for school being canceled and quarantined at home, this past week has been pretty eventful, a week of many firsts, you might say. just to name a few: first serious ukrainian freeze in 7 years, first ‘quarantine cold day’ as a teacher, first case of mild hypothermia, first time trying to hop a train, first time getting in a taxi and saying ‘follow that bus!’, first time buying alcohol (in the form of boxed wine) in my village, and first time having a tab under my name at the village store (and no, thankfully not for the wine).
i had my serious doubts that a well-heated boarding school would ever cancel classes like the rest of ukraine. especially since most of the kids just have to walk 3 minutes to school. but when wednesday came and i found myself sulking with jealousy thinking of the other TEFL volunteers and their canceled classes, trying to prepare my 8th form lesson, i saw students with bags in hand rushing out to greet their parents. i try not to jump to conclusions in ukraine…cause well, i’m usually wrong, but i just KNEW school had to have been canceled. or at least i really really really hoped.
sure enough when i got to school the halls were empty and classes were filled with a much nicer number of 5 or 6 students. i stopped the history teacher in the hall, just to double-check, and she replied that classes for sure will be canceled till next week. SCORE!!! but…what to do with all my free time now?…….uh get outta my village! duh!
now i should explain that i would never reeeeally consider myself a spontaneous person. i’d like to be, but i’m much better at planning, organizing, and calculating what to expect. so don’t ask me why i decided that during the middle of the biggest freeze in years, and my especially bad luck traveling in ukraine, i’d decide to be spontaneous. with a seriously long weekend and a gathering of volunteers in lviv, western ukraine, i looked up ticket availability (see, not so spontaneous), and found that there were enough seats on the train that night.
i wasn’t even thinking about the fact that it’s, oh you know, around -22*C outside and there’s no heating in buses, train stations, or just about any public place in ukraine…all i knew is that this was my chance to grab life by the balls, venture out west, and get for the weekend! so i went. i got on a bus heading to ZP with more food in my carry-on than clothes on my back. a 2.5 hour bus ride doesn’t seem so bad, but when the windows are frosted over and you can see your breath, it makes staying warm a difficult task. even if you dance in your seat to ‘can’t touch this’ (don’t worry i was the only one on the bus). by the end of the ride i couldn’t feel my toes. even despite my hammer time.
as the only passenger on the bus, i chatted with the driver a bit. he thought i was all sorts of crazy (though i don’t think he witnessed my dancing). crazy for traveling when it’s this cold (i agreed at this point) and crazy for leaving america to come live in ukraine (as many other ukrainians think so too). he asked what i would do if there were no tickets for the train and i answered i wasn’t sure…and hoped it wouldn’t come to figuring out what that would be. but arriving to the train station bez billet 20 MINUTES before the train was to arrive, was cutting it close. especially for a girl that was raised to always be much much earlier when traveling. as the driver pulled up to let me out, my eyes landed on the window to the ticket counters. apparently i wasn’t the only person to think of buying a train ticket when it’s -whatever* outside. the lines were out the door. my heart sank, i thought a few choice words, but realized all i could do is try.
so i thanked the driver and attempted to run to the train station. but my feet were so cold i didn’t even recognize their heavy cinderblock clunkiness as my own. i hobbled unbalanced up the stairs, feeling much more like the old one-legged man i once helped on these exact same stairs, and got inside where it wasn’t much warmer than outside. i picked a line, glancing at my watch, and hoped it would go quickly. but that was hopeful thinking. anyone who’s been to ukraine knows the ticket buying system is nooot the greatest. it usually takes forever, ukrainians have no problem with cutting, and in my case, once you’re 5 minutes from departure and 8 people away from your first spontaneous train ticket purchase, the ticket lady decides to go on break.
just my luck. so i thought screw it, there’s no time, decided to old school ‘white christmas’-it and risk trying to buy one of the empty seats on the train. my feet weren’t any warmer and now i was shivering at this point but i just hoped that by some miracle i’d get a ticket and nurse my toes back to life on the train. but i guess i’m too optimistic because that’s far from what happened.
the train arrived and i ran up and down asking each stuffily suited wagon employee if i could please get on and buy a ticket. i was so cold at this point that i couldn’t control my chattering jar nor my slurred ukrainian like drunken stroke victim. so it was no wonder they looked at me pitiless as though i was a gum stuck to the sole of a shoe. and while i knew there were still 14 available 2nd class seats, they each coldly told me there were none. now if i was REALLY spontaneous i’d have distracted them with ‘LOOK, FREE SALO!’ and just jumped on. but that might end in getting arrested. and i’d rather endure hypothermia than end up in a ukrainian prison.
so defeated and numb all over i walked back to the station, looked at my watch, saw that i had 3 minutes till the last bus left for my village, and decided ‘i HAVE to get on that bus. i need to go home!’. i don’t know if it was the cold that slowed my logic from functioning, i don’t like imposing on people but this would have been a great time to impose on the warm apartment of a volunteer in ZP. but i didn’t. instead i tried clumsily pressing the, what felt like microscopic, buttons on my cellphone (now i understand the senior allure of those jitterbug phones) with the numb nubs i used to call hands. finally i got the bus dispatcher (who knows me well by now) and tried to explain that i’m on my way and please don’t leave! i couldn’t really even tell i was holding my phone, moving my lips, or conjugating my verbs. everything, even the firings to my brain seemed affected by the cold, my slur was getting worse, and i imagined myself ending up like an unknown frozen popsicle on the side of the road.
the poor dispatcher, who probably (and rightfully so) thought i was drunk, couldn’t understand what i was saying. i was trying so hard but it took so much effort to even think. finally i got my point across and she told me the two places i might be able to catch it by a taxi, though she couldn’t tell him to wait. there were two minutes till the bus was about to leave. i was losing hope just as quickly as body heat but i was still determined to get home. i hailed a taxi, felt instantly warmer with it’s insulation from the cold, and told him i had a bus to catch. like…right now.
we drove to its departure place and i hoped maybe it was delayed, but turned out it had already left. i had one last chance. some ‘cafe cosmos’ where it makes its first stop. so we turned around and speedily weaving in and out of cars. i sat in the back, hands bracing the two front seats peering out for signs of the bus. i was certain that i’d missed it, but as we came closer to the first stop, a few cars ahead of us i spotted it. suddenly all those hours i’ve spent at home watching buses pass my window don’t seem like a waste after all.
it’s alluring rope lighted ‘zaporizhzhia/mala bilozerka’ sign glowed green like the emerald city in the dark. this is what dorothy must have felt like when she woke up out of an opium tizzy haze to see her destination right before her. ‘THERE IT IS!!!!!’ i practically screamed with joy into the drivers ear. ‘THAT’S IT! THAT’S IT!’ i’ve never been so happy to see a bus in my life. it meant i could go home. i could go home where it’s warm, take a hot HOT shower, curl up in my bed, and never ever leave again. never.
the taxi driver, apparently reading my mind and understanding my dire situation, sped up to the bus and driving beside it rolled down his window signalling in a way that could have only meant ‘this crazy girl wants to get on your bus’. i waved through the backseat window as if to embarrassingly reply ‘well i guess this is what happens if there aren’t any tickets’. both vehicles pull over, i payed the burley taxi driver and felt the impulse to give him a kiss with my now purple lips i was so happy, though thankfully went against it and sufficed in simply overpaying.
the few minutes of warmth the taxi provided warmed my body parts back to recognition and they luckily lingered with me till i arrived in my village. by the time i made it home my bag of food was one pb&j sandwich lighter and i’d decided that being spontaneous in the middle of a great freeze was by far my worst idea i’ve had in a long time. besides putting butter on the radiator to thaw (which is a good idea in itself, just not when you forget and leave it for 3 hours).
so i spent the rest of the quarantine inside with cabin fever (which is what i was supposed to do in the first place) and my idea of being spontaneous turned into a more appropriate decision to have coffee instead of tea after dinner. livin on the edge. and so it was, no fun party in lviv, no free school internet, and no tv. what does one do stuck inside for five days you ask? important stuff let me tell you:
· practice ukrainian cursive
· practice ukrainian cursive signature
· draw condiments
· draw condiments speaking in ukrainian cursive
· master my push up form
· ‘how i met your mother’ and ‘madmen’ marathons
· dance like there’s no tomorrow (or at least no students in the dorm)
· trash 18,867 documents from my computer
(yea, you read that right. and no, there’s still a bunch left. what can i say, as an english and
design major, your hard dive can get kinda messy)
· while trashing documents read through study abroad journals from france
· realize how embarrassingly sure of the world i was and how poorly written are these said study abroad journals from france
· stop reading study abroad journals from france
· eat some chocolate
somewhere in between all this, by reading the prison tally marks on my wall, i’d say on day 3 of quarantine, i finally decided to buy alcohol in my village. you know, to stay warm. peace corps pretty much scared the shit out of us with stories that once you buy alcohol in a small village you’ll be thought of as a drunk. but pc is good at scare tactics and i figured the women at my store knew me well enough, or at least i hoped (i mean i baked em cake once!), to not let one box of wine alter my image. so like many other villagers i finally, and only, ventured outside for food and booze.
i went in the store, and like a teenage girl buying tampons for the first time, requested a few things that i didn’t really need to distract from my nervous addition for ‘ummm a box of wine’. the store lady didn’t gasp at my request but rather asked me to specify rather than ‘ummm a box of wine’. like a finely educated sommelier, she asked if i wanted sweet, dry, red, white, to which i didn’t even really think about since, let’s be honest, it’s boxed wine and just about anything would do. so i replied ‘red, semi-sweet, and not too dry’ as though paring it with the sirloin dinner i’ve prepared for a date night for two. she fished around for a while, trying to pair a wand with a wizard, and finally pulled out a dusty box of ‘isabella’.
it turned out to be a perfect match. for the equivalent of $2.25 i made my first alcohol purchase, discovered my new go-to red wine, and had a date night for one. the next day or so, i decided i was done being a box of wine indulging hermit and finally visited my neighbors. pocketful of chocolates and a bag full of mandarins i walked over to lena and her kids. we spent the time goofin around, baking a one-armed bear shaped cake, and doodling with ira and eddik. i was there all afternoon, the first socializing i had in a while, but eventually i went home and returned with homemade pickles, beans, and a big beet.
on tuesday i had to play mean miss kristen at school. it all started off with a rather sleepless night thanks to the devil boys next to me and no one doing their homework. again. no sleep, with no homework, and no class participation, doesn’t make miss kristen very happy. so come my 11th form lesson and they also replied that the ALL forgot their homework, it was time to lay the smack down. not a physical one, i promise. i gave them all 2s (on a grading scale of 1-12) in their grade books for no homework and made them, as i had to in french class, write all the 20 something vocabulary words 4 times each. muuuuhahaha. it felt great.
one of my students (who compared the vocab writing to bart simpson’s chalkboard detention) asked as i hovered like a sergeant around the room why i’m so meeeean today. i just laughed somewhat disturbingly and said ‘this is what happens when you repeatedly don’t do your homework.’ not to mention ever listen, participate, or even care about learning english. but i didn’t say that, that was probably just the lack of sleep talking. outside of school these kids are great and i know the kids like having me for a teacher because i’m nice and don’t scream at them like their other teachers, but i must say it’s beyond frustrating when no one takes learning english seriously. i was hoping their hand cramps from copying vocab would make them rethink their attitude, but i think it’s going to take a lot more than that.
after lessons i headed back to my room and popped in to talk with the nurses for a little while. we got to talking about america, my friends and family back home, and as usual, why i’m not married. the ladies insisted, pointing to their ring fingers, that i need to get married. they showed me with gestures of muscle flexing and driving an imaginary car that i need a big, strong, ukrainian man who has a car. i laughed and politely agreed maybe, maybe, but i wasn’t looking to get married soon. this, they couldn’t simply understand. the soft-spoken older nurse with an upper-lip mustache as dark and thick as the hair on her head moved her eyes to my boots, disapprovingly shook her finger, and said ‘no wonder you have no husband! you are always wearing flat boots! you need to wear taaaaall ones, then you’ll find a man’. and i’ve gone all these years thinking that my personality and wit would attract a husband.
sitting there enduring their corrections, i instantly felt like mulan at the matchmaker. a tomboy that brings disgrace to her family and china for her not-feminine-enough appearance, or in this case, the school nurses and ukraine for my not-tall-enough boots. but i knew they were just trying to be helpful in my search for a man and in essence their idea of my happiness. so i thanked them for the life changing advice and to make them happy said i’d buy a pair of heels soon. maybe.
the nurses went back to work and i went back to my room and gathered letters to take to the post office. it was SERIOUSLY cold and windy, but i had to get them in the mail so i braced the weather anyways. arriving at the PO, the lady sitting bundled up in her coat and round fur hat, i figured i’d do nothing more than buy some stamps. but she slapped two package notices out before me. WOO!!! i’d lost hope that the package my parents sent would ever get to me. a.) because it was sent dec. 31st and b.) because every ukrainian told me that it must have been stolen, ‘that’s ukraine!’. so i was more than surprised to finally get it AND my cousin leta’s package. which took significantly less time.
so i left with my arms full of postal presents and headed back to the dorms. this time walking into the wind and really really regretting mastering my push up form over the past few days. the packages, which in reality weren’t very heavy (at all), now felt like i was trying to carrying 5 small ukrainian children. i pathetically struggled to carry them back and keep my fingers from numbing. by the time i got to the dormitory gate i thought it ingenious to slide them under the fence while i walked around, giving my quivering biceps a rest.
what i did not think about, in my oh so clever plan, was the possibility of one of my stray puppy friends coming around and peeing on the boxes. yep. by the time i made it to the packages (which was only about 30 seconds later) the deed was done and a small pool of yellow was left on the package and the snow next to it. i couldn’t help but laugh at the odds. the puppy, who i’ve now dubbed ‘pee-wee’, pranced around me joyfully as i laughed, was at least considerate enough to mark his territory on the plastic customs part so no damage was done. well, except for the fact that 10 teenage boys watch all this happen from their dormitory window. but they, too, got a good laugh out of it.
i ran inside and opened the packages, avoiding the urine area as much as possible. after my ‘mean miss kristen’ classes, getting these certainly made my day. i had to quickly get back to school for some 5th formers tutoring so i grabbed my newly acquired sock monkey hat from my mom’s package (complete with ears and button eyes), handmade scarf from my cousin leta, and went to school. when i first walked-in to school my students just stared at me, mouthes agape, and within seconds of passing only then did they burst out laughing. i probably would too if i saw my teacher wearing this hat. i guess young ladies in ukraine aren’t supposed to wear things like this. so in addition to only ever wearing flat shoes, i now wear a monkey on my head. i can only imagine what the ladies at school will have to say about my monkey hat, sex appeal, and my husband prospects. so whatever if i end up husbandless and bunionless, at least i’ve got a monkey hat to keep me warm and make me (and maybe other people too) smile.
(this was supposed to be short with lots of photos. now it’s just long with lots of photos. i’m terrible at keeping things brief.)