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!

7 responses to “Goodbye Ukraine!

  1. I am so proud of you, Dara!!! I know it’s a strange time for you, but I am beyond excited to have you back in the US of A!!!

  2. Salut, Seulement Olive! I can’t tell you how proud I am of you!!! Teaching is never an easy job, but to do it in a different culture, a different educational system and a different language is extremely difficult. The lessons you have learned are the essential ones for surviving as a teacher and, even more importantly, as a human being. Failure is a very hard lesson, particularly when you put your heart and soul into everything you do. But sometimes what may appear to be a failure becomes, in the long run, an unexpected success. Several students whom I thought I had completely lost when they were in my classroom have come back to me later, sometimes years later, and told me what a difference I had made in their lives. And sometimes French was not the most important thing they learned from me! And most of the time you don’t ever see the seeds you have planted grow into flowers, but you can be sure that over the years you have planted enough seeds to have a decent garden you can be proud of. Having seen in the photos you have posted the faces of your students and your friends, you have grown a beautiful garden in the Ukraine!!! There is another hard lesson awaiting you when you return home. At first the sheer delight of seeing family and friends and being back on familiar turf will be almost overwhelming. But after awhile, the critical eye you developed while evaluating the Ukrainian society and way of life will start to focus on Atlanta and the United States. Things that you took for granted before and things that seemed “normal” before will suddenly seem a little strange, and you may find yourself making negative comparisons between your homeland and the world you just left behind. It’s not unusual, and it can actually be healthy. In this country, we are so accustomed to think of the USA as the greatest country in the history of mankind that we can’t see our own faults. Every country has its good and bad aspects. But to deny that our country has faults makes it difficult to correct them. You have learned about the ways people in the Ukraine handle their problems. No doubt there is something that we could adapt to our lives to make them better. But you have to learn how to present your suggestions in such a way that your listeners don’t feel “put down”. There are many differences that are just quirky and even comical. So don’t be surprised if the home folks seem a little weird! This Monday I will be at the Atlanta airport to greet a group of “ambassadors” from Minsk and Moscow with the Friendship Force. We have hosted groups from many, many countries over the years, including young people from the Ukraine. We are expecting another group from Kiev in September of 2014. I have also traveled to several countries with the Friendship Force and have learned so much from every experience. The most important lesson is that, deep down, people are all the same. Their basic needs and wants are the same. The differences are mostly superficial, but they make the world a more interesting place! Because our exchanges are usually only one week long, our chance to “change the world” is very limited. What you have done in your two years is clearly more meaningful. Thank you for what you have done to represent the good side of the United States. You have served your country well!! I hope we can get together some time when you get back home. I have thoroughly enjoyed your posts and would love to hear more about your experiences. I’m sorry I haven’t been a better pen pal, but retirement has been much more hectic than I had thought it would be. I’ll try to do better in the future. A bientot, j’espere! Madame Williamsmadamew@hotmail.com(404) 351-5352

    “Isn’t it wonderful that no one need wait a single moment to make the world a better place?”

  3. Wow, can’t believe it’s already been a year. And I can confirm from the “future” that what you said is exactly right. Self-awareness really is the big thing you come away with after this experience. It is the thing that is most relevant to me a year out, as I see how few people really know how things affect them. Most people don’t venture out of their comfort zone, and so they think their comfort zone defines them. You will find that this feels sometimes almost like a superpower – you can design and manipulate your environment and your life because you know how to create the circumstances to make you motivated, happy, healthy, etc. It is a powerful skill. Also, it’s true, I laugh at the things people consider challenges here. Don’t ever doubt that you really are changed, even when the habits and the Russian fade away, there are deeper, longer lasting things that will live on for the rest of your life.

  4. I’m so proud of you Dara! Can’t wait to see you next Saturday and hear your stories! Safe Travels!

  5. Dara,
    We all loved this blog over the two Dara-in-the-PC years. To know that your experience was positive and life changing inspires all of us here in Dallas. We look forward to seeing you soon.
    Love,
    Theo, Sean and Grammy (also probably Ally and Annika)

  6. Loved every word of this post! Miss you already!

  7. Dara, congrats to you- loved reading this! :)

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