Saturday, November 13, 2010

Walking/Slipping/Falling in a Winter Wonderland

When I returned to America in June, I fielded a lot of questions about my time in Ukraine. Naturally, one of them was about winter.

Often when people think of Ukraine, images of snow, ice and bitter cold instantly come to mind, and prior to coming to this country, I also imagined that winters were something like that. And to an extent, last year's winter did not do much to break down that stereotype.

Now, I'm from a Midwestern state where I became accustomed to snowy winters. So when I learned I'd be heading to Ukraine, there were things that I made me a bit apprehensive, but winter wasn't one of them.

Here's my training site Chernihiv after the first snowfall. So pretty and yet so deceptive!
Winter in Ukraine is similar and yet very different from winter in Illinois. First of all, snow started last year in November and didn't truly stop until nearly April. According to Ukrainians, this past winter was among the worst since the '70s. Of course, as I'm writing this post, Ukraine is experiencing a freakish warm spell, so who knows what's going to happen this year.

But regardless of today's 'balmy' weather, I know one thing for sure – the snow and winter and ice and the slipping and the hats and the gloves and the thermal underwear and the boots … it's coming.

So you might be wondering – what is one of the differences between a Ukrainian winter and a Midwestern winter? Well, let me give you an example:

Every morning, I have a 25-minute walk to school from my dormitory. On my way, I often walk in a parade of students also headed to school.

Once, I was running a bit late (surprise), and was in a hurry. So I tried my best to hop from one solid ice patch to the other and in turn, effectively dodge the 4-5 inch slush puddles on our road to school.

About 5 minutes into the journey, I had been relatively successful, and my feet were only damp, not soaked. I had learned early that winter that my "waterproof boots" from Cabela's were only lightly water-resistant.

So, after achieving some measure of success, I took my focus off the ground immediately in front of me and decided to look ahead.

This is about a half of a block away from fence-walking incident
That's when I noticed the students walking very strangely next to the wire fence that lines the road. As I got closer I realized why and that I, too, would have to walk like this.

In this section of the road, there were no icy patches for hopping. There was only a small, slanted icy strip that ran alongside the fence. The only way to successfully make it to flat, solid ice again was to turn sideways, cling to the wire fence with both hands and shimmy my way down the rest of the block.

Of course, the female students walking in front of me were able to do so with grace and flair and in 3-inch high heel boots. All the while, I – and my no-nonsense flat brown boots – shimmied with the grace of a gorilla.

The worst part happened when I began to lose my balance midway through the journey. To avoid falling completely in the slush puddle, I had to put my left foot down. This meant submerging my foot into icy cold water that stopped at the bottom of my calf.

As we say in Ukraine, "Oy."

Look for more stories like this in the coming months. Hilarity and hijinks seem to follow me around Ukraine. :)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Learning a language can be really tough!

Me: "вибачте, я розмовляю українскою мовою погано."

Ukrainian: "мне тоже."


Me: "I'm sorry, I speak Ukrainian badly."

Ukrainian: "Me too."

The above is an example of the beginning (and oftentimes, the end) of a lot of conversations that I have in Kremenchuk. Of course, it should be noted that the response in my example here is actually in Russian, not Ukrainian, because that is the preferred language of the 230,000 people living in my city.

By and large, people here can understand me when I speak Ukrainian to them, but they usually they respond in Russian. As a result, I'm now able to pick up most basic Russian words and phrases, so that when I hear them, I can still respond, but often I'm left in a cloud of confusion.

This summer, a Ukrainian friend invited my site mate, Jake, and I to spend an afternoon on his father's boat. Unsurprisingly, the people on the boat spoke Russian, but they did make an effort to speak Ukrainian when asking me a question.

At the end of the day, Jake and I sat alone in the bow of the boat while we cruised back to the dock, and I figured out how to sum up my frustration to Jake, who learned Russian. I explained that I appreciated when the boat's occupants would switch to pure Ukrainian for me, but for much of the day, I'd sat in a whirl of words that I didn't understand until otherwise called upon. Everyone, including Jake, was able to understand and laugh at jokes, while I just smiled in fake comprehension.

That day was the last straw, so to speak. Without question, I'm going to start learning Russian this winter. If winter is anything like the last, I'll have plenty of snowy days that will keep me homebound and able to focus on studying.

One of the core values of Peace Corps is community integration, and I feel like this is one major obstacle I will need to overcome in order to help become a part of the community here.

It has been difficult for many Ukrainians to understand why I speak only Ukrainian, because for many of them speaking both Ukrainian and Russian has been their reality for their entire lives. And many people even mix the two languages. When that happens, they call that Syrzhik.

Most people tell me that Ukrainian and Russian are very similar languages, and in many respects, they are because they share nearly identical alphabets, but in practice, it's still quite hard to understand.

The issue of language in Ukraine is complicated. There are many perspectives to consider when trying to understand this, and although my journalistic instincts want me to reduce this issue to a sound bite, that's really impossible and a disservice to Ukrainians. So in lieu of a sound bite, how about a list?

  • When trying to explain the language complexities of her country, one Ukrainian Peace Corps employee said Ukrainian often reflects the number of countries that have occupied it from time to time – Hungary, Poland, Russia, and so on. She said that with so many countries trying to take over the country over the last few centuries, there's no longer such a thing as pure Ukrainian.
  • Of course, the most recent example is the former USSR, modern-day Russia. Schools were taught in Russian, business was done in Russian and therefore, much, if not all, of a Ukrainian's daily life was conducted in Russian. Ukrainian still existed as a language, but usually it would be found in the villages. I'm told that bigger cities like mine primarily, if not exclusively, used Russian.
  • After declaring independence in 1991, the Ukrainian government established Ukrainian as the official language. Of course, this sort of change does not happen overnight, and often in my school, children are still learning English from Russian-language textbooks.
  • Another Peace Corps employee, who grew up in Kremenchuk, told me the story of her parents, who were Russian immigrants. She said during Soviet times, the government offered moving and living incentives to Russians willing to move to Kremenchuk and work at the city's many factories. She says that's one reason why Russian is so popular in this city.
  • Many people in eastern Ukraine (and even central Ukraine, where I live) still have family living in Russia and some see Russia as a neighboring state, not country. In the south, you have the complicated history of Crimea and Simferopol.
  • One day, a repairman came to fix some things in my apartment and after he asked about my nationality, he told me that he is Russian and does not speak Ukrainian. So I asked him when he moved to Ukraine, and he said he was 2 years old.
  • If I had a penny (or even a kopeck) for how many times someone in Kremenchuk (a.k.a. the big city) has scoffed at Ukrainian, I'd be rich. Usually it goes something like this, "Ukrainian? That's the language of villagers."
  • Most recently, one candidate (who is now Ukraine's president) during the presidential campaign proposed changing the official language from Ukrainian to Ukrainian AND Russian. Among my teachers, this often led to heated debates. The ironic part was that the teachers usually debated each other in Russian over whether to change the official language. (It should be noted – some students at a weekend debate camp have helped to explain why such an idea must be clearly worded as a second OFFICIAL language, not a NATIONAL language. After years of Russian control, many Ukrainians are quick to reject any form of a Russian identity.)
  • Often in class, many of my students tell me that everyone should speak Ukrainian, because there are many problems in speaking two languages. I always follow-up with the same question, "And what language do you prefer to speak?" Once a girl was particularly passionate that people should speak Ukrainian to be considered true patriots. As usual, I asked her my question, to which she paused and then quietly responded, "Russian. I suppose it is my problem, too."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

There’s no place like home

The towering statue of Lenin, a leftover
from Ukraine's days as part
of the Soviet Union
Like many people, my mind tends to wander in the quiet moments of mindless tasks such as folding clean laundry or washing the dishes.

In early June, I was standing over the kitchen sink washing – and sometimes scrubbing vigorously at— the dried food that likely sat unwashed for longer than my mother would have deemed appropriate, but I wasn't focusing on the task at hand. Instead, my mind kept returning to a conversation I'd had just a few hours earlier with my site mate and fellow volunteer, Jake.

We were sitting at a nearby café eating what one could consider a farewell dinner of pizza and beer. In less than two days, I would board a plane in Kiev and go back to America for almost two weeks to attend my sister's wedding.

That's when Jake asked the question – no, not THAT question, but rather THE question that many PCVs, if not all, ponder from time to time.

"Are you nervous about going back?"

I was mid-bite. I don't quite remember what I was thinking two seconds before his question, but it was probably something close to, "I need to add eating real American pizza to my list of things to do when I return to the States."

After he asked the question, I quickly swallowed the bite and paused.

For the past month, I hadn't really thought about the answer to that question, even though only a few months before, it was practically the only thing on my mind.

So I stopped and thought, 'Am I nervous to go back home?'

When the subject had come up with my PCV friends a few months earlier, I'd half-seriously told them that it would be hard to come back again after driving my own car instead of walking everywhere, after eating real American pizza and Mexican food, after being able to gather 5-6 American friends on a whim for a dinner party… Then they would jokingly respond that not returning wasn't an option and if I decided to stay, they would simply come back to America, pack my bags and forcibly bring me back.

However, in the quiet of my one-room home in the school's hostel, my concerns were a bit more serious. Thanks to Facebook and life-saving emails from friends, I knew that life was marching on – their lives were marching on. But what about mine?

In January – in the dead of one of the harshest Ukrainian winters in decades – it was easy to dwell on what I was missing. My group of 100+ volunteers had arrived at our sites, at the places that would be home for the next two years. Most of us were cold, alone and constantly falling on the ice. It was lonely to say the least.

It didn't take much time at my school and city to know I was going to like it here but on the long, cold winter nights, the question was too easy – why am I here? I didn't feel like I was really making a difference at school, in my classes, with my students and teachers. There weren't any big plans for my two years of service; no big projects for me to tackle.

Me with Amy and her new
husband, Morton
At times, it was easier for me to focus these feelings at my sister because her wedding was forcing me to use my hard-earned savings on a ticket back to America even though I had planned to use it on a much-needed vacation to Egypt or India during my two years of service.

Then as the snow and ice thawed, something changed, and it wasn't until Jake asked THE question that I really noticed it.

So, finally my very long pause ended and I answered him, "No, I'm not nervous to go back."

I began to tell him about the many plans that I have for the next school year and next summer for camps, programs, grants and more. While the next school year and summer are still several pages away on the calendar, I also have this summer to consider. I have to come back for three summer camps, but more importantly, I have to come back to my friends – both American and Ukrainian – and of course, to my students.

THAT was the change that I realized a few hours later over soapy water. I realized that going to America would be just like going to Egypt or India. It was a destination – a vacation – and at the end of that vacation, I would return to a job and friends; that I would return home again ... to Ukraine.

Coming up for air

Soooo…. It's been awhile, right? Well, in summary, I worked six months at my new school, which I've described in previous posts, and have spent the summer bouncing between summer camps and vacations.

But the daily minutia of my life is less interesting to most, I think. Instead, it's the lessons learned and observations, well, observed that might be more interesting to the broader audience of this blog.

Well, prepare for an onslaught of posts over the next few weeks (thank you, summer). To tease you further, in the upcoming post, you can learn how to cook borscht, how to walk with the grace of a large primate and how to tell people that you speak Ukrainian badly.

Hopefully after this, you will feel a bit more caught up.

P.S. I've been far better at keeping my Picasa page up to date with videos and pictures complete with lengthy captions, so make sure to check that regularly, even if I'm unable to maintain the blog better in the future.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The rules of shopping in a Ukrainian bazaar

Since living in Ukraine, I’ve found myself putting off the mundane yet necessary tasks that life requires. A couple of those tasks have included shopping for new pants and getting a haircut. The reason for my procrastination is quite simple: fear.

A wise man (aka President Franklin D. Roosevelt) once said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself ,” but I beg to differ. In fact, while living in Ukraine, I’ve learned that I have many things to fear, namely, ill-fitting pants and a mangled new hairstyle. (Both of those examples will be described in further detail in another post)

Recently, I eclipsed my 6th month in Ukraine and my third month at my new site, and although my language skills are on par with a 3 year old on my good days, the one aspect of communication I’ve mastered is “How much does that cost?” In fact, I can ask this question in both Ukrainian (the language I spent three months learning) AND Russian (the language that is favored in my town, but again, that’s for another post)

The outdoor bazaar is the most popular place to buy clothes and pretty much anything else you could ever need. In my town, I’m fortunate to have three sizable bazaars and two smaller ones.

The best way to understand a Ukrainian bazaar is for you to imagine a cross between your semi-annual neighborhood garage sale (to understand size and variety) and the vendors that like to set up on street corners in America to sell “Prada” purses (to understand the way things are sold). The result is an awesome and at times, thrilling array of goods. These products can come from almost any country such as China, Germany, Russia and others.

In Kremenchuk, the main bazaar is where I buy fresh meat and visit my newly befriended babushkas (this translates to grandmother, but really just means old Ukrainian women) for delicious fruits, vegetables and homemade jams. The second large bazaar is located on the banks of the Dniper River and is THE place to buy clothes, shoes and home furnishings. The third is near my apartment and could be thought of as the lovechild of the first two bazaars because it is smaller and has a little bit of everything.

There are a few rules for bazaar shopping that I’ve learned, although apparently the learning curve is steep for me because I routinely break these unwritten bazaar-shopping laws.
  1. Don’t touch things unless there is a 75 percent chance that you will purchase the item. My very American tendency to absentmindedly touch clothes as I’m looking at them has forced me to run away from insistent saleswomen who keep telling me that the shirt is very beautiful and modern and perfect for me.
  2. Don’t ask to look at something if there is not a 95 percent chance that you will buy it. I was looking to buy a pitcher and asked, “May I look at this one?” The saleswoman interpreted that as, “I want to buy this” and demanded my money. Fortunately, I did want to buy that pitcher, but I’m not sure how I would have wriggled out of that one if I hadn’t.
  3. You can haggle prices, and in fact, they expect you to do this on some larger-ticket items. I accidentally negotiated the price for a pair of work pants. It happened because I hesitated after the saleswoman told me the price. Now, I only paused because numbers continue to be one of my biggest language problems, but the saleswoman assumed I was pausing because I was unhappy with the price. So about 5 minutes later, I had hesitated enough times that she had knocked 10 percent off the original price. A point for the foreigner, please.
  4. Make friends with the babas (the shortened version of babushka). I can’t imagine my Saturday morning bazaar trips without my friend, Valya. I always stop at her stall to buy tasty homemade jam and ikra (a delightful Ukrainian tomato-based sauce I use to sauté vegetables). We’ll chat about the weather and how we are feeling. She does her best to remember to speak Ukrainian to me, and I do my best just to speak. This is one of those instances when my big Midwestern smile gets a workout. Ukrainians often tell me to buy things only from people that I know and trust. I’ve long since stopped trying to explain that if I followed that rule, I would starve because I don’t actually know anyone here. But now that I’ve made some babushka friends, I start to understand their warning. When Valya is not at the bazaar and I’m forced to buy from another person, I just don’t feel the same level of comfort as I do when I buy from the people (correction – person) I know.
Come back soon for a more detailed description of my successful yet nonetheless scary experiences of buying new pants and getting my hair cut.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Surviving a Ukrainian winter, part II

As I mentioned earlier, New Years is one of the biggest holidays of the year for Ukrainians. Unfortunately, I had several plans that all ended up falling through. Here are the few things I can tell you:
  • Ukrainian supermarkets are just as crazy as American stores on New Years’ Eve.
  • If you buy a mop at one of these supermarkets on New Years’ Eve, Ukrainians will think you are very, very strange. (True story)
  • Like Americans, Ukrainians also drink champagne at midnight.
  • Ukrainians traditionally watch “Home Alone,” or “Ironia sutby ili z legkim parom,” at old Soviet romantic comedy on New Years’ Eve. This is their version of our “A Christmas Story” or “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Macaulay Culkin must be swimming in royalty money from this country.
  • Ukrainians shot off fireworks until about 4 a.m. Ukrainian people LOVE to shoot off fireworks for almost any occasion. During training, my host-sister would say, “Someone is happy,” every time we would hear fireworks. Also, a popular toy among teenagers and pre-teens – fireworks. Yep.
Also, Ukrainians also observe, though to a far lesser degree, Old New Years.
  • Ukraine used to follow the Gregorian calendar before adopting the Julian calendar. Under the Gregorian calendar, Ukrainians celebrated New Years on Jan. 13 and 14.
  • This holiday is more popular in Ukrainian villages than in a city like Kremenchuk, so the following information does not include first-hand observations, only what I was told:
  • On Jan. 13, young single women are supposed to go from door-to-door and sing songs. As you can imagine, their beautiful voices will help them ensnare their future husbands.
    • Then sometime between Jan. 14, these young single women in the village often “lose” their front doors because they are taken off the hinges and removed. This, of course, helps to clear the way for her future husband.
  • On Jan. 14, young single men are supposed to go from house to house and spread their seeds (no, not THAT way; I quite literally mean they are spreading grain and wheat seeds on the ground) on the front lawn and throughout the house for good luck, fortune and fertility for the New Year. Also, they are supposed to sprinkle this seed over the young single women. (At one volunteer’s school, the seeds were actually thrown at the women.)
I’ll keep you posted on Ukrainian holidays as I am able to experience them. Next up (I think) is Easter, and I’m told that drinking starts immediately after the sunrise service. Hmmm, sounds like something even Unofficial St. Patty’s can’t match!

Surviving a Ukrainian winter, part I

Just before coming to Ukraine, a current volunteer told me via e-mail that one of the hardest parts of my Peace Corps service would come just days after swearing-in as a volunteer. That time would be the holiday season, but at the time, I didn’t believe her.

Of course, she was right, so to combat my loneliness, I’ve tried to focus on my new environment, and learning what makes this city and country unique. I’ll add more as time goes on, but first, let’s focus on winter Ukrainian holidays:

  • Kremenchuk doesn’t start playing Christmas carols in stores until December 26. So, until the day AFTER American Christmas, it really didn’t feel like Christmas at all. That’s because Ukrainians celebrate Christmas on Jan. 6 and 7, according Eastern Orthodox traditions. I was fortunate to spend Ukrainian Christmas with the family of a student, and here’s what I learned:
  • January 6 marks the last day of a 40-day fast that is supposed to include only unleavened foods (that’s the translated word, but I think we could equate this to a strict Catholic Lent). On that day, Ukrainians do not eat anything until sundown and are supposed to spend the evening in church.
    • Also, on this day, children traditionally go from house to house (apartment) in a trick-or-treat fashion and ask for candy, but instead of wearing scary costumes, they don traditional Kossak garb. You can see a picture of two “trick or treaters,” who knocked on the door of fellow volunteer Jacob while I was visiting. They were excited to meet Americans and also took Jacob for being soft-hearted. They returned the next day in costume and asked for more candy.(Aren't these kids just cute a button??)
  • January 7 is Ukrainian Christmas, but there are no Santa Claus or gift exchanges on this day. Instead, this is strictly a religious holiday. The family will gather and have a huge feast.
    • When I asked (in Ukrainian, by the way) the student’s mother to tell me about Ukrainian Christmas traditions, she said that her family could not celebrate this religious holiday during Communist times. Only after the country declared its independence in 1991 did some, but sadly not all, Christmas traditions come back into Ukrainian households. Some, she said, were lost forever. Many Ukrainians do not celebrate this holiday. Here, New Years’ is the more important holiday.

  • Here is a picture of the fabulous spread of food the mother prepared for us. From the bottom of the picture to the top -- The pitcher is filled with compote, which is a stewed fruit drink that tastes like delicious and natural Kool-Aid. The decanter contains homemade wine made by the grandfather who lives in a nearby village. There are several salads on the table but the one of note is the pinkish-colored one. That one is called a shuba, which literally translates as “fur coat.” The name actually means “herring under a fur coat” because the salty fish on the salad’s bottom layer is covered by layers of beets, mayonnaise and other tasty (or not so tasty) delights. It is a traditional layered Ukrainian salad that is very interesting and a dish that everyone should try once. To the left of the shuba is homemade varenky. It is amazing and I will pass along this recipe for those of you at home. Finally, at the very top of the photo is the main course – goose. I've never had goose like this, but it was delicious! Check out my Picasa photo page for more detailed pictures of the foods served at my Ukrainian Christmas dinner.
Like many things in Ukraine, drinking was a part of the meal. The mother’s boyfriend joined us for dinner and we did many cheers (he took shots of cognac and I sipped the homemade wine). He knew a handful of English words, including “drink!”

Monday, January 18, 2010

The long-awaited first post from site!


I'm sorry for the loooong break in posts, but I'm back and at my permanent site and officially a Peace Corps volunteer. Now that I have some permanency in my life, I hope to update this blog more frequently.

Editor's Note: Due to Peace Corps rules, I have to submit all public blog posts for prior review before I can publish them. As much as the prospect of prior review chafes at my journalistic soul, I can understand their reasons because Ukraine is an incredibly wired country, and I wouldn't want to inadvertently offend any Ukrainians who might stumble across this blog.

Although I have no plans to do this, it is possible that I will have to make this blog password-protected if the bureaucracy becomes too overwhelming. I hope that I can keep this blog open for all (any?) of my friends and family who still care to know what I'm doing over here as well as for any prospective volunteers who have questions about my work here or about Peace Corps. In fact, please don't hesitate to contact me if you have any questions, and – excuse the teacher here – there are NO stupid questions!


I started this post with a very funny word, “Kremenchuk.” This is actually the name of the city that I now call home. “Kremenchoook!” is what the bus drivers in Kyiv relentlessly shout to people sitting in the bus or train station in hopes of snagging them as passengers to our fair city. Although fun to hear once or twice, I'm told that it can be quite annoying while waiting three hours for a bus or train that, in fact, will not go to Kremenchuk.

My city is located on the banks of the Dniper River about 3.5 hours southeast of Kyiv. The city is home to about 230,000 people and is considered the industrial and educational hub of the region. I will write more about the city itself in a separate post. Since arriving, there have been either six inches of snow on the ground or a slippery ice-slush combination that cuts into any potential explorations. Spring cannot come soon enough!

Thanks to the teachers at my school, here's what I do know about Kremenchuk: In Soviet times, the city was bustling with activity because the major factories in town did many exports to Russia and around the world. Today, these factories still export goods to Russia but the numbers have dropped dramatically. Also, one of the factories in town is a confectionery that makes Ukrainian chocolates! When they are making a new batch of candies, the air nearby smells heavenly.


You're probably dying to know my living situation, right? Well, first I will tell you how my regional manager pitched it to me before I arrived. She said I would be living in the school's hostel and would likely share a floor with teenage girls. She was smart to tell us about our living situations after we re-read the Peace Corps' Core Values, including the one that stressed flexibility. All I could picture were scenes I would be able to use in the young adult novel I would be able to write over the next two years. I was already mulling titles like, “The Ukrainian Days of Our Lives,” or maybe, “Gossip Girl: Kremenchuk.”

But my regional manager should consider a career in politics, because I think she was trying only to lower my expectations so that when I arrived I would be pleasantly surprised – and I was.

My “dorm room” is comparable to a small American efficiency, and if I'm being honest, I've lived in worse apartments in the States. I have my own bathroom and kitchen as well as an all-purpose room that functions as my bedroom, office and TV room. Yes, that also means that I do have a TV, but I can’t get it to work.

Everything in the apartment appears to be less than a year old with one exception – my hot plate. Many of you know that I enjoy cooking. It's one of my hobbies and now over the next two years, I have a culinary challenge to conquer – cooking an entire meal on a single hot plate. This device is by far the oldest thing in my apartment, including me. The temperature control knob now works, but I've learned that it is far easier to control a dish's temperature by simply lifting it off the burner, rather than to fiddle with a knob that simultaneously burns my finger and my dinner.

Oh, and I do live on the same floor as the teenage girls, but in a completely separate wing. It looks like I'll have to hold off on that young adult novel.


I have been assigned to work at the Teachers' Training College and Lyceum here, and in the coming semester, I will split my workload and teach two classes in the college and two in the lyceum. I will provide more updates on this as I get them, but Ukrainians aren't big on planning – but more on that in another blog post.

Now, I can't even begin to explain the Ukrainian school system to you, because simply put, it's confusing. I'll just give you what you need to know: My school's lyceum is the equivalent of an American high school and most students, who are considered gifted and come from nearby villages, are between 14 and 16 years old.
During the lyceum years, the students are encouraged to choose a concentration.

This structure reminds me of picking a minor in college. For example, students may choose an emphasis in English. They will still take their required courses but also will take more advanced classes in English.

Even though American high school students can choose specialized classes as well, Ukrainians take this decision very seriously. One 15-year-old student in class told me that she hadn't decided on a specialty yet, to which her teacher promptly responded, “Well it is high time that you make this decision, because you must decide what you will do with your future.” It was jarring to hear this because in America, college students will change majors three or four times and many adults still don't know what they will do with their future. Heck, some days I'm not even sure that I know how to answer this question.

Because I arrived in Kremenchuk with one week left in the first semester, I was only able to visit classes in the lyceum, but I will teach my first college classes this week and will report back shortly. As I understand it, the college trains students to become future teachers and each student chooses a specialty, which is similar to a college major. These specialties can be in English, computers, and others. Most students graduate when they are about 18 or 19 years old with a certificate that qualifies them to teach in Ukrainian schools.

That's all for today, but I hope that this will whet your appetite for what I hope will be many more blog posts – and exciting stories – to come!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

See you on the flip side!

In five hours, I am scheduled to wake up, throw my two, 50 pound suitcases, one carry-on and a backpack into my father's Toyota Corrolla and head to the airport.

What does this mean to you? It means I am thatmuch closer to actually doing this whole Peace Corps thing. AND you will be able to stop asking when I am actually leaving -- because it's finally happening!!

Here's the most important information -- how to contact me while I'm in training. It turns out that PC is really touchy about getting packages during training, so if you feel the urge to reach out (and please do), then pick up a pen and paper and write me a letter. I know, soooo 1950s, right? (Editor's note: Mail will take about 3-4 weeks to get to Ukraine)

Letter-writing romanticism aside, here's how to do just that:

Peace Corps/Ukraine
PCV Andrea Zimmermann
P.O. Box 204
Kyiv, Ukraine

If your mailing service requires a street address, use this:

Peace Corps/Ukraine
PCV Andrea Zimmermann
111A Saksahankoho Street
Kyiv, Ukraine

This address will only be valid through Dec. 17. I will make sure to update my mailing address once I reach the site.

Once I arrive in Ukraine (which should be Saturday or Sunday. I'm a little fuzzy on the timeline because we are going to leap-frogging a lot of time zones) you should know that access to communication devices such as the telephone and internet will be unreliable until Decemeber when I reach my permanent site.

In fact, I would expect pretty much total radio silence for the next three months while I attempt to learn Ukrainian and/or Russian and figure how to survive. That way, if I am able to email or post a blog entry, you will get that same feeling as when you find $20 in your jeans.

Yes, Mom, I should be packing those last-minute doodads rather than writing this blog post... With that in mind, I'm off to do just that ... oh and to get some sleep!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Coming to a yard sale near you

Hi, my name is Andrea, and I am a hoarder.

OK, OK, maybe my problem isn’t so severe that I need to attend a conference, but something tells me that I should probably add "yet" to that statement. 

I’ve finally finished my move from Springfield back to my hometown, Alton. During the two-hour drive home, I couldn’t help but think about the heavy, overstuffed boxes that my four closest friends and I had just hauled out of my second-floor apartment. It wasn’t until I started going through my belongings that I realized some of those boxes hadn’t been opened since I left Carbondale two years ago.

I’m only 24 years old. How have I accumulated so much?

I know I’m not alone here. How much “stuff” do we keep in our apartments and cars that we never use? It sounds cliché, but when I peek into my grandmother’s garage, where I just unloaded all of my boxes and crates, I can’t help but wonder who might be able better use for those items.

If I were into psychology and such, I could easily trace this back pretty far. This practice of keeping everything “just in case,” is definitely a learned behavior and one that has been well-honed in my family for years.

I’ve heard of this being a hold over from the Great Depression, when people had to be creative with the money they had and the few items they owned. My maternal great-grandparents worked in an Illinois factory that produced 15 billion rounds of ammunition during World War II. Later, my great-grandfather delivered furniture and picked up construction jobs when he could. My grandfather worked as a schoolteacher. In my own family, my father’s blue-collar job was our only source of income growing up -- something that rarely happens these days.

These humble roots demanded our family’s long history of hoarding, and it has served us well. I remember watching my mother quite literally save pennies to help us to go on vacations, which yielded great memories that we were able to share together.

But in my own life, I think something has gotten lost in translation. I seem to live on two extremes -- hoarding and wasting.

On the one hand, I have been known to wear clothes until they are nearly thread-bare and am an unabashed fan of Saturday morning yard sales. (Unless the yard sale is run by a one-armed man on the north side of Springfield who tries to sell me his kids as a bonus for the knick knacks I’m perusing…. But that’s an entirely different story.)

Yet I also discovered that I have four packs of partially used AA batteries, two boxes of untouched Christmas lights, seven bottles of shampoo and a dozen cans of assorted vegetables and fruits. I know… Somewhere things got a little off track.

Over the next four days, I am going to sift through each box to determine what will stay in my grandmother’s basement for the next two years and what will end up on the yard sale table. I’d like to think that the people who snatch up all of these goodies will need them, but I’m worried they are going to end up in the home of another hoarder.

From everything I’ve read, the country I’m heading to is frugal -- a stark difference compared to the U.S. even during a recession. In one of my pre-training documents, one volunteer wrote about a playground scuffle among boys that came to an abrupt halt when one of the fighters got dirt on his pants. Also, the Peace Corps has cautions us future volunteers about bringing too many shoes because many people there have one, maybe two, pairs. I just brought home two boxes of shoes.

U.S. materialism is nothing new and I’m not going to stand on my soapbox about it now, but it will be refreshing to be in a country that hoards with purpose, rather than the aimless pursuit of amassing vast quantities of unnecessary … stuff.