Sunday, February 21, 2016

How I Spent My Quarantine

Hi all,

Days are slippery things, and these past few weeks have been no are some highlights from the past few weeks:

Ternopil Retreat
I took a personal day the first Friday of the month and pilgrimaged to see Darla in Ternopil. We didn't have school, due to being in quarantine - which would then get extended another week! I arrived just after midnight, and managed to get a taxi with ease - I turned down the ones that approached me, in favor of calling my own for a cheaper price. He dropped me at the wrong door, and once I realized I'd have to walk farther I waited for him to leave so I could do so without looking like an idiot - but he diligently waited for me to go in, driving up to the right door in the process, which led to some confusion for the waiting Darla.

We stayed up a few hours chatting and finally went to bed around 2am. We were up the next morning to go to her school. It was atypically quiet - and the kids who typically were found in corridors were no where to be seen. So Darla and I holed up in her office to discuss things, including the training we have tentatively planned for March. We eventually managed to find some kids between classes, as we clustered around the animal petting station. I would not trade my life for the poor hamster - the only pet small enough to be routinely pulled out and carried off.

After school, we traipsed into a big, beautiful grocery shop. It had brown sugar! And balsamic vinegar! And Parmesan cheese!! No coconut milk, but everything else was found. We'd decided to cook Indian food, and to invite two other volunteers who were around to come to dinner. When we got back - later than anticipated - the first thing to make was the chocolate cake for dessert. Darla's oven is a bit homicidal - the door will flop open with no warning...and has even punctured her foot. This happened about 10 times in the course of the evening. No toes were harmed.

The cake came out lovely, the chicken korma nicely, Darla's spicy curry went over very well, the rice was excellent, and lentil dahl was tasty and the chocolate cake got rave reviews. And there was a wine, so there certainly weren't any complaints!

The next day Darla took me, as a rite of passage, to her favorite local second hand. I did not leave empty-handed! Next we forayed into town for lunch, and I had an amazing chicken dish...reasonably priced as well! We took ourselves home and had a lovely girls evening. We noshed on a variety of cheeses and fruits with bread and wine, discussed traveling in Ireland, life, and finished the evening with a showing of P.S. I Love You. To my credit, I barely bawled.

This tasted as amazing as it looked.


Sunday morning was a leisurely affair, and I was on my 10:30 train in no time. I had a 4 hour layover in Lviv, so I got to hop into center for lunch and a good wander. The train ticket lady was pretty adamant about wanting to sell me student tickets though. I had lunch at my favorite Uzbek restaurant, got to see the Chinese New Years celebration (happy belated year of the Monkey, all) and was back in my town just before 9pm.

On my way home, I walked my normal route, which involves no back streets. It wasn't very late, so there were lots of people out. On a stretch along the main road, between my usual small grocery shop and my turnoff to my apt building, I found myself walking through a ring of young men. I had one of my earphones on for a podcast, but felt myself tensing up as I approached the group, surrounding the sidewalk. I strode through with ease and without ill-effect, and it was only once I got home that I made the final connection.

As I'd walked through, one or two of the boys made a certain hand gesture (smacking a cupped fist into an open hand) that is meaningless in America. It's loosely translated into "I'm going to fuck her/you" and at least one poor volunteer has indeed gotten swung at for accidentally making this gesture in mixed company. So essentially, I'd been sexually harassed.

When I shared the experience with Lila, she said "Well, they probably did not mess with you because you looked so high." When slightly pressed, she elaborated that I always look high...which then led to me having to explain why you really can't use "high" and "tall" interchangeably. She found this hilarious.

Judge and Jury
So my planned participation in the English Teacher of the Year event as a jury member was postponed two weeks due to the schools in Uzghorod shutting down for the quarantine there. So it was postponed until the 10/11th. Unfortunately, the other volunteer had a vacation planned for Paris during that time, so I'd be the lone American. Her counterpart puts me on quite the pedestal, so this can be awkward at times as she announces to women 20-30 years my senior with years of teaching experience that my opinion should count for the most as a Native English Speaker. Yet we all survived.

Deciding on Criteria.

The first day started off with a ceremony of great pomp with local singers - who were phenomenal and looked amazing in regional traditional dress. There were four competitions this year: English, Math, History and "Defense of the Motherland". I have no idea what that means, but the men were all of a military background and the one with the most medals ended up winning. Outside of the Defense group, only one of the other 15 teachers at the competition was a man - a history teacher. Having never had a woman Math teacher, it was kind of a funny moment for me.

After the ceremony, where teachers drew lots for lessons/forms/topics for their teaching demo the next day, we went back to a classroom.The first task for the 5 participants was an essay. They had 45 minutes - the same as students in the English Olympiad. Several of the teachers struggled with the timing of writing their final drafts, and the results were a little disappointing because of this. While I and the head of the jury read and marked the essays, the teachers were trooped off to the computer lab to work on a "research project". They had half an hour (!) to put together a presentation on learning styles. This amounted to some slap-dash work, and I was impressed with what they still managed with such short time. The last task was supposed to be a 30 minute teaching "master lesson" on a topic. However, it was decided (apparently at that moment?!) that they'd only have 10 minutes.

Write! And we'll...stare awkwardly at you...

So, they all frantically tried to cut down their presentations and it was...well, not ideal.

We went straight to the dorm after the presentations and I made a rather unfortunate discovery - while I had definitely grabbed the tank top for my dress that I was afraid of forgetting - I had completely forgotten to grab the dress itself!

With the other volunteer gone, I was a bit dismayed over this development. However, I remembered the other volunteer that recently arrived to Uzghorod (having met her once for lunch) and called to explain my predicament. Thankfully, she found this hilarious and quickly promised to grab some items and meet me in the center. Incredibly grateful, I staggered out into the blustering, pouring evening, and wandered my way into town. Minutes later, bag in hand, she arrived like a guardian angel. This is the power of my organization. Because when I later told Will about the story, his first question wasn't "Why would she do that for someone she just met" but was "Are you the same size?" - volunteers just have that something that makes you know that you can just as easily reach out to give help as to ask for it.

So I didn't go semi-naked the next day, for which everyone was undoubtedly grateful.

The main event the next day was watching all the real demo lessons. It was easy to place 3rd-5th but it was more of a challenge deciding between 1st and 2nd. In the end, I believe we all made the right choice for selecting the teacher to represent the region at the national level.

The awards ceremony took several hours, but had lots of amazing dancing and singing. Afterward, we all got tea and coffee and said our goodbyes. I met up with Lila and we headed home.
It was a long process, but I am glad I had the opportunity to see it through.

English Teachers with roses, Teacher on Left got first place.

Anyhow, I think this has gotten QUITE long enough. More next time,

Hope all is well,


Monday, February 1, 2016

We Missed the Sausage Fest

Hi all,

So by Saturday, I'm pretty sure that Will was going stir-crazy from the quarantine and being cooped up. So we decided to go to nearby Berehovo (about half-way for all of us) to go to a local meat festival. However, upon arrival and after hearing that PETA was protesting in int Kyiv we changed our minds. I changed their minds back once I mentioned that we could say: Did you ever think you end up at a sausage fest in Ukraine? Alas, the buses we departing back too soon for comfort, so it remains a lost opportunity...

However. Will did manage to drag Hugo and I to the local museum (the other volunteers couldn't make it due to disinterest or fear of plague), which turned out to be surprisingly entertaining. We managed to stumble in just after a city tour group - which apparently is a thing there? - came in, so we got to jump in on the tour. Of course it was in Ukrainian dialect, so I mostly zoned out to look at the art in the first room we came to:

No idea of what's going on here. But, fun!
Just under the painting you can glimpse the main exhibit of the museum - a long hallway with hundreds of photographs and sketches and collections of local coins. With about 1000 years of history (changing hands 5 times ranging from Ottoman Empire to finally Ukraine), there were plenty of pictures and the whole museum was dual Hungarian/Ukrainian. There were many significant pictures (including pictures of soldiers during war and societal events), but this was my favorite...

If there aren't horses...
(You can't take me anywhere, I guess...)
In addition, there were three side rooms with minerals from the area, archaeological finds, and other more recent historical artifacts. And in the office, they also had an interesting sideline:

Naughty ones not pictured!
 There's a local glass blower who makes beautiful decanters/ decorative elements that are then filled with local wines. They also had a rather risque section with more of an...anatomical flair.

After the museum we took a picture with Petofi - a famous Hungarian poet who I feel must have actually been a really tiny man - as all statues to him I've seen have him roughly the same size.

We wandered around the city looking for a place to lunch. We were approached several times by Roma children asking for money. They generally tag along for about 20 feet, telling you how they want to eat. Giving money seems to only encourage the behavior, but it's always a somewhat wrenching experience. I know there are organizations, and the kids should be in school, but it's hard to turn down the kids. It was less hard to turn down the second horde. We passed a mother with four children, who she literally sicced on us. They grabbed my purse, and then were hanging on to my arm. Two went after Hugo, and he literally had to extract his pinkies from them. It was rather extreme, and a very uncomfortable situation. I know there are quite a few organizations aimed at helping the Roma, and I felt bad that the kids were sent to beg by their mother, but it was very invasive. Not sure the best way to deal with it, honestly.

Anyhow, yesterday Lila had a blended church choir concert, which was really nice to go to. Very sociable, and the singing was lovely.

And, today I went to Uzhgorod - finally getting to meet the new volunteer there, who's lovely - and as we walked from the bus we discovered that large shop (called Ukraine, unfortunately), was in the midst being a roaring inferno.

Not pictured is the swarm of gawkers. The police station seemed content to contain it and then let it burn. The whole city was wrapped in a cloud of smoke it seemed.

Anyhow, on that warm note, I'm going to conclude this post.

Hope all is well,


P.S. Lila told me this joke (after asking me what the name for a chicken's man is...)

Why did the rooster close his eyes when he crowed?

To prove that he knew the words by heart!

Saturday, January 30, 2016


Hi all,

So, it's been an eventful past week or so. Last weekend (Thursday night, technically), I hopped a train to Kyiv to go to a committee meeting on Friday. I was in a third class berth, and was happy that it was all women. Third class is similar to second, except that they don't have full compartments - there's rooms of four bunks (stacked two by two), with an opening to the corridor, which has two stacked bunks across from it. So there's a lot of humanity going on, especially when you're right next to the bathroom.

Some of the humanity involved a rather belligerent man who kept shouting Glory to Ukraine (which necessitates the response: Glory to the Heroes!) and insisting that everyone only speak Ukrainian. This was treated good-naturedly for a while, but soon wore down the people around him. One charming young woman apparently decided to try debating with him. There was much side-eyeing happening between myself and the women in my little semi-compartment. Eventually he did pass out, which made for a more pleasant environment.

Despite it being broiling, I managed to pass out for a few hours, but was happy to pull into Kyiv around 7:30am - in plenty of time for the 10am meeting. Kyiv had snow! Like, inches of it. Their best management techniques apparently involve salting and, somewhat bewildering, putting up plastic hazard tape (at neck-level) across portions of particularly dangerous stretches of sidewalk. So you got to have the added danger of clotheslining yourself as you tried to focus on not slipping. Fortunately, the organizational HQ is quite close to the train station.

I waltzed in to discover three other early/late arrivals - some of the closer volunteers had arrived the night before. It was fun to catch up before getting ready for the meeting. The meeting itself went on for less time than expected, as it was mainly organizational. I'm officially the "head" of the committee - appointed by the organization - but it's a great group and I think it just means I'm the official deadline and materials round-up coordinator. Fine by me!

It was also productive in the fact that I got to meet with the doctors, get my flu shot and then meet with my regional manager and the safety and security officer in charge. He made me name his (second) fish. My regional manager is very hands-off but supportive - I know that he'll go to bat for me and there's a good relationship of trust. It's also not very hard, because I don't see the point in not being completely transparent in my plans - there's nothing to hide. I think if he was constantly checking in with me, I'd be more tempted to tell him less details so he wouldn't be tempted to micro-manage. Anyhow, it's nice to have a style that I find easy to work with. Plus he's pretty cool - knows the good places to go for nightlife or to buy a tent...

So you know it's clean...clearly we got the ritzy room somehow!

A little sexist.

After dropping stuff at the hotel, a group of us ventured off in search of a restaurant. I thought that we were going to this burger place that came strongly recommended, but it turns out I missed a twist in the decision making tree. Which was perfectly fine, but got a bit confusing at one point. I didn't have to lead the expedition though, so I was perfectly fine with where we ended up - a restaurant with 50% all the menu items...slightly strange, but we made it work and had some pretty decent beer.

I don't drink alone at site - actually I barely drink at all because Lila is Baptist and she's who I hang out the most with. And it's not really within the culture to go out alone as a woman. Sometimes groups of women do go out, but it seems that it's only for special occasions, and probably still not to a bar. So it was really nice to get a few beers with people who were drinking responsibly and fun to talk to. It was nice to meet some of the new volunteers and hang out socially as well.

That's right, hot chocolate WITH mini-marshmallows

Saturday I made plans to meet a previous volunteer who is now working in Kyiv. She was actually going to the National art museum with one of the staff from my organization, whose husband is a painter. So we ended up getting a curated tour, which was pretty awesome. I'd covered the museum briefly with the 11th form for their "Art" section, and so I recognized a few of the works. My favorite painter was Abram Manievich , who I just discovered eventually came to live in the US. There was also a self-portrait by Taras Shevshenko, the national poet/painter forced into servitude and soldiery. The volunteer's roommate (who is half Ukrainian, half American and recently returned to work as well) came along, and was a lot of fun to hang out with. Afterward, we three went to find lunch and then to meet up with the dwindled group of volunteers who didn't leave until the evening.

Before I left, I met with my secretary/student friend from work, who was in Kyiv for courses. It took a while, but we ended up finding a place to get coffee. I also took a creeper picture of a guy who embodies the Kyiv-vibe - shaved head with long topknot bun, rocking a sweater...

Also: note the manspreading

The trip back was pretty uneventful. Tired of the eventual awkwardness of my trainmates discovering my lack of communication was due to foreignness, I out-ed myself immediately, figuring that I'd be comfortably ignored. Nope, instead one declared that they'd just speak slowly, and I ended up in an hours-long conversation. I definitely lost the thread at times, but it was still a lovely exchange. I was in second class, which was more spacious, quiet and less heated. Unfortunately, I found myself starting to come down with a sore throat...and with a tree abandoned on my doorstep. (No Idea)

Second surprise: the glowing eyes was a cat.

I arrived back Sunday morning, and wasn't feeling so hot. I stayed home from school Monday - trying all day to reach the medical office. I finally had to call the after-hours line. Between my low fever, sore throat, sinus pain and fatigue, they ordered me to start taking antibiotics (thoughtfully given in advance) and forbade me to return to school for three days. Wednesday night, I was informed that our school was closed under "quarantine" for the next week and a half, so apparently I'm in good company.

Yesterday I left the house for the first time, and managed to get all my house cleaning done! Plus in all my down time I managed to create some materials and get some grad school writing done.

Anyhow, going to utilize the rest of the week for more prep and materials creation...

Hope all is well,


Cat in the (floating bowler) hat

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Day Two of Captivity...

Hi all,

Totally joking.

The first few days of the semester have actually been pretty good. I mean, I know my classes and we're starting new topics and I feel my creativity is up to snuff. I also didn't forget as many names as I feared...just, maybe, 10 or so?

I have still been fighting some anxiety, although I hear this is not uncommon among other volunteers. But when I have to talk myself into going back to sleep when my body thinks we should get up an hour earlier than needed, it certainly is annoying.

On a more positive note - today I realized I hit my 6 month mark of being in country.

So that's pretty cool. I thought about what I've accomplished, and felt no panic at only having half my time left. I know that this semester will be even more full, and I'm working on breaking it down into manageable chunks. I'm in them midst of planning on being a part of at least 4 trainings, helping to implement an international creative writing initiative, look into getting some free books, and of course grad school and committee work. Plus, hanging out with my Ukrainian friends.

And breathing. Because breathing is good.

Other random things: The free app of the week is Lifeline - and it's basically choose-your-own-adventure on steroids. It works offline, and I just spent a harrowing past 3 days wondering if Cadet Taylor was going to make it off the moon he was stranded on in a freak space accident. If you die, apparently you get to rewind to any one of your past choices. I managed to make it out, but it got...oddly intense? And pretty freaky. Anyhow, I recommend it.

I recently researched water towers - why do we have them and are they obsolete. Short answer: gravity and no! Keeping up with high-volume times, being able to supply during power black-outs, and handy navigation devices for small plane pilots flying over many small towns. Thrilling stuff.

Also, today's younger club theme was "Things that Fly" (that well of creativity...sometimes it's a bit...leaky). It actually went really well and culminated in a paper airplane competition.We obviously had a blast. I'd looked up a pattern for airplanes, but they all decided to just go for it and did their own designs:
Best of all, no one lost an eye!
My older club was a bit of a bust - only one student made it. So after asking what he did on break (read comics on his phone), I then learned an awful lot about Lanterns. As in the Green, Red, Black etc. variety. So that was interesting. And then he worked on trying to make me a better "Durok" (Idiot) card player. To practice, I made him name all the cards and suites. 

Anyhow, full day tomorrow - shopping, planning, and HOPEFULLY starting on my third paper...

Hope all is well,


PS - bonus picture! Just got this today from the baby baptism party I was invited to by my friend (although the baby was in none of the pictures, because: sleeping infant).

Lila, happy couple, school friend and me