Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Long Goodbye -- A much shorter timeline of months 3 and 4

  • End of February, 2003:  I start receiving harassing phone calls.  At first the man just says "tsuka" (Ukrainian for bitch) and hangs up.  A few weeks later he learns some English and starts saying "tsuka bitch."  Glad my influence has helped the townspeople learn some English . . .
  • March:  
    • The First Part of the Month:  Lesia has stopped spending the night, but comes over continuously.  Mostly it's just really irritating, but I'm used to it at this point.
    • March 22nd and 23rd:  I ask for an extra key so I can have someone come over and feed the cat while I'm on vacation.  The extra key never materializes, but Lesia certainly does.  A few hours after I should have left, but didn't because I had the flu, Lesia appears and spends the night.
    • March 29th:  I stop at another volunteer's apartment halfway home from a weekend party just to take a hot shower.  
    • March 30th:   Lesia charges me with a new set of crimes -- sitting on the chairs and sleeping on the bed!  Horror of horrors, I have misused the furniture by using it in exactly the way in which it was intended!  Apparently they are too expensive for people to sit on or sleep in, but not so precious that they can't be stored in the second apartment. 
  •  April:
    • April 1st:  I spend the afternoon moving all of my things into the living room and moving all of the chairs into the bedroom to be "locked away" where I can't get at them.  I might use them for things like sitting, and we can't have that, can we?  I now sleep on the couch-bed in the living room, which is actually much more comfortable than the actual bed in the bedroom that I'm no longer allowed access to.
    •  April 3rd:  My regional manager, Luba, finally decides to intervene.  She talks to Lesia on the phone and finds her just the nicest!  Isn't it wonderful that they get along?  "Margaret," Luba wonders, "why can't you just calm down and live with the nice lady I spoke with on the phone?"
    • April 7th:  Luba makes a site visit.  I'm expecting salvation, but instead she turns out to be more of a liability, dismissing and even condoning some of my site's and landlady's behavior all the while fixating on inconsequential details of my teaching schedule (like why I don't have time to observe other teachers built into my schedule -- because they're embarrassed by their English and don't want me there!  Can we focus on the problem at hand please?)
    • Weekend of April 10th:   I've been forbidden to have guests, so a nearby volunteer (of hot shower fame) hosts my 23rd birthday party.  Don't we look so happy "in the nature"?

We are imitating typical Ukrainian snapshot poses -- no joke.  The only difference is that there is usually only one Ukrainian woman in each picture, and she is wearing stilettos while hiking.

Obviously we had more fun at the alternate location than we would have sharing my apartment with Lesia.  Standing on the couches would have definitely taken the "misuse of furniture" charge from misdemeanor to felony.

**Stay tuned for May:  Kicking Ass and Taking Names . . . 

Saturday, December 19, 2009


In February, I got a roommate, and no, it was not one of the psycho, samahon-brewing landlady's relatives . . . I got a kitten!  One of my ninth graders, Ella, gave him to me.  It was nice to have something living in my apartment that was not yelling at me in Ukrainian for not making my bed.  An all-white, long-haired "fancy cat," as the locals say, I decided to name him Snizhka, which is Ukrainian for snowball.

Snizhka doing a few of his favorite things . . . 

"helping" wash the dishes

drinking water out of my reserve bucket, instead of his dish

 stalking about on my snazzy carpet

sleeping on my stomach

 Generally, I'm not a cat person, but Ukrainian winters are long and lonely, so I figured I'd try it out.  Snizhka definitely had the personality of a dog, more than a cat.  He followed me all over the apartment, like a shadow, and slept with me at night.  I had to close the door to my room or it would get too cold, so he was basically locked in.  He either slept under the covers or on my head.  I preferred the under the covers version.

In my heat-less apartment, one of Snizhka's favorite places to be was on my laptop

I didn't actually bother to tell Lesia about the cat because my move appeared to be imminent at that point.  When she did discover him, on one of her many unannounced visits, she seemed to really like him.  She even made him meat and mashed potatoes for dinner, scoffing at the bowl of cat food I'd set out for him.  Later, of course, she changed her mind and decided that the cat had to go.

Proof positive that bucket baths do nothing for your appearance

One of my fellow volunteers had been dying for a cat, so I offered her Snizhka, wanting him to go to a good home.  I took Snizhka, and all of his paraphernalia (the amount of stuff my mom bought, and then shipped for the cat is ridiculous), on a four hour bus ride to another village.  Livestock, chickens, cats, and the occasional goat are really not that uncommon on buses in Ukraine, and no one paid much attention to me and the cat.  Unfortunately, while walking around and changing buses, I had to keep him contained.  I didn't have a cat-carrier, and there certainly wasn't anywhere to buy them in my town, so I cut holes in the top of a baba bag and carried him that way.  Snizhka was not amused.  We got to the other village intact, although slightly traumatized.  Snizhka enjoyed his new home and his new baby sister, Pechevo (which means cookie in Ukrainian).  I enjoyed not being woken up at night anymore by the cat pouncing on my head.

 Snizhka and Pechevo sleeping

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Long Goodbye, month 2 -- "Margaret looks like she's been shot out of a cannon."

As cold, snowy January turned into an equally cold and icy February, nothing seemed to improve on the apartment front.  I even had some intervention from my Peace Corps regional manager, to no avail.  Lesia at this point was telling people that she had to come over because I was too irresponsible to be left alone.  My biggest offense -- leaving one of the chairs in the middle of the living room so I could put my space heater on it, directing my only source of heat in the 30 below weather directly on my body on the couch.  Apparently, a disarranged living room might just cause irreparable damage to the apartment!

The placement of this chair is certainly cause for alarm . . .

The combination of the seemingly imminent apartment change and being a first year teacher was turning me into one giant ball of stress.  In the middle of implementing an "English Week" at my school, considered a test of my muster as a teacher, one of the Peace Corps Medical Officers made a visit.  An aged hippie nurse from New Mexico, she made it her business to visit all of the Peace Corps Volunteers about a month after their group swore in to make sure that everyone was chugging along swimmingly.

The day Lydia, the nurse, came to visit me I hadn't had water for more than 48 hours and was full-on overwhelmed by English Week.  With the temperature far below zero, the path to the well impossibly icy and living in a fourth floor walk-up, I was prioritizing my water use, hoping the water turned back on before she got there.  Unfortunately for me, she showed up four hours early, finding me in the midst of trying to hide my dirty dishes rather than wash them, and with my living-room looking like an office supply store had vomited all over it.

Lydia took one look at me in my crazed state and started to make me tea.  She ordered her driver (Peace Corps has it's own vehicles and hires local drivers, who rock, to ferry them around the country on official business), Sasha to bring up water from the well.  Strapping, Ukrainian Sasha managed to bring up four buckets in half the time it would have taken me to bring up one, and all without falling on the ice once.  Lydia proceeded to ask me what the hell was going on, so I gave her the crazy landlady run-down -- she was appalled.  She couldn't believe that my landlady had been acting that way for over a month and the regional manager hadn't taken more decisive action.  Lydia said she was going to try to force Peace Corps to either pay Lesia off to leave me alone until I moved  or to furnish an apartment for me so that I could move more quickly.

With Lydia on the case I started to feel much better and like things might actually improve.  She called me later in the week to make sure I was still OK, telling me not to worry because everyone was going through something -- two of my friends were "eating nothing but sticks and twigs" because their sites hadn't provided them with refrigerators.  Hanging out with those friends later they told me Lydia had shown up at their sites proclaiming "Margaret looks like she's been shot out of a cannon!"

"Sticks and Twigs" with "Shot Out of a Cannon" towards the end of their service . . . obviously all three managed to survive and thrive despite that first rough winter.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Long Goodbye -- Six months of "you will be moving soon," Month 1

While the moonshine brewing in the kitchen ceased, the overnight visits from Lesia did not and she began making increasingly more ridiculous demands of me.  One of my favorites was when she wanted me to sleep on the couch, so she could sleep in the bed because her back hurt when she slept on the couch.  Um, if your back hurts maybe you could just GO HOME and sleep there.

Irinia kept saying that I should talk to Lesia myself one day when she came in.  I try to impress upon Irina that I did not have the language skills to be diplomatic.  I finally did say something, though, and it did not go over well.  Lesia ran to the superintendent (her boss) and essentially tattle-tailed on me.  She said that she came into her apartment and I was very rude and told her that she couldn't stay there anymore and she didn't understand what right I had to tell her what she could and couldn't do in my apartment.

During Irina's discussion with the superintendent about my rudeness, she found out some very interesting information.  It turns out that the school only rented "half" of the apartment for me.  What, exactly, that meant was never explained.  I think it meant "the landlady may do what she pleases with half the apartment at any given time and you must reside in whatever half she is not interested in at that moment."

Shortly thereafter Lesia announced that her son (one of the guys who spent the night a few weeks before) was getting married and would move into my apartment and that I only had one week to move.  Fabulous.  Not that I didn't want to move, but Ukraine is not America -- you can't just pick up your local housing listing and find an apartment, expecially when you aren't the one paying for it.  Things are really complicated and almost no one rent apartments.  Part of the problem is that everyone got an apartment under Soviet rule, so, no matter how poor you were, when the Soviet Union dissolved, you owned your space.  There are very few homeless in the former Soviet Union, and everyone who does want to move either lives with relatives or buys a place.  Young people in their twenties (married, single, and with children) almost always live with their parents for years before embarking on their own, making it even more difficult to find a single, 22 year-old a place to live.  Not to mention that the weather in January in Ukraine is not exactly ideal for moving.  With at least two feet of accumulated snow on the ground at all times, gray skies, and darkness falling around three in the afternoon, it's a bit like living in a black and white movie.

My students outside of our school on a typical January afternoon

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Samahon Sleepovers

I celebrated my first Ukrainian Christmas, January 7th, 2003, with my counterpart and her family.  After a night full of vodka and feasting, I walked 45 minutes back to my apartment with my counterpart, Irina.  As we slogged through the foot of snow that continued to accumulate on the ground, I wasn't thinking about how cold I was, but about how lucky I was to be here, walking down a village road lit only by the stars, in what really was a winter wonderland.  I was jolted out of my (possibly vodka-induced) reverie by Irina announcing, "Lesia will be there when you get home."
     "Um, What do you mean she'll be there when I get home?  I'm renting the apartment from her -- she can't come in when I'm there."

    "Well, our people sometimes like to stay in the town when they cannot get back to the village,"  Irina replied.

     "Fine," I fumed, "Since she's already there, it's fine.  But it can't happen again.  I'm not comfortable with this.  You need to tell her this."

     "OK, Margaret."

I soon discovered that "OK, Margaret,"  really meant something more like, "We've noted your concern, but there's not much we can do for you."  So that night I spent the night with Lesia, the landlady, in my second living-room on the couch.

A few days later, still on vacation from teaching, I woke up around 10:00 am to a loud banging on my door.  It was Lesia, with her two 20-something sons.  As anyone who has ever seen me when I first wake up knows, I don't really comprehend much of anything, nor do I respond with more than grunts.  I just stood there, in my bathrobe with my mouth open, staring, as Lesia and her sons barreled their way into my apartment and started setting up camp.

Eventually I composed myself and called Irina to get to the bottom of the situation.  Apparently, Lesia's sons had dentist appointments and needed to spend the night there.  They stayed for three days.

I kept trying to appeal to my counterpart to talk to Lesia about the problem with her coming over, since I didn't think my limited Ukrainian language skills would allow me to handle the situation with nuance and grace.  Irina kept dragging her feet . . . then came the night of the samahon.

Samahon is Ukrainian moonshine.  It tastes like lighter-fluid and goes down about as smoothly.  Technically it's illegal, but lot of Ukrainians make it.  The first time I ever had it was at a wedding.  There are many variations, but most use fermented sugar beets.  The smell is rather atrocious.

I came home one Friday evening to find that Lesia was back, and this time she was making moonshine in my kitchen.  She had a full still on stove, making it impossible for me to make dinner.  I called Irina and tried to impress upon her that a foreigner, a guest of the Ukrainian government could not have illegal activity happening in her kitchen.  Irina spoke with the regional head of English learning.  They didn't believe me!  They thought I had mistaken an old washing-machine for a contraption that made samahon.  So I took this picture:

That was the last I saw of Lesia making moonshine in my kitchen.  Unfortunately, it wasn't the last time Lesia and I had a sleepover . . .

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Bathing in the Lap of Luxury

Directions for Taking a Bucket Bath: 
  1. Set up space heater in shower-room.  This is especially important in the winter when your apartment has no heat, but also comes in handy the rest of the year as bucket baths tend to be pretty chilly.
  2. Be sure that you have enough water saved in case you're bathing during the "off" times of the water schedule (6:00 am - 11:00 am and 6:00 pm - 11:00 pm during the week, 6:00 am -11:00 pm on the weekends).  If you have not planned ahead, or your water has been mysteriously off for the past three days and you've run out of reserves, head outside to the well to get some.  If you do have water, remember to only take from the buckets in the kitchen, as you'll need the bucket in the toilet-room to flush the toilet.
  3. Once you've acquired water, put it in a large pot on the stove and start heating.  Wait about half an hour.  At this point your water will be warm and your shower-room will be toasty from the space-heater.
  4. Very carefully carry the bucket of water into the shower-room.  Test the temperature to make sure it's not too hot.  You may have to dilute it a little with cold water.
  5. Strip down and stand in the bathtub.  Try to ignore the instant profusion of goosebumps all over your body.
  6. Ladle water over your head.  Three full ladles should do it.
  7. Lather down with soap.  Clean off with a few more strategically placed ladles.
  8. Shampoo hair.  Rinse with three ladles full of water.
  9. Apply conditioner.  Pour the rest of the water in the bucket over your head.  Hope that you get most of the conditioner out since this is your one shot.
  10. Quickly get dressed in your standard three layers of clothing.
  11. Put the space heater in the next room you're planning on using and turn on high.
  12. Resume day feeling mildly cleaner.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

"An apartment in a house"

On December 23rd, 2002 I was sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer in an old Soviet auditorium along with about seventy-five other volunteers.  After spending the holidays together, we all departed for our permanent sites on December 26th.  I left Kyiv alone on an overnight train trip with five large pieces of luggage, one small piece, my laptop, and my purse.  I took up an entire four bed compartment on the train.  Ten sleepless hours, and a mere 450 kilometers later, I safely arrived in the city of Kamienets-Podilsky, minus one glove, but otherwise completely in tact.

My Ukrainian counterpart picked me up at the train station and we piled into a car to travel the half and hour to my village.  I was so relieved that I'd gotten there that I didn't see any of the trouble looming ahead.  Many Ukrainians like to drive 90 miles an hour on ice, and my driver was no exception.  We crashed into a wall at the side of a road.  Of course, this being Ukraine, we just kept on driving.  We stopped shortly after the crash at my counterpart's house so she could pick up some papers.  The driver got out to inspect the damage.  Then he went into the trunk of the car and started to root around under my luggage and emerged with a new bumper!  He did some stuff on the front of the car, put the new bumper on, got back into the car, turned around and looked at me, smiling and gave me a thumbs up and said "tse dobre" which is basically an "it's all good" type of comment.  Then he turned the radio back on and began to sing.  All of this, mind you, happened at 7:00 am in subzero temperatures in a lada that was probably older than I was.

When my coordinator emerged from her house she let me in on some news that she'd been keeping to herself -- that I was going to live "in an apartment in a house," translation -- live with a host family.  After my last experience with a host family, I swore I was never living with one again.  Despite the fact that this family had a huge house, heat, a washing machine, and a microwave, I was none too pleased.  I threw a right little fit there in their entry-way.  I was ushered to a bedroom, told to sleep and that everything would be fixed by the time I woke up.  I had no idea what to do if they couldn't resolve the situation, but I was exhausted, so off I went.

When I woke up I was a little ashamed of my behavior.  I mean, I really wanted to live by myself, but was it worth it to have my town's first impression of me be one of the spoiled American?  They really did think that a house with all the amenities (including a family) would be better than an apartment.  I went downstairs to make the best of it.  The mother of the house offered me breakfast.  Then she used her fancy microwave to make me a hot-dog -- at 10:00 am.  I instantly changed my mind about my hasty, pre-coffee, emotionally drained demands for my own place.  I absolutely could not eat hot-dogs for breakfast indefinitely while waiting until a suitable apartment was found, and burst into tears at the thought, prompting my new host-mom to try to feed me more.  Privacy and independence were far more important to me than creature-comforts like heat and hot water.

By noon, my counterpart had found an apartment that mysteriously hadn't existed earlier in the day.  The superintendent's secretary apparently had an extra place.  I moved into a nice flat on the fourth floor of a soviet apartment block with three rooms, a kitchen and two balconies.  It didn't have heat or hot water but I (briefly) had my sanity and if I didn't want to eat soup for breakfast, I didn't have to!  I can still remember the first box of muesli I bought for myself . . .

My lovely building.  My balcony is the second from the top, under the frozen laundry.

And now for a little tour of the inside . . .

The kitchen.  Please note that I found a real coffee maker, and placed it under the fake ivy plants that came with the place.

My first bedroom, on the right. . .

. . . and my second bedroom, after being exiled from the first (story forthcoming).

Finally, another living-room.  Beyond those snazzy curtains is a big balcony, virtually useless during Ukrainian winters.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Host Family Era

My first stop after college and living with my family was, well, another family.  My  Ukrainian host family and I were residents of a town of only 6,000 people where I'm pretty sure there were more cows than people.  I shouldn't knock the cows since they're really smart -- they walk home alone and even know where they live!  It took me days to figure that out since all of the houses look exactly the same.

I lived in this cute little house with with my host parents and their children.  My host-dad was the vice-mayor of the town, and my host-mom the vice principal of the school where I did my practicum.  I had two host-brothers and a host-sister, but only Kostya, one of my host brothers lived at home.  He was pretty quiet and spoke no English.  He's ex-military and, apparently, his job was to count forks at the local pensioners fund . . . yeah, you read right, forks.  I never did figure out what he actually did, although he did get called in on an emergency one weekend that I have a suspicion was about some spoons . . . My other host siblings, Andrei and Vita were at University and only home on weekends.

Andrei, me, and Kostya
November 2002

I'm making living with a host family sound like a perfectly lovely cross-cultural experience, and it is, for about a week.  My host family was certainly nice, but there's only so long before the food and lack of privacy start to lose their novelty.  My host mom had a penchant for making what I call "potato cabbage surprise," as well as serving soup for breakfast.  I love soup.  I love breakfast.  I do not love soup for breakfast.  My host mom did not love the fact that I barely ate it.  I actually enjoy eating Ukrainian food every now and again, but there are really only about six national dishes, almost all of which involve some sort of potato or cabbage product (the notable exception being the jellied meat), and it's really impossible to eat them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner everyday without losing interest in food all together.  I found that the only way to avoid eating seconds of things was to never, ever ask for them, even if you liked the food.  I also found myself, much to my host-mother's chagrin, fifteen pounds lighten at the end of my stay.

That independent, can-do spirit that many Americans embrace, and that inspires them to do things like move overseas for two years, is also one of the things that can get us in trouble.  I am a private person, I really like my personal space and I really don't like people touching my stuff (ever forgotten to return a pen to me?  not a pretty sight).  None of that really translates well into Ukrainian . . . especially when your entire vocabulary consists of "Give me . . . ," "How much?"  "Help!" and "можна."  My host-mom and I had this on-going passive-aggressive fight about my quilt.  I brought a quilt I'd had made from college T-shirts to help make my new place feel a little more like home.  When I arrived at the house my host-mom had a satiny, peach colored comforter on the bed.  I folded it up and put it in the closet, putting my quilt on the bed.  About once a week she'd come in to change the sheets, replace the shiny peach thing, and fold my quilt up and put it in the closet.  When I got home, I would switch them back.  This went on for three months.


The last week I lived with host family they slaughtered a pig and stored the pieces in our entry hall in the buckets I'd previously used to hand wash my laundry.  I came home one day to the pig's skin rolled up on the kitchen table.  I also had the dubious pleasure of watching sausage made from scratch.  Needless to say, I was very excited about the prospect of moving into my very own apartment as I moved from training to actual volunteer work in another town, ten hours to the south.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


Before I get into the craziness surrounding my post-college quest for the perfect place to live, I thought I'd give you a little background on where I came from, housing-wise. 

 This is the nice, normal, single-family house in suburbs where I did most of my growing up.  I shared (and fought over) a bathroom with my younger sister and brother, learned how to ride a bike in the cul-de-sac, and mastered the art of parking a car in the garage without hitting the wall next to the driveway.  This wouldn't be the last time I'd get angry about sharing a bathroom, but it would be the last time I'd be able to walk around all three sides of my double bed in a bedroom.