkiv and L’viv as well (two major cities in Ukraine), and cities and towns everywhere hoped the tourists would come to visit.

 

My tiny town of Sokyriany, which is close to nothing (except the border to Moldova) even attempted to teach the local policemen English in case tourists came and either needed help or ran into trouble with the law. Somehow the local police got my number and began calling daily and begging me to come teach them English. I was skeptical of the proposition, because a) two weeks isn’t enough to learn English; b) no tourists would be coming to Sokyriany, and c) the other Peace Corps Volunteer who used to live in Sokyriany had a huge thing for cops in our town, and had developed kind of a reputation. I didn’t want to “help” the cops learn English if they thought that I was going to behave in the same way as the last PCV….

 

So I was explaining the dilemma to my Ukrainian friend/mother figure Olha, and she was adamant that I stay away from the militzia. She insisted the cops would be inappropriate, especially given the rumors the other PCV generated by her behavior, and instead told the cops if they wanted to learn English they could ask either of her sons. Her sons, Slavic and Petro, speak English really well, but I doubt either of them were interested in attempting to teach our local cops… I thought the whole situation was hilarious, and told Slavic that his mother must love me more if she was willing to throw them under the bus and offer their English skills instead of mine ; )

 

Eurocup madness also affected the young population of Ukraine. I agreed to take on a new student for tutoring over the summer, who had recently come home from university. His name was Vadim, and he was studying for his masters in Engineering in Chernivtsi. His mother really wanted him to learn English so he can attempt to get a job abroad when he finishes his degree, and I agreed to give him lessons whenever I was in town. My first meeting with Vadim was a challenge, because while he was very smart and knew some English, he was also incredibly shy. But as our lessons continued, he improved, and the Eurocup matches became our example for every grammar principle we covered. For example, the day we reviewed the present continuous verb tense, I’d say, “Who is playing in the next Eurocup match?” And he’d have to answer “England is playing Ukraine.” I’d ask, “Who is going to win?” and he’d answer “In my opinion, Ukraine is going to win.” It was hilarious, and became a running joke between us. Any time I introduced a new grammar principle, he’d demand a soccer example for illustration.

 

Anyone who knows me well knows I’m not exactly an avid sports fan; but even I was susceptible to Eurocup fever, especially when a soccer-loving Brit came to visit. My friend Mark, who visited in April, came back to Ukraine and spent the week with me in Sokyriany. For the England vs. Ukraine match, we went to Sokyriany’s most popular beer tent, where the game was being broadcast on a big screen TV. The tent was already full a 1/2 hour before the game started, so we sat on a bench outside where we had a view of the TV. Mark was brave enough to wear an English jersey into a sea of Ukrainian fans, but I chose to root for Ukraine, which has somehow become my home in the last two years. The game was uneventful, but due to a bad call (which even Mark conceded), England scored one goal, while Ukraine didn’t score at all. So while Mark was pleased with the result of the game, the atmosphere in the beer tent was dejected, because Ukraine’s loss meant we were out of the tournament. : (

 

Ukraine’s defeat became the new theme for my tutoring lessons with Vadim, which was depressing but also hilarious. For learning the past perfect tense, I asked “What could Ukraine have done to win the game?” and Vadim answered, “Ukraine’s coach could have put Shevchenko [Ukraine’s best player] in the game sooner!” Oh Eurocup!

 

To hear what else happened in Sokyriany while Mark visited, read onto the next blog post : )

 

The Summer Saga: A Note To My Dear Readers

If you’ve read my blog faithfully (or even intermittently) you’ll know that I fell terribly behind in blogging this summer. I wasn’t home much (only about 2 weeks total out of three months) and as soon as I got home, school started! I’m so sorry for the delay, and so grateful you’re still reading these entries, even though they’re months late 🙂

I thought of throwing in the towel at the prospect of having to blog my whole summer, I was so overwhelmed by the idea. But this blog has been a faithful testament to my years in the Peace Corps, and I write not only for you my readers (although you’re about 90% of the reason why), but also so that I’ll have a complete journal of my trials and successes, my ups and my downs, my joys and my sorrows, and all of the crazy in-between memories that have made Peace Corps such an incredible part of my life.

The writer Anais Nin says, “We write to taste life twice; in the moment and in retrospect.” Some parts of my summer I’m looking forward to reliving again, while others I wish I could blot from the record. I was sorely tempted not to relate those unhappy moments, hoping that someday I could forget them. But I don’t think I should attempt to re-write history with this blog, so I’ll include the tears along with the smiles. I hope you enjoy all these memories, thanks for staying with me along this ride 🙂 

English Language Refresher Camp

After working at the camp in Uman, I had two days to relax in Sokyriany before catching a bus to Chernivtsi to work at my next camp. This camp, also known as the English Language Refresher Camp (ELRC), was organized by my friend Michelle for secondary Ukrainian English teachers in our region. Michelle works in Chernivtsi at a university and one of her colleagues is in charge of the Institute of Teacher Training. All of the teachers must come to this institute every few years to get re-certified, and this year, if the teachers attend the week long ELRC with the Peace Corps Volunteers, it counted as part of their recertification. None of the teachers from my school attended, but I agreed to teach anyways because all of my favorite PCVs were working at the camp : )

 

So from Monday to Friday, we spent our days at the Institute and conducted various lessons, entirely in English, to refresh the teachers’ knowledge of English and to give them an opportunity to practice their own speaking. Every day started out with a Methodology lesson, where we discussed different teaching methods and their effectiveness. It was mostly a discussion/brainstorming session based on loose topics, but I was really struck by how it seems like we all have similar problems with the students. I feel like I learned a lot from these teachers, as they explained their methods for handling classroom discipline, poor resources, and under-motivated students. It was affirming to know that many teachers have the same problems I do in lessons, and it’s not that I’m a bad teacher : )

 

The best part about the daily Methodology classes was that I team-taught with Erin, a Volunteer who lives in a neighboring village to Sokyriany. Erin is hilarious, and she also does an incredible job of communicating with non-native speakers. She is one of the few volunteers I know who joined Peace Corps after having a career, instead of joining fresh out of college. Her life experience gives her a unique perspective, and also makes her more of an authority figure with the teachers we were training. To be honest, I felt way under-qualified and way underage to be teaching teachers, some of which had 20+ years in the classroom. So teaching with Erin bolstered my credentials and made it a lot more enjoyable for me ; )

 

Besides methodology, I taught lessons on Education in America, Common Errors, Fiction Writing, Degrees of Comparison, Storytelling, and Close Reading. Teaching lessons for teachers is much more grueling than teaching students, because you have to be incredibly prepared and engaging the whole time. I enjoyed all of my lessons, and at the end of the week I felt really encouraged by how interested the teachers had been and how willing they were to work with the Peace Corps Volunteers. One of my favorite participants even invited me back to her village school so her pupils could have the opportunity of speaking with a native English speaker, and so we could have the opportunity to continue our friendship!

 

Here’s a picture of myself, Dan (a volunteer from Vyzhnitsya), and our two favorite teachers, Olia and Nastia:

 

And here is a picture of all of the Volunteers who took part in the English Language Refresher Camp: (from left to right ) Back row; Dan, Erin, Andy, and Sarah; front row: me, Lily, Kristin, Michelle, and Kate (Michelle’s colleague from the university who helped us run the camp).

 

And last, but not least, we have a picture of all the participants from the ELRC with their certificates of completion. What a wonderful group of teachers!

I’m really glad I got to work at Michelle’s camp. I was very encouraged by the teachers’ motivation and participation, and I made a lot of new friends! I also got to spend the week doing something useful and related to my Peace Corps service; the rest of my summer was spent traveling and doing things for my own enjoyment, so I’m glad I spent the first two weeks of summer working, and having such a good time doing it! : )