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 :)

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