competitions, celebrations, and cakes

ukraine is always full of surprises. just when you think you finnnally understand what’s going on and you think you’re in ‘the know’, it gets you. sometimes they aren’t such nice surprises, like being told your counterpart would be back in two days and then it turning into 4 weeks, the post office holding your package randome, or knowing your teaching schedule only the day before…but ukrainian surprises aren’t always bad. this week brought a surprise of TWO packages from america (after i was told i wouldn’t get them), unexpected class cancelations (don’t mind those!), and teacher field trip boat ride.

i’m still on the fence with wednesday, which is usually my favorite day of the week (well besides friday), and from the fact that i only have two classes…but one of those classes is my 8b form. joy. the students were…crazy ridiculous as usual. a handful in that class care and try to pay attention but it’s hard to when others are swearing in english. denis, my arch enemy asked me in ukrainian if i understand ukrainian. i said ‘yes a little’, having a bad feeling it wasn’t going anywhere good. and sure enough he replied in ukrainian ‘good shut your mouth’. i was so taken back by what he said i didn’t even know how to respond. he clearly didn’t think i understood or maybe he did. i wanted to kick him so hard that he’d fly all the way out of ukraine and land on some deserted island. but obviously i couldn’t do that. darn. what a punk. ugh that kid. i told the other teachers about him and the other swearing boys and their only plan of action was to once again talk to their parents…which i’m not sure is working.

but all my troubles with denis the menace were forgotten one the secretary called me to tell me the post office had a package for me. i was SO surprised. i thought for sure all three packages i was expecting would be held for randsom. but somehow one of them must have gotten through. i left school and walked to the post office. sure enough i had a package waiting for me. the p.o. lady got out a huge burlack sack and fished out an opened box that i could see my friend and co-worker nichole’s handwriting on. she set the box on the counter, handed me the customs list and told me to check to make sure everything was there. i think it was all there…i mean i don’t really know if much could be done if something was missing (which happens a lot here).

the box had seen some wear and tare but everything was there. i briskly walked back home so i could carefully go through what’s inside and read the letter nichole said she wrote. i opened it laying everything out on my bed. my three co-workers from adagio teas each sent me something that i could tell was so uniquely from them. teaching supplies, tea, PB! and an adhesive mustache (hehe) from nichole. healthy snacks from julie. and spices and a sweater from colleen. i couldn’t believe it. teary eyed, i read their letters and was so touched by their kindness and definitely felt their package ‘group hug’ as colleen wrote. i felt so special and loved. it was wonderful. it really made me miss them. they’re the best co-workers anyone could ask for.

yay! it made it!! : )

the following morning i got ready, wearing my new sweater colleen sent in the package and still feeling on-top of the world from my package, headed to school. two of my students greeted me on the way into the building saying ‘it’s so sad we won’t have lessons you today’….uhhh what? they informed me that the first two lessons were canceled for a ‘flower holiday’. random. i had no idea what that even meant or why it constituted for canceling class…but i wasn’t going to complain. i walked inside just to make sure their information was true and sure enough everyone was running around with flowers in their hands. i was approached by one of the teachers who volunteered me to be the photographer for this ‘flower holiday’. i said sure of course, still having no idea what was going on. i just assumed it would involve singing and dancing like every ukrainian even with some flowers thrown in as well.

some of my 5th formers. they're cute.

it was only till i was called to head to the gymnasium (aka sports hall) and walked into see tables with floral arrangements from each grade set on a table and told it was a competition…..wait…..classes were canceled for a flower arrangement competition?? ohhh ukraine. to each their own i guess. all 220 students and faculty gathered in the sports hall to listen to each grade present their floral arrangement. most envolved singing, poetry reciting (let me tell you, if ukrainian kids can do anything, it’s recite things from memory. they’ve got that down pat), and even some dancing. unlike most post-soviet society competitions, the students were specifically told there would be a first place (i hoped it would be the 5th formers who were so excited to have a LIVE caterpillar on their arrangement) and a last place (hopefully 8b…just kiddddding). though now that i think about it…i don’t think the winner was ever announced.

the competition

8a form...the NOT terrible ones and their sweet arrangment

so after the climatic flora arrangement competition, i figured it would be 3rd hour, which it was according to my watch. i went to my third period room and waited, only to be told it was going to be first period. the students were just as confused as i was and everyone scrambled to get to their right place. so surprise, the first two classes weren’t canceled. i didn’t understand how the schedule was to work, and the students say they didn’t know either. so like everything i just had to go with it. it was only till “4th hour” that i realized classes had been cut down my 10 minutes to make them all fit in. the kids were wild once again…probably cause their structured/routine morning began with a flora competition.

i'm the one in the middle

during my last class of the day, my colleague popped in. by the look on her face i thought something bad had happened, i didn’t know what to expect. i was relieved and totally surprised to hear that i had a package at the post office. WHAT??! EEE!  this must be the third package i was expecting from my friend michele. i was SO surprised, just like i was with the first one and really wanted to end class right then so i could go fetch it. but like a good teacher i waited it out…well sorta…i let them out 5 minutes early (shhhh). i ran to the post office hoping to catch the lady before she left for break. sure enough she was there and handed me a box (unopened this time) from my friend michele. yay!!! that means only 1 or 3 was detained. i felt so sorry that the first one michele sent was being held, but so happy the second one somehow made it to me. like i said i really really don’t understand the ukrainian post system. i walked back, sort of in disbelief to get TWO packages in TWO days. but that made it’s arrival none the less special. but i was certainly being spoiled. michele, a fellow graphic designer and friend from university, sent me yummy yummy foods (including a HUGE jar of pb!) a much needed kitchen timer, and a book for my neighbor ira. so so so thoughtful. i felt so loved all the way over in my little middle-of-nowhere village.

YAY! michele's made it!

when i headed back to school to use the internet and grade some papers, i was approached by my fellow teacher and told that tomorrow will only have two lessons because it’s teacher appreciation day. OH? SWEET! she invited me to join her and the other teachers on a trip to zaporizhzhia tomorrow afternoon to celebrate. she said we were going to the theater, which i assumed was the kozak theater (think mediaeval knights, but in ukraine), but told it was something else. i didn’t really care what it was, i yes ‘yes! of course’ hoping this would help me integrate more into the school. i thought of what tomorrow might bring..knowing how much ukrainians love their teachers and just now many songs about teachers there are…there’d definitely be some type of singing and dancing. two holidays AND two packages?? now i’m really just getting spoiled.

i immediately started thinking of what i could bake for the other teachers on teacher appreciation day. my train of thought was interrupted when my 11th former, tanya, came up to me and asked what i’d be teaching my 7th formers tomorrow. i had yet to figure that out for myself, so i asked why she wanted to know. she replied by saying that she would be teaching it for me. ‘OH? okay i mean be my guest they’re alllll yours’ is what i really wanted to say but i gave her some lesson plan ideas and wondered how it would go over instead…seeing as how she doesn’t know much english herself.

after a dinner of cabbage and potatoes at school i walked back to the dorms with the students. i mentioned that i needed to bake to rinna and masha to which they begged and begged to help me. since i have problems saying no, and i thought it might be fun to have company, i agreed to let them come over. i flipped through my cook book once they got there and realized that i didn’t have any of the staples (ie eggs, butter, and vanilla) you need for baking. i clearly wasn’t thinking ahead. the girls said they knew a place we could get eggs, since the store was closed. they left and sure enough came back with two eggs. i don’t know where they got them…but i didn’t ask questions. so we sat there thinking. what could we make with 2 eggs, flour, sugar and chocolate flavored butter. hmmm. our options seems slim and i was about ready to just say ‘let’s bake another time’ when masha decided to use her best resource. her grandma. she called her grandma and 5 minutes later we had a plan. blinchiki. i guess i didn’t think of that cause i thought you had to have milk for these ukrainian version of a crepe, but we’d give it a try.

cookin with my students...or trying anyways

soon enough there were three of us in my tiny kitchen-with-a-shower getting our hands messy with the goop that was to become blinchiki. i kinda wondered about the recipe when 15 minutes later there were still giant lumps of stubborn flour. though i didn’t want to say anything i let masha do her thing. by the time we finally poured some lumpy batter into the pan it was time for them to go pack to their dorm but i told them i’d finish it myself. masha told me each side gets 15 minutes…which, for 30 blinchiki would leave me at about 900 minutes or 15 hours of cooking. hmmmmmm. i had a feeling i wasn’t going to be taking these the next day. while i followed masha’s instructions, knowing full well how to cook crepes, i knew this batter wasn’t good. and 15 minutes later the goop in the pan still looked like goop but with added bubbles. so in the end after all that, they didn’t turn out. instead of yummy crepe like things i was left with refried bean looking, lumpy sugar-free, pre-packaged pudding tasting creation. not exactly how i wanted to win over my colleagues.

so i went to school the next day, bearing no edible treats in hand. my students greeted me with salutations of ‘happy teacher day’, hugs, kisses, flowers, cards and chocolate. being a teacher here is awesome. my purse filled with chocolate and my hands holding flowers, i went to my first class. sure enough like tanya said, she told me she was going to teach. she told me i didn’t have to be there and i could do whatever i wanted. WOO but…i didn’t have anything to do. i thought for a second about going back to my room and sleeping a little more, but i decided sitting and observing this would be much more interesting. so i stayed, sitting in the back of the room and watch my student teach my students. while she spoke ukrainian the entire time and had some grammar mistakes, it wasn’t a bad lesson. the kids even semi-listened to her. probably more than they have ever listened to me! ha.

11th formers thanking us with traditional salt bread

apparently all the 11th formers taught the two classes of the day. or at least the girls did, the 11th former boys just roamed the halls popping in and out of classrooms acting like they owned the place. senioritis is definitely universal. following class we gathered in the sports hall for a ceremony put on by the 11th formers. like i had predicted there was singing, dancing, and poetry reciting. though i hadn’t predicted seeing my picture up on the slideshow of teachers. the students presented the teachers with traditional ukrainian ‘salt bread’ which tastes like a giant soft pretzel (i love that stuff). the teachers took the bread up to the cantine and told me to follow. the cafeteria was filled with delicious looking cakes, candies, and breads all for the teachers (i guess i didn’t need to bring my refried bean goop). these teachers were definitely not shy to dig in, grabbing two-three pieces of cake, and a handful of candy hehe. it wasn’t the healthiest lunch, but i couldn’t remember when i last had cake, so i didn’t care. we cleared the table clean, not even leaving a crumb, got on the bus waiting outside for us, and headed to zaporizhzhia.

there was certainly no shortage of sweets

after a sugar coma of a bus ride we pulled into this seriously sketchy parking lot (barbed wire, graffiti, rusty abandoned trailers and all) and came to a stop…if i wasn’t with a bus full of my co-workers, i wouldn’t have gotten off. i was wondering to myself ‘…this is it?’ but like most everything when you think you know what’s going on, you probably don’t. we all got off and walked to this pier by the river and that’s when i guessed we were going on a boat ride. maybe a floating theater show? i had no idea. all i saw were barges. 30 minutes later a boat pulled up, one that tourists take on a number of river tours. okay, phew, this looks a little less sketchy than the pier.

our ride

it was a gorgeous fall day, perfect for an unexpected river tour. i sat in the front with some of the teachers, a voice came on over the loudspeaker. the lady was speaking in russian (pretty much what everyone speaks in zaporizhzhia) and since i learned ukrainian, my colleague translated into ukrainian for me. i still didn’t understand everything, but i did understand that the new bridge they were building lost funding and came to a stand still. and also that the engineer of the old bridge (that the new one was to replace), didn’t think the bridge was safe so he killed himself. oh. that was comforting to think of as we slowly approach the questionably safe bridge (that i’ve crossed many times) and i watch car after car and a train unknowingly flirt with death.

an unfinished job

that disturbing fact aside (no biggie), the boat ride was absolutely gorgeous. zaporizhzhia, located right on the dnipro river, also has a huge island, dividing the river into two. we made our way around the river (about 2 hours total) passing beautiful rock formations and colorful trees on one side (the island side) and the polluted industrial side on the other. it was quite the nice surprise, i had no idea zaporizhzhia would even have such a tour. i hope to take my parents on it when they come to visit.

who knew zaporizhzhia could be so pretty

after we docked and got back on the bus we headed to a park since we had some time to kill before the theater. it was quite a strange park. the park was filled with once working, though now rusty carnival rides. they sat still and untouched collecting leaves waiting for the next season. we all sat at some tables and the teachers brought out bread, cucumbers, hard boiled eggs, tomatoes, sausage, and a whole chicken (i guess it went for the boat ride too). we had our little picnic, drank some champaign and cheered to teachers.


i call this...'nostalgia'

we walked back to the bus, and i was sort of sad to leave the park, whoever creepy, since there are no parks in my village. we all got on and finally headed to the theater. the bus pulled up to this old white building decorated with soviet symbols and old dressed up ukrainians waiting to go inside. once inside i felt like i time warped back to the time of lenin. this building was gorgeous. but it felt strange, knowing the soviet rule still very fresh in the minds of most of the people there, and ever so present in the interior decoration. we took our seats in the second row (fancy!) and right before it started i was told it was a russian opera. that’s three hours long…oh boy.

the curtain rose and what would normally be the first scene was a certificate ceremony for the members of the orchestra…don’t underestimate ukrainians’ love for certificates. they. love. them. so after that interesting beginning, the curtain opened again and the opera/play began. the music was beautiful. and yes it was in russian, and yes i could only understand about 23% of it, and yes i made up my own dialogue for the rest. all in all it was kinda fun and from the opulence around me, i sort of forgot where i even was for a while.

wait...this is ukraine?

at the end there was some communist (aka synchronized) clapping (the french do this too), audience members walked up on the stage to hand the lead singers flowers and the curtains pulled closed. my fellow teachers asked if i liked it to which i honestly replied ‘yes i did, though i didn’t understand all of it’. they chuckled and said ‘ohhh don’t worry, we didn’t either!’ so that made me feel a little better. maybe they made up the dialogue on their own too. it was already 9 pm when the play finished and we still had a two hour bus ride ahead of us.

the pit

i completely zonked out on the bus ride back, probably cause i tried so hard to stay awake through the opera. i only woke up when i realized we had stopped and had pulled over to the side of the rode. i knew something was clearly going on as we sat there not moving in the complete dark in the middle of no where. a single car passed us and we started to move again, realizing without headlights. the bus driver followed the car ahead of us driving in what light they gave off. we drove like this for a while until the car turned and went elsewhere. like a blind mouse we stopped, unsure of which way to go, sitting in the dark. i looked out the window and saw nothing but the outlines trees and fields under millions of starts. the bus creeped slowly without any type of light other than the moon. driving without headlights is dangerous, but in countries with potholes as big as microwaves and as frequent as the painted road stripes…it’s even more dangerous. i wondered how long we could drive without drifting off the road or hitting a pot hole. but i tried not to think about just how dangerous it was. we went cautiously for about 20 minutes until a parked bus, which i guess was waiting for us, flashed their lights. we got off our bus, thankful to have stopped safely, transfered to the other one with working headlights, and continued on our way, eventually reaching the village all in one piece.

i had hoped to travel to dnipropetrovs’k (4 hours away) where there was a gathering of pcv for the weekend. but after i found out my counterpart was not coming back on monday like she said she might, i should stay behind and work on lesson planning. that wasn’t the only reason, trust me i don’t take my job that seriously, but due to the number of buses i have to take and the time, it takes to get to and from, i’d have to leave early sunday morning anyways. i’m disappointed i didn’t go, i’ve been wanting (and needing) to meet up with my pcv friends, but i’m hoping that when (if ever) my counterpart gets back i’ll have more free time to have fun. but for now i need to lesson plan for my 22 lessons, yet again, and spend some much needed time with my neighbors, whom i’ve been neglecting since i’ve been busy with school.

on saturday my neighbor lena told me that i had better come over today (sunday) or she’d kick me in the butt. that’s literally what she said lol. fearing for my butt, i went over there…well that and i’d missed spending time with them. i brought over the book michele sent, the toy story coloring book my mom sent, and some chicago cubs pens and pencils that i had for the boys. they were so delighted by their gifts that the smiles on their faces said it all.

the most adorable picture. thanks michele!

we picked a recipe from lena’s russian cook book and began making ‘medovee tort’ which means honey cake. ira and eddik helped, and by helped i mean mainly played with the dough. half way through making the cake, a neighbor came over. i could tell by the kids’ expressions that they didn’t really like this lady. she walked in set one beer on the counter for lena and one beer out for herself. lena went to fetch the beer opener but the neighbor just opened it with her teeth. i’ve never seen such a thing, i probably had such a look of astonishment on my face lol. the two of them chatted for a while and i played with the kids while the cake was baking. soon the ‘teeth of steel’ lady left and we finished the cake with a good drizzling of chocolate. chai (tea) was poured and the cake was served. the kids dug in leaving chocolate smeared all over their face, hands, and clothes. i felt like doing the same, the cake was so good. not too sweet, just a hint of honey really with a sweet touch of chocolate. mmmm. they dished up a plate for me to take with me, which was WAY to much, but she insisted that i eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner…super healthy ha.

smachnee! (yummy!)

while i was getting my coat on to leave, lena asked if i tired to make blinchiki the other day. boy news travels fast in a small village! she said lena, the other lena, told her two girls from school came and asked for eggs the other night. ohhhhhh so that’s where they got them…well at least they didn’t steal them from someone’s coop. egg mystery solved. i told her i tried to make them but it didn’t work out (the same thing i told masha when she asked me how it went). but now lena, and a teacher who over heard my conversation with masha, all believe that i can’t make proper blinchiki. a shameful accusation for a semi experienced baker. and soon, in probably a matter of hours, the whole village will know. lena kindly offered to teach me come tuesday night. pretty sure i could make them just fine with the right recipe, but i’ll humor myself and let them teach me anyways. what’s the point of making them on my own if there’s no one there to see, right? maybe that way i’ll prove blinchiki knowledgeable.

in other news, for something completely unrelated, amongst the many teaching resources i’ve gathered from peace corps and other volunteers, i found a pdf book that teaches conversational english using all dialogues from monty python’s flying circus and faulty towers. best. find. ever. i don’t think i’ll be able to use them for class, they’re way over my student’s level. BUT i did read and re-read them, and having grown up with monty python and seen almost every episode, i could picture it perfectly so it was still just as funny. oh the things one will do when you don’t have a tv…

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