So when I finished my last post, Bob and I were saying goodbye to Sarah at Logan airport in the fall of 2011. She arrived into Washington D.C. for a 2 day pre-service orientation. There were 95 other Peace Corps Volunteer's (from now on called PCV's to make my life easier in the blog post) heading off to Ukraine.
She was very anxious leaving Boston, but once she got among the other kindred spirits, she felt at home and was beginning to feel more secure about her future. From what I can tell there are three types of motivation for a PCV. Some people become PCV's because they are ambitous adventurers who see the Peace Corps service as a valuable thing for their resume to get to a career goal. They have a plan and see Peace Corps service as a jump start to their plan. Other's become PCV's because they are altruistic and truly want to serve others in a sacrificial way. And others (and maybe even those with the above intentions) seem to join the Peace Corps service because they have no idea what else to do after graduating college. Regardless of their motivations, these PCV's have a lot in common. Sarah made friends easily with a few others in Washington D.C.
The 95 arrived in the capitol of Ukraine (Kiev) and spent a few days at a location outside of Kiev for the first of their pre-service, in country training. After a few days all together, they were split into groups of 5-6 and sent off to various locations for their full 3 month in country training. Each group had a Peace Corps trainer assigned and Sarah went to a rural village about an hour north of Kiev for her training. While she was here, it was difficult to communicate with her. Any mail had to be sent to the Kiev Peace Corps office and it took forever to arrive. She had gotten a cell phone and we could call her, but we were not able to skype with her during this time because her village didn't have much internet service. Below is a photo of Sarah with her training group shortly after arriving in their local village.
In their 3 month training it was like PCV kindergarten. The homework involved things like - two of you go together into the village. Buy a bottle of water and toothpaste using local currency. Then go to the post office and mail a letter. We don't realize how challenging even simple things like this can be in a foreign culture. Thankfully Sarah passed all the 'tests' and began to learn how to do things in the village and learned a few words and phrases to communicate.
Below is a link to a blog where another PCV tells why PCV pre-service is like kindergarten. Sarah laughed out loud when she read this because it's so true!
So in the fall, Sarah had a meeting with the PCV's in charge. During that meeting she was able to discuss her preferences for her assigned location. Peace Corps encouraged the volunteers to have a very open mind and not list out any restrictions. They told her 'you don't want to limit your experience by setting up too many restrictions.' So Sarah told them that she would go anywhere in the country. She did not request running water. She did not request an indoor bathroom. Bob and I laughed out loud at the potential joy of the experience of living in a cold climate with no indoor bathroom or running water, but we tried to keep our mouths shut. I prayed that she would have running water, even if she wasn't going to ask for it!
She got assigned to Vishkovo. Vishkovo is a small village on the western border of Ukraine in the beautiful Carpathian mountain area. It is very close to the Romanian and Hungarian border. It was a beautiful area with rolling hills, streams, lakes and farms. It is actually a tourist destination for many Ukrainians with spring water spa's and recreation areas. Sarah was quite pleased with her destination and started making plans for her arrival at her village.
In December, just before Christmas, she took an overnight train to her village. Transportation in Ukraine is plentiful but not luxurious.
The principal of the school had requested a PCV for his school district so he made arrangements for her living situation and assigned a counter-part teacher to assist Sarah. Sarah was set up in a host family home with a women who was a widow with an elementary school aged daughter who was quite smart and interested in the English Language. Sarah had her own bedroom, a shared bathroom with a shower, internet and access to a washing machine. It was luxury living for the village for sure. Sarah liked her home set up, but never really bonded with her host mom. Her host mom was very anxious. She stayed there for one year and then moved to a different host home (more about that later.)
Sarah enjoyed getting to know her counterpart (a lovely young teacher with a young son) and she was introduced to the students just before the Christmas break. Her first Christmas in Ukraine was lonely for her. Her other PCV volunteers were nearby, but even nearby was hard to get to because of slow public transportation. She was skyping with Bob and I often and I sensed her lonliness. Being a PCV is a very independent thing. While there is a lot of support, the actual day to day life and work is generally on your own. That is a good thing to some degree, but it can be very lonely - especially in an area with short days. The sun was setting for her around 3:00pm and not rising until after 7. That makes for long nights for sure.
In January, she started teaching and did well. She had classes she taught (with other Ukrainian teachers) for all grade levels. She was doing lesson planning and teaching. The work was hard. She didn't feel capable and she was incredibly homesick and lonely. In late January I wondered if she would make it. Up until that time I never had a doubt that she'd stick it out for the whole 27 months but on several occasions in those early months I really wondered how she would hold up.
And then one day we are talking to Sarah and she mentions a man - Ivan - that she had met. I love the story. She was walking in the village and a man in his 20's spots her and approaches her. He asks her in English 'are you the English teacher from America?' Sarah of course answers yes - surprised that he knew there was an American English teacher in the village and surprised to have someone speak to her in English. Ivan had learned in the small village that an American Teacher was coming in the winter. He had lived in the U.S. for a year and spoke excellent English and was eager to meet and interact with an American - male or female. He was not from Vishkovo, he was living there on a 2 year military assignment for border patrol and he too was quite lonely in the village. Imagine his joy when he discovered that yes, there was an American teacher in the village and how nice - she is a young beautiful woman! He asked her very polity if they could get together and he could practice his English. Great line Ivan! Clever! She was quite reluctant. We were happy that she was proceeding very cautiously. Her PCV training advised being very careful about dating in the village and I hadn't mentioned it before but she had an on again off again ex-boyfriend at home (Jonathan) who she was convinced that they would get back together eventually and she would marry him. So she was not at all interested in young men in Vishkovo. But she did think he had beautiful eyes and a gentle way and agreed to meet him for coffee at a cafe in the village sometime.
As Sarah continued to meet him for coffee and talked to us about him, I began to wonder about the true nature of the relationship. I asked if she had a picture of him and all she could say was that he had a facebook profile with a picture. I looked it up and was taken aback. He was in the military and Ukrainians don't smile, so the first photo I saw scared the crap out of me. Here was a well built, strong man with strong facial features, a military uniform on and no smile. Yikes!
Again, Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt filled my head. We were very glad that Sarah was proceeding very slowly, but she kept insisting that the relationship was purely platonic, even after several weeks of coffee and pizza with this man. I cautioned her that he may have romantic intentions and challenged her to ask him about it when the time was right. Oh and that ex-boyfriend at home... well, he was wondering what this guys intentions were too. His jealous side was showing big time and he basically forbid Sarah from spending time with Ivan (yes - ex-boyfriend - forbidding her to see him - a little strange and controlling). After a certain point, where Sarah realized that Ivan was attracted to her and interested in a romantic relationship, Jonathan gave her an ultimatum. Stop seeing this guy or else it's over between us. Sarah was torn. She genuinely cared about Jonathan and had really hoped they could work it out in the end, but she realized 2 years was a long time and she wanted to spend time with Ivan, getting to know him. So she told Jonathan goodbye and continued to see Ivan in the local cafe's.
Her host mother was not happy about the new male friend in Sarah's life. Because Ivan was not from Vishkovo she was fearful of him and would not allow him into the house - even for a moment. So Sarah would meet Ivan at the front gate and they would go to the village to spend time together. For Bob and I that wasn't a bad thing.
In March of 2011, the relationship officially transferred from friend to boyfriend. So, everyone, be careful what you wish for. In January I started praying fervently for God to help Sarah's loneliness. Well, that prayer got answered but not in the way I expected. No longer was I hearing about how lonely she as. All I heard about was how wonderful Ivan was! We were trusting Sarah's judgement on him. We were very far away and had no other choice. But I was praying. I prayed that if Ivan was not a good person for Sarah to be involved with that God would reveal his true nature and/or end the relationship. I also prayed that God would turn the relationship into what He wanted it to be. Thankfully God answered those prayers.
So, now she wasn't lonely, she had a kindred spirit and a local boyfriend. But the work remained very difficult. Sarah was learning the language but was not confident in it. Sarah had minimal training on actually teaching and struggled to control the classroom. It's especially difficult to do this since she had no grading authority over her students and many were only a few years younger than her. But she put in a great effort every day to prepare lessons and try to teach the students. The current method of teaching in the school was all memorization and reciting memorized phrases. Sarah was trying the more modern methods of getting conversational English, but that was new and it was hard. Sarah also really strives for perfection. Poor Sarah considered her teaching session a failure if she did not do everything in her lesson plan. Many of us tried to explain to Sarah that even experienced teachers rarely get through the entire lesson plan as it's written. She persevered on in spite of the challenges she faced.
In March I had the opportunity to visit Sarah in Ukraine. The Peace Corps is really good about allowing family members to visit. I had a business trip to Germany and was able to fly from Munich into Lviv (one of three cities in Ukraine with an international airport) and Sarah was able to use some of her time off to meet me in the city. It was really, really good to see her. There is something about actually hugging someone, seeing their faces, feeling the flesh on their bones and hearing them share their feelings in person that is incredibly reassuring. She looked good. She sounded good and the most amazing thing was how well she could communicate in the local language.
We were in a city that was foreign to both of us. She met me at the airport and together we found a taxi to take us to the hotel (that she had booked earlier in the month.) She checked us into the hotel, got us food for lunch and arranged transportation into the city proper. Amazing. All the while she kept insisting that her Ukranian wasn't good, but everywhere we went she managed to communicate. Yes, there were many phone calls to Ivan for clarification. Ivan was from Lviv and knew the city well. He did not join us there, but he was a constant source of information via the phone.
That wraps up blog post #2 about my experience. Stay tuned for blog post #3, the second 6 months!