Sunday, March 9, 2014

Behind the Times...

Hi all,

Most of you know that I am now back home in Minnesota. Of course, there's a bit of a story behind that. Since we are supposed to be apolitical, I have not mentioned the political situation in Ukraine really. Of course, it is easy enough to research.

So, my plan is to cover my recent evacuation, and then perhaps try to do a few posts on cultural topics that I hadn't made time to do while still in Mukachevo. Hopefully, I'll be back in Ukraine before too long.

So just over 2 weeks ago, on Thursday, Feb. 20th, we were told we needed to consolidate on the next day. I had done some grocery shopping the day before - I'd gotten a call while in class (typically, I was by myself as the other teacher was...sick?...that day) from my Regional Manager who was a little frantic and triple-checked that I was the consolidation point. He said things in Kyiv were pretty tense, and he was traveling around the region to start teaching observations - I was slated for being observed the 26th - and it prompted me to call some of the other volunteers to urge them to really start packing.

So Friday morning I didn't go to school - as I pretty much expected we would be stuck in consolidation for a few days while things steadied and then would be able to go back to sites and work. I bulked up on food and greeted the different volunteers as they arrived. Zim and Will came first, followed by Vonnie, and then two other volunteers. Another of the long-term volunteers had been in Kyiv, and so wasn't allowed to come back - a 14 hour trip by train to my site, plus another 2-3 hours of travel. Hugo was the last to arrive - having decided to go to school and witness a cultural event planned for the day. We'd been told a staff member would arrive - and it turned out to be our Regional Manager, as he was in the area.

He was pretty upset, but filled us all in (and Hugo eventually, when he sauntered in). He remained optimistic that we wouldn't evacuate. If we did have to evacuate,

I did what I do when stressed and surrounded by people - I fed them. Over the weekend we had stir fry, crepes, spaghetti with meat sauce, curry soup and cornbread. We also got the special treat of red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting and funfetti cake from one of the volunteer's care packages. We also all went out together for a meal at a traditional restaurant. We had some Ukrainian friends (who I'd met one of before - she's good friends with some of the other volunteers, and her brother) stop in. We played lots of games, talked, and spent a lot of time glued to our computers. We also went on several excursions - as Will needs frequent exercise... So I finally got to see the castle and the nunnery in Mukachevo. I refused to buy souvenirs...because that's what people do when they don't plan on coming back!

On Saturday, we heard that other volunteers were being evacuated, but we heard nothing about our group. We were not sure if everyone would be evacuated, or only those in areas closest to Kyiv or in areas experiencing more unrest. Nothing was happening in our region, so it was kind of surreal. Sunday morning I went to church to watch my counterpart sing, which was very nice - even if Baptists are really in to 2 hour long services.

We then got the news that we would be flying out of Lviv the next day. In a way, it was a relief to know what the plan finally was. It was also a shock - Russia had yet to get involved and it seemed almost silly that we were leaving. It was pretty emotional, but I think most of us remained confident that we'd be back in no time. We were not allowed to tell anyone in country that we were leaving - policy clearly states that this cannot be done. It felt terrible to be leaving without being able to tell my school, teachers and students.

We had a relatively quiet last night in, everyone absorbed in their own thoughts of what coming back to America would mean for us. Last minute thoughts on what should have been packed and what will have to be taken care of from afar kept us talking.

Monday morning came with little fanfare, and everyone was ready to leave by 8:30. We all piled into a little bus, and drove through some beautiful country side. Not the way I was hoping on seeing it. The mood was pretty high - Hugo kept announcing what village he wouldn't mind living in, our Regional Manager taught us the response to the now-popular greeting from the Maidan revolution, and we even passed through a few mini-checkpoints.

At the airport we met up with about 40-50 other volunteers. We were the last group to leave, and we were scheduled to have an overnight layover in Vienna. It was said they had attempted to charter flights for us, but that the Olympics ending at the same time had really tied up the availability. Honestly, I can't imagine the nightmare of evacuating a small group of volunteers, let alone 220+, especially in such a relatively large country! This was a very costly endeavor.

We made it to Vienna and to the hotel with minimum confusion. Somehow our oblast group was the only one that wasn't provided with any hotel itinerary information, and the other groups hadn't realized that. Luckily, it was a pretty big group to follow. Since it was early evening, we ended up going out in groups to the downtown. As the token German-speaker (which is is very rough shape - I fumbled my way through throwing Ukrainian in and trying to recall basic terms!) I was in charge of getting us fed. Luckily, Doenner was very convenient, and I soon had everyone eating away on the tasty streetmeat or felafel. Except Curly, who wanted real cuisine.

So this lead to an excursion into the heart of the city. After wandering some streets for an affordable local that could accommodate the 8 of us, I left them to investigate the cathedral and managed to track down an establishment. I returned to lead the group to the restaurant, only then noticing we'd lost a person. Ironically, it was our safety warden. I spent a good half an hour wandering around looking for her (because really, if you get separated from a group while looking at a large-ass church, you'd think you'd stay there, right?) only to get a text message hours later saying she'd gone back to the hotel and her cell had died. However, we did all manage to get beer and try stuffed pretzel and wienerschnitzel. So that was a success.

The flight to DC wasn't the worst 9 hours of my life. It was hard to see the other volunteers though, the ones who knew they weren't going back no matter what. Although I am only 5 months in, there are staggered groups: 1 year, 1.5 years, 2 years, etc. So some only had 3 months left, which means that it wasn't really going to be worth going back for the last month or two if we could not head back until after the administrative hold.

So we all arrived tired and emotionally drained in DC. We boarded a few buses that took us to an amazing conference center about a half hour out of the city in Maryland. I mean, where else can you find housing for 250 people on 4 days notice for a week? We'd evacuated in a 3 day period, staggered, and so they were running a 3 day conference for each group that was also staggered.

We got put into rooms (hurray for roller beds...), had an amazing dinner (the food there was unbelievable - talk about culture shock!) and went to bed after finding familiar faces. The next three days were a challenge.

We got briefed on security, and had other sessions on mitigating reverse culture shock, feelings and next steps. It was so hard to be at different stages. I certainly was not ready for closure! The mood at the conference really seemed to swing up and down. The optimism of the staff from Ukraine who had flown in was balanced with cautious Peace Corps DC Staff. We were the largest evacuation ever.

Who would have thought?

The staff all did an amazing job. They pulled this thing together with no warning, and kept things running smoothly. In return, we tried not to be too resentful  and appreciative of their amazing work. The evening of the first day we had a special gathering - the first group who had a arrived were leaving the next day. This would be a final parting for some people. Emotions ran high. We saw videos from Peace Corps Ukraine staff (they'd wanted to skype in, but had no power), saw the updated political situation presentation and they took pictures. We also had a remembrance ceremony for the victims (or heroes) who died in the nights of violence in January in Maidan square.

Getting through the conference became my goal, with the realization that at the end of it I would find myself separated from my new family. We spent a lot of time together. My entire training cluster was there, and between them, other friends from training and oblast-mates, we sat together, ate together and played darts, Farkle and talked a lot.

And then we all had to leave.

It was a little traumatic, and only the thought that we will be able to go back kept me from really losing it. We are on administrative hold for up to 45 days - where the staff is monitoring the situation to see if we can go back. If the country is cleared (or at least parts of it), then we will jump back over and try to resume life as normal.

This became a lot less certain in the airport when the news broke about Russia troops entering Crimea. I was so thankful to have several other volunteers flying the first leg with me, as this sent panic through us. Not to mention that our lifelines, our cellphones, our support system in Ukraine for the past 5 months did us absolutely no good in America. I was lucky that I'd brought my cell with and that my number could be reactivated. But many people didn't have theirs or had lost their plans. So our communication network was shattered.

Now, everyone has their phones and Facebook - it was a weird moment to see Hugo online and not have him in my house/apartment; the only way he'd been able to really have internet the past 5 months. "Normal life" was not normal anymore.

So, a good deal of culture shock there. I can't even fathom what volunteers who hadn't been back in over 2 years are going through!

My travel plans home were also interrupted by my pilot not showing up for my last flight from Minneapolis. I'd lightened my carryon, and really needed my checked bag for chargers, clothing and amenities that I'd need for the hotel the airline put us in. Of course, after 2 hours and a failed plan to drive home, I was able to discover my bag hadn't even come in on my flight with me. Which is just ridiculous.

So, I went to my hotel (eventually...stupid shuttle), and got to my room. I tried to order out, but the food never came. The universe was definitely against me, and this proved it.

I was able to fly home the next day...though of course my bag didn't. They had to deliver it the next day. All of your life from the past 6 months into the single bag you're allowed...

So. Now I'm here at home. It's great to see my parents and friends around, but it's a bit of a struggle each day. Luckily, I can go to the barn and have been asked to speak in some classes at school. It would be wonderful if I could know that we were going back in 2 weeks - and I could just make the most of my time being home. But I don't have that comfort.

So I'll keep waiting for a week or two, and keep the hope that we will go back. That things will deescalate and the future will look brighter for Ukraine than ever. I just want to go home to Mukachevo - back to my daily struggle with the language and lesson planning and clubs. I can't even really contemplate what will happen if I can't go back...if we are forced to close our service. That leads to a whole slew of other options and possibilities...

Hope all is well,


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

So, Now I Know About Cricket

Hi all,

Well, it's been a busy past week...but we'll endeavor to hit the highlights. I'm using the royal we, since I covered the National Sport of England (!) in class this week...but more on that later.

"Be Happy Me" Club
So, about the 3rd day after my arrival to my site, I was greeted with a letter from a parent. She wrote in perfect English (not to mention script!) and was very welcoming - saying she had lived abroad and wanted to open her home to me if I needed anything - but also not-so-casually mentioning that she was extremely interested in having an adult conversation club. Needless to say, I was a bit overwhelmed, and let most of the break go by -after politely answering her question. One night, however, she gave me a call and asked if I was free to meet. Following my Country Director's advice, I thought, what the heck, and then met her for coffee. She's a serious dynamo...she's got four kids - two teens, a tween and an almost (?) 6 month old baby. She was very chatty, and I admit I had a lovely time.

She kind of hoodwinked me a week later into having the first club - which consists of us and two of her mommy friends. We're having it open to anyone that wants to come, but so far it has met 3 times and is a bit slow in gaining momentum. It's great though - she organizes the themes for us to reflect on (so far hobbies and blessings) and we just sit and chat. We had the last meeting at her house (on the way to which I got to see some amazing trumpeter swans - humongous!) and I got swept into a very domestic setting. It was lovely. And the homemade doughnuts were fantastic.

They Didn't Prepare Me for This During Training
While on the theme of things I've been hoodwinked into, I should probably mention the strange occurrence of the maybe-dead-man-in-the-night story. I promise, it's pretty much as awkward and potentially horrifying as it seems. I'm sure my mother will be pleased. Anyhow, last Monday I was guilted (which, according to the dictionary is not a word, but anyone raised Catholic will definitely not agree with the dictionary) into meeting with a local language school director. It's not that I don't want to run community programs - it's simply that I'm on to 5 clubs now (oh yes, I split my middle-aged group of kids and have added a club for 5-7th, because...I'm crazy?) and I'm feeling like I need to gain some stability in that first. However, there are some personal reasons involved, so I felt obligated to at least meet with the director.

Now, I'm sure if you dig back far enough you'll be able to recall my fiasco that led to my getting a GPS while living in the community. In case you need a refresher, I tend to get a little traumatized when lost. This being said, the directions I was given for walking to the building were a little vague - and resulted in me getting a little panicky for 5 minutes, until I turned around and realized I'd passed right by it. However, between my house and that point, I had a rather uncomfortable experience. First of all, it was rather dark (being 8pm), and as I ambled my way down the unlit street (not quite as sketchy as it sounds - it's normal, cuts down on light pollution, and there were many people still out and about), I pondered how false my sense of security potentially was. I thought that perhaps I should be more freaked out by my lack of worry than I actually was. But then I reasoned that that line of reasoning probably wasn't helpful.

It was in the middle of this ambling that I first spotted the man "lying" on the sidewalk. Well, to be fair, at first he appeared to be a giant blob on the sidewalk, but as I got very close it became clear that 1. It was definitely a man and 2. The position he was in was decidedly unnatural. As in, completely fallen-on-his-face unnatural. To make the matter more severe, there were also dark liquidy patches near his head - although in the poor light I couldn't tell if they were streams of ice on the pavement, or drying blood. Head wounds bleed a lot.

I had an instant moment of sheer panic -and then slight hysteria. What on earth was I supposed to do? Prod him gently to make sure he was alive (a statement I can barely muster, mind you). Doubtlessly, had he been able to be raised to consciousness, the ensuing conversation would have been unintelligible to me and probably to him as well. It occurred to me that I didn't even know the name of the street I was on. I was stopped short in my panic when I noticed a young couple standing and looking worriedly at the man on the pavement - and the man had his cell phone out. They caught my eye inquiringly, and I awkwardly kept on walking. Had I opened my mouth, I probably would have only delayed any action they were going to take.

I still felt like a terrible person.

As I went on, I realized how truly helpless I could be in some situations - especially those that require quick action. I thought about what if I had tried to call the police, but doubtless my poor language skills would have gotten my contact (a high up officer) called and no telling as to what he might do. Not, once again, that I knew where I was. And an American girl who can't tell you where she is and muttering on about a maybe dead man would probably cause a bit of a stir.

Later, it was pointed out to me that I could have called PC security (they have a non-emergency line) or even my counterpart to ask her what I should do. It made me realize that you really can't have a contingency plan for everything in life - and also how lucky I was that someone else was there to take action. When I returned 40 minutes later, the man was gone - I hope into a warm room somewhere. I also may have freaked out a young couple by walking pretty close to them pushing their baby pram back into the center of town.

My meeting went fine with the director - although she wants us (myself and Hugo,who she met at one of their hosted events) to have a club once a month for 2 hours on Saturday. It's a bit daunting, but I think we'll meet again this Saturday, with Hugo, and we can try to plan some things. We'll see. And, all my co-worker English teachers thought my story was hilarious. They've heard my limited language skills, and immediately realized that I'd been in WAY over my head. I hope it was endearing - I'm still struggling with figuring out how to try not to intimidate them...process!

Weekend Trip
So, briefly,  I was talking with Will last week and he mentioned how bored he was because of having been on standfast the last 2 weeks. I invited him to come to my site, saying both he and Zim were welcome to come - but then he said he'd really like to show us his village instead. It's about 2 hours of traveling total, so not very bad. Since I had my Be Happy Me club, I decided to leave early Sat morning. Hugo had visited and we worked out a key situation so he was able to stay and use the internet for the rest of the day. Because by early, I mean at 7:40am the bus left - so I left my house at 7. Zim had called the night before to say she was super-stressed because she just found out she had to take over all her counterpart's lessons due to her son being sick. So she had to bail on visiting Will.

I found out on Sat morning when she met us in the nearest big city (5 of us volunteers ended up meeting up for a while, which was very nice) that she'd neglected to inform Will about this change of plans. He was a little distraught since he'd promised his landlords (he lives in a room attached to the main house) that he'd have 2 girls visiting. Since he lives in a microcosm, I could appreciate that having only 1 girl come could look like something it wasn't - so I offered to just make it a day trip. However, it was already planned that he'd sleep in the main house, so we planned to avert scandalous rumors in this fashion.

I was very glad to meet his landlord's family. He and his wife are both engineers and speak some English - quite a bit, really. They have a 7 year old and an adorable one year old, who loves to flirt with girls. Needless to say, I also got some very tasty borsht and some homemade wine (he had his vodka distillery set up as I walked in the door -quite the set up. We had a nice evening with them, and played some Uno. We did lots of talking and it was very nice. I left the next day in the early afternoon, and was able to be fairly productive in lesson and club planning for Monday.

Finally, Olympiad Boot Camp
While I'm rather bummed to be missing the Olympics (which I could possibly stream but am too busy/lazy to find), I was roped into helping with the "boot camp" (my own emphasis) for the region's candidates for going to the national English Olympiad competition. Today I was helping out with reading and writing skills. I'd met with Vonnie (the volunteer I'm finally naming who lives an hour away and works at the language institute there) who was in charge of coordinating the whole week of training and we'd found a few activities to supplement doing practice activities. We used "Synonym Snowman" (try saying that 5 times fast!), I taught the 5-paragraph-essay-as-a-burger structure, we did tongue-twisters and also had some fun conversation and a name game. They were all great kids, who clearly had a passion for English and seriously wanted to go on.

It will be very hard to know that not all of them get to go on - but hopefully after working with them for a week it should be clear to Vonnie who the strongest candidates are.

Anyhow, I need to go to bed. I'm not entirely prepared for tomorrow - as I missed planning with a few teachers today. But, I am as prepared as I'm going to get and know I can whip something out if needed.

Hope all is well,


PS - I spent a solid 3 hours creating a presentation/lesson plan for teaching Cricket to the 6th form - and I only marginally understand it better than before. They loved it.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

I'm Alive. And Christmas has been Postponed.

Hi all,

I have a vicious blogging cycle that I sometimes fall prey to - I get backed up (usually due to an exciting topic or event - such as Christmas!), get it partially written, and then fall behind. Thus, I decide I will not forge on until I have time to finish the post and then catch up.

Clearly, there is a flaw in this plan.

So I'm sallying forth, since it's been a good month since a post of any note.
Also, Happy Birthday Grandma. I called, but she's probably out having a birthday lunch, probably the Poco Loco : p

Anyhow, so I'm kinda a legit teacher.

If legit means that I have yet to memorize half of my students' names (I have 10 original classes a week, and some just once - so that's a lot of names to get down), I come to most lessons prepared to do a portion that sometimes turns into the whole lesson, and I've been asked to sub 4 times. Twice in 5th form, for sections I don't normally team teach in.

So, you can probably pretty much imagine how that went. Also, I had no I stole one of the children's. The first time it went ok (teacher was out sick) but two days in a row with no other teacher in the room and me knowing 2 students' names? Nope, not pretty. But not total chaos, so I'm taking survivor points on it. And major brownie points.

Sometimes, I just get so confused (ok, a lot, but for many different reasons). Like, yesterday, I was told I was needed to sub for a class that only meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays. They're the class that only meets twice a week, because they have German more often. I already taught the other half of the 9th form that morning with the other teacher. However, the teacher that I teach with on Tuesdays and Thursdays for them, is never in school on Mondays - she has a "methodological" day. Which is fine and dandy, until this happens.

But it gets better.

Mostly because it turns out I got ALL the 9th form (making me believe that I was technically subbing for a German teacher?), including the students I'd already had that day! Luckily (?), the students work out of different books - not that I or they probably had them that day. Students don't have lockers here - they must bring their books every day to every class. Sometimes they have desk partners, and this leads to extremely complicated arrangements for planning who will bring a book - which ends very simply when both forget.

So, I had - luckily- prepared for Tuesday, the activity I said I would - giving a structure for talking about your favorite book. Not that they haven't already had this topic, oh, probably 4 years running, but y'know. Quality books and such. So. I said we'd learn the structure, practice together and their homework would be to do it themselves. In return for paying attention (including the half of the class who wasn't supposed to be there), we'd play a game for the remainder of the class.

Well, attention was as good as I could have hoped: read, not very, and we got through the academic portion in 25 minutes. Leaving 20 for "Heads up, Seven Up" - although we played with 3. I'm glad that 9th form enjoyed it as much as I did in middle school, because it was the only ace up my sleeve. I figure, they're not stampeding through the halls and there was some learning done.

Speaking of, I had class with the co-teacher today with the class that was supposed to have English today. (If that made any sense...). She asked if I'd prepared anything and I told her I had - but I'd taught it the day before. Not that anyone did their homework.

I'll admit I wasn't too sad that they got yelled at.

Anyhow, she apparently didn't prepare ANYTHING, so they picked a spot at random in the book and worked on that. No comment.

However, I did have a really good lesson with the 6th form - we played a fishbowl game with sport vocabulary, and they both enjoyed it and didn't get ridiculously out of hand. I did get cornered by a parent afterward, who decided that we should both practice our secondary language skills. I really didn't know where the conversation was leading...he was asking if his son was good, and if...I don't really even know. So I beckoned through the open door to his teacher. Then I understood enough that he was not pleased with his child's marks/grades? The teacher simply said - let's go look at the grade book and waived me off...

I'm very gratefully I am unable to officially give grades.

Although a lot of volunteers apparently have issues with trying to give grades and then having the teachers change them or simply ignoring them. Definitely doesn't give the students any reason to have any extra respect. Of course, I'm still trying to figure out where marks should be given (how often, and what's the appropriate expectation level to have for each class level), so it's a bit daunting.

Practice Practice Practice.

And, by the way. Yes, things are a little crazy in the capital. Which I am 14 hours away from by train. My region is as quiet as a mouse, and seemingly unconcerned. I think they see westward progress and inevitable - not merely desirable. I also was put on "standfast" for 2 weeks - meaning I couldn't leave site. Thankfully, I just got off of that yesterday. It's tedious at best, and nerve-wracking at worst.

It wasn't the ideal way to end my first week of teaching. I'd already been quite anxious all week with dealing with expectations and it was a major blow. I had fears that the situation would really escalate and I'd find myself being evacuated. It's very hard to buckle down into teaching when you have that thought in the back of your mind.

But I bought a printer this last weekend. So it's official, I'm staying : p

Hope all is well,


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Last Week and a Half, in Pictures...

Hi all,

So, I started a great post about my very busy but wonderful last week and a half, but I am lacking the motivation to polish it off and get it up...but here's the compromise!

Most pictures I took at Lila's house where I spent Orthodox Christmas, but I also got together with the other volunteers in the region at my place to celebrate Zim and Hugo's birthdays, and also the wine festival!


 Farkel with the family!

 The cutest 4 year old ever...and she knows it...
 Making a cheese cake!
 This then got topped with Jello...and we got to eat it for breakfast!
 Wrapped around her little finger..what? 
 Because obviously I also needed bunny ears...
 Christmas cooking commenced! 

 Word of my Pizza has spread...and so it was decided to be had for lunch!
 The girls get their smiles from their mother!
 Because we needed 2 go with the cookies!
 I've been told next time I visit I may make spaghetti...and I've been adopted :  )
 Time to make the walnut cookies look like walnuts again!
 Sisters in the kitchen!

 "Snowballs" and Nut cookies...
 And then we started making pelmeni after 10pm! Long day in the kitchen!
 Curly came to visit! And of course we cooked!
 Always happiest feeding others!
 It looks like Curly has two cups of wine...but the other is not mine...

 Training group picture! Zim, Me, Hugo and Curly!
Other volunteers and a Ukrainian friend.

Also: here is my shipping address:

Стеф Мансон Бул. Пушкіна 14а/1 М. Мукачево Закарпатсья Обл. 89600 Україна 14 Pushkin St. Apt. 1 Mukachevo Zakarpattia oblast 89600 Ukraine

Since this is now password protected, I figure it's pretty safe, the English version is missing my name, just as a search precaution - so you would add that too. I'd love to get mail!

Hope all is well, and better post soon!


Thursday, January 2, 2014

A New Years to Remember

Hi all,

I hope you all had a nice New Years and didn't suffer too many ill effects. I can pretty much say the same, but know that probably quite a few volunteers are still recovering from their first New Years in Ukraine. However, let me back up a minute...

A few days ago, I decided I would ask if I could go visit Zim, since I was technically on vacation. My counterpart had kept stating she had no plans, and so I decided to have my first village experience without her. However, I was leaving on the 31st, and had some errands to do first. So the morning of the 30th I got up late, and set off on a mission to go buy light bulbs and a broom. Armed with translation and an unscrewed bulb, I braved two hardware stores and achieved success. I am not sure what all was said during these exchanges, but there was a lacking yelling, which is always a plus.

Next I met up with Lila, who was meeting a teacher friend from college. We walked around town with her and her daughter, and she asked to take a photo with me. This was a first, other than a few children at the training school. I obliged, but it was kind of weird. After a while we met up with one of Lila's sisters, and we proceeded to embark on an epic Christmas tree finding adventure. It was great community mapping, as we spent he next 4 hours trekking about town. We finally found a good one, and Lila's brother came with his car. Then there was a hilarious 30 seconds of mad money swapping between the three of them while he drove...

I ended up at Lila's house, where she made us a late lunch. We had dropped her sister downtown, and so it was just the 2 of us, and so it was lucky the "tree" wasn't so big. I have a clear mental image that somewhere, within an hospur drive of the town there is a big mountain with an entire face semi-deforested by tree guys lopping off the top 5 feet of all the evergreens. Because that's what they all looked likes....just the tops!

We got the tree into her apt, and she immediately wanted to set it up - here it is traditional to have it up  by New Years, and leave until their Christmas on the 6th. However, her stand was about an inch less wide than the tree. No problem! She ran off and reappeared with a saw and hatchet...and promptly went to work slashing at the base. I helped by holding and rotating the poor tree, as she hacked away with great enthusiasm and moderate skill. I did warn her I was attached to my fingers, and reminded her she was currently bare-footed... Needless to say, it was a rather long 10 minutes, but in the end the tree was firmly pressed into the stand with no loss of blood. The living room floor had seen better days, and we both had a mild reaction to the pine pitch, but we emerged victorious!

We then decked out the tree I gold and red, with one small box of ornaments going a long way. It was very pretty, and I wish I would have had my ipad along to take a photo! Lila tells me I can't be american because I never have my camera. I tell her I don't want to feel like a tourist in my own town, and often have my ipad.

Anyhow, I was up at character-building-o'clock (totally stole that phrase from another volunteer..), and was on my way to see Zim via the 7am bus the next morning. I negotiated the bus station no problem, and go to the bus just fine. However, after the first half hour of the nearly 2 hour trip, I realized I may be in trouble...I had used the bathroom before leaving my house, but apparently I a keeping well hydrated. And though the bus stopped rather often, there seemed to be no set time to the length of the stop, and no one I could ask to ask the driver for me. This increasingly strong discomfort caused me to exit the bus at the center stop for the town - only to realize I should have waited for the bus station - where Zim had reassured me there were facilities. After a brief reorientation, I found a sign pointing out the direction of the bus station and kept trekking with increased urgency. I am not proud to admit, that as the blocks stretched on interminably, that I started eyeing up likely alleyways...because in the spirit of packing light, I was wearing my sole pair of pants. Also, after hearing the recent horror stories of a fellow volunteer who had an emergency appendix-removal (and was held down by a nurse as his surgeon started to remove his stitches 5 days early, against the Peace Corps doctor's instructions....he had to be taped back together....arg!), visions of dealing with an exploded bladder did little to cheer my outlook...

In addition, I had gotten increasingly stressed texts from Zim...the town mayor had picked her up at the train station, insisting he wanted to help pick me up. However, he first dragged her on a series of home visits that she first thought were drug-related. Turns out the guy is a locally-renown vintner, and she got some very tasty wine - more on that later. However, both of our adventures met up when they arrived at the bus station, about 20 minutes after I had found it. I had rushed inside and asked for a bathroom, to be informed it was outside. Seeing the Ж symbol, I rushed into the concrete building - whose pit set up made me appreciate that it was relatively cold outside - and my world out-look brightened considerably.

When Zim and the mayor showed up, we were whisked downtown and dropped off. We got some coffee/tea and Zim showed me the bazaar. I also got a dress that will be good for work and we wandered until Will, Zim's closest volunteer met up with us.

 Will is currently living with a Hungarian host family, who are building a house for him. They celebrated the 24th for Christmas, and had him on a mission for a New Years tradition - which involved purchasing a live carp. Fortunately, this seems to be rather widespread (as my region only became part of Ukraine again when it became independent just over 20 years ago) and after only a moderate amount of exploration and several consultations with locals were we able to find a fish for him....

This was Fred. Apparently you are required to purchase them alive. Fred survived the 30 minute hitchhike back to Will's village, where Will was then requires to bludgeon him to death...did I mention that prior to PC Will had been a vegetarian??

Anyhow, Zim and I also got a ride back from the mayor, who had picked up his friend. He insisted we all try the wine at Zim's that was a bit awkward. Also, he kept repeating he would call Zim at we got the sinking sensation that our low-keyed planned evening was maybe not to be... So, we very sensibly drank the rest of the wine. Zim insisted I borrow a dress, which due to some New Years miracle, or rather, the advent of elasticity and artificial fabric, managed to fit quite well. At some point I whisked up a batch of French toast, which also proved to be life saving. Because at 5:45, 15 minutes before he even said he would call, the mayor showed up to take us to his house...

We'd missed some calls, so we had to explain that of course we'd be delighted to come to his house...we deemed the invitation appropriate because he mentioned his wife, daughter and son would all be there as well. It only got prett uncomfortable, when on the way to his house he said he would drive me home on the second - but that we would have to keep it secret from his wife.

Uh, no way in hell.

So, with this problematic idea on loop in my head, I viewed the upcoming evening with a small amount of trepidation. He also stopped to get a car wash on the way home, and pick up his son from the bus stop. His son and daughter are in college in the next oblast, and unfortunately didn't stick around for most of the evening. He did have a lovely house and a wonderful wife. She was very game about trying to keep our halting coversations in Ukrainian going. It was exhausting. Major props to Zim who does this almost every day...I hadn't spoken that much Ukrainian since I came to my everyone usually wants to work on their English. We also, of course, were served an enormous amount of food. This helped to absorb the vast quantities of wine we were being served, although we managed to avoid the vodka.
So that was a LONG next 6 hours...First we had potato salad, cutlets, homemade sausages, pickles and bread. Later, the fried potatoes arrived (which prompted a toast to them), also around this time schneehordohka (the companion/granddaughter of grandfather frost) and a local police guy showed up for a bit. We also google mapped our hometowns at some point. Then we had candy and fruit. Next, in a surprise move, they brought out the eat dumplings...the pelmeni. I skipped the coffee, but was glad when 11 rolled around (we have our own time zone, kind of,  and are an hour behind Kyiv), except it prompted the champagne. We were pretty much out of conversation topics by this time, having covered family, various coworkers, working abroad, food, traditions,etc. We all ran outside to watch as various houses put on simultaneous firework displays - more impressive than Mexico, but less in volume, thankfully. I was bundled up in a spare coat, as I'd brought my lighter weight one - the days have been in the 50s. 

After a few more toasts and photos, we were ushered out to the car to return home.

Just kidding.

Because of course everyone needs to drag their poor children into the center of town for a speech by Grandfather Frost, who de-beards in the middle show who she was- and to have yet more fireworks and champagne. That took about an hour, and my toes lost feeling during this time. We finally got home around 1:40, and after getting a slew of texts, managed to fall asleep around 2:30. Apparently it is tradition to stay a wake all night, but there was just no way. Also, apparently how you spend New Years sets a trend for the rest of the year. So lots of awkward conversations in broken Ukrainian it looks like, but while enjoying a buzz off of tasty wine! 

Zim and I laughed ourselves to sleep recalling an odd conversation moment. We were told that the old New Years would not be good this year. We figured it out that Fridays landing on the 13th are also considered to be unlucky in Ukraine. This prompted me to share that we'd also had a Friday the 13th in December, and that I'd accidentally broken my mirror. My host perked right up and very gravely asked how many pieces it had broken into. When I explained that it had broken while I was leaning against it putting in my contacts, so it was only 2 pieces, he nodded. Then they asked me about my we still have no idea what the number of pieces a mirror breaks into signifies in Ukraine!

It will remain a life mystery.

Anyhow, I managed to Skype with my parents last night, after Zim and I spent a low key day. I was relatively unaffected, as I'd drunk a lot of juice and water, and have a bit of mass on Zim. And today we made it to the bus station and I made it home by myself with no hiccups or mayoral interference.

Then I took an epic nap and built a blanket fort in my kitchen, where I am now writing my may be jealous.

Hope all is well and you had great New Years!