Goodbye Ukraine!

As I write this post, I can’t believe it’s actually happening.  I did it.  I finished Peace Corps.  I have had some of this most amazing experiences here and equally some of the most difficult times.  As I reflect on my two years, I can see how much I have changed and how much I’ve learned.  I realize that I probably won’t really appreciate how much I’ve changed for several years, but I thought it’d be worth reflecting on now.

Lessons learned

I think the most valuable lesson that Peace Corps taught me was to become more self-aware.  I am now very aware of my own personal limitations and strengths.  I know where I can succeed and I know what kind of environments are going to be a struggle for me.  I know the minimum and maximum hours that I can spend alone before I get cranky.  I know the number of hours of sleep I need so that I can be patient when my students babble in rapid Russian.  And I know exactly how many vodka shots I can handle while still speaking Russian.

Peace Corps taught me to fail gracefully.  Before I came to Ukraine, I would have said that my greatest fear was failure.  I’m not sure how I’d answer now, but failure doesn’t terrify me anymore.  The sheer number of times one of my ideas was shot down, or my lessons didn’t go well, or my students didn’t show up to camps/clubs forced me to learn to be ok with failure and try again the next day.  I had to learn to not take things as personally, move on, and try something different.

Along those same lines, I learned how to become more adaptable and flexible.  Things change every day and it took me a long time to be ok with the constant change.  Forget advanced planning, see where the day takes you and figure it out as you go.

Ukraine has boosted my self-confidence in many ways.  After two long winters here and countless challenges, I have no doubt that I can handle anything Atlanta can throw at me.  I have learned how to stand up for myself in Russian, and if I can handle angry Russian women, I have no doubt I can handle standing up for myself in English back home.

Finally, living for over two years away from home taught me to appreciate my incredible family and friends.  I can’t tell you how many times a care package, a letter or a skype chat helped me through tough times.  As I pack up my things, I took some time to go through the cards that you all have sent me and I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart.  I’m not sure I’ll ever really be able to express my gratitude, but please know how much I appreciated it.

Along with all the things that I’ve learned since being here, I have no doubt that I’ve picked up some new habits along the way.  I’ve tried to make a list of them here as a way to warn everyone back home.

  • I don’t shake hands anymore and if a hand is extended, I will get really excited at having a rare chance to shake hands again.
  • I don’t pour my own drinks. I will sit patiently and wait until a man comes and offers me a refill.
  • I will try to add mayonnaise to almost any salad served.
  • I don’t try to make plans very far in advance and I might flake on plans
  • I won’t be bothered if you’re late.  In fact, I expect you to be late so I bring my Kindle almost everywhere.
  • I will wear makeup anytime I leave the house.  And forget wearing running clothes to the grocery store.
  • I will make sandwiches with just the bottom piece of bread.
  • I will actively look for buckwheat in the grocery store.
  • I will be thrilled when I hear songs in public in English.
  • I prefer to drink fizzy water.
  • I will put my pajamas on immediately when I get home.
  • I will drink minimum 2 cups of tea a day
  • I will be excited if your house has running water all day.  And if it’s hot water?  Ohhh boy.

Finally, I decided to compile a list of things that I will miss about Ukraine.

  • Colorful money of different sizes
  • Really cheap fresh fruits and vegetables during the summer
  • Ukrainian hospitality
  • Availability of public transportation.  Yes, it might not be reliable, comfortable, or fast, but it’s nice being able to get around the country without a car.
  • Fields of sunflowers
  • People watching
  • Being mistaken for a local.  I always feel proud when it takes someone a few questions into the conversation before they learn that I’m a gringo.
  • My students smiling when they see me coming down the hall
  • Adult-sized juice boxes
  • Repeating my outfits daily.
  • It’s rare, but I can occasionally make a joke in Russian!  It’s a tough combination of understanding the conversation, the cultural references, and getting the timing right.  There are plenty of times I want to say something witty, but it took me too long to figure out how to say it and the conversation moved on.

As I sit in my empty, mostly packed apartment, I just can’t believe it’s over. We had a few goodbye parties at school last week, all of them full of tearful goodbyes, songs, dances, presents, and promises to keep in touch.  I’ve become close with some truly wonderful people and it’s going to be hard to start a new life without them.  It’s surreal to think that I get on a train to go to Kiev tomorrow night and I fly back to Atlanta on Friday.  And whether I’m ready or not, the end is here and it’s time to move on.  I will always remember Ukraine fondly and I will never forget my two years here.  Thank you again for all your support the past two years and до свидания!

Pictures

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, so I thought I’d upload some pictures from the past month!

I went to Kiev twice – once to run the marathon with some friends and the second time for our closing Peace Corps service conference.  Despite the half marathon being chaotic and frustrating, I still had fun seeing some friends.

Danielle, Sara, Alison, me, and Lydia before the race

The COS (close of service) conference was a week later, and so I had to make the 18 hour trip again.  It was a busy conference, filled with sessions on resume writing, job searching, adjusting to life back home, and the million forms and documents we have to sign for Peace Corps.  There are about 75 volunteers in my group, and due to size of the country (and slow transportation), there were plenty of volunteers that I had never met before.  It was still really interesting to hear about everyone’s two years here, how they’ve changed, and what’s next.

Group 40!  Groups come to Ukraine every six months, so these are the volunteers who all arrived in Ukraine at the same time I did.

 

All the volunteers in the Eastern part of the country posing like serious, Soviet coal miners. We’re a very scary group, apparently.

Our two training groups that trained in Obukhov together!

I have a little over a month left in Ukraine (crazy!), so I’ve been trying to do better about taking pictures of some of the day-to-day things.  Here are some pictures of my daily life that I don’t think I’ve posted before:

The apartment blocks one evening when I was out for a run

The bus stop at 7:15 am. It’s a serious fight to squeeze my way on to a bus each morning!

The school kitchen

The schedule of lessons. All the teachers are listed on the left-hand side and then it shows, by lesson, which class each teacher is teaching.  I’m number 13!

After my attempt at a girls leadership camp, those same students insisted on continuing our Uno games into the school year.  Now we have a weekly Uno club!  The Dara of two years ago (or even six months ago) would have insisted on including something educational, but at this point I’m just glad they want to spend time with me.

Uno Club

On Friday, we celebrated Teacher’s Day at school!  In Ukraine, every profession has its own holiday and because so many women are teachers, this is one of the biggest holidays here.  We were greeted on Friday with chocolates and flowers from the students, we had a concert at our school followed by cake and champagne, and then a city-wide concert in the community center.  And then, all the young teachers all went out to a cafe that night to continue the celebration!  To be honest, it was probably one of my favorite days in Ukraine thus far.  I could really feel how far I had come with all the teachers.  We were able to joke together, reminisce about my two years, first impressions etc.  It felt like all my efforts to be friends with the teachers might have actually worked!

Some of the 11th graders giving the teachers a cake at the end of the school concert

With Oksana, the school psychologist. She was one of my first friends at school!

All the teachers after our cake and champagne celebration. As we were getting into place, one of the teachers suggested that everyone should “smile like Dara does everyday!” And look, some of them are actually smiling!

Celebration at the cafe that night

Overall, it’s been a really great month and I can already see how difficult it’s going to be for me to leave.  How do you try to wrap up a life of two years?  There are so many things I need to do, people to say goodbye to, things to give away, good bye parties to plan.  But at the same time, the closer I get to November 16, the more excited I get to be back home again.  Fortunately, I know I’ll be busy right up until the end, which will be good.  Being busy means I won’t have time to dwell on being both weepy and thrilled about leaving and coming back home!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

August

August proved to be just as busy as June and July were!  I left at the end of July for another Peace Corps run English language camp, this one in Nikolaev (near Odessa).  It was another really great camp with other Peace Corps volunteers, students will high levels of English, and interesting classes to teach (leadership, international studies etc).  I had a fun few weeks before I returned to Rovenky to start my own two-week girls leadership and empowerment camp at my school.

More sunflowers!

To give you a little background, I decided to use the materials and lesson plans from a popular Peace Corps camp called GLOW – Girls Leading our World.  Peace Corps volunteers around the world use these materials and it was designed for young girls to learn about healthy lifestyles, self-esteem, confidence building, leadership, and HIV/AIDS.  My school and I started working almost a year ago to write a grant to fund this camp, in addition to the renovation/creation of a historical center in our school.  My school was an important hospital during World War II and they had many artifacts but no location to preserve or commemorate them.  We were able to write a combined grant that would provide funding for the historical center and this camp.  We intended for the campers to be involved in the creation of the historical center, which would allow them the opportunity to become leaders in their community by providing them firsthand experience in planning a community project.  Due to the long grant process, it was about 9 months of writing and re-writing before we officially were approved and received funding in June.  At that point, I left Rovenky for two months travelling, working at other camps, visiting friends etc.  I came back excited and eager to start spending our grant money and getting our GLOW camp going.

For many reasons, the project did not go as planned.  I came back to school to find that my principal decided to go ahead and finish the historical center without me or my students.  And even though I knew this wasn’t the end of the world, it still frustrated me that she ignored the plans we had made and took the project out of the hands of my students.  I later learned that this wouldn’t matter much since only six students (out of the twenty who signed up) showed up for camp each day.  I planned to have four lessons a day with twenty students who were going to be excited and ready to go.  Instead, I had six students who preferred to play Uno.  After a few days of struggling and frustration, I decided to redo completely the day-to-day schedule of camp.  The original camp schedule included four hours of lessons, one hour of historical center work and preparation, and one hour of team building activities.  And the modified schedule included two hours of Frisbee, one hour of lessons, one hour of watching an American movie and discussing, and one hour of Uno.

On the last day of our camp – Alyona (another English teacher), my students, and me. Because camp was during the London Olympics, we had competitions every day where the girls could earn medals for their teams. You can see them wearing their medals we awarded for overall camp performance!

Since the kids insisted on playing so much Uno, I insisted on playing in English!

 

Standing next to the medal board, which turned into an Uno stats board. But at least I got to have some semblance of the Olympics this year!

I had such high hopes for this camp and it about broke my heart to accept that I basically wrote a grant for a Frisbee/Uno club.  Adapting to the surroundings and letting go of expectations has been one of the hardest lessons for me to learn.  Unfortunately, whenever things would go poorly during the school year, I kept telling myself not to worry because I knew that I had my awesome GLOW camp in August to look forward to.  Even if I didn’t change lives teaching English, I might have a chance to make a difference during camp.  And so when I didn’t get to teach those lessons, when my students didn’t appear to care about the lessons I did teach, or when my school wouldn’t support what we were doing, it really upset me.  Because I know I’m leaving Ukraine soon, I catch myself looking for those moments or experiences where I really feel like I was successful, that I made a difference.  I want to remember the good times, the successful moments instead of the times that I struggled.  And as the time winds down, I can see that as hard as I might try, I will always remember the good and the bad times about Peace Corps and Ukraine.  It was unrealistic of me to think that two weeks of a girls leadership camp would erase any negative times that I’ve had.

On a more positive note, I know my official date that I’ll be returning to Atlanta – November 16!  It’s hard to believe it’s finally here.  Some days, it feels like I’ve been here for years and other days, it feels like I just got here.  Today was the official first day of school, and it was sad knowing that I won’t finish this school year with my students.  As my students greeted me with flowers and hugs, I was overcome with all these emotions.  It’s hard to express but I feel equally sad, happy, nervous, and excited about leaving Ukraine and returning home.  But whether I’m ready or not, November will be here before I know it, so Mom and Dad, get the sweetwater and spicy foods ready!

First bell ceremony today!

June and July

Hello everyone!

I know it’s been a long time since I’ve posted, but I’ve been crazy busy!  Between camps, visiting friends, the Euro Cup, and going to Russia, I’ve barely had a minute to get back to the internet.  I have a few days at home now, so I thought I’d update you all on what I’ve been doing since I last posted!

At the beginning of June, I took a 10-day trip to Russia with a few other Peace Corps friends.  In short, it was a GREAT trip!  I’m not sure what I expected, but I was shocked to find friendly people, beautiful cities (Moscow and Saint Petersburg), and pure Russian language.  This last one might not seem like a big deal, but living in Ukraine and speaking Russian means I’m occasionally running into Ukrainian words, signs in Ukrainian, menus in Ukrainian etc.  It was so cool to be somewhere where literally everything was in Russian!

St. Basil’s Church and Red Square in Moscow

Red Square

Andrew, Warren, and I on a boat tour through Moscow

I was able to meet up with Bo, the previous volunteer at my school from 8 years ago. He currently lives in Moscow so we were able to meet for dinner one night!

Church of Spilled Blood in Saint Petersburg

In front of one of many canals running through SP with Church of Spilled Blood in the background

Saint Petersburg from the top of St. Peter’s Cathedral

Winter Palace

I only uploaded a select few Russia pictures here, but here’s a link to more if you’re interested: https://plus.google.com/photos/107346328342222106764/albums/5755418227739425729?authkey=CN_N6___r7jrjQE

After I got home from Russia, I left the next day for Donetsk for the Semifinal game of the Euro Cup!  Not only was the game fun, but it was really cool to see so many international tourists in Donetsk.  I have never heard so much English being spoken in Ukraine!  On the whole, I think everyone was really positively impressed by Ukraine and their handling of the Euro Cup, despite all the negative press leading up to it.

Meeting up with other volunteers before the game

Donetsk stadium right before the game started

 

I left the next evening for Kiev for the weekend.  Because the Euro Cup final was being hosted in Kiev that weekend, there was also a FREE Queen and Elton John concert in downtown Kiev the night before the final.  Lucky me!  And then the next night, I got to watch the Euro Cup final from the fan zone in Kiev.  It was really cool!

Elton John concert!

Packed downtown for the concert

 

Katie, Alison, and I at the concert

Crazy Spanish soccer fans in the fan zone

Everyone watching the Euro Cup final on the big screens

I returned to Lugansk just in time to celebrate the Fourth of July with a bunch of other Peace Corps volunteers!  It was a blast.  We made hamburgers, macaroni and cheese, and even got a hold of some fireworks.  It wasn’t quite the same as watching the fireworks at the lake, but it was still pretty great!

Fourth of July party in Lugansk

I had a few days back home before I left for Camp MAKE in Donetsk for two weeks.  What a great camp!  It was a fun group of Peace Corps volunteers and an even better group of Ukrainian students.  It’s rare for me to get to work with students who have such a high level of English, so it was a real treat.

Camp MAKE – 75 Ukrainian students, 18 Peace Corps Volunteers, 7 Ukrainian teachers

 

I have a few days at home now before I leave for another Peace Corps camp in Nikolaev (near Odessa).  It’s been a whirlwind summer thus far and I’m looking forward to the next few weeks!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Six Months

It’s hard to believe, but it’s true.  I have a little less than six months left in Ukraine.  Six months to wrap up a life that I fought so diligently to create for myself.  Six months to implement our grant that was just funded for a girls leadership and empowerment program at our school.  Six months to somehow say goodbye to a country that has kicked me in the pants more times than I can count.  Six months to try and leave my students and the friends I’ve made.

The closer I get to leaving Ukraine, the more bittersweet life here becomes.  It’s like the good moments are that much better because I know there are only a limited number of them left.  But it’s also as if the bad moments, the challenges, are that much more frustrating.  I find myself thinking, I’ve already dealt with so much here, how much more can I actually handle?

I also catch myself reflecting on my time here more and more.  I wonder what my students will remember about me.  Will they remember I wouldn’t let them cheat on tests, or will they remember my Russian languages blunders?  Will my English club remember learning about American traditions, or will they remember the candy and the prizes I brought weekly?  Will the teachers remember me spending time with them in the teacher’s lounge trying to befriend them, or will they remember that I dressed with less glitter and sequins?

My final six months here are already looking like they’ll be a great, positive way to end my time here.  School officially ended today, which means summer is here!  I’m not sure who was more excited today – the students or the teachers.  Either way, everyone’s spirits have been up the past few days, which has been nice.  Like last summer, I’ll be busy working at different camps, hosting my own camp at my school, and visiting friends.  And a pleasant addition to this summer’s itinerary is a 10-day trip to Russia!  It would have been a shame to miss visiting Russia while I’m here, living so close to the border and (somewhat) speaking the language.  I’m still trying to work a few remaining issues with the Russian visa, but fingers crossed all that will be worked out by the time I leave.

I hope you’re all doing well and I’ll do my best to update the blog throughout the summer!

 

 

Victory Day and Graduation

This has been a busy week, as far as holidays go!  On May 9, we celebrated Victory Day, the holiday that commemorates the day the Soviet Army defeated the Nazis during WWII.  It is one of the most important holidays here in Ukraine, and especially in my region of the country.

Two 10th graders leading our school in the parade

Local government officials congratulating the veterans

War veterans sitting in the center of the square

Parade

“Happy Victory Day”

On Friday, we had our official graduation ceremony for our 11th graders!  Traditionally, this ceremony is combined with the last day of the school, but because of the upcoming Euro Cup, the schedule has been adjusted.

Graduation ceremony at our school

11th graders performing one of many dances

More dances

11th graders ceremoniously ringing the bell for the last time

With one of my students, Asya, and her mother, Tanya

On Saturday evening, we had the city-wide graduation ceremony in the center of town.  This ceremony was to honor all the students who are graduating this year in Rovenky!

Ceremony in the center for all the schools in Rovenky

With Oksana, one of my teacher friends at the graduation ceremony

I hope you’re all doing well and Happy Mother’s Day (Jeff, Jon, this is your reminder)!

 

 

The ‘rents in Ukraine!

After much anticipation, my parents made it to Ukraine!  Despite flight problems on the way in, we had a great week together.  We spent our first day sightseeing in Kiev and then we hopped the train to Lugansk that night.

St. Michael’s Church in Kiev

Enjoying their first cup of kvass (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kvass) in downtown

The 16-hour train to Lugansk (Rovenky is about 90 minutes south of Lugansk by bus)

Picnic on the train!

Once we finally made it to Rovenky and everyone had a chance to nap, we started our tour of friends and families that I’ve become close to during my time here.  I tried to spread things out as best as I could so that each day, we had one group of friends or a family to visit.  School was only in session for two of the days when we were in Rovenky because of the First of May holiday.  And if you remember from my blog from last year, we have a big parade and cookout here in town for the holiday.

Dinner at Alyona’s house on Monday night! (Lyosha, Alyona, me, Mom, Dad, and Roma)

Everyone at school before the First of May parade

In the town square waiting for the parade to get started

Coal miners walking in the parade

Mom and Dad enjoying shashlik (Ukrainian equivalent of shish kabobs) in the park

Tuesday evening: dinner at my friend Alina and her family’s house (Grandma, Valeria, Lena, Valery, Alina, and my parents

Wednesday: We went to Lugansk to meet Cary, another volunteer, and take the obligatory picture with “Grandpa Lenin”

Wednesday afternoon: pizza with some of my students from the other school where I have an English club

After-pizza beers with Alyona at the Rovenky brewery

Thursday: English club at my school!

Thursday evening: dinner at one of my student’s house (Slavic, Dad, Mom, Asya (my student), Tanya, me, Grandma)

Eating lunch at school on Friday

With the principal of school before we left on Friday

It was a whirlwind trip for all of us, but really great.  I  had so much fun showing my parents my life here – school, town, apartment, friends etc.  I only uploaded a limited number of pictures here, but if you’d like to see more, here’s a link:

https://plus.google.com/photos/107346328342222106764/albums/5739492930953439105?authkey=CIyHwJCW2Y7g2gE