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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Summer: A Fond Farewell

Ah, summer. For the past 21 years of my life, I have had summers off, so I have come to consider myself somewhat of a summer vacation expert. (For those of you who have been teaching for much longer than I have, please note that I said "somewhat".) Though this summer didn't quite match up to the one that followed my first year of teaching (when I finally realized how SO MANY teachers can make it through each school year), it was still pretty darn good.
Whether it was watching a lightning storm from a camp site on a mountain atop a beach in Crimea, sitting around the shashlik (like shish kebab) pit with my friend Annmarie's host family, or singing camp songs at an unnecessarily loud volume, I was pretty much always having a good time this summer. Of course, all of this would be much easier for you, the reader living many, many miles away, to grasp if I had some pictures to illustrate my experiences, but, well, you'll just have to wait a bit longer for those, dear friends. Because I totally forgot to put them on my flash drive and I'm pretty much just killing time while I send some other, non-related pictures via email (and that takes way longer than I thought it would).
Still, as I start to make my phone calls around town to start putting together some kind of schedule for myself this semester, I thought it only proper that I take a moment to reflect on the fact that I had a lovely little summer, complete with old friends and new friends, and just enough drama to keep things interesting without anyone being killed, contracting a serious disease, or completely embarassing our country. All in all, a successful three months.

NOTE: I finally uploaded some summer photos. See them for yourself:
Summer 2007

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Apartment Tour

So, I decided it was high time to show my readership (which I'm sure has dwindled, seeing as how I haven't posted anything for about two months) an inside look at the little place I like to call "the APT" (that means I pronounce each letter individually, which sounds really cool in casual conversation...try it, you'll see). Let's pretend that I've invited you over for some tea or some delicious cherry juice. Seeing as how you have nothing in particular to do on this fine day, and you have always wanted to see my Soviet-era apartment, you rush right over, climb four flights of stairs (or take the elevator, if you're feeling especially eager/brave) and ring my doorbell. I greet you at the door, and ask you to step inside. First things first, you have to take your shoes off, as that is the Ukrainian way, and hopefully I'll have some delightful plastic sandals that are just the right size. After all this is taken care of, you look up to see..

The foyer. Isn't it lovely? Please note the large Elvis bag that I bought for three dollars at Rite Aid and packed at the last second which has now become one of my regular accessories. See all those shoes in a neat little line? Here you have pretty much every single pair of shoes I currently own, minus both winter and cowboy boots, which still means that I probably have A LOT more shoes than most Ukrainians.

After loitering around the foyer for a while, you look slightly to your left and down a very short hallway where you see...
The view of the kitchen from the foyer! "Is that a couch in the kitchen?" you ask yourself, but then realize that the kitchen is a treasure that we will have to save for a bit later on the tour.

Now, you'll turn to your left, where you will see two doors. No, you have not just stepped onto the sound stage of the game with the doors (this would be funnier if I remembered what that game was called, wouldn't it?), you are a firsthand witness to the Ukrainian phenomenon that is the separation of toilet and tub. Much like the separation of church and state, it has long kept these two powerful entitites from unjustly influencing one another. First, you choose the door to the left, where you find...

The sink...and the world's smallest bathroom mirror. Followed by...

The bathtub. Thankfully, my bathtub comes fully eqiupped with both a shower curtain and a handy rod on which to hang said shower curtain. This is the envy of many a Peace Corps Volunteer. Not to mention that my hot water has been quite reliable of late. Someone must like me. And finally...

The agitator. Or at least that's what they tell me it's called. This is where I "do my laundry", which means I lift up this contraption (not the lightest of loads), set it on its stand, which sits atop the bathtub, fill it with water from the shower head and some laundry detergent (my preferred brand is Tide), plug in the agitator, turn the dial to the maximum (which is about six minutes of spin), cross my fingers and walk away, knowing that it is much easier to merely hope that the agitator will not fall into the bathtub than to watch the little plastic stand grown under its girating weight. So far, so good. I usually do two or three spins with detergent, then two or three as a "rinse cycle". More on the drying procedure later.

Now, you move out of the tub room and into the toilet area, which you find is rather small:

"Good thing you don't have to close the door when you live alone," you are thinking to yourself, when you suddenly remember that you might have seen a COUCH in the KITCHEN. You run out of the toilet room, which takes you literally fractions of a second, due to its miniscule size, and turn to the left only to confirm your most absurd suspicions:

I have a couch in my kitchen. It folds out into a bed, thus making this room my kitchen/ dining/guest room. Visitors welcome!

I also have a refrigerator, on top of which you might notice (and compliment, because you're so kind) my fledging origami collection (thanks, Winkates!). Here we have "twin sail boats", which you realize is really only the beginning of what is sure to be a long and illustrious origami career.You'll also notice the stove and oven where I cook. "Excuse me?" you say. That's right, people, I COOK! Last I heard, Chinese and Mexican take-out restaurants in the Washington Heights area of Manhattan were struggling with a sudden and inexplicable drop in sales.
You find this whole "Alison cooks" notion difficult to fathom, let alone stomach, and decide you might need to sit down, and not on the kitchen couch. So, you wander back down the hallway, past the foyer, and into the "big room".

"Not too shabby," you think to yourself, enjoying the sunlight streaming through the balcony windows. I might take this opportunity to assure you of the fact that all of the furniture was supplied with the apartment, so any compliments on well-placed rug chair coverings or tasteful candelabras would have to be passed along to my landlord.

You look to your left and notice the "shkaf" which is Russian for "a giant contraption where you hold a bunch of stuff" this case clothes in one and books in the other. You also note the beginnings of a "picture and card wall" and think "I should send Alison a card...right now!".

After you're done writing, stamping, and mailing your card, you rush back to the apartment and turn around to admire the...

General desk area. Here you can see my lovely PC-supplied map of Ukraine, along with the collection of glass bowls that, let me tell you, REALLY comes in handy.

After you think about all the fantabulous lesson plans and seminar ideas that have eminated from what some have termed "central command", you decide to check out what is usually, the highlight of any Ukrainian apartment...the balcony. After a quick look around, you decide that this balcony isn't actually all that great, and pretty much just serves as a place for Alison to store the extra mattress that used to give her back cramps when it was on her bed. Still, you like the idea of a balcony and take a moment to admire the view.

While admiring this view, you notice some black wires strung outside the window, which, I explain, are where I hang my clothes out to dry. I am glad to have said clothes lines, but will also be glad to use a dryer with a lint trap. Do you understand how amazing the lint trap is? I don't think you do.

While contemplating the glory that is the lint trap, you take a look around my neighborhood and confirm that the communists were pretty serious about making sure everybody got the same, exact thing.

"Gee," you think to yourself. "Alison's apartment is really nice, but still, it's gotta be hard living all by yourself in a country where you only understand 45% of what is said to you at any given moment." And then, you realize that even though you only thought about sending a letter before (we both know you couldn't tear yourself away from this hilarious blog long enough to actually send that letter, now don't we?), you will, in fact, be sending something in the mail to Alison in the very near future. (That's my pretty scary "mail center", by the way. I'm box 50.)

Thursday, May 10, 2007

pigskin and football matches

Usually, the two nouns mentioned in the subject of this entry are quite clearly related. Such is not the case in this particular instance.
A few weeks ago, I was the first assistant to the de-skinning and de-boweling of a pig. This task involved, firstly, me forcing myself to watch a pig being slaughtered (via a swift knife in the heart) - something I decided all meat-eaters should probably do at some point in time, especially if you're as big a fan of ham as I am - secondly, me pouring water over the blow-torched skin of said pig so that Sasha, the friendly butcher, could scrape said skin off, and, thirdly, me holding onto what I think might have been the pig's spinal column while Sasha dumped the pig's intestine into a bucket (my hand was at the bottom of that bucket, by the way, still holding onto the spinal column as instructed). Thankfully, the rewards for my work far exceeded any sacrifices, as I was given the choiceset pieces of meat for my shashlik (basically a meat kebab), as well as a tenderloin that was refrigerated and consumed for lunch the following day. Funny that all of my quirky little Ukrainian anecdotes always occur when I'm away from my site. Such is the fate of a city-dweller, I suppose.
Unless, of course, we consider the football game that I attended yesterday, in which Tavria (the hometown team) faced off against Shocktar (from the industrial east - Donetsk - and having a far cooler name, not to mention standing in the Ukrainian football league). The game was sans any sort of hooliganism, at least in my close vicinity. We did spot a shirtless fan being swarmed by militiamen and escorted off the field, but, really, he was asking for trouble. And, thankfully, he was really far away. The game ended in a tie (2-2) and my own personal realization that, when cheerleaders are not supplied to a group of fans, they will clearly self-appoint their own.

Friday, March 23, 2007

I just called to say...

Today (Friday, March 23rd) I went to a research conference at one of the universities here in Simferopol. I think the official name of the university is something like Crimean Engineering and Pedagogical University. How engineering and pedagogy are related, I do not know, as it's definitely not a school for future teachers of engineering. ANYway, I was invited to attend a research conference more or less because I'm a native English speaker. The conference was somehow associated with TESOL, which stands for Teaching English to Speaker of Other Languages, so most of the students were from Ukrainian universities who had done some sort of "research" (the term is used about as loosely as possible, as the Ukrainian definition of research differs drastically from the American definition) on some aspect related to English, teaching English, or English-speaking countries. Needless to say, there were probably a few hundred people in the university auditorium waiting to hear the opening speeches this morning. I was invited to make one of these speeches (naturally), but declined, as I was never really able to understand what the exact aim of the conference was and generally felt uncomfortable speaking about the importance of life-long learning (as was suggested to me by the organizer of the conference), seeing as how I'm only 26 and all.
But let's move along to the really interesting part. Some people made some speeches - some in Russian, some in English, some in a language I'm pretty sure was Russian but sounded far different than any other Russian I've ever heard. But it was probably Russian. Then, it was time for the show. You see, whenever Ukrainians gather for any sort of official event, there is a show involved. These shows involve various acts that display a variety of talents, usually of the singing and dancing nature. So, the belly dancers came out and danced somewhat inappropriately for a while (I'm sorry, but that much jiggling just shouldn't be allowed in a public arena), then a Crimean Tartar (the native people of Crimea who were kicked out by Stalin and are currently moving back in) traditional dancer, then a performance of "Pygmalion", which was really just "My Fair Lady". Now, I like a musical just as much as the next person (especially if that person happens to be incredibly fond of musicals), but this was a bit of a stretch. I think one of the foremost rules regarding musical theater is that there should be no lip-synching allowed. Not so in Ukraine. There was lip-synching to songs that sounded like they were literally being played on a record player left over from the 60's. But, well, somehow it was OK, because it was just a little performance and all. So, after I adjusted to the idea that I would be listening to a bunch of lip-synched songs, some girl comes out in a fancy dress with a microphone in her hand. "Well, which song does she sing?" you ask. And you suspect that I will answer with the name of a song featured in the beloved musical "My Fair Lady". But, that is where you have forgotten that this production took place in Ukraine, so, instead of that, I will say "I Could Have Danced All Night" (which might have been in "My Fair Lady", I don't really know as I've never actually seen it) followed by what turned into a sing-a-long rendition of...wait for it..."I Just Called To Say I Love You" by Stevie Wonder. And I know that that wasn't in "My Fair Lady". Thankfully, another PCV was sitting next to me in the audience, so that we could at least confirm the fact that it seemed really strange to be singing along to this song at a research conference, but then smile and realize that this is what they call a "cross-cultural experience". And really, it's not such a bad way to do things.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

A day in the life

I thought it might be helpful to see what a typical week is like for me here. Then I realized that there are no typical weeks here. There are some things that I do regularly: every Wednesday and Thursday, I teach at a local high school that specializes in foreign languages. On Wednesday, I teach two 9th grade and two 10th grade classes, and on Thursday I teach one 7th, one 9th, and one 10th grade class. I also have Russian lessons every Wednesday and Thursday after school, with Oleg, who teaches younger students English and is featured in the PictureFest I previously posted. Look for the Christmas tree - he's the one that's not me. I am in the process of taking over a debate club that another Volunteer started, which meets every Wednesday night at 5:30, and I'm also starting a class for adults who are learning English which will meet every Monday at 4:00. These are regular things.
Then, sometimes I have teacher trainer seminars, where I work with 30 or so English teachers on various topics (the Communicative Approach to Teaching Country Studies), either alone or with another methodologist from the institute. Then, sometimes I go into work on Friday at 3 pm and am informed that I'll be giving 5 seminars in the next two weeks to university students who are getting their teaching degrees. One of which will be on Monday. About what? "Oh, whatever you want." For an hour and 20 minutes. And some days the copy machine does not work. And some days I don't go to bed until 1 or 2 am because I'm planning lessons or seminars or some other such business.
But before this, there were days when I would literally have nothing to do. I called Peace Corps to tell them I didn't have anything to do. They gave me some ideas. Then I suddenly had a whole bunch of stuff to do and very little time in which to prepare to do it. "Planning" isn't the most popular idea here...yet. I hope to try and demonstrate the benefits of planning if at all possible. Maybe, even, making a schedule in advance. Maybe even a week in advance. Crazy ideas.
So far, I'd say my biggest contribution to the city of Simferopol has been the introduction of classroom Jeopardy as a teaching tool. The Ukrainians are into it. Who doesn't love Jeopardy, after all? Hopefully more contributions will come in time. So far, my coordinator has been happy with my work, thea teachers have been happy with the seminars, the teachers at school have been happy with my lessons, and the students have said "thank you for the lesson" every day as they leave the classroom. I'm learning to stop freaking out when I find things out at the last minute, and start realizing that I will usually figure something out. I'm not sure if I'll ever have a real schedule here, which is very odd for me as a person who is psuedo-addicted to her day planner, but I have high hopes that I will at least fall into some sort of rhythm after a while.
Pictures of people and places are in the works for the next post. Until then...

Saturday, February 03, 2007


The first cake made in my honor. Yes, that says "Alison" in Cyrillic. The "being impressed by Ukrainian cakes" appears to be a theme that will continue throughout my two years here.

This is my cluster with our Russian teacher at swearing-in. From left: Jeremiah, me, Lena, Trina, and Annmarie. We enjoyed furthering the stereotype that all Americans are ridiculously tall.

This is Oleg, who is not only a teacher at Gymnasium No. 9, where I teach twice a week, but also my current Russian tutor. He's a little on the short side.

This was the view out my window the day before my birthday. Quite snowy, as you can see, which was much more enjoyable to look at than the following SlushFest 2007. Here you can see a fine example of Soviet block housing. Seems Lenin (or was it Stalin) made a visit to the good ol' US of A, took one look at project housing, and found it to be the perfect way to house all Soviets. So, now they're everywhere. I live in one now and will move to a different one tomorrow.

This is my host sister Aliona in front of the New Year tree. She's more or less modeling current Ukrainian fashion trends.

This is the couch that converts to a bed where I have been sleeping for the past month or so. Maksyk, the cat, really enjoys relaxing in this particular corner of the couch. Despite his incredible fluffiness, we've gotten along quite well. In fact, immediately preceding this picture, I was reading Crime and Punishment (see right arm of couch for proof) right next to Maksyk.

These are my birthday flowers. Very exotic, don't you think? You might also note that they were given at approximately 7:43 in the am, which is about the time I amble out of the bathroom and begin readying for the day. Sadly, you might also happen to glance the Jennifer Lopez double feature on my desk. I apologize. This is what happens when all possible forms of entertainment are available only in a language you have only just begun to understand, and usually only when spoken quite slowly. Really.

And here we have my birthday cake. It traces my journey from America, including a variety of important places there: Georgia, Philadelphia, Wisconsin and New York (looks like my host family really does listen when I talk!) to Ukraine, with a brief stop in Kyiv before arriving at my final destination in Simferopol. Clearly the coolest cake ever. Also impressively tasty...and large. We've only eaten about a fourth of it in a week.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Den Razhdenya

This one's for you, Dad.

My dad calls me every Sunday night to talk about my week, family news, philosophical realizations, and the like. I happened to mention that I was planning to keep my birthday on Monday a secret from my colleagues (as the last birthday celebration included two bottles of vodka, a bottle of wine and a variety of homemade salads and finger foods), but my father would have none of it. "They'll find out eventually and then probably be mad that you didn't tell them in the first place." Of course he was right, but how could I commemorate my birthday, now that I had seen a workplace birthday celebration live and in-person, in a way that would be somehow equivalent to what I assumed to be the standard birthday routine at the institute? "Just bring in some donuts. Spread a little American culture. That's what we do at the office, anyway. They'll understand." Donuts? Of course! How could I have already forgotten that donuts can help smooth over virtually any seemingly awkward situation? Had Krispy Kreme been so easily erased from my taste bud memory? Good thing my Dad was there to remind me. I felt that a weight had been lifted, and that my first Ukrainian birthday might not be so bad after all. I thanked my Dad for his always sound advice and got ready for my last night's sleep as a 25 year-old, assured that tomorrow would at least be bearable, if not even a little bit pleasant.

I woke up the next morning and made my way to the bathroom, as per usual. About twenty seconds after I had returned to my bedroom to start readying for the day, I heard a knock at the door. "Da?" In rushed my host dad and sister, with a beautiful cake (pictures forthcoming) and some very exotic-looking flowers in hand, singing the one English song everyone seems to know the world over: Happy Birthday (although "Hotel California" is a close second). I thanked them, assured them this was the finest-looking cake I had ever been given (the thing was awesome), and decided my birthday would be just fine.

I was a little nervous at the supermarket that morning picking out pastries (donuts have yet to be introduced to Ukraine - there's an investment idea, grandpa! - but cream-filled concoctions are a-plenty), but I went for the most recognizable-looking things in the shiny glass case. I still think I may have inadvertently bought day-old pastries, but, alas, when given the option, I will always choose the items I don't have to ask for and can instead just pick up and take directly to the cashier. I arrived a little early to the institute and started unpacking my treats. My coordinator walked in as I was arranging everything on her desk (did I mention I don't have my own desk at the institute? slowly starting to really annoy me.), and I explained, "Today is my birthday. I didn't know what to do, so, I bought some pastries. I hope it's OK." I translated this into Russian (or attempted to, anyway) for the other methodologists and looked at them with wide, hopeful eyes. "Of course it's OK!" said Lyudmila (my coordinator), who proceeded to tell everyone as they came in that today was my birthday. This was all well and good, but, still, no one had touched the pastries. After a few minutes, Lyudmila suggested that we put the pastries away until our lunch break, as then we could share them with everyone (everyone arrives at different times depending on their scheule for that day). "Oh, sure. Whatever is best," I said, being my most accomodating self.

Naively, I thought that the pastries would become nothing more than a lunch time snack - a happy little dessert tacked onto the end of a mid-day meal. Then I noticed that two of the ladies stepped out of the office for a while, returning with large bags full of groceries. I wasn't sure, but I thought I saw a wine bottle being stashed under a desk. Then, 1 o'clock (the lunching hour) rolled around, and the preparations began. My coordinator had to run out - not saying where she was going but that she would be back shortly. The other ladies started opening the cans of what I found out were sardines (not whole, like on a pizza, but shredded, like a can of tuna fish) and making the traditional celebratory meal - sardine salad (basically tuna salad but with sardines instead of tuna) on bread, carrot salad (shredded carrots with some spices...actually quite tasty), and some other unidentified side dishes involving cabbage and possibly peppers. So, ok, maybe we're just going to have a nice little meal and THEN have some pastries. But, alas, it seems a birthday celebration is more or less incomplete without a little alcohol, no matter that the celebration is taking place in the middle of the day at work. The vodka and wine were set out just as my coordinator came running in with flowers and gift in hand. (So, THAT's where she had run off too. I hadn't even thought of it.) After about five minutes of failed attempts to open the bottle of wine with everything from a butter knife to a pair of scissors, I assured everyone that I would drink vodka (they had more or less bought the wine for me, as I had chosen it in the past over vodka), not wanting to be the weak little American. So, we ate and made toasts to my health, happiness, love life, acquisition of large amounts of money and, last but not least, to my parents. I thought of my father, of course (and you too, Mom! and Traci, I made them say to "machexa" as well, which means "stepmom"), and his fantastic donut idea. It had all started out so innocently.

In the end, it was a pretty good birthday. It was snowing outside (and still is), so the vodka warmed me up for my walk to the marshrutka stop. Once I got home, my host family laughed (and groaned) when I told them about my day at work. And, unlike many Ukrainian cakes, my birthday cake not only looked amazing (it was a picture of a globe that charted my flight from the US to Ukraine and included most of my important stops on the way - Philadelphia, Georgia, Wisconsin, New York, Kyiv and Simferopol), but was also quite delicious. Though my family is always assuring me that not all Ukrainians are as celebratory (?) as the ladies I work with, my host dad still made me drink a shot of cognac with him at dinner (something about not being able to go down in alocohol levels when you drink). Ah, Ukraine.

I have some plans in the works to have a karaoke birthday party in the next few weeks (How?, you ask? I have my ways.). I'll keep you posted as any other news rolls in. Until then, dear readers. Dasvedanye.