Thursday, May 27, 2004

The Real Deal

am sitting in my permanent site as I write. In case you didn't guess,
this is in the city of -. Since I last communicated with you, I have
been sworn in as an official Peace Corps Volunteer. In my first 3
months I was a "trainee" which is the equivalent of a pledge in the
Greek world with all attendant rights and priviliges. While we were
killing ourselves to learn the language and culture, the real PVCs
were sneering at our very presence, our gall to exist. After so many
hundreds of hours of language training and cultural immersion, we now
have the experience and knowledge that allows sneering at the next
group's incredible unworthiness.

We have of course all sworn that
we won't follow suit so I pledge that the next pledges will not suffer
my wrath.

During the week we were preparing
for swearing in, we stayed again at that hellhole resort called
Prolasek. Upon arrival I requested a new room when we realized that
our door lock did not function in any normal lock-like way. Instead of
moving us they sent a maintenance man. He repaired the unlockable lock
but unfortunately it wasn't actually repaired to a functional state.
In fact, after repairing it, he demonstrated its repairedness and the
handle fell off in his hand. So he repaired it again. With a hammer.
As we made a 4th and this time successful request for another room, he
was splintering the wood of the door as he hammered out the unlockable
and unrepairable lock. We left him with his hammering and visited

It was another nice week. To be
around Americans is refreshing. To be able to speak on a college level
for a change feels great. Even the most English-fluent Ukrainians are
lost when you accidently drop some nuance into your conversation (this
isn't a slight against Ukrainians since most of us still speak like
tiny, incoherent Ukrainian children). So we talked and talked and
talked. And, to steal and paraphrase a line from an old friend, our
conversation was chock-full of nuance.

We learned the results of our
language evaluation and I scored Intermediate Low. It was enough to
not be humiliated but nothing to brag about. I blame it all on
Babushka, who always spoke in Ukranian, I think.

My roommate, J, was told about 10
minutes before swearing in that the country director wanted to speak
with him. He was excited because he expected to be asked to recite a
Ukrainian poem that he read at the talent show. It was quite what he

He was given a warning because of his performance at his going away
party. He drank a local brew called Spirit that a host family brought
and passed around. There is debate about whether Spirit is 98 or 100
percent alcohol. That 2% can make a real difference I guess. Anyway,
as you would expect, after a shot or two of that, he either simply
joined in the fun with the locals or made a raging ass of himself
depending on who you listen to. Word got back to Peace Corps and he
was told that one more infraction would, in their words, "Get you the
Delta Prize". Ironically, I don't think Delta actually flies here but
he got the point.

It was disheartening as this all
happened on the day of swearing in. When he should have been happiest,
he was worrying about his future with Peace Corps. He will do fine I'm
sure. He is a great guy, 30 years in a range of interesting jobs, all
kinds of accomplishments. I think the lesson is that its just best to
stay away from Spirit. And I don't know why anybody would want to go
near it.

The ceremony was nice, long as
should be expected and hot for lack of air conditioning but nice. The
country director was 45 minutes late and after sweating in a suit in
an uncomfortable chair, I did not join in on the welcome applause.

It was a cool moment to be welcomed to the club. I did find it odd
that they picked a brass band to play the USA and Ukrainian anthems.
But it was even odder to find the same band playing during the
reception that followed. What could have been a quiet moment to
reflect on everything that had passed was somehow diminished by the
tuba in the corner playing "Turkey in the Straw" at full volume. What
they lacked in ambience, the made up for in volume.

On the last day at the compound,
while packing to go, I couldn't find my iPod case. I turned everything
upside down and right side up. No luck so I pulled all the sheets etc.
off the bed and turned up the mattress. No iPod case but ...there was
a box of matches. A box of matches with a 10 inch wire sticking out.
Now that seemed odd.

So I picked up this matchbox and
noted that it had an electrical switch on it. Then I slid it open to
find it contained circuitry and a battery. As you might have guessed
by now, the end opposite the switch held a microphone.

These are the things you only read
about. We have been told ad nauseum that we are always being listened
to. We are told to be careful in what we say. We are told to be
careful in what we write, in snail and email. And we take it
semi-seriously, but this was just weird. So I did the most appropriate
thing and...took a picture (see attached. I left the picture large so
you can zoom in.) and then I whistled as loud as I could into the

Then I called our PC coordinator
and they took it to headquarters. This created a firestorm at the
complex. All the other PCVs were turning over their beds, looking for
their bugs, hoping against hope that they would find a bug. But I was
the only one. So then the conjecture game started. Was it directed at
me? Was my involvement with my particular site causing me to be a
target? My roommate was even convinced that he was the target of PC
trying to catch him drinking. Needless to say, I was quite the
celebrity for the day.

I don't know what it was all
about. Maybe a random bug of PCVs. Maybe an old bug that was forgotten
(although the maids seem to turn the rooms upside down when they
finally clean the rooms on your departure). Maybe I was targeted, but
I find that most unlikely. Do I think PC bugged our room to catch the
sounds of my roommate guzzling a beer? Even I'm not that paranoid. I'm
sure we'll never know unless PC manages to beat it out of the compound
manager and maids. I was asked by security to write and sign a
statement about the incident and the bug is being analyzed by a crack
team of PC security guards. Me, double naught spy relocating to -

Since I was traveling alone, PC
bought me a coupe on the train. That way I didn't have to fight
anybody for luggage space. And, by the way, if I wanted I could walk
around naked and sing show tunes. I brought plenty of food and drink
for the trip but once I was in my compartment I realized I was far too
paranoid to actually go to the bathroom and leave this un-lockable
room with all of my possessions alone so that some knife wielding
drunk lurking in the smoking area could slip in and force me to drink
with him. So to keep my bathroom trips to a minimum I didn't eat or
drink for the 12 hour trip. I blocked the door and read myself to

Upon arrival, I found my
coordinator was not waiting at the station as expected. I had 7 large
bags to unload and since the train can't pull over and wait for you, I
just ran out with as many bags as possible, dropped them on the
platform, ran back to my coupe and grabbed more, ran back etc. always
keeping an eye towards the platform or train, depending on where I
was, until everything was finally unloaded. When she did arrive, she
insisted that my idea of crossing the tracks at a nearby ground level
crossing was just wrong, instead we should avoid the extra 50 feet and
carry everything up the 3 story tower that crosses over the track. As
god is my witness, I will never climb that tower again.

Now I am in my new home. We have
to live with a host family for another 3 months at our new site. My
family is very nice and I have a bigger room than before. But we are
in a two room apartment and they sleep in the living room. So when I
go to bed in my room at night, I have a twinge of guilt as the rest
start laying out whatever they are sleeping on. But it means a stipend
for them that would be nothing to an American but is at least the
equivalent to a month's pay here.

Did you know that you can buy
roast chicken, cheese and sausage during the day, carry it on an
overnight train, and since you didn't eat it, present it to your host
family and then eat it with the family for two days for a total of 3
days at room temperature without refrigeration and without getting
sick? Neither did I!!! In fact it turns out there are a lot of silly
refrigeration and basic hygienic practices that you evidently can
simply do without. I've heard that in the wild, parasites will enter a
host and feed off it while simultaneously protecting it from others.
I think that is called a symbiotic relationship. Maybe I'll be
bringing home some unexpected company.

I was spoiled in B. I had Babushka
at the house who constantly took care of me with cooking, cleaning
etc. And she cooked well. And often. Here, I have a mother who works
long hours with no time to cook (and who confessed last night that she
really can't cook) and an 18 year old sister who is making it up as
she goes. It isn't that she doesn't try, but she's never been taught.
So her idea of cooking is to cut up potatoes, lightly season and fry.
I have eaten a lot of cheese and hard salami since my arrival. I guess
I will always like cheese but I am beginning to despise hard salami.
Maybe I should start teaching her to cook or buy a cookbook.

And they don't like Bortsch!

But I like the family and if I can
just find a way to get nutrition, I think I'll enjoy my stay a lot.
And I am looking forward to meeting the other PCVs in town.

I was invited to another PCV's
place last week for dinner with visiting friends. I was waiting for my
new friend at a bus stop with an old, drunken Ukrainian who was trying
out his drunken English with the funny looking American when a girl,
who has been pretty beat up in life and missing more than one tooth,
approached me and asked my name. Then she asked me if I wanted to have
good sex. When I said no thank you, she explained that no, she wasn't
a prostitute, she just wanted to have sex... with me! And it was only
10 greevna! Gee, the women here sure are nice. Fortunately my friends
arrived soon after and rescued me from the clutches of the semi-pro

Speaking of prostitutes, I was
chewing some of the local gum last week and managed to cause a
breakdown in its physical structure. Yes this is mundane but I have to
share. I've never witnessed anything like it before. I remember the
exact moment that the gum's elastic properties began to collapse. I
didn't understand what was happening at the time but on one closing
chew, I noted that the normal resistance experienced in the previous
chew was slightly but noticeably missing and I knew that "this isn't
right". And it continued its downward spiral. Within a minute, my
"Orbit White" had transformed into a pasty, gooey mess, oozing between
and sticking to my teeth. I can't say if this is a result of a
chemical or physical degradation but it is definitely something the
Ukraine confectionaire scientists need to start working on
immediately. Maybe they can confer with the American scientist who
seemed to have developed a technology that causes gum in the US to
harden into rubber with every chew. Maybe they can find a
middle-ground-gum. The future is limitless.

Have I mentioned the Ukrainian
service roads? They are very narrow, run alongside the main streets
and allow fast and direct access to the front of any shop. Or, can
serve as an alternate route to bypass slow traffic. Very convenient
for businesses and people in a hurry. In America you would call them
"sidewalks". I've made the mistake of walking on these service roads
on several occasions when a car demanded the right-of-way.

My job is working with a college.
It is dedicated to bringing western style, journalistic practices to
Ukraine. Ukraine has a gazillion newspapers and the majority are still
run like the old Soviet style government mouthpieces. The College's
goals are to expand into various regions of Ukraine and teach
journalists a new way. I think it is going to be a great challenge.
And I am excited about what is ahead. I have spent several days
researching various foundations that could be available to help and we
are putting together a presentation to be given in the end of summer.

;One thing I've noticed, and may
have written about before, is that Ukraines love to drone on and on
with their presentations. And they believe a presentation's importance
is directly tied to its length. I am going to try to convince them
that an American audience (which I think those that have money will
tend to be) will more appreciate a complete but concise effort. Any
advice from all my Power Point Presentation Gurus (you know who you
are) would be very, very, very welcome.

;Right now I am translating into
proper English an English version that is unreadable. It has been an
interesting experience wrestling with literal translations versus
understandable ones.

I love - so far. We have a river
that winds through the town and plenty of parks and outdoor cafes.
Granted I wouldn't eat the fish from the river or swim in it, but it
is a nice place to walk along and sit. And we are in the south so the
weather is more temperate, or I should say less frigid, than Kiev. And
I have, of all things, a supermarket across the street. This is a real
rarity and I am feeling pretty lucky.

And so my second, but much longer
and I expect, productive phase of Peace Corps begins. I have a new
address and will get that to you asap. I am still deciding if I want
to use the apartment or work address.

Found out about Reagan's
death. Don't really know the reaction in the US but it is interesting

Friday, May 14, 2004

End of Training

This is the beginning of my last week in B. Hard to believe I have been here 3 months. On Monday I will be tested in Russian and even though I'm told it won't go on my permanent record, I am a tad nervous. I can get by in a pinch. I know to modify my Coca cola when I ask for it in a store. And I'm familiar
with the difference between saying that I walked. I began walking, I
was walking, I finished walking, I am walking, I will be walking, I
will begin walking and I will finish walking. Each of those requires a
different modification of the same verb. And of course if I go
somewhere by vehicle instead of by foot, it is entirely different verb. I am
convinced this all comes out of the Soviet system that kept track of
your every, single move. Even what stage of walking you did yesterday,
will do today or in the future. Its all very helpful for the proper operation of a police state you know.

So I am reviewing and hope to do
OK. Wish me luck.

We had terrible news on Wed. night. N, my host mother, had a brother die. He was Babushka's son. It is always awkward when a friend loses a loved one, but to be living with people, not be familiar with the customs and not confident to speak in a delicate situation, it is even more so. I tried to be
supportive and went to a friend for advice on what is commonly done.
So I brought 4 flowers (have I mentioned that in Ukraine you only give
odd number of flowers for a happy occasion? Even numbered ones are
reserved for tragedies.) and gave my host mother some money. I was a
little uneasy about handing her money but it is the custom and does
make sense. It is probably the one thing they need most, besides
emotional support, at a time like this.

So my last week will be somber around the house. Our goodbye shashlik has been canceled and I don't know if N will attend my PC induction ceremony. It is customary to mourn for 40 days. I hope that she does. After this long I would be very disappointed if she couldn't.

But I'm not complaining. Things like this help you get your perspective back.

OK, enough of the somber stuff.

Today we executed our group community project. We donated supplies to
the local hospital for the children's section. They don't have
supplies like diapers and sheets etc. We were allowed $100 for any
project and so we went shopping. We got baby bottles, diapers, toys
and some dishes. We invited the local press and they will run a story
next week. We wrote the story and emphasized the need for others to
donate as well. The hope is that it will bring attention to the
problem. Everybody felt great about it and we got a lot of kudos from
the staff after it was over.

It was a good day.

Monday, May 10, 2004

Victory Day

Yesterday was Victory Day. Another state holiday. We went to Kiev for the parade and a visit to the Botanical Gardens. We came into the city via the Metro and when we exited to the street, were excited to see that we were exactly where
the parade was coming by. Crowds were gathered on the corner against a barricade and we ran over and claimed our spot and couldn't believe our luck. We were there an hour before it started but kept ourselves entertained. One woman squeezed her kid in against a little girl that was with us and eventually had squeezed 2 more and herself against the rail. There is a lot of squeezing that goes on in this country so nobody except me seemed to take notice.

Then they announced that the parade would be starting shortly.

Then they proclaimed the great pride that Ukraine has for it's veterans and their sacrifice.

Then they announced the parade would be starting shortly.

Then they reiterated the love that all Ukrainians have for the living and dead veterans of all the wars in the history of Ukraine.

Then they announced the parade would start shortly.

Then they reminded us that we were all equally proud of everybody that ever helped in any war effort including those that were not on the front line.

Then they... I was waiting for them to tell us of the great appreciation Ukraine has for all it's enemies that made it
possible for all the glorious wars of the past, but then the parade began.

We could see the approaching banners above everybody's head and I was telling my friends that we had really lucked out to be on a corner that gave such an unobstructed view.

Then the parade turned left.

Before reaching our corner.

So we jumped over the barricades and ran over behind the band and watched from across the street. They were leading everybody up to a square for a ceremony but after the first thousand or so veterans and VIPs, it was full. The parade
continued but in smaller steps. A lot of hammer a sickles flying honoring the glorious Soviet era that destroyed this country and is still a dream for some. We decided to leave after looking at the same group of old dudes for 30 minutes.


Thursday, May 06, 2004

Ukraine economy

I finally saw a doctor yesterday. While I wanted to do this on Monday, nobody was available to see me
because of Mayday celebrations. They were celebrating on Tuesday as well. So Wed. I finally made it to Kiev and was taken in for X-rays.

When we got there, we found the waiting room full. I was ready for a very long wait (it was a WAITING room) but was surprised to be immediately led into a doctor. The X-rays were completed, I came up with nothing broken and as we were leaving, I was told by the PC medical rep to wait for him outside. As I walked out, he pulled cash out of his
pocket and gave it to the doctor. The reality of bribes in this country isn't a surprise but to witness it makes your head spin.

Since then I've had several conversations with Ukrainian friends and my head is still in rapid spin mode.

One man I know offered up the expected bribe to get a telephone installed in his home. The official slid the money back
across the table because it was too small. My friend waited 10 years to get his phone.

Another is finally applying for his little plot of land that each Ukrainian is promised in the land redistribution law. When I asked why he waited until now to claim free land, he explained that he had to save his money first. But it's free right? Well yes, but you have to pay a bribe to actually get it..

The saddest example, and closest to my experience, is a friend who has a mother in the hospital. In a recent conversation she casually mentioned slipping money into the doctor's pocket during their meeting. It went something like this "So I went to the hospital today to see my mother and then I saw her doctor and we talked about her situation and what we can expect and I gave her the bribe and came home." Nothing was said during this transaction but it was understood and expected. I asked how a person would know to do this and you would have thought I asked what 2 + 2 was. It was so simple that my friend couldn't believe I would ask. You do it so your mother will receive treatment! When I asked how a person knows what to pay,
she said it is typically 1/3 of the doctor's monthly salary. Doctor's make about $60 a month. Thank god they don't make a decent salary. Of course they may not feel compelled to take bribes if that was the case. But hey, Ukraine has free healthcare!

Another volunteer commented that the bribe system was almost like a second part of a legitimate economy since the state pays professionals such little money and doctors have to make enough to live. I understand her point and it is a good one but it is going to have to end for Ukraine to finally get back on track.

And by the way, when you go pay your taxes, make sure to bring your extra money (or gifts are ok) as well. You even have to pay a bribe to get the tax collectors to do their job.

Sunday, May 02, 2004


Today's Recipe is for Ukrainian Toilet Paper.


75 parts sawdust (wood chips maybe used as a substitute.)
25 parts unadulterated saliva (no trace particles of sugars or other adhesive materials)

Heat saliva to boil. Stir in sawdust and mix for 10 minutes. Roll out paper-thin sheet and trim to 4 inch width.


You will know if you have managed to successfully recreate the Ukraine version when it contains the softness of no. 8 sandpaper and the tensile strength of ash.

An especially happy friend points out that it isn't rough, it is exfoliating!

OK, today's lesson is over. Yesterday was May Day. The day when the workers celebrate. Lots of vodka and Beer. Evidently the Power Company was celebrating as well because the power in the majority of the city went out at about 7 pm. And was out til the next afternoon.

Before the blackout, I went with my Ukrainian friend Natasha to Kiev. We went to a large outdoor market and I bought some dvds. They are $5 each and good quality. I guess that will be my source for movies for a while.

From there we went to an amusement park on the Knipr river and had shashlik. Shashlik is the traditional Russian barbeque. And it is amazing. We ate beef, salad and shared a liter of beer. I was so amazed and happy with this new taste sensation
that Natasha mistook my expressions of ecstasy for pain.

After about 10 minutes of discussing the full range of possible American facial expressions, we walked to the river and rented a paddle boat. I was surprised that they allow anybody and everybody take these things out on this river. It isn't the Mississippi but it has the currents and whirlpools that I always associated with that river. Falling in would probably be a real, real, real bad thing. But with a lot of grit and the power of Shashlik we managed to stay dry and forge our way back up-river before the sun set.

I went to some public toilets in the park and can report that, according to the graffitti, they are just as popular for socializing as the US.

Tomorrow I am going to ask to be seen by the medical staff at PC. My arm is still hurting from a fall of about 1 1/2 weeks ago. It doesn't seem to be getting any better and I have no strength in it right now. I thought it was only bruised but
I'm wondering if I didn't cut something.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Soviet Reality

I tell you, USSR apologists can kiss my ass. 50 years of Soviet rule has decimated this country. Not just the economy or the infrastructure or the environment (oh sure, they are all shot to hell). But the very core of the national character. The people came up under such oppressive conditions that it is going to take generations to get back to normal. And to think when I was younger there were people who actually touted the Socialism as the future. How can anybody call themselves a humanist and in any way have condoned that regime? It is utterly indefensible. How could anybody have witnessed the conditions of this area or anywhere like it and not see the hell it was for the people?

And hey, I'm not even talking about the over 10 million Ukrainians that Stalin murdered. That's a whole other story.

I'm not looking for a fight, but if I ever run across anybody who wants to pull out that tired argument with me, I'm not sure that I will be able to keep my cool.

Saturday, April 24, 2004


Yesterday we traveled by train to Kiev. During the trip we had a visitor to our cabin. A drunk Ukrainian man, about 35 years old, stepped in and handed G a Lock blade knife with a blade about 5 inches or so long. And he continued down the aisle. G was standing in the cabin with this huge knife in his hand and no idea what to do with it. Meanwhile I was thinking this was some Ukrainian-train-knife-scam which involves Ukrainian Train Militia busting in and arresting us for having an illegal weapon so I tell G to put it on the floor outside the cabin.

About 3 minutes later the stranger reappears with 4 beers and plops down on our seat, grabs the knife off the floor and uses the blade to pop off the top. He was very aggressive and focused on G, slapping him on the back and asking him such inviting questions like "Are you afraid of me?" etc. The tension in the cabin was...tense.

After a few minutes of this guy speaking in loud Russian, laughing loudly and basically trying to intimidate us, I finally whipped out my newly issued Peace Corps Pink card and all the accompanying documents that basically tell whatever cop or militia that is bothering us to back off. And I begin to lie.

I tell him that we are special guests of the Ukraine Government, that the embassy placed us on the train and will be waiting for us in Kiev. That we are under constant surveilance by the militia. You know, the basic points that you want to get across to assure you don't disappear in transit on a train. This goes on for a while and I finally dragged the guy out of the car to have a cigarette just to get him away from the 2 girls in our cabin. Turned out he was an interesting guy who spoke great English. He is a UN Peacekeeper flying helicopters and has served in Liberia and Sierra Leone. It sounds like he's seen a lot of terrible things. Sure he was obnoxious but I was ultimately glad I met him.

He told me he expected to be in Iraq in about a month so you heard it here first folks.

Reading strangers is always tricky and when you are dealing with a new culture it is even more difficult. Given a choice I will always veer on the side of caution but sometimes you stumble across good, if drunk and overbearing people. And that can be a unexpected surprise.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

New Home

I am sitting on the bed of my new room in my soon-to-be new Host Family’s home. The home is 2 rooms plus a kitchen and bath. We have no hot water and the water only runs between 6:30 am and 10:30 pm. So I have had my first of many sponge baths. Sponge baths, at least as given by me to me are not as exotic or romantic as those seen on TV.

I am tempted to design and install a new technology I will call "The Ukrainian gravity shower". It will consist of a bucket with one end of a hose exiting the bottom and a shower head on the other end. I don’t know if I will incorporate pulleys etc. to lift the filled bucket or just a hook but I know I would enjoy the heck out of water actually falling on me for a change. I know this is a new technology so I will introduce it slowly.

I am now assigned to N. It is a port city just above the North Sea. It was the shipbuilding city for the USSR and also secretly built military airplanes. Because of this airplane factory hidden from the west, N was a closed city during Soviet rule. It has a population of about 500,000 and is, by my last city's standards, beautiful. There is a street closed to traffic and filled with outdoor cafes. Two rivers converge here so there are plenty of opportunities to see and walk along the heavy-metal infused water. And we are 30 minutes from the sea.

The story they tell is that when they started building this city and the ships about 200 or so years ago, there were no women, so Katherine sent Russian women and as a result N has the most beautiful women in all of Ukraine.

We also have the greatest Zoo in all of Ukraine.

And we have the Greatest Swimming pool in all of Ukraine, if not the world!

Odessa is 2 hours west and Crimea is about 5 hours to the east. Both are destination spots. Turkey is available by various means and Greece can’t be far away. I am very happy so far.

As I said before, I wasn't able to work with the animation studio for political reasons but now I find myself working with a college. And I think the political implications could be much greater. The goal of the college, as explained to me, is to transform journalism throughout Ukraine from the state-run model to a western style free press.

That means transforming or replacing the media that currently exists. That would be media that is 80% controlled by the state. I have a suspicion that the current government wouldn’t appreciate that. But this is where I am assigned and I will do what I can. My first step will be to contact a businessman I met at a conference last week who specializes in Business management consultation in Ukraine. He is a no-nonsense kind of guy and I want to run this school and their objectives by him to get his feedback. If it is valid, he may be interested in giving some advice. If it is a bunch of hooey, I think he’ll tell me.

The family here is very nice. It consists of a mother S, father A, and daughter L. I started getting a cold my first day and they smothered me with attention. Last night they insisted I drink heated wine. I’ve been taking my trusty ZICAM Zinc nasal gel and it is again cutting back the cold but for the family I attributed my quick recovery to the wine.

But what you really want to hear about are my living conditions don't you?

Well, I have a much nicer room than before. I have a bed, desk and wardrobe. There is a TV and boom box. And it is filled with plants. And the door locks. And the rest of the family sleeps in the living room.

I feel guilty taking their only bedroom but I have to assume that they need the money. What do I mean “assume”? Of course they need the money.

We live on the 7th floor with an elevator that has been broken for 5 years. The family was informed that the elevator is supposed to be repaired next week. They are convinced it is because of my arrival. As much as I would like to accept responsibility, it certainly wasn't because I made a telephone call. Maybe it was because the American moved in. Who knows.

was a rocket scientist in the soviet army. He had 3 stars and I still haven’t figured out if that is the rank of General or Colonel or since it seems stars are generously distributed, a captain but it definitely is an officer . Now he repairs lottery machines around the city. I can’t imagine the pride he has to swallow every day. But he seems to get through each day with good humor and is always smiling and laughing.

I’m constantly reminded of the loss the Ukrainians have suffered since the fall of the Soviets. I can’t say how many formerly successful businessmen I have met who lost everything during that period. Sure, maybe that success could have been retained with a responsible government except the former system was so corrupt already that when the opportunity came, a very few in the inner circles began the raping and pillaging.

This country is on the cusp of either a great advance or a possible slide. I hope the US is keeping in mind the value of this place in our strategic and economic interests. I know, I know, the humanitarian reasons alone are compelling enough but the others don't hurt.

But then the Peace Corps is a non-political, non-religious organization and I of course have no opinion in those matters.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004


Today we went to a soccer match. My first professional match outside the US.

We bought our 30 cent liters of beers and drank them before going in. Armed militia encircled the stadium and stood on the track keeping everybody in line. We watched a guy with a walky-talky about the size of a powerbook use it to block the wind while he lit a cigarette. I tell you that thing looked like it came out of a WW2 movie. Somebody set off a massive smoke bomb that cleared the stands in one section.

Our Team won!

During our walk to the game, I was carrying an empty coke bottle and a Ukraine Friend smiled and said to me "garbage". Thinking he was asking if I was looking for the garbage, I said "Garbage? Yes, I have garbage and I am looking for a garbage can to put my garbage." and everybody freaked out. Turns out he was referring to a passing militiaman. That is their version of "Pig".

My Host mom wants to introduce me to some friends. Maybe she's playing cupid? Probably not but I have to
have my fantasies. Hubba hubba.

Today I saw my first truly american style of doing things. I passed a road crew digging a hole. Three guys were digging while 5 supervised. Just like america.

Saw a TV ad tonight. First screen shows a woman working like a dog, scrubbing clothes by hand in a tub. The voiceover says something about an easier way and the screen slides over to show the same woman, much happier, much better looking
and in much better condition because she now has a better soap to scrub her clothes by hand in the tub. I was expecting an ad for a washing machine. Wouldn't you

I've been seeing TV ads for basketball. They evidently have semi-pro basketball here. And the net
seems like its 6 feet off the floor. In the spots, everybody is slam dunking the ball. They just kind of hop up and grab the rim as if they've really made some huge leap. Their feet are dragging the floor! Gary Coleman could slam dunk on these courts. They must have 400 point games. I've been assured these are regulations baskets so I guess they just jump real good here.

There is a game show I've watched a couple of times and I cannot get my mind around it. It is like wheel of fortune but everybody arrives with things like a 30 pound turnip they've grown in their garden for the host or whatever and they yammer
at length about the significance of the turnip, I guess, about the great trials of their lives or maybe the joys, I can't really tell.
The audience shots are classic East European stereotypes with everybody grimacing as they wildly celebrate with tepid and scattered applause. And the words they guess as part of the game are the most mundane things like "toaster" or today, I swear, "stepmother". One old guy today spinned the wheel and evidently won a car. I still don't know. They gave him some keys and it looked like a car was sitting over his shoulder and then he disappeared for the rest of the show. They just moved on to some other lucky contestant. Maybe they just took him in the back and beat him down.

Finally, there is a potboiler of a soap opera that I've caught. Don't know the story yet but the stud looks like Ernest Borgnine's younger brother and he trips from one beautiful Ukraine woman to an even more beautiful ukraine woman,
breaking each and every one's heart. Why can't I be Ernest Borgnine's younger brother?

Thursday, April 01, 2004

april 1, 2004

Just wanted to drop a line. This won't be as long as the last and by the way, thanks for the responses.

I've got a situation that developed over the past few days that is growing kind of worrisome. It is a little convoluted but hopefully I can tell you fairly quickly.

We were at an orphanage for an annual "Orphan's Day" celebration. It is something that was instituted about 8 years ago to elevate the awareness of homeless kids and to increase adoptions. They have a small parade with the kids on flatbeds, waving to what crowds show up. They have their names and ages posted on the trailer so the audience can see who each one is. Americans are invited to attend because it is a good chance to look at
all the kids in one sittings so to speak.

Anyway, after the parade, I was in the playground with some kids. They like to build miniature clown circuses with sticks and mud, so I was helping. Soon, a cat came into the yard and I was trying to call it over. I was calling "Here Kittie" but unfortunately I wasn't aware of what I was actually saying. It turns out that "Here" sounds much like the Ukrainian word for "I want". I'm studying russian and "I want" is Hochu in that language, so I had no idea of the difference. But then it gets worse. "Kittie" is very similar to a slang term Ukrainians use for a certain part of the female anatomy.

So here I am, calling out for this cat and inadvertantly shouting "I want..." I wasn't even aware of it but the kids withdrew and a small crowd gathered around me. People started yelling in Ukrainian but over here that is typical and I didn't think much of it. It was not until the Mayor's son, who I later found out is mentally retarded, busted into the circle and began yelling at the crowd and at me that I realized something might be wrong. He kept getting more and more upset until another man stepped in and tried to calm him down. They started pushing, shoving and finally it turned into a brawl. My Russian teacher Vlad ran in a pulled me from the crowd before I was caught up in it. They put me in
a car and whisked me away.

It was a nightmare. The militia was called. The mayor got involved. He started a secret police investigation of me. The peace corps main offices got involved. The embassy is involved. I spent hours at the police station and almost some in jail.

And now there is talk of my eviction from the country. If not the country, then surely from the city. They say that I am not safe here anymore. The mayor's son has started a papering campaign around town demanding my eviction. And evidently nobody can stop him because of who his father is. I have 7 state security officials watching me at the moment for my own safety.

It is all very strange and even unbelievable.

I knew I was going on an adventure. But I never realized what was in store for me.

I will find out soon enough how
this will end. Wish me luck.

April Fool’s.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004


Have I mentioned walking? We walk everywhere. And we walk a lot. I've been getting up every morning to run the steps of the local soccer stadium and that is good exercise but I get worn out some days with the walking. I guess if I screwed up my courage and actually took a bus by myself it would be better but it is good exercise and I think I need as much as I can get.

Today I went to look for shoes. I bought a pair of black dress shoes in the US (after I accidently gave mine away) and they turned out to be the most uncomfortable I've ever worn. So I want to try to get some dress boots. No luck. They still have the fur lined ones out. I'll have to wait a little.

Monday, March 22, 2004


Today was difficult. We began adjectives. In the US, I can have a red car, red apple, red ink-pen or any number of various red items up to infinity. In Russian, you have a...well let's see, is apple a female, masculine, neuter, plural noun? Well that's important because that changes how I say "red". And don't even think about the possibility that the adjective is an exception. Then if follows its own rules! I don't know if I am suffering from information overload, a momentary lapse or realizing the limits of my noggin but this stuff is getting hard. As soon as I think I might have a handle on something, we get hit with something else.

Just keep my head down and drive forward. That's all I know to do.

Today, after class, we visited an after-school program that is evidently geared towards more motivated students. We checked out a dance class, a musical rehearsal, art class and english class. My favorite was the English class. The students all seemed bright and excited. I was surprised at how well they spoke. I think our tech support person gets annoyed at me in such meetings. I have a tendency to crack wise and I think she is a little appalled. If I acted any different it would be uncomfortable for me.

Tomorrow I meet my class. The one I am going to teach. Yowser! I've never taught and now I am being thrown in front of a university class to teach...what? English? I don't know for sure. I think I am going to try to move it into a cultural exchange session. I think the kids will be interested in that and it will be good experience for them. I have to wait to see if the teacher has lesson plans for me to follow and then try to change them.

This is just my internship. It is not what I will be doing for 2 years. in 2 months I will leave B for my final site and assignment.

I think I've figured out my internet issue so I hope to get this sent off tomorrow.

Sunday, March 21, 2004


Friday I found out where my internship. It is a local university. I'll be teaching english. It sounds like a cool position. I'll get to meet a lot of locals and they all speak some english so I'll get to communicate with them while I learn.

Yesterday was cooking day. We all created a list of food to cook and went to the market together so that each of us could practice ordering different items. I was responsible for the sunflower oil and sour cream. I was great. Two host moms helped us prepare our dishes. A friend and I made the salad. I'm even a moron when cutting sausage evidently. At least I needed to be shown more than once how to actually cut it.

It was a fun day. Busy but the food was great. Afterwards we took some to a fellow volunteer who was home sick. Her family invited us in to sit, then to tea, then they got in a long, involved conversation and I lost my patience. I interrupted our teacher and asked to leave. I don't know how that went over but these people love to talk and I was worn out.

After a quick nap, we went out for drinks and who shows up but some interpreters we had met the day before. The night turned into yet another crazy round of drinks. one of the volunteers host brother has been out with us twice and he likes to order bottles of vodka. Last night he ordered 6. 6 bottles for about 10 people. It was fun but I told him today that we just can't do that when we go out. It is hard saying no when you've got a Ukrainian shoving shots down your throat. Well, at least for me. So I may need to stop going out with this guy and probably certain Ukrainians. They are great people but I want to have some nights of drinks without it being a big blowout. It would probably be a good idea to have nights with just the Americans as well. Not so much pressure.

Today we went to Kiev for the first time. We went to the PC center and I met a woman who just happens to be the woman who lived at my house before. I took a picture of us and my host mom was floored when I showed her.

Anyway, we walked all over the city. Saw a lot. I was exhausted and cranky by the end of the day but it was fun. I think I am probably going to end up in Kiev so if I am correct, it is going to be much more like a european city than where i am now.

Saturday, March 20, 2004


Our Coordinator’s conference was outside of Kyiv last week. It consisted of several incredibly long and boring presentations that were occasionally interrupted by one that held your attention. I met my coordinator A, and soon began to become concerned.

She started hanging out with my friend G's coordinator, who single-handedly reminded me that annoying punks are a worldwide phenomenon and he will be referred to in the rest of this letter as "Dumbass".

He works at (well, his mother runs) an AIDS alcohol and drug treatment facility and the first night got wasted and tried to pick up one of our volunteers. He played video games on his cell phone during conference meetings and would leave for 15 minutes at a time (with my coordinator) for a little R and R. Anyway, I had a bad feeling about him from the start and it bothered me that A would spend her time with such a knucklehead.

The last day, we went to Kyiv to catch a train to our sites. We were walking through the square during our wait time and I look over to see Dumbass (DA) wearing his chewing gum in the fold behind his ear. I've been trying to rack my brain to remember if I have ever seen anybody, maybe from the 3rd grade or something, do such a thing, but no luck so far. G said he tried to give DA new gum but he refused. I guess old habits are hard to break.

We arrived at the station with plenty of time to spare. G and DA decided to pick up some things at a store and A led me with them. Store to store they go with DA leading and me taking up the rear.

Finally, he led us to a train platform, which is down 2 long flights of stairs. I drag my 50 pound bag after them only to watch him give A a big, really sloppy kiss, get on HIS train and send us on our way. So here we are, thinking we are going to our train and now finding that we have to get back up the 2 flights of stairs and then find our track. And A, who thought we were at our track was oblivious to where our train actually was. And I was feeling like the real dumbass.

We ran back up the stairs (well, as much as I can run with a 50 pound bag and a back-pack), crossed to the other side of the Kiev train station and down to another track. Realized that we were nowhere near the correct platform, ran to another track to learn that our greatest accomplishment so far was that we were one-by-one eliminating every possible track in this massive station. Backtracked up another flight of stairs and finally found a woman who led us to the train.

The whistle was blowing as we stepped onto the platform. We were running down the platform, I was steaming, (saying over and over to A "Ne Horasho" which means "not good".) and finally we had to jump on the first available car before we were left behind. This meant we had to drag our luggage through about 12 cars. My roll-on bag and the tissue thin carpets on the trains were not engineered to coexist. As I rolled my bag into a car, the carpet inevitably bunched up under my wheels. The women in charge of the cars were screaming at me for wrinkling these 90 year old rugs and I didn't really give a what-do-you-know.

When I got to our cabin, the train was already moving. I was so angry, I threw my bag in an area beneath the seats and sat down to fume. Later I would find that my brilliant act of throwing my bag, broke my bag and reminded me that it's not a good idea to act stupidly even if you are upset.

Poor A caught hell from me for about 10 minutes. I had already been concerned about her apparent lack of professionalism during the conference and here I was killing myself and risking the wrath of train-car-ladies because she had to get sugar from this dumbass thug. But I got it off of my chest and afterwards told her that we should just move on, that I expected she had learned a lesson and it would not happen again. I think that was new to her and it took awhile for her to realize that I wasn’t going to be angry with her the entire trip.

Sleeping on a train is tricky. Sleeping on a Ukrainian train is impossible. When you aren't shaking and baking, you are freezing. I know I did manage to slip into a short sleep because I remember a dream.

I was on a train and people around me were talking in English. I asked them if I was dreaming. They asked why I would ask such a silly question and my answer was, because they were speaking English and that was odd for me. Then I woke up. Bizarre. I wonder if this is a common type of dream for people that are in similar situations.

I had another dream that perhaps can be psychobabblyzed. In my dream, I finally receive my long anticipated care package from Stacy, Leslie and Cynthia (which by the way is evidently stuck in Ukraine ether-land). Of course I am extremely excited to get this package of surprises but when I open it, I find a collection of new women's bras and panties. I'm digging through this admittedly nice collection, looking for the girl scout cookies and wondering if they expect me to use these in trade or what. Then I woke up.


Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Salad for Breakfast

What a weekend.

We have language class on Saturday so our week is pretty full. We decided to meet for drinks that night and R's host brother, T, was our guide. he took us to a local disco and ordered for us. We had a flavored vodka that I've never had before. I guess something like strawberry but not too strong a flavor so that it was actually good. Anyway, after 2 weeks of intense training, I guess we just needed to let down our hair because we all pretty much had a very good time drinking, dancing and laughing. One of our guys was invited to hang out with some locals but he was too inebriated to do much. Probably for the best. He eventually came back to our booth, passed out and I remember laughing at his condition. Everybody seemed to have a great time.

Then we left.

Then T bought us all more beers (no open alcohol laws here) and after one sip, I tripped over a low railing. Fell on my ass so nothing more important than my ego was seriously injured. Well, everybody came over to help me and insisted on helping me back to my door. Kind of a long walk and I never regained my balance. Needless to say the vodka kicked my ass.

Next day I begged everybody's forgiveness but they were all in a similar condition. I think after all the work and stress we needed to do something like that to just blow off steam and just get past it.

I had gotten up early and gone for an hour walk. Surfed the internet, basically tried to burn off the hangover. I got rid of it by noon.

Turns out the host families for some of the volunteers became worried because of the late hour and called our Teachers. It became something of a mini-drama. I personally think people are creating more of an issue that it really is but drama has a way of feeding itself.

Anyway, some people were told about some rules that includes new curfews that I toss my head back and laugh at. Hahahahahahahaaaaaa!

I tell you. USSR apologists can kiss my ass. 50 years of Soviet rule decimated this country. Not just the economy or the infrastructure or the environment (oh sure, they are all shot to hell). But the very core of the national character. The people came up under such oppressive conditions that it is going to take generations to maybe get back to normal. And to think when I was younger there were people who actually touted the Socialism as the future. How can anybody call themselves a humanist and in any way have condoned that regime? It is utterly indefensible. How could anybody have witnessed the conditions of this area or Moscow or anywhere like it and not see the hell it was for the people?

Tuesday, March 16, 2004


So I found out today that I am being assigned to Southern Ukraine. I was hoping that I would end up in Kiev. Peace Corps was trying to get me into an animation studio, which I would have loved. But it turned out there were political concerns about my involvement with a state run propaganda mill.

BUT, the place that I am going sounds a great city in a great part of the country. And I will I'll be working with a school that has some specialties that I am interested in. That could be very exciting.

This Saturday I take an 11 hour train ride to meet my new host family. I'll stay with them for 4 days to see the city and meet the people.

A couple of friends will be close so I will be able to easily visit them on day trips. And because this city is between Crimea and Odessa, I will be able to hit both places pretty easily.

Crimea is a resort area and, I am told, a great place to be assigned. But it is expensive to live so being close enough to run in for a day or weekend is probably best.

This morning we had an American give a seminar about the realities of Ukraine business practices. It was a blunt assessment of the corruption and other business oddities of this country. Evidently the 100 years or so of Soviet rule created an incredibly distorted view of how to do business and it is going to take a while to finally purge those ingrained assumptions from the system.

People manage by fear. And intimidation. And criticism. They don't know any other way. And of course it leads to employees who not only don't care about their job but don't trust their bosses, companies or co-workers.

Anyway, another milestone passed. I have 6 weeks left in B and then I move on. I'm starting to enjoy this town and going to miss the people I've met so far.

Don't know when I'll get to send this. We are at a soviet-era workers resort, which is a cinderblock building with the charm and luxury of a upper-class gulag. We do have a lake in the back with a beach that we can walk. It's about 50 feet long. And we are in the woods so in spite of the limited accommodations it is a nice area.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Meeting the Mayor

Today we met the mayor. Well, we were supposed to. i assume he had some important wheat to shuck or something. Anyway he sent his vice mayor. They explained all of the great things that are going on in B. Evidently this is one of the richest cities in the Ukraine.

This country is in real trouble.

Seriously. The poverty here is worse than Mexico. It is a country with no industry but with all the remnants of the previous industry. All of the crap and none of the rewards.

I had an interesting conversation with one woman here who described some of the resentments that exist because the lack of opportunity for the workers. They've been living with 15 years of massive unemployment. On a much smaller scale, I see that some back home in the south. There is an underlying resentment and despair that I think is directly related to the employment situation. Of course that seems obvious but I think it goes beyond the day to day attitudes but has permeated parts of the southern states. Generations have come to expect to not expect much. And when people find themselves is such a mindset, it has to have a debilitating effect on them. The US should be thinking about such things and doing something to resolve it. This goes back to reconstruction and an entire region has been lost because the federal government has simply allowed it to fall into disrepair.

Anyway, back to the mayor. We had a meeting and were allowed to ask questions. a couple of people dominated the conversation with questions about the minute details of city budgeting. I didn't understand what purpose that served and the City officials weren't inclined to open their books . I wanted to find out how to get a free tour of the town. But before you knew it they were hustling us out and bringing in another meeting. I have to wonder what the attitudes are concerning our presence. Are we taken seriously? Are we really appreciated? Are we seen as buffoons? ARe we tolerated to keep relations with the US better? Are we going to make a difference? ARe we wasting everybody's time?

Probably yes to all.

There is an opportunity to make a difference I'm sure. the key in my mind is to find a compelling project to take on. Nothing against them but I'm not here to hug orphans. That is a truly compelling need for that but I am not the person to do it. Maybe I could hang out and read and practice english etc. but we have people in our group who thrive off of that kind of interaction. I think I'll be better doing something else.

There has been some talk about how my qualifications will be great here. I hope that is true. They said that to everybody so I have to wonder if that was just platitudes.

But then I think back on what I've done and can do and some of the projects could be challenging and rewarding. I've heard about some projects here that resulted in exciting developments.

Saturday, March 13, 2004


Last night there was a bombing in Madrid. I don't know the details but was told there is a coming election. The 2 obvious sources are of course basque separatists and islamic radicals. I hope this isn't the beginning of a new wave of terrorism.

Yesterday was devoted to medical. We received our kits with all the needed medicines and accouterments as well as medical training in various areas. First we sat around and told the med lady a little about ourselves. I like her. She is kind of a no nonsense type of person that seems to give you things straight. I've run into a few humanitarian/fascist types that just creep me out with their bipolar attitudes towards mankind versus individuals. They are the type that will lead the revolution and kill the educated.

So after the session, we took a break and she took us to the bazaar to explain some local foods. The we had lunch.

Well, we had Ukraine pizza. It is a crust at the bottom of a metal plate, covered with sauce and cheese. It is cooked in the plate and you eat it like a casserole. It was OK but odd. The sauce had a distinct sweet flavor that was completely unexpected. With a drink the cost was 7 grebna. That is about $1.50. Our allowance is 7 per day for lunch so I'm finally getting in the ballpark. Then we walked the market. Med lady took us through and explained some of the various foods and customs when buying. Evidently 100 grams is commonly one portion of anything and important to know when ordering. You could think you're getting that whole chicken quarter for 12 grivna when it is actually 3 times that price.

Then we went back and viewed an AIDS video created by former PCVs that contracted the disease while on assignment. I have been bothered for years by the politicization of AIDS and the resulting dishonesty in the education that is offered. And this was no different. Of 8 people in the video, only 2 were men and only one man was possibly gay. When I asked about it, I was told that PC doesn't ask people their sexuality. But come on, there's no way you can randomly pull together such a group and so grotesquely distort the real picture. Afterwards we had a discussion in which Med lady was refreshingly frank (at my prodding I might add) about transmission realities and the mechanics of contracting the disease. I actually learned a couple of things.

She pulled out dildos and showed how to put a condom on. that is always fun. She had three types of three sizes and colors. I'm not sure if she had such a variety for whatever continent she might be in at any particular moment. Or if people request she demonstrate on different sizes.

Afterwards we jaunted over to the internet cafe. Computer games are big here and everybody rents stations so it was filled with young guys. We decided to come back in the morning.

For dinner we had a meat-filled dumpling in broth. They were great. I'm eating more new things than I ever imagined. Hunger combined with a desire to not insult my hosts has caused me to eat much more foreign foods than I ever expected.

I brought home a bottle of vodka and sipped a shot during dinner. I got tired of waiting for them to offer me alcohol so now I can comfortably reach for the bottle if I feel like a drink. A bottle equivalent to a fifth was around $2.45. And it is good stuff. But then that is the cost of lunch.

We are meeting the mayor this am. I've got my suit out and ironed my shirt. I'll be wearing long johns underneath. We are supposed to have created a list of questions but I will wing it. Maybe I should create a list? Hmmm.

From there we'll study russian yet again. I wonder if people get burned out after a while?

Friday, March 12, 2004


I never appreciated the brilliance of american toilet engineering until I arrived at this place. no I'm not talking about the squat toilets you've probably seen or heard about. They have a certain organic place in the scheme of things so I have no problem with that old school model. I'm talking about the traditional sit-downs. Over here, at least in the few toilets I've had the pleasure of knowing, they have this creative design that involves an inner platform in what I would call the receiving position. It looks like a regular toilet except this shelf sits where we expect a bowl of water. It has a slight depression that allows probably a couple of tablespoons of water to stand. Imagine, anything that is placed on this platform must then be flushed forward and down a hole. So the package has to not only be moved, but must actually be lifted up slightly to get over the lip of the depression that it sits in. I don't have to tell you how a simple one-way toilet from our world can sometimes have trouble. Low flow toilets anyone? And I know people that have made great effort to increase water flow and tank capacity to overcome this problem. Well here, every time you flush, it is a drama. You stand there equally hopeful and terrified about the outcome. And every time it is successful, you just cannot believe it. Probably Stalin's final joke on the world. I am developing a "feathering" technique with the lever that seems to be quite effective so maybe I will have the last laugh.

And by the way, the toilet paper is as bad as the legend. oh sure, you can buy the good stuff, but it would cost you probably a nickel a roll and who has that?

When we arrived in Ukraine, we were all going nuts over the prices. cigarettes are less than a $1 a pack, beer is 30 cents for a liter, good shoes are $30 a pair etc. Well, we've been in country on PC money about a week and today we are griping about the 50 kopecks each it is going to cost to take a taxi to visit an orphanage. I mean come on, Kopecks don't grow on trees. The PC wants us to be putting out cash like that all the time and we are going to have a problem. What do I look like? Kopeck bags?

50 kopecks is worth about a dime.

But when you are getting $80 to live for a month, it suddenly changes your perspective. Well not suddenly I guess but fairly quickly. What seemed cheap upon arrival is now not such a great deal. Less than $3 a day means that a $3 lunch is more than my salary. I've got to start cutting back. No more crazy spending sprees like throwing my money away on food.

We did throw away money on candy for orphans today. We bought 3 bags for our trip. I think we really need to get a grip on our need to spend money. We've been told that there are these stereotypes about rich americans and then we show up with enough candy for 150 kids when there are only 30?

Anyway, the orphanage. this is one of those secondary projects they tell you about. Which is volunteering during your time off from volunteering. We have a few people in the group that seem to be all over this but I'm standing back. It seems like there is little that I can actually contribute at this point. Maybe I could teach the kids english but I am only here 3 months and then I am being reassigned. I'll take it slow.

There are 30 kids in this old style orphanage. Most are from drug addicted parents that have lost the kids to the state. they attend public schools and are involved in various programs. Something about the place seemed odd to me though. I've probably seen too many melodramas about maniacal orphanage directors that horribly abuse the kids when the local authorities turn their heads but everything there just seemed too perfect. There wasn't a speck of dust anywhere. The drawings by the kids on the walls all looked perfectly fresh and they all had newly written labels. It's almost as if things were put together the morning before we arrived. I'm sure my need for drama is making all of this up but I'm not convinced otherwise.

I have to keep this under my hat or I'll get a reputation for being a pessimist. Or suffering paranoid delusions.

Tonight we had crab cakes. I was shocked. I guess I never thought that they might have crabs in this part of the world.

My little host sister is a sweetheart but she makes it impossible for me to hang out with the family when I have studying to do. She is all over me and demanding my attention. I try to invent games that allow me to learn and have fun with her but she won't cooperate. She's an only child and pretty spoiled.

So once again I closed my bedroom door and studied. It doesn't really bother me but I hear the Ukraine's think you are a loner when you do that. I'll just have to make sure they know I am still a good guy in my off time.

No TV, movies, Radio, video, anything in 2 weeks. No politics. No internet. I don't know what to say about it all quite yet. I do miss the politics but it is something of a relief to be honest.

Thursday, March 11, 2004


My host family has decided to take an active role in my education. Tonight I began what I thought would be a fun run-through the words i learned in class and my host mother was going to help. By the end, I think she thought I couldn't think at all. I was thinking the same thing.

Learning this language makes me feel stupid. Just imagine you don't even know the alphabet. And the phrase book has all the russian words in Cyrillic (however the hell you spell that). So I'm stumbling over my "g" sounding upside-down "L"s and my "n" sounding "h"s and my "v" sounding "b"s and my blah, blah blah. Don't even get me started on those g.d. backward "N"s that sound like "i". And sometime your upside down L sounds like a g and sometimes...oh, it sounds like a b. Oh, it's all about the particular word and what it feels like doing.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004


I'm having fun guessing what we will have for various meals. Last night I had...ham. Just a plate of cold ham slices. I screwed up my courage and asked for cheese, which I got promptly. I'm starting the Atkins diet whether I like it or not.

Not really because this morning I had macaroni for breakfast. Not macaroni and cheese or macaroni and sauce or macaroni and butter. Plain macaroni. It was great with my eggs but who wudda thunk it? Tonight we had a chicken soup (my chicken wing was intact with bones and even traces of feather) and a diced beet, pickle, carrot and some other tuber kind of salad. Delicious.

We've been out for lunch twice. I paid $3 for a full meal yesterday and $4 today. That included a salad, Chicken, mashed potatoes, beets, bread and a coke. Evidently that is high so we will be searching out cheaper places in the next few days. Great food so far.

They tell us only rich people eat out everyday so a lot of PCVs are paranoid and convinced that we have to eat at a different place each time to disguise our vast wealth. I think that is probably b.s.. As long as we are cool, I think we'll be OK. We were told that Americans are louder than Ukrainians so we will need to watch our volume when we are out. Our massive, well-fed lungs evidently frighten them.

Did I mention the highways? They have the most amazing, solid and flat highways you ever drove. LIke airport runways. When you look around at all the disrepair, it is difficult to understand why they got the roads right when they got so much more wrong, and then you realize there are hardly any cars or trucks to tear them up. I think they must use rail more for their cargo transportation.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Home site

We left Kiev this morning in groups of 16. That is two clusters with 2 groups of 4 in each cluster. I am located in a town called B (name withheld). That is a transliteration. I don't have the exact spelling. It is a small town about 45 minutes from Kyiv. I live in a house with a mother N, father, V, Babushka (grandmother) K and 4 year old girl A.

Oh, and a dog that smells I suspect like Michael Moore's unbathed crotch. It is just the most god-awful, gross smell I can ever remember from a dog. I mean my dog in the states Bobbie had a fresh bouquet after a skunk encounter compared to this one. So while I was excited to learn they had a dog, I now do my best to keep it's funk off me. But here is something cool, it is the son of a genuine guard dog on the berlin wall. I'm not sure about the background, but evidently they let soldiers take some home after the fall.

Back to the family. We live in a small place off of the main drag by about half a mile. I'm lucky to have connected with somebody with a house as most people end up in apartments. Of course our idea of a house is quite different than theirs. This would be considered a shack by any American standards. It is of a kind of stone-like, masonry resembling material. Probably some kind of nuclear impregnated soviet brick I would guess. Krushchev's ashes are probably littered throughout these walls. The house is 5 rooms including the bathroom. I am in what would be a study. Grandmother and Ana sleep in the living room.

And nothing is square. None of the doors close. They wedge shut. In the bathroom we use what I call the Ukrainian dishrag latch. That is a rag that is draped over the door to provide a tight wedge so that when you are in the bathroom with the door that won't fully close, it won't swing open at some inopportune moment.

But it is solid and warm. And I have warm water for a bath. Both things I was concerned about.

The family is very kind and supportive. They are not the stereotypical hard drinkers that we've been warned about. Last night the mom and dad took me to a disco. They each had one drink and I had 4. Understand we were at this disco until 3 am. It was my first Ukraine disco so it was equally thrilling and frightening for me to be out at a strange bar in a strange city with nobody to actually communicate with. But we did manage to rock our heads to the beat in unison.

The Ukrainian girls are very beautiful. Except for the ugly ones.

They dress like the 80s and dance like the 60s. All the music they played was a variation of euro-russo-disco. It would all be great if I was dropping X. But I wasn't so I stayed off the dance floor until "Lose Yourself" started, only to be horrified when they dropped a fat disco beat over it and completely destroyed my mojo. I did not represent.

I did get to watch those girls though and on my honor, I hope we can come together in harmony and, as some really smart poet once kind of said, beat that sword into a ploughshare with them. Isn't that the dream?

Speaking of women, Monday was national Women's Day. It is quite the holiday. everybody is celebrating and we were encouraged to join in. So I bought N and babushka roses and a doll. One of the properly liberated womyn in our group asked the Ukraine instructor if this day was to celebrate the working woman or women empowerment, yada yada, yada. They looked at her like she was insane. It is simply to celebrate women, they explained. Evidently, they think women are pretty great in all kinds of ways, no need to empower. I can buy that.

Monday, March 08, 2004


There is a girl here who is just amazing. She is from the south and we somehow started hanging out at the DC airport. A little blond with a lot of sass. And a boyfriend back home. Anyway, my liquifying innards put a stop to any flirting until the last day in Kyiv but she is a real heartbreaker. I asked her how her boyfriend could handle her leaving for two years and suggested he might be gay (otherwise why would he allow it? I'm just trying to help.). She gave that some thought. She's not in my cluster so I don't know when or if I'll ever see her again.

I am brilliant. At the airport, I got the amazing girl to go with me and buy cigarettes so I could double my limit. I got 4 cartons for $76. Smart huh? Well, cigarettes are dirt cheap here. I could have gotten them for less than half that price. They are American so the tobacco should be better. At the rate that everybody is smoking and bumming from me, these won't last long.

We all ran over to the grocery outside of our compound and grabbed various items. Kyiv has everything you could want so a lot of stuff I brought could have waited. And most everything is dirt cheap. Alcohol and cigs being the most unbelievable. I picked up some chocolate for my family. And a bottle of Cognac for the dad.

Sunday, March 07, 2004


Well, it was a long flight. I was on probably the most cramped plane I've ever experienced. Lhuftansa evidently has devised a super-efficient, extra-modern, fantastically money-making 747 model that allows the maximum number of bodies to be firmly stuffed inside with a minimal number of resulting lawsuits. I was screwed and stuffed into an aisle seat myself and had to sleep with my neck firmly and permanently flexed back so that I wouldn't be decapitated by the food cart. Luckily the guy next to me could put Jim Carrey to sleep with his riveting conversation so I was still able to nod off.

But the more important element of the flight is that I evidently managed to contract food poisoning while on it.

I started with some slight heartburn. It was annoying but nothing I thought couldn't be helped with some rolaids. For the rest of the trip I avoided food. No problem.

In the german airport I thought I'd hit the bathroom but they have one, singular toilet for the terminal. No, I don't mean one bathroom with multiple stalls. One toilet. Period. I don't know if this is a result of 200 years of fierce discipline but there was a long line of weak-willed foreigners standing patiently outside. I decided to hold it lest my bathroom visit coincide with my plane's departure.

When I arrived in Kyiv, it hit me bad. I was beginning to become disoriented during customs (which P.C. handled masterfully), so I asked for and received some antacid. After arriving at our staging dorm, and carrying our luggage up 5 flights to our rooms (remember, I had two checked bags, one 65 and the other 50 pounds. Plus I had the laptop and backpack carry-ons.), I finally succumbed. I just didn't have the juice to go on. The best the medical officer could offer was some electrolyte supplement that is basically various salts packaged in a salty substance, supplemented by a salt additive. And enhanced with a salt flavoring. And it made me want to vomit. So I excused myself and stayed in the room the rest of the evening. The evening being interrupted by frequent trips to the restroom of course. Behold the human fountain.

So to diminish the restroom trips, I stopped drinking completely. And of course stopped supplementing my electrolytes. And so I became something of a desiccated shell of my normal, dynamic self. The next day, I dragged myself to our first orientation but when everybody else went to lunch, I passed out in the lecture hall upper boxes. Before I knew it I was told to go to bed by a beautiful, frightened Ukrainian girl. From her expression, I believe she had never seen a raving lunatic before. I slept the rest of the day.

By the third day though I was slowing my evacuations and getting my strength back, albeit slowly. So I again dragged myself to a lecture and of course found the PC officials to be incredibly silly and condescending to both the volunteers and Ukrainians. From my observation, there are some PC volunteers who feel it is humane and polite to pat the cute, helpless Ukraines on the head and express their great glee that the natives have learned to wear shoes. I have expect one person in particular to pull out a lighter flick it and proclaim "Behold, I make fire!".

And I swear the Ukraines have mastered the art of firmly biting their lips without actually drawing blood. Or perhaps they simply swallow it along with their pride. Kind of like an old comic strip with the lion, watching the lion tamer, waiting for the moment he can rip his throat out. Well, after hours of self-congratulatory BS by yet another condescending PC rep, I blurted out some nonsense that probably could be interpreted as "get to the fucking point" and after a couple of awkward silences, I thankfully caught and stopped myself so that I think they were none the wiser. Of course somebody is responsible for my assignment so maybe I just inadvertently determined my destination for the next 2 years.

I had my first solid food on my third day. Scary at first but I think I'll get used to it.

Monday, March 01, 2004

Hello and welcome to my Blog. I'm a big fan of the medium and thought perhaps my adventure in the Peace Corps may be of interest. For various reasons I won't use my or anybody else's real names. There isn't any drama behind that decision but it makes things easier for me and all involved. Internet is a little more difficult here than in the States so my postings may be delayed but I promise to try.

Ukraine is an interesting country. It's time under Soviet rule decimated the country. I don't know what the correct term would be but it evidently had a pretty active industrial base until the collapse. Now it has all the negative remnants of industrialization but little of the advantages.

I expect my opinions will change over time and it will be interesting to see that development.

Thanks for coming and let me know what you think.

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