Monday, January 7, 2013

At the End of It All, and New Beginnings

Since my last entry, a bit has changed. I closed out my Peace Corps service in Kiev in November, spent three weeks in India, a few days in Bangkok and South Korea, and returned to Georgia in time for the holidays. It's been a whirlwind couple of months, to say the least. One week ago, I was ringing in the New Year at the Chick-Fil-A Bowl between Clemson and LSU. One month ago, I was walking through the Dharavi slum in Mumbai. Two months ago, I was recovering from the flu and huddled in my apartment in Pavlograd in the midst of packing all my things.
It's at once strange and comforting to be back home. There are a lot of people, places, and things I've missed in the last two years. Yet you really can't go home again. A lot has changed since I left in 2010. Life moves with or without you. I've changed as well, in both big and imperceptible ways. The peculiarities of suburban life have been both comforting and aggravating. I've enjoyed luxuries here that will forever be beyond the reach of most people in the world, let alone Ukrainians or Indians. A spacious, well-furnished house with a yard and central air and heating. My choice of several cars to take me wherever I want along fast, smooth roads. Practically any food imaginable within reach. A mild, clear winter. Clean, tasty tap water. Washing machines, dryers, dishwashers, wine coolers, modern shower heads, massive refrigerators, and ovens, stoves, and microwaves I can operate by tapping a few buttons. But even with all this, I find myself longing for the features, idiosyncrasies, and aggravations that had become part of my daily life. Carrying my groceries all the way from the cash register to the kitchen table. The uneven sidewalks and pavement surfaces that I knew better than my own hand. The table of ice that covers everything from December to March. The barely adequate gas heating. Cheap, creaking, crowded public transit to take you anywhere, provided you already know where you're going. Stone-faced and reserved people who nonetheless will give you directions and inquire about your accent. Crumbling Soviet monuments and apartment blocks. People who dress by the calendar, not the weather, and who would never even think of wearing shorts or no hat in January. A baffling yet rewarding language that can sound like the gentlest cooing or the harshest invective.
Even with this mixed bag of feelings, the main one is overwhelmingly excitement. Excitement at both being home and for what the next few months will bring.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Soundtracks and Such

Or, a man with a dearth of musical talent turns his writing talent This entry is to share with you some of the music that has been a dominant part of my time here, willingly or unwillingly. The selection process has less to do with my own opinion of the composition than it does how many times I've endured listening to it in the last few years.

We start with the world's most optimistic national anthem, "Ukraine Has Not Yet Died," and the only Ukrainian-language entry on this list, sadly. I think I may be almost alone in volunteers of our group in that I actually kind of hoped for Ukraine as a host country. I'm not really sure why, but to be honest, a lot of other volunteers can't really give a straight answer as to why they all really wanted to go to Africa, other than they wanted to live in a poorer country, which is just as materialistic as any other reason. I do recall always being interested in learning Russian. Anyway, Ukraine's national anthem, "Shche Ne Vmerla Ukrayiny," is a catchy and uplifting tune.
"Love the Way You Lie" by Eminem ft. Rihanna, had blown up in America in the summer of 2010. Somewhat predictably, it blew up in October-November of 2010 after my arrival. That's the beauty of traveling to Eastern Europe, kids: whatever pop songs you heard for the last 2 months in America, you'll hear for the next 2 in former communist countries!
Our first, and assuredly not last, Russian [language] pop entry. This one comes courtesy of Ukrainian singer Ёлка, or Christmas Tree. "Прованс" (Provence) is one of the first songs I understood words from. It's not because I was learning Russian so quickly or it's easily understandable. Rather, it's because I literally heard this no fewer than four times a day in public during training in Vasilkov. I recall grasping the phrase "красное вино" quite clearly thanks to Yolka's dulcet tones.
This one's from an old Soviet cartoon called "The Musicians from Bremen" and the main idea of the lyrics is how there's nothing better than to travel around freely with your best friends. Pretty awesome, actually. Our Russian teacher, Alyona, used the tune of it to have us sing about food or something. "Nothing in the world better than to travel underneath the blue sky" became "Nothing in the world better than potatoes for lunch." It's definitely not obvious that an Eastern European wrote those lyrics.
This one's "Katyusha," which is basically the Russian version of the name "Katie." It was an immensely popular pop anthem from the USSR in 1941, right as WWII started here. It still has considerable cultural weight: I have yet to meet a Ukrainian who won't enthusiastically join in a round of singing it, of any age. My host mother taught it to me before I had any idea what any of the lyrics meet. To an extent, it's a sweet song about the titular heroine walking along a springtime riverbank singing about her love. It's also super-Soviet:
Let him remember a simple girl
Let him listen to how she sings
Let him defend his proud motherland
As Katyusha guards their love 
Trust me, it sounds a lot better in Russian.
Oh. My. God. You have no idea how big this song was in Ukraine in spring of last year. Imagine if God Almighty decided that his favorite genre was Ukrainian pop, and that this song in particular was worthier than all others, and that all His creations should listen to this day and night, and you have an idea of how often I heard this song from March to July 2011. Sadly, it remains largely unknown outside of the former USSR. The title translates very roughly to "Cuh-razy Spring."
Cuh-razy spring has come
And torn the roof off our heads
Cuh-razy spring has come
La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la
 I could have easily chosen any number of awful dance hits for this one, but this sums everything up nice and succinct-like. It's also the number one source of lyric-translation-requests from my students (imagine this exchange in Russian: Mr. Shell? Is work-out verb or noun? How to translate, sexy and I know it?).
Potap and Nastya are the only duo to feature twice on this list, but, you know what, they earned it with this one. This was another ubiquitous smash-hit in 2011. Despite the similarly inane lyrics (Where are you, summer?/We impose our veto on all the problems and restrictions/Where are you, summer?/We cancel the end of the world/It won't happen, only summer will), the mood of this song and the music video touch on an important part of my time here: the summers. Ukraine in summer is a completely different place from the rest of the year, and it's really quite wonderful.
This song. Is awful. Beyond belief. I had honestly never heard it nor heard of it before coming to Ukraine. However, Ukrainians, or at least the inhabitants of Dnepropetrovsk, seem to think this is one of only three Christmas songs in the world and give it all the according acclaim from November to, oh, February. It's nowhere near as fresh as some of George Michael's jams, unfortunately.
Sometimes I wonder if it's just Ukraine that's the land of play count overkill, or it's just me. This lovely Soviet anthem may take the take. "Victory Day" was blasted out of speakers on Pavlograd's square no fewer than twenty times on, you guessed it, Victory Day (May 9). I actually like it, though.
Hello, mama
Not all of us made it back to play in the dew
Half of Europe, we marched over half the earth
This day we hastened as fast as we could 
This is the Russian national anthem. Not because Pavlograd is so Russian compared to other parts of Ukraine (it is, however), but because I did go to Russia this year. This also has dual resonance because it's the exact same music of the Soviet anthem. Actually, several times in Russian history, the words have been completely changed but the music remains (because it kicks ass, let's be honest). Even funnier, in between each changes, the USSR/Russia went several years where they had music but no words to their I guess everyone sorta mumbled things when it was sung. The two major changes came after the death of Stalin (when they felt obliged to get rid of all references to a murderous tyrant being the guiding light of the nation) and the breakup of the USSR (when an anthem hinged around the glory of a union of free republics based on communism didn't work so well after the free republics fled the union and communism was in a ditch by a potholed road somewhere).
This ditty, "Dnepropetrovsk--My Native Home," plays over the loudspeakers at the train station upon the arrival of every train from Kiev. Trains from other towns don't get that red carpet treatment, I've learned. I had no idea what this song was or that there were apparently also words to it (there are, but not in this version) until last month, but it is something that has some personal resonance to me.

I'm going to cap this list at twelve, but know that I could continue on ad infinitum. Music is something common to all of humanity, and this list is but a few snapshots of the music that summarizes my Peace Corps service. This is my last night in Pavlograd, the mining town that's been my home for the last two years, the town that at once is moving toward an uncertain future and stuck in its Soviet past. Tomorrow I will leave for Kiev and next week for India. Like my site, I'm moving toward an uncertain future and mired in nostalgia for all my adventures here at times. However, on the whole, I have to say that I've done a lot better of pragmatically living in the moment and moving on with everything. I've had more than my share of good times and bad here, but it is time to move on. Because, after all...
Haha, psyche! Did you really think I was going to let you off the music by just winding it down and waxing philosophical?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Too Many Last ___s

I returned home yesterday from my last trip in Ukraine, excluding my journey to Kiev in a few days to close out my service and leave for India. What I had hoped would be a thoughtful, reflective bus ride back to Pavlograd from Dnepropetrovsk was not exactly that, as I sat in an incredibly uncomfortable seat in a cold, crowded bus and enjoyed having rain constantly drip on me from the emergency exit. Quite the sendoff, but thankfully my roof is finally repaired and my walls/ceiling no longer leak at all when it rains.
Our school's fall break was last week, and I took the opportunity to travel to western Ukraine one more time. I met some friends out in Ternopol and Lvov, which are both amazing places. My itinerary included everything from a banjo concert at a bar in Ternopol on Monday night to making sugar cookies for a Window on America Halloween party. It was quite a week with some amazing people, in particular Natalie, Colette, Avital, and Asia. As you might have guessed from those names, it was a girl-heavy week, which was fine by me. That's a bit of a departure from my normal travel group demographics, but a break from routine is something everyone needs.
My impending departure has really started to sink in. Everything I plan to take home is currently laid out on my pullout couch, and I've started to give away some things that may still be useful but I won't take with me. I gave a bunch of seasonings and spices to some other volunteers last week (including some gravy mix for Thanksgiving), and I plan on taking a bag with me to a farewell dinner this weekend to give to Kym, a volunteer who works at an orphanage in a tiny village near Pavlograd. Hopefully there are kids roughly my size (I am somewhat on the tall side for the average Ukrainian), but at the very least, they'll get some sweet new t-shirts to sleep in and some oversized winter coats for...I don't know, building a snowman?
Today I went over to my counterpart's apartment for tea and cake with a former student who was back in town from university in Kiev. We stayed and talked for several hours, and on my way home I decided to take a brief stroll before it got too dark. I walked through the rows of small houses behind my apartment, chased off a particularly vicious stray dog near the Catholic church, and then decided to poke my head in the graveyard near the much larger Russian Orthodox church. I took in the gravestones, which look somewhat different from the standard Western European/American ones--it's common to have some kind of image of the dead person on the stone. I was just about to get a closer look at the headstone of a twenty-year old who seemed to have died in the Soviet war in Afghanistan in 1986, when SOMETHING MOVED! Turns out there was a bum asleep on one of the graves. It was a nice jolt of adrenaline. I'm not sure which thought is more unsettling: that he is just some hobo sleeping there, or that this might be his mourning method for some deceased loved one. Anyway, I went home quickly after that since it was 4:30, which means sunset now. Gotta love those northern winters.

photo of me, Anand, and Kurt camping in Estonia in August

banjo virtuoso Ryan Murfield at his concert
making sugar cookies at Ternopol's Window on America Center Halloween party. I was Mr. Rogers. Natalie (red headband) and Asia (blue headband) were the brothers Klischko, the famous Ukrainian boxers

who took out their frustrations on Mr. Rogers

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Last Six Months in Photos

So I felt obliged to dump some photos from the last 6 months or so on the blog. More information in the captions. You can also click any image to view a larger know, if you want to see how my pores are doing or whatever. Enjoy!

The students and staff from my little Girls Leading Our World/Teaching Our Boys to Excel seminar I ran in March

Rehearsing a skit. They're pretending to be babushkas

Learning about HIV/AIDS, sexual health, gender issues... social gender roles limit people, stigma and discrimination, and more

Presentations and whatnot

Staff (L-R): Michelle, Irina, Catherine, Patrick (kneeling), Angela, Chris, me, Anand. Chris is from the UK and teaches English at a private school here, Irina is from Pavlograd, the rest are volunteers

Last Bell, or graduation for the 11th grade. They held it indoors this year due to rain
School principal addressing everyone. He is flanked, for some reason, by 7th grade girls in dance uniforms.

Releasing balloons to celebrate...

High-flying balloons

And they finished it with a waltz

From my trip to Russia, in June. Me, Warren, and Dara in front of the Kremlin at Red Square in Moscow

St. Petersburg (all of the following photos from Russia are also St. Petersburg, except the last 2 in Russia, which are back in Moscow. Just go with it)

Spilled Blood Cathedral, or something like that

The Hermitage

Stage set up for Russia Day (June 12)

Gopnik impersonation

A gopnik is basically a Ukrainian lowlife who drinks beer, smokes cheap cigarettes, wears knockoff Adidas track suits, constantly eats sunflower seeds, and squats like this everywhere. Similar to English chavs.

Look, it's the Hermitage again!

Russian fast food...blinchiki, basically crepes. Delicious.

Cathedral of Spilled Blood-or-whatever

Our only day of clear weather while in Russia (while I was there at least)
St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow

boat tour on the Moskva River in Moscow



Vienna, in July! No photos from Budapest, I was lazy

Austrian parliament

penguin fountain in a Viennese park

statue of Empress Maria Teresa

At Camp Mandarin in Crimea (still July)

no cabins at this camp, just dormitories [read: madhouses]

me with Nastia, my amazing co-counselor at Mandarin
CAMP REPUBLIC! I had spent a good chunk of the year planning it, and the directing responsibilities found their way into my hands as well. Mine, Courtney's, and Blakely's, at least.

some staff talkin' 'bout stuff

our campground in lovely Borova, Kharkivska oblast, Ukraine

dining hall. the food was better than it was last year at a completely different place

This was a sign in the camp auditorium. It says "I LOVE CHILDREN!"

Biggest hit of the week: watermelon polo in the river, with a greased-up watermelon

That's that, this is this

Camp Republic was mainly a chance to learn history and what-have-you through reliving it. We lived as ancient Romans in the Republic. Note the togas.

Courtney and I discussing "game" issues. Throughout the week, the campers (split into factions) wrestled for control of the Senate and Rome through addressing different issues every day.

The American staff with our 2 Ukrainian cooks

the Senate in a special evening ceremony

Mark Antony and Sextus Pompey squaring off, with me (Fate) officiating

the death of Caesar, which opened our week

the drum signaled the convening of the Senate (i.e. GET OVER HERE)

more watermelon polo

our map of the Roman Empire, ca. 44 BC. Different groups had control over certain provinces and legions (chess pieces)

TALLINN. beautiful city

my partners-in-crime in Estonia and Finland--Anand, Catherine, and Kurt

eating reindeer meatballs in Helsinki

Anand enjoying a bowl of elk soup in Tallinn for only 1 euro

modeling my new sweater I bought in Tallinn (it was cold there, and I didn't bring anything warm)

our awesome guide on our free walking tour

elk soup kitchen. we returned numerous times for the cheap and hearty soup. also, it was elk, how awesome is that?

Helsinki harbor

awesome cafe spot on an island park in Helsinki

strolling through Helsinki

the Estonian parliament, which, according to our guide, is a "manly shade of salmon"

island park in Helsinki. Kurt wanted to start a kissing booth, but no one came

rain damage in August. A massive storm broke something on the roof of my apartment and then dumped rain on us for three more days

living room door

living room window. the sunscreens there stick to the glass from the humidity inside my apartment

living room light

bucket in the living room door catching a leak. needed to be emptied every few hours

living room light switch, where I was shocked about four times

kitchen wall

kitchen wall

hallway to the bathroom/dry part of the house