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.

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