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.