Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Peace Corps Mom - the second year

Hi all,

This is my fourth post in a series about my experiences having my daughter serve as a peace corps volunteer from 2011-2013.

So when I left off on the last post, summer break was ending and a new school year was beginning.

My daughter was now a familiar face in the school district.  She was co-teaching several grade levels and was in the class-room almost every day.  She began leading 'English club.'  This was an after school activity in which children interested in English language would come.  English club was rather informal, much to Sarah's disappointment.  Unlike American after school programs that are very structured, her English Club was very unstructured.  If the weather was nice, no-one wanted to do English Club and the students would ask Sarah 'can we do English club tomorrow instead?'  Sarah tried to be accommodating, but often found herself over-committing.  For instance she had responsibilities to do class preparation, but then students would approach her and ask 'can we have English club today?' and Sarah would say yes.  Her mission with Peace Corps was to bring about a desire and an ability to speak English so when students would approach her of course she wanted to say yes.

She also began doing one-on-one tutoring for interested students.  As a peace corps volunteer she could not ask for (nor receive) compensation for this, but she willingly volunteered to meet with many students after school to do one-on-one teaching.  So with her classroom responsibilities, unstructured English Club and private tutoring, Sarah was busy-busy-busy.

But she was falling in love, and that makes everything happy.  Her and Ivan were together all the time. But they faced some challenges.  First, Ivan's military service contract was at it's end so he needed to find work.   He did not want to renew his military contract, but a job in the village was unlikely so he wound up getting a job in Lviv (his hometown city) and moved back in with his mother and brother outside the city.  Now Lviv is not too many miles away from Vishkovo (about 81 miles) but the only way to travel between the two locations was via bus or bus and train.  The public transportation option took about 5 hours each way, so Sarah and Ivan were forced into a long distance relationship.  Ivan's job was as a security guard for a hotel so he often worked a shift that involved 12 hours on then 12 hours off for a 3-4 day period and then 3-4 days off.  So while it wasn't great at least it allowed them to see each other.  Ivan would travel to see Sarah when he had time off and Sarah would travel during her school breaks.

During this time, Sarah also got 'kicked out' of her host family home.  In Ukraine, heating oil is expensive and controlled. Families were charged an excess use fee if they used more than a certain amount of heating oil in a given period so many families in Ukraine closed off large sections of their home and lived in just the kitchen during the winter period to save on fuel costs.  Yes, they lived in just the kitchen.  They moved the beds in and had a cozy winter. Sarah's host mother discovered that having the extra room Sarah occupied significantly increased her fuel costs (because of the surcharge) and said she needed a higher rent if Sarah were to stay through the next winter.  Well Peace Corps was not willing to incur the higher rent so her school headmaster found another family who would host her who had a different family set up and did not need to charge extra for the fuel.
Sarah's new host family dad and dog

Sarah moved into her new host family home in the fall and found the change to be a good one for her. When she first moved in, the host father's mother took a liking to her and would come into her room and sit on the bed and just smile.  This woman is what people in Eastern Europe would call a Babushka. She was an elderly widow woman (often wearing a scarf.)  She and Sarah didn't communicate very well, but the woman would just sit in her room, let the sunshine fall on her face, close her eyes and smile.  I thought it was so cute.  Sarah didn't really mind, but she also didn't mind when the woman kept to herself more and more in the later year.  Sadly the Babushka passed away the following summer, but I always am honored to know that Sarah's room with the window brought some joy to her last days.
Not Sarah's host fathers mother, but another typical Babushka

One time Sarah was asked to provide care for the Babushka while the family went out of town.  Sarah found the job impossible.  The woman refused to eat and Sarah had no idea what to do.  She heated up the meals, provided them to the woman, coaxed her into eating, but the woman was on a hunger strike. Luckily the family wasn't away for long, but Sarah found the time very challenging.

So back to the classroom.  During this time, we all discovered how very different life is in Ukraine to the U.S.  One of the shocking things I learned is that they plan their school calendar around a general time frame that is constantly open for discussion and rescheduling.  For instance, on several occasions, the fall break that everyone was anticipating was simply cancelled.  The school decided 1 day before the break was to start to not take off but to continue having classes and cancel classes later in the winter to save on fuel costs.  Sarah had left for the weekend to visit Ivan and didn't even know that classes were back in session on Monday until she called a friend on Tuesday and realized classes were in session and she should have been back.

In the same way, they would push up a school vacation if the weather was to be nice one week, but possibly rainy the next.  I couldn't imagine an American school making a change to the school calendar even several months before it happened much less a day before hand.

So before I conclude this blog entry about the second year, let me leave you with a top 10 list - top 5 things loved or really enjoyed about her time in Ukraine and the top 5 things she really disliked!

Things she LOVED!

#5 Coffee.

Coffee in Ukraine was espresso.  It was never had in a 'to go' cup or on the run.  Coffee in Ukraine was a social experience to be savored.  It was enjoyed typically in the afternoon in a cafe with a friend (or two) and while it only took 4 sips to finish the cup, most people would linger for 20 minutes (or more) to enjoy it.

#4 Farm Fresh Produce

Sarah lived in the Western region of Ukraine which was rich farmland on rolling hills.  In season she enjoyed vine ripened fruits and vegetables that she would buy at the local outdoor market.  At her host home, they had apple trees and a garden so she would walk outside and pick an apple and bite in to sweet fall yummy.

#3 Limited social media

Yes, Ukraine has facebook and they LOVE to post their selfies on it all the time.  But as far as a lifestyle of staring at a screen instead of faces, that hasn't hit eastern Europe (well at least not rural villages in Ukraine.)  If people wanted to talk to each other they called on the phone or visited.

#2 Friendly people

Sarah encountered so many very friendly people who were willing to go out of their way and make time for her.  One story that stands out to me is when she was taking the train from Lviv to her village.  Sarah got confused about the stops and accidentally got off the train one stop too soon from where she was supposed to connect to another train.    When she got off the train she went into the station and the woman who was working the counter explained that the next train wouldn't come for 2 1/2 hours.  Sarah asked if there was a place to get food and the woman said sure.  Then she locked up her counter and walked Sarah down to the village to the cafe.  The woman had a meal with Sarah and they had a nice little chat and social time together.   I can't imagine that happening in America (at least not on the east coast where we live.)

#1 Less rigidity about schedules

One day i was talking to Sarah on the phone and I was all stressed out.  I lead a bible study and at that time it was meeting on Tuesday nights.  our study included a DVD teaching and a workbook.  The DVD's are expensive so I was sharing the DVD with another bible study group that met on Thursday's.  Normally I would leave the DVD in a locker after my class on Tuesday and the leader for Thursday would get it from the locker on Thursday morning before their class started at 9:00.  Well, I realized as  I was driving to work that I had the DVD in my bag and I had forgotten to put it int he locker.  I was freaking out and when I called the other leader she started freaking out.  I called my boss and said I'd be late to work.  I drove 30 minutes to the church (after having gotten almost to work before I realized the mistake) and then handed off the DVD to the leader just a little before her class started and then drove another 30 minutes to work.  I spent over 2 hours in the car for my mistake and to correct it. When I described this to Sarah, she was incredulous.  She said, in Ukraine, if that happened the other leader would just say 'no problem' we'll do that another day and would use the time for something else or just cancel. In Ukraine it would unheard of to go so far out of your way to 'stick to the plan.'  In Ukraine it would be far more likely to just come up with another plan when the first one had issues.

So now for the top 5 least liked parts of Ukrainian culture

#5 Cheating as a way of life

As a teacher, Sarah found it infuriating to find that all her students (even the good students) cheated on exams.  It was an ingrained part of the students life - even the elementary school kids.  Part of it can be attributed to the pressure to perform but a lot of it was attributed to a corrupt culture where honesty is not an integral part of the society.  Sarah wrote a blog about it and how she tried to counter it.  you can read that here.

Sarah's blog post about honesty at school

#4 Force Feeding

Many cultures put pressure on people to eat.   Ukraine is definitely one of them.  When Sarah would eat with her host family or at a social event, everyone would put significant pressure on her to eat more or drink more.  Thankfully no-one held her down and forced food in her mouth, but the pressure to eat was always there.  At one time her host mother yelled at her and said she was too skinny and that her mother (me) would be very unhappy to have me come home so skinny.  Sarah is a perfect size (@120 pounds 5 foot 5 inches.) she left that weight and returned the same.

#3 Shopping and the lack of variety of goods

Ah America.  Shopping in America is awesome.  We have great prices, great variety and great convenience.  This is not the case in much of the rest of the world.  There were several stores in her village.  None of them were bigger than a convenience store (think small corner store, not a giant Cumbies) and all sold the exact same products.  So if Sarah wanted shampoo, she would go to the store.  All the items were behind the counter.  so you had to wait till it was your turn and then ask the clerk for the item you wanted to buy.  In each store they would carry maybe two varieties of each product.  If Sarah wanted to compare the two choices of shampoo, she would ask the clerk to show them to her.  The clerk would hover over her and she tried to read the ingredients or product description and then Sarah would either buy one or leave.   When Sarah came home at Christmas and went to Target she was in heaven.

#2 Salad

Okay, Sarah didn't dislike Salad in Ukraine.  She disliked the lack of American Salads.  In Ukraine, Salads were typically made of pickled foods.   so a salad would include beets, cabbage and carrots but no lettuce and based in a tangy sauce.  The idea of a Caesar salad was unheard of in Ukraine.  Lettuce was not grown and sold in the markets and Sarah spent most of her senior year of college eating at least one american salad a day.  She has really enjoyed having salads again now that she is back.

#1 Gossip

This isn't really a Ukraine issue.  This is more of a small town issue, but the gossip that was said around town about her was hurtful.  In a small town, everyone talks.  And when a foreigner arrives, what better thing to talk about than the American Teacher.  When Sarah started seeing Ivan the rumors were flying fast and furious.  She overheard things and experienced the result of the gossip in town. Many people that knew Sarah realized that it was just mean gossip when people were saying untrue things about her, but it's still hard to live in a small town when lies are being said about you.

So those are my top 5 great things and top 5 not so great things about what I think Sarah felt in Ukraine during her peace corps assignment.

Next blog will wrap up the series with stories about her preparing to come home.  Thanks so much for visiting my blog today.  Have a great day!

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