This is a common feeling when you are in a new culture, and especially when you don’t understand any of the language around you. Yesterday a man carried on quite an impassioned conversation with me in the grocery line, starting with him asking me something about the Snickers bars but then, I am quite sure, transitioning into other matters, and the whole time I just looked at him attentively and smiled with a little nod here and there.
But this feeling can be compounded by systems that are, shall we say, “flexible”. Last week, Inna said to me as she was leaving the teachers’ room, “See you next week — or maybe on Saturday!” How nice, I thought, maybe we’ll do something. Then another teacher said something like “Yes, it’s a workday.” Wait — what?
“Um, this Saturday is a workday, you said?”
“Yes, to make up for next Wednesday.”
(Insert blank look here.)
“What’s next Wednesday?”
“A holiday. So we have to work this Saturday to make up for it.”
Pause. “Uh, do I need to teach my classes this Saturday?”
After some research done by Those In the Know, Olga informed me that I in fact did not need to teach on Saturday. I couldn’t tell you why, but you know, I’m just rolling with it. She also told me that the holiday this Wednesday was new this year, something having to do with the Cossacks (a people group of historical importance here).
Fast forward to this Monday. I came to school for my Conversation Club, which is starting up in spurts, and strolled into the assigned room to find — Olga teaching her class. “Oh! I’m so sorry! I thought this was my room!” I ran back to double-check and found that it was indeed the assigned room. By this time, Olga had already gone to the Dean’s office across the hall and spoken with the powerful room scheduler, who had not assigned me a room for that day but said I could use a teachers’ room at the end of the hall. (The club went well — the topic was “American Stereotypes: Which Are True, and Which Are False?”) Afterwards, a student wanted to talk to me; she said she was going to do “work and travel” in the U.S., and wanted to know where she should go. I talked with her for about 10 minutes, trying to give her ideas on how to go about that, before I finally caught on that “Work and Travel” is the name of the program here to send students abroad. Oh!
Meanwhile, there seemed to be a commotion around the schedule posted that morning, and as a few of my students were standing there, I asked them what it was about. “Oh — we don’t have class tomorrow!”
“Uh, we don’t?” I’m thinking: today IS Monday, right? And it’s two days until the holiday…
“Yes!” (Meaning “No!”)
“And why is that?”
My students looked at each other and then at me. “We don’t know!” One of my male students — I only have a lone male student in each of my two classes — piped up, “But Wednesday is Man’s Day!”
Men’s Day? But I thought it was about the Cossacks…
I went to the teachers’ room and asked if it was indeed true that we did not have class tomorrow, and it was; the first shift (the morning) had classes, but not the second shift (afternoon). Someone suggested that perhaps it was a preparation for Men’s Day the next day. As I walked to my class, I pondered what sort of preparations Men’s Day might involve. As I greeted my class, I said, “Well, I guess we don’t have class tomorrow.”
“Yes we do!” they laughed. Huh??? At the end of class, I assigned them an exercise and asked if one student would accompany me to the schedule to confirm this fact. As it turned out, this class would be a part of the “first shift” the next day, so they were right. As we were walking back to the classroom, the student volunteered the information that the holiday was a birthday of the school.
“A birthday of the school? I thought…” Never mind.
A couple of the other teachers have assured me that I am not alone in feeling caught off guard; they, too, had been surprised to learn of these holidays. It gives me a greater appreciation of what the teachers here deal with. They just keep surfing the waves and doing their best to ride each incoming one. Can you imagine how teachers in the States would react?
By the way, I did learn some rhyme and reason for the holiday today (Wednesday). Today is a feast day in the Eastern Orthodox church of the Protection of the Virgin Mother. Since the Cossacks decreed the Virgin Mary to be their protector, this day also became Ukrainian Cossack Day. The Cossacks are viewed as warriors and defenders of Ukraine, so Men’s Day was changed this year from its usual day in February (which in the Soviet Union is “Defender of the Fatherland” Day) to this day, in order to separate it from the Soviet celebration and align it with Ukrainian independence and those who fight for it. A – HA! Now, about the birthday…?
How fondly I remember the days when I actually knew what was going on around me. But I just try to keep my eyes and ears open, follow what those around me are doing, and smile and nod every now and then…