Sunday, July 26, 2009

oh, for an air conditioner!

Oh, it's hot here these days. Yesterday was in the 90s and today probably is as well. We all sweltered through church this morning, helped out by two fans and open windows. I left the house this morning in my new red heels, but a combination of hot, sticky weather and the fact that the shoes are new led to discomfort and a blister, and I was back in my flipflops by the time the service started. Sigh...

One of the things that makes me the happiest about being here this time is that I'm finally able to help around the house without being told to sit down and relax because I'm company. I helped Nadia with canning Friday night (it takes very little language skill to chop cucumbers and apples, and no, they weren't together), and yesterday I helped clean the dog kennel, wash chalk off of the house, and bag onions. Yesterday's tasks were all done as a way of getting Valera (age 12), whose tasks they actually were, to do them, as otherwise he's quite willing to sit and talk to me instead of doing what he's supposed to.

As romance is in the air around here with Vitaly and Katya's engagement, Valera seems to have decided to do likewise and informed me this afternoon that I am his fiancee. I pointed out that a) he hadn't actually proposed, b) I live in the U.S. and he lives in Ukraine, and c) I'm 14 years older than him. He seemed moderately deterred, especially when he realized that he doesn't speak English in addition to all the other problems, but I suspect I haven't heard the last of this. Nadia laughed and laughed when I told her, and said, "And he hasn't even wanted to go to the playground to play soccer since you got here!" So much for summer romance...instead, I have a hyperactive, inquisitive, Ukrainian 12-year-old with a crush on me!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

home (not in the U.S., but still home)

I'm as happy as a lark.

L'viv, despite its beauty and claims to be more European than the rest of Ukraine (while at the same time being more Ukrainian than the rest of Ukraine), is not home. Home, whenever I am in Ukraine, is Balaklia and most of all, the Yukhymets family. It's being lifted off the ground in a hug, bags and all, by Viktor when I arrived. It's telling Nadia stories about my adventures in L'viv until she's helpless from laughter and tells me I need to write a book. It's lying on my back in an inflatable boat on the pond out back on a hot summer afternoon (I opted not to swim, much to Valera's utter bafflement, due to my unfamiliarity with the pond and the fact that at no point was I going to be able to touch the bottom). It's sitting on a bench under a pear tree eating fresh pears and being interrogated on various topics by Valera. It's looking at my pictures of the summer and showing off my new shoes to Vlada. It's hearing Vitaly's news (more on that below!). It's being taught how to make an origami flower by Ruslan (before breakfast!). It's Nadia telling me that my room up here on the third floor is mine whenever I want it. It's being sunburned and bruised and exhausted but knowing that I love and am loved.

And the family is growing! No, no more kids are being taken in from orphanages...Vitaly's engaged! His fiancee is Katya Vlasova, a former student of mine who goes to the same church as the Kotlar family (until tomorrow, anyway, when she transfers her membership over to ours). They're quite young--Vitaly is 19 and Katya's 17, having just finished school this May, but I think they'll be good for each other and understand that marriage is a life-long committment (although, remembering when Katya was in 8th grade, I feel OLD!). They got engaged this past Monday (apparently it was completely out of the blue as far as Katya was concerned, although Vitaly has been contemplating this for quite some time, I suspect...I wondered if there was something going on there when I was here in May) and the wedding will be sometime this fall, probably in October. I'm sad that I'm not going to be here for the wedding. It's hard, having people I care a lot about in on opposite sides of the world. Wherever I am, I'm missing out on half of everything. But that's the price of having friends and families on both sides of the Atlantic, and I will just have to find a nice wedding gift before I leave.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

B1 (!) (?)

Official result of my Ukrainian exam: B1, which made about much sense to me as it probably does for all of you, so I'll explain.

I got everything right on the reading and listening portions of the test (!), missed 4 out of 50 questions on the grammar portion, and my writing wasn't bad, except that I have problems spelling, as there are several letters that sound the same to me, plus a few grammar mistakes.

Apparently, there are levels A1-A2-B1-B2-C1-C2 available, with A1 the lowest and C2 the highest, except that you basically need to be a native Ukrainian to reach anything at the C levels. B1 is, according to my teacher, quite high for a foreigner and high enough to enter a university here or apply for work. When I asked her how to translate it into terms that would make sense on my resume, she told me that my reading is at an advanced level and my writing's at an intermediate level. I was already at an advanced level of speaking before this summer, so things look good all round.

Now, to just figure out what to do with this accomplishment! (Oh, yeah...write a thesis and transcribe my interviews...)


The rest of my time in L'viv is likely to go as follows: a) try and ship some English textbooks back for my thesis, b) hang out with Max, a PhD student at MSU who's from L'viv and just got into town this weekend, c) pack, d) closing ceremony for the program tomorrow morning, and e) anything under a) and c) that hasn't gotten done by that point.

Monday, July 20, 2009

final test

This morning, we had our final test in Ukrainian class. Our grades for the program aren't directly connected to how we do--they're based more on participation and dilligence, as best I understand, but all the same, my brain's pretty much dead. 10 pages or so, composed of 50 multiple-choice grammar questions (ugh), two reading passages and one listening passage with multiple-choice questions, and a writing section where we a) read a passage and wrote short answers to questions and b) wrote a short essay (15-20 sentences). I realized partway through the essay that if I would stop writing complex and compound sentences, I'd finish 15 sentences much more quickly; my thoughts are ahead of my writing ability. We get our results tomorrow.

Other than that, not much else...I've been watching a lot of Doctor Who on my laptop, and I really should start packing, which will not be all that much fun.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

(grown-up) little brothers

This week has contained two particulary amusing exchanges via text message with my "little brothers" here in Ukraine.

The first one was with Vitaly Yukhymets, who finished up his month-long course in video journalism this week. He had an exam on Thursday, and so, like a good big sister, I texted him around 8 pm that night to ask how he did.

At 3:30 Friday morning, my phone went off, letting me know I'd gotten a text (I don't keep it on silent at night because it's also my alarm clock). I looked and Vitaly had answered, "I got a 5!", which is the best grade you can get here. I was very happy for him, but found the timing a bit odd.

Went back to sleep and, around 7:30, woke up and replied, "That's great...why did you text me at 3:30 instead of sleeping?" The response was "I don't know, I couldn't sleep because I was so excited."

Which still begs the question...why wait until that late/early to reply to my text? :)


My other text message incident comes from Sasha Malko, who was taking an English exam today to enter a MA program and texted me a sentence in Ukrainian, requesting me to translate it for him. Yeah, right!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

yeah, not much to say

Sorry, people, this hasn't been a bloggable week. Stuff's been happening, but it hasn't been blog-appropriate. I'm doing okay, although getting rather weary and stressed. The program finishes up next Wednesday, and then I'm headed back to Balaklia via my friend Svitlana's (she lives between here and Kyiv). I'd like to see the Malkos, but the logistics of that are getting a bit crazy, so we'll see.

On tap for the weekend: Saturday, Ksusha, a former camper of mine from my first summer in Ukraine, is going to be in L'viv on her way to Gdansk, and we're planning to meet up. In the evening, Allie and I have tickets to a jazz concert, which should be good.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

red high heels

Well, I knew it was bound to happen sooner or later, and today I finally succumbed...and bought a pair of red high heels. They are neither stilettos nor bright red; they're a muted, darkish red with golden floral designs and moderately thick (although not clunky), not overly tall heels. They're utterly adorable, and the price was quite reasonable.

Ukraine has affected the way I think about fashion. Viktor, one of the professors here, says that the reason that women's fashions here are a bit over-the-top is because for the first time in years, people have a larger selection of goods available, and therefore they want the fanciest things possible. I think that's quite possibly true, and a lot of the clothes here are too ornate/skimpy/something for me to want to wear or look at all good while wearing. But I love the scarves here and am beginning to warm up to the shoes (mostly because flats are now available, even if I did end up buying heels), and in general I think that living in Europe has given me a bit of a fashion sense, at least more than I had a few years ago. (You're all welcome to laugh at this.)

Saturday, July 11, 2009

not an overly eventful week

Random bits from my week, which has been very full of language class and cultural excursions:

~Allie and I saw the President of Austria on Wednesday. He was taking a tour of the main square and we randomly happened to be there. We were surprised at what seemed to us to be a fairly low level of security.
~Natalya, our Ukrainian teacher, went with Vanessa and I to the theatre on Wednesday evening. We saw a play called "The Suede Jacket" which was apparently something of a satire on bureaucratism in post-communist countries. It was a bit hard to follow, but I enjoyed it.
~One of my students in my English class at the Baptist church (which I love teaching) kissed my hand at the end of class on Thursday. As I said to Mom, the student, who is probably a few years younger than me, looks as if his goal in life is to be a poet gone to seed, possibly living in a garret and struggling to pay bills. I was amused.
~Today we went to Shevchenky Hai, which is an open-air folk architecture museum, reminiscent of Greenfield Village (although much smaller). I liked it a lot.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

krakow wrap-up

Final thoughts on Krakow:

~I loved it. And as much as I enjoy being in Ukraine, it was a great break for me, a chance to get away, see somewhere different, and have a change of both pace and scenery.
~I hadn't realized that there is a distinct difference between being post-Soviet and merely post-Communist. Ukraine is the former, Poland is the latter.
~Ice cream in Krakow...yum!
~One of my favorite things to do there was take a book and sit on a bench in the Planty.
~Amber is more gorgeous than I ever realized.
~I want to go back some day.
~I could easily have stayed a day or two more this time, if logistics had permitted.

The trip home left a bit to be desired...I wasn't feeling well, probably because of something I'd eaten, and this time, rather than stamp my passport in my compartment, the border guards took it and didn't bring it back for 20 minutes, which I hadn't expected and was moderately concerned about. But I made it back to L'viv just fine and found out that taxi drivers try to rip you off here when you show up needing a taxi at the train station at 6 a.m. Talked it down to a somewhat normal fare. Then home, another hour of sleep, and I was off to class!

Monday, July 6, 2009


I went to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps today. I don't have a lot to say about the details...the article I linked to covers them enough. But the thing that stood out the most to me was that many of the Jews deported there were told that they were being given a chance to start over again and be resettled, and so they brought with them suitcases full of everyday possessions. They didn't know they were headed to the gas chambers. They thought the camp was a place where they could live their lives in some semblance of normalacy, and even as they walked into the gas chambers, they thought they were going to take a shower.

Also, seeing 2 tons of human hair that was cut off of the deceased after they were gassed in order to make it into cloth was unsettling, to say the least.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

krakow, day 2 (plus the vegetable store joke, sort of explained)

The concert last night was definitely worth it. Imagine a dimly lit, ornately decorated Catholic cathedral with stone walls and floors, with classical music being played by a phenomenally talented chamber orchestra. It was one of those evenings I want to remember for a long time.

At the concert, I also met an undergrad in mechanical engineering from U-M who just arrived to study Polish. Her mother and a family friend were there with her, and I hope I was able to help her mom feel better about leaving her in a foreign country for a month, telling a bit about my own life as an example of "yes, she'll be okay...I had a great time and learned a lot".

This morning, I slept in a bit, found an excellent English-language bookstore (I bought two books, at least one of which will be a gift for a certain reader of this blog with the initials RJM), and hung out in the Planty, which is one of my favorite places in Krakow. It's a narrow strip of park with lots of trees and benches that goes all the way around Stare Miesto, or the old part of Krakow. I sat on a bench, people-watched, and started reading one of the books I bought.

At noon, I met up with Jes and her friend Helia, who's from Wales and knew Jes from a year she'd done at Berkley in undergrad. We decided to go to the Wielickza Salt Mine, and although it hadn't been something I was planning on seeing, it was definitely worth it. It was amazing, especially when you realized that almost everything was made out of salt, even the walls and floors. As a nice touch, it was also in the upper 50s temperature-wise, which as it was in the mid-to-upper 80s (I think) above ground, was very nice.

Once we got back to Krakow, we went out to a restaurant with traditional Polish food that Jes knew. Jes got soup; Helia got bigos, which is a traditional dish of pork and sauerkraut; and I got pierogi with a meat filling. Good food, and we were all stuffed by the time we finished, as we got healthy Polish-peasant-farmer-sized portions! After that, we wandered around a bit and stopped at a cafe for coffee and milkshakes. Then I came back to the hostel, and am now writing this for all of you.


The joke from an earlier post explained, for those people who don't get it (don't feel bad, it's a cultural thing). It helps to know that a) post-Soviet salespeople are not known for being overly polite, b) at places such as train stations here, you can pay a small amount of money to get your questions about schedules, prices, etc. answered at the information bureau, and c) during the 1990s, often stores would be out of various things, even when it would seem like they would have them. All of those factors play into making the joke humorous, and I'm not sure how to explain it beyond that. I found it utterly hilarious while Vanessa got it but didn't find it funny, and based on your responses, I think it's a really cultural joke, as Tif was the only person to say she got it and she lived in Ukraine.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

krakow, day 1

Krakow (there's at least 4-5 ways to spell it and this is the one I feel like using right now), is fabulous, and I'm so glad to be here, even though I've spent the day walking and my feet absolutely ache.

Last night, I boarded the Polish train from L'viv to Krakow and was pleasantly surprised to find out that a) there are three berths instead of four per cabin, b) there are little cupboards you can put things in, c) you're given a wrapped sweet roll, a bottle of water, and a thing of soap along with your washcloth, and d) the duvet was big and fluffy. Not to mention, the bathroom was a great deal nicer than the ones on Ukrainian trains. However, to give Ukrainian trains the credit that is due them, they have a) more comfortable mattresses, b) larger, softer pillows, c) more head room above your bunk, and d) offer you tea in the morning.

I got to Krakow around 5:30 a.m., hopped a tram (which have a much better system of organization here), and then got to my hostel. I couldn't get a bed yet, because they were all full, so I conked out on a couch for a couple of hours, showered, breakfasted, and headed off to explore the city. Jes had texted me late last night that her plans had suddenly changed and she was going to be out of town today without a chance for me to go with her, so I was on my own. It was lovely. Surprisingly for me, I found myself utterly uninterested in museums and instead did a lot of shopping, both window and actual. I think it's because we've gone to various museums in L'viv. I walked down to Wawel Castle, but it was at least 85 degrees and the line for tickets made me decide that tomorrow would be a much better time to see it, even if not everything will be open.

I then walked through the old Jewish quarter out to a shopping mall Vanessa and Ally had told me about, where I ate at Pizza Hut (I'm on vacation, and I'm sure Jes will show me some authentic Polish places tomorrow, so I don't feel like I'm slighting myself of the authentic Krakow, it was air-conditioned) and bought myself a new dress. Light brown cotton, sleeveless, with gathers/ruffles at the neck and armholes and a built-in sash. It was cute, fit well (apparently, doing the conversion back to American sizes, it's a size smaller than I thought I take...yay for lots of walking!), was decently priced, and I can wear it both now (which will stretch my laundry out) and when I start teaching this fall.

Then I went back to a toy shop I'd visited earlier in the day and found stuffed animals for my honorary nieces and nephew--Breanna and Nathanial Shirley and Rebekah Susan-to-be Herrick (yes, Heather, I'm claiming the title of honorary aunt, or at least "good friend of mommy's"). I figure I'm going to be one of those quirky, well-traveled aunts who give good presents, since I had such a good example (hi, Aunt Rebecca!). :)

Other purchases included pretty bookmarks at a coffee shop/bookstore and a silver and amber pendant with a cameo of a flower in it, which I saw first thing this morning, pondered all day, and went back in the late afternoon to get. Not to mention gingerbread, gelato, and a Polish snack that's sort of like a cross between a bagel and a pretzel.

I'm amused to notice that even though Ukrainian and Polish are fairly similar, when I speak Ukrainian to people they answer in English. I don't know if this is because a) they speak English to everyone who doesn't speak Polish, b) they can tell just by looking at me that I speak English (which is ironic if true, since no one in Ukraine seems to think I'm American), or c) my Ukrainian sounds to them like broken Polish and they figure it'll just be easier if we use English.

My feet just ache. I'm guessing I got in several miles today, what with all the wandering and back-tracking I did. So now I'm back at the hostel, resting up for a concert with the Krakow Chamber Orchestra at one of the cathedrals in town, which will feature Chopin's and Mozart's music. I debated on whether or not I should get a ticket, which, although quite cheap by U.S. standards, was more than I'd pay in Ukraine. Then a little voice inside my head (which sounded exactly like Mom) said, "You're here, you have the opportunity, you have the money, you should go." So, figuring it's a good idea to listen to Mom, I'm going.

Friday, July 3, 2009

ice cream, cute shoes, and jokes

Last night I went to L'viv Central Baptist Church to help out with their English conversation group. We had a good turnout, about 30 people. Afterwards, an American choir was giving a concert at the church so I stayed for that. I sat with Lena, a woman in her late 40s (?) who's learning English.

Lena said to me, "Do you want some ice cream?"

Slightly confused, but always in favor of ice cream, I said that that would be nice. Lena left and came back a few minutes later with four ice cream bars (the type that come individually wrapped and on a stick). She handed one to me, and since I was pretty sure we weren't supposed to eat ice cream in the church, I held on to it until I saw her stick the other ones in her bag, and so I stuck mine in my bag. The concert was very nice, but I kept thinking about my ice cream, and how it was probably melting, since the temperature had been in the mid-90s for much of the day.

After a bit, Lena whispered to me that our ice cream was melting and therefore we should eat it now. "In church?" I whispered back. She said that it was okay, and we (plus the man behind us, who also got one of the ice cream bars) began to eat our ice cream. The ice cream bars in Lena's bag were still fairly solid, but mine had more or less melted, so I was trying to eat it out of the paper without making too much of a mess of myself.

At this point, Lena saw that I was having problems, and gave me the last (whole) ice cream bar. As I was trying to eat it without drawing attention to myself, I happened to notice a Rather Cute Guy standing near us, who I had noticed was rather cute the first time I had been to church there. Keep in mind, I have never spoken to him and don't expect I ever will, and I don't even think he noticed me last night, but I still was a bit mortified to be a) eating ice cream in church and b) getting it all over my face in the process.

Then, the woman sitting in front of us turned around and chewed me out for eating ice cream in church. Fortunately, I finished it quickly and then could actually start enjoying the concert.


Am randomly in the mood for a new pair of cute shoes. Unfortunately, the two pairs that I really liked weren't available in my size. Ukraine has discovered flats, which I think is a wonderful innovation, and with the hryvnia currently 7.8/$1.00, they're fairly inexpensive.


Okay, people, I'm interested in your reaction to a joke. This was in our reading this week (in Ukrainian), and Vanessa and I had very different reactions to it. I'd like you to comment on whether or not you get the joke and whether or not you think it's funny. Vanessa's and my reactions to it will come in a later post.

A man walks into a vegetable shop.
Man: Do you have any potatoes?
Shopkeeper: No, we don't.
Man: Do you have any cabbages?
Shopkeeper: None of those, either.
Man: And I suppose you don't have carrots?
Shopkeeper: Look, friend, this is a vegetable shop, not an information bureau!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

travel plans

Well, I've bought my train tickets to and from Kracow (after standing in various lines and being told to find random, out-of-the-way ticket counters, not to mention paying an extra five hryvnia for the privilege of buying a ticket in the "special" waiting room, which was the only place I could by the ticket), and I've booked my hostel (Mom, it's Hostel Yellow, since I know you'll want to Google it), being pleased to notice the Sunday night discount which meant that I'm only paying about $22.50 for two night's stay (my train tickets cost roughly 5x that, which means that for once transport is costing me more than lodging, which is a switch). And that was a horribly long run-on sentence.

But seriously, I'm excited about the opportunity to go to Kracow (Krakow? Crakow? Cracow?). I've heard a lot of good things about it, and getting to see a new country fairly inexpensively is always something I'm up for, not to mention getting to hang out with Jes. She has a friend there from Wales, and the three of us are planning a day trip to some nearby city on Saturday. Sunday, I plan to wander Kracow itself and see Wawel Castle, and on Monday, I'm planning to go to Auschwitz-Birkenau, because I think it's going to be worthwhile for me to see, albeit sobering.


Other facts of random interest:

*It's really warm here, warmer than I'd like, but at least the daily rain seems to have stopped.
*I think our language class is going to watch Everything is Illuminated on Friday. It's in English and Russian, but Natalia told us we'd be talking about it in Ukrainian.
*Hopefully I'm getting a few more interviews set up for next week.
*Really, my brain is too much Kracow-oriented to write about anything else. :)

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

librarians and Ukrainian roommates

I've always gotten along well with librarians, going back all the way to my pre-school-aged days, when I couldn't see over the counter but brought my invisible pet dinosaur to Story Hour. My rapport with librarians has gotten me out of study hall in middle school, found me a Quiz Bowl coach in high school, and helped me get a private tour of MSU's Special Collections in undergrad.

So today I found out that this isn't just something that happens to me in the U.S. I had to go to L'viv Post-Graduate Institute today to drop off a stack of questionnaires, and I decided to stop by their library to see if a lesson plan that Nelya and I submitted to a Ukrainian pedagogical journal for English back in fall 2007 ever got published, so I could know whether or not I could put it on my resume. The librarian was very helpful, and found me many, many bound volumes of the journal. Unfortunately, it looks like our lesson plan never got published, but the librarian, who is herself a history teacher and apparently has a lot of things published, assured me that what I should do is submit the same lesson plan to a Kharkiv publisher (instead of Kyiv), because they aren't as backed up. She even gave me the phone number of the publisher and told me to mention her name. I don't actually want to publish anything right now--I just was curious what had happened to our lesson plan, and I'm not even sure if I have the files for it--but I was amazed at how helpful she was.

After that, I told her about my thesis, and she bustled around finding me journals in Ukrainian with articles on Communicative Language Teaching, let me check them out to go make copies, and even told me where the closest copy center was (of course the library wouldn't have a copy machine...). I was pleasantly surprised at how willing she was to be helpful, and she told me to come back again if there was anything I needed. I've experienced this level of helpfulness several times this summer, but usually when I was introduced to the person by someone else who had some level of authority. This was just me going in and asking a question.


Yesterday, I visited Zhanna, a woman I met at church. Zhanna immigrated to the US in her early 20s and got a degree from Fuller Seminary, but now she's back in Ukraine doing seminars in schools on drug and alcohol abuse. She and I, along with her roommate Vira and their friend Tanya, hung out all afternoon, eating homemade pizza and cherry coffeecake (Lisa, if you remember my blueberry cake that took forever to finish baking, they had the same problem) and talking about life, religion, and randomness. Lots of fun.

I particularly enjoyed watching Zhanna and Vira and realizing that roommates are roommates the world over. (Zhanna told me before we got there, "Vira and I get along well. But sometimes we even argue." I believe I have 3 former roommates and 1 roommate-to-be reading this blog, and I doubt this surprises any of you.) I asked Vira, "Does Zhanna ever mix things up and speak English by mistake?" since I occasionally do so in Ukrainian, particularly when startled. She grinned and said, "Yes, and then I tell her I have no idea what she's saying." Lisa should appreciate that. :)

Kracow this weekend, barring unforseen circumstances (such as no train tickets available when I go buy one tomorrow, which seems unlikely).