It was a cold, Friday afternoon in the town of Vyzhnytsia [Vizsh-nit-sya] but the welcome I received from the locals warmed me all the way to my heart.
I stepped off the train at close to ten in the morning. I was surprisingly refreshed after a long sleep on the 14 hour ride from Kyiv central train station. My Ukrainian colleague, Nadiya Senchuk located our driver and the three of us hauled all 8 pieces on my luggage to the car waiting across the street from the Chernivtsi train station, loaded it up and started our journey to my new hometown.
After about an hour we approached Vyzhnytsia; a modest town of 5,000 nestled at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains in west Ukraine and roughly 60 kilometers north of Romania. It felt as though my eyes couldn’t soak in my surroundings fast enough. I was craving to absorb every sight and sound. I wanted to know what was inside every shop and the names of every person we passed. This was my new town, and one can’t live as a stranger in his own town.
We finally pulled up in front of a modest glass door that seemed almost a hole in the wall. Out of nowhere the landlord appeared. She was a young lady, friendly but stern, eager and yet business like. The last suitcase had barely touched the floor when the principle of the school arrived. She seemed a bright, authoritative, stout woman with an affinity for red and a commanding presence. Following close behind her was Misha, a young slender music teacher at the school. He has only one year under his belt but makes up for it with a smile almost as big as his enthusiasm to help. We complete a quick tour of the apartment and Nadiya and I decide to rest for a while before trekking to the school, meeting the students, teachers and touring the facilities. So the two tired travelers say goodbye to the landlord, principle and music teacher as they hurry out the door and we pause just a second to breathe and take everything in before we set out for Nadiya’s house which is just over halfway between my new apartment and the school.
After a short walk through the town and a nice relaxing lunch it’s time to set out for the school. As we round the corner towards the school I’m confronted by a sight I will never forget. What at first I mistook to be just school children hanging out in front of the school turned out to be the entire student body, all of the teaching faculty and several parents from the town gathered outside waiting for me. As soon as they saw me the children started to clap and cheer. I was at a loss for words. My feet were walking towards the front gate but my eyes were glued to this massive welcoming committee; a red carpet of eager hearts and minds. At the last second I thought to video this moment so as to prove that my story is true and this seemingly unbelievable sight can be believed!
I was greeted at the front gate by the Principal and two of the school children in traditional Ukrainian dress and holding a large loaf of Ukrainian bread sitting on an embroidered white silk scarf. Before I know it I’m ushered onto the front steps in front of over one hundred students, plus teachers, parents and others taking pictures, videotaping and tape recording. What followed is still hard to remember. So much was a blur of emotion. Two young children came forward with prepared speeches in Ukrainian. Then two parents came forward to say a few words and welcome me, then two older students came forward and welcomed me in English. They turned the microphone over to me and asked me to say a few words. I tried my hardest to muster up as much Ukrainian as I could without sounding like an ass. So I said what I could that was appropriate then stumbled something out in English and Nadiya kindly translated for me. Just when I thought it was over the entire crowd being aware it was my birthday the day before began to sing “Happy Birthday” to me in English.
From there I was hurried inside as the entire student body raced in behind me to get to their classes. Nadiya then introduced me to what seemed like an endless line of faces; smiling, welcoming, hand shaking, “hello’s”, “pleased to meet you’s”, and every other polite Ukrainian greeting that came to mind. From the teacher’s lounge it was on to the principal’s office. So in walked Nadiya and I and there sat the Principal and a reporter from the local newspaper eager to interview me. So there I sat, shell shocked ten times over answering questions of who I am, where I’m from, where I’ve taught, and of my impressions of Vyzhnytsia so far. And for a brief second it occurred to me that it had only been 2 hours since I caught my first glimpse of the city through the frost covered car window. I’m not entirely sure that the interview had even ended when a knock at the door announced the arrival of the heads of the region’s Education Administration who had come to meet me. More hand shaking, smiling, nodding, greeting and quick pose for a photo by the reporter of me, Nadiya, the principal and the three visiting ambassadors from somewhere in Administration land. Then it was back to the teacher’s lounge, a few words of welcome, then another round of “Happy Birthday” sung by the three visitors and all the school’s faculty.
What followed was a somewhat whirlwind tour of the school which consisted of every single room in the building –yes, even the cafeteria kitchen and the bathrooms-. Upon leaving the school Nadiya, who in 24 hours had gone from the Peace Corps title “Ukrainian Counterpart”, to my colleague, to translator and finally to friend and personal hero, led me around town and personally introduced me to every store clerk, and friend she came across. She showed me where to buy the freshest foods and which stores offer the cheapest prices. Though she was more exhausted than I was, she never faltered for a second as she proudly introduced me as “the Gymnasium’s new English teacher from America”. She ended the tour by treating me to coffee at a local café and then saw me safely home where, five hours after walking through the door and over six hours from when my train came to a stop outside Chernivtsi station, I was finally home!
It was a crazy day. But never in a thousand lifetimes would I trade a second of it. Because I believe that no amount of money can make you as rich, and no amount of fame can make you feel as loved and no amount of heat from the hottest furnace can make you feel as warm as a genuine, heartfelt WELCOME!