"At the center of the universe is a loving heart that continues to beat and that wants the best for every person. Anything we can do to help foster the intellect and spirit and emotional growth of our fellow human beings, that is our job. Those of us who have this particular vision must continue against all odds. Life is for service." ~Mr. Fred Rogers

Monday, December 27, 2010

Settling In and Celebrating Christmas

Yesterday was a cold day in Kolky, one of the ones I was warned about. The wind was especially bitter and bit way below the skin. It must be because it was bazaar day, and I needed to buy meat. I talked to my meat supplier (yes, that's right, my very own meat supplier) and she had it all ready when I walked in. She is actually a teacher at school, and we now have arrangements for me to buy meat from her at the bazaar. I should be more specific really, arrangements to buy pork. All I eat is pork. And chicken if I go over to someone's house for a meal. I asked about beef, and someone told me all they have is veal...we'll see how desperate I get. Maybe I will pull out the meat grinder and make pork tacos sometime this week. I brought a few packets of taco seasoning, and have only used one since being here.

Christmas was quiet and I spent the day with my friend Val who came to visit me from her town about 30 minutes away. It was really nice, but we both agreed it was missing a few things. We made borshch (borscht) on Christmas Eve, and it was delicious. When we tried it, we couldn’t even believe we had made it. It will be a new Christmas Eve tradition for me. Not to overshadow the Butterballs and Noodles that I missed so dearly, but to accompany them. Get excited. We exchanged a few small gifts, and I opened some from my students and teachers. I walked away on Friday with 12 boxes of chocolate. Christmas in Ukraine is celebrated according to the orthodox calendar on the 7th of January, so at school the whole “Christmas in December” jive was all about me.

Life is Kolky is going well, and I am settling in nicely. It’s nice to just be able to sit once in a while and breathe. It is so interesting living in a world where you really don’t understand everything that’s going on all of the time. I have come to accept it, and even appreciate it, but diving into a book where I do understand everything keeps me sane. I am on holiday now until the 10th, but I will continue tutoring some students for the Regional Olympiad for an hour a day (minus holidays). Kolky swept the District Olympiad the weekend before last, sending 3 students to Regionals. I’m responsible for speaking comprehension and proper pronunciation of words, something that my training (and fluency f English) will come in handy for.

On the 11th I will travel back to Kiev for a VAC Meeting. VAC stands for Volunteer Advisory Council, and I was nominated and elected while at Swearing-In. It’s a position I am humbled to be trusted with, and am looking forward to working with the office and the other VAC members (including my good friend and fellow Group 40er Rocky Espositio).

In the mean time, I will be hanging out in Kolky, and I’m sure spending a lot of time at different dinner parties and gatherings for the New Year, Christmas (Jan 7) and Old New Years (Jan 13). Thanks again to everybody for the support and love, especially around this holiday season. The e-mails and messages meant so much to me, and I am so blessed to have such amazing people thinking of me!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Simply put, a dream come true.

I remember pretty vividly when I first told my Mom that I wanted to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. I was in elementary school, and was pen pals with a Volunteer as a part of a class project. I just thought it would be so cool get to live with another culture, speak another language, and experience a life totally separate from what I knew. I remember her saying something about one of the Masters Swimmers she knew on the Dolphins was a Volunteer once, and that I should probably finish college first, but concluded with, “I could see you doing that”. And like that, a dream was born.

Fast forward to Thursday, December 16, 2010 when that dream was coming true as I stood up and took the Peace Corps Oath and officially became a United States Peace Corps Volunteer.  After three of the shortest months of my life, I had made it. I was "ready to fly" as Lecia put it.

And then I arrived. Since I started my application I always had pictures in my head of what my permanent site would look like, but little did I imagine it would be this perfect. I truly hope every Volunteer is able to say the following statement, but I don’t what I did or what I said to deserve such a fantastic new home. The train pulled in at 6 a.m. on Friday to Kivertsi (larger “town” about 30 minutes away) where one of my link-mates Val is placed. She was one of my best friends in training and I am so blessed to be so close! From there, Val and I gave some final hugs, she left with her welcoming committee, and a teacher’s husband picked up Volodymyr and me. We drove to my new apartment where I had my own welcoming committee! (This was at 6:30 in the morning!) Cookies, sandwiches, fruit, chocolate, and my favorite, varanaky were all there to greet me as well. My welcoming committee consisted of 3 of the English teachers who were eagerly getting my apartment ready, and preparing the food. We sat, ate, talked about life in Kolky, life in the US, all sorts of things. Like I wasn’t already convinced, but Ukraine has the warmest and most welcoming people. The rest of my Friday consisted with meeting the Mayor, getting acquainted with the village, and having a Welcome dinner with the Director (Principal), Vice Principals, and English teachers. Food, food, food! (You'll never guess who got to take the left overs!)

Saturday consisted on the Regional Olympiad, which was rather exciting. I got to make all of the 'keys' (for some reason the tests don't come with them) as well as read the 'Listening Comprehension' texts twice for all forms, and grade the speaking component. And what would an Olympiad be without a celebration dinner afterward! It was a great way for me to meet more students and staff, as well as meet some teachers from other villages in the region. So many names! 

The past couple of days have consisted of observing and teaching lessons at school as well as settling into my new place. I loved living with Lecia, but it's also nice to have my own space as well. I won't elaborate on my apartment too much, but I LOVE IT. The shower is delightful when there is hot water, and the toilet works well! Still simple living, but so grateful for what I do have.

And just this evening, the "PTA" surprised me with a Christmas Tree and all of the decorations! I think I might be able to post pictures soon, but it really is one of the most thoughtful gifts I've ever received.

Can't wait to tell you more about my life in Kolky, but I think it's probably time I cook some dinner! (Kolky is in the Volyn Oblast, the most Northwestern Oblast in Ukraine, but Kolky is pretty East in the oblast). Happy Holidays to everybody back home, and Merry Christmas to those of you who celebrate it! May your blessings be counted by the number of laughs you share with your friends and family. As for me, I am reminded of my blessings knowing that dreams really do come true.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Quite the Update

I wrote this post on Tuesday, December 14.

Well, I must admit, this is by far the most exciting and longest over due post to date. I haven’t had any sort of Internet for about 3 weeks, and when I would get the chance to check e-mail, it was essentially looking at the e-mail without the opportunity to respond. Please don’t think I forgot about you, but patience has most definitely been key over the past three months for me. But enough about that…I’m done with training and right now I’m in Kyiv!

Training ended on Monday, when my cluster packed up and left Kivshovata. Our final week was spent teaching our last lessons at the school, presenting our Community/School Project, saying goodbye, packing, and sharing meals and laughs with new friends and family for the last time in a while. It was hard to say goodbye to the school and the students, mainly because they were so good to us from day one. They also showed interest in our learning, appreciated the work we did, and made us feel welcome and comfortable. After a process of “Needs Assessment” and “Community Mapping”, our group collaborated with the Kivshovata School to provide an audio resource packet to supplement their textbooks. Different people had expressed the need, multiple times, that native speakers were helpful and beneficial to learn from, so we recorded texts that the teachers requested from different books. We even applied for, and received a small grant from Peace Corps to use towards the purchase of a new boom box! It was an exciting accomplishment, mainly because we implemented the project while teaching classes, learning language, and living through the Ukrainian winter!

Saying goodbye was very hard, but I know I’ll be back to visit. It was a fantastic three months, filled with unforgettable memories. And even though I wasn’t able to be a consistent blogger, I was able to journal a lot and capture the great times, and some of the challenges as well. Part of my struggle toward the end was my frustration with relationships and language. It sounds like an interesting combination, but I will elaborate. I was able to build some amazing relationships with people in Kivshovata; Mama Lecia, the teachers, other host families, babucias, just to name a few. But towards the end, I was frustrated that I couldn’t express to them my gratitude and appreciation for everything they taught me, not only about Ukraine, but also about myself. As far as language goes, I am happy where I am, and very proud at the LPI (Language Proficiency Interview) score I accomplished. But three months of language is not going to give me the tools to express my feelings as eloquently and intentional as I would have liked. Kivshovata deserves huge thanks from me, but I was unable to communicate it. Leaving was hard knowing that things were left unsaid, but that’s become my motivation; learning the language, pursuing practice, and communicating often. So that in a year, or a half a year, I can go back to visit and get to know my family in Kivshovata on a totally different level, one that I barely surfaced in my first three months. But moving forward is always an exciting time, which brings me to my current status, the Swearing-In Retreat in Kyiv!

On Monday, all 90+ Trainees from PC Ukraine Group 40 arrived in Kyiv for our Swearing-In Retreat. We have the opportunity to get together as a big group one last time before the big event of moving to site. When we first arrived, we were handed our room key, a huge packet of information, our week schedule, and an envelope. This of course wasn’t the envelope of our site placement, but rather one that contained our LPI score. I was very excited and relieved that my hard work over the past three months paid off and it showed in my interview. After moving our bags (almost done for a while lugging those damn things around!) and eating lunch, all of the Trainees gathered in a big conference room to find out site announcements. Ukraine is split up into 10 regions (don’t ask me how) and each region has a RM (Regional Manager). He or she is in charge of all of the Volunteers in the region, and is the go to person for most things. Each RM announced whom they are going to be working with and in what Region, and then after gave us envelopes with more details about our placement.

Drum roll please…I will be in Kolky! Kolky is a small village not from somewhere I can't remember in a region I can't remember. (This week I've been flooded with information...) It is pretty much EXACTLY what I wanted, without getting my hopes up too much. Less than 5,000 people, fantastic school, and I’ll be living on my own. They are “renovating” a small place for me on the school property, but for the first few months I will have an apartment. When I was talking to my RM about my placement, the first question I asked was, “What is the coolest thing about Kolky?” He gave me this huge smile and said, “Ben, the coolest thing about Kolky is Kolky. The people, the school, the Director, the housing, the village; I knew Kolky was where you needed to be.” This made me feel amazing and I am having such great feelings about my new home.

Today was another exciting day, and probably the first time it’s felt “real” since arriving to the center of Kivshovata. Today, we met our Ukrainian counterparts. A counterpart is another teacher from the same school that essentially mentors you through your two years of service. My counterpart is Volodymyr and right away I could tell we are going to be great colleagues. He speaks fantastic English, is enthusiastic about having a Volunteer, cracks jokes, and is really interested in getting to know you. We chatted about ourselves a little bit, and he told me a little bit about Kolky, but really didn’t have much time because we were in sessions, sometimes together and sometimes apart. Even our meal times were separated, but I think the 9 hours to site will be enough time to really get to know Volodymyr more.

Another update to come soon, but my time with the internet is running out by the seconds! Swearing-In on Thursday, and a Peter Yarrow concert tomorrow! (Puff the Magic Dragon!)