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