travel, turkey, and giving thanks

like most things in life, we often aren’t truly thankful for the things around us until we’re faced with the possibilities of losing them. whether it be a house, a job, a loved one, sometimes we all need to go a little ‘it’s a wonderful life’ on life. to be quite honest, i don’t even like that movie, i even sort of despise it (i know i’m a terrible soulless person, but it’s mainly because of clarence’s winey voice), despite all this it certainly goes to show that sometimes we don’t even notice what’s right under our nose. and for me, that’s ukraine.

when i first dreamed of joining the peace corps i was certain i’d be living in some mud hut in mali and all of the peace corps advertisements featuring africa and latin america certainly added to my imagination of running barefoot with children in tattered clothes. i never once in my life thought i’d be here in ukraine. i’ll be honest, i wasn’t sold on the idea when i got my assignment. but my mentality of ‘i’ll go where i’m needed’ was tested and my dreams of africa were scratched. and up until now, i was convinced i was missing out and not experiencing the ‘real’ poster ready version of peace corps. i was certain that africa is where i belonged.

but that has changed. and it’s not from watching ‘it’s a wonderful life’. it all happened from the advice of peace corps medical to come to kyiv for tests and pack my bags in case of a medical evacuation. (which i guess is a standard precautionary advice, but scary none the less). buuuuut i’ll get to all that. promise.

after a terrible weekend of illness, i took some antibiotics and began to feel a little better, even well enough to teach. the week went well and the only real noteworthy things were getting my project for ‘worlds AIDS awareness day’ approved at school, my first english club meeting was awesome, first snow of the season, the gym teacher impressing me with the only two english phrases he knows (‘hitler kaput!’ and ‘shit’), birthday party with the nurses (and them trying to get me to drink. their logic was i live just next door, drink and then go to bed!), thought i FINALLY made a friend my age in the village, but it just ended with him buying me a beer to take home so i won’t be so lonely at night instead. ha.

my little neighbor ira all bundled up

while everything was going well (and no, i didn’t drink away my loneliness), i still wasn’t feeling back to normal, so that’s when the phone call to peace corps comes in. and as told i packed my bags for home just in case. let me tell you, packing a second time really isn’t any easier than the first. at least this time there’s no question of the unexpected ahead, it’s more or less a game of ‘what can i not re-purchase in america’. so my suitcase filled with letters, student artwork, one bottle of crimean wine, 2 jars of local honey, and a jar of my host mom’s jam. when i finished i sat there at there sort of in disbelief. not only because my customs declaration is somewhat ridiculous and i’d be leaving nearly 85% of my stuff behind, but i really didn’t want to pack (well whoever really wants to pack). even with the prospect of going home, which i certainly long for now and then, i realized i wasn’t ready for my time here to be over. at all. i wanted my service to be more than just a suitcase full of ukrainian edibles.

first snoooow of the season

bags packed and ready to go, i made my pilgrimage to kyiv (which i hadn’t been to since june). and i was reminded so kindly by ukraine as to why i haaaate traveling in this country. yea…traveling in ukraine is never just ‘point A to point B’. my travels went a little somethin like this:

bus to zaporizhzhia
no buses/trains to kyiv
bus to dnipropetrovsk
no buses/trains to kyiv
bought bus ticket for the next day
crap i need somewhere to sleep
called pcv samantha
back to train station for one more try
man driving private bus tonight offers ride
return bus ticket for some money back (dumb policy)
meet up with samantha
hang out together until bus leaves
not enough people, bus driver cancels bus
back to train station
somehow bought a last minute ticket
showed train lady ticket, approved, got on train
unpacked linens and got situated
train lady says ‘oh, this isn’t your train’
minutes to spare
sprint to other train
barely make it
compartment hot as hell with roaches and the like
second class isn’t as classy as first

so after four hours on the bus and 8 hours on the train i FINALLY made it to kyiv. and long story short i was there for two days of medical tests, thought it was giardia but turns out they still aren’t really sure. the hassel it took to get there all felt pretty pointless without any diagnosis, but while i was there i got to see a lot of volunteers at their close of service right before they head home. not only did i get dibs on the discarded ‘can’t take all this stuff back with me’ pile, i got such sage advice from my friend katie.

not only have katie and i worked together at camp big bang, we also look like we could legitimately be long lost twins, and have the same affinity for words and design. she gave me new hope and encouragement that i CAN do the projects i’ve thought up (various clubs, world hiv/aids awareness day, and a summer camp) without an english speaking counterpart or any real support at school. katie advised that, sure it’ll certainly be hard but i’m the only one that’ll make things happen. and she was right. maybe i just needed some reassurance that i could do it, or for someone to bounce ideas off of that speaks english (something i really took for granted in america). and for the second time i thought, ‘i’m no where near ready to leave. i’ve got work to do’.

i remember the exact moment when i first realized i didn’t want to be sent home. and oddly enough it happened sitting with a bunch of boozed-up ukrainian men. during a ‘layover’ on my journey to kyiv, i ran into some men from my village. they proposed some coffee while we waited for the next bus and with the freezing temperatures i gleefully accepted. i got an instant coffee and the two of them got shots of vodka. at 8 am. turns out i was the only one NOT drinking in that little makeshift cafe.

as i sat there with them, half paying attention to what they were talking about, i had a revelation (i swear there was no vodka in my coffee). i realized that i actually really like it here. well not ‘here here’ as in a cafe full of before-noon drinkers. but everything. the experiences that i’m having, the people i’ve met, the things i still want to do. don’t get me wrong it’s still lonely and frustrating as heck sometimes, but i can honestly say that the good outweighs the bad now…and if i ever get lonely i’ve still got that one beer to keep my company.

poltava, ukraine

so after my revelations, medical tests, pep-talks, and spoiling of fast wi-fi it was time for me to move on. and while i prooooobably should have headed back home, i made a trip to megan’s oblast for an early thanksgiving. it seems like megan is constantly doing something fun with the other volunteers in her oblast of poltava (7 hours north of me). i mean, the guys of her oblast are putting together a shirtless calendar entitled ‘men of poltava’…sooo needless to say, they’re a pretty fun group.

after a bus journey that was less stressful than the first, i made it to megan’s site. megan shares a house with an old ukrainian woman (who lectured me for 15 minutes about the dangers of not eating meat) in a village with around the same population as mine but once i began to say things like ‘you have SO many stores!!’ ‘WOW! your post office is HUGE!’ ‘OOoo these are really nice buses!’ ‘you have STREETLIGHTS???!’ megan began to have some mini revelations about her site herself….and wonder where the hell i lived too.

at megan's house!

i went with megan to school, not so much as a ‘show and tell’ (though i felt like it with her kids pointing and giggling at me), but to see how things were for her. megan’s school is more than double the size of mine with a very colorful hallway paint pallet, the friendliest faculty (her director actually talks people! imagine that!), and 9th formers that are just as terrible as mine (i guess that’s pretty universal). while i sat in on some of megan’s lessons i thought about my students and how i actually missed them…even their buttheaded-ness.

megan's english club

i’d soon return to my little buttheads but first megan and i had a thanksgiving extravaganza to go to. megan’s poltava group was kind enough to let me in on their little celebration, even though i wasn’t one of them. but after a weekend of amazing food, western murder mystery, thanksgiving football, shirtless photo shoots (the guys that is), ‘peace corps poker’, my acquaintances became friends and they graciously made me an ‘honorary oblast groupie’.

western murder mystery. don't worry, that gun is fake.


rarely can you put a group of 12 people in a small apartment for 3 days and still have so much fun. but we did. ohhhh we did. on ‘thanksgiving’ day we all pitched in and made a dish to share. the turkeys were purchased from a volunteer’s neighbor (which still included ALL body parts), libby’s brand canned pumpkin puree and a gram-cracker crust was shipped all the way from america, and frozen green beans were miraculously found. we had to improvise with the food a little, as always, and figure out how to cook those seriously fresh turkeys (the ukrainians advised us to stuff it with sugar and rub it with mustard…maaaybe next time). somehow we made it all work, played a little football even, and had a great meal in the end. probably one of the best ones i’ve ever had….i maybe even have eaten some turkey.

almost normal rockwell

after our early thanksgiving weekend extravaganza, we all parted ways, myself leaving the earliest for my dreaded 14 hours of travel back to site. i was sad to leave my ‘honorary oblast’ friends but can only hope next year will be just as fun. i wasn’t heading back to site with dread, i actually looked quite forward to it. my head was filled with all these new ideas and thoughts about everything and i couldn’t wait to get things started. it was great to see my students again too. while nothing had changed while i was gone, i certainly had. changed to even the point that come dinner time on monday, i even asked for a portion of meat. and just like that i started eating meat.

i’ve been a vegetarian for 11 years. since one day i decided just to cut it out cold. i never imagined the next time i’d decide to eat meat again would be from the hands of a ukrainian school lunch lady who wore such an expression of pure delight, as though watching a baby’s first steps, as i stood there and asked for a small portion of meat with my daily potato serving. yea you can judge me if you’d like. but when all you eat is plain potatoes or grains and bread for lunch and dinner everyday, you’d still be hungry too. and i’m certainly no nutritionist, but something tells me that no fresh fruits and veggies for half the year is a bad thing. and probably part of the reason why people here seem to age faster than french cheese.

now just because i’m eating some meat doesn’t mean my next stop is taco bell and a stack of sliders on the side (not that i can get those here anyways). i still have standards though. the whole reason i went vegetarian/vegan in the first place was to take a stand against the conditions of mass meat production in america (don’t worry, i’m not going to get all preachy on you). i don’t think i’ll eat meat in america once i get back, unless my neighbor has some ducks to share…though that’s doubtful. but here i know exactly where my meat is coming from. right from my neighbor’s yard or the babushka down the street. and that, i’m okay with…i think that’s actually how it’s supposed to be.

this has nothing to do with meat...i just thought it was pretty. poltava, ukraine

who knows maybe with a little more protein in my diet i’ll be able to get everything done at site that i want (at least that’s how ukrainians think). whether it be my small intake of protein or the advice from katie, i’ve been on fire. i’m gettin stuff done and takin names. my poster competition for world HIV/AIDS awareness day is in full swing (couldn’t have done it without you, google translate) and my english clubs doubled it’s members…though we’ll see how long they keep coming back. i’ve got a loads to do this weekend, not including that laundry i STILL haven’t done. and i thought my track record of laundry duty in college was bad…hand washing makes it even worse!

but that can all wait. today is thanksgiving. even though it doesn’t really feel like it. no relatives, turkey, football, early morning macy’s parade, turkey trot 5k, cranberry sause from a can, and the like. instead i’ve spent today celebrating unconventionally to say the least by teaching all day and attending a funeral. never thought that’s how i’d spend thanksgiving!

i found out just today that the head teacher at my school’s mother died yesterday and everyone was going to pay their respects. and while i’d imagined having the afternoon off and maybe gather some students for a game of american football, this was a cultural experience i couldn’t pass up. in ukraine, there’s no such thing as a funeral home, your house is it. so i was intrigued to see what actually happens. how ever morbid that may seem.

we all crammed in the school van together and headed to her other’s house. we piled out and walked past the many people congregating outside the house. the men all stood to one side, the little old ladies to another. and i walked down the middle towards the house that the sound of russian church songs and the smelled of incense billowed out from (flash back to that 5 hour easter service). i wasn’t really sure what to expect so i just followed my colleagues. i’d bought flowers ahead of time and at least got that part right (only fake ones and always in even numbers for the cemetery). as we entered the house, a number of the most wrinkled faces peered at me, and i felt bad for intruding on such a private matter. but OH how i wish i could have taken photos.

i stood there behind a few people trying to be invisible when my colleague told me to go put the flowers in the casket. what?? hmmm maybe you can do it i thought. i didn’t want to make myself any more noticeable than needed. but i bought them…soooo i kinda had to. people stepped aside for me, the wooden casket came into view, and i tried not to look at the body as i gingerly laid the flowers down. she looked like she died at age 152. it was one of the most frightening things. but since i was thinking that might be the case, i asked my colleague how old she was just in case. but apparently she was only 62…apparently not preserving the body ages you 90 years.

after a few minutes in the house, i decided i’d inhalend quite enough incense and exited with everyone else. we all quietly waited outside. the singing could still be heard muffled through the small open window. time passed slowly while white birds came and went landing on the nearby wire. finally the men with a scarves tied on their right arm went inside to carry the casket. we each held a gravesite wreath of vibrant fake flowers and walked slowly behind the cross bearer and infront of the open casket now hoisted up on shoulders.

i’ve seen three funeral processions during training but never really thought i’d sort of be a part of one. it was oddly beautiful. our short walk ended at the nearby cemetery and a hole waiting to receive a casket. people said their final words, the woman’s old sister hysterically clutched onto the casket and to the body, the lid was put on and the priest drove in four nails. that right there was the most erie sound. literally a nail in the coffin. bedsheets were used to shimmy the casket down to the pit. and the priest sprinkled some water, took the shovel, marked a cross on each side of the ground and the first crumbles of freshly moved earth landed with a hallow thud.

while i felt sorta weird for being there, i’m so glad i got to experience that. it was so different. there were none of the formalities that we have in america. the make-up, the chemicals, the deluxe double walled caskets. it by far was the most real, raw, natural funeral i’ve been to.

after the surprise funeral we headed back to school and i went home to make myself a thanksgiving lunch for one. so while today, thanksgiving, won’t include relatives, turkey and the trimings, football, early morning macy’s parade, and the like, it did include some macaroni and cheese (thanks nikolle!!!!), a slice of one of the three loafs of pumpkin bread i baked for the school faculty, oh and a funeral.

all in all, while i wish i could be spending today with family stateside, i’m thankful for where i am right now. thankful that i have a chance to make change and do something positive. thankful for the support of my family and friends (and their wonderful letters and packages!), thankful for 8 months in ukraine and the friends i’ve made (both ukrainians and americans), thankful for my students (even if they’re little ‘p.i.t.a’s sometimes), and thankful for finally finishing this blog post!!!!!!!!! (as are you i’m sure)

warmest thanksgiving wishes to all.

kristen : )

pumpkin bread was a hit at school. made from a REAL pumpkin!



7 thoughts on “travel, turkey, and giving thanks

  1. what a pleasure it is to read your blog. Dad and I are very proud of you! We love you and know that you are making a very big difference in so many lives in so very many ways. Love you! xoxoxo

  2. A late Happy Thanksgiving Kristen! Keep up the writing, love to hear how different life can be! Hang in there and take care of yourself!. lv aunt linda,
    Uncle Bill

  3. Your blog was great, finally we find out what Megan is up to. You have such great descriptive writing. Hope you are feeling better. Take care. From Megan’s Mom.

  4. Loved the blog. Hope it made you feel better to write your feelings down. We all care for you and know you are wonderful at what you are doing over there. You are a wonderful writer. Happy Thanksgiving. You are giving so much. Hugs from Illinois.

  5. Pingback: thanksgiving in ukraine: round two and minus the turkey | borscht and babushkas

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