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.

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