Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Shared Studio and The Westin Hotel

Before heading up to NYC, I did sort of move out of my parents' house for a while.  I got a job as a glorified camp counselor at a summer enrichment program for high school kids called NYLC.  There were four eleven day sessions over the course of eight weeks in the summer, and for the entirety of each session we all lived in the illustrious Westin Hotel in Tysons Corner, VA.  The hotel itself was nothing special, but while working seventeen hour days teaching high school kids about the government and carting them all over DC to see the sights, any bed anywhere was welcome.  I basically spent my three days off between sessions sleeping for seventeen hours a day back at my parents' house. 

In the midst of this madness, I was preparing to move to New York.  I'd decided to live in NYU graduate housing my first year, since I didn't really know anything about the city and didn't have time to think about it.  I waited, and waited, and waited to hear where I was living.  My first choice was in a two bedroom apartment, but there were a couple of different buildings and I had some preferences.  A couple of days into my last NYLC session, I was notified that I'd be living in a shared studio.  A what?  Basically, a freshman dorm room.  Suddenly, in the middle of seventeen hour days playing tour guide, I had to cancel my university housing, get my deposit back, look through ads on craigslist, and maybe even go to New York to look for a place.  To complicate matters further, I had a planned, five day trip to San Francisco two days after I finished working.

By my last day at NYLC I'd basically decided that I would have to take a place sight-unseen because I didn't have anytime to go to New York.  My mom sort of freaked out about that.  Since my brother was working for an airline, I could fly standby for free, and my mother convinced me to just fly up for the day in between finishing work and going to San Francisco.  It was a total whirlwind -- I saw two apartments, and liked both.  I managed to grab a beer with friends somewhere in the middle as well.

Then it came time for me to go.  I'd gotten into the city without any issues and had taken the subway around all afternoon.  I thought I had it covered.  Just get on the A train and get off at Howard Beach.  It was 7:30, my flight was at 10:00, and I thought I was totally fine.  I got on the A train at West 4th street and read my book for half an hour until I thought it would be wise to start keeping an eye out for my stop.  We got to 80th Street, and then 88th, and then the next stop was to be at the Aquaduct, right before mine.  Only, it wasn't the Aquaduct it was 104th street.  It was at this moment that I realized that the A train forks out to two lines right before JFK.  At this point it was 9:00.

I managed to turn around and get back to where I was supposed to be in about twenty minutes.  I found the SkyTrain and raced to get on.  We went one stop and stopped and waited, and waited, and waited in the station.  Eventually they announced that there was a suspicious package on our train and they were calling in the bomb squad to dispose of it.  Honestly, the one time someone saw something and actually said something . . .

So I got off the train a bit frantic -- it was now 9:40.  Another announcement was made that no trains would be running through that stop until "the situation was contained."  I ran up to a SkyTrain worker and asked him if there was any way for me to get a cab out there, since I was afraid I was going to miss my flight.  As soon as he said no, I burst into tears and started blubbering about getting on the wrong subway and needing to get home because I had a flight to San Francisco the next day, etc.  This guy looked at me and said, "I'll drive you."  I weighed the possibility of getting raped and murdered by this stranger for about a second before I decided it was my only chance of making my flight.

He drove like a maniac and got me to the terminal in about five minutes.  I threw five dollars at him and shouted thank you as I ran out the door.  I flew through the terminal, trying not to knock people over in my quest to get to the security checkpoint as quickly as possible.  I was whisked to the front of the line, as irresponsibly late people frequently are, at 9:55.  It was at this point that I was informed that I was a selectee.  I was identified as a possible threat and wanded up and down, my purse was searched, and I got a pat down.  As they started the whole process I said to anyone who would listen, "It doesn't even matter now, because you've made me miss my flight," which luckily didn't get me into further trouble with the surly folks at TSA.

After the indignity of the increased security check, I was positive I'd missed the flight, but ran on to my gate anyway.  They literally closed the door as I ran down the stairs.  I could see my plane, but per FAA regulations, couldn't get on it.  There's a rule about opening the door after they've closed it.  At this point I was a blithering mess.  I got re-booked on the first flight the next morning, and went to find a comfy place to spend my first night in NYC.  I slid under a large sign onto it's concrete pedestal (which was oddly the most comfortable place in all of Terminal 4) for a quick little map before heading back to check-in for my new flight.  At 7:30 AM, after an hour and a half delay, I was finally out, not even knowing if it had been worth it, not knowing whether I'd gotten either apartment or would have to come back up again the next week.  Ridiculous.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Back to the Nest

 During my layover in London on my way back to the States!

The night before Thanksgiving in 2004 I landed back on American soil after twenty-six months living in Ukraine.  My brother and sister and I had conspired to surprise our parents with my arrival.  Peace Corps is a twenty-seven month commitment, but volunteers can leave within thirty days on either side of their official date.  Withholding this little tidbit of information from my parents meant that they thought I was getting home right before Christmas rather than Thanksgiving.

It was a pretty spectacular surprise.  My brother and sister concocted some scheme to both get out of the house in the same car to pick me up at the airport.  They greeted me with flowers and took tons of pictures, mostly because they knew our mom would be upset that she missed my official arrival at the airport (incidentally, she was a little distressed that there was no "Welcome Home Margaret" poster, which had been part of her plan).  Our parents saw us come up the front walk, past the family room window and my mom just thought "Oh they brought a friend with long brown hair home."  Then I walked into the family room and said "Hi."  It took a few seconds for everything to sink in and my mom kept saying "Margaret, what are you doing here?"  Later that night she confessed to peeking into my room while I was asleep to make sure that it wasn't all a dream and I really was home.

The first month or so that I was back was great.  It was a whirlwind of holidays, parties, and nights out to see friends I hadn't seen for two years.  I spent some time acclimating myself to American society as well.  One moment really sticks out from the first week I was back.  I was in the car with my dad when he said he had to stop and get some money.  To my surprise we went into the Safeway.  Since when were banks in grocery stores?  One of the things I missed the most when I was in Ukraine was good cereal, which is still my breakfast food of choice.  So I told my dad I was going to go grab some cereal and I would be right back.  Ten minutes later he started to get worried.  He found me in the cereal aisle, completely immobilized,  holding four boxes of cereal and staring at the endless boxes on the shelves.  In Ukraine, you were never guaranteed to find anything stocked in a store again -- particularly a western product like cereal, particular in a small town or village like I lived in.  I just couldn't make a decision about which box was the most important to me at that moment.  Eventually my dad made a decision for me and coaxed me out of the store.

As my reverse culture shock dissipated, the reality that I was unemployed and living with my parents at the age twenty-four started to hit me.  I was applying to grad schools and knew that I wouldn't be moving until I knew where I was going.  Within a few months I'd decided on New York and was substitute teaching, but I still felt somewhat embarrassed and inferior for not having my life more together.  I would meet guys at bars and they would innocently ask, "So where do you live?" and I would respond in one quick breath:


Come again?  One of the hardest things about coming back from Peace Corps is realizing that while you've been having the adventure of a lifetime, everyone else has been going about life as usual.  Firmly ensconced in careers, relationships, apartments and driving cars they hadn't bought used in high school, most of my contemporaries seemed completely put together . . . which probably wasn't all that true, but it felt as if they'd all gained all this ground while I was gone.  Even now, I still feel the twinge of having "lost" two years of my life from time to time.

So, living with my parents again was a bit of an adjustment from being so absolutely alone for so long.  One of the things I found most annoying was my stuff not remaining right where I left it.  In Ukraine I would frequently dump shoes or my school bag right in the front hall and keep stepping over them until I needed them again (an annoying habit that's resurfaced since I've become roommate-less once again).  At my parents I would put something down and never be able to find it again.  When asking my mom about the whereabouts of the item, she would inevitably, irritatingly, reply with a vague and aloof "It's around," and a wave of the hand to indicate where "around" was.  Harumph.    

Also, after four years of college and two years of living at the ends of the earth, I had become pretty independent and self-sufficient.  My parents, however, still had a kid in high school and had some trouble distinguishing between appropriate parenting for my little brother and what might be best for their freeloading, but grown, adult daughter.  I wasn't so interested in describing my plans down to the last detail, no matter how innocent the activity. 

Having a deadline, or due date, for the end of my stay at the Hotel of Mom and Dad made it bearable.  Sometimes it was pretty fun too.  And you can't beat the rent.  Oh how I miss the rent . . .

 With my family in the front yard of my parents' house for brother's high school graduation toward the end of my time living there.
Rebecca, Mom, Peter, Dad, and me

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

All good things come to an end

By the end of the summer of 2004, I'd set my official departure date, or Close Of Service, for November 17th.  My friends and I chose the earliest possible date in order to travel to Turkey for a week and still make it home for Thanksgiving.  Before I could do all of these fun, exciting, and somewhat scary things (I hadn't been back to the States at all during my twenty-six month service and was simultaneously terrified and overjoyed at the prospect), I had to say goodbye to my town.

Despite all of my trials and tribulations, I loved Khotyn.  It had a certain small town charm and aesthetic quality that I loved.  I also came to love my students (despite occasionally being driven crazy by them), and my colleagues (even if my explanations as to why I was unmarried were never sufficient), and all the great people around town who made my life easier (the lady at the bank, my bazaarchyk lady, the man at my favorite mahazine).  So I set out to wrap up my affairs with a heavy heart.  I'd stopped teaching a week before I was to leave Khotyn (I also had to spend a few days in Kyiv doing paperwork and final departure things at the Peace Corps office before leaving the country all together) in order to make sure everything was ready to go.  I made something like 400 cookies and muffins for my last days with my students and took pictures with every class.  I made more cookies and muffins for the teachers and gave special American teacher tote bags to some friends who'd really helped me along the way (You know, the ones with apples and "world's best teacher" and such on them.  Ukrainian teachers carry everything in plastic grocery bags).

Last Day with 10-B

Massive amounts of goody-bags
Irina, my coordinator, shows off her new tote-bag.

Speaking of Irina, as it got closer and closer to my departure date, she began treating me like a particularly offensive piece of garbage -- not a friend and colleague who'd basically given up more than two years of her life to help a community in a far-off foreign country.  I mean, I didn't expect a ticker-tape parade, but a little appreciation would have been nice.  Instead Irina announced that she wasn't even going to be around the weekend I was leaving.  Great.  As if leaving wasn't hard enough.

The summer before Irina had gotten it into her head that her only hope of financial independence was to work in the U.S.  She was a 29 year old single mother who made about $60/month in 2004 (teachers had just gotten a raise from $40/month in the run-up to the 2004 elections).  She lived with her mother and her seven year old in a two room house with no running water and a heater she installed herself after digging a ditch to bring in the natural gas line.  Her ex-husband gave her $5 in child-support every month and hadn't seen their daughter in two years.  I was absolutely trying to help her to the best of my ability, but the thing that Ukrainians never seemed to understand is that I had NO IDEA how to get them to the U.S.  I was born here.  I have the pretty, blue, magic passport.  I was the least likely person in the entire country of Ukraine to know anything about immigration since I'd never had to do it.  I'd been checking on the companies Irina had found in order to make sure they weren't scams.  Ukraine has one of the highest rates of human trafficking in the world, and many people are duped by employment scams into lives of sex-slavery.  I certainly didn't want that to happen to anyone I knew, so I tried to check on their legitimacy.  I'm not really sure what Irina was expecting I could do, but when she didn't have a job secured by the time I was about to leave, I think she saw her dreams leaving as well.  And she took it out on me.

Eventually another English teacher offered to help me get to the train with all of my stuff on the day I left since Irina had decided to check into the sanitorium for her "pressure."  This course of action is not all that uncommon for Ukrainians, and we volunteers could never figure out what it was really for, other than a vacation.  The night before I left, Irina called me to go over some last minute details.  One of them, of course, was the issue of my landlady Myroslava.  Irina had called her that day, Friday, to tell that I was leaving the next day, Saturday.  Initially I was like, seriously, you haven't talked to her about this before now?  I mean, we Americans like to plan -- my current lease requires me to give 30 days notice before moving out.  Ah, Ukraine.  How disorganized you are.  Anyway, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because evidently Myroslava was none-to-happy about the apartment.

"Margaret (pronounced Mar-gar-et), Myroslava Vasilivna is very upset with you,"  Irina reported.  "She says that you have made nails in the walls and used her sheets and opened a wardrobe she closed."

"We spoke about those things this summer and I explained to her if she wanted to get some things fixed and give me a receipt I would pay for them.  I cannot do anything about it the night before I leave," I replied, irritated that this was even an issue.

"Well, Margaret, she is very upset.  She says you need to pay rent for using her things."

"Rent?  Rent for using the pans and the laundry basket?  Rent for hanging up my clothes in the wardrobe?  This is ridiculous.  I am not paying for those things.  You'll just have to tell her that won't happen.  I said I would pay to have the nail holes filled in the wall, but rent?  Ridiculous."

"Margaret, you must talk to her.  I do not know what to do."

"Irina, it's very difficult for me to speak Ukrainian on the phone.  I'm not sure I'll be able to convey my message," I said, irritated that Irinia wasn't willing to stand up for me.

"Fine Margaret," she shouted as she hung up the phone on me.  That was the last time I ever spoke with her.  

Meanwhile, crazy landlady who, thankfully, lived an eighteen hour train ride from me took the initiative to give me a call.  Our conversation was not at all productive, although from a linguistic perspective, it was fantastic.  I've always been able to hold my own in oral arguments in English, but in Ukrainian on the phone was quite a coup.  Anyway, I digress . . . Myroslava kept telling me I needed to pay her, so finally I just said I would.  I doubted that she would ask my school for the money after I left, but I didn't want to run the risk.  So I asked Myroslava how much she wanted.  "Oh, I don't know, how much do you think I should get?"  she replied.  I told her I didn't know how much contractors cost in Ukraine.  She asked me again how much I thought I should give, meanwhile I was thinking about $10 (a week's salary, about a week's rent), but unsure so I told her again I don't know.  And she replied, "Oh, about sto doloriv."

"STO DOLARIV!"  I scream.  "STO DOLARIV?  Absolutely not.  You will get nothing from me!  I may be an American, but I am not stupid!"  I shouted as I hung up the phone.

Those of you who don't speak Ukrainian or Russian probably don't understand what I was so worked up about.  She asked for $100!!!  That's two months salary in Ukraine.  NOTHING costs $100.  A train from her city to my village was about $5.  A week's worth of groceries was under $10.  A dinner at a really nice Western-style restaurant in the capital with drinks was about $10.  You could actually take a taxi from my town to the capital, 450 km away for under $100.  Absolutely absurd.

By the next day I'd calmed down about it a little and decided to leave 100 Ukrainian griven (or $20) with the English teacher helping me leave to cover anything, with instructions to give nothing to Myroslava without a receipt and to keep the rest and take herself out to dinner.  I said goodbye to Khotyn while trying not to also say "good riddance."  When I arrived in Kyiv the next day, Oleg, the king of regional managers, stopped me to say that Myroslava had actually called him to complain.  He told her it wasn't his problem and that she'd gotten a much higher rent than she'd deserved from me for more than a year, so she could use that to pay for anything she'd thought had been damaged.  He said to me, "Well, you are out of there and soon you going home.  You need to smile about it!"  Oleg, you're the best :)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Um, so, how was it?

This is Peace Corps Week, celebrating the 49th Anniversary of the Executive Order signed by President Kennedy establishing the Peace Corps. In honor of this, I'm actually going to deviate a little from the normal course of things and not focus solely on my crazy housing situation. I'm reaching the point in my narrative when my Peace Corps service is coming to an end, and a point in my service in which I started thinking a lot about what it all meant. Peace Corps as an organization often poses the questions: "What does your Peace Corps service mean to you?" or "How has you Peace Corps service impacted you life?" The question I've most been asked since I returned five years ago is: "Um, so, how was it?" A pretty impossible question to answer, actually. How to explain that you experience your highest highs and your lowest lows during your service? How to explain how unbelievably lonely you can be while feeling love and gratitude from an entire village for your presence? How to explain that there's nothing fun about using an outhouse in the middle of winter, but something gratifying about not being phased by even the nastiest first-world bathroom? In reality joining the Peace Corps is the best decision I've ever made and has changed me fundamentally as a person, but again, how to explain the gratitude I feel for having had the opportunity to have such an amazing experience?

Well, tonight I'm going to try to convey all of that, what it means to me to be a volunteer, how the Peace Corps has impacted my life, and most importantly, how it was. I actually wrote this while I was a volunteer, in the last few months of my service, it started just as a personal reflection and morphed into a grad school essay. I do, in fact, mention my apartment, so I guess I'm not deviating completely from the purpose of my blog.

“Running. Ugh,” I think, as I pull myself out of bed on an August weekday morning. All I want to do is stay under the covers, but my water turns off in two hours and I have to finish my run and take a shower before it does. My rural town in Western Ukraine is on a water schedule. We only have water from 6:00 to 11:00 in the morning and from 6:00 to 11:00 in the evening. I groan and look longingly at the coffee machine as I pull on my t-shirt. “Gotta do it. No gym here.” I try to motivate myself. I pad into the hallway to put on my sneakers, caked with mud from my last run on the unpaved roads. As I lock my door, one of my neighbors stares me up and down and shakes her head. “Crazy Amerikanka.” 

As I head down the street I pass chickens, mean geese that start to chase me because I’ve gotten too close, horses grazing, and goats napping in gullies. There are the old babucyi (grandmothers) who look like they’ve stepped out of another time, wearing galoshes and wool tights no matter the weather, their kerchiefs wrapped around their heads, with wrinkled faces staring out and wondering why that Amerikanka isn’t wearing a hat. I grumble some more as a man yells “Sportsman?” at me and laughs hysterically at his joke. I pass School No. 5, my school, where I’m not just the weird Amerikanka who has strange habits, but where I’m their Amerikanka, oddities and all. I smile. I miss teaching. I miss my students. I miss hearing my fifth formers ask me, every day, in turn, “Miss Overbagh, bingo today?” and having my sixth formers cheer when I give them a word search. I miss the funny way my Ukrainian counterpart says “Oh, that is very interesting,” when she’s not completely convinced about a new teaching technique I’ve used, but that she will without fail introduce in her classes the next week. I wonder if the German teacher has had her baby, or if Susanna, a recent graduate has been accepted into the translation department at the university like she dreams. I laugh to myself, garnering some more strange looks, as I think about all the times I’ve been pulled out of class, or called into school from my apartment to explain to a group of visitors how we received our new computer and internet lab, what the Peace Corps is, and the most pressing concern, how exactly an un-married twenty-four year old girl can live by herself.
I start running towards the town proper, my least favorite part of the route. The more people around, the more I’ll get scrutinized. Things look more similar to America here: there are cars and buses, stores, and public buildings, shoppers, and children. But at second glance, everything is old, withered, in disrepair. There are soviet style apartment blocks, tiny stores in the town square, horses pulling carts to and from the bazaar, people in BMWs as well as ancient Ladas, and women who dress like prostitutes to go work at the bank, the post office, the town administration. 

My mind starts to wander as I run out of the town center again. Just me, the badly paved road, and some stray dogs. I think about the Harry Potter book I’m re-reading for the umpteenth time, where the kids are preparing for exams, and I’m jealous. I miss academia. I want to be right there with the characters in the book, studying, writing papers, feeling that rush when you know you’ve aced an exam. As a graduate student I probably won’t be taking classes on potions and the history of magic, but I’m prepared to go back to school to study the more mundane subject of education. 

I run on and turn right, following the paved part of the road towards the town’s revered fortress. When the Ukrainian president came to its one-thousandth birthday celebration, the road was paved in his honor, but only to the fortress. An old thatched roof was also replaced on a house nearby, and a new fence erected. I shake my head at the absurdity of it: a president not permitted to see how poor his people really are. Suddenly, the fortress is in view. Even now, almost two years since I first saw it, it still takes my breath away. The massive fortress walls surrounding the castle overlook the Dnister River, just as when they stood fast before the Turks and the Russians centuries ago. I reflect a bit and then turn around, remembering how lucky I am to live here. I think about the huge tourism project my students and I did, which culminated in them leading English Language tours around the fortress. My students were so enthusiastic, so proud of themselves. They were so surprised to see Americans excited about their little town, having assumed that nothing in Ukraine could top anything in America. They were overjoyed at the ease with which they were able to understand these visitors. They made me proud to be their teacher.

I’m heading back into the town, passing more people, trying to ignore them scoffing at my red face and my sweaty pony-tail. I smile at some kids I don’t know, who say “Hi” to me. I walk around the back of my building, ducking my neighbors’ drying laundry and head up the dark stairwell, thinking about how different my life will be in just a few months time when I’m back in the U.S. It’ll be strange, exciting, and scary all at the same time. But I’m ready. It’s time to head on to new and different things, to start my life as a graduate student and to bring my experiences as a teacher in a developing country back to teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages in urban schools in the U.S. that likely need as much help as my school in Ukraine. 

As I unlock my door, my outlook is completely different from when I left. I’m awake. I’m ready for the next adventure. I open the door and my apartment sounds eerily quiet. What’s missing? The familiar gurgle of my somewhat dysfunctional toilet. The water is off. Early. Ugh. Now I’ll have to boil water for a bucket-bath. Typical Ukraine.

Peace Corps Ukraine
Group 23
Taken at our Close of Service Conference in August 2004