Thursday, December 24, 2015

Did You Ever Think?

Hi all,

Merry Almost Christmas.

Will has a saying (that he loves to whip out at random times, like in the midst of a 50km hike), of "Did you ever think that you'd be doing X in Ukraine?"

And honestly, Hugo and I usually just have to laugh and answer no.

Being a volunteer is filled with moments that when I stop to think about them, quietly blow my mind. Part of it is just attitude - in my life in America, I had moments as well, of course. It's a great tool for mindfulness however, especially as I have now hit my 5 month mark in country, and things are feeling pretty settled.

I have a weekly routine: classes, meeting to lesson plan with teachers, Ukrainian tutoring, cooking, maybe doing a training, cleaning my apartment, working on  grad school papers, and communicating with friends and family both in Ukraine and abroad. The little victories seem to be less important to share, and this demotivates my blogging. But here are some moments:

In my 5th form class I planned an activity around food: students would work in groups of 4-5, each group got about 15 or so food cards, and were told that they were opening a shop. They needed to organize their items by food group, and write out a price list. Then we would cover the concept and design of a balanced meal using food groups. They would write their own menu and then write an ingredients list. Finally, they would see what things they needed from their shop, and visit the other groups to see what else they could buy. In the end, they had to announce the total price of their meal, and any items they couldn't find. It was an in-depth activity, and took two class periods.

However, a moment before the class started, I realized that the order was wrong. That students would (most likely) try to make a menu centered around their own shop offerings. So I turned to my co-teacher and said "I'm going to change this, ok?". She said sure, and I changed the order - having them start with the menu/balanced meal, and then going to the shop formation. And although there was the normal amount of confusion at times, it went really well.

It was a moment of personal triumph on two levels: I was able to trouble-shoot a potential problem before it happened, and my co-teacher had complete faith in my ability and judgement to make a last minute change. So that was really awesome.

I also found myself sitting in as part of a jury for the English teacher of the year (which happens every 4 years??), and it was an interesting process. There was a new format of having the teachers submit materials, rather than come in person for the first stage. Participants needed to submit documentation (15 points), a video component/presentation (20 points), and have prepared a blog (65 points).

First of all, the weighting perplexed all the judges. One exclaimed that what we would see was not the best English teacher,  but the best tech teacher helping to create the blog. The criteria for judging that weighty category seemed vague - comments, visits...but very little about the actual content. Every single teacher who submitted the blog link had created it solely for the competition. We had no rubric for judging them, and it soon became apparent. Luckily, we were all pretty united on the top 3 choices and little discussion produced numbers 4 and 5.

I will return in a month for two days of judging the next and final phases - a test portion, a presentation, and a teaching demonstration in a random classroom. I'm hoping that this levels the playing field.

Funny that the first time I'm on a jury is under these circumstances.

Life Updates
So, here's a list of things that I don't have time to expand on...

1. I got a sitemate - he is a community development volunteer and he arrived yesterday. We connected by phone briefly, and he only seemed semi-shell-shocked.

2. I was selected to be on the National Olympiad Committee with 9 other volunteers - so my spring break will be helping to judge that, and in a few weeks we have our first meeting to create materials for the competition

3. I was also honored by being named chair of the Olympiad Committee.

4. I've hung out with the "orienteering group" a few more times and also have been invited on Saturday to go to one of my students' house to celebrate with her family.

5. I submitted my final draft of my second short grad paper, leaving me with 1 more plus the thesis.

6. I am cleared for my whirlwind tour through The Netherlands, Germany, Czech Republic and Slovakia in a few weeks, and looking forward to it immensely.

7. My kids at club created Christmas decorations for me, and we had fun making cookies and other decorations at club.

Anyhow, clearly I'm glossing over a few things that happened in the last 2 months or so, but here's a start to the catching up.

Hope all is well, and happy holidays!


Tuesday, December 1, 2015

A New Level of Exhaustion: Achieved!

Hello all,

I just posted a beautiful post about my weekend.

And then the fucking computer ate it.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Things Cute Children Say

Hello all,

So I'm still tinkering with my blog look (my mother has complained about the previous pattern, which I thought was adorably Ukrainian, but is apparently hard on the aged eyes : p), but I've put in a temporary generic design.

Anyhow, today's theme is all about the cute children in my life.

First: my relationship with my secondary counterpart's 2 year old daughter is pretty cute. She exclaims "Stepha!" every time she sees me, and hurls herself into my arms. I dutifully repeat her slightly-butchered diminutive name and swing her up for enthusiastic greeting.

The other day, after I returned from Will's village for a training (which I have mixed feelings on - it got cut short and the parts I'd spent hours preparing didn't get used, which made me feel inadequate), I met up with my counterpart, my secondary counterpart and her three children, and a friend who is a secretary/librarian at my school.

We had tea and cake, and spoke a mixture of Ukrainian and English. I got to re-tell (in Ukrainian, it didn't go well) how Hugo almost missed the bus to Will's village Wednesday evening, dashing in the door with literally seconds to spare. We were short a chair, so I served as the 2 year old's.

I walked with my counterpart and the friend to her bus stop, and as we waited my counterpart received a phone call. She laughed and shared the following story, about the car ride home my secondary counterpart had with her children and husband.

2 year old: (suddenly): "Daddy, you love Stepha?"
Father: (caught off guard): "Oh, um, no..."
2 year old: "Mama, you love Stepha?"
Mother: "Yes, I love Stepha"
2 year old: " *sister* , you love Stepha?"
Sister: "Yes, I love Stepha"
2 year old: "*brother*, you love Stepha?"
Brother: "Yes, I love Stepha"
2 year old: "...Daddy, why don't you love Stepha?!"

Ukrainian, of course, has different verbs for different kinds of love, and I got the impression that her question blurred which kind she was asking, so of course her father felt a little awkward answering. I love that she interrogated her entire family over their devotion to me!

However, even this outpouring of love pales in cuteness levels of comparison when looking at last Friday's exchange I had with one of my second form pupils - we'll call her Dasha.

I was walking to the front desk with my co-teacher of the day to return a key. As I went, I passed through a little mob of the 2nd form class that I teach on Mondays with my counterpart. One little girl, shaking with excitement, bounced up to me:

Dasha: HELLO!

Me: Hello! How - are - you?

Dasha: *scrunching up face in adorable concentration* '!'

(with great triumph)

Me: Yes, you are Dasha...And - HOW - are - you?

Dasha: *looking slightly panicked*

Me: I am -great-...are you -great-?

Dasha: *quivering with understanding* 'Great! I am great!'

Me: Great!

Dasha beamed with pride and rushed over to some friends.

I turned and continued on to the classroom - about 15 feet from the group. It wasn't until I turned around to shut the door behind me that I realized I'd been followed - lined up like ducklings, the 2nd form class had decided that I was apparently going to be their teacher. I gently shooed them away, and my co-teacher told them they had to wait for the other teacher to collect them.

It was adorable.

Anyhow, I'll probably post about my recent trip to Lviv and how I've kept busy over fall break this week. But not tonight!

Hope all is well,


Sunday, October 18, 2015

Time Slips By - One Training at a Time

Hi all,

It was a full week again.

Monday I was only at half my lessons, as Hugo and I conducted a short two-hour teacher training in a local village. His counterpart was tasked with arranging them once a month for the next three months in different villages and I'd been invited along for the ride.

Now, this meant that on Sunday we were still finalizing touches. The glamorous life of trainers. It's an interesting trade-off, doing co-facilitator. It feels very natural with Hugo, since we started in training two years ago, and so there's a very good sense of each others strengths, mode of operation and cues of requiring a helping hand. This helps to mitigate the worry that the other person won't or can't back you up if you get stuck, and the consolation that you'll go down together if it somehow crashes and burns.

And it didn't crash or burn. It was interesting, because we basically had modified a presentation that I had thrown together for a previous training, and then added a "demo class" to demonstrate the communicative approach. Hugo ended up getting stuck at the same place I had - which is mainly demonstrating the four parts of the communicative approach. Normally, I'd be a bit leery of jumping in on someone, but I felt comfortable slipping in some examples and things continued smoothly.

Our demo lesson was on the theme of Halloween. It went fairly well, but we both agreed afterward that it needed some more updating. So, as we'll be doing this "same" training twice more, we have more opportunities to sort it out. We needed to get the teachers more comfortable with speaking, and get them up and moving a bit more.

Next time, next time.

We also got asked to come in about a month to Uzhgorod to present to another group of teachers. Plus, Will is having a training this Thursday that we're doing part of the communicative approach in and part basic lesson teaching - reading/listening/speaking. We're doing half hour session rotations, so I'll have 30 minutes to hone my skills on teaching reading. I have a ppt and a lesson plan from my organization, that I'll have to cut down. So that'll be my Wednesday.

Anyhow, busy week ahead - lesson planning as usual, special Halloween-themed club fun for Tuesday (as next week is fall break), my first tutoring lesson in Ukrainian on Wednesday in the morning, seminar prep in the afternoon, traveling in the evening. Training on Thursday, and then teaching as usual Friday.

Hope all is well,


Sunday, October 11, 2015

My Address

Hello all,

I got this figured out a while ago, but haven't posted. Apparently the post office will deliver most anything to my door - letters for sure, and a package depending on the carrier (Meest is the best). However, it's pretty cost prohibitive. Should anyone feel like dropping me a postcard or letter, I'd love to get some mail!

Стеф Мунсон

Вул. Данила Галицького 57, Кв. 19
М. Мукачеве, Мукачівcький район
Закарпатська Обл.

Steph Munson
57 Danyla Halytskoho St., Apt. 19
Mukachevo, Mukachevo Region
Zakarpats'ka Oblast

It's probably best to simply cut and paste both addresses onto the mail for the highest probability of successful delivery. And remember - dictionaries and antiquities are prohibited.

Hope all is well,


Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Good, The Bad and the Funny

Hi all,

So it's been a rather hectic past two weeks!

The other day I completed my test questions for the Reading portion of the Olympiad - a national competition that is held in Ukraine each year for most academic subjects, including English. So that's about 20 hours of my life gone, but hopefully for an educational cause!

Friday was "Teacher's Day" in Ukraine. This means we once again had a school gathering outside (which was downright chilly - a complete 50 degrees cooler than the first day of school) where the 11th form put on a presentation. There was singing, dancing, skits, jokes and thank yous said. Then, the 11th and 10th forms went around to the classrooms to teach, instead of the teachers. At least, that's what should have happened, but, you know, organization.

So for most of the classes we had a few of the 10/11th formers come in and "teach". They mostly had the kids play charades in English. But, it didn't require me to do any lesson prep, so that was a win. I felt a little left out at first in the festivities, as all the teachers were showered with chocolates and flowers. There's this weird vibe I get about being stuck somewhere in ambiguity as to my official space in the school. I get called a teacher, but I get left out of a lot of loops. (More on that soon...) However, I did have some children come up to me eventually,   I left after my lessons and went home to change with my counterpart. We ended up riding with my back-up counterpart to a local teacher's house. The other teachers had just arrived in a bus, and we all gathered in a covered picnic area (very cool), and ate lots of delicious food while making lots of toasts. Needless to say, I understood very little...but it was a nice atmosphere. A lot of kids were there, and so it was fun to match the child to the teacher.

I also had an awful club last week. I had two boys play scuffling, although I told them to stop, they apparently picked it back up the moment my back was turned helping another student. One kid landed a punch square on the other's mouth. For several panic-stricken moments, it was relayed to me that the kid had lost a tooth. With tears streaming down his face and his refusal to let me see, the matter was only more complicated by the fact that I couldn't get in touch with my teacher counterpart.

Fortunately, it was soon clarified that he had NOT lost a tooth - just was bleeding from where he had lost a tooth recently (and by bleeding, I mean a drop or two). But he was in tears, upset and went home. The second boy stood in stony silence, a look of mild panic and full-on apprehension in his guarded, solemn expression. I dutifully lectured everyone about not fighting in my broken Ukrainian/English. Afterward, I checked in with him, telling him that I knew it was a an accident - only for him to deny it! (Meaning that they both were messing around, not that he meant to actually hurt the other kid.)

So, that was a pretty terrible way to have a club. The matter got worse on Wednesday - although I wasn't at school and no one bothered to call me.

I found out on Thursday that they were going to require another English teacher to come to my club to supervise. This is ridiculous, as none of them are free - they're all tutoring. And, I'm guaranteeing this is an isolated event. If the kids can't handle it, they either can't come or I'll simply cancel the club. Having some Ukrainian English teacher flipping out over the fact that kids are being loud playing games is certainly not going to foster a positive environment.

Apparently both sets of parents came to the school the next morning to complain about the fight, and there was even a bit of a screaming match. (I feel so terrible for that homeroom teacher and still need to give her a massive apology for getting sucked in.) Also, apparently the story was mis-reported, so there were claims of being kicked in the mouth. Luckily, the vice principal's daughter was in the vicinity and quickly clarified that this was NOT true. God forbid they have someone call me.

Anyhow, it was just an overwhelmingly negative and unfortunate experience with some very real repercussions.

Thankfully, when I had club today, no one bothered to actually follow up to make sure it was supervised. My counterpart stopped by, but didn't want to come in to disrupt, when she could hear through the door that no chaos was happening.

Finally, some funny.

So, first there's this: it's from outside an English primary school in Uzhgorod. The volunteer there was doing a teacher's talk last Wednesday, and I tagged along to observe. It was a little stilted, the teachers were surprisingly uncommunicative.
However, as we exited the building, I chuckled as I saw this "planter" - I'm pretty sure it would have saved some trees from my father's mowing - an unfortunate fate that no less than 20 saplings brought home from "Plant a Tree Day"  from various years ins school suffered...

(Sometimes they even paint the tires to make them reach another level of special-ness.)

Another funny thing is that I was giving a vocab mini-lesson (using words they supposedly learned last week to put into sentences) and I was having them translate as they went. (Not that I'm ever sure they're correct, but I count on my co-teacher to be listening). One kid kind of lost it at one point, and my co-teacher wouldn't explain except to mumble that she'd explain later.

The list included: an event, a member, to be keen on something, to practice, to join in, etc.

I discovered later that "a member" has exactly the secondary meaning that it has in English, and apparently that electronic dictionary has it as the primary definition.

Finally, can we just all have a laugh at the absurdity (once more) of the English language?
We worked with sentences today:
You're not mad, are you?
You're mad, aren't you?
She isn't here, is she?
They weren't traveling, were they?


Then we have: I'm your best friend, aren't I?

WTF English. No wonder people came up with "ain't", rather than use aren't (for you) or amn't I?

But really.

Hope all is well,


Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Human Experience

Hi all,

So today I had a really upsetting and rather frightening experience. I held it together until I made it home, but when I called Hugo to express my anger over the situation and my fear of mishandling it, I found myself dissolving into adrenaline-fueled tears.

First and foremost, I have to say that my response the situation was not ideal, mature, or a good reflection of what my program is trying to promote.

Then again, I really never expected to be almost ran over on the street out of malice.

To back up.

I was almost home, walking after a full day of six lessons and my first club organizational meeting. I like to walk with my headphones in, listening to a podcast to pass the time and learn something new. I was about 2 minutes from my front door. I live in a cluster of apartments that are arranged in groups of 3 or four. They've been (slowly) working on resurfacing the roads and sidewalks around the whole area. Usually I walk on the road, but there was a horse parked with a cart in the middle, and the road is rather rough-going in a pair of flats. There's a whole little system of walkways that run around the buildings, so I walked parallel to the sidewalk on one, and went to cross the 15 feet of road (more like a driveway leading into a parking area to get to the continuing path).

Out of my peripheral vision, I see that a white van is approaching the corner when I'm about 4 feet onto the road. I picked up my pace, but between the road and it's current speed I should've been able to clear the whole road about 1.5 times safely. After I'd taken 4-5 steps and was about 3 feet from the curb, it struck me that the van was now going WAY faster. The road was uneven, but free of any major potholes. It's wide enough for two cars to pass comfortably.

I barely had time to register that the van was really coming up (but was within 2 feet of the curb on the opposite side of the road that it should be driving) when I looked back and saw it swerve TOWARDS me. I literally jumped the last few feet, and had it miss me by inches. There was NOTHING, absolutely NOTHING wrong with the right side of the road and it was immediately apparent that the asshole had purposefully just made a swipe at me.

I'm fairly confident that he wasn't really trying to risk damaging his car by actually hitting me, but I'm fairly convinced that had I frozen in fear, he really might have.

What kind of person does shit like that?

As my adrenaline fear-fueled rage hit, I made a gesture that would not make my organization proud.
I don't think I've ever used it in real anger in the US even.

The car came to a stop about 30 feet away, and the window came down, with a man whipping his head out. I suddenly realized that I perhaps should not risk pissing off a stranger who has already shown a capacity for malicious maneuvers, who might also have a whole van full of like-minded buddies. At this point, I'd really only held up my hand for 2 seconds, and so I quickly continued my walk, hoping he wouldn't turn the van around to follow me - and already cringing about the potential tongue-lashing this could earn me from the Safety and Security manager.

So yeah. That's something I've been processing the last few hours, and I drew a pretty unlikely parallel from a story from a few days ago that I'd also like to share. Because crap like this can really stir up some feelings of doubt and anger about your environment.

Anyhow, I'd like to talk about my 'friend'.

Last Saturday, I went to hang out with my newly-returned-from-America counterpart. I went next-door to her building and we walked into the center. We met up with her sister, and all went for a quick bite. As we started to walk along, at some point I melted over a ridiculously cute puppy. I joked that maybe I could get one, and how would they feel about a nicely-trained one year old dog when I left, and we compared the merits of dogs vs. boyfriends in a light-hearted manner.

Now, my counterpart doesn't like dogs, especially ones that bark, they make her nervous. So it seemed to be a bad turn of fate, when we were startled by a lot of intense barking, and a yellow blur flying at an oncoming man. The businessman swung his suitcase at the dog - a smallish yellow mutt that may have had some golden retriever blood in it, as evinced by some pretty serious matting in its long hair on its legs.

We eyed the dog warily, but expected it to continue on.

But it didn't.

For the next fifteen minutes, it paced behind us, weaving from side to side and barking ferociously at any man that got too close. My counterpart was pretty nervous, but after a few minutes it became apparent that we were being dogged. (haha.)

We even stopped at two shops at the bazaar, and our new friend would patiently wait outside in an inconspicuous spot. Here's a picture from where he curled up:

My counterpart's sister joked that my wish had come true - although this certainly wasn't a puppy, and one look at the mats convinced me that this dog would probably not put up with domestication gently. The dog continued to follow us for the next ten minutes - despite encountering another territorial stray dog who he apparently convinced that he was just passing through.

The dog next singled out an old man. He was possibly un-housed, but certainly did not look like he probably had much more than his pension to keep him going. The dog came barking up to him, and I held my breath - ready to see the old man take a swing at, shout at, or find a rock to throw at the dog.

None of these things happened.

The old man came to a stop, despite the dog pressing closer with its snarling and barking. He reached out a hand, slowly, gently...

And the dog walked up to him cautiously...and let him scratch behind his ears.

The man may have said something softly, but all I know for sure is that he stood there for several long seconds, quietly communing with the dog.

We walked past them, and I thought that we might have lost our tail.

He came running up a few minutes later, and my counterpart's sister made us pass through a building in order to ditch him.

It's probably for the best, as there are often loud screaming, playing children outside our apartments and that's probably not ideal for a rather high-strung dog.

But what a moment.

For every asshole who gets their kicks with reckless, senseless behavior, it's a good reminder to see that the opposite also exists. Someone possessing a strong sense of empathy for a scraggly, confrontational dog who was only looking for a kind hand.

And of course this is a fact all over the world - that people can be simply and quietly marvelous. That sometimes the unexpected behavior can give you a moment of appreciation for kindness.

So yeah, I almost got ran over today. But I'm going to keep my faith in humanity, thank you very much.

Hope all is well,


Saturday, September 5, 2015

Mashrutka Musings

I Adopted! (Gender Unspecified)

Hello all,

Well, I survived my first week, and it was mostly a successful venture. There was a moment when I feared chaos among the second graders (my counterpart TOTALLY owes me for taking on her classes alone while she's still gallivanting about the US through this next week), when a game of Simon (Miss Stephanie) says quickly derailed with the discover of *BEADS!* on the floor. So I lost about 5 kids to random wandering.

So now I know to plan double the activities, hopefully also get a song and maybe even show a little cartoon. Because I have them again on Monday - along with the OTHER section.

My temporary counterpart also had a bit of a terrible day on Friday, as she just got her driving license and had a few mishaps that lead to no end of frustration and tears. I only thought I might die twice though during the proceedings, and it was humbling to see someone have a really, truly bad day. I couldn't do much except lend a reassuring ear and do some back rubbing (y'all, I'm SO not good at comforting people...). Things turned out ok,

Anyhow, I had another breakthrough that I think also gives some insight into the culture I'm immersed in every day.

As much as a 45 minute walk can be enjoyable with a good podcast and properly broken-in footwear, the latter is still a concern and I have the blisters to prove it. So it was pretty much necessity that led me to exploring taking the mashrutka (minibus) that picks up (conveniently) right outside of my building and that goes to center.

Now, coming from a region in the US that has absolutely NO form of public transportation, excepting the occasional Greyhound bus, I find public transportation a bit trying under the best situations. My first real exposure happened when I lived in Germany, and that did lead to an adventure or two - notably clutching a book of fairy tales in the middle of nowhere near midnight waiting for the bus that dropped me at the wrong end of the line to turn around so I could go the correct direction - so I have a lingering aversion to taking anything for the first time.

And of course there's the fact that in Ukraine that schedules can be rather whimsical, based on factors that I can't even begin to fathom. They also work on the premise that another person can always be squeezed in. Boarding a bus (or anything that involves a "line") is a frantic free-for-all bottleneck exercise that never fails to induce a slight panic.

Once aboard, you handover your fare and squeeze towards the back. If you're lucky you'll get a seat, otherwise you're stuck surfing. Anyone who has spent any amount of time in a city on the subway will have this art-form down. It's a braced-leg position with one hand wrapped awkwardly around people to the nearest support bar. Stops are really more of suggestion - with some definitely planned, but it's not unusual for someone to simply flag down a ride from the road or to request a stop somewhere along the route.

In theory, this is very convenient. In practice, it can make approximating where your stop is a bit of a challenge. It is also (for all of summer and a good ways into fall) a sweltering hell-hole of heat perfumed by a miasma of body odor. Today I lucked out with getting on a mashrukta with the window open. Thankfully, an older woman querulously demanded that it be shut! God forbid that a breeze enter a hotbox of humanity and possibly air anything out.

Sorry, not that I'm bitter about this. Ukrainians (and Russians? and Europeans?) have this fear of breezes or being cold in general. I mean, somehow my ovaries seem to always be at risk of freezing.


There are some great things about them (other than quartering my actual walking time to the school). For example, there is a very established culture (including window closing mandates) within the mashrutka. Any babusya (grandmother) will definitely tell off any drunk man who starts to make a pass at you. In general, men will give up their places to a woman, and every gives up seats for the babusya or a mother/pregnant woman.

In addition, you might have noticed my lovely plant picture. I found a nice aloe vera plant (I think - and better late than never...) at the market place and decided that it was coming home with me. While I couldn't live with the guilt of abandoning a pet, a plant can always be surreptitiously dropped in a classroom at the end of the year. Anyhow, I ended up taking the mashrutka from behind the bazaar to my apartment, laden with two bags of groceries, my purse and the plant. This made my position for surfing a bit precarious, but luckily, a nice woman next to me took the plant from me.

I mean literally, she just reached over and grabbed it - returning it when I went to disembark. This is another common phenomenon that I'd witnessed before but never had happen to me. It usually happens when you give up your seat to someone, but they'll take your purse or bags and hold onto it for you. Sometimes they are very insistent, and you really have not choice but to relinquish your belongings. You'll be helped, and you'll like it, by golly.

Anyhow, it was nice to be folded into that cultural experience and probably saved the woman from getting her eyes poked out. A win for everyone!

Anyhow, back to attempting to salvage part of the evening in the name of productivity - I have some Warden duties for formulating an emergency action plan to work on, a training request to assist with the incoming volunteers to complete and several things I'm undoubtedly forgetting about.

Hope all is well,


Thursday, September 3, 2015

Day of Knowledge - First Day of School!

Hi all,

Nothing like the hectic start of a school year to shake you out of your mindset! I've been far too busy to dwell on any thought for too long. I was super excited to see the traditional school opening ceremony, and wish I'd thought of getting a picture with my new teacher co-workers. However, as I officially hadn't met all of them yet, this would have been problematic.

My temporary counterpart did swoop by to pack me into her car at around 8:30. We were in a hurry, and had to stop at a florist's shop to pick up plants for her school-aged children. The youngest child kept insisting that, perhaps, we should just go for coffee instead of to school?

All around the city, people walked in the traditional outfits of vyshavankas - the embroidered shirts/dresses in a variety of patterns and colors. Girls wore braided hair that could be considered to be a form of art, and the youngest wear ridiculously cute poofs (see picture proof below!). We bustled to the school, and I found myself behind the "stage", standing with my counterpart's class. All the younger forms assembled in their homeclass groups, and trailed in holding hands, to line the asphalt basketball court, with parents standing behind.

Two students served as MCs, reading an announcement about the hopes for the new year and the excitement of welcoming the new first graders to school. Remarks were made by the school Director, and the flag was raised. A dance performance, by some 7th graders, was an interesting addition - This is Africa is a decidedly Ukrainian choice (the last Christmas pageant used Cotton-Eyed, I wasn't surprised!).

It's not the best section of the performance, but it is the part where the girls were facing my part of the audience.

Next the first graders were paraded around the court, with one girl sweetly carried by her father. Several of the students were lined up to recite stanzas of a poem - with one student cutely saying that he may be a school director someday! Kids are super into memorization here, with a very sing-songy cadence.

The children were also presented some school materials by the 11th grade class (the final year), although they were strangely dressed in what looked to be a variant of a French maid costume. Not sure why...but I saw girls all over the city wearing the same outfits, so clearly a tradition for some reason.

The anthem was also played during the ceremony, and it's so nice to hear an anthem within a sing-able range. Some of the first graders also sang a song, and later so did some teachers.

I was really looking forward to the bell ringing - an 11th form boy will put a 1st grade girl on his shoulders and carry her around the stage while she rings a bell. Unfortunately, this time the boy merely held her hand. Apparently in Hugo's village they did have the tiny girl perched on a very large boy, and it was quite the sight.

Once the festivities were over, we headed inside to have a truncated day, which is good, because the temperature nearly hit 100 degrees. It was pretty miserably hot in school.

Oddly enough, the school had waited until the day before to install all new windows (government funded at least in part) throughout the main building, so that was also going on. The students were all quite excited, and I got thrown right back into teaching since the teachers hadn't prepared anything. I talked about myself and my summer, invited them to ask questions and then talk about their summers as well.

I was finished around 1:30 - just in time to go and meet my programs Safety and Security officer (a rather intimidating man that has quite the presence), to go to the local police. Although, local militia is a closer approximation to what we consider to be police. At any rate, I was pulled into the meeting with the chief of police, the duty officer, a local military officer and another man who I presumed to be of similar importance.

For about an hour I sat and pretended to follow the conversation, speaking poor Ukrainian for several minutes about my role, and to sit and look pretty. Since I am the regional "Warden", it was important for us to meet in the case of any emergency situation that could arise with volunteers. My being able to call from a business card the chief of police would expedite contacting other local authorities and expand the safety network. It seemed to go well, and the army representative expressed great interest in my adult English club, and hopes his daughter can join. So there's that.

I then went to join some of the English and German teachers and the school secretaries for dinner at a local restaurant. Although it was technically lunch, I suppose, but it was about 4pm. I now know where to get a tasty caesar salad in town. I should really give up on Ukrainian cheesecake though, as I always measure it against the ones I enjoy to bake and find it sadly lacking. Though tasty enough, they're just in a whole different category.

Then I went to a friend's house for a few hours, finally managing to make it home around 8pm.
Suffice it to say that I was rather tired!

The last few days I've gone to a wide variety of English classes with my temporary counterpart, and even led a class all by myself today with about 18 5th graders in it. The lesson was 98% English, and the kids did great. We even put some grammar structure in. My counterpart put a bit of the fear of god into them at the beginning of the lesson, but they all stayed super engaged - I'll milk the novelty factor for all it's worth!

Tomorrow I apparently get a class of 2nd graders. I'm basically filling in for my counterpart who's still gallivanting about the US (kinda) until the 10th. I'm very excited for her return.

Anyhow, I'm going to throw up the pictures at the end here from the first day.

Hope all is well,


Holding hands to line up around the stage.

Some of the students waiting for the events to begin.

The school bell!

Nothing says welcome back like the Samba. Notice the beautiful chalk work!

They do this little bobbing twist as they sing to keep count...adorable!

Some of the teachers singing.

11th Grade classes with presents for the 1st formers.

The parade of the first formers - look at the poofs!

Not really sure why it's upside down, but it did get righted to blue skies over the yellow fields of Ukraine!

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Peculiarities of Insecurity

Hi All,

I have more to say about Lviv, but it will keep for the moment. So far I've mostly concentrated on my day to day activities and hopefully stayed pretty positive. Sometimes, however, a little introspection is a good thing...

I'm Here!...

Unlike the boys, who went back to a village where their returns were heralded with community-wide acknowledgement (and then promptly set to work with camps or clubs), my arrival was more of a whisper than a bang. I assuaged my feelings of guilt with the unemotional outlook of practicality. I am NOT a visible feature in my community, mostly because it has over 80,000 people. It takes longer to make the kinds of friends who invite you into your home in a city. Of the few friends I DO have, they have either a family busy with small children or in one case, is a newly wed with a baby along the way.

In addition, summer vacation is a busy time, and many of the students live all over the city, or even outside of it. They are from a demographic that most do not seem to just be randomly roaming the streets of the city. The teachers at my school in the English department are mostly people I have not met yet, and the Director was on vacation. Putting up a sign outside my school would probably not attract anyone's attention, and I do not have the space nor ideal location to start holding a club at my house.

These and several other practical reasons all add up to a rather clear pictures - it would be very difficult to start a club (or few) before school, where timing was due to change with schedules. However, self-doubt can easily creep in. Do I accept these reasons too easily? Am I intimidated by the thought of starting clubs? Am I lazy volunteer? The uncertainty and gnawing feeling of guilt can sometimes surge up, especially when looking at other volunteers.

But I know I have to stop that.

I am here as a volunteer to work WITH. Yes, I probably could've made some very strong requests that clubs get started immediately - but this would be of dubious worth given the situation of students being unable/unwilling to come and could possibly make things awkward for me professionally with the Director. I have to lean on him for support for my posvidka and for other help already, and building some credit once teaching starts will give us a firmer relationship of professional respect and put me in a stronger position for future projects. It's also more culturally-sensitive.

My insecurity should not be used as a battering ram.

In addition. Hello. I'm back in Ukraine. I have every confidence in myself that I am a hard worker and plus, this is round two. I feel more confident in my work this time around, and know things will fall into place. My clubs may take a few weeks to plan out, but I'll take these next few weeks to get to know my students - whose lives are often over-scheduled with tutors and activities - to see what will work best. Because that's the other thing I discovered yesterday...

I'll be Teaching 18 Classes...Eventually...

The thought of hitting the ground running this next week filled me with a bit of a kick of excitement. Sure, it'll be a bit crazy to start, but I figured I'd jump right in and get started. So it was a slight blow to speak with my current counterpart (newly returned from Greece last night), and discovering that the vice director would wait two weeks before giving me my schedule.

In all fairness, 3 out of the 5 English teachers I haven't even met yet, though I will tomorrow morning. I am sure they are perhaps a little apprehensive of sharing their teaching time with an unknown entity, and I am sure I will have some of the challenges I faced last time (fear or speaking in front of a native speaker, fear I'll undermine them - intentionally or not - in front of their classes, not knowing what to do with me, etc). It's actually a good opportunity to be able to shadow some classes to get a feel for ability level before I have to start crafting lesson plans.

Also, the first time I was here, they had me shadow the first weeks as well, so they could be following that protocol. My real counterpart will be returning in about 2 weeks, so they might have thought waiting for that would be wise as well as I'll likely have quite a few classes with her.

Honestly, they could have tried to just make me teach all my real counterpart's classes for her since she'll be gone. In a smaller school, my presence might have been enticing enough to ignore the fact that my organization would frown upon that.

And maybe that's what my insecurity boils down to. The feeling of not being needed.

Which. Is. Ridiculous.

That is pure ego.

The teachers have been teaching English for years, and will continue to do so without me. Many of my students will not need, let alone strongly desire, to use or learn English well. Relationships are never healthy when based on need, as they foster dependency. My organization focuses on building sustainable practices.

So I will change my mindset.

Patience, hard work and time will change my fear of not being needed, into the reassurance of being wanted. It's the motivation to give my best, to show up and perform to the best of my ability, while forming relationships with my students and the other teachers.

In the end, I hope that I can have a positive effect on the people who surround me, and that I have the humility to learn and accept what they offer in return.

So when the niggling thoughts of ineptitude and self-doubt creep in, I will consider them objectively to examine their merit. Some may push me to expand my comfort zone and boundaries, and others I will simply have to let go of.

There. Now a happy picture to end this slightly introspective post on exploring and conquering insecurities. Some of you may recall my frustration with the fact that the most reasonably-priced milk (other than that from someone's cow put in recycled plastic bottles) comes in a bag. I decided that I would no longer have the fight with propping the opened bag up and hoping that the paperclip would hold. This is a silly fight and I have resources that my energy can be better spent on. So I decided to teach that milk a lesson:
A Pitcher is worth a Thousand Words
It's the small things : )

Hope all is well,



Wednesday, August 26, 2015

All You Need is Lviv

Hi All,


Lviv is secretly (not so secretly) a very European city. People exclaimed over the quaint charm of having to stamp their trolley bus tickets. I was so used to just paying and moving on, that I was a bit perplexed to even GET a ticket from the driver, let alone stamp it. Carried a whiff of nostalgia from my Regensburg days (although there I just had to bring my student ID to avoid the fine of being caught). Of course, we did get checked at the train station upon our return, and poor Will had tucked his ticket somewhere obscure, but the lady got tired of our reassurances and general confusion and finally waved us off. The 40 UAH fine would've been one of the cheapest parts of our trip...

Where there's a Will, there's a Way

So the plan to go to Lviv was put in motion by a visiting volunteer who went to Macedonia after we were evacuated. After hemming and hawing about having the time/energy/money to go, Will, Hugo and myself decided to travel up and meet with 3 other volunteers that are currently in a city a few hours east of Lviv. We had a horrendous time finding lodging. Ukrainians, I'm afraid to say, have a very tenuous grasp on the details of Airbnb and VRBO machinations. Will and I got rejected by no fewer than 5 potential hosts, despite meeting criteria and their apparently empty calendars. Also complicating the situation was the happy realization that Monday was the Day of Independence (thus allowing us to have a free vacation day to travel), but also making Lviv rather popular for the population at large.

However, after several frantic hours of searching for submitting travel paperwork, Will discovered a Hostel not featured on the main sites, that luckily had rooms open all weekend. So we pounced and I booked us. It later came out, via email from the parent company in Kyiv, that that hostel DOESN'T EXIST ANYMORE. They expressed surprised that we'd been able to book at all. While Hugo and I were leaving Friday evening, Will was taking an overnight train and arriving early Saturday morning. Having told Hugo the danger had passed and that it was unnecessary to pack his duster or my sleeping pad, we found ourselves in a rather precarious situation of being unhoused for the night.

Will sprang into action and managed to book us two free beds in another hostel (he just asked them to hold them really) and so we felt fairly confident we'd be set. Once we actually arrived in Lviv, and after a 45 minute trek through to the center and the hostel, I think we both felt fairly comfortable with the thought of being out all night. People were out at all hours, with cafes and restaurants open late with music and street life performances. But we made it, and after some initial door confusion we were shown to the room. It was a 10 bed mixed dorm, and only had 3 other people. After settling ourselves in, Hugo and I went in search of dinner.

Let's Talk About the Food...

Hugo and I were not disappointed by the Uzbek restaurant we found. In fact, I think it's safe to say that we were not disappointed by the Nationalist Restaurant, the Fairy Tale Restaurant, the Jewish Restaurant (although that involved bartering for our food, and a struggle to show we weren't ridiculously rich Americans, no matter what the ignorant man at the next table over decided to share with our waitress), Georgian, Masonic, Burger, Coffee shops and Bakeries that we ate at.

Because, dear lord, the FOOD.
I had a dish with chickpeas - and later found some at a grocery store! - and we had wine from Crimea. I love the homemade wine here, but it is a mixed bag and inevitably not quite what you bargained for. The prices of course were higher than what I'd normal consider to be in my budget, but I treated this as vacation and drew from my American savings. It still was a bargain to anything you'd find in America.

The next morning we met up with Will and we went to a cafe. Will had finally had an Airbnb success, and our next few nights were locked down. While the guys had coffee, I went for the hot chocolate, and was not disappointed. It's literally hot melty chocolate...similar to a warm chocolate pudding but thinner and richer. Though Lviv is known for its Coffee, it is also known for its chocolate and in this case the chocolate trumped coffee. It did make the guys a little less growly though.

We met up with the Airbnb contact and then started our meander through the city. Will used his phone and the guidebook to navigate mostly, so I left it up to him. He pretty much wanted to see EVERYTHING, so there wasn't much choosing to be done. We did go to a monastery under Studite Rule (Benedictine Nuns), and talked to a lovely nun who spent some time in Siberia. I didn't catch most of it, but it sounded unpleasant. They have a Canadian nun in residence, but she was busy. We got to go into the giftshop and look at their pysanky (decorated eggs) collection from other sister groups around the world, and I even bought one they made there with traditional designs.

We met up with the first other volunteer group in the early afternoon. One of the volunteers was a true response volunteer, and seemed to be still working out the details of what that all entails. To be fair, they did just arrive 2 weeks prior, with no real language training given. The other volunteer was a returned volunteer as well from the group previous to mine. She was working with an NGO that dealt with human trafficking and related social issues. She's quite fantastic.

We went to eat at the fairy tale house - after being regaled by a gentleman outside the establishment with some sort of legends involving the "flying car" we later saw on the roof the 5 story building. We really only went to get the discount coupon for another restaurant (which turned out to be the Lviv discount card that we could've gotten at the hostel), but it turned out to be very interesting. The house beer wasn't much, but the fact that it was staffed by little people and crammed full of interesting artifacts (such as a counter for the exact number of cobblestones currently in the city), made it very enjoyable.

And then Let's Eat Some More

This became the rather unapologetic theme of our trip. In all fairness, any time NOT spent eating was spent tromping around to look at either one church or some other historical building. The last two to join our group was the visiting volunteer and another response volunteer. He was returning as a response volunteer again, having done his initial service in Kazakhstan. He'd done some teaching previously in country, so his language was more than adequate. As they needed to eat, we ended up in a Jewish restaurant across from the Fairy Tale one. I had a dessert that was literally put in a flower pot, and was slightly more sophisticated than pudding and gummy worms. Featuring shaved chocolate, ice cream, orange gelatin and vanilla cake, I wasn't complaining.

The bill process was strange, as you must barter for your food. I thought this may be borderline racist, and didn't especially enjoy the process. I think we ended up way over-paying, although the server seemed to enjoy our rendition of "This Little Light of Mine".

Storming the Castle

We decided that the next step should be exploring the castle. After several mis-turns, we found ourselves on the right path. So we went up. And up. There was a strange combination of footpaths and metal stairs set into the hill that guided our approach. We passed the ruins of the outer-wall of the castle, and continued the ascent. I started to have a nagging doubt as we started the final seemed that the top was rather narrow. My hunch was confirmed as we reached the top, with nothing but a larger paved circle with a large flag post in the middle. No castle in site...yes, that was NOT the outer-wall, it was the pitiful remains of the castle itself. But the view was nice.

Themes and Schemes

The effort also allowed us the excuse to seek out sustenance. We decided to go the "Masonic" (Ie, the most expensive in the city) restaurant. I won't spoil the secret of gaining entrance, because that's definitely part of the fun. I will say that we saw one other group of tourists leaving because they were not savvy enough to have gotten the discount card. Because without it, you don't end up with a 90% discount, and your meal really is the most expensive you'd probably find in most of the country.

After dessert (before dinner, as one really never does know when one may die), we went downstairs to the Nationalist restaurant. I'm not sure how themed establishments became so popular here, but they're definitely successful. After ascertaining we knew the password and that we harbored no Russians, we were let into the bunker. The set-up was sprawling and rustic, with live traditional music. There were lots of WWII artifacts, and costumes. There was also a pellet gun shooting alley, where one could take out some anger on Putin or Yanukovych's face. It is also the hot venue to buy a half-meter long sausage, should that be your desire.

It was quite late after we finished, and we were ready to go back and crash. We made plans to go to the Lviv Coffee shop (THE Coffeeshop, the birthplace of coffee in Ukraine) in the morning.


Well, clearly I had no fun at all, as I've only really partially captured the fun and excitement of the first part of the trip. Words are failing me so I think I'll leave the second half for a near-future post.

Hope all is well,

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Weekend Shenanigans and Posvidka Frustrations

Hi all,

It appears I'm currently collecting pictures of Will holding a watermelon. I missed an opportunity during the training seminar, but I'll try to be more on top of it! Surely watermelon-holding is a skill that should be cultivated, and one day perhaps he'll graduate to something even more exciting. 

Anyhow, after the training (and some truly delicious but slightly spendy ice cream) we met up with Tina and she showed us how to get to her village. It was only about an hour away (opposite of my direction home, of course), and we enjoyed watching the boys manage to fall asleep in some truly uncomfortable-looking positions. From the bus stop, it was a quick 5 minute walk, and the heat was already considerably less than in Uzghorod. Tina's village is nestled in the foothills, and has a nice river that runs through it.

We arrived to a warm welcome by Tina's parents and brother, and met her brother's girlfriend who was also visiting. Tina's home is pretty typical for a smaller village. It is compact, full of touches that make a house a home. It also had VERY comfortable beds. Along with chickens, a rooster, two dogs (including the FRIENDLIEST dog ever...I was tempted to kidnap her!), two cows and pigs. In a more traditional set-up, the house was actually several buildings. The main house had 4 rooms and a washroom with a washing machine. The toilet was outdoors, and it was one of the nicest I've seen - it even had a light inside for at night! Across from the main building was the kitchen/storage room, which was also attached to the barn. Adjacent to the two buildings was another little building (perhaps a "summer kitchen" but not yet fully converted), the garden and outhouse. 

The next morning, after a delicious breakfast of noodles and sauce, we decided to head down to the grocery store. Tina's parents were graciously preparing "Shashlyk" (like shishkabobs on steroids: meat marinaded all day, then placed on a giant skewer, spaced out with onions and salo) and fire-roasted potatoes. Hence the watermelon. Here's a picture of our band of merry travelers as we set off:

And a small peep into the store as purchases were being made:

Tina's family just got internet a few weeks ago at the house, and it was heartwarming to see her family get a Skype call from their volunteer. He's been gone for 5 years, but her parents absolutely lit up at the sight of him. He was never officially part of their house, but they well and truly adopted him. He was full of good advice, and it was good to "get to know" him.
A while later, it was decided that it was definitely warm enough to go for a swim in the river. So we put on our swimsuits and headed out. 

There's a secret - or at least one must be a local to know it- spot where the water suddenly shifts from 6 inches to at least 8 feet deep. We found the bend, and the river was pretty devoid of people, at least at first. Tina and I went in to cool off, and then I placed myself in the shade. I suppose I should be attempting to "fix" my sunburn, but why chance another one??

After a few blissful hours we headed back, and were allowed to help with assembling the skewers.
It's always a little awkward to help in the kitchen, or anytime someone wants us to cut anything. They think they're keeping it easy by asking us to peel potatoes - because who can mess up THAT? - but really, we're just a constant disappointment. Or a really good laugh.

Because, of course they don't use potato peelers - they use a knife. And I'm sure your mother always said "NEVER cut towards yourself!! Always away!" Ukrainian mothers find this perplexing advice. Knives only work well to peel towards yourselves, and who even needs a cutting board when your cupped hand will work just fine?! Honestly...

I did pretty well with the tomatoes though.

Dinner was absolutely scrumptious, and we had white homemade wine for dinner. It's the first actual white (more of a gold) wine that I'd see, and was on par with a decent Muscato. It went very well with the greasy-crisp meat and potatoes. Because, one must also melt salo down to pour OVER the meat and potatoes in the bowl.

You can NEVER have enough salo!

We finished the evening by playing Catchphrase (so impressive to play with people where English is their 2nd, 3rd or 4th language!) and had a lot of fun. I also slept so well, despite a few interruptions from the dogs and chickens. After another wonderful breakfast and some downtime, we said our goodbyes and headed out. Our bus eventually came, and I was home in the early afternoon. A wonderful way to spend the weekend!

Posvidka Blues
So, I've been having quite the ordeal with trying to register to live legally. However, after much back in forth, several runarounds and an extra trip, I finally received my Posvidka - my residence document. HOWEVER, this has turned out to be merely the tip of the iceberg. Because I need to get my passport stamped. But apparently that can't happen UNTIL I get my Posvidka stamp in my town of residence and then have to turn in a copy of that AND my passport for several days to them.

Which means I have no form of identification? Pretty not-cool...

Of course, I've already passed the 10-day deadline of getting the stamp (because they insisted they wouldn't start the process until they got a certain superfluous document, but then after I turned it in and waited, it turned out that they'd already created the Posvidka after all 5 days previous...what?!) after the Posvidka was processed - NOT picked up. Although apparently they COULD have provided me with a letter certifying this date was different. However, now I have to pay a 500 UAH fine. Well, I don't, but I'm still irked.

Now, this presumes that I can even GET my Posvidka stamped because apparently they don't know who owns the building, since I am apparently kind of subletting? And they need the owner to be there and to provide certain documents.

Are you confused yet?

My Director said he'll take care of it tomorrow...I hope so because I'm off to Lviv for the weekend!

I'll be spending Monday there too because we have it as a vacation day due to it being Ukraine's day of Independence from the USSR.

So there's that.

Hope all is well,

Monday, August 17, 2015

Back to Arrival

Hi All,

Well, I've lost a layer of skin here and there, and my legs attract a certain amount of attention in public, but I made it through last training week. I'm going to bop back to my arrival - jet lagged and blurred though it might be.

Back in the Office
I got up around 8:30am and texted the boys to see if they were at and where breakfast was. Neither responded, but I found the breakfast room and was treated to my first Ukrainian breakfast back. Buckwheat groats, cabbage salad and meat in a sauce. I traded travel stories with Will and Steve and was grateful that our first meeting wasn't until 10am. Will decided to leave early, and took me for a meandering walk through the arboretum on a round-about course to the office.

Once there we got to meet the interim director (ours was on vacation) and got updates on the country and political situation. We also had a language session - slightly brutal - and a couple of other update sessions. For lunch we went to a traditional food restaurant, and I was pleased to see the vareneky still was as delicious as I remembered.

Overview of the Next Few Days

I honestly can't quite remember the proper order of the next few days...we were in and out of the office for all sorts of training sessions and meetings. We met the country director (who was apparently satisfied with my motivation for returning - I hadn't really considered that that was being weighed after I'd already flown in, but I guess it's good I passed muster?). We also got sworn in with a terrifically nice little ceremony where we were presented with the traditional bread and salt, special because my regional manager dressed up in costume with another manager to do the presentation.

We also walked all over Kyiv. We visited the Maidan square - home to thousands of protesters during the Maidan Revolution. We toured the areas and shrines to the "Heavenly 100" - those shot in a single night of violence, a mixture of students, professors and activists who had no idea their peaceful protesting would cost them their lives. The stones of the square, once clean and level, still show the gaps of where stones were pried up - for barricades or defense, or perhaps cooking fires to feed the crowds. The great fountain in the square is empty, and the buildings surrounding it still show some damage. It is fully reclaimed by the inhabitants, but there is a somber air as they walk through the memorial.

Will led us on many meandering walks through lesser-known parts of the city. We saw monuments, the university, lots of the new police and found several great restaurants. One night we ate at a Georgian restaurant and had an interesting exchange. Our server was switching between Ukrainian and excellent English with us. He stopped Steve in his tracks when he tried to speak Russian to him (as that was the language Steve had learned last time, since he's posted out east). He very firmly declared that he was Ukrainian and this is Ukraine, so he will only converse in Ukrainian.

This was actually quite shocking, as you would have never heard this sentiment before in Kyiv (I think). In truth, many people speak a mixture of the two languages, or a dialect that usually mixes some Russian and Hungarian (and perhaps Polish near that border?) in, but it still wasn't strange to hear people speaking mostly Russian. The sentiment rings out a certain bitterness that has developed, and unapologetic pride in Ukrainian. I don't know how many would echo this sentiment so strictly, but I am sure the numbers have greatly increased in the past year.

We also ate at a Lebanese restaurant and then a Crimean Tatar restaurant. The Crimean restaurant is newly opened (and lacking a liquor license, necessitating an interesting sideline business at a local store that now will sell beer by the glass for you to carry to the restaurant...) and staffed by those who have fled Crimea. The food was pretty good, and it was an interesting meal as the Director took us out. He seems more open about a lot of things, and not afraid to make changes to the program.

Will and I ended up leaving a day earlier than planned due to a train ticket kerfuffle (and in the rush, poor Will forgot his smallest suitcase containing his running shoes and some important materials), and it remains a miracle as to how we managed to unload all our belongings off the train the next morning. It was a cozy set up with the two of us and our plethora of luggage getting an entire 4 person compartment. Excepting the heat, which was considerable, it was rather pleasant. It was nice to watch the countryside go by and get a good night's sleep.

The next morning I managed to get most of the suitcases set up in the narrow hallway, and thankfully a nice man  - who doubtlessly was itching to get out behind me - helped throw most of the stuff down to the platform. I was met by my interim counterpart and her husband, and was quickly whisked away. Hugo was there briefly to say hello, and his wandering off concerned my counterpart who thought he'd just arrived (sans luggage or counterpart!). So that was funny.

Flashing Forward: Teacher Training

So this past Tuesday - Friday I spent in Uzhgorod with Will and Hugo. We lived in a student dorm and also met the volunteer who will be posted there for the next 6 months. She's on her third trip, as she volunteered about 20 years ago (first wave!!!) and had returned when we first arrived in Sept 2013 as a response volunteer - only to be evacuated with us. We got to have several long conversations and I already appreciate her immensely. She has a lot of experience teaching, so I am sure she will be a great mentor as well. She (Meryl) was a gracious hostess as well, letting us commandeer her kitchen and implements and we shared dinner every night.

Tuesday morning we arrived around 8:40. Hugo had been unable to get a ride into my city the night before to avoid an early bus, so decided to try the local electric train to Uzhgorod. So he ended up not coming to my city at all. I was rather laden with my teaching supplies and stuff for the week, so I ended up going to the local taxi stand and getting a ride to the bus station. I'm pretty sure I was ripped off, but between the heat and the weight, I simply didn't care. I ended up beating the guys to the center of the city. And we walked to the Institute together. We had about an hour to prep, and then I was on.

I had the two sessions left for the day, but any anxiety I'd felt quickly dissipated. Teachers make GREAT students. We had about 20 English teachers (all women, of course...) from the area that were up for their re-certification. The first activity was all about introductions: we did 3 activities that gradually got deeper and more personal, bringing out the person and their knowledge into the classroom. I then introduced Peace Corps and the Communicative Approach.
My next session was on Multiple Intelligences for learning styles in the classroom and demonstrated this with some demonstration on teaching vocab - using my camping gear, no less!
Will and Hugo did a great job over the next few days in incorporating those components into their lessons as well.

The next day Will rocked an improv and drama lesson, while Hugo did writing an essay. It was great to transform our teacher students into actresses and watch them go all-out. Writing an essay is a daunting concept for many of the teachers themselves, so it was very good practice for them. The week and topics sped by (listening exercises, music and dialogue, resource development), and we got to do a field trip to Window on America - a program sponsored by the US Embassy as a resource center for English language learners.

The week culminated in a Jeopardy-styled review lesson and evaluation component. We got lots of good feedback, and it was clear to see that we'd managed to make an impression. We took dozens of photos, and saying goodbye was rather sad. They were a wonderful group of women!

Kicking Me Out of the Country?
However, on Thursday, I made the unfortunate discovery that my residence document had been delayed. I'd been told that I could drop the agreement off when I came to pick up the document, but apparently they hadn't even started to process it! So, there's two weeks wasted. I have to have my counterpart call tomorrow for an update, as we dropped the agreement off on Thursday. Thankfully we have a friend in the city who could help us with that!
We went to her village on the weekend to relax, and I'll cover that in my next post!

Hope all is well,


Monday, August 10, 2015

Sour Cream on My Legs - A Transcarpathian Adventure

*Warning: Bodily functions discussed. Sour cream is liberally applied...things get strange*
Hello all,

Yes, I'll spare you (me?) the picture of my legs as I'm writing this blog post, but I can affirm that from ankle on up to about 6 more inches of my legs are slathered in sour cream as I type this. I'm going to post some highlights of the weekend, although it will likely turn into a saga.

Will is Wise, Hugo and I are Fools
Will called me up last week and announced that we had the chance to go on a great adventure: one of his teachers from school (Ukrainian, not English) had invited him to go on a trip to climb some mountains. With his usual verve, he managed to get Hugo and myself invited as well. "A test of human endurance!" he said, a chance to really experience Ukraine. Well, sign me up.

Hugo and I got on the bus Thursday mid-morning, and were soon bumping along to Vinoradhiv, the nearest big(ger) city to Will's town. I remembered that the bus stopped nearer center before continuing on to the bus stop - a rather painfully learned lesson that my bladder still cringes when recalled. So I was pleased that we hopped off at the right stop.

Until I realized I just left my phone on the bus.

My Ukrainian cell phone with all my organization numbers and not really something I should miss-place if at all possible. So after an almost comic moment of realization and growing panic, we set off towards the bus stop. After several minutes, Hugo - thinking more clearly than I, took my backpack and I got to have my first run in Ukraine. So happy to start in the 90+ degree weather...
Fortunately, the bus was still at the station when I ran up and grabbed my phone off the bus, jogging my way back to Hugo.

Clearly our adventures had already begun!

Meet up, Melt Down
Within an hour Will had joined us in the town. We were a little confused by his shopping list - fruit, crackers, lots of bread (ok, that's normal for Ukraine), cheese. No tent was on the list - Will cheerfully informed us that there was an extra. So we stocked up and bought the guys little metal bowls and Hugo a towel. We met up with Will's Ukrainian teacher friend by chance, which led to several things.

On the plus side, we got to meet her ahead of time and got a ride back to Will's village. We also found out that Will had missed a negative somewhere, and that we were currently NOT thought to be needing a tent. Luckily, where there's a Will there's a way, and we soon were able to rustle one up.
Crisis averted.

When we got back to Will's village we went on the grand tour. We stopped for ice cream, and decided to come back for water. This was all fine and well, until Will decided that we should walk to the river - about a mile's distance. Now, most of you know that my heat-tolerance is pathetic. I do get cranky and sweaty, but I also just biologically cannot handle heat well. I managed to hold it together fairly well - we even got a ride half-way to the beach, but as we bounced along I was fairly certain I was one good bump away from losing anything in my stomach.

At the beach I dearly would have loved to dive into the river, but my clothing selection was limited and I didn't have a spare to have wet. Realizing that I really wasn't feeling too hot, Will kindly procured water from a friend (Will is everyone's friend...echos of "Mr. Will! Mr.Will ring out from children anywhere we go in his village and many adults know him as well), and I got to sit in the shade. Concern made us curtail the river experience, and it was a huge struggle to make it back into town to the first little bar with water. As I staggered along, too far gone to face the effort of speaking - NEVER a problem as we all know - I began to have second thoughts about my endurance for a mountain trek.

However, after a bottle of water, an extremely cold shower and an hour of rest, I felt fit to regain humanity. Meanwhile Will and Hugo had gone off to play ultimate Frisbee in a lightening storm with his English club. Apparently lightening can form balls? That would be my sign to evacuate the field...

After a lovely evening with Will's landlord and his family, we went to bed after re-packing.

Our Adventure Begins
We were outside and waiting for the bus by 6:15am at the Ukrainian teacher's house. Her pack was easily twice the size of mine (she is about 5'3 and 120lbs, maybe) and a rough sort of bag fashioned from canvas and pretty much just a tube. We also met her husband. The bus finally came around 7, and we were off to Vinoradhiv to meet the rest of the group. We ended up being in a band of 17 intrepid hikers. For several of us it was the first time: a couple of 18 year olds, a 14 year old with his teacher (weird, but not for Ukraine), and some guys in the their mid-twenties. There was the middle aged Ukrainian teacher and her husband and her friend and then there were a bunch of older men. And by older, I mean some were actually quite old. Our trip leader, the unstoppable Victor, is 69 years old. Yep. And there was one hiker, a gentleman long accustomed to hiking who kept our rear guard who was definitely in his 70's.

You all, did I mention that this hike was 50 kilometers? (Go ahead and do the math, I'll wait...)
I did not.
Because Will had not told us and Hugo and I had been foolish enough to ask.

So after a few hours of driving to the bottom of our first mountain (and dropping some tomatoes off with someone's mother), we quickly ate lunch and started to ascend.
And really, that's what we did for the next hour. I have pictures from the top, but I'm going to have to post them separately - it's too late to take them from my phone and I'm tired already.

However, let me assure you, I was having some second thoughts. First of all, my allergies exploded and I wheezed along in a way that several of the older gentlemen (smokers) looked a little alarmed by. There was a doctor in the group (Endoscopy...), and he also quizzed me. I was much too busy huffing to try to speak, let alone think in Ukrainian.

I'm going to now give a broad overview of the next two days:

Ways in Which Steph Managed to Defy Ukrainian Convention
1. She attempted to take some extra weight at the bottom of the mountain - clearly this wouldn't have helped things along the way, but she was shutdown due to her sex. Clearly a woman taking extra weight is ridiculous. I shall remind my brothers.

2. Steph was confused by the concept of a group woman bathing expedition as soon as we arrived at camp site the first night. (Ie, located the small stream indicated on the map with enough water for cooking.) I failed at understanding the whole conversation.

3. Steph could not even clean her own bowl after dinner. This is actually Hugo's fault, as the bottle he told her to use to rinse her bowl actually contained the camp cooking oil.

4. Attempting to carry a log with Hugo for a bench around the fire (women and weight again). Luckily, my uterus didn't fall out - this time.

5. Upon reaching camp (down a ridiculously steep hill covered in brambly blueberry shrubs) refusing to let one of the 18 year olds take my pack. Really, the dude tried to pull it off me and followed me all the rest of way to camp arguing. I couldn't clearly articulate the triumph of the day and wanting to finish myself.

6. Being harassed about going swimming by everyone already at site about why I must immediately jump in the lake until I pointedly said that I didn't have my swim wear on and needed to change first. Thanks to Hugo for helping me throw up the tent quickly to appease that drama.

7. Not having proper warm gear (sweatshirt and long pants) to change into at the end of the day. Then, having a damp shirt on top of it all. Needless to say I was put into someone's extra clothing quickly. In all fairness, I should have brought a warm layer, but underestimated the effect of swimming in a spring-fed lake. I was still warm enough in the tent, due to my radiating sunburn.

If there were more, I stopped keeping track and stopped caring.

What We Ate

What didn't we eat? Seriously, Ukrainians brought food. So. Much. Food. Dinner both nights was Salo soup. Yep, pig fat soup. Take a few pounds, chop it up, deep fry it in oil in a large pot, and then dump in assorted vegetables and spices until you have a hearty soup.

It was delicious.

The second night they added salami and tinned meat - I wasn't sure my stomach could take it, but I'm sure it was calorific.

We also ate at most stops. Due to the gardens, there was a large amount of tomatoes and cucumbers proffered. Everything was very communal, and the shopping lists soon made sense. Crackers, pretzels, bread, cheese, sausage, fruit...everything was offered around.

Breakfast Saturday morning (breakfast and lunch, it turned out, as we spent the next 10 hours on the walk) was noodles with tinned meat. Think school beef hotdish and you're pretty close. As a non-breakfast eater, I found this slightly nauseating at 7am, but I was glad that I'd eaten heartily as the day went on.

Walking...and Walking...and Walking

Saturday we walked 20 kilometers. Most of it was along mountain ridge lines. We made it to the top of mount Tempa (elevation 1600 meters = 1 mile) and I don't think I'd ever been so happy to stop walking in my life. The previous few hours had been pleasant enough. Despite being under a warm sun, there were nice blueberry patches clustered along the way.

However, the incline was both long and terrifically steep. You'd think you'd almost made it, only to get a glimpse of yet another steep incline starting. Soon I was counting and relying on some walking sticks (swear I'll get a pair of those aluminium ones if I ever do this again and never laugh at someone again using them!) and getting through life 10 seconds at a time.

I wasn't mad at myself or anyone. I couldn't waste energy on those kinds of thoughts. I was living only in the moment, until the final burst of energy that could take me over the top of the hill. It was a strange sort of meditation.

Eventually you simply accepted the mountain. It was there, You will climb it. Your legs will hurt, but you will make it. You stop measuring yourself, and live in the present.

Occasionally, a thought would sneak up on me and I almost fell off a mountain as a sudden wheeze of accompanying laughter caught me off guard.

"I know have a framework for childbirth", I thought "It will hopefully last less than 20 hours and be gentler on my knees!"

The scariest moment I had was on an edge of a mountain that we were skirting the top of. The path dropped off steeply, and gave the illusion of tipping you towards the edge of a deadly fall. I almost froze up, but managed to push on and continue. I did feel a small measure of pride.

The End

Downhill really is just as treacherous as up - requiring a different sort of bracing balance. On the whole I prefer it to up, it was slightly less strenuous on my legs. My poor, sunburned legs. (To match my poor, sunburned arms  and ears and chin....). As we walked out I managed to actually have a conversation with a group member, having grown comfortable enough to listen and speak without apprehension. This felt to be as big of a triumph as climbing any of the mountains. For surely if I can manage to communicate basically with a group of non-English speakers (a few had rudimentary English) and survive 30 miles of hiking up and down Carpathian mountains, then I should be able to keep communicating at site.

Despite our optimistic plan to return to Will's village by mid-afternoon Sunday, we didn't make it home until 10pm. This necessitated staying the night, getting up this morning at 4:45 and taking a 5:15 bus back to my town. Needless to say I collapsed into a nap, but also had to be productive because I'm the key facilitator tomorrow for the teacher training seminar.

Ukrainians are very different from Americans. Whenever I'd been through with a big adventure (boundary waters, spring break in Cali with the geology group) we make hasty tracks for home once we're done. We don't usually stop at a local landmark (because it's there) to have a beer and delicious bansha - corn cream of wheat with cheese and butter - and to stop in a river along the way to clean off. Clearly, they feared for their water systems, and we were filthy.

Anyhow, I could go on and on and on, but I'll leave with one last magical moment:

Camping by "THE LAKE"

So on the first day I was promised we'd be swimming at a lake. However, distances turned out to be more than expected, and as we met other hikers we were assured this was not reachable the first day.
The second day, after 10 hours of hiking, I was greeted to the welcome site of Hugo standing on a ridge, directing us to go down.

Hidden in the shadow of a mountain ridge (so hidden that the Dr. I was hiking with grumbled for the first 15 minutes of our descent) was a beautiful, spring fed lake. After my deeply satisfying plunge, I enjoyed watching the edge of the sun creep past the water line and across the valley. Here we saw quite a few other groups, although we beat most of them to the prime camping stop. An early to bed (with 6am rise!) found me irritated with a group that had driven in (a whole different kind of crazy) who had brought a drum and accordion that played far later than I desired.

However, my mood in the morning was much lifted as I attended to my morning visit to the "pee hill" behind the camp. For as I crested the hill, I beheld a whole herd of free range horses! They meandered up the hill, quixotically nosing around human leavings and tents while making their way in shifts to the water to drink. This explained the vast evidence of previous trips. There was a little excitement as a confrontation almost led to a tent being trampled, but mostly the mares, geldings and little foals peacefully roamed around.

Several people, including Hugo, approached them and found them quite tame. I was content to watch and photograph.

Ok, Really. I have to be up early AGAIN tomorrow and productive, so I'm signing off. I promise there will be photos on Facebook soon - I'm sure you've already seen a few.

Hope all is well,


Tuesday, August 4, 2015

We Made a Cake

Hi all,

So it was a very productive day today. I'm going to jump to the present, but I'll also skip back to my narrative about my arrival in the next blog.

Since I've been back I've had a new counterpart (as mine is currently in the US - long story). So I'm now assigned to her sister-in-law. Keeping it in the family, Ukrainian style.
She's been wonderful and very helpful in getting me settled in.
She also has a sideline business (other than teaching and being a mom to three young children), of making and decorating cakes. She uses fondant, a medium that I haven't yet dabbled in (more of a cream cheese or ganache girl myself, but I am intrigued), and invited to let me watch and learn when she decorated today.

I spent my morning working on a lesson plan for my first session, and got about 2/3 of the way done. Sometimes having so many sources for resources can be a big challenge - wondering if you're making the best choices, but at a certain point you just have to go for it! Around noon I texted her and they were at my place 15 minutes later on their way home from the market for supplies.

She makes a marshmallow fondant, and the results speak for themselves:

"Ironing" the Fondant

Final Product!

I barely helped - just a little with the balloons, sun and flowers and color consultation (nice purple, hmmm?)

I also received a phone call from Will inviting me on a weekend camping trek with some teachers from his region. We'll go into the mountains. My counterpart was a bit jealous, as she'd like to go as well, but it's difficult to get away with 3 small children, However, she's going to be gone for the weekend so it's good timing. Assuming it gets approved, it will also push me to complete my section planning!

I also completed some forms required for emergence contact information and other such drudgery and got a Facetime session in, so all in all a very productive day!

Hope all is well,


PS - Was also ridiculous excited to get all these very necessary items today - although now I must use them....