so it’s the year 2012 and i’ve celebrated two christmases and two new years, and no, it’s not because of divorced parents. that’s just how ukraine likes to do things. the first christmas, you know the real one with santa claus and ho-ho-ho and mistel toe and presents to p-r-e-t-t-y girls (i may still have a charlie brown christmas on my mind), i spent in israel with my fellow volunteer kate.
within two hours via plane we left cold, bleak ukraine behind for the much warmer, sunnier, and tastier country of israel. i journaled throughout our travels, with real pen and paper like they did in the ol’ days, but i’ll spare you all my scribbling. basically the trip went like this:
5 days jerusalem (pretty sites, pricy prices)
1 day trip to bethlehem in the west bank (don’t go without a headscarf…or a nun)
1 day haifa (the san francisco of israel, with lots of russians!)
1 day nazareth (quiet little city with some of the nicest people and best falafel)
1 very short visit to tel aviv (didn’t actually see much ‘cept the walk to the hostel)
7 days of pure sunshine (oh yea)
20+/- falafels eaten (no, i don’t have a problem)
1 coat snatched at the hostel (i guess someone needed it more than me?)
646 photos taken (okay yea, i have a problem)
after traveling in the country for 8 days kate and i both fell in love with the middle east (kate even more so than me, my heart is still in istanbul). i wasn’t really sure what to expect when we first got there. and to be quite honest i had visions along the lines of aladin and the life of brian. but neither of those were anywhere near what we experienced (imagine that!). disappointments aside though, in a country that makes news headlines for fighting and turmoil, we found peace, tranquility, acceptance and tasty falafel on every street.
israel is a land with a history more detailed that joan rivers’ plastic surgery file. though they’ve both been through a lot. and yea, i just compared israel to joan rivers. though our experience there wasn’t completely about the political unrest and fight for land. it was more or less about a giant jigsaw puzzle of cultures, peoples, religions, histories, languages, all neatly (and then not so neatly) packed into one very very small country. the people, like the history, are stacked on-top of each other, old living with new, forming a city of car-less stone alleyways and endless rooftop oases.
israel was amazing to say the least and certainly entranced me to learn more about the people and the culture. while there were no thieves running away with baguettes in hand, monkeys named ‘abu’, public stonings, or a more favorable exchange rate, israel certainly didn’t disappoint. with one last falafel on our food pilgrimage, it was time for us to head back to ukraine. however hesitantly and jacket-less to boot.
as if to apologetically win us back, ukraine welcomed us with surprisingly warm temperatures and arriving in a light sweater, i instantly thought my coat couldn’t have been stolen at a better time. with phone service back on i called my host mom and made plans to meet up with my host brother in the city. kate and i parted ways at the metro, not knowing when we’d see each other next, though now closer friends than ever having conquered and eaten our way through israel together. after a metro trip and being ‘that’ person hitting everyone with an oversized bag, i made it to my host brother sasha and his friend bogdan and we were off to kaharlyk. it had been 6 months since i had last seen them, though within minutes we were laughing and joking and it felt like no time had passed at all.
i was endlessly scolded and worried over for not having a coat and was quickly given my host sister’s old ‘shuba’ (fur coat) which very unflatteringly made me look like an eewok. though much less cute and cuddly. and to make things even worse, my host mom also tried, with force, to put a fur lined hat on my lager than average head too. i was quite a sight to see. but thankfully my host family lives in a nice city (i didn’t realize just how nice it is until i moved out to a village) so i was able to winter boot, fleece-lined pant, jacket-ify myself quickly to taste. without a single rhinestone or dead animal either! you don’t know how impressive that feat really is until you live here. so feeling more ukrainian than ever with my 85% ukrainian-purchased outfit, i was ready to bring in the new year.
new years eve, like thanksgiving day, was pretty much entirely spent in the kitchen, cooking and cooking and cooking. i assumed the traditional role and helped along side my host mom and sister, and tasting things as we went. by the time we were finished and the table was set, it was 10 pm. we ate, ate, ate, drank, drank, drank, and watched an ‘idol’-ish show on tv. at 5 minutes till midnight we popped the champaign, poured the glasses, and waited for the president of ukraine to come on tv and announce the new year. glasses in hand, everyone waited staring at the tv for the clock to reach midnight. it very anti-climatically did and the numbers ‘2012’ appeared glowing on the screen with falling cartoon confetti. we all toasted and cheered to the new year and i couldn’t help but ask ‘is that it?’. knowing how much ukrainians like to party and drink i was certain there’d be pot banging and maybe even gun firing…but i guess that’s more texas than anything.
and as if ukraine was to say ‘i got that covered!’ within minutes people began their firework salutes. i rushed outside jacketless and shoeless (don’t ask how i got away with that), climbed up the metal stairs to the roof and watched the sky light up with fireworks all around me. i stood there by myself, the bursts of lights in the cold cloudy sky, and wondered how all my friends were celebrating the new year and wishing i was there with them…and also wishing i hadn’t gone outside without shoes.
the next few days with my host family were spent finishing all the food from new years, relishing in all the store options, hanging out with sasha and his friends and observing week long celebration of drunk people in the streets. though that’s not much different from normal.
my second christmas was a lot less holy than the first, and almost not even noticeable. since new years comes before the ukrainian orthodox christmas, it’s the bigger deal. they even have a green cartoon new years dragon that brings in the new year (almost as cool as santa). i was worried about having to travel on the ukrainian christmas but other than people traveling with cakes and small packages, you’d never have even guessed it was christmas. i though for sure on my overnight train back to the village people would awake and joyfully wish each other a merry christmas morning…but then again i guess i’ve seen too many christmas movies. and this is ukraine.
so things went on as usual and the bus to my village surprisingly still ran. it was somewhat nice to come back to my room, to upload my photos, sleep in my own bed, and if anything at least to change out of the one pair of socks i’d been wearing for 2 weeks straight. don’t worry they didn’t smell that bad. i think. so getting back to my life of solitude i put on my israeli music cd i bought from some street performers, began unpacking and dreaming of falafel for dinner. but my falafel dreams were interrupted with a knock at my window.
i forgot about the scarf i had tied on my head (from practicing my new israeli scarf tying techniques and also hiding my unwashed hair) and went to see who was there. ira popped her little head around the corner and my neighbor lena with some man proceeded. lena thrust a big bag of candy and beers at me, drunkenly wished me merry christmas with a hug and with tear filled eyes said she’s been miserable without me. it was quite possibly the most dramatic welcome back i’ve ever received.
we all went inside to my room and i was of course requested to provide glasses for beer (even though i didn’t want any…oohhh forced drinking). there wasn’t just one big beer in the bag, there were three. but i thought ‘it’s christmas, they’re celebrating, i should be a good host’. so we poured the beer, i gave ira some things of mine to play with, and lena requested some music. though the only music i had that she liked was one obscure ukrainian song my host brother gave me. pretty sure it played 30 or so times. as that one song looped over and over and over, it didn’t get any less amazing to lena, we all chatted, even danced some, and i avoided being set up with the young man lena had brought over. though it was getting late into the night and from a sleepless polar express i was on the night before, i was ready for bed. the last beer became more like the 5th to last beer, but they eventually went home without much of a fight.
during the first week back at school the old new year took place. which, would have surprised me except this isn’t the first time i was unaware of a sounds-like-you-just-made-that-up ukrainian holiday. this has happened before…like that flower arranging holiday. still the only thing i know about it is that you traditionally eat vareniky on this day. strange? maybe. i know some other volunteers had celebrations at their schools and sites (aka drinking at school with the students), but for me, old new year’s day continued on like usual. and that’s probably for the better.
just as soon as i got back to school, pretty much finalized the grant i’m writing, and washed that pair of week-long socks, it was time to head to rivne for a language refresher camp in the west of ukraine. language refresher camps aren’t mandatory, but who would pass up a chance to travel (EXPENSES PAID!) to the west and meet up with volunteers that you rarely see? not this girl. so i packed again, this time brought TWO pairs of socks, and made the 18 hour journey to the west for the first time.
while i learned ukrainian during training, i certainly don’t live in a ukrainian speaking area (like a lot of other ukrainian speaking volunteers. thanks peace corps! jk). it’s pretty much still russia where i live…though i can’t see it from my house. everyone calls the ukrainian hryvnia the russian ruble, bus drivers hang russian flags from their windows, and moscow a bus/train ride away. a few decades after independence, everything here is still covered in a dusty soviet red. the politics, culture, mentality, nostalgia, even the ground is stained red from the nearby iron-ore mine.
i’ve grown accustomed to life in mini-russia and thought of it as normal until speaking with other volunteers from the west. the west is known for it’s ‘clean’ (or at least cleaner) ukrainian and patriotic people who strive to see russia as a thing of the past. so i was pretty excited to experience the west, it’s full blown nationalism, and maybe even get scolded once or twice for saying ‘да’ instead of ‘так’.
the language refresher camp took place in harry potter picturesque snow covered forest which, with 50 or so exuberant (mostly californian) volunteers, fostered the best snowball fighting i’ve seen in my life. oh and some language learning too. when we weren’t running around outside reenacting ‘battle of the bulge’ (no, that’s not a jenny craig book), we went to language classes of our choice and filled our heads with endless ukrainian grammar rules, learned the waltz and the chacha, and as always made new friends. but like every kid at camp, when the last day came around we didn’t want to leave and wished it would never end. or at least i did.
but peace corps kicked us out and made us catch our buses to the center of rivne and lutsk. i bought my ticket to kyiv even before i knew half of the lang. refresher group was going there too, so it turns out that we were all lucky enough to be on the same train. back in kyiv we arrived to even more snow which of course lead to snowball fighting and some passerby-ers taking scoffing/laughing/taking videos of us. before i was kinda partial to kyiv, it’s pretty but not thaaaat pretty. though with the addition of non-stop snowfall, i bumped it up a notch on my list. and was sad to leave it and my snowball friends behind.
alas it was time to go back to my mini-russian village where the only thing i have snowball fights with are the shrubs infront of the dormitory. true story. the entire train ride back i reminisced over the fun times and good friends and how i missed them already. i always seem to get rather nostalgic on train rides here. maybe because one of my favorite movies is the darjeeling limited and i’ve seen that train scene in a white christmas a few too many times. but there’s something so charming about an overnight train ride. even despite the waft of sewage from the toilet, vodka drinking, and the man that blew his nose in the train window curtains. twice. trains will forever hold a special place in my heart. snotty curtains and all.
so this morning as i sit here sipping my souvenir israeli coffee finally finishing this post, an orthodox priest walked past my window (no, not into a bar with a rabbi) and is currently chanting things in the room next to me. the room with the 8 loud satanic boys. maybe they think this will help settle them? or maybe it’s national ‘bless-your-house’ day? i’m hoping for the first. i guess i’ll find out when i’m trying to sleep tonight if his spells actually worked. and if they do, how much can i pay him to work his magic on my classes too. if not i can always resort to pegging those kids with snowballs. maybe my shrub aiming practice might come in handy after-all.