Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Life as a Nomad

I left my friend's village for the four hour bus-trolleybus-minibus trek back to Khotyn determined to make the best of living with Myroslava.  It was a gorgeous mid-July day, with clear skies and temperatures in the mid-seventies -- the kind of day that makes it almost impossible to believe that it gets to -30 in the winter, the kind of day that gives you hope that everything will work out.

When I got back to my apartment, all the laundry I'd done and hung up outside a couple of days before was in my room, still wet, drying on the couches.The bags and suitcases I'd started unpacking were all re-packed and pushed off to the sides of the room.  Everything of mine that had been in the kitchen and bathroom was missing -- I couldn't even find my shampoo.  Myroslava's stuff was still in the bathroom, but mine had mysteriously disappeared.  I was annoyed.  Myroslava had assured me that she would never come into my room without knocking unless she absolutely had to.  She'd even planned ahead for when she would need to pack up the living room and asked me if it was OK.

I ran some errands in an attempt to calm down before confronting her.  It also gave me a chance to formulate what I'd say to her in Ukrainian.  My language was getting pretty good, but subtly isn't easy in a foreign language, and I don't do well with confrontation in general, in any language.  So when I saw Myroslava later I asked her why she'd been in my room, moving around my things.  Her reply:  "Until I move, this is my room," and then she called Irina, my coordinator.  Apparently she'd been cleaning because she was having a bunch of guests come later in the day (Friday) and was having her wedding Tuesday and Wednesday!  She never said that I couldn't stay, but clearly it wasn't an option.

I called Oleg with an update and he told me to get on the next train to Kyiv.  Peace Corps would put me up in a hotel while we tried to figure out what to do.  I re-packed the backpack I'd been living out of for the past three weeks.  I stopped by the post-office on my way out of town and found that my pre-ordered copy of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix had arrived!  The ladies behind the counter were staring in awe at the pre-printed label and debating what to do with it.  When they saw me walk in the door, they said "This must belong to you," and just handed it over.  That was the only time in Ukraine that I wasn't required to get a package-slip in my post-office box, sign said package-slip in blue or black ballpoint pen only, sign a log of packages in the exact same manner as the package-slip, in the witness of an Ukrposhta manager, and provide a photo-ID before getting my package.
The Khotyn Post Office
Obviously this picture was not taking in July

I hopped on a mini-bus with my Harry Potter book, happy that I had something to take my mind off the fact that I might be leaving my town for good . . . my cute little town with the funny ladies in the post-office who get confused when a package isn't wrapped in brown paper and held together by rubber cement.  To add insult to injury, when I arrived at the train station, I could only get a seat in Platzcart, or third class.  It's basically one car full of about forty sleeper-seats in one room.  Usually the windows are sealed shut and it's packed with people, belongings, sometimes chickens.  With Harry Potter to keep my company I really didn't notice most of what was going on in the periphery, and I headed off to Kyiv in hopes that my housing problems might be resolved someday soon.
A Snapshot of Platzcart
On this trip, the next winter, my friends and I were mesmerized by the woman selling three-foot tall stuffed animals to people who paid four dollars to save a little money and sleep on beds barely big enough for themselves, with almost no storage space for their belongings.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Moving Day Surprise!

On July 23rd, 2003, I finally moved.  It was six months in the making, but I finally got out of Luba's apartment.  Irina, my coordinator, arranged for a car to come and drive my things and I the five blocks or so to my new place.  Irina, well meaning but not always thinking, hired a man with the smallest Lada I'd ever seen, with an entire trunk full of God knows what, to cart what amounted to most of my worldly possessions.  About half of it fit, forcing me to call a taxi to take the rest of it and to reevaluate my American consumerism and need for things.

When I got to the new building I made about six trips up to the third floor apartment with my things as Irina and my new landlady, Myroslava, were having tea.  As I came in with the last of it all, Irina said, "Oh, do you need help with that?"  Um, yeah, maybe six trips ago, but now I think I'm all set, thanks.  Because I was leaving to work at a friend's summer camp in another city, and then meeting up with my dad and my brother in Bratislava, I actually was missing my official moving day of July 1st.  Myroslava offered to let me move my stuff in and pile it in a corner so I could get out of Luba's place ASAP.  She also gave me a copy of the keys so I could just let myself in when I returned on July 7th, after she'd moved all the way to Donnetsk on the other side of the country.  All went as planned on moving day.  I got my stuff situated under a sheet, got my keys, and hopped on a bus to catch the overnight train to my friend's city.

A few weeks later, after taking two overnight trains and a bus, I arrived at my long awaited apartment.  I let myself in the door and things looked a little odd -- there were dishes in the sink, and clothes laid out on the bed.  I called Irina to figure out what was going on.  She didn't know.  I called Oleg, the king of regional managers, and he hadn't heard anything either.  All three of us tried to get to the bottom of the situation.  Eventually it came to pass that Myroslava couldn't get a train ticket to Donnetsk so she was staying until July 22nd.

Fan-freakin'-tastic.  Another landlady who doesn't quite understand what it means to rent out an apartment to a tenant.  Peace Corps had already paid my rent for the summer to ensure my domestic tranquility, so they were none too pleased with the situation either and offered to give me a new site immediately.  While $60/month sounds like nothing now that I pay twenty times that in Brooklyn, teachers in Ukraine make roughly that in a month, so it was actually quite pricey.  Negotiations ensued, and Myroslava said that she would stay with her daughter (one of my seventh form students, mind you) in the bedroom, and I could stay in the living room.  It would be like I had my own apartment, she assured me.

I couldn't really process the implications of the situation at that exact moment.  I'd been traveling for 36 hours, sleeping on trains and smashed into buses where no one would open any windows for fear of the "draft," despite it being mid-July, and mostly I needed a shower and to do some laundry.  This new apartment, complete with landlady and pre-teen, also came with an electric hot-water heater.  It was heavenly.

I called one of my very close friends, "sticks and twigs" who was also the owner of my cat, and decided to head to her place for a few days to decompress and get used to the idea of spending some quality time with Myroslava and little Anya.  I loved Khotyn, my town.  It was cute, had a 1,000 year old fortress that was an immense source of pride for the community.  I was settled in my school, and I really just didn't want to start over . . . and honestly, I couldn't stomach the idea of giving up after suffering through all the trials and tribulations with Luba.  I like to think that my stubborn grittiness to tough things out is one of my strengths, but sometimes I definitely don't know when to let go, and when to recognize that something that isn't successful isn't exactly a failure either.  This may or may not have been one of those times.  Anyway, off I went to a friend's village, hoping to return in a few days when I'd gotten everything figured out.

Reasons to stay in Khotyn:
The fortress is awesome, no matter the weather.

There are many forms of transportation available.

I would miss my favorite lady at the bazaarchyk.

My students are the best . . . and clearly my school has a lot of resources.

Most of all, I love teaching them and would miss them if I had to leave.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

May -- Kicking Ass and Taking Names

At the beginning of May it somehow made it up through the ranks of the administrative folks at Peace Corps in Kyiv that Luba, my regional manager, wasn't doing her job terribly well.  The director of Peace Corps Ukraine asked anyone who had had difficulties at their site as a result to e-mail him with all the details.  I did, as did one of my "sticks and twigs" friends (kids were actually throwing things into the windows of her first floor apartment).  It came to pass (in combination with other factors, I'm sure), that Luba was fired.  She wasn't terribly pleased and actually CALLED me to tell me that I ruined her life.  I don't even remember what I responded.  I just remember being flabbergasted at her lack of professionalism.

While Peace Corps was recruiting a suitable replacement regional manager, Oleg, the king of regional managers and one of the only people whose real name I'll use on this blog, came to clean up her mess.  I vividly remember the lovely May afternoon he arrived at my apartment to talk about exactly what had happened and what his plans were.  It was a gorgeous day, warm enough that I was wearing a little sundress I'd worn to school and it just felt as if, literally and figuratively, the long, cold winter was finally over.

the view from my apartment in May of 2003

The next day Oleg headed over to my school and laid down the law  -- if I had any more problems with my housing he would send a Peace Corps car down to pick me up and change my site immediately, without asking my school or me for permission.  I would move on July 1st as planned.  He would personally speak with the landlady later that day to let her know the rules, and who she'd have to deal with if she didn't abide by them.

We then swept right over to the new place, owned by the mother of one of my students.  She seemed perfectly nice and understanding.  She was getting remarried and moving to the other side of the country, a full 18-hour train ride away and would never, ever, be around to bother me.  I had a planned camp and trip for the end of June and beginning of July, so she would let me store all of my stuff at her place before I left and give me a key so that I could let myself into the empty apartment when I returned.  The apartment was newly renovated, with both heat and hot water.  It all seemed so perfect, I could hardly wait . . .

sunset view from my apartment May 2003