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 Joe...so, 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!