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.

 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 nervouswe 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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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 µSv/h. µSv 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. 

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 😉

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! 

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 😉 

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 😦 

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 😦

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 matesyou 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 meit 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 howI 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 meI 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 😉

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!!!

Christmas in September; Our Grant Finally Coming Through!

September was the month of things finally coming together in my Peace Corps Service. Almost a year to the day of when we started the grant process, we finally got to see the results! Last September we made a wish-list of all the technology resources we would like to see in an ideal English classroom, and then we wrote the grant to include as many of them as possible given our budget. Then I worked with Peace Corps to tweak the grant to their specifications, and finally it was added to the Peace Corps website, where wonderful people like you donated money to our project! In May, the American portion of the grant was completely funded, and Peace Corps sent me a credit card with $2660 on it. The school was still working on raising their part of the contribution, about $350, so we postponed buying the technology and textbooks until the new school year started.

Fast forward to August: after a few hiccups along the way, my school came through with the money and I went to Chernivtsi (the nearest big city) to order everything! I have a Ukrainian friend in Chernivtsi who teaches English at the university and who is a methodologist for our region. Her name is Kate (too) and she gets a discount on Oxford textbooks when she orders them in bulk, so I went to her for help.

She’s worked with other Peace Corps Volunteers before, and she gave me a presentation on all the different textbook series from Oxford that she recommends. Then we budgeted how many books we could purchase depending on which series we chose, given our budget. We settled on the Solutions series from Oxford, ordering 20 books at the Pre-Intermediate level for the 10th grade, and 15 books at the Intermediate Level for the 11th grade. Kate also included a teachers book for free, complete with lesson plans, for each of the levels we were buying, as well as a workbook with additional exercises. One of the technology items we were buying was a Xerox copier/scanner/printer, so having one workbook to copy additional exercises from would be fine.

Kate was so incredibly helpful with the textbooks, and after our meeting she insisted on helping me purchase everything else! I had the money from the grant in my wallet in dollars, so we started at a bank and exchanged the dollars for hryvnia (Ukrainian currency). The bank teller’s eyes popped out of her head when I handed her $2660, mostly in hundreds, and she made a big show of checking to see if any of the bills were counterfeit.

Finally she gave us the money in hryvnia, and then Kate took me to a computer store that her husband’s friend owns. After greetings and introductions, she whips out a copy of the grant budget, and tells him exactly what we want to buy and how much we have to spend on it. He sits down and starts talking a hundred miles an hour, speaking geek and in Ukrainian no less! I was so thankful Kate was there to do the communicatingshe wasn’t accepting anything less than exactly what the grant specified, and she insisted he give us a discount because this grant was for a good cause. She was a superstar; I have “writing Kate a huge thank-you note” on my to-do list, because she totally made it all happen!

Once everything was ordered and the total was rang up, I handed over more than 14,000 hyrvnia for the new computer, printer, and projector. The exchange rate is 8 hyrvnia to 1 dollar, so 14,000 isn’t as much as it sounds, but its still more hyrvnia than I’ve ever had! I was happy to have it out of my wallet; knowing I had that much cash was making me uncomfortable. Then I paid Kate for all the textbooks she ordered, and the only thing remaining to be purchased was a dry erase board. I went to METRO, which is like the Walmart of Ukraine, where my friend Tammela had found white boards when she was shopping for her grant.

I found the biggest board they had, and also a dry-erase kit of markers, erasers, and magnets. I put the board on a cart, and drove it up to the check out, attracting lots of stares. As the cashier rang it up, I requested an official receipt, because Peace Corps is very particular about Volunteers carefully documenting and accounting for where all the grant monies are spent. The cashier had no clue what I was talking about, so I asked if I could speak to a manager. As I was explaining what kind of receipt I needed to the general manager, I realized that my Ukrainian has come such a long way. If I was doing this last year, I don’t know if I would’ve been able to articulate what I needed without calling a Ukrainian for help! The manager quickly produced an official receipt, stamped and everything, and Kate called a taxi to take me and my huge board across town to the bus station.

I take the bus from Sokyriany to Chernivtsi quite often, at least once a month, and luckily for me, I recognized the driver waiting by the bus. I probably looked crazy, as the taxi driver and I, each holding one end, maneuvered the board through the bus station. Putting on my best big American smile, I asked the driver if he would be willing to drive the board back to Sokyriany for me, as it was for my classroom at school. He was shocked and assumed that I was using my own money to outfit my classroom, and said he’d happily drive my board back for me. SUCCESS! I called my counterpart, Natalia, and explained that I was on my way home and I had a huge white board that I need help with. When the bus pulled into the station at Sokyriany, she and her husband were waiting with a van to drive the board to school. It was a long day, but everything on my to-do list was checked off. Mission accomplished!

The next week Kate called me to inform me that the books had arrived at her office in Chernivtsi, and her contact at the computer store said the computer and projector had arrived too. Kate said her husband Nazar was willing to drive all of the stuff to Sokyriany for me, if my school could just give him gas money for the transportation. Sokyriany is a 2-3 hour drive from Chernivtsi, one way, and gas is pretty expensive here in Ukraine too. I called my director at school and explained the situation, and she agreed! So Nazar picked up the computer, projector, speakers, and printer from his friend’s shop, and Kate put all the next textbooks in his car too.

The next day, teaching my first lesson, my phone rang and it was Nazar calling. He was in the school courtyard, waiting for me to come down. I told Natalia that the stuff had arrived, and we took the whole 6th grade down with us to meet Nazar and help carry the things upstairs to the English classroom. I’ve never seen Natalia so animated, and the kids “ooh-ed” and “ahhh-ed” appropriately, every time a box was taken out of the car. It was so exciting, I can’t even relate how enthusiastic everyone was!

Our English lesson was derailed by the arrival of the textbooks and technology, but we had a blast unpacking each box and squealing with delight when something impressive was brought out. I think the English teachers were most excited about the printer/scanner/copier, while the students were most impressed with the textbooks. Speaking of which, I took some pictures to illustrate what an improvement our new textbooks are over the old ones that we were using.  

The new Oxford Solutions Series vs. the old “Your English Self” Ukrainian textbook.

This isn’t just a beauty contest, although the Solutions books are very aesthetically pleasing. This is about content, and unfortunately, most of the Ukrainian produced English textbooks are full of mistakes. The English taught in these textbooks, which they claim to be British English, is outdated and practically useless. Here’s a page out of “Your English Self,” so you can see for yourself how uninspiring and downright dull the material is.

A page inside of “Your English Self.”

Half of the new vocabulary words taught here are never going to be useful to the students. For example, “chalk cliffs, leek, thistle” (which no Ukrainian will ever be able pronounce because of the “th” sound), “heather, to be home of something” (which is incorrect, it should say “to be the home of something”), and “to go down like a backbone” (seriously? who says that?). This is just one page as an example, but most pages in the textbook are just as equally as bad. I have no problem with the map of the British Isles, but I don’t see how teaching geography will help any of my students speak conversational English.

Now for the sake of comparison, look inside of our new Solutions textbook. 

Teaching the grammar concept of Present Perfect vs. Past Simple

Every Solutions textbook comes with a listening CD (which makes me happy, knowing the kids will still hear English spoken by a native speaker after I leave), and there’s listening exercises on every page. The grammar principle is taught through dialogues and fill-in-the-blank exercises, and a helpful “learn this” box tells the students what they need to memorize to master this concept. Obviously I’m very biased in which textbook I’m endorsing, and the point of this blog post isn’t to demonize the Ukrainian-produced English books (although I do that often in the company of other Peace Corps Volunteers, as we bemoan the poor quality of textbooks we have to use at school).

The point of this point is to give thanks for the grant finally coming together, for the results that my school is seeing as the 10th and 11th form students use brand new books (that they actually find engaging!), and for the lessons my students will soon be experiencing in the English Technology and Resource Center. My next few weeks will be busy, teaching the teachers about all the cool things they can do with the computer and projector. My goals are teaching them how to make Powerpoint presentations for lessons, and how to find supplementary materials on the Internet to include in their lessons. My first seminar for the teachers is going to be on the beauty of Youtube; they are always amazed when I find applicable Youtube clips, either for teaching the second and third graders the alphabet, or for music videos for English Club that get our older students’ attention. I want to show them how easy it is to find a Youtube video for a lesson, in the hope that they’ll continue to do so once I’m gone.

I promise I’ll include a blog post with pictures showing how the English classroom has been transformed by the new technology, but for now you’ll just have to be content knowing that its all coming together. If you’re reading this and you happen to be one of the wonderful American donors that helped make this possible, I want you to know that you’ve made such a difference in the English education my students are receiving. I’ve seen some of my teachers tear up when admiring our new computer and projector, and I’ve seen my older students get enthusiastically involved when Green Day was part of their lesson in the Solutions book. All of this is because of you, and I hope you know how much it means to me and my school. Thanks again, from the bottom of my heart.

I’m working on a thank-you newsletter for our donors, complete with pictures and thank you notes written by my students. I’m hoping to send it out next month. I have a list of the donors who agreed to have their information released to me, but one donor, who gave a whopping $1700, decided to remain anonymous. And I respect that decision (or at least I’m trying to), but if you change your mind, we’d love to thank you properly, with a newsletter and thank-you cards from my kids! If you have any information relating to this mysterious donor, I promise a reward of Ukrainian chocolate will be bestowed in exchange for a name. The suspense is killing me, especially as I make a poster-board thanking our donors, to be displayed in the English classroom. I’d love to have a complete list, instead of just writing “anonymous” at the bottom. Pretty please? 🙂

That’s it for now, pictures will follow soon. Thanks for reading, and more importantly, thanks for donating and being part of this incredible adventure.

A Transcontinental Baby Shower

In the two years I’ve been a Peace Corps Volunteer, I’ve gotten used to missing memorable events in my loved ones lives’. I missed my sister’s proms, my dog’s puppies, a few weddings, and even the birth of a couple babies. It doesn’t make me as sad as it did my first year in Ukraine, like when my high school friend Elizabeth was getting married and it felt like everyone was congregating in Ohio for her wedding except for me, who was a million miles away in Ukraine.

Missing major events has gotten more bearable, but when one of these events occurs, its still something that dominants my thoughts the whole day. Like “today in America my dearest friend Raquel is getting married to Jacob and I won’t be there to see what a beautiful bride she’ll be.” Lucky for me, I had a lovely Skype date with Raquel before she tied the knot, so I could see her dress and hear all her plans for the ceremony and honeymoon. Its still not the same as being present for the occasion itself, but its nice to feel included at least.

Another major event that I missed was the birth of my friend Kristin’s first baby, a handsome little guy she named Titus. When I was home for Christmas last year, I attended a wedding in Indiana with my friend Emily, and we got to meet up with Kristin for lunch the next day. Kristin was very newly pregnant then, but there was a certain glow and I totally guessed its source! Titus was born August 1st, and Kristin was having a baby shower in the beginning of September with lots of girls from our college dorm (we all lived on the 4th floor in Bergwall, and are known collectively as “4B”). Lots of my favorite 4th Berg girls were attending, and just hearing about it set off a twinge of homesickness, wishing I could be there to see Kristin’s new little guy and catch up with some of my favorite girls. Emily had a stroke of genius and invited me to join via Skype, so I stayed up late Saturday night waiting for the shower to start in Indiana (stupid time change!).

 My dearest Fozzy Bear holding Titus! Long distance love right here 🙂

I haven’t attended many baby showers, because my friends didn’t start reproducing till I left the country, but this one was amazing. So much love and so many friends in one room, plus a very handsome little Titus who slept, woke up and waved at me (or at least, the computer camera that was in front of him), and went back to sleep. I had the honor of being Titus’s first Skype date!

Titus takes greeting his transcontinental guests very seriously, with a cute little wave!

Cutest sleeping baby face EVER.

In addition to meeting Titus, which was the main point of the evening, I also got to see Kristin, Stephanie, Laura, Emily, and even Fozzy Bear (who’s real name is Christine but I refuse to call her that). We had such a wonderful time catching up, and I felt like I was really there, albeit two-dimensionally. It was an interesting perspective, being trapped in the computer but still hearing everything! People passed me around to say hi, and it was so good to see people I don’t normally get to Skype with. It was also so fun to see where life has taken everyone in the years since we graduated… time really flies. The transcontinental baby shower also affirmed how grateful I am for the time I had at Taylor University, because I met some of the best friends a girl could ever ask for. Thank God for 4th Berg and the friendships we made there!

Maybe I should write Skype a thank-you note when I finish Peace Corps, thanking them for helping me keep my sanity and complete my two years of service. I couldn’t have done it without Skype dates, that’s for sure!

Thanks for reading, sending you all my love.

My Last First Bell

I got home from Kiev two days before school started, and at first I must admit that my attitude about going back to school was not in the right place. I’m not a huge fan of the schedule for TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) PC Volunteers, because we arrive at our sites in December, teach half a year, have a summer off, teach a whole year, have another summer off, and then teach two months before we finish our service and go back to America. And these last two months are kind of a pain, because you don’t get a real schedule (you’re leaving, so its not worth it for them to write you into the permanent schedule) and you can’t accomplish much in two months. Plus your head is not really in the teaching game, as you attempt to make plans for life after Peace Corps and tackle the do-list of things you must do before you finish your service.

I grumbled the whole two days before school started, telling myself I wasn’t ready and bemoaning my lack of time to recuperate. But then September 1st arrived, and as I was deciding what to wear to my (LAST) first day of school, I felt an inkling of excitement somewhere deep inside, knowing soon I would see my students. I generally like all of my students, but there are a few who have crossed the line and become friends, and others (usually the younger ones) who are so stinking cute that you can’t help but love them. I thought of Dasha and Masha and Tanya and Vita and Bogdan and Vova, and suddenly I was looking forward to school, because it meant seeing them for the first time in months.

 First Bell in the courtyard at our school.

I arrived at school just in time for First Bell, which is a huge production at every Ukrainian school. We all stand outside in the courtyard, and there are many speeches and choreographed dance numbers. The children bring the teachers flowers, and by the end of the ceremony your arms are full. The ceremony starts to drag on after the first hour, and soon everyone is talking and not really paying attention to whats going on. It seems so incredibly rude to me, but this happens in lessons here too. The kids just talk while you’re teaching and it seems so disrespectful. 

The priest blessing our school year and anointing us with holy water.

But the worst part was when the local priest came to bless our coming school year, and no one would be quiet and listen to what he was saying. In America, I can’t imagine anyone talking through a pastor’s prayer, and I was shocked that the teachers and parents were talking just as much as the kids and not bothering to shush them at all. The priest kept praying anyways though, and when he finished he walked around the courtyard and doused us with holy water. Maybe you have to be Catholic or Orthodox to understand the efficacy of holy water, but I’m telling you as a Protestant I don’t really get it. I tried to get out of the line of fire, but I was standing in front of a group of little kids and they didn’t serve very well as cover. But luckily I protected my camera from the holy water!

Nastia ringing the First Bell as Andriy gives her a lift.

The First Bell Ceremony concludes when a student from the oldest class (the 11th form) carries a student from the youngest class (1st form) around the courtyard on his shoulder, while the kid rings a bell, symbolizing the beginning of our school year. As I watched my 11th form student Andriy carefully carrying Nastia around the courtyard, I realized that this is the last time I’ll watch the First Bell ceremony. This is my last first day of school, or at least it is as a teacher. I don’t know if I’ll be back in school as a student again, but I think Peace Corps is the only time I’ll ever work as a teacher.

I’m finished with Peace Corps in November, so I guess this is the beginning of the end, and every blog post from now on will be “I had my last this” and “today was my last that.” Its kind of a sad thought, and its just starting to sink in how close I am to the finish line. I lost track of time this summer, and now it seems like everything is flying by at warp speed as we race towards the end. The question is whether I want time to speed up or slow down… I’ll have to get back to you on the answer to that one.

 Natalia teaching the first lesson.

After First Bell, we had our first lesson. In Ukraine, First Bell always falls on September 1st, regardless of the day of the week it is. So we had our First Bell ceremony on Saturday, followed by our First Lesson. The lesson was all for show, and I went to my counterpart Natalia’s homeroom class of 5th graders so I could say hi and hang out with them. Wait I retract that–now they’re sixth graders! Its crazy to think that two years have passed since I met these kids. When I got here they were in fourth grade, and couldn’t speak English at all. They still don’t speak much, but we can get through the pleasantries in English, and they can speak Ukrainian sentences with a random English word thrown in here or there for my benefit 😉 I’m starting to think Ukrainglish is cute, maybe that’s a sign that I’ve been here too long.

You see this classroom in the picture above, where Natalia is teaching? This is the English room (or cabinet, if you will), and the future home of our English Resource and Technology Center. Now that school has officially started, most of my time and energy will be devoted to making this happen, so stay tuned for a blog post updating our progress!

I wish you all a happy first day of school, whether you’re a teacher, a student, or a parent happy to have the house all to yourself again 😉

I hope all is well where you are.