10 Things I Wish I Could Take With Me

The end has come.

Tomorrow, my 10 months here in Ukraine will be up. Tomorrow I will fly back to the U.S., back to understanding what everyone around me is saying, back to no longer being the expert on English and American life, back to that other jump rope game that kept going while I was gone, and that I now need to jump back into.

And regardless of the joy that comes with family, friends, and comforts back “home,” there is no doubt that I will miss life here. So here are the top 10 things that I have no way of cramming into my suitcases but wish I could take back with me:

10. Cottage cheese fritters. These I am actually going to try to bring back with me…well, the recipe, anyway.

9. A slower pace of life. Yes, people are busy here, but not like in the States. Last week I went to a picnic on the beach with two families…the whole families were there, and we spent 7 hours together. And I was the only one who really needed to get back home.

8. Fantastic drinkable yogurt. Yum.

7. My apartment. I lived in a penthouse apartment this year, with more space than I’ve ever had before, plenty of good light, and (almost) all the comforts I could ask for. In fact, I’m savoring these last few minutes in this super-comfy desk chair. Add to that a friendly and helpful landlady and quiet neighbors, and you’ve got a winner.

6. Khachapuri, that blessed creation of soft bread oozing with melted Georgian cheese. Oh yeah. 2016-06-03 20.25.57

5.  A pedestrian lifestyle. I love the wide sidewalks and all of the people out walking on them at all times of the day. I love feeling like walking is the normal way of getting around. 2015-09-05 16.39.14 2015-10-15 10.03.57

4. Extensive public transportation. I never felt the need for a car this year; everywhere I wanted to go, I could take a bus (or train, or subway). I lived right by the main bus stop in town, and buses came so frequently that I rarely wondered, “When is that bus coming?”

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Okay, so it IS a bit crowded…

Going up to Kyiv and back, I enjoyed looking out the window at the landscape. It never got old.

 

3. Reasonable portion sizes at restaurants. They actually serve an amount you should eat, not four times that amount.

2. The purchase power of the U.S. dollar. To say that my dollar got me more here than in the U.S. would be a gross understatement. Goodbye, $2.00 restaurant meal. Goodbye, 3-hour bus ride to Kyiv for $5.00. And a sad farewell to $13 a week providing a woman to clean twice a week and cook once a week.

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$1 for these strawberries from the farmers’ market

And the number one thing I wish I could bring back with me is not a thing at all. It is, of course:

1  The people. My friends, my colleagues, my Ukrainian community. The Olgas, the Oksanas, the Julias, the Allas, the Lidas, Oleg and Inna and Yaroslava, Pavel and Pasha and on and on. There is far too much I could say about them; let me just say that they have made this year what it was: rich, formative, unforgettable.

I am most grateful to all of them, and miss them already.

 

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Signs…that I am far from home

Signs, postings, instructions, descriptions – these are all a common source of entertainment in a foreign country. I haven’t come across as many as I expected this year, probably because there isn’t all that much written in English! But there have been a few that have caught my eye.

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Every time I walk by this restaurant near my apartment, it amuses me to think of gun-slinging cowboys moseying into a “snack bar.”

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This one was in Slovakia…
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And here we have a restaurant by the Black Sea in Ukraine that seems completely unconcerned about copyright infringement. The upside-down M creates the “sh” sound in “shwarma,” a Middle Eastern meat wrap. The slogan beneath says,” I love it.”
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This place in Moldova needs a new advertising campaign. I’ll tell you, saying that they are probably the best fajitas in Moldova is a mighty weak claim.
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Now we’re talking! Those sound like some remarkable kebabs.

 

 

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This pizzeria in Moldova serves ‘American-style’ pizza with marinated mushrooms, corn, and beans. How long have I been away?
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Look – they could have called this french-fry pizza ‘American Style’ if they hadn’t already used it up on the corn and beans.

 

 

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It’s been quite a while since I’ve been to Modesto, but I’d associate it with this salad about as much as I associate Hollister with surfing.
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Well, when you say what’s in it, it kind of ruins the mystery…
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Is a dictionary that hard to use??
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…because we need to remember those less fortunate among us, who might not have enough fast food burgers. But beggars can’t be choosers, so maybe we should just donate hot dogs.

I liked the hotel I stayed at in Bratislava, but their rules did worry me a little.

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Perhaps it’s excusable to wear your pets if you can’t allow the poor creatures to lie down. I do appreciate the fact, though, that they cannot keep their guests unattended, and most especially that they must not be used as inventory in meal preparation.
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Ooo, looks like someone took a class on legal writing!
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I must say, it bothers me that they are telling me not to abuse my own personal information, while they are free – nay, bound – to use it with the Foreign Police. It’s no wonder guests are required to use their complaint services.

Now here we have a couple of interesting ads online.

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It’s hard to resist clicking on this one!
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This is an advertisement to fly to Chicago. Folks might have a surprise in store if this is their image of Chicago.
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This one is posted on a service door.

And finally, in Georgia:

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The fact that this is Fresh Spring Flower scented just doesn’t make it any better.

Georgia 101

Before this year, here is what I knew about Georgia (the Republic of):

  • there is a country named Georgia, which is very easy to confuse with our state;
  • it is somewhere near Russia and used to be part of the Soviet Union;
  • it was in the news a while back due to intense fighting.

And that was it.

It was otherwise a shapeless entity, a blob somewhere on the map that I had no desire to visit. Why would I, when all I knew of it was from reports of war?

And now, how that has changed. First, it became like a person I knew, with a face and a character distinct from even its closest relatives. This was in part thanks to one of the other Fellows in my regional group, Melanie, who is in Georgia this year; I have learned quite a bit through my communications with her and through her blog. In addition, Georgia has a presence here in Ukraine. Georgian food is one of the most common foreign foods here. The former president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, is now the governor of the Odessa region of Ukraine. And Georgia has a reputation for good wine, hospitality, and resorts on the Black Sea.

Then I visited, and it became a friend. This face and character took on richness and detail, showing me what was within and treating me with kindness. I’d like to introduce you to her, so that you might also know her as a unique land and culture. I realize that my knowledge just scratches the surface, but it’s a big step up from next-to-nothing.

  • Tblisi. What a cool name! It sounds so exotic, so foreign. So alarming in its stand on vowels. What traveler wouldn’t want to say, “I’ve been to Tblisi” or “When I was in Tblisi…”? The city struck me, my very first night being driven by taxi from the airport (in Tblisi) to my hotel (in Tblisi), as being one step in the direction of the Middle East: the hilly, narrow, gravelly roads; the brick walls covered with slabs of mortar, the sheets of metal separating buildings from streets; the high metal gates that open to reveal courtyards of plants and terrace furniture; the bright sun shining down on conservatively-dressed women and men; the small markets and shops spilling out onto the sidewalks with the rich smells of spices and bright colors of fresh fruit. 2016-06-03 13.05.10 I spent two days in this capital city with my fellow Fellows Melanie and Ryan from Georgia and Armenia. We walked around and around, up and down. This city shows off its cone-top cathedrals and modern futuristic-looking structures. The muddy-brown Kura River slicing through the center blends in with the rocky cliffs and stone buildings. Hills rise up from each side, and both cable cars and a funicular lead up to a view of the rooftops.

 

  • Georgia will always hold a special culinary place in my heart. My favorite item is Khachapuri, a bread-and-cheese-lover’s dream come true. It is made especially tasty with sulguni, a very salty white cheese that looks and tastes similar to feta. One type is boat-shaped with a raw egg broken on top; you mix it into the cheese and get a kind of cheesy scrambled egg mixture.

    Khinkhali is also a famous dish: it looks like a bag with the strings pulled together at the top to close it. There is an art to biting into it and sucking out the liquid so that it doesn’t spill everywhere; then you can start to bite into the meat or other filling. I don’t mean to brag or anything, but I’m pretty good at it. Oh, and if you want to look like you know what you’re doing, make sure not to eat the ‘stem’.

    Churchkhela is a sweet that consists of a string of nuts (generally walnuts or hazelnuts) covered with dried fruit paste. It looks awesome and tastes…well, it’s no chocolate, but it’s good. Here I am displaying my pomegranate-hazelnut purchase.

    I had other tasty food as well: beans baked in a clay pot, roasted vegetables, roasted meat, and desserts.

  • The Georgian language is amazing. It is a Kartvelian language, which has not yet been connected to any other language family. Wow. It might help if you know the other Kartvelian languages: Svan, Mingrelian, or Laz. Yeah. And it has a script all its own:   How cool is that? I spent a good bit of my spare time – on the taxi rides, during the conference speeches (the ones in Georgian, of course) – trying to memorize these letters. When this will come in handy in my life, I’m not sure. But if you need someone who can distinguish between the Georgian b and g, please let me know. Really. Please.

And here ends Georgia 101. For additional pictures, see my previous post. I hope she now has a face for you, too.

How Georgia Looks

Tblisi: თბილისი, the capital of Georgia, dating from the 5th century. 

The Sameba Cathedral and the Narikala Fortress (dating from the 4th  century) with St. Nikolos Church (dating from the 12th century)

Mtshketa: This hillside city was the capital of Georgia (well, the area of Eastern Georgia) from the 3rd century BC to the 5th century AD. (Since then, Tblisi has been the capital.) In the middle of the city is Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, pictured here, dating from the 11th century. This city has been declared the “Holy City” of Georgia, since it was the birthplace of Christianity in Georgia in around 327.

American Influence, Georgia-Style: Dunkin’ Donuts, Wendy’s, and Ronald Reagan were just a few of the reminders of home.

The Ancient Cave City of Uplistshikhe: These caves were inhabited as early as the second millennium BC and served as a fortress and a trading center along the Silk Road until the 12 century. It is situated close to Gori, the town where we had our conference.

Gori: Most famous for being the birthplace of Stalin. I know it, however, as the site of the famed 2016 English Teachers’ Association of Georgia Conference. I presented at the conference and stayed with my fellow English Language Fellow Melanie, who is teaching at the university in Gori this year.

 

Cultural Experience in Zolotonosha

Details were hard to come by. All I really knew was that I was headed to the town of Zolotonosha to give a workshop for the teachers there. I looked it up on Google and saw that it was across the river, on the way towards Kyiv. I was excited to see a new place, a smaller town, since I’ve really only spent time in cities here in Ukraine.

I was told to meet in front of the university library at 8:30 am, where there would be a driver to take me and a professor visiting from Germany. The Director of the foreign languages department would be accompanying us, and I was asked if I needed someone else from our department as well. I decided I would attempt the journey without a person flanking both sides of me. We were to return at around 3:00 or 3:30; what, I wondered, could possibly take that long?

When we met, I discovered that another school official would accompany us as well. The four of us met the driver and climbed in the car. We were an interesting bunch, linguistically: the driver spoke Ukrainian and English (he was actually one of the English teachers from Zolotonosha), Lienhard spoke German and English (he is a retired professor of English from Münster, but teaching German in Cherkasy), Ludmila the Director spoke Ukrainian and German (she was a German professor before becoming an administrator), Larissa the Other Administrator spoke Ukrainian, and then there was me, who besides English can get by in German. With no one common language, the day contained healthy portions of all three. My German is mighty rusty, but it is the language that the Director and I have used to communicate since I arrived.

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Looking down the road from the school in Boguslavets

 

It was a gorgeous spring day, and the ride there was glorious. We were passing through what appeared to be a tiny village, with a few buildings along the winding country road, when there was much talk in Ukrainian and the car pulled over to the side. Was there car trouble? Were we letting Lienhard get out to take pictures of the beautiful church? When you are in a foreign country, especially one in which you don’t speak the language, you are so often in the dark, just watching others for cues and clues. As it turned out, after we had walked around the church and taken pictures,2016-05-18 13.57.182016-05-18 09.15.09 we headed across the street to the school where the workshops would be held. Here? Not in Zolotonosha? I was hesitant to let go of the scrap I thought I knew. This was actually the village of Boguslavets, in the Zolotonosha region, and teachers were coming from all around the region to attend the workshops.

We headed for the door, and I could see that we were in for quite a welcome. There were children and teachers manning the doors, all dressed in their vyshyvankas (traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirts). Once inside, I was directed into an entryway. Girls holding rushnyks – embroidered cloths – began to dance, and each in turn recited a piece in Ukrainian.

Then came one girl with a korovai – a traditional large round loaf of bread with decorative shapes on the top. There was salt in a hollow on the top. I had seen this type of bread once before but didn’t really know the significance of it. Here is what Wikipedia has to say: When important, respected, or admired guests arrive, they are presented with a loaf of bread placed on a rushnik (embroidered towel). A salt holder or a salt cellar is placed on top of the bread loaf or secured in a hole on the top of the loaf. In modern Russia, on official occasions, the “bread and salt” is presented by young women dressed in national costumes. There is also a picture of Joe Biden being presented a korovai, but I don’t think he got this amount of fanfare.

One of the women suddenly addressed me: “Take the bread! Take the bread!” I saw that everyone was watching me. What did she mean – was I to tear a piece of bread off, or take the whole loaf? And do what? “Take it how?” I asked, but got no answer. Lienhard went up to the girl, placed his arms under the loaf, and stood for a minute, displaying it. Ah, bless you for going first, Lienhard! I took the loaf from him and did the same, feeling thankful that I had not tried to dig into it. I returned the loaf to the girl and followed the entourage into a recessed area off of the hallway. Here I had a front-row view of the teachers of this school singing for us, 2016-05-18 09.38.05followed by girls dancing,

and then official welcomes and presentation of gifts. Some young girls gave us little sacks they had embroidered, filled with dried leaves and flowers from a special tree. This school is named after Mykhaylo Maksymovych, a Ukrainian professor and writer, who was born near this school, and these leaves and flowers come from a tree that he used to climb.2016-05-25 21.43.53 It is an understatement to say that Ukraine takes its historical figures, especially writers and poets, very seriously. Very. Seriously.

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Artwork by the children…notice a theme? That’s Taras Shevchenko, great poet and writer, THE person to know about here.

Then came Lienhard’s lecture and my workshop, with very cooperative participants.

2016-05-25 21.45.29We were presented with gifts here as well: I received a domovychok, a house troll that in proper Ukrainian fashion is supposed to bring good luck.

Now we had a chance to look around the school. We went into one of the classrooms, where I was very interested in the vocabulary charts and shelf displays featuring traditional Ukrainian scenes.

2016-05-18 13.54.372016-05-18 13.55.00In the modern globalization I have grown accustomed to, I am struck by places that hold to their traditional ways in look, feel, and practice. These are experiences I am grateful for – the chance to observe a lifestyle different from what I am used to.

There was still more to come…an extensive tour of the one-room Maksymovych museum, with long recitations of information delivered by some of the schoolkids. I can’t imagine how long it must have taken one young boy in particular to memorize all that he told us. Our poor unsuspecting teacher-driver was pressed into action to translate all of it for us. Then a trip to the church across the way, to go inside.

Finally, a lunch spread of borshch, pampushky (garlic rolls), rolls stuffed with cooked cabbage, mashed potatoes, meat cutlets, and more. 2016-05-18 14.15.05 We ate with the director and an administrator of the school. Again, it was a time to watch and follow. My mother likes to say that when you travel to a foreign place, all of your senses are heightened. The fact is, they have to be! Foreign travel is one big exercise in paying attention. Do I start eating? (Nope – someone is going to offer a toast. And then another.) Do we pass the food around? (Don’t wait for it – you’d better ask or reach across the table. Or be satisfied with what is within reach.) Behaving in a culturally-appropriate way should not be taken lightly. It’s all fine and well to “be yourself” in some ways, but I believe it’s almost impossible to shift our deep-set ideas on what is right or wrong, polite or rude. We teach each other about our norms and gain an understanding on an intellectual level, but that doesn’t transform the way we feel deep down when we see those behaviors.

A ways into the meal, Ludmila informed Lienhard and me that guests are expected to say a few words of appreciation. Once again, Lienhard dove in first and gave a glowing tribute to the reception we had received, and the institutions involved. We toasted. My turn. This was my first time, I said, giving a toast; I explained that this was not our tradition in the U.S., but that I would do my best to follow Lienhard. Then I told them how my niece had visited me last month, and how we had talked about all of the new experiences we were having. I had told her that every experience we have in our lives changes us, makes us slightly different people than we were before. Some interactions and events alter us in just tiny ways, and others much more. This, I told them, was one of those experiences that would alter me appreciably – and I was indebted to them for that.

Scenes from Slovakia

I’ve already done a post on Scenes from Bratislava, but after spending a week with my parents in Slovakia, I wanted to post some more pictures from this beautiful land. My parents are living in Martin, Slovakia at a Lutheran Bible School for a few months, so when I had a chunk of holiday time after Orthodox Easter, I jumped at the opportunity to head over there. This is what I saw.

On the trainride between Bratislava and Martin:

In Martin:

In the nearby town of Žilina:

And, once again in Bratislava:

 

 

 

Ukrainian Easter: Pysanky, Paska, and Blessing Indeed

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What comes to your mind from the word “Ukrainian”? How about when you were younger…did “Ukrainian” bring any associations to mind? For me, it was Easter eggs. When I was a teenager, someone taught me about the intricate and colorful batik-method art forms that are Ukrainian Easter eggs: no fizzy Paas tablets for them, let alone markers or stickers. And that about summed up what I knew of Ukraine.

So it has been a realization of that long-held association to celebrate Easter here in Ukraine. You may wonder why I am writing about Easter in May, when Easter in the U.S. was back in March. Well, this year Orthodox Easter was on May 1, due to moon calculations, so it was just recently that I had the privilege of getting a peek into Ukrainian Easter traditions.

2016-05-02 00.31.36In my experience, long-held associations often don’t pan out in reality. The intricately-designed Easter egg, “Pysanka,” does exist here, albeit nowadays decorated with paint rather than wax and dye. Back in January, my mom and I found some wooden painted pysanky on St. Andrew’s Descent in Kyiv, and I have picked up a few more since then. I am quite fond of them.

However, modern times have come as well; I found no one slaving to create their own with hot wax over candlelight, and instead saw an abundance of sticker-clad eggs2016-05-02 00.27.52. In the stores, they sold plastic sleeves that you can cut into sections, slip over the eggs, and place into boiling water for the design to adhere to the egg. It was nice to see that Jesus could be plastered onto the sides of hard-boiled eggs.

When Abi and I were in Kyiv the weekend before Easter, we came across a display of large eggs behind St. Michael’s Cathedral. We were happy not to meet up with the chicken who laid them.

Once I arrived back in Cherkasy, I found a smaller display of chickensauras eggs set up in one of the central squares, alongside some Easter egg trees.

Most of these tree-dwelling eggs are the hollowed-out variety, and there was an invitation for others to contribute their own.

2016-05-01 06.02.12Another item associated with Easter here is paska, a round bread loaf that I find to be quite similar in shape and composition to Italian panettone. They are usually decorated with a light crusty frosting and sprinkles on top.

I was invited to be a part of the early-morning Easter celebration with my friend Olga and her family. Olga and Pasha have a 6-year-old daughter, and I thought it would be fun to introduce the Easter egg hunt to her. Olga agreed, so I went on an Easter egg hunt of my own around town, and lo and behold I found…absolutely nothing. It made my mind spin to think of the volume of Easter candy we have in the States, along with commercialized items of all sorts, and here the only Easter food I could find to purchase was paska. Can you imagine this? A religious holiday that does not have 10 varieties of M&M’s? Or pastel-colored Oreos?  No displays set up right when you come into a store, overflowing with secular items associated with the holiday? Nope – still just the onion bin when you walk in.

I stayed overnight at Olga’s, since I otherwise would have had no way to get out to her place at 4 a.m. Sunrise was at 5:35, and we needed to be at the church with enough time to get our basket blessed before day broke. We left the house at 4:50 and found the street and sidewalks full of candle-lit baskets silently making their way toward church in the early dawn light. It was a truly beautiful sight, one that I expect to stay firmly implanted in my memory. Here is what it looked like once we arrived:  2016-05-01 05.09.55

 

 

 

 

 

We joined the large ring of people and baskets surrounding the church. Olga and Pasha set up the basket, opening the covers and lids to expose the food. We waited for the priest to come along on his rounds.

You might notice that the ground around the baskets is wet. It became evident to me as I watched the priest approaching that this was no light sprinkle he was bestowing. It seems that food is not properly blessed unless it is well-doused. And if some of this water ends up on you, well, the blessing carries over to you as well. This priest was apparently a very magnanimous soul, and ample with his blessing. As he came closer, I began to suspect that he was not even aiming for the food. I took off my glasses.

I was, indeed, the recipient of lots of good fortune. The entire time, the priest chants the Easter Acclamation “Khristos Voskres!” – Christ is risen! I cannot imagine how many times he must have said that on this morning, going round and round the church as new parishioners continuously filled the spots that others had vacated.

We walked home, carrying a candle with flame from inside the church to bring more luck besides the water which was on our food and faces. There, we had a feast of meats, homemade sausages, salads, vegetables, mashed potatoes, and of course, decorated eggs and paska. 2016-05-01 06.26.25

Before you can eat your egg, you have to hit it end to end against another person’s egg to see whose cracks. The winner then goes on to challenge the next egg. My egg won. I think I won more luck or something. I’m honestly not sure what I’m supposed to do with all of this luck now.

Back to the egg hunt dilemma. I had nixed the idea of hiding loaves of paska around Olga’s house, and instead opted for Kinder eggs – wrapped chocolate eggs from Germany with little toys inside, fun but not specifically associated with Easter. I also found, in the special import section of the store, some foil-wrapped chocolate bunnies from Germany. Way to come through, Germany! (This creates some confusion, however, seeing as how Ukraine has a bunny who delivers gifts to kids at Christmas, and they have chocolate bunnies then. “What!?” you say? “The Christmas Bunny?” Yeah, we should really teach them that it doesn’t make any sense; bunnies are supposed to hide eggs, of course!)

Olga and I hid the four Kinder eggs around Tamila’s room for her, and the seven or so little bunnies around the dining room for everyone to find. It was quite a hit! It seems I may have started a tradition that will continue after I have gone. Yup…just part of my duties, bringing American culture and all of its trappings to this dear non-commercialized land. You can give me a bonus anytime, U.S. State Department.

We took care of any remaining room in our stomachs with some Roshen cake, and then I headed back home on the bus to attend the church service at my regular church.

The service was 2016-05-01 11.55.44followed by more paska and then a gathering of congregations in the center square of the city.

In Ukraine, you don’t wish people a happy Easter. Rather, just like the priest, you say, “Khristos Voskres!” (Christ is risen!) to which the other person replies, “Voistinu Voskres!” (He is risen indeed!). I realized I needed to learn to say the second part when I found myself rushing to always be the first person to speak. Whew. But I said it so many times that day that it should be firmly implanted now. I was amazed by how people used this greeting everywhere and with everyone. The next day, I was on a marshrutka to Kyiv, and the man who sat down next to me said, “Khristos Voskres!” Then in the convenience store that we stopped at, I heard someone say to the cashier when they were making their purchase, “Khristos Voskres!”

That really impressed me. I believe that in the midst of all our candy and decorations, and beyond the water and the flame, it is in this pronouncement to each other – that is where the blessing really lies.

 

 

Land of Themes

My friend and colleague Olga likes to remind me that Ukraine is the land of potatoes and stairs. The potatoes here are fortunately tasty; I’m not quite as fond of all the stairs. I curbed my complaints about needing to walk up to the fourth floor, where our English department is located, when I found out that one of my fellow English Language Fellows has his English department on the ninth floor. No elevators.

Well, there needs to be an addition to this duo: Ukraine is also the land of themes. I am sure I have heard the word ‘theme’ uttered more times since I arrived in September than all other years of my life combined. I feel quite acclimated to it now, but at first it caused me a good bit of confusion.

When I asked for the outline of the class I was to teach at the university, I received a list of themes to be covered. Things like “My Working Day” or “British Houses” or “American Food” (which, by the way, I had quite a good time with). It’s a bit like what we would call content-based learning; students learn how to talk about each topic by means of thematic texts and vocabulary. Of course, different teachers create their own activities to work with the material as well. But the theme is all-important. It was a puzzlement for me at first, not to have the skills-based student learning outcomes that are all-important in my system back home. I looked at the list and thought, “But what are they learning to do?” Ah, I wish I could go back to poor naive September-me and give her a little insight.

But the themes don’t stop there. I decided to start up a conversation club for the students at the university, since I was told that people here rarely have a chance to talk to native speakers and put their knowledge into practice. I pictured my club much like the conversation clubs I have visited or led in the States: happy faces sitting at a cafe, coffee in hand, leaning forward, eager to chat with a native speaker in English. A lovely and inspiring scene. My idea was warmly received at the university, but just before our first club meeting I was asked to provide a list of the themes we would cover each week for the rest of the year. Uh…what?  I explained that this was going to be a conversation club, where students could simply practice their English with me. I received a look of confusion that likely mirrored my own. “But what will you be teaching them about? What themes are you going to cover?” These are the times when cultural norms and expectations really come into play, and you realize they don’t always play well together.

The theme for each week’s conversation club was posted to drum up student interest. And here I had thought that students would be happy to practice their English with me, period. I tried to hide my irritation each time I got asked, “What will the next theme be?” But that is what they are accustomed to. It’s been a challenge trying to pull the club away from the idea of being a class, of giving them information, when what I think they need most of all is to see that English is something that exists outside the classroom as a true mode of communication.

But the themes don’t stop there. I know what you’re thinking: this must just be an academic expectation. No, no. Allow me to bring you into the world of theme-based restaurants and cafes. Sure, we have a few such places in the States, like perhaps the Route 66 Diner or The Rainforest Cafe, but ha! – we are absolute novices compared to the Ukrainians.

The location where I now hold my Conversation Club is a restaurant across the street from the university, called Cosa Nostra. “Cosa Nostra” is an insider’s term for the Mob, and this restaurant is decked out with mafia decor. The servers all wear uniforms meant to imitate the Chicago police. The items on the menu have names like “Cop Spree”, “Al Capone,” or”Gangster Bandit.”

You can see some pictures here of last week’s Conversation Club, when my cousin’s daughter Abi was visiting me. These places do provide an interesting atmosphere, and are great to show visitors.

2016-04-18 18.48.41 I took both Abi and my friend Patti, who visited in March, to a number of these themed restaurants and cafes. They both enjoyed the “Bulgakov” cafe, named after a famous Russian writer.The inside is lined with books and items from his stories, such as the devil disguised as a man with his big black cat. On the evening I went there with Patti, we had the good fortune of being serenaded by a gentleman on the piano, even though we were the only ones there. We made sure to give him some nice tips.

One of the things I really enjoy is the creativity in how the bills are delivered. They always come in some cute little box or basket or who knows what. At Bulgakov, they come in a hollowed-out book.

The Lviv Coffee and Chocolate Shop, one of my favorite places in town, decorates Lviv-European style and liberally applies their emblem to the tableware, including the wooden box for the bill.

At a restaurant Abi and I went to in Kyiv, the theme was Crimean, and we sat on a raised platform, cross-legged.

The bill there came in a small coffee bean chest.

There are a number of places that try to look like traditional Ukrainian houses. One of those is Varenychna, the varenyky restaurant with numerous varenyky-shaped items: the napkin holder, the leather on the front of the wooden menu, the giant varenyky in a spoon over the door. You can see the real thing (dumplings filled with vegetables, cheese, or meat) on the table from the time I took my parents there.

And I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. This is a land that loves themes. In fact, I’d say it’s a definite theme here.

 

Visiting the Saints

If you come to Kyiv, you want to be sure to visit the saints. Saint Sophia, Saint Michael, perhaps Saint Anthony, if he’s finished with his makeover. These are three of the major Orthodox cathedrals in the city, dating back to just after the turn of the millenium (the prior one, that is). And then there is Pechersk-Lavra Monastery, which despite the saintless name has no dearth of saints on site. In fact, when  you enter these cathedrals, you see richly painted walls, full of Biblical episodes, to be sure, but also populated by more saints on its walls than could be named by a kid fresh out of Catechism. There is a definite reverence for these Godly folks, one which those of us in the Protestant church have mostly lost.

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When you enter the gift stores, you will find numerous ways to carry the saints around with you. Hanging on windshields and sitting on office desks all across Ukraine, I see these saints keeping watch day after day. They lived a life committed to their faith and have been rewarded with being on duty forevermore. But I don’t think they mind – because that’s the kind of people they were.

 

I have had the opportunity to visit these sites in Kyiv a few times: with fellow Fellows in October, with my parents in January, and with my friend Patti last month. My cousin’s daughter Abi is on a plane headed here right now, and I will most likely show these to her as well.

The Pechersk-Lavra Monastery (above) starts on the top of a hill and then trickles down toward the Dnipro River with its churches, museums, and caves. The name means ‘Monastery of the Caves’. Back in 1051, St. Antony and a follower dug out a series of catacombs, where they and other monks lived out their days. Over 100 of their mummified bodies are preserved in niches off the narrow passageways. The first time I visited with Ryan, the EL Fellow in Armenia, we did not purchase candles at the entrance since we thought they were prayer candles. Once we got down into the black dug-out corridors, we understood that we should have bought some. Fortunately, other people were passing through, so we only needed to feel our way out part of the time. It is pretty hard to imagine living out one’s life down there.

St. Sophia’s Cathedral is the oldest church in Kyiv, and a Unesco World Heritage site. The interior is covered with original frescoes dating back to 1017-31. I was not able to take pictures inside, so these of the exterior and bell tower (above) will have to do.

St. Michael’s may be my favorite. It can’t compete with the size and caves of Pechersk-Lavra, or the historical authenticity of St. Sophia. (The original St. Michael’s, built in 1108, was torn down by the Soviets in 1937. This phoenix is a copy of the original and was built in 2001.) But perhaps I like it because it is somewhat simpler – smaller on the inside, and still very much a place of worship. I also truly enjoy the colorful walls, both outside and in.

I wonder what these saints would say about the structures that bear their names along with representations of them and so many others. Perhaps they would be pleased at being so honored and remembered…but I wonder if they would also tell us to take a look at the living saints, worshiping quietly all around us.

 

You Know, Lviv!

I once asked a student from Uzbekistan if her country was known for any particular fruits or vegetables. I will never forget the look of shock on her face at being asked such an obvious question. “Well, you know about Uzbek watermelon!” When I said I did not, and asked her to tell me more about it, I think I lost her respect forever. What kind of ignorant person could I be, not to know about that?

That incident has always stayed in my mind as an example of how our worlds are, well, the whole world to us. We can hardly imagine that people in other parts of the world have their own worlds, and that the things ‘everyone knows’ may pertain just to our sphere. Last week in my Discussion Club I stunned the girls there by not knowing some of their favorite musicians and writers. They admitted that they had always believed that everyone knew about them, and here I was, a seemingly educated person…

So, last week I was in Lviv. You know, Lviv! The crown jewel of Ukraine, the beautiful and ancient city that has passed from Poland to Austria-Hungary to Poland to Germany to Russia to Ukraine…the westernmost and the most Western city of this land. I love to visit places I have heard about, of course, but there is something captivating about visiting a place that you never knew was on the planet. It reminds me how vast our world is, how small my knowledge of it is; it’s invigorating in a contra-Ecclesiastes kind of way. Maybe Solomon needed to get out of Jerusalem a bit more to see that there were some things new under the sun.

Lviv. It is often described as something akin to pre-tourist Prague or Krakow. Not having been to Prague or Krakow before they became tourist destinations, I can’t corroborate that, but I can vouch for the fact that it has a European look yet cries out for more loving care. I can imagine that when the economy improves, and the buildings get some paint and patching up, it will really look the part it wants to play. I enjoyed walking the cobbled streets of the old city and the main square,

climbing the 400+ steps of the city hall tower with my co-Fellows, 2016-03-25 16.39.40Lviv tower and eating out with colleagues from my university, and from my English Language Fellow program.

Lviv is known for its way with beans: coffee and cocoa, that is. We visited production shops and cafes for each specialty. We are fortunate in Cherkasy to have a branch of the Lviv Coffee and Chocolate Cafe, and let’s just say that a number of the waitresses there know me now. While at the location in Lviv I picked up a palette of chocolate with cinnamon. It’s worth the calories.

Lviv is a very nationalistic city, where little Russian is spoken, and there is great pride in the motherland. One of the coolest experiences I had was going to a “secret” restaurant where you knock on a plain wooden door to have a man open a peekhole and ask for the password. After you say the Ukrainian for “Long live Ukraine!” the man (in full military garb) allows you in. You are offered a shot of Vodka (which I declined) before descending stone stairs into a series of cave-like rooms covered in nationalistic pictures, banners, and signs. 2016-03-26 12.47.58

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I am wearing the symbol of Ukraine on my sweatshirt

 

 

 

 

Despite being a secret, it was plenty crowded! There were men walking around playing traditional instruments, especially for the uniformed militiamen.

Another nationalistic site I  took in was the Museum of Folk Architecture and Life, which consists of traditional buildings from different periods and regions, dotted across a large area of hills and ravines. My colleague-friend Olga told me the landscape was very typical of the Carpathian Mountains (which Lviv borders). There are demonstrations of folk arts that take place, although we didn’t see them going on while we were there. Still, it was interesting to visit, and good exercise traipsing around.

And why were we here? March 24-25 was TESOL-Ukraine, a conference for teachers of English as a Second Language. It was held at Ivan-Franco National University, in a building whose interior resembled a castle with its old stone stairs, high ceilings, and grand ballroom staircase inside the main  entrance. These pictures come from stock photos:

The classrooms themselves were not so awesome, and the bathrooms — well, they made ours in Cherkasy astoundingly nice in comparison. The assembly hall, though, was lovely.

I gave two workshops, both of which seemed to be well-received (despite the woman in the photo with her head on her colleague’s shoulder).

Lviv is far from Cherkasy — a 15-hour train ride going, and a 13-hour train ride returning. Both were overnight trains, and I discovered that I much prefer the slower train. I had a lovely sleep on the way there, enjoying the gentle rock and clickety-clack. On the way back, I felt like the train was going to jump the tracks at any moment, and that we must surely be trying to escape from somewhere. It screeched and rumbled as you might expect an old train to do before taking flight, which of course trains are not supposed to do, so I found it quite hard to sleep. I could write a whole post on the train trip itself. The old trains definitely have a charm to them,

which would have been even more pleasant if the view had not been obscured by all the dirt on the double-paned windows. 2016-03-23 08.41.25 On the way there, I shared a compartment with a colleague, Alla, and her husband. The conductor came around with bed linens so that the benches could be converted into berths.

There is no dining car on the train, but you can buy tea and cookies from the conductor when he/she comes around. I loved the glass cups of tea in metal holders; somehow I think tea and cookies taste especially good when on a train. Olga and I made sure to enjoy some on the way back as well.

Lviv. Now you know about it. Or maybe you already did. It’s worth being known, as are so many places on our planet. So many places known within their own worlds, that we may yet discover to broaden our own.