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.

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