Today was the first full day out in my new city, Zaparozh’ye, Ukraine. Let me tell you, the whole “little fish, big pond” aspect hit. Not hard in an “you’ve got to be kidding me, what did I get myself into” way, but more of a “so this is what it is like when foreigners move to a new city.” I should mention at this point that the population is close to 800,000 primarily Russian speaking citizens. Currently, there are four in the city – that I know of – whose primary language is English, so I’m not alone. Thankfully the first two days have been great so far though. First off, my counterpart, Ivan, is the real deal. I have yet to see exactly what our office situation is like and what it is that he does, but I have no doubt that he and I will get along just fine. The first night here, he was nice enough to take me out with his wife and show me some sights and then take me to eat – first sushi I’ve had since March. He and his wife speak a little English, but that is fine because I speak a little Russian. Also, the truth is, both have a very good vocabulary and it is better than they give it credit for – not to mention: why should they have to speak English, this is their country.
For example of Ivan’s linguistic skills, on our train ride from Kyiv to Zaporozhye (11 hours) he was able to tell me a little about the history of his country and his city. I on the other hand highly doubt I could come close to that. I mean, I could tell him about myself, my work experience, favorite color, describe what I’m wearing, what I like to eat, some hobbies, etc. However describing the history of East Greenwich, Rhode Island isn’t going to happen at this point. Well, first off I’d have to look it up, but that is not relevant right now. I’m starting to realize that at this point there is a savior aside from fluency: an extensive vocabulary: individual project #1. I’m hanging out with some Ukrainian friends tonight and I’m definitely bringing something to take notes.
My primary organization is called “Perspektiva,” Oblast Foundation for Support of the People with Disabilities, an NGO. This, let me tell you, is going to be awesome. At this point, I have a list of potential tasks that I was provided at the swearing in conference. However, I am not going to get ahead of myself and I am going to meet with Ivan, observe what it is he does, meet some of his constituents and clients, as well as try to get a feel for both the city as well as the organization. Slight problem though, I don’t know where it is or how to get there – so yeah, I’m going to go ahead and figure out all of those minor details first. One reason though why I feel that this is going to be a great experience is that Perspektiva is looking for some help with organizational management, improving and maintaining business communication, assistance with project design, management and implementation, identifying international partners, etc. but primarily because in Ukraine having a disability can sometimes be a death sentence when seeking employment. While many may view this as (fill in blank) and not exactly legal – in the United States – it is a reality here. Perspektiva seeks to support physically challenged people in achieving equal rights in all sphere’s of life. Now, tell me this isn’t an organization you wouldn’t want to go all out to help. Again, I still need to find out the real scope but I already have some ideas in mind and need to remind myself to adjust first…oh yeah, I may want to pick up some new Russian vocabulary first.
Speaking of which, I may already have a great lead on a possible tutor. How? Mostly dumb luck to be honest. Our regional manager, Oleg, has already shown us – well me at least – that he will do everything he can to support us, but not do our work for us. I haven’t told him yet, but that perfectly lines up with my philosophy on development: I can provide you the tools, but it’s up to you to do the work – so I am very pleased to be working with him. During one regional meeting at our swear-in conference, he provided us with a list of all volunteers in our region with their cities/towns/villages and contact information and encouraged us all to contact other volunteers close by. I sent a message out to those who at least had the same city listed as me and received some very quick responses along with a few invitations. One of which, from Jakob and Anna, I was lucky to experience today. There is an island, Khortytsia, that was home to the Cossaks, and I was invited to meet the two of them, plus Anna’s friend Stephanie from the states, currently studying in Cambridge. In addition were two Ukrainians, Anastasia and Denis. At this point, I’m starting to question “southern hospitality” as the primary basis of polite behavior as every Ukrainian host I’ve met is giving it a good run for it’s money.
Anastasia and Denis showed us all around the island and allowed for four Americans to share in the pride they have for their city and country. We spoke mostly in English but we were all trying a few phrases and statements/questions/words we knew in Russian as well. Denis is learning English through a tutor but has very little opportunities to practice and seemed like a really cool guy. Through conversations, I mentioned that I was very interested in continuing to learn Russian and speak more of it as this is a Russian speaking country. At the end of this, Anastasia – an English teacher at a local university – mentioned that a friend of hers lives very close to me and is a Russian teacher who may be able to help me continue my language progression. Denis wants to continue to hang out to practice his English and mentioned his wife speaks perfect English but might also be interested in practicing. Anna and Jakob seemed very cool and down to earth and were pointing out certain locations around worth checking out: shops, bazaars, little pit stop places with pastries etc. They both live close by and hopefully we’ll be seeing more of each other as time goes on – they are only six months ahead of me. Again, dumb luck, but I’m glad it happened and I’ll continue to take it as it comes.
First off: Thank you to everyone who sent me birthday wishes! I really appreciate it. Support of any kind is always welcome and greatly appreciated and yes, despite legitimate reasons for the contrary, that’s a joke for those who have yet to grasp my amazing sense of humor, I do miss everyone back home.
Second and more to the point: It had previously occurred to me that Ukrainian’s do their holidays right. I already had a glimpse of this while in training with more food than one could possibly eat and plenty of tasty beverages for all – no, not just the kinds with alcohol. On holidays that happen over the weekend or cause for an extended weekend, many people like to either go to the sea or to their dacha’s out in the countryside. Ivan and his family invited me to theirs over this weekend and I was more than happy to oblige – why not spend a weekend in the Ukrainian country side, seems like a no brainer to me?! As soon as I showed up, it was time to start eating – man sometimes my timing is fantastic – and it started with Ivan’s borsch. Seriously, I’m not sure where all these horror stories about the dish come from. It’s delicious and no two kinds are the same. I’m thinking maybe in America it must be made to punish people because here every one has their own recipe that they claim to be the best. Sign me up to be a judge…I’ll bring my own spoon and napkin.
As I was eating this delicious concoction of meat and vegetables, Ivan continued to ask if I wanted more…three bowls later I was about to have number four when one of the wives in attendance promptly responded “Niet! Shashlik, Ivan!” which probably was more along the lines of “Stop feeding that overgrown, thinning child, it’s time for us to BBQ, Ivan! The skewers in my hand aren’t here to make me look pretty!” I’m not sure what was in the marinade for the pork we ate, but I should have got the recipe. It was a great mixture of sweetness and smokey flavoring that kept me wanting more and more. Luckily, that was the amount of food available and the bounty was enjoyed. The only downside to this long weekend has been the rain, however I am almost certain at this point that the clouds have covered all of Ukraine since many of the other volunteers have commented on the same weather conditions all over the country. Still, that provided a great excuse for a mid afternoon nap yesterday and I’m not one to complain about that. This was my first dacha visit and I look forward to the possibility of many more.
On a lighter note, I must explain how grocery stores operate in Ukraine. First off, much like the United States there are many different types of stores. Everything from the side of the road vendor all the way up to cavernous locations like Walmart, the cities of Ukraine have them all. Now picture your local little market, like a neighborhood deli or pastry shop, and you now have the most common version of a store – everything is behind the counter and you have to ask for it. Typically, this is not a problem…however it quickly becomes one when you have absolutely no idea what that delicious looking thing is behind the counter, there is a huge line developing behind you, and, well, you talk with an accent. Also, you quickly learn that stressing different letters inappropriately will lead to completely different food items than you originally intended and may end up with you eating a combination of horse, pig, and chicken meat. Luckily, I have located an actual supermarket not far from here that simply allows me to pick out the food items I want, walk to the front, and pay for them. Who knew grocery shopping could be so daunting??
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