27 months is a long time. not going to lie. but friday marked the 6 month ‘anniversary’ that i first set foot on the cold snowy land of ukraine i was going to call home. i’m usually one to laugh at people that celebrate 6 months of anniversaries, but in peace corps, every day/weeek/month is an accomplishment. so call me a hypocrite if you’d like but i’m celebrating and givin myself a pat on the back.
it’s hard to believe that it’s been six months…sometimes it feels like it’s gone by fast, and other times, for example when a food product expiration date comes before my expected date to go back home…it feels long. very very long. although i usually try not to let myself think that far ahead. but it’s hard not to when i realize my american jar of jiffy expires the exact date to-the-day i am to go home. coincidence? yea probably, but i’d like to think even the peanut butter is calling me home.
but here i am. 6 months in and another 21 to go. (i swear i didn’t mean for that to sound like a prison sentence). this week a whole new group of volunteers flew-in from america, all bright and shinny which makes my group of 41-ers no longer the new kids on the block. on friday the new trainees headed off as bundles of nerves to their host families eagerly awaiting them.
a while ago my host brother sasha told me they were going to get a new volunteer at their house. i was probably just as curious as they were to find out who this new person would be. during my training and host family stay, the latest volunteer to fly the coop alexandra (who also goes by sasha now, too many sashas) came back for a visit. it was so nice to talk with her and ask a million questions about what i can expect and also what am i really getting myself into. so come friday, remembering just how nervous, freaked out, overwhelmed, excited and a whole bunch of other feelings combined, i felt that day i arrived to my host family, i decided to give my host mom a call and ask to talk to the new volunteer. i figured i would’ve appreciated a reassuring encouraging phone call soooo maybe this new volunteer would too.
having recently just talked to my host mom and caught up on life (me telling her i’m teaching 22 lessons by myself. her, as a teacher, understanding that’s way too much. me telling her i miss her cooking. her telling me i speak like a real ukrainian now) she figured i had called to talk to the new american in-town. she told me to hold on as she put sophia on the line. with probably a little too much excitement in my voice i asked her how her first day was and how she’s doing. she sounded a little distant and said something about my family showing her my picture. knowing my very bad luck with cellphone reception and the cost of talking i tried to keep it short and said something along the lines of “you’re living with a great family so don’t worry you’re in good hands, good luck, and i hope to meet you”. i don’t know if she needed the phone call like i thought, but maybe it helped.
i think i made that phone call, not only to help out a fellow pcv, but because if anything i, myself, could use an encouraging phone call right about now. this week has definitely been trying to say the least. monday was such a tease of a not-so-terrible day. tuesday i actually had to call-in sick, and by call-in sick i mean open my bedroom door and reach my arm out to knock on the nurses door to tell her i’m not feeling well. i’d been feeling terrible since the week before (my stomach really really hates ukraine) but on monday i took a bunch of pepto and headed to school despite this. i debated doing that again on tuesday since i had six classes to teach but knowing that’s really not what peace corps medical would approve of, i decided to stay home. i was already dressed and ready to teach but i was feeling terrible. i worried the teachers would think i was coping out cause it was my longest day but i swear that wasn’t a factor (definitely a bonus, but not a factor).
so i tapped on the door to the nurse’s office, just a foot away from my door. she let me in and i told her i haven’t been feeling well and that i’d probably eaten something bad. she told me to come in and sit down. she brought me a glass thermometer to which i instinctively put in my mouth. it hadn’t even touched my tongue when she told me ‘no no no here’ and showed me to place it under my armpit…..oh? not really questioning the accuracy of that i did as she said. a few minutes later determined my armpit didn’t have a fever and she handed me two different packs of pills (ukrainians love pills just as much as americans. they have one for everything!). i had no idea what there were for and wasn’t going to take them without knowing. but i took them and told her i’d take them in a little while. who knows maybe they were placebos. either way i didn’t want to find out.
i spent the whole day just resting and forcing myself to drink water, which i’ve never liked (i know i’m odd). i wondered what the students would be doing if i wasn’t there to teach. but seeing as how i’ve not been told what i’m to teach them, no one checks up on what i’m actually teaching them, and my students are constantly pulled from class to work in the field…i decided i wouldn’t worry too much about it.
by wednesday i was feeling a little better (mainly cause i hadn’t eaten anything the day before) and decided i’d be fine to go to school. i only had two classes anyways so it wouldn’t be too hard to get through. though, i wasn’t looking forward to the fact that of those two, one was my 8b form. when i walked over to school, students kindly asked me if i was feeling better. i thought maybe my absence made them realize how much they acccctually like my class and now they’d stop goofing off. ha wishful thinking. my 6th form class was decently behaved though more energetic than usual. i felt exhausted after it and tried to prepare myself for the next one, 8b. i prepared my papers, pulled out my 8b lesson plan and braced myself for a disaster of a class. when i was almost done with my internal pep-talk, a fellow teacher walked in and informed me that class had been canceled and there were no more lessons for the day. YAY! but this sounded too good to be true! so being a skeptic i verified it with 3 other teachers and yes, indeed, no more classes. apparently some very important group of people were coming to visit the school later that day and they wanted the children gone so they could prepare.
as much as i wanted to blow the day off like students were, i did the teacherly thing and stayed behind to grade papers. by the time i had finished and was about to head back to the dorms, the open space upstairs had been filled with classroom chairs and tables sporting beautiful beaded tablecloths. apparently these very important people were to eat dinner here too.
curious as to who these people responsible for my half-day were, i walked back to school. sure enough the very important people came and some students dawned on their traditional ukrainian garb to greet them with song and dance. just by a look at their bus, a nice huge tour bus (you just don’t see nice ones like that here) and their clothes, i could tell these very important people were also very rich people. my school is a boarding school, but parents don’t have to pay to send their kids there, i’m pretty sure the school is part sponsored by people with deep pockets…presumably people like these. i’m guessing that’s why everyone was making a huge deal about their arrival.
so the very important rich people took a tour of the school while all the kids were in the dorms. i stayed behind with some of the other teachers and we watched the group walk passed, taking pictures of everything. then we went upstairs to the makeshift ‘dining hall’ and finished setting the tables with the school’s best dishes, silverware, culinary creations and a stock of alcohol. normally ukrainian food isn’t all too appetizing to me, usually everything is some type of meat or fish or covered in mayo, but from not being able to eat much, it all looked delicious. even the holodets (meat jello) looked great. no…i’m just kidding on that one.
by the time it was dinner for the students, the very important rich people were well into enjoying their spread of food and booze. the students arrived at school in neat rows of twos and were shushed to keep quiet. in relative silence, they filed upstairs to the cantine (cafeteria) where a cloth was tacked on the window to the door that that our guests sat behind. it was hard not to almost laugh about this. every caution was taken for the students not to be seen or heard while the very important rich people enjoyed their stay. it seemed so strange….because the school was in-fact the reason for their visit and isn’t the whole point of a school about the children? idk maybe i’m just silly.
thursday, unfortunately, didn’t bring any surprise class cancelations. from the aftermath of a half-day the kids were craaazy. i had serious discipline problems with pretty much all of my 5 classes that day. in one of them i confiscated three mini-skateboards and told the student he could have them after-class. and i was going to keep my word on that until he grabbed my hands and tried to take them. he had such a good grip on me i couldn’t do anything except look him in the eye and say ‘DO NOT TOUCH ME’ with such seriousness and after the third he let me go. god that made me angry. i took his grade book ‘shodenik’ (where students get marks for every class) and wrote a zero in it for the day. thankfully a few of my good students told me ‘no miss kristi, you can’t do that…you can only give a one’. oooooooooh right right i forgot, you can’t actually fail in the school system of ukraine since you LITERALLY can’t get a zero. ridiculous. so the only thing i could do was write an undeserving ‘1’ in his book (even though i wanted to write -12) and go to the other teachers to try and explain what happened. i presented them with the skateboards and his shodenik and tried to relay the information. of course with the language barrier, i don’t know if they really understood what i was saying, or (what i thought) the seriousness of it, but they said they’d call his grandma. don’t get me wrong, i’m sure there are some grandma’s out there that can certainly put their grandkids in place…but that’s it?? that’s the disciplinary action? ugh ukraine. maybe i’ll start handing out detentions and holding kids after class, american style. if i can even do that.
after my classes i got a phone call from the school secretary telling me i had a letter. hoping it was my lost letter from jeff, or the package from my stateside friend michele, i was so excited and really glad it would improve my day. so i ran down to the office and the secretary handed me neither thing i was expecting but a letter from zaporizia (the city 2 hours away from me). confused as to what it might be and deciding it was not from peace corps, i opened it. the ‘envelope’ was just a scrap piece of paper stapled closed concealing another piece of paper. i pulled it out, fixing my eyes on a mess of poorly printed ukrainian letters and tried to figure out what it was. i walked up to the room of the only other english speaker at school, andrie, and asked him to help me. he took one long glance at it and said that i have a package at the zaporizia post office, but customs is holding it and i need to call this number to find out more.
i instantly had a bad feeling. i’ve heard before that customs in ukraine can sometimes hold packages and demand you pay money to get them. i guessed that was the situation, but i couldn’t understand why. i asked andrie if he could help me call this number, but he seemed too busy to help so it was up to me. i dialed the number and a woman, barely audible, answered. i tried telling her about the letter and she guessed my name so i thought that was at least a good sign. she told me to call this number and a said a bunch of other mumbled words. so i did as she said and i called this other number hoping i was actually going to figure this out on my own. but on the end of that line was just an angry russian speaking man who had no patience for my attempt at ukrainian. i told him the situation, and he replied ‘you need to dial this number’. i then said that i had and the woman gave me this number to which he replied ‘and so?’. he then put me on hold, or what i think was hold. the only way could tell was the creepy mix of ice cream truck and old atari music playing on repeat. so strange. i hoped i wouldn’t be on hold long since the call was so expensive, but i didn’t want to hang up and lose hopes of figuring this out either. six very long minutes went by, every second arguing with myself ‘hang up now/no don’t hang up he’ll probably answer’. but alas, he didn’t. all of the sudden the creepy music stopped and the call ended. ‘really??? WHY can’t anyone just help me’ i thought.
i didn’t have enough money or patience to call that angry man back again so i decided to do the only thing possible. buy a popsicle. chucha showed up as happy as ever and i felt a little better with her at my side. when i went inside the mahazine, looked through the case of frozen treats i looked outside and saw chucha peering back at me through the door to make sure i was there. so of course i couldn’t help buy her an ice cream too. chucha and i walked to my favorite place away from everything and had our ice cream and popsicle, respectively. feeling more homesick than ever, i sat there for a while closed my eyes and listened to the wind rustle the leaves. and for a minute i forgot about all that had happened.
after classes on thursday, i certainly wasn’t looking forward to friday like i usually do…but at least after that was the weekend. i don’t know if the students knew i was on my last sting or that i’d made a difficult ultimatum while on the phone with jeff that, ‘if things don’t improve at school and my MIA counterpart doesn’t come back in 2 weeks, maybe i should consider changing sites’. yea…i’d gotten to that point. i don’t know how they sensed it, but they must have, because they weren’t terrible, some even told me ‘thank you, you good teacher’ and made me side with the argument that maybe i should just stay and stick it out…twenty-two lessons a week, sans counterpart and all.
i went back to andrie to ask for help with the post office letter. i begged him to help me, explaining that i’d already tried myself. so after numerous phone calls and call transfers, i could tell by the tone in his voice that the news wasn’t good. once he was off the phone he relayed to me that they do in fact have my package, but since the school name is on the box the school would have to pay 100+ EUROS in order to accept international packages…even though i’ve gotten 5 packages before to that same address without any problem. he said my options were pay the money or pay to have it sent back. both of which options weren’t appealing. i was SO frustrated by this news. i’d been looking forward to this package all month and here it is, in ukraine just two hours away…but i can’t have it because extortion is as common as borscht on the table here.
without knowing what else to do, and fearing for my future packages, i called my regional manager. i told him the situation and he scolded me for not calling sooner (but i didn’t call because i knew he was so busy and thought he’d appreciate the fact that i tried to figure it out first). he gave me the email of someone at the peace corps ukraine office and told me to email him every bit of information on this. i walked to the school and sat outside in the dark for internet. and just as i was about to send the email the internet stopped working. of course. but since it wouldn’t be read till monday, sending it later wouldn’t really matter.
this weekend hasn’t resulted in much. i did some cooking, met a really cute mouse living in my building, went for several walks, wrote this biblically long blog post, and will spend the rest lesson planning. though i’m still not feeling well so it will also result in a phone call to the peace corps med. (in which i’ll probably be scolded again for not calling sooner). so yes. it’s been six months. and from the fact that pretty much everything in ukraine, even the simplest things of getting a package or sending an email, aren’t without frustrations. i commend myself, and every other volunteer out there, for every single day spent serving. now, if only it was socially acceptable for me to buy beer to celebrate…