There is nothing new under the sun

The wise King Solomon was quoted as saying:

“What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.”

Ecclesiastes 1:9 Old Testament Scriptures

In Sonnet 59 Shakespeare muses that if there is nothing new under the sun, how can the mind not realize this? And if we could go back through the history books and see our lover’s identical twin and read the things which were said of that person then, would it be the same descriptions we use today, or would time have changed the way we talk about the same things?

I’m beginning this blog under a very skeptical note. I’m stepping into this realizing that there really isn’t anything new under the sun. And because of that, there is absolutely nothing I can write here that hasn’t already been thought, written, and discussed at length by many different people in different places throughout time.

But like Shakespeare, I wonder, if the passage of time may change how we feel about the same old things. Maybe, or maybe not. But regardless, writing is cathartic for me and maybe at some point the things I say and write won’t just be of some benefit to me, but maybe to one or two others somewhere out there.

So here goes the start of something fresh, new and completely unoriginal!

A dull knife makes for a terrible cutlery companion!

There have been many things that have surprised me during my time in Ukraine. But one thing that has truly caught me by surprise is the continuing decrease in my vocabulary and articulation skills.

A few weeks ago I began to notice in conversations with other native English speakers and while writing emails that my mental capacity for forming logical arguments and illustrating my points with a respectable vocabulary seems to be diminishing. Case and point would be the amount of time it took me to write that previous sentence! Now, one could make an argument that the above problem is a normal occurrence with age. And having entered my 3rd decade, a point could be made for that being the cause. However, I feel the reason could simply be that for the past 4 months, and the past month especially since leaving my training site my conversations as a whole have been very shallow. That’s not at all to say the Ukrainians with whom I’ve been having conversations with are shallow. I don’t believe that to be true at all. But I think that for most of them, their ability to understand what I say, and express their thoughts and ideas to me is caged within a limited vocabulary. And as far as my ability to speak in Ukrainian, well that cage is all the smaller! So day after day my conversations are of the events of the day, the weather, my job, my family, America, my travels and other normal social conversations. But what I wouldn’t give for the spirited conversations I would have with Drew and Sarah Vacca during my visits, or the discussions in Lifegroup with Kris Green, Oscar Gomez and others in the group! Topics of theology, philosophy and cultural nuances are to a conversation as sparks to a pool of gasoline! They create debate, arguments, animated discussions and cause the parties involved to think logically, reason and articulate their words to adequately convey the depth of what they are trying to communicate. But the vocabulary of these topics is a difficult thing to master. For many folks it takes years of higher education to achieve a proficiency in these topics.

Now while I’m sure I’m in no danger of losing my ability to speak on these topics completely. I do fear that without some work, I will fall out of practice of the ability to logically discuss, argue and navigate my way through deep conversations.

Truth be told as I look back on this post, it seems rather silly and perhaps it’s more worthwhile to delete it than for anyone to read it. But this is a post of my thoughts and experiences during my time in Ukraine. And this is one of my thoughts. So take it for what it is. Perhaps I’ll soon find something to post that is at least a tad more interesting!

So, until next time…

Welcome!

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!

з днем подяки!!

So today was Thanksgiving! And what a day it was! I awoke at 7:30am and actually felt good as opposed to exhausted and groggy like I have been the past week. I had my tea and some breakfast and headed off to Ukrainian language class at 8:30. Upon arriving I found out class wasn’t supposed to start till 9… So I decided to walk back home and grab my trusty T2i and take some great Thanksgiving Day pictures! So I did and when I arrived back at our LCF’s apartment a few minutes before 9 the cooking was well under way! Pumpkin Pie and Pumpkin Bread had already been made the night before and the stuffing was already in process! Class didn’t actually end up starting till 10 because we were all having so much fun cooking, listening to music and having fun. But alas, the time for learning began and we went to studying. There are some days when I am tired, my brain is fried, I’m either hungry, exhausted or both and language class seems pointless because my brain feels like a brick wall that’s getting a Ukrainian melon thrown at it. But today was different. Today I was rested and engaged, everyone’s spirits were up and we had fun. I was conversing and stringing out full sentences and conjugating like a madman! It was a wonderful thing! Before we knew it, class was over and the fun could begin! I still had to have tutoring but the LCF and I were working on my Self Directed project (Which I’m really excited about but more on that later) so it went pretty smoothly. After I finished tutoring I presented my Thanksgiving day present to the group- a full 2 hour video of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade! … Ok, so it was last years but that didn’t matter. Several girls in the group kept mentioning how much they missed watching the Parade on Thanksgiving and were really bummed that they wouldn’t have that particular tradition this year. So I surprised them and it was a success! We watched the parade while we cooked dinner. We didn’t have enough stove space and cooking the meat (turkey and chicken) was my job so I walked home and cooked at my host mom’s house. It was my first time really cooking here in Ukraine and I forgot how much I missed it! I fixed Lemon pepper chicken breasts and then I sauteed some turkey cutlets with onions and garlic (they were 2 separate dishes, don’t worry…). I finished up cooking just as the girls were finishing up in the LCF’s apartment. I hurried back as they were setting the table and it all came together beautifully! Chicken, Turkey, Stuffing, Mashed Potatoes, Gravy, Carrots, Biscuits, Creamed Corn, Pumpkin bread, Salad, Pumpkin pie and Egg Nog! All enjoyed with Christmas music playing in the background! It was fantastic! (and it’s Thanksgiving so Christmas music IS allowed!). We prayed together, we ate together, we shared what we were Thankful for together and after hours of eating, talking, and having fun, we cleaned up together. For almost half a day we created a little American bubble. But all suspensions of reality sooner or later must come to an end. They serve their purpose and they drift away. Now it’s back to doing homework for tomorrow, working on our SDL presentation tomorrow as well as preparing for our Site Placement interviews tomorrow! It’s going to be a long and stressful day just like yesterday and the two days before them! But in the middle of it all, we took time to stop; to breathe, to smile, to laugh and most of all, to be thankful!

A Little Hilarity

So today was just an ordinary day. Alison and I had Lesson planning Tutoring with our LCF in the morning and finished around 930. And since we weren’t having Language class until 1130, I found myself with 2 glorious hours all to myself. So since my host mom was at work, I decided to go home, do some reading, take a shower, have a nice breakfast and have a relaxing morning by myself. So I did just that. Got home, did some reading and decided I was going to make some coffee. So I light the gas stove, put a full pot of water on the burner and went to the bathroom while it boils. Now you’ve heard the phrase, “A watched pot never boils” and in Ukraine, even unwatched pots seem to take forever to boil. So after going to the bathroom I went on the internet for a while. Then I decided I had better take a shower before too much time passed, so I leisurely got ready, and hopped in the shower. After a few minutes in the shower I suddenly remembered that I had left the water boiling. Now for those of you familiar with gas stoves the reason for my panic will be obvious. But for those who are not, let me explain. Gas stoves deliver a constant stream of gas into the stove when the knob is turned which is why it’s important to light the stove as soon as you turn the knob. And also, it’s important to turn the gas off should the fire go out because even though there is no fire, the gas will continue to pour through the stove into the room. One of the things that often makes fires in gas stoves go out is if for example…. a full pot of water boils over and the water puts out the fire. So I’m in the shower freaking out for 2 reasons, 1. If the water has boiled over then gas is leaking into the kitchen and 2. the water heater (lit by fire) is in the kitchen also… (fire and a room full of gas… very bad thing!). So I jump out of the shower soaking wet and in my birthday suit. I grab my towel and run towards the kitchen. It’s at this moment rounding corner in the hallway I’m reminded that wet feet and a wood floor don’t make for a great combination! My feet fly right out from under me and I land smack on my side and slide across the floor sprawling like a buttered up cat thrown onto an icy lake. I scramble to my feet and get to the kitchen half cursing half laughing only to find that the water still hasn’t started boiling yet…
So I turn off the water and trudge back to my shower. I must have laughed for several minutes at the whole thing. So to sum up, I suppose today I learned that wet feet and wood floors don’t mix and that Ukrainian water takes a really, really long time to boil!
That’s all folks! 🙂

A Little More Info…

Well it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything. … Probably more like a month. But I have begun to settle into a routine and all the things that were new and different when I first arrived have become the ins and outs of everyday life now.
The longer I go without posting an update, the harder it becomes. It would be like you having to describe the actions of your day in intimate detail. There are so many things each of us do that are common place, we sometimes don’t recognize these things to be different or unusual.
However, I will try my best to give a adequate picture of my average day in Ukraine.

Every weekday our cluster (group of five Peace Corps Volunteers living in the town of Kozelets) has 4 hours of Language training. These 4 hours are either in the morning or afternoon depending on what other things we have scheduled to do for that day. Our LCF’s (Language Cross-Cultural Fascilitator) name is Lena. She has an apartment here in Kozelets and that’s where we go for language class (or just about anything training related). At about midway through training there is LCF rotation in which an LCF from another cluster comes to teach us while our LCF goes to teach another cluster. So for last week and the next 2 weeks following our rotation LCF is Misha. He is the LCF for a cluster up in Chernihiv (about an hour north of here).
On top of our 20 hours of Language tutoring a week, we also have Technical sessions with a TCF (Technical Cross-Cultural Fascilitator). Her name is Luda. Our TCF’s do not rotate like the LCF’s. Luda is responsible for teaching us everything we need to know about the Ukrainian educational system, the schools, things to do, not to do and methodologies for Teaching English in Ukraine. She is the one who introduced us to the English teachers in the schools we are “practice teaching” at. My Cluster-mate Alison and I are teaching at the Gymnasium (which is the Ukrainian word for private school or accelerated learning school). My other three cluster-mates, Hieu, Sarah and Colleen are teaching at School #3. Unlike the US, Ukrainian schools have numbers instead of names. So, There are 3 secondary schools in Kozelets and 1 Gymnasium. Since the previous group of TESOL volunteers that stayed in Kozelets taught at schools 1 & 2 it was decided that our group teach at school 3 & the Gymnasium.
Then on top of our 20 hours of language tutoring and 5+ hours of Technical tutoring, we are also teaching at our designated schools. Alison and I teach 10th and 11th form on Mondays and 4th and 8th form on Wednesday. Each class is 45 mionutes long and I would estimate an average of 3-4 hours of planning time goes into each class. The amount of time spent planning for a class is slowly decreasing the more we get comfortable with teaching and know what to do and how to do it.
Then On top of the Language Tutoring, Technical Tutoring, Classroom teaching and lesson planning we are also responsible for organizing a community project in the end of November. This community project usually involves a few days of one week when we organize some after school activities for the students of both schools. Some groups have shown an English movie, some have done school fundraisers, some have done after school English Clubs. It’s up to our group to decide what to do and put the whole thing together. During these “English Days” in which we will be hosting these activities we will also be presenting our schools with a “gift” of sorts. This year ours is going to be Audio supplements that we will create to go along with the dialogues in their English Textbooks. Most schools can barely afford the text books, let alone the audio supplements to go with them. So this gift will allow the schools to have more English teaching resources.
Then on top of the 20 hours of language tutoring, technical tutoring, classroom teaching, lesson planning and community project, we are also individually responsible for our SDL (Self Directed Project). This project can be anything we want but should be a project that helps us to expand our use of Ukrainian Language and also be something that we are interested in doing. My SDL is going to be a video blog about the town of Kozelets and the neighboring town of Oster. In this video I will talk (in Ukrainian) about the history of the two towns, some interesting facts and also some specials sights or attractions in the area.
So that’s most of what’s currently sitting on my Ukrainian plate right now. Or, I suppose, that’s all the Ukrainian plates I currently have spinning at one time! Hopefully I can keep them going for another 6 weeks!

I’m not sure I did the greatest job of explaining what my life is like here in Ukraine, but hopefully you’ve got a little better idea. I would also recommend checking out the blog of my cluster-mate Alison Burch HERE. She does a much better job explaining, describing and putting things into words than I do.

Well that’s all for now. I’ll be posting more soon! I promise!

Stickers on my Back

During our staging time in Washington D.C., one of our last activities was one in which we were all told to form a circle and face outward. We were then told not to look or turn around at the stickers that were being stuck on our backs. Then we were simply told to not talk and get into groups- Nothing more. Get into groups without talking and GO!

For quite a while there was confusion, frustration and chaos. But soon some started noticing similarities as to the number and color of stickers on people’s backs. So in a process of inclusion, exclusion, pushing pulling, moving, grabbing and hand waving an entire group of people organized themselves without uttering so much as a word.

The organizer of the activity went on to explain the importance of the activity and now, only a few days out I can see what that simple little game was trying to teach us.

Right now I feel like we all have stickers on our backs again. We are all heading out to live with complete strangers for three months. We have no idea who they are, what they look like, or what kind of house we’ll be staying in. Look in the eyes of any Peace  Corps Trainee today and there’s the deer caught in the headlights look; the desperate stare of a man facing a double barreled shotgun. Fear. We were all carrying stickers on our back and had no idea what was going on or what was going to happen. But we were all going through it together. We only needed a look, a nervous smile to communicate that we felt each other’s fear.

One by one each of us got off the bus and waved goodbye to the others. We were like cattle slowly being separated from the herd. We had no idea what we were in for, only that we were all in it together.

I feel like in some ways that’s the only thing that’s gotten me through some of these days. That feeling of: If they can do it, I can do it! It’s knowing that I have no right to feel upset or angry about a situation because I’m not the only one going through it.

We’ll have these stickers on our backs for another 3 months, and probably even longer. But at least we’ll all be working through it together!